Thankful For Those Who've Come Before Us
In 2000 I was on vacation with friends when I heard a heart-breaking story. In a small village called Mauthausen in northern Austria, 55 years earlier, prior white flakes fell from the sky. The month was May. It wasn't snow that tumbled down, but ash. I first heard the story of the tens of thousands of people killed and of the ash from the crematorium from a historian who was giving us a tour of the concentration camp. My heart broke as I tried to imagine the horror.
For those familiar with World War II history, concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen are well discussed. But there are also many lesser-known concentration camps. One of them is Mauthausen, named after the nearby village.
As early as 1940, prisoners started arriving at the small train station at Mauthausen. A full two years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, this once peaceful community was already experiencing the horrors of war. And by January 1941, the Mauthausen-Gusen camps became the only 'Category I' camps in Third Reich history, meaning "camp of no return." Prisoners were used as slave labor in quarries and munitions factories. These men and women were worked to death or killed not long after their arrival. The estimate of the number of people killed in the Mauthausen camp system is between 120,000 and 300,000. Most who entered the large gates never exited, but in May 1945 everything changed. American troops had fought through France, Belgium, and Germany and had now crossed the Austrian border. They were headed toward the camp, though they didn’t know it yet.
The first American US GIs at the camp were the 41st Recon Squadron, 11th Armored Division, Patton's 3rd Army. The men opened the gates and brought the prisoners what they never expected—freedom—followed by food, clothes and the care of medics.
When the camp’s historian, Martha, told me about these men, I knew I wanted to meet them and to hear their stories. What was it like to grant these prisoners their freedom? How had it affected these men? When I arrived home, I researched their experiences and contacted their division’s veteran organization to ask if it would be possible to interview any of the men. I was overwhelmed with the response. The men invited me to their annual reunion in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
A friend traveled to the reunion with me, and as we entered the hotel doors, I saw gray-haired men with their 11th Armored Division camps sitting in small groups and sharing old war stories. We'd just finished checking in to the hotel when a younger man approached. “Are you the author?” he asked. “I've had men lined up all day waiting to meet you."
Sure enough, those I'd connected with through letters were waiting with their photos, their stories, and their tears. After all these years they had not forgotten. I talked to Arthur and Charlie first. They'd been best friends during the war and 55 years later still finished each other's sentences. Thomas, LeRoy, and Tarmo were next … each one telling me their story. Many more men, each with their own personal experiences, poured out their hearts to me. During the week they had a special ceremony to honor their friends who'd died and to remember the people they liberated. Even after all these years they knew what they did had mattered.
I attended two more reunions over the years, in Buffalo and St. Louis, and interviewed hundreds of veterans. I wrote two historical novels about their experiences, From Dust and Ashes (http://www.triciagoyer.com/historicalfiction.html#DustAndAshes) and Night Song (http://www.triciagoyer.com/historicalfiction.html#NightSong), and Remembering You (http://www.triciagoyer.com/contemporaryfiction.html#RememberingYou), but it was the relationship with the men that forever changed my life.
You see, my grandfather was also a WWII veteran, but I'd never taken time to sit down with him and hear his stories. I was afraid the stories would upset him. I didn't want him to have to think about those times any more. It was hard for me to connect my sweet grandfather with someone who fought in war so long ago. What I forgot was that he was young once, and his fight helped secure my freedom. What I didn't remember is that the memories were always with him, daily, even if he never talked about them. After Grandpa Fred passed away in 1999, I wished I'd had taken the time to listen.
Meeting the men of the 11th Armored Division, I was given a second chance. I saw their tears and quivering chins as they told me the stories of battles in Bastogne and the Siegfried Line. I saw their drooped shoulders and heavy hearts as they explained what they lived through when they liberated Mauthausen and its subcamps. I'd lost my grandfather, but God gave me 100 more grandpas. What a gift.
If you have a veteran in your life ... today is the perfect day to reach out--to listen to his or her story. Don't let the stories die, when you have a chance to make a difference.
Tricia Goyer is a homeschooling mom of four and an acclaimed and prolific writer, publishing hundreds of articles in national magazines. She has also written books on marriage and parenting and contributed notes to the Women of Faith Study Bible. Tricia's written numerous novels inspired by World War II veterans, including her new release Remembering You. Tricia lives with her husband and four children in Arkansas. You can find out more information about Tricia at www.triciagoyer.com.
[From Sarah...please see my feature on Remembering You, a book I highly recommend.]