By Jim Robinson, Special Contributor…
Throughout the millennia, Christians have perpetrated anti-Semitism and shown indifference to attacks on Judaism. We must recognize and try to atone for this terrible history. My father, the Rev. Forrest Robinson, was among the many firsthand witnesses to the Holocaust, and spent almost a lifetime processing his reactions.
Sixty-seven years ago as our “greatest generation” swept across central Europe with the German army in full retreat, they stumbled upon unspeakable atrocities.
Many of these “liberators”—they would say they were just doing their jobs—shared the experience of walking down some nondescript road and encountering a sudden, overwhelming scent of death. What they witnessed at Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Treblinka and Mittelbau-Dora inflicted wounds etched deep in their souls. Some lost their faith; others found it.
For 60 years, most never talked about what they had seen and felt. After the war, they got married, started careers and raised families. With all of the distractions of coming of age in a post-war world, they never fully processed the atrocities that their 20-year-old minds could not fathom. But late in life, many chose to no longer put their emotions on hold. They joined in bearing witness to the Holocaust, in the hope that the next generation will speak with conviction, “Never Again!”
2012 marked the 25th anniversary of the International March of the Living. It is a marvelous program that reaches across national borders and brings thousands of young people on Holocaust Remembrance Day to Auschwitz-Birkenau to honor the memory of victims and to pledge to build a better world for all humanity. This year the march specially honored members of the Allied Forces who liberated the concentration camps.
Along with Holocaust survivors, 16 veterans between ages 86 and 94 traveled to Poland during the week of April 15 to participate. I represented and spoke for my father, who, had he not died in March, would have been the 17th veteran. The program connected liberators with Holocaust survivors and students for poignant, teachable reminders of what can happen to civilized people when bigotry, hatred and indifference reign.
On April 12, 2005, my father, mother and I were walking down a dusty road in the Harz Mountains near Nordhausen, Germany, to the site of the former Mittelbau-Dora camp. We were there for the dedication of a remembrance center. My father, who made his career after the war as a United Methodist pastor, became increasingly tense. This was the same road he had traveled with a group of soldiers from the 104th Infantry Division 60 years before.
On either side appeared the remaining stubs of two-foot square concrete columns that once stood 10 feet high. This was what remained of the gate to the concentration camp. My dad said he could see it all again—row upon row of devastated human bodies, emaciated, mutilated and gray, rotting in the hot sun.
His commanding officer had directed him to a long, low-slung barracks-type building, which served as a “hospital.” My dad described the scene: “Along the full length of the wall to our left, iron cots had been jammed together, and on the cots were the dead and the dying, side by side. I’m certain some of the dead had been there for weeks.” He said their grotesque and distended bodies emitted the foulest of gases. Occasionally, a figure on a cot would stir and cry for help. “But we were helpless,” he said. “We weren’t medics!”
He ran out of the building, grabbed his commanding officer’s jeep to steady himself and raised his voice to the heavens. As he recalled it: “I cursed God like he had never been cursed before. I said there could not be a God who would allow a thing like this.” He then vomited. Later he took photographs at the camp using a German spy camera he found.
The rest of the war became a faith journey for my father. When the carillon of the church in the town square of Delitzsch, Germany announced the war’s end, pilgrims of many tongues streamed toward the church. In that moment, my dad said, “This soldier, who had cursed God just a month before, heard the words from the 46th Psalm—‘Be still and know that I am God’—and I felt forgiven.”
For almost 60 years, his horrific photographs were tucked away in a plain white letter-sized envelope. For a long time, he could not show or talk about the photographs. But he could not part with them.
The ongoing challenge
Following my father’s retirement from full-time ministry, he was haunted by a question: “Who will care about the Holocaust after we are gone?” Talking about what he had witnessed and his personal faith journey became his second calling in life as he spoke to groups locally and across the country. He cried every time he spoke.
As a Christian, a deeper question still haunted my father. If persons of faith had come to grips with this great moral crisis and destroyed this evil years before the German crematoria blackened the sky over Europe, who knows how history might have been changed?
For conscientious Christians, confronting anti-Semitism is still a pressing issue. In one well-publicized apparent anti-Semitic attack in March of this year, a gunman opened fire at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, killing a teacher and three children.
The experiences in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo and Chechnya are contemporary reminders of the imperative to prevent genocide.
Our surviving World War II liberators are some of the most credible witnesses to the horrors of what can happen when bigotry and indifference reign. We should hear their stories. We should confront anti-Semitism. And we should educate our children to pledge, “Never Again!”
Mr. Robinson is an attorney in Wichita and member of Woodlawn Avenue UMC in Derby, Kan. His father served churches in Kansas and was interim president of Southwestern College and executive director of the Kansas Area United Methodist Foundation.