Salute to a Liberator
There is a reason we call them The Greatest Generation. Here’s just one example.
From the Jewish World Review:
By Mordechai Schiller
Photo Credit: Susan Stava Photography
Chances are that you’ve seen this picture of the three year-old saluting the elderly soldier. It’s hard not to be touched by it. The story of that soldier — who he was and became — will move you even more.
It was a Norman Rockwell moment. At the Memorial Day Parade on Monday, May 30, 2011, in Stony Point, New York Times photographer Susan Stava caught three-year-old Thomas Cahill sitting next to a veteran in uniform. Fate and the photo have linked them forever. Even seated, a bugle in his lap, Sergeant Arnold Rist, of the 65th Armored Infantry Battalion, 20th Armored Division, seems to be standing at attention. Cahill, clutching a large flag in his little right hand, holds his left hand to his forehead — in what looks for all the world like a cherubic salute to the eighty-six-year-old veteran.
The iconic photo soon spread throughout cyberspace.
"I don’t really think he was saluting me," says Rist. "I think he was just looking at the flag. I was just sitting there because I was tired. It was the third time I had sounded ‘Taps’ that day. And it was the thirteenth time over the weekend. I turned eighty-seven now. I’m not twentynine anymore."
Rist shrugs off his flash of fame much as he shrugs off glory for his role in helping to liberate the Dachau concentration camp. "I was in on the liberation of Dachau with the 20th Armored Division. But if it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else," he insists.
Rist’s division was one of three that took part in the liberation of Dachau. The others were the 42nd Rainbow Division and the 45th Infantry Division.
In the last thirteen years, Rist has played "Taps" over 1,300 times at veterans’ funerals. He plays it on Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, Twin Towers Day, Flag Day, Pearl Harbor Day. "In fact," he says, "I just had two [ funerals] yesterday and two Monday. And for a while I was saying, ‘They’re going fast.’ Then I realized, ‘Oh, my! We’re going fast … I’m one of ’em!’"
Rist was elected second president of the 20th Armored Division Association. He still serves as the organization’s official bugler, playing "Taps" for fallen buddies. "It’s the least I can do for my brothers. It’s because of my brothers that I am able to be here today."
FROM THE ADIRONDACKS TO DACHAU
Arnold Rist was born in 1924 in the Adirondack Mountain town of Newcomb, New York, a few miles from the source of the Hudson River.
Newcomb, population 481, is the kind of town where "if you’re driving through and your car breaks down, you’d go to the nearest house and they’d probably call the town supervisor," says Rist. "He’d send a mechanic who’d come down and fix your car. And if you tried to pay him, he’d probably kick you in the ankles. And if he couldn’t fix it and had to get parts, you’d stay with the people whose phone you used. And if you tried to pay them, they’d kick you in the shins."
Community service was ingrained in the Rist family. "When I was a youngster, if a man in town had a problem, he’d come and see my father. And if a woman in the town had a problem, she’d come and see my mother. Even though it was a small town, when my father passed away, there were ninety floral wreaths."
His parents brought up Rist and his brothers that way — always helping people. What was the secret of their parenting? "Our mother and father never demanded much from us. They never told us, ‘Do this’ — we just copied them."
He started college at sixteen, but World War II interrupted his education. After induction in 1943, Rist served as "a squad leader, machine-gunner, scout — basically whatever was needed, I did it. We came there not knowing what we were getting into, not knowing the guys fighting side by side with us. In a short time, we learned how to survive, how to save our fellow soldiers, and how to be brothers."
There were no Jews in Newcomb, and Rist never met any Jewish people until he was in the army. The first Jew he discovered was a buddy in his squad who once disappeared for what he called a "religious day." But Rist would soon become part of Jewish history.
On April 29, 1945, Sergeant Arnold Rist, serving under the command of General George Patton, stood in formation in southern Germany, outside the city of Dachau, home to the prototype of Nazi concentration camps. One of his friends was a tank captain. Rist rode in a half-track, a vehicle with tracks in back for power and wheels in front to enable steering. ("The army probably has a name that’s about four miles long, but we called it a half-track," he says.)
A two-star general later admitted to Rist that they didn’t know what was in Dachau until they got there. From the outside it looked like a military base, with barracks, a stockade, and guard towers. Before they reached the camp, his division lost two tanks to the "88s" — German flak guns (antiaircraft and antitank artillery). As they stood in column, they saw a man on the side of the road. He was a Lutheran minister who had escaped from the camp. He told Rist’s friend, the tank captain, what was going on in the camp and gave him a list of the most heinous SS guards.
"My friend later told me that when he got to the camp, he put his tank through the wire and wood fence, right into the stockade," Rist says.
