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70 years ago – My dad and the liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp

My cousin, Bill Wilson, at a ceremony he organized in San Francisco honoring the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany.

My cousin, Bill Wilson, at a ceremony he organized in San Francisco honoring the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany.

While most of us were thinking of taxes on April 15, 2015, my cousin Bill Wilson​ was speaking at a ceremony remembering the liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany that had taken place 70 years earlier. At the San Francisco ceremony, Bill spoke about the role his uncle (my father) played in that sad episode of world history.

Bill is working on a compilation of letters my Dad, Conrad Wilson, wrote, including a few rare recollections he wrote about his role as an ambulance driver with the American Field Service searching for survivors when the British Army, with whom he was serving, liberated the camp. This was a part of Conrad’s life that he suppressed for decades after the War, rarely if ever speaking of it. That silence changed, briefly at least, in 1969, when Bill wrote to Dad asking about his role in searching for survivors in the Camp—something that Bill’s father, Dave, had mentioned on occasion but said that his brother never talked about it.

I’ve pasted at the end of this blog the letter from February 16, 1969 that Dad wrote to Bill—a letter that I’ve read from time to time, but always with difficulty.

A sketch of my dad in 1945 by a fellow American Field Service volunteer, F.T. Chapman.

A sketch of my dad in 1945 by a fellow American Field Service volunteer, F.T. Chapman.

A pacifist during World War II

By way of background, Dad, who died in 2005, was a lifelong Quaker pacifist. He was a Conscientious Objector (CO) in World War II, choosing on religious grounds, not to join the war effort. COs were largely ostracized by society given the general fervor for war, but most COs were willing to serve their country on projects of national importance, albeit not in direct conflict, and the Civilian Public Service program was created for these people, including my Dad.

Civilian Public Service work was often difficult and unpleasant. Following a stint draining virgin cypress swamps in Maryland, Dad was stationed at the Connecticut State Mental Hospital where he cared for patients (inmates?) who, in the pre-medication era of mental illness treatment, were often kept restrained by straps under horrible conditions. Seeking release from that emotionally draining work, Dad petitioned the Civilian Public Service Board to be released early if he joined the American Field Service—an ambulance corps that served during World War I and II.

The Board agreed, and Dad shipped off to Europe to drive an ambulance with the British Army. At a certain point in the campaign to push the Nazi’s north through Italy, Dad and a number of other AFS volunteers were diverted to a different campaign: the liberation of Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp in the Lower Saxony Region of northern Germany.

Dad’s letter to Bill about his experience at Bergen-Belsen

Below is the excerpt of the letter that Bill read last week at the ceremony marking the liberation of Bergen Belsen. It’s a hard letter to read—hard to accept that our species is capable of such atrocities. (Many years later, a few years before he died, I was able to convince Dad to write a more comprehensive memoir.)

February 16, 1969

Dear Bill:

I was at Belsen Concentration Camp when it was first occupied and stayed until it was emptied out and destroyed. That I will never forget. I will try to give you some idea of what it was like, … I have looked over my letters to home and am disappointed to find I hardly mentioned Belsen in my letters. I guess it was hard to put in writing. Also I see that I only wrote one letter between April and June of 1945 and that was dated May 30th. I quote from it:

“I was up at Belsen Concentration Camp… The tragedy there was greater than anything I had previously seen. Nothing I could say in writing would begin to portray the horrors of the camp. We worked hard each day, cried, prayed and fell exhausted into our beds at night. It is something we shall remember to our dying day. Each of us felt that if we had done nothing else in our lives, Our lives would have been worthwhile just for the little we were able to do in those days at Belsen. The few of us from C Platoon who were there had no cars (ambulances). We worked in the number one camp, the original concentration camp, evacuating people from the huts. I will try to tell you of the conditions when I get home. I cannot write them. Everything I say seems too unreal to me.”

I was with some pretty tough guys – tough in the sense of experience with horror. We had worked at the front lines in Italy, evacuating the wounded, driving all night without lights on dark bomb pitted roads, sometimes, with an urgency to the hospital tempered with knowing what pain each bump caused the wounded soldier. We were a mixture of freaks, daredevils, religious fanatics, etc. hard drinking (straight gin before breakfast!), good and bad. But most of us had been through difficult campaigns and were some what hardened to suffering. My first impression of Belsen was of these same Americans, on first sight of the misery there vomiting, crying, cursing or praying. I saw strong men down on their knees asking for forgiveness for being people I suppose. But it was much worse than anything we had ever seen, read about or imagined. You know propaganda was rather strong in war time, and liberal-minded people were inclined to disbelieve what the newspapers said about the atrocities. I especially. The prisoners I met at times seemed just like the rest of us, harmless enough. Just people. So we were unprepared for Belsen.

