Fort Leonard Wood welcomed Auschwitz survivor Gunther Skaletz as its guest speaker to the 2019 Holocaust Remembrance Day Observance at the Main Post Chapel May 2.
14th Military Police Brigade Chaplain (Maj.) Keith Ferrell introduced Skaletz with a prayer originally delivered by Rabbi David Katz in 2014.
“As we honor the heroes, the martyrs, the survivors, and the victims, we ask you to soothe our souls, to amplify our memories, to strengthen our resolve, and to hear our prayers,” he said.
“We pray for the souls of the millions and millions of victims of this brutality; we pray that we honor their lives and their memories by observing this day, and by doing everything in our power and beyond to make sure that no such shadow again darkens our world.”
Skaletz joined several Soldiers in lighting white candles to honor all those who lost their lives in the Holocaust.
He was born in Tarnowskie-Gory, Poland in 1927.
“I’m here to try to convey and share with you a very important message, a message from a Holocaust survivor who is not a Jew but is a Catholic Christian and a World War II veteran.”
He recalled the initial invasion of his hometown by the Nazis in 1939.
“As a teenager, I remember all Polish schools were closed and all our textbooks were stacked in the town square and set afire,” he said. “Approximately 150 meters directly across from where we lived, a beautifully domed Jewish Synagogue was burned to the ground.”
His faith, he said, did not help him in avoiding punishment.
“After Hitler took over Poland in 1939 it wasn’t just the Jews who were arrested and sent to labor camps,” he said. “Anyone who disagreed was declared ‘persona non gratis’ (undesirable) and was sent to labor camps.”
When Skaletz left home to continue his education at a hotel management apprenticeship in Auschwitz, he had no idea what was going on in the city.
“I had only been there a short time when, in early April, 1943, the Gestapo suddenly raided the hotel,” he said. “We were arrested and the SS officers forced us into the basement of the hotel where they interrogated us in a very inhumane manner with insults and beatings.”
“The interrogations lasted for hours until (my employer) arrived and then we were all loaded into German Army trucks and hauled off to the labor camp at Auschwitz that I never even knew existed.”
Skaletz said he went from apprentice to prisoner in just hours. His stepmother’s advice to him kept him going.
“When I was just a teenager she said to me, ‘My son, never forget to pray, keep your faith, hope, courage, and never give up,’” he said. “Even though I saw many men faint and give up and die, my stepmother’s words kept me alive and I had a dream, ‘I will not die here in this God-forsaken place — I will survive.’”
After six months of hard labor, he was released from the concentration camp because his employer relinquished his hotel, casino and restaurant in exchange for his employees’ freedom.
He endured multiple back-to-back relocations due to Allied bombing raids on German cities, which, he said, left him homeless with no belongings.
“The bombs were landing so close that you could hear the ‘swish’ just before they impacted; one bomb blew the heavy door of our shelter off its frame instantly killing two people and shrapnel injured my left leg and my boot began to fill with blood followed by a sharp pain,” he said. “Life seemed very precious because we never knew when it would end.”
In April 1944, Skaletz was drafted by conscription into the German Army and sent to fight on the Eastern Front.
“The Russians were defeating the German Army hand over fist and it wasn’t long until I was captured by the Russians and eventually wound up on a train full of other German prisoners headed to Siberia,” he said.
“The train had stopped one night to take on coal and water and the guards opened the doors to take off the dead and the dying and as they did so, there was an explosion nearby that distracted them long enough for us to make our escape.”
Following the war, Skaletz escaped oppressive governance in East Germany, completed his culinary education in Switzerland, worked at the Frankfurter-Hof hotel and immigrated to the United States.
He reflected on his past and quoted Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, who wrote, “‘Nothing should be more highly prized than the value of each life and day.’”