I recently rewatched the episode of Band of Brothers (WWII mini series based on 101st Airborne) entitled “Why We Fight”. My grandfather was a part of E company, and was there when his company found the concentration camp:
They didn’t know what it was. A patrol had been sent out in the woods that circled the small German town where they were stationed. The men stumbled upon what appeared to be a fence surrounding a camp, with the echoes of humans leaning agaisnt the wire, moaning, all clad in stripes of faded white and blue, with gold stars aligned over their hearts.
They didn’t know what this camp was. They didn’t know who these people – these shells of humans – were, nor could they understand their foreign words.
Only after Maj. Winters and the other higher ranking officers arrived did they cut the chain that had been wrapped around the gate. Slowly, signaling for the hollow men to back up, they pushed the gates open and stepped inside.
Most of the soldiers had already covered their face with cloth, choking on the stench of death and decay. It was the smell of hell itself: all encompassing, as if the air had been sucked from the Earth, and only this smell was left to linger.
No prisoner held their nose. The smell of death was the only air they knew.
The soldiers walked slowly, uncertain. The prisoners around them were nothing but winter bones, all skin and unnatural angles. Each one bore a shaved head, their cheek bones carving sharp, empty features.
As the men of Easy Company continued into the camp, they saw the long, thin tents beyond them.
And the heavily decayed bodies that lined the path before them.
Slowly, the prisoners grabbed at them, in desperation, in hope, in love.
They hugged the soldiers, kissed them and whispered words in a foreign tongue.
All the while, bodies surrounded them. Two worlds of joy and despair colliding.
Two worlds of life and death.
A prisoner walked toward them, mumbling in German as he carried a long dead corpse in his arms, but they both were skeletons.
He was requesting something, that much was clear, glancing from the soldiers to the dead man in his arms as he spoke.
The soldiers could only offer him water, holding out a canteen as he neared them. But the man simply fell to his knees, hanging his head over the lost man in his arms, crying.
Tears of happiness or loss, they didn’t know.
The men continued on, and more prisoners emerged from their tents, hunched forward with dragging feet, the exertion of walking taking a toll on their waning bodies.
Though the living limped toward them, alive in whatever small capacity they were holding on to, the dead rule here.
Major Winters called for Liebgott, the only man with them who can speak German, and they found themselves in conversation with a prisoner.
The man looked healthier than the others, but not by much. His bones protruded less, but were still visible from underneath his thin shirt.
“What’s happened here?” Liebgott asked in German.
The prisoner rubbed his shaved head, simply explaining they were prisoners of the Nazi’s, who’d fled only the day before.
He continued to explain: the guards had shot as many of the prisoners as they could before they ran out of bullets and left, locking the gate behind them. Leaving the rest to starve.
Still confused, Liebgott asked, “what is this place?”
“A work camp,” the prisoner said simply.
Liebgott probed more, asking who they are.
The man explained that they are Germans: teachers, lawyers, doctors, bakers, shop keeps, and laborers.
Fathers, husbands and brothers.
Finally Liebgott asked, “why are you here?”
It was then the man said something they could all understand, translator or not, “jude.”
The prisoner continued in German, “outsiders, homosexuals, the unwanted.”
It wasn’t until that moment that the men of E Company finally began to understand what they had stumbled upon.
Back in town, food and water were rounded up from local stores, at the behest of angry owners.
The villagers didn’t understand. They didn’t know.
They didn’t know Death himself was hidden in their trees. They didn’t know that their fellow countrymen were his puppets.
No one knew. No Americans. No German villagers.
No one but the Nazi’s.
Once the food arrived at the camp, the prisoners grabbed at any handful they could get from the soldiers.
It was then that Maj. Winters received new orders.
The prisoners were starving. If given food, they would eat themselves to death. They had to be rounded up, back into the camp, until doctors arrived to see to them.
With an unbearably heavy heart, Leibgotts was ordered to tell the prisoners that they had to go back into the camp.
That they had to go back into hell, just after they thought they were safe.
A day later, the German villagers are ordered via martial law to help clear the bodies from the camp.
It wasn’t until they arrived that they realized what their country had done. What their husbands and brothers and sons had done.
And they had to clean up the mess with their bare hands.
With cloths over their mouths, they lifted skeleton and broken body alike into large pits.
Where the unknown lay.
It wasn’t until the coming days that E-Company and the rest of the world would learn that this was just one of many similar camps discovered across Germany and Poland.
Hitler killed himself just days after E-Company found this camp.
In Germany, to this day, all Nazi paraphernalia is illegal.
When Hitler and the Nazi’s murdered the millions of people he deemed unfit to live, the world did not know.
Americans did not know. German civilians did not know.
But we know now.
In 2017, we saw men proudly bare their swastikas and white supremacists paraphernalia through the streets of Charlottesville, VA.
One of them killed a passionate, kind, innocent soul who only wanted to end the message of hate they spread.
I wrote this simply to remind us of the terror and inhumane acts that took place less than 100 years ago.
As Americans, and those living in first world countries, we hear about violence everyday. It’s easy to become numb to it.
Obviously, we all know how horrific the Holocaust was, but after re-watching this episode, knowing my Grandfather was there and experienced this first hand, remembering that this happened to REAL people, who loved and lost and laughed and cried just like we do, knowing that the millions who died are more than just names we read in a history book in school, it puts Charlottesville into a whole new perspective.
The men who marched through Charlottesville, clad in swastikas and hailing Hilter, THIS is what they support. This inhumane horror. This terror. This genocide. They are not only okay with it, they want it.
And for those who marched alongside them to defend “white history”: the men you walked shoulder to shoulder with, the men you chanted with, the men you cheered with:
This is what they support. This is what they want. This violence, this terrorism, this genocide.
My grandfather, and the hundreds of thousands who fought beside him, fought for freedom and equality for everyone.
They did not fight for the same hate to reemerge.
It must end. And we must be the voice.
For them, for us, for everyone.