When they entered the camp, the smell was horrendous. Bodies that the SS didn’t have time to cremate lay in piles on the grass. Railroad tracks led into the camp, and about forty boxcars were lined up on them. The cars carried human cargo. Most of the people were already dead. The Nazis were trying to hide everything as fast as they could because the Allies had been getting closer since D-Day. But they didn’t finish the clean-up.
The railroad cars were called "Forty and Eight"; they could hold forty men or eight horses. But these cars were stuffed with 100 to 120 people. They would ride for three or four days, without food or sanitary facilities. And they all had to stand up because there was no room to sit or lie down. Most of them died along the way.
Those still alive when they reached the camp were greeted by a metal gate that proclaimed "Arbeit Macht Frei, Work Will Make You Free."
"That was a diabolical scheme," says Rist. "The only way they were ever going to get free was if they could work sixteen hours a day on minimal food, repairing roads or working in the ammunition factories under hard-labor conditions … and somehow survive long enough to be rescued."
There was a reporter traveling with one of the divisions, a New York Herald Tribune war correspondent named Marguerite Higgins. A published news photo showed her unlocking a camp door — so she "liberated the camp."
Since that report, Rist is skeptical of anything he reads in the news. "I’ve written things for newspapers," he says. "And then it gets changed. So if newspapers can do that, they can certainly change interviews."
DOING WHAT HAS TO BE DONE
In August 1945, after the Allied victory in Europe, Rist’s division returned to the United States. They were to have been transferred to the Pacific front, but by then the atomic bomb had effectively ended the war with Japan, and he didn’t have to go.
"I was fortunate. I’ve been fortunate my whole life, with my family and with my work. I never took a job I didn’t like. I’ve been in education my whole life — public and private."
Sergeant Rist retired from active duty after the war, but he never left the "service." He has dedicated himself to serving people all his life, both personally and professionally.
Characteristically, he shrugs it all off.
"I just do what I think is important. That’s the main thing. Many people do community service in many different ways. When I see something I think should be done, I just do it. And when that’s done, I do something else."
Rist graduated SUNY at Cortland in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education. He later earned two M.A.s from Syracuse University and a doctorate from New York University. He taught in college and in high school, and he founded his own educational program — Rockland Educational Services, Inc., which offers PSAT preparation programs for grades eight through twelve. He has placed a special focus on helping underprivileged and minority students.
AFTER A FORTY-YEAR SILENCE
Rist never forgot what he saw in Dachau. For years, he couldn’t talk about it.
"When I first started sounding ‘Taps,’ I’d sit down and the tears would be coming right down my cheeks," he recalls. "I didn’t realize it, but it would trigger something that happened during the war. So then I just blocked my mind out and tried to hit those twenty-four notes perfectly. I didn’t speak about the war until 1985 — forty years later."
The effect was deeper than he realized.
"I used to shoot the machine guns. And later, at night, I’d have nightmares," he says. "My wife would have to go in to my five-year-old little boy and explain to him what Pa was going through. I didn’t know that until he was fifty. Then he told me."
After his forty-year silence, Rist saw there was something that had to be done, so he did it. He launched a one-man program of lectures on the Holocaust. He speaks twenty-five times a year to high-school and college students at the State University in Cortland, New York.
The more he teaches and the more questions he is asked, the more research he does to improve the program. When asked if he would speak for a yeshivah in Monsey, New York, near his present home in Nanuet, Rist hesitated.
"I don’t know if I’d want to speak for a Jewish group… I feel inadequate. What would I tell them? They know more than I do!"
Rist tells about his meeting with a survivor of a thousand-mile death march. At the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington in 1993, the 20th Armored Division Association arranged to have its reunion at the same time so they could participate in the ceremony. That is where he met Nesse Godin, whose brother was in Dachau when it was liberated.
Nesse Godin was born in Shavel (Siauliai), Lithuania. She was twelve years old when the knock came on the door in the middle of the night and the SS troops pulled her family out to the town square, along with other families.
"The day before," Godin told Rist, "the SS had rounded up a thousand Jewish young men and had them dig a big trench. At daylight, they lined them up at the edge of the trench and mowed them down with machine-gun fire, and they fell into the ditch."
Her family was taken to a concentration camp. Her mother disappeared, then her father and her brother. "Four years later, when she was sixteen, she went on a forced death march. Twelve hundred people started on the march. They walked a thousand miles. By the time they were liberated by the Russians, there were only two hundred of them left. Anyone who fell or couldn’t walk was just shot at the side of the road."
The Russians took them into houses, where they could clean up. Rist says, "[Godin] walked into the bathroom past a mirror and she jumped. She thought there was a monster behind her — but it was her! She had scabies and all sorts of physical problems. She hadn’t seen herself in two years. She was down to sixty-nine pounds."
