By John Pope, The Times-Picayune The Times-Picayune
Milton Fingerman, who, as a GI during World War II, was an interpreter for the cadaverous survivors of Dachau when that death camp was liberated, died Monday at East Jefferson General Hospital. He was 90. Those who knew Mr. Fingerman, a retired clothing buyer who had worked for stores such as Lord’s and Krauss during the 52 years he lived in New Orleans, said he was a kind, gentle man who loved children and was a longtime holder of New Orleans Saints season tickets, a volunteer at his synagogue and the Aquarium of the Americas and a member of the Krewe of Caesar.
But in the spring of 1945, Mr. Fingerman, a native of New York City who held an associate degree from the City College of New York, was a staff sergeant in the Army’s 20th Armored Division. One of the division’s companies liberated Dachau, the concentration camp where thousands upon thousands of people — there is no reliable number — had perished. Mr. Fingerman arrived at the camp about two hours later.
Because he could speak Yiddish, he volunteered to be an interpreter for the survivors. The experience of being in the camp and talking to the inmates, many of whom were too weak to stand, about what they had endured haunted him for the rest of his life, friends and family members said.
“They spoke to us, but it wasn’t what they said that mattered,” Mr. Fingerman said in a 1995 interview. “It was the way they looked — how thin, how drawn. Emaciated would be the word. They looked like walking skeletons. You wouldn’t think they had enough strength to move around, but they managed.
“Their voices said one thing; their eyes said something else. Their voices said … thank you. … But their eyes — their eyes were dead. When you looked into their eyes, you saw death there. Like somebody looking without seeing. What I saw in their eyes, the ones I interviewed, was a look that I don’t want to see again.”
When Mr. Fingerman went into the Army, he was a typical, carefree young man who had been interested in golf, dating and having a good time, said Cathy Fingerman, his daughter-in-law.
But, she said, Mr. Fingerman felt that being at Dachau “had changed him from a carefree teenager … into a man. The things he saw that people could do to each other, those images stayed with him a long time. They were so shocking that he couldn’t bring himself to talk about them.”
In recent years, Cathy Fingerman said, her father-in-law started talking about being at Dachau. Last year, he spoke about it at a service that his temple, Shir Chadash Synagogue, held during Memorial Day weekend to honor veterans.
In that speech, Rabbi Ethan Linden said, Mr. Fingerman “realized that a lot of the people he was seeing (in the camp) were Jews, just like him, and he realized that if he had been born in a different time and place, he could have been in the camp.
“One of the lessons he drew from that was to take care of people even if they weren’t there in front of him.
“For those of us who were there to hear him talk, it was a classic Milton Fingerman talk. He saw himself as someone who had never done anything noteworthy. He told this story so matter-of-factly, as if he were just another person doing his job, that it was really powerful.”
Survivors include his wife, Roslyn Weissman Fingerman; a son, Dr. Irwin Fingerman of Birmingham, Ala.; a daughter, Ellen Fingerman of Arlington, Va., and three grandchildren.
A funeral will be held Wednesday at 3 p.m. at Shir Chadash Synagogue, 3737 W. Esplanade Ave., Metairie. Visitation will begin at 2:30 p.m.
Burial will be in Beth Moses Cemetery in Farmingdale, N.Y.
Tharp-Sontheimer Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.