Daniel Rubin: Never forget lessons from the Holocaust

Paul Seres , 86, a retired pharmacist from King of Prussia, grew up fast when he helped liberate a concentration camp in Austria.
Paul Seres , 86, a retired pharmacist from King of Prussia, grew up fast when he helped liberate a concentration camp in Austria.
Posted: August 08, 2011

The Holocaust column that ran in this space two Mondays ago brought out the usual suspects.

"Get over it and stop looking for sympathy," wrote a commentator who fancies herself the Pakistan Hottie.

"Move on," counseled Old City Joe. "This was 70 years ago."

One reaction in particular struck me. It came by e-mail from a King of Prussia man who'd read about Sol Finkelstein and how for decades he felt responsible for the death of his father at the Mauthausen concentration camp.

My e-mailer was Paul Seres, an 86-year-old retired pharmacist. He asked to meet. I asked what he wanted to talk about. He wrote:

"Back a few years, to May (1945), I was a soldier in the U.S. Army, at that time attached to the 139th Evacuation Hospital. Approximately 30 men (myself included), volunteered to look for concentration camps, free the inmates, and set up medical facilities to care for them. Our orders were to look in upper Austria.

"The only camp that we found was Ebensee concentration camp, a subcamp of Mauthausen. . . . What we found goes beyond comprehension."

Seres greeted me Thursday in the lobby of the Valley Forge Towers, in full khaki, a row of palm trees woven across his shirt. He is 5-foot-7, with thinning silver hair, and packs some more weight than the 145 pounds listed on his wartime ID. He'd just returned from his daily radiation treatment for prostate cancer. His wife, Miriam, sat reading in another room as he unfolded a giant map of Europe across his dining-room table.

In 1945, he was a medic who'd marched across France to Germany with Patton's Third Army. By Austria, he'd earned two Battle Stars.

"I didn't know what concentration camps were," he said. "None of us did. As a soldier, you fight the war that is in front of you."

Pvt. Seres had just turned 20. He was a Central High School grad from Wynnefield, raised as a Jew. When drafted, he'd finished three years at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. He spoke some German and Yiddish.

As they rode through the town of Ebensee, they saw old women waving white towels from their windows, announcing, "We are not Nazi." Approaching the camp, he recognized a strong smell from his school years: chlorine.

The soldiers opened the gates. Prisoners surrounded him - "these poor souls, some with just skin and bones, some nude, but the one thing that was common in all of them was that wild stare, and tattered clothes."

A bearded man rushed Seres, arms outstretched, saying in Yiddish, "I am Jewish. I am a rabbi."

Seres replied, "I am also Jewish. Where are the German soldiers?"

They'd run away, the man said. Seres avoided his embrace. The soldier was concerned about lingering Germans, concerned about disease. "To this day," Seres said, "I regret that when he tried to hug me, I turned him away."

At Ebensee inmates were worked to death. In Richard Macdonald's book about Ebensee's liberation, Inside the Gates, he said the soldiers were greeted by nearly 17,000 prisoners on May 6, 1945; 8,000 had already died. Hundreds more died after liberation from starvation and disease. Macdonald's father commanded the 139th.

For years, Seres didn't talk about what he encountered - the dead and the dying, the prisoners who wanted to borrow guns so they could hunt down their captors. But there wasn't a day that he didn't think about it.

"I was just a kid," he said, "a kid that grew up. I had never been outside of Philadelphia, or maybe Atlantic City."

Walking me to my car, he wondered what difference telling his story might make. "If you keep dwelling on it, it loses its importance," he said.

That is a danger, I replied. But you were a witness, and witnesses are precious. You saw man at his worst. I guess I can't stop writing about it because I cannot imagine how the heart recovers from something so horrific, and yet it does.

Contact columnist Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or @danielrubin on Twitter. Read his blog at philly.com/blinq.


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