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Posts Tagged ‘Teaching the Holocaust’

Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I study this photograph,

and so it begins.

Seventy-two Years Later.

The war comes to a devastating conclusion.

The discoveries unfold:

Eyewitness encounters with the most horrific crime in the history of the world.

Battle-hardened tough guys cry.

They stomp their feet in rage, and get sick,

but the lost are lost.

The Survivors ‘carry on’.

The Soldiers ‘carry on’.

Some will be lost for the rest of their lives.

Now, it is Seventy-plus Years.

But it is not over,

because ‘closure’ is a myth,

and seven decades is but a blur.

The barracks door opens slowly. New tracks form in the snow

but how is life supposed to go on?

And now for the rest of humanity-

Just what have we learned,

Or have we just allowed ourselves to forget?

Is it even important, for us to stop and think

about snowflakes on little boys?

*****

-m.a.rozell-

See the Altantic’s photo essay here.

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Matthew Rozell teaches history at his alma mater in Hudson Falls, New York. His second book,  A Train Near Magdeburg, is on teaching and remembering the Holocaust.

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April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

Today, April 29th, is the anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, 71 years on.

Today, if it is brought up at all, some of us might respond with a vacant stare. More might shrug and turn away. I suppose that is to be expected. But you know me. I just think that as a nation, sometimes we allow things to slip from memory at our peril.

It was real, and it happened. And it was American GIs who overran this camp and many others in the closing days of World War II.

The men of the 42nd and 45th Infantry Division arrived independently of each other, here, in southern Germany, at Dachau, on this day. A concentration camp, they were told. Their noses gave them a hint of what they were about to uncover, miles before the camp appeared in sight.

Read the headlines, above. Note the subarticle:

Boxcars of Dead at Dachau. 32,000 captives freed.

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

And so after some resistance, into the camp they entered. Life changing events were about to unfold for the American soldier.

***

For me, it’s not about hero worship, or glorifying the liberator or any World War II soldier by placing him on a pedestal. Our time with them is now limited, but many of the liberating soldiers I know push back at this, to the point of rejecting the term, “liberator”- “It all sounds so exalted, so glamorous” said one. But they will all accept the term, “eyewitness”.

Witnesses to the greatest crime in the history of the world.

So instead I think it is about honoring their experiences, their shock, the horror, the puking and the crying, the rage-and then, the American GIs recognizing that something had to be done. And they did suffer for it, for trying to do the right thing. Many tried to help by offering food to starving prisoners who just were not ready to handle it, only to see them drop dead. Or having to manhandle these emaciated victims who were tearing away at each other as food was being offered.

Some guys never got over it. How could you?

I have learned so much over the past few years from these guys, just through the way that they carried themselves and tried to cope with what they witnessed. In my World War II studies and Holocaust class, we discuss these issues at length. I’m so lucky to be able to teach it.

Last year, I was privileged to teach a lesson to my high school seniors for NBC Learn, which was shared with other districts across the nation. Later, I stumbled upon this piece by the late author Tony Hays, who writes about his liberator father and his own encounter with the past. Thanks to the Get It Write folks; the original link is at the bottom.

***

Dachau Will Always Be With Us

by Tony Hays

This is not so much a post about writing as one about a writer’s education, about one of those experiences that molds us, shapes us into storytellers. I read yesterday the story of Joseph Corbsie, whose father, a World War II veteran, left him with a special legacy from the war, from the hideous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. I feel a particular kinship with Mr. Corbsie.

My father, Robert Hays, was the son of an alcoholic tenant farmer in rural west Tennessee. If the appellation “dirt poor” fit anyone, it fit my grandfather’s family. Daddy served in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 30s. He and my mother, who was in the woman’s equivalent of the CCC, working as a nurse’s aide at Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee, met on a blind date in early 1940 and married in September of that year.

But just over a year later, Pearl Harbor happened. America was in the war. My father was among the first of those drafted in 1942. I won’t bore you with the details, but he participated in the North African, Salerno, Anzio, and southern France invasions, saved by the luck of the draw from Normandy. But they slogged through France and on to Germany. On April 29, 1945, Allied troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp. I don’t know whether he entered Dachau that day or the next, but that he was there within hours of the liberation is beyond dispute. A few months later, after more than three years overseas, he came home.

In later years, he would talk occasionally about the war, providing anecdotes that showed the chaos and random chance of battle. He spoke of driving through Kasserine Pass in North Africa just hours before the Germans killed thousands of Allied troops in a stunning attack. He spoke of a friend, defending his position from a foxhole, who was thought dead after an artillery shell landed right next to him. When the dust cleared, the friend was buried up to his neck in dirt, but did not have a scratch on him. He spoke often of Anzio, where he was wounded, and of the massive German air assaults on those soldiers clinging to that tiny sliver of beach along the Italian coast.

