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Carrol S Walsh Jr. At rest in Johnstown, NY. Photo by Elizabeth Connolly.

Carrol S Walsh Jr. At rest in Johnstown, NY. Photo by Elizabeth Connolly.

Thirteen summers ago, I sat down for an interview with an amazing man. What he would relate to me, and what I would do with it, would go on to change both of our lives.  A seemingly small incident would be recalled almost as an aside in the wider context of World War II, but then would go on to reverberate through time, and space, creating ripples in the cosmos that grew into waves. Big waves that would carry me, and many others, to places we had never thought possible.

You see, on Friday, April 13th, 1945, twenty-five hundred lives were saved as advance elements of the U.S. Army 743rd Tank Battalion, 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, and  30th Infantry Division stumbled across the crime of the century, perhaps of all time.

A train transport stopped at a railroad siding. Open boxcars, sealed boxcars, shabby passenger cars, engine. Some people wandering about, others too ill to move. Sick and emaciated human beings.  Women. Men. Children. SS bands roaming the countryside. Orders to execute. A bridge over the River Elbe ahead to be blown to smithereens. With the transport, and the people on it.

The soldiers told me their stories.  In the course of collecting their narratives, we found others who played their parts and rescued those people.

I listened. We wrote. We recorded, and I posted. Then, the wires began tripping. Seven Septembers ago, we put together the first of many reunions between these soldiers and the child survivors of the Holocaust they rescued.

“Joyful” does not do it justice. What do you say to the men who saved you and your family when you were a child?

Carrol smiles, grips their arms in greeting, and laughs, “Long time, no see!” Sixty-two years, that’s all. On April 13th, 1945, the war weary, “seen-it-all” twenty-four year old second lieutenant is in for the shock of his life.

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Five years ago this week, we put on quite a show at our high school.  High school kids listening to, meeting, sharing, laughing, crying, even dancing  with octogenarian U.S. soldiers and Holocaust survivors. ABC World News called my classroom and told me they were on their way up from NYC headquarters to film us. You can see Carrol, and listen to fellow tank commander George Gross’ narrative from our interviews, and hear fellow soldier Frank Towers describe his role in the liberation.

The last evening together, soldiers and survivors from all over the world watched the broadcast together, and we said our prayer of thanksgiving. Hundreds of students became the witnesses for the generations to come.

And so it comes full circle. Nearly ten percent of the passenger list has been found, over 60 years later. Profound things keep happening.

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We lost Carrol less than two years ago, George earlier. So I write this week to remember, and remind myself of what a legacy, and gift, they left us. While it may have been a tiny part of  very productive lives (a New York State Supreme Court justice, and English literature professor, respectively), for the rest of my days I will think of the times I got to talk to them, and smile.

And think about their own words: “What are we going to do with all these people?”

Indeed. Just look at the generations that sprang forth, because of what our soldiers stopped to do, in a shooting war. In complex, fluid situations, there are no easy answers, but don’t you think that there is a very important lesson here?

It was not part of the mission. But maybe as a society we should break down and examine the values that made the mission change, if even as a “sideline”.

Sometimes it just feels good to feel proud.

But temper pride with the wisdom of the retired New York State Supreme Court justice:

“No.

They don’t owe us anything. Not a thing.

We owe them~

For what the world allowed to happen to them.”

 

Slide17NBC Learn came to town and filmed in my classroom in late April. We were learning about some pretty heavy stuff, the liberation of the camps, in this case Dachau.

It was a good experience for my kids to kind of demonstrate what they learned and why the study of this particular segment of history is something that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Slide24From the producer:

“Our site is accessed by thousands of teachers and students…. [for use as] on-line curriculum for middle school students on World War II.”

“I owe a debt to you and your students for your help on the video… By allowing us to film in the class and setting it up for us, you and your students provided a context that was so essential to tell Rich’s difficult story.”

 

You can also click here for the High Def version, “Richard Marowitz, a Liberation Story.”

http://static.nbclearn.com/files/nbclearn/site/video/widget/NBC_Learn_Video_Widget2.swf?CUECARD_ID=70738

It’s pretty well done and the kids did a great job.

UPDATE: Richard passed shortly after this interview was released. It was his last one. God speed, Rich.

Here are some stills:

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Slide18

Slide16

 

 

 

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For more about the original visit by NBC, click here.

~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~


A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

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July 18.

