By Richards Hills
As the Scoutmaster of Troop 87 of Belle Meade United Methodist Church, part of my job is to provide a program that follows the, “Methods of Scouting,” which emphasizes the building of values and character in these young men and women. Consistent with the program’s goals, I planned to have the Scout Troop meet at the Nashville Holocaust Memorial at the Gordon Jewish Community Center. As our meetings are held on Monday nights, we planned Holocaust Remembrance on Monday, April 27, 2020. This date would have been 2 days before the 75th anniversary date of the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp by elements of the United States Army which occurred on April 29, 1945. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 restrictions the plan was put on hold until April 26, 2021.
I have the unique privilege of being the son of a, “Liberator.” My father was Ashley P. Hill Jr. He was allowed to graduate early from Hillsboro High School in the spring of 1943 in order to enlist in the Army. He soon found himself in Europe serving in the 14th Armored Division which was a combat unit in WWII. After the war, General Patton nicknamed that Division, “The Liberators,” due in part to the large number of Concentration Sub Camps of Dachau that they liberated starting in early April of 1945. My Dad’s squad, along with others of his platoon, were sent to Dachau the day after it was liberated in order to assist with the humanitarian emergency.
Over the years I had questioned my Dad - or as he would say – I, “interrogated him better than a police detective,” for information regarding his experiences during the war. When I graduated from Auburn University in 1987, I went to Europe and traveled for a year with just a backpack and my hiking boots. I spent time trying to retrace Dad’s Army unit’s, “footprints,” through Europe including visiting many of the locations of the sub camps and underground factories in the rural areas of Bavaria. When Dad turned 70, he finally started sharing more details about his memories of the war. After his death in 1999, I was able to track down several members of his squad to continue discussions about their shared experiences. At times, these men seemed almost desperate to share the same accounts and events that took place. In 2000, I was able to travel with Dad’s former Lieutenant, Perry Thompson, as we visited many of the locations and were invited to several memorial services.
The accounts I was able to hear directly from these men who lived this part of history needed to be passed along in some way to this generation of Scouts.
On Monday, April 26, 2021 the Boy Scouts and Venture Crew of Troop 87 along with their parents met at the Gordon Jewish Community Center parking area near the first station of the Nashville Holocaust Memorial. I explained to the youth, ranging in age from 11 to 19, that we were at this location to remember the six million Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust and as a remembrance of the survivors and their families.
The first order of business was for all of the Scouts and the adults to read the provided pamphlet regarding the memorial. Typically, at other museums or historical sites, the Scouts half-heartedly peruse the literature but surprisingly, they were all quiet and focused as they studied the material. The brochure prompted discussions with each other about the Holocaust. They flipped through the brochure pointing out facts and reading aloud certain sections to their friends.
Once the initial discussions wrapped up, I explained the importance of the Nashville Holocaust Memorial and how it is only located a mere three miles from where we meet as a Scout Troop. I discussed the significance of the Liberation of Dachau by the elements of the U.S. Army, and the 76th anniversary coming up on Thursday April 29th.
I shared my Dad’s wartime photo album along with a shadow box of his Purple Heart medal and other campaign ribbons and unit patches and more importantly, I relayed the accounts Dad and the seven members of his unit witnessed and found when they entered the numerous Dachau sub camps.
I described, in the detail told to me, the incremental starvation ration of food that each Jewish prisoner received each day. I brought a pair of wooden clogs, similar to those provided to prisoners, and had several of the Scouts try to walk in them uphill and downhill on the concrete and in the field. Additionally, I shared a book of copies of correspondence between various Nazi officers providing evidence they were deliberately and purposely exterminating the Jews in Central Europe and other outlying areas under their control.
We had each Scout Patrol walk through the Holocaust Memorial Stations leading up to the Memorial Walls and Sculpture. Each Scout chose a name on the Memorial Wall and placed a pebble at its base.
Many of the attendees commented on the creativity of the four sections of the memorial and were interested in the listing of the countries of the survivors and refugees as well as the 12 Memorial Walls which lists the names of the survivors, victims, their ages, the name of the camps and even the numbers tattooed on their arms. Station three, “What is our responsibility…?” was a thought provoking area of the memorial.
The most impactful exhibit was the symbolism of the sculpture - the book with the center heart of it torn out (The Six Million) along with the damaged torn pages (The Survivors). That imagery has been resonating with them, and as one Scout said, “I visually get it”.
After everyone completed the tour, we all gathered at the Memorial entrance. I explained to them that I had separately asked my Dad and the seven members of his squad - Perry Thompson, Bill Everling, Homer Sturgeon, Otto Neugabauer, Seymour Givener, John Howard and James O’Neal - what concerns they had about how future generations would view what took place during WWII. They all gave similar responses as follows
“Future generations will make “light” of the Holocaust and the six million deaths.”
“They will think it was not that big of a deal”
“They will just chalk it up as ‘that was just the Nazis’”
“What people today and future generations don’t understand is that in the 1920s and 1930s Germany was considered a civilized nation and often referred to as the center of culture in Europe. This was a nation that supposedly had Christian values, yet the Nazis specifically and deliberately killed Jews in the most brutal and horrific means that they could come up with.”
“Everyone needs to know that THEY did this, and that IT did happen.”
I explained to the Scouts that I was delivering this message from these witnesses of the Holocaust to each of them and that they have a responsibility to pass this information on to the next generation.
In preparation for this event, I made small wooden clog shoe neckerchief slides with the name of a Dachau Sub Camp written on the shoe. I had seen these worn by the Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren when I was in Europe at the memorial services. Before we concluded, each Scout was allowed to choose one neckerchief slide. Each Scout’s assignment for the next Monday was to research that sub camp and discuss it at our next Troop meeting.
This event was a touching and important experience for all of the Scouts and their parents, and many expressed this after the meeting. One of the youngest Scouts waited until most everyone else had left to explain that he attends Akiva School and was appreciative that this experience was shared with the Troop that afternoon.
The Troop participates annually in the Flag Placement at the Nashville Veteran’s Cemetery on the Saturday morning before Memorial Day. Several older Scouts suggested that we also visit the Holocaust Memorial each April for a Remembrance Day.
In the days following our visit, I received numerous complimentary phone calls, emails and texts from parents expressing what a meaningful experience this was for them and their Scout son and/or daughter. Many have mentioned they’d never found an opportunity to discuss the Holocaust with their children. Several of the adults who are from Nashville told me that they are embarrassed and ashamed that they have never been to this memorial.
Among the long term Nashvillian adults, there were many positive comments about Teddy Bart’s voice being used for the narration. Many of us remembered in 1981 when he broke a story regarding the attempted bombing of The Temple on Harding Road and the WSMV TV Tower.
Never Forget, Always Remember