Lest We Forget

Recently my wife was in touch with the daughter of a Holocaust survivor.  Musing on what influence it must have had in her life, I was taken back to a childhood memory of the day the Holocaust came to my house.

There was a mysterious wooden box tucked into an out-of-the-way closet in  the house where my sister and I grew up.  We were vaguely aware that our parents’ uniforms and other WW II paraphernalia were stored there. But until one memorable day, we had never completely explored its contents. 

Our parents, like many, voluntarily enlisted in the Army. They met at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  As kids, we were proud that our parents had served.  It was a matter of family pride, even though it was seldom talked about.  I remember them saying, “We were just doing our duty, like everyone else….”  End of discussion.

Feeling particularly curious one day, my six-year-old sister decided she would put an end to the mystery of “the box” and fully explore the treasures hidden there.  My dad was at work, and I’m  not sure how she escaped Mom’s notice. But soon things we had heard about but never seen, littered the floor – uniforms with service medals, a red arm band with a swastika, and a photo album full of black and white pictures.

Dad had given us few details of his time in Europe.  We knew he was in Germany with the 20th Armored Division, and we knew the destination of that unit was Munich.  We were completely unprepared however, to discover his personal photographs taken on April 29, 1945, at the Dachau Concentration Camp.  There in stark black and white was the horrible truth of that place. 

Naturally, we asked questions.  Dad was hesitant to answer.  He gave short answers in measured tones to specific questions, volunteering no “extra” information. He recounted sharing food and remembered that the discovery of the camp was anything but intentional.  According to Dad it certainly was not the objective of the 20th Armored Division to liberate a concentration camp.

In researching the story of Dachau, I ran across some details that seem to corroborate his story. As you might expect, other Army Divisions (the 42nd Infantry, and the 47th Infantry) also claimed to be liberators.  The debate seems to focus not on who was there, but who got there first.  In an article posted  on the website, 20tharmoreddivision.com, the following account is recorded:

Captain Norval L. Pring, ‘C’ Battery, 413th Armored Field Artillery, 20th Armored Division, and his driver were to meet a party from the 42nd Infantry Division on the night of April 28, 1945.  Their purpose was to coordinate artillery support for operations the following day near Munich.  According to this account, the pair got lost and crossed the river in front of the camp at about 12:30 AM on the morning of the 29th, swung open the gates and turned the yard lights on.  They discovered bodies of guards and prisoners that had been recently killed, saw the “D.P.’s” (displaced persons) behind a fence, and took the flag that was flying above.  Obviously feeling exposed and somewhat overextended from their original mission, they hurriedly left.

Apparently, the rest of the 20th Armored arrived later that morning.  My dad rode through the gate in one of the first vehicles.  A LIFE Magazine photo-journalist by the name of Margaret Bourke-White was embedded with the 20th Amored.  She is clearly seen in one of his photographs. (Her pictures of Dachau and Buchenwald were printed in LIFE Magazine.)

Reflecting on her experience in her 1946 memoir, Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly, she wrote:

I kept telling myself that I would believe the indescribably horrible sight in the courtyard before me only when I had a chance to look at my own photographs.  Using the camera was almost a relief; it interposed a slight barrier between myself and the white horror in front of me...I was reminded that men actually had done this thing-men with arms and legs and eyes and hearts not so very unlike our own.  And it made me ashamed to be a member of the human race.

Horror and shame – more appropriate words could never be found to describe that memorable day, April 29, 1945. 

To say that my sister and I shared those emotions in any way similar to eyewitnesses like Margaret Bourke White or our father would be exaggerating the facts.  But as we looked at the black and white horror in Dad’s pictures and watched his reaction to our discovery, the reality of the Holocaust came home.

Years after our discovery, an elderly friend sent me a packet of letters my parents had mailed to him during the war.  Among them was a letter from my dad, still in Germany, dated June 4, 1945, not quite six weeks after his experience at Dachau.  I'm sure he struggled to come to grips with what he had seen.  With the all the emotion of a young soldier he wrote: 

"The most memorable incident will always be the scenes at Dachau Concentration Camp.  After seeing such things, you feel that God must have OK'ed all measures of violence anybody could use to exterminate the whole lot of these Godless (Nazi) criminals." 

My purpose in writing is not to make some kind of hero of my father or to claim that we have some historical treasures in the family archives. Nor do I want to imply that our family “suffered” because of the Holocaust. My only point is to impress on whomever might read this, that the Holocaust was visible manifestation of evil, and man’s inhumanity to man.  It really happened.  If we let this horror slip from our conscious memories, this same evil could torment us again.

April 1945 was liberation month for several camps (Buchenwald, April 11; Bergen-Belsen, April 15; Flossenberg. April 23).  April 15 is now recognized as “Holocaust Remembrance Day.” I wonder, seventy years later, how can we appropriately remember?

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he uses the phrase “For he himself is our peace...” (Ephesians 2:14). Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Lutheran theologian and pastor; hung by the Nazis on April 9 at Flossenburg) wrote in his classic book Life Together:

"Among men there is strife.  'He is our peace,' says Paul of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:14).  Without Jesus there is discord between God and man and between man and man..."

In my opinion, although he wrote the letter in Greek, Paul’s Jewish mind was thinking “For he himself is our shalom...”

The Holocaust has cast a long shadow over mankind affecting particularly the survivors, and the children and grandchildren of survivors of the camps.  Many still seek the shalom violently taken from them between 1938 and 1945.

To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, “For he (Jesus/Yeshua) himself is our shalom…Without Yeshua the Messiah, there is discord between God and man and between man and man."

John, the Apostle quoted Yeshua saying, “Peace (shalom) I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27).

As part of my remembrance of the liberation of Dachua and other camps 70 years ago, I pray that Jewish people living in the shadow of the Holocaust, still silently suffering, will discover the truth that Yeshua, Jesus, is our shalom.


By: Life in Messiah Staff Member in the United States