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NEW From Matthew Rozell

A Train Near Magdeburg

A Teacher’s Journey into the Holocaust, and the Reuniting of the Survivors and Liberators, 70 years on

 
tnm-fr-n-back

GET THE BOOK HERE

*****

The incredible TRUE STORY behind an iconic photograph, taken at the liberation of a death train deep in the heart of Nazi Germany, brought to life by the history teacher who reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors and their children with the actual American soldiers who saved them.

From the book:
– ‘I survived because of many miracles. But for me to actually meet, shake hands, hug, and cry together with my liberators–the ‘angels of life’ who literally gave me back my life–was just beyond imagination.’Leslie Meisels, Holocaust Survivor

– ‘Battle-hardened veterans learn to contain their emotions, but it was difficult then, and I cry now to think about it. What stamina and regenerative spirit those brave people showed!’George C. Gross, Liberator

– ‘Never in our training were we taught to be humanitarians. We were taught to be soldiers.’Frank Towers, Liberator

– ‘I cannot believe, today, that the world almost ignored those people and what was happening. How could we have all stood by and have let that happen? They do not owe us anything. We owe them, for what we allowed to happen to them.’Carrol Walsh, Liberator

– ‘[People say it] cannot happen here in this country; yes, it can happen here. I was 21 years old. I was there to see it happen.’Luca Furnari, US Army

– ‘[After I got home] I cried a lot. My parents couldn’t understand why I couldn’t sleep at times.’Walter ‘Babe’ Gantz, US Army medic

– ‘I grew up and spent all my years being angry. This means I don’t have to be angry anymore.’Paul Arato, Holocaust Survivor

– ‘For the first time after going through sheer hell, I felt that there was such a thing as simple love coming from good people–young men who had left their families far behind, who wrapped us in warmth and love and cared for our well-being.’Sara Atzmon, Holocaust Survivor

– ‘It’s not for my sake, it’s for the sake of humanity, that they will remember.’Steve Barry, Holocaust Survivor 

-From the back cover-
THE HOLOCAUST was a watershed event in history. In this book, Matthew Rozell reconstructs a lost chapter–the liberation of a ‘death train’ deep in the heart of Nazi Germany in the closing days of the World War II. Drawing on never-before published eye-witness accounts, survivor testimony and memoirs, and wartime reports and letters, Rozell brings to life the incredible true stories behind the iconic 1945 liberation photographs taken by the soldiers who were there. He weaves together a chronology of the Holocaust as it unfolds across Europe, and goes back to literally retrace the steps of the survivors and the American soldiers who freed them. Rozell’s work results in joyful reunions on three continents, seven decades later. He offers his unique perspective on the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations, and the impact that one person, a teacher, can make.

*

–Featuring testimony from 15 American liberators and over 30 Holocaust survivors

10 custom maps

73 photographs and illustrations, many never before published.

502 PAGES-extensive notes and bibliographical references

INCLUDED:

BOOK ONE–THE HOLOCAUST

BOOK TWO–THE AMERICANS

BOOK THREE–LIBERATION

BOOK FOUR–REUNION

SOON TO BE A MAJOR DOCUMENTARY

GET THE BOOK HERE

NEW From Matthew Rozell

 

A Train Near Magdeburg

A Teacher’s Journey into the Holocaust, and the Reuniting of the Survivors and Liberators, 70 years on

 
A Train Near Magdeburg - Ebook

COMING FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 16, 2016

*****

–From the author of ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’ World War II narrative history trilogy–

 

From the Preface:

The picture defies expectations. When the terms ‘Holocaust’ and ‘trains’ are paired in an online image search, the most common result is that of people being transported to killing centers—but this incredible photograph shows exactly the opposite. And there are many things about this story that will defy expectations. Fifteen years after I brought this haunting image to the light of day, it has been called one of the most powerful photographs of the 20th century. It has been used by museums and memorials across the world, in exhibitions, films, mission appeals, and photo essays. School children download it for reports; filmmakers ask to use it in Holocaust documentaries. Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, even employed it as the backdrop for Israel’s state ceremonies in the presence of survivors, their president, prime minister, the entire government, top army brass, and chief rabbi in a national broadcast on the 70th anniversary of the liberation and aftermath of the Holocaust. I know, because they reached out to me for it—me, an ordinary public school teacher, six thousand miles away.

