Friday marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and people all around the world will pause and reflect on what happened to the Jewish people in the ghettos and concentration camps run by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich — what caused it, who allowed it, and how we can prevent it from ever happening again.
While there are certainly many who were more greatly impacted by the Holocaust than I — Jewish survivors, the family members of those who perished in the camps, and the Allied soldiers who witnessed the atrocities firsthand — reflecting on the Holocaust always takes me back to grade school and the first time my father told me that my grandfather, an American tank mechanic with the 9th Armored Division, had seen it with his own eyes.
He couldn’t tell me much — only that PopPop (as we called him) had been at the Battle of the Bulge and the American seizure of the famed bridge at Remagen. PopPop, like many of his brothers in arms, rarely talked about it at all. It wasn’t until he died in 1994, 50 years after the end of the war, that we were able to sort through his records and learn the truth of what he had done.
William Franklin Greenplate was a farm foreman in a small town in Delaware, a small man (just 5’5” and 130 pounds) with a less-than-high-school education. But like many others, he heard the whispers of war in Europe and he listened. He enlisted in the United States Army in February of 1941. The Army, possibly in part because of his small stature — and thus his ability to squeeze into the tight quarters inside a tank — assigned him to an armored division.
Training took a couple of years, and by the time he actually sailed for Europe it was October of 1944. D-Day had been a success for the Allies. Operation Market Garden had been less successful. But in spite of that, Allied troops had liberated France, Belgium, and Holland — and troops were gathering in the Ardennes forest of Belgium and Luxembourg, preparing to drive the Nazis back into Germany.
It was there they sent PopPop and the fresh 9th Armored Division, along with several other relatively green units, to wait for new orders and supplies before joining that push. Against the advice of his generals, however, Hitler ordered his tank division to turn toward Antwerp and take the port city at all costs. Between Hitler’s armies and their objective were PopPop’s division, most of the 106th Infantry Division (The Golden Lions), and the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne.
The early days of the Battle of the Bulge looked bad for the trapped Americans. A Hitler Youth graduate named Joachim Peiper slaughtered almost an entire unit of American soldiers even as they were surrendering. Several companies of the 106th Infantry were captured and a number were taken prisoner or killed. PopPop’s unit was overrun just outside of Bastogne, and they were ordered to execute a “fighting retreat” and run for the city. He was one of a few to make it to Bastogne alive — and by the time he got there, the Germans had the city completely surrounded.
Once there, he was reassigned to a group known as Team SNAFU, comprised of the stragglers who had eventually made it to Bastogne. Most were suffering from some degree of what they called combat fatigue. We would call it PTSD. Team SNAFU was a ragtag bunch, and their job was simple: keep the Germans from tightening the circle around the city.
For six days they held the German army at bay — despite being outnumbered five-to-one – until General George S. Patton arrived with his Third Army, breaking the siege.
After Bastogne, PopPop was reassigned to the 9th Armored “Phantom” Division and the slow push into Germany began. In March of 1945, men from the 9th Armored were among the first to cross the Rhine River, taking control of the famed Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen.
On May 8, 1945 – the day Germany officially surrendered and ended the war in Europe — PopPop’s unit joined members of the 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One) in throwing open the gates at Zwodau and Falkenau — two subcamps of the Flossenburg concentration camp that were located in what is now the Czech Republic. Only a few dozen prisoners remained alive at Falkenau — which had primarily housed Soviet prisoners of war — when American troops arrived. Zwodau still housed nearly 1,000 starving female prisoners — some Jewish, and some Roma.
The camps, which were located across Europe, were primarily used by the Nazi regime to house Jewish prisoners — many of whom were systematically forced from their homes into ghettos and then marched to the concentration camps where they were either forced into slave labor or selected for extermination. In addition to the Jews, the Nazis also rounded up a number of gypsies (Roma), physically and mentally disabled people, homosexuals, and political prisoners.
PopPop came home from war with his life – but he also came home with photos. Among the photos of scenery, of his squad, of him on leave — posing with a Dutch girl wearing traditional garb right down to the wooden shoes — there was one photo that always made my heart drop into my stomach. Stacks of tangled, emaciated bodies, piled on the ground — dozens in just that one photo taken inside the walls at Zwodau.
That one photo documents the silenced voices of dozens of primarily Jewish women who would never make it home. And that one photo was only one of thousands.
As I said before, my connection to the Holocaust is not as direct as many others. But I’m grateful to know that men like PopPop were there to open those gates. And that he knew bringing that photo home was just as important as bringing home photos of his friends.
***The graphic photo below may not be suitable for some viewers***