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The cosmos trips once more. This month, shortly after my previous post about the discovery of previously unknown artwork by Hungarian Holocaust survivor Ervin Abadi, I was contacted by the family of another American soldier who was at Hillersleben camp as the survivors of the train were being nursed back to health by the medics of the 95th Medical Gas Battalion. They sent me most of the drawings below [Monroe Williams credit, courtesy the Williams family], published here for the first time.

Abadi’s recently discovered artwork matches that of his previously known work, some of which is housed in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Ervin Abadi, Typhus. USHMM Collection. Probably completed at Hillersleben DP Camp, May, 1945.

Ervin Abadi, Typhus. USHMM Collection. Probably completed at Hillersleben DP Camp, May, 1945.

(If you suspect that you have any of Abadi’s art in your family, or if anyone remembers his time at Hillersleben or Bergen Belsen, please drop me a line at the bottom.)

 

He was driven to express his gratitude for the American soldiers who freed him from the train, brought him to the hospital at Hillersleben, nursed him back to health and protected him in his stay at the displaced persons camp. These important drawings are proof of that, and confirm his dedication to feverishly recording everything that he could about those days. He drew his surroundings, his memories of the horrors of Bergen Belsen, and the beautiful young American soldiers around him, and even their precious photos of loved ones in their wallets!

In his words:

“Let these drawings serve as proof of my everlasting gratitude towards those to whom I owe my life. … To the soldiers of the United States Army, particularly to our immediate liberators, those soldiers of the 9th regiment who first entered the village of Zilitz and gave us bread, milk, chocolate, and cigarettes….”

American soldier at Hillersleben, 'Man'.  Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

American soldier at Hillersleben, ‘Man’. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

American soldier-medic at Hillersleben.  Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

American soldier-medic at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

A kapo inflicts a beating at Bergen-Belsen. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

A kapo inflicts a beating at Bergen-Belsen. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

The American hospital at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

The American hospital at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

Soldier Monroe Williams' parents. Probably sketched from wallet photo.  Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

Soldier Monroe Williams’ parents. Probably sketched from wallet photo. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

The 'casino' at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection. Note Red Cross tents in foreground. May have served as temporary morgue station.

The ‘casino’ at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection. Note Red Cross tents in foreground. May have served as temporary morgue station.

Former hospital at Hillersleben today. (Christian Wolpers photo.)

Former hospital at Hillersleben today. (Christian Wolpers photo.)

'Hillersleben-some disorderly DPs getting a shower bath (DDT?)' Soldier Luca Furnari photograph.

‘Hillersleben-some disorderly DPs getting a shower bath (DDT?)’ Soldier Luca Furnari photograph.

*****

Former American medic Walter Gantz called me out of the blue 3 years ago. Like all of the soldiers now reappearing in Abadi’s drawings, he was there. A couple newspaper articles appeared about Walter’s experience at  Hillersleben shortly thereafter. I put survivors in touch with him:

By the fall of 1944, the 95th [Medical Gas]Battalion was stationed at the Belgian-German border.

That winter, Mr. Gantz helped treat the wounded at the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes region, and by the spring of ’45 his unit had made its way into Germany.

In mid-April, they were in the town of Hillersleben setting up a displaced persons hospital when the Allies came across a train that had come from the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, where over 35,000 people, the vast majority of them Eastern European Jews, had died of typhus during the first few months of that year.

All told, there were roughly 2,400 emotionally damaged, disease-ridden and terribly malnourished people aboard the train. “Walking skeletons” was an apt description, according to Mr. Gantz.

“We weren’t knowledgeable about these (concentration camps) at the time,” said Mr. Gantz, who visited Bergen-Belsen days after it was liberated. There, he saw countless dead bodies “strewn everywhere.”

“It was hard to explain,” he said. “I cried. And then I prayed for these people. Not only were you angry about what happened, but you felt so helpless.”

Mr. Gantz’s unit spent about six weeks treating the survivors. A good 70 or 80 of them died, mostly of typhus. Among the biggest challenges was acquiring enough food supplies to feed them all. Many could only take their nourishment intravenously.

“A lot of them, if you were to give them food, they would gorge themselves and kill themselves. You had to be very careful as to what they ate,” he said. “Boy, oh boy, they would scream. Those screams would go right through your body.”

“Hillersleben was a living nightmare,” he added. “You don’t shake these horrible scenes from one’s mind.” {see more http://teachinghistorymatters.com/2011/11/04/my-parents-couldnt-understand-why-i-couldnt-sleep-at-times/}

***

Blessed – or maybe cursed – with a terrific memory, he can vividly recall the screams and overall sense of dread permeating the hospital, where he and his fellow medics wore a daily uniform of surgical masks, gloves and rubber aprons.

He remembers scooping handfuls of lice out of patients’ hair and administering countless needles and the time he had to carry the body of a little girl to a tent serving as a makeshift morgue.

“I still get flashbacks to that,” he said.

Many died, mostly of typhus. Among the biggest challenges was acquiring enough food to feed them all, since a good portion of them could only take their nourishment intravenously. One of the survivors Mr. Gantz has spoken with, Lexie Keston, now a resident of Australia, told him she weighed just 30 pounds at the time of the rescue. She was 8 years old.

As a result of Mr. Rozell’s [work], a handful of Bergen-Belsen survivors have been in touch with Mr. Gantz, including Ariela Rojek, a Toronto resident who was 11-1/2 years old at the time of the rescue.

Mrs. Rojek, a Pole who lost all but an aunt during the Holocaust, was among those suffering from typhus. She spent three weeks in semi-consciousness, and remembers having to be tied to the bed by medics trying to restrain her. Mr. Gantz could have been one of them, she said.

“Those soldiers, they gave me my life. Because I was very sick,” she said.

“It was tough. Some of our guys couldn’t take it,” Mr. Gantz said. “I have to admit, I did a lot of crying. I tried not to do it around the patients.”

Now, though, he has the peace of mind of knowing firsthand that, despite all the horrors, life did go on for the survivors of Bergen-Belsen, just as it did for him and his fellow veterans. Asked once by a friend what he took from his wartime experience, Mr. Gantz thought for a moment, then replied, “It made me stronger spiritually.”

“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “I thank the good Lord every day.”

“He’s one of the angels,” Mrs. Rojek said of Mr. Gantz. “I’m really grateful. Whenever I get a name and phone number, I always call them. They gave me a second life.”

Mr. Gantz, 87, said the whole experience has made him feel “10 feet tall.”

“I have to use the word mind-boggling. I guess you’d have to put it in the category of a dream,” he said. “I have to be honest with you, it’s embarrassing. All they keep saying is, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

{see more http://teachinghistorymatters.com/2012/03/04/it-was-tough-some-of-our-guys-couldnt-take-it/}

********

FINAL NOTE. We are also looking for this little girl, a survivor at Hillersleben. Her name was Irene. You can read the backstory here. Please contact me below.

'Hillersleben-Irene is in the flowered dress' Soldier Luca Furnari photograph.

‘Hillersleben-Irene is in the flowered dress’ Soldier Luca Furnari photograph.

 

 

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

Matthew Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow and teaches history at his alma mater in upstate New York. This year, he is authoring a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and of the ‘liberation phase’  of the Holocaust. His work has reunited 275 Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who freed them.

His first book, a narrative of World War II in the Pacific as told through the previously unpublished recollections of two dozen veterans, is due out this spring. His second book, in progress, is on the power of  teaching, remembering the Holocaust, and this “Train Near Magdeburg’. He can be reached at marozell at gmail dot com.

Victory, 1945. By Ervin Abadi. Hilersleben, Germany, May 1945.