It’s been a helluva trip. I have toured authentic sites, met some good people, forged some pretty strong bonds with other educators as colleagues and friends. I’ve tramped the grounds where hundreds of my Holocaust survivor friends were held and/or had family members perish.

Our teachers in Cracow, Poland, Schindler Factory Museum of Cracow.

Our teachers in Cracow, Poland, Schindler Factory Museum of Cracow.

So. Now it is time to begin processing it all.

Writing this, I have been traveling and pondering for over 24 hours now. I am back in the USA – missing a flight,  the airlines seemingly conspired to help  extend my pensive mood by granting me a complimentary hotel room on the outskirt of nowhere near Dulles Airport- so my adventure will be extended one more night. I hardly know what day of the week it is but in a way that is kind of refreshing.

From Day One I think all of us on the trip are in the same boat- folks you know are excited and proud of you for being selected on an elite study tour for teachers, but maybe question a bit why one would spend $3 or 4K of one’s own treasure*, leave your family and loved ones for three weeks to travel with “strangers”, or forfeit 3 weeks of summer earning potential to tour the sites of the scenes of the greatest crime in the history of the world.

Well, you gotta give them that. This is kind of strange- or so it may seem if you are on the outside cupping your hand on the window glass trying to look in.

I think, as one of my Facebook followers put it,  that we did something very brave. We toured over two dozen places where I figure 3 million people were murdered.

Or to put it in maybe a more appropriate context, we saw, walked through, and touched the ground where  nearly a million families were killed. By no means did we tour the thousands of camps and subsites where millions more lives were destroyed.

 

The numbers tell the story in a way, but not completely, because try as one might, one cannot understand them. I know the numbers- I have the knowledge- but as Steve our tour historian says, there is a clear difference between knowledge and understanding. Some things are beyond comprehension.

 

Belzec. Letter from survivor to me, who lost her family there.

Belzec. Letter from survivor to me, who lost her family there.

400,000 murdered in Belzec.

1.1 million in Auschwitz II/Birkenau.

900,000 at Treblinka.

We have been to all of these places in the past three days. People comment that they can’t get their head around it, they can’t begin to fathom the mass indifference to human life that we have witnessed.

Treblinka. 900,000 lost.

Treblinka. 900,000 lost.

So let’s look at what we did come to some kind of understanding about.

What we learned was of the ripple effect of the seemingly small things that illustrated the resilience of the human spirit. That resistance does not have to be just using physical force against your tormentors- it goes way beyond that.

Madjanek. My "I'm in a really, really bad dream day". Under the Soviet era memorial lies a pile of ash and cremated bone the size of a small house.

Majdanek. My “I’m in a really, really bad dream” day. Under the Soviet era memorial dome lies a pile of ash and cremated bone the size of a small house.

The program has been in operation for 30 years, begun by survivors of  the Warsaw Ghetto, those who resisted but survived. Vladka Meed pointed out that the Ghetto Uprising in 1943, which held the Germans at bay for weeks, was begun by the young people. And it is for them, the young,  that we educators make this trip.

So, trying to keep it simple and summing it up:

1. This was not a trip about death. It was a trip about life.  I can’t say that I found God, but this trip was one of the most spiritually reflective journeys that I have ever been on, bordering on a religious experience. So folks will ask when I get home- how was it?-my answer will be:

Righteous.  For me, not epic, not amazing, not awesome.

Righteous.

2. I had many of my Holocaust educational and pedagogical thoughts confirmed and other assumptions challenged. Some ideas presented to me I felt comfortable enough to challenge myself, but in thinking about them, I came to deeper understanding. The most important understanding confirmed is a problem that all teachers must struggle with in our flawed educational system. We have to be diligent about avoiding the promotion of generalization as fact, to avoid doing a disservice to our students. If you are  teaching this history, you had better be versed enough and nuanced enough to accept inconsistencies, problematic complexities, and probe these things to induce a more intricate set of questions to your kids.

3. We have to be willing to accept that perhaps there are no correct answers- a notion that educators  are uncomfortable with- but  one that must  be accepted, nevertheless.  To promote generalities in this complex history, or any history is wrong. But especially this one, it seems to me. It was a watershed event in the history of the world, and for humanity, on many levels.

4. Lastly, it was certainly not just a trip to study how to teach the Holocaust. Perhaps reinforced more was how NOT to teach it. And  at the end of the day, it was a tour not only of authentic sites, but also of the mind, and how to make it work.

