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My Friend Frank.

My friend Frank Towers would have turned 101 years old today. Frank passed on July 4th, 2016.

Frank W. Towers.

Frank was born on June 13, 1917. Think about that for a minute. John F. Kennedy also came into the world, less than a month before Frank. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody left the world. American involvement in WWI was just getting underway, and Frank’s future 30th Infantry Division was formally activated. Gandhi was tromping around India, investigating the poor conditions of local farmers under British rule. Revolutionaries in Ireland were still licking their wounds after the doomed Easter Rising against the British the year before. The Russian Revolution was just getting started. American suffragettes that summer were arrested for picketing the White House for the right to vote for women.

So into this world came Frank W. Towers. And Frank Towers came into my life after he had already lived a good, long one, in September, 2007, shortly after he turned 90. But he had more things to do before the Almighty called him home.

Frank Towers by Pete Fredlake, USHMM, 2010.

He did not know me, and I did not know him-I have never even been to Florida, where he lived. But, from the news he learned of a reunion that we had recently done at our high school. He read about how I had reunited World War II tank commanders from the US Army 743rd Tank Battalion and 30th Infantry Division with the children of the Holocaust who he also had helped to liberate. And Frank said to himself, “Wait, I know about this. I was there, too.”

Frank reached out to me and we began a fruitful partnership in trying to locate more of the survivors who were on that train. He invited me, and the survivors, to the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II reunions that they held annually down south. And these were powerfully moving events, to see the soldiers touched by the gestures of the survivors; and for the survivors to laugh and cry with their liberators was a gift that they, their children and grandchildren, will never forget. We also held additional reunions at our school, for the sake of making students the new witnesses to what happened during the Holocaust. Varda W., a survivor’s daughter in Israel, even orchestrated a massive reunion of 55 survivors and their children for Frank in Rehovot, Israel when he was almost 94… talk about a rock star. I was there to see him mobbed.

Frank Towers greeting survivors at the Weizmann Institute, Rehovot, Israel, May 2011. Credit: Matthew Rozell

*

There’s talk this week in Holocaust education circles of another important birthday, and another ‘Frank’-Anne Frank would have turned 89 yesterday.  She came into the world on June 12, 1929, in Frankfurt, Germany; I’ve seen the house where she was born, and I’ve been to the place where she died, at age 15. Just shy of her last birthday, on June 6th, 1944, she recorded the following entry:

‘This is D-Day,’ the BBC announced at 12 o’clock. This is the day. The invasion has begun!

Anne Frank iat school in 1940,Amsterdam, the Netherlands). Unknown photographer; public domain.

Is this really the beginning of the long-awaited liberation? The liberation we’ve all talked so much about, which still seems too good, too much of a fairy tale ever to come true?… The best part of the invasion is that I have the feeling that friends are on the way. Those terrible Germans have oppressed and threatened us for so long that the thought of friends and salvation means everything to us!

On D-Day, 26 year old 1st Lieutenant Frank Towers was also listening to this news in England as the 30th Infantry Division was preparing to ship out to the battle a few days later. Anne and her family would be betrayed in Amsterdam that August, as Frank’s 30th infantry Division held off a massive German counterattack in Mortain, France. The family was deported to Auschwitz and then Anne and her sister Margot were sent to Bergen Belsen, all the while with the Allies slugged forth through that long summer, fall and winter into 1945. Anne and Margot died in Belsen before the spring came, and liberation; there is a marker to honor them but they lie in a mass grave there today, whereabouts unknown, like so many thousands of others. Frank would not know them, but would help to liberate and rescue some 2500 from the train near Magdeburg, including some who knew of the Frank sisters. And yes, we are left to ponder some of Anne Frank’s closing words to humanity:

I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that only 5,000 of the 107,000 Jews deported from the Netherlands between 1942 and 1944 survived. That’s less than 5%. But I close today with Frank Towers, at age 97, in the Netherlands in 2014 meeting the generations who survived because of that fateful day when the US Army investigated a curious Bergen-Belsen transport stopped by the tracks near the Elbe River. And listen to the little girl in the video. The world was too late for Anne Frank, but maybe her ideals indeed live on.

 

 

So, it is the sixth of June again.

American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, the primary landing zone for Americans during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944. (U.S. Air Force Photo)The ocean pounds the advance of sand amidst the relics of a different age, the hulking remnants of the tide of battle. The surf rolls in and kisses the beach, as the last participants mix on the hallowed bluff above with the politicians who have gathered from all over the world.

Thirty years ago I watched as the American president honored  the fallen, and the living, at the cemetery for the fortieth anniversary. Just out of college, something stirred inside me. Something was awoken.

Those thirty years have passed. I began by writing letters to the newspaper. I began to interview D-Day veterans and others. I began to collect stories- not relics, prizes, or artifacts. I really had little interest in captured Nazi flags or samurai swords.

I wanted to talk to the men who were there.

The fiftieth anniversary came next with great pomp and more reflection. It graced the covers of the major newsweeklies. “Saving Private Ryan” stirred the consciousness of a new generation, and reflections of the old. And I learned so much more of the war beyond the beachhead. That there were so many beachheads.

