Today I want to thank the soldiers who saved my life. Because you saved my father’s life, and therefore made it possible for me to be born. Maybe you fought for freedom and democracy, or because your own father fought before you were born, or because you wanted an adventure or to get away from home, maybe you fought because you knew in some abstract way that it was the right thing to do. Maybe you had a friend who was Jewish, or you didn’t even know a single Jew but you believed in the human dignity of everyone, or maybe you were Jewish yourself. Maybe you wanted to be a hero, or were trying something, anything, to get past your fears, maybe you just signed up on a whim or dropped out of school to enlist because that’s what your buddies were doing. Maybe you don’t even remember why you were going, maybe you just went.
Many times I’ve thanked you in my mind, but today I want to thank you out loud, the way I tried to when I met a few of you last month, in a place far away, a place that we both did and didn’t know too much about, called Weimar, Germany, at a gathering for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald, the concentration camp located just 8 km outside of town. You were there for the anniversary because you had been part of Patton’s Third Army entering the gate marked JEDEM DAS SEINE, To Each His Due. I was there, with my father, because he was one of the prisoners on the inside of that gate, a sixteen-year-old boy with a shaved head and wide dark eyes.
I know what he looked like because I’ve seen that face on the prisoner file card he managed to find in the days just after liberation. I know he was sick and emaciated and ravenous and hopeful, and I still find it hard to believe he had the presence of mind (or something?) to go into the camp office and find that card. But I know that he did it, and I know he was hopeful because I’ve asked him how he got through each and every day of his imprisonment, and he answered, “It was so horrible that I had to believe it could only get better.” And the day you arrived, it finally and permanently got better. You arrived with your uniforms so unlike the uniforms of the SS, with your guns not trained on him and his fellow prisoners but aimed at the guards, with your strange American voices and your army rations (which some prisoners ate so quickly they were killed by the food itself). With your empathy and your own young wide-eyed faces. You arrived the way the rumors in the previous days had promised you would, and the SS fled into the forest (the Beech Forest, those American words sounding so different than the German word, Buchenwald). You arrived and the gate was opened and it would never be closed again.