A soldier revisits scene of the horror
Harvey Segal was a senior at Roxbury Memorial High School, class of 1943, at the height of World War II. Many of his classmates had left school to join the service. There was no senior prom, no yearbook, and a small graduation. Harvey was 18 when he graduated and joined the Army.
He was 5-feet-4 and weighed 100 pounds. “When I got my first physical, the weight restriction was 105,’’ he recalls. “They didn’t want to take me, but I pleaded with them.’’ He was assigned to the Second Infantry Division, 37th field artillery battalion, sent to basic training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, then shipped overseas. It took them a month to cross the Atlantic.
The soldiers landed on Normandy Beach in June 1944, fought their way through France and into Belgium. That December, they were stationed in a quiet village. “There was no fighting. We took it easy,’’ recalls Segal, who will be 87 in May.
But the troops who relieved them weren’t so lucky: The Germans killed or captured everyone.
By April 1945, Segal’s division had moved into Germany and taken the city of Leipzig. “We met up with the 38th battalion, and they told us that there was something funny, different, up ahead and we had to see it,’’ recalls Segal, who lives in Randolph. The men drove their jeeps down the road and were soon overwhelmed by a stench. They came upon a huge barbed-wire area with what appeared to be barracks inside and entered the front gate.
“The odor was just overwhelming,’’ says Segal. “A few of the guys got sick and vomited. It was a smell I carried in my memory for years.’’
The troops didn’t realize it, but they were at the Leipzeig-Schoenfeld Concentration Camp, a subcamp of nearby Buchenwald. “We didn’t know what it was at the time,’’ Segal says. “We saw all these people walking around in a daze. They looked like skeletons.’’
As the soldiers approached, the human skeletons began to run. Segal put down his weapon and spoke a few words in Yiddish: “Ich bin Yiddish.’’ I am Jewish. One of the prisoners spoke broken English, and Segal explained that they were American soldiers, there to help.
“They all hugged and kissed us,’’ he says. The prisoners then asked to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead.
Segal was stunned by what he saw around him. He had heard rumors about such death camps, but hadn’t paid much attention.
“It was the shock of my life,’’ he says, nearly 70 years later. He kept it to himself for decades, not even telling his wife and children for a long time. His very worst memory he says he repressed until a month ago: “I was talking on the phone with my sister and, all of a sudden, something flashed into my brain that I hadn’t remembered in years and years.’’
At the concentration camp that day, a prisoner took the liberating soldiers to the far side, behind some barracks. There was a hay wagon, stacked with the bodies of children. “That disappeared from my mind for years and years, it was such a terrible thing,’’ says Segal.
When the war ended, Segal, who grew up in Dorchester, came back and worked with his father in a sportswear manufacturing business in Boston, and then owned and ran a couple of restaurants. Until a few years ago, he taught driver’s education, and he still works as a driver for a payroll company. His favorite job? Chauffeuring grandchildren here and there.
He has not been back to Germany since the war, but next month Segal will join a group of concentration camp liberators and Holocaust survivors in Poland at Auschwitz, which was the largest of the Nazi death camps. The March of the Living will commemorate its 25th anniversary, and 10,000 students from 35 countries are expected to join the liberators and survivors to march together from Auschwitz to Birkenau, another camp.
It is the first time that the march is reuniting liberators with survivors. The distance is about a mile and a half, and Harvey Segal hopes to do at least some of it. “I’m physically fit,’’ he says, “but walking that distance, I don’t know.’’
Rich Walter, a former Sharon resident who now directs the Center for Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation/Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven, is leading the multistate group of students, including 56 from New England.
Organizers say there are only 46,000 Holocaust survivors registered in the United States, and the number decreases by at least 10 percent each year. “For the sake of history and humanity, we must record their experiences and preserve their recollections while we are still able,’’ says David Machlis, vice chairman of the March of the Living.
Segal knows that the world must remember, and that he is a first-hand witness. “We have to keep this alive; we can never forget the horrors that happened to the Jews,’’ he says. “Otherwise, as time goes by, it just gets less and less.’’
In August, eight members of his family - he, his wife, Anne, their two sons, their daughter, a daughter-in-law, grandson, and granddaughter - are going to retrace the steps he took as a teenage soldier, starting in Normandy.
“It will bring back a lot of memories,’’ he says. “I want to see if I can handle it.’’
Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at email@example.com.