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Reliving the Holocaust in a Soldier's Snapshots

taken from the New York Times

Vernon Tott, right, was with the 84th Infantry Division in April 1945 at the liberation of Ahlem, a Nazi labor camp in Germany. Two survivors of the camp, Henry Shery, left, and Lucjan Barr, with his wife, Ruth, looked at Mr. Tott's photos from Ahlem at his Sioux City, Iowa, home last week.
Mark Kegans for The New York Times
Vernon Tott, right, was with the 84th Infantry Division in April 1945 at the liberation of Ahlem, a Nazi labor camp in Germany. Two survivors of the camp, Henry Shery, left, and Lucjan Barr, with his wife, Ruth, looked at Mr. Tott's photos from Ahlem at his Sioux City, Iowa, home last week.


Published: February 20, 2005

SIOUX CITY, Iowa, Feb. 19 - The two old men stared into a 60-year-old snapshot, searching for the truth that tied them together across time.

"This face I remember," Lucjan Barr, 76, said of the sullen, scared teenager. "I don't know to who it belongs, but I remember. It could be me."

A minute passed, the men talked of the past, then Vernon Tott, 80, picked up the picture again. "That's you there," he said, hope breeding confidence. "I can see by the way your ear is shaped. To me, that could be you."

Mr. Barr, an electrical engineer in Tel Aviv, survived the Holocaust at the tiny Ahlem labor camp near Hannover, Germany. Mr. Tott, a retired meatpacking foreman here in Sioux City, was an Army radio operator who pulled out his vest-pocket camera to document the horror he saw while helping liberate Ahlem.

Their reunion here on Thursday capped Mr. Tott's decade-long quest to find the few dozen men in the 19 photographs he took that day and compile their stories into an inch-thick homemade book. With Mr. Barr and Henry Shery of Manchester, N.J., who joined the picture party here, Mr. Tott has located 30 Ahlem survivors, 13 of whom have found their faces in his frames.

After forgetting about the pictures, stored in a shoebox in his basement, for half a century, Mr. Tott has traveled to Germany and Poland in recent years on his search for survivors. He was scheduled to go to Israel this summer and to be honored in May at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, but the cancer in his stomach now prevents him from traveling. So the survivors came here to present Mr. Tott with a silver kiddush cup at a candle-lighting ceremony on Friday at a local synagogue.

"You brought us back to the human race," Mr. Shery, a retired medical supply salesman who learned about Mr. Tott only 10 days before, said as they held hands.

What makes this Holocaust story stand out is the photographs, stark black-and-whites showing the frightened, famished faces of the few who survived months of forced labor at Ahlem and were too weak to join the death march the Germans had ordered days before liberation.

The pictures, online at www.jou.ufl.edu/documentary/prod/Ahlem/album, show piles of dead bodies waiting to be burned. There are living skeletons slurping thin soup. Boys in too-big wool caps and coats dropped off by the Red Cross. Men scratching lice from their heads in front of the infirmary, which Mr. Barr recalled as "a one-way street: you walk in and don't walk out."

For the survivors, the pictures are the proof to illustrate the stories they struggle to share with grandchildren. For Mr. Tott, they are a symbol of his service, a way to bear witness. For historians, they are rare artifacts of a little-known labor camp, and an unusual opportunity to complete a circle between victims and saviors.

"There are plenty of photographs of the concentration camps," said Churchill Roberts, director of the Documentary Institute at the University of Florida, who is making a film, titled "Angel of Ahlem," about Mr. Tott. "There are not many where you can pair the photograph with the actual person today. The power of this photograph, to see yourself, 50 or 60 years later, and the flood of memories it brings back, it's really quite something for us just to watch."

Mr. Tott, whose great-grandfather, coincidentally, was born in Hannover, bought a Kodak pocket camera for a dollar at a New Orleans pawn shop while training with the 84th Infantry Division in 1942. He pulled it out whenever he saw a bombed-out bridge or an airplane aflame, sending the film home to his mother. In the hour he spent at Ahlem on April 10, 1945, he shot two rolls.

Fifty years later, Mr. Tott was reading The Railsplitter, the 84th Infantry's newsletter, in his fading recliner in his small ranch home here, when he came upon a letter from Benjamin Sieradzki, a retired engineer in Berkeley, Calif., wondering about the young, tall, blond soldier with the camera.

"I always remembered him; he was clicking away by himself, I thought it was very unusual," Mr. Sieradzki, now 78, recalled in a telephone interview. "In a way, I needed them," he said of the pictures. "I needed to have some kind of legitimacy to what I was telling people about what happened there."

Mr. Sieradzki is the young man on the far left in picture No. 9, the one with the pile of bodies in the background. When Mr. Tott first sent him copies of the pictures, he blew them up big as could be to see the sorrow in his eyes. Now, he keeps them in a drawer. But barely a week passes that he does not speak with Mr. Tott; in the documentary, they walk arm in arm through a field that once was the labor camp.

"That's a horrible way we met, Ben," Mr. Tott says, "but now we're good friends."

A few years ago, the survivors sent Mr. Tott a new Pentax camera. One man, a shoe salesman, sends four or five pairs every year to Mr. Tott and his wife, Betty. Another, Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore computers, gave $100,000 to the Holocaust museum in Washington in Mr. Tott's name.

The pictures were included in a German textbook published last year about Ahlem, which housed about 1,000 Jewish prisoners from the Lodz ghetto in Poland, most of whom did not survive the war. And Mr. Tott has made some 400 photocopies of his own archive, a ragtag mix of survivors' memoirs, handwritten letters, German newspaper articles and other memorabilia, for survivors' families, students and his neighbors.

Lina McMillan, one of perhaps 300 Jews in Sioux City - counting babies, people in nursing homes, and students away at college - came to the service Friday to thank Mr. Tott on behalf of herself, her son and her daughter. "I know had it not been for people like Vernon Tott, we wouldn't be here," said Ms. McMillan, 48, whose father, Abraham Izbicki, survived five years in Auschwitz.

The night before, Mr. Barr and Mr. Shery flanked Mr. Tott at his Formica table, stories spilling out as they searched for themselves in the photographs. "One skeleton looked like the other," Mr. Shery said.

Mr. Barr told of his first night of freedom, having to sleep on the floor because the bed was too soft. Mr. Tott remembered tossing cigarettes and food rations to men who had nothing. Mr. Shery recalled being beaten while working in the mines.

Mr. Barr picked up a particularly horrific image, of a man barely more than bones lying in a bunk, then pushed it away in disgust. He paused at another, showing four young men crowded into the triple-bunks.

"You know him?" Mr. Tott asked.

"I believe it is me," Mr. Barr said quietly.

In the end, neither man who made the pilgrimage to Mr. Tott's home in what his family thinks may be his finals days recognized himself in the photos. The scared teenager in that first photo was still in his prison uniform, and Mr. Barr remembers changing into civilian clothes the Red Cross brought. The one lying in the triple-bunk could not be him, he said, "because I was on the move."

But "it's the same as if it was me," Mr. Barr said. "I was one of the guys he made believe he was a human being."

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