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I saw a friend on TV the other night. About 50 million other Americans did too; maybe you were one. Well, here is a backstory to all that.

After the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting in October, a couple of people familiar with the Train Near Magdeburg story reached out to me to ask if Judah Samet, a member of that community who had arrived four minutes late for his usual Saturday morning gathering the day of the assault, was liberated on the train in 1945. It turns out, he certainly was. I did some detective work and tracked down his daughter, who told me that liberator Frank Towers was one of his heroes. So I called Judah, and we spoke a few times on the phone at length. His story is amazing, which comes as no surprise—all of my survivor friends have them, and though they are all different, they all converge at the moment of liberation at the hands of the U.S. Army.

Judah and his family were Hungarians, part of the massive deportations that followed the German invasion of that country in 1944.  By a miracle that I have also heard about from some of my other survivors, the transport they were on which was headed for Auschwitz was diverted instead to Austria, and then to Bergen-Belsen. He turned seven there, and remembers always looking for food, but staying always curious and resourceful. In early April 1945, with mountains of corpses everywhere, his mother and father and he and his brothers boarded the transport that was destined to be liberated by the Americans on 13 April 1945 at Farsleben. His father died a short time later at Hillersleben, the captured German base where survivors were hospitalized. He and his mother made it to Paris, and then to Palestine, which of course became Israel. He became an Israeli paratrooper and was at the Eichmann trial (Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust in Hungary, captured by Israeli agents in 1960), he told me. He lost a brother in the 1956 Suez War.

After emigrating, he met his wife and they settled into her hometown of Pittsburgh. She passed a couple years ago, but before that, he decided that he would have to talk about his Holocaust experiences, long buried— not because he necessarily wanted to, but because older survivors were passing away, and he was troubled by the lack of knowledge and memory, and of course the ever-present deniers and haters. He also gave me extensive telephonic lessons on the history of the Jews in Hungary—’We came in with Attila the Hun’— antisemitism through the ages, with a long detour into the Middle Ages and the Crusades, all of which I am proud to say that I could follow, given my advanced training as a Holocaust educator. ‘In Debrecen (Hungary), we were 73,000.’ Almost all were murdered in the late spring and early summer of 1944. Just five hundred, he said, live there today (he went back with his family last May), almost all of them ‘transplants’. [By the time young men stormed the beaches of Normandy, most of Europe’s Jews were already dead, and it was far too late for the Jews of Hungary. And as I have stated many times here at this blog and in my book, the world stood back and let it happen.]

I sent him my book after our first conversation, and he called me up again after that, to say that it was well written and documented, and that much of what I wrote brought back memories he had suppressed. Some things he could recall; others, not so much. But he said he appreciated the fact that I used actual personal narratives which offered many points of view, not just the ‘Anne Frank’ version. ‘It speaks to my heart’, he told me. My friend Mike Edwards and his team went to interview him at home in December, and we hope to use some of that interview in our finished film.

The morning of the attack, he was pulling into the handicap parking spot at the synagogue when an officer in a black coat and windbreaker rapped on his window and told him to leave, but it was impossible, as the shooter was emerging from the building and firing rounds. ‘The guy was firing five rounds at a time. This I was sure of—as a paratrooper, we were trained to count rounds, to not waste ammunition.’ And ‘the old soldier in me wanted to take in everything, wanted to see the enemy’—’the killer was focused, the smoke was coming out of his muzzle’—but Judah said he was not frightened. He gave his witness statement, and soon enough, the news media was interviewing him. ‘I knew every one of the victims’, he said, but he also told me that he was not traumatized. As a former soldier, he remains vigilant, because, ‘it never ends’.

He is a passionate supporter of the President and the State of Israel. But in spite of the terrible divisiveness and the political differences in this country at this time, it was truly something to see the representatives of the United States of America get behind Judah, to sing to him in the moment, and I hope we can agree that the deeds of our young American soldiers so many years ago truly represented a moment in time that we can all be bursting with pride about. That is the main takeaway of the night which I will choose to keep close. Watch for yourself below at about 1:30:25. ‘If anything good came out of the Holocaust’,  a survivor I once met said, ‘it was my liberators’.

And I’d like to think that we could come together on that.

Judah Samet, member of the Tree of Life Synagogue and Holocaust survivor. White House photo.

[Thanks to my friend Stacey Petito Nowack for inspiring the title of this post!]

 

 

George Gross, former tank commander in Company D of the 743rd Tank Battalion, died ten years ago today. In his declining years before he died, I was able to bring him much joy in introducing him to several of the children he saved. He sent me the photographs, and wanted me to tell his story.  And I brought him together again with his old Army buddy, Red Walsh.  So I am re-posting this today on the 10th anniversary of Dr. Gross’ death.
Where does the time go? He lived a good life, and at the end, got to see the results of his actions six decades before.
We are all traveling our own roads. Days like this, I like to stop and ponder what it all means. I’m glad that I had a small role to play in his life.
george-gross-1945

~George C. Gross, 1922-2009~

Yesterday my son turned 11. And at about 11 pm yesterday on the West Coast, Dr. Gross died at home with his family around him.