But he never spoke of Dachau.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945. USHMM.

 

Ever.

When he died in 1981, we found a photo in his wallet. An old sepia-toned shot like others he had taken during the war, pictures that he kept in an old brown bag. But this one was different.

It showed a pile of naked bodies. Well, really more skeletons than not, with their skin stretched pitifully over their bones. On the back, as had been his habit, was typed simply “Dachau.”

I was confused. Why would he keep this one photo in his wallet all of those years? Especially a photo of a place and event that he never spoke about. It obviously had some deeper meaning for him than the other photographs. If it had been a shot of the building he was in when he was wounded (hit by an artillery shell), I could have seen that. A reminder of his closest brush with death. Yeah, I could buy that. But this macabre photo? That, I couldn’t see.

So, for the next fifteen years, I remained puzzled.

Until the fall of 1996. I was working in Poland, and I had some time off. I took an overnight bus from Katowice, Poland to Munich. It was an interesting trip all in itself. We sat in a line of buses at midnight on the Polish/German border, waiting for our turn to cross, next to a cemetery, as if in some Cold War spy movie. I remember passing Nuremburg and thinking that my father had been there at the end of the war. And then there was Munich.

I spent a day or two wandering through the streets, drinking beer in the Marienplatz. I’m a historical novelist, so the short trip out to Dachau was a no-brainer. Of course it was as much my father’s connection with it as anything else that spurred the visit. But I’m not sure that I was completely aware of that at the time.

Dachau literally sits just on the outskirts of the Munich metropolitan area. I looked at the sign on the train station with a sadness, wondering for how many people that had been one of the last things they saw. It was only later that I discovered there had been another depot for those passengers.

The Dachau Memorial is a place of deep emotion. In the camp proper, mostly all that are left are the foundations of the barracks. One has been reconstructed to give an idea of how horrible life must have been. The camp was originally intended to hold 6,000 inmates; when the Allies liberated Dachau in 1945, they found 30,000. The museum and exhibits are primarily in the old maintenance building. I looked with awe at life size photos of prisoners machine gunned, their hands torn to ribbons from the barbed wire they had tried to climb in a futile attempt at escape.

I followed the visitors (I can’t call them tourists) north to where you crossed over into the crematorium area. It was there that the full brunt of what had taken place at Dachau really hit me. A simple brick complex, it seemed so peaceful on the fall day that I stood before it. But as I read the plaques and consulted my guidebook, as I stepped through the door and actually saw the “shower” rooms where the prisoners were gassed, as I stared into the open doors of the ovens, I felt a rage unlike any I had ever known consume me.
Covering my eyes, embarrassed at the tears, I slipped back outside. It took more than a few minutes to regain my composure. I thought then that I understood why my father kept that photo close to him for so long. It was a reminder of what one group of people had done to another group of fellow humans. The obscenity of it had overwhelmed him as it had me.

That night, I went to the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich, to wash the images of the ovens away with some beer. I hadn’t been there long when an elderly American couple sat at the table. They were from Florida, a pleasant couple. He had been a young lieutenant in the American army on the push into Munich. In fact, it had been his pleasure to liberate the Hofbrauhaus from the Germans.

Of course, I asked the question. “Were you at Dachau?”

He didn’t answer for several seconds, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes as his wife’s hand covered his and squeezed. Finally, he nodded, reached into a back pocket and pulled out his wallet.

With a flick of his wrist, a photo, just as wrinkled, just as bent, as the one my father had carried landed on the table. It wasn’t the same scene, but one just like it.

Here was my chance, the opportunity to ask the question I had never been able to ask my father. I pulled the photo from my own wallet and lay it next to his. “Why? Why have you carried it so long? To remind you of the horror of Dachau, of what had been done here?”

His face carried the faintest of smiles as he shook his head. “No, son, to remind us of the horrors that we are capable of, to remind us not to go down that road again.”

The difference was subtle, but in that moment, I learned two lessons invaluable to a writer, subtle differences are important, and when you want to know the truth, go to the source.

As I sit here now and look at that same photograph, I realize that it was my father’s legacy to me, of Dachau. Joe Corbsie’s father left him something more tangible, a reminder of the same thing for the same reason, but more forcefully stated — a tiny box of human ash from the ovens.

Now, nearly 70 years after that day in 1945, Dachau is still with us, and I hope the legacy left by our fathers always will be.

The late Tony Hays.