Our job was to evacuate the barracks where the prisoners were housed. At that time I was not driving an ambulance but acting as a spare driver. So I was assigned to the job of going into a hut, preparing the people for evacuation, and loading the ambulance. The driver then took them to the “human laundry” where they were shaved, scrubbed, fumigated, sprayed, and if they survived that, evacuated to a tent hospital outside he concentration camp.

Belsen was peculiar in that there was no slaughter of Jews, no gas chambers, but a general level of health that was worse than all other camps. In all fairness to the Germans, I believe, and was told that this was caused by events of the war – the cutting off of rail lines and supplies towards the end of the war, and that a general starvation  and epidemic of disease  resulted. Be that as it may, the result was that everyone was either dead or close to dead of starvation and typhus or other illnesses. I would go to the hut on the list – a long low frame building like our CCC barracks on the 1930’s – and find it absolutely jammed with people, dead and dying, the living on top of the dead, not even able to know what was happening. Some would resist, not knowing if they were being taken out to be killed. I had to choose whether to take this one or that, taking the strongest first in hope that they might still live, sometimes leaving till last those who seemed dead or not likely to survive. I t seems to me after all these years after, that they were like sardines in a can, the bottom layer dead the top just crawling around over the dead, and sometimes you had to dig through the dead because you saw an arm moving through the bodies that indicated that someone was alive underneath. Is it just a dream? I don’t think so, because I remember thinking at the time that it could never be really exaggerated, no words could really describe the horror of it.

You see, we had arrived too late for most. There were thousands of unburied dead…I can remember that with bulldozers the army dug great long and deep trenches, perhaps twenty feet deep, fifteen feet wide and long as our house, they seemed.  And into these the bodies were placed in rows and layers. A layer of bodies, quick lime, some dirt and then another layer of bodies, and so on up to the top. I know one was filled and another was dug. And I saw the former guards, not Germans but Hungarians, Polish etc.  who were also prisoners who cooperated with the higher ups and thus got special privileges, assigned now by the British to work day and night burying the dead, 24 hours around the clock ay after day until they fell exhausted and were pushed into the pit and covered up alive (by our side).

This was the worst horror of Belsen, to me. That we, who were so shocked by what we saw, could turn around and do the same thing to those who caused this misery. Of course we were on the right side; these others did not deserve to live after what they had done to the prisoners. I can remember thinking very strongly that the horror was not that Germans had done this to Jews, but that humans had done this to other humans. This impressed me most of all. I felt no real shock at the Germans, but can assure you that I was pretty shocked at us humans. And I guess that is about all I can say to you now… I guess we were all on trial at Nuremburg. But I wish we could all have felt it, and learned from it…

It took us about a month to clear the camp, as I remember. Then when it was empty, it was burned to the ground. I spent some time later with German friends I had met at Bassum near Bremen. I tried to tell them about the experience, but they couldn’t really comprehend that such events took place in their beloved country. And these were really nice people, just like our families, perhaps even better educated than our Wilsons. How could it have happened? Were they also to blame? I guess we were just about as much to blame. And are today to blame for those things that happen here that we don’t want to know about. We can all be really ignorant of things we don’t want to know.

Conrad Wilson
Villanova, Pennsylvania


Day 42 – Heading Home

Loading baggage at BWI

A baggage handler loading my boxed bike (and half my gear) at the BWI airport, en-route home. I haven't yet opened the box to survey the damage. Tomorrow is soon enough.

4 May 2011. I have mixed emotions as I’m winging my way home. Flying into Jackson, Mississippi, on the first leg of this Southwest flight, I looked down at the dense green vegetation and the rain-swollen rivers and had some pangs of regret that I didn’t get into Louisiana or the truly lush green of the Delta Country. A few of the roads I could see wending their way along creeks and bayous looked pretty inviting.

And, as noted yesterday, I was also disappointed not to end my trip on a train—that would have been a great way to decompress after a month-and-a-half of biking.

But I am also very happy to be heading home to Vermont—to Jerelyn and our golden retriever, Roxy, and the many friends who have sent such good wishes to me on this adventure. Spring has sprung in Vermont, and I can’t wait to see our forsythia in bloom and our redbud in bud.

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Day 40 and 41 – Houston and the End of the Ride

FM 1774

FM 1774 heading towards Houston. This almost looks like the Northeast here! Click on any image to enlarge.

3 May 2011 (posted the next day—from the Hobby Airport in Houston). The ride yesterday from Navasota to Houston was physically pretty easy. While I covered 72 miles, I had a nice tailbreeze out of the north most of the day and—more significantly—the weather turned, so the humidity was much lower. There were threatening clouds (locals might refer to these as “teasing” clouds), but no rain.

What was hard about today’s ride was the level of concentration required relative to traffic. I was off the Adventure Cycling route and making it up as I made my way toward Houston. I took 105 east for about 15 or 20 miles, then turned south on FM 1994 (FM for “Farm to Market—which is kind-of cool). Route 105 had a good shoulder, but quite a bit of fast traffic; 1774 had somewhat less traffic, but no shoulder.

