I wish I could blame the sun, or a drifting cloud of teargas (even though they seem to be much harder to run into in rural Wisconsin than in Rio de Janeiro) for the water in my eyes and and the sobs that began wracking my shoulders. After all, why should I be so affected? It was just a story I was listening to…
On the drive home from Milwaukee yesterday afternoon, I was listening to NPR’s “The Story.” And in honor of the beginning of the Passover feast, they were retelling the story of Steve Barry and Carrol Walsh. 65 years ago, in the closing months of World War 2, Steve Barry boarded a train at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp along with 2500 other (mostly Jewish) prisoners. After several days of transit, they were abandoned by their SS guards. Shortly thereafter, an American scouting party came across the train, still full to bursting with prisoners.
Steve Barry recounts how he found an SS coat (it still being quite chilly in April of that year, especially for his emaciated, 90-pound frame) and draped it over his shoulders, huddled on the embankment in the shadow of the train, next to a small fire he and his friends had managed to start. As he sat there, weak and traumatized, he saw an American soldier, one of the first scouts, scramble down the embankment and gingerly approach the fire. The soldier looked down, saw Barry and gently sat down next to him. The nameless soldier slowly pulled out a pocket knife from his bag, opened the blade, and leaned over to cut off the SS death’s head insigna on the coat, and threw it in the fire. Barry and the soldier watched it burn in the flames.
As Barry told this story, his voice cracked, and I began to sob – driving in my car down the interstate through rural Wisconsin, sun shining on my face. I think it was a combination of things – of the sadness and tragedy that took place, of the blindness and unwillingness of people to act to stop it (many because they “couldn’t believe things like that could happen,”) the tragedy of saying “never again” and seeing it happen again and again and again… Yet also there was a beauty – of seeing that rescue and redemption and liberation are possible, that occasionally there are happy endings, that small act of humanity redeemed the SS coat and the once-prisoner but no longer, allowing him to reclaim a small piece of his dignity and personhood…
It’s a beautiful tale – and even more so because it’s true.
*For more info (including pictures), check out NPR’s “The Story.”