Bergen-Belsen: lest we forget the others

IT is welcome news that President Reagan has revised his European schedule so as to visit Bergen-Belsen, one of the worst Nazi extermination camps, as a mark of respect for 6 million European Jews who perished in the Holocaust. While some had actively resisted the Nazis, most suffered terribly and died only because of their race. At the same time we should never forget the thousands of non-Jewish Europeans also killed in Hitler's concentration camps. They included Germans, and particularly the European resistance members who fought actively against Nazi Germany at appalling risk to themselves and their families who also disappeared. Without the immense contribution of the ``resistance'' in Nazi occupied Europe, the success of the Normandy landings, the countering of the German V-1 buzz bombs, and other important Allied successes would have been infinitely more difficult and costly in lives and resources. So for those of us who worked with the ``resistance'' in German occupied Europe, the President's visit to a Nazi concentration camp has also a special meaning. In my case it evokes unforgettable memories because I was present at the liberation of one such camp -- Dachau.

It happened because earlier as a member of the United States Embassy at Vichy during the German occupation of France, I had been privileged to work with several resistance goups. They kept us informed of German troop and Luftwaffe dispositions in France and the movements of German submarines and surface vessels operating from French ports. They smuggled downed US airmen through France to safety in Spain. They had deeply penetrated the P'etain-Laval puppet government and were able to keep us up to date on German economic and industrial demands, which helped to pinpoint German shortages and weaknesses.

Shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack they gave us a copy of a secret telegram from the French authorities in Saigon (which the Japanese had occupied following the fall of France) reporting Japanese military preparations there for what appeared to be an amphibious operation which was believed aimed at Malaya or the Philippines. Alas, we failed to put this information to useful purpose!

Our activities in Vichy were terminated in late 1942 following the Allied landings in North Africa when the Germans shut down our Vichy embassy. We were taken to Germany as hostages, but our internment lasted only until the spring of 1944, when we were exchanged and repatriated. Just a bit later, in the summer of 1944, I found myself happily in France once again, but this time as a member of General Eisenhower's staff in Normandy and headed in the right direction toward Paris.

While hemmed in on the Normandy beachhead, we could get little information about our Vichy resistance friends, but once Paris was liberated, it was easy, as five members of the CNR (National Council of Resistance) were comrades from our Vichy days. The news they gave us was bad. Many of our friends had been picked up in the Gestapo drive of the winter of 1943-44. Some had been tortured and shot, others deported to concentration camps to the east. There was nothing we could.

However, by April 1945 the final Allied drive had begun to overrun Hitler's concentration camps. At Buchenwald our ``T'' force found three French comrades alive. They all were ill but survived. Our joy was great but our fears and those of de Gaulle's government about the fate of the hundreds of the still missing increased. So in late April as General Patch's Seventh Army advanced into Bavaria toward Dachau, General de Gaulle gave us a list of about 180 outstanding resistance leaders who were missing. It was suggested that I be present at the liberation of the infamous Dachau camp and arrange for the speedy repatriation of any survivors on the list. I arrived at General Patch's headquarters near Augsburg and was told Dachau was being liberated with only light resistance from a few die-hard guards and that I was to go in with the first medical team as soon as the shooting stopped.

I will never forget the spectacle as we entered the camp area. It was worse than a nightmare! On a rail siding near the camp entrance were freight cars filled with skeleton-like corpses, dead from thirst and starvation. They had been moved from a camp farther west and then left to die locked in the freight cars. The door of one car had been forced open and about thirty crawled a few yards before collapsing and dying.

The living inmates were too weak to move, lying on wooden shelves that served as bunks in the barracks. Others were propped up against walls outside.

It was against this backdrop that I sought out the leader of the French contingent and had one of the most moving experiences in my life. The Nazis segregated inmates by nationality and only dealt with the leader, generally chosen by his fellows for his character and leadership. I finally found him and his name was Edmond Michelet. He had survived torture and almost two years at Dachau.

I looked at my list; his name was at the top. He had been a leader in the ``combat'' resistance organization and I had worked with some of his comrades, including de Gaulle's first defense minister, P. H. Teitgen, whom we knew only as ``Tristan'' in Vichy days.

I showed Michelet the de Gaulle list and said I could arrange to airlift him and 24 others to Paris the next day, where a hero's welcome awaited him. I shall never forget the reply of this living skeleton. He looked at me with pained eyes and said: ``Monsieur, I am the leader of the French group. I shall only leave Dachau when the last Frenchman, be he resistance member or not, has been repatriated to France or has succumbed here, for many are dying and will never make it.'' In Dachau there were over 3,000 Frenchmen. Instead of going home to a hero's welcome, Michelet stayed there six long weeks until the last Frenchman had gone home or died. What can one say about the courage of a man like Edmond Michelet, a man who remained at monstrous Dachau all those weeks when honors and a loving wife and seven adoring children awaited him in France.

Shortly after Michelet's eventual return to Paris, de Gaulle appointed him minister for former prisoners and deported persons. He brought to that post the same great Christian spirit that motivated his life.

Epilogue: In 1948 I was transferred from Paris to another post and saw no more of Michelet. Almost 20 years later, in November 1967, when I was serving in Vienna my telephone rang. A voice speaking in French said: ``Douglas, this is Michelet. Do you remember me?'' Did I remember him? How could I ever forget him, then or now!

In remembering the Jewish victims of Holocaust, let us also not forget the Nazis' other victims.

Douglas MacArthur II, a lecturer and consultant on international affairs, has been the US ambassador to Japan, Belgium, Austria, Iran, and was present at the liberation of Dachau.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Bergen-Belsen: lest we forget the others
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today