Seventy-two years ago, it began. Hitler’s last gamble would claim more American lives than any battle in U.S. History. Frank Currey was there, and on a cold winter day in December, saved five men and killed scores of Germans single handedly. Frank was in the 30th Infantry Division, which liberated the Train Near Magdeburg; he came to our school.

The morning of December 16, 1944. A lonely outpost on the Belgian frontier.

In subzero temperatures, the last German counteroffensive of World War II had begun. Nineteen thousand American lives would be lost in the Battle of the Bulge. “Hell came in like a freight train. I heard an explosion and went back to where my friend was. His legs were blown off-he bled to death in my arms.” The average age of the American “replacement” soldier? 19.

Of the sixteen million American men and women who served in WWII, four and a quarter hundred thousand died on the field of conflict. In 2015, on the downward bell curve slope, nearly 500 veterans of World War II quietly slip away every day. The national memory of the war that did more than any other event in the last century to shape the history of the American nation is dying with them. The Germans threw 250,000 well trained troops and tanks against a lightly defended line on the Ardennes frontier in Belgium and Luxembourg, which created a pocket or “bulge” in the Allied offensive line, the objective being to drive to the port of Antwerp to split the American and British advance and force a separate peace with the Western Allies. What ensued was the bloodiest battle in American history. It saddens me that it comes as a shock to many Americans today that the “Battle of the Bulge” didn’t originate as a weight-loss term.

On a personal note, I have had the privilege of interviewing many of the veterans of this battle. In the high school where I teach, I have been inviting veterans to my classroom to share their experiences with our students. As their numbers dwindled, I smartened up, bought a camera, and began to record their stories. And for the past decade, I have been sending kids out into the field to record the stories of World War II before this generation fades altogether. These men and women have helped to spark students’ interest in finding out more about our nation’s past and the role of the individual in shaping it. In our books we have worked to weave the stories of our community’s sacrifices into the fabric of our national history. And that, to me, is what teaching history should be all about. After all, if we allow ourselves to forget about the teenager who bled to death in his buddy’s arms, if we overlook the sacrifices it took to make this nation strong and proud, we may as well forget everything else. I shudder for this country when I see what we have all forgotten, so soon. But if you are taking the time to read this post I suppose I am preaching to the saved.

I will close with the account of a nineteen year old infantryman who in fact survived the battle and the war, and who I was able to introduce to many Hudson Falls students on more than one occasion. Sixty-nine years ago this December, a day began that would forever change his life.  Frank is now the only living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II left in New York State and New England.

In the winter of 1944, nineteen year old Private First Class Currey’s infantry squad was fighting the Germans in the Belgian town of Malmédy to help contain the German counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge. Before dawn on December 21, Currey’s unit was defending a strong point when a sudden German armored advance overran American antitank guns and caused a general withdrawal. Currey and five other soldiers—the oldest was twenty-one—were cut off and surrounded by several German tanks and a large number of infantrymen. They began a daylong effort to survive.

Francis Currey MOH and Ned Rozell March 2010-Ned is friends with the last WWII Medal of Honor recipient in NY and NE, Frances Currey. Yes, the special edition GI Joe he signed for Ned is 19 yr. old Frank!

Francis Currey MOH and Ned Rozell March 2010-Ned is friends with the last WWII Medal of Honor recipient in NY and NE, Frances Currey. Yes, the special edition GI Joe he signed for Ned is 19 yr. old Frank!

The six GIs withdrew into an abandoned factory, where they found a bazooka left behind by American troops. Currey knew how to operate one, thanks to his time in Officer Candidate School, but this one had no ammunition. From the window of the factory, he saw that an abandoned half-track across the street contained rockets. Under intense enemy fire, he ran to the half-track, loaded the bazooka, and fired at the nearest tank. By what he would later call a miracle, the rocket hit the exact spot where the turret joined the chassis and disabled the vehicle.

Moving to another position, Currey saw three Germans in the doorway of an enemy-held house and shot all of them with his Browning Automatic Rifle. He then picked up the bazooka again and advanced, alone, to within fifty yards of the house. He fired a shot that collapsed one of its walls, scattering the remaining German soldiers inside. From this forward position, he saw five more GIs who had been cut off during the American withdrawal and were now under fire from three nearby German tanks. With antitank grenades he’d collected from the half-track, he forced the crews to abandon the tanks. Next, finding a machine gun whose crew had been killed, he opened fire on the retreating Germans, allowing the five trapped Americans to escape.

Deprived of tanks and with heavy infantry casualties, the enemy was forced to withdraw. Through his extensive knowledge of weapons and by his heroic and repeated braving of murderous enemy fire, Currey was greatly responsible for inflicting heavy losses in men and material on the enemy, for rescuing 5 comrades, 2 of whom were wounded, and for stemming an attack which threatened to flank his battalion’s position.

At nightfall, as Currey and his squad, including the two seriously wounded men, tried to find their way back to the American lines, they came across an abandoned Army jeep fitted out with stretcher mounts. They loaded the wounded onto it, and Currey, perched on the jeep’s spare wheel with a Browning automatic rifle in his hand, rode shotgun back to the American lines.

After the war in Europe had officially ended, Major General Leland Hobbs made the presentation on July 27, 1945, at a division parade in France.

source material Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty by Peter Collier.


