Journeys Through the Holocaust

Liberation — A New Journey Begins

In the spring of 1945, as Allied forces moved from liberating territories to liberating camps, the survivors’ journey through the horrors of the Holocaust ended, and a new one began. The physical journey of survivors’ return home was often circuitous, difficult, and painful, and the emotional journey through the aftermath of the Holocaust was just beginning. This is recounted in the thousands of testimonies of the Visual History Archive, where survivors and witnesses reflect on their experiences and describe the challenges that they faced after living through such trauma.

Many of the members of the Allied armed forces started their journey through the Holocaust when they liberated the concentration camps. Howard Cwick, one of 362 liberators and liberation witnesses in the Visual History Archive, describes arriving at Buchenwald in bewildered terms. Directly confronted with the horrors of the Holocaust, the liberators also grappled with psychological trauma. Their experiences impacted the history of their communities, families, and friends. In their testimonies, they speak of life-changing implications of their experience, as Howard does here.

The moment of liberation was fraught with ambiguity and anticipation for survivors. Whether they survived in camps or in hiding, they dreaded returning home to find who or what may or may not await. After the horrors they had witnessed and experienced, they were not at all sure to find surviving members of their families. They were also mistrustful of their neighbors, and fearful of what the future might hold. They found their homes destroyed, or occupied by others. Clara Isaacman captures the ambiguity of this moment in her testimony.

For many who had fled prior to or during the war, the return home was equally ambiguous as it was for those who survived the camps. Vera Gissing was saved in the Kindertransport operations of the 1930s, and she lived in the United Kingdom throughout the war. Through these operations, an estimated 10,000 refugee children, most of them Jewish, were housed in the United Kingdom during the war. The Visual History Archive contains 659 testimonies that discuss Kinderstransport experiences. These children were able to avoid ghettoization and camp experiences; in many cases, they were the only members of their families to survive the Holocaust. In 1945, Vera decided to return home to Prague, Czechoslovakia (today, Czech Republic). Her journey brought her back to a home she scarcely recognized, inhabited by another family.

Liberation brought with it new geographical movement and introduced a larger community to the horrors of the Holocaust. The legacy of the Holocaust started with liberation.

Liberation UNESCO 2014 Exhibit

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Liberation

Howard Cwick

Language: English

Howard Cwick was born in the Bronx, New York, on August 25, 1923, to Samuel and Sarah Cwick, both Polish immigrants. Howard had an older sister, Sylvia. The
Cwick family spoke both English and Yiddish, kept a kosher home, and attended synagogue three times a week. Howard went to school at P.S. 100 in the Bronx before
going on to Brooklyn Technical High School. When he was seven years old, Howard received his first camera and became interested in photography.

Howard worked as a machinist before enlisting in the United States Air Force in October 1942. After being injured in the crash of a training flight, he was transferred to the 281st Combat Engineer Battalion at Camp Butner, North Carolina. In November 1944, Howard’s battalion left the United States and landed in England. They spent four months on a military base in Bovey Trace in Devon and then headed to Germany via France. Howard’s unit arrived outside of Weimar around April 10, 1945. Howard was ordered to headquarters for an assignment but unwittingly got into a jeep that instead went to Buchenwald. After he entered the camp, he took photographs of what he saw. By the end of the first day, a detachment of the U.S. armed forces had arrived at Buchenwald. On the second day, while the medics were busy treating survivors, the local citizens were forced to walk through the camp to view what the Nazis had done. Even as the townspeople claimed not to know about activities and conditions in Buchenwald, Howard and fellow soldiers found in the cellars of local homes Red Cross packages intended for camp prisoners. For his part, Howard immediately developed some of his pictures of Buchenwald and sent all the negatives home.

Discharged in 1946, Howard married his wife, Claire, in 1948 and graduated New York University with a master’s degree in education. Claire and Howard had a daughter, Laurie, and a son, Steven. During his career, Howard taught industrial arts at local high schools. Many years after the war, upon hearing students remark that the
Holocaust couldn’t have been as bad as it was being portrayed, Howard began sharing his photos and recollections of Buchenwald. At the time of his interview in 1997, Howard had one grandchild and another on the way.

The interview was conducted on September 16, 1997 in Lake Worth, FL, United States; interviewer: Susan Rosenblum; videographer: Steven Cohen. Howard Cwick passed away on April 25, 2006, at the age of 82.

  • Howard Cwick

    Language: English

    Howard Cwick was born in the Bronx, New York, on August 25, 1923, to Samuel and Sarah Cwick, both Polish immigrants. Howard had an older sister, Sylvia. The
    Cwick family spoke both English and Yiddish, kept a kosher home, and attended synagogue three times a week. Howard went to school at P.S. 100 in the Bronx before
    going on to Brooklyn Technical High School. When he was seven years old, Howard received his first camera and became interested in photography.

