Angel of Ahlem

Vernon Tott was proud of his Dutch ancestry.  Born in the small farming community of Orange City, Iowa in 1924, he grew up hearing stories about his grandparents’ migration from the Netherlands to tiny Orange City, a Dutch enclave laid out in the mid-19th century on land that had once been home to Sioux Indians.  One of his grandfathers had come from Hanover, Germany, a city that Tott would come to know all too well.

Vernon Tott’s family eventually moved some 45 miles away to Sioux City where Vernon attended high school.  In 1943 he was inducted into the U.S. Army and sent overseas.  As a member of the 84th Infantry, nicknamed the Railsplitters, Vernon took part in the Battle of the Bulge and the eastward push to the Elbe River.  Outside Hanover, Germany, his unit stumbled upon a Nazi slave labor camp, Ahlem, where Tott paused long enough to take photographs of scrawny, bewildered survivors.  Like most young GIs, he did not know what to make of such despair and inhumanity.  He sent the photos home, later stored them in his basement along with other war memorabilia, including numerous medals for distinguished military service and got on with his life.

After his discharge, Vernon returned to Sioux City and went to work for Swift Meatpacking Plant, where he remained until his retirement in 1984.  In 1947 he married Melva Chase.  Vernon and Melva had a son Dick and a daughter Nancy.  The marriage ended in divorce.  In 1973 Vernon married Betty Sadler, who had two daughters, Vicki and Donna, and a son Jon.

Vernon Tott’s great passion was fishing.  There was hardly a lake, stream, or river in Iowa or South Dakota or even southern Canada that Vernon had not visited.  In 1995, as his health was deteriorating and his fishing days were coming to an end, a chance reading of an 84th Infantry newsletter changed his life forever.  Benjamin Sieradzki, a Jewish survivor of the Ahlem slave labor camp, placed a notice in the newsletter inquiring about the young, blond soldier who took photos of survivors on the day of or the days following liberation.  Vernon realized he was the soldier Sieradzki was looking for.  He retrieved the photos, contacted Sieradzki, and thus began a quest that transformed him from retired meatpacking foreman to hero and deserving member of what news anchor Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.”