This year's Holocaust Remembrance theme--the Strength of the Human Spirit--is more than a phrase for 89-year-old U.S. Army retired master sergeant and Huntsville resident Bob Sawada. It is the affirmation of a proud Army veteran who spent his teen years imprisoned in the labor camps and killing centers of Nazi Germany.
"I have seen such cruelty in humans. And then again I have seen such caring," said Sawada, who chooses to focuses on the indescribable loving kindness he experienced during his liberation.
"The moment the American Soldiers pulled us from the trenches, it was like being in the arms of an angel. You are going from hell into heaven," he said. They cleaned us and fed us and cared for us like we were little children."
The horrific beginning to a life restored by human kindness began in 1939 Poland. As German Soldiers advanced on his hometown, an 11-year-old Sawada and his family abandoned their home and attempted to escape to Warsaw with a refugee group. Arrested and thrown into a fenced-in ghetto in Lodz, Germany, Sawada and his 19-year-old sister witnessed the execution of their parents before transferring to a series of slave labor camps from Auschwitz to Dachau.
Sawada spent many days during his imprisonment working at cremation ovens and his nights attempting to catch and feed on rats--a godsend--in the rodent-infested facilities.
"To live in those conditions for five years, always being afraid, always hungry…," he trailed off.
He said the indescribable pain of starvation--when the body eats muscle and tissue to keep vital systems and organs functioning--was by far the worst. "There is no other pain greater than hunger pain."
"I saw many prisoners commit suicide by running and throwing themselves against the electric fence," said Sawada. "And I was tempted and approached the fence a few times myself, but when I got to the fence, I collapsed and kneeled down and prayed. I couldn't bring myself to do it. I said if they want to kill me, let them kill me. I will not kill myself because there was always something inside me-my faith in God and Christ--and I knew God would liberate me some day. I knew this type of butchery could not go on. God will stop it."
When U.S. troops began liberating his camp, Nazi Soldiers turned their rifles on the survivors but Sawada and others managed to take cover in a slit trench latrine. He was hunkered down and barely holding on to life--16 years old and weighing in at 38 pounds.
One of the U.S. officers in the liberating unit adopted the malnourished Sawada and took him to his home in Martha's Vineyard. Shortly thereafter, Sawada's adopted family moved to Fairhope--a charming waterfront town on the eastern shore of Alabama's Mobile Bay. There, he began his road to recovery, completed high school, and joined the U.S. Army and married.
After two tours in Vietnam and tours in Korea and Germany, Sawada retired with honor in 1971 and moved to Huntsville where his parents had relocated. He spent the next 22 years working for the Research Development and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal and retired from government service in 1994.
As a result of the long-term malnutrition, Sawada is not much taller than he was at 11 years old. While some of the physical scars remain, his strength of spirit and faith in God are stronger than ever. He said he has lived a wonderful life, thanks to a loving family, the U.S. Army and the strength of the human spirit.