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Donald Egon Hoenig was the state veterinarian and state public health veterinarian in Maine for 17 years. He lives in Belfast.
I am the first generation son of an immigrant. My father, Egon Oscar Hoenig, was born in Germany on Dec. 8, 1919. In 1923, as hyperinflation and political turmoil ravaged Germany, my grandfather, Oscar (a gifted jeweler who had fought with distinction in the German army in World War I) immigrated to New Jersey, where my father and his mother, Freda, followed a year later.
A member of “The Greatest Generation,” my father was eternally proud of his service in the U.S. Army during World War II and regularly told my sister and me stories of his experiences — training in England for two years prior to the Normandy invasion, landing on Omaha Beach a couple days after June 6, surviving the Battle of the Bulge, riding in a Jeep through Paris on the day before liberation in August 1944, and then participating in the parade down the Champs Elysée, crossing the Rhine River, and, finally ending up in Czechoslovakia when the war ended in May 1945. Egon meticulously documented these events through hundreds of letters he penned to his parents, which he used to write a memoir before the effects of dementia stole his mind 10 years before his death at age 97.
The most traumatic, heart-breaking, and impactful event that my father encountered during the war happened around April 11, 1945. His unit was made aware of a place called Buchenwald, a concentration camp near Weimar where Jews and political prisoners were being held captive. He and two fellow soldiers visited Buchenwald that day and what they witnessed changed his life. He described that experience in his memoir:
“Upon entering the camp, our first shock was the bodies, piled like cordwood, in an open area outside the building. The dead and dying were everywhere by the hundreds. We were among the first Americans to enter the camp. I found an English-speaking prisoner who took us around the camp. Inside a building, he showed us the ovens into which dead bodies were dumped for burning. We proceeded to another barracks building where many men were lying on bunks about 8 feet [by] 4 feet [by] 15 inches high cubicles with little or no room to turn over. Their bodies were so frail that skin and bones were only evident. The latrine was a ditch in front of them — it had not been cleaned in weeks.
“As we proceeded through the 100-foot-long building, I tried to shake the hands of some of the men, expressing compassion for them and telling them in German (Note: My father spoke fluent German) that we would do what we could to help them and that the Nazis are now gone. Halfway through the building in the middle of my tears I became sick to my stomach because of the stench.
“The pictures which I took are self explanatory. To this day these scenes are so vivid to me that I cannot talk about this visit without breaking down.”
My father’s motto was “Do the right thing,” and he resolved to keep this terrible memory alive through my sister and me and through his five grandchildren. He showed me the horrific pictures he took (which I still have) when I was around 13. I distinctly remember when he showed them to our children — our oldest daughter had just read “Night” by Elie Wiesel for her high school Holocaust unit. My father’s message to all of us, through his tears, was obvious: “This happened, I am a witness; now you, too, are witnesses. Carry this memory forward, do everything you can to assure that it doesn’t happen again.”
Disturbingly, hate crimes against Jews in the United States are escalating. According to a recent New York Times article, “The number of antisemitic incidents in the United States last year was the highest since the Anti-Defamation League began keeping track in 1979.” Recent surveys show that shockingly high numbers of Americans, especially younger generations, are largely unaware of the scope of the Holocaust. This troubles me greatly.
Holocaust survivors and witnesses like my father have made heroic efforts to keep these memories alive. As those individuals pass away, I wonder what my role is to respect my father’s memory and honor the millions of lives lost and lives forever changed. Writing this account is one step toward that goal. I will, of course, educate my grandchildren as they become old enough to see these horrendous pictures and hear my father’s stories from that day 78 years ago at Buchenwald.
It is incumbent on us all to ensure that future generations remember these atrocities and the unspeakable evils perpetrated by our fellow humans. We must make a collective and unequivocal vow: Never again.