Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
During our trip to Germany last year we visited the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, which as a Major Camp had numerous sub-Camps, including Ohrdruf which Generals George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower visited shortly after its liberation in April 1945. Both went out of their way to describe the horrors they saw.
In our day there are fewer and fewer people who lived through or personal saw or documented the evils of the Nazi Concentration Camps. Likewise, there are a host of Holocaust deniers who produce a plethora of pseudo-scholarly articles claiming to be legitimate historians. Even more frighteningly the rise of apologists for the Nazi regime including those who are active members of allegedly conservative parties in the United States and the European Union is beginning to influence politics. The abject racism, rejection of anyone considered racially inferior, and quite often their unhidden anti-Semitism show that what lies in the dark heart of Naziism is not dead and in fact is rising.
In the United States its rise is being fueled and legitimized by the Presidency of Donald Trump who has referred to American Nazis and White Supremacists as “very good people” after one of their protests where an anti-Nazi demonstrator was murdered and others brutally attacked. In the same time frame a good number of Republican candidates have exposed themselves as White Supremacists and actual Nazis while running for office. A host of new-Nazi and White supremacist organizations openly meet and flood the internet with their race hatred, and it goes unchecked by the Administration and the Justice Department.
The fact is that anyone who denies the Holocaust, attempts to minimize it, or advocates the same policies of race hatred and violence against political, religious, or other opponents is no better than the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Likewise, those who stand by and say nothing are worse. As Yehuda Bauer wrote:
“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”
The good thing is that there were people who took the time to record what they saw in the Nazi Concentration Camps and exposed those deeds to the world in such a way that only perverted and evil people could brazenly deny those facts.
One of the most detailed descriptions of a liberated Concentration Camp was written by General George Patton in his memoirs entitled War as I Knew It.
… 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)
Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote after seeing the camp:
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.
One of those reporters was Edward R. Murrow who broadcast his visit to Buchenwald:
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.
That is our reality. There are people, even neighbors and those that we think are friends who would be perpetrators or bystanders when those that transgress the way of Trump are take us from our homes and families because of our beliefs. I would love to be wrong about this, but I am a historian and a theologian and I know the human condition far too well to sit back and remain silent, no matter what the cost.
Last year I had a Facebook exchange with a friend who is a retired Navy Chaplain. He is very much a Trump supporter and apologist. He is very happy about Justice Kavanaugh being in the Supreme Court. The stories of the victims and their claims did not matter to him. Despite that I do not believe that he is a bad man or an evil person. I simply believe that like Martin Niemöller that he has made a bad choice in the man and party that he currently supports and that he will eventually regret it. I could be wrong, he might not turn out to be a Niemöller, but a Reichsbishof Müller. Sincerely hope that he does not become the latter.
I keep quoting historian Timothy Snyder, but he was all too correct when he wrote these words less than two years ago:
The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.
If you don’t believe me read the words of the President, his closest supporters, the prominent political preachers of the Christian Right, and any number of Trump leaning columnists, pundits, and politicians. There are some who are so far gone that they will accuse any opponent of being disloyal, not the the Constitution or the law but to President Trump.
Last year, one of those people tried to get my commanding officer to have me tried by Court Martial for a sermon in which he lied about what I said. I had to spend my money to hire a lawyer to defend me from the false charges and have them dismissed during the preliminary investigation.
Trust me, I know what resistance will mean if this President and his cult like followers are not stopped. Our fate will be worse than that of Nazi Germany because we should have known better. We should have learned from Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. We should have learned fro Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller, we should have learned from the Nuremberg trials, but we have not.
Facing possible impeachment, and with a growing likelihood that the Democrats will extend their control of the House, possibly regain the Senate, and maybe defeat Trump in the 2020 elections, a desperate Trump, backed by his true believers may very well attempt to circumvent those elections and impeachment hearings. With the laws already enacted in the Patriot Act and numerous executive orders there is little to stop a President who has no respect for the law or the Constitution from declaring full emergency powers should any war, terrorist act, or natural disaster be declared. That’s what makes all of this so frightening. Trump only needs an event which is scary enough to frighten people into following any emergency decree. Americans wouldn’t be the first to do so, it’s human nature: the need for security overrides the need for the rule of law and freedom.
So with all of that happy commentary I will leave you until tomorrow.
Until then have a good night, and please, never forget.