 

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A survivor writes to his fellow survivors today, on the anniversary of their liberation. An excerpt:

For the 13th of April 2016.
Hello again to all of you ‘my twins’ on our 71st birthday.
I hope my good wishes find all of you in good health, both physical and mental.
It is a blessing to be alive and being able to think back of that ‘special birthday’ of ours.
To think about those who fought to give back our lives, whom we call ‘our angels of life’.
Like the years before; there are no words enough to express our thanks for them.

 

[My new book on this will be out this July. You can put in a pre-order notice, above- GET THE BOOK HERE]

30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II, Nashville Tennessee, April 2015, 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. Credit: Larry S Powell.

30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II, Nashville Tennessee, April 2015, 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. Credit: Larry S Powell.

Here also is an anniversary poem.

The poet Yaakov Barzilai was on the ‘Train Near Magdeburg’. Originally composed in Hebrew, a  translation has been provided by fellow survivor Micha Tomkiewicz. He has agreed to share his poem on the 70th anniversary of the liberation. ’11:55′  refers to the author’s recollection of the time of the day of the liberation of the train transport; ‘five minutes before the bitter end’.

Dedicated to Frank Towers and 30th Infantry Division soldiers, US liberators of the death train from Bergen-Belsen on April 13, 1945

 

At Eleven fifty-five.

Return to the Place of Liberation, April 13, 1945                                                                                 

The train stopped under the hill, huffing and puffing, as though it reached the end of the road.

An old locomotive pulling deteriorating train cars that became obsolete long ago, not even fit for carrying horses.

To an approaching visitor, the experience was of a factory of awful smell – really stinking.

Two thousand four hundred stinking cattle heading for slaughter were shoved to the train cars.

The butterflies into the surrounding air were blinded by the poisonous stench.

The train moved for five days back and forth between Bergen-Belsen and nowhere.

On the sixth day, a new morning came to shine over our heads.

Suddenly the heavy car doors were opened.

Living and dead overflowed into the surrounding green meadow.

Was it a dream or a delayed awakening of God?

When we identified the symbols of the American army, we ran to the top of the hill as though bitten by an army of scorpions, to kiss the treads of the tanks and to hug the soldiers with overflowing love.

Somebody cried: “Don’t believe it, it is a dream”. When we pinched ourselves; we felt the pain – it was real.

Mama climbed to the top of the hill. She stood in the middle of the field of flowers and prayed an almost a silent prayer from the heart.

Only few words escaped to the blowing wind:

‘Soon…Now

From the chimneys of death, I gave new life, to my children….

And this day-my grandchildren were born,  to a good life.

Amen and Amen’.

-Yaakov Barzilai.

*

בְּאַחַת עֶשְׂרֵה חֲמִשִּׁים וְחָמֵשׁ 

שִׁיבָה לִמְקוֹם הַשִּׁחְרוּר בִּ 13 בְּאַפְּרִיל 1945

                     כַּעֲבֹר 65 שָׁנָה

הָרַכֶּבֶת עָצְרָה מִתַּחַת לַגִּבְעָה

נוֹשֶׁפֶת וְנוֹהֶמֶת

כְּמִי שֶׁהִגִּיעַ לְסוֹף דַּרְכּוֹ

קַטָּר זָקֵן גָּרַר קְרוֹנוֹת יְשָׁנִים

שֶׁאָבַד עֲלֵיהֶם כֶּלַח,

לֹא רְאוּיִים אֲפִלּוּ לִמְגוּרֵי סוּסִים.

מִי שֶׁהִזְדַּמֵּן לַסְּבִיבָה

הֶאֱמִין שֶׁנִּקְלַע לְבֵית חֲרֹשֶׁת לְסֵרָחוֹן

אַלְפַּיִם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת רָאשֵׁי בָּקָר מַסְרִיחִים

שֶׁנּוֹעֲדוּ לִשְׁחִיטָה

נִדְחְסוּ לַקְּרוֹנוֹת

כָּל הַפַּרְפַּרִים בַּסְּבִיבָה הִתְעַוְרוּ

מִסֵּרָחוֹן מַדְמִיעַ.

חֲמִשָּׁה יָמִים נָסְעָה הָרַכֶּבֶת הָלוֹךְ וַחֲזֹר

בֵּין בֶּרְגֶן-בֶּלְזֶן לְשׁוּם מָקוֹם

בַּיּוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי, בֹּקֶר חָדָשׁ זָרַח מֵעָלֵינוּ.

בְּבַת אַחַת נִפְתְחוּ הַדְּלָתוֹת הַכְּבֵדוֹת שֶׁל הַקְּרוֹנוֹת

חַיִּים וּמֵתִים נִשְׁפְּכוּ בְּיַחַד

אֶל הַיָּרֹק הַמִּשְׁתּוֹלֵל בַּשָּׂדוֹת.

