It was only six years ago that Saint Mary's College Professor Emeritus Chester Aaron allowed himself to remember the day he witnessed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Now he thinks and dreams of little else.
"I write almost exclusively about the Holocaust," said Aaron, now 84 and the author of more than 20 books. "Everything else, for me, seems insignificant."
Aaron recalled his memories of the Dachau liberation during a talk at the Saint Mary's College library in commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Aaron was a 20-year-old Army infantryman on April 29, 1945 when he saw brown clouds of smoke rising into the blue sky while driving in a convoy on the German autobahn towards Munich.
"The stench from the smoke burned my eyes and suddenly I was vomiting," Aaron recalled.
When he and his fellow soldiers arrived at Dachau, German camp guards were fleeing, leaving behind bodies burning in the camp's ovens. Steep mounds of bodies and body parts, many still clothed in black-and-white-striped prisoner pajamas, lay in box cars and along the railroad tracks, said Aaron. He borrowed a camera from another soldier and took pictures of the carnage.
Six years ago, Aaron rediscovered those photos buried in his files. "I smelled again that odor of blood burningâ€¦I remembered it all. Every detail." Following his talk at Saint Mary's, Aaron shared a few of the faded photos with faculty, staff and students.
Aaron grew up in the only Jewish family in a small Pennsylvania coal-mining town, the son of Russian and Polish immigrants. The family had to pull down the shades when celebrating Jewish holidays and "Dirty Jew" was often written on the window of his family's store.
"I had to learn to fight with my fists to defend myself," said Aaron. When his three brothers were drafted in 1941, they insisted he stay home to protect his parents. He finally enlisted in 1943 after hearing stories about Germans exterminating Jews in Europe.
On the day he arrived at Dachau, he saw American soldiers â€“ outraged by the grisly scene â€“ shoot German SS officers and guards. In what Aaron called "murderous vengeance," one of his friends handed over a German officer to the surviving prisoners, who beat and kicked him to death.
In the midst of the chaos, Aaron saw a young, emaciated girl standing alone, her clothing and face covered with mud and blood. He sat down and spoon fed her some of his Army rations.
"She stared at me, as if she had forgotten how to swallow," Aaron said. "Then she swallowed. Once, twice, then she vomited everything and collapsed."
Aaron, who retired in 1997 after teaching English and creative writing at Saint Mary's for 30 years, now grows 90 varieties of garlic from 30 countries on his Sonoma County farm. His thoughts, though, are dominated by the past and he is working on a memoir.
"In a way, I think it is therapy," he said. "I write, trying to get it out of me."
-- Debra Holtz
Office of College Communications
Photos by Gorbachev Lingad '10
To read the full text of Aaron's presentation, go to: http://library.stmarys-ca.edu/features/aaron.doc