KINGSTON – It’s been almost 70 years since Frank Paciga captured the horrors of World War II through his camera lens, and he still rarely talks about what he saw.
For a while, he held on to the pictures he took of three concentration camps, but looking at them brought on a flood of nightmares. So his wife, Lorraine, burned them.
“I did three concentration camps that I don’t like to describe,” he said. “They were very, very bad. I almost went out of my mind.”
Paciga, 86, prefers to reflect on the positive events he chronicled as a technical corporal with the Army’s Signal Corps, such as the Victory in Europe Day celebration, otherwise known as V-E Day, when the Allies accepted the Nazis’ surrender in May 1945.
At his home in Kingston recently, he picked up one of his black-and-white photos encased in plastic and pointed out members of the United Kingdom’s royal family, including Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II. Sitting nearby is Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whom Paciga remembers meeting.
“He had a good sense of humor and loved cigars,” he said. “I gave him two cigars. He thought they were really good.”
For three years, Paciga traveled around Europe – including Germany, Italy, London, Yugoslavia and France – recording the war with a 25-millimeter movie camera and a 4-by-5-inch Speed Graphic camera. He was so eager to join the Army at age 17, he enlisted under his brother’s name because he wasn’t old enough. When the Army found out, it kicked him out for a few months until he was old enough to re-enlist in 1944.
The Army had been looking for someone with photography experience and noticed that Paciga had taken photos for his high school newspaper and yearbook. The Army sent him to school for a six-week photography course in New York before he set off on a dizzying three-year trip through Europe.
He made the journey with only a German shepherd guard dog for company. He also carried a few weapons and bridged the language gap with a small German-English dictionary.
His photos include the “little red schoolhouse,” a code name for the room in France where the German military surrendered to the Allies.
He also has photos of stolen paintings that were recovered from the Nazis.
Although Paciga doesn’t like to describe what he saw at Buchenwald, Dachau and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camps in Germany, he
remembers taking photographs of human remains “piled up like cardboard,” and the ovens where remains were burned. He remembers carrying a handkerchief dabbed in Vicks Vapo-Rub because the stench of the camp was so bad.
He also documented the war crimes trials of about a dozen Nazi leaders at Nuremberg. He said the trials went on for three to four weeks, and the courtroom was packed every day. German, English and Russian translators interpreted the proceedings.
Because he took photos of concentration camps, Paciga said he testified against Nazi leaders at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany.
“I had to testify that [the photos] weren’t retouched and that they were authentic,” he said.
Paciga remembers talking to a few prisoners, two of whom had found a coil of wire and used it to catch rats, which they ate to stay alive. His first instinct was to give the starving prisoners his food rations, but was instructed not to because it would shock their bodies.
“It was terrible. They were walking skeletons,” he said. “You just can’t imagine what one group of people can do to another group of people.”
After he left the military in 1947, Paciga did commercial photography on the side and practiced labor law until he retired in 1986. He’s lived in Kingston with his wife for the past three decades.
Paciga said the horrific images still haunt him, but he feels it was an honor to serve “the greatest country there is.” He said he hopes his work documenting the war made a difference – especially for those who still today deny there was ever a Holocaust.
“There was a Holocaust and I recorded it for history,” he said. “I’m just lucky I got out when I did and wasn’t completely shot because of it.”