The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) partnered with the Minnesota National Guard to commemorate the United Nations' International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the State Capitol on January 15, 2013. The JCRC expresses deep appreciation to Major Gen. Richard Nash, Adjutant General of the Minnesota National Guard, and many other individuals and entities which made the commemoration possible.
The commemoration filled the State Capitol rotunda with a gathering which included the poignancy of the presence of 35 Minnesota Holocaust survivors and the precision participation of the Minnesota National Guard Funeral Honors Team posting and retiring the colors of the United States of America.
The JCRC thanks the following speakers: Speaker Paul Thissen; Senate President Sandy Pappas; Sen. Warren Limmer; and Rep. Kurt Zellers. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie read a Gubernatorial Proclamation of Gov. Dayton and recalled the Second World War contributions of Governors Stassen, Freeman and Quie. Present also was Rep. Frank Hornstein, a child of Holocaust survivors. The Minnesota National Guard's head chaplain, Col. John Morris, introduced Col. Edward Shames a Second World War veteran of the 101st Airborne, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Col. Shames was the first American officer to see the concentration camps of Landsberg and Dachau which was a topic of his keynote address.
All of the events of the commemoration were in the presence of Major General Nash, Brigadier General Loidolt, Chaplain (Col.) John Morris, and many other officers and enlisted personnel of the Minnesota National Guard.
The cornerstone of the commemoration is the "Transfer of Memory: Minnesota Holocaust Survivor Portrait Project." The project resulted from the collaboration of Minneapolis photographer David Sherman who brought to the JCRC his idea (and photographic talents) to capture Minnesota's blessed Holocaust survivors in color photography. These life affirming portraits were displayed in the north corridor of the State Capitol from Jan. 8 to Jan. 18. Lili Chester, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, wrote the beautiful vignettes which accompanied the portraits. Many hundreds of people had the opportunity to see the portraits.
Speaking on behalf of survivors was Eva Gross who was deported from her small Hungarian town along with her mother and survived Auschwitz and six concentration camps and forced labor and death marches until reaching liberation. Ms. Gross emphasized in her remarks the importance of remembering the Shoah (Hebrew word for "Holocaust") so the lessons are learned to prevent the genocides of the present and future.
This commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day – almost 68 years after the Allied armies defeated Nazi Germany – also provided an opportunity for Col. Shames to see Sgt. Herb Suerth of Wayzata. Col. Shames and Mr. Suerth, a retired engineer, served in the famed Third Battalion 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment and together in "Easy" Company chronicled in "Tonight We Die as Men" (Ian Gardner and Roger Day – Osprey Publishing 2009) and the "Band of Brothers" as depicted by Stephen Ambrose and HBO. Six decades later and thousands of miles from the Battle of the Bulge – where Mr. Suerth was seriously wounded in the successful and heroic defense of Bastogne – their friendship is stronger than ever as each approaches their 90th birthdays.
Their friendship – in many ways – is illustrative of certain experiences of the Second World War where, in this situation, Jewish officer from Virginia and a Catholic sergeant from Chicago were platoon brothers in the desperate defense of the critical road junction of Bastogne in Belgium. Seven roads intersected at Bastogne and the fall of the town could have resulted in a German armored advance and recapture of Antwerp dividing the American and British forces in France and the Low Countries. The fate of the European Theatre of Operations was intertwined with their fates. Nearly seventy years later, they were together again in Minnesota.
Their story begins, though, with Col. Shames basic training experience for the 101st Airborne in Toccoa, Ga. in 1942. The 101st Airborne was conceived during the darkest days of World War II at the height of Japanese conquests in the Pacific with the possibility of opening a second front in Europe in the distant future – with the war coming home with American ships torpedoed against the blackened backdrop of America's darkened coastal cities.
The concept of the 101st was to create a "super unit" of civilian volunteers to bring the war to the enemy via an airborne unit. The army was skeptical, but thousands responded to the opportunity to enlist. Seven thousand volunteers who passed intelligence and physical tests needed to be winnowed down to under a thousand.
Toccoa, Georgia, in the heart of the old Confederacy was the place of the winnowing. Practically no deprivation or training danger was spared for the prospective airborne volunteers. The obstacle course, for instance, was eventually declared "inhumane" with a trail of broken bones left behind. A Marine Corps contingent from Parris Island, South Carolina, inspecting the obstacle course left after a brief visit concluding quickly it was too dangerous for Marine training. Those who survived Camp Toccoa and its daily warm-up seven mile runs up and down an Appalachian elevation and 147 mile forced three day march with 90 pound packs graduated to jump school. Ed Shames was among the survivors of “13 weeks of pain.”