Victory, 1945. By Ervin Abadi. Hillersleben, Germany, May 1945. Courtesy Chriss Brown, granddaughter of American soldier Don Rust.

The wires of the cosmos trip once more.

After almost exactly 70 years, a person came to this site on Jan. 30th with an inquiry:

I recently came across this site looking for a gentleman my grandfather became close to. My grandfather, Donald W. Rust of the 95th Medical Gas Treatment Battalion, helped him … and often spent time with him. The gentleman drew several pictures for my grandfather and I still have them today.

Donald W Rust of Kansas City KS. Hillersleben DP Camp, May 1945. Source: Chriss Brown, granddaughter of Don Rust.

Donald W Rust of Kansas City KS. Hillersleben DP Camp, May 1945. By Ervin Abadi. Source: Chriss Brown, granddaughter of Don Rust.

We looked while my grandfather was still alive but were unable to find any lists of the survivors until now. We cannot read his name clearly but we think the drawer’s name is ‘Albadi’ or something close to it. I would love to share the pictures he drew and also would like to hear if anyone can help me contact the survivor’s family. My grandmother turns 90 in March and it would mean the world to her to know what become of him.

My grandfather told us the gentleman was from Poland, but we don’t know what city. Unfortunately, my grandfather could not remember his name. If anyone can help, it would be much appreciated.  ~Chriss B.

***

I immediately knew who she was talking about (though he hailed from Hungary, not Poland) and  got in touch with her. She sent me samples, and sure enough it was Ervin Abadi, whose work I was very familiar with. He had even sketched a drawing of the liberation with the tanks rolling in, but unfortunately he passed away 22 years before I sat down to do my interview with one of the tank commanders in the drawing.

Liberation, April 13th, 1945. Drawing by survivor Ervin Abadi. USHMM.

Liberation, April 13th, 1945. Drawing by survivor Ervin Abadi. USHMM.

The Liberation of the Train, by Ervin Abadi. USHMM.

The Liberation of the Train, Farsleben, Germany, April, 1945. Ervin Abadi. USHMM.

 

Dozens of Abadi’s pieces are at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and his bio there reads as follows:

In his early twenties when the war broke out, Ervin Abadi lived in Budapest, Hungary and wanted to be a painter. But, as with all Jewish males his age, he was taken to Russia by the Hungarian Army as a forced laborer. Abadi managed to escape but was captured after hiding out in the Karpet Mountains. After being brutally mistreated he managed to escape again, but was recaptured and taken to Bergen Belsen. When the camp was liberated  by the US Army [incorrect: his train transport from Belsen to Theresienstadt] on April 13, 1945, Abadi was taken to a hospital in Hillersleben, where he recovered. While in the hospital (and possibly earlier in the camp) he made 25-30 watercolors, dealing with his arrival at Bergen Belsen, life in the camp and its liberation by the US Army. Abadi returned to Budapest where he told about his life as a forced laborer and and an inmate of Bergen Belsen in a collection of 30 ink drawings. The work was published in 500 copies with Hungarian and English captions in 1946. The foreword of the book says, in part, “Let these drawings serve as proof of my everlasting gratitude towards those to whom I owe my life. … To the soldiers of the United States Army, particularly to our immediate liberators, those soldiers of the 9th regiment who first entered the village of Zilitz and gave us bread, milk, chocolate, and cigarettes….” Abadi, however, became disallusioned by Communist Hungary and managed to leave for Israel in 1947 or 1948 where he lived in Israel for the rest of his life. There he wrote 15 books in both Hebrew and Hungarian. He died in 1979.  [my emphasis]

***

Ervin Abadi’s name is also the first on the existing manifest list. Some years ago, with the help of Varda W. in Israel, his daughter got in contact with me, and sent me his DP [displaced persons] document from Hillersleben:

Hillerleben Displaced Persons certificate-Ervin Abadi

Hillerleben Displaced Persons certificate-Ervin Abadi.

At that time, 5 years ago, his daughter wrote:

As you know, my father is a survivor from Bergen Belsen on the Magdeburg train. He got sick with typhus and was taken to the American Hospital at Hillersleben.

All my life my father told me to remember that he was saved by the Americans, and for that he will be grateful until his last day- and so must I, because if he was not to be saved- I wouldn’t be born.

My father passed away in 1979, and since then I tried to keep my promise to my father. I went to Normandy in France and walked the beaches that are soaked with the blood of the American soldiers and wanted to honor their memory, for because of them, I am living today.

A few years later I visited the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. I met there an old gentleman and I found out that he was one of the American soldiers who fought on the beach on D-Day! I told him the story about my father and we both fell into each others arms crying. I felt like I fulfilled my promise to my father. ~Julia A. H.

**

So I dug out the letter, got in contact with Julia again,  and put her in touch with Chriss, the granddaughter of the soldier who in befriending Abadi, helped him in his recuperation.

Raymond D. Rape of Zelienople, PA ; Grafton D Junkin of Kennedy, Alabama ; Donald W Rust of Kansas City KS. Hillersleben DP Camp, May 1945. Source: Chriss Brown, granddaughter of Don Rust.

Raymond D. Rape of Zelienople, PA ; Grafton D Junkin of Kennedy, Alabama ; Donald W Rust of Kansas City KS. Hillersleben DP Camp, May 1945. Source: Chriss Brown, granddaughter of Don Rust.

From Julia, the artist’s daughter, last week:

I was very touched… 70 years after it happened, my father’s drawings came back to us.

We use to say that if his name is mentioned, a person lives forever.

Thank you again for remembering my father’s work of art.

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

Matthew Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow and teaches history at his alma mater in upstate New York. This year, he is authoring a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and of the ‘liberation phase’  of the Holocaust. His work has reunited 275 Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who freed them.

His first book, The Twilight of Living Memory: Reflections of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA is due out this spring. His second book, in progress, is on the power of  teaching, and remembering the Holocaust.

 

The First Lesson I Really Learned as a First-Year Public School Teacher,

Though the Moral does not strike me for almost Thirty Years.

(subtitled, The Seven Simple Words: How having been labeled “INEFFECTIVE” as a young teacher would have stilled the ripples unfolding that will reverberate for generations.)

Where am I? And, more importantly, what the hell am I doing here? Taken by me, April 15, 2010.

Where am I? And, more importantly, what the hell am I doing here? Taken by me, April 15, 2010.

Recently, the New York State United Teachers did a couple features on my work in the classroom. If you have any friends or acquaintances who would like to pass some of my musings on to some the younger teachers of the world, even the pre-service students, feel free. It’s time to let them know that it’s a journey, after all. The following post is an excerpt from a draft of my second book, which will be published someday after my first book is actually published. (See more at the bottom.) Sigh.
Gotta teach, after all.

*****

I got to ride the special bus.

*

Pulsing red and blue lights ricochet off the subterranean tunnel walls from which our bus is emerging, announcing to the citizens of our nation’s capital that our convoy of VIPs is arriving, like conquering heroes of old returning home after a great victory. And in a real sense, that is what we are. But Wow.

What the hell is a TEACHER doing here on this bus?

Washington traffic in all directions grinds to a dead halt as our convoy  glides through intersections and sails down boulevards with a full Capitol police escort, every single crossroads blocked by police cars. We are on our way to the national ceremony at the United States Capitol Rotunda, and it won’t do for us to be late. The motorcade slows as it approaches Capitol Hill, and the three buses slowly maneuver and dock like lumbering giants at the sidewalk entrance. The pistons blast and the buses drop gently. The engines are cut. The doors open.

We have arrived. Springtime in Washington.