Sometimes I thought myself to the verge of tears, behind the sunglasses. Thinking-not only about answers- but about the questions.

And that’s what these teachers “did on our summer vacation”.

Memorial to Warsaw Uprising

Memorial to Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

* thanks to the American soldiers, Holocaust survivors, and special folks who were able to support my efforts.

~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~


A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

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July 16. I wrote in my journal on the bus ride back from Treblinka. The handwriting is nearly illegible due to the poor roads, underscoring the remoteness of this place where 900,000 plus were murdered.

In the afternoon we headed to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. As in many occupied  areas the cemetery also contains a mass grave.

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Wall rebuilt with smashed stones. Warsaw Jewish cemetery.

A poignant memorial statue also exists here to Janusz Korczak (1878-1942), who was murdered at Treblinka with 200 of his orphaned charges, accompanying them to the gas chambers.

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There is so much more to learn here. In the evening we dress for a Chopin recital.

 

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The dichotomy is striking. Horrible places by day. Evening debriefing and intense discussions over dinner, palatial accommodations by night. The concert is in a former palace.

 

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I’d say we deserve it.

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July 17.

We tour Jewish Warsaw and finally the remnants of the ghetto wall, and also the Umschlagplatz. It is here that forced gatherings for the mass deportations to Treblinka took place. I am also reminded of the scene from the film “The Pianist”.

 

 

 

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

 

The  Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

 

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The  Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

We walk the edge of the wall, memorialized in bronze in the sidewalk.

 

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And we come to a section that still stands.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

 

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are hear, listening to their teacher.

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are here, listening to their teacher.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was the first open fight in an occupied city against the Germans. And it was conducted by Jewish youth, who held off the Germans for a month in the spring of 1943. Utterly inspiring and amazing. We make our way to Mila 18, the bunker command post where Mordechai Anielewicz and many of the resistance fighters breathed their last. It is another solemn moment.

18 Mila Street.

18 Mila Street.

Monument at Mila 18.

Monument at Mila 18.

 

We know why we are here. We are not only witnesses, but we were chosen to become, for many, the point of entry on the immense and sometimes unfathomable subject of the Holocaust, and the many forms of resistance that were taken during it.  And so rightly, our trip is concluding here. The processing will only come over time.

 

~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~

 

A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

 

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After my last post, I heard from a Holocaust survivor whom I feel very close to, several fellow travelers and supporters, and one person who appears convinced that I am a fool, though it is apparent that he did not study the full post, nor has any familiarity with my work. Not that he had any intention of that. He appears to be somewhat anally fixated on the gas chamber that I would not enter.

In fairness, even at the time I knew that my decision not to go into the gas chamber would spark a “reaction” like this. Here is what he wrote:

You’re an emotion and propaganda-susceptible gullible fool.

You’re “teaching history” and not going into the fraudulently alleged homicidal gas chambers? Or do you subconsciously already know it’s bullshit?

There were NO fake shower rooms disguised as gas chambers.

That’s a racist anti-German blood libel. Shame on you. The Bath and Disinfection 1 facility was just that!

Then he sent me to his website. Sure, I went. “Holocaust Hoax” or something original like that.  Why, there is even a PayPal button for donations. Working out great, I am sure. Sigh. Same old rehashed, regurgitated nonsense. Fred Leuchter a qualified expert. Uh-huh.  What else?  Jewish supremacy/conspiracy.  Okay. “Fraudulently alleged”. “Blood libel”. Hmm, heard that one before. The teaching history matters guy is “propaganda-susceptible”. Gullible. Racist at that, though I have written about my German friends and have gone out of my way to praise the German historians I have met on this journey.

Must be teaching the wrong history. So yes. Shame on me.

I get it. And I’m sure I’ll get a really well thought out nasty follow-up. But really, thanks  for reinforcing the importance of what I do. Your words mean more than you could ever know.

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 July 16.

My impression of Poland is that it seems pretty flat. Makes sense, as this is in the heart of the great Northern Plain I have been teaching about for years. A natural invasion route. Sandy, too. After the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, the deployment of the Einsatzgruppen  began in earnest and the plans for the Final Solution became clearer.

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We are in Warsaw now.

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In fact, our hotel, the Bristol, is right next door to the Presidential Palace. We are in the top digs in the town-which of course the Germans occupied before the war. We go out at night, to purge some of the madness that, if you are not careful, can begin to accumulate like a toxin in the soul. Light, refreshing conversation. Good Polish beer. And yes, laughs with fellow travelers.

