Holocaust survivor Henry Birnbrey is accustomed to telling his story. How he witnessed the Nazi book burnings of 1933, stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II and immigrated to the United States, where he became an Atlanta accountant and lawyer.
He has told his story in classrooms and auditoriums, at conventions and conferences worldwide. But at 89 years old, he knows he will not be around to tell it forever.
On Tuesday, Birnbrey urged more than 300 Fort Gordon soldiers to “remember the Holocaust,” because if not he said “we are doomed to relive” the traumatic chain of events that led to the mass murder and genocide of 6 million Jews.
“The story of the Holocaust must be told,” said Birnbrey, guest speaker at Fort Gordon’s Holocaust National Day of Remembrance program. “If it is not properly disseminated, it will only lead to repetition.”
Birnbrey spoke for 20 minutes during the program hosted by Fort Gordon’s 35th Signal Brigade, sternly rebuking claims in modern society that the Holocaust never happened.
While Birnbrey barely escaped the brunt of Nazism in his home of Dortmund, Germany, he felt the effects of Adolph Hitler’s leadership.
When Hitler annexed Austria, Jewish social services feared a war would close the country’s borders, making it impossible for Jews to leave the country. As a result, the Dortmund Jewish community obtained a few emergency visas for children to immigrate to the U.S.
One was issued to Birnbrey, who in April 1938 arrived in the U.S. at age 14, spent nine months in Birmingham, Ala., before moving to Atlanta in 1939 as a foster child.
Birnbrey said his childhood in the U.S. was mixed with fear and confusion. On the evenings of Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, referred to as Kristallnacht, Germany erupted into organized violence against the Jews. Hundreds were arrested and sent to concentration camps; more than 100 synagogues were burned; windows of Jewish shops were smashed; and inventories were ransacked.
Birnbrey’s father was murdered.
“I have always noticed in speaking before large crowds, the number 6 million is a mindboggling figure,” Birnbrey said of the mass killing of Jews during the Holocaust. “People cannot associate with and comprehend the total.”
To humanize the statistic, Birnbrey told the crowd of his difficulties locating his parents after he fought in Germany during World War II. Birnbrey only was able to find three cousins who had survived, before discovering the burial places of his parents in Dortmund.
“We must be vigilant anytime injustice occurs anywhere and do all we can to eradicate these injustices and make the world realize and appreciate the value of each human life,” Birnbrey said, two of his grandchildren in the crowd.
Reflecting on the Boston Marathon bombings, Birnbrey concluded his speech with a message to young soldiers and students: “Be careful with whom you associate.”
“People who do not share your values can influence you in the wrong direction,” Birnbrey said. “Always participate with your community to help make this world and society a better place to live.
“Don’t stop learning and improving yourself and appreciate what you have,” he added.