It was 1945, late in World War ll and they’d barely survived the Dachau concentration camp. Now little more than human skeletons they stood before him wearing their tattered rags.
Their pale white skin was covered in sores and they stared at him through their desperate dark, sunken eyes. These frightened Jewish refugees had no one left to care for them.
Lt. Withers was a 28-year-old black man, in the rigidly segregated U.S. Army heading an all-black supply unit, under a white command.
Based near Munich, his men had taken the boys in to live with them which violated U.S. military orders. Because the boys had long Polish names one they nicknamed “Peewee,” because at 16, he was just 5-feet tall. The other boy, 20 they nicknamed “Salomon.”
Though the boys didn’t speak English, they communicated well enough to assist the black troops in washing trucks, peeling potatoes and in doing other chores. In return the boys were given living quarters and food to nourish them. Now Lt. Withers was confronted with a tough decision.
If he got caught violating orders by housing these boys, everything he’d worked so hard for would be gone and he could even do prison time.
Lt. Withers had grown up in deeply segregated North Carolina, where African-Americans had few opportunities. His father was a janitor, his mother a seamstress and their small home also housed his three siblings and several other family members.
Money was always tight and yet somehow against seemingly impossible odds, Lt. Withers earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
He didn’t smoke, drink or curse and was well read and a lover of opera. Now late in World War ll, Lt. Withers feared returning to North Carolina with a dishonorable discharge and a possible prison record and no money and no job.
His dream was to earn his Ph.D. and in 1944 the GI Bill was passed to among other things help military veterans pay for college. To qualify, all he had to do was obey orders, get an honorable discharge and his dream was within his grasp.
But as a black man, Lt. Withers knew how it was to be deprived of his freedoms and to face the terrors Jim Crow laws and brutal Southern practices could bring. And he understood the irony of fighting in a war to bring Europeans freedoms he didn’t have in the U.S.
As a little icing on that bitter cake, on his way to Europe, Lt. Withers saw a train in New Orleans carrying German and Italian POWs, and they were being served by black porters. Black people were even inferior to the white prisoners who had fought the American troops.
However, Lt. Withers had also been to Dachau and saw the bodies piled high, rotting in stench as they decomposed. And these boys had lost their families and were alone in the world. How could he turn them away?
His conscience told him what he had to do, regardless of the price he might pay. With the support of his men, Lt. Withers kept Peewee and Salomon.
When white officers checked on Lt. Withers’ unit, his men hid the boys. In one close call, Peewee hid under a tarp motionless as white GIs sat on it.
Later in 1945, the Army began sending the soldiers home and hired local people to replace them. Now Peewee and Salomon came out of hiding and openly stayed with Lt. Withers and his unit.
In 1946, when Lt. Withers transferred to another unit in Bavaria, they went with him. By now the boys were much healthier, and were learning English and learning about the U.S. and baseball, cowboys, and horseshoes. These boys had also learned to sing gospel music.
Lt. Withers educated them as well but when they spoke of America, he didn’t tell them about the racial problems or anti-Semitism because he felt they didn’t need more negativity in their lives.
As Christmas of 1946 approached, it was time for Lt. Withers to return home to America. By then Peewee had an apartment and a job in a machine shop. He and Salomon awaited Lt. Withers at his Jeep to thank him for all he had done for them.
To remember their happy memories together, the boys handed Lt. Withers a photo album with his name embossed on it. He gave each of them a pen and his family’s North Carolina address.
But Lt. Withers had also tucked away something else that was very special, although no-one then knew how special it would become. Earlier Peewee gave him a photo in which the boy, wearing a U.S. Army uniform, smiled warmly.
In English on the back of the photo, he’d written, “To my good friend, Lt. John L. Withers.” Five decades later, that photo would trigger some remarkable events as you’ll see next week.