Snapshot of a chance friendship

Benjamin Sieradzki never forgot the young GI snapping photos of him and other emaciated survivors of a German slave-labor camp back in April 1945.

Fifty years later, Sieradzki, a retired engineer now living in Berkeley, decided to track down that soldier, who was recording the horrific scene with a Kodak camera barely larger than a pack of cigarettes.

The Polish-born survivor wanted to thank his liberator and possibly find photos to help document the story of his Holocaust experience for his children and grandchildren.

Now 75, Sieradzki got his wish in spades.

A letter he sent to a veterans’ newsletter in 1995 was spotted by that amateur photographer, a retired meat-packing supervisor named Vernon Tott from Sioux City, Iowa.

The story of their chance encounter at the camp near Hanover and subsequent reunion drew international attention from the media and historians alike — and led Tott to seek out other survivors of the Ahlem camp and deliver dozens of talks to schoolchildren about the Holocaust.

On Nov. 1, Sieradzki and Tott, now 79, will meet once again as they join almost 6,000 people gathering at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Scheduled as part of the museum’s 10th anniversary, the two-day tribute will honor survivors, liberators and rescuers. Sieradzki is part of a group attending the event with Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay.

For Sieradzki, the trip will offer a chance to connect once again with his ally.

“I like this fellow. I admire him,” said Sieradzki, who just this week was interviewed about his experiences by a German documentary crew. “He means a lot to me, and I think I mean a lot to him.”

The trip is likewise “important to me,” said Tott, who although recently hospitalized after suffering a stroke, is looking forward to going. “It’s really a long story about me and Ben.”

After hearing from Sieradzki eight years ago, Tott began tracking down other survivors, conducting research about the camp and ultimately giving talks at schools.

“It really changed my life after I retired,” said Tott, who has managed to locate 27 survivors, 13 of whom he photographed when his unit accidentally stumbled across the camp in the closing weeks of the war.

Besides meeting with Sieradzki next month, Tott hopes to locate other Jewish survivors whose desperate condition was caught in his snapshots.

Using a tiny camera he bought in a New Orleans pawnshop, Tott took about 18 photos of prisoners whom the Germans had left to die. “Believe me, what I’ve seen was so horrible,” said Tott. “It was hell on earth.”

After returning home from the war, Tott stowed the photos in a shoebox in his basement. That all changed when he spotted the letter from Sieradzki in the 84th Infantry Division’s newsletter.

A native of a suburb of Lodz, Sieradzki was incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz before being sent in November 1944 to work in an underground mine in the town of Ahlem. Sieradzki’s parents and his two sisters perished in the Holocaust.

Four days after the camp was abandoned by the Germans, an American infantry unit preparing to attack Hanover spotted the site and its remaining prisoners, so sick that they were left behind.

Just 17 at the time, Sieradzki weighed 80 pounds and suffered from tuberculosis, typhoid, malnutrition and other ailments. “Some of these soldiers didn’t know what to do,” recalled Sieradzki. When they saw the dead bodies and the emaciated survivors, some of the Americans began to cry.

Instinctively, Tott knew that the scene before him needed to be documented. With his photos, Tott tells students that “The Holocaust really did happen. Here’s living proof of it.”