May 4, 2016
During Yom HaShoah, observed from sundown May 4th through sundown May 5th, Jews take time to remember the atrocities, horrors, victims and survivors of the Holocaust. As we move further and further from the realities of Hitler's Nazi Germany, we risk forgetting, and eventually ignoring, the dangers of dictatorial power.
Your Uncle Larry was sent to Germany at the end of World War II and stayed as part of the occupational forces. He was a medic in the 5th Infantry rifle company in the 71st Infantry Division. While he saw combat, he got his fill of inhumanity off the battlefield.
While the war was occurring, very few truly knew or understood the death and destruction Hitler imposed on the Jewish people along with other undesirables. Any Jews that were able to escape before Hiller began his massacre had no idea what happened to their loved ones that remained in Germany until after the war. It wasn't until both American and Russian occupational forces found and liberated the death camps was the world exposed to the truth of civilian deaths in Germany and Nazi controlled areas. Even then Americans didn’t understand the depths of the evil until Life Magazine produced an edition showcasing photos taken by the soldiers who were there.
Uncle Larry and his company discovered and liberated the starvation camp of Gunskirchen Lagen. While out on patrol, two of Larry's fellow soldiers came across an object in the road. Described as a "bag of bones," this object was in fact a man. He had escaped from under the fence entrapping him in certain death.
After the commander was radioed and the Red Cross (see ) was contacted, the 71st Division discovered the truth hidden neatly in the beautiful German forest. The Nazis had carefully camouflaged the camp safety among the scenic trees and landscape to avoid any detection. Once inside the camp, the attractiveness of nature turned to death and despair.
The barracks used to house the prisoners were incomplete, allowing the elements to infiltrate the building. Each prison was afforded a cot and one blanket, completely inadequate for the starving, barley clothed, dying Jews. But since death was the objective, the Nazi commanders were completely unconcerned.
When Hitler moved from disenfranchising Jews to exterminating them, their form of execution was simple. (see and ) A ditch was dug, often by the victims, before they were lined up and shot. After falling into their grave, they were covered with lime before the next layer of corpses were deposited.
Once the war started, Hilter realized the expense of the precious resources used here. The ammunition and soldiers used to eradicate the Jews and other political opponents were needed on the front. To save bullets, victims were lined up five deep with one shot penetrating through all five. This saved ammunition, but many victims were not killed with this method. That did not prevent the Nazis from pushing them all into the pit and sprinkling them with lime before piling more corpses on.
In efforts to be more efficient, architect and Hitler’s close friend, Albert Speer, developed the gas chamber and the furnace. (see ) Now hundreds of Jews and other victims could be easily eliminated and disposed of with little work. Hitler was able to now focus his resource on killing Russians and Americans while still eradicating his own German people.
While gas chambers were used in several concentration camps, other camps, like Gunskirchen Lagen, simply starved their prisoners. The inmates found themselves scrounging for food on the forest floor, often eating worms and bugs just to survive. One survivor told Uncle Larry how he felt the snails moving in his stomach after one such meal, thankful for the food.
But that just scratches the surface of the Nazi inhumanity. (see and ) One survivor was taken to the camp with his parents, sister and her newborn baby. The sister pleaded with the guards not to harm her baby. Emotionless, one soldier grabbed the baby by its legs and smashed its head against a rock. As if that was not evil enough, he then casually tossed the fresh corpse into the bushes before turning to the family and barking directions to them.
With only one blanket, prisoners would huddle together, using body heat to make it through the night. Severely starved, dehydrated and cold, many lost their struggle for life during the night while surrounded by other suffering prisoners.
After the 71st Infantry liberated Gunskirchen Lager on May 4, 1945, several of the victims became honorary members of the unit. For Larry and our family, we have an even more binding connection to Gunskirchen Lager. One survivor moved on with her life, had children and eventually grandchildren. One of her granddaughters married Larry's nephew and my cousin.
Liberty, as hard as it is to hear these stories and believe such evil can exist, it is imperative we continue to pass them on as much as we can. As patriot Edmund Burke said, “Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.” As each day goes by, the world looses more Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans. We must learn their stories while we still can and then continue their legacies, honoring their memories, long after they are gone.
That’s my 2 cents.
REMEMBERING THE HOLOCAUST