On April 12, 1945, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, entered Ohrdruf concentration camp with Generals George S. Patton and Omar Bradley. What he saw utterly overwhelmed him.
“I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that `the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’ Some members of the visiting party were unable to through the ordeal. I not only did so but 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. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British public in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”
Eisenhower understood that the moral fabric of the Universe had frayed and torn, revealing the absolute ugliest manifestation of human evil. He took responsibility as commanding general to insist that the ethical imperative was to direct the United States to look full on at the horrors of the Holocaust. He differentiated between WWII and the Holocaust. He saw that they were two different wars: one was a war of territorial conquest. The other war was a war against the Jews.
The US Army has maintained a commitment to Holocaust education that began with Eisenhower. For the Army, liberating the camps was a deed of courage. It also reinforced, for every officer and foot soldier who participated in the liberation, the necessity of the war. It provided a context for the sacrifices of the military. It was a matter of life and mass death.
Lieutenant General Thomas Vandal wrote the following to every soldier in the Army:
“Each year, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum leads the nation in the Days of Remembrance, a week-long observance established in 1978 to pay respect to the millions of victims subjected to Nazi persecution in the 1930s and 1940s…
Out of the chaos of war emerged the will of individuals whose collective actions across the world joined to eliminate tyranny. This year marks the 73d anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps by Allied forces. The U.S. Army played a pivotal role and proudly upheld our Army Values as part of this international effort to end the injustice of the Holocaust.
All of us must do our part as members of our Army and global society to stand up for injustice. It is our duty to be members of exceptional character and live the Army Values at all times. As we take time to remember, we encourage each of you to attend your local observance for the Days of Remembrance events… Remain vigilant at all times against acts of hatred and intolerance wherever they occur. Learn from the Holocaust: Choose to Act!”
This is how I found myself at the Natick United States Army Soldier Systems Center this past Wednesday. I was invited to give the invocation and the benediction for a Holocaust memorial presentation. There were three survivors in attendance, including the guest speaker. All three were part of the German orphanage into which my father was placed in 1938. Together with 37 other kids, they made their way into France to escape the Nazi terror. Additionally, there were local Jewish community attendees, veterans, and active duty soldiers and officers from the base.
It was deeply moving to see the soldiers, particularly the young ones, in attendance. Men and women in their 20s, who probably had a modicum of education about the Holocaust, they sat with rapt attention, clearly moved by Holocaust survivor, Stephan Loewy’s testimony.
These ceremonies occur now on Army bases in all 50 states. How reassuring that there are base commanders all over the United States who understand the larger context of moral education. They realize that the Army must train soldiers to develop a sensitivity to the evil that is inherent in world and regional conflicts. We have got to be on the moral side of war. When we are not, it wounds the soul of our nation.
I watched the three survivors with whom my father wandered in France. They are not young men. But they still move with purpose and conviction. They continue to see their lives as a gift. They continue to go to memorials and services and events that commemorate the Holocaust.
I don’t know if it’s easy for them. It’s not for me. But as I watched them leave the auditorium, I clearly saw that I am obligated to push through my sadness, the pain, the dark memories, and to keep testifying as they have. My father died so young. He never spoke of his experiences, even as they haunted him.
He did not speak, and I must. This is the legacy of the Holocaust, passed down to the second and third generations: choose to act!