Seventy years ago, Cpl. Forrest Robinson entered a ghastly eternity his 22-year-old mind could not fathom.
He and his buddies from the 104th Infantry Division were walking down a dirt road near Nordhausen, Germany, on April 12, 1945. A terrible odor led them to a barbed-wire enclosed “camp.” As if crossing the River Styx, they moved through the camp’s main gate.
Corpses were strewn on the open ground, as my dad’s photographs show. Some were stacked like cordwood under a stairway. In a long barracks, Dad saw rows of beds with the living, mostly dying, lying among the dead. He said they appeared to have been starved – nothing but skeletons wrapped with skin.
Dad beseeched God for answers. There was no sound. There was no light. There was nothing but this ghastly scene to intrude upon his thoughts.
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Sixty-thousand pairs of feet had walked into this slave labor camp; 20,000 perished there. They were condemned not for their deeds but for their being.
In the years after the war, Dad tirelessly advocated for a proposition professed by world leaders that seemed so simple, yet proved to be so elusive: Never again.
It has been three years since Dad passed. Genocide is no more understandable, and no less real, today than it was in 1945.
After Rwanda and Srebrenica, the world made a new commitment to prevent genocide and mass atrocities. But this year marks the fourth anniversary of the Syrian conflict. And this past year, genocidal massacres have occurred in Nigeria, Iraq, the Central African Republic, Somalia and Myanmar.
Violent anti-Semitic attacks have occurred in Europe. The French government is providing security for Jewish schools, synagogues and community centers.
Last year, in our own state, three people died in shootings at a Jewish community center and retirement home in Overland Park. The alleged shooter reportedly yelled “Heil Hitler!” as he was taken into custody.
We continue to confront hatred.
We continue to seek justice for victims. Soon, a court established by the Royal Government of Cambodia and the United Nations will try leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime for crimes of genocide against the Vietnamese and Cham Muslim populations.
We continue to build and transform the knowledge, understanding and memory of the Holocaust. Congress has declared April 12-16 as the Days of Remembrance. Across the country, state and local governments, military bases, workplaces, schools, religious organizations and civic centers will participate in remembrance activities. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., leads this important work.
And as for Dad’s final question – “Who will care about the Holocaust after my generation is gone?” – we must accept the challenge to match words to deeds so that “never again” is not a hollow promise.
Forrest James Robinson Jr. lives in Wichita.