Jack Sacco’s telling of his father’s World War II service is a story replete with honor and horror. In “Where the Birds Never Sing,” Sacco details Joe Sacco’s time with the 92nd Signal Battalion and General George Patton’s Third Army as Allied forces pushed through France and Germany. But it was Joe’s arrival at Dachau in 1945 that left an indelible mark on both father and son.
“It is only in acknowledging the Holocaust and what people went through, and the great accomplishments of the American soldiers, they all go hand in hand, because, as we talked about, the Holocaust ended the minute these soldiers walked through that gate. When you acknowledge all that, then you’re able to understand humanity better and to prevent this type of thing from happening again,” Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Jack Sacco, says.
He spoke at Texas Tech recently about his father’s part in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. His 2004 book is the story of a young soldier from Alabama who had a front-row seat to the Allied Forces’ fight against Nazi Germany.
It’s written in first-person through the eyes of his father, who served in the Army for three years in the 1940s.
Back home after the war and married, Joe told young Jack plenty of war stories. Some were humorous about fun escapades with fellow soldiers. And there were plenty of stories about combat, war memorabilia and medals Joe had earned.
But in 1968, when Jack was 12, his father told him an entirely different sort of story.
“My mother was in the room with us,” he says. “Usually it was just the two of us, we would talk about…he told me, I’m going to show you something that happened during the war and I said, ‘ok.’ And he looked very serious, and usually he didn’t look that serious. He had a little photo album in his hand. He said, this happened at a concentration camp.’ I said, ‘What’s a concentration camp?’ I had never heard of it. And he said, well the Nazis were killing people there, but we made them stop.”
Dachau was liberated in April 1945 but the scene his father saw, Sacco says, revealed man’s inhumanity to man. The first thing that struck Sacco’s group of soldiers, who had come after an infantry group, was an overwhelmingly foul smell.
“The infantry men weren’t laughing, they were just looking down, one of my father’s buddies said, what is this place? The infantry man said, ‘Welcome to Hell.’ They looked around and saw bodies everywhere, beaten, starved, stabbed, shot, decapitated. Everywhere thousands of people dead. And the Nazis, the SS were trying to kill them all before the Americans got there. They didn’t want witnesses. They didn’t want anyone left,” he explains.
Jack said his father then showed him a photo albums filled with images he and others had taken inside Dachau, including one in which scores of bodies were stacked inside a rail car. One mother died while breast-feeding her young child. Some soldiers got physically sick from seeing the carnage.
“He told me, he said, ‘I’m showing you these pictures for a couple of reasons. One is that you need to know what happened.’ He said, ‘Another is that at some point in your life, somebody is going to try to tell you that this did not happen, but it did happen. I was there and I saw it.’”
His father was right, Sacco says. On multiple occasions people have come up to him to say the Holocaust never happened. According to a recent survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Holocaust denial is rare in the US with 96 percent responding that the genocide happened. About 6 million European Jews were systematically murdered by the Nazis.
In the same survey, 31 percent of 1,350 Americans believe that 2 million or fewer were killed in the Holocaust. And 52 percent incorrectly think Hitler came to power through force. Sacco says those who witnessed the Holocaust’s atrocities and survivors must keep telling their stories.
“The power of the stories and the telling of the stories, that’s how people know what happened. Somebody has to tell the story. It’s a very important part of the process. That’s how it gains its power and that’s how it effects people and lives. Otherwise it’s lost,” he says.