It is a beautiful morning, and the Capitol Police dismount from their escort motorcycles and walk over, motioning and instructing for occupants to disembark and follow the guides. Emerging slowly into the warm April sunlight are the guests of honor, many of whom step down gingerly, clutching canes or holding the arm of a relative or friendly government escort. Nearly all sport caps festooned with pins and patches. Here, now, nearly sixty-five years after the last battle was fought, the liberators of the concentration camps are returning, many for the first time since World War II ended.

One hundred twenty one old soldiers, eyes sparkling as they pose for photographs,  are escorted slowly through the entryway of the grand building. A single teacher follows the veterans on this beautiful spring day. And as far as I know, I am the only high school teacher in the country this year to be invited, specifically, to be with them. I know some of them, and several of the survivors of the Holocaust here today, on a very personal basis.

Teacher Matthew Rozell, Holocaust survivor Stephen Barry, National DOR Ceremony, Washington, DC April 2010. This photo was taken the day after the 65th anniversary of Steve’s liberation in April 1945. We had just been honored by the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum before the national ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

Teacher Matthew Rozell, Holocaust survivor Stephen Barry, National DOR Ceremony, Washington, DC April 2010. This photo was taken the day after the 65th anniversary of Steve’s liberation in April 1945. We had just been honored by the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum before the national ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

You see, we are walking into the Capitol Rotunda for the annual Days of Remembrance Ceremony, commemorating those lost in the Holocaust and today especially honoring  the liberators who put a stop to it. I am here because I teach the subject of history to teenagers; I am here because in my lessons and projects with students, we have been making the difference to defeat the legacy of Hitler in the classroom. And we honor what these men did as teenagers, and more. We have made our own mark and changed hundreds of lives in literally reuniting the survivors with the men who actually saved them. Six decades later.

Passing through security and now inside the Rotunda, I am amazed at its beauty but also at the intimacy that emanates from under the hallowed dome as the veterans and survivors, politicians and officials process in. Scaffolding with TV crews and narrow towers with klieg lights illuminate the area, and as the ceremony begins, I am one hundred feet from General David Petraeus, who is about to address these old soldiers. The haunting sound of the Marine Corps violinist serenades the gathering, carrying our thoughts to the victims of the Holocaust whom we remember today. The names of the liberating Army units are called out from the dais as each division is formally recognized, their unit colors hoisted aloft on cue and paraded in.

Capitol Rotunda, 2010 DOR Ceremony.

Capitol Rotunda, 2010 DOR Ceremony. Liberating Army unit flags are paraded in.

Yes I am here, amid the pomp and ceremony, to commemorate the victims, the survivors and today, these soldiers:

Me, a high school teacher who began his career hoping for a pink slip, an easy way out so that he could simply walk away from this profession.

*****

“What’s your policy on homework, Mr. Anders?”

I’m leaning over the kid’s desk, hands placed firmly on either side. In suitcoat and tie, I’m trying to make myself into an imposing presence for my first high school history class. I’d just attempted to collect a handful of written assignments from  25 non-committed sixteen year olds, and now I’m wondering in desperation how to deal with the poor showing in my very first week of public school teaching. I am the third teacher that these kids have had this year, having just started last week, two days before the Thanksgiving break.

Should I assign the group of them to detention after school? Or choose one to make an example out of him?  I decide on the latter.

Lenny Anders, a tall long-haired ‘disengaged’ student with a black motorcycle jacket, lifts his head up long enough to answer coolly:

“Not to do it.”

Clunk. Lenny’s head returns to the desktop.

The class laughs, points, and hoots! Eyes roll, heads shake. Lenny does not even move in response to all the commotion-he’s still face down. And I’m left flapping in the breeze with my rookie mistake; how in the world would I make it until June? A very real question.

*

I’m 26, and I am on my own, but living back at home. A dual irony, really, as not only had I proclaimed defiantly (upon graduation from high school) to my [teacher] father that I would be leaving Hudson Falls FOR GOOD , but when queried about life after high school, I also puffed out my chest and exclaimed “I don’t know, but I certainly won’t be a teacher!” The desired effect was achieved by the angry teen; the wound was deep, and the twist of the knife distinct. I smugly went off to college, having no game plan or clue.

Okay, so what I told my father did not turn out to be the words to live by. Here I am, eight years after high school, on the other side of the desk, teaching the same subject as the old man. Living out of his garage, no less.

It’s my first few weeks back in my old high school, and I’m pushing what feels like a shopping cart through the crowded hallways, with lesson props, books, and marked-up papers to turn back, all akinder. I’m shuffling from classroom to classroom, like an itinerant peddler of obscure vials of “wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’ that nobody seems to want, and I don’t dare turn my back to the chalkboard. I have discovered that a new teacher is also a magician, and can, with this act, make pens, paperballs, and sometimes books fly and illustrate Newton’s Laws of Motion of their own accord. Maybe it’s me, but when I walk into the classroom, these students seem to rub their hands together in hormonal homicidal glee. To many of them, I am next on the hit parade, hopefully out by Christmas.

That’s power, and they have it. How I am hating these immature young savages. How they delight in torturing me.

But enough is enough. I make up my mind to do something about it. I hit on another idea. I’ll tell Johnny/Suzie in my gruffest voice, before the entire class, ‘I NEED TO SPEAK TO YOU AFTER THE LESSON‘- that should settle them all down! I’ll make an example out of one, so the kids will look at one other with a mixture of terror and relief that it was not them summoned after class!  I open my mouth to commence the New Regime, but even before the bell rings, they rise noisily and obliviously to my impending reign of terror and move as a herd for the door. And the teacher-owner of the classroom comes in anyway, clanking his briefcase and fishing for his keys to unlock his closet, as he does EVERY SINGLE DAY to interrupt the end of my lesson. I give up.  I have to be off to another classroom myself anyway, to begin the torture anew. And when I do drop the hammer later, I have my life threatened in front of the class by an older student. The office suggests strongly that I go to the police station to ‘swear out a complaint’.  A what?

For the first time in my life I’m sitting in a police station, in the first month of my public teaching career, trying to balance in a wobbly chair with stainless steel ankle-shackles affixed to the legs, listening to the officer clack out his report on a typewriter .

This is why I became a teacher?

I feel SO alone.

Sitting on the bed, I’m chain-smoking four cigarettes in a row in the twenty minutes before school in the room off my parents’ garage before heading off to work-to a place that, you will recall, in a previous existence, I swore an oath I would never return to.

So let’s review, shall we? The position I had filled a quarter-way through the year had had this history. Would more blood flow? Does everyone in the school expect it to be mine? Another professional acquaintance comments, only half-jokingly I think, “We want to see if you suck and how long YOU will last.” (A feel-good fuzzy memory, looking back.)

*

In desperation, I am living day-by-day. I’m banging out lesson plans, notes, and tests nightly after dinner on the typewriter for hours at a stretch. I try calling parents, but there is no privacy at my house and surely it is a sign of weakness- after all, the old man doesn’t have to call parents.

As I struggle to survive in my first year, a tight budget year when layoffs are being presented as a distinct possibility, I secretly pray that a pink slip in my mailbox will end my misery and I will have an excuse to move on to another occupation- I have been trained in the restaurant business, after all, and people always have to eat. How I remember the anguish of a colleague in another department- I shared an “office” with her in the bowels of the building- when she got her pink slip and burst into tears and pointed at me and wailed aloud that “it should have been you, you don’t even want to be here”.. and I kept my silence, because I knew she was right. She got the slip, and I did not. I did not realize that my private anguish showed so much; I was afraid to talk to people about the troubles I faced each day in the classroom. And now I could add GUILT to the top of the heap.

