Like tormented animals, caged too long and broken of spirit, the room full of men — seeming more animal now than man — stared, seemingly dead behind their sunken eyes, at the man in the unfamiliar military uniform.
Any uniformed man to show up in the filthy barracks with bare wooden planks stacked from floor to ceiling causes immeasurable terror. But this man was different. Rather than the Nazi’s iron cross and eagle or the unmistakable SS lightning bolts, this man wore a Star of David.
“Shalom Aleichem, Yidden,” U.S. Army Chaplain Rabbi Herschel Schacter cried in Yiddish, “ihr zint frei!” — “Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free!”
Who among us but those lacking the compassion, the emotions and the soul that separate men from animals, would not be moved by Schacter’s cry of freedom?
It was Schacter and the men he prayed for and preached to that April afternoon in 1945 that couldn’t escape my mind Monday as the world commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day. That’s not to say he and the prisoners of Buckenwald in East Central Germany were the only ones whose images drifted to me through the ethereal process that is remembrance.
I thought of Nacogdoches County’s own James Wilburn Wilson, a concentration camp liberator who saw firsthand the horror and inhumanity of the series of more than 100 concentration camps known as Mauthausen-Gusen. I thought of the great-niece of a man who was imprisoned at that cruel camp filled with Jews, Soviets, Catholics, Gypsies and anyone else who didn’t fit the supposed Aryan model of perfection. She once emailed me wanting to thank Wilson.
More than 6 million Jews were slaughtered, and my heart goes out to them. On my long foggy drive back to Nacogdoches on Monday, I could see myself sitting next to them, starving along with them, weak and unable to walk.
As a Roman Catholic and someone of multiracial ancestry, I too would have been ripped from my home by men with wild, violent eyes or chased by children with clubs through the streets of some nondescript European town. I wouldn’t have been one of those 6 million Jews dead in the gas chamber, by lethal injection, starvation or typhus. But I could have been beside them, their brother in grief and suffering, just like 5 million non-Jews — Catholics, Poles, Jehovah’s Witnesses, communists, gays, the disabled and others— who died at the hands of Nazis during the Holocaust.
As tears began to well up, I pictured the Rev. Maximilian Kolbe seated beside me, almost as if he was in the passenger seat of my car. Kolbe, a Catholic priest from Poland, was a stern looking man, balding, sunken-eyed and gaunt after surviving tuberculosis.
He grew even more gaunt inside the walls of Auschwitz as prisoner 16670. Before being captured by the Gestapo, Kolbe lived in a monastery that harbored Jewish refugees and published an anti-Nazi newspaper.
“It is necessary to do this, because all men are our brothers,” Kolbe told a local when asked about feeding and sheltering Jews.
One July morning in 1941, a brave prisoner escaped the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland. Furious, one of the camp commanders, a man who looked like evil incarnate, selected 10 prisoners to kill in an effort to prevent further escape attempts.
Franciszek Gajowniczek, a political prisoner who had served in the Polish army, was selected to be one of the 10 destined to starve to death in an underground bunker.
Gajowniczek, not yet broken of spirit, called out “My wife! My children!” in his native Polish.
Kolbe raised his hand and volunteered to take the stranger’s place. In the dark underground bunker, Kolbe comforted the other prisoners as they awaited one of the cruelest forms of death. After two weeks without food or water, Kolbe was the sole survivor. Guards injected him with a lethal dose of carbolic acid on Aug. 14, 1941.
Would I have been man enough to do the same thing if I suddenly found myself in Kolbe’s place? Would any of us?
Josh Edwards is managing editor of The Daily Sentinel. Email him at email@example.com