Tears filled Marsha Kreuzman’s eyes as she greeted Joe Barbella, fuelled equally by joy at the chance to thank him, and grief at the memory their meeting elicited.
“Why has it taken all these years to find you?” she demanded as Barbella and his wife, Anne, accompanied by two of their four daughters, Rose and Joanne, welcomed Kreuzman to their home in Union as warmly as if she were family.
The Oct. 24 meeting between Kreuzman, a survivor of the Mauthausen concentration camp and Barbella, one of the GIs who helped liberate her, came about earlier this month only through a story in a local paper. Brought together once by tragedy and now by serendipity, the two spent over two hours discussing the war and recalling how each spent the years since relating its terrible lessons to all who would listen.
Born in Cracow, Kreuzman was rescued in May 1945, lying at the door of the crematorium at Mauthausen, by the United States Army’s 11th Armored Division.
She went on to become a nurse and worked at a hospital in England for a number of years before coming to settle in the United States. She married fellow Holocaust survivor Robert Kreuzman. They decided not to have children, given their view of the world. “I would wake up at night screaming. I still do,” she said.
Working with the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, the vibrant, articulate Kreuzman has made it her mission to educate as many people as possible about the Nazis. In addition to speaking to school groups, she has “twinned” with about 65 youngsters, through the council’s “Twin with a Survivor” program.
She has also been on a mission to find and thank the GIs who rescued her.
“I have tried to find every liberator I can, to thank them,” the 90-year-old Livingston resident told Barbella.
On Oct. 13, The Star-Ledger published an announcement of the 65th wedding anniversary of Joseph and Anne Barbella. It described Joe as a veteran of World War II, who “served in the 11th Armored Division which liberated the Mauthausen concentration camp.”
Kreuzman told the Barbellas she came across the announcement by chance. “When I saw who Joe served with, I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she declared. “You know they made me an honorary member of the division?” She contacted council director Barbara Wind, who helped her make contact with the couple.
Kreuzman would learn that Barbella served with the 81st Medical Battalion, arriving two days after the 11th Armored Division vanguard.
“What I saw was so terrible, I couldn’t bear to go back,” he told Kreuzman at their meeting. “There were naked people, men on this side, women on that side, dying all around us. Sometimes, when I think about it, I get sick to my stomach. I feel so much for all of the people like you, who were there and who made it out.”
Barbella, later in his life, took on the same mission as Kreuzman. His daughter Joanne said that he always told his family about his experiences, “but he wasn’t a public speaking kind of guy. But when he began hearing about the people denying what had happened, he got very angry.”
Through a contact with the Holocaust education program at nearby Kean University, in his 80s Barbella began speaking at schools.
During their meeting, Kreuzman brought out some small black and white photographs taken at the camp, one showing her with other inmates in a room filled with wooden bunks. “It was taken by one of the liberators, Ray Buch. He died a few years ago,” she said.
“Ray?” Barbella exclaimed. “He was one of my closest friends!”
At his urging, Rose brought out a poster board of his own photographs that he has used when speaking to school groups. It shows him and his fellow soldiers, and the naked, skeletal inmates they encountered. “We were told we were not allowed to give food to anyone because it would kill them,” he said. “They had to be fed very carefully.”
Kreuzman nodded. “I was lying on the ground, waiting to be taken into the crematorium,” she said. Mauthausen was the fifth camp she had been sent to, and she had lost her parents and her beloved younger brother. “I wanted to die. I weighed 68 lbs. A big, tall American soldier picked me up, and he took me to a field hospital.”
As she was leaving, Barbella turned to Kreuzman and, brushing aside the fact that they didn’t actually meet back in May 1945, said, “I went to a lot of trouble to liberate you, so you better take good care of yourself now.”
She smiled back at him. “Now that we’ve met, you’re not going to get rid of me so easily,” she answered, and she and his family began making plans to meet soon for dinner.