Godin reunited with her brother after the war was over and then emigrated to America. Since 1993 she has been working with the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Rist renewed his acquaintance with her this past summer when 120 liberators were invited to a program at the museum.
FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE
While Rist avoids any personal honors, he has fought tirelessly for the honor of the 20th Armored Division, opposing one "historian" who questioned their role in the liberation of Dachau and their right to have a commemorative plaque erected at Dachau. He dismissed the controversy as "what my mother would have called ‘a tempest in a teapot.’"
As president of the 20th Armored Division Association — and as an old soldier who does whatever has to be done — Rist spent four years and wrote reams of letters campaigning for the 20th. Finally, the plaque was approved and flown to Dachau. Mysteriously, when he called three days later, they said it had not been received.
"After several phone calls it was ‘found’ in customs in Cologne, Germany," Rist says. "It had been labeled a statue, and statues are routinely set aside for in-depth inspection to assure that they contain no contraband. The plaque was released four days later."
Not all the heroes of Dachau were so fortunate. Rist recalls a letter he received from a woman years ago in which she told him about how her husband, a doctor, was dispatched to the camp to help restore the newly liberated prisoners to health. "Fifteen years later, the experience preyed on his mind so much, he committed suicide."
Others snapped earlier. The shock of the inhumanity was too much. The liberating soldiers couldn’t believe what they saw.
Rist says, "One of the boys picked up a submachine gun and he mowed down twenty-seven German soldiers who had surrendered. Word got around, and General Patton came down to straighten things out." Even before the age of instant media and political correctness, gunning down unarmed prisoners was not acceptable.
"I heard Patton asked for all the papers. Then he asked, ‘Who’s got a match?’ They gave him a match, and he set the papers on fire. And he said, ‘It never happened.’"
War changes people, and Rist is no exception. His experiences turned him into a staunch fighter against injustice.
"You don’t let even the smallest injustice go by without speaking up against it or doing something about it," Rist says. "If somebody had taken Hitler out early on, before he started that diabolical trip of his, it would have saved over fifty million lives."
What about the modern "Hitler" — Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad?
"I’ve come to realize you really don’t know what’s going on," Rist muses. "I’m hoping that Israel has a plan. And I hope Israel is not left by itself. They’re just surrounded by people against them. To me it’s inconceivable that the United States wouldn’t have some plan to eventually be able to stop him even if it requires more war. Because this guy is, well … I have to watch my language when I’m talking to the students."
Rist is also troubled by the lack of patriotism he observes today, but he understands where it comes from.
"Today we have professional armed forces, but we don’t have anywhere near the eighteen million men in the armed forces like we had back in World War II. Back then, everybody who was physically fit was in. We were all fighting for the same goals. And the women were building the ships and the airplanes, the tanks and the armor."
As always, Rist doesn’t simply bemoan what’s wrong — he does something about it. He now plans to write to every school superintendent in Rockland County and suggest that history teachers give extra credit or make it a requirement to have students go out and interview veterans on Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, or Pearl Harbor Day.
Federal law now mandates the rendering of military funeral honors for any eligible veteran if it is requested by the family. When a veteran is buried, at least two members of the armed forces will be at the funeral for a ceremony that includes the folding and presenting of the American flag to the next of kin, and the sounding of "Taps," which is played by a bugler if one is available.
Today, there are so few buglers left that the Department of Defense often cannot provide one. In Rockland County, Rist goes together with the Korean Honor Guard to sound "Taps." He only knew seven of the veterans for whom he has blown it, but "many people come over to me and thank me. I know it means a lot to family and friends."
But the art is dying. "Now they have a[n electronic] bugle," Rist sighs. "You just press a button in there and a little motor plays ‘Taps.’" How the mighty have fallen!
On his Holocaust lecture tours, Rist has run into widespread ignorance. He finds that students know nothing about the Holocaust, but they are interested in learning about what happened. He has also found that their parents — mostly people in their forties — also know nothing about the Holocaust.
He has not yet run into any outright opposition or Holocaust denial, but he did get a pamphlet written by deniers about twenty years ago. "Many times I thought I’d better find [it], and tear it up and burn it. Because when I die, if it’s found in the house, it might make people think I was a denier!"
He dismisses Holocaust denial as "just a lot of baloney." He has some choice words for Holocaust deniers like Ahmedinejad, but he chose not to share them. His memories of the carnage at Dachau are etched vividly in his memory. It was "so horrible you just can’t describe it. Even though I saw it myself, I don’t have the words to describe it adequately. Tragedy isn’t even a strong enough word."
What would he say if confronted by Holocaust deniers?
"I’d tell them I wish they had been there with me at Dachau. Then they would have thrown up too."