What the hell am I doing here? I did not know it then, but I was DROWNING.

On schedule, the principal did his classroom observation for my official evaluation later that year, and a charitable description of the event would be ‘the great train wreck’. The ninth graders were flirting with each other, joking, and throwing stuff as I tried to bring order and conduct the lesson. At our post-observation conference, the boss leaned in and said, “You really did not have control, did you?” Eyes beginning to well, I slowly shook my head. He paused, looked me in the eye, smiled, and crumpled up the report he had written for my file and threw it in the waste can in front of me. He settled back in his chair, laced his fingers behind his head, and said seven words: When you are ready, let me know. A soul-crushing weight suddenly lifted. And looking back now, I see that those words had consequences.

Maybe this man saw something in me that I obviously could not see in myself. Nearly 30 years later, it’s clear to me that I was suffering from what I’ll call ‘first-year public teacher shell-shock tunnel vision’.

*

The pink slip eluded me that year, and I was too gutless to resign and end my misery. So imagine my dread as the new school year approached. I saw my roster and every shred of my being constricted and tightened. The same torturers were to be in my classes. AGAIN.

Then, a funny thing happened. The kids were a ‘summer away’ older. And they were genuinely glad to see me. I had survived, and as the year went on, we all grew together. The one thing I had going for me in the classroom was that I was a good storyteller, and I actually knew a lot about the history that I was supposed to be teaching students. I was enthusiastic, I was passionate. They started to listen. Over time, I became their class adviser, orchestrated their prom, took them on their senior trip. We survived together. They went on, some even to become teachers, and others today make many times my salary. I even had their kids in class (much better behaved, actually). We built a foundation and ventured forth on to great things.

*

Back home, in the same high school where I secretly prayed for that layoff slip years before, kids are in the auditorium tuning into the live broadcast and looking for their teacher in the gathering in the Capitol Rotunda as it is broadcast live to the nation.  In Washington, after the ceremony, there is a text message from my Congressman’s aide. The Congressman would like to meet me in his office, NOW, if possible. He is well aware of my invitation to Washington-that a small town high school history project has has altered thousands of lives throughout the world.

*****

So, the Moral of the First Lesson comes to me nearly thirty years after the occurrence:

I nearly left the teaching profession. With seven simple words, my principal threw me a lifeline. Where I would be today if, all those dark days ago, someone had slapped an INEFFECTIVE label on me to fulfill a political objective (‘Too many effective teachers, here, in New York State. Baloney! Find me some ineffective teachers. PRONTO!’) But today, given the proposals in New York State and elsewhere, it’s game on for the witchhunt of the people who devote their waking hours with the youth of our nation.

What if I had been labeled a failure before I even got out of the gate? “INEFFECTIVE, Year One” would have been all the push that I would have needed to exit the classroom forever- that simple push, over the cliff.

I KNOW I would have left the profession.

Maybe I’d have more money than I do now.

But I would not have more wealth.

Because NONE of this wonderful stuff in my life, or my impact on other people’s lives would have ever, ever happened.

 

 Maybe it’s time to nurture and cherish our young teachers, rather than tossing them under that next bus.

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

Matthew Rozell teaches history at his alma mater in Hudson Falls, New York. His first book, The Twilight of Living Memory: Reflections of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA is due out this spring. His second book, in the works, is on the power of listening, teaching, and remembering the Holocaust.

This week I introduced what will be a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and discovery of the magnitude of the most horrific crime in the history of the world, the Holocaust.

Today I travel again back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, sharing some of my personal observations and photographs on the anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops 70 years ago this week.

*****

July 12.

After the tour of Auschwitz I, our teacher travel study group has lunch on the bus in the parking lot, then drive the three kilometers through town to Birkenau.

There it is. The entry tower. The iconic symbol of evil.

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Main entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. USHMM

Main entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau . USHMM

 

We follow the guide up the stairs in the tower. From here we can see the sheer vastness of the camp.

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Women's Barracks. Auschwitz II.

Women’s Barracks. Auschwitz II.

 

Dozens of long narrow women’s barracks, brick, still stand, albeit some braced with wood on the gable ends to keep them from toppling until they can be re-pointed. A. indicates that historic preservation here is a major concern.

 

Vastness

The rest of the camp is many square kilometers of row upon row of foundations and brick chimney stubs, surrounded by the menacing curved and tapered concrete concrete posts dotted with white insulators and strung with miles of parallel lines of barbed wire. In the summer of 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian families were deported here, the rail lines came right into the camp.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

 

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

 

Following the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews  were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

 

The Walk.

Our guide leads us along the path through the camp that leads to the gas chamber and crematorium. We walk in in silence along the roadway, the only sound the crunching of brick fragments and gravel underfoot.

Selected.

Selected.

 

The Walk.

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It appears to have been paved with brick, slave labor, though in some spots it is hard to tell anymore. No one speaks, and on and on we walk. Two minutes. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. I’ve been on battlefields that are smaller than this site.

 

Flower ring as we make final approach to the chambers tucked into the wooded area nearby.

Finally we reach the end of the camp where the kitchens stood. A round concrete ring rises out of the earth, maybe 6 feet in diameter. Someone finally speaks and asks A. what it was. A giant flowerpot. She tells us also that they were placed near the entrances of the gas chambers. Flowers at the gas chambers.

Waiting. For what we do not know.

Waiting. For what we do not know. Exhausted from deportation and “travel”. We now know who they were. Yad Vashem.

 

We turn left, and keep walking past interpretative signage. It seems like we are walking outside of camp perimeter. But we are not. Beautiful woods appear and we are walking on the edge of the woods with the camp to our left. We stop near another sign and rest for a moment, allowing the others to catch up. Then our guide calls our attention to the photo on the sign, showing Hungarian mothers and children doing the same thing we are doing. Halting and resting.  And a short path through the woods will take us to the ruins of the gas chamber/crematorium Number Five.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

 

We are resting at the spot they rested at, 20 minutes after walking, immediately after disembarking of overcrowded transports that had been traveling for days. Here they waited, anxiously, as their turn to approach the chamber would come. But the victims of the transport ahead of them had to be removed from the chamber first. Some days in the summer of 1944 these victims were backed up for hours.

I pick up a rock from the path and carry it with me past the ruins. At the ashfield there is more signage and a memorial asking visitors not to walk through the field. I place my stone on the memorial, looking down to watch where I step. But it is probably a futile gesture-this whole place is an ashyard, a graveyard.

 

The secret sonderKommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

The secret sonderkommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

 

“So many Hungarian Jews were killed in the Auschwitz camps during that period that the crematoria were incapable of consuming all the bodies, and open pits for the purpose were dug.”

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We turn again, and walk past the remains of crematorium Number Four. To the disinfection center for those selected to be worked to death. Again, a system. Disrobing. Wading through disinfectant. Shower. Uniform thrown at you, mismatched clogs or shoes.

 *****

E’s mother spent two years here. Her grandmother and the little ones were selected upon arrival. Her mom’s beloved sister was murdered in the quarry after slipping while carrying a large pot of soup in the ice and snow with three other girls. Today is a hard day. I want to comfort her, to carry her pack for her. I feel helpless. There is nothing I can do.

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At the Soviet memorial constructed near the two destroyed gas chamber/crematoria at the end, we have a remembrance ceremony. Kaddish is recited in Hebrew. I read it aloud in English. With tears, E. tells us that she feels her grandmother smiling down on this extraordinary group of dedicated teachers. A lump rises, again. I swallow hard and try to blink back the wetness I feel welling in my eyes. Damn, I almost made it. Glad for the sunglasses, even though there is no sun.

