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Werner Reich

Photograph of an American tank during the Battle of the Bulge, above. File photo from Getty Images

“The same day I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha [in Germany]. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however, that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.” — Supreme Allied Cmdr. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

At that moment almost 78 years ago, Hitler’s Third Reich was rapidly crumbling away.

This was in large part due to the massive strength of Eisenhower’s armies, which were determined to finish the war in Europe. With the end in sight, Allied soldiers entered German soil with the hope of receiving a speedy surrender. During this advance, American soldiers quickly noticed that the enemy had some notable similarities to their own countrymen. 

The German population was similar in size to the American middle class, and lived in heated homes surrounded by picturesque natural beauty from the German and Austrian landscapes. As Allied forces continued their eastward push, however, any feelings of closeness with the enemy quickly evaporated, as they had come to learn of Hitler’s “final solution.” American soldiers, many from neighborhoods along Long Island’s North Shore, had discovered and liberated the German death camps. 

For the men who witnessed this shocking brutality, these experiences would never be forgotten. Although hardened by the Battle of the Bulge and other combats against a fanatical resistance unwilling to surrender its losing cause, Americans were utterly unprepared for the scenes at these camps. Some had heard of the cruel treatment inflicted by the Nazis, but they were horrified after entering these camps. At once, the medics distributed food, water and medical treatment to save as many lives as they could. 

After visiting the Ohrdruf concentration camp on April 12, 1945, a sickened Eisenhower said, “We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, we know what he is fighting against.” Renowned journalist and radio broadcaster Edward R. Murrow accompanied the American 6th Armored Division into the Buchenwald concentration camp. Laying witness to the atrocities, he reported, “I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words. … If I’ve offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry. I was there.”  

“The inmates liberated by our forces were skeletons. … It was enough to make strong men weep — and some American officers did so unabashedly.”

— Robert Murphy

Diplomat Robert Murphy was also present to see the conditions of these camps. He recalled: “The inmates liberated by our forces were skeletons. … It was enough to make strong men weep — and some American officers did so unabashedly.” Many American soldiers were ordered to see these camps for themselves, as Eisenhower wished to prevent any future deniers of the Holocaust.

Two local heroes

Among these soldiers was the late John D’Aquila, resident of Belle Terre. A member of the 11th Armored Division, he served under Gen. George S. Patton’s famed Third Army. D’Aquila was a native of Middletown, Connecticut, who landed in France during the Battle of the Bulge. As a medic, he was ordered toward the strategic Belgian town of Bastogne which was surrounded by German forces. During one of the worst winters in recorded history, D’Aquila treated wounded soldiers as they turned back this German offensive. For his valiance and unceasing treatment of wounded servicemen, D’Aquila received a Purple Heart after being wounded during this battle.

Like many other soldiers at the end of this war, D’Aquila wondered if he would survive. On May 5, 1945, the 11th Armored Division entered the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. By the end of the war, those camps in Central Europe had considerably higher death rates as they were the last to be captured by Allied forces. D’Aquila remembered the inability of the local Austrian citizens to accept responsibility for the savagery committed there, despite the stench of death that hung in the air, the piles of bodies stacked up “like cordwood.”  

After the war, D’Aquila attended college and later earned a degree in law, where he defended the interests of insurance companies. Locally in Port Jefferson, he was on the board of directors of Theatre Three, and a play was later created by Jeffrey Sanzel, “From the Fires: Voices of the Holocaust.” Until his death, D’Aquila openly addressed his wartime experiences because he wanted to ensure that citizens, especially the youth, did not forget the severity of the Holocaust.

In 2008, D’Aquila described his experience of liberating Mauthausen during a Veterans Day program at Rocky Point High School. As though it had just occurred, D’Aquila spoke of his duty to medically care for the survivors of the concentration camp as they were finally being liberated. At another program at the high school, D’Aquila joined Werner Reich, who had survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Mauthausen, and was liberated by the 11th Armored Division.  

