In March 1946 Sigurd Olson witnessed scenes in war-torn Germany so disturbing he would have occasional nightmares for the rest of his life.
He had been in Europe since the previous summer as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army. Three million soldiers were waiting their turn to return to the United States. The Army recruited Sigurd and other college faculty to help keep the soldiers content and well-occupied by holding a wide variety of classes.
Sigurd spent August through mid-December 1945 teaching at the American Army University in Shrivenham, England. When that closed, he took his teaching on the road, visiting troops in France, Italy, Austria and Germany.
In his free time he had some great experiences: skiing in the Bavarian Alps, hiking in the Black Forest and canoeing on famous rivers. But his memories would mostly be of terrible destruction and evidence of shocking evil.
Someday when I get home I want to bury my head in my pillow and just weep.
From Dachau to Belsen
His most emotionally painful task was touring twenty-two concentration camps in preparation for serving as an official observer to the Nuremberg trials. At Dachau he was disturbed by the contrast between village homes, decorated with bright geraniums in window boxes, and the nearby camp with its incinerator smokestack. He gathered a handful of spent bullets from in front of the execution wall there, eventually keeping them in his writing shack as a reminder of humanity’s capability for evil.
Not that he needed one. In Belsen he saw the lampshades and other decorations that the commandant’s wife made of human skin. He went into one of the torture chambers, where clubs still lay on the floor and the walls still riddled with bits of brain and hair. “Someday when I get home,” he wrote afterward, “I want to bury my head in my pillow and just weep.”
The Nuremberg Trials
Sigurd attended the Nuremberg trials as an observer for the U.S. State Department and the Army. He was there for at least three days, March 20-22, during the dramatic cross-examination of Hermann Göring. But it wasn’t the testimony that surprised him. It was the normality of the defendants.
“I sat and looked at them,” he wrote on March 20, “realizing that before me were the greatest criminals in human history, and I couldn’t help but feel they should look like monsters. Instead they looked like a typical group of American businessmen, like any Rotary Club picked at random on a Wednesday night.”
No doubt all the terrible things he had seen and heard in March 1946 had an impact on his sense of mission. In April he wrote in a note to himself, “I want to inspire. . . . My job is to find proper expression–medium for my feeling. . . . Go into the wild and come out with a message.” In a letter to his wife, Elizabeth, before he returned home in June, he reflected on his newfound sense of appreciation for life in Ely:
“One thing I have found out is that there is beauty wherever one goes, if one knows where to look, that people can be kindly and thoughtful and lovable in all climes and under all conditions, that America is a young country with much to learn but as a young country it has a tremendous power and potential that older countries oftentimes lack, that culturally I mean . . . a feeling for the aesthetic things and the enjoyment of little things is oftentimes lost in our terrible speed and rush, but that there are whirlpools in America, sort of backwashes where the swirl and flow has had time to settle down and where people have time to think and enjoy. Such a backwash is in our own Ely, I have discovered, and in all places out of the flow.”