Dachau and my friend John O’Melia

After visiting European cathedrals, castles, gardens, and museums, I finally visited my first concentration camp on a cloudy and cold Friday afternoon in April.

The Dachau concentration camp was on my list of places to see mostly because of a person who has had a major impact on my life and how I understand my work. John O’Melia was a 19 year old soldier with the U.S. 7th Army when he walked through the gate (pictured above) on April 29, 1945, nearly 72 years ago.

I first met John when he was already in his 70s, having retired from a long and distinguished career with the YMCA. John was on the search committee that brought me to the First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois, where I served as pastor for 13 years, the longest stretch of my nearly 40 years of ministry.

John and his wife, Marty, came along on my first tour to Israel, and one day in Jerusalem, when the group stopped at the Yad Vashem holocaust museum, John became noticeably ill. He took no more than two steps inside the front door when it became clear to me that he would not be able to continue. And so, as the tour host, I walked with him back to the bus, and it was on the bus, while the rest of the group toured the museum, that I first heard John’s story about the Dachau concentration camp. In the years to come I would hear a great deal more about it.

As the Army unit John was with made its way across France and then Germany, John took a camera from a fallen German soldier and later used it to document his first hours inside the concentration camp. What the soldiers saw was horrific.

In the last days of the war in Europe, the Dachau camp ran out of coal, and the work of the crematorium came to an end, meaning that corpses piled up outside like firewood. One photo from the day shows corpses stacked nearly as high as the building itself.

More than 40,000 human beings died at the camp. At the beginning the camp at Dachau was used mainly for political prisoners, those who were opposed to the new Nazi regime. Later, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and Gypsies (as they were then called) were also interred at the camp. Only toward the end of the war were Jews introduced as prisoners. As historians document these things, Dachau was not technically an extermination camp.

John told me that when the camp was secure he went off by himself and read the small New Testament that his mother had tucked into his belongings before he left for Europe. He asked God to use his life so that nothing like this would ever happen again.

John’s work after the war took him first to Cleveland where, in the 1950s, among other things, the YMCA organized a first-of-its-kind interracial summer camp, bringing black and white children together. During my years in Wheaton, after his retirement, John was elected to the YMCA Hall of Fame for his work, and though he was modest about it, I sensed that the recognition meant a great deal to him.

In my new book about the multicultural church, I tell the story about how John coaxed and prodded me to reach out to the African American pastors in Wheaton and DuPage County – and how my church took some small, tentative steps toward becoming a more open, more racially diverse congregation.

At the first Martin Luther King Jr. service I ever attended, on a Monday night in Wheaton (at the Second Baptist Church), John and I were the only two white people present. That number was to grow over the years, but only because John insisted that it was the right thing to do.

I am more grateful than I can say to have known John, his wife Marty, and the rest of his family who were members of the Presbyterian church in Wheaton.

In my work today I am still putting into practice what I first learned from him.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.


12 Responses to Dachau and my friend John O’Melia

  1. Andrew Gifford April 24, 2017 at 10:48 am #

    John was a great man, I was never privy to the entire story. Thank you.

    • Doug April 24, 2017 at 11:23 am #

      Hi, Andy. I’m not sure this is the entire story. I’m pretty sure that there was more he could have told me. At a certain point in his life John seemed to tell the story more often – and perhaps in greater detail. My new associate pastor here in Zurich remembers hearing John tell the story at a church in Glen Ellyn, which is a remarkable coincidence. Happy Easter!

      • Betty Strunk April 24, 2017 at 2:52 pm #

        I was fortunate to be in a ChristCare Group at 1st Presbyterian, Wheaton, with John and Marty for many years. We grew close and at one meeting John showed disturbing photos of the terrible experience you mentioned. I learned so very much about acceptance of all people and remember, especially John’s determination to bring peace, as much as he could, to all he touched.

        • Doug April 26, 2017 at 3:46 am #

          Greetings, Betty!

  2. Chuck Self April 24, 2017 at 3:38 pm #

    I’ve not been to Dachau but our family has been to Bergen-Belsen where Anne Frank died shortly before it was liberated. Although all the original buildings were torn down shortly after liberation due to disease, the British Armed Forces shot film of the conditions at that time and their process of burying the dead left lying on the ground. In the museum that was recently erected there, they had artifacts and showings of the film (for those 16 years and older.) It was the most disturbing footage of historical film I have ever viewed. Because of the diseases spread from corpses, the Allies had to eventually use bulldozers to bury the bodies. Interestingly enough, there was a German military troop touring while we were. They were very respectful and somber. It was experience I will never forget

    • Doug April 25, 2017 at 10:45 am #

      Thanks for the comment, Chuck. Like Bergen-Belson, the barracks where prisoners “lived” did not survive, though not for the same reasons. One set of barracks has been rebuilt at Dachau, and only the concrete foundations of the rest are now visible. The crematorium survived pretty much intact, including a nearby gas chamber which apparently was never used. It’s all so sobering. I won’t forget the experience either.

  3. Chris Elder April 25, 2017 at 10:06 am #

    We have been there. You walk in and you can feel the sadness. It is something I won’t forget and everyone should see. Still brings tears to my eyes

    • Doug April 25, 2017 at 10:45 am #

      Thanks for the comment, Chris. I think everyone should see it too.

  4. Carol Rooney April 25, 2017 at 1:54 pm #

    I put off reading your last blog until the Rooney household settled down, as I knew what was coming. (Wonderful chaos with daughters and granddaughters kept me from opening it immediately!) I have heard my father’s war stories many times, but they still get to me over and over again. My dad never talked about his experiences until Melissa was studying WW11 at Whittier. My dad and Arch Logan helped her with her project. At this time it seemed as though the flood gates had opened and he slowly but surely began sharing his experiences with family and friends. Everyone who listened to his accounts of the war and asked questions helped him begin to heal from those horrific times.
    Megan visited Dachau when she was studying abroad during college. She went by herself as her friends didn’t want to go. She felt compelled to write to her grandfather on the bus ride back to Munich. I was scheduled to visit a friend living in Munich the fall of 2001 and planned to visit Dachau, but I didn’t make it because of 9/11. This destination remains on my list.
    I am pleased to have your blog to add to the ‘O’Melia’ file as it puts together related events of my father’s life so beautifully. Thank you for this!
    I must add that I was glad when your blog returned! I share it occasionally with my children and my sisters. I enjoy reading about your rich life and work as an expat in Switzerland.
    My best to you and Susan.
    Carol Rooney

    • Doug April 26, 2017 at 3:45 am #

      I saw that you had a major birthday recently, Carol! I hope it was a good one. Just so you know, I devoted a few pages in my What Am I Supposed to Do With My Life book to your father, and I mention him again in my upcoming book about the Multicultural Church. I feel blessed to have known him, and more than once I sought out his wisdom on something or other. I hope my words add some honor to his memory. The last time I spoke with him was after the U.S. Men’s Olympic volleyball team won the gold medal in Beijing. He was a proud grandfather! Greetings to you, Mike, and your family.

  5. Kathy Bostrom April 27, 2017 at 2:33 pm #

    Wow, what a painful and powerful story. Extraordinarily awful to see what people have done to one another; but a much needed reminder that we need to continue to bring light out of the darkness. I can’t wait to read your book.

    • Doug May 8, 2017 at 4:21 am #

      Thanks, Kathy!