This fierce and unrelenting training enabled Col. Shames to survive scores of days of combat in Normandy to Arnhem to Bastogne and finishing the war in victory at Berchtesgaden. Indeed between seizing the bridges at Canal de Carentan near Brevands on D-Day to the battles at “Bloody Gully” repelling a powerful German counterattack to clearing out the Cherbourg Peninsula the 101st suffered 4,670 casualties – with Edward Shames' unit, 3rd Battalion 506 experiencing the greatest concentration. Sgt. Shames leadership and bravery led to him receiving the first battlefield commission to Second Lt. awarded during the Normandy campaign.
The destinies of 2nd Lt. Shames and Sgt. Suerth overlapped in France when Shames' unit was refitting after the brutal "Market Garden" campaign in Holland in December, 1944. Sgt. Suerth was assigned as a replacement to Shames' platoon. He joined the unit just before the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge.
By way of background, Herbert Suerth was born in Chicago in 1924 and graduated from DePaul University High School. He enlisted in the Army after a semester at Marquette University joining the Corps of Engineers as a combat engineer. Sgt. Suerth did not like deactivating land mines and responded to a request for volunteers for jump school in 1944. Normandy veterans were the instructors and training included 500 push-ups a day.
Sgt. Suerth reported to "E" company on Thanksgiving Day 1944 at Marmelon, France, just south of Rheims in France’s champagne country. Nicknamed "Junior" by 2nd Lt. Shames, Sgt. Suerth observed a shocked "Easy" Company ordered into action while still in recovery from two months of combat in Holland. Sgt. Suerth recalls men headed into battle without appropriate winter clothing and in some cases without their weapons, which were being repaired.
Heading north to Belgium to reinforce American forces surprised by the German offensive into the Ardennes forest, Sgt. Suerth saw an American army in retreat – “something you never want to see, like Washington's army in the most desperate days of Valley Forge." The 101st Airborne pushed on – having ridden in open air grain trucks for 18 hours in the midst of the most brutal winter in European history.
Reaching Bastogne, 2nd Lt. Shames and Sgt. Suerth and their platoon became part of the badly outnumbered (in men and armor) American force responsible for holding the town and junction no matter the cost. The 101st and other units did hold as most famously expressed by General McAuliffe's response of "Nuts!" to a German surrender demand of December 22, 1944. On December 26, the battle reached a turning point when the weather cleared sufficiently for large scale Allied air operations to resume which in tandem with the fierce defense of Bastogne began to cause great casualties among the Germans and interfere with troop movement and resupply.
During this time, Sgt. Suerth was badly wounded by a German 88 shell which killed four American soldiers. Sgt. Suerth credits his survival to lying in the snow which staunched his bleeding. Evacuated to an aid station and then to England, Sgt. Suerth endured 18 months of painful convalescence. During his visit, Col. Shames honored Sgt. Suerth's valor noting he was awarded France's Croix de Guerre for heroism. Sgt. Suerth returned to the United States and became a successful engineer. He and his wife Moonah raised a family of nine children. They moved to Minnesota in 1968.
In the months after Sgt. Suerth was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge which amounted to a desperate and failed offensive for the German Army, the 101st Airborne and American and Allied armies crossed the Rhine and penetrated into the heart of Germany. The Third Reich disintegrated in the east and west.
In January 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz as well as other death camps in Poland. In April, 1945, 2nd. Lt's Shames' platoon came across Landsberg prison and then Dachau concentration camp. An appalling stench of death hung over both places. Hundreds of emaciated bodies were found at Landsberg. Thousands of emaciated bodies were found at Dachau. The survivors in both camps were "skeletons dressed in rags" according to Lt. Shames. Sixty seven years would pass before he could speak of the horrors he witnessed at these camps – although he saw the scenes each night in his dreams. The commemoration at the Minnesota State Capitol marked only the second time that Lt. Shames spoke about what he saw – likely as the first American officer to see it – and as a Jewish officer.
During the remembrance event, Rep. Paul Thissen, speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, asserted, "These are the darkest days in our shared history and it reminds me of the progress we have made and the work we have yet to do."
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie related, "It takes putting our lives on the line in public service to make sure this never happens again!"
The JCRC in partnership with the Minnesota National Guard is proud to have brought together the liberators and liberated.