I just found out. More than anyone else, he is the one responsible for this website and the hundreds of lives changed because of it.

You see, he took the photo that you may not really notice in the heading above, along with 9 other photographs that forever imprint the evidence not only of man’s inhumanity to man, but of the affirmation, hope and promise of mankind. It was he who wrote the prose that led me to the survivors, and vice versa. And it was he who cultivated a deep friendship with me via his wonderful writings and telephone conversation. How amazed and happy he seemed to be to hear from all the survivors.

In the summer of 2001, I did an interview with his comrade in arms, army buddy Carrol Walsh. Judge Walsh put me in touch with Dr. Gross. If you go back through the archives you know the rest of the story. It has changed my life and the lives of my students in that we are now trying to rescue the evidence, the testimony of the Holocaust and the World War Two veterans, for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And today I received in the mail a bulletin from this Museum, reaffirming the mission that Dr. Gross had everything to do with setting me on.

He came into my life during a dark time for me- we had just lost our father (who thankfully, like Dr. Gross, passed on from his own bed at home), and our mother was battling the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, or dementia, or whatever that nightmare was called…. we began a conversation that has yielded so much fruit.

Lately, I knew he wasn’t well. I actually had looked into flights across the country before Christmas for my son and I to pay a visit, but we just couldn’t seem to swing it financially, with Christmas bills coming in and holiday fares going up. My back up plan, in my head, was to go out in February, when fares were half the cost… Well, February arrived yesterday and now it is too late, I never got to shake the hand of a man who helped reshape my own life, and the lives of so many others.

His 8×10 liberation photos are mounted in the front of my classroom, with his captions for all to see. So I see George and just one of the noteworthy products of his life, everyday. The captions that he wrote for each are mounted below each print, a testament to his humanity and to his graciousness.

I know it is selfish to feel so bad about the fact that I was not able to literally reach out and touch him. I’m just so damned disappointed.  Right now it’s another dark day for Matt, but I am comforted that he was surely welcomed by his beloved wife, parents, and maybe even my folks as well.

From his statement read at the occasion of the first reunion, September 14th, 2007.

Sincere greetings to all of you gathered at this celebration of the indomitable spirit of mankind!

Greetings first to all the admirable survivors of the train near Magdeburg, and our thanks to you for proving Hitler wrong. You did not vanish from the face of the earth as he and his evil followers planned, but rather your survived, and grew, and became successful and contributing members of free countries, and you are adding your share of free offspring to those free societies.

You have vowed that the world will never forget the horrors of the Holocaust, and you spread the message by giving interviews, visiting schools, writing memoirs, and publishing powerful books on the evil that infected Nazi Germany and threatens still to infect the world. I am enriched by the friendship of such courageous people who somehow have maintained a healthy sense of humor and a desire to serve through all the evils inflicted upon you.

Greetings also to the dedicated teacher whose efforts have brought us all together through the classes he has taught on World War 2 and the web site he maintains at the cost of hours of time not easily found in his duty as a high school teacher. I know that several of you found your quest for knowledge of your past rewarded by the interviews and pictures Matt Rozell and his classes have gathered and maintained. Selfishly, I am grateful to Mr. Rozell for leading several of you to me, bringing added joy to my retiring years.

Greetings also to all the faculty, staff, students, parents, and friends of the school at which this important gathering takes place. Thank you for your interest in the survivors of the Holocaust and their message.

And special greetings also to my old Army buddy, Judge Carrol Walsh, and his great family. Carrol fought many battles beside me, saved my life and sanity, and resuscitated my sense of humor often. We had just finished a grueling three weeks of fighting across Germany, moving twenty or more hours per day, rushing on to reach the Elbe River. Carrol and I were again side by side as we came up to the train with Major Benjamin, chased the remaining German guards away, and declared the train and its captives free members of society under the protection of the United States Army as represented by two light tanks.

Unfortunately, Carrol was soon ordered back to the column on its way to Magdeburg while, luckily for me, I was assigned to stay overnight with the train, to let any stray German soldiers know that it was part of the free world and not to be bothered again.

Carrol missed much heartbreaking and heartwarming experience as I met the people of the train. I was shocked to see the half-starved bodies of young children and their mothers and old men—all sent by the Nazis on their way to extermination.

I was honored to shake the hands of the large numbers who spontaneously lined up in orderly single file to introduce themselves and greet me in a ritual that seemed to satisfy their need to declare their return to honored membership in the free society of humanity.

I was heartbroken that I could do nothing to satisfy their need for food that night, but I was assured that other units were taking care of that and the problem of housing so many free people.