Frank signs autographs at our school.
Frank signs autographs at our school.

A Walk in the Snow.


Paige and flag. Credit: Dan Hogan

We walked in the snow, squinting against the early winter sun, moving past the headstones in one of the older cemeteries in our town. Small talk wound down as we approached our destination. We stopped, and greeted the reporter who met us there for the event. Austin opened the small bag of black river stones, and each student picked one to write a message onto.


We approached the grave. Well, it is not really a grave, you see—a nineteen year old kid’s body lies somewhere back in Hawaii, at a place called Pearl Harbor. His parents lay just to the south of this marker, passing on 14 and 18 years later. The kid’s body was never properly identified. He lies in a mass grave somewhere else, far, far away.

And here in his hometown, there is not even a flag on his marker. Why should there be? As far as I know, there is no immediate close family left here to tend to his stone, and he is not even here.

But we buy a flag, and Paige affixes it to the holder.


Teacher and student. Credit: Dan Hogan

Paige holds the 1942 yearbook senior class dedication, and I pull out a copy of his photograph, and say a few words.

Seventy-five years after his death, after his parents’ pain and anguish at the telegram announcing he was ‘missing in action’, after his classmates’ angst that following June at graduating without him into the new world of 1942, where so many of them would go on to fight and die along with him, a bunch of kids from his high school return. The 17 and 18 year olds are on the cusp of entering a new world themselves, along with them the 55 year old man who was once also a young graduate-to-be of Hudson Falls High School.


We come to remember, and to set down our memorial stones.


The kids speak to the reporter, and we pose for one last picture.


We are here for all of 15 minutes before the bus has to return to the school to make another run, due to parent-teacher conferences at the elementary level. It is quick, a surgical tactical strike in an overly crowded and rushed school day; some might say, hardly worth the effort.


You wonder if the lesson will stay with them.


They leave this cemetery, some certainly forever, to go out into the world, having paid their respects to the boy from Hudson Falls whose future ended on December 7th, 1941.




Glens Falls Post-Star report, 12-7-2017 below, and with more pics here

‘One of Their Own’

Local sailor who died at Pearl Harbor remembered by teacher, students

From the Remembering Pearl Harbor, 75 years later series

by BILL TOSCANO btoscano@poststar.com

HUDSON FALLS — On a windy Tuesday morning, in a snow-covered cemetery, Matt Rozell’s history class took a somber turn.

Rozell and about 25 Hudson Falls High School seniors stood in the fresh snow at a memorial stone that read, “H. Randolph Holmes,” followed by the words, “Died in action at Pearl Harbor,” “Age 19 yrs” and “U.S. Navy.”

Holmes had been a student in Hudson Falls’ Class of 1942 but left school early, joined the Navy and was killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“We wanted to make sure we didn’t forget Randy,” Rozell told the group, which had taken a quick bus ride on Route 4 to the Moss Street Cemetery. “Especially you in the Class of 2017 because it’s the 75th anniversary of the year he should have graduated.”

Holmes was aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma during the attack and was one of 429 men killed when the ship was struck and capsized. Like many of the sailors on the Oklahoma, his body was not recovered for 18 months and has never been identified. Holmes was buried, with the other “unknown” Oklahoma sailors, in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the “Punchbowl.”

Several years ago, one of Rozell’s students located Holmes’ name on the memorial to those who died on the Oklahoma.

Two of Rozell’s students said Tuesday they had no idea a former Hudson Falls student had died at Pearl Harbor.

“I had no clue,” said Alex Prouty, who went on to talk about what she and her classmates had

learned about the attack. “We learned that there was a loss of a lot of lives and that a lot of people went missing. No one was prepared for it, and our military did the best they could to protect us.”

Jacob Fabian said he learned about Holmes in class as well.

“Before class, no, I didn’t know anything, but now, yes, because of Mr. Rozell’s book,” Fabian said. “We learned a lot about Pearl Harbor, what its effects were, why and how it happened and how monumental it was.”

 During the brief ceremony Tuesday morning, one of the students held up a picture of Holmes from the Class of 1942 yearbook and another held the yearbook itself as they stood by the memorial stone. Rozell had a student hand out black stones, and the students wrote on them and left them on the stone.

“This year’s yearbook is also going to have a page for Randy,” said Rozell, who has written two books on World War II and is working on several more. “It’s important for us to remember him.”

Photo by Steve Jacobs, Post Star, Moss St Cemetery, Hudson Falls, NY, 12-6-2017.

Identification ongoing

Holmes may yet come home.

Five formerly “unknown” sailors from the USS Oklahoma were identified in January, using medical records. The identifications are the first to come from a project that began in April 2015 when the Defense Department announced plans to exhume an estimated 388 of the Oklahoma’s unknowns.

The first exhumations took place June 8, 2015, and the last four caskets were dug up Nov. 9, 2015.

Sixty-one caskets were retrieved from 45 graves. The caskets were heavily corroded and had to be forced open.

The remains were removed and cleaned and photographed. The skeletons were flown to the lab in Nebraska for further analysis, but skulls were retained in Hawaii, where the Defense Department’s forensic dentists are based.


Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.


As of Nov. 30, the Pentagon says it has ID’d 21 of the 388 unknowns.

