Tomorrow is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It coincides with the date that the date that the Auschwitz Concentration Camp was liberated by the 100th Division of the Soviet Red Army. In the United States, Days of Remembrance runs from the Sunday before Yom Hashoah through the following Sunday, this year beginning on April 20th.
When the Red Army liberated Auschwitz during its drive to the Vistula River in preparation for the final assault on Berlin, few paid much attention to it, after all it was the Red Army. It wasn’t until Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Flossenbürg, and Buchenwald were liberated by the British (Bergen-Belsen) and the others by the Americans that the message of the Nazi atrocities finally got out. However, two months before the SS were ordered to destroy the gas chambers and crematoria and ten days before the liberation the SS began a forced march of all prisoners, except those deemed unable to make the journey, to the west, primarily Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. When General George Patton wrote about his visit to one of Buchenwald’s sub-camps he wrote:
“we drove to Ohrdruf and visited the first horror camp any of us had ever seen. It was the most appalling sight imaginable.
A man who said he was one of the former inmates acted as impresario and showed us first the gallows, where men were hanged for attempting to escape. The drop board was about two feet from the ground, and the cord used was piano wire which had an adjustment so that when the man dropped, his toes would just reach the ground and it would take about fifteen minutes for him to choke to death, since the fall was not sufficient to break his neck. The next two men to die had to kick the board out from under him. It was stated by some of the Germans present that the generals who were executed after the Hitler bomb incident were hanged in this manner.
Our guide then took us to the whipping table, which was about the height of the average man’s crotch. The feet were placed in stocks on the ground and the man was pulled over the table, which was slightly hollowed, and held by two guards, while he was beaten across the back and loins. The stick which they said had been used, and which had some blood on it, was bigger than the handle of a pick.
Our guide claimed that he himself had received twenty-five blows with this tool. It later developed that he was not a prisoner at all, but one of the executioners. General Eisenhower must have suspected it, because he asked the man very pointedly how he could be so fat. He was found dead next morning, killed by some of the inmates.
Just beyond the whipping table there was a pile of forty bodies, more or less naked. All of these had been shot in the back of the head at short range, and the blood was still cooling on the ground.
In a shed near-by was a pile of forty completely naked bodies in the last stages of emaciation. These bodies were lightly sprinkled with lime – not, apparently, for the purpose of destroying them, but to reduce the smell. As a reducer of smell, lime is a very inefficient medium.
The total capacity of the shed looked to me to be about two hundred bodies. It was stated that bodies were left until the shed was full and then they were taken out and buried. The inmates said some three thousand people had been buried from this shed since January 1, 1945.
When our troops began to draw near, the Germans thought it expedient to remove the evidence of their crimes. They therefore used the inmates to exhume the recently buried bodies and to build a sort of mammoth griddle of 60 cm. railway tracks laid on a brick foundation. The bodies were piled on this and they attempted to burn them. The attempt was a bad failure. Actually, one could not help but think of some gigantic cannibalistic barbecue. In the pit itself were arms and legs and portions of bodies sticking out of the green water which partially filled it.
General Walker and General Middleton had wisely decided to have as many soldiers as possible visit the scene. This gave me the idea of having the inhabitants themselves visit the camp. I suggested this to Walker, and found that he had already had the mayor and his wife take a look at it. On going home those two committed suicide. We later used the same system in having the inhabitants of Weimar go through the even larger slave camp. (Buchenwald) north of that town.” (Excerpted for G. Patton War as I Knew It)
General Dwight Eisenhower, who was also present remarked:
The same day [April 12, 1945] I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.
Eisenhower was so moved that he ordered that the best reporters and newsmen come and record what he had seen. He did not want the horrors to be denied by history. He wrote:
“I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that `the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’ Some members of the visiting party were unable to through the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton’s headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”
The fact is that as much as we want to pretend that what happened a Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Soribor, Belzec, and Treblinka are images from history that cannot happen again, however, they are an ever present reality and they cannot be ignored. Sadly, I cannot help but to imagine that this can and will happen again in my lifetime.
One of the reporters present was the great radio broadcaster, Edwin R. Murrow. He broadcast his message to to American public and said:
“There surged around me an evil-smelling stink, men and boys reached out to touch me. They were in rags and the remnants of uniforms. Death already had marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes. I looked out over the mass of men to the green fields beyond, where well-fed Germans were ploughing….
[I] asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovaks. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description.
They called the doctor. We inspected his records. There were only names in the little black book — nothing more — nothing about who had been where, what he had done or hoped. Behind the names of those who had died, there was a cross. I counted them. They totaled 242 — 242 out of 1200, in one month.
As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others, they must have been over 60, were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it, but will not describe it.
In another part of the camp they showed me the children, hundreds of them. Some were only 6 years old. One rolled up his sleeves, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. B-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers. They will carry them till they die. An elderly man standing beside me said: “The children — enemies of the state!” I could see their ribs through their thin shirts….
We went to the hospital. It was full. The doctor told me that 200 had died the day before. I asked the cause of death. He shrugged and said: “tuberculosis, starvation, fatigue and there are many who have no desire to live. It is very difficult.” He pulled back the blanket from a man’s feet to show me how swollen they were. The man was dead. Most of the patients could not move.
I asked to see the kitchen. It was clean. The German in charge….showed me the daily ration. One piece of brown bread about as thick as your thumb, on top of it a piece of margarine as big as three sticks of chewing gum. That, and a little stew, was what they received every 24 hours. He had a chart on the wall. Very complicated it was. There were little red tabs scattered through it. He said that was to indicate each 10 men who died. He had to account for the rations and he added: “We’re very efficient here.”
We proceeded to the small courtyard. The wall adjoined what had been a stable or garage. We entered. It was floored with concrete. There were two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised; though there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. Some had been shot through the head, but they bled but little.
I arrived at the conclusion that all that was mortal of more than 500 men and boys lay there in two neat piles. There was a German trailer, which must have contained another 50, but it wasn’t possible to count them. The clothing was piled in a heap against the wall. It appeared that most of the men and boys had died of starvation; they had not been executed.
But the manner of death seemed unimportant. Murder had been done at Buchenwald. God alone knows how many men and boys have died there during the last 12 years. Thursday, I was told that there were more than 20,000 in the camp. There had been as many as 60,000. Where are they now?
I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words.I
If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry….”
The fact is that as much as we want to pretend that what happened a Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Soribor, Belzec, and Treblinka are images from history that cannot happen again, however, they are an ever present reality and they cannot be ignored. Sadly, I cannot help but to imagine that this can and will happen again in my lifetime. The late Primo Levi, a Jewish Italian philosopher and survivor of Auschwitz wrote: “It happened, it can happen again.”
I will now quote from one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead uttered by Jean Luc Picard:
“We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches it’s all ancient history. Then – before you can blink an eye – suddenly it threatens to start all over again.”
When I think of the world today, with its increase in Anti-Semitism, in many cases spearheaded by Christians in this and European nations I think of this. The Holocaust is not simply history, it could very well be our future.