For over half a century, copies of this photograph and others were hidden away in a shoebox in the back of an old soldier’s closet. By spending time with this soldier, I was able to set in motion an extraordinary confluence of events that unfolded organically in the second half of my career as a history teacher. Many of the children who suffered on that train found me, and I was able to link them forever with the men who I had come to know and love, the American GIs who saved them that beautiful April morning. A moment in history is captured on film, and we have reunited the actors, the persecuted and their liberators, two generations on.

*

In picking up this book, you will learn of the tragedies and the triumphs behind the photograph. You will enter the abyss of the Holocaust with me, which the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum defines as ‘the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.’ You will meet the survivors of that train as they immerse you into their worlds as civilization collapsed around them. We will visit the camps and authentic sites together, and we will trace the route of the brave Americans who found themselves confronted with industrial scale genocide. And I will lead you safely out of the chasm as we witness the aftermath, the miracles of liberation and reunification, seven decades later.

In many respects, this story should still be buried, because there is no logical way to explain my role in the climactic aftermath. Somehow I got caught up in something much bigger than myself, driven by some invisible force which conquered the barriers of time and space. I was born sixteen years after the killing stopped, a continent away from the horrors and comfortably unaware of the events of the Holocaust and World War II for much of my life. I was raised in the sanctuary of a nurturing community and an intact family. I am not Jewish and had never even been inside a synagogue until my forties. I’m not observantly religious, but I am convinced that I was chosen to affirm and attest to what I have experienced. In this book I rewind the tape to reconstruct how indeed it all came to be—the horrors of the experiences of the Holocaust survivors, the ordeals and sacrifices of the American soldiers, and the miracles of liberation and reunification.

As the curtain begins its descent on a career spanning four decades, consider this one teacher’s testament—this is what happened, to me. I became a witness, and is what I saw.

Matthew Rozell

Hudson Falls, New York

September 2016

*

–Featuring testimony from 15 American liberators and over 30 Holocaust survivors

-10 custom maps

-73 photographs and illustrations, many never before published.

-extensive notes and bibliographical references

INCLUDED:

BOOK ONE–THE HOLOCAUST

BOOK TWO–THE AMERICANS

BOOK THREE–LIBERATION

BOOK FOUR–REUNION

 

COMING FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 16, 2016

This article was published this week about my friends Leslie and Eva. Leslie was liberated on the train; Eva was a survivor of the Budapest ghetto who was saved by Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg.  In the chair at the table behind them in the photo below, I was sitting for dinner after I visited Toronto last November (2015) to speak and share a stage with Leslie at a high school in Toronto. Eva put on a nice Hungarian meal; the children and grandchildren gathered round, and Leslie picked me up at the hotel and chauffeured me to their digs.
Mazel Tov, my friends. Leslie is prominently featured in my new book, using excerpts from the memoirs that he is holding. And here is the ‘blurb’ that I chose to put on the cover of my own book. It says it all. Godspeed, Carrol, George and Frank.

“I survived because of many miracles. But for me to actually meet, shake hands, hug, and cry together with my liberators—the ‘angels of life’ who literally gave me back my life—was just beyond imagination.” –LESLIE MEISELS, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR


Eva and Leslie Meisels in their Thornhill home. Leslie was one of 2,500 Jewish prisoners on a train bound for Theresienstadt who were saved by U.S. soldiers in 1945. [JODIE SHUPAC PHOTO] 

SURVIVOR MOURNS PASSING OF U.S. SOLDIER WHO SAVED HIM

Leslie Meisels feels lucky to be a rare Holocaust survivor whose entire nuclear family “went through hell and lived.”

But the death last month of Lt. Frank Winchester Towers, the U.S. officer who helped liberate and rehabilitate 2,500 Jews in 1945 – Meisels among them – from a train bound for the Theresienstadt concentration camp has caused the 89-year-old survivor and Thornhill, Ont. resident “a great, great sadness.”

Especially painful is that Towers, who died at age 99 and whom Meisels said didn’t just save his and his fellow survivors’ lives but “nourished us back to human beings,” was the last of the U.S. veterans who liberated the train that fateful day to pass away.

“These soldiers gave me back my life – that’s not just an abstract expression, but literally… I feel extreme sadness that they have gone. But I have to accept it. I have no choice,” Meisels said.

In 2009, at a symposium held in Hudson Falls, N.Y., Meisels was one of seven survivors from the liberated train who were reunited with seven of the former soldiers who’d saved them 64 years earlier.

