They were there when the organized killing stopped at Dachau 50 years ago, April 29, 1945, and liberation miraculously arrived, and now they meet this weekend at Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills, still trying to explain their story, still attempting to find the grammar of hell.
Felix Kestenberg, 74 years old now, was one of those sent off from the Nazi death camp, assigned to be transported to the Alpine Mountains to be shot. Dr. Alvin Weinstein, 77 now, marched into the camp that day with the American 22nd Infantry, Rainbow Division, the first medical doctor to enter Dachau.
Weinstein's battalion had spent the war years inching their way from Strasbourg, France, to Salzburg, Austria. He'd treated the wounded and the dying and thought he'd seen the worst that man could do to man. Dachau taught him he was wrong.
"I never saw anything like this," he said last week, from his home in Long Branch, N.J. "What barely resembled human beings, starved to skin and bones, yellow skin, and lice covering them, and the smell of burned flesh from the ovens. I don't know how anyone was still alive. There were at least a thousand bodies stacked up like cordwood waiting to be put into ovens, which were open. I saw a skull clearly visible. Whoever built the ovens was so proud that his name and company were engraved on the side of it.
"Just outside the camp, there was a freight train on a railroad siding. There were 39 cars of dead bodies, frozen to death, starved. They'd been given three days of food for a three-week trip but couldn't move because the tracks had been bombed. My colonel saw a hand move, and a soldier pulled out a man. He was the only survivor from nearly a thousand bodies in the train."
Felix Kestenberg understands. A native of Poland, he'd survived Auschwitz and Majdanek, and at Dachau he'd stood in a line where the living were separated from those assigned to die. He'd suffered malnutrition and endless workdays and excruciating boils. He'd despaired of ever seeing the war's end. Now, on the day of liberation, he was on another freight train, whose inhabitants had been designated for mass slaughter. The train had pulled out of Dachau five days earlier but returned because the camp commander, sensing the coming of Allied troops, grew frightened of retribution. "They'd been given orders to take us into the Alpine Mountains and shoot us, every one of us," Kestenberg said. He lives in Pikesville now. "They told us later that the commander got cold feet. So we were on the train for five days, back and forth, practically no food."
The train was standing just outside the gates of Dachau on that final morning, when those packed inside the railroad cars were roused from sleep by noises outside. Kestenberg looked between slats and couldn't believe his eyes.
"American soldiers," he said last week, with a kind of awe still in his voice. "They were sitting on top of tanks and trucks, waving American flags. And there were combat troops stretched along the road.
"Some of us began to cry, others were laughing, praying, screaming. Some were so shocked they couldn't react. I stood there and tears are rolling down my face. I realize, what's happening I will remember all of my life. For six years I was waiting for this moment, and here I am."
At Beth Israel Congregation all this weekend, they're holding remembrances similar those held by to congregations around the world. Kestenberg and Dr. Weinstein (whose nephew is Beth Israel's Rabbi Richard J. Margolis) were invited to speak. This morning, six trees will be planted at a Children's Holocaust Memorial Garden there. One is a dwarf white dogwood tree, symbolizing the 1.5 million children killed for the crime of being Jewish.
"Why us?" Kestenberg was still asking at week's end, at the end of 50 years of no answers. "We grew up in a society where they hated Jews. This, we knew. But we never imagined something like this, this liquidation through an organized process."
On the day Dachau was liberated, he was taken to medical quarters. There, he looked in a mirror and saw a face he didn't recognize. It was his own. He was 5-feet-7, and now he weighed 75 pounds. His brother had been exterminated. His parents had died. In his family, only two cousins survived. It was a story repeated 6 million times across all of Europe.
"When the prisoners heard I was Jewish," Dr. Weinstein said, "one came up to me. He was wearing the yellow star, the star of David, on his jacket, and he tore it off and forced it into my hand. He said, 'Don't ever forget what you saw here today.' I never have. I still have that star of David."
But, half a century after that day of liberation, he has the same unanswered questions: How could human beings have conducted such organized cruelty? How could so much of the world so casually let it happen?