92-year-old liberator still grapples with Holocaust horrors
SCRANTON — Alan Moskin knew he was fighting Nazis. He didn’t know he was on a humanitarian rescue mission.
Like most U.S. soldiers fighting in World War II’s European theater, Moskin didn’t understand the breadth and depth of Adolf Hitler’s hatred toward Jewish people until he discovered the concentration camps.
Moskin, 92, a former staff sergeant from Englewood, New Jersey, gave the keynote address before 750 students at the 31st annual Teen Symposium on the Holocaust at the Hilton Scranton and Conference Center.
The symposium puts high school students face-to-face with holocaust survivors, the soldiers who rescued them and their descendants. A coalition of Jewish and charitable organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Schwartz Mack Foundation and the Scranton Area Community Foundation — Robert H. Spitz Foundation, sponsored the event among other organizations.
May 8 marks V-E Day, the day the Allies formally accepted Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender and the end of World War II in Europe in 1945.
On a “damp day in a wet forest” his unit caught a terrible stench in the air.
They saw the compound through the trees and a sign that read, “Arbeit macht frei,” German for “Work sets you free.”
As his unit entered Gunskirchen concentration camp, a subcamp of the Mauthausen-Gusen complex in Austria, Moskin raised his M1 Garand rifle and dropped the lone guard who refused to follow orders, translated through an interpreter, to surrender.
He saw heaps of skeletal bodies — “bones with no flesh.”
Prisoners scrambled up to them and begged for food. They asked for cigarettes, not to smoke. Instead they unwrapped them and ate the tobacco.
Students seemed to have a unified reaction to Moskin’s account: he was “blunt.”
“He just said it how it was and made you feel like you were really there,” said Rachel Olver, 16, of Honesdale.
Seventy-four years later, Moskin still grapples with the hatred he witnessed as an 18-year-old — not just among the feared Schutzstaffel, better known as the SS, and the Hitler Youth.
He saw racism at Camp Blandy near Jacksonville, Florida, where other recruits called him names for a high school basketball photo he pinned behind his bunk. It showed him with his arms around his black teammates after a win.
Moskin, who is Jewish, repeated the hateful words American soldiers spat at him and his friends. The sea of students listening, aware of the power those words still hold, sat in silence.
“Is this America?” Moskin asked himself. “We’re fighting the Nazis? Who’s the good guys? I was confused.”
Nathaniel Perry, 16, who lives in the Catskill Mountains region in New York, never considered how the oppression borne of the segregation era would seep into the military. Moskin’s account was eye-opening, he said.
In rural Liberty, New York, he was the only black kid in his neighborhood, he said.
“I got called racial names,” he said, putting the blame on older generations for passing along hatred.
Moskin urged him and the other students filling the hotel ballroom to tackle hatred head-on. Perry and his peers seemed, if nothing else, pragmatic about the challenge.
Violence and racism aren’t part of daily life for Morgan Brown, 17, of Honesdale, but she hears about it in other parts of the world.
“It’s never going to fully go away,” she said.
Her friend, Kayleigh Pugh, 17, chimed in.
“It’s hard being a young person to try to make some sort of huge change,” she said.
On the other hand, the internet and social media, often tools for tearing people down, also make spreading messages of kindness and encouragement simpler.
“Little things like that will have a ripple effect,” she said.