A PERSONAL MEMORY
BY LESLIE A. THOMPSON CHAPLAIN (LT. COL.)
UNITED STATES ARMY (RET)
14 JANUARY, 1989
I am a retired Army chaplain with twenty-six years of service dating from 1940-1967. I served in Europe in World War II and in Korea and Japan during the Korean conflict. In this account I am trying to recall my memories of contacts with the German concentration camp at Flossenbürg, Germany, in the closing days of World War II.
In writing this account I have had to rely on memory and several snapshots which were given to me by a young soldier who happened to have a camera available. My notes were lost in moving about; and in the closing days of the war, we were moving very fast and I did not have time to make an adequate account of happenings. At the time, I regarded my contacts with Flossenbürg as a normal part of military duty, although the shock of seeing this concentration camp at firsthand and the memory of it is unforgettable.
I was the Division chaplain of the 97th Infantry Division which was in combat near the Czechoslovakian border, later crossing the border to Cheb and Pilsen in Czechoslovakia.
Since retirement from Army service in 1967, I have become interested in reading the books written by and about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In several of them I found references to Bonhoeffer having been put to death by hanging in the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945. My interest in this changed from a wartime event to a very personal experience having great significance. A dedicated, widely known Christian pastor had been killed by the Nazi regime. An interesting account of the death of Bonhoeffer is given in the closing chapter of the book Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Letters and Papers from Prison, edited By Eberhard Bethge and published by the MacMillan Company (paper edition).
In April, 1945, the 97th Division Headquarters moved to Wunsiedel, Germany, and the Division combat teams took up positions along the Czechoslovakian border. Division Rear, the service section of Division headquarters, was located at Weiden. A day or two after arrival at Weiden, the Jewish chaplain of XII Corps visited the chaplain's section. The news had come that a concentration camp had been liberated in our combat area. This was at Flossenbürg, a few miles from Weiden. I regret that T do not remember the chaplain's name. The Jewish chaplain, along with my assistant, Ervin Royse, and I drove to the camp at Flossenbürg. I expected to find some of our troops in charge, but none were there due to the fact that the camp had just been liberated. We found a Jewish lad of about thirteen or fourteen years of age who had been a prisoner. Fortunately, he and our Jewish chaplain spoke in Yiddish, which became our language of contact. Since this young boy seemed to be the only child around, I supposed the German guards had not harmed him. He was nicely dressed and not emaciated as the other prisoners. This young boy became our tour guide. We saw one of the barracks where the prisoners stayed. He told of sleeping on the bare wooden bunks. Sometimes the person sleeping next to him bad died in the night. He told us that there were prisoners marked for death by starvation, but in whom the will to live was strong, and these were eliminated by holding their heads under water. He showed us the path from the main buildings where the prisoners had to remove their clothes before walking down a number of steps into a small open area where they had placed the gallows. Near this were buildings in which they stacked the bodies until they had time to burn them. There was a stack o£ many bodies here. Near this I observed a large cistern-like area with an opening of about six or eight feet in diameter. The furnaces were nearby. Looking down, I saw that it was almost full of small bones. I realized that this was the remains of all the bodies of persons who had been cremated. I wondered how many thousands of bodies had been cremated in this manner. As I looked down, I prayed that God would have mercy on those who had been so mercilessly treated.
While at the camp, we toured the working area where the prisoners had been forced to manufacture wooden parts for airplanes. This was a small camp compared to the size of Dachau and the larger camps. It had the worst reputation of all as a death camp. It seems to have been under the control of the Gestapo who were committed to killing Jews and enemies of the State as were the SS controlled camps. Flossenbürg was one of the eighteen camps in Germany. The total number of concentration camps was 146. The small number of camps in Germany in comparison to the total number is noted. Two days later a mass burial ceremony was held for the unburied dead. The chosen site was a vacant area in the town of Flossenbürg. The Jewish chaplain gave the ceremony for the Jewish persons, the Catholic ceremony was given by Chaplain John Tivenan, and T gave the Protestant ceremony. The townspeople were ordered to attend by the American military in charge. I was aware that they attended unwillingly. I remember that it was a spring day with an invigorating coolness The sky was partly cloudy and nature seemed to be awakening after winter napping. I received word that the emaciated prisoners remaining in the camp were put in the temporary care of a surrendering German medical unit.
On May 9, 1945, the war was declared ended. Through the years I have wondered about the people who were so cruelly put to death. At the time I was in Flossenbürg, I regarded my participation in the ceremony at the burial of the victims of the concentration camp as part of my military duty, but after my retirement and Later return to my home city of Springfield, Missouri, in January of 1970, I began reading books written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I found his books strongly challenging. As I read about his life, I read that he had been a prisoner of the Nazis and that he had been put to death April 9, 1945, at the Flossenbürg concentration camp. On learning this, my participation in the burial ceremony became a very personal experience, as this happened just a few days after April 9. I do not know if the Bonhoeffer body was buried in the mass grave or whether the body had been cremated and the ashes put in the hole in the ground where it seemed so many other ashes had been disposed of.
