Leipzig, Germany

Leipzig, Germany ()

When my husband first received his orders to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, we knew we had to follow his grandfather’s footsteps and his map from the 186th across Europe. From D-Day Plus 2 to the Battle of the Bulge, to the liberation of what is now the Czech Republic, he and his unit, the 186th Field Artillery, made history and thankfully survived to return to the U.S. and create the generations that my children are now a part of. What he did not do, however, was speak about much of his time in Germany, nor did he ever step foot in the country again. In our research (my father is a WWII history buff who helped me map out our travels), my father came across an obscure article with only five to ten lines written about the 186th Field Artillery. It details the 186th’s time in an industrial section of Leipzig, Germany, and the concentration camp, Leipzig-Thekla, that they liberated.

186 Field Artillery Battion Framed Picture | Photo by Diana Maria Groom

When we read and re-read the short article, our jaws hit the floor. My husband’s grandfather, operator of the 155 Howitzer cannon, a camp liberator? During his lifetime, he never mentioned any camps or anything remotely close to that, although he did tell my husband a few war stories at the end of his life. When my husband and I began planning a Memorial Day weekend trip to Berlin, we knew we needed to stop in Leipzig on the way and see if that obscure article was correct.

The Berlin trip began as a weekend plan to see the world’s most complete dinosaur skeleton. It is a Brontosaurus skeleton, and it resides in Berlin’s Natural History Museum. Our son was only five at the time, and we had planned the trip for him. If we had done more research, we would have never driven to Berlin as we hit so much traffic that a 7-hour drive turned into a 10-hour drive (plus two speeding tickets from the German Polizei). But little did we know, my husband’s grandfather was leading the way as the drive took us right through Leipzig.

It was a blazing hot day as we drove toward the city and, the article my father had found had included coordinates for the location of the concentration camp. We drove straight to the coordinates, which took us through Leipzig and into a somewhat run-down industrial section on the outskirts of the city. As we pulled up to the memorial, there was not a single soul there. Yet even on that severely hot day, there was a cool breeze blowing through the trees, which thankfully provided some much-needed shade for our children who were ages 5, 2, and 5 months old at the time. As soon as we got out of the car, my husband and I began following our children towards the obelisk memorial. We experienced an immense and overwhelming sense of peace. The breeze was blowing, the sun was shining and everything was calm and quiet. We immediately knew we had found the right spot.

Memorial | Photo by Diana Maria Groom

On the memorial plaque, there were descriptions of the concentration camp written in six different languages. It mentioned that U.S. troops arrived only a few hours after the massacre, in which the SS troops had burned most of the prisoners alive in advance of the U.S. arrival. It also detailed how the U.S. troops helped the remaining prisoners, began documenting the war crimes and subsequently investigating them. It is my sincere belief that my husband’s grandfather was involved in this somehow, in helping the remaining victims and in preparing for their funerals.

Memorial Description | Photo by Diana Maria Groom

The timing makes sense. My husband’s grandfather’s unit had previously been assigned to the 69th Infantry Division and rejoined the 69th on the April 21, 1945. According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, “on April 18, 1945, the SS guards had set fire to the barracks housing some 300 inmates and shot those who attempted to escape the flames. Upon arriving at the camp, the 69th immediately began providing for the 90 to 100 survivors … The Swift advance of the 69th prevented the SS guards from committing a similar atrocity at a nearby camp housing some 250 women.” My husband’s grandfather arrived the day after the 69th had discovered and liberated the Leipzig-Thekla camps. I can only assume that the 69th called up his division for help after initially discovering the camps. I only wish that you could have seen the memorial and felt how serene it was there. I just have the feeling that we were in the right place at the right time.

After viewing the memorial and the obelisk, my husband and I drove just around the corner to the SS Barracks Block. As we pulled slowly past the barracks, we thought we had gotten something wrong because there was an old woman standing below the sign and to us it looked like a bus stop. Only when we stopped did we realize that it was the building from the website with the sign saying that that was where the camp had been located. The old woman walked slowly by us and paused to look out onto the empty field next to the barracks where the prisoners’ quarters once stood. I can only imagine how the camp must have affected her life or someone close to her. It is because of good people like my husband’s grandfather that things like that stopped; people who did not shy away from danger or tough times, people who understood what a sacrifice for someone else was. I will forever be grateful that my children have such a special grandparent and role model, whose contribution to the war changed the course of history as we know it.

Barracks Block | Photo by Diana Maria Groom

We thought the time for following his map was complete when we PCS’d from mainland Europe to the U.K., but my husband showed me that here in the U.K. was where it all began. Perhaps our next trip will lead us to his arrival port near Holyhead, or to the Artillery Range just south of us or to his departure point from the U.K., in the port of Falmouth. Only time will tell which path we follow next …

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