Two photos of an older man with a white beard speaking to someone off-camera

April 11, 1945. Nordhausen, Germany. Thayer Greene and his regiment had been tapped to scout out the small city. Greene was among the lead scouts. He had been in combat for less than 100 days, and he was 19 years old.

Greene knew he would be joining this war; all his contemporaries knew it. He had thought he was ready. In high school, he had purposely studied German as one of his foreign languages, and in September 1944, he boarded a train to Fort Devens to enlist. Upon arrival, he had made his case: he knew German, he was a bright guy. Wasn’t he a good fit for army intelligence? The stony-faced corporal listened to Greene, stared back at him for a moment, then asked, “You got flat feet, bud?” Greene was placed in infantry—Third Armored Division. Off he went to a whirlwind basic training course, cut to nine weeks, down from its usual 13, so that he could be sent off to the front.

Up to this point, Greene’s short experience in the infantry had been at times numbing, at times even dull. There had been long hours of waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen, punctuated by moments of high terror in combat. Now he was on high alert. Perhaps his high school German did count for something; he had been sent to Europe, not the Pacific, and now he was here, outside the small city of Nordhausen. His infantry platoon had been sent to take the city, and he and his fellow soldiers had assumed the enemy—the Germans—would be waiting to stop their attack. Their platoon was to lead the attack and engage the dug-in troops.

Greene and half a dozen other soldiers soundlessly entered the perimeter of the city. They remained low to the ground, as they had been trained—in some cases, like Greene, merely months prior—in order to dodge machine gun fire. “I was ducking and weaving, taking cover,” he recalls. Looking at Greene, a tall, long-limbed man with sparkly blue eyes that crinkle with humor, one can easily imagine him as an impish 19-year-old boy. Now, however, as he entered the city, Greene was alert and serious, prepared to meet with a rain of artillery at any moment.

But... none came. “I was hiding behind a stone building,” he says, “peeking around the edge.” Finally, the stillness of the city allowed him to let down his guard just enough to step around the building and look into the distance. He saw someone, far off on the horizon. Greene raised his rifle and aimed.

The man was making his way toward Greene, but slowly, haltingly. As he came closer, Greene saw that he was unarmed, and lowered his own rifle. He also realized the man was in uniform, but it was a uniform he didn’t recognize. “It was white with black stripes,” Greene recalls. “And it was just this one man. He was a walking skeleton.” The man came closer; Greene continued to watch him, waiting for something about this scenario to make sense. The man had to realize Greene was an American soldier; he could see Greene’s rifle. Why was he continuing to approach? “He staggered up and fell to his knees before me, uttering, ‘Freiheit. Freiheit.’”

Freedom. Freedom.

Greene was learning that he was among the first of his troop to stumble upon the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp, known to historians as one of the most brutal. German soldiers had already abandoned not only the camp but the entire town, which Greene’s regiment now overtook without struggle. The man at Greene’s feet had glazed eyes, and his bones stuck out alarmingly. “Zu essen?” Greene asked him with his simple German, offering him some of his army rations. “Nein,” the man said. “Tod.” No. Death. (The man was right. When medics arrived a couple of hours later, they confirmed it for Greene. “If you feed these starving humans,” they said, “you’ll kill them. We’ll make them a nourishing broth.”)

An old black and white photo of a young man speaking at a podium

Going into the ministry may have been Greene’s
saving grace, but not in the way one would expect.

A mile into the city, Greene and his fellow scouts found the camp the man had staggered away from. It was inhabited by a few hundred half-alive inmates, all wearing the same striped uniform. They were mostly Russian prisoners of war, and by the time Greene and others found them, they were outnumbered by about 1,300 corpses stacked two or three bodies high. “Some of the inmates were walking and talking,” Greene says, “but many were not. ‘Ich bin Amerikanisch,’ we told them, but they were overwhelmed.” So was Greene. He was still, after all, a teenage boy, and this moment, “a scene of abysmal evil,” would follow him for the rest of his life.

Decades later, in group therapy, Greene would begin processing the trauma of merely witnessing the horror. But that night he wrote to his parents back in Connecticut, where his father, Theodore Greene ’13, awoke each morning for his post as a Congregational minister, day in and day out, just as his grandfathers, Lucius Thayer and Frederick Greene, both class of 1882, had done before that. How did the hopeful gospel that his father and grandfathers preached have anything to do with the world Greene now inhabited? None of them had gone to war. “I wanted my family to know what compelled me to kill Germans,” Greene says fiercely. “Because, up to that point, the war was so impersonal. But when I saw what I saw that day, I said, ‘We have to defeat them. We have to defeat them so that fewer people die.’”

