Holocaust survivor meets ex-GI: 'You gave me my life'

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Holocaust survivor Sophie Tajch Klisman, 89, of Commerce Township touches the cheek of World War II veteran Doug Harvey of Sterling Heights outside of her home on Monday. Harvey was part of the 84th Infantry Division that liberated Klisman and others from the Salzwedel concentration camp in April 1945.

Commerce Township — When Sophie met Doug, she recalled “all of those beautiful GIs” who liberated the Salzwedel concentration camp, where the Nazis forced her to work making their bullets during the last years of World War II.

When Doug met Sophie, he told her he was “just one of the guys.”

“You gave me my life,” Sophie Tajch Klisman, a survivor of the Holocaust, told Doug Harvey, a World War II veteran, on the street in front of her home Monday, with media cameras recording and clicking. “You gave me a lot, and I can’t believe it!”

“Well, I was only one of thousands,” Harvey told her, recalling how the United States and its allies fought to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe more than 70 years ago. “You’re like the only one left,” he said, referring to the passing of many of the Holocaust generation.

The two Metro Detroiters met after Harvey read a report in The Detroit News about Klisman returning to Poland, the site of some of the Nazi horrors, and then traveling to Israel in support of the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces.

Harvey emailed the reporter who wrote the story.

Holocaust survivor Sophie Tajch Klisman (wearing a red scarf), 89, of Detroit, and fellow survivor Gizella Mann, 89, of Israel visit the former Auschwitz concentration camp recently during their participation in the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) "From Holocaust to Independence" mission to Poland and Israel.

“I read the article on Sophie Klisman with great interest as I was with the 84th Infantry Division that liberated the Salzwedel Camp,” wrote the retired GM engineer, who lives in Sterling Heights.

“I was not one of the GIs on the tanks she described but was in the column a few hundred yards behind,” Harvey wrote of the day in April 1945 when the Americans arrived to free the enslaved detainees.

“I remember well the happy women on the road waving at us. It was the only time in our fight across Germany when we received such a welcome.”

Harvey was a private first class in the First Battalion, 334th Regiment, 84th Infantry Division.

Klisman lost almost all of her family and extended family, except her sister Felicia who was in the Lodz ghetto and the Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Salzwedel camps with her, as the Nazis exterminated millions of the Jews of Europe.

But on Monday, Sophie, 89, and Doug, 95, seemed more like Metro Detroiters speaking across the backyard fence about some of the things they have seen in their long lives.

“They saved my life when they first came,” Klisman said, speaking clearly but trembling with emotion. “I could go home.”

“Well, my division,” said Harvey, deflecting credit as so many World War II veterans do, when they talk about their service. “I can’t take credit for the entire 1,500 guys in my division, you know.”

”Well, but you were one of them, and you are still alive,” Klisman said.

Suddenly, she seemed more at ease. She looked up at Harvey with an expression of amazement, as if he had just arrived, a young man in uniform carrying a rifle, swinging open the gates of a Nazi death camp, the stars and stripes emblazoned on the side of the tanks and half-tracks nearby.

“I’m very fortunate to meet you, and to thank you for a lifetime,” she said. “Oh, my God. They were like angels sent out of heaven.”

Harvey seemed proud but also bashful in the moment. The credit for what the United States armed forces and their allies did is spread over millions of lives of those who contributed.

“I’m not sure we ever got all that close to each other that day,” Harvey said. “I was back quite a distance from the guys who actually opened the gates of Salzwedel.”

Nonetheless, given the happenings of war, Harvey was there on the day Klisman has recalled all of her life as the first day her neck came free from under the boot of the Nazis, after several years of constantly fearing for her life, amid near starvation and pestilence and some of the most horrific oppression of the 20th century.

“Actually, our first destination was supposed to be Berlin,” Harvey said. “But, they stopped us on the Elbe River. So I made it that far.

“I don’t even know whether we knew the camp was there, or we just came across it.
“We were just on the road and moving along. I remember the German airfield at Salzwedel. It was near the end of the war,” he said.

“It should have been the end. It’s just that the Germans didn’t know when to give up. They were defeated.”

Holocaust survivor Sophie Tajch Klisman, 89, of Commerce Township, becomes emotional while talking to reporters about losing her family at the  Salzwedel concentration camp during World War II. She and her sister survived, thanks in part to American GI Doug Harvey (left) of Sterling Heights, who was part of the 84th Infantry Division which liberated the camp in April 1945.

Klisman and Harvey weren't alone at Monday's get-together.

David Spohn, the son of the late Pvt. 1st Class James Spohn, traveled from Colorado to be with Klisman and Harvey. His father worked in the Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion of the 333rd  Regiment of the 84th Infantry, as part of the Signal Corps.

Spohn and Harvey are both part of a Facebook group that commemorates the 84th Infantry.

James Spohn also arrived at Salzwedel as it was liberated.

When Harvey posted information online about Klisman and her trip to Poland and Israel and said he would meet her, Spohn contacted Harvey and decided to come along.     

He brought photographs of his father, including some taken of him on duty, and one of the hundreds of letters his father wrote his mother during the war.

“He wrote a letter April 17, which was three days after the gates were opened,” Spohn said, proceeding to read from the missive.

“This is a 21-year-old writing about his experience: ‘To give you an idea of the speed of our drive, in one, one-hour period, we advanced 30 miles.

“ ‘All along the route, we met freed forced laborers. Poles, Czechs, Russians, Italians, French. All of the various enslaved nationalities. They were treated very badly.

“ ‘At one place (Salzwedel), I saw 3,000 Jewish women cut loose from a concentration camp. They were a terrible sight. Dressed in rags.’ “

At that juncture, Spohn’s voice trailed off, brimming with emotion 74 years after the events his father described.

“ ‘Dressed in rags of all kinds, undernourished, a large yellow X on the back of every dress. They marched through the streets of town en masse, yelling and shouting. Quite a sight, I assure you!

“ ‘ The Germans in this town were all afraid, and I don’t blame them,’ “ Spohn wrote.

“ ’I know that regardless of whether we fight another war or whether the peace is good, bad or indifferent, this war has been worth fighting. And that is saying something.’ " 

“That’s from a 21-year-old,” Spohn said of his father, who died in 2004.

“Thank you for sharing that,” Klisman said. 

James Spohn fought in the perilous Battle of the Bulge, in the Ardennes forest of Belgium, where for several days the Allies struggled to hold on against a surprise German offensive. But, his son said, his father was never so afraid during the war as he was when he saw the few thousand Jews held in murderous conditions by the Nazis at Salzwedel.

Realizing the extent of the evil of the enemy, seeing “the massive, suddenly released, starving, out-of-their-minds prisoners” became his greatest test, his son said.

“That is what scared him the most,” David Spohn said.

“I’m here because this is the first time I am able to get this close to someone who was actually affected directly,” he said.

And as she sat on her sofa in her home in suburban Detroit, surrounded by her family, between Harvey and Spohn, Klisman looked at the two men and tapped them appreciatively on their knees.

“And these are my two heroes. They saved the lives,” she said.  

“We didn’t think we were going to survive.”