A Fresno World War II veteran who helped liberate a Holocaust concentration camp in eastern Germany near the border of what was then Czechoslovakia will be honored in Clovis on Thursday.
Vernon Schmidt will receive the Honorary Commemorative Medal by the Ministry of Defense of the Czech Republic.
Schmidt, now 96, joined the Army out of Reedley High School, in 1944. He was sent to Europe. He entered as a private and eventually was promoted to master sergeant.
Serving with the Army’s 90th Infantry Division, Schmidt helped liberate nearly 40,000 prisoners from the Nazi concentration camp in Flossenburg.
“I’m so proud to have been able to be back there so many times and be with these people and share my part, way back on April 23rd, 1945,” Schmidt said.
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the camp was established in 1938, and mainly housed various political prisoners. By 1944, tens of thousands of Jews entered the camp. Prisoners were subject to hard labor.
Recalling the Liberation
GV Wire spoke to Schmidt about liberating Flossenburg.
“We entered the Flossenburg concentration camp after they had exited all their people who could walk. There was about 1,400 left who were bedridden, had disease, could not even walk, were so emaciated, and many of those died in the ensuing days. But a little 15-year-old kid, a Jewish boy up in Poland, was at the gate. The guards had hid him down below because they felt maybe this guy could be salvaged and wouldn’t be killed along the way or whatever on the death march. When he heard all the guards, he came up and he actually met our people who entered. Personally, I did not enter on that day. My duty that day was the death march that had come out of there. I was with our people, the 90th, helping to liberate the 11,000 who had exited out prior to us. That’s my story on and I’ve been back there four times.
“Most of us GIs who went in there had no concept of what was inside. The emaciated people just laying there, half-dead, skinny, naked; just terrible to see these people, how they were brutally been in there. Some have been in there since 1938,” Schmidt said.
Today, Flossenburg is a Holocaust educational facility.
“The bright side of this concentration camp is, that it has been restored and it is now an educational facility. I know the director personally. … The little 15-year old-boy is now on the board of directors. He’s a United States citizen. … Kids are given a story of what happened and how the Americans came and liberated him and that democracy is a very precious commodity,” Schmidt said.
“They converted terrible-looking buildings that were for the SS and the barbarian people there. You wouldn’t recognize it. It is beautiful inside, all decorated, and it’s just a beautiful place to come to. You can go through the museum. Both start to finish, it shows what it was and what it is today,” Schmidt said.
The ceremony takes place 10 a.m. Thursday at the Clovis Veterans Memorial District (808 4th Street, Clovis). An attaché with the Czech Republic government will make the presentation in person. The presentation was initially scheduled for 2020 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of WWII, but was postponed because of the pandemic.