IT WAS 60 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK, and for many of us that qualifies it as a distant memory.
But for others, 60 years is barely a blink in time compared to the horrors that they and others were subjected to. It was 60 years ago this week that Allied troops liberated the prisoners held in Nazi occupation camps at the end of World War II.
It was a different time back then. Television didn’t have the capability of going live to the scene — and if it had, no one would have known because few if any had television sets to watch. People got their war news from new stories approved by the government; tightly-controlled radio broadcasts; and edited news reels at the local movie theater.
So if the tragedy of the concentration camps stuns us today, one can only imagine the shock and disbelief that radiated through the world when news began to filter out about what had happened behind the fences of those camps.
Back then, they were just names; but today when we hear them, each of us gets a shutter within our souls because of the history that we now know.
Treblinka. Dachau. Sobibor. Auschwitz.
There were many others. All of them have their own story to tell — and 60 years later the world still hears the echoes of those who survived — and those who didn’t.
In 1999 I traveled to the Czech Republic, where I had the opportunity to tour the Terezin Concentration Camp. It was an experience that I will never forget, and as I learned of the anniversary of the liberation of the camps, it is a story that I would like to share with each of you.
First of all, to blame the German people as a whole for the atrocities of the concentration camps is not accurate. There were millions of hard working German men and women who were just as affected by the war as those on the other side of the fight; and they also were unaware of what was going on — and when they found out, they were just as shocked as Americans and others.
Not all concentration camps were even in Germany — Auschwitz was in Poland, so I write this account having learned that no only was this the greatest horror in history; but also that it was masterminded by a small percentage of the German authorities and was carried out without the knowledge of many of the German people.
This is not to discount the nearly six million lives that were lost, but is offered as a starting point for understanding.
Terezin was a relatively small concentration camp. It began as a prison for the Gestapo troops in what was then Czechoslovakia, but as the war escalated, the entire town of Terezin was converted to a Jewish Ghetto by the Nazis, and then those people began being moved to Terezin — and ultimately to other, larger camps in other parts of Europe.
Travel to Terezin, and the first thing that will strike you — and I guarantee that it will — is the seemingly endless field of graves marked with the Jewish Star of David. When you first see it, it some strange way it reminds you of Arlington National Cemetery, with row after row of markers. Just as those American soldiers paid the ultimate price in earning the honor of being buried in Arlington; so too did those thousands of innocent Jews pay the ultimate price as a tragedy of war.
Families were separated and isolated. Many times children were sent off to other camps. Men were used as slave labor in nearby underground factories that were building items for the German war effort.
Others were forced to run back and forth across the shooting range each day so that the German guards could take shooting practice at live targets.
Walk into a barracks, and you will find row after row of wooden shelves that served as beds to thousands crammed into the small spaces. One very small stove provided little heat for all of those people during freezing winters; and there was little food to provide any nourishment.
You’ve all seen the pictures. No words can adequately describe all that went on.
But 60 years later, as a nation of people we must remember those unspeakable events and work as a society to make sure that other people are not subjected to those same types of tortures.
Don’t think it could happen today?
Right now in the Sudan’s Darfur region people are being subjected to similar fates. In recent years factions in Kosovo were hunting down and killing ethnic Albanians. The Taliban was killing groups of people in Afghanistan; and Saddam Hussein and his henchmen were wiping out different races of people in different part of Iraq.
If we as a world society are ever going to survive, then we must learn on a world stage that anti-Semitism, racism, and religious intolerance must be stopped. Are we all different? Obviously. But that doesn’t mean that we should stand by and watch the basic rights of other human beings be taken away.
Now 60 years later we look back and reflect on what we see and wonder how our world ever got to that point.
Perhaps it is our mission to ensure that it never happens to anyone else.