    Howard worked as a machinist before enlisting in the United States Air Force in October 1942. After being injured in the crash of a training flight, he was transferred to the 281st Combat Engineer Battalion at Camp Butner, North Carolina. In November 1944, Howard’s battalion left the United States and landed in England. They spent four months on a military base in Bovey Trace in Devon and then headed to Germany via France. Howard’s unit arrived outside of Weimar around April 10, 1945. Howard was ordered to headquarters for an assignment but unwittingly got into a jeep that instead went to Buchenwald. After he entered the camp, he took photographs of what he saw. By the end of the first day, a detachment of the U.S. armed forces had arrived at Buchenwald. On the second day, while the medics were busy treating survivors, the local citizens were forced to walk through the camp to view what the Nazis had done. Even as the townspeople claimed not to know about activities and conditions in Buchenwald, Howard and fellow soldiers found in the cellars of local homes Red Cross packages intended for camp prisoners. For his part, Howard immediately developed some of his pictures of Buchenwald and sent all the negatives home.

    Discharged in 1946, Howard married his wife, Claire, in 1948 and graduated New York University with a master’s degree in education. Claire and Howard had a daughter, Laurie, and a son, Steven. During his career, Howard taught industrial arts at local high schools. Many years after the war, upon hearing students remark that the
    Holocaust couldn’t have been as bad as it was being portrayed, Howard began sharing his photos and recollections of Buchenwald. At the time of his interview in 1997, Howard had one grandchild and another on the way.

    The interview was conducted on September 16, 1997 in Lake Worth, FL, United States; interviewer: Susan Rosenblum; videographer: Steven Cohen. Howard Cwick passed away on April 25, 2006, at the age of 82.

  • Vera Gissing

    Language: English

    Vera Gissing (née Diamant) was born on July 4, 1928 in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic). Her father, Karel, owned a wine and spirits business in
    Celakovice, near Prague. Her mother, Irma, ran the business office. Vera attended a local Gymnasium and was very proud to be a Czech citizen. She had a sister, Eva,
    four years her senior.

    On March 15, 1939, Celakovice was occupied by the German armed forces. Soon after that, the family was forced to billet a newly-appointed town commandant who subjected the family to brutal treatment. Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, Irma put Vera and Eva’s names down on the list for Kindertransport— the organized movement of refugee children, most of them Jewish, from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia to Great Britain. Leaving in June 1939, the sisters were separated: Vera was placed in a foster family in Liverpool, and Eva went to a school in Dorset. While in Liverpool, Vera managed to get in touch with Edvard Benes, President of Czechoslovakia during 1935-1938, who after forced resignation had fled the country and established a Czechoslovak national committee in England. With Benes’ help, Vera started attending a school for Czech refugee children in Whitchurch, England. In 1943, the school moved to better quarters in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales.

    When the war ended in 1945, Vera found out that her mother, having survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, died of typhoid two days after liberation. Her father perished during the Holocaust. After the war, Vera went back to Prague to study and became a literary translator. Eventually, she moved back to England. Vera married Michael Gissing in 1949. She freelanced as an interpreter, translator, and editor for various British publishers, and wrote children’s books and an autobiography, Pearls of Childhood (1988). Vera’s story has been serialized on Czech radio and has become the subject of several television documentaries. She is known for her work on The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton (2002), All My Loved Ones (1999) and Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000). The Power of Good won the 2002 International Emmy for Best TV Documentary.

    At the time of her interview, Vera had three children and three grandchildren. The interview was conducted on October 25, 1996 in Marlow, England, United Kingdom; interviewer: Bernice Krantz; videographer: Jonathan Harrison.

  • Clara Isaacman

    Language: English

    Clara Isaacman (née Heller) was born in Borsa, Romania, before WWII. Due to rampant anti-Semitism, her family left Romania and moved to Antwerp, Belgium in
    the late 1920s, when Clara was a child. Clara’s father, Shalom, was in the diamond business and owned a soda factory. Clara attended a Hebrew school and a public
    school in Antwerp.

    During the German invasion of Belgium in May 1940, the Heller family’s two attempts to flee the country failed and they remained in Nazi-occupied Antwerp. When a new school year began, Clara, along with other Jewish students, was excluded from public school. Clara’s brother Herz was deported to Auschwitz in 1941. In 1942, Clara’s sister’s music teacher, Mr. Jäger, provided shelter to the Heller family, hiding them in a bakery basement and, afterward, with a Catholic family named Adams. During the days when her family was in hiding, her father ventured out to exchange valuables for bread. On one trip, he was arrested by the Nazis, deported, and murdered in a gas chamber. Clara, her mother, younger sister, and brother hid for a period of two and one-half years in eighteen different locations. They were liberated in Hoboken, Belgium by the British armed forces in September 1944.

    In July 1945, Clara married Daniel Isaacman, a U.S. soldier whose unit was stationed in Antwerp at that time. She arrived in the United States in March 1946. Clara and Daniel had an adopted son, Yonathan. Clara was active in Holocaust education, speaking about her wartime experience at universities such as Princeton, Penn State, Drexel, and Rutgers. She accompanied international students on trips to Auschwitz and Israel, published a book about her experiences called Clara’s Story, and was an active member of the Philadelphia Holocaust survivor community. During one of her trips to Auschwitz she found her brother Herz’s name on the list of those who perished in the death camp.

    The interview was conducted on January 10, 1997 in Philadelphia, PA, United States; interviewer: Irene Dansky; videographer: Abraham Holtz. Clara Isaacman died of cancer on November 16, 2001.