COLUMBIA, SC — In April 1945, near the end of World War II, U.S. Army paratroopers commanded by T. Moffatt Burriss, a young lieutenant from Anderson, helped liberate a concentration camp near Wobbelin, Germany.
A U.S. Jewish soldier recently assigned to Burriss’ company had escaped from Austria after the German occupation and made his way to the United States. He enlisted in the elite 82nd Airborne Division with the sole purpose of fighting his way into Germany and finding and rescuing his family.
The young soldier was told that his parents, sister and brother were in the Wobbelin camp. He searched and found a Catholic priest who, to his horror, told him that his family had been put to death a week earlier.
“I slumped to the ground, held him in my arms and cried with him,” Burriss, now 94, said Tuesday at the unveiling of a Holocaust exhibit at the S.C. State House. “I still cry every time I think about it.”
The exhibit, Holocaust Remembered, which will be on display through Friday, features South Carolina Holocaust survivors and liberators. It is part of the Yom HaShoah day of remembrance, which is held annually to remember the 6 million Jews and other victims who were systematically killed at the hands of Nazi Germany.
The annual remembrance is produced by the Columbia Holocaust Education Committee. State Sen. Joel Lourie and state Rep. Beth Bernstein, both Richland County Democrats, welcomed the exhibit to the State House lobby.
“There are four words we often use when remembering the Holocaust: We shall never forget,” Lourie said. “I hope you will read (the exhibit) panel by panel, so that we shall never forget the atrocities that happened less than 80 years ago.”
Holocaust Remembered spotlights the personal stories of South Carolina survivors and was created to honor all survivors and victims of the Holocaust.
Thousands of schoolchildren have viewed the exhibit over the past three years and heard testimonies from survivors and liberators in person. The committee also has produced Holocaust Remembered teacher manuals.
The committee produced an 18-page special section on South Carolinians and the Holocaust, which was distributed in The State on April 13. Copies are available through the Holocaust committee.
“And we plan to build on this each year,” committee co-chair Lilly Filler said.
Burriss fought in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Holland and Germany. In Holland during Operation Market Garden, he crossed the River Waal in small boats in broad daylight in a scene made famous in the movie “A Bridge Too Far.” Robert Redford played a composite of Burriss, the late Julian Cook of Columbia and other 82nd Airborne soldiers.
In 2009, Burriss returned to Holland and parachuted out of an airplane to celebrate his 90th birthday on the 60th anniversary of Market Garden.
In his book, “Strike and Hold,” Burriss described first the awful smell of the camp as the soldiers approached and the appalling sights when they arrived.
“I had never seen human beings look so tortured and grotesque...” he wrote. “Their bodies were no more than skin stretched over knobby bones that threatened to break through with the slightest movement... Many were too weak to walk or talk. One building was stacked three deep with unburied bodies, and other bodies were found in a 10-foot-wide trench.”
On Tuesday, Burriss told The State that those who deny the Holocaust happened are deluded.
“It did happen; I was there,” he said after the ceremony. “I saw it. I felt it. I touched it.”