Valdosta Daily Times

October 9, 2013

Holocaust horrors

Veteran helped liberate Dachau

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Nineteen-year-old Army Cpl. George Aigen had experienced much fighting with the 1269th Combat Engineers Company B. He’d seen a horrible number of things.

As an American soldier and as a Jewish male, he’d heard rumors of the Holocaust, the Nazis’ systematic slaughter of the Jews.

“We heard rumors about concentration camps,” Aigen says, “but we had no idea ...”

The reality struck in 1945, as Germany fell, and the Americans and Allies liberated these camps. Aigen neared Dachau, an infamous name now, a name of evil, but he had no idea making his way closer to the camp.

The Third Infantry entered Dachau first. These soldiers were several minutes ahead of Aigen and his comrades. Walking closer to the camp, Aigen saw American soldiers, who had witnessed the horrors of war for months, “they were sitting on the ground crying,” he says. “Then I knew. We’ve got something to worry about.”

Walking to the camp was one of the most physically and mentally daunting tasks for Aigen during the war. The American soldiers were exposed. Grass cut low. They had learned through hard lessons that open spaces were dangerous. They felt like ducks in a shooting gallery. “You’re suspicious of everything. You think of all the possibilities,” but no gunshots were fired.

Entering the camp, in German, was the sign: “Work will make you free.” Inside, death.

Aigen witnessed rail cars filled with dead women and children. “No men. They were all dead.” Two-thousand, three-hundred and ten. So many women hang out of the rail cars. Dead bodies everywhere. Prisoners in black and white stumbling, shuffling, aimlessly, from place to place. Others seated, unmoving, their backs against barracks walls.

Aigen helpless. The Army immediately helpless to aid the living. “We had nothing to use to help these people, except for a little bit of water,” Aigen says.

Inside of a barracks, Aigen saw rows of cots stacked four high from floor to ceiling. No movement save one. A prisoner pushed up from a cot. Just his head rising. Skin stretched across bone. Aigen says it looked like a skull rising to briefly inspect the American troops. Then the prisoner’s head dropped from view ...

George Aigen spent two days at Dachau. Often asked, Only two days? He says, “Yeah, we had a war to fight. We had to go on.”

Today, Oct. 9, marks Aigen’s 88th birthday, but he has carried the nightmarish visions of those two days for each day of the nearly 70 years since.

Yet, for years, for decades, he said little of those days or of his World War II experiences. He was busy. He didn’t want to think about it. He came home to Brooklyn from the war. He met his wife, Joyce. They raised a family. He built a career. He and Joyce moved to Valdosta several years ago to be closer to family.

He never shared his war experiences with his children or grandchildren. Joyce knew. Some friends knew. Some members of the Temple Israel congregation knew, but Aigen never said much about it.

Valdosta State University history professor Louis Schmier knew. In 2005, preparing a series on the Holocaust, Schmier approached Aigen about sharing his story. Aigen agreed. It marked the first time he publicly discussed his experiences of entering Dachau.

Since 2005, Aigen has made his Dachau/World War II presentation 42 times. He’s discussed it at the university, in area schools, in the temple, and in other forums. In some talks, he gauges the ages of his audience for how much he shares.

Speaking to college classes, Aigen notes that he was younger than most of the students when he returned to the States from the war.

In 1943, Aigen was 18, attending New York University, when he was drafted. His father drove him to a big building. His father hugged him goodbye. “I didn’t know if I would ever see my father again.”

He recalls being in line with thousands of other teens and young men. Medical examination: listening to each draftee’s chest, the doctor said, Oh, you got a heart; oh, good, good, you can serve.

Draftees were selected for a military branch as easily as three men rotating through the line, each counting off, saying, Army, Navy, Marines, like eenie-meenie-minee-mo, but with each tap making the draftee an “it” of soldier, sailor, marine. “That’s how I got in the Army,” Aigen says.

Sixty years after the war, his decision to speak about his experiences was more complicated than his selection for the Army. He weighed Schmier’s invitation. His wife encouraged him to do it, saying it was his responsibility to share his story, to let people know what can happen in the world. Iranian leaders denied the Holocaust ever happened.

As a liberator of Dachau, Aigen knew the harsh realities of the Holocaust. As a Jewish male, he felt a responsibility to share his experiences, but it wasn’t easy. It still isn’t easy. Even seated in his home, bearing witness one on one can take an emotional toll.

He recalls incidents with terrible clarity. In discussion and presentation, he keeps a folder filled with years and numbers close at hand. He gets questions. He can see the shifting expressions on his audience’s faces.

After a presentation, he often receives mail. One letter stands out. A student wrote that Aigen had changed her mind about the Holocaust.

Recently, he spoke to a Valwood class about his experiences. In an email, teachers Vallye Blanton and LaVie Marshall noted, “The students were excellent listeners and were very interested in what he told us. They were especially moved by his memories of visiting a concentration camp. There were tears in many students’ eyes when he told us about being in France in May of 1945 when the church bells started ringing because the war in Europe was over.”

He traditionally concludes his discussions with the story of how he learned the war ended, but meeting with Aigen in his house, a question brings forth one more story.

In World War II, Jewish-American soldiers had an H stamped on their dog tags to denote their Hebrew faith. Considering they were fighting Nazis, did having an H on his dog tag ever concern George Aigen?

He doesn’t answer directly, but the story he tells implies this fact of military life didn’t strike him until after he returned home to the States. He ran into an old friend, Ralph Cohen, a Jew who served with the American military in Europe.

Cohen told a story of being with his Allied unit when they encountered a much larger German unit. The Americans fought from inside of a house until they felt compelled to surrender.

The Germans entered the house and ordered the Americans to make a line. The Germans walked down the line demanding dog tags from each man. They inspected the dog tags then handed them back before moving onto the next American soldier. They stopped at one solider, took his dog tags and noticed the H embossed into the metal. The Germans dragged the Jewish-American soldier from the line, took him outside, and shot him.  

Watching this, Cohen yanked his dog tags from his neck before the Germans resumed their inspection down the line. He dropped the dog tags and nudged them by foot under a piece of furniture.

Stopping at Cohen, the Germans demanded his dog tags. Cohen said he had lost them. The Germans stared him in the eye for a long moment then moved onto the next American soldier.

Cohen was taken prisoner, but he lived to return home and tell his tale to George Aigen — a man who for years did not want to discuss what he saw, but believes now he must tell as many people as possible with the hope a Holocaust will never happen again.