Remembering—and forgetting—the Holocaust

Alvin Josephy’s been gone for almost 20 years, but his teachings hover over me as I try to make sense of today’s world. Before he was a noted historian of and activist on behalf of the Nez Perce and other Indian peoples, he was a Marine Corps journalist in the Pacific in WW II.

Jack McClaran, Alvin’s good friend, became a friend to me—and a mentor. Jack was a Snake River rancher, political and social thinker, and an advocate for education and justice for all. He’s been gone ten years this month, Alvin for almost twenty, but as things go from bad to dire in Gaza, the wisdom of these men, gained in the crucible of a World War, pierce through the news reports and pundits’ takes on war in the Holy Land. I was privileged to know and learn from them, and feel obliged now to pass on some of what I learned from them about war, killing and the Holocaust.

Alvin was at Guam and Iwo Jima. I watched the man cry as he played a tape he’d made at the landing at Guam. He’d been attached to a recorder in the guts of a PT boat by a 40 foot cord and talked into a condom covered microphone as he made his way to shore. Almost half of the men with him did not make it to shore. Some of us, he said, at the conclusion of the recording. felt guilty at coming home alive. Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, a Japanese-American who had grown up in an intern camp and wrote a book about it, Farewell to Manzanar, rose to help Alvin off the stage.

Jack was in his 80s when he agreed to tell his WW II story at a public gathering in the Oddfellows Hall in Enterprise. He began his ramble with a nod to Alvin, who told Jack that their generation—the people who had seen and lived the horrors of that War, were fast dying out, and that the next generation would not have many more chances at first person recollections. There were some, Alvin said, who are now denying the Holocaust, and you, Jack, were there.

So Jack told his story of World War II, of the Battle of the Bulge and of the liberation of Buchenwald. He was a 19-year old tanker fresh out of Hells Canyon and Lewiston High School at the Bulge. His unit had been forced to retreat at the Rhine, almost half of them fatalities. They waited for two weeks for new tanks. Getting back into a tank—Jack called them pure and simple “killing machines”—was the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life.

Jack didn’t tell us how many times his tank had been hit, how many enemy tanks and trucks they’d destroyed, only that tankers didn’t fear death, just the way of it—being burned alive inside the killing machine.

His rambling talk got us across the Rhine and into Buchenwald, one of the first and largest of the Nazi extermination camps. It stank, Jack said, like nothing else ever. He was just a year out of Lewiston High School when he got that smell, was made to feed emaciated prisoners k-rations mashed into liquid and heated in helmets, when he saw bodies stacked like cordwood, and lived this chilling story of the “final solution.”

There was the kind of rail you’d see in a livestock killing plant. Bodies were hung on hooks at the collarbone out of the gas chambers and moved to the crematorium to be burned. They were, Jack said, supposedly dead at this point, but scratches along a wall next to the rail told a different story. Jack relived the moment as he traced his hand along an invisible wall.

At one camp, General Eisenhower raised all the able-bodied men in a nearby town and made them dig individual graves for prisoners who’d been stacked in common graves. Jack said again that there was no way that villagers a mile or two away from one of these death camps could have avoided the odor and the evil that was going on so near.


These are stories from World War II and Nazi Germany’s attempt to rid the world of Jews. The men and women who lived and witnessed these awful things are mostly gone. But some of us were privileged—chosen by fate—to hear the stories told so vividly that they are seared in our minds. And, I believe, it is our role now to bear witness, to remind the world of these evils before they are forgotten in the current outrage that is Israel and Gaza.

With their outrage and hatred, Netanyahu and his militaristic government are hunting ideology with weapons, and changing minds in exactly the wrong direction. No matter how many leaders and foot soldiers of Hamas they find and kill, the killing of civilians, of women and children, doctors, nurses, teachers, journalists and UN aid workers, will only sow more hate. And quibble about the number of Gazans killed if you like, but one can only imagine how many are buried in the rubble that was once Gaza.

As the world rises to condemn him, Netanyahu’s sin will be in making so many forget the evils practiced on his people—the Holocaust. Jack McClaran’s stories and Alvin Josephy’s warnings about forgetting the Holocaust could be overwhelmed not by Holocaust deniers, but by militaristic Israelis’ destruction of the Palestinian people.

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photo: US troops at Buchenwald, Holocaust Museum

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