Below is the transcript of an assembly speech given to Middle and Upper School assemblies by Mr. Skyler Anderson, a Waterford History teacher in recognition of the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps by Allied soldiers in World War II.
Good Morning everyone,
This month marks the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps by Allied soldiers in World War II. In reflection of those events, I am going to speak about the experiences of the Allied soldiers who liberated and witnessed the camps in April 1945.
To start, I’d like to read part of a letter from a soldier who visited Dachau concentration camp shortly after its liberation in late April, 1945.
The letter itself is written on the personal stationary of Adolf Hitler—you can see that its author, Sergeant Horace Evers, has crossed out Hitler’s name and written his own below. I’ll leave it to the letter to explain how Seargent Evers got his hands on Hitler’s personal stationary.
After catching up with his Mom and brother, Sergeant Evers’ writes about his own news:
“A year ago today I was sweating out shells on Anzio Beachhead—today I am sitting in Hitler’s luxuriously furnished apartment in Munich writing a few lines home—what a contrast. A still greater contrast is that between his quarters here and the living hell of Dachau concentration camp only 10 miles from here —I had the misfortune of seeing the camp yesterday and I still find it hard to believe what my eyes told me.
A railroad runs alongside the camp and as we walked toward the box cars on the track I thought of some of the stories I previously had read about Dachau and was glad of the chance to see for myself just to prove once and for all that what I had heard was propaganda—but no it wasn’t propaganda at all—if anything, some of the truth had been held back. In two years of combat you can imagine I have seen a lot of death, furious death mostly. But nothing has ever stirred me as much as this. I can’t shrug off the feeling of utter hate I now hold for these people. I’ve shot at Germans with intent to kill before but only because I had to or else it was me—now I hold no hesitancy whatsoever.
The first boxcar I came to had about 30 what were once humans in it—all were just bone with a layer of skin over them. Most of the eyes were open and had an indescribable look about them. They had that beaten “what did I do to deserve this” look. Twenty or thirty other box cars were the same. Bodies on top of each other—no telling how many. No identification as far as I could see. And then into the camp itself—filthy barracks suitable for about 200 persons held 1500. 160,000 persons were originally in the camp and 32,000 were alive (or almost alive) when we arrived.
How can people do things like that? I never believed they could until now.”
This letter by Seargent Evers captures nearly all the sentiments that Allied soldiers felt when they first came upon the camps—disgust, shock, horror, and anger—but what jumps out to me is how immediately the experience of seeing the camps changes Sergeant Ever’s perspective on humanity as a whole.
“How can people do things like that?,” he writes, “I never believed they could until now.”
Today we can see the holocaust in its entirety. It’s very easy for us to believe that people can do things like that, because we know they did things like that. But most of these allied soldiers who participated in the liberation of the camps or visited them shortly thereafter, truly didn’t expect to see what they saw. They had been left in the dark about the real purpose of Nazi concentration camps, and had not been provided information about similar camps that had already been discovered by Russians in the East, including Auschwitz, earlier that year.
Even in April 1945, as rumors began to circulate about the camps, these rumors were hard to distinguish from propaganda. Sergeant Evers references this when he states that he originally went to Dachau to prove that what he was hearing was just propaganda.
So most soldiers who saw the camps were blindsided by what they saw, and many of the camps had been actively operating only minutes or hours before the arrival of Allied soldiers, leaving evidence of Nazi atrocities completely exposed. Consequently, Allied soldiers walked into an overwhelming scene of death, a ghastly collage of sights and smells, that ended up haunting them for years afterwards. In today’s terms, many of these soldiers would suffer PTSD from their short experiences at these camps—making it difficult to share and reflect on their experiences with others after the war.
However, while there was much trauma associated with their experiences, many of the soldiers who saw the camps say that these moments in April immediately gave new meaning to the purpose of the war and their own lives. For example, PFC Leonard Popich wrote home to his wife in Milwaukee about his experience in the camps saying, “Now, I know what this war is all about. Now I know why we are fighting. To me, all the suffering and misery I’ve had to put up with these past 8 months has been well worthwhile. Just to see the joy on the faces of these tortured, suffering people repaid all of us that saw, a thousand fold… I’m proud to be one of the many who finally helped free those poor souls who have been through a hell that the decent mind cannot imagine possible on God’s own earth…”
Other soldiers quickly recognized the difficulty in sharing their experiences with the broader American public. Delbert Cooper, writing to his wife about his experience seeing one of the camps, ended his letter with the following words:
“There are two things about all this that I want to to tell you:
First – I never again want to see anything like that happen to anyone.
