Meager Words and Memories: Remembering the Holocaust
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is January 27. It’s an important and necessary day, given our tendency—as Americans and humans—to convince ourselves that history begins around our date of birth, to forget and move on, to think in terms of news cycles and tweets.
In establishing the day in 2005, the UN noted that Hitler’s war against Jews “resulted in the murder of one-third of the Jewish people.” One-third of an entire ethno-religious group. The final tally for Hitler’s “final solution” comes to some 6 million lives. They represent tens of millions more who would have been the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Hitler’s victims. Put another way, Hitler deformed mankind itself.
As history and humanity move ever further from the Holocaust—as the generation that witnessed it and ended it passes away—the task and obligation of remembering what happened in Auschwitz and Treblinka, Dachau and Sachsenhausen, Belzec and Buchenwald, and a dozen other murder mills spread across Europe falls to you and me. As the UN observed, we must “inculcate future generations with the lessons of the Holocaust in order to help to prevent future acts of genocide.”
I try to do that—I use the word “try” because I know my contributions are meager compared to the heroic efforts of others—in the courses I teach as an adjunct professor/lecturer and in some of the articles I write. I am motivated not only by the enormity and evil of the Holocaust itself, but also by the words and example of an American general and one of his soldiers.
Before he became president, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was commander-in-chief of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II. In his memoirs, the battle-hardened soldier recalled that he saw his “first horror camp” on April 12, 1945. He noted that some of his subordinates “were unable to get through the ordeal.” But Eisenhower forced himself to see “every nook and cranny of the camp.” He explained:
I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at firsthand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that “the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.”… 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.
Eisenhower wanted to “leave no room for cynical doubt” about what the Nazi regime had done.
On April 25, 1945, less than two weeks after his first encounter with the horror camps, the general of generals issued a charge—an order—to a group of subordinates, lawmakers, and journalists: “Your responsibilities, I believe, extend into a great field, and informing the people at home of things like these atrocities is one of them…The barbarous treatment these people received in the German concentration camps is almost unbelievable. I want you to see for yourself and be spokesmen for the United States.”
With an exquisite sense of human nature, Eisenhower knew it was easy to discount or dismiss what some stranger or historian or faceless newsreel reported; it was quite another thing to hear a son, sweetheart, husband, father—or in my case, a grandfather—describe the camps and the bodies and the smell and the death and the nightmare.
My grandfather helped liberate the death camp at Dachau. Here’s what he said about it: “We moved in with the 101st, and we occupied that area. I saw firsthand the trenches with people laid out…the furnaces and all that. There were some mentions in the Stars and Stripes [military newspaper]. But I personally didn’t know anything about it until we liberated Munich and Dachau,” he recalled before his death in 2002. “This was an attempt to absolutely wipe out a people. They weren’t all Jews, but in Dachau most were. The Jews were singled out as an automatic enemy in Germany.”
The Holocaust, thus, was brought home and made real for the American people by the American GI.
Given the awful enormity of what Hitler did, given the sacrifice Eisenhower’s men made to close the murder mills, given the Hitlerite designs of the regime in control of Iran, given what has happened to Yazidis and Tutsis and Darfuris and Bosnian Muslims and Iraqi and Syrian Christians in our time, given the nightmares my Grandpa Eason and Grandpa Dowd had to live with in their time, the least I can do is speak the truth about this dark chapter in human history.
Photo Credit: Heinrich Himmler and other Nazi party officials inspect Camp Dachau on May 8, 1936. Photo by Friedrich Franz Bauer, via German Federal Archives and Wikimedia Commons.