You can see the news releases here. Hopefully someday they’ll ID Randy Holmes …



 A highly recommended PBS video is below.




From my good friend Leslie, who plays a major role in my recent book. Happy Thanksgiving indeed.

Hello Matt my dear friend. (I hope you allow me to call you that)

I have just finished reading A Train Near Magdeburg’s Kindle edition, all through your narratives and your humble self-description.

WOW what a book, what a very well deserved tribute to those liberating soldiers – whose simple task of just doing our job – nonetheless
became the ANGELS OF OUR LIVES, and it is also a tribute for us, the ones who were liberated on that train on that fateful day of April 13 1945.
For me, it is an honor that you have found quite a number of words of mine from the Hudson Falls meetings and segments of my memoirs to
be worthwhile to include in this remarkable book.

author and leslie meisels, Nov. 2015

author and leslie meisels, Nov. 2015

Without your work, without your inquisitive mind, without your beyond the call of duty and dedication to carry out the work what you are doing,
to which Frank Towers gave you his cooperation and support to the end of his life, this whole worldwide movement bringing us together
would have been lost in the annals of the horrors of the Holocaust and the chronicles of WWII.

Never in my dreams I thought that ever in my life I will meet those soldiers who gave me back my life with liberating the train. Through your work this
unimaginable new miracle happened to me. I have met seven of them developed warm friendship with Carrol and Frank and their families.
The sweet memory of their friendship will remain with me to the end of my life. I do not think that aside of a few coincidental happy occasions that
there are liberated survivors of the Holocaust who did ever met in person – or through our/your worldwide movement – the soldiers who liberated them.
And here we are hundreds of us thanks to you Matt.

You deserve all the accolade whatever is coming your way. I think George Gross  describes it most eloquently – through his own lifetime experiences –
what it takes for a teacher to do the work what you are doing and the way you are doing it.

I am groping, looking, searching to find words to describe the feeling and gratitude what makes to us survivors to our children, grand and great-grandchildren to
– through you – belonging to this worldwide movement created and keep going by you.

I would be amiss if I would not mention the tremendous impact what your ongoing blogs do. It is constantly keeps all of us abreast of what is going on.

I hope and pray that you would be able to continue it for decades to come.

Fondly yours truly

Leslie Meisels


“The Holocaust is one of the most well-documented events in human history. And yet some people, driven by hate and antisemitism, try to deny it today.” -UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM



ONE STAR! “Another great work from the Holocaust Factory run by zionist [sic] media. Any truth finder should read Breaking the Spell: The Holocaust, Myth & Reality as the beginning step to enlighten themselves!”


The reviews for the new book are slowly coming in, and above is but one example. It was not unexpected. In fact, the first response I got after the book hit the market was an email at my school from a Holocaust denier, offering me a free book to ‘educate me’. That was very nice.

The fact that they call our American soldier–eyewitnesses liars just blows my mind. Below is the part of the chapter I wrote near the end on my experience with Holocaust deniers.

You can get A Train Near Magdeburg here and decide for yourself. If you read the book, please consider helping me promote the real story, and helping others, with your own review here.


It comes with the territory.

You’re an emotion [sic] and propaganda-susceptible gullible fool.

You’re ‘teaching history’ and not going into the fraudulently alleged homicidal gas chambers? Or do you subconsciously already know it’s bullshit?

There were NO fake shower rooms disguised as gas chambers. That’s a racist anti-German blood libel. Shame on you. The Bath and Disinfection 1 facility was just that!


There were no ‘gas chambers’ other than delousing facilities to keep the prisoners healthy. Allied bombing causes [sic] disease and starvation because the camps could no longer be supplied by Germany.


The ‘6 million’ number is a HUGE exaggeration. Jews use the holocaust [sic] to garner sympathy and provide cover for their war crimes against the Palestinians. We studied this in college.


It comes with the territory, I suppose, that if you are passionate about teaching the Holocaust and attract high profile attention, the trolls will begin their attempts to worm their way into the narrative. It began immediately after the very first reunion in 2007. I had received hundreds of emails from all over the world in support of my project, but I also got my first taste of this aberrant phenomenon known as Holocaust denial. Three emails, out of over three hundred, spewed forth their hate, with one containing in the subject line: ‘SIX MILLION LIVES=SIX MILLION LIES’.

My knee-jerk reaction was to delete them. But in the years that followed, as my blog built a following, more detailed attacks began; I began to archive them to create lessons for my students on Holocaust denial. One man, or woman—a hallmark of online Holocaust deniers is to hide behind false identities—even built a fictitious ‘news’ website attacking the first reunion, at a URL beginning with ‘blockyourid.com’:

‘Tank Commander Saves Fellow Jews From Gas Chambers’

Who Actually Believes This Garbage?

Izzie Gross, a tank commander, whose Sherman tank faced down a ‘Death Train’, shows up at a local high school with three survivors. Oddly the dates are off, the camps were liberated four months earlier, but who are we to doubt?

Maybe the Nazis were going to break through the Russia[sic] lines, crash in Auschwitz, and gas these poor survivors?

The denier posted false photographs of the liberators and me, claiming that we were all Jewish co-conspirators, when the opposite was true. My students were horrified, though they got a kick out of the photograph of me, which obviously was not me. The website was so bad that it did have a comical element; even commenters in a notorious white supremacist chatroom wondered if the author ‘JudicialInc’ was losing his touch.

