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“The (Germans) held all the high ground, and one felt like he was in the bottom of a bowl with the enemy sitting on two-thirds of the rim looking down upon you. There was about as much concealment as a goldfish would have in a bowl.”–10th Mountain Division soldier[i]

“The general said to one of the battalion commanders, ‘I want you to take Riva Ridge tomorrow night. Go out and scout how you’re going to do it. You guys are a bunch of hotshots, you’re skiers and mountain climbers, find a way on top of that ridge!”–10th Mountain Division soldier

Rock climbing at Camp Hale, CO.

DID YOU KNOW that the United States had mountain troops in World War II?

That the last division to ship out to the European Theater of Operations actually originated as a brainstorm of civilians who recognized the Nazi threat of alpine troops striking the United States?

And were you aware that today, February 18, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the 10th Mountain Division’s nighttime assault, incredibly scaling the heights of a sheer slope of a mountain ridge in the darkness, in total silence, to surprise a deadly German observation post overlooking Allied positions for weeks?

The fighting force, eventually known as the 10th Mountain Division, would train hard for this new specialized type of warfare. Near Thanksgiving, 1944, it finally got the call, the last of sixty-three U.S. Army divisions to be sent to the European Theater. It would spearhead the closing push in Italy into the Po Valley north of Rome and Florence in the winter/spring of 1945. Though it would spend less than four months in combat, it would suffer ten percent losses and garner acclaim for helping bring the Italian Campaign to a conclusion. The heroic climb up Riva Ridge in Hitler’s Gothic Line of defenses in northern Italy in the winter of 1945, and subsequent German counter attacks and battles, are hardly even known today. Here are some oral history excerpts by veterans who were there, from my 2018 book The Things Our Fathers Saw—The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation-Volume IV: Up the Bloody Boot—The War in Italy.

Frederick Vetter

[The climb up Riva Ridge]  was done at night, and with raw troops… They had had a little bit of patrol activity but had never been in a major battle to that time. And to put them into a nighttime situation—this ridge was about 1,600 feet from the base to the top. Very rugged, a very steep slope, and rocky. It was in the wintertime, February 18 I think it was, in 1945. And it was an escarpment that overlooked the valley where the Americans were. On top, the Germans held this ridge, and they had observation posts looking out over all of this area, including Mount Belvedere off to the right.

The Americans had tried to take Mount Belvedere three times before, in November and early December, previous to us getting there. And each time they had gained the summit, they were driven off by counterattacks. One of the keys was that the Germans had observation posts on top of Mount Belvedere, from Riva Ridge. So when the mission was given to the 10th Mountain to take Mount Belvedere, Hays, the commanding general, insisted that he first had to take Riva Ridge. And that was the key to taking Belvedere.

Anyway, they did go up. [Rock climbing had been part of our basic training.] A full battalion, there’d probably be 800 to 900 men, fully loaded with all their equipment, had to climb this Riva Ridge. And they had done a lot of scouting and they were not discovered, which was very fortunate; some of the scouting was done at night and some during the day. They established about three or four routes that could be done, up the ridge. In places they had fixed ropes. And that was tricky, when you had to put in pitons, the little pieces of spiked metal to hold these ropes. And they were pretty clever about that. They had their hammers, and they muffled them with cloth, putting in the pitons. They had those in the worst spots, where they had the fixed ropes. They gathered about a day or two earlier, going in at night through this valley into a number of small villages, and staying hidden during the day. And they started up at night, and they gained the summit, some of them by two in the morning, three o’clock in the morning; they were all on the top by the time dawn came. And the Germans had never figured that any large group would ever come up that cliff! That was their mistake. If they had defended it, as they probably should have, it would have been a different story, but these attack team groups—and they went up in three or four different groups—were not discovered until well after dawn. And the Germans were asleep behind the ridge! And our men attacked and took care of the ones that were up there, but the Germans soon came in and counterattacked.

A brutal fight for the five-mile ridge had begun.

Harold J. Wusterbarth

We’re going to go into a night attack. Night attack? You wouldn’t have any contact with each other, and single file, which means if the line breaks, you don’t know where you are. Well, if the line breaks and you don’t know where you are, the goal is to keep going up. Okay, so much for that. But what about friendly fire? We’re going to be in the dark and we’re loaded with all kinds of weapons. No, you’re going to clear your piece. That’s army talk for you’re going to take all the rounds from your BARs and rifles. Not loaded, so nobody’s going to be shooting. You’re going to know who the enemy is because they’re going to be shooting at you! That sounded like a hare-brained idea to some of us. We never had a training session where we attacked a mountain in the dark with no ammunition!

We went back to our areas. I had to explain this to the guys. All I could think of was the Charge of the Light Brigade, ‘Ours is not to reason why/ours is but to do and die.’ But orders are orders.

