As most Americans are celebrating freedom on Independence Day this week, some also will reflect on the wars Americans have fought and died in throughout history to defend that liberty.
For one Edmond World War II veteran, distant memories of his days in battle were reignited in June during a 10-day tour of several concentration camps and other Holocaust-related sites in Germany, Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland.
Sixty-eight years after Hall Duncan was shot in his hand in battle while dragging a wounded soldier to safety, he returned to Europe to participate in an educational tour of the area. Accompanying him on the trip were three other World War II veterans, three survivors of concentration camps and 17 students from College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo. The tour was part of College of the Ozarks' Patriotic Education Travel Program, and all travel expenses were paid for by the college.
Duncan, 88, is a children's book author and illustrator. Before he retired, he spent 17 years as a professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and served as a Methodist educational missionary in Africa and guest lecturer all over the world. During World War II, Duncan was an infantryman of the 101st Regiment, 26th Division of the Third Army, which liberated the French villages of Guebling and Bourgaltroff in 1944.
Each student on the tour was paired with either a veteran or a survivor for the trip. Duncan was paired with Ozarks college students Austin Plummer and Bonnie Andersen, both 20. For the students, the survivors and veterans offered an intimate perspective of World War II they likely never found in classroom situations.
“Hearing those firsthand stories was chilling, just sent chills all over my body,” Plummer said. He is preparing for his senior year at the college, majoring in public relations.
“We were able to catch a glimpse of history. What we learn in history books doesn't seem real. We were actually going to those places and seeing the visuals, so that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The tour began by taking Duncan and the rest through Dachau concentration camp in Germany and then across the Alps to the Eagle's Nest and Hitler's Documentation Center in Berchtesgaden, Germany, which details “The Final Solution,” a term that Hitler used for his plan to carry out the Holocaust against the Jewish people.
From there, the group crossed into Austria, to Linz, where Hitler spent much of his youth. Hitler planned to turn the city into a “Hauptstadt,” or a major city of the German Reich.
Next, the group visited the fortress of Mauthausen-Gusen, near towns of those names in Upper Austria, and its sub camps, among the worst concentration camps in the Third Reich.
The group saw the sights of Vienna, then crossed into the Czech Republic and Poland where they visited Krakow, the Polish administrative center for the Nazis. The final stop on this leg of the tour was the museum at the Krakow factory of Oskar Schindler, who saved hundreds of Jews from certain death by employing them.
Next on the tour was Auschwitz concentration camp near Krakow. Reich leader Heinrich Himmler, head of Hitler's Secret Service police, a military commander and leader in the Nazi Party, designed the camp as a place he dubbed as the “Final Solution to the Jewish question in Europe.”
One survivor on the tour, Gershon Ron, 83, of Fleishmanns, N.Y., had been held prisoner at Auschwitz and other camps as a teen. While the group was touring Auschwitz, Ron recounted disturbing memories from his time there.
“He got into such detail that my roommate (Chan Rogers, of Medway, Mass.) simply had to leave the room,” Duncan said. Details like this gave the group human faces to attach to what happened to millions of innocent people in concentration camps.
Plummer remembers Ron wandering away from the tour group a few times while at Auschwitz, led by his memories to search for various sites at the camp that were especially familiar to him, including Barrack No. 3, to which he had been assigned.
The group heard from the survivors and tour guides stories of the billowing, black smoke that filled the air as the ovens operated around the clock, and of the foul odor of burning flesh that lingered over the camp.
Plummer remembers thinking, “‘Oh, my gosh. Gershon was actually in here, he was in this camp. His days were numbered. He didn't have long and yet he's here, he's telling us about it.' That was amazing.”
One of the most disturbing moments Duncan experienced during the tour was stepping with the group into a gas chamber at Auschwitz.
“It was a very, very emotional experience, especially when you realize that some of these people, women and children, were told that the first thing they needed to do was take a shower,” he said.
Those showers, as we know now, were deadly gassings. Tour guides re-enacted the process of locking the prisoners in the chamber then dropping solid pellets of Zyklon B, the chemical formulation Nazis used to commit mass genocide, into vents in the walls. After the mock gassing, the guides showed how the bodies were cleaned out of the chamber.
The tour finished at Birkenau camp, mostly razed to the ground but where the horrors of the war can still be felt in the remaining structures.
Duncan said he was happy to help the students understand World War II history better by sharing his perspective and said his own horizons were expanded by hearing some of the harrowing tales the survivors on the tour shared with the group.
Duncan said that the tour, while morbid and depressing at times, was a good way to bring full circle the story of his life, as he is writing an autobiography. He had previously returned to France to the cities of Guebling and Bourgaltroff, which his division liberated just days after he was wounded in 1944. Last year, he went there with his late wife, Lois Duncan, to thank the French for their help during the war. He was recently awarded a Bronze Star for being one of only nine or 10 survivors of the battle in Guebling in which he was wounded.
The tour also brought partial answers to some questions Duncan had about the war. He wanted to know how much the German and the Austrian public really knew at the time of all the concentration camps and the evil things going on at them. He said that there were so many camps, some satellites of other larger camps, that it seems likely the public knew much about them.
He wanted to know how something as atrocious as the Holocaust could have happened.
“It only takes a tyrant,” Duncan said.
Among the most important take-aways from the experience for Duncan and Plummer are the lifelong relationships the students, veterans and survivors formed on the tour. Many are still in touch and even planning visits with each other.
Spending such emotional time with inquisitive and dedicated students such as Anderson and Plummer made the tour special, Duncan said. In fact, he and his students quickly formed a grandfather-grandchild-like relationship with one another.
“The first night of the trip, we were giving our hugs goodbye and Hall said, ‘I love you guys.' It just melted my heart,” Plummer said.
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We were able to catch a glimpse of history. What we learn in history books doesn't seem real.”