Holocaust denial began with the perpetrators, their euphemisms, their secret orders, and their penchant for destroying and trying to hide evidence of their crimes. Even with the film footage of the liberators, or Eisenhower’s admonition to future generations, and the importance of the evidence and testimony presented at the postwar trials, Holocaust denial increases as time passes. And let’s not forget state sponsorship of Holocaust denial in certain quarters of the world.

I remember well one student’s incredulous question, after witnessing survivor testimony, directed at the survivor who had just described his experience. The survivor replied, ‘You see, it is easy for people to deny the Holocaust, because no one can truly grasp its magnitude and scope.’ ‘Unbelievable’ is a word used by liberator and survivor alike. And it will take effort to not allow the memory of the original eyewitnesses to vanish in the rearview mirror of history.


‘The Dangers of Denial’

If one can deny one of the most well-documented events in human history, what else can one get away with ignoring? Or supporting?

History has proven that when one group is targeted, all people become more vulnerable. In other words, a society that tolerates antisemitism becomes susceptible to other forms of racism, hatred, and oppression. And we are unfortunately facing a world of rising antisemitism.

The internet makes it easier than ever for all sorts of information — and misinformation — to spread freely. So it’s more important than ever to stand up to hate and spread the truth. -UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM

Below is a recent short educational video, produced by the USHMM. Note the photo at the 36 second mark. You know where you saw it first.

Even the Nazis Admitted to the Holocaust

[USHMM video]  [learn more]

‘Hate has power, but the TRUTH has more.’

Today I received two timely comments on the last book I wrote. You can get it here.

I just finished A Train Near Magdeburg. Very powerful and well written, I thought. Couldn’t help but think about recent events. Hmmm. A good day to finish it.
Veterans Day.


I’ve read and read about the Holocaust the last few years. To the point that family and friends have questioned whether or not it’s”healthy” to do so. So much death and despair. I’ve questioned myself, as well. But as this book has made me see, I’ve barely touched on the history of the Holocaust or WW2. With the world we live in and political winds shifting so much, it is important to learn and to teach. I loved this book and learned so much more and I would recommend anyone with an interest in this history or someone just stumbling across it to read it cover to cover. Thank you!!

As you may be aware, we had an election here in the United States this week. You may or may not be satisfied with the outcome, but in the end, there are plenty of lessons to be gleaned through the prism of time, of historical experience, of detached analysis, of serious study, and yes, maybe of immediate emotion. Some of my profoundest insights spring from moments of intense personal emotion.

Today I’m offering up a chapter near the end of the book, the genesis of which was written on my blog this summer as I studied in Israel. I’d like to think that there is a lot of food for thought in the book, and a lot of ways at looking at ourselves, too.  Like a friend said when she paraphrased Churchill, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going. Otherwise you just stay in hell.’ A nod to the soldiers out there on Veterans Day. My guys in the book called themselves ‘fugitives from the laws of averages’ —’just keep going’ was their mantra. Their friends were being killed. They were killing. Their president had just died on them. And then they stumbled upon this mysterious train.

Maybe we need to remember that sense of purpose, even when we think we have none.


‘What do you want the world to be?’

I reached some of my final revelations in the summer of 2016 as the writing of this book drew to a close while I was studying in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. My fellow educators and I heard from dozens of excellent scholars and presenters in the field of the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; of antisemitism through the ages, and learned from the nuanced dissections what we thought we knew about the Holocaust. One of our final lectures was from was Dr. Yehuda Bauer, who at age 90 I consider to be the godfather of Holocaust historians. Sitting six feet away from me was a man who narrowly escaped the Holocaust himself, coming with his family in 1939 to the Palestine Mandate before the window closed. He became active in the resistance to British rule, and later fought in Israel’s War for Independence. Early in his career he was challenged by Abba Kovner to study the Holocaust when few others were doing it. He mastered many languages and it was he, after years of research, who concluded that the Holocaust was a watershed event in human history.

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.

Today, sitting in his presence, and listening to him, I got the feeling that I was listening to a philosopher, one who also had been milking cows on a kibbutz for the past 41 years.

So the question came, as it always does—

What is the overarching lesson that we should take away from the study of the Holocaust?

To paraphrase his answer, he simply said, ‘There is no lesson, except not to repeat it. The Shoah is used, all the time, for various agendas and causes…okay, fine. But there is no lesson.’

And I think I get it. When we talk about the Holocaust, its sheer magnitude and ‘unprecedentedness’ denies us the comfort of walking away with an overarching ‘lesson’. ‘Bullying gone wild’ it was not. Instead, he continued, ‘maybe the real question to ask yourself, and ask your students, is this—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 the Shoah is the exact opposite of what they envision for their world, unprecedented in scope and sequence—but it happened, which means it can happen again.’


When we got back to the hotel to pack our bags and have a final evening to ourselves, we found out that for a few hours, we could not even cross the street to go back out—our hotel was now right on the route of one of the largest ‘gay pride’ parades in the world, right through Jerusalem. Security was tight; last year, a religious maniac stabbed six, and one teenage girl died here. But standing on the second story hotel balcony, I could hear Dr. Bauer’s words echoing in my ears, reminding us that democracy is not only very fragile, it is hardly even out of the cradle in the backdrop of world history. But what sets democracy apart from every other experiment in history, in its pure form and in theory, is its defense of minorities. It doesn’t exist yet, but maybe this form of government needs to be protected, and nourished. And maybe this is what the soldiers were fighting for. 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. That is as it is, and as it should be. At the end of the day, we either kill each other, or we live, and let live.

