By some estimates, World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 1,000 a day right now. If the rest of us are wise, we will treasure and learn from the accounts of bravery and courage they leave behind — acts that must become part of the national fabric.
Many of those stories are being compiled by the National World War II Museum, the Library of Congress and the U.S. Latino and Latina WWII Oral History Project. Others have been chronicled by the media or exist only in family history records.
Among them all, the story of Karl-Heinz Schnibbe deserves a special place — as much for what he did as a young teenager in Nazi Germany as for how he spent much of the rest of his life teaching young people to prize their freedom.
Schnibbe died this week in Salt Lake City, his adopted home. But when World War II was in full flame, he and two of his friends from the local Mormon church decided to let fellow Germans know what they were hearing from the BBC on radios they possessed in violation of German law. They printed leaflets that they put in phone booths, coat pockets and many other places throughout Hamburg. Eventually, they were found and arrested. Schnibbe was 18 at the time. One of the boys was executed. The other was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp. Schnibbe was sentenced to 5 years.
He suffered greatly in prison, only to find himself sent to Czechoslovakia to fight in the desperate last days of the war. Then he was taken prisoner by Russian soldiers. In all, he spent seven years in labor camps under starvation conditions.
Those are the hard facts of his early years, a formative time during which he was robbed of the things young adults today take for granted. Just as miraculous as his ability to survive those years, however, was the way in which he learned to forgive those who had harmed him. He was able to leave bitterness behind as he spent much of his adult life teaching others what he had learned about life, liberty and faith.
Schnibbe couldn't help the age in which he was born, or the circumstances that surrounded him in his teen years. So many other men and women could say the same. They were thrust into the spotlight of history and forced to decide quickly what their legacies would be. The freedoms we enjoy today are a testament to the decisions they made.