Hilbert & Howard Margol: Curious twins become liberators

Hilbert Margol, left, and his twin brother Howard served together in WWII.

Hilbert Margol, left, and his twin brother Howard served together in WWII.


Age: 91

Residence: Dunwoody

Service: U.S. Army, 42nd Infantry "Rainbow" Division


Age: 91

Residence: Atlanta

Service: U.S. Army, 42nd Infantry "Rainbow" Division

The Margol twins were born 10 minutes apart on Feb. 22, 1924, in Jacksonville, Fla., attended the University of Florida together and both joined the U.S. Army. After all of that, the Army decided to separate them, with Hilbert assigned to the 42nd Infantry Division in Oklahoma and Howard to the 104th in California.

That’s when their mother intervened. Although the U.S. military had started separating brothers after the five Sullivan siblings were all killed in action on the USS Juneau in 1942, she wrote directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking him to make an exception for her twin boys.

And it worked. Before long, Howard was headed to Camp Gruber in Oklahoma to join his brother – or at least he thought.

“I walked in and the guy says, ‘Margol, you left yesterday for a furlough and you’re back today? You’re bucking for a Section 8 discharge,’ which means I’m crazy,” Howard said. ‘“That was not me that left yesterday, that was my twin brother.’ And he said, ‘Now we know you’re acting crazy claiming you have a twin brother.’ For two weeks they gave me every dirty detail they could think of for claiming I had a twin brother. Well, when my brother showed up, I told him my sad story, but he gave me no sympathy.”

Hilbert had left on a furlough to attend to their ailing mother in Florida. Since their serial numbers were identical except for the last digit, others were also confused.

“Some clerk thought it was a mistake and removed my brother from the records,” Howard said. “He could have stayed home and not reported back at all.”

Back together, they arrived in France in January 1945, seven months after D-Day. Weeks later, as their unit moved toward Munich on a two-lane road, the Margol brothers set up their gun positions and prepared for whatever awaited them.

About that time, they began to smell a distinct odor.

“The jeep driver said it must be a chemical factory on the other side of the woods,” Hilbert said. “Howard came over to me at that point and said he didn’t think so. … ‘Let’s go over there and see what’s over there.’ We told the sergeant, don’t leave without us, and away we went.”

What they found were 40 to 50 railroad box cars.

“I opened the sliding door and looked inside, and there was nothing but dead bodies strewn around in different positions. … The bodies were in a grotesque position,” Hilbert said.

They had stumbled across Dachau, the first of the Nazi concentration camps opened in Germany. On the morning of April 29, 1945, the two Floridians became liberators.

They walked through the open gates of the camp, which had recently been set up for surrender by the fleeing Germans. The Margols said they saw few of the prisoners, most of whom were too sick to leave their barracks.

“At the time, we knew very little about such camps,” Hilbert said. “The higher-up officers in the division were aware of it, but enlisted men were not aware of it.”

While other groups have claimed to have liberated Dachau through the years, and several periodicals have given the credit to the 45th Infantry Division, the Margols fiercely defend their role and that of the 42nd. They say others might have liberated the adjoining SS camp, or even a smaller work camp, or subcamp, but not the main camp.

“On one hand, I do feel pride that we liberated Dachau. On the other hand, we just happened to be there,” Howard said. “It wasn’t that it was our objective to liberate a camp. … In my opinion, all American soldiers in Europe were liberators.”

Added Hilbert, it was “circumstances and curiosity” that led them to discover the camp.

While the moment was poignant, Hilbert said it didn’t stand out at the time. Remember, he said, they were enduring the horrors of war every day.

“Before arriving at that point, we had seen enough death and destruction, so it wasn’t anything new to see dead bodies,” he said. “It was a similar scene that we had already witnessed.”

From there, they moved deeper into Germany toward the Austrian border, meeting less resistance by the day. At times, Hilbert said, enemy troops were walking out of the woods with their arms raised. A week or so before May 8, the day the Germans officially surrendered, the Margols began to realize the war in Europe was coming to an end.

“Combat was basically over, and the German Army was busy surrendering, so it felt like it was over a few days before May 8,” Hilbert said. “So it wasn’t like it was a sudden surprise. At the same time, we realized the war in the Pacific was still going on.”

Before they could think about fighting the Japanese, they had occupation duty to complete. In addition to guarding an SS camp, one of their jobs was to interview people on trains going in each direction, searching for anyone who might not have the proper paperwork.

Howard called their training a joke.

“We didn’t know what we were doing. We just talked to the people on the train. A high Nazi official could be standing right there in front of me, give me his correct name and everything, and I wouldn’t know him from Adam’s house cat. I would just wave him on through. That’s one reason, in my opinion, so many Nazi officials were able to get through and make their way to South America.”

Howard also recalled a trip he made to the Austrian Alps while transporting several thousand Jews. He was riding shotgun in the Army convoy for most of the day when the passengers started yelling and screaming.

Caught off-guard by the commotion, the 200 or so trucks stopped. It was nearly sundown on a Friday, the start of the Jewish Sabbath, and they refused to travel any farther. Howard, who is Jewish, said he talked with one of the group’s leaders and asked him what was wrong with riding another 30 minutes. They held firm.

So the truck drivers pulled over to the side of the road, spending the night and most of the next day in that spot. On Saturday at sundown, everyone got back into the trucks and the trip continued.

“That frankly was more of an emotional experience for me than being at the liberation of Dachau,” Howard said. “For years they were unable to practice their Judaism, and this was their first opportunity to do so, and that’s why they did what they did. … And I think that was one of the things that helped them survive. They had something to hold onto in their minds as a target to reach someday.”

So what about those who deny the Holocaust ever happened? What would the Margol brothers say to them? Hilbert summed it up.

“People like us — and there are many, many others telling their stories around the country — my hope is that the people listening to these stories will long outlive the offspring of the deniers.”

After the war: The first thing they did was donate their uniforms to the Salvation Army. Then they went back to the University of Florida and earned degrees in 1948. They also both got married that year. Working with their older brother, they started a business called National Home Supply, selling home items such as dishes, pots and pans. Later they went into the mattress and furniture business. Howard moved to Atlanta in 1965 and Hilbert followed in 1987. Having already retired twice, Hilbert continues to work five days a week for Home Décor Liquidators at his office in Johns Creek.