PADUCAH — There are dark periods of our history many of us would rather forget. The Holocaust is one of those, and the horrors endured by the Jewish people and others targeted by the Nazis.
There were 20 main concentration camps. When you factor in sub-camps and forced labor camps, there was a system of hundreds that stretched across Europe by the time World War II ended in 1945.
Buchenwald, a camp in Germany, was liberated that year. In the eight years it was in operation, it's estimated more than 56,000 people died there. On April 11, 1945, starved and emaciated prisoners stormed the watchtowers. That afternoon, U.S. forces entered the camp.
The horrors they found there were documented. Military photographer D.P. McGee, Jr. of Mayfield helped do that. The images he captured haunted him, but ensured the world would never forget. That was his Service and Sacrifice.
They are the words of his father.
"He said, 'When we got out of our truck and strolled down a long wooded lane, as we would turn the bend in the road, what comes into view, our first close up of the site of Buchenwald, concentration camp. It is truly the front entrance to hell itself'," Steve McGee said, reading his father's writings.
The images are what he saw more than 70 years ago.
"The same vacant, lifeless stares. The same wasted people with warped minds," Steve read. "'No mercy', he says. 'Don't they know the meaning of the word?'"
Looking through his father's pictures and writings from the war isn't easy for Steve.
"Just brings it all back," he explained. "I haven't read this little story he wrote in years."
His dad was a photographer, a love D.P. carried with him through life.
"When he came home from the war, he had his own photography lab in the basement where he developed black and white. He did amateur weddings. Photography for fun. And yeah, he was the guy that always took the pictures at the family gatherings. And uh, he wasn't in a lot of those pictures," Steve said.
Photography was a skill D.P. trained for in the Army Air Corps.
"This is a picture of him. It is camera repair school. So, in order to be a photographer, you had to be able to strip down the camera and repair it in the field, just like your rifle," Steve said. "The camera was very important to him. If it came to a choice of saving your rifle or the camera, they told him to save the camera. We'll protect you."
On April 11, 1945, D.P.'s lens would become a window for the world to see the horrors of Buchenwald. Steve and his wife Donna have the pictures he took there.
One shows the celebrations taking place after the camp was liberated. In the picture, a crowd stands prepared to go home.
"Here's a little dummy of Hitler they hung," Steve said, pointing to another picture.
Several images show evidence of mass deaths.
"Those are all bones and ashes when they clean out. This is how they found the camp when they got there," Steve said, holding an image of a pile of bones and ash near the furnaces where the Nazis burned bodies.
People were treated like cattle. In one image, a man pulls his sleeve up to show an identification number tattooed on his arm.
"They would inject them with ink, and they said it was very very painful. It wasn't like a tattoo nowadays," Donna said.
Other pictures show prisoners starved, emaciated, and hanging onto life by a thread.
"They had them fed and hydrated with fluid as fast as they could, but they had to be careful giving it to them too fast, you know, because they were just starving," Steve said.
Small details in the images give perhaps the greatest understanding of the suffering of the people forced to stay at Buchenwald.
"This picture kinda gets to me. You probably can't see it, doesn't do it justice," Steve said, holding an image of men on bunk beds, looking at the camera. "This is when they walked in. Here's the prisoners in the barracks. And right here, and right down here are actually dead bodies laying in there. And the stench was pretty bad there. This is the conditions they were living in."
There are smiles on the prisoners' faces. They were grateful to see the Americans.
"To me, this picture is even more devastating than the dead bodies, because these guys are gonna' make it, hopefully, and they can't believe they finally got rescued," Steve said.
Donna is a retired teacher.
"I have to say that middle schoolers are usually loud, but when we would take the pictures in, it would just be dead silence," she explained.
Donna and Steve used these images to teach many students a difficult lesson.
"It's just different to hold the actual picture of it and to realize that it's the truth, and it happened, and that there's a group of people so evil in the world that would do something like that," Donna said. "Even with the pictures, it's hard to understand that kind of evil."
D.P. didn't talk to Steve about what he saw at Buchenwald until his son was older.
"This says, 'To the one and only girl in the whole world, with lots of love, D.P. McGee Jr., 1943'," Steve said, reading a note to his mother on a picture D.P. sent back to her during the war.
Steve's mother, Juanita, heard many of the stories when D.P. came home. She knew how hard it was for him to live with those memories, and the strength it took to shoot the pictures.
"This is all his typing here, explaining what the picture is," Steve said, holding pages of his father's writings. "You can say so much in a picture you might not be able to fathom in your mind, but my dad describing this is kinda' like an artist describing his work."
Years after his death, and even more after what happened under the Nazi's rule, Steve is proud of his father's contribution.
"It's humbling, and sickening, but very rewarding to see this," Steve said.
D.P.'s service was bearing witness, so the sacrifice of those who never left Buchenwald is not forgotten.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says, while the Holocaust is the best documented case of genocide, calculating the exact numbers killed by the Nazis is an impossible task. There are many reasons for that, including that toward the end of the war the Nazis were destroying documentation. That was something that happened at Buchenwald as U.S. forces approached the camp.
To attempt to get an accurate number, scholars, governmental agencies, and Jewish organizations since the 1940s have looked at census reports, German and Axis archives, and postwar investigations. Current estimations of people killed are as follows:
It's important not to forget them, but it's also important to remember what led to their deaths: silence.
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.