• 70°

Yes, Virginia, there was a Holocaust

His shiny, silver hair lies in waves across his head. At 87, getting up and down is not quite as easy as it used to be, and it’s noticeable to his loved ones around him. But that doesn’t keep him from picking several buckets of figs, cleaning and canning them, alongside Melvina, his faithful wife of over 60 years.

“I’m the last one,” he reminds me. “I don’t have anyone else to ask for answers—it’s sad, but what are you gonna do?”

My great-uncle, J. D. Sexton, was born and reared in Crenshaw County—a Honoraville native. When my great-grandfather passed away leaving his wife and five young children, Uncle J, at the tender age of 15, signed up for the CCC’s, or the Civilian Conservation Corps, so he could send money home to his mother and siblings. It was during the Great Depression when a few people had little but most people had nothing.

“The doctor lied on my form so I could get in—he said I was 16,” he tells me, deep in thought. “When I got on that train for the state of Washington, that was a mighty lonely feeling.”

CCC enrollees, also known as “Roosevelt’s Tree Army”, were credited with renewing the nation’s decimated forests by planting an estimated three billion trees from 1933 to 1942. And, by 1942, another relative called Uncle J for help—Uncle Sam.

I didn’t ask Uncle J any questions; I just sat quietly and let him talk.

“You know those people who go around saying the Holocaust wasn’t real? I’m here to tell you it was real because I saw it with my own two eyes…”

“We were about a mile out of Gardelegen, Germany, and we came up on a barn that had been burned,” Uncle J stops and looks at me intently as if to make sure I’m understanding what he’s about to say. “The Nazis had stacked about two feet of hay in the barn and had poured gas on it…When they packed all those people into the barn, they shot tracer bullets and hand grenades in to set it on fire—if the people tried to escape through the doors, they were shot down.”

“Out of 1,100 people, seven escaped,” he said, quietly. “The man said that a so-called doctor would come around and ask them if they needed help, and if anyone moved, they were shot. This fellow said he stayed under the dead bodies for three days until our Army unit arrived.”

At least four hundred people were burned alive in the barn, and the U.S. Army found 700 more bodies thrown into a pit behind the barn, as Hitler’s SS troops tried to hide what they had done. Most had been used as guinea pigs or as medical experiments by the Germans. Uncle J said it was the worst thing he had ever seen or smelled in his life—and he’d never forgotten it.

“Our boys went into town and made the German civilians come see how brutal the camp officials had been to the Jewish prisoners,” he said. “We made the civilians dig up the bodies thrown in the pit and bury them like human beings—it took several days for them to try to get all the bodies together—most were missing arms and legs—they were just scattered everywhere.”

“The Army assigned one German civilian to each grave, and he was supposed to take care of that grave the rest of his life—our guards stood over the civilians to make them carry the bodies to the graves, and the flesh would just pull off in their hands.”

He got quiet, staring in the distance, remembering something I knew he’d rather forget.

“No one should ever be treated that way,” he said. “And no one should ever have to see anything like that.”

I hugged him hard, this living piece of American history—and I promised to tell his story.

To my father, the late James Theo Grayson, a veteran of World War II, and to my brother, the late William Van Grayson, a veteran of Vietnam, and to my Uncle J, a decorated veteran of World War II, and to all of our veterans, both living and deceased, I say thank you, thank you, and again, thank you.

May God bless each and every one of you is my prayer.