770

775

 

772

776

 

“A Warning to Humanity.”

We light candles, turn our backs, and walk out, which provides another twenty-minute stretch of personal reflection. We have toured the epicenter of evil. We have been here, we try to process-but we just cannot. We need the individuals to speak to us. And like E’s family, they do.

 

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At the close of the disinfection center exhibit there are hundreds of photographs that had been discovered years after the camp was abandoned by the Germans. Pictures of loved ones who perished here.

For me, like the personal home movies of pre-war life for the victims at the exhibit at Auschwitz I, this is what has the most meaning. So I will leave you for now with a few close ups.

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741

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To Life.To Life.

*****

From National Public Radio:

A Holocaust Survivor, Spared From Gas Chamber By Twist Of Fate

by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, International Correspondent, Berlin

January 27, 2015 3:40 PM ET

 

Jack Mandelbaum, a Holocaust survivor from the Polish city of Gdynia, poses in front of a photograph showing him as a youth.

Jack Mandelbaum, a Holocaust survivor from the Polish city of Gdynia, poses in front of a photograph showing him as a youth. Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

Seventy years ago, Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz, the most notorious of Nazi concentration camps.

Some 300 Holocaust survivors were at Auschwitz on Tuesday, along with several European presidents and other government officials, to honor at least 1.1 million people who were murdered, 1 million of whom were Jewish.

Among those killed there were Jack Mandelbaum’s mother and brother. The Polish-born Mandelbaum survived, spared at the last minute by an officer of the dreaded SS who yanked the teen away from his family and sent him instead to a forced labor camp.

Last week, Mandelbaum flew from his Naples, Fla., home to Berlin, to help open an exhibit on the children of Auschwitz, and to tell his story.

“I’m a person of action,” he says. “Anger doesn’t get you anyplace. Hate doesn’t get you anyplace.”

In August 1939, as the Nazis were about to invade Poland, Mandelbaum was 13 and living in the Polish port city of Gdynia. Mandelbaum says his father worried that the port would be attacked, so he sent his wife and three children to stay with relatives in the countryside.

He promised to join them six weeks later, but he never arrived. About a year later, he sent them a postcard from the Stutthof concentration camp.

“I guess he didn’t want us to worry about him, so he said he was OK,” Mandelbaum says.

He never saw his father again. His sister later died on a forced march to another concentration camp.

Prisoner 16013

Then, before dawn on June 14, 1942, the SS came for what was left of the family.

“They banged on the door and everyone had to come out in five minutes, and there was a lot of shooting and crying, and people didn’t know what was happening because they had to rush out,” Mandelbaum recalls. “Many people were even in their bed clothes. And we were lined up in the market square, and then we were marched to a local brewery.”

An SS officer there began separating people to the left and to the right. Mandelbaum says he clung to his mother and brother, who were sent to the left. But the SS officer saw in his documents that Mandelbaum had worked as an electrician’s helper.

“He grabbed me and pushed me to the other side,” Mandelbaum says. As for his family, he says, “The people who were to the left were sent to Auschwitz to be gassed. I never saw them again.”

To the Nazis, he became prisoner 16013 and spent the next three years at seven concentration camps. The first was Gross-Rosen, where prisoners worked in a granite quarry.

“There were so many prisoners,” he says. “We were in a big barrack, it had a concrete floor, it had no beds. And we were lined up like herring on the floor, so when one person turned, everybody else had to turn, it was so tight.”

Food was scarce, and the daily meal amounted to a single piece of bread and what Mandelbaum describes as soup made out of grass.

He recalls emaciated prisoners stuffing paper into their mouths to fatten their cheeks so they’d look healthier to the guards assigned to remove the weak for extermination. His own weight eventually dropped to 80 pounds.

But Mandelbaum says he refused to give up hope. He poured what little energy he had into work, hoping it would eventually lead to his release.

Suddenly, Freedom

“We had a good life before the war. I went to a public school, I had good clothes and good food and a nice apartment,” he says. “My dream was to go back to this life and be reunited with my family and my sister and my brother, and that sustained me.”

It also helped that he didn’t know the Nazis were trying to slaughter all Jews, something he says he and other prisoners learned only after liberation.

Their sudden freedom, too, was a complete shock, Mandelbaum says. “We didn’t know anything, only on the morning when we woke up and the Nazi flag wasn’t flying and the guards weren’t there.”

Unlike at Auschwitz, Allied soldiers did not free them, as his camp was in a no man’s land between the fleeing Nazis and advancing Russians. He and a friend from the camp grabbed an abandoned horse-drawn wagon and left as quickly as they could.

“We came across a women’s concentration camp and they were still locked up, so we actually became the ‘liberators’ of the camp,” he says, with a laugh.

Mandelbaum was 17 when the Holocaust ended. He says he returned to Poland several times to see if he could find his family but failed. He did find an uncle living in a hamlet near Munich.

The following year, he immigrated to the United States and settled in Kansas City, Mo., where he married, had four children and became a successful importer of ladies’ handbags. It would be 16 years before he began speaking publicly about the Holocaust, something he says he decided to do after talking to one of his neighbors.

“He asked me what kind of sports did I play in the concentration camp, so all of the sudden it just opened everything up, how little people knew what was going on, and this was when I started to speak in different venues about my experiences,” he says.

That desire to educate people brought Mandelbaum, 87, to Berlin last week. He says it’s sad to see anti-Semitism on the rise in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, but he hopes he and other Holocaust survivors can make a difference.

“You know, when we were in the camps, we would always ask, ‘How can the world stand by and let this happen?’ ” he says. “So it’s a matter of being vigilant, a matter of trying to do as much as you can in order to enlighten people [about] how dangerous it is when you become a bystander.”

http://www.npr.org/2015/01/27/381876276/a-holocaust-survivor-spared-from-auschwitz-at-the-last-second

*****

 

Yesterday I introduced what will be a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and discovery of the magnitude of the most horrific crime in the history of the world, the Holocaust.

Today I travel back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, sharing some of my personal observations and photographs on the anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops 70 years ago this week.

*****

July 12.

So the day that all of us in our teacher travel study group approach with a bit of apprehension is finally here. We are on the bus from our hotel in Cracow to Auschwitz, about 40 miles to the west south west.

Yesterday we arrived in Crakow from Prague, taking the night train on a sleeper car.

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Rolling southward one of our tour leaders points out an impressive large building on the top of a hill that looks like a five star hotel. Built after the German invasion in 1939, it was a rest and relaxation villa for Wehrmacht officers rotating off the Russian front to unwind for a bit, as industrialized mass murder was unfolding every single day less than an hour away.

 

Hocker Album- Dr. Josef Mengele, Rudolf Höss, Josef Kramer, and an unidentified officer. —USHMM

So, to introduce some of the major players:

I don’t make it a habit to showcase the perpetrators on this site, but in this one incredible photograph, taken at Auschwitz, you can see some of them above. Hoss was hung at Auschwitz  following his trial after the war. Kramer was executed by the British after his stint presiding of the horrors of Belsen after his transfer there. Of course, smiling Dr. Mengele escaped to Argentina and died in a drowning accident in the late 1970s. (The pictures in this photo album surfaced only a few years ago and were studied by my friend archivist Rebecca Erbelding at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can read more at the weblink above if you like.)

On to the tour.

 

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Soon we see the road signs for Oswiecim, the small Polish town at a railroad hub that has become one of the most visited tourist sites in Poland. Most of the world knows it by its German name-Auschwitz.