The Bristol in Warsaw. A backdrop for Leon Uris' classic Mila 18.

The Bristol in Warsaw. A backdrop for Leon Uris’ classic Mila 18.

The Bristol in Warsaw. A backdrop for Leon Uris' classic Mila 18.

The Bristol in Warsaw. A backdrop for Leon Uris’ classic Mila 18. Appropriate digs for superstar schoolteachers.

The Presidential Palace right next to the Bristol. Literally. Where they put us up.

The Presidential Palace right next to the Bristol. Literally. Where they put us up.

Tim, Scott, Alan. Warsaw. In front of our hotel, the Bristol.

Tim, Scott, Alan. Warsaw. In front of our hotel, the Bristol. Outlaws, livin’ life and loving every minute of it.

 

Warsaw of 2014 is an exciting place to be, as Krakow was. I’ll come back to this in the next post.

Today we are bussed to Treblinka, about 50 miles northeast.

The primary roads turn on to secondary roads. Towns become villages as we make the final approach on tertiary roads that are dirt. But there are railroad tracks that we cross, then follow.

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Treblinka I was a forced labor camp. Soon enough, orders came down to construct Treblinka II, a full-blown killing center authorized, like Sobibor and Belzec,  within the parameters of Aktion Reinhard.

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The language. “Extermination Camp.” Commonly used. Like human beings were bugs or something.

Much of the Warsaw ghetto occupants were murdered here, including, again, relatives of survivors I am close to. Micha Tomkiewitz’s father was shot down as he leapt from the train to Treblinka.

When we arrive here we go to a tiny museum where our guide Waclaw gives us the layout of the camp, overlooking a huge scale model.

Model of Treblinka II.

Model of Treblinka II.

SS guard vegetable garden in the front. The trains would roll in like clockwork, beginning in the early afternoon.

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The deception reaches its height at Treblinka. There is a station, and a sign.

Treblinka station sign. Yad Vashem.

Treblinka station sign. Yad Vashem.

A clock. The barbed wire double fence is cloaked in trees, some branches even woven into the fence itself. New arrivals in transports of up to seven thousand, are sometimes greeted with a speech by the camp commander, then are directed to step down and disembark, to hand over all valuables, as they are at a “transit center”.

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Scott contemplates disembarkation site. Treblinka II.

They undress in segregated areas, and  run naked down the “tube” a camouflaged fenced in path that led to the gas chambers. They are beaten by SS men and specially trained Ukrainian guards. The clothes are searched by the sondercommandos and sorted.

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We move on to the site of the gas chambers. Even the “bath house” has a Star of David, a Hebrew inscription that reads, “This is the gate through which the righteous pass.” Once inside, the doors are sealed, and a captured Soviet T-34 tank engine is started, pumping choking carbon monoxide into the chamber.

The Soviet memorial at the site of the gas chambers. Kaddish is said. Treblinka II.

The Soviet memorial at the site of the gas chambers. Kaddish is said. Treblinka II.

After a quarter-hour, the people would be dead. Bodies would then be pulled out and cavities searched for gold or other valuables. The disposition of the corpses evolved, almost as a science, at some of these centers. Iron railroad railswould be set up and huge pyres would be created. Near the end of the camp’s existence, Himmler ordered that bodies be exhumed and cremated, to hide the evidence. Ashes were scattered, mixed in with the sandy earth, and plowed over.  Treblinka was so far off the beaten path and so well hidden that for years the general public had no knowledge of it.

Memorial stones. 1700 of them. One for each shtetl, town, city destoryed or purged of its Jewish population in Poland. Treblinka II.

Memorial stones. 1700 of them. One for each shtetl, town, city destroyed or purged of its Jewish population in Poland. Treblinka II.

Between July 1942 and Nov. 1943, probably near 900,000 people were murdered here. But a little known part of the story focuses on the uprising that lead to the camp’s demise, documented in narrative style in Jean-François  Steiner’s 1966 book Treblinka. Under the noses of the SS and Ukrainians, a secret revolt manifested among the slave laborers. On August 2, 1943, six hundred attacked the guards, burned parts of the camp, and about half of them managed to escape into the forest. Most did not survive, but a few dozen did.

So we are at the scene of the crime , educators from across the USA, sharing this special bond, only 70 years later.

Talli: “There is such a presence”.

