Voices from the field

Discovering My Grandfather's Legacy

By Dan Tatar

This oral history was lost to my family, only seen by two people - until now.

My grandfather Martin Tatar (z”l) served as a Captain in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was one of the first to climb over the wall in the liberation of Dachau.

Forty years later, on May 24, 1982, The Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois interviewed my grandfather: 

Click on the image to view the interview
Interview with Lt Col Martin Tatar (ret) - USHMM

Dear Grandpa,

In some fantastically preserved time machine, I am now watching you in your living room on May 24, 1982. Dad was 33 at the time (younger than I am now), and I, your oldest grandson, was 4½. Thirty-five years later, I’ve discovered this video, and along with it - an entire part of you previously unknown to me.

I never had the opportunity to talk with you as an adult.  I imagine we would talk about understanding and helping those who are suffering, about the White Sox, and about your first great-grandchild, Olivia. I wish you could have met her. She’s 7 years old and shares your penchant for telling jokes.

To hear recollections directly from you offers me endless inspiration and thought. It left me wanting to know much more. Your experiences were well-guarded from the family and certainly from me. Yet for one hour, 40 years after, you chose to share. What compelled you to do so?

After you passed away, we found a book of wartime memorabilia carefully hidden in the back of your basement. The creases along the binding revealed that you had looked through it on multiple occasions, but never shared it with the family. The book documented your mental escape to the operas, the soldiers in your unit, and - most difficult to view knowing you had taken those photos - photographs from inside Dachau.

“You can’t explain this to people who don’t witness it, because the horror of this concentration camp is beyond imagination...It’s no different than telling a little kid the stove is hot. Until the kid touches that stove, what is hot? The story is so fantastic, it’s hard to believe…”

Toward the end of the interview, you said you were going to talk with your sons because, “...it’s time for them to understand.” But you didn’t. I’m sure your experiences haunted you the rest of your life, and by not talking about it, you were trying to protect your family as much as you were protecting yourself.

How many other children, grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren, have documented experiences of relatives waiting to be rediscovered? We sometimes need a reminder of the value of learning from the past to make a better future.

Through your legacy - three generations later - Olivia, your great-granddaughter, will learn from you the power and influence each of us possesses to effect change, making the world a better place.