Monday, September 20, 2010

Manfred Gans R.I.P.

Sometimes a story finds you that you just have to share. This one comes from the New York Times' Obituary Column, and it touched me deeply, perhaps it will effect you the same way.

"Manfred Gans Is Dead @ 88; Combed Wartime Europe For His Parents"
Manfred Gans in 1945.

He was 16 when his parents sent him to England, fearing for his life as a Jew in Nazi Germany, and when war broke out he clamored to join the British armed forces. Finally he was accepted, his fluency in German earning him a spot with a secret commando unit. And with that, Manfred Gans set off on a mission: to find his parents.

Mr. Gans — or Capt. Freddy Gray, as he was identified by the British Army — was assigned with his fellow commandos to interrogate enemy prisoners as the Allies made their way across France and the Netherlands and into Germany.

In March 1945, he helped free his hometown, the ancient walled city of Borken, where he had been born on April 27, 1922. His house, on the outskirts of town, had been used as a Nazi headquarters; the wine cellar was a torture chamber. His parents, Moritz and Else Fraenkel Gans, had been taken away.

Mr. Gans was determined to find them, though he had no idea if they had survived. He asked his superior officers to grant him a leave. They gave him a jeep and a driver, and the two embarked on a journey that would take them across hundreds of miles of German-held territory.

Mr. Gans with his parents and grandmother in photographs from the family.

Because his father, a prosperous merchant, had been the first Jew to serve on the Borken City Council, it was likely that his parents had been taken to Theresienstadt, the “show” concentration camp the Nazis had used in propaganda films. Although it was not a death camp, thousands of prisoners were taken from there to the gas chambers. By the end of the war, thousands would starve at Theresienstadt.

Early in May 1945, Mr. Gans and his driver crossed over the Sudeten Mountains into Czechoslovakia and approached the barbed-wire fences at Theresienstadt, outside Prague.

“There were German divisions manning their guns that could have easily killed them” along the way, said Steven Karras, author of “The Enemy I Knew: German Jews in the Allied Military in World War II” (2009).

Russian troops had seized the camp, and they let Mr. Gans and his driver through.

“There were a massive number of people in there, all terribly crowded; most were too weak to get out of the way,” Mr. Gans told Mr. Karras. “People were practically crawling through our legs.”

At the camp office, a young girl scrolled through the “endless list” of prisoners. Then, Mr. Gans recalled, “she looked up and said: ‘You’re lucky, they’re still here. They are alive.’ ”

The girl escorted Mr. Gans to where his parents were housed. She went in first to prepare them.

His parents stepped outside. “My father was so decimated, if I had met him on the street I would not have recognized him,” Mr. Gans said. “When they saw me, my parents were totally swept up — crying, shocked.”

A crowd gathered and started singing.

“A group of Zionist girls came and gave my mother flowers,” Mr. Gans said.

Mr. Gans died Sunday at his home in Fort Lee, N.J., his son, Daniel, said. He was 88.

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