After Allan Ostar entered Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945, with his U.S. Army division, he took a belt buckle off a dead German soldier that read, “Gott mit uns,” “God with us.”
“How could anyone believe God is with them who behaved this way,” he wondered as he walked through the gas chambers and saw the crematoria still containing human remains; dead bodies lay stacked in piles to the ceiling in boxcars and surviving inmates were nothing more than walking skeletons.
“It was a horrible thing to see,” he told NJJN in a phone interview. “It’s a sight and smell you never forget. How could human beings behave this way to other human beings? Did German guards really believe that God was with them while they helped torture and murder innocent men, women, and children?”
Ostar will speak about his experiences Thursday evening, Nov. 8, at the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education (Chhange) at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft. The program will commemorate Veterans Day and Kristallnacht — the Nov. 9-10, 1938, pogrom when synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses were ransacked and burned in Germany and Austria and the first Jews were taken to concentration camps.
Ostar, an East Orange native, became a member of the Army’s 42nd Rainbow Division after he enlisted as a 20-year-old while he was still at Penn State University studying psychology and journalism. Originally trained to be a radio operator in the signal corps, Ostar was sent to college to study engineering, but was reassigned to the infantry because of the war’s mounting casualties. Landing in Marseille, France, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and across France and Germany for five months.
Two divisions liberated Dachau; Ostar was among the first troops to enter the camp.
“The first thing I saw was a railroad line and around five boxcars filled with bodies of dead or mostly dead human beings stacked up one on top of the other like cordwood,” said the 94-year-old Ostar. “They were so emaciated they were little more than skin and bones. The sight was beyond comprehension. What the Germans were doing was closing up some of the camps as the Russians were approaching and loaded the [prisoners] into boxcars with no food or water.”
He said the troops were told Hitler had directed civilians to resist the Americans while mostly diehard SS troops moved to the nearby Austrian Alps to engage in guerrilla warfare.
As the American soldiers searched nearby homes for weapons, Ostar said, his anger mounted when the residents insisted they had no idea there was a concentration camp nearby.
He also had to deal with deception. For instance, at one home, a man declared he was not a Nazi, said Ostar, “but his neighbor was, and I should search his house” — even though Ostar found a Nazi armband in the man’s bedroom. Residents of the area were later forced to walk through the camp and bury the corpses.
Ostar said it was difficult to follow directives not to give food to the surviving inmates, because, he said, “it would be too hard for them to digest, they were so emaciated.”
“You just can’t believe human beings could be treated this way.”
Ostar was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge and two Bronze Star Medals with “V” (for valor) for his service. He was inducted by the French government in the French Legion of Honour for his role in the liberation.
His wartime experience has stayed with Ostar through the years. After the war, he returned to Penn State for undergraduate and graduate work in psychology, and postgraduate work in mass communications at the University of Wisconsin. He was the first full-time executive director (later president) of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C., serving for 26 years.
A longtime resident of Chevy Chase, Md., Ostar moved with his wife, Roberta, to Seabrook Village in Tinton Falls to be near their son who lives in Matawan. The Ostars have three children, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Ostar has been asked by Chhange to speak to groups at churches, synagogues, and schools about what he saw during the liberation.
The enormity of what took place, he said, “was based on the idea that Hitler and the Nazis wanted to eradicate the Jews. They wanted to blame the Jews for Germany having lost World War I. To them Jews were the scourge of the earth.”
In light of that understanding, he said, he is bothered by what he now sees taking place in the United States.
“I see some signs now in the way this administration looks at immigrants that has certain characteristics one would associate with fascism, racism, and nationalism,” he said. “Germany became a very nationalistic country under Hitler; America First has its roots in fascism.
“When you denigrate people for their religion, primarily Muslims, when you refer to Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists, this all feeds into a fascist, racist tendency,” Ostar said. “That’s disturbing to me because I saw what nationalism and racism lead to, which is violence and discrimination.
“America First, instead of promoting respect for people of different religions, cultures, sexual orientations, and backgrounds, results in the kind of behavior I call anti-social behavior.”
If you go!
Who: Allan Ostar, Dachau liberator
What: Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education’s Survivor Speaker Series
When: Thursday, Nov. 8, 7 p.m.
Where: Student Life Center, Brookdale Community College, Lincroft
Registration: Call 732-224-1889 or visit chhange.org