הַאִם הָיָה זֶה חֲלוֹם

אוֹ הַצָּתָה מְאֻחֶרֶת שֶׁל אֱלֹהִים?

כְּשֶׁזִּהִינוּ אֶת סֵמֶל הַצָּבָא הַאָמֶרִיקָאִי,

כִּנְשׁוּכֵי עַקְרָב שָׁעֲטְנוּ בְּמַעֲלֵה הַגִּבְעָה

לְנַשֵּׁק אֶת שַׁרְשְׁרָאוֹת הַטַּנְקִים

וְלַחֲנֹק אֶת הַחַיָּלִים מֵרֹב אַהֲבָה.

מִישֶׁהוּ צָעַק: “אַל תַּאֲמִינוּ זֶה רַק חֲלוֹם”

וּכְשֶׁצָּבַטְנוּ אֶת עָצַמְנוּ

כָּאָב לָנוּ בֶּאֱמֶת.

גַּם אִמָּא טִפְּסָה אֶל גִּבְעַת הַנִּצָּחוֹן

הִיא עָמְדָה בְּתוֹךְ שָׂדֶה שֶׁל פְּרָחִים וְהִתְפַּלְּלָה

מִתּוֹךְ הַתְּפִלָּה הַחֲרִישִׁית שֶׁנֶּאֶמְרָה בַּלֵּב

רַק מִלִּים בּוֹדְדוֹת הִסְתַנְנוּ אֶל אֲוִיר הָעוֹלָם:

” וְכָאן… וְעַכְשָׁו… עַל פַּסֵי הָרַכֶּבֶת…

קָרוֹב… לַאֲרֻבּוֹת הַמָּוֶת…נָתַתִּי…

חַיִּים חֲדָשִׁים…לִילָדַי… וְהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה…

נוֹלְדוּ גַּם נְכָדַי… לְחַיִּים טוֹבִים…

אָמֵן… וְאָמֵן…                                                                     יעקב ברזילי

‘Yaakov Barzilai is an esteemed Israeli poet; he is also a survivor of The Shoah. Born in Hungary in 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany he shares, in poetry and prose, a child’s memories of the horrors that befell the Jewish people. He tells of acts of great humanity and others of exceptional, he recounts tales of transportation and eventual rescue. He speaks of losses – family, potential and describes the eventual triumph of man over inhumanity.’ [www.cduniverse.com/productinfo.asp?pid=8756081]

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I just finished the first draft of Chapter One of my new book. It took several weeks but in my head I have been writing it for years.

The chapter is called ‘Hell on Earth’. It’s Bergen Belsen in the spring of 1945. If you don’t know a lot about the concentration camp system, this 40 plus page chapter will tell you, but for now it is where Anne Frank, her sister, and 70,000 others were murdered.

The chapter has been a ton of research and I think kind of draining, but you get through it. In order to show the tremendous highs, you kind of have to go and plumb the depths. Hard to get much lower than this. And for you teachers out there, remember to be judicious with the graphic imagery in the classroom. Answer the question first- why am I teaching this? It should be more than a cheap gimmick to grab a kid’s attention. In the chapter, I chose to use some troublesome material. Not for shock value, but to better serve humanity, in context–but I am not publishing that here right now because that context is missing.

DSCN3857.2

Some of my research material. Books presented to me by my friends at the 2009 reunion; the 20th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Bergen Belsen book, and Volume 1 of the Book of Names, an attempt to compile the list of all those who suffered here.

I learned a lot. Sometimes you wonder how much you take for granted. And that is probably one of the main points of my book.

This excerpt from an eleven year old girl.

At the end of November it was very cold in Europe. Finally I was given some rags and one black ladies shoe with a high heel and one red girl’s shoe. Imagine the agony of a young girl having to walk unevenly like that for half a year.

In those shoes I marched into Bergen Belsen concentration camp on December 2nd, 1944. In those shoes my legs froze while I was enduring roll calls, which lasted between two to five hours.

When the mounds of dead bodies started to pile up nearby in a frightening manner, we, the children, made bets between us, as to who would die tomorrow and who would die the day after. Every one of them had his signs. I had become an old woman already, eleven and half years old.

During the breaks between roll calls, if it wasn’t too cold, I would stand by the fence and look at the naked dead bodies with their gaping mouths. I used to wonder what it was that they still wanted to shout out loud and couldn’t. I tried to determine who were men, and who were women. But they were only skin and bones. I tried to imagine how I could dress these dead bodies in clothes for dinner; their pale skin color did not always match the clothes.

