To Hell and Back 

Melanie Saxer Johnston's new book preserves her father's memories of liberating Buchenwald.

When Melanie Saxer Johnston was a teenager and used to walk the family dog around a local middle school with her dad, he taught her how to march as he had done, himself, in the army during World War II: "Left. Right. Left. He would call it out just like a drill sergeant. He taught me how to turn, how to salute." It was pretty much a game to her, although she did worry a bit about how her father talked so much — and apparently still thought so much — about a war that had been over for twenty-plus years. He told her it was because he had spent five of his most formative, youthful years at war.

But it was more than that. Johnston's first real clue into her father's wartime experience was a sickening one — literally. One night when she was eight, she crept back out into the family room after going to bed to find her parents, older siblings, and some visiting friends looking at old black-and-white photographs. As she approached, she saw in the photographs stick-skinny figures, some alive and many dead: "I almost threw up." Her mother brought the horrified little girl back to her cozy pink bedroom, saying over and over that such horrors "would never happen again. That people like Daddy would sacrifice everything to see that it would never happen again." But that didn't stop the nightmares. Johnston's father was part of an American army unit that liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany near the end of the war. His pictures are rare artifacts revealing the depths to which inhumanity can go. They accompany Johnston's account of her own visit to Buchenwald as an adult and her discussions with her father about his past in What My Father Saw: A Daughter's Journey Through Her Father's Memories As One of the Liberators of Buchenwald Concentration Camp, which she will discuss at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on September 5.

Although he spoke little to others about the worst of what he saw, Johnston is grateful that he shared those details with her. "Today, some child therapists might tell the father not to tell the child," muses the Piedmont Post pet columnist. But it allowed her to empathize with victims of all kinds, and it provided her with crucial insight into "why my father would get so upset when he would see a college kid wearing a swastika on his T-shirt or someone draping that flag around their neck. He would quietly say ... that they had no idea what it meant." Johnston and her family aren't Jewish, but visiting the camp and then writing this book is "simply ... something God wants me to do." Her father's words "pound in my brain. I have no choice." 7:30 p.m.


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