Holocaust Memorial Day - a warning against the politics of hate
As we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, I would like to share with you a very personal story that I hope will serve as a warning against the politics of hate.
My father Stan came from a generation that left wives at home to raise the kids, used dog leads and belts to discipline them, smoked endless cigarettes, and lived life to the full.
Men didn’t open up, men didn’t cry.
My dad entered the war with his four brothers. Miraculously, five went in, and five came out, although three were seriously injured at some stage – one of them being my father. He came out permanently deaf from being inside a tank day in, day out for six years, and badly scarred facially from when his tank took a direct hit in Africa.
So, why am I here today, talking about my dad? Well, when I was 14 years old, a Holocaust documentary came on the TV. We lived in Germany at the time, and back then, the German TV companies had to screen Holocaust documentaries at set intervals to remind the nation of what they had done.
The programme centred at one stage on Belsen, and my dad poured a large drink, turned off the TV, and told me his story.
My dad served in a tank regiment under the Eighth Army for most of the war. He served in Africa, Italy, France and Germany. It was his convoy of tanks and infantry, alongside the Americans, who found Belsen. A beautiful wooded area on the Lüneburg Heath, Belsen became synonymous with a location from hell.
He described first how the convoy all noticed the absence of birds half an hour before they came to a crossroads. At the crossroads, they then noticed the smell, the rancid smell of death. They followed the smell, expecting to find a mass grave.
What they actually found was a prison camp with no guards, and doors wide open. Inside, behind the fence, were thousands upon thousands of grey human skeletons, and hundreds of rotting corpses, where the guards had taken their revenge shortly before running away.
My father did what we would all do, what all the 3-400 soldiers did – fed and watered the hapless souls.
And then my dad stopped and cried. The first and only time I have ever seen him cry.
He whispered to me: “We killed hundreds of them Martyn, we killed them with love… to my dying day I cannot forgive myself for killing so many of them.”
What he then explained was that after years of abuse, years of dehydration and neglect, the stomach shrinks to about a quarter of its normal size, the body has no more fat to burn, it goes on autopilot until death. And suddenly, along came soldiers shoving beef stew, chocolates and beer at them.
The poor souls galloped their way through the goodies, neither group of people – soldiers nor prisoners – knowing that death was hours away. Some of them just collapsed and died, too much for the system after years of starvation. Some actually had stomachs that exploded internally.
My father wept as he told me how well meaning rescuers actually took away their lives at the moment of freedom, a cruel irony.
After the shock of finding the camp, after the angst of unintentionally hurting the vulnerable, came anger. Dad told me how they drove into the small town of Belsen, rounded up every person right up to the mayor, and marched the whole village to the camp. There they made them dig huge communal graves and bury the dead, communal graves that are still there.
Two years later, my dad took me to Belsen, the first and only time he ever returned. Unlike Auschwitz, the Allied soldiers at Belsen raised the camp to the ground, leaving just the communal graves as a memory.
But I can tell you one thing. I went there in 1974.
There were still no birds.
May god bless their souls.