By John Blankenship
Armed forces military museums depict some of the nation’s most brutal conflicts with vivid photos and actual weapons used in war.
This Memorial Day weekend, visitors at the Raleigh County Veterans Museum on Harper Road in Beckley can wind their way through wartime displays to absorb scores of artifact-packed permanent exhibits, including replicas of iconic wartime scenarios, revisit the beginning of modern combat with a stroll through the relics of World War I trenches and gain new understanding about life in the Axis in the midst of a German concentration camp replete with an actual door that opened to one of the cruelest instances of man’s inhumanity to man.
“We are an interactive, dynamic, exciting and informative way to view and experience military history,” explained museum director Jim Toler. “We’re not just a place to visit but a destination for the military buff, veteran, historian from grandparent to grandchildren.”
The museum is proceeding with its development program that includes several additional displays and presentation equipment and weapons. Future displays will represent Des-ert Storm, Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the newest relic added to the museum already has caused quite a stir among historians and World War II historians.
“It’s a cell door from Dachau,” Toler explained of the artifact. “It’s a cell door from Bunker Block of Dachau Concentration Camp liberated by the 45th Division in April 1945. This was the block of cells used to house special prisoners such as Christian ministers opposed to the Nazi regime.”
The prison door is a relic of immense historical importance, according to Toler:
“Dachau was the first concentration camp. It incarcerated opponents to the regime, especially priests, ministers, liberals, socialists, communists and labor union leaders.
“Over time, it became the training camp for SS guards who carried out the Final Solution in other camps. It was not an extermination camp; nevertheless, thousands died from abuse, neglect, medical experiments and executions at Dachau.”
And though Toler remains cryptic about the origin of the relic, explaining that it was “liberated by a West Virginia soldier who wishes to remain, at this time, anonymous.”
He added, “Like many other veterans, he (the soldier who donated the door to the museum) wishes to maintain a dignified distance from any notoriety, and we should appreciate his foresight in saving this relic when the camp was being neglected by Bavarian officials who wished to eradicate the camp.”
Only a campaign of camp survivors saved part of the original camp, he said.
Now, the local veterans’ museum has asked the State of West Virginia for funds to build a facsimile of a typical prisoner barracks at Dachau or one of the sub-camps, Toler said.
However, he added, more funds will probably be required for the projects, and should any organization or persons wish to contribute to the project, checks should be mailed to Raleigh County Veterans Museum, P.O. Box 3165, Beckley, WV 25801. For additional information, interested persons are asked to contact Toler at 304-682-5034.
The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.
“Holocaust” is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.
During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived “racial inferiority”: Roma (Gypsies), the disabled, and some of the Slavic people (Poles, Russians and others). Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them communists, socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.
In 1933, the Jewish population of Europe stood at over 9 million. Most European Jews lived in countries that Nazi Germany would occupy or influence during World War II. By 1945, the Germans and their collaborators killed nearly two out of every three European Jews as part of the “Final Solution,” the Nazi policy to murder the Jews of Europe.
Other victims included some 200,000 Roma (Gypsies). At least 200,000 mentally or physically disabled patients, mainly Germans, living in institutional settings, were murdered in the so-called Euthanasia Program.
As Nazi tyranny spread across Europe, the Germans and their collaborators persecuted and murdered millions of other people.
Between 2 million and 3 million Soviet prisoners of war were murdered or died of starvation, disease, neglect or maltreatment.
The Germans targeted the non-Jewish Polish intelligentsia for killing, and deported millions of Polish and Soviet civilians for forced labor in Germany or in occupied Poland, where these individuals worked and often died under deplorable conditions.
From the earliest years of the Nazi regime, German authorities persecuted homosexuals and others whose behavior did not match prescribed social norms.
German police officials targeted thousands of political opponents (including communists, socialists, and trade unionists) and religious dissidents (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses). Many of these individuals died as a result of incarceration and maltreatment.
To concentrate and monitor the Jewish population as well as to facilitate later deportation of the Jews, the Germans and their collaborators created ghettos, transit camps and forced-labor camps for Jews during the war years. The German authorities also established numerous forced-labor camps, both in the so-called Greater German Reich and in German-occupied territory, for non-Jews whose labor the Germans sought to exploit.
Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) and, later, militarized battalions of Order Police officials, moved behind German lines to carry out mass-murder operations against Jews, Roma and Soviet state and Communist Party officials.
German SS and police units, supported by units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, murdered more than a million Jewish men, women, and children and hundreds of thousands of others.
Between 1941 and 1944, Nazi German authorities deported millions of Jews from Germany, from occupied territories and from the countries of many of its Axis allies to ghettos and to killing centers, often called extermination camps, where they were murdered in specially developed gassing facilities.
In the final months of the war, SS guards moved camp inmates by train or on forced marches, often called “death marches,” in an attempt to prevent the Allied liberation of large numbers of prisoners.
As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Germany, they began to encounter and liberate concentration camp prisoners, as well as prisoners en route by forced march from one camp to another.
The marches continued until May 7, 1945, the day the German armed forces surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.
For the western Allies, World War II officially ended in Europe on the next day, May 8 (V-E Day), while Soviet forces announced their “Victory Day” on May 9, 1945.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many of the survivors found shelter in displaced persons (DP) camps administered by the Allied powers. Between 1948 and 1951, almost 700,000 Jews immigrated to Israel, including 136,000 Jewish displaced persons from Europe.
Other Jewish DPs emigrated to the United States and other nations. The last DP camp closed in 1957. The crimes committed during the Holocaust devastated most European Jewish communities and eliminated hundreds of Jewish communities in occupied Eastern Europe entirely.