My great-uncle helped liberate a concentration camp. His last words to me were a warning

We are losing our direct connection to World War II as the Greatest Generation dies — and it matters more than ever

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 27, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

WW2 army portrait of Merrill Stern (Photo illustration by Salon/Photos courtesy of the Rozsa Family/Getty Images)
WW2 army portrait of Merrill Stern (Photo illustration by Salon/Photos courtesy of the Rozsa Family/Getty Images)

The last time I saw my great-uncle, he uttered six words that I will never forget. Struggling to speak, as he was already 102 years old, his mouth slowly formed each syllable with excruciating effort: "Nazis… are… bastards… Shoot… to... kill!"

My mother and I laughed. We were visiting Dr. Merrill Stern — retired New Jersey dentist and former officer in the United States Army Air Corps (a precursor to the Air Force) — after receiving a dire update about his health. When we had first arrived, Uncle Merrill saw my beard and in sincere confusion exclaimed, "Rabbi!" My mother soon clarified who I was, and he indicated that he recognized me. The conversation evolved to the subject of my occupation; I reminded him that I'm a professional writer, and he asked how I was doing. At that moment I was dealing with a wave of targeted, antisemitic online harassment, but Uncle Merrill could not keep up with the complicated story surrounding the episode. I then tried a simpler approach: I told him that I was dealing with Nazis at my job. This prompted his "shoot to kill" remark — and, as a World War II veteran who fought in Europe, I soon realized that he was not joking around. Lest I harbor any doubt, it was quickly dispelled because Uncle Merrill responded to my mother's and my laughter by slowly yet emphatically exclaiming, "I'm… not… joking… around!"

Characteristically, he followed that remark with a wink and a wry smile, adding: "You… liked… that… didn't… you?"

"Every day for as long as I was there... some people were so close to starvation that they just continued to die, even though we tried to save them."

Uncle Merrill taught me repeatedly throughout my life that you cannot be a good person if you are weak in the face of evil. Uncle Merrill and I are both Jewish, and as such were both painfully aware of the fact that 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Yet Uncle Merrill understood that reality with an acuteness that I am incapable of imagining, much less understanding. He had participated in the liberation of Ebensee, a subcamp of the larger Mauthausen concentration camp. Between 1943 and 1945 it housed 27,278 male inmates — many of them Jews and/or political prisoners — of whom between 8,500 and 11,000 died, often from hunger, malnutrition and exhaustion. Inmates were forced to work hard labor, and since they were going to be killed off anyway, they were never given any food or meaningful protection from the extremely cold weather.

Uncle Merrill recalled his experiences while lecturing about the Holocaust to a New Jersey elementary school class in 1994.

"I was with the United States Army with a hospital unit called an evacuation hospital" in Germany, Uncle Merrill told the assembled children. "That's like the MASH hospital you see on television and in the movies."

When his evacuation hospital learned that advancing infantry troops had discovered a concentration camp in Austria where people were starving to death, "they called our hospital unit up to take care of them, and we moved up into Austria." Uncle Merrill then proceeded to describe the town of Ebensee as "one of the most beautiful sections of the entire world," a quiet place full of friendly people who invariably claimed they had no idea what had been going on in the middle of their community. The camp itself was filled with emaciated inmates in striped uniforms.

"I saw diseases that I had never seen before and never seen since. I'd only read about them in textbooks."

"Every day for as long as I was there — which was several months, because you couldn't reverse the starvation — some people were so close to starvation that they just continued to die, even though we tried to save them," Uncle Merrill recalled. "Some were lying around in the wet, muddy ground, too weak to move or eat, and were basking in the sun, trying to regain their strength." He witnessed firsthand how "when a person is dying of starvation, there is no resistance anymore. Everything is broken down. And as a dentist, I saw all the varying degrees of how a person dies when there's no resistance anymore."

Indeed, as a dentist, Uncle Merrill had the unenviable responsibility of taking an up-close look at how starvation destroys even tooth enamel, one of the body's hardest substances. "I saw diseases that I had never seen before and never seen since," Uncle Merrill explained. "I'd only read about them in textbooks."

One of these diseases is called noma, an often fatal ailment of the mouth and face characterized first by ulcers and then necrosis (death) of the tissues and bones surrounding the mouth. "The professor who wrote the textbook would describe the disease and say he had never seen a case, but he had read about it. And yet I was seeing that type of thing every single day because people dying of starvation have no resistance anymore."

These ordeals did not stop the inmates from sharing their stories, with horrors such as lining up outdoors nude in the bitter cold and being told to stand there until many people dropped dead, an eventuality rendered more likely by how guards hosed inmates with water. ("Ice actually formed on them when they died.")

