This winter marks 75 years since the Nazi death march when Allied prisoners of war were emptied from Germany’s Stalag Luft concentration camps to hide atrocities from advancing liberation forces.
Charleston native Sanford Lewis would recount decades later the severe deprivation that he and other airmen would endure during the extreme winter conditions of 1944-45 to memorialize and honor those that did not survive.
As a tail-gunner shot down over the Baltic Sea after his squadron’s successful bombing of the V2 rocket factory in Peenemunde, the death march would become a much later chapter of a remarkable journey of survival that began that day with his capture by the Gestapo.
In the blink of an eye, Lewis’ life as a freshman at West Virginia University descended into that of a Jewish-American POW marched through the streets of Berlin past dreadful German soldiers surveying the widespread damage from previous bombing runs.
The brutality that he and his crew witnessed, endured and overcame was unspeakable and contributed to both physical and psychological conditions associated with survivors’ syndrome.
But nearly half a century later, with the encouragement of his family and friends, he and others found the fortitude to chronicle those events that would later be entered into the Congressional Record at the behest of former Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
The last chapter of his own remarkable survival story centered on his liberation by Allied forces, his months of recuperation in European hospitals and the day he was discharged stateside after even more months of convalescence.
Having walked out of Ashford General Hospital in Greenbrier County to hitchhike home on U.S. Route 60, Lewis, in uniform, was picked up by the first car that approached.
As he recounted his travails to the stranger, his story compelled the Good Samaritan to drive him directly to his family’s home on the East End, where he walked in the front door to the surprise of his parents.
As a wartime POW, Sanford Lewis saw and experienced the absolute worst in people under the most desperate survival conditions only to come home to those who loved one another during the great peacetime that followed.
Remarkably, he was not bitter and did not harbor hatred in his heart.
Quite the opposite, for with those horrible experiences came a profound wisdom about human nature and insight into how ordinary people can be driven to such extremes.
In his own modest way, he counseled tolerance against what can best be described as a tribal instinct to seek divisions between one group or another, whether based on race, religion, politics or any other contrived difference.
Indeed, he saw that one of America’s great strengths was that a neighbor or work associate or health care practitioner — people we all rely upon in our lives — didn’t view one another through the lens of religious affiliation, as was the case in so many European countries.
He was proud of that fact and spoke of it often.
But since his passing several years ago, a sharp rise in religious bigotry has beset our nation. The violent anti-Semitic attacks on the rise are profoundly troubling.
Every American owes it to people like Sanford Lewis to condemn every form of prejudice, no matter its source or underlying purpose, for veterans like him fought a war and endured great hardship against nations that rose from its same hateful origins.
It is wrong, it is condemned by all faiths that seek peace and redemption, and it is un-American.