Sixty years later, I was pleased to hear that the Army did well in caring for their new colleagues in the battle for freedom. I saw many mothers protecting their little ones as best they could, and pushing them out, as proud mothers will, to be photographed. I was surprised and please by the smiles I saw on so many young faces.

Some of you have found yourselves among those pictured children, and you have proved that you still have those smiles. I was terribly upset at the proof of man’s inhumanity to man, but I was profoundly uplifted by the dignity and courage shown by you indomitable survivors. I have since been further rewarded to learn what successful, giving lives you have lived since April 13, 1945.

I wish I could be with you in person at this celebration, as I am with you in spirit. I hope you enjoy meeting each other and getting to know Matt Rozell and Carrol Walsh. I look forward to seeing again my friends whom I have met and to meeting the rest of you either in person or by E-mail. My experience at the train was rich and moving, and it has remained so, locked quietly in my heart until sixty years later, when the appearance of you survivors began to brighten up a sedate retirement.

You have blessed me, friends, and I thank you deeply. May your lives, in turn, bring you the great blessings you so richly deserve.

Fondly yours,

George C. Gross

September, 2007

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27.

It’s the 74th anniversary of the day that the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was liberated, where more than 1.1 million persons, including some of my friends’ parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters were murdered, while the world went about its business.

A million and a half of those murdered were children, and it’s a reason this quote hits me hard.

It was written by a child survivor of Bergen Belsen, in fact a survivor also of one of the three transports that left Belsen. All three transports were headed to Theresienstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia; the first transport actually made it there. My book focuses on the second transport that was liberated by the Americans. Joseph Polak, now a Boston University professor and rabbi,  was on the third transport, liberated by the Red Army 10 days after that.

I liked the book [After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring, Urim Publications, 2015] on many levels, but I guess that some of the ‘imaginary’ conversations he carries on, struggling to come to grips with ‘what happened’ and the fact that it never really is ‘over’, and that there are many things that need to be discussed with God, appealed to my sense of my own purpose on this earth. ‘Struggling to come to grips’ I don’t think is the right phrase though, it’s more of an eternal processing, or those attempts, and maybe that is the best link I can come up for now.

Anyway, I leave you with the quote and the book link here. An excellent intro is by his good friend, master teacher Elie Weisel.

 

Angel: The King, whom we entreat on the Day of Judgment to move from the throne of Justice to the throne of Mercy, is no longer very much apparent in the Hall of Judgment, and instead it is the children who sit there, their faces ashen, their hair grey, weeping, weeping, not understanding.

There they inquire of every returning soul – what have you done during your sojourn on earth to avenge our slaughter? How have you restored love and compassion and justice to the world? What have you done to shame the perpetrators? The bystanders? To call them and their descendants for ever after to account?

Have you asked God about us?

 

Trails in the Sky.

I’m at the keyboard this morning thinking of a friend who came into my life only twenty years ago, and who left it a week ago, at the age of 97.

Earl Montgomery Morrow was exactly 50 years older than me, so I can’t say I knew him as well as some, but I knew him on a level enough to realize what his life represented, and what we all lost last Saturday. He called me up, you see, in the summer of 1998. I had been interviewed for the local newspaper in which I explained the project that I had created at the high school where I worked to interview the veterans of World War II, and put the students in touch with their stories.

He said, “I just had to call you and ask—why are you doing this? Why are you interested in our stories?” And that was the start of many visits to the high school where I was teaching.

Earl Morrow in the author’s classroom, May 2011. Credit: Robert H. Miller

I gravitated towards our World War II veterans in those years. He was only the second B-17 pilot that I had ever known. Later I would meet other crew members around his dining room table.

Twenty years after our first meeting, in retrospect, he gives me hope for the youth of our nation. He had his own flaws and failures, I am sure—he was flunking out of college when the war came—but he had the determination of a stubborn young man to know what felt wrong, and do what felt right. So against his parents’ wishes—he told his father he wasn’t going back to school—he set off for war at the age of 20. He got into the fledgling Aviation Cadet Program of the U.S. Army Air Corps and proceeded to shoot a cow while on guard duty one night when it would not ‘HALT!’. He got serious then, determined not to wash out, but was told by an instructor on his second day at flight school that he would never make it. Earl asked him why, and the instructor told him he was afraid of the airplane. Earl persuaded the instructor to take him up one more time, to make him or break him. They rolled, looped, dove, flew straight up and then straight back down, touched the wheels down on a big truck going down the highway, and buzzed a farmer working below so low that the man threw a hammer at them and it went over the top of the airplane. Two days later he was soloing, never afraid of an airplane again.