Reich was a 17-year-old young man who weighed only 64 pounds at the time of his liberation. In this condition, he was not expected to survive. At RPHS, he looked at the audience and vividly stated that if it had not been for Americans like D’Aquila, then he would have surely perished from starvation. Although from different backgrounds, both men were inextricably tied to one another through their shared experience of “man’s inhumanity to man.” For years, Reich has spoken to high schools across the North Shore to ensure that good people do not stand by when innocent people suffer from such atrocities. 

Even though World War II ended long ago, the world now watches history repeat itself through the images of fighting in the Ukraine. Americans are again learning of the massive losses of Ukrainian civilians suspected of being killed by Russian forces. People such as D’Aquila and Reich made it their mission in life to alert people that history will repeat itself if good people do nothing. We must learn from the examples of the past, we must always act, protect and preserve the rights and freedoms of people everywhere.  

Rich Acritelli is a history teacher at Rocky Point High School and adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College.

Students surround Werner Reich after one of his presentations at Smithtown High School West in 2017. Photo by Christina Cone

By Leah Chiappino

Holocaust survivor and Smithtown resident Werner Reich first began speaking about his life experiences at Smithtown High School nearly 25 years ago. He saw an article in the newspaper announcing the school would begin to offer a Holocaust Studies elective. Newly retired from his career as an industrial engineer, Reich offered to speak to the class.

After giving his testimony for about 20 minutes, he allowed students to ask questions. He recalls students asking if there was an exercise room in Auschwitz, if the camp had kosher food and what type of weekend activities were conducted. “I realized that they didn’t know the first thing about the Holocaust,” he said. “They were mixing up the concentration camps with a summer camp.”

Compelled to educate the students, Reich prepared a presentation to accompany his story. He expanded to several schools throughout the Island, but realized he could not tell both his story and the history of the Holocaust fully in a single period. He increased the time to two-period assemblies and uses about 350 slides filled with history, old photos and diagrams that help to tell his story. “I try to emulate television because that is what kids are used to,” he said.

“My suffering is an illustration of what happened, but I want them to learn that being a bystander is a terrible thing.”  

– Werner Reich

Reich recognizes that even with sharing his experience so intimately, unless someone lived through the Holocaust, it will be very difficult to fully understand. “Even I, who have lived through that garbage, have a very difficult time understanding the full Holocaust,” he said. “It speaks against all of our natural instincts and all of the basic ethics we have been taught. It’s difficult in this world of peace for you to understand, for instance, on the death march I didn’t eat for seven days.”

Instead, Reich uses his platform to stress the importance of standing up for what is right and against bullying. “I never want to walk away from a presentation thinking ‘Now they know how much I suffered,’” he said. “That is unimportant. My suffering is an illustration of what happened, but I want them to learn that being a bystander is a terrible thing.”  

More recently, Reich has expanded his presentation globally. He has spoken at a Jewish community center in Hong Kong about eight times and has given several presentations in Germany, Macau, Portugal and Israel, as well as various locations throughout the United States.

Reich is also a docent at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in Glen Cove and has been honored for his activism by the New York State Assembly and Suffolk County Legislature. He is still active at Temple Beth David in Commack, and in his free time practices magic, a hobby that was first taught to him while he was in Auschwitz by a bunk mate. That story was told in the 2014 novel, “The Magician of Auschwitz” by Kathy Kacer.

Christina Cone, a social studies teacher at Smithtown High School West says the impact he has had on her students has been nothing short of powerful. “To me, he is the Energizer Bunny as his energy and passion for teaching others does not tire,” she said. “Each year, my students share how much they appreciate hearing his message. They admit that it’s a heavy presentation but they seem to genuinely internalize his words. He is encouraging and inspirational and has, and continues to make this world a better place through his actions. I admire him immensely.”

Reich’s words have had a particularly special impact on former Smithtown High School West student Helen Turner. Having been so inspired by his presentation, she studied the Holocaust in college and is now the director of education at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in Glen Cove. “When I first met Werner … I was so taken aback by this incredible man, “ she said. “He was funny, witty and strong and yet had been through so much. At the time, I was researching the genocide in Darfur for school and I was so enraged and upset at Werner’s experience and horrified that it had happened and was continuing to happen to other people all over the world that I really felt I wanted to do something about it. While my meeting him was maybe an hour of my life, it’s something I will never forget. He’s an incredible man. I’m lucky to know him.”