By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – In April 1945, two days after the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered as many U.S. troops as possible to go to Dachau to witness the atrocities that had occurred there. Ben Cooper of West Hartford, a combat medic in the U.S. Army’s 45th Infantry Division serving on the front lines in France and Germany, was one of the soldiers who was sent there to be a witness.
For the past 30 years, Cooper has shared what he experienced at Dachau with thousands of high school and college students and civic groups around Connecticut. Often his talks are in conjunction with schools’ curriculum on the Holocaust.
“It is something I will never forget,” Cooper says.
On Dec. 4, 2017, Cooper, 96, was inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame, which honors veterans who continue to serve and inspire their community with deeds and accomplishments throughout their lifetime.
The Veterans Hall of Fame was established in 2005 to increase the awareness of the lifetime contributions of veterans after their completion of military service. Since 2005, there have been 137 veterans inducted and their names appear on a plaque in the concourse of the State Capitol Building. And now Cooper’s name appears on the plaque.
“Ben has been a great friend to me and so many others over many, many years,” said Robert Fishman, former director of JFACT. “His commitment to telling his story as a U.S. Army medic and liberator of Dachau while donning his World War II uniform all over the state reaching out to thousands of students, teachers and the general public is remarkable. Students adore him and teachers have asked him to come back and speak year after year. At 96 years young, he is a righteous Tzadik and a true Connecticut Jewish treasure.”
When he returned home from the war, Cooper didn’t tell anyone about his experiences for 45 years, not even his late wife Dorothy or his children. But in 1990 he started opening up and sharing his story. “I wanted people to know there was a Holocaust and I was an eyewitness,” he said.
He still talks to student groups, “but I turned 96 and I had to cut back a little bit.”
A year after his wife died in 2009, he met Henny Simon, a survivor who lived in New London. They were together for seven years and spoke together as a team throughout the state. Simon died last year in a tragic car accident.
“She was my guardian angel and I was her guardian angel,” Cooper said.
Recently he has been working on a project he calls Roll Call at the West Hartford Senior Center. He invites soldiers from all wars to come in and tell their own stories.
In 2005, Cooper, a longtime member and leader of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, was the guest speaker at the 27th Annual State of Connecticut Holocaust Remembrance in Hartford. In 2016, he was the speaker to the senior leadership of the Connecticut Army National Guard in Hartford. For many years Cooper has marched in parades and other veteran celebrations and commemorations.
At a reception for his guests at the Hartford Club prior to the Veterans Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the State Capitol in Hartford, West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor presented Cooper with a commemorative proclamation and said he was one of her heroes and “an inspiration to all the lives he touches.”
But as Cooper told the Ledger, he considers his experiences as a medic in combat nothing compared to the horror experienced by survivors of the camps.
“I understand why some survivors can’t talk about it,” he said. “But they really are the heroes to have come out of it alive.”
CAP: Thomas J. Saadi, acting commissioner of the CT Department of Veterans Affairs, and Ben Cooper at his induction into the CT Veterans Hall of Fame.