After 60 years and 10 days, Samuel Goetz finally found the GI who liberated him on May 6, 1945.
On that sunny spring day in Austria, Goetz was a 16-year-old survivor of three Nazi camps, weighing less than 80 pounds. Robert Persinger, a Midwest farm boy, was a 21-year- old sergeant in the 3rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Group. He commanded the lead tank that broke down the gates of the Ebensee concentration camp.
Their fleeting encounter -- they never even exchanged names -- is engraved in the memory of Goetz, and, 60 years later, he discovered that it also left an indelible impression for Persinger. The two men, who finally reconnected by phone, have made plans to meet in person this fall, when the ex-sergeant will be honored by a Los Angeles group of Holocaust survivors.
This is how the lives of the Jewish boy from Tarnow, Poland, and of the soldier from Wever, Iowa, intersected in the last days of the war in Europe.
"I had been eating charcoal for nourishment for the last few days when on Sunday, May 6, I left Block No. 6 and made my way to the main gate at Ebensee," recalled Dr. Sam Goetz, 77, now a faculty member at the Southern California School of Optometry.
"I crossed the dreaded roll call square, whose eerie silence, normally punctuated by the SS men's screams, seemed unnatural," Goetz continues. "Suddenly, my eyes registered the unbelievable sight of a tank moving up the road.
"The gate opened and a man in an olive brown uniform emerged from the tank. As hollow-cheeked figures kissed his hands and swept him off his feet, I saw a large white star on the tank. At that moment, after five years in the ghetto, as forced laborer and as concentration camp prisoner, I became a free man."
The soldier in the olive brown uniform was Persinger; his memory of the scene is just as clear.
"As we approached on the gravel road to the camp, we saw masses of human beings that appeared almost as ghosts standing in mud and filth up to their ankles behind the high wire fence," he said. "None of us had ever seem human beings in this terrible situation before. We started to toss rations and energy bars to them until our supply was depleted.
"The stench of the dead bodies was almost unbearable," he added. "We went to the crematorium, where there were stacks of bodies piled like cordwood. If you weren't sick by now, you would be before you left. At the same time, you wanted to cry.
"We had seen terrible sights in combat across Europe, but it was beyond anyone's imagination," he added.
Persinger and his crew started confiscating food supplies and large kettles in the nearby village, using their tank guns as persuaders, and made a rich thick soup for the starving camp inmates.
After liberation, Goetz worked for four years in a displaced persons camp in Italy, where he met his future wife, Gertrude.
After finally receiving a visa to enter the United States, Goetz resumed the education cut short at age 11 by the Nazi invasion of Poland. He eventually earned a doctorate degree in optometry from the UCLA School of Public Health.
He became a prominent spokesman for the survivor community, founded the UCLA Chair of Holocaust Studies, currently serves on the content committee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and has received numerous awards for contributions to humanitarian causes.
Goetz recaptured the story of his life in the terse, yet moving, autobiography, "I Never Saw My Face" (Rutledge Books)
But Goetz could never forget the youthful GI who symbolized the transition from slavery to freedom.
Goetz went to Washington to search through the databases of the National Archives and the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum for the name of the U.S. unit that had liberated Ebensee, a sub-camp of the Mauthausen concentration camp. But he couldn't discover the soldier's identity.
Then, in late April, a patient named Val Rodriquez came in for an appointment.
Rodriquez had served with the U.S. occupation army in Austria in 1946 and befriended some former Spanish prisoners at Ebensee and Mauthausen.
He told Goetz that one of the speakers at the annual memorial services at Ebensee would be the GI who had commanded the lead tank.
Goetz couldn't go, but gave Rodriquez his business card to pass on.
Persinger, whose father lost the Iowa family farm during the Depression, worked after his Army discharge in rural Illinois as a truck driver and plant manager for a garment rental service.
Now 81 and retired, Persinger lives with his wife Arlene in Loves Park, Ill. He does volunteer work for his local museum, church and veterans organization.
On May 16, Persinger called Goetz. In October, they'll meet face to face, when the farm boy from Iowa will be honored at the annual luncheon of the "1939" Club, said William Elperin, president of the Holocaust survivors group.
When Persinger arrived at Ebensee, the camp held some 18,000 prisoners, mostly Poles, Italians and Spaniards, besides 2,000 Jews.
"It never came to mind who they were," Persinger said. "They were all just starving human beings."