Suffering does not move armies, but suffering does move soldiers.

Much as we might wish it otherwise, World War II was not fought to save the Jews. It was fought to stop aggressive countries from changing the balance of power across the globe.

Would the reasoning have been different if the allies had known the depth of the Nazis’ depravity? It’s hard to say but the evidence suggests that they knew a lot. So probably not.

They did not, however, share what they knew with the common soldier. The soldiers were unprepared for what they found. This was shocking even compared to the horrors of war they had already experienced. Their shock and dismay are conveyed in every diary and memoir written about their experiences.

Private Zinovii Tolkatchev was a Ukrainian Jew serving in the Soviet army when they liberated Auschwitz. “A cold winter wind howls over Auschwitz, surrounded by three rows of barbed-wire fence.  It seems that it is not the barbed-wire that trembles and howls, but the tortured earth itself which moans with the voices of the victims,” Tolkatchev wrote.

Tolkatchev was an artist who found himself compelled to draw what he Zinovii Tolkatchev Burial of the Victimssaw. Having no paper, he drew pictures of the liberated on paper stolen from the camp commandant. “Commandant Concentration Camp Auschwitz” the paper says in bold black letters at the top.  “The understanding that on these very same pieces of paper just a few days prior were written orders of extermination endow them with a tragic power that causes one to shudder.”[1]

“To remember, not to forget,” Tolkatchev wrote repeatedly in the margins of his drawings.

The armies of liberation could not save the millions already murdered. But they did what they could to alleviate the suffering of those they found.

Whatever the reason they were there, we have the allied armies to thank for the liberation of the surviving Jews of Europe. On this Memorial Day, I would like to say “Thank you.”

[1] Yehudit Shendar, Senior Curator, Yad Vashem Art Museum. http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/tolkatchev/about_exhibition.asp