Band of Brothers and the Liberation of the Camps

16 Jan

Last night, I saw the penultimate episode of Band of Brothers (episode 9).  It affected me in a way I can almost not put into words.  

After Easy Company parachuted into France on D-Day, fought their way across France and the Netherlands into Belgium for the Battle of the Bulge, stood off with the Germans in the Ardennes Forest for a winter, protecting Bastogne while being encircled by enemy forces as the other U.S. forces withdrew from them (that was the gist of the Battle of the Bulge for them), and fought on into Germany, they encountered the worst thing of all . . .

On patrol, they accidentally stumbled on a Jewish work camp. This was while the Russians were in the process of discovering death camps like Auschwitz on the other side of the Reich. The footage in Band of Brothers is unreal. The work camp guards had fled that morning, in advance of the American arrival in the area. They had burned some huts, with the prisoners trapped in them. They had mowed down as many prisoners as they could before they ran out of ammunition. There were already corpses stacked in piles three feet deep that had been left in trains on the tracks in that camp. They looked to have been dead for days, if not week. There were dead bodies lying (and swelling up) everywhere. There were the walking dead, awaiting the American GI’s at the fence or lying in bunks, unable to get out of them.

The Americans broke down at this point. These brave 20 year old soldiers were openly weeping for the first time in the series. The segment is called, fittingly, “Why We Fight.”

The next thing we see, the American General Officer in that area has declared martial law and is sending the well-dressed “respectable” German townsfolk from the town right outside the camp into the camp to remove the bodies for a decent burial. One of these “decent” women catches the eye of a GI who had earlier gone into her house looking for supplies. He had thrown the photo of her German Army officer husband on the floor and broken it. And this was before he knew about the atrocities with the Jews. As he catches the eye of this lady, in an expensive dress, picking up rotting remains of humans that many Germans did not even acknowledge as human, he just stares, with the knowing look of a young man who realizes that she and her husband have knowingly profited from this misery. For many Germans may have been ignorant of the Final Solution, but if you were ignorant half a mile from a camp with the stench of death hanging over it 24/7, it was only because you didn’t want to ask questions!

I was so undone by this segment that, for one of the only times in the 23 years we have lived here, on half an acre with no curtains over our backdoor and the lower parts of our breakfast nook bay windows, I got up from the den chair, at 2 AM, with a feeling of panic because I did not have a working lightbulb in the light on our deck. I feared evil eyes looking in at me as I sat and watched the movie. And how silly was that, when we have lived this way every night for 23 years, in a fairly safe neighborhood, and rarely turn the decklights on, even when they are in working order?

Yes, this segment literally sent me into a panic attack. I suspect it does that for others, too. I understand from German friends who talked freely to me while we lived in Germany, that it was a complex time and many were afraid to speak up for persecuted people lest their own young families be ripped apart. But isn’t that how evil thrives–when everyone is too afraid to call it out as evil? Good lessons for us all in this segment, lessons from World War II and the generation of giants who fought it.

P.S. This segment probably singlehandedly gains an R rating for the series with a gratuitous sex scene in the first five minutes, as peace is breaking out. The woman never shows up further in the story and her tryst with an American GI has nothing to do with the plotline. She is just there so the producers could say, “See, even HBO can do R-rated material.” Which is kind of sad, because the violence would have gotten it an R-rating without that. And now I cannot unreservedly recommend the series to my Christian brothers without telling them to advance past the first five minutes of episode 9, to avoid the topless woman. Just saying.

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