The event was organized by Matt Rozell, a non-Jewish high school history teacher in Hudson Falls whose commitment to Holocaust education has garnered him several awards and an invitation to speak at Yad Vashem.

Rozell had stumbled across the story of the liberated train and ultimately tracked down more than 200 survivors living all over the world.

He was able to bring together seven of them, as well as seven soldiers, for the 2009 symposium. All 14 spoke at numerous sessions over the course of three days to nearly 2,500 local high school students.

Meisels made the trip there with his wife Eva, now 77 and herself a survivor of the Budapest ghetto.

Of that initial meeting with the soldiers, Meisels said: “There are no words, in any language, to explain the feeling I had to shake hands with, hug, laugh and cry at the same time as these people who gave me back my life… They said, ‘We didn’t do anything heroic. We were just doing our jobs.’ But, in fact, they were the angels of my life. That’s what I call them.”

From then on, the Meisels developed a particularly close friendship with Carrol Walsh, a Hudson Falls resident and one of the tank commanders from the 30th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army who had liberated the train.

Walsh, who died in 2012 and whose funeral the Meisels attended with their children and grandchildren, became a New York state court judge who subsequently served on the New York Supreme Court.

The Meisels also became close with Towers and his family, who lived in Florida, and they continue to keep in touch with both Towers’ and Walsh’s remaining family.

“In the [online] guestbook commemorating Frank Towers I wrote about the gratefulness me, my children and grandchildren will have to him until the end of our lives,” Meisels said.

Meisels was born in Hungary in 1927.

In 1944, when the Nazis occupied the country, his father was sent to a forced labour camp while he, his mother, grandmother and two brothers were deported and eventually taken to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

In April 1945, with the war nearing an end, Meisels, then 18, along with his mother and two little brothers were among the 2,500 Jewish prisoners forced onto a train for Theresienstadt.

After several days of travelling, the train was stopped and SS guards were ordered to blow it up and drown the passengers in the Elbe River.

Meisels said the train’s engineer and conductor got wind of the plan and slipped away on April 12.

The next day, the tanks of Regiment 743 of the 30th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, of which Meisels became an honorary member in 2009, arrived on the scene.

The following day, Lt. Frank Towers was dispatched to co-ordinate the rescue and rehabilitation of what Meisels called “the 2,500 emaciated skeletons.”

He took them to the nearby town of Hillersleben and set up a hospital to treat the liberated Jews.

Meisels said he weighed 75 pounds.

After the war, Meisels and his mother and brothers returned to Hungary, where they reunited with his father.

In 1956, he and his brothers fled Communist Hungary, and he settled in Hartford, Conn., where he worked doing cabinet-making.

Two years later, his parents moved to Toronto.

After meeting Eva at his brother’s wedding in Montreal in 1959, the couple married. They eventually moved to Toronto in 1967 and have two children and four grandchildren.

Leslie and Eva are very active in Holocaust education, speaking about their harrowing experiences in schools, churches and synagogues across North America.

In 2012, Leslie was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Yom Hashoah commemoration in Ottawa.

In subsequent years, he was keynote speaker at Holocaust commemorations in Sydney, N.S., Toronto and Calgary.

In 2014, the Azrieli Foundation published the Meisels’ Holocaust memoirs in a joint book titledSuddenly the Shadow Fell.

As to whether they get tired, Eva chuckled, “Of course we get tired.”

“But we get so many letters from students who write us about their feelings after hearing us speak and that makes it worth it to talk about,” Leslie said.

Please visit orignal link here: http://www.cjnews.com/news/survivor-mourns-passing-u-s-soldier-saved

Yesterday in Jerusalem 29 other educators from all over the world and I wrapped up our 19-day study at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. And for me, the most profound speaker out of the dozens of excellent scholars and presenters we heard from was Dr. Yehuda Bauer, age 90, the godfather of Holocaust historians.

Dr. Yehuda Bauer. Palmach fighter, 1944-1949. Cow milker on Kibbutz, 41 years. Historian and I dare say, philosopher. Honored today to be in his presence.

Dr. Yehuda Bauer. Palmach fighter, 1944-1949. Cow milker on kibbutz, 41 years. Historian and I dare say, philosopher. Honored today to be in his presence. Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

When he was asked today, what is the lesson of the Holocaust, he simply said something to the effect of-There is no lesson, except not to repeat it. It is brought up for various agendas and causes…ok, fine. But ask your students, ‘what do you want the world to be?’ And then, maybe it is time to introduce them to the study of the Holocaust. Because maybe it is the exact opposite of what they envision, unprecedented in scope and sequence, but it happened, which means, you know, it can happen again… So let’s look at how, and why. This is important (me: and in many ways, urgent).

Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

When we got back to the hotel to pack and have a final evening here, I found out I could not even cross the street- our hotel was now right on the route of one of the largest ‘gay pride’ parades in the world. Security was tight; last year, a religious maniac stabbed six, and one 16 yr. old little girl died here.

So now I recalled the words of Dr. Bauer just hours ago, who had reminded us that democracy is not only very fragile, it is hardly even out of the cradle in the backdrop of world history. The world does not have to be united, and in fact it never has been and never will be. We argue and we disagree all of the time. But that is as it is, and as it should be. And at the end of the day, we either kill each other, or we live, and let live. 

You decide.

Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

For me, this was not a gay pride march; it was miles and miles of humanity celebrating life, despite our differences, and a fitting cap to my educator’s journey back into the Holocaust, and safely out again.

 

The mystery.

I am studying in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, for 19 days with 29 other educators from all over the world.

I went to the Great Synagogue here in Jerusalem as a guest for Shabbat services. I had a guidebook with English, but I just followed the service in Hebrew, even though I don’t understand. Somehow this symbolizes my state of being right now. Almost half a world away, the last liberator Frank W. Towers is being bid goodbye by his friends and family, as the cantor wails here. My eyes well up, and a single tear begins its run. I am powerless to push it away.

It has been an extraordinary day. It began with a tour of the Old City on foot with a very knowledgeable guide who is also an archeologist here in Israel. We walk near the ruins of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, see the remnants of the ritual purification baths before one could go near the Temple. We walk up the steps hewn into solid bedrock where a young rabbi named Jesus strode. At the Western Wall, I take it all in, and approach the site which for Jews is closest to the Holiest of the Holies. This has great significance; God dwells here. For the souls of Frank, and Carrol, and George, my friends, the liberators, for my survivor friends who have passed, for my own parents and loved ones I place a scrap of paper with my prayer for their souls into a crevice in the millennia old stones.

IMG_0746

Western Wall, Jerusalem, Friday, July 8th, 2016.

We move on to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the church built over Christ’s Crucifixion and Tomb. Incense blasts us as we move into the doors. Jesus entered into Jerusalem the day after Shabbat, Palm Sunday, in very tense political situation. We know how that turned out, and I am at the very place where a Jewish sect shortly after his execution would grow to become one of the world’s largest religions. I’m free to walk about and drink it all in. And at this place I leave the same petition for God.

At the Great Synagogue at sunset, I try to enter into God’s presence again in a more focused way, but I am finding it difficult. Thoughts come rushing forth, the same thoughts and questions I have entertained for years, but right now they hit me like a steamroller.

The last liberator has passed. And the mystery of the role I played in bringing the liberators and survivors, hundreds of them now, together with these old men in the sunset of their lives does not become clearer, but remains hidden somehow behind a fog that I cannot push away.

The sun has set.

*

I came to the Holy Land the first time for a 2011 reunion here with Frank, where he met 500 people who would not have been alive today had it not been for the swift arrival the soldiers of the 743rd Tank Battalion and 30th Infantry Division of the US Army. People are able to meet one of the actual soldiers who saved their families from annihilation; a woman was sobbing right behind me through much of the ceremony. Another woman, a granddaughter of one of those survivors whose name I cannot recall, stopped me. She thanked me and told me that my name meant something along the lines of ‘mystery of God’. This struck me hard, and it remains something that now roars forth in my turbulent state of mind. I don’t understand it all.

At the Friday evening communal Shabbat meal with the educators back at the hotel, we continue our mediation on entering into God’s grace and allowing Him to dwell us. We break bread, have the meal and conversation together. I’m very quiet because at the end of this long day, the mystery remains.

The hotel this evening in Jerusalem is jam-packed with Jewish families settling in for Shabbat-noisy, crowded, together to bring in the Sabbath.  Underlying the ebb and flow of this activity all around, inside me there is the disquieting undercurrent about the fact that this day has arrived, the day that the last liberator is being buried. I know that it will really never end, this story of the liberators and the survivors of the train near Magdeburg in April 1945, their precipitous fateful encounter, and their reuniting six/seven decades later. But tonight I am engulfed in a profound heavyheartedness, this loss, this questioning, this wondering. What does it all mean?

