- Gary Toyn
My Physical Witnesses to History
Updated: Jan 20
Former historian of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Elder Marlin K. Jensen once spoke about “Witness Trees” located in "the Sacred Grove," a significant historical/religious site for the Church near Palmyra, New York.
I was greatly intrigued by this idea. First off because Elder Jensen was a significant role model in my life. As a young man, he led my congregation as the "Bishop" and was also the leader of my youth group. But more important, I had never considered the concept that a non-human object could be considered a witness to a historic event.
The idea of witness trees didn't originate with the Church. Witness trees have been identified on many Civil War battlefields such as Gettysburg, Antietam, and Manassas. Not to mention there are many witness trees in and around Washington D.C.
I liked the idea of identifying an object as being a witness to history. Somehow it helped me have a tangible connection to a historic event or place that happened long before my time. As a result, I began to collect an assortment of witness items from some of the historic sites I’ve visited around the world.
You may be thinking: “if everyone visited a historic site and took something from it, before long, nothing would remain.”
I get it.
So rest assured I asked for permission before taking anything. In some cases, I was told "no." In cases where there were no docents or officials to ask, like at a beach, I found something small or innocuous like a small rock or a small sampling of sand that could have no conceivable negative impact.
You may ask, "how do you know these witness items were truly present while history was being made?" The fact is, I have no way of knowing. But that doesn't really matter, because for me they are a physical connection to these historic places.
So, in no particular order, here are six memorable witness items I collected, and why I wanted a physical reminder of this historic location:
1 - Ponary Memorial - Near Vilnius, Lithuania
What most Americans don’t know, (and dare I say most Europeans), is that Lithuania was the birthplace of the Nazi’s “final solution.”
More accurately, the Nazi’s objective of annihilating the Jews gained the important “proof of concept” in Lithuania. Local militiamen called "Shaulists," were a paramilitary group that fought against the Soviets. When the Nazis attacked Lithuania and the Soviets retreated., the Shaulists then focused their energies on getting rid of the Jews.
As seen in the photo below, they marched a large group of Jews into a large pit after forcing them to strip off their clothes. The men with guns then shot everyone in the pits. The Shaulists then marched in the next group of Jews, making them step on the bodies of those who were killed moments earlier, and they repeated the process.
Once the Nazis saw it happen, they learned some important lessons that they implemented at other death camps throughout Europe. Among these lessons was that the Jews wouldn’t rise up in mass rebellion if they were first deprived of food, water, and sleep. The Nazis were keen learners. They took the lessons they learned in Lithuania, applied their engineering skills, and figured out how to kill large numbers of human beings with greater efficiency and speed.
But in many ways, the Holocaust gained unstoppable momentum in Lithuania.
However, Ponary remains an open wound for many Lithuanians who refuse to accept the historical facts that their fellow countrymen killed fellow Lithuanians. They insist it was all directed and controlled by the Nazis. Most objective historians believe the historical record, as well as numerous eyewitness accounts that the Lithuanians did most of the killing. At least in the beginning. However, it remains a topic of huge debate, so I won’t get into the arguments here. But what can't be disputed is that roughly 95% of all Lithuanian Jews were murdered in the span of four years, from 1941-1945.
I visited Ponary (in Lithuanian, it's "Paneriu Memorialas") It's a somber place. Today there are six murder pits and a handful of memorials and monuments. These pits stand as a sacred burial site where the remains of roughly 70,000 men, women, and children are interred.
The stories of survival are what I went there to discover. And there are literally thousands of stories of incredible bravery, miraculous survival, and unmistakable heroism that need to be told.
My witness item is a simple rock, taken near the bunker pit of the “burning brigade.” This is the place where the Nazis forced prisoners to dig up the bodies of the murdered victims and attempt to burn the corpses as a way of destroying the evidence of these mass killings.
Spoiler alert. The novel I’m currently writing relates to this historic event.
Stalag 17-B was the second largest of all German prisoner-of-war camps during WWII and was among the worst for how prisoners were treated. Prisoners from ten different countries were held here. The prisoner population grew rapidly and remained at around 40,000 inside the camp, with another 60,000 prisoners outside the camp and assigned to various work details. Chronically overcrowded, American and British enlisted airmen accounted for roughly 4,400 prisoners.
Stalag 17-B is the setting for a significant portion of my latest book called "For Malice and Mercy." Prior to its publication, I wrote an article about my experience in finding what’s left of Stalag 17-B here.
Today, these remnants of Stalag XVII B are hidden deep inside a thickly wooded forest outside of Krems/Gneixendorf, Austria.
When I started trying to find this place, it took quite a bit of sleuthing. When I asked some of the locals how to find it, they looked at me like I had broccoli stuck in my teeth. When I finally figured it out, I had to walk through a wheat field into a forest of overgrown trees with underbrush.
When I discovered a few of the remnants of the camp, I got so excited I lost all sense of direction. It took me almost an hour to find my way out, but that’s a story for another day.
If you ever want to go, here are the map coordinates. I wanted to find this place so I could get a feel for the landscape, as well as get a sense of the size and scope of this camp. I also wanted to connect with the place on a more intimate level.
My witness item is a small piece of concrete taken from the crumbling perimeter wall that once surrounded the camp. The owners of the property tried to remove all the concrete to reclaim the land, but there was too much concrete. They simply gave up and have since let it go back to nature.
3 - Dachau Concentration Camp
I’ve been to Dachau a few times. It was the first concentration camp in Nazi Germany and became a prototype for all the other camps. Dachau was the first to conduct medical experiments on prisoners, the first to implement a crematorium, and the first to use prisoners as slave labor.