[We got to the top], and soon we were under fire, and we just went around the guys that were firing. Pretty soon the Germans firing the machine guns realized, ‘Hey, there are Americans above, on either side, and below,’ and they surrendered, but not before we took some casualties, because there were minefields we had to go through. I didn’t get caught in that minefield. And we held it. Incidentally, that wasn’t the end of the day. We were on top of the mountain by dawn, but Mount Belvedere was connected by lesser mountains that went off to the northeast, and we had to take that along with Mount Belvedere. It was like a Fort Benning exercise at this point. One company would move up and get shot up, then the battalion commander would move another company through. Then a platoon, the company commander would move one platoon up, and when they got shot up, another platoon would go through. I was the last platoon to be assigned and there was a stopping point—at the end of this [string] of mountains, I had half a platoon left. My platoon sergeant had been killed, a couple of guys had to take prisoners back, and a couple of guys just drifted off. In fact, I went back because the company CP told me to come back for instructions, and I saw two of my guys. They were so scared they were behind a tree with their back to the tree shivering. I said, ‘Hey, guys, you’re in trouble. You get back to your squad right now.’ They did, and I never brought it up. I was a little sympathetic to them because I was scared stiff too! [Chuckles] But officers aren’t supposed to get scared.

At the end of the day I had just about half of a platoon, and I was heading in a defensive position and I said, ‘These Germans are going to counterattack, they never give up without a counterattack.’ I said, ‘We are going to be slaughtered.’

Carl Newton

I never got shot at until I got on Riva Ridge.

Well, of course we climbed it at night. We had to cross a stream with a temporary log bridge on the way up, and we couldn’t see anything, couldn’t really know what was going on. There were fixed ropes here and there on the real steep parts. I remember a guy said, ‘Oh, I lost my helmet,’ and we heard a little clink way down.

I said, ‘Oh my God, where are we?’ Well, we got up on top of Riva Ridge, and it was foggy, and so we were well covered. The Germans were all in bunkers. Some of the guys went down and woke them up with a rifle pointed at them; we captured a lot of them. In fact, I captured a guy, he surrendered really, running down across this hill on top of the ridge. He was dressed in white like we were and I thought it was one of our guys. Well, he got maybe 100 feet from me and he dropped his pistol belt and threw his rifle down, put his hands up, and I realized it was a German. He said to me, ‘Got an American cigarette?’ He spoke pretty good English. He said he’d been freezing his feet off up there for three months and he was glad to get out of there, because all they did was observe. They were artillery observers. They didn’t have any artillery, they would just call it back to the artillery emplacements, and they would shoot, so every time we did much of anything, they would throw a shell at us.

Counterattacked

We could have captured all of them easily, except that one of the guys in the company took a potshot with his sniper rifle at a [German] relief column coming up and alerted them. They turned around and went back down, then that night we got a counter-attack and one of our squads was separated from the rest of the company out on a nose of the ridge. We lost quite a few people there, wounded and killed. So, we had to retake that the next day.

Fred Schuler was pinned down in a foxhole halfway between this platoon and the company, and with his white helmet with a red cross up there made it a good target; they were shooting at him too. Then we had a running, screaming assault to retake that position and I got a [bullet] crease across the back of my helmet, just above my ear on one side. [Another bullet] hit my arm and I turned around and looked at the guy behind me, because I thought he threw something at me to get my attention or something, but it was a bullet. A German hand grenade landed right in front of me, one of those potato mashers. I picked it up and threw it back, and it never did go off; it was a dud, thank goodness.

I had quite a few close calls. Later on, I was running across a potato field outside of Sassomolare; we lost a lot of people in that assault. A bullet went through my helmet, through my wool cap, through my hair, and out the back end, but it never touched me. I wish I could have kept that helmet, but you used the helmet for everything, and it wasn’t that good with a hole in it, so I threw it away. It would have been a good souvenir to have.

Up in Riva Ridge, after that assault, it was a very difficult night, because there were wounded Germans out in front of us. One guy was screaming that he was freezing to death and wanted us to help him. One of the guys in my squad, my assistant gunner on the BAR, had been educated in Switzerland as a young kid and he understood German. And he said, ‘He’s freezing to death, we have to go out and help him.’ We did, and the squad leader interrogated [the German]; he was a captain, but he was shot up really bad and he didn’t make it.

And that was [part of] the trouble we had, we couldn’t get our own wounded off [the mountain] until later when they built a tramway to take our wounded people down on the tram. Paul Petzoldt, the famous mountaineer, was assigned to build that tramway.[1] There was a huge rock at the bottom just across the stream where we started, and they anchored the cable there and then ran the cable up the mountain. Then they fastened the litters to the cable to run them down; it was a fun ride if you weren’t wounded. We had to walk down. See, Riva Ridge was very steep from the American side. On the other side, it was gradual, and the Germans could actually drive up there. It wasn’t easy going, but they could get up there. Of course, they could just hike out. But they never expected anybody could climb from the other way, so they didn’t man any positions at night. We were lucky there, because they could have rolled rocks down and knocked us off the mountain. It would have been absolutely [like] shooting fish in a barrel, because [the terrain] was so difficult. There weren’t any trees at that time. Now, when we went back in ’95, it was all second-growth trees. [Back then], the Italians had stripped the mountain of wood for fire.

[I received the Bronze Star] at Sassomolare. That’s where I got the bullet hole in my helmet. Our squad was going across this field and there was a machine gun in this house, up in the town. [The Germans] had good field of fire and we lost [Bill Crookshank], who got severely wounded; he wound up in the hospital for about three years. They never expected him to make it, but he did. He has his one arm, but it is somewhat useless. Two people in my squad were killed. When I saw them go down, I went out from where we were pinned down to try and see if I could help, but when I got out there, I found out they were both dead. So that’s what I got the Bronze Star for.


