View Full Version : The Saint In The Tank

03-09-06, 08:54 AM
The Saint In The Tank
Black Five

"We saw some terrible scenes. But a lot of men had it tougher than I did. The kind of war you see today is completely different. But if I was young enough to enlist, I’d do it all over again, absolutely." - Bob Persinger, about his service in Patton's 3rd Army in WWII

David E. sent a story about the reunification of a Holocaust Survivor and his liberator. After digging around a bit, I found that there's more to the story...

There are about 120,000 Holocaust survivors who live in the U.S. As they get older, like the men who fought in WWII and liberated them, their numbers are dwindling. Several Holocaust survivors have set out to find their liberators, soldiers that they never had the opportunity to thank for saving their lives. The survivors of the Ebensee concentration camp in Austria found the commander of "The Lucky Lady", the tank that crashed the gates and saved them...

From the LA Times, we find Sam Goetz's tale:

...For Goetz, that moment came the week after his 14th birthday, in June 1942. The schools in Tarnow, Poland, had already been closed to Jewish children. Parks, skating rinks, movie theaters, even city streets were off-limits. Gestapo agents began roaming the city's Jewish quarter, randomly shooting Jews.

Sam's parents were herded at gunpoint with thousands of their neighbors onto trains bound for Belzec, a death camp in Poland where German officials were pioneering the use of gas chambers for mass killings.

In one week, 8,000 of Tarnow's Jews — one-third of the population — would be executed or imprisoned at Belzec. During its 10 months of operation in 1942, historians say, 434,508 Jews died in Belzec's three gas chambers. Only a handful survived.

In September 1943, Sam too was deported from the Tarnow ghetto and moved to a series of concentration camps in Eastern Europe, where inmates were beaten, starved, forced to endure biting winters without shoes and dressed only in flimsy cotton pajamas. They were worked to the point of collapse and death.

For inmates, the sight of smoke and the smell of bodies burning in the camps' crematoriums were a grim and constant torment...

From the San-Diego Union Tribune we hear Lou Dunst's story:

...Lou's hometown began and ended the 20th century as a Ukrainian village. But in the 1940s, Jasina was taken over by Hungary, then by Nazi Germany and finally by the Soviet Union. In 1944, the village's Jewish population was forcibly removed from their homes and interned in a ghetto, then shipped to Auschwitz. Dunst's mother, Priva, was sent to her death by Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazis' Angel of Death. His father, Marcus, died in another camp...

...he [Lou] begged God: “Please let me live – if for nothing else than to tell my story.”...

“I was delirious,” Dunst said. “I didn't know what was happening.” That morning, in fact, Dunst was literally at death's door. A 19-year-old Ukrainian Jew in a Nazi concentration camp in Austria, he had crawled onto a pile of corpses outside the crematorium to perish. But that afternoon, Staff Sgt. Persinger drove his tank “Lucky Lady” through the camp's gates, liberating Dunst and the rest of Ebensee's 18,000 prisoners...

But Goetz and Dunst were never able to thank Persinger...before we recount the liberation, we should find out a little about Bob Persinger. From the LA Times:

...Bob Persinger knew nothing about concentration camps or the tragedy unfolding for Europe's Jews when he was drafted at 19. Pearl Harbor had been bombed seven months after his high school graduation, and the Iowa farm boy was proud to be called upon to defend his country.

As the chief breadwinner for his mother and four siblings — his father had died years earlier — Persinger could have gotten a deferral. "But everybody went in the service then," he recalled. "We were all so patriotic." His two younger brothers also enlisted.

In March 1943 he left for a year of training in Georgia, then boarded a British ship for Europe. He saw comrades fall to German attacks as they pushed through France and Germany...

Persinger fought in many battles as a part of the 3rd Cavalry in Patton's Third Army, including the Battle of the Bulge. On a late Sunday morning, May 6th, 1945, Persinger's tank, the Lucky Lady, was leading a recon patrol through some small Austrian towns in the Alps. From the Rockford Register Star:

...Villagers told the American soldiers about a Nazi “work camp” on a gravel road two miles beyond the edge of town. Persinger, a platoon sergeant and tank commander, led a group of soldiers up the road to investigate.

