In May 1945, as World War II ended, an all-black U.S. Army truck company, including Lieutenant John L. Withers of Greensboro, North Carolina, rushed emergency supplies to an unknown German town. Long victims of harsh racial abuse, the soldiers were nonetheless shocked at the horrors they witnessed when the “town” turned out to be the Dachau concentration camp. They were further shocked, days later, when two destitute young Jews, former Dachau inmates, appeared at their encampment and pleaded for help. Housing non-military personnel was strictly forbidden, but the soldiers, with their lieutenant’s endorsement, sheltered the boys nevertheless.
After the war, as he raised a family and launched a career in government, Withers always remembered the Jewish boys and told of the year they hid out in his unit, working alongside and forging close friendships with his soldiers. He himself became their surrogate parent, guiding them towards understanding that, however horrid the past, the future yet held hope. When he went home in 1947, the boys—fondly nicknamed Pee Wee and Salomon by the troops—were ready to start life anew. Although they eventually lost touch, Withers’ memory of his friends never faded. What, he wondered, had become of them? Would he ever see them again?
Balm in Gilead traces John L. Withers II’s prolonged search for the roots of his father’s story—a search that one day, miraculously, ended with the old friends finding each other again.
Featured by Forward, The Algemeiner Journal and The National Museum of African American History & Culture