For the second year in a row, the 8th grade at DeKalb Middle School welcomed speakers in honor of their study of The Diary of Anne Frank and the Holocaust. This year, Mr. Jimmy Gentry, an Army veteran and liberator of Dachau concentration camp, returned to recount his story of a depression-era childhood in Franklin, Tennessee, and later experience as a young Army soldier. Mrs. Trudy Naumann Dreyer finished the assembly by telling how the Holocaust forced her family’s emigration from her hometown of Unsleben, Germany, to America when she was just six years old.
Mr. Gentry began by describing how rabbits, squirrels, and fish can be caught with only your bare hands. After his father passed away leaving their mother with seven mouths to feed, he and his brother caught them this way just to help feed the family. Despite their poverty, Gentry pointed out that his mother taught them to “never eat the last biscuit,” because “someone always needs it more than you do.” Mrs. Gentry proved this by example, as she would often give their last biscuit to a homeless person after the family had eaten.
Gentry also brought along a trap and pieces of fur like the ones they sold during this time to earn extra money. According to Mr. Gentry, they sold the furs to the only Jewish man he knew of that lived in Franklin, and that he knew of him as a good man.
Gentry held the students’ attention with his reminders – such as the date, April 29, 1945, to which he would return near the end of his story. This was the date American troops discovered Dachau concentration camp in Germany. According to Gentry, they weren’t looking for it, but the indescribably terrible smell of the death there hit them before they even saw the place.
Gentry described his time as a soldier as the “greatest patriotism this country has ever seen” because so many young men gave their lives during World War II, resulting in the display of gold stars in the windows of the families who’d lost sons and husbands to the cause. He himself lost his older brother, who’d helped him catch their family’s food only a few years earlier.
Then there were the horrors of war, such as falling asleep while walking, and asking your commander a question only to turn around for the answer to find him shot and killed. Mr. Gentry did not tell his story for close to 40 years, but following a Brentwood High School football game where Gentry coached for many years, a man approached him across the field.
Mr. Gentry soon recognized the man, and they both broke into tears. The man was one of the Dachau prisoners whom Mr. Gentry helped liberate. He recognized him so easily because this man had given the then young soldier all that he had as a token of his gratitude, a small box filled with cigarette butts. Mr. Gentry explained that these were considered to be quite valuable at this time, when nearly everyone smoked (and didn’t know the danger), and cigarettes were considered a valuable possession for the soldiers. He used the comparison of the woman in the Bible who gave her last pennies to Jesus – like her, this man had given Mr. Gentry “all that he had.”
This meeting, along with an encounter with a man who insisted that the Holocaust never happened, convinced Mr. Gentry to begin telling his story. Now his mission is to tell as many people as possible, so that it will never happen again. He himself was so shocked at what he saw because, as he stated, these were “just religious people” being kept locked up and allowed to starve to death and worse. As a soldier, he expected to see death, but not the deaths of so many innocent people in such a horrible way.
Mrs. Dreyer began by pointing out that there are five categories of survivors, including liberator soldiers, witness soldiers, concentration camp survivors, hidden children, and refugees such as herself. She remembers Kristallnacht, which is the “night of broken glass,” that occurred in 1938. Her family’s home was attacked on this night, and she remembers her grandmother’s feet getting cut by the glass of their windows. Her family had been successful business owners in the small town of Unsleben, Germany. After the Nuremberg Laws were passed, however, they lost everything, and the children had to stop going to school. Fortunately, they were one of the few families able to obtain a sponsor from America who had to pay two thousand dollars in order for the Dreyer family to be allowed to enter the country.
Finally, they were able to emigrate to America, only to end up having to live in the slums of Cuba for almost a year before finishing their trip. When she did make it to America she says she was relieved but frightened, and she knew no English, so she was often made fun of at her new school. One of the students asked her what she thought would have happened to her had her family not come to America, and she replied that she “would be ash.” In her younger years, Mrs. Dreyer was angry at Germany and did not ever want to return, but after 40 years, she decided to finally return to her hometown with several other members of her extended family.
She said that the people of Unsleben were for the most part very welcoming when they returned to visit, and that one man, who was about the same age as her, asked for her forgiveness. She asked him what she was forgiving him for, and he stated that he had given her a rock in a candy wrapper as a child. Mrs. Dreyer, however, wondered if he wasn’t trying to apologize for a much more significant attitude behind the childish prank, which she did not even remember. Although there were no longer any Jewish people in Unsleben, she told that the graveyard was in decent condition, with only a few broken headstones, even though in some German towns the Jewish graveyards were completely destroyed, and the headstones even used for paving stones. Mrs. Dreyer stressed to the 8th graders that the responsibility to prevent further genocide is now in their hands. She pleaded with them to carry on the message that she and other survivors have tried to pass on – that such hatred is possible and is devastating beyond belief when allowed to grow.
A retired teacher from Knox county, Mrs. Dreyer commented on the enthusiasm shown by the 8th graders at DeKalb Middle School, and she is donating an honorarium given to her by the students to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. in the school’s honor.