Auschwitz. Buchenwald. Dachau. Maulthausen. Treblinka. Sobibor. Belzec. Majdanek. Bergen-Belsen. Ravensbruck. Theresienstadt. The death camps. Nazi death camps. This past week, we saw the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau by the Americans and this past Tuesday, we should have remembered the victims of Maulthausen as it was the 70th anniversary of their liberation.
It was spring of 1995 while sitting in church one Sunday morning when one of our parishioners, Henk Dillewaard, stood up during the service when there is time to give thanks for feeling blessed or to celebrate an anniversary or birthday. Henk spoke in his heavily Dutch accented English and brought us all to tears. He stood there and shared with our congregation the fact that 50 years to the very day we were sitting in church with him, he had been liberated from a Nazi Concentration Camp by the American Army.
Tears rolling down his cheeks as he told of having spent years in a camp and suffering. He told us of having to eat dirt to feel full during days without food. He talked of having been grabbed by the Nazis while walking home from school and never getting to say goodbye to his family, whom he would never see again. Tears still flowing, he looked at each of us and asked that we join him in giving thanks to God for the liberation but also for his ability to live in the United States of America. He finished his comments by repeating three or four times, “I love the United States.”
On the 60th anniversary of Henk’s liberation Carol and I invited Henk, his wife, Judy, and another couple, John and Diane, who are members of our church to dinner to celebrate the liberation. John, is also from Holland, wasn’t held in the camps but the connection to Holland seemed natural. I also invited my sister-in-law and her two young children. I wanted my niece and nephew to hear first-hand about the camps so that they would have a connection to that horrible part of history, should anyone ever try to tell them it was a hoax.
Dwight Eisenhower worried that the Nazis would try to deny the camps and that the images that the liberators saw would been forgotten. So Eisenhower ordered the troops to take thousands upon thousands of photographs to document what Hitler and his Third Reich did to innocent people.
Twenty to 25 million people were held in those death and labor camps. Six million Jews were killed because they were Jewish. Six million others were killed because they spoke out against the government, or were gypsies, bankers, lawyers, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or a part of other groups deemed unfit to live by Der Fuehrer.
We need to ensure that the horrors of these concentration camps and the death camps are never allowed to be lost to history. We need to be vigilant that we don’t allow things like this to happen again. Chamberlain thought that Hitler could be appeased. Chamberlain was wrong. The German people were so horribly treated following the end of World War I by the Treaty of Versailles that it created a situation where the Germans were willing to listen to the orations of Hitler, never imagining just how much power he sought. We need to remember that Ben Franklin told us, “Those who would sacrifice a little liberty for temporary safety deserve neither.”
The Nazis tried many different ways to kill their enemies. They tried gassing them in special buses with the carbon monoxide from the motor being piped into the bus during long drives. They tried firing squads but found it slow and the bullets costly. The “Final Solution” (as it was called) to rid German of these people came down to the use of lethal gas in what was thought to be shower rooms. The walls of those shower rooms still bear the scarring of the people trying to escape the gas. Imagine the terror being so great that your fingers scar concrete while you try to escape before the gas takes over your lungs.
The Nazis used the hair of the detainees to weave blankets or clothing. The Nazis took the gold and silver out of the teeth of those in the camps. Possessions and assets of those sent to the camps were taken and stolen by the Nazis, with most never to be returned to the rightful owner or their heirs.
I have met other survivors of that horrible time in history and find it so very hard to believe that one human being could treat another human in such a way. The fact is that it happened just 75-80 years ago and it came to an end after the Americans got involved in the war in Europe.
People must remain vigilant toward their leaders. The Germans elected Hitler. More so -remember Henk’s words, “I was liberated by the American Army. I love the United States.”