We decide.

Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

I had never seen a so-called ‘gay pride’ event before, so as I watched, there was another revelation. For over an hour, my fellow educators and I witnessed miles and miles of this parade of young and old, of men and women, smiling and cheering and singing; I’m quite sure that many participants, and maybe even most, were in fact heterosexual. And for me, this experience became a metaphor for our common experience here in Jerusalem—from that hotel balcony, we were witnessing what in fact simply boiled down to a massive celebration of life. In studying the Holocaust together, we have plumbed the depths of the abyss that humanity is capable of, but not because of a fascination with evil and death; rather, it is because of the opposite, because of our commitment to humanity. For me also there is this burgeoning sense of righteousness in promoting the men who made a difference with their sacrifices in slaying the Nazi beast. And these American soldiers who encountered the Holocaust were not some kind of super-action heroes who arrived on the scene to save the day, just in the nick of time. As you have read, there was no plan, and they had no idea. What matters more is what they did when they encountered this trauma deep in a war zone with people still shooting at them, and later committing themselves in their sunset years to reaching out to others, so that, in Dr. Bauer’s words, the formally ‘unprecedented’ watershed event is not repeated. And maybe it’s time for a good long look at the world we live in today.

I have been on a journey that has consumed half the career that I never even set out to have. I have been joined by many along the way, and I thank the reader for also sharing it with me; that afternoon in Jerusalem, I parted with my educator friends with a final word in our closing discussion:

We are the new witnesses. We bear an awesome responsibility when we become aware, when we teach, when we communicate with others; now, more than ever, what we do matters, especially in entering this world of the Holocaust—because there is no past, and it is never over.

We are shaping human beings. We are cultivating humanity. There are always the children, the young; there is hope amidst all the darkness in the world. The tunnel can lead to the light.

You decide.



From the Author’s collection.

I did my 5th ‘Meet and Greet’ book signing last weekend for my new book, A Train Near Magdeburg: A Teacher’s Journey into the Holocaust, and the reuniting of the survivors and liberators, 70 years on.

At my first event a couple of months back, a customer mentioned that a young relative was learning about the Holocaust in middle school in conjunction with the book/film The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.  I told her I had been thinking about writing a blog post about the use of this story in the classroom, but not because I thought it was a good idea. She was intrigued and wanted to know more, and while I had put together draft after draft of this post, I had not published it, because I feared coming off like a ‘know-it-all’.

Since then, three more times a person at a book signing has cited TBITSP as a major basis for their understanding of the Holocaust. One person went so far as to describe scene after scene for me, so I nodded in acknowledgement before gently directing the conversation to the fact that it was a work of fiction.  She seemed surprised to know this, but grateful I had informed her. So yesterday, when a person picked up my book from the table and also mentioned a ‘wonderfully moving book’ about the Holocaust, I knew that the next words out of her mouth were going to be “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”. As soon as she said it I blurted out, ‘but you know it is not true, right?’ Mildly flustered, she acknowledged that she did not.

In the ten years since its release The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the 2006 novel by Irish writer John Boyle, has seemingly become a bellwether of sorts, some middle school rite of passage in “learning about the Holocaust”. It reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list and it is the book that has ‘introduced’ millions to the subject, and apparently not just children, though it is used in tandem with the horrific 2008 film based on it in literally thousands of classrooms across the country. So, I’ll get right to it-

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is NOT a book about the Holocaust and should not be used as a vehicle to introduce children to the subject of the Holocaust.

If you are not familiar with the story, here are a couple ‘blurbs’ found online….

For the book:

 “Powerful and unsettling. . . . As memorable an introduction to the subject as The Diary of Anne Frank.” —USA Today

Berlin, 1942: When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move to a new house far, far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people in the distance.
But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different from his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

And the film:

Through the lens of an eight-year-old boy largely shielded from the reality of World War II, we witness a forbidden friendship that forms between Bruno, the son of Nazi commandant, and Shmuel, a Jewish boy held captive in a concentration camp. Though the two are separated physically by a barbed wire fence, their lives become inescapably intertwined. The imagined story of Bruno and Shmuel sheds light on the brutality, senselessness and devastating consequences of war from an unusual point of view. Together, their tragic journey helps recall the millions of innocent victims of the Holocaust.

[Spoiler alert: the ‘devastating consequences’ in the final scene we have the protagonist, the innocent German boy Bruno, being led into the gas chamber at Auschwitz by his new-found friend, the Jewish boy Shmuel, as his agitated parents (the new commandant of Auschwitz) and German staff search frantically for little Bruno.]

‘Unsettling’ it is indeed. It’s even more unsettling to think that people think it is true. The author conceived and executed the first draft of his novel in less than three days, and labels it plainly as a ‘fable’ (though why one would use that word in writing about the Holocaust, which many attack as ‘exaggerated’ or an outright untruth already, is beyond me).

