Margaret Hollinger’s disintegrating photo album contains black paper pages with fading black-and-white snapshots of Europe, 1945.
The images start in Wales, where she arrived as part of the 120th Evacuation Field Hospital, and they follow the cadre of army nurses through France, the chateaus they stayed in, the sites they passed, and, incredibly, their perfectly coiffed hair.
Margaret’s niece, Patty Conrard, points to a photo of the Rhine. This is where everything changed, Conrard said.
“They didn’t prepare the nurses for what they were going to find,” she said.
Hollinger was born the eldest of 10 children to German-Hungarian immigrants in Gladstone, N.D. To escape a marriage arrangement with a man her father’s age, she ran off to Bismarck and enrolled in nursing school. Upon graduating, she joined the Army Nursing Corps, and in 1943 volunteered for the 120th Evacuation Hospital, which sent her as a surgical nurse to Buchenwald to treat survivors and injured soldiers.
“Apparently the rabbi was most excited, because his brother Naphtali was in the hospital,” said the Holocaust Center’s Dee Simon, who made the connection between Naphtali’s hospitalization after Buchenwald’s liberation and Hollinger’s service. In his book, “Out of the Depths,” Rabbi Lau describes his brother’s near-death experience with typhus. He would visit his brother through a hospital window every day. According to Lau, 60 percent of Buchenwald’s survivors died after liberation, many to the rampant disease.
Today, the 102-year-old Hollinger lives at the Caroline Kline Galland Home in Seattle. Though wheelchair-bound and hooked to oxygen, Hollinger’s memory still serves her well. On June 22, she and Rabbi Lau met while with a small group of residents and together flipped through the album.
Hollinger and her fellow nurses were barred from entering the camp, but she sent her camera in with a soldier. She said she could have been arrested, since taking pictures was not allowed.
“These are dead bodies,” she said, running her finger over a pile of skeletal corpses, their eyes still open.
“How can they deny the Holocaust?” the rabbi cried while speaking to residents at the Kline Galland. “Send the president of Iran [here].”
“We don’t want him!” responded nearly everyone in the room.
“When people with numbers on their arms are still alive!” Lau continued. “Almost on every bus in Tel Aviv you see numbers,” when survivors reach up to hold onto a bar, he said.
As for her reaction to encountering the conditions of the camp, “I don’t think we had time to think,” Hollinger said.
Acting fast seems to be a theme of Hollinger’s life. When she escaped to Bismarck, she “had to do what had to be done,” she said. When she volunteered to help a wounded soldier during the war, she ended up trapped behind enemy lines. Was she afraid?
“We didn’t have time to be afraid,” she answered.
As Rabbi Lau prepared to leave, Josh Gortler, chair of the Kline Galland Foundation and also a Holocaust survivor, thanked Hollinger.
“Margaret, you have helped so many Jewish survivors,” he said. “You are an honorary Jew.”
“It took you to 102, Margaret, but you made it,” said Conrard.