‘Bearing Witness’ to the Holocaust


When he was 6 years old, Tom Bird found his father’s World War II duffle bag in the attic of their Long Island, N.Y., home. Among the contents: a pistol, a Bronze Star medal and a black-and-white photo of naked, skeletal bodies stacked against a wall. “They almost looked like mannequins thrown into piles. It was hard to believe they were real people because it was so grotesque,” Bird told the Journal.

He asked his father, Sam, who served as a U.S. Army medic in the war, what it was. He didn’t get an answer for three more years. The terrible truth would change his life.

In his riveting staged monologue, “Bearing Witness,” running June 1-17 at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles, the Vietnam War veteran, now 70, tells the story behind that shocking image, as well as the personal journeys of a father and son bound by the traumatizing experiences of war. 

The audience learns at the outset that the photo was taken at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, which American forces liberated in May 1945. Sam Bird bore witness to the horror of the Shoah there, caring for thousands of nearly dead survivors. Onstage, Tom interweaves what his father revealed to him and what he saw with his own eyes when he visited Mauthausen in 2006. He juxtaposes this with his own wartime experience in Vietnam in the mid-1960s.

Sitting down for a post-rehearsal interview, Bird recalled watching the trial with his father of war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1961. “That was when he started to open up about what he’d seen,” Bird said. “He was outraged that the Nazis disguised the gas chambers as shower rooms. He was appalled that Topf & Sons could make ovens to burn innocent people. The senselessness of it flabbergasted him.” 

But it took Sam until July 1985 to reveal that he had given some survivors at Mauthausen milk to help them regain their strength. However, their severely malnourished bodies couldn’t tolerate it. Thirteen of them died. “The deaths were accidental, but he felt responsible,” Bird said. 

Sam Bird died two days after this revelation. “By unburdening his secret, he had the peace of mind to pass,” his son believes.

At a press luncheon four years later, Bird met Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who had survived Mauthausen. “It was exciting, inspiring,” Bird said of their conversation. “He was so down to earth and real. He talked to me like a son. He was the catalyst for me to go to Mauthausen. He said, ‘Do it for your father.’ ”

“I felt honor-bound and compelled” to go, Bird said, but lacking the funds, he didn’t make the trip until he received an inheritance from his godmother in 2006. “Although the air and the earth had changed so much since 1945, I was walking the same ground and breathing the same air as my father and all the people that were with him in Mauthausen experienced. It’s very palpable.”

“Although the air and the earth had changed so much since 1945, I was walking the same ground and breathing the same air as my father and all the people that were with him in Mauthausen experienced. It’s very palpable.” — Tom Bird

Bird began writing “Bearing Witness” upon his return to New York, honing it over the years until debuting it in 2016 in Orlando, Fla., and at one-off performances. Los Angeles, where Bird now lives, is hosting its first full run. He hopes to perform the play at Mauthausen’s adjacent museum in May 2019 during Liberation Week, and would love to bring it to Yad Vashem — The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. There are plans for a book version and also talk of a feature film adaptation.

Bird, a producer of the Peabody- and Emmy Award-winning documentary “Dear America, Letters Home From Vietnam,” is writing other scripts about his war experiences. “My second piece is about spiritual healing,” the non-practicing Catholic said. 

He is the founder and artistic director of the Vietnam Veteran’s Ensemble Theater Company and founder of the veterans’ services nonprofit Walking Point Foundation. Bird is committed to veterans’ causes and using the arts as a means to heal.

“After Vietnam, the theater enabled me to express myself and reconnect with the public at a point when I didn’t think I had anything to live for,” he said. “I wanted to share that with others so they could see the potential in themselves. It doesn’t mean the scars go away or the memories die, but it does mean you can gain a modicum of control and peace of mind.”

Bird hopes that theatergoers come away with “a better understanding of ‘the good war,’ ‘the bad war’ and the Holocaust,” he said. “A lot of people react to the father-son dynamic and feel they missed an opportunity to come to peace with their parent, but maybe they can do that through this material and get a sense of completion with their fathers that I got with my father.” 