We gather at the site of the gas chambers. Mindy is reading her poem. Talli is crying. Beryl shares a special story. Elaine is crying. Matt’s tougher today, so after the prayer, he is going to wander the perimeter, by himself. Again.

We were only there for at the most a couple of hours. But, as my friend Alan, who shared these moments as well,  says, “Treblinka manifests the Absence of Presence, the Presence of Absence. What’s there is not there, what’s not there is there.”

And with a little quiet, you can feel it. There is such a presence.

~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~


A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

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July 14.

Belzec has changed me, somehow. Maybe the personal connection. At each new authentic site, where these unspeakable horrors were perpetrated, some kind of invisible hand pushes me just a little bit harder. It’s tough to explain. But this evening as I write into the early hours in my bed in the splendid Grand Hotel, perhaps Lublin’s most celebrated and storied, I am troubled a bit. I fall asleep fitfully, imagining the sounds of Nazi jackboots on the staircases outside the room where they once strode.

Grand Hotel, Lublin.

Grand Hotel, Lublin.

Grand Hotel, Lublin.

Grand Hotel, Lublin.

Grand Hotel, Lublin.

Grand Hotel, Lublin.

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July 15.

The month after the invasion of the Soviet Union, Himmler ordered the construction of a new concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin, for centuries an important center of Jewish life and culture in Europe. The original purpose of the camp, to be known as Majdanek (pronounced “My-don-ek”), was to provide forced labor for the construction of SS and administrative centers in the planned eastern territories.

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Majdanek holds a central role in the administration of Operation Reinhard. To recap, for just over two years beginning in October 1941, the purpose of the operation was

1) the physical annihilation of the Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement (occupied Poland);
2) the exploitation of some Jews selected to survive temporarily as forced laborers;
3) the seizure, evaluation, and recycling of clothing, personal property, valuables, and currency taken from the murdered Jews at the killing centers; and
4) the identification of so-called hidden assets of the Jews in the Generalgouvernement.

Within the framework of Operation Reinhard, Majdanek primarily served to concentrate Jews whom the Germans spared temporarily for forced labor. It occasionally functioned as a killing site to murder victims who could not be killed at the Operation Reinhard killing centers: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II. It also contained a storage depot for property and valuables taken from the Jewish victims at the killing centers.

Like other concentration camps in the Reich, Majdanek also served as a killing site for targeted groups of individuals, including members of the Polish resistance, hostages taken from the Security Police prison in Lublin, and prisoners in the camp itself who were deemed no longer capable of work. ~USHMM

Majdanek. Photo by Alan Bush.

Majdanek. Photo by Alan Bush.

 

Majdanek.

Majdanek. Premier Soviet Sixties style.

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You know how a sound, or a smell, can bring trigger memory?

Creosote.

 

Majdanek.

Majdanek.

 

I am at Majdanek. This place is the real deal. The barracks are intact wooden shacks. The guard towers menace like creatures from “The War of the Worlds”.

On top of that, the Soviet Memorial in the far off distance resembles a flying saucer hovering over an unknown object.

Majdanek. Note Soviet Memorial. It is actually a mausoleum. Which I did not know until I saw it with my own eyes. Human remains.

Majdanek. Note Soviet Memorial at the end of the road… It is actually much more than a memorial. Which I did not know until I saw it with my own eyes.

 

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Approaching the memorial. Still no idea of what I am about to witness.

 

The buildings reek. I know that smell. Gasoline-like. My dad used to layer it on thick, this petroleum based wood preservative, on our hunting shack in the Adirondacks when I was a teenager, before the government outlawed it for public use.

Creosote.

At this site,  do you know that this camp is, to my knowledge, the only one that was captured intact, by Soviet forces, exactly 69 years ago this month as the Red Army overran this area? And it has an un-destroyed gas chamber?

So why not see it?

Go in it?

Majdanek. Gas Chamber building. "Showers".

Majdanek. Gas Chamber building. “Showers”.

 

Majdanek. Gas Chamber building. "Bath and Disinfection I"

Majdanek. Gas Chamber building. “Bath and Disinfection I”

Well, I did go in the building where it is housed.

Low ceiling. Dark. Concrete floors with gutter channels. Sinks. Pushing a bit deeper, my chest begins to constrict. Collar feels tighter. Into another door and room in the “assembly line”. Showerheads above, all connected, all so orderly.

Trailing behind, now.

