On Jan. 11, Charles Pierce, of Camarillo, Calif. got the chance to do something he’s dreamed about for years — say thank you.
Pierce is a survivor of the Holocaust and he credits the U.S. 20th Armored Division for saving his life. Don Donath, 88, of Sedalia, served with that division during World War II.
Pierce was living in Kielce, Poland, before World War II broke out. He could see at a young age what the Germans were trying to do.
“They said only one party in Germany is going to exist and that’s Hitler’s party and the rest of the world has got to go,” he said. “The Jews lived most of their life in fear. It’s a mystery to me how people can sit there in a country like that and hate you. The air was filled with hatred.”
Poland was a poor country and people lived on little income. Pierce’s father was the owner of a shoe business. The Nazis sought to not only destroy the businesses, but also kill the people who owned them.
In 1942, his family was sent to the ghetto in Kielce.
“We tried to stay with our parents and help as much as we could, but in 1942 they decided to liquidate the ghetto and send the people out to be killed. We didn’t know at that time what they were planning,” he said.
On Sept. 24, 1942, the Nazis raided their house in the middle of the night. They chased them out with machine guns and grenades. Pierce was forced to march to the railroad with his parents and brothers.
Once they got to the train, Pierce, 19 at the time, wasn’t allowed to give his parents a hug or say good-bye. Pierce and his younger brother were kept for slave labor, while his parents, brother and sister-in-law were put on the train. They were transported to Treblinka, Poland, where they were sent to die in the gas chambers.
Eventually, Pierce was separated from his younger brother and sent to a camp about 20 miles away.
His only food was an ounce of bread and a little cup of soup that he couldn’t eat, because it contained horse meat. He worked long, hard hours and slept on a piece of plywood in the barracks. He had no blanket or pillow.
“I didn’t want to give up because I knew that one day if I survived I would be able to tell the world what happened,” he said.
He was at that camp for 14 months before he was sent to Auschwitz.
“Auschwitz was the worst because they had the experimental hospital there and I also smelled the dead bodies day and night from the crematorium,” he said.
The camp was also occupied by Josef Mengele, a doctor who loved performing inhumane experiments on people. Pierce recalls one time when Mengele cut all of the veins out of a man’s legs just to see if he could walk without them.
“Mengele went through the rows of the people, front and back. He was there with a few helpers and when he picked up his hand, if his finger went to the right, you remained alive. A finger to the left, you were going to the crematorium just like that,” he said. “Somehow, I survived that, too.”
After Auschwitz, he was sent to Kaufering, Landsberg and then to Dachau. As the war was coming to an end, the Nazis received orders to kill everyone. Pierce was picked by one of the SS soldiers to push his cart with supplies. He pushed it for three days, before the soldiers received word to run and let everything go.
Pierce used a tree branch to drag himself into a barn, where he spent the night. The morning of May 5, 1945, the woman who owned the house said the Americans had arrived. It was the 20th Armored Division.
“With all of the power that I had left in my body, I dragged myself out and I saw tanks right outside the barn,” he said. He weighed about 60 pounds.
After the war, he discovered his brothers Abe and Seweryn had both survived. Later, he found out his aunt and uncle lived in America.
He arrived in Boston at the age of 28 in 1949. He met his wife, Libby, on a blind date on Dec. 3, 1953, in Brooklyn, N.Y. They were married June 13, 1954. He became a United States citizen in November 1954. He has a son and two daughters.
Through Skype, Pierce and Donath were able to see and talk to each other.
Donath was a tank driver for the 20th Armored Division. Though he didn’t personally liberate Dachau, his division provided ground support.
“I could see the tower of Dachau, so I might have been 200 yards,” Donath told Pierce. “I saw some of them (Jews) come out, but I never went in. I thank God I didn’t go in there. I never thought I’d ever see any group of human beings do that to any other human beings. Human life meant nothing to them.”
Donath was 19 when he enlisted and one of four brothers who went into the service. They all returned home.
Libby couldn’t wait to see Donath.
“I want to thank you for helping to save my husband. You saved a wonderful man for me and I want to thank you for that,” she said. “Charles has been looking forward to meeting someone from that company so he could thank you personally. I am so grateful to all of you.”
“Well, I’m glad we did it,” Donath replied.
Pierce’s son, Mark, also spoke with Donath.
“Thanks for bringing my dad home,” he said.
Shane Davis is doing a documentary about Pierce.
“Finding you was a blessing in disguise for me. Charles has spent many, many years trying to find somebody from your tank division who helped liberate him,” Davis said. “Charles has said it several times, if it wasn’t for the 20th Armored Division, he would not be alive today.”
Pierce wants the world to remember those terrible murders that were committed and prays they will never happen again. Donath was delighted to meet Pierce and was humbled by his gratitude. The two men plan to keep in touch.