By Roger Williams
Whistleblowers get called a lot of things, many of them unprintable here.
But the most powerful single characterization I’ve ever heard came from Rabbi Jeremy Barras at Temple Beth El last Saturday evening, on the west coast in Lee County.
Rabbi Barras had just concluded the weekly Shabbat by incanting the havdala with wine and candlelight — the holy day’s sign-off prayer, if you will — when he turned to introduce Dr. Robert Hilliard to an audience of Jews and gentiles alike.
Hilliard had agreed to speak to a chapter of Jewish War Veterans along with a host of others, including me, after a showing of the 2002 documentary film about him, “Displaced: Miracle at St. Ottilien,” by John Michalczyk. The film is based on Hilliard’s 1996 memoir, “Surviving the Americans: The Continued Struggle of the Jews After Liberation” (available at Amazon.com).
An author, professor emeritus from Emerson College in Boston and decorated combat veteran who practices no formal religion, Hilliard is now 88.
“You are,” the rabbi told him over the heads of the crowd, “a vessel of holiness.”
That immense peal of praise might be thet ot rabbinical equivalent of the Medal of Honor, and it was based on the fact that then 19-year-old Rtt Private First Class Robert Hilliard, wounded in and after the Battle of the Bulge, became one of the most successful whistleblowers of alla time, at least if lives are the measure.
He and the late Ed Herman, a fellow Army PFC who later became an international financier before retiring to Palm Beach, saved thousands of lives in the weeks and months following the German surrender on May 8, 1945.
But ironically that history of two young men — soldiers who used their wiles and their immense determination to do good by exposing callous American misbehavior to President Harry Truman and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower — has become a near non-history.
The story does not appear in standard history books, although it occurred at a Benedictine abbey converted to a hospital for refugees only about 30 miles from the brutal German camp, Dachau, and PFCs Hilliard and Herman personally saved many of the emaciated souls who had somehow avoided execution there.
The story doesn’t even appear in the massive collection of “New York Times Front Pages, 1851-2012,” where editors left out their own front page, dated Sept. 30, 1945.
There, a detailed report was topped by this headline: “President Orders Eisenhower To End New Abuse of Jews… Likens Our Treatment To That of the Nazis.”
Such is the fete of one of the most honorable whistleblowers ever to sound out an injustice.
Condition of Camps and Whistleblower Responses
Here’s what happened: The Americans let many refugees sicken, starve and die between mid-May and late fall of 1945. Army commanders withheld food and clothing from camps where the starving and desperate had staggered, on foot and wandering down the German roads, after liberation.
Fearing disease, military police put the refugees behind barbed wire. In more fortunate camps, Army officers administered food at a per-person rate of about 600 calories per day, which was the standing order from Gen. Eisenhower.
In some locations, American troops even traded food, clothing and medicine for favors from women behind the wire.
That’s all on the one hand, and documented.
On the other hand, PFCs Robert Hilliard and Ed Herman blew the whistle on it.
They also stole food from their own mess halls, bought out the Post Exchange store where GIs shopped for luxury items, and snuck that largesse into St. Ottilien, past military police guarding the place.
Then, in the 1945 version of an Edward Snowden action, the two young men bribed the printer on the base newspaper where Hilliard worked. They ran off 600 copies of a vivid letter he wrote accusing the Americans of their own genocide, and asking for help. Finally, they mailed those letters past Army censors to every sympathetic person and organization they knew of on the eastern seaboard of the United States.
An End to One of Our Most Disreputable Hours
A copy eventually reached the president, who investigated. The senior investigator even visited Hilliard’s mother, and read the personal letters Hilliard had sent home to her about what he saw.
That ultimately ended one of our most disreputable hours. By late fall, Army trucks carrying some of the 1,400 packages of 40, 50 or 60 pounds, mailed from American cities and towns to St. Ottilien, were delivering the goods to the desperate.
As many as 10,000 may ultimately have been saved there — and American policy toward the displaced changed everywhere, too.
It was an immense feat for a teenager with no power, no backing, and nothing but brains, heart and guts, and he was never officially celebrated for it.
Undeniable Value of Heroic Whistleblowers
In a true sense Ed and I were whistleblowers,” Hilliard told me the day after his visit to Temple Beth El. “Some GIs called us unAmerican and traitors for criticizing our country’s policies and actions.”
But the two young men were lucky.
“If this had occurred today,” Hilliard acknowledges, “as whistleblowers we’d either be in jail, or seeking asylum in Russia.”
Fortunately for all of us, he is still here to stand witness to what happened.
Without remembering — without telling and retelling what happened — we Americans, all of us, become cultural and ethical amputees. Φ
Roger Williams writes for the Florida Weekly.