Hero Among Us tells the story of two individuals: 92-year-old World War II veteran John Gualtier and 89-year-old Holocaust survivor Martin Weiss.
John served as a medic with the 71st Infantry Division that saw intense combat as the allied Armies advanced into Germany near the close of the war. Through a series of interviews, John relates his firsthand account as a liberator of a concentration camp located in Gunskirchen Lager, Austria. As an eyewitness to the Nazi atrocities, he tells of the utter shock and incomprehensible scope of the tragedy that would unfold in the days and weeks ahead. In an ironic twist of fate, his last orders were to deliver medications to imprisoned Nazi party leaders during the Nuremberg trials – the very people who were complicit in the genocide at Gunskirchen Lager and other concentration camps.
Beyond his role as a liberator, John’s duties as a medic included acts of bravery that would eventually earn him the Bronze Star. The toll his experiences took on his own mental health was brutal. Long before post-traumatic stress disorder was known or understood, John found himself in and out of Army hospital psychiatric wards. He experienced homelessness and made two attempts to end his life. Through the support of an Army nurse who would become his wife, John managed to survive his emotional wounds and settle in Vinton, Iowa, where he lived his life in peace and quiet – rarely discussing his wartime experience with friends and neighbors.
A local high school teacher who heard rumors of John’s wartime service eventually persuaded him to share his story with high school students who were studying World War II. They had no idea Vinton was home to a hero – a man who would discover the healing power of sharing his story.
The story of Martin Weiss is told in parallel to Sgt. Gualtier’s. Though they never met, Martin was interred at the same camp Sgt. Gualtier’s unit liberated.
Martin’s life began in Polana, Czechoslovakia. At age 15, his family was taken by the Hungarian police to the Munkacs ghetto, then to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. While some members of his family were sent to the gas chambers, Martin and his father were eventually moved to a satellite camp near Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. There, he worked as a slave laborer tasked with building a mountain tunnel using only picks and shovels. As mentioned, Martin was eventually liberated at Gunskirchen Lager (another Mauthausen subcamp) by the 71st Infantry Division in May 1945.
Hero Among Us reveals that, though their lives took very different trajectories, both John and Martin ultimately found healing through the power of their stories. Although advanced in years, both men have volunteered countless hours making sure the horrors of the holocaust are never forgotten.
Production for Hero Among Us is funded by The Thaler Holocaust Memorial Fund and a major media grant from Humanities Iowa and the National Endowment for the Humanities.