To continue moving forward with the group will bring me to the gas chamber. I turn around and my feet carry me back, fast, and through the entrance, I exit.

I’m just not going there.

Alan takes a photo inside, not of the chamber or the empty Zyklon B canisters, but of the sign:

Bath and Disinfection I-Fawn, Alan, Ashley, Beryl--Majdanek Poland 15 July 2014. Photo by Alan Bush.

Bath and Disinfection I-Fawn, Alan, Ashley, Beryl–Majdanek Poland 15 July 2014. Photo by Alan Bush.

 

I wait outside. I am conscious of a pull to witness, but today I am just not going to go in.

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The next building is the storehouse. “Majdanek also served another key Operation Reinhard function; it contained storage facilities for clothing and personal items stolen from the Jews before their deaths in the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II killing centers.” (USHMM)

Walking in here you are overpowered first by the smell of the creosote, then your eyes try to take it all in- row upon row of piles of shoes, behind chicken wire. Is this possible?

Shoes and lost dignity Majdanek Poland 15 July 13. Alan Bush photo.

Shoes and lost dignity, Majdanek Poland 15 July 13. Alan Bush photo.

Alan Bush photo.

Alan Bush photo.

Okay.

Time to move in to the barracks area.

Two young Polish women with a stroller casually pass us, chatting. They are cutting through Majdanek to take a shortcut to the Catholic cemetery on the outside of the memorial complex. The irony is not lost on the group.

And it is going to get a helluva lot more ironic in the next 20 minutes.

Barracks area.

Barracks area.

On to the Soviet Memorial and the crematorium. The crematorium is intact, too. Again I hang back.

 

My journal, written on the spot, at that moment:

majdanek excerpt

I am at Majdanek. I would not go into the gas chamber and right now I will not go into the crematorium.

 

I go over and check out a memorial stone with a plaque near the steps to the Soviet Memorial.

 

Memorial Stone. Note undulating terrain in background. Alan Bush photo.

Memorial Stone. Note undulating terrain in background. Alan Bush photo.

 

Me alone at Majdanek.

Me alone at Majdanek.

So what happened at this spot? I think I need to sit down. Now.

They play the music really loud to try to disguise the gunshots to the folks back in the town. It’s starting to have the makings of a really long day.  A bit chilly too, being early November and all.  The shooters.

 

Journal again:

Right now I am sitting on the concrete steps alone in front of a memorial stone, right before the ditches where 18,500 Jews were executed in the “Harvest Festival”.

I am in front of a mass grave by myself. I want to be alone so right now I am pretending to write something deep.

 

 

And here is your 1943 view.

And here is your 1943 view.

 

So I’m kinda stunned, sitting on the stairs and scratching such nothingness into my notebook. What else should I be doing?

When the group trickles over to the steps, we ascend. Someone asks if I am okay.

Yeah, I’m fine.

Eighteen thousand five hundred. Murdered right in front of me. In one day. That is twenty times the population of our high school, on a good day, when they all feel like coming to school.

 

Now we are under the dome, that stupid looking flying saucer. We are in it, looking down on a mound the size of a small house. Big pile of whitish grayish stuff. And as the realization dawns, now comes the shock that nearly knocks me over on my ass. What the poor saps in the Twilight Zone must have felt as they realized everything was the opposite of what they had assumed. I’m suddenly in a very personal episode of the Twilight Zone.

I don’t need a sign for this. As a trained archaeologist, I have excavated this more than a few times.

Cooked bone.

I am looking at a mountain of burned bone. Calcified bone fragments, powder, and earth.

Kippah on ashes Majdanek 15 July 13. Photo by Alan Bush.

Kippah on ashes Majdanek 15 July 13. It’s a giant urn, an open air mausoleum.          (Note people in background for scale.) Photo by Alan Bush.

I am face to face with cremated human remains. Bleached white and gray from superheat.

How many thousands of human beings are in front of me?

I don’t know why, but I don’t participate in the Kaddish here. Sorry. I don’t pocket a rock for a memorial memento, either.

 

Catholic cemetery, Poland.

Catholic cemetery, Poland. I suppose you could get an accurate count here.

Today was a bad dream day.

And if there are any words, they are drowned out by some kind of twisted irony here in Majdanek, this monument to the dead, in the sounds of being outflanked by a speeding baby stroller cutting through the camp, wheels squeaking-yes, maybe life, but an apt metaphor for the present, willful yet oblivious, dodging and darting the presence of the past.

