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He taught until the end of a good, long life

Norman Smith was a soldier, a special education teacher and a Holocaust witness

Posted: December 28, 2011 - 1:03am
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The late Norman L. Smith, a Holocaust Liberator, speaks at the Juneau Rotary Club in the file photo taken in October of 2006. Smith passed away at his home in Albion, Neb., Dec. 21.  Courtesy photo provided by Peter Metcalfe
Courtesy photo provided by Peter Metcalfe
The late Norman L. Smith, a Holocaust Liberator, speaks at the Juneau Rotary Club in the file photo taken in October of 2006. Smith passed away at his home in Albion, Neb., Dec. 21.

A World War II paratrooper who was a Holocaust liberator and occupied the private home of Adolf Hitler after the war passed away last week, his family says.

The decorated veteran, beloved to many in Haines, Norman L. Smith, died at his home in Albion, Neb., on Dec. 21 after a 20-year battle with post-polio syndrome. He was 86.

“Norm will be remembered as a man of energy and integrity, with a sense of humor to overcome adversity in his life, particularly over polio,” his family said in a statement Tuesday.

Born in Ames, Iowa in 1925, Smith was drafted in the U.S. Army after he graduated high school in Ballard, Wash., not long after he was 18 years old. He attended basic training in California, then volunteered to be a paratrooper. He joined the 101st Airborne Division after receiving training in Fort Benning, Ga.

During the war, he saw combat action in Austria, France and Germany as a paratrooper.

Smith was among those who liberated the concentration camp at Landsberg, Germany, on April 28, 1945. It was a haunting moment he wouldn’t forget, his eldest son Carlton Smith of Juneau, said by phone Tuesday.

“It would be his quote that they could smell the human stench miles before they arrived at Landsberg, and they had no idea what they were actually walking into,” Carlton Smith said.

The elder Smith, during a speech given about his experiences at the Juneau Rotary Club in October of 2006, said U.S. troops were told the source of the smoke was from a burning building, according to Empire archives. He realized in horror “that the smoldering building was full of human remains, stacked on top of each other doused with gasoline.”

Smith said his father had brought candy and other food to give to the prisoners after the gates were thrown open. Some wandered through the gates, and died in the woods, determined to die on the other side of the fence, Carton Smith recalled his father telling him.

“There were many of them that were motionless that he approached, and they had already died,” the younger Smith said.

Those given candy vomited.

“They were not accustomed to eating food,” he Smith continued.

Years later, Norman Smith became a well-known Holocaust educator, a frequent invited guest of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., a Holocaust education nonprofit group in Omaha, Neb., and many other groups across the country.

“That’s why I’m here today,” he had said to the Juneau Rotary Club in 2006. "It’s my obligation to serve these people.”

Smith was also one of the few that occupied Hitler’s private home, called the Berghof or “Eagle’s Nest”, at Obersalzberg near Berchtesgaden.

He stood guard at the exterior entrance of the military complex’s tunnel system as two fellow soldiers explored the subterranean levels, C. Smith said. It was a sprawling estate with a shopping center, theatres, a medical center, and, of course, personal quarters of Hitler, Carlton Smith said.

The two soldiers found a safe that contained one dozen silver framed photographs of Hilter that were given to U-Boat captains for successfully sinking U.S. merchant marine vessels, C. Smith said. The frames were protected by Moroccan leather cases.

The soldiers brought three of the photographs back to the United States, one for each of them. Only 12 are known to be in existence, C. Smith said.

About five years ago, Smith donated his framed photograph of Hitler to the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kan.

“At one time it had a collector value of $2,500 dollars but he wanted to donate it to the Eisenhower Museum,” Smith’s son said.

Last year, Smith was honored at the Holocaust Day of Remembrance Ceremony in the U.S. Capitol Building in D.C., an event commemorating the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi camps. He was pictured with General David Petraeus, and appeared on NBC news.

“His military service defined him in many ways,” Smith said of his father. “It was the significant experience of his young life.”

Norman Smith not only taught about the Holocaust — he later received his teaching degree from the University of Washington in 1960,and his masters degree in special education from the University of Colorado at Greeley. He also went on to speak publicly to raise awareness about poliomyelitis, which he had contracted in 1951.

“He was very dedicated to increasing public knowledge of post-polio syndrome and the need for more research of post-polio syndrome,” Smith said.

Polio is a disease that can lead to paralysis; post-polio syndrome affects polio survivors, he explained.

Before Norman Smith began his life as an educator, he commercially fished for salmon on a limit seiner boat called “The Royal,” in Hydaburg, west of Ketchikan. That was home to his high school sweetheart, Eileen Curtiss, originally from Skagway. They both sang in the Ballard Choir in high school.

The pair married in 1949 in Seattle, where he owned and operated a distribution center for Standard Oil of California. The couple had two sons, Carlton and Norman Jr.

The family moved to Haines after Smith took a job teaching 5th grade special education at the Haines Borough School, said then-principal Steve McPhetres, the now retired schools superintendent.

“He stayed probably two to three years after I was there (in 1969), but I do remember him to be a very outstanding educator, particularly with special needs children,” McPhetres said by phone.

McPheters added, “I remember him limping down the hall. He himself had a handicap and I’m sure that helped him be empathetic for the kids. He was very personable, hands-on, worked with the kids. I had a lot of respect for him as an educator.”

Smith led one of the first special education programs in Alaska at the time.

In 1966, he married a teacher, Donna Wilson. They moved to Nebraska in 1973 where they both continued to teach.

While in Haines, Smith was involved with the local historical society, said Doris Ward, a retired English teacher who taught down the hallway from Smith. She recalled her friend, whom she kept in touch with for many years after he left Alaska, as being very interested in the local military history, particularly in Fort Seward. He researched the fort, which was built in the early 1900s and had closed down after World War II, and lived with his family in one of the 2-story Victorian houses on the fort’s grounds when he was teaching at the Haines school. Ward said Smith’s youngest son, Norman, and his wife Suzanne run a bed and breakfast out of that same house now.

Smith is preceded in death by his first wife Eileen and parents Howard Frederick Smith and Violet Q. Smith. He is survived by his wife, Donna Smith, of Albion; his sons, Carlton Smith and his wife Marsha of Juneau, and Norman Smith and his wife Suzanne of Haines; numerous grandchildren; brothers Lowell Smith of San Diego and Gary Smith of Madison, Wisc.; and sister Marlene Vickers of Renton, Wash.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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