Nothing in Greene’s life had prepared him for this. To be fair, there was probably nothing that could have prepared anyone for this. Greene had never heard of a concentration camp; neither he nor any of his fellow soldiers would have been able to conceptualize it if someone had tried to tell them about it. Most Americans didn’t know about them before 1945. It was all too easy not to know, even for Germans who were living right there next to them.

But Greene’s upbringing in Connecticut was worlds away. Greene was raised in his parents’ polite Christianity, a traditional New England strain of Protestantism that Greene now describes as “an optimistic, progressive, building-a-better-world kind of faith.” The youthful and naive spirituality that Greene carried with him going into the war—an untested, unchallenged religious outlook—did not hold up in the face of the atrocity he witnessed.

“I could not put together what I had seen with my father’s faith,” he says. How could he square the simple religious messages he’d been raised on with the memories of war? There was the moment of paralysis he experienced during live combat when he crumpled into a fetal position behind a tree. “I wasn’t brave,” he says. “I was a 3-year-old little boy, huddled in terror, close enough to the bullets flying to hear them whine past.” There was the moment when, exhausted, he climbed into a bed to find another American soldier already there, raping a terrified German girl. There were the moments of hearing other soldiers scream as they lost parts of their bodies. “Some were blown to bits 200 yards from me,” Greene says. And then: Nordhausen.

Greene returned to the States with his belief in God mostly shattered, and the world his father and grandfathers lived in no longer felt like his own. And yet, a mere three weeks after he was shipped home from the other planet that he’d been living on, Greene found himself in exactly the same world that all the other men in his family, going back several generations, had been in when they were his age: Amherst College.

A black and white photo of an older man with his hand to his face staring into the distance

Seven decades separate Greene’s current reality from
his wartime days. The memories remain raw.

“I came back an agnostic,” Greene says. This version of himself—a hollowed-out, utterly changed young man, now barely out of his teens—sailed into New York Harbor with his discharge papers in hand on Aug. 30, 1946, after a particularly lengthy overseas trip in a beat-up cargo ship with about a thousand other soldiers. It had taken 18 days—much longer than it should have—because though the war was ostensibly over, attacks at sea continued. Two submarines around the north of Ireland shot at the cargo ship Greene was in, forcing the soldiers to head back to Wales and transfer to another cargo ship, one that was so similar that the soldiers could mimic the exact same bunk arrangement in the hold. This trip home was going on forever. Greene had been injured, not during combat but from falling from a telephone pole, so he had spent the last several months of his deployment in the infirmary. He was eager to get back to some semblance of normalcy. Amherst College would be the place to find it.

But his class was atypical, for Greene was not the only veteran; in fact, there were 250 others right along with him, all there on the GI Bill. “Thanks to all of us, there were 400 of us in the class—the biggest they’d ever had up to that point by far,” Greene says. The class wasn’t just bigger. It was older, literally and metaphorically. “Traditionally, freshmen were expected to wear these ugly caps, these beanies. But our class? Two hundred and fifty combat vets?” Greene says with a curt laugh. “The College realized the problem. No one ever tried to put a beanie on any of us! They weren’t going to mess with guys who’d just put bullets through German  soldiers. Many of us were killers.”

Greene was relieved and grateful to be at college, but his experience was necessarily different from what his brother’s and father’s had been, and that beanie—or the lack of it—was only the beginning. He was not a wide-eyed, innocent youngster. He had seen more horror in his 20 years than many people would see in their entire lives. The scaffolding of his Congregationalist upbringing had been shaky, but to his surprise, it was at Amherst that he found his way back to an understanding of faith that made sense in the wake of war. “Two men were responsible,” Greene says: Amherst chaplain John Coburn, who was also rector of Grace Episcopal Church, and associate chaplain Robert McAfee Brown ’43, who, years later, would stare up at Greene from the cover of Time magazine as the most influential American theologian.

Unlike his father and grandfathers, kindhearted ministers who had never seen combat, these men had an inkling of what Greene had been through. “They knew war,” Greene recalls. “They had counseled many vets with PTSD, then called shellshock or combat fatigue. Quite a fatigue, let me tell you.” They didn’t try to talk Greene out of his departure from his faith.

