Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Places From Their Past

C of O student Sarah Unruh reviews her great-grandfather's photo album saved from WWII.

Images in C of O student Sarah Unruh's fmily photo album show her relatives at numerous WWII sites.
On May 31, a group of students and sponsors from College of the Ozarks will embark on a journey of memories and history rarely discussed so intimately among strangers. They will accompany four WWII veterans and three Holocaust survivors to sites across Europe, including the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and Dachau.

The students will be witnesses of the pain, disbelief, and horror experienced by both liberators and survivors.

Even during the pre-trip meetings, the students have heard stories from participants about the nightmare of the concentration camps, and these stories are nearly impossible to comprehend. The stories are even more compelling when you realize that most of the students who have been selected for the trip have a relative who was also there.

Some have great-grandfathers who were liberators, like April Van Haitsma, a senior Elementary Education major from Reeds Spring, MO. Her great uncle Fred Lewis was in the 42nd Division. Known as the Rainbow Division, his unit was one of several that liberated the survivors at Dachau. Fellow student Cambria Crider will see the places from a different perspective. Her ancestry includes a complicated twist – one side fought for the Third Reich, and the other fled from it. Crider states:

On my father’s side, my great grandfather, Johann Klein, was drafted by the German army, in     1936, and fought for the Third Reich in Poland. When Russia took over Romania and Johann was still away, my great grandmother, Franziska Klein, was taken against her will by the Russian military and forced to work in a Russian work camp. Ina Holtz, my grandmother, was a Russian Jew. She was born sometime between 1934 and 1940. Because of her Jewish heritage, there was no record of her birth. All she knew was that her family was from Russia. After she was born, her family was constantly on the run and trying to conceal her birth from the Germans. Until the day she died in 1989, she did not know who her real parents were or if they had given her to another family to be taken care of.

Perhaps no student has a more vivid warning of what to expect at the camps than junior Public Relations major Sarah Unruh from Peculiar, MO. Sarah’s great grandfather P.R. Lewellen was a member of the 45th Division. When his unit participated in the liberation at Dachau, he had a camera. And he used it to document proof of the horrible scene.

Sarah wrote about her great-grandfather’s photo album in her application essay:

My family has an old, tarnished scrapbook that I was never allowed to see. Throughout my childhood this book sat on the highest shelf in our basement and collected dust for many years. Just recently, my mother took it down and allowed me to take in its history. The book belonged to my great-grandmother’s second husband, P.R. Lewellen, who was a private in the United States Army. My great-grandfather took part in the invasion of southern France, and received the Distinguished Service Cross for his extreme valor and risk of life during combat. However, I do not believe that P.R.’s first experience in World War II would prepare him for what was to come.

After the landings in southern France in 1944, my great-grandfather’s company moved inland, eventually into southern Germany. His troop was one of the first to enter the strange camp, Dachau, only to find out it was a place of systematic genocide. My great-grandfather and his troop would have the horror and privilege of liberating the camp’s few remaining survivors. The dusty scrapbook contains the personal pictures of his arrival into the camp, and the terror he found there.

I will never be able to forget the images I have seen within the pages of my great-grandfather’s book. Piles of skeletal bodies, burned German soldiers, destruction, and death fill the pages. What makes matters more horrifying is that these pictures are personal. They are not copies that have been laid out in textbooks, or reenacted in movies. P.R. Lewellen’s hand snapped every picture in his book.

Some of the veterans will be returning to locations they visited nearly seventy years ago, but the circumstances were vastly different then. They were young men in their teens or early twenties, and they were liberators. They came upon sights that have never left their memories, sights that included mistreatment, and horrific living conditions endured by the three survivors who will join them on this return.

Sophomore Trey Owens, an Allied Health major, also has ancestors who experienced the Holocaust. His grandmother often retold the stories of her family’s displacement during WWII. She was adopted at a very young age from Poland. Her parents, Boleslaw and Maria Widuch, were fighting the Germans in an underground movement known as Armia Krajowa, or Home Army, while they lived in Warszawa, Poland. Owens retells the story from his grandmother, stating that his grandmother’s family “was captured when she was four years old and put in a work camp located in Germany.”

“As my grandmother was speaking, I became consumed by her words,” Owens states. “It was difficult for me to imagine the woman standing before me as a four year old girl being put in a work camp and the fear she must have had.” His grandmother’s story had a much happier ending than most about the Holocaust. After three months in the work camp the war was coming to an end. They were liberated and were relocated to six different displaced person’s camps over a period of seven years. Later they traveled ten days on a U.S. military transport ship and arrived in New York in 1951, and where Owens’ grandmother stepped foot onto free land at the age of 11.

Owens hopes to share a memory with the selfless veterans who fought to assist the defenseless, such as his relatives. “I would be honored to share that memory with the veterans and survivors, just as my grandmother shared the memory with me,” Owens states.