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Audience watching soldiers carrying flag during military ceremony.
Audience watches as soldiers retire flags representing each U.S. division which liberated a Holocaust death camp, at the end of the National Commemoration of the Days of Remembrance ceremony in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Scott J. Ferrell, 2002

Using the Veterans History Project for Holocaust Education

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This post is by Paul LaRue, a retired social studies teacher in Washington Court House, Ohio

Saturday January 27, 2024, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP) can be a valuable tool for Holocaust education. Teachers may not realize the powerful testimonials that can be found within the VHP interviews. I was one of those classroom teachers; this is ironic, as my students were conducting VHP interviews.

A little more than twenty years ago my students became involved with the Veterans History Project. I have previously shared reflections on this meaningful experience. My students and I interviewed veterans from our community in rural, southern Ohio. The majority of the sixty-eight veterans we interviewed were World War II Veterans. The service of these World War II veterans varied, but we came to realize a number of these service members had experiences connected to the Holocaust.

Honestly, it never occurred to me there may be local veterans with connections to the Holocaust. The student-developed script of questions did not specifically ask about the Holocaust. Yet several veterans wanted their connection to the Holocaust to be a part of their Veterans History Project interview. Some veterans were part of the Liberation. Other veterans wanted to express their thoughts on the atrocities they witnessed. One veteran we interviewed was credited with the discovery of an unknown Nazi death facility.

These are examples of veterans’ experiences, as recalled in their VHP interviews.

Statue of man grasping barbed wire while at holocaust camp.
Holocaust Memorial at the California Legion of Honor, San Francisco, California. Carol Highsmith, 2012

Liberators

Carl Rea, Sergeant, 991 Field Artillery Battalion, was part of the liberation of Dora-Mittelbau Concentration Camp. In the VHP interview he shared, “ . . .This area is where Hitler killed and slaughtered a lot of people. We went through there and those people were there by the gates and doors and (we) let them out … They were nothing but skin and bones, skin and bones is all they were…”  

Buddie Branch, Corporal, 761st Tank Battalion, was part of the liberation of Dachau. Corporal Branch was a member of an elite Black tank battalion. Branch shared in his VHP interview: “… It was a concentration camp. Dachau they called it. We were holding a position… tanks you know, surrounding (Dachau)…The furnaces was still hot where they burned the bodies, I saw that…”

Eyewitness Testimonials

Harry Johns, Corporal, 999 Field Artillery Battalion, had experiences at Dachau Concentration Camp. In his VHP interview, he remembered, “… I was at Dachau Concentration Camp. I saw what they did…” 

Norman Armbrust, B-17 Pilot 423rd Bomber Squadron, was a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III for twenty-two months. In his VHP interview he recalled one of his experiences.

“…They (Germans) moved us out on January 27, 1945. The Russians were coming and we could hear them. It was about twenty degrees below zero. We walked, we lost about one hundred men on the march that froze to death… “

January 27, 1945 was the date the Russian army liberated Auschwitz. Stalag Luft III was less than 250 miles from Auschwitz.

Discovery of a previously unknown Nazi death facility

George Walker, 1st Lieutenant, Second Infantry Counterintelligence Corps recalled his experience with the discovery of a Nazi death facility. George Walker and another soldier are credited with discovering the horrors at Hadamar. Walker was interviewed by the Shoah Foundation for the Veterans History Project and recalled, “…We were suspicious… We went back and reported it to division headquarters…I was probably halfway across Germany by the time the actual story broke…”

Educator Connections

As a high school history teacher, I regularly taught World War II and the Holocaust. By incorporating content from the Veterans History Project in your instruction of these topics, you can make meaningful connections to the service of World War II Veterans. I am not a Holocaust scholar, but I have found great educator resources that can connect to the VHP interviews. Examples of great classroom-ready resources are Holocaust Studies: Manuscript Resources at the Library of Congress and the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum educator resources.

You can also look for Holocaust resources in your state. In Ohio I was fortunate to work with the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust and Humanity Center in Cincinnati on a workshop for teachers: “Voices from WWII: Bringing Veteran & Liberators’ Testimonies into the Classroom.” We utilized interviews from the Veterans History Project. The center continues to support training educators and providing resources.

The Veterans History Project provides important oral history resources for educators teaching World War II and the Holocaust. I encourage you to incorporate these testimonies while teaching about the Holocaust. Further, consider being a contributor by getting your students involved with the Veterans History Project.

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Comments

  1. Wonderful suggestions by Paul LaRue as to how educators can make direct and impactful connections between their students and veterans living in the community. Listening to 1st hand accounts, such as the ones quoted in this article, are sure to keep students actively engaged.

    Thanks for these great suggestions!

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