My grandfather, Conrad Wilson, was a Quaker and a conscientious objector. Although his pacifism steered him away from picking up a gun, his conscience told him he should contribute in some way to the war effort. AFS gave him the outlet he had been looking for.
His early months on the Italian front with 485 Company were hard, but nothing in comparison to what came next. In the spring of 1945, he was transferred to 567 Company and became part of the effort to evacuate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Reading about his experience at Belsen in his unpublished memoir is difficult: “Our job was to evacuate the barracks where the prisoners were housed… I would go to the hut on the list — a long, low frame building…and find it absolutely jammed with people… I remember thinking at the time that it could never be exaggerated, that no words could really describe the horror of it.”
The juxtaposition of my grandfather’s gentle nature with the cruelty at Belsen was poignant. His fellow AFS drivers, whom he thought were “hardened to suffering” by this point in the war, were apparently not. His first impression at Belsen “was of these same Americans on first sight of the misery there, vomiting, crying, cursing or praying. I saw strong men down on their knees asking forgiveness — for being people, I suppose.” My grandfather’s commitment to bettering humanity always inspired me; I was especially struck by his commentary on the poor treatment of the Nazi guards by the British troops during the evacuation of the camp. It was unsettling to him that “we, who were so shocked by what we saw, could turn around and do the same thing to others, however guilty, in a spirit of self-righteous retribution. I can remember thinking even then that the horror was not that Nazis had done this to Jews, but that humans were capable of doing such things to one another.” The horror my grandfather encountered made him question his pacifism. War was a terrible thing, but as it turned out, there could be far worse. His experience at Belsen was one of the reasons he returned to Italy to work for the American Friends Service Committee to help with post-war reconstruction.
My grandfather passed away on March 19, 2005. One year later, I studied abroad with AFS USA in France, not understanding the connection between AFS today and the organization my grandfather had volunteered with. Apparently there was much more that connected us than our family’s ties. What do a volunteer ambulance driver and an exchange student have in common? It is a curiosity that transcends culture and time, an appreciation for the beautiful landscape of people and nature that surround us, and a desire to bring out their best qualities. Reading my grandfather’s wartime memoir helped me recognize how my study abroad experience was more than just an adventure. I, too, was working toward a friendlier world. Making that connection was powerful. Recently I retraced some of my grandfather’s steps while traveling through Italy. Listening to the distant church bells and feeling the calming breeze while sitting atop the same mountain he spoke of in his memoir, and then more recently sitting down with his photograph and documents in the AFS Archives, reminded me of how interconnected we all are. My appreciation for my grandfather and the AFS history and mission will forever remain a part of who I am.
Thank you AFS, and thank you Grandpa Conrad.
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