Another eleven year old girl:

When told to prepare ourselves for the departure in the train I was already very weak and sick. Two weeks prior I had a very high fever. I was in Bergen Belsen with my aunt, my father’s sister, as by then I had lost my entire family.

The Germans let us know that all those who could not walk would have to stay behind. My aunt wanted to stay because she knew that I was already very weak; however, I insisted on going. I said to my aunt, “You know that they kill the weak and the sick. We will go with the healthy people.” Although I was only 11½ years old, my aunt listened to me. I probably had a very strong will to live.

Before we left, they gave each of us a raw potato, and somehow we managed to bake them over a wood fire. My aunt then said to me, “You know that now is the Passover holiday”—we barely remembered what day of the week it was, let alone the date. On Passover, according to the story, our forefather Moses took us out of Egypt. Maybe G–d is bringing us to freedom, and maybe we will live?

A seventeen year old girl:

Saturday, ‎April 7th, ‎ ‎1945. Our transport is stranded at the Bergen–Celle railway station. Our irresponsible captors no longer provide us with food. After suffering from constant starvation for six long months at the death factory of Bergen Belsen, the German SS leaves us now in total hunger and total thirst. We are too exhausted, dizzy and weak to grasp how grave our situation is.

What do the Nazis have in mind?

What do the Nazis have in mind, indeed. On to Chapter Two to find out. The book should be done this summer.

For updates, follow this blog. For advance notice, sign up at bit.ly/RozellNewBook.

 

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At my keynote talk in Rochester, NY, two weeks ago, several people came up to me after the ceremony and greeted me warmly. One man came with an envelope and shook my hand, explaining that his father had been an American medic. In the envelope were photographs and Vincent’s handwritten letter describing a talk that he had had with his dad a couple years before he passed. I have finally gotten around to transcribing it; it comes on the 70th anniversary of his father’s traumatic shock at a subcamp of Dachau where Jewish slave laborers were being worked to death mining out mountains so the Reich could shelter its fledgling jet industries from Allied bombing. Many of the prisoners were dying of typhus. Below you will find the letter and two of his photos.

Vincent F. Butler, Sr.

Vincent F. Butler, Sr.

4/15/2015

Dear Matt,

These are copies made from the original pictures taken by my father, Vincent F. Butler, Sr., at the concentration camp in Landsberg, Germany toward the end of World War II. He did not date the pictures, but I have included a copy in his handwriting of the location. My father was a medic in the XXI Medical Corps when his unit liberated this camp.

My father never really talked about the war except for a funny story once in a while. About 2 years before he died he first showed me these pictures. He described the encounter as “the worst thing I had ever seen”. That says a lot considering he was a frontline medic in Europe. He also said that he “could not understand how someone could do something so horrible against other human beings.” He uttered “Why…Why…Why…” several times during our talk. He gave me these pictures with the directive: “Never let anyone say that this did not happen. It did – I saw it.”

Landsberg Area, Germany. A subcamp of Dachau.

Landsberg Area, Germany. A subcamp of Dachau.

That was one of the few actual directives that my father ever gave me, and I must say, it was his most serious. Looking back, and finally knowing what he had been through, I am sure that this had the biggest impact and was the most traumatic effect on him.

He did talk about how they tried to save as many people as they could. He said they had to very slowly give people food because large amounts would shut their system down. He said he was not aware of these camps until they came upon this one.

Thank you for telling the story so that the Holocaust is never repeated. I think that my father’s pictures and his recollection through me may help in some small way.

Vincent Butler, Jr.

 

http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10006171

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Matthew Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow and teaches history at his alma mater in upstate New York. His work has resulted in the reuniting of 275 Holocaust survivors and the American soldiers who freed them.

His first book, ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’, is being released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. His second book, in progress, is on the power of  teaching, remembering the Holocaust, the Benjamin photograph and the liberation of the “Train Near Magdeburg’. He can be reached at marozell at gmail dot com.

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April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

Today, April 29th, is the anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, 70 years on.

Today, if it is brought up at all, some of us might respond with a vacant stare. More might shrug and turn away. I suppose that is to be expected. But you know me. I just think that as a nation, sometimes we allow things to slip from memory at our peril.

It was real, and it happened. And it was American GIs who overran this camp and many others in the closing days of World War II.

The men of the 42nd and 45th Infantry Division arrived independently of each other, here, in southern Germany, at Dachau, on this day. A concentration camp, they were told. Their noses gave them a hint of what they were about to uncover, miles before the camp appeared in sight.

Read the headlines, above. Note the subarticle:

Boxcars of Dead at Dachau. 32,000 captives freed.

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

And so after some resistance, into the camp they entered. Life changing events were about to unfold for the American soldier.

