Irving Heymont, a retired Army colonel who commanded one of the largest displaced persons camps for European Jews in Europe immediately after World War II, died March 17 at his home in suburban Fort Belvoir, Va. He had sick sinus syndrome, a heart disease. He was 90.
When Colonel Heymont, then a 27-year-old major, was assigned to command the Landsberg, Germany, displaced persons camp in September 1945, all the non-Jewish residents had been transferred to other locations.
About 5,000 people, mostly Russian, Latvian, and Lithuanian survivors of the war, remained.
“With few exceptions, the people of the camp themselves appear demoralized beyond hope of rehabilitation,” Colonel Heymont told his wife in a letter. “They appear to be beaten both spiritually and physically, with no hopes or incentives for the future.”
Without telling anyone that he was Jewish for fear of subverting military discipline, the spit-and-polish, by-the-book officer helped restore residents’ dignity by treating them as humans.
One resident told his son that Colonel Heymont was “one of those non-Jews with a Jewish heart.”
As the survivors regrouped, the camp became a thriving community. Residents began preparing kosher meat, organized multiple schools, and started a Yiddish language newspaper and theater.
In October 1945, David Ben-Gurion, an architect of the state of Israel who later became its first prime minister, paid a surprise visit to the camp, and Colonel Heymont noted that, “To the people of the camp, he is God.”
Abraham Peck, director of the Academic Council for Post-Holocaust Christian, Jewish and Islamic Studies at the University of Southern Maine, said Colonel Heymont’s 3 1/2 months at Landsberg became a turning point in Jewish history, because the “surviving remnant” of Eastern European Jews developed their will to never let the world forget what happened in the Holocaust.
“Heymont allowed these people their own sense of humanity,” said Peck, who was born in the camp and later edited Colonel Heymont’s wartime letters to his wife. “They needed to tell the world it could happen again. The survivors really believed that they could become this force to change the nature of humanity because they’d seen it at its worst.”
Irving Heymont was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and worked as a metallurgical chemist before enlisting in the Army in 1940.
He served in the Panama Canal Zone until the United States was drawn into World War II. He fought in the infantry in Germany and Austria, where his regiment liberated Gunskirchen, a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp.
Colonel Heymont, who went on to serve in Korea, later studied and taught at the Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
After his retirement from the Army in 1964, he was a vice president for 17 years at General Research Corp. in suburban McLean, Va.
He was awarded the Silver Star for his service in World War II and two awards of the Bronze Star Medal for his service in Korea.
He wrote two books, “Combat Intelligence in Modern Warfare” (1960) and “Among the Survivors of the Holocaust 1945: The Landsberg DP Camp Letters of Major Irving Heymont, United States Army” (1982), which has become a standard resource for people investigating the Holocaust.
One of his retirement projects was to work with a group of local people in Landsberg to educate them about the Holocaust crimes committed there. The city is where Nazi leader Adolf Hitler dictated “Mein Kampf” to his secretary, Rudolf Hess, and it became a place of pilgrimage for Nazi youth.
Colonel Heymont sponsored an essay contest for local students on the city’s history in the rise of Nazism and its role in World War II.
In 1998, the Landsberg City Council named a street after him in recognition of his activities at the DP displaced persons camp.
Colonel Heymont also frequently spoke at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, where his original letters are on display.
His wife of 54 years, Joan, died in 1994. Colonel Heymount leaves two children, Paul of Brooklyn and Laurie Weinberg of Wilbraham, Mass.; eight grandchildren; and five great grandchildren.
Printed in the New York Times, April 10, 2009.