Within arms reach of a blue-striped uniform worn by a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp during World War II, Sandra Reitz was overcome with emotion Wednesday morning at the Berks Military History Museum in Mohnton.
Her uncle, Harry Piersol, formerly of Shillington, had worn a similar uniform. She no longer remembers the name of the camp, but cannot forget that he was “skin and bones” when the camp was liberated in 1945.
“Oh my gosh, how sad for all those people,” uttered Reitz, 79, of Mohnton. “So sad.”
Reitz was among visitors to the museum’s exhibit on the Holocaust, unveiled on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Over the past nine months, the museum assembled a large collection of Holocaust memorabilia that fills an entire gallery.
Laid out chronologically, the exhibit charts the history of the Holocaust from Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 to the settlement of Israel as a Jewish homeland in 1948.
State Rep. Mark M. Gillen, museum president, said the Holocaust exhibit fills a void in the museum’s mission to tell the story of World War II.
“We realized that the Holocaust cannot be separated from World War II,” said Gillen, a certified teacher who serves on the House Education Committee.
The world at war
World War II began when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, 81 years ago.
The U.S. entered the war on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese surprise attack that devastated the Pacific naval fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
The U.S. joined England and the Soviet Union to comprise the Allied Powers. The adversaries, Germany, Italy and Japan, were known as the Axis Powers.
The war ended in Europe on May 7, 1945, known as Victory in Europe, or V-E Day. It continued in the Pacific Theater until Aug. 15, 1945, when Japan surrendered six days after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, a few days after another bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The date is known as Victory Over Japan, or V-J Day.
Japan’s formal surrender was held aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor on Sept. 2, 1945, 75 years ago Wednesday.
Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz of Boyertown, commander of U.S. Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific during the final days of the war, was part of the U.S. delegation aboard the Missouri during the surrender proceeding.
Statistics differ, but it is generally regarded there were 60 million to 75 million military and civilian deaths during World War II.
The museum marked the 75th anniversary in an outdoor ceremony with the Veterans Riders Association honor guard presenting the colors.
In brief remarks, Gillen called attention to the pain and sacrifice endured by Berks County families,
“We must make sure,” he told a group of about 50, “that this never happens again.”
Gallery of pain
In a gallery where the gaunt faces of Jews in Auschwitz stare blankly from World War II photos, Troy Fasig is most passionate about three tiny cloth dolls.
“They’re wearing the Star of David,” Fasig of Exeter Township said. “They once belonged to children in the Warsaw Jewish ghetto.”
The owners of those dolls, Fasig said, were among 1.2 million Jewish and 500,000 non-Jewish children who died during the Holocaust.
Fasig, a veteran collector of military artifacts, was instrumental in assembling the Holocaust exhibit at the museum.
Scouring the world via the internet, he assembled a collection that ranges from a uniform worn by a concentration camp inmate who died on Christmas Eve 1944 to uniforms worn by Jewish freedom fighters in Israel.
Much of the collection came from Daniel DeVarennes, a Canadian author of “A Glimpse of Evil,” a Holocaust history.
Fasig said working on the Holocaust collection became as much a passion as a historical endeavor.
Drawing on a quote by the philosopher George Santayana, Fasig said, “If you don’t remember history, you’re condemned to repeat it.”
Michael Perkins of Douglassville has more than a passing interest in the Holocaust.
His mother, Patricia Perkins, was part of a British Army delegation that liberated the camp at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. She ran a canteen for inmates and soldiers during the liberation and his father, Charles Perkins, served with a British peacekeeping force in Palestine.
“This is something that should have never happened,” said Perkins, 74, an Army veteran who toured the Holocaust exhibit. “And, it should never happen again.”
His wife, Kathie, has read many books on the Holocaust. But seeing the artifacts brought a sense of realism that can’t be found in books.
“This exhibit gives us a connection to the Holocaust,” she said. “It’s something to help us care about it.”