The giant dining room next door breaks out in rhythmic hand clapping, voices singing a song of happiness symbolizing the togetherness and communal unity that closes out the Shabbat meal. I glance at the time; at this very moment back home, Frank is being lowered into the earth.

*

Later, I awake with a start in a bed that is not my own. A newborn is wailing somewhere, nearby. The hotel here in Jerusalem is filled with Jewish families in town for Shabbat, full of young families, of young children. Crying babies at 2 AM. But though I have been jolted awake, nothing close to annoyance enters my being. Lying in the dark, deep within my soul I am warming with joy through the sadness; through the crying of the baby and the voices of the children outside my door I hear the song of the angels carrying Frank, and all the liberators I was privileged to know, onward and upward. The children are their legacy, and in this moment I know that I will perhaps never understand why God chose me to bring them together with the thousands of people alive on the earth today because of their deeds, but it does not matter:

He wanted me here in Jerusalem for this moment, when the last liberator left me.

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.

Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.

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, Frank Towers, two survivors Bruria Falik (of Woodstock, NY) and her sister at Israel's Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem.

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

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.

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

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

USHMM Video

I am in Israel now to embark upon two and a half weeks of study at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. I am humbled. But I was here before, in 2011, with liberator Frank Towers as he was recognized for his efforts 70 years ago, on behalf of American liberators everywhere. Here in Israel he met with statesmen and the head of the IDF, as well as over 50 survivors and their families who were liberated on April 13, 1945, an event that Frank had a direct hand in.

Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.

Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.

It’s a long story,but my work as a teacher has been here, too. In the background, note the Benjamin photo at the 2015 70th anniversary state ceremonies.

"The anguish of the liberation and return to life". Note the Benjamin photograph on the banner. Yad Vashem, 2015.

“The anguish of the liberation and return to life”. Note the Benjamin photograph on the banner. Yad Vashem, April 2015.

The short version of the story:

Fifteen summers ago I sat down to listen to an old gentleman in a rocking chair. A  war weary tank commander in 1945, he told me stories of his World War II experiences and then led me to his fellow tank commander, who showed me a picture that their major had taken on April 13, 1945. You see, those two were there, and their two tanks had liberated a concentration camp transport deep in the heart of war-torn Germany.

It would be the first time in decades that this picture had seen the light of day. And because of its discovery, and what we would do with it, thousands of lives were about to change.

Yad Vashem contacted me in December 2014 to inquire about using the Major Benjamin photo. I immediately sent them a high resolution copy. My friend Varda in Israel writes, ‘[The photograph above was taken] during the main ceremony at  the Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem. This photo shows the President of Israel Reuven Rivlin make his speech. You can see your photo there at the middle (banner) and I now think it was there throughout all the ceremony.’

Below, a post from the time of the event in April, 2015..

 

My good friend in Israel let me know that the April 15th  commemoration of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Israel was a moving event and sent me the link to the video of the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation. While the  narrative  behind the Major Benjamin photograph was not a focus, the photo that which now seems to be becoming a cornerstone of the history of Holocaust liberation is all throughout the ceremony, and especially at 8:31. One of my friends, a survivor who had been a six-year old boy on this transport that Major Benjamin photographed at the moment his jeep arrived at the train, notes,

The photograph wouldn’t be there if not for your effort. It was presiding on 1.5 hrs of national ceremony in the presence of Israel’s president, prime minister, the entire government, the top army guys, survivors, chief rabbis and was nationally broadcast. You have a direct hand in this.

Me, a lowly teacher, whose work for an evening is presiding as the backdrop for presidents and prime ministers. I am proud and hope that the story is told over and over, and that it serves the memory of the victims, the survivors, and the liberators well. I just can’t believe sometimes this path I have been down, since the day over a dozen years ago when I took the time to listen to a war veteran, and began to backtrack his story.  There are other forces at work here, I think… and there is a cosmic force that reverberates in you when you teach the Holocaust from the heart.

Teachers out there, you all know the power of what we do. I hope this serves as an affirmation.

 

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Matthew Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow and teaches history at his alma mater in upstate New York. His work has resulted in the reuniting of 275 Holocaust survivors and the American soldiers who freed them.

His first book, ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’, was released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. His second book, in progress, is on the power of  teaching, remembering the Holocaust, the Benjamin photograph and this “Train Near Magdeburg’.