For over a year I visited a personal counselor, a gentle and wise pastor, on a semiregular basis. Many of our sessions together were low-key and uneventful, but one afternoon will always remain seared in my memory.
It was a blustery Chicago day, and I sat hunched in a wool sweater next to a hissing radiator. Just before our session, I had read in a church newsletter that this pastor-counselor, while serving in the army in World War II, had participated in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. We reversed roles that day; I asked the questions.
The pastor looked off to his right, seeming to focus on a blank space on the wall. He was silent for at least a minute. His eyes moved back and forth rapidly, as if straining to fill in the scene from 40 years before. Finally he spoke, and for the next 20 minutes he recalled the sights, the sounds, and the smells—especially the smells—that greeted his unit as they marched through the gates of Dachau.
For weeks the soldiers had heard wild rumors about the camps, but inured to war propaganda, they gave little credence to such rumors. Nothing prepared them, and nothing could possibly prepare them, for what they found inside.
“A buddy and I were assigned to one boxcar. Inside were human corpses, stacked in neat rows, exactly like firewood. The Germans, ever meticulous, had planned out the rows—alternating the heads and feet, and accommodating different sizes and shapes of bodies.
“Our job was like moving furniture. We would pick up each body—so light!—and carry it to a designated area. Some fellows couldn’t do this part. They stood by the barbed-wire fences, retching.
“I couldn’t believe it the first time we came across a person in the pile still alive. But it was true. Incredibly, some of the corpses weren’t corpses. They were human beings. We yelled for doctors, and they went to work on these survivors right away.
“I spent two hours in that boxcar, two hours that for me included every known emotion: rage, pity, shame, revulsion—every negative emotion, I should say. They came in waves, all but the rage. It stayed, fueling our work. We had no other emotional vocabulary for such a scene.
“After we had taken the few survivors to a makeshift clinic, we turned our attention to the SS officers in charge of Dachau, who were being held under guard in a bunkhouse. Army Intelligence had set up an interrogation center nearby. It was outside the camp, and to reach it you had to walk down a ravine through some trees. The captain asked for a volunteer to escort a group of 12 SS prisoners to the interrogation center, and Chuck’s hand shot right up.
“Chuck was the loudest, brashest, most volatile soldier in our unit. He stood about five feet, four inches tall, but he had overly long arms so that his hands hung down around his knees like a gorilla’s. He came from Cicero, a suburb of Chicago known mainly for its racism and its association with Al Capone. Chuck claimed to have worked for Capone before the war, and not one of us doubted it.
“Well, Chuck grabbed a submachine gun and prodded the group of SS prisoners down the trail. They walked ahead of him with their hands locked back behind their heads, their elbows sticking out on either side. A few minutes after they disappeared into the trees, we heard the rattly burp of a machine gun in three long bursts of fire. We all ducked; it could have been a German sniper in the woods. But soon Chuck came strolling out, smoke still curling from the tip of his weapon. ‘They all tried to run away,’ he said, with a kind of leer.”
I asked if anyone reported what he did or took disciplinary action. The pastor laughed, and then he gave me a get-serious-this-is-war look.
“No, and that’s what got to me. It was on that day that I felt called by God to become a pastor. First, there was the horror of the corpses in the boxcar. I could not absorb such a scene. I did not even know such Absolute Evil existed. But when I saw it, I knew beyond doubt that I must spend my life serving whatever opposed such Evil—serving God.
“Then came the Chuck incident. I had a nauseating fear that the captain might call on me to escort the next group of SS guards, and an even more dreadful fear that if he did, I might do the same as Chuck. The beast that was within those guards was also within me.”
I could not coax more reminiscing from the pastor that day. Either he had probed the past enough, or he felt obligated to move on to our own agenda. But before we left the subject entirely, I asked a question that, as I look back now, seems almost impudent.
“Tell me,” I asked, “after such a cosmic kind of call to ministry—confronting the great Evil of the century—how must it feel to fulfill that call by sitting in this office listening to middle-class yuppies like me ramble on about our personal problems?”
His answer came back quickly, as if he had asked himself that question many times.
“I do see a connection,” he said. “Without being melodramatic, I sometimes wonder what might have happened if a skilled, sensitive person had befriended the young, impressionable Adolf Hitler as he wandered the streets of Vienna in his confused state. The world might have been spared all that bloodshed—spared Dachau. I never know who might be sitting in that chair you’re occupying right now.
“And even if I end up spending my life with ‘nobodies,’ I learned in the boxcar that there’s no such thing. Those corpses with a pulse were as close to nobodies as you can get: mere skeletons wrapped in papery skin. But I would have done anything to keep those poor, ragged souls alive. Our medics stayed up all night to save them; some in our company lost their lives to liberate them. There are no ‘nobodies.’ I learned that day in Dachau what ‘the image of God’ in a human being is all about.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.