The bus lumbers into the overcrowded parking lot and docks in the slot. The driver kills the engine. And it begins to rain as our other leader, E.,  relates the story of her mother’s family, the idyllic childhood in this beautiful prewar country, a young teen when the nation is invaded, the oldest of four children. No one on the bus makes a sound. It is now raining very hard.

 

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What is this place? Our guide A. is a top notch scholar, and she leads us on a day long tour that is hard to put into words.

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We begin at Auschwitz I, the first camp. This place is centrally located, a railway hub dating back to the turn of the century.

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The first prisoners, after it is converted from a Polish military facility, are Soviet POWs and Polish prisoners and other “security risks” who will be worked to death slowly expanding this camp, and the much larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau. She walks us through the exhibits and the displays at the various blocks. Block 4 is the “Extermination Exhibit”. We think about the words, the language. Extermination- as if the victims were vermin. Over 1,100,000 were killed here, most of them Jews.

The Hub. The tentacles during the Holocaust.

We see the map with the spiderlike rail lines radiating inward to Auschwitz like tentacles, from northern Poland, from Germany, Hungary, as far south as Greece and as west as Paris and the Netherlands. In the summer of 1944, tens of thousands were murdered here, per day.

 

This place is ALWAYS crowded.

 

We see again the large scale terra cotta model of the process, which the German engineers had perfected  at Auschwitz II-Birkenau- the arrival of the transports, the undressing rooms with signs admonishing bewildered people to hang their belongings carefully and to remember the number of the wall pegs where they left them for quick retrieval later. The shower rooms that could fit in some cases entire transports, which were in fact the hermetically sealed gas chambers. The Germans above with their gas masks, waiting for the proper temperature to be reached through body heat, just the right humidity to be achieved before dropping in the pellets so the gas released would work more effectively. The anguished death throes of the thousands of naked figurines assault our senses. The process is not complete until the corpses are carried out by the sondercommando slaves, defiled for any gold fillings, the hair shorn from the women, the bodies then burned in the open air behind or cremated in the ovens.

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But the tour is now just beginning.  Minutes before, we were looking at a terra cotta model. And now in Block 5 we will be presented with the evidence. This is an exhibition, after all. Exhibit A is about to slap us in the face. Hard. It is a room, 50 feet long, with nothing but human hair piled several feet back and as many feet tall. My heart skips a beat.

What are my eyes perceiving? Now we see a photo of stacks of bale bags, carefully labeled, packed and stacked, awaiting shipment back to the Reich for use in various products for the German war effort. Slippers for submariners so they can walk quietly aboard ship to evade Allied sonar. Stuffing for the seats of German pilots.

We shuffle on in silence with hundreds of others past the spectacles, the pots and pans, the suitcases carefully labelled by their owners with chalk on the orders of the perpetrators, again, for “quick retrieval”. And the shoes. Sorted. Case after case of women’s shoes. Men’s footwear. And then the children’s shoes.

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Our knowledgeable guide takes us into Block 27, the new exhibit on the Shoah. This is a temporary relief of sorts as now we see faces, film and stills, of pre war Jewish life, projected on the walls. We hear songs and voices.

Book of Names. people cry again.

At the end is the Book of Life, containing four million names compiled thus far. A moving moment when E. and others in our tight knit group find entire pages with the names and dates of family members murdered during the Holocaust.

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Girls. Shorn, beaten,  and photographed.

 

 

This is the Core.

*****

From the New York Times:

Survivors and families carried candles as they visited a memorial at the Birkenau camp. Credit Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Outliving Horror for 70 Years and Never Forgetting

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Holocaust Survivors, Ever Dwindling in Number, Gather to Remember

OSWIECIM, Poland — More than 3,000 guests, including Holocaust survivors and foreign dignitaries, gathered on Tuesday at a site marking one of history’s biggest horrors, the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps in Poland, which were liberated by Soviet troops 70 years ago in the closing months of World War II.

Because of the survivors’ advancing age, this year’s ceremony at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum may be the last major anniversary celebration to include more than a handful of people who endured the Nazi camps here, where about 1.5 million people lost their lives, most of them European Jews. Some 1,500 survivors attended the 60th anniversary in 2005, but on Tuesday there were fewer than 300 on hand. Most are in their 90s, and some are older than 100.
Their dwindling numbers prompted many at the ceremony to raise the question of how best to sustain memories of the horror when they are gone, and what it means in a time of fresh outbreaks of religious and ethnic animosities.
“Today, in the name of truth, we need to fight the attempts to relativize the Shoah,” President Bronislaw Komorowski of Poland said as he opened the ceremony, using another term for the Holocaust. “The memory of Auschwitz means the memory of the importance of freedom, justice, tolerance and respect for human rights,” he added.
Dozens of heads of state and other prominent figures took part in the ceremony, including the presidents of France, Germany and Austria, François Hollande, Joachim Gauck and Heinz Fischer; the kings of Belgium and the Netherlands, Philippe and Willem-Alexander; and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew represented the United States, while Russia was represented by Sergei Ivanov, President Vladimir V. Putin’s chief of staff.

The anniversary takes place at a time when reports of anti-Semitism are increasing across Europe. One Jewish organization said in a recent report that the incidence of anti-Semitic acts in France had doubled over the past year.

“Jews are targeted in Europe once again because they are Jews,” Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and a major contributor to the preservation of the museum complex, said at the ceremony.

Mr. Lauder, 70, said the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, including one at a kosher supermarket, had prompted him to radically change the remarks he intended to deliver. He called on the world leaders in the audience to adopt policies of zero tolerance toward hatred of any kind. “Unless this is checked right now, it will be too late,” he said.

Steven Spielberg, whose Holocaust film “Schindler’s List” won seven Academy Awards, raised a similar warning in a short speech on the eve of the anniversary, saying that Jews were once again threatened by “the perennial demons of intolerance.”

Speaking at a Shoah memorial in Paris before flying to Poland for the ceremony at the museum, Mr. Hollande pleaded with Jews in his country not to react by emigrating. “The place of Jews is in France,” he said. “France is your homeland.” He called on Internet service providers to take action against anti-Semitic comments posted online.

Mr. Gauck also gave a speech at home before traveling to Poland. He told a commemorative session of the German Parliament that “while the Holocaust will not necessarily be among the central components of German identity for everyone in our country, it will still hold true that there is no German identity without Auschwitz.”

He spoke of the difficulty many Germans had over the years in acknowledging what had happened during the war. “Remembering the Holocaust remains a matter for every citizen of Germany,” Mr. Gauck said. “It is part and parcel of our country’s history.”

For the first time, the memorial ceremony here was sheltered from the January weather, under a tent large enough to enclose the entire red brick gateway to the Auschwitz II camp, for many a symbol of the Nazi atrocities. Several survivors were among the speakers.

“The greatest debt we have today is to pass on the memory of their lives to others, their desire and will to live,” Halina Birenbaum, who was at Auschwitz-Birkenau as a child, said of those who were killed at the camps. “Only in my memories, I can be with my loved ones who died here. Only in my memories, I can recognize right from wrong.”

“People forget what Auschwitz was,” Mr. Birenbaum said, “and that terrifies me, because I know to what kind of hell it leads.”

Administrators of the museum, which includes the remaining grounds of the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps, said that the museum’s mission, once focused primarily on survivors, was evolving toward memorializing the Nazi atrocities for generations born after the war.

Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, was a teenager when he was imprisoned in Auschwitz. As he spoke on Tuesday, he struggled to keep his emotions in check.

