Opinion: My dad built bridges and witnessed the Holocaust

Frank Venuto

My dad built bridges. He was the first in his Italian-American family from Detroit to be born in this country. They named him Americo, after the nation he grew to love dearly.

He left school in seventh grade during the Great Depression to help support his family. Doing odd jobs for some of the Jewish families in his neighborhood he learned to speak Yiddish. His knowledge of that language would be helpful when he became a witness to the horror of Holocaust that killed more than 6 million Jews.    

Like many others in his Greatest Generation, he served in World War II, but did not often talk about it. The two stories he did mention involved liberating a concentration camp and building a bridge across the Rhine River, both events occurring within a few weeks of each other in the spring of 1945, shortly after surviving the Battle of the Bulge.

A photo of U.S. General Patton on a bridge into the Rhine which Venuto carries in his wallet today in memory of his father, who helped in its construction.

The Rhine River crossing took place on March 23, 1945 in a town called Oppenheim. The 87th Engineering Battalion built this bridge while under fire from artillery, fighter aircraft and small arms. Their commander was awarded the Bronze Star for their efforts. Each soldier probably should’ve have been issued that citation.

This scene is depicted in the movie “Patton,” where General Patton phones General Omar Bradley to inform him they had crossed over into Germany. Bradley reportedly said, “You aren’t supposed to be there,” to which Patton responded, “Do you want me to come back?” My father was very proud of this accomplishment. In fact, he carried around a photo of Patton on that bridge by the Rhine. He used to pass out copies of that photo to his friends and customers. I carry that same photo in my wallet today in his memory.

A photo of a bridge into the Rhine.

There is a scene in another movie, “Band of Brothers,” where concentration camp inmates are gorging themselves on food from the GI’s garbage dump. An American soldier is trying to explain to them that they will be fed but their digestive systems cannot handle so much food so quickly after being starved nearly to death. My father told me about that scene long before it was depicted on screen. Since he spoke Yiddish, he could very well have been one of the American GIs who tried to warn the prisoners.

Years after my father died, I was touring the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. As the tour began, the elevator doors opened and there, directly in front of me, was a photo of the liberation of Ohrdruf. And in that picture was my father. I recognized him immediately. In April 1945, his unit liberated that part of the Buchenwald concentration camp run by the SS. He had described the scene in the photo to me before. 

The U.S. Holocaust Museum confirmed that this photo which Frank saw at the museum was of his father and his father's unit.

He said: “Someday people will say this never happened. I saw it. It happened.”

Today, we are in need of bridge builders. It is unbelievable that anti-Semitism is once again on the rise around the world. With the 75th anniversary of the liberation of these camps, we all need to think about what happened in that time, and pray that it never happens again.

Frank Venuto is principal at Venuto and Associates, a Lansing lobbying firm. The U.S. Holocaust Museum confirmed that the photo Venuto saw at the museum was of his father’s unit and that it was his father in the photo.