After months in the classroom and on the airfield, he graduated into the pilot’s seat of a multi-engine B-17 bomber. Flying with his new crew before heading overseas, he had to make an emergency landing in a midwestern state during the dead of night. He came in so low that a light came on in a house right below the plane. He circled around, got the plane down, and they waited for parts to be flown in to repair the hydraulics. The incredulous major tasked with flying the parts in asked who the hell landed that crippled plane on that tiny airstrip at night. After that, his crew respected his ability as a pilot. He was all of 22 years old.

For his first mission overseas, he flew in the co-pilot’s seat with a veteran crew with the 457th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force flying out of Glatton, 40 miles north of London. All of his 17 combat missions were over Lower Germany. On this first one, he saw these little puffs of black smoke—exploding flak shells. The war becomes personal when people are shooting back at you. He would have his own airplane, but in those 17 missions, he only flew it three times. The rest of the time it was being put back together from battle damage.

He got grounded once. In his own words, he “tore up two airplanes one morning—wrecked them while taking off”, trying to avoid a collision with a command tower. “The night before, someone came in and landed and took a building off its foundation. The colonel said, ‘Next time there is an incident, it’ll be pilot error, one hundred percent’, and sure enough,” he recalled, “it was me!” But he took full responsibility for the mishap, at age 23.

At age 23, I had a history degree and was back in school for teaching. At 23, Earl Morrow was nursing his crippled B-17 across the English Channel when German flak barges opened up and knocked out another engine. He gave the order to throw everything they could out into the sea, praying to make it over the Cliffs of Dover and to an emergency airfield on the coast. Clearing the cliffs, another plane was on the runway, but he brought it in on one engine, a true ‘wing and a prayer’. His men kissed the ground, and they counted over 100 holes in the fuselage. Earl could not even power the plane off the runway.

Crew photograph. Front row far left-Earl Morrow. Far right-Sam Lisica.
Courtesy Earl Morrow.

They rested for a week, and on the next mission they were served real eggs for breakfast—a sure sign that many of the crews would not be coming back from this target, a heavily defended synthetic oil refinery. German fighter planes swooped in after the bombs were dropped and the group turned to head back to England. Earl gave the order to bail out after mortal 20mm rounds hit the cockpit and the plane was on fire. He crawled back up to the cockpit when he realized that the plane might go into a dive, and forced the controls to keep the plane climbing. As he jumped, the plane exploded. He lost three of his crewmen and friends that day, Nov. 2, 1944.

On the ground, he was captured with the lead navigator for the mission, Jerry Silverman of Long Island, New York. Years later I can hear Silverman chastising Earl with a chuckle, when Earl refused to hand over his pilot’s wings to his German captors on the ground. Jerry said that the “big dummy could have gotten us both shot”. Earl responded that he felt he had to push back, so the Germans would show them some respect. They relented.

At age 23 at Christmas 1944, Earl and his fellow prisoners of war were trying to survive in the frozen German stalag system. At age 23 at Christmas in 1984, I was trying to figure out how to survive in the classroom, having made it through my student teaching internship. But I would soon hit upon the simple idea, to put kids in touch with the World War II generation, which would go on to create massive ripples in awakening the past. And Earl would be one of my first ‘co-pilots’ in that endeavor, but he had to survive the war first.

In late January, 1945 as the Red Army closed on Germany in the east and the western Allies were hammering at the West Wall, Hitler himself ordered the mass evacuation of Stalag Luft III to prison camps west of Berlin. Over 100,000 Allied airmen and officers were forced to walk in the most brutal winter conditions of the early 20th century for weeks, dying of dysentery, hunger and exposure and at the hands of guards who killed those no longer able to keep up. Earl himself sat down, disoriented, until a fellow prisoner pummeled him to keep moving. And then Earl was called upon to drag his own disoriented bombardier to his feet; when asked to identify Earl, Sam Lisica said, “I know you! You’re the best damn pilot in the world!”

A few months later, liberation came in the form of General Patton’s Third Army. Earl liked to tell the story of how he was not as mobile as the rest of the men, due to a knee injury, as they rushed towards the center compound of the sprawling camp. As the German guards in the towers disappeared and a flying wedge of tanks and the command jeep with the general appeared, Earl ducked around a building and came out just as the general passed and snapped off a salute to him, which was returned by Patton. Then the fabled general was gone.

Earl Morrow, Sam Lisica, Jerry Silverman. July 2001.
Credit: Author.

Five decades later, in 1998, I was now an established history teacher. I was sitting around Earl’s dining room table with Sam and Jerry, reunited through the efforts of Earl’s daughter Jessica to celebrate Earl’s 80th birthday here in Hartford, New York, where I now live near that farmhouse where Earl grew up. Earl’s wife Jessie puttered in the background putting up with their banter as I drew the stories out of them, listening to them alternate between seriousness and teasing, laughing together at the funny times, expressing sorrow at the loss of crew members and friends, and wonderment at having survived at all. They basked in each other’s company, and I basked in their presence. Today I thank God that I had the had the presence of mind to record all that, and later I included Earl and his friends in my books.