The Tenth suffered nearly 1000 killed with four times as many wounded in their four months of combat, including future U.S. Senator Robert Dole. Today, the Tenth was the first to be called up for the rugged terrain fighting in Afghanistan. Returning home after World War II, the veterans of the 10th Mountain Division went on to pioneer and nurture the booming alpine skiing industry.

You can read more in my book. And by the way, that’s the 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain on the cover, in Italy about a month after the capture of Riva Ridge.

Vol. IV The War in Italy. Click on the cover to buy from Amazon, or for hard cover/signed books get it directly from the author. Discounts for sets!

[1] Paul Petzoldt (1908-1999)- accomplished mountaineer, making his first ascent of the Grand Teton at the age of 16. In 1938 he was a member of the first American team to attempt a climb on K2. During the war, he pioneered medical evacuation techniques to soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division. He went on to establish the National Outdoor Leadership School in 1965.

[i]Kennedy, Michelle. Bootprints in History: Mountaineers take the Ridge. U.S. Army, February 19, 2015.

COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

A mother and her daughter murdered at Auschwitz, from a suitcase of photos discovered after the war. Author photo from a montage at Auschwitz Memorial, 2013.

“T-minus” 60 DAYS Countdown to Commemoration at Farsleben, Germany-Partners in the annihilation of millions of innocent souls.

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the train liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local students and others.

In our countdown to commemoration at the site of liberation in Germany, I will share updates and circle back to some early writings or book content.


TIMELINE

  • February 4-11 – The Big Three—FDR, Churchill, Stalin—meet at Yalta.
  • February 8 – Allies launch major offensive to reach the Rhine.
  • February 13-14 – Dresden is incinerated by a firestorm after Allied bombing raids.
  • February 15, 1945: The Red Army liberates the slave-labor camp at Neusalz, Poland.
  • February 17, 1945: Seven Jews, including a small orphan girl, are murdered by a Pole in Sokoly, Poland.
  • February 23, 1945: Nazis evacuate the Jews from the concentration camp at Schwarzheide, Germany. The 300 weakest prisoners are sent in open wagons to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, Germany.
  • February 18, 1945: Five hundred Jews married to Christians are seized throughout Germany and deported to the Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, camp/ghetto.

Source(s): Weber, Louis. The Holocaust Chronicle. Publications International Ltd., 2007. http://www.holocaustchronicle.org


Seventeen-year-old Irene Bleier, liberated at Farsleben that April of 1945, recalled her life turned upside-down after the Germans invaded Hungary in Spring, 1944, and her later arrival at Bergen-Belsen:

April, 1944

The Hungarian government introduced a degrading law forcing us to wear a yellow star on the left side of our clothes. Whoever disobeyed would be punished. My father prepared perfect yellow stars for each of us. Sad reflections overtook his face as he worked.

My father’s instruction that I put on the yellow star filled me with enormous hatred and depression. We always showed great respect and love to both our parents—especially to our father—but now I had to refuse. ‘I cannot wear the disgracing badge,’ I told my father. My father answered that I should wear the star with pride. ‘Show them that you are proud to be a Jew,’ he said. ‘I am proud to be a Jew,’ I told my father. ‘But that pride does not mean that I will let them degrade me and make me a laughingstock.’ Those barbaric demands deeply hurt my self-dignity. The first day I wore the yellow star fell on my seventeenth birthday. Instead of marking the spring of life, my birthday turned into a dark omen for many more hopeless days that followed shortly.

***

The Allied air forces started conducting air raids since the Nazi occupation began. Looking up at the planes in the sky, I wondered why the free countries don’t do something to help us Jews before the Nazis exterminate us. We were innocent victims, and they could have helped us if they wanted to. My soul directed a silent prayer to them—please help us escape the devil’s clutches.

***

An order to pack our belongings and return to the ghetto came suddenly one afternoon. We had to quit work and go right away. Some of the girls cried hysterically, fearful that we would now all be taken with our families to Hitler’s death camps. I was scared stiff and overcome by tears, my brain stiffened by the worry. With great pain, we boarded the horse-cart.

Six horse-carts filled with fifty young Jewish girls made their way through town. Some of us cried uncontrollably, the tears streaming down our faces. The others just cried inside in their hearts. Starting at the outskirts of town, we passed by the Jewish cemetery. Two girls wailed bitterly at this point, bidding farewell to their dead—one to her late mother, the other to her late father. Many people stared at the pitiful sight. If they felt sympathy to the humiliated girl prisoners, none showed any signs.

June, 1944

Early afternoon. All the Jews of the ghetto stood by the gate in the schoolyard. A local Christian midwife had to undress all us women over 16 years old and check our bodies for hidden gold or jewelry. We all crowded into a classroom for this degrading event, but the woman did nothing to us. We just lingered there for a few minutes without being molested. Girls with long hair had to have their hair cut.

We stood in the courtyard with our meager possessions in the one backpack we were allowed to take. The gendarme officer asked if anyone still had any valuables—there were none. Then he shouted that if one person tried to escape, ten people would be shot dead. An old man cried out, ‘Someone please give me rope so that I can hang myself and die here. I do not want to go to a death camp to be killed by Hitler. I would rather do it with my own hands.’ Mrs. Grunfeld, a mother of four small children, quieted him down and asked him not to stir up a panic.

