On the morning of May 6, 1945 scouts for United States General George Patton’s Third Army accidentally discovered the Ebensee Concentration Camp in Ebensee, Austria. One of the U.S. soldiers who liberated the camp was 20-year-old Donald Hartrick, the great-uncle of Durand High School social studies teacher Dave Inman. Over 18,000 diseased and dying prisoners were crammed inside the camp, sleeping four to a bed. Even after liberation, hundreds died each day.
One of the 18,000 survivors at Ebensee was a 20-year-old Jewish man from Amsterdam, Netherlands named Max Garcia. Like Anne Frank, Garcia’s mother, father and sister were arrested in Amsterdam in 1942 and immediately gassed at a concentration camp. Max Garcia was able to hide in the city, but was discovered in 1943 and sent to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. He lied upon arrival at the camp, telling the Nazis he was a carpenter. He had no carpentry experience, but because he was 18 years old and fit, his life was spared. He was forced to do brutal construction work at the camp.
In 1944, his appendix ruptured. His life was spared by a team of German medical students who wanted a chance to perform an appendectomy on a living specimen. The appendectomy was successful and Garcia lived. In early 1945, with the Russians closing in on Auschwitz, Garcia and thousands of others were marched out of Auschwitz and crowded into open air train cars and shuttled deep into Austria. For 11 days and nights, the trains rambled through freezing temperatures.
In a 2012 interview with American Forces Network- Europe, Garcia said, “When we arrived in Mauthausen, about ten percent of those who were on the train survived. Ninety percent died on the road.” After Mauthasen, Garcia was sent to his fifth and final concentration camp, Ebensee. Situated just outside the beautiful mountain town in Ebensee, Austria, workers dug massive tunnels into the mountains so the Nazis could build the V2 rocket.
Garcia was in better health than many survivors and could speak different languages. He was quickly sworn in as a member of the U.S. Army and Garcia was able to help officers to interview other survivors, gave valuable intelligence about the location and hidden features of the camps he had been imprisoned in and the locations where Nazis had fled after leaving Ebensee.
After one month of service in the U.S. Army, Garcia was granted a military visa and immigrated to San Francisco, CA, where he lived as an architect. Garcia and Hartrick stayed in contact. In 1997, Garcia flew to Detroit and met at a reunion with Hartrick’s platoon and other veterans who helped to liberate the camp. Though Donald Hartrick died in 2004, his great-nephew found letters between the two men and decided to see if Garcia was still alive.
Quotes from 15th-year Durand High School social studies teacher Dave Inman: “I was doing a family history side project and discovered these letters. I was ecstatic to hear that Max was still alive. He and I first exchanged emails about seven years ago. I wrote to him this spring to congratulate him on the 75th anniversary of his liberation and again this summer to wish him a happy 96th birthday. With Veteran’s Day 2020 approaching, I wanted my U.S. History students to learn about this man, his story and to thank him for his service to our country. There are so many brave men and women who we owe a debt of gratitude to, men and women who have served in the military for decades. But with it being the 75th anniversary of his liberation and the end of WWII, I decided we should write letters to Max.”
Students of Inman’s third hour U.S. History class spent time last week learning about Garcia’s life and service to our country. The students introduced themselves in the letter, told Garcia what lessons they had learned from his life and service and thanked him for all he’s done for the Holocaust survivor community, as well as the veteran’s community.
Sophomore Adena Bowers wrote, “I’m sure that you’ve heard this hundreds of times, but thank you for everything that you’ve done, not only for America but for everyone. What you have done has greatly impacted lives.”
Sophomore Austin Kelley wrote, “Veterans are very brave people who deserve to get recognition, and I am glad I get to thank you for your service.”
Freshman Natalee Kuchar wrote, “During quarantine I did a lot of complaining. I felt trapped in my house. I couldn’t even imagine what the camps were like, it sounds absolutely horrifying. Your story has made me realize that I should be grateful for what I have.”
Students mailed the letters to Garcia, who is living in San Jose, California with his daughter Michelle. Garcia published a book of his life entitled, “Auschwitz, Auschwitz…I Cannot Forget You As Long As I Remain Alive.” In recent years he was an active speaker at Holocaust conferences and participated in Holocaust and WWII reunion events.