Sam died in 2006. Jerry died in 2008. Jessie, Earl’s wife, passed in April, 2011. Later, I had Earl back to the high school for Memorial Day ceremonies and veterans’ reunions, where I even got to introduce the granddaughter of General George S. Patton to him. That was a highlight for me, and I hope that gave Earl some comfort as he grieved for Jessie and his friends. “I’m the last one”, he said. But they also gave me and my students hope and inspiration, and I’m sure their examples, as kids themselves thrust into the most cataclysmic events in the history of the world, encourage us all to take a long look at our own efforts to recognize what feels wrong with the world today, and to step up to do what feels right.

Earl M. Morrow, World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C.,
June 2016. Photo: Jessica Morrow Brand.

I was sitting at a book show on Saturday, staring out the window between talking to my readers and telling his story. I checked my phone, and saw that he had passed. I have interviewed hundreds of veterans and Holocaust survivors, and this is the hardest part of my own legacy to the world. A numbness washed over me, but it was replaced by a burning sensation, an all-knowing goodness that enveloped my heart with warmth as I read the words written by his daughter Jessica:

What a wonderful gift I was given to hold his hand when he drew his last breath. He meant everything in the world to me. Somehow, I am quietly comforted knowing he was met by a woman with her arms folded, stomping her foot, with a big smile on her face. Heaven gained another hero today.

Heroes indeed. And I am reminded of the continuity passed on by Earl and his generation in another quote that surfaced just this morning as I sat down to write, from my past readings, this simple one by the musician Paul Stanley:

I am here because of those who came before. And I will go on because of those who come after.

Life goes on. But it is up to us all to remember such a life as the one lived by my friend Earl Morrow.

***

(Here are the two books I wrote that Earl Morrow appears in. If you wish, you can get them here.)

Obituary for Earl Montgomery Morrow
Hartford

Earl M. Morrow, 97, of Hartford, passed away on Saturday, December 8, 2018 at the Slate Valley Nursing Home in Granville.

Born on June 27, 1921 in West Pawlet, VT, he was the son of the late Robert and Carolyn E.(Adamson) Morrow.

Raised in Hartford, NY, Earl was valedictorian of Hartford Central School Class of 1939.
Earl served in the USAAC as 1st. Lieutenant Air Craft Commander of the B-17 during WWII. Based in Glatton, England, he completed 17 missions but was shot down over Merseberg Germany on 11/2/44 and taken Prisoner of War. Surviving 3 POW German stalags, he was liberated in May 1945 by General Patton.
Upon returning to the states, he continued his distinguished flying career first transporting Roy Acuff and the cast of the Grand Ole Opry around the country and then to a 30 year career in Chicago with American Airlines, retiring as a DC-10 Captain.

Besides his parents, he was also predeceased by his wife Jessie Morrow who passed away on April 8, 2011 as well as his siblings Robert Rising Morrow Jr., Roberta Morrow Pekins, Everest Mansfield Morrow and Arthur Emerson Morrow.

Left to cherish his memory include his daughter, Jessica Morrow Brand (R. Scott) of Carmel, Ind.; his grandchildren, and the loves of his life, Natalie Morrow, Lilah Claire and Earl Montgomery as well as his other children: Carolyn Morrow Vdorick (Ted), Kenneth Morrow, Barbara Morrow Klein (Tim) and son Drew, and several nieces and nephews.

Friends may call from 10am to 11am on Tuesday, December 18, 2018 at the Hartford Baptist Church, Main St. Hartford.

Funeral Services will be at 11:00am on Tuesday, following the calling hour at the church.

Burial with military honors will be at 1:00pm at the Gerald B.H. Solomon, Saratoga National Cemetery.

Arrangements are in the care of the M.B. Kilmer Funeral Home, 123 Main St. Argyle, NY 12809. For online condolences and to view Mr. Morrow’s Book of Memories, please visit http://www.kilmerfuneralhome.com.

 

 

 

 

I did an interview recently for ManyBooks.Net.

Put these on your holiday shopping list and don’t forget to check out my own book specials over at my signed book page. Use code TAKE5 for a limited time; hardcover sets have arrived!

5 Books About World War II – Recommended by Matthew Rozell

MATTHEW ROZELL is an award-winning history teacher, author, blogger and speaker. He has been featured as the ABC World News ‘Person of the Week’ and has had his work filmed for CBS News, NBC Learn, the Israeli Broadcast Authority, the New York State United Teachers, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Most recently, he is the recipient of the New York State Education Department’s Yavner Teaching Award for Distinguished Contributions to Teaching the Holocaust and Human Rights. We have asked him to pick his five favorite books about World War II and did an interview to get his insights.

Matthew Rozell

You are a highly respected historian and have won numerous awards for writing and teaching history. But I was wondering which historians inspire you?

David McCullough, Rick Atkinson, Donald L. Miller, Cornelius Ryan, Thomas Childers, Stephen Ambrose are some of my picks.