Contradictory thoughts overtook me. On the one hand, I very much wished to disobey these inhuman decrees, run away and hide somewhere. On the other, strong fears stifled my feelings and paralyzed my body, leaving me unable to resist those devilish decrees. I am sure that many others also felt this dissonance. We lived under great mental pressure, paralyzing fear. Our feelings were stifled, and our brains were unable to think clearly—as if dark clouds floated in our heads.

***

A uniformed German SS soldier appeared and called on rabbis and families with four children and more to gather at the center of the yard. Our empty stomachs rumbling, we heard this Nazi bawl out instructions to us. We were about to start a long ‘walking tour.’ For many of us, this would be a death march to Auschwitz.

Thus, after starving for four days, we commenced our march. German SS guards watched from both sides as we marched in rows of five. None of us tried to escape. We were too depressed, our will power broken down, wholly tormented. We soon arrived at a camp overcrowded with other fellow, desperate Jews, stopped for a while, and then continued the humiliating journey. As Jewish men aged 18-48 were long ago taken to forced labor camps, the marching contingent was composed of young girls, mothers, babies, and children, along with many old and sick human souls. Trucks car-ried our backpacks while we marched for grueling hours in our mournful procession through small towns. The Christian townsfolk stared at us, nobody pouring tears, nobody expressing sympathy.
We arrived one afternoon at a small farm where we were accommodated in empty tobacco sheds. The armed Hungarian gendarmes who carefully watched us let us walk outside a fixed distance from the sheds during the day. We saw how a heartless gendarme chased away a Jewish child who tried to pick up some food on the ground.
Another day of beautiful, joyous sunshine came Saturday morning, but not for us on June 25, 1944. By Sunday afternoon, we packed our backpacks and prepared to board the nearby train trucks. When we entered the strongly chloroformed boxcars, many people became dizzy or fainted. Ninety people crowded into each boxcar, and we were each given half a slice of tasty dark bread and a little water, which we quickly consumed. Quite a few people died during this week-long journey.

As the Jewish transports did not appear on the regular railway schedule, we were often stranded for hours under the blazing sun waiting for our turn to travel. We received no food or water. People urinated and took care of their natural needs aboard the train, spreading a putrid odor. Small children and babies cried themselves to sleep out of sheer exhaustion, from hunger and thirst, from the wholly wretched situation we were in. Some of the men donned their tefillin and fervently beseeched the Almighty to save us, ‘Look upon your forsaken children, see what the world is doing to them and send help; pull us out of this catastrophe before it is too late—if it isn’t already.’

The transport hurtled along mostly at night, rocking us to sleep. We dreamed of freedom, of home, of plentiful food and water. Each time the train stopped, so did our dreams. We sadly woke up to the dreadful reality. During air raids, the cowardly SS guards locked us inside the train, taking cover themselves in bomb shelters.

Our transport stopped one day by the train station, with many Hungarian soldiers and civilians all around. My cousin Magda peeked out of a tiny window at the side of the boxcar and begged a Hungarian officer for a little water. He promptly denied Magda’s request. How could anyone be so cruel? Even dangerous criminals condemned to death receive their last request. Why are innocent Jews treated even worse?
Is there no more justice left on earth?

Our journey reached a turning point on Thursday afternoon as we left Hungarian territory, soon arriving at a nearby small Polish town. Our transport was delayed at the station and another transport with Jews being deported to annihilation centers stood nearby.

After a while, our transport’s locomotive went to the rear—we were going to travel backwards. We soon went back onto Hungarian soil. At first, we fooled ourselves into believing that the Hungarian government claimed us back and would not let us be taken to annihilation. It took just a short while, however, for us to face our destiny. Now our transport traveled swiftly. We left behind the country that we mistakenly believed was our homeland.

***

Thus our journey continued, coming to a stop after an unknown amount of time. We dragged ourselves out of the boxcars as the doors were unlatched, the Nazi guard roaring out orders. We had to line up at our destination, the Bergen–Celle train station, a slow and steady rainfall welcoming us.

Since we were chased out of our former homes, dark skies and steady rain greeted us at each new location. Such a marvelous sensation this phenomenon gave me. I was overcome with a special feeling that somehow even managed to uplift my darkened spirit. It came to me as a message from the heavens, which were venting their anger: The Almighty shares in our tragedy and is pouring tears of sorrow; He is crying on our behalf. These thoughts planted seeds of hope and faith into my soul against the backdrop of the great catastrophe.

Lined up in rows of five, we set out on our sad march. Army trucks delivered our backpacks. German SS Nazi soldiers escorted us. The group I was in consisted mainly of women and children, some old people and a few young ones; men aged 18 to 48 were taken to forced army labor several years before, where most had perished from starvation, from inhuman beatings, or from freezing to death in sub-zero weather.

Our group marched in the middle of the road, with a few stone houses to our left, curious eyes staring at us from the windows. I felt deep humiliation, but the people who should have felt the shame were those staring at us from the houses. We were innocent, defenseless people; they were partners in the annihilation of millions of innocent souls.

from the narrative of Irene Bleier Muskal, edited for inclusion in A Train Near Magdeburg (The Young Adult Adaptation): The Holocaust, the Survivors, and the American Soldiers who Saved Them 

COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

“WATER, WATER!”
by Train Near Magdeburg survivor Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection. USHMM.