And, of course, there were the ovens. "I didn't see them used, thank God, but there were ovens there to burn and cremate the bodies of the dead," Uncle Merrill said. "There were bones and ashes outside the ovens because after the ovens actually destroyed the bodies, then they had to rake out the ashes and throw them aside."

He vividly recalled the smell, not just of the ovens but of death itself. "I'd go home and there would be a smell in my nose leaving the camp with the smell of decaying bodies, the smell of fecal matter all over the ground because people were incontinent and couldn't restrain their bodily functions," Uncle Merrill remembered. "They urinated and defecated on themselves and on the ground, and that stench would remain with me."

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Near the end of his 1994 lecture to the children, he mentioned genocides occurring in Rwanda and Bosnia as examples of how the world was continuing to stand aside while evil was triumphing. The apartheid regime in South Africa, which he compared to Nazi Germany's government, had only recently been overthrown."You may have, or your parents may have, different opinions about that, but it just seems to me like this is such an alarming thing that happened, and it seems like we're almost letting it happen again," Uncle Merrill explained as he and the children conversed.

All of those atrocities were born of hate and of lies — such as Adolf Hitler's Big Lie, blaming Jews and socialists for Germany's loss in World War I. Uncle Merrill connected all of these issues as linked by hateful, bigoted, murderous ideologies. "I don't want you to just dismiss [the Holocaust] and say, 'This will never happen again. It just can't happen. I can't imagine it happening.' It's happening right now. That's how serious it is, and don't just dismiss it as 'the old days.'"

I found myself mourning not just his death, but the loss of the direct connection to World War II that is taking place as we lose the few surviving members of the Greatest Generation.

Three years after his speech, Uncle Merrill received a brutal reminder that the so-called "old days" are not quite so old. While attending a sixth-grade picnic in upstate New York in 1997, I was nearly murdered by a group of my classmates when they held my head underwater in a lake while chanting, "Drown the Jew!" When Uncle Merrill first learned about this shortly after my family moved to Pennsylvania, he became very quiet. My mother recalled, "more as a conclusion rather than a question, he asked, 'they wanted to kill him?' We answered 'yes.' He got up and walked quietly out of the living room and out of the house and came back about 10 minutes later, eyes wet. I wanted to go after him, but Aunt Rhoda told me to leave him be. I think he may have hugged you more that day. I know he gave me one of the tightest hugs when he left."

He did not limit his investment in my life to tragedies. After learning in 2006 that I had written my Bard College senior project about President Jimmy Carter, he asked to read it. At the next family gathering, he pulled me aside to discuss it. He reminisced about the 1976 election, how he had heard about Carter's then-innovative grassroots primary campaign at the beginning (Uncle Merrill was active in community and civic affairs) and was an early supporter of his candidacy. When I asked how he felt about Carter's recent book criticizing Israel, "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid," Uncle Merrill said that people can criticize Israel in good faith without being antisemitic — and that, given the Israeli government's mistreatment of Palestinians, Jewish liberals like himself also had serious criticisms of Israeli policies, even though he regarded himself as pro-Israel. After I spoke with Carter for Salon in 2018, Uncle Merrill was incredibly proud — and strongly agreed with Carter's criticisms of America's then-president, Donald Trump.

After he passed away last month, I found myself mourning not just his death, but the loss of the direct connection to World War II that is taking place as we lose the few surviving members of the Greatest Generation. They had an immediate awareness of the threat posed by Nazism and all of its ugly ideological brethren — an awareness that is dangerously lacking in modern politics.

This can be seen most notably in the Trump movement, which traffics antisemitism and weaponized its very own Big Lie (that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump) against the U.S. government on Jan. 6, 2021. Yet Trump is far from alone among Republicans in behaving as if the lessons of World War II have been forgotten: There is Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who expressed skepticism about the growing problem of white nationalists in the military by saying of the so-called white nationalists "I call them Americans," and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has a long history of antisemitism and recently compared calling someone a "white supremacist" to calling a black person "the n-word." This erosion of awareness is not limited to partisan politics: In 2021 a Texas school official argued that books about the Holocaust should be balanced with books that have "opposing" perspectives (she later apologized).

This is why I cherish my great-uncle's parting advice. They are the words not just of a man, but of an entire generation. Politics has plenty of room for socialists, liberals, moderates, conservatives, libertarians and all other non-hateful ideologies. But when it comes to the hate-based ideologies of the far right, the only appropriate attitude is absolute opposition. Why? To quote Uncle Merrill, "Nazis are bastards." While I can not advocate killing Nazis, no society that can call itself civilized will long endure unless we forcefully oppose their ideas.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Concentration Camp Essay Fascism Holocaust Nazis World War 2 World War Ii