You are the author of two books on World War II: The Things Our Fathers Saw and A Train Near Magdeburg .  What is it that makes you particularly interested in World War II?

Actually, it is ‘A Train Near Magdeburg’ and 4 volumes (in a planned 8) for ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’:
VOL. I—PACIFIC WAR
VOL. II—AIR WAR
VOL. III—AIR WAR 2: CAPTIVITY/REUNION
VOL. IV—N. AFRICA/ITALY
VOL. V—D-DAY AND BEYOND
VOL. VI—ACROSS THE RHINE
VOL. VII—HOMEFRONT, USA
VOL. VIII—WOMEN AT WAR

I was born sixteen years after the war ended, and I grew up in the company of men and women who fought in World War II. Probably like most kids my age, I had no idea what they did, and like most kids, I did not think to ask. Some of my teachers in school were veterans of World War II, but I don’t remember anyone ever specifically launching into a story about their time in the conflict. It’s also possible that they did, but I was not paying attention.
In the late spring of 1984, all of that would change. On television I watched as the 40th anniversary of the Normandy landings was being commemorated over in France. Thousands of American veterans joined their Allied and German counterparts for a solemn tribute and reunion tours of the battlefields where they had fought decades earlier. Many of these men would have now been just hitting their stride in retirement. It was also the first time in nearly 40 years that many would be back together to ruminate on their reawakening past. And here it was that I woke up and was moved.
I returned to my high school alma mater in 1987 as a teacher of history. I found myself spending a good chunk of time each spring lecturing enthusiastically about World War II, and it was contagious. There was a palpable buzz in the classroom. All the students would raise a hand when I would call out for examples of grandparents or other relatives who had served in the war—frequently two hands would go up in the air. Every kid had a personal connection to the most cataclysmic event in the history of mankind—and in the late eighties, many of the soldiers, airmen, Marines, and sailors who came home from the war were still with us.
Building on that blossoming interest, I created a simple survey for students to interview family members. I had hit upon something that every teacher searches for—a tool to motivate and encourage students to want to learn more, for the sake of just learning it.
I was haunted, though, by one survey that was returned. When asked to respond to a simple question, a shaky hand wrote back in all capitals:

I DON’T KNOW HOW YOU COULD MAKE YOUNG PEOPLE TODAY UNDERSTAND WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO GO THROUGH A NIGHTMARE LIKE WORLD WAR II.

He was right—nobody can interpret history like those who were there. Maybe I took that as an unconscious push to bring the engagement into the students’ lives even more personally. Young people who despised school stopped me in the hall to voice appreciation after listening to the veterans who came to our school to speak.
Shortly after the 50th anniversary of the end of the war we initiated a dedicated project, and young people fanned out into the community and collected nearly 200 stories, forging bonds and bridging generational divides, bringing happiness and companionship to their elders. They became ‘collectors of memory’ and these students of history had a hand in creating new history, adding an important tack on the scholarship of World War II that would have probably otherwise been lost. In that regard, the books in my series are unlike most other World War II titles on the bookshelves today. But The Good War by Studs Terkel was a catalyst.

The Good War

You said that your first choice,  “The Good War” – An Oral History of World War II –  by Studs Terkel is the book that set you on your path.  Please tell us why.

It was a collection of stories that were told by the persons themselves, about how WWII effected their lives. Some were famous, many were not, just ordinary people talking about the war that shaped their lives, and the world. And it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize!

This book not only focuses on the soldiers, but also how ordinary Americans at home experienced WWII.  What were your thoughts on this?

These are the untold stories that we need to hear today. Someone said that when an older person dies, it is like a library burning down. These stories, our history, are lost forever.

Terkel interviewed and recorded 120 people in his research for The Good War. You did something similar when you researched your book.  Why is this a good approach?

He was my model. His book- and he wrote many, many others where the common men and women spoke for themselves- was required reading for many of my students.

Before Their Time

Your next choice is Before Their Time: A Memoir by Robert Kotlowitz  (Author).  What did you find so compelling about this book?

It was first person, it was heartfelt: like Terkel’s book and my other picks, it epitomized the tragic nature of all war.

Kotlowitz is not your typical “hero” one so often reads about in War stories.  He survived the massacre of his platoon by playing dead.  Why is it important to also hear from “heroes” like him?

In writing nearly half a million words in my books, the word ‘hero’ does not appear at all. Every soldier I talked to will tell you that the heroes did not come home. But Kotlowitz is a hero to me because he chose to write about his experiences through the lens of the pain of war. He exposed soldiers’ weaknesses and regrets by writing about himself, and I think that is an important lesson. How do you talk about the trauma? Most veterans who came home did not. He made the effort, and I’m sure it was therapeutic for him, just as getting veterans in their twilight years to open up to teenagers.

