Remembering Dachau: PFC Norbert E. Johnson

by Stephen E. Pitts

On April 29, 1945, Dachau concentration camp was liberated by the 42nd Division of the US Army. Among the soldiers of the “Rainbow Division” as it was better known, was nineteen year old PFC Norbert E. Johnson of Gladstone, Michigan. Like other liberating troops, Private Johnson saw firsthand the thousands of dead bodies; many just lying around and others in box cars filled with the dead and dying. Some of the troops were so shaken and appalled by what they witnessed that they machine gunned some of the remaining Nazi guards (most had fled) before officers stopped them. The next day, Army officers insisted that nearby residents come into the camp to take responsibility for burying the bodies that were, in most cases, piled on top of each other. It was a hellish scene as the realities of the “final solution” were encountered.

In the days following the initial liberation, there were acts of simple, decent human kindness such as those of Private Johnson and some of his soldier buddies who would take a group of stronger prisoners out of the camp and into the nearby forests for a picnic lunch. They would find one of the many nearby ponds or lakes and, using a weapon of war for good, one of them would toss a hand grenade into the lake. The underwater explosion would kill numerous trout…which Norbert and his friends knew how to clean and then roast over a campfire. It was the first fresh food that the inmates had in months. Along with bread they had scrounged, it was quite literally a meal of loaves and fishes on the shores of those lakes in Germany.

In the weeks ahead, Adolf Hitler would commit suicide and the Third Reich would collapse as victory in Europe was achieved. Private Johnson was given an honorable discharge shortly after the end of war. He then attended Wheaton College and, having long felt a call to ministry, he enrolled in North Park Theological Seminary. After graduation, he was called to a Covenant church in Lafayette, Indiana, followed by a call to serve as Senior Pastor of First Covenant Church in St. Paul before his call to serve First Covenant Church in Omaha in 1976. It was during his time in Omaha that the “Holocaust is a hoax” movement started to gain traction in Nebraska. This conspiracy theory was reinforced when an area academic wrote a book trying to prove this theory. The academic has long since been forgotten and shall remain so here. But at that time, he was given significant publicity in the community. In spite of all of the overwhelming evidence of the enormity of the Nazi atrocities, he was getting louder and louder and he was gathering a following as he repeated these lies over and over again.

Norbert Johnson and Stephen Pitts

Pastor Norbert Johnson (right) with the author in 1982, shortly before First Covenant Church hosted its Holocaust Survivor Story event.

In response, the Jewish community of that city felt they must publicly respond. So, under the leadership of Rabbis at Temple Israel and Beth Israel, they hosted a dinner for all Holocaust survivors in the city. Additionally they wanted to honor all liberating troops so they too were invited. There was a major publicity campaign in the Omaha World Herald and all of the television and major radio stations. The public announcement was rather simple; if you were a survivor or a liberating troop, simply call Temple Israel and there would be a place at the table for you. But of course for survivors it was not simple because it meant bringing up horrible memories that had been buried as they immigrated and made new lives for themselves in America. Remembering—especially publicly remembering—meant reliving trauma in the most painful way. This dinner was no small thing, but rabbis, other leaders and survivors themselves felt that they must tell their stories.

Rev. Norbert Johnson called Temple Israel to say he was a member of the Rainbow Division and that he would very much like to attend. When they found out that Rev. Johnson was the Senior Pastor at First Covenant Church, he was immediately asked to be the main speaker. It was a great honor and it also proved to be the beginning of a marvelous continuing relationship between First Covenant and the Holocaust survivors in Omaha.

As it turned out, one of the main courses that evening at Temple Israel was roast trout which prompted Norbert to say the following, “The last time I had trout with my Jewish friends was at Dachau in 1945,” and he then recounted the details. Bread and fish. Once again.

By this time, community awareness was growing rapidly and soon Pastor Johnson was asked to do a lengthy television interview sharing his firsthand account. He would also debate the author of this Holocaust-is-a-hoax book on one of the major radio stations rebutting and debunking the conspiracy theory with both his personal experience and knowledge of the facts of this history.

In the years to come the relationship between Omaha First Covenant and the Holocaust survivors grew. In 1983, we (I was the associate pastor beginning in 1981), realizing how important it was for our entire congregation to hear those stories firsthand, scheduled a Sunday evening event for that very purpose. Four survivors including Beth Israel’s cantor Leo Fetman and well known community leader Samuel Freed came and shared their stories. Led by Rabbi Jonathan Rosbenbaum, who would become my friend in the years ahead, the survivors shared what had happened to them. Their suffering. Their grief over family members shot or gassed and burned in furnaces. Their pain in even telling their stories that evening knowing that—just as they had nightmares before their visit to us—they would have those same nightmares when they got back home. They made themselves completely vulnerable to our congregation that night. None of us will ever forget. As was the case with many liberating troops, Norbert would also have nightmares from his memories of walking into that camp. That too deserves to be remembered.

Pastor Johnson would go on to serve not only First Covenant in Omaha, but then North Park Covenant Church in Chicago before retiring. He was my mentor and my friend. In the years to come as we got together, we would often talk of that special bond we had with the Jewish community in Omaha. On some of those occasions, he would recount not only the story about trout shared with survivors in Dachau, but the story of trout served at that meal at Temple Israel.

In 1994, when I was installed as Senior Pastor of Excelsior Covenant Church in Minnesota, I asked Pastor Johnson to honor me by being the guest speaker at my installation. After dinner, which was shared with Superintendent Stan Henderson and a few others, I asked Norbert to tell that story as it is one that absolutely needs to be remembered. He began to tell once again what had happened in the concentration camp…and then he broke down in tears which quickly turned to weeping. He turned to me and asked if I could tell the story. And so I did.

We now find ourselves in a nation where anti-Semitism is rising. Where White Nationalist and American Nazi’s parade around with torches yelling, “Jews will not replace us.” Where the same groups tried to overturn a legitimate election, and were referred to as “fine people” and told by a now former president that “we love you.”

Well, they are not fine people. They are exactly who they say they are and they are an anathema to our faith and to our society and to our country. Their myths need to be supplanted by the real stories of those Holocaust survivors in Omaha and the tens of thousands of others who suffered in the same way and the six million who suffered unto death.

Stories like that of PFC Norbert E. Johnson need to be told again and again. In the last years of his life, his emotions simply did not let him tell that story and so he asked me to tell it. And so I have and so I shall.