There’s a little-known connection between Native Americans and the liberation of Nazi concentration camps that is illuminated in my family history. Let me explain.
My niece Samantha told us that on a recent trip to Munich, Germany, she was informed that my father, Eli, had been imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp. This was news to me. I knew that he was 14 years old when he was captured by the Germans in his small town in Poland, about 50 kilometers from Cracow. As I understood it, he and my mother, Miriam, worked in numerous labor camps throughout the war.
Through ingenuity, strong constitutions, and the will to live, they survived, the only remnants of their families. Luck was also an important factor. My father told the story of how three prisoners escaped from one of the camps. In retribution, the Germans shot every 10th prisoner; my father was number nine.
Before visiting Munich on our way to a Danube River cruise, I asked my father if he wanted me to get an official record from the Dachau historical registry site confirming that he was a “guest” there of the German government. (I meant his “guest” status sarcastically as he was a prisoner.) He responded affirmatively.
So my wife, Gail, and I went to the town square of Munich and signed up for a guided tour of Dachau. To their credit, the Germans sponsor tours to expose the history of the Nazis’ barbarism, while also showcasing the splendors of their country.
Dachau is 10 miles outside central Munich, a subway ride away, not an isolated outpost, where it was possible to engender claims of “plausible deniability” among its neighbors during the war and after. Dachau was founded as a concentration camp for political prisoners in 1933. Over the years, of the close to 200,000 inmates who were housed there, most
I received the official document that confirmed my father was at Dachau for 45 days and then was transported to various labor camps. I gave the document to him; other than the tattoo on his wrist, I guess this was the only visible sign of his six years of incarceration.
At war’s end, 67,665 prisoners survived, one third of them Jews, despite the German’s best efforts to liquidate all evidence, animate and inanimate, of their crimes.
Who were the liberators? They were Americans, but not typical soldiers. They were the Thunderbirds, Native American members of the 45th Infantry Division. George Patton, a brilliant general but a racist and anti-Semite, called the Thunderbirds “one of the best, if not the best, divisions in the history of American arms.”
American Indians enlisted in overwhelming numbers into our armed forces after the attack on Pearl Harbor, with 44,000 out of a total Native American population of 350,000 — a huge proportion — seeing active service. During Vietnam, approximately one in four Native Americans volunteered, compared to one in 12 in the general population.
Last weekend, we visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in lower Manhattan. It featured an exhibit on the history of Native Americans serving in U.S. armed forces. It explained that the credo of each tribe’s warrior culture was to defend the members of the tribe against any outside threats, whether French, English, settlers encroaching on their territory, or the ravenous federal government.
But with the onset of the world wars and other conflicts, the larger tribe was the United States. So they went beyond their traditional tribe identity to embrace being Americans.
In these days of identity politics, where your political tribe trumps anything else, including civil discourse and winning points against the other side at all costs, the example of the American Indian, arguably among the most shamefully treated peoples in American history, should serve as an example for all of us.
I don’t know a suitable tribal translation of E pluribus unum, but our Native American fellow citizens surely practice it.
Max L. Kleinman is president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation; from 1995 to 2014 he served as CEO/executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.