When World War II veteran Ernest Nordquist of Finneytown went off to war, he didn’t know what to expect. He, like so many other young men, knew war was indeed hell. However, he never expected to see what he saw on May 4, 1945, as he and other members of the 71st Infantry Division rolled through Austria and discovered the concentration camp Gunskirchen Lager.
“The Holocaust was real. I know because I was there," said Nordquist.
To this day, that's the only thing he’ll say about it. He said he still can’t bring himself to talk about the horrific atrocities he witnessed.
“I’m thankful that you’re highlighting this story,” said Sarah Weiss, executive director of the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust and Humanity Center at the Union Terminal in Cincinnati.
She said those who were on the ground provide great context of the actions by the Nazis, who celebrated and took pride in their actions.
“In addition to the survivors, the World War II veterans and liberators give us this firsthand testimony even when they can’t talk about it, but they can say they were there,” Weiss said.
Those who rolled into the camp recall human skeletons who were barely alive and hundreds of dead bodies on the ground or piled up, according to documented accounts within the National Archives.
Through concentration camps dotted across the landscape, it’s estimated 6 million Jews were killed at the hands of the Nazis.
While Ernest Nordquist has difficulty speaking of the death camps, so many survivors over time have spoken about what they experienced. Family members of the survivors continue to share the stories, and Jewish communities commemorate the Holocaust during the Days of Remembrance, which is underway this week in the United States.
“The actual Yom Hashoah this year is on April 8,” Weiss said. “But we’ve turned it into a week of remembrance and programming.”
She said while Yom Hashoah is one day, they spread out the commemoration because there are so many stories to share and be told.
“There’s stories of the eyewitnesses, there's stories of the liberators, there’s stories of the descendants,” Weiss explained.
While the National Holocaust Museum Days of Remembrance are April 4 through April 11, locally in Cincinnati they’re being observed from April 7 through April 14.
“We’re kicking it off with our Holocaust speaker series,” Weiss said. “Then have a whole series of programs to include a partnership with our local PBS station CET, who’s producing a commemoration this year that will be actually broadcast and streaming April 7.”
You can find out additional information on the center’s website.