Most of the teachers I know work very hard—but I find it unsettling to learn that so many are using TBITSP in the classroom. Part of the confusion among instructors comes from an inadequate grounding in their own knowledge of the scope and uniqueness of the Holocaust, the watershed event in the history of mankind. This is an observation, not an indictment. Teachers can’t be experts in all fields, and are constantly being pulled in several directions. Even people who have studied the Holocaust for years have their own assumptions challenged as they delve deeper into the topic, me included.

It’s safe to say that the story is a home run on the affective level of raw emotion. Unfortunately it has little to do with understanding the Holocaust on the cognitive level, and the last scene is frankly cheap and downright exploitative. Here it is from YouTube, I think perhaps posted by a kid. I also post some of the comments that I found afterwards, many of them from kids who apparently watched this in class.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas gas chamber scene

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sOA9FmspoI 5:38


  • my heart felt like it was getting slugged by a bowling ball when the mother was crying
  • the sad part to me was when bruno says “dont worry we are just in here to get out of the rain” poor boy
  • I think he wanted to save him or was it just me i cried my head off
  • Sad movie. Does anyone else think that Schmall knew his father was gone but wanted to have a friend (Bruno) with him? That maybe he was given false hope even though he knew? I do not think he knew they would die though. They were hidden in the crowd of old/mental men and could have possibly survived had they not been in that barrack. Gas chambers were used for mass killings of mental or sick jews
  • Me before video Hey, I’m reading this, there’s a gas chamber scene….Me after video … Well uhm that was… Unexpected. Well I’m going to cry myself to sleep tonight
  • ….a kid broke down in tears 😔😔😔 Yeah they also killed the commanders kid
  • I watched this in my school today every body cried
  • in the book Burno’s body was already burned his parents never found out what happened to him.
  • watched this movie in class today and it f*cked me up big time.

Frankly, I think that if we are using the story in the classroom to introduce young minds to the the Holocaust, we are doing our students a disservice. Are they to assume that every eight year old growing up in Nazi Germany was as naïve and dumb as poor Bruno? More importantly, it is incumbent on us to challenge with our students the remarks featured in the glowing reviews and the harmful inferences perpetrated by this work.

  1. “Powerful and unsettling. . . . As memorable an introduction to the subject as The Diary of Anne Frank.” —USA Today Really? The book is a work of fiction, and presents a narrative with a backdrop of serious historical fallacies. There is no way that fiction should replace the compelling narrative of the real survivors who lived through this era, when fiction like this that paints a misleading, emotionally manipulative, self serving portrait. There were not a heck of a lot of children sitting by the wire undisturbed in a place called Auschwitz, bored and waiting for a new friend to pop out of the woods, one who can burrow under off-limits barbed wire boundaries with ease.
  2. If I was a young student, I would certainly ask, why didn’t those Jews just dig under and escape? No guards are around—were they all stupid? Maybe it’s their own fault for going to their deaths….And maybe the Jewish boy, encouraging Bruno to come into the camp and handing him a striped uniform, has something to do with the death of our main character? “the real question is would u go with the Jew and go to the gas chamber or stay home and not get in the gas chamber I would chose the last one because I wouldn’t want to go to the gas chamber and I would love to stay healthy …..”
  3. The imagined story of Bruno and Shmuel sheds light on the brutality, senselessness and devastating consequences of war from an unusual point of view. Together, their tragic journey helps recall the millions of innocent victims of the Holocaust.”  The point of view is ‘unusual’ because it is preposterous, and some Holocaust education professionals I know refer to it quite strongly as ‘reprehensible’ in its pandering manipulation of the emotions of its young readers. Having read the book and seen the movie more than once,  it doesn’t do anything to ‘recall the millions’. The ‘imagined story shedding light on the devastating consequences of war’? Unfortunately it misdirects our sympathies. “the sad part to me was when bruno says ‘dont worry we are just in here to get out of the rain’ poor boy”/’my heart felt like it was getting slugged by a bowling ball when the mother [of the German boy]  was crying’ Does the student feel bad about the Jews or the perpetrators, as Bruno wanders into the gas chamber with his new friend? Where is the backstory of the little Jewish boy inside of the camp? Who were the real victims? What were their lives like?  
  4. Why would you teach something ‘about the Holocaust’ if it were not true? Aren’t there enough out there who say that it never happened?

Ironically and unfortunately, the use of this story in the classroom has been encouraged by the very agents of critical thinking in the classroom, the Common Core standard bearers. I well remember sitting through a faculty meeting where the following exemplar was held aloft and distributed to every faculty member present as the new way to engage students in critical analysis and writing.

From the Common Core State Standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects [www.uen.org/commoncore/downloads/StudentWritingSample9th.pdf]:
Student Sample: Grade 9, Argument
This argument was written in response to a classroom assignment. The students were asked to compare a book they read on their own to a movie about the same story and to prove which was better. Students had six weeks to read and one and a half weeks to write, both in and out of class.

The True Meaning of Friendship
John Boyne’s story, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, tells the tale of an incredible friendship between
two eight-year old boys during the Holocaust. One of the boys is Bruno, the son of an important German
commander who is put in charge of Auschwitz Camp, and the other is Shmuel, a Jewish boy inside the
camp. Throughout the story their forbidden friendship grows, and the two boys unknowingly break the
incredible racial boundaries of the time. They remain best friends until Bruno goes under the fence to
help Shmuel find his father when they are both killed in the gas showers of the camp.