“T-minus” 65 DAYS Countdown to Commemoration at Farsleben, Germany-Millions of people were on the move.

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the train liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local students and others.

In our countdown to commemoration at the site of liberation in Germany, I will share updates and circle back to some early writings or book content. Millions of people were on the move; survivor Leslie Meisels remembers “the first miracle of my survival.”


  • Late January 1945: 29,000 Jews, mostly women, are evacuated on forced marches from Danzig, Poland, and Stutthof, Poland. Only 3000 survive.
  • Late January 1945: Thousands of Jews are sent on a death march from the Lamsdorf camp near Breslau, Germany, westward toward Thuringia, Germany. Hundreds die or are killed on the way.
  • February 1945: Ukrainian nationalists hunt down and murder Jews throughout the Ukraine.February 1945: Allied forces close on Cologne, Germany.
  • February 3, 1945: 3500 prisoners from Gross-Rosen, Germany, are marched southwest to the concentration camp at Flossenbürg, Germany, nearly 200 miles away. Five hundred will die on the way. Two thousand more are evacuated by train to the labor camp at Ebensee, Austria, near Mauthausen; 49 will die on the journey and another 182 will perish at the camp.
  • February 8, 1945: Soviet troops are 30 miles east of Dresden, Germany.
    February 13, 1945: German troops surrender Budapest, Hungary.
    February 13, 1945: The SS evacuates the concentration camp at Gross-Rosen, Germany.

Source(s): Weber, Louis. The Holocaust Chronicle. Publications International Ltd., 2007. http://www.holocaustchronicle.org


Seventeen-year-old Leslie Meisels, liberated at Farsleben that April of 1945, recalled disobeying his mother for the first time in his life after the Germans invaded Hungary in Spring, 1944::

On the third day, there was an announcement that families with five or more children had to report to the railway track, where a group was being assembled for transport. We knew that people were being taken away, but the government’s propaganda emphasized that any rumors we heard about Jews undergoing cruelty at the hands of the Nazis was just that, a rumor; they made us believe that for the remainder of the war, which we hoped would be short, we were being sent somewhere for slave labor. As bad as that seemed, we still thought that if they wanted our labor, they would have to give us food and shelter. At the tannery we had nothing, and so we believed that anywhere else would be better. We didn’t know at that time about the Nazis’ unparalleled, unimaginable annihilation plan, already working full blast in Auschwitz and the other death camps.

Later, there was another announcement calling for families with four children to report to the train. One of my best friends, who had four siblings and was going to be on that transport, came to me saying that they had heard that they needed eight more families with three children to make up the quota and asked if we wanted to come along with their group. I went back to my mother and told her this, even though nobody knew where the people on the transport were going or what would happen to the rest of us. My mother said we shouldn’t go because they hadn’t called for families with three children.

I have to explain that in those days, a seventeen-year-old never, ever, said ‘no’ to his or her parents. Up to that moment, I, too, had never spoken back to my mother, but this time I said, ‘We’re not staying! We’re going!’ We argued back and forth until I grabbed my belongings and started to walk. She had no choice but to follow. My father had already been taken away to the unknown, and she didn’t want her family to be broken up any further.

I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know now, what made me defy my mother, but it was the first miracle of my survival, [for this was a transport that was shunted away from Auschwitz towards Austria].

***

The doors closed, and the train took off to an unknown destination. In that closed-in, dark, crowded place we were given two 25-liter pails, one with drinking water and one for human waste. The water was soon gone, and the waste pail flowed over. These were changed, refilled, and emptied once a day when we stopped at a station. On the seventh day, we arrived at a town called Strasshof in Austria, about 25 kilometers northeast of Vienna, a central transit station for deportees arriving from Hungary and other places. When the door opened, we heard Germans harshly yelling, ‘Raus! Raus!’ ‘Out! Out!’ As we left our car, I saw several bodies being carried out from each of the wagons. Six or eight bodies were carried out of ours. Many had succumbed from lack of food, water, and ventilation.

We were all sent into a large room and together—children, adolescent boys and girls, mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers—had to disrobe and march naked to a shower between two lines of laughing, pointing, machine-gun-toting SS guards with dogs. Walking to that shower was the very first real dehumanization I experienced. It drove into our minds the fact that we were not who we used to be, not individuals who had our own dignity, respected within our communities, but, rather, people who the SS guards considered to be subhuman. I was stunned, as were my mother and grandmother. All those laws that had existed in Hungary for a number of years and prevented Jews from living a free and normal life, even the German occupation and being forced to wear the yellow star—none of it was as psychologically damaging as this was. It wasn’t just a physically and mentally unpleasant experience—this was the ultimate shock from which I don’t think I recovered.

