Dr. Blaine Passey and nurse Cato Persico discovered a few days ago they have more in common than the fact they both work for the same company. Theirs is a connection that goes back 43 years to one of the most terrible times in history.
It turns out Passey was one of the American soldiers who liberated the concentration camp where Persico and thousands of other victims of the Nazis were interned during World War II.Recently, Persico, a nurse who lives in North Salt Lake, was talking with Passey at the FHP offices where they work, 1525 W. 21st South. He asked her if she were a German, because of her accent.
She flared up that she certainly was not, that the accent was Dutch; she was from Holland. Passey asked her where she was from in Holland, as he spent time there in World War II.
Persico replied that she was from Amsterdam, but for much of the war, she wasn't in Holland - she was in a Nazi concentration camp. That was in eastern Germany, Nordhau-sen. It was the same concentration camp that Passey helped evacuate during the war.
In a Deseret News interview at her apartment, Persico (her married name; she was born Cato Huisman), related how two girlfriends in Holland invited her and her brother to a party in 1943, when she was a little girl in occupied Amsterdam. The friends were Hitler Youths, and their father was an SS leader.
As the party ended, she and her brother, Henk, took food and stuffed it into their pockets.
Although they were not Jewish, an officer and soldier chased them down, threw them on the ground, found the food and told them they would be punished "for stealing food from the fighters," Persico said.
They were thrown in one of 10 or 11 trucks that were filled with crying children. The 300 children were trucked to a flat-bottomed boat, which then took two days and two nights to get to Germany. Some children died along the way.
Before they reached the camp, they stopped at a former cheese factory, and there she was wounded in the leg by shrapnel during an air raid. She refused the assistance of a German doctor. Next they were loaded in boxcars for the several hours it took to reach Nordhausen.
This was a work camp where V-1 missiles were built. She remembered "a horrible smell. . . . We never realized it was the smell of burning flesh."
Immediately upon arrival, the prisoners were forced to strip, and they were shaved. "I was covered with lice and sores already at that time. The hair was used to stuff mattresses."
She worked for 12 hours a day in a factory at the camp. "We had to witness a lot of cruelty in the camp, too," she said. She described horrible scenes of torture and degradation.
Green, mildewed bread was handed out before dawn, she said. "The soup at the camp was made out of human fat, and there were maggots floating in it. Very nourishing for your Sunday meal."
Persico said her brother was forced to dig ditches for mass graves.
At times the prisoners were punished by being forced to stand close to a wall for hours at a time, in freezing rain. If one of them allowed his nose to touch the wall, he was beaten.
Toward the end, she said, she worked with the incineration ovens, "knee-deep in ashes that used to be human beings."
She spent 20 months there, until Americans liberated the camp in April 1945.
"We could see all of sudden guards running, and trucks arriving in the back," Persico said. Suddenly American soldiers arrived with tanks and trucks.
She was terrified, thinking these unknown soldiers would ship them to another camp. She said they could have been Martians for all she knew.
A soldier tried to put a piece of gum in the girl's mouth, but she wouldn't take it, fearing it was poison. But then he chewed some himself, and she decided it was safe.
She saw soldiers crying at the horrors of the camp and knew then they couldn't be a new group of Nazi monsters.
"I thought they must be OK, because a Nazi doesn't cry. You could feel it inside that you could trust them."
It hit home that they were free "when they took us down to hospitals," and she had her first bath in nearly two years.
"We were very undernourished. We were all bloated up from the hunger," she said
"I don't remember Cato, but there were a whole bunch of scrawny kids running around and a whole lot of bodies," recalled Dr. Passey.
At the time, he was a 24-year-old medical administrator from Salt Lake City, serving with the 68th Medical Group. The group was the evacuation outfit for the 1st Army.
One of the images that sticks in his mind is "the comparison between young, healthy GIs and these poor people," he said.
"I went into the barracks, and these people were stacked on shelves . . . You couldn't tell which were alive and which were not. Many were dead."
In the camp's court yard, emaciated bodies were piled 12 feet high, "like stacks of cordwood."
That comment reminded Persico that when the Nazis were operating the camp, the safest place was where people had typhoid. The guards wouldn't go there, for fear of catching the disease.
After the camp was liberated, the Americans forced local residents to file past the bodies, showing them what had happened. They claimed not to know what was going on.
"Ha," said Persico.
Many years later, she told her story on television and radio. She would say that she wished she could find one of the Americans who liberated the camp.
Now that she has found one, "it was just a real coincidence," Passey said.
"That's one chance in a million," Persico agreed. "I don't think you'll ever come across it again."