In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am posting two articles my grandfather, Robert Bruce Graham, wrote for The Providence Journal when he had a regular column, during the Eichmann trials in 1961 about his experience being amongst the troops who liberated Dachau.
We hear the phrase "never forget" a lot. And there are many atrocities all over the world, sadly. However, when you read these articles, and I hope you will, you will know why this day of remembrance is important.
This experience of his is included in my book about my grandmothers (Autobiography of Dick & Jani), and for a long time I was holding on to these for personal use, but I think today they just need to be shared. This is history that needs to be remembered, not just in general terms, with the heartbreaking specificity of my grandfather's act of witness.
This experience changed his life and personality entirely. How could it not?
To all of my friends who lost family and loved ones and whose fathers or mothers or grandparents or great grandparents were lost to the Holocaust - either through having been killed, imprisoned or being traumatized in other ways, I post this for you. Evil is banal. Hannah Arendt was right. But the losses and the damage from a systemized brutality are not banal. These wounds are real. They are searing. They are still with us. All.
April 1961 – The Providence Journal
In Perspective –The Trial Stirs the Dachau Ghosts
By definition, the In Perspective column normally would not be the place to consider matters as vicious and gruesome as the crimes for which Adolf Eichmann currently is being tried in Israel.
Indeed, perspective is most difficult to maintain in the face of the enormity of the Nazi murder machine and the combination of cruel deliberation and senseless sadism with which that machine was run.
The Nazi program of genocide, which succeeded in obliterating between 12 and 20 million persons, in addition to those killed in the war, was simply too monstrous for the world to long contemplate. Now that all this is being revived in the trial of Eichmann, accused traffic officer and evil genius behind the murder of approximately 6 million Jews and lesser numbers of gypsies and Slavs, the entire indictment reads like a hideous nightmare—an incredible catalogue of events that couldn’t have happened, or, if they did, not nearly on the scale charged.
But in company with any soldier who saw any one of Hitler’s several murder factories, I know that the evidence in the indictment is all too real.
As a witness to Dachau within about four hours of its liberation, I live with the scenes of that human slaughterhouse and work camp never far from the surface of my mind. War itself is a traumatic experience, but Dachau etched itself more deeply on my consciousness than any other impression from World War II, even though at times I, too, have almost doubted the memory of my own sight and nose.
Indeed, next to my front door, there still hangs a “souvenir” that I picked up near the crematorium at Dachau—a modern copy of a medieval war club, a cruel cudgel comprising a spiked ball of cast iron on a tightly-wound heavy coil spring and a wooden handle. It was used to discipline, cow and probably kill prisoners, and I keep it constantly in sight that I may never really forget what even apparently civilized man is capable of.
Yet there are among my acquaintances good and kind people, who, although they would wince with a strange child crying with a tummy ache, express dismay that what happened at Dachau—and Auschwitz, Belsen, Mauthausen and other camps of dishonored name—is being rehearsed again. Often, the dismay is tinged with a degree of disbelief that has been fortified by 16 years of normalcy, at least in the West.
For this reason, I am compelled to add my testimony from the hell of my memory as a spectator to that last ghoulish chapter of the Nazis’ murderous madness, knowing, however, that no words can describe the degradation of humanity carried out as calculated policy at Dachau.
In all this, I do not concern myself with Eichmann, since he is now on trial. Indeed, I know nothing about him from personal knowledge, beyond the disquieting suspicion that my division captured Eichmann in the lake district near Salzburg shortly after the war and was taken in by his initial disguise as a simple German soldier.
But I can say something about one of the shipments his department of the SS must have arranged—the last death train to Dachau. I have no idea where that train originated or how long it had been shuttling around on Germany’s bomb-torn rail lines. I only know it had pulled into Dachau a short time ahead of the first American troops—too late for its cargo to be unloaded and disposed of in Dachau’s man-made hell fires.
That cargo, still on the siding when I arrived at Dachau, consisted of hundreds of gaunt bodies of persons who had been reduced to living skeletons in work camps somewhere before being shipped to Dachau for gassing and incineration in the crematorium there. All but a handful had died in the sealed box cars en route.
Yet the horror of it, as strange as it may seem, was not along in this mass death of perhaps some 600 persons who had cheated the gas chamber by starvation. It resided in the fact that these pitiful wrecks no longer seemed human, suggesting that the SS had partially succeeded in quenching the spark of humanity in these hapless creatures even before death claimed them.
Indeed, it was the sight of the bare thigh of the body of a relatively well-fed woman in one of the cars that shocked me and my companions into realizing the awful reality of what we were looking at. In the same way, the pile of shoes taken from the prior shipment—including, I remember so distinctly, a pair of child’s high button shoes—carried more impact than the naked bodies of gassed victims literally stacked like cordwood in a room off the crematorium.
In so many ways, this purposeful destruction of the personality prior to death multiplied the tragedy of a death toll already beyond comprehension.
We saw it among many of the living. An example I remember vividly was the sight of three men squatting, silent and intent, about a fire on a barracks area street and cooking some kind of “liberated” meal. Sprawled only a few feet away was the body of an SS guard, his head a bloody pulp, yet they were too inured to violent death even to bother moving their fire down the street a ways.
