After visiting European cathedrals, castles, gardens, and museums, I finally visited my first concentration camp on a cloudy and cold Friday afternoon in April.
The Dachau concentration camp was on my list of places to see mostly because of a person who has had a major impact on my life and how I understand my work. John O’Melia was a 19 year old soldier with the U.S. 7th Army when he walked through the gate (pictured above) on April 29, 1945, nearly 72 years ago.
I first met John when he was already in his 70s, having retired from a long and distinguished career with the YMCA. John was on the search committee that brought me to the First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois, where I served as pastor for 13 years, the longest stretch of my nearly 40 years of ministry.
John and his wife, Marty, came along on my first tour to Israel, and one day in Jerusalem, when the group stopped at the Yad Vashem holocaust museum, John became noticeably ill. He took no more than two steps inside the front door when it became clear to me that he would not be able to continue. And so, as the tour host, I walked with him back to the bus, and it was on the bus, while the rest of the group toured the museum, that I first heard John’s story about the Dachau concentration camp. In the years to come I would hear a great deal more about it.
As the Army unit John was with made its way across France and then Germany, John took a camera from a fallen German soldier and later used it to document his first hours inside the concentration camp. What the soldiers saw was horrific.
In the last days of the war in Europe, the Dachau camp ran out of coal, and the work of the crematorium came to an end, meaning that corpses piled up outside like firewood. One photo from the day shows corpses stacked nearly as high as the building itself.
More than 40,000 human beings died at the camp. At the beginning the camp at Dachau was used mainly for political prisoners, those who were opposed to the new Nazi regime. Later, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and Gypsies (as they were then called) were also interred at the camp. Only toward the end of the war were Jews introduced as prisoners. As historians document these things, Dachau was not technically an extermination camp.
John told me that when the camp was secure he went off by himself and read the small New Testament that his mother had tucked into his belongings before he left for Europe. He asked God to use his life so that nothing like this would ever happen again.
John’s work after the war took him first to Cleveland where, in the 1950s, among other things, the YMCA organized a first-of-its-kind interracial summer camp, bringing black and white children together. During my years in Wheaton, after his retirement, John was elected to the YMCA Hall of Fame for his work, and though he was modest about it, I sensed that the recognition meant a great deal to him.
In my new book about the multicultural church, I tell the story about how John coaxed and prodded me to reach out to the African American pastors in Wheaton and DuPage County – and how my church took some small, tentative steps toward becoming a more open, more racially diverse congregation.
At the first Martin Luther King Jr. service I ever attended, on a Monday night in Wheaton (at the Second Baptist Church), John and I were the only two white people present. That number was to grow over the years, but only because John insisted that it was the right thing to do.
I am more grateful than I can say to have known John, his wife Marty, and the rest of his family who were members of the Presbyterian church in Wheaton.
In my work today I am still putting into practice what I first learned from him.