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Day 39 – A Long Slog Into Navasota

Rest stop under live oak

One of my many rest stops--under some spreading live oak trees. Note that my tent is gone from my bike; I sent it back home from Austin.

1 May 2011 (posted two days later–I’ve had trouble getting good Internet connections, and I’ve spent an inordinate amount of dealing with return-travel hassles, which I’ll describe in the next blog). This biking was supposed to get easier as my aging muscles attune to the workout. It didn’t seem that way today!

I biked 78 miles to Navasota, Texas, which is northwest of Houston. Tomorrow, I’ll head down toward Houston and the terminus of this biking journey.

Heading out of LaGrange, after a nice stay with Brad Cutright and his daughter, I took a slightly longer route Brad had showed me that would be free of traffic. It was largely free of traffic, and even though it was Sunday, I’m sure the lower traffic warranted the extra five or six miles.

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Day 37 & 38 – Last Day in Austin and on to La Grange

Bugle Boy "listening room"

The Bugle Boy “listening room” in La Grange, Texas. Amazing place! Click on any image to enlarge.

30 April 2011 (posted the next evening). As I write this I’m in a place called The Bugle Boy in La Grange, Texas. It’s a “listening room” operated as a nonprofit organization. A wide range of musician’s play here; tonight is Woody Russell, a bluesman extraordinaire.

The place is run by Lane Gosnay, who is a good friend of Kim Miller and Alex Long. When I mentioned to Kim and Alex that my plan was to head to La Grange today, they immediately suggested that I should get to the Bugle Boy if at all possible. In fact, they called Lane to let her know that I’d be coming through town and see if she might have a place to put me up.

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Day 36 – Another Down Day in Austin

The Broken Spoke

One of Austin's signature institutions: The Broken Spoke--a mecca for Western swing dancing.

28 April 2011 (posted the next morning). I’m just back from The Broken Spoke, an Austin institution. Alex Long and Kim Miller, with whom I stayed in Wimberley and who were here at the Pfeiffer’s tonight, took me there after the gathering here wound down. The Broken spoke is a Texas country western dance hall—one of the classic ones I’m told. Funky, full of memorabilia about the famous musicians who have performed here, crowded with people serious about swing dancing.

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Day 35 – A Down Day in Austin

Rainwater Tank

Visiting a jobsite with Peter Pfeiffer (on the left) and fellow architect Scott Witt--who is holding open a hatch into a 64,000-gallon rainwater cistern.

27 April 2011 (posted the next morning). Today was an organizing and exploring-Austin day. In the morning, I went through the next batch of maps that Jerelyn had sent to me here—as I try to decide how far east I want to go.

I’m feeling pretty good, but the question may be the weather. Reading about the tornadoes in Alabama certainly gives me pause…. I would like to get far enough to see fully green vegetation–to complete the transition from the Southwestern deserts–but I’m not into biking through thunderstorms and tornadoes! On Tuesday night there was a tornado warning in Austin.

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Day 34 – Out of Texas and Into Austin!

Alex at The Salt Lick

At a great lunch spot I happened across near Driftwood.

26 April 2011 (posted the next morning). I’m hardly an authority on Texas, having been biking here for only a couple weeks and with a half-dozen prior visits. But there was a distinct shift when I approached Austin. Foreign cars, guys with ponytails, bumper stickers that might get shot at in the neighboring counties, espresso bars, alpaca farms. It seems like a different place. Politically, it’s very different, from what I gather. There’s that old political joke told in more liberal circles that the only problem with Austin is that when you leave the city you’re in Texas….

But remember, I don’t talk politics in Texas, so I wouldn’t know….

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Day 33 – On Toward Austin With a Green Home Visit

Route 473

The rolling hills get greener and greener as I progress east. This was taken on Route 473 (I think). Click on any image to enlarge.

25 April 2011 (posted the next morning). Wimberley, Texas. I’m thirty or forty miles outside of Austin right now, staying with Alex Long and Kim Miller. Alex is the one who came across my blog after reading in Environmental Building News that I was starting a sabbatical and on a biking trip. He went to the blog and learned that I was almost in his backyard—and about to make a big mistake by biking into San Antonio and then trying to get up to Austin from there.

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Day 32 – Hard to Believe it’s Been a Month!

Texas Hill Country

The rolling hills of Texas Hill Country, west of Austin. Click on any image to enlarge.

24 April 2011. Kerrville, Texas. Today’s spectacular ride passed through some of Central Texas’s famous Hill Country. I started out, shortly after daybreak, in Utopia, pedaled an easy 10 miles past farmland and designer ranches to Vanderpool.

I had expected everything to be closed today (Easter), but right away passed a gas station in Utopia and bought one of those vacuum-sealed ham & cheese sandwiches on white bread, plus a few other rations—and a chocolate milk that I downed on the spot. Then in Vanderpool there was another convenience store that was open until 10:30 am. I bought a small orange juice and drank it before continuing on. You never know around here when you will find the next store!

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