North Dakotans recall 'Hell on Earth,' Holocaust atrocities that changed their families forever

I have always been horrified and intrigued by the Holocaust. Sadly, the Holocaust has touched the lives of several people from this area.

Dina Butcher, of Bismarck, with her father, Siegbert Schoenthal, on her wedding day in 1965. Schoenthal survived imprisonment in a German concentration camp. Special to The Forum
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April is Holocaust Remembrance Month. I have always been horrified and intrigued by the Holocaust. How could such evil and mass murder take place? How could so many people willingly participate? How could they think that killing millions of people just because of their religion was necessary and justified? Sadly, the Holocaust has touched the lives of several people from this area.

'He never regained his pride'

In 1932, Siegbert Schoenthal, a farmer, married Margaret Vienna in a small village in northern Germany.

Siegbert was Jewish. Margaret was a Christian.

Shortly after Hitler and the Nazis came into power in 1933, the walls started crumbling around Siegbert and Margaret. Marriages between Jews and non-Jewish Germans were declared illegal, and Siegbert lost his citizenship. Because Jews weren’t allowed to own property, Siegbert was forced to sell his farm, livestock and worldly goods at an extremely low price.

“Dad had a hard time talking about all this,” said Dina Butcher, of Bismarck, daughter of Siegbert and Margaret. “He was a proud man.”


Dina Butcher. Special to The Forum

On Nov. 9, 1938, German stormtroopers and citizens went on a rampage. They destroyed thousands of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, schools, homes and synagogues in Germany and Austria. It was called Kristallnacht, meaning, “The Night of Broken Glass.”

Hundreds of Jews were killed. More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and put in concentration camps. One of them was Siegbert. The local Nazis who picked up Siegbert had been his lifelong friends.

He was taken to the notorious Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where 100,000 inmates were murdered. At Sachsenhausen, Siegbert was barely fed, did forced labor, and was harassed and humiliated because he was Jewish. Six weeks later, Margaret’s relatives, who had joined the Nazi Party, helped get Siegbert out of Sachsenhausen.

“Dad was a broken man when he came out of the concentration camp. He never regained his pride,“ Dina said. “He was just trying to survive. He was so hurt. He had been a good citizen. It was painful for him to see his country and neighbors turn on them. Good people stood by and let it happen."

In 1939, Siegbert, Margaret and their children fled to Holland before making their way to the United States. Siegbert’s mother, three sisters, brother-in-law, 13-year-old niece and 8-year-old nephew all lived in Holland, and he tried to get them to join him in the U.S.


Goldina Schoenthal, pictured in 1938. Goldina was Dina Butcher's grandmother. Goldina was murdered in the Holocaust. She was sent to the gas chamber at Auschwitz. Special to The Forum

Because of his mother’s age, 62, and other logistical reasons, they stayed in Holland. Also, Siegbert’s brother-in-law was confident they were all safe in Holland. That all changed on May 10, 1940, when Germany invaded the country.

Siegbert, Margaret and their four children lived in New Jersey and Nebraska. Dina was the youngest of the children. After the invasion of Holland, Siegbert was unable to communicate with his family there. He tried repeatedly for years but did not hear anything back.

Shortly after the war ended in 1945, Dina vividly remembers handing her father a letter that arrived from the German government. The letter informed him of the whereabouts of his family from Holland. His mother (Dina’s grandmother), three sisters, brother-in-law, niece and nephew were all gone. They had all been exterminated in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

“Dad let out a big howl. He was crying. It was grief like I’ve never heard before or since,” Dina said. “I felt horrible for handing him the mail. Dad suspected something like this might have happened, but it was still devastating. He never got over that loss. He was never himself after that.”

'We were all afraid'

Margaret Steiner, a 32-year-old frightened Jewish woman, was living in Vienna as a hatmaker when Kristallnacht took place. It’s something she never forgot. I interviewed Margaret for both WDAY-TV and KVRR-TV.

“We were all rounded up. Had to get out of our apartments and houses,” Margaret said. “They put together the Jewish families. We were four families in one apartment. My father and mother were crying. They were just crying. We were all afraid. You were afraid to go anywhere. You hardly didn’t dare to sit in the park. We were completely helpless.”


The late Margaret Steiner, of Fargo, pictured in 2002. Margaret was a Holocaust survivor, but she lost many relatives. Courtesy of KVRR-TV

Margaret and her husband, Felix, escaped to England in 1939 and made their way to Fargo in 1940. She lived in Fargo the rest of her life. Other family members were stuck in Nazi occupied Europe. Her brother, Wilhelm, was killed in France. She lost contact with her other relatives.

“My parents couldn’t get out anymore,“ Margaret said. “My parents, cousins and aunts, they were just deported. You never knew where they went.”

Margaret’s parents, Julius and Olga Gruhut, along with dozens of her other relatives, were murdered in the Holocaust, but she never found out the circumstances.

Olga and Julius Gruhut, parents of Fargo's Margaret Steiner. Olga and Julius were murdered in the Holocaust. Special to The Forum

“It’s a miracle I could get out,” Margaret said. “Who could get out was a question of luck. I’m very lucky.”

Margaret died in 2003 at age 97.

'Hell on Earth'

In April of 1945, American troops were rapidly advancing through Germany under the direction of legendary General George Patton. One of the soldiers serving under Patton was Runyon Peterson, a 24-year-old sergeant from Dilworth.