***

For me, it’s not about hero worship, or glorifying the liberator or any World War II soldier as some kind of savior. Many of the liberating soldiers I know would resist this, to the point of rejecting the term, “liberator”… “It all sounds so exalted, so glamorous” said one. But they will all accept the term, “eyewitness”.

Witnesses to the greatest crime in the history of the world.

So instead I think it is about honoring their experiences, their shock, the horror, the puking and the crying, the rage-and then, the American GIs recognizing that something had to be done. And they did suffer for it, for trying to do the right thing. Many tried to help by offering food to starving prisoners who just were not ready to handle it, only to see them drop dead. Or having to manhandle these emaciated victims who were tearing away at each other as food was being offered.

Some guys never got over it. How could you?

I have learned so much over the past few years from these guys, just through the way that they carried themselves and tried to cope with what they witnessed. In my World War II studies and Holocaust class, we discuss these issues at length. I’m so lucky to be able to teach it.

Last year, I was privileged to teach a lesson to my high school seniors for NBC Learn, which was shared with other districts across the nation. This year, I stumbled upon this piece by the late author Tony Hays, who writes about his liberator father and his own encounter with the past. Thanks to the Get It Write folks; the original link is at the bottom.

***

Dachau Will Always Be With Us

by Tony Hays

This is not so much a post about writing as one about a writer’s education, about one of those experiences that molds us, shapes us into storytellers. I read yesterday the story of Joseph Corbsie, whose father, a World War II veteran, left him with a special legacy from the war, from the hideous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. I feel a particular kinship with Mr. Corbsie.

My father, Robert Hays, was the son of an alcoholic tenant farmer in rural west Tennessee. If the appellation “dirt poor” fit anyone, it fit my grandfather’s family. Daddy served in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 30s. He and my mother, who was in the woman’s equivalent of the CCC, working as a nurse’s aide at Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee, met on a blind date in early 1940 and married in September of that year.

But just over a year later, Pearl Harbor happened. America was in the war. My father was among the first of those drafted in 1942. I won’t bore you with the details, but he participated in the North African, Salerno, Anzio, and southern France invasions, saved by the luck of the draw from Normandy. But they slogged through France and on to Germany. On April 29, 1945, Allied troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp. I don’t know whether he entered Dachau that day or the next, but that he was there within hours of the liberation is beyond dispute. A few months later, after more than three years overseas, he came home.

In later years, he would talk occasionally about the war, providing anecdotes that showed the chaos and random chance of battle. He spoke of driving through Kasserine Pass in North Africa just hours before the Germans killed thousands of Allied troops in a stunning attack. He spoke of a friend, defending his position from a foxhole, who was thought dead after an artillery shell landed right next to him. When the dust cleared, the friend was buried up to his neck in dirt, but did not have a scratch on him. He spoke often of Anzio, where he was wounded, and of the massive German air assaults on those soldiers clinging to that tiny sliver of beach along the Italian coast.

But he never spoke of Dachau.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945. USHMM.

 

Ever.

When he died in 1981, we found a photo in his wallet. An old sepia-toned shot like others he had taken during the war, pictures that he kept in an old brown bag. But this one was different.

It showed a pile of naked bodies. Well, really more skeletons than not, with their skin stretched pitifully over their bones. On the back, as had been his habit, was typed simply “Dachau.”

I was confused. Why would he keep this one photo in his wallet all of those years? Especially a photo of a place and event that he never spoke about. It obviously had some deeper meaning for him than the other photographs. If it had been a shot of the building he was in when he was wounded (hit by an artillery shell), I could have seen that. A reminder of his closest brush with death. Yeah, I could buy that. But this macabre photo? That, I couldn’t see.

So, for the next fifteen years, I remained puzzled.

Until the fall of 1996. I was working in Poland, and I had some time off. I took an overnight bus from Katowice, Poland to Munich. It was an interesting trip all in itself. We sat in a line of buses at midnight on the Polish/German border, waiting for our turn to cross, next to a cemetery, as if in some Cold War spy movie. I remember passing Nuremburg and thinking that my father had been there at the end of the war. And then there was Munich.

I spent a day or two wandering through the streets, drinking beer in the Marienplatz. I’m a historical novelist, so the short trip out to Dachau was a no-brainer. Of course it was as much my father’s connection with it as anything else that spurred the visit. But I’m not sure that I was completely aware of that at the time.

Dachau literally sits just on the outskirts of the Munich metropolitan area. I looked at the sign on the train station with a sadness, wondering for how many people that had been one of the last things they saw. It was only later that I discovered there had been another depot for those passengers.

