The soldier from Red Deer entered concentration camps at the end of the Second World War in hopes of finding missing Allied airmen.
What Ray Marsh found, instead, would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Before dying a decade ago, Marsh had conversations with local historian Michael Dawe about his visits to the camps after the war ended, as part of a detail to try to locate soldiers who had been listed as “missing.”
Dawe recalled on International Holocaust Remembrance Day Monday, that one of the first things that struck Marsh was the “stench” that permeated everything — from his clothing to the food he couldn’t bring himself to eat.
“He said you could taste it in the food … This unique odour … from the crematoriums … was everywhere …
Marsh wasn’t convinced, with this “pervasive smell,” that people who lived around concentration camps did not know what was going on,” recalled Dawe.
Marsh, who became a travel agent after the war, was enraged by Holocaust deniers.
“He said, ‘I was there. I saw it first-hand. If they had been there and seen what I’ve seen, they could never say it hadn’t happened,’” said Dawe.
“He had absolutely no doubt about what he had seen.”
The horrors of the Holocaust were all too real for Shirley Rimer’s parents.
The Red Deer ceramic artist said her Jewish mother only managed to outlive incarceration at the Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz camps, where so many thousands of others died, because she was a strong 21-year-old, capable of hard work.
“She told me if the war had gone on any longer she wouldn’t have been able to make it …”
Her Jewish father largely hid in the woods after the invasion of Poland by the Nazis.
Since he could pass for Polish, because of his lighter colouring, Rimer said he was helped by “friends” who didn’t realize he wasn’t one of them.
“He lost all of the rest of his family in Treblinka” extermination camp, added Rimer, who with her three siblings grew up in Canada without any grandparents.
That always made her sad.
Her mom and dad initially didn’t like to share their wartime experiences, preferring to focus on being committed, involved parents. But sometimes Rimer would see her mother crying.
When she was in her 20s, Rimer’s parents finally began opening up about family members who never survived the war.
“My mother always said people should never forget so it wouldn’t happen again,” said Rimer.
But Dawe noted there have been many other cases of genocide in the world since the last great war.
He met a nun while he was a boy in the early 1960s, who had witnesses mass killings in the former Congo. She was sent to the Red Deer convent to help recover from emotional trauma.
More recently there were other human slaughters in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and more places.
“We seem to have a real ability to commit massive inhumanity towards each other — and the worst cases are often based on beliefs around a higher power,” said Dawe.
He noted the irony of religious differences prompting behavior that is “the total opposite” of what those religions instruct.
“I don’t have any answers …” he said.
Neither does Rimer, who’s concerned anti-Semitism has gotten worse over the past few years, with more desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.
“I’ve never understood that kind of … human cruelty.”
Some city councillors attended the opening of the Anne Frank exhibit at the Red Deer museum Sunday to reflect on the Holocaust.