Monday, May 31, 2004

Veteran remembers liberating death camp

By Becky Pratt
Enquirer contributor

SHARONVILLE - Bill Hoevenaar is always amazed to hear about people who claim the Holocaust didn't happen.

Bill Hoevenaar, 83, of Sharonville, served from August 1942-December 1945 with an anti-aircraft artillery unit in Europe during WWII. He was one of the soldiers who helped liberate the Dachau death camp.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
The former staff sergeant was part of the American battalion that liberated the Nazi death camp of Dachau in the spring of 1945.

"Those places were slaughterhouses. The people that worked there received bonuses if they killed more than their quota each day," he said. "It's kind of hard to imagine that people could be this way to people ... but it did happen."

Hoevenaar, who was drafted at the height of World War II in August 1942, chuckles when he remembers how he was "drafted" a second time in 1997 by his granddaughter Rachel.

Nudged into it, Hoevenaar has now taken on what his wife Lorraine calls "a kind of mission" to share his story - including the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp - with interested local groups. He speaks to schools, churches and other organizations.

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Vivid in his memory is the day his unit, part of the Army's radio intelligence section, came upon what "looked like a park, looked like Sharon Woods," but was marked by a German sign which read: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" - a grim greeting for those marched into the Nazi death camp of Dachau.

Elated prisoners, though emaciated and weak, hoisted soldiers onto their shoulders and "marched them around the camp like football heroes."

Americans had "heard rumors" of the death camps in Germany, but "many didn't believe it or took it with a grain of salt," Hoevenaar said, assuming the stories merely detailed the usual tragic consequences of war.

"We got there sooner than the Germans expected" and were horrified to see "bodies ready to go out on the train."

The overwhelming reaction among soldiers was anger, he said, and "they shot anybody who wasn't a prisoner... just lined up SS troopers and machine-gunned them."

"If you ever saw bare, naked hatred, you could see it... in that camp."

Hoevenaar said that although the odor of cremated bodies hung over the camp and the nearby town (the human ashes were being used as fertilizer), townspeople professed ignorance: "We didn't know" was the refrain."

"It's kind of hard to imagine that people could be this way to people. That was quite an experience - hard to remember and hard to forget," he said.

He said his memories still pack a wallop, even after nearly 60 years:

"I still wonder about those 11 million souls - what impact they would have had on the world if they had lived."

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