Durham News: Opinion

Bob Wilson: Holocaust ashes memorial remind us of evil

Like Spain, every man has to come to terms with Germany.

I’m writing these words from Meissen, a pleasant city on the Elbe River in what used to be called East Germany. Meissen is known the world over for its fine porcelain.

And Germany is known the world over for its Nazi period, from 1933 to 1945. The Third Reich lasted only 12 years, but it wrote a blood-soaked chapter in history.

And therein lies the link between the Holocaust memorial that will be dedicated April 26 at Durham’s Hebrew Cemetery and the ashes of persons unknown that lie beneath.

The ashes were interred in 2014. The memorial is the creation of Carrboro sculptor Mike Roig, who works in what one might call the kinetic style.

As N&O/Durham News writer Jim Wise noted, the ashes were given to an American soldier in April 1945, when U.S. Army troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp north of Munich. The soldier kept them in a drawer for nigh 70 years.

Thanks to the soldier’s son, the fate of a person or persons lost to Adolf Hitler’s genocide won’t be forgotten. More important, Roig’s artwork will ensure that the gravesite itself can’t be forgotten.

Magnitude of evil

I visited Dachau one cold, rainy day in the fall of 1956, when I was a freshman at Munich American High School. I was too young to absorb the magnitude of evil that flourished at Dachau, opened in 1933 as the first of an archipelago of concentration camps.

But I do remember vividly the prisoners’ barracks, the wall where so many were shot by SS troops, and the crematoria where their emaciated bodies were reduced to fine, gray flakes.

Dachau was never as large as Buchenwald and Auschwitz, which killed Jews and others deemed unworthy of life or service to the regime on an industrial scale. But Dachau didn’t disappoint its masters.

What isn’t generally known about the Nazi gulag is the extraordinary extent of it. All concentration camps had subcamps where able-bodied prisoners were farmed out to war industries.

Dachau alone had 123 subcamps in Bavaria. So when you hear someone say ordinary Germans didn’t know they were living in the midst of genocide, don’t believe it. They knew. Hitler had told them what he intended to do.

Germans didn’t like to talk about it. That was true when I lived in Germany from 1956 to 1958. War damage was still visible in the big cities then, but no one talked about Hitler and the Nazis. Looking back, it was almost as if the regime had never existed.

That was, I suppose, a form of national denial. It was all too fresh, too near, to know the extent of the Hitler regime’s criminality, much less relive the period in histories and literature.


Today, of course, thousands of books have been written about the Holocaust, why Hitler and his minions settled on the Final Solution in early 1942, and the extent of the German nation’s complicity in it.

How many “undesirables” died at the hands of the Nazis is unknown. The accepted figure is 6 million. They were killed simply because they didn’t fit the template of a fantasy Master Race.

We will never know, either, how many lives are among the ashes buried at the Hebrew Cemetery, their nationality or their ethnicity. Dachau housed more than 200,000 prisoners over 12 years, and more than 32,000 of them died there.

Germany has striven mightily since 1945 to come to terms with its past. How one comes to terms with that past varies, but one aspect is common: It isn’t easy.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham,.