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Sunday, February 17, 2013

"Just a Thought" Column in La Prensa of San Antonio, 2-17

Just a Thought:  A visit to a concentration camp
By Steve Walker

Back in 1971-72 while stationed in Augsburg, Germany, I periodically took advantage of being overseas to travel and visit various historical places while on active duty.

On one particular long weekend I took a memorable trip with some of my Army buddies to Dachau, one of the many concentration camps located all over Germany. Four of us crammed into a Volkswagen and headed for the concentration camp not knowing what to expect or how to react.

On the trip my buddies teased me since my father was Jewish, although my mother was a Catholic and raised me as such. Although I don’t believe at the time they meant to be cruel, one of them joked that “when we get there we will throw you in the ovens.” For the year we served together up to that time, they referred to me by a nickname, the “Dachau Dough Boy,” a take off of the popular Pillsbury Dough Boy commercials about biscuits cooking in the oven at the time.

Obviously today those comments would be considered very hurtful and extremely offensive and insensitive. We were young and didn’t know any better.

On arrival at the camp, it became a whole different story. As we walked into the camp, to take the tour, we noticed before entering the gate, the sun was shining, the birds were chirping and we expected it to be a typical museum type tour. Once we entered the gates, it suddenly felt cold, deathly quiet and depressing. No chirping birds could be heard. It was as if we had entered another universe.

As we walked around the camp with a guide who had actually spent time incarcerated at the camp, it became apparent the tour would be a life changing experience. Everyone spoke in hushed tones and acted very respectful about what happened in that camp those many years ago. The guide even showed his tattooed number on his arm. I cringe even now just thinking about.

Never again was I called the “Dachau Dough Boy” and the term was never mentioned in reference to me again. One of my fellow soldiers, who we called Ralphie, a full-blooded Jew declined to go with us because he had relatives who died in that concentration camp.

At the time I wrote my mother (June 16th) about the experience that touched my very soul. My mother kept all my letters and I still have that one in my possession she gave me before she died in 2002.

It read in part, “Went to Dachau Saturday to see where they exterminate a lot of Jews. It was a depressing place let me tell you. You could still smell fumes in the gas chambers. The incinerators were eerie too. It was so quiet there and they had pictures of pictures piled up and all sorts of ghastly things. Many visitors were crying.

“It was an experience to be sure. I could almost feel death around me. I must visit Auschwitz, the main camp where they killed 4,000,000 Jews.” Fortunately I never made that trip.

The following year I visited Israel after getting out of the Army, which is another story by itself.

The visit to Dachau is etched in my memory that will live forever in my heart and remind me, lest I forget, of my Jewish heritage.

As always, what I write is “Just a Thought.”

Steve Walker is a Vietnam Veteran, former Journalist and Justice of the Peace. His former La Prensa column, “Ask the Judge,” ran for two years.

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