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Largo veteran's photos recall the horror of the Gardelegen Massacre

LARGO

Henry and Jane Skwirut have kept the old photos in storage for most of their 71 years together, only bringing them out when the memories of war come rushing back. Veterans Day is one of those times.

There are some that reflect the beautiful countryside of northern Germany and some that are smiling portraits, like the one of Henry and his brother, Edward, who joined the Army on the same day.

However, there are others, mostly on small, graying pieces of contact paper, that reflect the stark, gruesome reality of Nazi Germany. These were taken by Henry in a place called Gardelegen, and they are not photos for the faint of heart. They show piles of corpses of political prisoners who died trapped in a barn set on fire by the Nazis.

"They are not the kind of photos you show a lot of people,'' said Henry, 93. "It was horrible what the Nazis did, and it's not something people wanted to talk about after the war too much.''

While serving as a solder in the Army's 406th regiment of the 102nd Infantry Division, Henry documented his days working as a driver and technician in World War II.

"I handled rear communications. If the officers up front needed something, they'd radio and tell us in the rear and we'd take care of it,'' Henry said. "I was lucky to retrieve a camera when I was over there, and I took pictures all the time, on the job. It's a Verlander camera. I got it while I was in an abandoned drugstore in a small village.''

Once or twice a week, he'd write a letter to Jane, who lived in East Orange, N.J., with her parents during the war. "Whenever he'd write, he'd include pictures,'' Jane, 91, recalled.

To Jane, one set of photos has always stood apart from the others.

"The ones Henry took at Gardelegen,'' she said. "Not a lot of people know about Gardelegen.''

On April 13, 1945, as the Nazis transported thousands of political prisoners from the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp, they forced the weakest to go into a barn-like structure on a large estate. The barn was doused with gasoline and lit on fire. More than 1,000 people burned to death inside.

The event is now known as the Gardelegen Massacre.

The next day, Henry received word by radio that fellow soldiers from the 405th regiment had discovered the atrocity.

"I was about 15 miles away. My sergeant, Sam Coscia, and I jumped in my Jeep and drove over,'' Henry recalled. "I'll never forget it. The smell of burning flesh was horrible, and the bodies were everywhere.

"We didn't stay long, about 30 minutes, but I quickly took the pictures. I believe these are the first photos taken there,'' he said.

Even now, he struggles to express his emotions about what he saw.

"We weren't fearful, because at that time, we knew the Germans were on the run. It was all almost over,'' he said. "But I felt angry. Angry for what they had done.''

As soon as he could, Henry mailed the photos to Jane.

"He told me to take care of them, and so I put them right away in a box,'' she said. "I remember thanking God that Henry didn't get hurt, and I do remember it was a terrible feeling that this kind of thing could go on, and I wished he would come home.''

It wouldn't be long before her wish would come true. About six months later, Henry was back in the United States, and in December 1945, he received his discharge papers.

The following spring, he began working for Westinghouse Electric in New Jersey. As he and Jane raised their children James, Judy and Janet, Henry worked in the lighting division of the corporation, developing more than 12 different products. Among his patents is one from the early 1980s for a compact fluorescent light bulb, among the first of its kind.

According to his daughter, Judy, who lives in Lithia, Henry is not one to talk about his past.

"Only recently has he started talking about his war years,'' she said. "As a child, I knew the pictures were up in the attic in a shoebox, but I didn't see them for years, maybe because of the subject matter. But I think it's important that the stories get out now, that we keep it all fresh what these World War II veterans like my father went through.''

To celebrate Veterans Day, Henry and Jane will keep it simple, said Henry. "I still drive, but it's hard for us at this age to get out.''

He'll raise his American flag outside their mobile home. In the afternoon, he'll probably fix sandwiches for himself and Jane.

And later, maybe they'll pull out more pictures that Henry took while traveling through the war zone all those years ago.

"The Jeep's nickname was Janie,'' said Henry. "I missed Jane back home. It's true.''

Piper Castillo can be reached at pcastillo@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4163. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Largo veteran's photos recall the horror of the Gardelegen Massacre 11/08/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 8, 2013 6:36pm]
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