The Texas Liberator Project: WWII Heroes Open Up About Liberating Concentration Camps

"It's just horrifying to think there are people who did that to other people..."

LUBBOCK, TX - For some World War II heroes, it took more than 40 years before they were able to tell their stories. 

"The thing I remember most is the smell,” John William Kongable said. He helped liberate the concentration camp at Orhdruf. “The most unimaginable smell.” 

"There were people that were sick and dying,” Chester "Chet" Rohn said, who helped liberate the camp at Mauthausen. “It was just awful. I’ve never seen anything that bad, and I saw lots of dead soldiers, but not dead civilians.” 

From liberating the Nazi concentration camps, to fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, some of the memories were hard to recount. 

"It was the biggest battle the American troops had ever been in. The coldest that I can remember, it was below zero most of the time,” Rohn added. 
"We didn't know about the showers, but we saw the shower rooms because they were all cleaned out. Those were the gas chambers,” Birney "Chick" Havey said. He helped liberate Dachau. 

To ensure generations to come can hear this piece of history from those who lived it, the Texas Holocaust Genocide Commission teamed up with Dr. Aliza Wong, the Associate Dean of the Honors College at Texas Tech, to create the Texas Liberator Project. 

"The project just kind of grew and grew and grew, and really became a labor of love, not just for me but for 5 different groups of students at 5 different colleges at Texas Tech,” Dr. Wong said. . 

The Texas Liberator Project consists of a book, museum exhibit at the Texas Tech Museum, and an interactive app, to help engage kids in the classroom. It’s an extension of the work done by the Genocide Commission to make sure the Holocaust and liberation are incorporated into Texas children’s education. 

"My 15-year-old son was on his iPad playing with an app, and I thought, 'a digital book is not enough...we actually have to have something much more interactive,'” Dr. Wong said. 

Some of the Liberators traveled to Lubbock for the presentation of the project, speaking with Texas Tech classes and Lubbock-area high schoolers about everything from painful memories to lessons they learned. 

"It's just horrifying to think there are people who did that to other people, and they did it on a mass scale,” Kongable said. 

Wednesday night, they were honored by the University with a ceremony, where leaders on the project shared their hopes for its future.  System Chancellor Robert Duncan spoke, along with the University President Lawrence Schovanec and Peter N. Berkowitz of the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission. 

The veterans were awarded a new medal to add to their military decorations, for answering a second call to duty to tell their story to the world and educate younger generations.  

"The Holocaust existed, we cannot deny it, and these men are coming forward so that we never forget the depths to which we can sink, but the heights to which we can rise,” Dr. Wong said. 

CLICK HERE for more information on the Texas Liberator Project. 


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