As the haunting notes of a prayer sung in Hebrew floated in the breeze outside the American Airpower Museum in East Farmingdale Wednesday, Thea Gottesmann Rumstein bowed her head in thought. Others fought back tears.
It was the mourner’s kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, interspersed with the names of Nazi concentration camps where millions died during the Holocaust.
“I was thinking of my father when they mentioned Auschwitz,” Rumstein, whose father was gassed there by the Nazis in 1944, told Newsday. “My mother and I were young enough that they didn’t kill us. The older ones went right into the gas.”
Rumstein, 82, was at the museum to commemorate the opening of an exhibit marking the liberation of Nazi concentration camps in the waning months of World War II, including the Mauthausen slave camp from which she had been rescued exactly 65 years earlier.
The permanent exhibit includes an M8 “Greyhound,” a fast armored personnel carrier that U.S. troops used to reach Mauthausen in time to liberate the surviving inmates.
During the ceremony, Rumstein faced the M8, which had been purchased for $75,000 from a seller in Texas. The museum plans to bring the M8 to area schools and colleges, as a teaching tool on the Holocaust.
“I’ve tried to forget about that time, but when I see that tank, it brings back memories,” said Rumstein, who immigrated to the United States in 1955 and has lived in Levittown ever since. “That tank was the first thing I saw when the Americans came.”
Another attendee was Hy Horowitz, 90, of East Meadow. A former tank driver who survived the D-Day invasion at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, Horowitz helped liberate a Mauthausen satellite camp the day before Rumstein was freed.
Horowitz, who is Jewish, said he found himself trying to help thousands of starving prisoners, whose skeletal bodies and sunken eyes haunt him to this day. Overwhelmed during the ceremony, he opened a Jewish prayer book he carried with him and recited the kaddish.
“The most horrible scene we saw were the people who were barely alive,” he said. “It was the best illustration of man’s inhumanity to man.”
Mauthausen and its several satellite camps housed more than 80,000 prisoners. Inmates working 12-hour days at the main camp – a granite quarry – were forced to carry massive stones up 186 “stairs of death.”
As many as 130,000 people were worked, starved or beaten to death at Mauthausen during the war. One of them, Peter van Pels, a boy who hid with Anne Frank in an attic in Amsterdam, died the day Rumstein was freed.
“They fed us occasionally, not even every day,” said Rumstein, who weighed 87 pounds when she was liberated.
Rumstein said she rarely talked about her wartime experience until two years ago, when she was invited by a school in Vienna to speak about the Holocaust.
She says she decided years ago not to be bitter.
“I don’t forgive Hitler, I don’t forget the Holocaust,” she said. “But three generations have passed since then. Their grandchildren shouldn’t be blamed.”