The Dachau Memorial is a place of deep emotion. In the camp proper, mostly all that are left are the foundations of the barracks. One has been reconstructed to give an idea of how horrible life must have been. The camp was originally intended to hold 6,000 inmates; when the Allies liberated Dachau in 1945, they found 30,000. The museum and exhibits are primarily in the old maintenance building. I looked with awe at life size photos of prisoners machine gunned, their hands torn to ribbons from the barbed wire they had tried to climb in a futile attempt at escape.

I followed the visitors (I can’t call them tourists) north to where you crossed over into the crematorium area. It was there that the full brunt of what had taken place at Dachau really hit me. A simple brick complex, it seemed so peaceful on the fall day that I stood before it. But as I read the plaques and consulted my guidebook, as I stepped through the door and actually saw the “shower” rooms where the prisoners were gassed, as I stared into the open doors of the ovens, I felt a rage unlike any I had ever known consume me.
Covering my eyes, embarrassed at the tears, I slipped back outside. It took more than a few minutes to regain my composure. I thought then that I understood why my father kept that photo close to him for so long. It was a reminder of what one group of people had done to another group of fellow humans. The obscenity of it had overwhelmed him as it had me.

That night, I went to the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich, to wash the images of the ovens away with some beer. I hadn’t been there long when an elderly American couple sat at the table. They were from Florida, a pleasant couple. He had been a young lieutenant in the American army on the push into Munich. In fact, it had been his pleasure to liberate the Hofbrauhaus from the Germans.

Of course, I asked the question. “Were you at Dachau?”

He didn’t answer for several seconds, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes as his wife’s hand covered his and squeezed. Finally, he nodded, reached into a back pocket and pulled out his wallet.

With a flick of his wrist, a photo, just as wrinkled, just as bent, as the one my father had carried landed on the table. It wasn’t the same scene, but one just like it.

Here was my chance, the opportunity to ask the question I had never been able to ask my father. I pulled the photo from my own wallet and lay it next to his. “Why? Why have you carried it so long? To remind you of the horror of Dachau, of what had been done here?”

His face carried the faintest of smiles as he shook his head. “No, son, to remind us of the horrors that we are capable of, to remind us not to go down that road again.”

The difference was subtle, but in that moment, I learned two lessons invaluable to a writer, subtle differences are important, and when you want to know the truth, go to the source.

As I sit here now and look at that same photograph, I realize that it was my father’s legacy to me, of Dachau. Joe Corbsie’s father left him something more tangible, a reminder of the same thing for the same reason, but more forcefully stated — a tiny box of human ash from the ovens.

Now, nearly 70 years after that day in 1945, Dachau is still with us, and I hope the legacy left by our fathers always will be.

 

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30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II, Nashville Tennessee, April 2015, 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. Credit: Larry S Powell.

30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II, Nashville Tennessee, April 2015, 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. Credit: Larry S Powell.

The poet Yaakov Barzilai was on the ‘Train Near Magdeburg’. Originally composed in Hebrew, a  translation has been provided by fellow survivor Micha Tomkiewicz. He has agreed to share his poem on the 70th anniversary of the liberation. ’11:55′  refers to the author’s recollection of the time of the day of the liberation of the train transport; ‘five minutes before the bitter end’.

Dedicated to Frank Towers and 30th Infantry Division soldiers, US liberators of the death train from Bergen-Belsen on April 13, 1945

 

At Eleven fifty-five.

Return to the Place of Liberation, April 13, 1945, after 65 years.

                                                                                    

The train stopped under the hill, huffing and puffing, as though it reached the end of the road.

An old locomotive pulling deteriorating train cars that became obsolete long ago, not even fit for carrying horses.

To an approaching visitor, the experience was of a factory of awful smell – really stinking.

Two thousand four hundred stinking cattle heading for slaughter were shoved to the train cars.

The butterflies into the surrounding air were blinded by the poisonous stench.

The train moved for five days back and forth between Bergen-Belsen and nowhere.

On the sixth day, a new morning came to shine over our heads.

Suddenly the heavy car doors were opened.

Living and dead overflowed into the surrounding green meadow.

Was it a dream or a delayed awakening of God?

When we identified the symbols of the American army, we ran to the top of the hill as though bitten by an army of scorpions, to kiss the treads of the tanks and to hug the soldiers with overflowing love.

Somebody cried: “Don’t believe it, it is a dream”. When we pinched ourselves; we felt the pain – it was real.

Mama climbed to the top of the hill. She stood in the middle of the field of flowers and prayed an almost a silent prayer from the heart.

Only few words escaped to the blowing wind:

‘Soon…Now…..To the chimneys of death…I gave new life….to my children…. and this day… my grandchildren were born… to a good life.

