When I was 8 years old, I experienced the end of World War II in a village in the Black Forest.
After three years of bombardments in Stuttgart, the Nazi government ordered women and children from large cities to relocate to rural areas. My brothers and I found shelter with relatives in the village of Dornstetten. Here we felt safe until Allied planes bombed and nearly destroyed the city of my birth, Freudenstadt, only five miles away.
We saw flames and smoke rising high above the city. This was on April 16, 1945. Then unexpectedly, on the same day, three planes also targeted Dornstetten and fired at everything in sight. Our house was not hit, but several houses nearby were set ablaze, including a farmer's house. The uncontrollable fire quickly spread to his barn and incinerated the trapped animals inside.
On April 17, French and Moroccan troops occupied our village. Four tanks stopped in front of city hall, and an officer instructed the mayor to stand in front. If one shot anywhere in the village was fired, he was informed, he would be executed. Fortunately, not one shot was fired. The mayor escaped execution, but an innocent woman was gunned down by French troops.
Our family had retreated into a deep cellar in the village’s oldest house. An armed soldier entered the cellar, allegedly in search of German soldiers. (There were none.) As he approached, he repeated the words “Nix Soldat.” When he heard me move a bit, he swung his rifle around and aimed it at my head. Luckily he did not pull the trigger.
In subsequent years I learned little in school about the warfare, absurdity, criminality, and countless massive human rights violations during the Second World War, a war that started Sept. 1, 1939, under the corrupt, racist and evil National Socialist dictatorship. While in college and graduate school, I conducted research on my own, reading articles, documents, letters, and talking to older witnesses and survivors. Although retired, I still lecture occasionally on this ruthless dictatorship, its millions of victims, and the Holocaust. In a relentless process of radicalization, the discrimination within Nazi Germany in 1933 was rapidly followed by persecution, marginalization, and incarceration of political opponents and of Germany's Jews. The Final Solution meant exclusion, deportation, ghettoization, and extermination.
By May 8, 70 years ago, the Nazis finally had been defeated and surrendered. They had abused and murdered their defenseless victims to the very end. For example, nearly half of about 250,000 surviving prisoners, mostly Jewish, lost their lives during several death marches in the last three months. Also, several honorable members of the German resistance were executed in April. I read about the death of a young Jewish mother, Else Josenhans, who was captured by the Gestapo in Stuttgart and hanged on April 11. When the rope broke at first, Else pleaded for mercy, saying, “You also have a mother, don’t you? Let me live.” On the second attempt the rope held.
Once the war ended, nations mourned the death of millions of their soldiers. Their sacrifices should never be forgotten. Once my family moved back to Stuttgart, I saw my first American soldiers that included African Americans, a few of the more than 1.2 million who wore U.S. uniforms. They helped fight for the freedom and liberation of others on foreign soil, but sadly, it would take a few more years until they gained their own.
Today many of our public schools include lessons in their curriculum on the Second World War and the Holocaust and perhaps, on the other genocides since 1945. Some teachers have led their students on trips abroad to visit former sites of persecution. Tours of former concentration camps and memorial sites, based on my own frequent travels with college students, are an effective way to learn about past events.
Above all: it is essential today to respond to discrimination, stereotyping, prejudice, racism, anti-Semitism, and in general, to the violation of human rights. We can’t be bystanders and remain indifferent, but can become concerned citizens, and when necessary, activists. We recall the Jewish saying that by saving one human life, we save the world.
Hans M. Wuerth lives in Chapel Hill.