My prayers, however, included all who perished there. I prayed that God in His infinite wisdom would bless and receive to Himself these souls who had been so cruelly put to death and those who had resisted the Nazi barbarism. The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a strong testimonial to his dedication to serve his Heavenly Father.
A brief summary follows:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau on February 4, 1906, of distinguished parents. He studied at Tubingen and Berlin Universities. In 1930 he attended Union Theological Seminary in New York for a year. He pastored churches in London before returning to Germany in 1935. On May 29-31, 1934, the Confessional Evangelical Church met in Barmen with members of the Lutheran, Reformed and United Churches present. The Confession reaffirmed their desires to stand together in their Confession of Jesus Christ as "the way, the truth and the life." They reaffirmed that Jesus Christ was control and dominate the church. In other words, they rejected Hitler and the Nazi Party. It was a courageous statement against the excesses that were being perpetuated. Bonhoeffer enthusiastically supported the concept of the confessing church and worked as one of its leaders. He is credited with effectively keeping the conference on track and from turning it into an ineffectual discussion.
Bonhoeffer made a lecture tour in America in 1939. His friends urged that he not return to Germany, but he wanted to return to support the confessing church and the Resistance Movement.
Through his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, he learned of the conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi government which involved Generals Werner von Fritsch, Ludwig Beck and several prominent government officials. Bonhoeffer came to believe that his ideas of pacifism were inadequate and that it would take a resistance movement to free Germany and the world from the inhuman and criminal activity of Hitler and the Nazi Party; so at the insistence of his sister and brother-in-law, he joined the conspiracy against Hitler.
The Resistance Movement is credited with many attempts on the life of Hitler. One was on March 13, 1943, when General vonTreackow and an aide planted a bomb on Hitler's private plane. The detonator failed and the bomb was discovered. Another attempt was on March 20, 1943. Colonel Rudolf von Gertsdorff planned to detonate a bomb close to Hitler at the Zeughaus in Berlin. Hitler left the hall before the bomb exploded. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer with his sister Christel and her husband Hans von Dohnanyi were arrested and jailed in Tegel, a military prison.
The most serious attempt of the resistance group to which Bonhoeffer belonged failed on July 20, 1944. The bomb left Hitler dazed and slightly injured. Five collaborators were executed. In the investigation, implicating documents and interrogations of prisoners under torture indicated a nationwide network. Hitler became convinced of this and gave orders that their trials be prolonged in order that they might find .other conspirators. After Tegel, Bonhoeffer was transferred from one Gestapo prison to another in Berlin, Buchenwald, Schonberg, and finally Flossenbürg, and all contact with the outside world was severed.
On Sunday, April 8, 1945, Pastor Bonhoeffer conducted a service of worship. As he ended his last prayer, two men came for him. He spoke to an English officer, "This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life." The next day, April 9, 1945, he was hanged in.Flossenbürg. Among those who died with Bonhoeffer were fellow participants in the Resistance Movement: Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Major General Hans Oster, Judge Advocate General Carl Sack, Captain Ludwig Gehre, and a man named Strunk. Also executed on the same day was Bonhoeffer's brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi at Sachsenhausen. It is difficult to understand the persistence of revenge at the time the German armies were falling apart. The allies were rapidly advancing, resistance was crumbling. Huppenkothen, a magistrate, was sent from Berlin with instructions to conduct a summary trial and to execute Canaris, Sack, Oster, Gehre, Strunk and Bonhoeffer, all prisoners in Flossenbürg. The prisoners were ordered to remove their clothing and were led down the steps under the trees to the secluded place of execution. Naked under the scaffold, Bonhoeffer knelt for the last time to pray. Within five minutes, his life was ended. Memorial services for Bonhoeffer were held at Holy Trinity Church in London on July 27, 1945, at the instigation of the Bishop of Chichester. The announcement of this service over the radio was the first word of Bonhoeffer's death that his family had received. Another memorial service was held in Berlin on April 9, 1946.
On Easter Sunday, 1953, the pastors of Bavaria unveiled in the church in Flossenbürg a tablet with the simple inscription: "Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a witness of Jesus Christ among his brethren. Born February 4, 1906, in Breslau. Died April 9, 1945, in Flossenbürg.
This was my brief contact with the liberation of the camp at Flossenbürg. It was a small camp compared to Auschwitz, Dachau or Buchenwald. I do not know how to estimate the number of persons killed there. I would estimate it at several hundred thousand. Auschwitz is estimated as having killed 2,000,000. At one period, 4,000 Jews a day were received for mass laughter.
