VICENZA, Italy – In the archives at the notorious death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, Capt. Zach Marusa found that prisoner number 20180 had his same name.
Marusa, commander Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Garrison Italy, was posted to Grafenwöhr, Germany in 2016 when he made the trip to Auschwitz, one of the largest concentration camps located near the town of Oswiecim, Poland. The prisoner with the same last name got him thinking more about the Holocaust, Marusa said.
“Bolesalus Marusa could have been a relative on my father’s side,” Marusa said, adding that the prisoner was likely born in Katy-Lomza, Poland in 1920.
While the cause of Bolesalus Marusa’s death is unknown, many victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau died from starvation, beatings, lethal injection and sickness. Others faced shootings and the gas chamber. Built by Germany in the 1930’s, Auschwitz first held political opponents of the Nazi regime. By 1943, the camp evolved. It eventually imprisoned people with differing ideologies, religion and races.
Auschwitz was an eye-opening experience, Marusa said. In addition to learning about the “final solution,” another term for the mass killing of European Jews, Marusa found out more about the extermination, sterilization, and enslavement of millions of Poles, Russians, Roma and others.
“We cannot be passive or bystanders,” Marusa said. “We must find our stories and reflect on history for a better future.”
At USAG Italy, as in the rest of the U.S. Department of Defense, community members recently dedicated time to discuss extremist ideologies as part of DoD extremism stand-down training. That effort preceded the “Days of Remembrance,” the nation’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust. For Sean Urban, a garrison operations specialist and active Jewish community member, the training must be more than “check the block.”
“We must understand that hatred and extremism, on any level, have no place in our community,” Urban said.
During World War II, an estimated six million innocent lives were taken in the Holocaust, also known as the Shoah, Urban said.
“We light 6 Yahrzeit candles, one for each million murdered,” Urban said. “We also remember the survivors. We are reminded not only of their lives being ended and their innocence, but also their tenacity.”
Urban learned about the Jewish experience from older family members who emigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe, to include his grandparents who he affectionately called “Pop-pop and Bubbe.”
“They would say that we are Polish-Jews, but the records state they were from the Russian Federation,” said Urban, referring to an area that likely included parts of modern-day Poland and Ukraine. “Had my Pop-pop and Bubbe not emigrated when they did, there is a high likelihood that they would have been killed by the Nazis.”
Urban is eager bring awareness to the local community of the tragedies.
“We must never allow the world to forget the Shoah and must stand so it shall never happen again,” Urban said. “We must both honor the memories of those millions that were murdered, and those that survived. It has been 76 years since the liberation of Holocaust survivors, many of which have since passed away – blessed be their memory – but we must never forget, never again.”
Spc. Jacob Spielman, a paratrooper in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, describes his great-grandmother being a Holocaust survivor.
“I don’t know much of my family, but I do know they escaped from Hungary during World War II and changed their last name,” Spielman said. “They were able to find freedom despite the hardships of starting over.”
While Spielman’s family is Jewish, many of the past traditions have died out over the years, he said. But his family’s tribulations are never far from his mind.
“I think back to my great-grandmother surviving the Holocaust and I am humbled,” Spielman said. “It is incredible.”
Reminders of the Holocaust are not far for Soldiers like Spielman serving in Italy. In downtown Vicenza, in front of Teatro Olimpico – a world-renowned tourist site designed by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio – is a stark reminder how Jews even from Vicenza faced a horrible fate. Outside, a memorial plaque now remembers victims who departed on a “treno della morte” - a death train. The theater was a holding area for Jews deported to Auschwitz in January 1944.
Stories of Soldiers whose families suffered during the Holocaust help shape who we are today, said Col. Dan Vogel, USAG Italy’s commander.
“We remember Yom Ha-Shoah, the day of commemorating the Shoah or Holocaust, because we cannot forget the past,” Vogel said. “We should tell our stories to raise awareness and defeat any prejudice, vowing to treat everyone with dignity and respect.”