On Veterans Day, thinking of the men in the Seventh Army’s Rainbow Division who saved my father.
By Bruce Kiel
As the son of Holocaust survivors, I have a special appreciation for Veterans Day. Seventy years ago my father, Tzvi Hersh Kühl, was liberated from Allach, a subcamp of Dachau, the final stop for more than 40,000 men, women and children who died there. My father survived because, on the morning of April 30, 1945, American soldiers from the Seventh Army’s 42nd Infantry Division—known as the Rainbow Division—liberated the camp, shouting, “You are free! You are free!”
My father always spoke with great gratitude and admiration for the GIs who saved his life. Born in 1921 in Zarzecze, a small village in southeastern Poland, Tzvi was one of nine children. He was a devoted son who tried to help his family and the community cope with the increasingly unbearable measures imposed by the Germans during their occupation of Poland. In 1942, at the age of 20, he was rounded up with other Polish Jews and sent to Budzyń, a forced labor camp in Poland that later became a branch of the Majdanek concentration camp.
Conditions at the camp were inhuman; thousands died. But thanks to his skill as a glazier and his fluency in German, my father managed to survive Budzyń and several other subsequent labor camps that were abandoned as the Russian army advanced. At Radom, the last Polish camp in which he was confined, he was put in a cattle car for Germany as part of a slave-labor contingent. The train stopped at Auschwitz for less than one day. There, about a quarter of his group was selected by the infamous Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele, and taken away.
The remaining members of my father’s group continued on their journey, staying in several smaller camps in Germany. Eventually, the few workers who were still alive were marched into Allach.
The Rainbow Division had a stellar combat record. They saw action at the Hardt Forest, Würzburg, Schweinfurt and Fürth, and one of the three infantry regiments comprising the Rainbow Division was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for repulsing repeated German attacks in Alsace-Lorraine. They were instrumental in thwarting Hitler’s Unternehmen Nordwind (Operation North Wind), the last major German offensive on the Western Front. Of course my father and his fellow inmates at Allach knew nothing of the Rainbow Division or its achievements before the Americans entered the camp, ending their long nightmare.
When Allach was liberated, my father weighed less than 80 pounds. He was covered with lice and too weak to walk. The GIs transported him to an Army field hospital. Later he was transferred to a convalescent home near Munich, where he gradually regained his strength. He was now an orphan. His parents, grandparents and seven of his eight siblings perished in the Holocaust.
My father eventually made his way to New York City, where his name was Americanized by immigration officials; he was now Harry Kiel. In 1953 he met and married my mother, Helen Sturm, from Dębica, Poland, a fellow Holocaust survivor. Harry and Helen were deeply appreciative of the religious freedom in America, never abandoning the traditions and religious observances they learned from their families. Together they made their living running a successful small business in Brooklyn, a grocery store on Avenue N, while raising three sons. Harry lived to see four grandchildren before succumbing to cancer in 2006.
The motto of the Rainbow Division is “Never Forget.” My family will never forget the valor, sacrifice and kindness of the soldiers who saved my father’s life and, in so doing, made our lives possible. The principle of paying tribute to the generosity and selflessness of others has always been a key tenet of Judaism. The Hebrew expression of hakaras hatov (recognizing the good) reflects the importance of acknowledging and reciprocating kindness.
Indeed, the word Jew in Hebrew is Yehudi, and is derived from the name the biblical matriarch, Leah, gave to her fourth son, Yehuda (Judah). The root of the name is gratitude. So it is fitting that on Veterans Day I express my gratitude for all those who have served in the U.S. armed forces. But especially, I thank the brave men of the Rainbow Division who helped defeat Nazi Germany, and, in the closing months of World War II, fought their way to my father and shouted, “You are free!”
Mr. Kiel, an attorney, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and daughter. He is working on a book about his father’s Holocaust experiences.
Post courtesy of The Wall Street Journal