After hostilities ended and the 97th Division completed its mission in Czechoslovakia, with the capture of Cheb and Pilsen, the Division was pulled back to Bamberg. At this time one of the regimental chaplains requested that a Jewish soldier be taken to Munich to visit his high school. He had managed to escape and make his way into the United States where he joined the U.S. Army. He had pleasant memories of his high school days. I desired to visit the chaplain of our next higher headquarters (y Corps) and arranged for Chaplain Edwin Settle, the Jewish soldier whose name I cannot remember, my assistant, Ervin Royse, and I to drive to Munich.
First, we left the young man off at his high school. After a visit at Corps Headquarters, we returned for our passenger. He was disappointed. He had expected a pleasant visit to his school, but especially was he displeased as he met one of the teachers he had known before, and he was a Nazi. We asked him if he wanted to find anyone else. He said he would very much like to visit his former music teacher. We drove him to the residence, and he invited Chaplain Settle and me to go in with him. His music teacher was genuinely glad to see him. They had a pleasant visit. He asked her if she would play the piano for him. She graciously refused, then held up her hands to show us that they were gnarled and twisted. She explained that she had been forced to work in a factory. She then asked her former student to play for her, and she led us into an average sized room in which was a large grand piano. The young man seated himself and played. I listened and thought how the lovely bond of music could reunite two people after all that they had both suffered. It was a moving experience, and I never forgot it.
World War II was an expensive war, as to cost of lives and money. It was more expensive in its damage to the human spirit of mankind. The volume of hatred generated and released in the world affects us even today. Hate used as a political weapon is dangerous to the future of mankind. Somehow we must learn to use love as an instrument in our lives and relationships. May God forgive us and help us to build our lives. It is the only way. We cannot afford another Holocaust.
(traduzione della prima parte)
(Testimonianza di Leslie A. Thompson, cappellano militare della 97a Divisione di Fanteria dell’esercito Americano)
Novantasettesima Divisione Di Fanteria
MEMORIA PERSONALE DI Flossenbürg
DI LESLIE A. THOMPSON CAPPELLANO (TENENTE COLONELLO) DELL'ESERCITO DEGLI STATI UNITI, IL 14 GENNAIO, 1989
Sono un cappellano pensionato dell'esercito con ventisei anni di servizio, dal 1940 al 1967. Ho prestato servizio in Europa nella seconda guerra mondiale ed in Corea e nel Giappone durante il conflitto coreano. In questo resoconto sto cercando di ricordare la mia esperienza nel campo di concentramento tedesco di Flossenbürg, Germania, nei giorni della fine della seconda guerra mondiale.
Scrivendo questo resoconto ho dovuto ricorrere alla mia memoria ed a parecchie fotografie istantanee che mi sono state date da un giovane soldato che aveva una macchina fotografica a disposizione. Le mie note sono state perse negli spostamenti che nei giorni della fine della guerra erano molto veloci e non mi hanno lasciato il tempo di fare un resoconto sufficiente degli avvenimenti. In quel periodo ho considerato i miei contatti con Flossenbürg come una parte normale del dovere militare, anche se l’impressione nel vedere questo campo di concentramento ne rende la memoria indimenticabile
Ero il cappellano della novantasettesima divisione di fanteria che combatteva vicino al confine cecoslovacco.
Quando sono andato in pensione dal servizio nell'esercito, nel 1967, mi sono interessato alla lettura dei libri scritti da Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In molti ho trovato la notizia che Bonhoeffer era stato ucciso mediante l’impiccagione nel campo di concentramento di Flossenbürg il 9 aprile 1945. Il mio interesse è cambiato da un evento del periodo della guerra ad un'esperienza molto personale che ha avuto una grande importanza. Un pastore cristiano consacrato e molto conosciuto era stato ucciso dal regime Nazista. Un resoconto interessante della morte di Bonhoeffer è fatto nel capitolo di chiusura del libro di Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Letters and Papers from Prison”, edito da Eberhard Bethge e pubblicato da MacMillan Company.