But it’s here.

~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~


A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

***************************

July 13. Our last day in this beautiful, revitalized city of Krakow. And like the city, the Jewish community is also trying to revitalize. There is even a Jewish Cultural Festival coming up in Krakow. Our non-Jewish young Polish guides here have certainly been passionate about not letting the past die, as were our German historians encountered on our trip. Gusia takes us to the Jewish Community Center, and Jakub gives us a guided tour in the new Jewish Heritage Museum. He reaches 12,000 schoolchildren, doing outreach, and works with others to resurrect desecrated Jewish cemeteries. As he puts it, it is Polish heritage as well as Jewish heritage. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Poland was the center of European Jewish life.  In fact, at the end of the 18th century, 75% of the world’s Jews lived in the former Galicia,  once part of Poland, Ukraine and the Austria-Hungarian empire. Still, in most places in Poland there is nothing left of what was. Out of what was once millions, today only between 12,000 and 14,000 Jews call Poland home. Let’s not forget that after the war, Jewish survivors were not exactly welcomed back by their neighbors with open arms. And the Communist regime conducted its own purges of Jews as well.

All the more reason to embrace the work of Gusia and Jakub and other dedicated Poles.

Jewish Community Center, Krakow

Jewish Community Center, Krakow.

***************************************

letter from AR at Belzec July 2013

July 14. Bus ride is long, from Krakow to Belzec (pronounced “Bel-zich”) Memorial site. Five hours. Imagine what it was like traveling in a packed railcar.   Well, we can’t.

I carry a letter with me written by my friend, survivor Ariela, who, like many friends is supporting me in my travel here. It has been in my pocket for weeks. Ariela was 11 when she was liberated with her aunt on the train near Magdeburg, from Bergen Belsen. She too had been in the prison at Montelupich in Krakow.

A little girl.

In a political prison.

 

Ariela R. at the time of her liberation. Age 11. April 1945. Photograph by liberator George C. Gross.

Ariela R. at the time of her liberation. Age 11. April 1945. Photograph by liberator George C. Gross.

 

So, I am kind of quiet as we approach the memorial site. Ariela’s mother, only 36, both of her grandmothers, her grandfather and two aunts were murdered here in 1942. Her father, other grandfather, and uncle were murdered in Auschwitz, where we were two days ago.

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Belzec, Poland. Half a million people murdered on this site. Half a million.

Belzec, Poland. Half a million people murdered on this site. Half a million. Unreal.

From the USHMM:

“In November 1941, SS and police authorities in Lublin District began construction of a killing center on the site of the former Belzec labor camp. The choice of location was dictated by good rail connections and proximity to significant Jewish populations in the Lvov, Krakow, and Lublin districts of the Generalgouvernement. The facility was finished in the late winter of 1942 as part of what later would be called Operation Reinhard (also called Aktion Reinhard), the plan implemented by the SS and Police Leader in Lublin to murder the Jews of the Generalgouvernement. Belzec began operations on March 17, 1942.”

Belzec Memorial.

Belzec Memorial.

Belzec Memorial site. There was no memorial for nearly 60 years.

Belzec Memorial site. There was no memorial for nearly 60 years.

“Trains of 40 to 60 freight cars, with 80 to 100 people crowded into each car, arrived at the Belzec railway station. Twenty freight cars at a time were brought into the camp. Arriving Jews were ordered to disembark. German SS and police personnel announced that the Jewish deportees had arrived at a transit camp and were to hand over all valuables.”

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“Initially, men were separated from women and children, though in later months, as transport arrivals became more chaotic due to increased awareness of the victims of what would happen, the Germans and the Trawniki-trained auxiliaries could not always implement this segregation. The Jews were forced to undress and run through the “tube,” which led directly into gas chambers deceptively labeled as showers. Once the chamber doors were sealed, auxiliary police guards started an engine located outside the building housing the gas chambers. Carbon monoxide was funneled into the gas chambers, killing all those inside. The process was then repeated with deportees in the next 20 freight cars. “

Jews are forced into boxcars destined for the Belzec extermination camp. Lublin, Poland, 1942. USHMM.

Jews are forced into boxcars destined for the Belzec extermination camp. Lublin, Poland, 1942. USHMM.