“How can I forget the smell of burning flesh that constantly filled the air?” he said in a trembling voice as tears rolled down his cheeks. “Or the heartbreak of children torn from their mothers? Those shouts of terror will ring in my ears until I am laid to rest.”

The ceremony concluded with the survivors, who were awarded medals, and the assembled dignitaries placing candles in remembrance of Holocaust victims, arranged symbolically in a straight row that was called “a line under history.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/28/world/europe/holocaust-survivors-ever-dwindling-in-number-gather-at-auschwitz-for-memorial.html?_r=0

Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945. — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I study this photograph,

and so it begins.

Seventy Years Later.

The war comes to a devastating conclusion.

The discoveries unfold:

Eyewitness encounters with the most horrific crime in the history of the world.

Battle-hardened tough guys cry.

They stomp their feet in rage, and get sick,

but the lost are lost.

The Survivors ‘carry on’.

The Soldiers ‘carry on’.

Now, it is Seventy Years.

But it is not over,

because ‘closure’ is a myth.

And for the rest of humanity-

How much have we learned?

How much have we forgotten?

Is it even important, for us to stop and think

about snowflakes on little boys?

*****

U.S. survivor Jack Rosenthal

In Focus, Jan 26, 2015, 27 Photos, The Atlantic

By Alan Taylor

Remembering Auschwitz: 70 Years After Liberation

Tuesday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the passage of 70 years since the January 27, 1945, liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet soldiers. Auschwitz was a network of concentration camps built and operated in occupied Poland by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Auschwitz I and nearby Auschwitz II-Birkenau were the extermination camps where an estimated 1.1 million people—mostly Jews from across Europe, but also political opponents, prisoners of war, homosexuals, and Roma—were killed in gas chambers or by systematic starvation, forced labor, disease, or medical experiments. About 200,000 camp inmates survived the ordeal. On Tuesday, a number of heads of states and aging survivors will attend a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary at the site in Poland, now maintained as a museum and memorial.

See the Altantic’s photo essay here.

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

Matthew Rozell teaches history at his alma mater in Hudson Falls, New York. His first book, The Twilight of Living Memory: Reflections of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA is due out this spring. His second book, in the works, is on teaching and remembering the Holocaust.

Last Thursday evening I got out of bed because I could not sleep. The news of the day stayed with me long after I sat down to read it before dinner. So I got up and sat down at the computer in my office and I typed  out my thoughts in the stillness of the late evening hours, burning to get the words out of me.

The post ‘And am I teacher, or a technician?‘ was born, and I sent it off. On a good day, I’ll get 100 hits on the blog you are reading, Teaching History Matters, which I have been rambling on at for the past seven and a half years.

Well, thank you for stopping by. My friends at New York State United Teachers liked it and gave it a nudge. In the last 96 hours, 28,000 people like you have had a look, and the response has been overwhelmingly favorable. My late night existential angst hit a major nerve and tapped a wellspring of grassroots anger. It was pretty amazing and also a little frightening to see the magnitude, but HUGELY comforting at the same time to learn that so many people shared the same sentiments as I. (And as the man said, “if you liked this, come back next week and it’ll be even better!” You can sign up for email updates on the right or just hit the follow button. If not, that’s fine too. My wife doesn’t even “follow” me.)

Perhaps my favorite comment was, just, ‘It gives me hope to read your words’.

*****

Here is some more crucial perspective for us as educators but also as Americans. Frank McCourt was one of my role models. As you may be aware, Frank spent a whole career as a New York City educator before knocking out his first book upon retirement, which took the world by storm. His last book, Teacher Man, is required reading in some ed. classes.

My late mom loved him and was also the product of Irish parents who had recently emigrated from the same county (as McCourt) in the 30s’ to NYC, narrowly missed growing up in Depression-era Ireland herself. Mom was also a passionate educator, a dedicated school nurse teacher, who constantly advocated on behalf of the struggling kids who came to her for help, going toe-to-toe when she had to. “Nursey Rozell” would also not hesitate to kick your ass if you just wanted to get out of class, but always with a sympathetic and keen eye for compassion.

This first appeared on the PBS website, and I used it in a post in November of 2012 near the anniversary of mom’s passing. I repost it in memory of Frank, and my mother.

‘What’s the most precious material we have in the country: children. If we don’t give them the best keepers and mentors and teachers, we’re destroying them. We’re destroying the country.’

It’s a good fight. Remember that. And come back next week.

*****

Interview With Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis, is a retired English teacher. He lived in New York City; he passed away in July 2009.

Q: What do you see as some of the major obstacles to improving public schools in our country?

We don’t like our kids. This is a country, this is a nation of people who don’t like their kids. Therefore, the teachers are baby sitters. We don’t look at teachers as scholars the way they do in Europe. In Spain you’re called a professor if you’re a high school teacher, and they pay teachers, they pay teachers in Europe. We don’t here. We resent if, we resent giving them pay raises. If they rise up and say we need a cost of living adjustment, [we say], “Oh, what do you mean you need a cost of living adjustment? Look at all the time you’ve got off. You’re finished at 3 o’clock, never mind that you go home with a bag of papers to correct, and then you have the summers off. These teachers with their summers off! Oh my, I wish I were a teacher.” Well, there’s nobody stopping you from becoming a teacher! Go and become a teacher, dammit! All these so called professionals, investment bankers and lawyers, [they say], “Oh these teachers have their summers off.” You know what most teachers do? They go out and get a job to subsidize their miserable pittance they get from most community boards and boards of education.

Q: Why did you become a teacher?

When I got out of the army I had the GI Bill. Since I had no high school education or anything like that, I came to NYU and they took a chance on me and let me in. I suppose I was what you might call a mature student of 22. And, I thought, I’d like, at one time I thought I’d like to become a journalist, but because I had no education, and because I’d come from this horrible background of poverty and so on, no education, no self esteem, so I didn’t see myself mingling with two-fisted, hard-bitten journalists. I would dream of going up to the New York Times and asking them if I could please be a copy boy or let me scrub the toilets or something like that. But I couldn’t rise to those heights. So the two things I liked most of all were books and children. I used to see American movies where the teacher is there in the classroom and all the kids file in — it was usually a movie about Nebraska or something like that where everybody’s white and blue eyed, and there’s Doug the quarterback and Susan the beauty queen, and they sit there with their pens poised while you discourse most eloquently on John Donne, and they’d all sit there and they would love me to death and I would be the hero of the community. Well, it didn’t turn out like that. I became a teacher all right. I wanted to become a teacher because I had a misconception about it. I didn’t know that I’d be going into, when I first became a high school teacher in New York, that I’d be going into a battle zone, and no one prepared me for that. They’re all natural enemies, teenagers are all natural enemies, they’re really animals, but I love them, I love animals, and the average teenager should be sent to some remote place like Australia, till he’s 20. But I like the teaching because it keeps you on your toes all the time. You can’t back off, and some teachers say, “Oh, give them busy work.” Well, when you’re with bright kids you can’t give them busy work, but..it keeps you… in a sense it’s like Hemingway talking about grace under pressure. You’re facing the bull, and that moment that the bull’s horn comes close to you is the moment at which you could die. That’s what it’s like going into the classroom — you could die in there.

Q: How did you learn to be a successful teacher?