Nell’aprile del 1945, la novantasettesima divisione si era spostata verso Wunsiedel, in Germania, e le divisioni di combattimento avevano preso posizione lungo il confine cecoslovacco. Il quartier generale della divisione era stato situato a Weiden. Un giorno o due dopo l'arrivo a Weiden, il cappellano ebreo del XII° Corpo ha visitato la sezione del cappellano. Era giunta la notizia che un campo di concentramento era stato liberato nella nostra zona di combattimento. Si trattava di Flossenbürg, ad alcune miglia da Weiden. Mi rammarico di non ricordiare il nome del cappellano. Il cappellano ebreo, con il mio assistente, Ervin Royse, ed io abbiamo visitato il campo di Flossenbürg. Pensavo di trovare alcune delle nostre truppe, ma non c’era nessuno per il fatto che il campo era stato appena liberato. Abbiamo trovato un ragazzo ebreo di circa tredici o quattordici anni che era stato prigioniero. Fortunatamente, lui ed il nostro cappellano ebreo parlavano in Yiddish, che è diventata la nostra lingua di contatto. Poiché questo giovane ragazzo sembrava essere l'unico bambino intorno, ho supposto che i soldati tedeschi non gli avevano fatto del male. Era vestito correttamente e non deperito come gli altri prigionieri. Questo giovane ragazzo è diventato la nostra guida nella visita. Abbiamo visto una delle baracche in cui i prigionieri erano alloggiati. Ha detto che dormivano sulle nude cuccette di legno. A volte la persona che dormiva accanto moriva nella notte. Ci ha detto che c’erano dei prigionieri destinati a morire per inedia, in cui la volontà da vivere era forte, e questi sono stati eliminati tenendo la loro testa sotto l’acqua. Ci ha mostrato il percorso dalle costruzioni principali in cui i prigionieri dovevano togliersi i vestiti prima di camminare giù verso un piccolo spazio all'aperto dove avevano disposto il patibolo. Vicino a questo erano le costruzioni in cui avevano accatastato i corpi fino a che non avessero tempo di bruciarli. Vicino a queste ho osservato un grande cisterna con un'apertura di circa sei o otto piedi di diametro, vicino alle fornaci.
Osservando giù, ho visto che era quasi pieno di piccole ossa. Mi sono reso conto che questo era quanto rimaneva di tutti i corpi delle persone che erano state cremate. Mi sono domandato quanti migliaia dei corpi erano stati cremati in questo modo. Mentre ho osservato giù, ho pregato che Dio avesse misericordia di tutti coloro che erano stati trattati con così tanta crudeltà.
Mentre eravamo nel campo, abbiamo visitato l'area di lavoro dove i prigionieri erano stati costretti a produrre le parti di legno per gli aeroplani. Questo era un piccolo campo, confrontato a quello di Dachau e ad altri campi più grandi. Ha avuto la reputazione peggiore di tutti come campo di morte. Sembra che fosse sotto il controllo della Gestapo che era impegnata nello sterminio degli ebrei ed era gestito dalle S.S.
Flossenbürg era uno dei diciotto campi di concentramento tedeschi. Il numero totale dei campi di concentramento era di 146. Il basso numero dei campi in Germania rispetto al numero totale è noto. Due giorni più tardi è si è svolto un funerale collettivo per seppellire i morti. Il luogo scelto era una zona libera nella città di Flossenbürg. Il cappellano ebreo ha svolto la cerimonia per le persone ebree, la cerimonia cattolica è stata svolta dal Cappellano John Tivenan ed io ho celebrato la cerimonia protestante. I cittadini sono stati obbligati ad assistere dal comando militare americano. Mi hanno detto che hanno assistito controvoglia. Mi ricordo che era un giorno di primavera con un freddo vivace; il cielo era parzialmente nuvoloso e la natura sembrava svegliarsi dopo l'inverno. Mi è stato detto che i prigionieri deperiti che erano rimasti nel campo erano stati messi provvisoriamente in cura in un'unità medica tedesca che si era arresa.
Il 9 maggio 1945 è stata dichiarata la fine della guerra.
Nel corso degli anni mi sono chiesto come mai quella gente è stata uccisa con così tanta crudeltà. Quando ero in Flossenbürg, ho considerato la mia partecipazione alla cerimonia della sepoltura delle vittime del campo di concentramento come parte del mio dovere militare, ma dopo essermi messo in pensione e ritornato successivamente nella mia città di Springfield, Missouri, nel gennaio del 1970, ho cominciato a leggere i libri scritti da Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ho trovato i suoi libri molto stimolanti. Ho letto sulla sua vita, ho letto che era stato un prigioniero dei nazisti e che era stato messo a morte il 9 aprile 1945, nel campo di concentramento di Flossenbürg. Quando sono venuto a conoscenza di questo, la mia partecipazione alla cerimonia di sepoltura si è trasformata in un'esperienza molto personale, che si è svolta appena alcuni giorni dopo il 9 aprile. Non so se il corpo di Bonhoeffer fosse sepolto nella tomba comune o se il corpo era stato cremato e le ceneri messe nella fossa scavata nella terra dove mi è sembrato che tante altre ceneri fossero state deposte. Le mie preghiere, tuttavia, hanno incluso tutti coloro che erano morti in questo posto.
Ho pregato affinché Dio nella sua saggezza infinita benedica e riceva a sé queste anime che così crudelmente erano state messe a morte perchè avevano resistito alla barbarie Nazista. La vita di Dietrich Bonhoeffer è stata una grande testimonianza della sua consacrazione al Padre Celeste.