I’m in the City of God now, Jerusalem. The last time I was here was in 2011, with Frank Towers, his son Frank Jr., my ten-year-old son, and Varda Weisskopf, a Holocaust survivor’s daughter.
Survivor’s daughter and reunion organizer Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.
Why am I here? I am studying at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, for 19 days with 29 other educators from all over the world. And although we just started, one of the early takeaways is, think about what the world lost.
“I often wonder what this world would be like, if those 6 million had never perished.” Frank Towers, 30th Infantry Division, Liberator
We talk about the story of human beings. Of the ‘choiceless choices’, in the ghettos and the camps. About the will to live, about what it means to have nothing, from the perspective of the survivors. Maybe also the ”survivors’ guilt”, but also the victory over Hitler and Nazi ideology, as seen in the 2nd and 3rd generations of Holocaust survivors alive and flourishing today.
Matt Rozell, survivor Bruria’s son Dan F., Frank Towers, two survivors Bruria Falik (of Woodstock, NY) and her sister at Israel’s Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem.
I am learning so much, and I am eager to learn more. But yesterday I learned that Frank Towers, Sr., age 99, passed away peacefully with his family by his side in Florida, on July 4th, 2016. Independence Day.
Frank was born on June 13, 1917. Think about that for a minute. John F. Kennedy also came into the world, less than a month before Frank. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody left the world. American involvement in WWI was just getting underway, and Frank’s future 30th Infantry Divison was formally activated. Gandhi was tromping around India, investigating the poor conditions of local farmers. The Russian Revolution was just getting started. American suffragettes that summer were arrested for picketing the White House for the right to vote for women.
So into this world came Frank W. Towers. And Frank Towers came into my life after he had already lived a good, long one, in September, 2007, shortly after he turned 90. But he had more things to do before the Almighty called him home.
He did not know me, and I did not know him-I have never even been to Florida, where he lived. But, from the news he learned of a reunion that we had recently done at our high school. He read about how I had reunited World War II tank commanders from the US Army 743rd Tank Battalion and 30th Infantry Division with the children of the Holocaust who he also had helped to liberate. And Frank said to himself, “Wait, I know about this. I was there, too.”
Frank reached out to me and we began a fruitful partnership in trying to locate more of the survivors who were on that train. He invited me, and the survivors, to the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II reunions that they held annually down south. And these were powerfully moving events, to see the soldiers touched by the gestures of the survivors; and for the survivors to laugh and cry with their liberators was a gift that they, their children and grandchildren, will never forget. We also held additional reunions at our school, for the sake of making students the new witnesses to what happened during the Holocaust.
Holocaust survivor Ariela Rojek, right, was 11 years old in 1945 when she and 2,500 other concentration camp prisoners aboard a train near Magdeburg, Germany, were liberated by American forces including 1st Lt. Frank Towers, left with his son Frank Towers Jr., center. “You gave me my second life,” Rojek told Towers Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, at Hudson Falls High School during an event reuniting soldiers and survivors. [Jason McKibben Glens Falls Post Star]
Today in class I was given the opportunity to speak in an open forum, ostensibly to comment on my thoughts about our collective, moving experience in being guided through the museum by our program leader Ephraim. He knew I had just lost Frank, and I think he knew that I needed to talk about it.
So I began. I told the group that I had been to Yad Vashem before, and that it was because of something very special in my life. In 2011, I was accompanying a then 94-year-old American liberator, who had just met over 500 people who were alive because of the liberators’ intervention and efforts at the ‘Train Near Magdeburg’ on April 13, 1945. Over 50 survivors were present, and later, Frank, his son, my son, Varda, and some survivors had a personal tour of Yad Vashem.
Frank W. Towers, Yad Vashem, 2011.
The museum is designed almost as a triangular tunnel, from which, as you move from prewar Jewish life to increasing persecution and eventual mass murder, gets purposely more bottlenecked and constricting and troubling as you move through the wings of increasing destruction. But in the course of this harrowing encounter with the past, always you draw nearer to an opening, a triangular apex of light that gets bigger, as you pass through time. And I tell the group that for me, the image I so recall, was the image of Frank and survivor’s daughter Varda, in the light and in the opening. It is highly likely that Varda would not be alive today, had it not been for Frank and the soldiers of the 30th Infantry Division and the 743rd Tank Battalion. So now she gave him a great gift, to be able to come to Jerusalem, the City of God, and see the fruits of victory, six and a half decades later-the hundreds of children and grandchildren he met and shook hands with. And I got to witness it all.
And then I paused, and told them that the world had lost Frank Towers only 36 hours before. And here I was, six thousand miles away, and unable to go to his services in Florida. Instead I am here at Yad Vashem, sitting in a classroom, pouring out my heart. And it hurts.
But this is not a lament. As I speak, the reason why I can’t go to Frank now crystallizes and becomes clarified for me. You see, led by Frank, the veterans of World War II have paved the way many times for me to travel abroad to study the Holocaust. Think about that. The American soldiers who encountered the Holocaust as young men in 1945, open their wallets to send a teacher to study, so that this history is not lost to upcoming generations. Of course, the survivor community has also been very generous in this regard, but the soldiers, led by Frank Towers, are so grateful, that the Holocaust-and their sacrifices in slaying the beast-will never be forgotten.
So, I’m at Yad Vashem studying the Holocaust when Frank passes for a reason-this is right where he would want me to be. And as I close with my new teacher friends, after a very long and emotionally charged day, I remind them that we all bear a collective responsibility as teachers to carry on doing what we do when we teach, especially in teaching the subject of the Holocaust:
Frank Jr, Frank, Varda. Yad Vashem, 2011
We are creating human beings. We are cultivating humanity. There is no past, and it is never over. There is hope amidst all the darkness in the world. The tunnel will lead to the light.
This is the transformation that I feel, when I look at the photo of Frank here at Yad Vashem. I’m grateful for the words that I see as the backdrop for this sharing time in the classroom today:
Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken. -Albert Camus
That’s a tall order, today. Godspeed, Frank Towers. Candles on almost all the continents are lit for you. The short newscasts below are a part of the legacy, of the last liberator.
NBC News w/ Ann Curry
ABC News w/ Diane Sawyer