Second – I wish 130 million American people could have been standing in my shoes.”
Very soon, 130 million Americans would have the chance to hear about the things Delbert Cooper saw, even if they could not stand in his shoes.
Aftermath – Americans and Germans
In a cable written on April 19, Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight Eisenhower, reflected on his own experience seeing the camps first hand, and he suggested that the American press and some congressmen should come to see the camps in person, to capture evidence and ensure that figures in positions of authority were fully cognizant of the horrors of Nazi persecution.
5 days later a delegation of American congressmen and members of the media visited Buchenwald and toured the camp, which was still in the state that it had been found in on April 11th. News of the atrocities was also circulated in the press, including army journals and large newspapers. By the end of April it was hard to miss news of the atrocities, though hearing about atrocities was not the same as seeing them personally.
As for German civilians, most denied having any knowledge of the concentration camps, even when they could be smelled from their homes. The German civilian response infuriated Allied soldiers, who often responded by forcing local German civilians to help clean up the camps and make proper graves for victims who had been murdered.
Later on, this forced viewing of the atrocities became standard policy as part of a broader effort to denazify the German public.
When Germans could not be made to go to camps, they were made to go to screenings of films that recorded evidence of the atrocities.
Here on the left you can see an image of one of these screenings, in this case a film about atrocities at Bergen and Buchenwald. On the right is an audience of former German Army soldiers who saw one of these films. You can see the range of reactions that they had.
The genuine reaction of horror and shock that German civilians and soldiers had when they saw the evidence of Nazi atrocities did lend some credence to the claim that much of the German public did not know the depth of Nazi crimes against Jews and other minorities, but historians still debate to what extent average Germans were responsible for Nazi atrocities.
Was it a question of not knowing about atrocities as they were happening, or was it a question of not standing up when they could have been prevented?
Lessons for today
I think much of our curriculum about the holocaust today is driven by the idea that mere knowledge of Nazi atrocities is enough to prevent another genocide. Like the Germans who were denazified after the war, we show you images and videos of the camps. Like the liberators who found them in April of 1945, you feel shock, horror, disgust, anger, and disbelief.
But is simply knowing that people can do “things like that” enough to stop anti-semitism or prevent another holocaust? Or does it take something more?
In 1953, the journalist Milton Mayer interviewed several residents in a small town in Hesse Germany seeking to understand how the “average” German allowed the rise of the Nazis and the holocaust. During an interview with a German schoolteacher, Mayer was given the following explanation for why normal people had allowed great evils to occur under their watch:
The Schoolteacher said:
“If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions, would have been sufficiently shocked… But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at step C?
And one day, too late, your principles, if you were sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident collapses it all at once and you see that everything, everything has changed, and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all… now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves…”
I think the lesson we can draw here is that none of us have the luxury of knowing where our actions and attitudes will ultimately lead. None of us “normal” people can imagine ourselves perpetrating something like the holocaust, knowing how wrong, immoral, and inhumane it was.
But most people in Nazi Germany were normal people, like you or me. And as this quote shows, most people in Nazi Germany would have been sufficiently shocked by the “final solution.” We saw that Germans were in fact shocked by the atrocities when they were forced to confront them after they had been perpetrated.
But the persecution of Jews and other minorities in Nazi Germany did not begin with the ”final solution,” it began with much smaller, incremental steps. And people were not shocked by these smaller steps. Most people found them acceptable enough that they were not willing to resist them.
Yet ultimately, everyday, normal people, people like you and me, took these little steps towards an evil that was greater than the sum of its parts. And once those steps were taken, it was too late to stand up—there was nothing left but hate and fear.
Whether our communities follow a path towards hate and fear depends collectively on the small steps we individually take every day.
Do we choose to build people up or do we tear them down?
Do we include people or do we exclude them?
Do we protect people or do we make them feel vulnerable?
In April 1945, we were reminded that humans are capable of great evil when we routinely leave our worst impulses unchecked.
I hope that we do not need another reminder now.
February 10, 2023
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