Goodbye Darkness

The next pick in line is Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester.  What are your thoughts on this book?

Manchester, a respected historian, was writing about his 19-year-old self, fighting in the Pacific. He went back and retraced his steps. It is an interesting book, and again, therapeutic for him. I think it is so important for people who have never had the experience of combat to read.

This book not only deals with the battle in the Pacific, but also with the PTSD the author struggled with, 23 years later.

Yes. Again, I’m sure it was therapeutic.

Some of the most haunting tales in the book are on how the civilians, the islanders avoided being captured by committing suicide. We have heard many more stories like this from WWII. Why, do you think did the other side see the Allies as such monsters that they would rather take their own lives than fall into our soldiers’ hands?

In the case of Marpi Point, on Saipan, or other places like Okinawa,  Japanese propaganda was totally responsible. Americans were going to torture rape and murder any civilians after the battles.

with old breed

Tell us more about your next choice:  With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge.

Eugene Sledge was a mild-mannered young man from Alabama who enjoyed a career after the war as a professor of ornithology. He never hunted or picked up a gun again after the war. One of my older friends marine Dan Lawler, was in the same company with him in combat at Okinawa (both men are in my first book on the War in the Pacific.) He said he used to tease Sledge-whose combat nickname was ‘Sledgehammer’- by calling him ‘Rebel”.

This book is a very brutal account of the reality of war.  Some readers say that it made them understand why family members who had fought in the war refuse to talk about it. Why do you think it important to also read books like this, without any sugar coating or false patriotism?

Sledge’s memoir of combat-notes for which were written on pages of his pocket Bible- has been lauded by combat veterans as the most real personification of conditions of war. Near retirement, Sledge was haunted by recurring nightmares of his time in the war. He wrote the book-or as he stated, it was like it was being dictated to him- feverishly. The nightmares subsided, and he began to hear from some of his old combat buddies, like my friend Dan Lawler.

Helmet for my pillow

Your next choice, Helmet for My Pillow is lauded as one of the top reads covering America’s Pacific War. Do you think it deserves that title?

Yes. Again, the experiences of a combat Marine, warts and all, written by one who went on to become a respected journalist.

Some critics say that Leckie seems to have a great resentment toward leadership and authority, and it shows in this book.

I admire a man who can be his own man, who can question authority, suffer the consequences perhaps, but make his point.

The book focuses mostly on the experiences of the Marines during WWII, but also highlights the times in-between battles – the drinking and womanizing.  Why is it also good to see this side of the war?

I suppose it is because that was the way it was for him, and them.

Both From Parris Island to the Pacific and With the Old Breed were used in the HBO miniseries The Pacific.  Did you watch the series?, if so – what did you think about it?

Yes, I own it, and it was good enough that I even used parts of it in class with my students who were old enough. I would also recommend Ken Burns ‘The War’. Burns also profiled Eugene Sledge and his friends.

Any last thoughts on why learning about the experiences of people who lived WWII still matter today?

Another World War II memoirist once wrote, ‘Ignorance and apathy are the greatest dangers to freedom.’ I agree, but as a lifelong history teacher, and now author, I contend that it begins with people simply not being exposed to the history to begin with. For how could one not be drawn into these stories, the human drama, the interaction and the emotion that goes into putting an ideal first? After sitting at their table, how could you not give weight to what they have seen, and where they think we are going, as a people, as a nation? I saw this spark kindled time and again in my classroom, when we got to hear from real people who had a front row seat, who acted in the greatest drama in the history of the world. I think it is important to have them tell you themselves, about the world they grew up in, the challenges and obstacles placed on life’s course, and how a generation of Americans not only rose to the challenge but built the country and the freedoms that we enjoy today. They truly saved the world. Be inspired. Share their stories; give them voice. Lest we forget.

AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE: http://bit.ly/MR-bio
TEACHING HISTORY MATTERS blog: www.teachinghistorymatters.com
FACEBOOK: http://bit.ly/MAROZELLfb

George H.W. Bush seated in a Grumman TBM Avenger, circa 1944. USN photo, public domain.

George H.W. Bush was the last president to be a World War II veteran. Regardless of your politics, he was a class act, and served his country in a variety of high-ranking positions.

Bush was a naval aviator in the Pacific during World War II; during an attack on a Japanese island radio station, his plane took flak, was set afire and later crashed in the ocean. He finished the mission first and bailed out and was picked up by a U.S. submarine in the vicinity, but several men on the mission were captured and later executed by the Japanese. Later, he remarked, “Why had I been spared and what did God have [planned] for me?” And we know the rest of the story.

A few years back my friend Judy had the opportunity to be in his presence. She wrote today:

“A man of virtue and integrity. May he rest in peace in Heaven and may his family find comfort in knowing he lived a life that was focused on others. I remember a few years ago seeing him at one of his favorite restaurants in Perkins Cove, Maine. The admiration of all was evident as he was wheeled away in his wheelchair to his speedboat to go home. He was beaming with appreciation of the crowd’s cheering.” 