I remember, too, the fever-wracked, emaciated French youth to whose side I was summoned because I could speak a little French. He, like many others, had fled Dachau in the confusion of liberation, but had collapsed and taken refuge in a nearby farm. As sick as he was—I fear he did not survive—he was more concerned with impressing me with the fact he was an educated man. In short, more important than survival was this man’s wish to register once more his personality, which had so nearly been torn from him.
Then there was the skeletal Polish survivor with the dripping nose and a skull cap who followed me mutely, like a dog, after I gave him my rations. He never spoke, just stared. His sad, over-large eyes, reflecting a broken mind, haunt me still because at some point—frustrated because I could do no more for him—I ordered this poor mute away. But if those eyes are enough for me, I wonder how Eichmann keeps either his composure or his sanity, for the crime is real.
April 1961 – The Providence Journal
In Perspective –A Man’s Pride Fired His Courage
It happens to all of us now and then that the world closes in and becomes too much with us. No one, I am sure, has not at some time sagged under what appeared at the moment to be the extraordinary weight of life’s burdens and asked with a curse or silent entreaty, “Why, oh why?” or “How long and how much can I take?”
These dreary reflections occurred to me after I had run into a string of people whose cups of bitterness have run over, compared to what seems to be the average experience in today’s well-padded and comfortable existence.
In terms of the glowing expectations which Madison Avenue projects as the norm for Americans, these people have lived a series of raw deals that might stretch anyone’s spirit to the breaking point.
Yet, in a couple of cases, the problems saddling these unfortunates are traceable at least in part to a corrosive and stubborn self-pity over some initial bad break.
This factor does not lesson the various hardships they now endure, but, in thinking about these cases, I was reminded of the contrasting impact of pride and pity in a man’s life. Where self-pity softens and often destroys a man, pride, if it is not overweening, can be the catalyst of incredible fortitude.
In thinking, in particular, of a young Frenchman I met during the last days of the war in one of those brief encounters that nevertheless left an indelible memory of luminous courage fired by pride.
It was the day after the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, and I was walking down the street of a little town nearby looking for my jeep, after having delivered confirming orders to battalion headquarters for the attack on Munich the next morning.
Because for the moment my job had been done, perhaps I did not share the attitude of preoccupation that grips an armored unit coiling for attack. Perhaps it was sheer accident. In any even from the kaleidoscope of soldiers on the street, a gaunt man clad in the pajama uniform of a former concentration camp prisoner picked me to accost with an appeal for help.
He clutched my hand with fingers like talons and, in a composite of bad German, halting English and urgent French, told me his friend was dying and I must come.
We had been told that as combat soldiers we could not attempt to aid escapees from Dachau, that units following within hours would them up and get them back into some kind of camps where they could receive medical treatment and generally be rehabilitated, if they lived.
But I couldn’t turn away from this plea from a man so long denied any sense of humanity, even though I knew also I was helpless in the realm of medicine. I am glad now I went with this shadow of a man whose own eyes were bright with sickness.
Down a lane, into a courtyard and deep into a large barn we went to a tiny, dimly lit room banked with hay. There wrapped in a thin blanket sprawled a dying man, also still in his pajama prison suit, his thin frame convulsed with coughs.
But as soon as he saw my uniform, he painfully pulled himself up, thanked his friend with aplomb and poise in startling contrast to his condition, and in an English flawed only by the slightest accent, said “Ah, thank God, you have come.”
For three years, he said, he survived Dachau in a world stripped of every dignity, every grace, all decency. But he held on, if only because there was a core of pride in him, he said, that would not let him give them the satisfaction of his death in a state of degradation.
With the liberation, he had fled from the hated camp because freedom meant more to him than life. He realized he was wrong, that he probably had forfeited his life by this act. He had a raging fever, along with his cough, which he diagnosed as pneumonia beyond recovery.
Therefore, now, he wanted only to talk to someone whom he could recognize as civilized, who shared his values and who would recognize him as the person he had been and clung to throughout his vicious ordeal. He wanted nothing more—no doctor, no medical relief, not even to be shifted from his straw pallet into the main house to which he might carry typhus or TB. There was no vindictiveness in him, only his deep yearning to sense civilization, and to be recorded as part of it, before he died.
So, between his violent spells of coughing, we talked—of Paris, and how it had survived, of his university, of philosophy, of painting, of nature and the beauties of that spring, of everything except the horror that he had left behind him at Dachau.
It was an incredible experience in which, in memory, the dusty, darkened barn room seemed suffused with a glow from the intensity of that young man trying to reconstitute himself as a cultured, sensitive human being, in contrast to the animal he had been forced at Dachau to emulate.
Finally, he tired, thanked me and closed his eyes to sleep, and I left to find the battalion medical officer. But by the time I reached the doctor, he was busy preparing to move up to the company slated to lead tomorrow’s attack. There was no one, until hopefully the next day, to help.
I never saw the young Frenchman again, and I do not know what happened to him. But I know that for a short time I had been in the presence of a man with a moral courage and a pride that defied injury to his inner being. I also find it helpful sometimes to keep his example before me.