Rather, they helped him see his way through to a different version of it, one that didn’t blink at the presence of evil but instead recognized it, looked it square in the eye. “They said, ‘Thayer, it’s all living inside you—sin, the unconscious, the collective shadow.’ ” Greene’s coursework dovetailed with his spiritual work. “At Amherst I read a good deal of Jung and psychology. We didn’t have to be very smart to get it. We understood—rape, murder, theft, you could go down the list of the seven deadly sins. We saw a lot of it, and not just on the German side. But that’s why the gospel is a gospel of grace,” Greene says. “It’s a second chance at being human.”

Greene was a history major at Amherst but somehow kept finding himself drawn to theological studies. He was reading the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth, very different theologians than the kind he’d grown up with. Niebuhr never shied away from talking about how faith intersects not only with ethics but with politics; Barth, who was Swiss and had lived in Germany before the war, was vocal in the years after the war about guilt and responsibility in the wake of the Third Reich. Their theologies were exciting; they were active; they were outspoken. Greene paid attention. “I was curious. Bob Brown ran a group especially for skeptics, and I joined it. We challenged them, but those chaplains were thoughtful and insightful,” he says. And then he found himself on a path he didn’t expect: “I decided my senior year I’d either try seminary for a year and then maybe get a Ph.D. in history, or else I’d go into the Foreign Service and work for peace. And I decided, well, my grandfather and father were ministers, so... I guessed I’d give it a try.”

You can sense where this story is going. By fall of 1953, Greene was an Amherst College chaplain himself. Not only that, but he found himself also accepting a pastor position at the First Congregational Church of Amherst. Soon he was ministering, with no assistance, to more than 800 people, on his own, at the tender age of 27. “But I was born an old man,” Greene laughs. And if he hadn’t been, his war years would have made him one.

An older man with a white beard sitting in a chair with his face lit in a dark room
“I live with a tragic sense of life, and a magical, blessed sense of life,” Greene says.

Today, of course, he is an actual old man. Greene’s war years are now more than seven decades behind him. Looking back, he recalls his sense, even as a teenage boy, that the situation was deeply absurd. “They’re trying to kill me, and they don’t even know me. It was a combination of exciting, scary, stunning that I was doing this. I was more used to trying to pass my German exam than firing at a German.”

But now, with a lifetime of distance between his current reality and his wartime days, the memories are surprisingly raw. One can see that telling his story exhausts him, but he’s intent upon doing it. America’s current political environment has inspired him to speak about his experiences— particularly witnessing the concentration camp, a horror that still shocks, is still too large to wrap one’s head around. Today, most people recognize the black-and-white striped uniform that confounded Greene; most people know what the words concentration and camp mean when you put them together. But Greene did not understand what he was seeing then, and he’s convinced that most Americans do not fully comprehend the enormity of it today. “I’ve talked with quite a number of people who are isolated and detached from the reality,” he says.

Going into the ministry may have been Greene’s saving grace, and not in the way one might expect. Of all the duties a chaplain and pastor have, the one he found most gratifying was counseling. After a few years in the clergy, Greene followed up his divinity degree with a Ph.D. in psychology. It was when he began studying Jungian analysis, years after his chaplains at Amherst had introduced him to the ideas of Jung, that he finally realized his calling. “This was it,” he says. “All those previous vocations had led to this. Fortunately, God agreed.” Greene left the pulpit and began a long and satisfying career as a psychoanalyst—a ministry of a different sort, and one he still practices.

At the age of 93 (“and a half,” he says), Greene still sees patients. His wife, Anita, does too. The pair moved just last year to a retirement community but still live very independently, and Greene has an average of eight clients a week. “I do it because I love it, and I’m getting pretty good at it,” he jokes. “That level of engagement in other’s people’s lives is a very effective stimulant for my own creative life.” And in his off hours, Greene is a passionate Red Sox fan. “The odds are against them getting back in the World Series,” he admits, “but I’m an optimist.”

He is an optimist. His optimistic outlook on life is irrepressible. But make no mistake: he is also a realist. “When you have seen war, when you have seen death, it changes you. I saw a lot of death and sadism, a lot of survival of half bodies,” he says. “On occasion, people who don’t know my experiences will say, Isn’t life wonderful? I say, Sometimes it’s wonderful. And sometimes, it’s terrible. Sometimes it’s terrifying beyond words. I live with a tragic sense of life, and a magical, blessed sense of life, and I have to honor it all. It’s all living inside me, all the time.”

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in The New York Times, in The Washington Post and on New England Public Radio, among other places. Her children’s book Be Kind: You Can Make the World a Happier Place was released this year.

Photos by Marc Ostow