What he saw up there changed his life forever.

“We didn’t know it then, but the Germans had left 24 hours before we got there,” Persinger said. “When we got to the gates, what a terrible mess. We ran into thousands of people staring at us behind the barbed-wire fence. They were emaciated, up to their ankles in mud. Some of them looked like they were dying.”

The concentration camp Persinger’s squadron liberated that day held some 18,000 Jews, political prisoners, gays, and mentally challenged men and women. Persinger opened the gate, and the prisoners were overjoyed to see the American soldiers.

What terrified Persinger the most were the barracks and the hospital building at Ebensee, where the prisoners too weak to walk lay wasting away. A crematory was attached to the hospital. Inside, dead bodies were piled like cordwood. The stench of death was everywhere...

Sam Goetz, who at the time was surviving by eating charcoal, saw Persigner enter the camp (Register Star):

...“The gate opened and a man in an olive brown uniform emerged from the tank,” Goetz wrote. “As hollow-cheeked figures kissed his hands and swept him off his feet, I saw a large white star on the tank. At that moment, after five years in the ghetto, as forced laborer and as concentration camp prisoner, I became a free man.”...

More from the LA Times:

...Persinger emerged from his tank, snatched a rifle from one of the guards, broke it over the turret of his tank and hung it over a lamppost beside the gate.

"It was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing," he said. "It brought on such a roar; it was pandemonium…. The prisoners surrounded us, dirty, open sores all over them, loaded with lice.

"I'd seen death before, but nothing like that. I remember thinking: If everybody could see this, there wouldn't be nothing like wars anymore. To treat human beings like that … I couldn't have imagined."

In the crematorium — which had operated around the clock, turning hundreds of corpses each day to ash — they found bodies stacked along a wall, 400 or more, waiting to be burned...

Sixty years later Persinger has been reunited with Goetz and Dunst and other survivors from Ebensee. On May 6th, 1945, Lou Dunst lay dying when the Lucky Lady arrived. Lou's brother, Irving, grabbed a soldier from the Lucky Lady and brought him to Lou to save his life.

Bob Persigner finally met Lou Dunst just last week (Union-Tribune):

...His is a gripping tale, full of heartache and suspense. But the story always lacked a satisfactory ending.

Until yesterday. During a surprise birthday luncheon for Dunst in the ballroom of the Doubletree Hotel in Mission Valley, retired Superior Court Judge Norbert Ehrenfreund recounted the tale of Dunst's liberation to more than 170 family members and friends.

“The fact that Lou is here today, alive and well, celebrating his 80th birthday, is nothing short of a miracle,” Ehrenfreund said.

But the miracles didn't stop there.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Ehrenfreund said, “meet Bob Persinger, Lou's liberator.”

A gasp rose from the crowd as the silver-haired Persinger, now 82, walked to the stage and fell into Dunst's arms. “Thank you for saving our lives,” Dunst said between sobs. “God bless you!”...

And he finally is reunited with Sam Goetz (LA Times):

...Last week, Persinger and his wife, Arlene, flew from their Illinois home to meet Goetz and his wife, Gertrude; speak to college students about the Holocaust; and accept an award at the annual luncheon of The 1939 Club.

More than 300 people — survivors, most of them now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and their children, grandchildren and friends — gathered at the Beverly Hills Hotel to honor the man who, in Goetz's words, "liberated 18,000 people on May 6, 1945."

Persinger insisted that he was "just a soldier, one little peon." The real heroes, he said, were the men and women who persevered, without succumbing to self-pity and rancor, to "get their education, raise their kids, make something out of themselves after coming out with nothing. I have nothing but respect for these people. They're head and shoulders smarter than I ever was."

Still, they rose for a standing ovation when Persinger walked to the lectern, then again at his speech's end.

When the cheering stopped, the dancing began. Dozens of gray-haired men and women crowded the floor, offspring in tow, linking arms and circling around the room in a rousing version of the hora.

The man who "freed our people in their darkest hour" rose above the crowd on the shoulders of the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors. He was, at that moment, as tall as Sam Goetz had remembered him.

All of them, heroes...