AUSTIN — As a young soldier with the 11th Armored Division during World War II, Chester “Chet” Rohn knew there were concentration camps, but admits it didn’t register what that meant until he started seeing the dead prisoners in striped uniforms all along the road.
He smelled Mauthausen before he saw it.
Once he saw the prisoners, hips jutting out and rib cages exposed, he couldn’t comprehend how these people were alive.
“It was something different than we had been used to seeing. We saw a lot of dead Germans, and a lot of dead Americans, but nothing like this,” Rohn recalled. “We just couldn’t believe it. But there it was.”
Rohn’s recollection of liberating a Nazi concentration camp following the end of World War II is now part of the Texas Liberator Project, a statewide educational program using these horrific experiences to educate a new generation of Texans on how inhumane humans can be to one another.
The project, housed at Texas Tech University, collected oral history from as many of these veterans as possible and compiled their eye-witness accounts into an educational app, website and book. The digital assets, such as recorded interviews with the Texas Liberators, are available for free to educators and students and also include information on how to approach the subject with a classroom.
Created by the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission, the project officially launched on Nov. 9 during a ceremony at the Senate Chamber of the Texas State Capitol. During the ceremony, Rohn and five other veterans were honored for being a part of liberating Nazi prison camps spread across Europe during the war. These men are the last living veterans of the 335 Texans identified as liberators.
Gov. Greg Abbott and former First Lady Laura Bush sent letters to be read during the capitol ceremony. In her’s, Bush noted her father, Harold Welch, was a soldier in the 104th Infantry Division when it liberated Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in Nordhausen, Germany.
“Thank you for preserving these important stories so that future generations learn from the efforts of these brave patriots,” Bush wrote. “These accounts resonate with all of us, and especially with those whose loved ones fought in the name of freedom.”
It’s been documented that Texans participated in liberating 44 of the 72 camps found at the end of the war. During the ceremony, 11 survivors of those camps were on hand to present the medals to each of the men. Family members of some deceased Texas Liberators also received medals on their loved one’s behalf.
Herbert U. Stern, a native of Germany who became a U.S. citizen after being drafted into the Army, helped liberate Nordhausen in March 1945 as part of the 99th Infantry Division. He noted in his oral history the importance of sharing his story.
“It is so important since so many survivors, either Holocaust survivors or people like myself, feel that we’re at the end of our lives and possibly, in another few years, there are no so-called eye witnesses that have been through all this,” he said. “I think it’s so important for younger generations to at least have some knowledge of the past.”
Knowing his own unit’s history in liberating Nazi camps, Col. Jonathan Byrom, commander of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, attended the ceremony and found himself emotionally moved by the stories of these veterans.
“It’s an absolute honor to be a part of this,” he said. “It made the events come to life and show they are directly applicable to what we are doing and why we are doing what we do in the military — protecting those who can’t protect themselves. We protect our nation and our way of life. It gives it context.”
On May 6, 1945, the 3rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron liberated a concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. They saw masses of humans who stood sickly and starving. The squadron took care of the prisoners and remained in the area caring for them until a medical unit arrived.
“It’s a direct relation to our past and I plan to take this back to the unit and educate our soldiers,” Byrom said.
To see the interactive website, go to http://texasliberators.org/.