Bernard Warshaw grew up, the small-town son of a Jewish businessman, with dreams of going to The Citadel. He couldn’t tell you why exactly, then or now, but the military college intrigued him.
He harbored no visions of wartime heroism. After all, it was 1937, a moment of calm.
And it wasn’t as if he dreamed of defending his faith, or saving his fellow Jews. He couldn’t have imagined the need.
As the teen suited up for his knob year, he had no inkling that a second world war was about to explode, one that would end with the deaths of 6 million Jews and leave him to open the still-warm ovens of the Dachau concentration camp.
Instead, in the mostly Christian Walterboro, his Jewish heritage simply was.
For a time.
Warshaw was not a top high school student nor was his school especially strong. His enrollment at The Citadel looked a bit unlikely.
However, his direct appeal to Gen. Charles P. Summerall, the school’s president, opened the military college’s doors to him.
A sprinkling of fellow Jewish cadets joined him, but if ill will lurked in its corridors or barracks, Warshaw never felt it.
“There was no anti-Semitism I was aware of at The Citadel at that time,” he says.
Instead, he met fellow cadets named Fritz Hollings, John West and James Grimsley Jr. and forged a lifelong network of friends.
When the war began, he was in ROTC. He knew he’d be going.
“It was part of the military. You had to accept it,” he says.
He graduated in 1942, knowing a telegram was coming.
He just didn’t expect it would be waiting at his house on graduation day with orders to report for active duty in 10 days.
He wouldn’t return home to Walterboro for 21/2 years, until after countless combat missions through Europe and the moment he raised a camera to record atrocities he witnessed at Dachau.
He left for World War II with dog tags bearing his name and, in the lower right corner, an H for Hebrew. It was early 1943.
Assigned to the Army’s 433rd Automatic Weapons Battalion, the Lowcountry boy was shipped to the northern tip of Africa for a training and support mission in the desert.
He was 22 years old.
His unit then joined the Allied invasion of Italy, advancing to Sicily and then the Monte Cassino front, digging through snow, ice, rain and mud as they targeted enemy air power.
They wound through Italy and then on to invasions in France, including the Battle of the Bulge, and finally into Germany.
“We were on the move just trying to stay alive,” he says.
Their mission: shoot down enemy fighters as they strafed the Allied front lines.
At each stop, his unit would dig giant pits for eight to 10 massive guns typically pulled by 2.5-ton trucks. At times, they wouldn’t shower or change clothes for weeks.
Once, his Jeep driver nearly drove over a bombed-out bridge at night. Another time, Warshaw got caught in an Italian mine field.
He was promoted to first lieutenant and captain along the way.
Also along the way, he carried his dog tags with the H for Hebrew. His men worried about what the Nazis might do to him if they could.
“I just didn’t want to be captured,” he says matter-of-factly.
He just wanted to stay alive to return home to Walterboro and sell clothing with his family.
Toward the war’s end, his colonel called to arrange a meeting point. Warshaw and his driver went to the intersection, dug a foxhole and hid their Jeep.
When the colonel arrived, he didn’t say where they were headed. Warshaw didn’t ask.
An hour later, they pulled into the Dachau Concentration Camp. Americans had liberated the camp eight hours earlier.
“We came upon a stench and piles of bodies like you’ve never seen before,” Warshaw recalls.
They covered their faces with handkerchiefs and headed in.
Warshaw soon faced a mound of bodies nearly 12 feet high in a heap outside a row of showers alongside a nondescript brick building. Most were naked and emaciated, thin skin covering bones.
They were the last batch to die at Dachau.
It was April 30, 1945, the day Hitler shot himself in a bunker.
The victims had been told that they were going to get a shower and, finally, food. But when they stepped into the outdoor pen of showers roughly 25 feet long, the water triggered the release of deadly gas.
They were shoveled out into piles; the ovens couldn’t work as quickly as the showers.
The colonel handed Warshaw a camera.
Inside a nearby building, Warshaw opened two of the Dachau’s four ovens. Flames flickered over human bones.
When he passed the prisoners still living, he wasn’t allowed to speak to them because disease was so rampant.
But he could see and smell their desperation.
“It was just nonbelief,” he recalls. “You just couldn’t believe it.”
He and the colonel stayed an hour, until they couldn’t take the stench anymore.
They rode back to find Warshaw’s Jeep in silence.
“We were in such shock there was very little talking to do,” Warshaw says. “We were speechless.”
When the war ended and Warshaw’s unit headed out, he and the men he’d served with boarded filthy box cars, ones probably used to haul prisoners to their deaths.
When he arrived at Fort Jackson to leave the service, a general asked him, “Why are you wearing those captain’s bars?”
The man opened his desk drawer and pulled out a major’s leaf, pinning it onto Warshaw’s collar.
Tucked down long country roads is a quiet Walterboro neighborhood of brick homes and large tree-lined lots. Warshaw still lives where he raised three children and ran a successful clothing business.
He’s nearly 93 years old now. He and his wife, Ann, tease each other while maneuvering single file down a long hallway, each pushing a walker.
“What’s the matter, kid?” he calls. “You getting old?”
She laughs, trying not to jostle the pile of newspapers stacked on her walker until they reach their study. Photographs, newspaper articles and plaques recording his life’s achievements line two walls.
He’s dealt with cancer, a blood clot, several falls and other symptoms of aging. But his mind remains crisp.
His parents opened Warshaw’s & Son in 1920, the year he was born. After the war, he returned home to his parents, sister and the family business.
While visiting Boston, he got roped into a blind date. Truth be told, he planned to refuse to go. Until he saw her.
Her named was Ann Lee Wagner. She was 19.
“Good god, he was handsome!” Mrs. Warshaw recalls. They married in 1947 and settled in Walterboro to raise three girls: Susan, Beth and Amy.
He worked at the clothing store as president and chairman until he turned 80 and his wife demanded he retire.
Along the journey, he has served in seemingly endless civic roles. He was president of the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina. He has been active in veterans’ issues and was a leader in building a 220-bed veterans’ nursing home in Walterboro. He served more than two decades on the state Mental Health Commission and as longtime trustee and board chairman of Colleton Medical Center. To name a few.
His plump Rolodex sits on the desk he still frequents.
At that desk, he reaches with the hand that bears his Citadel ring to open a narrow drawer.
It contains the worst of his war memories, images rubber-banded together.
At times, out of nowhere, he still feels a certain warmth spread over his hands, a distinct temperature.
“The ovens,” he explains.
And he sees the little girl.
She’s dead, still in her black smock, at the center of a photograph he slips from a bundle. She is perhaps 6 or 7 years old, her face tilted toward the camera from the center of a mound of bodies, most naked and emaciated. The dead woman beside her lays with her mouth wide open.
But the girl, she could simply be sleeping.
They are the pictures he took at Dachau nearly 60 years ago when the colonel handed him a camera. Some are archived in the College of Charleston’s Jewish Heritage Collection.
Warshaw keeps his own copies tucked away in his desk drawer as a reminder of “man’s inhumanity to man,” not that he ever could forget.
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