In some ways the book and the movie have similar aspects, and one of these aspects is how irony is
used to emphasize Bruno’s innocence and to greatly emphasize the tragic mood of the story. In the final
climactic scene of the movie—just after Bruno has gone under the fence to help Shmuel find his father—
the two boys are led to the gas showers to be killed. Unaware of what is about to happen to them, Bruno
tells Shmuel that his father must have ordered this so it must be for a good reason, and that they are going
into the air-tight rooms to stay out of the rain and avoid getting sick. This statement is incredibly ironic
because, unbeknownst to Bruno, his father has unknowingly commenced his own son’s death sentence. In
addition to this, the soldiers have no intention of keeping their prisoners healthy. It never occurs to Bruno
that anyone would want to destroy another human being or treat them badly, and his innocence makes
his premature death all the more tragic.

The movie ends with a race against time as Bruno’s
family searches for him in the camp, trying to find him before he is killed. They are too late, and Bruno
and Shmuel die together like so many other anonymous children during the Holocaust. The theme of the
movie is how so many children died at the ruthless hands of their captors; but the book’s theme has a
deeper meaning. As Bruno and Shmuel die together in the chamber, “ . . . the room went very dark, and
in the chaos that followed, Bruno found that he was still holding Shmuel’s hand in his own and nothing
in the world would have persuaded him to let it go” (242). Bruno loves Schmuel, and he is willing to stay
with him no matter what the consequences, even if it means dying with him in the camp that his father
controls. They have conquered all boundaries, and this makes the two boys more than just two more
individuals who died in Auschwitz. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is not the story of two children who
died in a concentration camp; this story is about an incredible friendship that triumphed over racism
and lasted until the very end. It is the story of what should have been between Jews and Germans, a
friendship between two groups of people in one nation who used their strengths to help each other.


Nowhere in this Common Core standard exemplar is it acknowledged that TBITSP is a work of fiction, and therefore nowhere has the true critical analysis taken place. This has led me to actually use it in the classroom for the REAL analysis with my own high school students—empowering them to uncover the fictional, untrue aspects of this work in the larger study of the Holocaust, to discuss the points made earlier, so as to be properly equipped with the skills to be able to debunk untruths everywhere.

So, what can we take away from all of this?

The teacher needs to ask the ultimate question for every single unit of study, and not just the Holocaust- why am I teaching this? Is it just to practice a supposed skill set for the requirements of a high stakes examination?  The Holocaust as a topic is very well suited to practicing these critical thinking skills— however, if we lose sight of the reasons for studying the topic in the first place—then we risk losing the big picture. From the USHMM, here are some of the questions that should guide a teacher’s decision.

  1. Why should students learn this history?
  2. What are the most significant lessons students should learn from studying the Holocaust?
  3. Why is a particular reading, image, document, or film an appropriate medium for conveying the topics that you wish to teach?  For help with the reasons, go to www.ushmm.org/educators/teaching-about-the-holocaust.  Be sure to review the “Guidelines”, and below also is a video that I and another teacher created with student input, illustrating the USHMM Guidelines.

‘This Is For Remembrance’ 4.31

And if you are a serious teacher of the Holocaust, consider obtaining a copy of Essentials of Holocaust Education: Fundamental Issues and Approaches (Totten and Feinberg, 2016). For alternatives for classroom use to TBITSP, see Shawn, Karen, What Books Shall We Choose for Our Children? A Selective, Annotated Guide to 30 Years of Holocaust Narratives for Students in Grades Four Through Eight.


The nice lady who had been leafing through my book (also a good adult/high school vehicle for learning about the Holocaust from real survivor narratives!) set it down and moved on to another book table. So I guess I lost the sale, but I’m thankful to her for the push to let people know that I can no longer stand by with “PJs” passing as a legitimate vehicle for Holocaust education in so many classrooms nationwide. It’s just so wrong on so many levels.




The new book is getting some early good reviews.

~”A ‘Must-Read’. A real tribute to the survivors and liberators. I could not put this book down. Highly recommended as a required reading for anyone taking or teaching Holocaust History. Suited for high school / college / adult education settings.”– Rabbi Justin Schwartz

~”If you have any trepidation about reading a book on the Holocaust, this review is for you. [Matthew Rozell] masterfully conveys the individual stories of those featured in the book in a manner that does not leave the reader with a sense of despair, but rather a sense of purpose.”-Cassandra

~”One might think why this book should be read: there are so many books about the Holocaust and yes, we know it happened. But in no book that I have read up to this day, the story comes to life in such a personal way. How the lives of innocent people were impacted, what they went through and how they were formed by their experience. By zooming in on this particular event, you get to know what it was like – not only for the victims, but also for their liberators. Or, as quoted in the book: It is important to have the past in front of you – not in the ‘rearview’ as one moves forward.” -Amazon customer

~”As an Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker I am always looking for good stories; stories that move the heart as well as the mind. This book does that in spades. From the first page to the last it rivets you to the passion of the author’s journey and to the story of the people of whom he writes about. This story is a shining example of the good that people can do to help their fellow man. It is a story of a man who has followed his heart and mind to accomplish great things for others.”-Michael J. Edwards, Searching For Augusta (PBS)


Below are two more satisfied customers, and excerpts from the book, which features their testimony as well as the testimony of more than 30 other survivors and over a dozen liberators.



