Emaciated and nearly naked, Levittown's Thea Rumstein recalled the irony of cherry blossoms scenting the spring air. It was just another day amid unspeakable horror, another morning to survive the iron grip of Nazi captivity.
She remembers hearing distant gunfire and explosions. At the time, the 16-year-old didn't think much of it. "We were just trying to survive another day," she said Monday.
The Americans had just busted through the last remnants of nearby German resistance. A tank appeared outside the barbed wire. Then another, and another. The armored vehicles of khaki green bore a single white star. Atop their mounts were America G.I.s, stunned by the horror they had come upon.
"At first I was numb, and then I realized the Americans were liberating us," said Rumstein, now a spry 84-year-old, standing beside her husband, Jack, also a survivor of the death camp complex known as Mauthausen.
This week marks 67 years since the Allied forces began the liberation of the Nazi death camps, a revelation of evil that was remembered Monday at the American Airpower Museum in East Farmingdale. Holocaust survivors and some of the U.S. veterans who helped liberate them, told their stories. All insisted that we "Never Forget."
What unsuspecting soldiers encountered in the spring of 1945 was a vision of hell on earth. They set free thousands of starving people, described as walking skeletons. They encountered mounds of corpses left exposed in courtyards, innocents murdered by Nazi captors. In filthy barracks, five people were crammed into bunks designed for one. Many described the stench as sickening and overpowering.
Almost all of these men, women and children had been imprisoned for merely being Jewish or a member of some other faith or ethnicity deemed "undesirable." Until the waning days of World War II in Europe, the scope of the atrocities was not known to the world.
That was about to change:
"The street was littered with bones; the ovens were still hot," said Sy Bosworth, 89, of Brownsville, Brooklyn, who was with the U.S. forces that liberated Buchenwald. I saw the ashes, piles of them, on the floor next to the ovens and inside."
He saw something else: A lampshade belonging to Ilse Koch wife of the camp's former commandant and known as the "Witch of Buchenwald. It was made of human skin that bore distinctive tattoos.
"They're trying to deny it now, but I saw it with my own eyes," Bosworth said. "Our generation is almost gone and people aren't teaching about this anymore. Somebody has to."
It was a common theme of those attending the interfaith service, set against an epic backdrop of vintage U.S. aircraft and before ominous strands of barbed-wire fencing.
"During this holy time of year for both Christians and Jews, let us remind ourselves of the lessons we need to teach a new generation,” said the Rev. Marc Herbst, pastor of Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church, Syosset.
In the service's most dramatic moment, three armored vehicles operated by re-enactors rolled up to the barbed wire fence. Men in uniform emerged from the vehicles and looked on.
"We never hoped to see freedom again," Rumstein said matter-of-factly and without a trace of bitterness. "Every day was just survival. You just thought about living through the day."
Rumstein was evacuated to her former home in Vienna. The city was bombed out and the survivors were in desperate need. Allied forces provided food and medical supplies. At a soup kitchen there, she met her husband. They became friends, married and had kids and grandchildren. They've been together 57 years.
Through those years, Rumstein began to realize she needed to speak about what she witnessed.
"If you don't learn from the past, you will repeat it" she said. "We must not repeat it."
Herman "Hy" Horowitz of East Meadow, was 93 Monday. He, too, bore witness to the horrors inside a camp whose streets "were carpeted with bodies."
He described a British soldier falling to his knees and praying the Rosary, the Roman Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mother, Mary. Horowitz took out his prayer book and recited Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
"No human should ever see what we saw that day," Horowitz said. "We must remember those who labored in that struggle for freedom."