Centerpiece of the commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the liquidation of the Litzmanstadt Ghetto in Lodz. Poland (Film Museum & Stary Rynek Square outdoor screenings).
Reunion of Ahlem Camp survivors. Lincoln Center, NYC (May 2007)
Introduction by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who served along with Vernon in the 84th Infantry division.
Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival
When the US Army 84th Infantry liberated the Ahlem-Hanover concentration camp in April 1945, Vernon Tott, a 20-year old soldier from Iowa, felt compelled to document the horror, using a second-hand camera he carried into battle. Fifty years later, Vernon, now suffering from cancer, set out to find the men he photographed, a quest that transforms all their lives. The photographs—evidence of unbearable cruelty and miraculous survival—cement a sustaining bond between Vernon and the Jewish survivors. Angel of Ahlem is a moving portrait of friendship and survival.
On April 10, 1945, Vernon Tott, a 20-year-old American GI from Sioux City, Iowa, stumbled upon a compound outside Hanover, Germany. He and his buddies in the 84th Infantry had just routed the few remaining Germans. The compound, called Ahlem, ringed in barbed wire, displayed a sign warning SS troops not to enter for fear of disease and lice. To Vernon’s horror, he saw emaciated men barely able to stand, others lying in their urine and feces, racked with dysentery, still others stiff and cold, dressed in tatters and dead for days.
Not quite sure why—perhaps as proof of what his eyes refused to believe—he pulled out a second-hand camera and recorded the horror but also the hope in the faces of those who had survived. As Vernon readily admits, “Back then, I didn’t really know what was going on in the world.” It would be years before he truly understood the significance of what he had witnessed.
When he returned home, Vernon put away the photographs, and got on with his life. The photos stayed in his basement in a dust-covered shoebox until one of the Ahlem survivors placed a notice in a 1995 veterans’ newsletter seeking the whereabouts of the GI who had taken the photographs 50 years before.
Vernon saw the notice, realized he was that GI, pulled out the photos and contacted the survivor, Ben Sieradzki, who finally had proof of the truth of his distant memories. Ben’s gratitude spurred Vernon on to identify and find the other survivors pictured in his photos. As he met more and more survivors and their children and grandchildren—generations that barely missed not being here at all—the importance of his photos hit home.
Tott, beset by cancer and a stroke, refused to succumb to age and illness, spending his days, in a race against time, searching and researching. He relished the warm friendships he made with the Holocaust survivors, who call him their Angel. Until they saw themselves and their fellow prisoners in Vernon’s photos, many of the survivors had no evidentiary record of being in Ahlem—only their faded memories. As Ben Berkenwald explains in the film, “Now there’s real proof that there existed that camp.”
While his wife and children looked on with concern, Vernon traveled the world, first to Hanover, Germany, to visit the site of Ahlem with his new-found friends, and then to a 60th anniversary commemoration of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, the former home of many of the Ahlem survivors. As the old men stand together, bearing witness, the power of the tragedy hits home anew, although tempered by the extraordinary love shared by the old GI and the survivors of Ahlem.
ABOUT VERNON TOTT
Born in the small farming community of Orange City, Iowa, in 1924, Vernon Tott grew up hearing stories about his grandparents’ migration from the Netherlands to tiny Orange City, a Dutch enclave laid out in the mid-19th century on land that had been home to Sioux Indians. One of his grandfathers had come from Hanover, Germany, a city that Tott would come to know all too well.
Vernon’s family eventually moved some 45 miles away to Sioux City where he attended high school. In 1943 Vernon was inducted into the U.S. Army and sent overseas. As a member of the 84th Infantry (“the Railsplitters”), Vernon took part in the Battle of the Bulge and the eastward push to the Elbe River.
Outside Hanover, Germany, Tott’s unit stumbled upon Ahlem, a Nazi slave labor camp, where Tott took a series of photographs of the emaciated, bewildered survivors. Like most young GIs, he did not know what to make of such despair and inhumanity. He sent the photos home. After the war, Tott packed the photos away in a box of war memorabilia and medals for distinguished military service.
After his discharge, Vernon returned to Sioux City and went to work for Swift Meatpacking Plant, where he remained until his retirement in 1984. In 1947, he married Melva Chase and they had two children before divorcing. In 1973, he married Betty Sadler, who had three children.
In 1995 as his health was deteriorating, Vernon read a notice in the 84th Infantry newsletter that changed his life forever: Benjamin Sieradzki, a Jewish survivor of the Ahlem camp, had posted an inquiry looking for the young, blond soldier who took photos of survivors on the day of their liberation. Vernon realized he was the soldier Sieradzki was looking for. He retrieved the photos and contacted Sieradzki. Thus began the search to locate the men in Vernon’s photos, a quest that transformed all of their lives.
ABOUT THE AHLEM CAMP
As the 84th Infantry Division "Railsplitter" division advanced into the interior of Germany, its troops uncovered Hannover-Ahlem (April 10, 1945) and Salzwedel (April 14, 1945), both satellite camps of the Neuengamme concentration camp. The SS established the Hannover-Ahlem camp on November 30, 1944, after transferring the camp and its inmates from the Continental Gummiwerke factory at Hannover-Stöcken. In Ahlem the inmates were forced to work in the nearby asphalt tunnels. These were to be cleared for the production of aircraft and Panzer parts for Continental Gummiwerke and Maschinenfabrik Hannover.
When the soldiers of the 84th entered the camp in Ahlem, they discovered an undetermined number of starving and ill Jewish prisoners. Reports range from 30 to 250 persons. The SS guards had abandoned these prisoners when they evacuated the camp, taking with them some 600 "healthy" prisoners. Of the prisoners sent on this death march, only 450 made it to the Bergen-Belsen camp. The SS guards had shot many of those who were unable to maintain the pace of the march. The U.S. Army war crimes investigators reported that many of these survivors died soon after liberation from the accumulated abuse, mistreatment, and neglect they had suffered. They estimated that only 300 to 400 Jewish prisoners at Hanover - Ahlem survived the war.
(Camp description provided by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum).
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
Sandra Dickson, Churchill Roberts, Cindy Hill and Cara Pilson have co-produced and written several documentaries for national distribution on PBS. Their most recent film was the critically acclaimed Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power (2006, PBS Independent Lens, winner of the Erik Barnouw Award for Outstanding Historical Documentary). Their previous documentaries include Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore (winner of the Barnouw Award); Giving Up the Canal; Campaign for Cuba; Last Days of the Revolution; and Deciding Who Dies. Roberts and Dickson are Co-Directors of The Documentary Institute, a division of The College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. Cindy Hill and Cara Pilson are the Institute’s Associate Directors.
Music Score Composer Todd Boekelheide won an Academy Award in 1984 for Best Sound for Amadeus and an Emmy in 1998 for scoring the documentary Kids of Survival. He has scored more than 50 films, including the feature films Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh; One; Nina Takes a Lover and the documentaries Boffo! Tinseltown’s Bombs and Blockbusters (Emmy nomination); In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee; The Alzheimer's Project; Beautiful Son; Ballets Russes; Freedom Machines; Last Letters Home; Alice Waters and her Delicious Revolution; Forgotten Fires; Regret to Inform; Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse; and Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam.
Official Website including a gallery of photographs taken by Tott in April, 1945.
Review: Jewish Advocate, July 2012
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Angel of Ahlem
USA, 2007, 61 minutes, color/B&W
Directed by Sandra Dickson, Churchill Roberts, Cindy Hill & Cara Pilson (The Documentary Institute)
Public Exhibition formats: Beta, DVD