There was what you would call a turning point in my life. I was ill-prepared and insecure — because I had never been in a high school in my life — in this first job. I knew nothing about American kids and their strange tribal ways, and it seemed to me that they were throbbing with sexuality, which you wouldn’t find in Ireland, because they’d knock it out of you. But here, there’s boys and girls in the class, and I didn’t know what to do; and the only models I had for teaching were Irish school masters, and that was all threat, sticks, straps, and physical beatings. So, of course I wasn’t gonna, there was gonna be no physical beating…there were kids in those classes who were on the football team, and would’ve broken me in two. But I would become frustrated and I would yell at them, I’d say to them, “You better keep up now, you’re not doing the work, you’re not bringing in your textbooks,” and so on, and I’d rant and rave. ‘Til one day there was a little African-American girl sitting in the front row — Sylvia — and she was beautiful and always impeccably dressed. And one day she said, “Mr. McCourt!” “What?” “Mr. McCourt.” “What?” “Chill Out!” So, that was the first time I ever heard that expression, but I knew what it meant, so I chilled. What that meant was I became more and more of a human being. I dropped the Irish schoolmaster mask. It didn’t work anymore. What I learned then was the main device, if you want to call it that for a successful teacher, was honesty. I said look, we’re in this together, I’m learning, I would say that, I’m learning. This is what I discovered years and years and years later, I was the big learner out of this teaching experience.

Q: Tell us about your first teaching experience.

When I got my first teaching job, which was on Staten Island in 1958, I took over in midterm spring of ’58 for an old lady named Ms. Mudd, m-u-d-d. And she was just, she just, the kids were driving her crazy. And she said to me, “They’re driving me crazy,” she says to me, “You look out this window,” and the school overlooked New York Harbor. She said, “You look out this window in a week, and you’ll see this ship passing by, and you’ll see me waving from this cruise ship, and the two things I never want to see again is Staten Island and teenagers!”

She left me with mounds, piles of old papers and books, and I went rummaging through the old papers, and I didn’t know what to do with the kids, so I had them reading these old papers, and some of them went back to the Second World War. And they were compositions written by young Staten Island students at that time, who later went off to war, off to the Second World War. And some of the kids in my class discovered these papers, and they were overcome: “This was my father, this was my uncle, this was my cousin Vinny,” and so on. And it was so exciting, and I said to them, “This composition paper is crumbling,” and they would copy them, and they were taking them home to their families, “Look what Uncle Vinny…” And this was a tremendous moment. It was my bridge to the kids. There was such a feeling of community, and emotion, because sometimes the kids, girls and boys, would come across some item from the Second World War from somebody in their family who had been a student at McKee. And, they would be overcome and have to run out of the room. That was one, I think that was my first bridge to them.

Q: How did you balance the emotional needs of students with their intellectual ones?

These girls would come from, I had one class of 35 girls come in these white dresses, uniforms or whatever they are, with hair, hairdos, these beehive hairdos, where you could raise a sparrow in each family. They came into my class and they sat, this first day they sat down, and they took out little boxes, and they started doing their nails and plucking their eyebrows, and fixing their eyelids and so on, eyelashes, and I said what — this was a vocational high school — I said, “What shop is this?” “Cosmetology.” I said, “What’s cosmetology?” “Beauty culture.” And then they’d comment on me, they’d say, “Yo teach, your hair is a mess, your nails need work. Why don’t you come up to beauty culture and we’ll do you?” That was an invitation I declined.

But all of this was human stuff and it had nothing to do with the curriculum. In the meantime, I’m finding my way, because nobody was there to help me. I’m finding my way through this education minefield. I’d go up to the teacher’s cafeteria at lunchtime. On one side of the cafeteria the old timers were gathered — they’re giving me advice, and they’re saying, traditional and conservative and they’ve been through it, and they say you know, “You’re the boss in that classroom, you tell them what to do, don’t ever tell them anything about yourself, nothing private.” Then I’d go to the other side of the cafeteria, and there are the younger teachers who were progressive, you know, students of John Dewey, and they’d say, “Well, you know, these kids are people. These are real people and we have to meet their felt needs.” I didn’t know what a felt need was, but I guess I tried to meet their felt needs. It was a long, slow process, because there’s no, there’s no method or technique by which you can become a successful teacher overnight. It takes years. And it’s like writing I suppose, or like any art, or any human endeavor — you have to find your own way. You have to find your own style, techniques and style. So, I found my own style after a while, and sometimes I would imitate other teachers who had certain ways of dealing with classes. Didn’t work, never worked. It’s like being a writer. You imitate Faulkner, you imitate Hemingway, you imitate Scott Fitzgerald, but in the end you find your own voice, and your own style, and that’s what I had to do as a teacher.

Q: Describe a typical day of teaching as you remember it.

Most teachers would have, first period on the second floor, then it’s up to the sixth floor for the second period, down to third floor for the third period, and in between, in between the second and third period you had what they call homeroom, official class. You had this group of kids, and you had to take their attendance, give them bus passes and food vouchers and whatever, and get excuses for the previous day’s absence. You had to keep all these records. You were like a big clerk, a bookkeeper. And then you go to your next class. So there were five classes, so you’d have lunch, and then you’d have what they call, somewhere along the line, a building assignment. And my building assignment most the time was to supervise the student cafeteria. And you’d go in there and you’d hear them feeding, swilling, and whining and moaning about the food and you see kids throwing food away and you think of your own childhood when we would have eaten the stuff out of the garbage can, and I was convinced, they’d say, “Oh, this is terrible, this hot dog.” I was convinced that most of these kids were gourmets. They went home to bouillabaisse every night or fine wines. Then, if you’re an English teacher, if you’ve been foolish enough to give them an assignment, they hand it in. And you take it home in a bag. You go home and your heart is heavy because you have 170 kids. Now if you give them an assignment 250 words, multiply 170 by 250, and that’s like reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. And there’s another book you’d like to read or a movie you’d like to see, or you’d like to talk to your wife once in a while, but you have all these papers. Sunday night comes. That’s the worst night of the week for any teacher in the country because they know this stuff is piled up and they’re in such a state of despair. And you try to do it, and like any kid who has homework to do, “I’ll get up in the morning and do it.” Well you know you’re not going to do 170 papers, so you do what you can, and try to get it back to them, but the load never lightened.

Q: Why are teachers important in our society?

What’s the most precious material we have in the country: children. If we don’t give them the best keepers and mentors and teachers, we’re destroying them. We’re destroying the country. They are the future, and the teachers are there everyday with the future. And we’re so careless about that. We underpay teachers, we hire poorly prepared teachers, and we don’t help them. We don’t go into the schools and help them, “What can I do?” We don’t participate. It’s a matter of taking care of the children. If you have a child who’s ill, you want the best doctor. You want the best surgeon, “I want the best surgeon for my child.” But do we say that about teachers? No, we don’t. We know that surgeons are well paid, they better be well paid, they don’t want to have worries at home. It should be the same way with teachers. They’re the single most important profession in the country because they’re shaping the future. And some of them are misshaping the future or they’re not being helped by us. And as I said before, we don’t like our children. Because the proof of it is how we treat our teachers. That’s the one fine and significant proof: how you treat your teachers. And they’re treated badly.

Q: What can we do to help improve our nation’s schools?

One of the reasons the schools are in such a state is no one consults the teachers. I used to watch some of these programs on television and you’d have somebody from some corporation, and you’d see some jerk from the think tank, and then you’d have a union official, and I’d call… One time I called Channel 13 in New York, they had one of these discussions about schools, and I said — they were inviting us, calls from the outside — and the lady said, “Well what would your question be?”

And I said, “Why don’t you have a teacher on this panel?”

“Oh, that’s a very interesting question…”

I said, “It’s about schools, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

But I never got through. One never gets through.

http://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/today8.html

Your comments are always welcome.

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Matthew Rozell teaches history at his alma mater in Hudson Falls, New York. You can contact him at marozell[at]gmail[dot]com. His first book, The Twilight of Living Memory: Reflections of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA is due out this spring.

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