Dallas: WWII vets meet camp survivors on VE Day

May 10, 2012 6:03:16 AM PDT
Jack Repp was 15 when German soldiers swept into his private school in Poland and hauled the Jewish kids off to a concentration camp.

Six years later, after prison guards pulled all his teeth with a pair of pliers at another camp, Repp was rescued by American troops. At age 21, he weighed 69 pounds.

"On May 1, 1945, I was liberated by (Gen. Dwight D.) Eisenhower and (Gen. George S.) Patton," said Repp, now 88. "They're my angels, my saviors."

He met more of those angels Wednesday -- World War II veterans who helped emancipate the Nazi death camps.

The liberators and the liberated came together at the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education & Tolerance to mark the 67th anniversary of VE Day (or Victory in Europe), when the Allies accepted the surrender of Nazi Germany and the end of Adolf Hitler's reign.

"Anytime our survivors get to meet anyone that was in the Allied Forces in 1945, it just does so much for their sense of hope," said Alice Murray, president and CEO of the museum. "You'll just see their eyes light up."

It works both ways.

Melvin Waters, 87, an ambulance driver for the American Field Services, recalled what it felt like to be a part of the team evacuating prisoners from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where he spent more than a week carrying women out on stretchers.

"I saw a movie years later that put it in perspective. Up until that time, it hadn't bothered me," he said. "The movie was Sophie's Choice. And the doctor that was working that camp had to make some tough choices because he couldn't take everyone out."

Years later, Waters said, "you feel like maybe you weren't compassionate enough. Of course, you go in and do it and get out. You stayed out of the camps as much as you could. The camps had an awful odor."

Waters, a native of Lancaster, said he couldn't enlist in the Army because he had health problems. Then, he said, "I saw an ad in The Dallas Morning News for ambulance drivers overseas."

He ended up working as a stretcher bearer at Bergen-Belsen.

"Our job when we got there was to take them out in ambulances to receiving stations, where they would be de-liced, bathed, have their hair cut and then taken to a hospital," Waters said.

The job didn't allow him to develop any personal bonds with the folks he helped. "I never did know anybody," he said.

So the event at the museum, he said, was a great way for the liberators and the liberated to share their experiences and get to know each other.

"I think it's great," he said.

Laura Leppert, president of the board of directors for the Daughters of World War II, said that's exactly what she had in mind when her group pitched the idea to the museum.

"We just want to make sure that the history of World War II doesn't fade away," said Leppert, wife of senatorial candidate and former Dallas Mayor and Tom Leppert.

For Holocaust survivors such as Repp, getting to share a stage with several World War II vets was a blessing.

"In the Talmud," he said in a brief interview before the event started, "it says that if you save one life, you've saved the entire planet.

"That's why I say that Eisenhower and Patton and all the veterans who put their lives at risk to save me and others are my angels, my Gods."

At times tearful, the public exchange of experiences left a lasting impact on the audience, too, which including other veterans and relatives of Holocaust survivors.

"I liked it a lot," said D.C. Phillips, 88, a retired Army major who now lives in Wylie.

"I got an invitation, and I'm glad I came. That's probably the first time it's happened."

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