Six Decades Later:
My Grandpa Reveals His Holocaust Secret
BY KARI IVERSON
When I think about my grandfather, I think about painting and making stained glass projects with him in his basement. I think about how he smells like Tic Tacs and peppermints. I think about how I helped him trap squirrels in his backyard and how we’d paint their tails red, so we’d know if they returned. More recently, though, I’ve begun to think about Grandpa Joe as a soldier.
Grandpa Joe (Joe Iverson to everyone else) received his draft notice for World War II at his high school graduation in 1944. I never knew much about his war story; no one did. For years he kept a secret, even from my grandma, about what happened in Europe—about the atrocities that scarred him for the rest of his life. But now, at the ripe old age of 87, he’s decided it’s time to reveal the whole truth about what he saw during WWII.
The decision to tell all was prompted in October 2011, when someone happened to ask Grandpa Joe where he’d served in the war. To answer, he pulled out an old map and scoured the geography; that’s when the emotions and memories began to suddenly overwhelm him. It was difficult for him to find the words to express his feelings. So instead, he wrote them all down in a letter to the family.
It began, “Much of this story should have been told 66 years ago. It was then that a single experience was destined to have a life-changing impact on a 19-year-old soldier.”
The letter intrigued me. I’ve read it countless times, but I wanted to know more. So I recently sat down with Grandpa Joe at his kitchen table and started asking questions. The words from the letter came to life as he told me – face to face – what he saw, what he experienced, what he endured.
Towards the end of the war, Grandpa Joe and two other soldiers were ordered to accompany a major on an urgent assignment; their instructions were to take a look at “a possible prisoner camp.” (Grandpa figured he was chosen simply because he had good shorthand.)
Approaching the camp that day, he told me, there was “an odor–more of an awful stench.” As the quartet entered, they looked out into the trees and saw “out-of-place mounds lying everywhere.” Those mounds, they soon realized, were bodies. Recounting these moments, Grandpa Joe shivered and tears formed in his eyes.
He explained how, as he turned over a body, an arm came loose in his hands. He dropped it and began to vomit. “We were becoming a part of something that we couldn’t even comprehend,” he said. The “possible prisoner camp,” it turns out, was something far more horrifying: a concentration camp.
Grandpa returned to the camp again the next day with three-dozen other soldiers, and they began pulling bodies apart to bury them–many stacked three high.
The experience was exhausting, both physically and mentally. Grandpa had been ill for weeks prior to the camp discovery, and at the end of the second day he was sent to a military hospital. Before he was discharged, a psychiatrist voiced his concern that Grandpa needed more time to deal with his feelings, with what he had seen. But with the war coming to an end, the hospital was closing.
Grandpa Joe returned to the United States in June 1946. He was put on disability, and required to seek counseling at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. When he’d talk about what he saw at the mass gravesite (the concentration camp), “it was as though I was making up a story,” he told me. His counselors asked him for a location, but Grandpa says he simply couldn’t remember. One of the doctors who treated him thought a good “first step” would be to find as much information as possible about it.
However, information dissemination and communication back then was not what it is today. People “at home” wouldn’t learn the specifics about what was happening at war in Europe for days, weeks, or even months. Since the tons of physical records had yet to be shipped back to the United States and organized, it was nearly impossible to find specific documentation.
After a while, Grandpa Joe tired of searching for proof, and trying to convince others that what he’d seen was real. He told me he eventually decided he needed to dismiss it as a bad dream–as something that never happened. “When we returned, everyone was happy the war was over,” he explained. “We just did what needed to be done and everyone was ready to move on.”
He continued, “I think I was somewhat successful in forgetting, but there’s always been a piece of it that seems malignant,” Grandpa Joe told me. “And that’s shown itself in strange ways.”
When he finally decided to write our family the letter, he turned to the help of the Internet. Though he never knew the name of the concentration camp, he recalled the letters “G-U-N,” which he’d seen on a sign approaching the camp. He quickly began to discover a piece of himself he had hidden years ago, as different articles and data began popping up to give meaning and context to the horror of 1945.
An article he found titled “Gunskirchen, Austria – May 4, 1945” told a story very similar to his recollections. He was taken back to the discovery of Gunskirchen–in the Austrian town of Lambach–and old wounds that had never fully healed were reopened. The Holocaust was reawakened.
I’d never seen Grandpa Joe cry until he told me about those terrifying two days. As he spoke, I didn’t see my elderly grandfather; I saw the re-emergence of a scared teenage soldier. We sat in silence for a few moments before I asked him why he was unable to tell these stories to the family–until now. “There was no place in my training as an 18- or 19-year-old soldier that even gave a hint as to what you would do if you came across a situation like this,” he said. “You just had to deal with it. There was just no way of really reacting to it. It bothered all of us. It was a horrible thing to come across.”
After my grandpa left the camp, he said troops from the 71st Division made it to the main area of the camp, where they liberated the victims that remained. Fellow soldiers described those prisoners as “the walking dead.”
Less than 10,000 World War II veterans are alive today. The youngest of the veterans are in their mid-80s. Many of their stories go untold and some will remain untold forever, but others are now being shared nearly seven decades later for the first time. I recently had the opportunity to fly with Grandpa Joe and 80 other World War II veterans to Washington D.C., on the Twin Cities Honor Flight, an organization dedicated to bringing WWII veterans to Washington to show them first hand how grateful our nation is for their sacrifices.
History came to life that day as the veterans shared their stories with me; they were lessons that could never be conveyed in a class. The veterans gathered at the WWII Memorial and stood, or sat in wheel chairs, all at attention to honor their fallen comrades. For many it was a journey back to their days in the service. As I watched my grandpa salute, I knew he was silently acknowledging the enormity of what he witnessed at Gunskirchen.
It’s impossible for me to understand what my grandpa truly felt when he trudged though that concentration camp six decades ago. It’s impossible to know what it actually felt like to help bury thousands of men and women that were starved and worked to death. But listening to Grandpa Joe tell his story at the kitchen table that day, the incomprehensible evil of the Holocaust overwhelmed me like never before.
Grandpa Joe and I don’t trap squirrels or paint their tails red anymore. In a sense, both of us have grown up. I’m not the young girl running around his yard, and he’s no longer that soldier with a buried secret.
“I’ve become very intent on doing what I can in my limited number of days and years coming up,” Grandpa Joe told me, “to make sure that young people get to understand what can happen to a group of people who are led by such a monster as Hitler.”
Kari Iverson can be reached at email@example.com
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