Richard Seibel (19 minutes)
Ask your students if any have visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The voice you hear on the elevator as you begin the tour is from this tape.
During most of World War II the existence of the death camps was unknown to almost everyone not directly involved – even German civilians did not know. The Allied leadership did know, but it is still unclear if they understood the full horror – there was nothing else in history to compare it to. Most Germans and others in Nazi-occupied Europe knew that Jews were disappearing, but most were not at all clear about what was happening to them. Historians are still debating who knew what, and when, and why they did so little if they did know. Many who did hear the truth probably could not believe it. To confuse matters further, many people after the war on both sides denied knowledge of the Holocaust, for a variety of reasons.
When the Allies finally swept over Germany and Poland in the spring of 1945, they discovered dozens of huge concentration and death camps (and hundreds of smaller camps). Only then did the full meaning of the Holocaust strike the people of the Allied nations. There was a massive effort to send in medical and food supplies and to return the survivors to their families. The Russians did more than anyone during the war to save Jewish victims, but after the war the Americans did the most to give the survivors a new start. Many thousands lived for a year or more in DP (displaced persons) camps all over Europe, waiting for a chance to go home or to America or Palestine.
Among those most affected by the discovery of the camps were, of course, the young soldiers who first stumbled on them as the war ended. Many who are alive today are still psychologically scarred by what they saw.
Questions for discussion
1. Why didn’t most Americans, even American soldiers, know about the death camps? How much did the Allied governments know? Why did they try to conceal the truth from their own people?
(This is a highly complicated question with many ramifications beyond the Holocaust as such. Some information about the camps did leak out, even early in the war. Some of the media did report the story. No Allied government openly acknowledged that the Holocaust was going on. Why weren’t there more news stories about it? Why did people [and government] ignore the stories that were published? As it now seems clear that Roosevelt, Churchill and other leaders did know about the camps, why didn’t they do something to put them out of operation? Here you might discuss ‘hidden’ anti-Semitism among the so-called enemies of Nazism and racism.)
2. How would an experience like Col. Seibel’s change you?
3. Col. Seibel appears to be a kind, decent man. How do you think he might have felt on discovering Mauthausen?
4. In your own life, have you had the experience of discovering something painful and shocking? Was it something you might have prevented, had you known about it? Did you feel guilty, or angry, or both?
5. What did the prisoners do that surprised Seibel?
(The prisoners came from 21 different nations, some of which had always hated each other. When liberated, many of the prisoners fell to fighting among themselves. Discuss the reasons. Sometimes even a horrific experience of being discriminated against does not erase one’s own prejudices.)
6. Why did the doctors advise Seibel not to feed the prisoners very much?
7. If you had been a US government official during the war, and had known about the camps, would you have made the information public? Why or why not?
8. Why is it important to hear about the Holocaust from someone who witnessed it personally?
Link to Youtube video