By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
Students crowded around the speaker as his talk ended at Everett Community College. They lingered, asking if they could take pictures and posing with him to capture the moment.
Leo Hymas is no hip-hop artist or reality TV star. At 87, the U.S. Army veteran is a keeper of history and a bearer of truth.
“Those who say it didn’t happen are wrong,” said Hymas, who spoke Wednesday as part of the college’s Holocaust Survivor Forums.
He lives on Whidbey Island with his wife, Amy, and is a speaker with the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center.
His audience was rapt, hanging on every word, as Hymas shared memories with Joyce Walker’s Humanities 150D class. This is the 14th year Walker has presented the Holocaust series, which is open to the public. Most speakers have been Holocaust survivors, or lost ancestors during Nazi Germany’s systematic murder of 6 million Jews.
Hymas is not Jewish. His Holocaust story is from the point of view of an American soldier during World War II, a 19-year-old fresh off his family’s Utah dairy farm.
He was with the 97th Infantry Division, H Company, part of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. In the spring of 1945, they marched through a nearly defeated Germany. “We fought our way across Germany, village to village — sometimes man to man,” Hymas said.
They were preparing to attack Weimar, a picturesque German town, when they came upon a wire enclosure. Hymas recalls the fence, topped by barbed wire mounted on electric insulators. There was a brick building with a tall chimney, and a guard tower. The guards were gone.
The place was Buchenwald, a concentration camp near Weimar. What the liberation forces found there is seared in Hymas’ memory.
“I have seen hundreds and hundreds of naked, rotting bodies stacked like cord wood,” he said. “The smell, I cannot describe. It was burning human flesh.”
There was no fighting. “Suddenly, our fighting force became a humanitarian force,” Hymas said. “You’ve seen the pictures. The people were so emaciated, just skin and bones.
“An order came to touch nothing, but help if you can,” he said. Three generals came to the death camp with their staffs — Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and Patton. Hymas said troops had nicknamed Patton “Old Blood and Guts — his guts, our blood.”
From camp survivors, Hymas heard horror stories of torture, of subsisting on a half-cup of turnip soup mixed with sawdust each day, and of dogs trained to go for the throat.
The Allied forces made townspeople from Weimar carry bodies from the camp to a common grave. “They told us, ‘I’m not a Nazi,’” Hymas said.
Kathleen Bergin is the speakers bureau coordinator for the Seattle-based Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center. While most speakers are Jewish, she said, “Leo offers another perspective. He is one of our most prolific speakers.”
He also is among a dwindling number of people still alive to tell what they saw of the Holocaust firsthand.
“The survivors are elderly, and the liberators tend to be even more so,” Bergin said. “We do have videotaped accounts, but a big part of Holocaust education is preparing for when there aren’t survivors. We have to make this real to kids. When there’s not proof of it standing right in front of them, it’s a challenge.”
Near the end of his talk, he asked for volunteers. Audience members Terry Myer and Cory Palmieri came forward. First, they held up a Nazi banner, bright red with a huge swastika on it.
“It’s a symbol of the worst evil we have record of,” Hymas said, then asked the volunteers to “wad it up and throw it on the floor.” They then held up a 48-star American flag, “the flag I fought for, and my dear friends died for,” Hymas said. “I hope you love and respect it.”
Retired from an aerospace industry career, he makes time to tell as many people as he can about what hate can do.
“I know what I saw. I am a witness. Now that I have told you, you are witnesses, too,” he told the students. “I’m hoping to influence people like you, so that it can never, ever happen again.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.