In addition, its impact on citizen compliance cannot be understated. Local Germans knew about Dachau’s reputation from as early as 1935, and a common saying among Germans was “Lieber Herr Gott, mach mich stumm, Das ich nicht nach Dachau komm” (Dear God, make me silent, that I may not come to Dachau.)
The first time I visited was with my wife. This was also her first time visiting a concentration camp, it was like a gut punch to her both physically and emotionally. She was overwhelmed with sadness, and it took her a couple of days to get out of the funk she was in. What really sent her over the edge was the section of the museum that told the story of the types of medical experiments they conducted on human subjects. My experience is that everyone responds to it a little differently. Still, it's worth going so you can see for yourself what a concentration camp was like.
If you ever go to Germany and find yourself near Munich, I would highly recommend you go to Dachau and spend a half day. It’s free, it’s well organized and they accommodate English speakers quite well. Here’s a link to the site for American visitors.
My witness item is a small remnant of the crumbling concrete foundation from a cell block. The maintenance team was cleaning up pieces that had fallen off, and I asked to have a piece before they threw it away.
4- Mauthausen Concentration Camp – Rock Quarry
I went to Mauthausen because it’s also a key component of the storyline of my last book.
Mauthausen is located about 15 miles east of Linz, Austria. During WWII, it had a network of nearly 100 sub-camps. It was among the largest labor camp complexes in this German-controlled part of Europe. Like other concentration camps, Mauthausen prisoners were forced to work as slave laborers, others committed suicide to avoid being worked to death.
The most notorious work project here was the rock quarry adjacent to the camp. Here, prisoners encountered 186 steps known as the “Stairs of Death.” Prisoners were required to lift and haul granite stone blocks weighing as much as 110 pounds up to the top of the stairs, then return and do it again.
Prisoners at the top would often lose their strength and collapse into prisoners behind them. This created a deadly domino effect where falling rocks would crush helpless prisoners below. Chronically overcrowded, Mauthausen held about 85,000 prisoners at its maximum. Most official sources estimate between 122,000 and 320,000 people died here.
My witness rock is a piece of random granite found near the rock quarry’s “Stairs of Death.”
5- Auschwitz Concentration Camp
My wife and I wanted to go to Auschwitz (even after visiting Dachau) because it is the most notorious (and, along with its sister camp Birkenau,) the largest of all Nazi concentration camps. I wanted to go there because I had heard it was hard to comprehend the size and scope of the Nazi’s “Final Solution” without seeing Auschwitz.
They were right.
This place is massive, and it’s impossible to adequately describe how big it is. It must be seen to be believed.
I also think it’s important to visit Auschwitz after visiting a concentration camp in Germany or Austria. The vibe is very different at Auschwitz. In my opinion, Dachau and Mauthausen were both very well organized and interpreted, and I don’t want to sound critical, but visiting Auschwitz in Poland is just an entirely different experience.
The Poles lost about 6 million citizens during World War II, or roughly 20 percent of its pre-war population. Half were ethnic Poles; the other half were Jews. They were the victims of genocide. Hitler hated the Poles, which is why he completely leveled Warsaw. He wanted to destroy Polish history and Polish culture, and he tried to wipe Poland off the map. It’s no wonder that the Poles interpret this concentration camp in a more gut-wrenching and personal way.
I found this rock near the reconstruction of the main crematorium. (I asked permission from one of the docents.) At their peak capacity, these ovens could cremate as many as 340 corpses in a 24-hour period. It operated from August 1940 until July 1942. During that two-year period, between 150,000 and 200,000 people were incinerated in this crematorium before operations were shifted to the larger and more efficient Auschwitz 2-Birkenau location, about two miles away.
Visiting Auschwitz is not super easy, but it’s very worthwhile and memorable. It’s in southern Poland, about four hours south of Warsaw, and about a five-hour drive almost due east of Prague, Czechia.
6- Omaha Beach – Dog Red Sector
No other site outside the confines of the 50 United States holds more historical and sentimental significance to Americans than the D-Day beaches of Normandy, France. It’s a place that all Americans should visit before they die.
The invasion of the Nazi's “Fortress Europe” was the pivotal event on the Western Front to bring about the eventual demise of the Nazi regime.
I’ve visited all the American Cemeteries in Europe that are associated with World War II. There is something special about the Normandy American Cemetery, and the beaches just below it. It is riddled with German fortifications, and you can still see the battle scars on many of these remnants.
While it’s a little odd to see the French frolic on this beach in swimsuits and beach toys, I don’t begrudge them for it. In a way, it’s what D-Day, and WWII were all about. Freedom. Freedom to enjoy a life free of tyranny and oppression.
My witness item is a sample of sand taken from Dog Red Sector, just north of the Normandy American Cemetery.
Why it matters
For me, the best part of writing a historical novel is doing the research. Visiting an important historic site allows me to connect with history on a visceral level. Having a witness item helps me keep that tangible connection while I write about my characters and the history that underlies their important story.
While the stories I write are fictional, they are nonetheless based on real people and real events. I believe the people I've chosen to write about have compelling stories. I'm confident they are stories you've never heard before. But they're also stories that will make you think.
My aim is to tell untold stories that are meaningful from a historical perspective, but that can also invite us to look at the world in new ways and with a different perspective.
More importantly, I want my readers to gain new hope in humanity. I don't want to write stories that end up making us feel sad or hopeless. There are plenty of those stories already.
Despite all the horrors and sorrow we read about in the past or the present, my experience has been there are far more good and decent people in this world than we are led to believe.
I prefer to tell stories that are not only true to history but also inspire us. Stories of people who have endured the worst, but also overcame and triumphed. While I'm against sanitizing history, I believe there are plenty of inspiring, hopeful and encouraging stories that are yet to be told.