Friday, November 11, 2011

In Their Words: Veteran's Stories

By Tricia Goyer

As early as 1940, prisoners started arriving at the small train station at Mauthausen, where nestled in the hills was a hidden concentration camp. 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.

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’d been a Christian since I was a small child, but I had even greater faith after feeling the protection of the Lord pressing upon me. I’m still a strong Christian today because of that experience. Many people can deny the fact that God exists, but not me. I’ve felt His hand . . . and heard His whisper in the midst of war. LeRoy Petersohn
***

On our way to Austria, there is one thing I will never forget. The image of what I spotted from my perch on that tank still brings tears to my eyes nearly sixty years later.
“Major,” I says.“I believe the whole German Army must be down there. The road is full of people. Just a black line.”

I couldn’t distinguish what kind of people they were, but I could see that black line stretched out for miles. I said again, “The whole German Army must be down there waiting for us.”
He answered very quietly. “No, son, that’s the prisoners from Flossenberg concentration camp. The Germans wanted to clear them out before we got there.”

The prisoners reminded me of walking skeletons. Yes, from the top of that tank I’d seen it all—the battles, the barbarity of men, and the joy of liberation. From my perch I witnessed what I’ll never forget—the fight against good and evil. And I was thankful I was part of bringing in the good.” Tarmo Holma
***
I was just a young kid straight out of high school; a replacement for killed or injured troops. Nothing had prepared me for the sight of thin arms and legs poking out of striped uniforms, their distorted faces staring at us, reminding us we were too late. Charles Torluccio

***

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 now Remembering You (http://www.triciagoyer.com/contemporaryfiction.html#RememberingYou), but it was the relationship with the men that forever changed my life. It's their stories that I will never forget.

Many people walk out of Mauthausen concentration camp with a sadness of what took place. I experienced that, but as I sought out the men who opened the gates I've found so much more.

So much more.

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.


My thanks to Tricia for sharing these insights from WWII. And a special thanks to all those who have served our country past and present.

3 comments:

Jan Drexler said...

Wow. What touching stories from those men.

Thanks for sharing them with us!

Carrie Fancett Pagels said...

My father was a WWII veteran from MI and helped free a number of prison camps. I am not sure which ones but I'd like to find out. He passed away seven years ago and would have been 93 next month. He was in his 20's, not a kid out of high school, and he "got" what happened there which probably made it that much more horrific. Anger and disgust with those who perpetrated the atrocities combined with an intense desire to see these survivors bring about their own justice for acts too brutal for humanity. Seems to me he once said that surviving what the Nazis had done to the prisoners was justice in itself for they held the memories and could pass those stories on.

StephB said...

Very poignant and touching. I have an uncle who was a World War II vet and he generally doesn't like to talk about his time over in Europe. My grandfather was also a World War II vet but he passed when I was 15 and really appreciated his service.

Having been to Europe in the 1980's and 1990's, I can tell you that war has resonated through the generations.

I remember visiting a small town in France on the German/French border and being thanked for what the Americans did for France in the World War II. It was a very moving experience.

Steph