In these busy times may we stop and pause to recognize the great ones who are leaving us or have left us, the men and women who saved the world and hammered out the framework of the 20th century. George H.W. Bush epitomized such character and we hope that his life will be a lesson for all Americans. Godspeed, President Bush.

A nice article in the New York Times about his final days.

‘I Love You, Too’: George Bush’s Final Days

It’s time for the big news.

[<PLEASE SHARE >]

 

I’ve been working for nearly three years with a highly respected film producer for what we are confident will become the PBS film version of the Train Near Magdeburg story. It is very important for both Mike Edwards of the 5 Stones Group and I that the story be told correctly and respectfully.

Mike’s first feature documentary, Searching For Augusta, followed historian Martin King as he unraveled the mystery of a young Belgian nurse who saved soldiers in the critical period of the siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, finding Augusta Chiwy shortly before her death. With the critical success of the film, the Augusta Chiwy Foundation was set up to support similar projects to cultivate humanity and stand as a testament to the human spirit.

The pre-production trailer of ‘Train’ has been field tested for almost 6 months and is now ready to show the world to drum up interest in supporting this incredibly timely and important endeavor. It’s been made tragically clear that the support for Holocaust education and the cultivation of decent human beings can’t be allowed to stop, or even idle.

Because there is enough hate in the world, and this is a story with so much power. It’s the power of love transcending the hate, eclipsing the barriers of time and space, reverberating right down to this day, across four continents and seven decades.

It’s the story of the Holocaust, the ordeals of the victims and the soldiers fighting their way across Europe. The shock of the discovery of the train and the camps, and what the soldiers did about it, even though they were fighting and dying on their way to the final climactic battle on the Elbe River. There was trauma there, too. Some of my guys also insisted on being referred to as ‘survivors’ of World War II. ‘Hero worship’ of them was emphatically rejected.

It’s also the story of the dedication of a teacher with a singular passion for uncovering the connections to the past and bringing survivors and soldiers together, the magic that ushers forth from the universe when a teacher connects with his students to trip the wires of the cosmos. It’s a message for young people to pay attention to the lessons of the past, because it is in witnessing that one becomes a witness.

Our intent is not to just recount the history, or to lecture you. Rather, we hope that in joining us on this journey, in witnessing the ‘choices’ of the survivors and dilemmas of the soldiers as they unfolded, the moral obligations of the viewer to not stand by in the face of rising evil will coalesce around the example of the abandonment of a persecuted people, and the moral choice of upstanders engaged in combat to do something that maybe, the world should have done from the start.

We hope you can draw your own lessons. On the eve of the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, we present you with our vision for a better world through recounting the story, formerly unknown, of a singular event nearly 75 years ago that continues to ripple across the universe.

Learn the past. Because, to paraphrase William Faulkner, it’s never over. It’s not even past.

Please watch, and be mindful of the Holocaust scholar who said to me, “When you teach to Holocaust, think of the reason why you are teaching this history. What do you want, the world to be?”

What you do matters.

To support our vision and become part of it, click here.

FAQS

  1. How much monetary sponsorship does the foundation need to raise to complete the production and distribution of “A Train Near Magdeburg”?

– The budget for the documentary film is $500,000.  The costs include pre-production, scripting, producing, direction, principal photography in America, Europe and Israel, editing, music, post-production, visual effects and distribution fees.

  1. How much filming has been done to date?

– We have spent two years so far making connections, doing research and filming initial interviews that have been done with survivors, family members, liberators and medics who were involved in this story.

  1. Where will the documentary film be distributed when it is complete?

– We have an existing relationship and a formal Letter of Interest from American Public Television in the United States.  American Public Television is the leading syndicator of high-quality, top-rated programming to public television stations in America. American Public Television also distributes programming on a worldwide basis through television, online and home video distribution methods. To learn more about APT, please go to https://www.aptonline.org/about/apt.

  1. When will the film be complete once the production funding has been raised?

– The goal would be to complete the film in time to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of the train and the defeat of Nazi Germany. [APRIL 2020]

  1. Can I donate online?

– Yes.  Donations can be made online at www.AugustaChiwy.org.

  1. Is my financial gift tax-deductible?

– Yes.  Gifts to the Augusta Chiwy Foundation are tax-deductible.  The Augusta Chiwy Foundation is a 501c3 non-profit organization based in the United States.

  1. Are there corporate sponsorships available?

– Yes.  Corporate sponsorships are available at various giving levels through the Augusta Chiwy Foundation.  Please contact Steven Croft to discuss these options.

  1. How do I find out more information, ask questions and become involved?

– Please contact:

Steven E. Croft, Chairman of the Board

The Augusta Chiwy Foundation

Steven.Croft@AugustaChiwy.org