Peterson and the others found themselves entering what they called “Hell on Earth.” They were the Nazi death camps of Buchenwald and Dachau.

Inmates were shot, gassed, hanged, beaten or starved to death.

Peterson and his fellow soldiers were horrified. The troops did not know ahead of time that these places existed. Peterson never forgot the sight of the thousands of bodies piled up, the survivors who were so weak they could barely walk and adult prisoners who only weighed around 60 pounds. I interviewed Peterson for WDAY-TV and KVRR-TV.

The late Runyon Peterson of Dilworth. He helped liberate two Nazi concentration camps and later spoke often about what he saw. Special to The Forum

“It was a shock to us. It made us extremely angry. We wanted to kill all the SS we could get our hands on,” Peterson said. “Those inmates got on their knees and took your hand and put it up against their mouth and started kissing your hand, hollering, 'Thank you, thank you.' I said, 'Please, stand up. You don’t have to do that.' They said, 'Yes, we do.' And they kept on saying, 'Thank you, thank you.'"

Peterson, who died in 2006 at age 85, took photographs of the atrocities. He was so moved and angry about what he saw that he made it his life’s mission to teach people about what he witnessed. Peterson spoke at hundreds of schools, service clubs and churches about his experiences.

He showed the pictures, told them his reaction and emphasized that we need to learn from this insanity.

“It’s awfully hard to understand some of this stuff, but don’t let anybody tell you it didn’t happen, because I’ve seen it. Thousands of us soldiers in the Army saw all this,” Peterson said. “I’ve seen piles of bodies of young children that had just come out of the gas chamber, and they were gonna haul them over to the crematorium and burn them up. … I can’t explain how people can be so damn dirty mean to a fellow human being.”

One of the people that Peterson and the other soldiers liberated at Buchenwald was a traumatized and frail 16-year-old boy who was starving and hadn’t eaten in six days.

His name was Elie Wiesel.

This picture was taken on April 11, 1945. It was the day American soldiers liberated the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. On the right is Sergeant Runyon Peterson, of Dilworth. On the left, in the middle with the dark hair, is Elie Wiesel, one of the just freed prisoners. Special to The Forum

In the spring of 1944, the Nazis put the Wiesel family in Hungary on a cattle car train and sent them to Auschwitz. Upon arrival, Elie’s mother, Sarah, and his 7-year-old sister, Tzipora, were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Elie and his father, Chlomo, were ordered to do forced labor.

While underfed and weary, Elie and Chlomo witnessed the constant hangings and smoke from the burning bodies. In January of 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, Elie, Chlomo and thousands of other inmates were put on a death march to concentration camps in Germany in the middle of a snowstorm.

Many died from exhaustion and exposure. Others were shot to death. Elie and Chlomo made it to the Gleiwitz Concentration Camp before being put on a cattle car train to Buchenwald.

In Buchenwald, Elie listened helplessly from the bunk above as his very sick father was repeatedly bashed over the head with a baton by a Nazi SS officer. Chlomo called out for his son as he was beaten to death.

'A messenger to mankind'

Wiesel went on to become a noted author, professor, human rights advocate and powerful voice of Holocaust survivors. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee said, “Wiesel is a messenger to mankind; his message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity.”

I interview Elie Wiesel in 1990 at Concordia College. Wiesel survived the Holocaust, became a human rights advocate and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Special to The Forum

In 1990, 45 years after liberation, Wiesel and Peterson were reunited. Wiesel traveled to Moorhead to speak at the Concordia College graduation ceremony. Peterson was there to greet him at Fargo’s Hector Airport.

I had the honor that day of interviewing Wiesel for WDAY-TV. He was friendly and kind. I looked at him and wondered, how could a man who had witnessed and experienced so much cruelty be able to smile and remain upbeat about life.

“I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile,” Wiesel said. “For me, every hour is grace. … I decided to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that having survived, I owe something to the dead, and anyone who doesn’t remember them betrays them again.”

Wiesel died in 2016 at age 87.

'We must never let our guard down'

On June 22, 1941, in a surprise attack, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Germans quickly captured much of the vast Soviet territory. On Sept. 9, 1941, the Jewish people who lived in the small town of Butrimonys, Lithuania, were rounded up by the Einsatzgruppen and Lithuanian collaborators. The Einsatzgruppen was a mobile Nazi SS death squad.

The Jews marched along a road until they arrived at a mass grave. The Einsatzgruppen then opened fire on them with their machine guns. In all, 740 people were murdered in the massacre, including 303 children.

Among the victims were Sara, Shoshana, Aharon, Tzvi, Akiva and Asna Baver. The Bavers were my cousins. I did not know them. They were slaughtered before I was born.

However, I would like to have known them.

Asna Baver, of Lithuania, who was 18 when she was murdered in the Holocaust. Courtesy of Yad Vashem

I often think of the Bavers, the exterminated families of Dina Butcher, Margaret Steiner and Elie Wiesel, and the millions of other innocent victims. We must never forget the evil and the madness of the Holocaust.

“I hope it will never happen again,” Margaret said. “I hope people will learn something from it.”

“We must always take sides,” Wiesel said. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

“It’s hard to believe this happened in a civilized country,” Dina said. “We need to stay vigilant. We must never let our guard down.”

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