LARGO — Henry Skwirut found the Verlander camera in an abandoned German village during World War II, and as he worked as a radio operator and driver in the Army's 406th regiment of the 102nd Infantry Division, he often used it to document what he saw. Once a week, he would mail the photographs home to his new wife, Jane, in East Orange, N.J.
Sometime in the early morning of April 14, 1945, he heard a report on the radio that U.S. soldiers were working at a horrific scene. He grabbed the Verlander and with his sergeant, rushed to the immediate aftermath of what would come to be known as the Gardelegen Massacre of April 13, 1945. Nazi soldiers had led more than 1,000 prisoners into a barnlike structure and then set it on fire.
Mr. Skwirut quickly photographed the scene.
"I'll never forget it,'' he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2013. "The smell of burning flesh was horrible, and the bodies were everywhere.''
A week later, he sent the pictures to Jane with a note, asking her to keep them safe. And for more than 70 years, until her death, she did just that.
Over the years, however, the couple rarely pulled them out. It wasn't until after the Times article that his three adult children learned much of the details of their father's experience.
His explanation for keeping the memories locked up: "They are not the kind of photos you show a lot of people,'' he told the Times.
Mr. Skwirut, 96, died on July 3. Along with his children, Judith Glenn, James Skwirut and Janet Saporito, he is survived by two grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Jane died last year.
According to his daughter, who lives in Lithia, when Jane died, a large piece of him died too.
"My dad was a man of few words a lot of the time, but after mom died, he did eventually say it. He just did not want to live without her,'' Judith Glenn said.
Mr. Skwirut, who while serving in Germany named his Army jeep Jane, was discharged from the military a few months after Gardelegen and headed home to New Jersey. For 42 years, the couple focused on raising their children while Mr. Skwirut worked at Westinghouse Electric, in the lighting division. While there, he developed more than 12 different products, including an early version of a compact fluorescent light bulb.
"My dad was smart, and he only had an eighth-grade education,'' Glenn said.
In 1983, Henry and Jane decided to retire to Florida, and while Glenn helped her parents pack up for the move she saw the photos of the unimaginable scenes.
"I had known he had pictures, but it was then that I actually saw them in the upstairs. I was told that's what they were, from the war, and then we just kept packing,'' she said.
Glenn is not sure who she will give the photographs to. About 100 pictures are in the album, about 25 of Gardelegen.
"I want to keep them safe,'' she said.
"It was horrible what happened. Nobody would have known about if someone hadn't taken the pictures,'' she said. "So I want to make sure they end up in a good place and that my father's name stays with them.''
Judith Cohen is the chief acquisitions curator for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She encourages families like the Skwiruts to share pictures with experts. Cohen also stressed that although many photographs of the Holocaust exist, photos taken by individual soldiers are not as common.
And when it comes to Mr. Skwirut witnessing the scene, Cohen thinks of a man "in total shock,'' she said.
"What happened in Gardelegen wasn't just a firefight. Soldiers at that point were habituated to seeing casualties,'' she said. "They had seen horrific carnage on the battlefield, but this was an atrocity where they saw people burned and stuffed into a barn. It's hard to imagine this type of bestiality, but this is what it was."
Glenn expects that there are other families out there with fathers who were like hers — not eager to talk about what they saw during the Holocaust.
"Maybe their father was there, and they never understood his story, and this way, through Daddy's pictures, we can help get that story told,'' she said.
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.