For Memorial Day, I took off work to spend the day with my husband, exploring the beautiful countryside and points of interest. We started out in the morning by hiking up to another ruined castle, but decided an appropriate way to spend the afternoon would be to visit the concentration camp at Flossenbürg.
What a sobering reminder of those who worked, and fought, and sacrificed so much to protect the freedoms we enjoy in this world. I was dramatically affected by the juxtaposition of absolute beauty and utter evil. The hills and forests surrounding the camp are stunning in their lush and lonely loveliness. Yet inside the confines of the camp, such a staggering amount of chilling and tragic events occurred that it was too much to take in.
A little story
Let me briefly share one of the stories I found in my research surrounding this Memorial Day. It concerns two little boys living in the town of Messina, on the island of Sicily, during the fateful summer of 1943. Nazis and Italian Fascists occupied the island, and the citizens were oppressed and starving.
The boys’ father, an officer in the Italian Navy, was away at war and their mother was nine months pregnant with their little sister. American pilots flew overhead, dropping messages written in Italian, warning the townspeople to flee into the mountains as American and British forces planned to begin bombing the Germans in the next few days.
Uncle Peppino came, packed two suitcases, and took the boys and their mother on a trek into the mountains above the city. They had not traveled far when the mother went into labor. They found a family still at home who gave them shelter, and the woman gave birth to the little girl.
However, there was no time for rest. Wrapping the newborn in a blanket, the woman and her family continued their flight to safety, and soon after, the bombing began. From their vantage point above, they were able to watch the progress of the Americans’ attack and witness the Germans’ retreat.
After, the Americans brought food, supplies, and chocolate. The whole town rejoiced.
The rest of the story
Soon after, the family learned that the father’s Navy ship had been captured by the Nazis and the captain executed. The officers were slated to be shot the next morning, but Mussolini intervened, personally contacting Hitler with a request to spare the officers and crew. Instead, they were sent to a labor camp.
The father worked in the camp for two years, until it was liberated by American forces during the summer of 1945. He walked, hiked, and begged rides across Europe until finally arriving home in Sicily, weighing 95 pounds.
This is just one of a million stories of remarkable people who lived through a difficult time and shared their experiences with future generations.
Shame on me
We spent hours in the laundry of the camp, where prisoners were hosed down, disinfected, and dressed in their striped uniforms. Even so, I feel like we only saw a fraction, and can only imagine a tiny segment, of what happened in that place.
I was fascinated by the tunnel connecting the laundry to the kitchens, where one enterprising prisoner successfully hid to avoid the death marches. We never made it as far as the kitchens, housed in another large building with a whole lot more to see. We plan to return some day.
We did, however, spend another few hours on the grounds, looking at the guard towers, the crematorium, the memorial chapel, the graves and monuments. By the end of the day, I was exhausted and hungry, yet I had not toiled up and down the quarry hill carrying a large stone on my back. I had not been given a crust for breakfast or a spoonful of watery soup for lunch.
I felt ashamed for my petty complaints in the face of so much misery.
What an emotional turmoil I experienced during that day! Amazement, at the beauty of the surroundings. Horror, at the inhumanity I saw and read about. Relief, that I have not had to endure such sufferings. Shame, that I should feel that way. Confusion, over the rush of emotions that filled me and kept me moving through the camp.
And most of all, gratitude, for those who did go through these unimaginable trials. For those who fought, and worked, and suffered, and sacrificed to procure, preserve, and protect freedom and simple human decency.
I’m glad I had the opportunity to spend my Memorial Day in this way, honoring and remembering.
How about you? Did you do something special this Memorial Day? Do you have a story to share? Tell us about it in the comments.