Archive for Monday, May 12, 2008

Virginia Visser: In her own words

Virginia Visser, a World War II nurse for the Army.

Virginia Visser, a World War II nurse for the Army.

May 12, 2008


The following are excerpts from "Through the Years," a self-published memoir by Virginia Visser

Visser, now 85, is a native of Iowa who served as an Army nurse during World War II.

On being called to service: "This was the riskiest venture in my life. I was leaving the security of family, town, hospital and friends. I was completely on my own. I tried to cover my insecurity with the busy-ness of checking things and trying to very hard to appear calm and 'in control.' ...

Because of a time delay between train schedules, I had time to watch the trains load and unload both military personnel and civilians. But first I verified my ticket and found the correct gate number, after which I located a seat on the wooden benches where I could watch for my train and see the hubbub.

I witnessed scenes I have never forgotten. The many faces I observed reflected every human emotion: joy, sorrow, fear, anxiety, fatigue and in some cases just plain weary resignation. It appeared some had bid farewell to loved ones, not knowing when or IF they would see them again. Often those left behind remained in the station after the train pulled away, releasing the tears that they had bravely repressed as the goodbyes were exchanged."

On witnessing the concentration camp at Buchwald: While we were waiting, one of the soldiers in charge of transpiration asked, "Would you like to see that concentration camp outside of town? It has been liberated and just this morning General Patton was there for an inspection. It is now open if you want to see it." I am not sure that we fully understood what a concentration camp designation implied, but we were curious, and transportation was available.

It was mid-April, and I recall that the weather was chilly and damp. During the five-mile drive the driver remarked, "I hope you can stomach the sights you are going to see, as they are beyond anything you might imagine." ...

Through a grimy window, soldiers could be seen moving about without obvious purpose. After a few minutes an officer appeared and told us an American soldier would escort us through the camp as our guide. After a brief history of the camp was given, our tour began in the sleeping quarters, some of which were still occupied. We were admonished to stay with our guide. The enclosed picture, which has been reproduced many times, will give you an idea of what we saw but in no way can that picture convey the feeling of shock experienced while viewing those poor, wretched creatures. It took restraint not to reach out to them in some way. It appeared that most were too weak to respond or that their condition was so precarious that they had not yet been moved to nearby hospitals or care centers.

Stunned by the sight, it would have been impossible for us to utter any sound, much less converse. Even a faint smile would have seemed out of place. Some of the prisoners did attempt to reach out, feebly, and in some way greet us as they lay on the hard wooden platforms. Some had blankets around them but others appeared almost naked. I mentioned earlier that the weather was still quite cold, and I don't recall whether or not the buildings were heated. Most of the prisoners remained impassive and did not take any special notice of our presence; they seemed beyond caring. I do not know how many barracks there were exactly like the one I described but they seemed to go on for miles.

Some of the barracks had been evacuated, left behind were a few meager remnants that might have been abandoned by the former tenants. Even in the empty barracks there seemed to be a presence - perhaps the haunting faces that we had seen were carried over in our minds to fill the empty wooden frames with images. Those faces and those emaciated bodies seemed to stay with us as we moved on.

Our guide led us to the crematorium, which is difficult to describe because nothing in any of our previous experiences gave us the ability to comprehend what had taken place in this building. We were told that when the camp was liberated some of the ovens were still warm and revealed bodies, partially incinerated, that had been left as the Nazis made a hasty exit. Imagining such happenings was almost impossible and it was difficult to associated civilized human behavior with what we saw. The guide explained how the prisoners had been lured into the gas chamber, then gassed before being placed in the ovens. No one asked for more details.


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