WWII memories paired with musicLiberator will be honored during performance of ‘Annelise’

Former U.S. Army Cpl. Bill Womack, part of a group who liberated several concentration camps in Europe during World War II, will be recognized at a 7 p.m. March 25 Allegro Chorale Concert called Annelise.

The concert will be in the Rea Auditorium of the Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center, 1310 N. Farm to Market Road 1788 in Midland. 

Annelise is a 14-movement musical composition based on “The Diary of Anne Frank.” British writer Melanie Challenger adapted selections from Frank’s diary. British composer James Whitbourne set the words of the diary for a large musical ensemble that includes chamber orchestra, a chorus and a soprano soloist.

The featured soprano soloist will be Antonina Chehovska, who is based in New York City.

The chorale will be augmented by members of the Midland-Odessa Symphony for the performance. Tickets may be purchased at the Wagner Noel website or by calling 1-800-514-3849.

Womack, who lives in Midland, was in his early 20s when he found himself at the German concentration camp near Landsberg. The 95-year-old retired petroleum engineer still has photos he took of the dead at one of the camps.

He didn’t have any idea of what was going on at the camps or that they existed.

“They weren’t combat troops. They were just innocent civilians. Like everybody else I was kind of dumbfounded at the sight of this. In fact, I still wonder why,” Womack said. “… I’d seen a lot of dead German soldiers, but we didn’t exterminate them like flies. They shot at us; we’d shoot back at them. We were used to death and bodies. We’d been in combat for two years, but this was an entirely different (breed) of cat.”

He described the camp as being farmland enclosed by wire with barrack-type buildings and a railroad track that ran up to a crematorium – a huge building with a big smokestack.

“The common saying was the only way out of that camp was through the smokestack,” Womack said. “It was a gruesome saying, but it was true. We liberated four of these particular camps. … That was the first one I went into and I didn’t go to any more.”

The group of Americans that were coming through there had an armored division in front. Behind that, there was infantry and support.

“I was in an artillery unit, which was a support group for the infantry. By the time our group got in there, the thing was pretty well. The guards, I guess, had already fled and there were just prisoners and dead bodies,” Womack said.

“The prisoners were pathetic looking individuals; very thin (and) fragile. Their eyes were big, seemed like. (Their) teeth were big. (Their) mouths were protruding. … Apparently their joints were stiff because they walked (with) a twisting movement to get their legs to move forward. There were probably a dozen still alive in that unit when I was there. I’m sure they died daily from starvation because they were just shadows. (Their) clothes hung in rags about them. Some of them were eating grass from under the trees outside the camp,” he added.

“They were all begging for food. We’d had orders before we ever left. We knew where we were going. They said don’t give them any rations because it would kill them right off. Our rations were highly concentrated. We had to because we were active all the time,” he said.

Womack, who was raised in Fort Worth, said he was in the Army from 1941 to 1945. He signed up at age 19 and was sent to Camp Bowie in Brownwood, Camp Blanding in North Florida and then Camp Edwards in Cape Cod, Mass.

From there, Womack went to Algeria in North Africa and Anzio, Italy, which was his first taste of combat. “We stayed in Italy about a year. Then we went to the southern France. From southern France we [followed] our way up to eastern border with Switzerland to Germany,” he said.

They went to Frankfurt and crossed the Rhine River and he said they were in Kufstein, Austria, when the war ended.

Womack said he enlisted with a group of high school friends.

“It was a patriotic time in the 1940s,” Womack said. He worked in a variety of roles such as gun crew, truck driver and observer where he would go up to the front lines, look for the enemy and tell his colleagues where to shoot.

He and his wife, Char, have been married for 64 years. They have two children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Womack earned a geology degree from Texas Christian University and did graduate work at the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma in geology with a minor in biology. He also went to Midland College and took a correspondence course in telecommunications from the Army.

He worked for several oil companies as a petroleum geologist.

Frank Kasman, a member of the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission, said in a write up that some years ago the commission found and interviewed several World War II veterans who had been at the liberation of Nazi death camps at the end of the war. Womack was one of them.

The commission contracted with Baylor University to do this and they presented the commission with stories of 22 veterans who told their stories and gave their impressions of the period.

Womack said it’s not something he was gung-ho about doing, but it was something he wanted to do for society so people would know what happened.

Several years after the commission contracted with Baylor, Kasman said, they were asked to expand that mission to create a book that would explore the liberation period more extensively. The coffee table book would have been cost prohibitive, but Texas Tech University came up with an alternative – a virtual book or website so the veteran liberator website was established.

In the design, Kasman wrote, students are given a chance to tour an architectural rendering of a camp as if they were on a drone. They can survey the barracks, gas chambers, open yards and fence lines.

Students may also view other camps or meet liberators and survivors. “We will have about five or six liberators there who can describe their experiences at the arrival of American troops at the camps. They can also link to stories of most of our liberators from the Baylor study, as well as other poignant experiences from our liberators on record from local holocaust museums,” Kasman wrote.

The website will be launched at Camp Mabry in Austin to coincide with Veterans Day this year.

A Texas Veteran Liberator Honor Roll – made up of the names of more than 320 veterans who helped in the liberation and information about their lives and experiences during the war- also will be unveiled. The honor roll will be maintained by Texas Tech and the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission and made available to veterans and other groups statewide.

The book about veteran liberators will be published by Texas Tech University Press in December and be distributed to every high school in Texas, along with a teachers’ guide to instructing students about the liberation period provided by the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission.

Kasman said the projects were tackled because students going through the Holocaust museums in Houston and Dallas didn’t have any idea that the war occurred or that the concentration camps were there.

“They stopped teaching it like in the 60s in the schools,” Kasman said. “This just kind of blew the mind of some of our state legislators, especially our Jewish legislators.”

Ultimately, Kasman said questions about the Holocaust and World War II were included in state tests because if it’s not on the test, it doesn’t get taught. 

Womack said those involved did a wonderful job on the recreation of the camp, but he said there’s one thing they couldn’t reproduce.

“That’s the odor that prevailed in that place. I never have smelled it since. Oppressive, foul odor of death is what it is. Rotting bodies. … I was so glad to get out of that place. I did all I could to forget it but I never have been able to,” Womack said.