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Life After World War II
The world today is still living with the consequences of World War II. Lasting from September 1, 1939 to September 2, 1945 it went on exactly six years and one day. In just that length of time, 45 million people were killed in the war, and about 12 million Europeans were left homeless. There were many causes of this war, including the fact that Germany was left in a bad financial state following the First World War. The Germans were forced to accept all of the blame for the war, as well as paying all damages and being forced to give up a lot of their land. The Germans were left feeling hopeless, and wanted their power back. Their feelings changed when a man named Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany in 1933. He gave the Germans new hope and promised them back the power they had had before World War I. Germany began the war believing that they were helping their country, when really they were beginning the larges genocide in world history.
My grandfather was born on November 18, 1938, and was about one year old when the war began. He grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, as an only child with his plumber father and businesswoman mother. Because his parents were doing fine financially during the Great Depression, they ended up helping family members who were struggling. My grandfather remembers a happy childhood, relatively unaffected by the Depression and World War II. He never realized the horror that the war brought to the world until he was 19 years old, and went on a Mormon mission to Germany and visited some of the places where millions of innocent people were murdered.
Q: Do you remember anything from the war?
A: We used to go to California and I remember these big barge balloons that would float around in the air to warn against invading airplanes. I was about three, and I can still remember those.
Q: Do you remember when the war ended?
A: Yes, I was looking out the window and the neighbors started beating pots and pans and the radio started saying that the war was over. My aunt gave me two pans and I beat the pans together and ran up and down the street with the neighbors. I was about seven years old.
Q: As you were growing up, what do you remember thinking and learning about the war? How did affect America after it was over?
A: I made model ships and airplanes [that represented vehicles] used in the war, which was really popular at the time and I had them hanging on my ceiling. Most of us could identify airplanes in the air to what they were and what their capacity was. Everyone had to learn so that we could if it was an enemy or our own.
Q: And then as an adult you went on a mission to Germany, how did you feel about that when you heard?
A: I felt good; I didn’t have a problem with that. I’d studied German in high school, and I was very excited. When I got there, a lot of my notions about the Germans were dispelled almost immediately. After I came home, my impression of Germany and the people of Germany changed dramatically. They were loving parents; they loved their country and were very patriotic, even though they abhorred what had gone on during the war. As far as the people, most of them said the same thing. If you knew how the Nazis operated, where everybody was encouraged to spy on their neighbors, and if you were caught saying anything against the Nazis you were arrested and questioned under the worst circumstances, and if it was bad enough you were executed. In addition, huge rallies were held where the might of the Nazi party and the military were evidenced. This was done to bring patriotism, but in reality what it brought was fear. Even though they supported their government, most of them claimed that they didn’t do these things of their own free will. All those that lived and worked around the camps claimed that they didn’t know what was going on, but that couldn’t have been true. Some told me that the ashes rained down like snow on everything, and the smell was terrible. They killed the people in the camps in the most terrible ways. They would take these tractors and dig a hole and the prisoners would stand in the hole and they would be shot and buried in a mass grave. They were also put in these gas chambers under the illusion that they were taking showers, and then the doors were bolted and they were gassed to death. The one I saw was there were these big brick ovens where two people were placed side by side and flames came in from all directions and they were killed. There are plaques on the wall in every camp that say “Lest We Forget” as a reminder not only to the German people, but to the world when governments are left unbridled.
Q: What were the camps like?
A: Very depressing. You could actually physically feel the pain and the horrible circumstances that happened there. It’s hard to describe, but you could actually heart the cries in your head and the weight of what happened to them went on in your head. It was very sobering.
Q: What types of things did you see in the camps?
A: We saw the places that they were kept. They slept on just wooden pallets, and they were stacked five or six high, and very narrow, there were no mattresses. A lot of them had train stations that came in, people were just stacked on the trains and you’d be around people for an extended amount of time near dead bodies. You came into the big train stations and the people were forced out of the trains, and in the middle of the winter they were sometimes shot with hoses to get out of the trains faster. They weren’t fed well, and after the camps were saved the people were just skin hanging on bones, it was amazing how terribly they were treated. What’s amazing is that even though the conditions were really awful in Germany, there were still people that ran underground that protected them and found ways of getting them out of the country and thousands of lives were saved by those that just would not go by Hitler’s rule. It’s like the book Anne Frank, which actually was one of the books that put a face on one of the people that had been killed.
Q: What signs were left behind of the war in Germany?
A: When I was there in 1960, there were still a lot of buildings and cities where they were not yet rebuilt. The other thing that made it still in the forefront, the country was divided between the East and West and the Russians were very threatening. They separated the East and West with a barbed wire wall and would run their tanks and everything right up the border and there were still some fear that the Russians were going to overrun Germany. The Germans were very fearful because of that. The Americans, French, and British had a huge presence there just to protect Germany from Russia at that point. The guards that we could see were just fourteen or fifteen-year-old people. These were basically kids with guns. The feeling in Germany didn’t end with the end of the war. The feeling of World War II still existed, even through the Cold War in Germany. When I was there, the Germans were still trying to rationalize their role in the war.
It wasn’t until years after the war that the truth of the horrors that had gone on during it began to leak around the world. Even after reading about it and hearing the stories of survivors, I don’t think anyone could truly understand the dreadfulness and the inhumanity that went on during the war until they actually see for their own eyes evidence that every dreadful thing they heard about was true. My grandfather told me about how the Germans lived in fear, and some were in denial even years later. He told me about walking through the camps, looking at the trains and the barracks and hearing the cries of those who had been killed. I didn’t understand how terrible this war was until I listened to the way that my grandfather told me about those experiences that must still haunt every person who suffered through them nearly every day of their life. Just hearing this account has taught me a powerful lesson about the dark side of the human spirit, the side that is willing to kill millions of innocent people for power. I’ve learned that all people are capable of great good and great evil.