***

As we waited, we saw some of the people who had come with us on the train being led back to the cattle wagons, and we all wondered where they were going. When we saw that our respected rabbi and his wife who were both in their late seventies, were being forced into one of these cattle wagons, my mother gave me a half-full pot of roasted flour and goose fat we had been saving and told me to take it to them because they might need it. I went right over to the wagon and finding the door slightly open, gave them the pot from my mother. After thanking me, the rabbi put his hands on top of my head and recited the priestly blessing, ‘May God keep you… bless you and be gracious to you….’ It was very moving, and I felt touched. He had barely finished the blessing when an SS guard came over and slammed the door shut, pushing me away. This has always stayed with me.[1]

[1] This has always stayed with me-Thirty-five years later, Leslie had the opportunity to meet the granddaughter of this beloved rabbi, and share her grandfather’s blessing with her.

from the narrative of Leslie Meisels, used with his permission, edited for inclusion in A Train Near Magdeburg (The Young Adult Adaptation): The Holocaust, the Survivors, and the American Soldiers who Saved Them 

 

COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

“T-minus” 77 DAYS Countdown to Commemoration at Farsleben-the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau II

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the train liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local school kids and others.

In our countdown to commemoration at the site of liberation in Germany, I will share updates and circle back to some of my earlier writings.


Auschwitz-Birkenau-July, 2013

75 years ago, today, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated.

After the ‘tour’ of Auschwitz I, we have lunch on the bus in the parking lot, and then drive the three kilometers through town to Birkenau.

The entry tower is the iconic symbol of evil, menacing and devouring as we are pulled closer on this overcast day. We follow the guide up the stairs in the tower. From here we can see the sheer vastness of the camp.

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. Our guide indicates that historic preservation here is a major concern.

The rest of the camp is many square kilometers of row upon row of foundations and brick chimney stubs, surrounded by the intimidating curved and tapered 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. Following the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

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

Our guide leads us along the path through the camp that leads to the gas chamber and crematorium. We walk in silence along the roadway, the only sound the crunching of brick fragments and gravel underfoot. It appears to have been paved with brick, slave labor of course, 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 historic battlefields that are smaller than this site.

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 our guide what it was. It was for flowers, a giant flowerpot.  She tells us that they were also placed near the entrances of the gas chambers.

Flowers at the gas chambers.

We turn left and keep walking past interpretative signage. It seems like we are walking outside of the camp perimeter, but we are not. Beautiful woods of white birch appear, and we are walking on the edge of the woods with the camp to our left.

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

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.

We are resting at the spot they rested at, 20 minutes after walking, immediately after disembarking from overcrowded transports that they had been traveling on 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 ash field 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 ash yard, a graveyard. So many Hungarian Jews were killed in the Auschwitz camps in that season of murder that the crematoria were incapable of burning all the bodies, so open-air burning pits had to be utilized.

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

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, there was a system.

Disrobing.

Wading through disinfectant.

Shower.

Uniform thrown at you, mismatched clogs or shoes.

Elaine’s mother spent two years here. Her grandmother and the little ones were selected upon arrival. Her mom’s teenage sister was shot 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 feel helpless. There is nothing I can do.

The Red Army liberated this place on January 27, 1945. At the Soviet memorial constructed near the two destroyed gas chambers/crematorium at the end, we have a remembrance ceremony. Kaddish is recited in Hebrew. I read it aloud in English today to the group. With tears, Elaine tells us that she feels her grandmother smiling down on this extraordinary group of dedicated teachers. A lump rises in my throat again. I swallow hard and try to blink back the wetness I feel welling in my eyes, so I am glad for the sunglasses, even though there is no sun. The plaque reminds:

A Warning to Humanity.’

We light candles, turn our backs, and just walk out, which allows for another twenty-minute stretch of quiet, personal reflection. We have come to the epicenter of evil. We have been to Auschwitz; we try to process—but we just cannot.

 

COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

“T-minus” 78 DAYS-the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau

January 27, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Red Army. The concentration camp Majdanek had been captured intact the previous summer.

On the other side of Europe,  the Allies had landed in Normandy the previous summer as well. The Battle of the Bulge was just ending; the western allies were fighting through the Low Countries and had actually already crossed the West Wall, or Siegfried Line. In 2001, I interviewed a tank commander who had experienced all of this. But nothing would prepare young soldiers for their encounters with the Holocaust in the months to follow.

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local school kids and others. In 2013, I traveled the same railroad route from near Bergen-Belsen to Magdeburg in less than an hour. In 1945, starved, emaciated, and typhus-stricken prisoners covered the same journey with little food and water or sanitation for nearly a week. Then, the tank commander appeared on the scene, in his tank with the white star, with another tank commander and their crews, and their major who snapped one of the Most Iconic Photos of the 20th Century. It is fitting that I travel back to this place, this time with an Emmy Award-winning film director and crew, with our own cameras rolling.

The two tank commanders, by the way, were not Jewish, contrary to some things you may find on the internet.  The two filmmakers, Mike and I, are not Jewish either. Does that matter? To us, of course not. But in a world where Jew hatred has existed for millennia, and antisemitism rears again, we stand with the Jewish people as those American soldiers did in 1945. They were faced with a moral choice in a shooting war. And they chose to DEFEND, PROTECT, AND CONFRONT. And with our film, based on my book, we choose to affirm and promote those values. We will witness, once more, and we want our viewers to think about what they saw, and what they did, and the lessons they now pass on to us all as they take their final leave.

In our countdown to commemoration, I will share updates and circle back to some of my earlier writings.


