Angel of Ahlem

Angel of Ahlem is the story of a gentile from Iowa and a small group of Jews who find meaning, purpose and a powerful friendship through some old black-and-white photos.

On April 10, 1945, 20-year-old Vernon Tott from Sioux City, Iowa stumbled upon a compound outside Hanover, Germany. He and his buddies in the 84th Infantry had just routed the few remaining Germans. The compound, called Ahlem, ringed in barbed wire, displayed a sign warning SS troops not to enter for fear of disease and lice. To Vernon’s horror, he saw emaciated men barely able to stand, others lying in their urine and feces, racked with dysentery, still others stiff and cold, dressed in tatters and dead for days.

Not quite sure why -- perhaps as proof of what his eyes refused to believe -- he pulled out a second-hand camera and recorded the horror of what he saw but also the hope in the faces of those who had survived. As Vernon readily admits, “Back then, I didn’t really know what was going on in the world.” It would be years before he truly understood the significance of what he had witnessed. 

When he returned home, he put away the pictures along with the rest of his bad memories of the war and got on with his life. The pictures stayed in his basement, in a dust-covered shoebox, until one of the Ahlem survivors placed a notice in a 1995 veterans’ newsletter seeking the whereabouts of the GI who had taken the photographs 50 years before.

Vernon saw the notice, realized he was that GI, pulled out the photos and contacted the survivor, Ben Sieradzki, who finally had proof of the truth of his distant memories. Ben’s gratitude spurred Vernon on to identify and find the other survivors featured in his photos.  As he met more and more survivors and their children and grandchildren – generations that barely missed not being here at all– the importance of his photos hit home. As we see in the film, Tott, beset by cancer and a stroke, refuses to succumb to age and illness, spending his days instead in a race against time -- researching and relishing the warm connections he has made with the small group of Holocaust survivors, who call him their Angel. Until Vernon’s photos, many of the survivors had no record, other than their faded memories, of being in Ahlem. As Ben Berkenwald says, “Now there’s real proof that there existed that camp.”

While his wife and children look on with concern, Vernon travels the world, first to Hanover, Germany to visit the site of Ahlem with his new-found friends, and then to a 60th anniversary commemoration of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, formerly home to many of the Ahlem survivors.  As the old men stand together, bearing witness, the power of the tragedy hits home anew, though tempered by the extraordinary love shared by the old GI and the survivors of Ahlem.