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Thinking about neo-Nazis while visiting a death camp — no ‘very fine people’

Wobbelin, Germany, concentration camp inmates after the camp's capture by troops of the 82nd Airborne Division, 9th United States Army. | United States Army Signal Corps. Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

A year ago this Wednesday, President Donald Trump proclaimed that there were “very fine people” on both sides of last summer’s white supremacy march in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Among those “very fine people” were torch-carrying neo-Nazis.

Mr. Trump’s words were absurd then, and no less so now. He insulted more than 75 years of American and world rejection of the awful legacy of the Nazis. His slowness to condemn these “very fine people” left heads spinning, especially those whose lives were defiled in Nazi concentration camps.

OPINION

Earlier this year, as it happens, I attended the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Wobbelin, Germany, concentration camp. It was liberated by the officers and soldiers of the renowned U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. My father was there on that fateful day — May 2, 1945 — when almost 3,500 prisoners were set free from the Nazi curse. Another 1,000 dead bodies were found stacked like firewood.

General James M. Gavin, who led the 82nd Airborne, once said that seeing the camp “was more than a human being could stand. Even after three years of war, it brought tears to my eyes.”

During the ceremonies this past May, survivors and their family members told me, “Your father saved my life.” Whether my father, then a 19-year-old soldier, saved any one person’s life would be impossible to establish. But the point was that these brave American soldiers, who fought across Western Europe, were instrumental in freeing the victims of Nazi tyranny.

In the next breath, several survivors and their family members asked, “What did President Trump mean when he said ‘there were good people on both sides’?”

What should I have said? What on earth would any decent human being have said? I felt ashamed about the president’s words, for the disrespect they showed to my father’s legacy, and to the millions of Americans who stood up against Nazi crimes.

Would Trump have me, the son of a liberator, believe that today’s neo-Nazis, who are hell bent on continuing the legacy of the Nazis, are perfectly respectable people? I can only imagine my now-deceased father’s disgust.

The conversations I had at the concentration camp later were underscored by a conversation I had with German high school students who asked why Trump seems not to care about — or is even antagonistic to — the relationship between the United State and Europe, and more specifically the relationship between the U.S. and Germany.

Again, what should I have said? I tried to reassure them that many Americans believe deeply in the ties that bind the transatlantic countries. But as long as Trump dismisses our shared history, there are no good answers.

Today, I ponder the tragedies of 20th century Europe, the two world wars and the Cold War. I think about the peace and stability that the European Union has brought to the continent. And I think about the faces I saw, the eyes of those who want to believe that America is still a good county, a trusted ally and a close friend.

Several years ago, Rabbi Laszlo Berkowitz, who as a young boy was liberated at the Wobbelin camp, said this about the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division:

“God sent us angels from the sky. We can never thank them enough. We can never, never repay them. We can never praise them enough.Their sacrifices turned back the age of enslavement.”

No, Mr. President. There were not good people on both sides. I invite you to join me in Wobbelin on May 2, 2019, where I will challenge you to say again what you so ignorantly said just one year ago.

Don C. Smith is an associate professor for the practice of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

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