May 1993

Black Soldiers And the Death Camps

(Reactions of racist revisionism.)

Daniel Allentuck

What is really behind
the hysterical attacks
on Liberators?
n inordinately nasty crusade now being waged in the pages of the New York Post, the New Republic, the Forward, New York magazine, and other journals, is giving "the works" to a recent documentary film entitled Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II The 90-minute film, produced by Nina Rosenblum and Bill Miles, which aired nationwide on PBS in November 1992, covers black participation in the United States' war effort, at home and on the battlefields of Europe, with emphasis on two all-black units that served with distinction: the 761st Tank Battalion and the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion.

Much of the film describes the racial discrimination directed against black soldiers in the officially segregated U.S. Army of that period. Overcoming racist violence, brutality, and the constant humiliations of the Army's training camps (usually in the deep South) the black GIs depicted in the film went on to serve in the war in Europe, distinguishing themselves--and suffering heavy casualties--in some of the toughest fighting of the war.

According to the documentary, elements of the two battalions were among the first U.S. soldiers to arrive at Dachau and Buchenwald when those camps were liberated in April 1945. Black soldiers and camp survivors have vivid memories of meeting; accounts are still coming to light attesting to the presence of black GIs at the camp liberations. William Scott and Leon Bass, former members of the 183rd, are featured prominently in the film, recalling the horrors they encountered at Buchenwald. Said Bass: "They had skeletal faces with those deep-set eyes. Their heads had been clean shaved. And they were holding on to each other for stability. I had never seen anything like this before in my life."

A Frenzy of Bashing
But the film's critics insist that all this is untrue. They say the two units were too far from Buchenwald and Dachau to have taken part in the liberation of either camp. Accordingly, the film has been denounced as "an unholy hoax" (Christopher Ruddy, New York Guardian, December 1992, p. l), "a PBS scam" (Reed Irvine, Accuracy in Media, December 1992), "an ideologically- inspired effort to tinker with history" (Eric Breindel, New York Post, February 6, 1993, p. 13), and "largely untrue ... distorted history" (Martin Peretz, the New Republic, March 8, 1993, p. 42).

In this frenzy of bashing, the film's critics shamelessly misused a 15-page report on the film issued in early February by the American Jewish Committee. "Docudrama, not history," critics quoted the document. The report, The Liberators: A Background Report, by Kenneth Stern, is, for the most part, carefully worded and in many respects almost labored in its attempt to be "ballanced." (The first word of the report, however, is incorrect; the name of the film is Liberators, not The Liberators.) But what has happened, and what may well have been expected to have occurred, is that the criticisms in the report have been widely reported and its positive findings have been totally ignored. The report deals with the complicated issues of historical accuracy and who went where and saw what. It examines certain inconsistencies involving statements the film makes about the movements of the two black units and statements made by members of those units regarding their entering the death camps. Most of these problems are unresolvable. As the report notes:

It should be understood that there is no claim here that either the survivors or the veterans of the 761st have lied about their recollections.... After . . . talking with survivors, archival experts, and members of the black units in question and meeting with the film' s producers,... it is clear to me that the message of the film--that black soldiers were among the liberators of concentration camps--is absolutely true.
Nowhere in the many press denunciations of the film as a "lie" was this crucial admission acknowledged.

Rather than explore the little-known history of these and other black units that fought in World War II, the press simply continues to denounce the film and its makers as frauds.

The Crusade Is Launched
The anti-Liberators crusade was launched in the New York Guardian, a monthly published by Herb London, a stalwart of New York's Conservative Party and perennial losing candidate for mayor. Under a banner headline, "PBS Documentary Lies About Liberation of Concentration Camps," an article claimed to be based upon "an intensive examination of Army records."

But the article, by Christopher Ruddy, revealed no new information and shed no new light on the activities of the 761st or the 183rd. Rather, like so many articles that followed the piece revealed the author' s ignorance of the very historical records he claimed to have examined. In fact, many of the official documents are incomplete or altogether missing from Army archives. For example, records of the 183rd for April-May 1945 are missing from the National Archives, as are the records of the 761st's Company D for the same period. A statement about the film issued by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum last November provides some background: "The military circumstances in the Spring of 1945 were so chaotic that evidence of concentration camp liberations is usually scant in official unit records. Individual military units were moving very quickly and their whereabouts on any particular day is often very difficult to reconstruct."

This did not stop reporters from making "authoritative" (yet vague) references to "Army records." Nor did it stop Ruddy, subsequently given space in Newsday, from characterizing the documentary as "reminiscent of Nazi propaganda films. ("Liberators Took Liberties With the Facts," December 15, p. 83).

Ruddy's ferocious account of PBS malfeasance attracted favorable notice from Reed Irvine's monthly Accuracy in Media. Between his denunciations of "homosexual disinformation" and the cupidity of "the Alger Hiss crowd," Irvine took time to applaud the Guardian for "exposing this PBS scam." Following Ruddy's example, Irvine fatuously stated that "Army historical records" disprove the film's thesis.

A Cottage Industry
Since the Guardian's "expos'e" first appeared nearly three months ago, at least 16 other articles have appeared in various periodicals, parroting the Ruddy-Irvine line, while adding a few dark speculations of their own. Attacking the film, PBS, Jesse Jackson (who appeared along with New York Mayor David Dinkins at a benefit for the film at the Apollo Theater), and the very notion of black soldiers as "liberators" has almost become a kind of cottage industry for certain journalists.

Eric Breindel added a bizarre twist in his attack on the film in the New York Post: Even if black soldiers did liberate concentration camps, he observed, they were only following orders. "Like all soldiers, they obeyed orders. They went where they were ordered to go and didn't design their own missions" ("Concocting History," February 6, 1993). Considering that at no time did the film claim that any American soldiers "designed their own missions," Breindel's criticism is a strange one. As for the American soldiers who liberated the camps "only" obeying orders, this seems to be an attempt to draw a parallel to the Nazis, who claimed they were "only following orders" when they murdered millions.

Sly Warning From Peretz
Critics like the New Republic's Martin Peretz are more straightforward about their motives for denouncing the documentary ("Cambridge Diarist" March 8, p. 42). Once Jesse Jackson endorsed the film publicly, Peretz cautioned readers about Jackson's "new line on the Jews." As for the film itself, Peretz merely stated in passing that it is "largely untrue."

Perhaps the most appalling critique of Liberators appeared in the February 12 Forward in a report about its screening at Harvard University. The article, written by Leah Pisar, warned that acceptance of the film could open the door to Holocaust-deniers. "The fear among many here is that inaccuracy, especially regarding a topic so sensitive as the Holocaust, might fuel revisionism and add those who claim the Holocaust never happened."

Thus, an effort to explore the role of blacks in helping to end the Holocaust becomes an act of Holocaust denial. Pisar needn't have wonried. The only denying these days is being done by the media.

Near the end of the documentary Preston McNeil, a black veteran of the 761 st who'd seen the camp at Dachau reflects: "No one, in my lifespan can tell me it's [the Holocaust] just propaganda because I really saw it." Pisar and company insist that he didn't. If this isn't revisionism, what is?