Auschwitz-Birkenau-July, 2013

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

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

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 used by the perpetrators: ‘extermination’—as if the victims were vermin. Over 1,100,000 human beings were killed here, most of them Jews. Now, 1.4 million people visit here every year.

We see the map with the spiderlike rail lines radiating outward from 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; Primo Levi put the record at 24,000 on a single day in August 1944.[i]

We see 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. We peer into the shower rooms that could fit in some cases entire transports, which were in fact the hermetically sealed gas chambers. The figurines of the Germans stand above them 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.

But the experience is 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’ in the evidence file is about to slap us in the face.

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 do our eyes perceive? 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 mountains of eyeglasses and frames, the pots and pans, the suitcases carefully labelled by their owners with chalk on the orders of the perpetrators, again, for ‘quick retrieval after disinfection.’ And the shoes, all sorted, case after case of women’s shoes. Men’s footwear. And then, the children’s shoes.

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 prewar Jewish life, projected on the walls. We hear songs and voices, see people dancing in a past life.

At the end of this is the Book of Life, rows of giant suspended volumes containing four million names compiled thus far. When Elaine and others in our tight-knit group find entire pages with the names and dates of family members murdered during the Holocaust, there are gasps, and tears.

And now it is on to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

[i] Levi, Primo. Primo Levi’s Heartbreaking, Heroic Answers to the Most Common Questions He Was Asked About ‘Survival in Auschwitz’. The New Republic, February 17, 1986. newrepublic.com/article/119959/interview-primo-levi-survival-auschwitz

A TALK BY MATTHEW ROZELL, FRIDAY, JAN. 17, 7PM

Matthew Rozell will discuss his newest book: The Things Our Fathers Saw―D-Day and Beyond: The War in France, this Friday, Jan. 17, at 7pm at the Rogers Island Visitors Center, 11 Rogers Island Dr., Fort Edward, NY. Come out and pick one up, or just sit and have a listen. https://www.facebook.com/events/542669763258537/

WHEN YOU STEP OFF THE LANDING CRAFT into the sea, bullets flying at 0630, how do you react to your vision of your mother opening the telegram that you have been killed?

WHEN YOUR GLIDER CRASHES AND BREAKS APART, what do you when you are shot and the Germans are bearing down on you, and you know your dogtags identify you as a Jew?


— “I had a vision, if you want to call it that. At my home, the mailman would walk up towards the front porch, and I saw it just as clear as if he’s standing beside me—I see his blue jacket and the blue cap and the leather mailbag. Here he goes up to the house, but he doesn’t turn. He goes right up the front steps. This happened so fast, probably a matter of seconds, but the first thing that came to mind, that’s the way my folks would find out what happened to me. The next thing I know, I kind of come to, and I’m in the push-up mode. I’m half up out of the underwater depression, and I’m trying to figure out what the hell happened to those prone figures on the beach, and all of a sudden, I realized I’m in amongst those bodies!” —Army demolition engineer, Omaha Beach, D-Day


Dying for freedom isn’t the worst that could happen. Being forgotten is.


— “My last mission was the Bastogne mission. We were being towed, we’re approaching Bastogne, and I see a cloud of flak, anti-aircraft fire. I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to make it.’ There were a couple of groups ahead of us, so now the anti-aircraft batteries are zeroing in. Every time a new group came over, they kept zeroing in. My outfit had, I think, 95% casualties.” —Glider pilot, D-Day and beyond


Maybe our veterans did not volunteer to tell us their stories; perhaps we were too busy with our own lives to ask. But they opened up to a younger generation, when a history teacher taught his students to engage.


— “I was fighting in the hedgerows for five days; it was murder. But psychologically, we were the best troops in the world. There was nobody like us; I had all the training that they could give us, but nothing prepares you for some things. You know, in my platoon, the assistant platoon leader got shot right through the head, right through the helmet, dead, right there in front of me. That affects you, doesn’t it?”” —Paratrooper, D-Day and beyond


As we forge ahead as a nation, do we owe it to ourselves to become reacquainted with a generation that is fast leaving us, who asked for nothing but gave everything, to attune ourselves as Americans to a broader appreciation of what we stand for?

This is the fifth book in the masterful WWII oral history series, but you can read them in any order.


— “Somebody asked me once, what was the hardest part for you in the war? And I thought about a young boy who came in as a replacement; the first thing he said was, ‘How long will it be before I’m a veteran?’I said, ‘If I’m talking to you the day after you’re in combat, you’re a veteran.’He replaced one of the gunners who had been killed on the back of the half-track. Now, all of a sudden, the Germans were pouring this fire in on us. He was working on the track and when he jumped off, he went down, called my name. I ran over to him and he was bleeding in the mouth… From my experience before, all I could do was hold that kid’s hand and tell him it’s going to be all right. ‘You’ll be all right.’ I knew he wasn’t going to last, and he was gone the minute that he squeezed my hand…” —Armored sergeant, D-Day and beyond


It’s time to listen to them. Read some of the reviews below and REMEMBER how a generation of young Americans truly saved the world. Or maybe it was all for nothing?

— “A must-read in every high school in America. It is a very poignant look back at our greatest generation; maybe it will inspire the next one.”

