George Katzman could never stomach a barbecue.
“Growing up in South Florida, people would have barbecues. It’s a big thing. But we didn’t have many in my family,” his daughter Susan Williams says.
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He would try to host a barbecue for his family once, maybe twice, at their North Miami Beach home, but it was painful. To Katzman, a barbecue reawakened memories he tried to keep at bay, memories of a hell on earth few can imagine today.
Katzman died on May 5, at age 96, just a few hours before the start of Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day. “That seems very profound,” Williams says.
In adulthood, her brother Richard would learn the reason for their father’s queasiness at participating in this staple of South Florida living. He told his sister what he’d learned.
“My dad apparently hated barbecue because it brought back the smells, and that is what he would smell every time we would have a barbecue,” Williams said. “He still had it. I don’t know where he found that strength to even have one barbecue.”
The New York-born Katzman was a member of Gen. Patton’s 3rd Army. He served as a rifleman, German/Yiddish translator and photographer.
And on April 29, 1945, Pfc. Katzman, then 25, was one of the soldiers who shot the lock off the gate at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany to free its prisoners during World War II.
“He was one of the few soldiers who spoke Yiddish so he became the liberator that the cadaverous survivors could talk to,” Florida International University professor Kurt Stone said in a eulogy for his friend and teacher.
Stone, who took over Great Decisions, a political course at FIU that Katzman had taught, was previously a student of Katzman. In turn, Katzman, up until a few weeks before his death, was a student of Stone’s All Politics, All the Time course. Stone picked up the story of Katzman’s heroics during World War II.
“Imagine what it must have felt like — to be freed by the Allies, only to discover that the first soldier who spoke to them was a Jew, a Yiddish-speaking American Jew. It must have seemed as if the Messiah have come to save them.”
Imagine, also, the impact it made on the young soldier. He would never be the same.
“I was embarrassed to be part of humanity,” Katzman said of his first reaction upon opening that gate at Dachau. “When I go to my death, which will probably be soon, my last thought will be of that,” he told a group of Miami-Dade high school students and Holocaust survivors gathered at a Barry University Holocaust remembrance event in 2013.
Katzman built a life in North Miami Beach more than 60 years ago, and later in Aventura, as a traveling salesman of clothing and jewelry, as well as serving as an adjunct professor of international relations at FIU and Nova Southeastern universities.
He was devoted to his wife of 64 years, Ellen, whom he met on a ship bound for France. Both were going to study at the Sorbonne. They raised two children, Richard and Susan, and he doted on his grandsons Chad and Braden, all of whom survive him.
“His whole world was his family,” said his daughter. “He loved music. He loved to read. He loved to dance. He danced at the Savoy Ballroom [in Harlem] and he won a lot of contests for dancing. I learned to dance from him. We’d dance the waltz and an old Russian dance. He had a sense of humor until the very end and loved his family the most.”
But for more than 30 years, he wouldn’t speak of what he witnessed at Dachau and the 23,000 people locked inside or the Langwasser Lager internment camp he’d also helped free during the war. Then he heard a professor in the Midwest deny the existence of the Holocaust. Katzman was motivated to speak. He never stopped.
“I was so angry, so that was when I started to speak,” he told the Miami Herald in 2015.
Once the switch turned on for him to speak, he spoke and he spoke. Always never forget.
Susan Williams on her father George Katzman, a soldier who helped liberate concentration camps during World War II
The stories he shared defy any sense of humanity.
“Walking skeletons would come up to us, smile at us, touch us, then keel over and die,” Katzman recalled in a voice filled with emotion at a Holocaust survivors gathering in Margate in 1986. “We were not the heroes. We were accidents of being in the right place at the right time. The survivors of the camps were the heroes,” he maintained in a Miami Herald report that year.
The photographs he took at the camps — black-and-white images of stacked piles of half-naked bodies and unwashed, shrunken survivors — would be turned over to the Army. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had encouraged first-hand reports and photographs so that no one could deny what the soldiers had seen. Copies of the photos, tucked into a box he buried in his closet, were not to be removed until he heard of the university professor who denied the Holocaust. (He didn’t name him.)
He tirelessly told his story, and proudly wore his dog tags and uniform — “the Eisenhower jacket” — that he fit into more than 70 years ago.
“There are too many deniers out there. I was one of thousands who saw what happened. But now there are few of us, and that bothers me,” Katzman told the Herald in 2015, explaining why he had to speak out, no matter how the memories singed his mind.
“Once the switch turned on for him to speak, he spoke and he spoke,” his daughter said. The message was always the same, she said: “Always never forget.’’