“Groups of prisoners selected to remain alive as forced laborers removed bodies from the gas chambers and buried the victims in mass graves. Other prisoners were forced to sort the victims’ possessions and clean out freight cars for the next deportation. Camp staff periodically murdered these forced laborers, and replaced them with newly arrived prisoners. In October 1942, German SS and police personnel, using groups of Jewish prisoners, began to exhume the mass graves at Belzec and burn the bodies on open-air “ovens” made from rail track. The Germans also utilized a machine to crush bone fragments into powder. By late spring 1943, the camp was dismantled. During June 1943, the remaining Jewish prisoners were either shot in Belzec or deported to the Sobibor killing center to be gassed. After Belzec was dismantled, the Germans plowed over the site. Soviet forces overran the region in July 1944.”-USHMM

Belzec.

Belzec.

Open air ovens. Rail track. Machine. Bone fragments. Powder.

 

End of the Belzec extermination camp, c 1944.  USHMM

End of the Belzec killing center, c 1944. USHMM

 

Belzec.

Belzec.

The women in our group enter the memorial for a private ceremony. The seven men walk the perimeter, near the hillside. The memorial project leaders were told that during the Operation Reinhard actions, some of the locals would picnic on the hillside behind us as transports pulled in to discharge the terrified and doomed victims.

They would watch.

After the German attempt to destroy the site and hide the evidence of a half a million  gassed and cremated, the site would be rifled for gold, pockmarked with shovel pits by the local population.

Surely those Jews had gold with them, when they were killed.

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When Ariela came here in 1993, it had reverted to forested hillside.

I unfold the letter and step out into the volcanic type rocks imported here to build the memorial. I am setting up my own memorial.

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Matt Rozell at Belzec, 2013. Photo by Alan Bush.

Matt Rozell at Belzec, 2013. Photo by Alan Bush.

 

Belzec.

Belzec.

After the touring of the memorial (though “touring” is the wrong word, perhaps “witnessing” is the right one), I am lost in thought.  I had kept the letter to myself. Alan asks, gently,  if he may see it. It gets passed around in the back of the bus on our way to the hotel in Lublin. After what we have seen today, I think it makes an important impact on all.

Later, Alan sends his photograph of me placing the letter on the memorial, to Ariela. She is touched and writes back:

I want to thank you with all my heart for what you did for me, by taking my letter and putting it on the ground where my mother’s bones are spread. When I saw the picture, I cried. It is already 71 years but my heart still has feeling, for all my family. My father asked in his last letter from jail that I should pray for him, and believe me that I do.

Ariela went on to marry and have a wonderful family. Her beloved husband, another survivor, passed a short time ago.

***

Yes, it was another tough day, but somehow I feel like we are making a difference by coming here. I come with no agenda other than to see what happened, though obviously I too feel a personal stake in it all.

*

Sometimes, when I’m working on the woodpile or resting on the tailgate of my truck, I wonder why I was chosen to connect Holocaust survivors with their “angels”. Like this little girl with her liberators. And from there, to journey back in time to uncover what happened here.

Ariela meets her liberator Carrol "Red" Walsh, Sept. 2009, at our "reunion".

Ariela meets her liberator, tank commander Carrol “Red” Walsh, Sept. 2009, at our “reunion”.

I suppose I could have just let things be.

But I couldn’t leave things alone.

Holocaust survivor Ariela Rojek, right, was 11 years old in 1945 when she and 2,500 other concentration camp prisoners aboard a train near Magdeburg, Germany, were liberated by American forces including 1st Lt. Frank Towers, left with his son Frank Towers Jr., center. "You gave me my second life," Rojek told Towers Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, at Hudson Falls High School during an event reuniting soldiers and survivors. Jason McKibben Glens Falls Post Star

Holocaust survivor Ariela Rojek, right, was 11 years old in 1945 when she and 2,500 other concentration camp prisoners aboard a train near Magdeburg, Germany, were liberated by American forces including 1st Lt. Frank Towers, left with his son Frank Towers Jr., center. “You gave me my second life,” Rojek told Towers Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, at Hudson Falls High School during an event reuniting soldiers and survivors.
Photo by Jason McKibben, Glens Falls Post Star

It certainly seems that one thing builds upon another for a reason, and though we may not know that reason, it is there. Our actions reverberate across borders and through time.

It’s true.

So I’m here to make another special connection.

IMG_0001

 

Maybe from little girl to mother.

So no one forgets.

 

 

Kisses for Grandma.

Kisses for Grandma.

 

And the cycle, the mystery, the life continues.

 

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