Kurt Bronner


Kurt Bronner (Chapter 1) was from Hungary. He spent a lengthy amount of time recuperating in Sweden following the war, and later came to the United States. He is a retired graphic designer currently living near Los Angeles.

Two weeks after we arrived, my dad started to cough. One morning, I heard men reciting prayers, and someone said to me, ‘I’m sorry. Your father is dead.’ Eighteen years old, I didn’t know; I never faced death before. Then in the morning they took the bodies out; I tried to follow my dad’s cart, being taken to the so-called cemetery—[but I could not find him, there were so many bodies]. And a week later, I saw my mother through the barbed wire; we started talking, she wanted to know how dad is, and I lied and I said, ‘He’s fine, he’s sleeping’—I didn’t want to burden her with the bad news. [Pause] And then a German woman guard started to beat my mother. [Pause] You are on this side of the fence, and on the other side is your mother, and there is nothing you can do. And that is the last time that I saw my mother; I don’t know what happened to her; I tried to find out, and all they could tell me was, fifteen thousand women died without any names.





Jean Weinstock Lazinger


Sol Lazinger (Chapter 10) was the son of Polish Jewish immigrants. He was decorated with two Purple Hearts and the Silver Star. He was evacuated after being wounded in Belgium. He married Jean Weinstock Lazinger (Chapter 1) in 1950. Jean was from Poland. Until they learned of the author’s first reunion in 2007 through the news media, neither realized that it was Sol’s division which had liberated Jean’s train. Sol passed away in 2012 at the age of 87; Jean lives in Philadelphia.


We went to Bergen–Belsen in July 1943. And we were the first civilians in that camp. We used to get a slice of bread and coffee in the morning. And we used to get this turnip soup. Sometimes we used to get spinach soup with white worms on top. And there were a couple doctors there, they said, ‘You better eat it, because it’s protein.’ But I was unable to do that.

They separated the men from the women, but we were able to see each other through the day. After 5:00 the men had to be in their barracks and the women had to be in the women’s barracks. We had bunk beds… but, as they were bringing other people from different [places], our camp got smaller and smaller. We were divided by the wires and we were able to speak to the people on the other side, and I remember exactly when the train came from Holland. There was hunger, there was cold, then they brought the Hungarian Jewish people… it was right in the next barrack from us, we had a hard time because they spoke a different language than us, but some people spoke German, so we were able to communicate a little bit.

Sol Lazinger


I was a rifleman. I was young. We [look back, and] try to compare ourselves after sixteen weeks of basic training—and we went into combat fighting German soldiers who had a minimum of five years’ worth of army experience. It was not the easiest thing in the world, but we did the best we could.

I fought my way through France. I was very lucky because I was in combat for most of the time. I went through many battles all through France, Belgium, and Holland; and when the big officers came around, they used to tap me and say, ‘Oh, you’re still here?’

When we broke through the Siegfried Line and attacked, many of my friends were killed. One fellow by the name of Ben Shelsky, was a replacement soldier [like me]; he went over the Siegfried Line, too. He got a telegram from the Red Cross that said his wife gave birth to his child. The next morning a sniper killed him; the telegram telling him that he became a father was sticking out of his pocket.

So we went across the Siegfried Line and went to a town by the name of Lubeck, Germany. After the first day there, I was wounded in street fighting; I spent on and off almost two years in the hospital—I had most of my left ankle blown out by machine gun bullets.

When someone lost a friend, we sort of tried to stick together even though we were all from different parts of the country. And you get sort of down with everything, but as I say, you know, we did the best we could, but it was an uphill battle fighting against the soldiers who were trained for longer periods of time. But I think the American boys did very well.


On Liberation:

Kurt Bronner


 What I remember is that suddenly the doors of the cattle car were opened, and we were out there, hearing the machine guns, and the gunfire, very close by. We didn’t have any food, we didn’t have any water—but we were alive! We saw the German guards running; and we saw them taking their clothes off and changing into civilian clothes… and we were waiting. And suddenly we saw some convertibles, and some tanks on the road above and looking up from the small valley, and seeing the white stars on the jeeps—we thought they were Russians, you know— ‘stars’. Then one soldier came and started to speak in English. Very few of us spoke English, and he said in Yiddish, ‘I am a Jew, too’—excuse me [puts hand over heart, gets emotional]—memories coming back [pauses]… we were given our lives back. We were taken to the Hillersleben village, and I remember one of the American soldiers came by, and pointed us to a room. And twenty, twenty-five of us went into the room—and the first English expression I learned was, ‘One only!’ [Laughter] And it was a room for one person!

I go to schools and talk to the students, and one of them asked me, ‘When did you know that you were free?’ And I tell them, when I went to the bathroom, and closed the door, by myself, alone, in privacy; that is when I knew I was free; [I had my dignity]. And after the DDT, the new clothes, the white sheets on a bed-we felt free.*


* DDT– insecticide used later in WWII to control malaria and typhus among civilians and troops. A white powder was generally sprayed on the subject; it was banned for agricultural use in the USA in 1972 as a threat to wildlife.