Written by Lee Kikel

WWII photo of Lieutenant General James Gavin of the 82nd Airborne Division

James M. Gavin (National Archives)

VBC member Lee Kikel wrote a book, Perseverance: One Holocaust Survivor’s Journey from Poland to America, about her remarkable father, Melvin Goldman. In the decade before his arrival in the United States in 1950, saw his home destroyed, his family torn apart, his health ruined, and nearly everyone he had ever known murdered in the death camps of the Third Reich. His survival of the years in the ghetto and Auschwitz, his long and slow recovery, and his attainment of a somewhat normal life are miraculous. Perhaps even more miraculous is his refusal to let his experience destroy his faith in God or his love for humanity. The turning point in his survival story was the arrival of the 82nd Airborne Division to liberate his concentration camp, Wöbbelin. Below, Lee writes about what the 82nd meant to her father and what that storied unit still means to her family today. Lee can be reached through her website https://www.leekikel.com/

My father, Melvin Goldman, greatly admired the 82nd Airborne Division and his commander in World War II, Lieutenant General James Gavin.

Melvin was not a member of the 82nd Airborne. Nor was he a veteran or even an American-born citizen.

My father was a Polish Jew who barely survived the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz. From 1939-1945, he witnessed and endured the unimaginable: beatings, killings, forced labor, starvation. His entire family was murdered. He alone endured.

On May 2, 1945, he was near death at a small concentration camp called Wöbbelin in Ludwigslust, Germany. He’d been marched there with 300 other prisoners to escape the Red Army advancing from the East.

The German guards told them to give up hope: the Allies would not save them.

The Germans were wrong.

The 82nd Airborne Division had just crossed the Elbe River to stop the Russians from entering Denmark.

Leading these American liberators was General Gavin.

Gavin and the other members of the 82nd were horrified by what they saw: over 1,000 dead, lying about or stacked. Others near death. A few, like my father, would somehow survive and be nursed back to health.

When the 82nd arrived, my father was a skeleton, weighing less than 85 pounds. He had a collapsed lung and active tuberculosis. He floated in and out of consciousness, but he remembered some details: people yelling, screaming, running around. Some in stunned shock.

He received transfusions and vitamins. He was given water and a slice of bread. He was told not to smoke. He received clean clothes and x-rays. Twenty-two years old, he looked and felt like a 90-year-old man. But he was alive. One of only 75 of the 300 on his death march to make it.

Even more, he had hope. He started to believe he had a future for the first time since the beginning of the war.

On May 7, 1945, the 82nd Airborne Division made the citizens of Ludwigslust tour the camp, its horrors still fresh.

Then, it conducted a funeral service. Town residents buried the victims wrapped in parachute silks, and marked the Jewish graves with Stars of David.

A chaplain from the 82nd delivered the eulogy:

“The crimes here committed in the name of the German people and by their acquiescence were minor compared to those to be found in concentration camps elsewhere in Germany. Here there were no gas chambers, no crematoria; these men of Holland, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and France were simply allowed to starve to death. Within four miles of your comfortable homes, 4,000 men were forced to live like animals, deprived even of the food you would give to your dogs.”

My father never forgot the wonderful care he received from military personnel, doctors, and nurses. Melvin described meeting a soldier who was Greek-American. This man offered my father his shaving kit. My father was so weak he could not lift his arms. The soldier hugged him.

After five long years, my father was finally well enough to leave for the United States. One of the reasons he chose America was because of the acceptance and kindness of the Americans he encountered after the war. Melvin was proud to become a citizen in 1956 in what he called “one of the best days of his life.”

In 1981, Melvin wrote a thank you letter to General Gavin. I found this letter decades later at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center archive at Carlisle Barracks, when I was working on my book.

1982 typed letter to Lieutenant General James Gavin from Melvin Goldman

(Lee Kikel)

Gavin’s response to this letter was one of my father’s prized possessions. It hung on my father’s office wall for many years.

1982 typed letter from Lieutenant General James Gavin of the 82nd Airborne Division to Melvin Goldman

(Lee Kikel)

My father was saved by strangers who cared enough not only to keep him alive, but to guide him on a journey of healing and renewal.

Melvin Goldman became a proud citizen of the United States. He was a business owner and dedicated himself to helping others in need. He gave back, as we would say today.

I am forever grateful to the 82nd Airborne and everything it stands for. It gave my family a life. And it remains an inspiration for us as the next generations.