Amen and Amen’.

Yaakov Barzilai.

‘Yaakov Barzilai is an esteemed Israeli poet; he is also a survivor of The Shoah. Born in Hungary in 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany he shares, in poetry and prose, a child’s memories of the horrors that befell the Jewish people. He tells of acts of great humanity and others of exceptional, he recounts tales of transportation and eventual rescue. He speaks of losses – family, potential and describes the eventual triumph of man over inhumanity.’ [www.cduniverse.com/productinfo.asp?pid=8756081] 

בְּאַחַת עֶשְׂרֵה חֲמִשִּׁים וְחָמֵשׁ

 

שִׁיבָה לִמְקוֹם הַשִּׁחְרוּר בִּ 13 בְּאַפְּרִיל 1945

                     כַּעֲבֹר 65 שָׁנָה

הָרַכֶּבֶת עָצְרָה מִתַּחַת לַגִּבְעָה

נוֹשֶׁפֶת וְנוֹהֶמֶת

כְּמִי שֶׁהִגִּיעַ לְסוֹף דַּרְכּוֹ

קַטָּר זָקֵן גָּרַר קְרוֹנוֹת יְשָׁנִים

שֶׁאָבַד עֲלֵיהֶם כֶּלַח,

לֹא רְאוּיִים אֲפִלּוּ לִמְגוּרֵי סוּסִים.

מִי שֶׁהִזְדַּמֵּן לַסְּבִיבָה

הֶאֱמִין שֶׁנִּקְלַע לְבֵית חֲרֹשֶׁת לְסֵרָחוֹן

אַלְפַּיִם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת רָאשֵׁי בָּקָר מַסְרִיחִים

שֶׁנּוֹעֲדוּ לִשְׁחִיטָה

נִדְחְסוּ לַקְּרוֹנוֹת

כָּל הַפַּרְפַּרִים בַּסְּבִיבָה הִתְעַוְרוּ

מִסֵּרָחוֹן מַדְמִיעַ.

חֲמִשָּׁה יָמִים נָסְעָה הָרַכֶּבֶת הָלוֹךְ וַחֲזֹר

בֵּין בֶּרְגֶן-בֶּלְזֶן לְשׁוּם מָקוֹם

בַּיּוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי, בֹּקֶר חָדָשׁ זָרַח מֵעָלֵינוּ.

בְּבַת אַחַת נִפְתְחוּ הַדְּלָתוֹת הַכְּבֵדוֹת שֶׁל הַקְּרוֹנוֹת

חַיִּים וּמֵתִים נִשְׁפְּכוּ בְּיַחַד

אֶל הַיָּרֹק הַמִּשְׁתּוֹלֵל בַּשָּׂדוֹת.

 

הַאִם הָיָה זֶה חֲלוֹם

אוֹ הַצָּתָה מְאֻחֶרֶת שֶׁל אֱלֹהִים?

כְּשֶׁזִּהִינוּ אֶת סֵמֶל הַצָּבָא הַאָמֶרִיקָאִי,

כִּנְשׁוּכֵי עַקְרָב שָׁעֲטְנוּ בְּמַעֲלֵה הַגִּבְעָה

לְנַשֵּׁק אֶת שַׁרְשְׁרָאוֹת הַטַּנְקִים

וְלַחֲנֹק אֶת הַחַיָּלִים מֵרֹב אַהֲבָה.

מִישֶׁהוּ צָעַק: “אַל תַּאֲמִינוּ זֶה רַק חֲלוֹם”

וּכְשֶׁצָּבַטְנוּ אֶת עָצַמְנוּ

כָּאָב לָנוּ בֶּאֱמֶת.

גַּם אִמָּא טִפְּסָה אֶל גִּבְעַת הַנִּצָּחוֹן

הִיא עָמְדָה בְּתוֹךְ שָׂדֶה שֶׁל פְּרָחִים וְהִתְפַּלְּלָה

מִתּוֹךְ הַתְּפִלָּה הַחֲרִישִׁית שֶׁנֶּאֶמְרָה בַּלֵּב

רַק מִלִּים בּוֹדְדוֹת הִסְתַנְנוּ אֶל אֲוִיר הָעוֹלָם:

” וְכָאן… וְעַכְשָׁו… עַל פַּסֵי הָרַכֶּבֶת…

קָרוֹב… לַאֲרֻבּוֹת הַמָּוֶת…נָתַתִּי…

חַיִּים חֲדָשִׁים…לִילָדַי… וְהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה…

נוֹלְדוּ גַּם נְכָדַי… לְחַיִּים טוֹבִים…

אָמֵן… וְאָמֵן…                                                                     יעקב ברזילי

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