Noting that he kept the title despite suggestions to change it, Bird said, “[I am] trying to do my little part in bearing witness to all of those people in the pictures on the wall of the crematorium at Mauthausen, the same kind of insanity that destroyed those villages in Vietnam. It’s a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done, but just doing it for them is enough to motivate me.” n

“Bearing Witness” runs June 1-17 at the Odyssey Theatre. Visit odysseytheatre.com for tickets and information.

He asked his father, Sam, who served as a U.S. Army medic in the war, what it was. He didn’t get an answer for three more years. The terrible truth would change his life.

In his riveting staged monologue, “Bearing Witness,” running June 1-17 at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles, the Vietnam War veteran, now 70, tells the story behind that shocking image, as well as the personal journeys of a father and son bound by the traumatizing experiences of war. 

The audience learns at the outset that the photo was taken at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, which American forces liberated in May 1945. Sam Bird bore witness to the horror of the Shoah there, caring for thousands of nearly dead survivors. Onstage, Tom interweaves what his father revealed to him and what he saw with his own eyes when he visited Mauthausen in 2006. He juxtaposes this with his own wartime experience in Vietnam in the mid-1960s.

Sitting down for a post-rehearsal interview, Bird recalled watching the trial with his father of war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1961. “That was when he started to open up about what he’d seen,” Bird said. “He was outraged that the Nazis disguised the gas chambers as shower rooms. He was appalled that Topf & Sons could make ovens to burn innocent people. The senselessness of it flabbergasted him.” 

But it took Sam until July 1985 to reveal that he had given some survivors at Mauthausen milk to help them regain their strength. However, their severely malnourished bodies couldn’t tolerate it. Thirteen of them died. “The deaths were accidental, but he felt responsible,” Bird said. 

Sam Bird died two days after this revelation. “By unburdening his secret, he had the peace of mind to pass,” his son believes.

At a press luncheon four years later, Bird met Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who had survived Mauthausen. “It was exciting, inspiring,” Bird said of their conversation. “He was so down to earth and real. He talked to me like a son. He was the catalyst for me to go to Mauthausen. He said, ‘Do it for your father.’ ”

“I felt honor-bound and compelled” to go, Bird said, but lacking the funds, he didn’t make the trip until he received an inheritance from his godmother in 2006. “Although the air and the earth had changed so much since 1945, I was walking the same ground and breathing the same air as my father and all the people that were with him in Mauthausen experienced. It’s very palpable.”

Bird began writing “Bearing Witness” upon his return to New York, honing it over the years until debuting it in 2016 in Orlando, Fla., and at one-off performances. Los Angeles, where Bird now lives, is hosting its first full run. He hopes to perform the play at Mauthausen’s adjacent museum in May 2019 during Liberation Week, and would love to bring it to Yad Vashem — The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. There are plans for a book version and also talk of a feature film adaptation.

Bird, a producer of the Peabody- and Emmy Award-winning documentary “Dear America, Letters Home From Vietnam,” is writing other scripts about his war experiences. “My second piece is about spiritual healing,” the non-practicing Catholic said. 

He is the founder and artistic director of the Vietnam Veteran’s Ensemble Theater Company and founder of the veterans’ services nonprofit Walking Point Foundation. Bird is committed to veterans’ causes and using the arts as a means to heal.

“After Vietnam, the theater enabled me to express myself and reconnect with the public at a point when I didn’t think I had anything to live for,” he said. “I wanted to share that with others so they could see the potential in themselves. It doesn’t mean the scars go away or the memories die, but it does mean you can gain a modicum of control and peace of mind.”

Bird hopes that theatergoers come away with “a better understanding of ‘the good war,’ ‘the bad war’ and the Holocaust,” he said. “A lot of people react to the father-son dynamic and feel they missed an opportunity to come to peace with their parent, but maybe they can do that through this material and get a sense of completion with their fathers that I got with my father.” 

Noting that he kept the title despite suggestions to change it, Bird said, “[I am] trying to do my little part in bearing witness to all of those people in the pictures on the wall of the crematorium at Mauthausen, the same kind of insanity that destroyed those villages in Vietnam. It’s a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done, but just doing it for them is enough to motivate me.” n

“Bearing Witness” runs June 1-17 at the Odyssey Theatre. Visit odysseytheatre.com for tickets and information.

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