Some 67 years ago, a broken, emaciated boy looked up and saw an American soldier sitting astride a tank outside the gates of Dachau, the 10th concentration camp the boy had endured during the long war.
The hazel-eyed soldier hopped down and handed the boy rations he was eating. The boy ate with his fingers before dropping to his knees and kissing the soldier’s boots. A radio crackled with orders for the soldier to move on as part of the liberation effort. But first, the soldier hoisted the boy up and handed him a handkerchief decorated with a 48-star American flag.
Yesterday, clutching that flag in a velvet pouch, the boy, now an 81-year-old man of Newton, thanked the family of the soldier in person for the first time.
“God Bless America,” said Stephan Ross as he handed a boxed American flag to the family of the soldier, Steve Sattler, a farmer from tiny Unionville, Mich., who died in 1986.
The meeting at the Veterans Day ceremony at the State House — continued Sunday afternoon over ravioli and chicken parmesan at the home of Michael Ross, Stephan Ross’s son and a Boston city councilor — was the culmination of an odyssey that began with that chance encounter in Germany in April 1945. For years, Ross had wondered about the soldier, even going on the television program “Unsolved Mysteries,’’ an appearance he considered a lark but which ultimately led to a late-night Internet search by Sattler’s granddaughter and finally, to a phone call early one morning in August.
“I just want you to know that I was told a story about my grandfather that resembles the story you remember,” the granddaughter, Brenda Clark, recalled saying to Stephan Ross on the phone. “And I think my grandfather could be the man you’ve been looking for.”
Holding the phone, Ross recalled thinking: “If this is true, there is some God in this world.”
The families compared biographies, photographs, and oral histories. The points of intersection lined up. Sattler was a member of the 191st Tank Battalion, which was part of the liberating American forces at Dachau. A photograph of Sattler in Germany shows him wearing the leather pilot cap he wore under his helmet. It was the same hat Stephan Ross remembered seeing on the soldier. During the war, Sattler’s wife had sent him a hunting knife, which he often used to eat. Ross remembered his soldier eating the rations with what he referred to as a bayonet.
And then, improbably and importantly, there was this: In October 1986, Steve Sattler was stricken with heart disease. He had just had triple bypass surgery and was walking with his daughter, Gwen Allanson, who was visiting the family farm. On a dirt road, her father had suddenly felt weak. “I have to sit down,” he said, lowering himself to a rock. It was an awkward moment, her stoic father who had never betrayed weakness now not strong enough to stand. Allanson sought to divert his attention by asking him to tell her a story he had never told.
He told of being at Dachau during the liberation. Of being outside its gates and seeing a boy and giving him food. “And I gave him something else,” Allanson recalled him saying. “And I hope it helped him.”
“I could tell from the way he said it, it was something meaningful,” said Allanson, a 54-year-old retired nurse who spent her career in the Navy, inspired by her father’s service.
She said she did not push for additional details. “I was afraid to be too persistent. He was so emotional. I’d never seen him like that.”
Three months later, at the age of 70, Sattler, a father of six and a Purple Heart recipient, died.
When she watched the “Unsolved Mysteries’ episode a few years later, Allanson suspected that she had learned the missing details.
“Everything fit and I had this overwhelming feeling that [Ross] was talking about my father,” she said.
She made some efforts to find Ross but was not successful.
“It was always on my mind, but life is busy,” Allanson said.
Then this summer, her niece came to visit from Alaska. “Give me a grandpa story,” Clark recalls saying to her aunt.
Allanson told Clark about the Jewish boy her grandfather had helped outside the gates of Dachau, setting in motion the denouement of the six-decades-running mystery.
“Nothing comes together in this way unless it’s orchestrated by God,” said Clark, who lives near Anchorage and is a house manager for women coming out of prison.
For hours on Sunday, the families — including Sattler’s three great grandchildren, five grandchildren and three children — reminisced. Ross, dressed in a striped uniform like the one he wore in the camps, told of his five years under Nazi control. He told of starving, being infested with lice, suffering from medical experiments performed on him, having his spinal cord broken during a particularly brutal beating, and the family he lost — his parents and all his brothers and sisters, save one.
When Americans entered his barracks on April 29, 1945, he was lying on the ground, too weak to move and unsure of what to make of men shouting in a foreign tongue, “Freedom!” They fed him water by spoon and later soup.
When Ross, his brother, and a friend exited the camp, they headed toward Munich, seeking hospital care. It was along the road that they encountered Sattler.
For Ross, the handkerchief that Sattler handed to him was a mysterious object. Only later did he learn what it was. What struck him in the moment was the soldier’s willingness to hold him and be near him.
“He wasn’t scared he was going to get my lice, my diseases,” said Ross, who came to America in 1948 under the auspices of the US Committee for Orphaned Children. He went on to become a psychologist and a founder of the New England Holocaust Memorial.
The flag is the only object he has from childhood.
“I said this man was going to be a part of my family,” Ross said at day’s end on Sunday. “And now we have found them. Not the man but his family. It’s a wonderful feeling in my heart.”
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