Reviewer, Vol. I

My wife and I drove to the state capital to present a talk to representatives of the United States Army last Saturday. I was invited to speak at the Albany Recruiting Battalion’s Annual Training Conference, seven companies from the Northeastern United States and Europe. I think it was the first time that they had invited a civilian to address them as their keynote speaker. And I think that took some boldness, a willingness to ‘think outside the box’, as most certainly had no idea who I was. [Thank you SFC Christian O’Keeffe for being a reader and a fan!]

There were 350+ present, a culmination of their weekend gathering and training, a sea of dress uniforms and evening gowns, some formality and protocol but also a chance to celebrate and take pride in serving the United States of America. We were honored to be seated at the table with the Command of the Albany Battalion.

As we took our seats the ceremony began with the posting of the colors by the local Christian Brothers Academy Color Guard. The MC also pointed to the Missing Man/Fallen Comrade Table, set up for one, but highlighted by the absence of those who were no longer present. It instantly reminded me of all of the times I had been with my World War II veteran friends for their annual reunion ceremonies, which began exactly the same way. And as I was readying to take to the podium, I was frankly struck with an emotion I did not expect, a profound sense of sadness:

All of my old friends who led or organized these ceremonies, in reunions of Army veterans all over the south, are now dead.

Matthew Rozell, 30th Infantry Veterans of WWII, Holocaust survivors at Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, March 2, 2012.

With ranks thinning, the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II (which had met annually since 1946, sometimes taking over more than one downtown city hotel) folded its reunion tent in April 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee, on the 70th anniversary of the 1945 Nazi death train liberation. And for the past ten years, led by Frank W. Towers, they had warmly hosted the Holocaust survivors that they liberated in April 1945. I remember the way they greeted my ten-year-old son at the reunions we attended with the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II, rubbing his head at the annual final banquets, the colorful fundraising auctions that followed with many laughs and jokes. They opened each reunion by reading the names of those fellow soldiers who had passed away in the past year, with the tolling the bell for each man who had passed on the previous year; my son and I, and the Holocaust survivors I helped to reunite with the men of the 30th, were privileged to witness this moving ceremony several times.

It was with these tempered feelings that I took the stage. I was introduced by the Command Sergeant Major as the dessert service was getting underway, and coupled with some blistering microphone feedback, it took a few seconds to get my audience’s full attention, but I had them as I began recounting some of the feelings I was having—these reminders which had been buried for the past five years—my sudden reckoning of the irrevocable certitude that those special weekends and touching moments with liberating soldiers and the people they saved now were firmly categorized as ‘Things of the Past’, now seemingly dissolved and flowing down the long Corridor of Time.

The slideshow the audience never saw…

My carefully tailored AV slides also had gone out the window—the Army laptops would not accept my work—but I was able to bring up the Major Benjamin photograph from the internet and ask a few questions.

743rd S-3 After Action journal report- the moment of liberation

743rd S-3 After Action journal report- the moment of liberation

How many people in this room have seen this image before? (Less than 1%). Well, settle back, and let me tell you a story, about a beautiful spring day in 1945, when two Army friends who had miraculously survived 10 months of vicious combat from the beaches of Normandy, across the Dragon’s Teeth into Germany, back down into the winter nightmare of the Battle of the Bulge—men who had seen their friends killed in front of their eyes and could no longer even recall their own mothers’ faces—would be shocked on this day to learn about the death of their President—the only one they had grown up with, their Commander in Chief—only to be confronted and stunned a few hours later with the horrors of the Holocaust—so unknown to them that it did not even have a name: THIS is what your forebearers ran into, were assaulted with, on that Friday in April 1945 as the killing went on around them.

And one of them said, “What Are We Going to Do With All These People?”

What would you do?  The tank commanders set up a perimeter guard and declared the train and its 2500 tortured occupants to be under the protection of the United States Army. Frank Towers, who arrived the next morning to transport the people out of harm’s way and toward medical attention, remembered, ‘Never in our training were we taught to be humanitarians. We were taught to be soldiers.’ And Walter Gantz, as a medic who nursed the survivors back to health over six weeks, recalled, ‘After I got home, I cried a lot. My parents couldn’t understand why I couldn’t sleep at times.’

Of course, the men and women in uniform, now listening intently, knew NOTHING about this incident, which, I posited, is really a lesson, an exercise in ethics and morality that took its place as a nano-incident in the most cataclysmic war in history, so infinitesimal it was virtually lost for 65 years, until those two tank commanders showed me that picture and others they had taken from that incident, and told me the story.

What happened next was just as mind-blowing, I continued, but for now, we will consider this:

In a shooting war, the rescue of the people on the train was not a military objective. The Army did not have to stop and help.

But it did.

Six/sevenths of European Jewry would be killed in four and a half years, but thanks to the soldiers’ actions, tens of thousands are alive today. And it’s not a nano-incident to them; ‘whoever saves one life, saves the world entire’.

As the ones who have picked up the mantle of your grandfathers, this is YOUR LEGACY: in learning this story, you become witnesses empowered to reflect on your roles as DEFENDERS of our core democratic values, as PROTECTORS of those in your path who are suffering, AS CONFRONTERS of injustice and indignity.

Thank you, indeed, for your sacrifice, and for all you do, and for allowing me to share this with you. I hope you can draw strength from what you have learned.