The sixtieth anniversary came around. Students on their bi-annual trips to France would bring me back their photographs and the requisite grains of white sand from Omaha Beach. Teenagers had their emotions  a bit tempered, I think. I would go on to introduce them to so many who were there. When they themselves were teenagers.

So now it is the seventy-fourth. On the 65th, I wrote about a friend who is no longer here, but today I would like to introduce you to a survivor of D Day who is still with us.

I first met Bill Gast at a reunion of 30th Infantry Division and 743rd Tank Battalion soldiers at a reunion in March 2008, in which I  was present with several Holocaust survivors who were meeting their liberating soldiers for the first time. Later, Bill came to my high school to speak to students. I think the experience of sharing, and meeting the Holocaust survivors whom the 743rd came upon and liberated, affected him deeply.

Unlike many who may be physically able, Bill has no intention of going back to the sands of Omaha for this anniversary. As he explained to our students in 2009,

“I’m listed [in the event program] as a liberator- however, I am also a survivor of World War II, having landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on D-day and fighting through to the end when the Germans surrendered, May the 7th, 1945.”

“Pictures.

Video games.

Movies.

Words.

They simply do not covey the feeling of fear.

The shock.

The stench.

The noise.

The horror, and the tragedy.

The injured.

The suffering.

The dying, and the dead.”

*****************************************

D-Day: the view from a tank on Omaha Beach

Washington (AFP) – From inside his tank, the young soldier could see “practically nothing” on Omaha Beach.

Seventy years later, William Gast still wonders whether he rolled over his comrades sheltering from German gunfire that day.

Gast was 19 years old the morning of June 6, 1944. “We came in at H-10, that was 10 minutes before the designated hour.”

He cannot recall why he and his fellow soldiers arrived early, but he has other memories that have never left him.

As part of Company A, 743rd Tank Battalion, 1st Army, Gast remembers the training beforehand in Britain, when he rehearsed driving the Sherman tank onto the landing craft. And then floating in the English Channel.

“Another night we went out and we didn’t come back. That was it.”

Gast got to know the captain of the landing craft that would ferry his tank to the beaches of Normandy.

The skipper promised he would get them close enough that they would not be submerged in water, like so many tanks were that day.

He kept his word.

Another tank unit at Omaha Beach was less fortunate, with 27 of 32 tanks launched at sea five kilometers (three miles) from the coast sinking before they could reach land, despite being outfitted with a flotation screens.

“The order was given to go, we started our engines up, they lowered the ramp,” said Gast.

Amid German shrapnel and sea spray, he “could feel the tracks spinning.”

At last, the tank tracks took hold on the sandy sea bottom and he drove up the beach.

– Like throwing marbles at a car –

Down below in the driver’s seat, Gast tried to steer the tank with the aid of a small, manual periscope.

“You can imagine how much we could see, practically nothing,” he said.

The radios inside the tank were so unreliable that his commander would tell Gast which way to turn by kicking him on the left or right shoulder.

The difficulty in seeing the way ahead has left Gast with a gnawing sense that he may have run over the bodies of American soldiers on the beach.

“The saddest part about the whole thing is, not being able to see, I may have run over some of my own people.

“And if I did, I don’t even know it. I can’t ever get that out of my mind, you know?”

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Corporal Gast heard machine gun bullets hitting the side of the tank, “like throwing marbles at a car — that’s what it sounded like.”

“And there were shells that exploded right beside me. You could feel the tank shake.”

For Gast, it was a day of fear and terror, and following orders without reflection.

“I can’t tell much about what happened, I was scared to death to start with,” he said.

“It was just like putting it on automatic, you just did what you had to do, did what you were told to do.”

By noon, close to 19,000 American soldiers who landed at Omaha were still pinned down on the beach.

– High school sweetheart –

Carefully laid plans had unraveled as the beach became a killing zone, with troops mowed down under a fusillade of German machine gun, artillery and mortar fire.

Small teams of US troops eventually managed to break through on the bluffs between German positions, with the help of combat engineers blowing up obstacles.

The losses were staggering: more than 2,000 dead, wounded and missing on Omaha beach. The exact toll is still unknown. Of the 15 tanks in Gast’s Company A, only five survived without damage.

Gast, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, earned the Silver Star and the Purple Heart during his combat tour, and went on to marry his high school sweetheart.

Mr. & Mrs. Gast, Holocaust Survivors-American Soldiers reunion, 2009.

Mr. & Mrs. Gast, Holocaust Survivors-American Soldiers reunion, 2009.

Now 89 years old, he recently was awarded France’s Legion d’Honneur at a small ceremony for World War II veterans at the French embassy in Washington.

The short, soft spoken man stood up to receive the medal and shook hands with a French diplomat. But he has no plans to return to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

His son, Bill, said his father did not want to relive that day: “It’s important we don’t forget but you try to hide things somewhere.”

http://news.yahoo.com/d-day-view-tank-omaha-beach-104656852.html

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     A dirt mound topped by an urn. A simple memorial built with their own hands.
     
This is what the farmers of Hartford, New York could afford to memorialize their sons who did not come home from the Civil War.
   
 Across the street is only Civil War recruitment building still standing in New York; stepping into the street and snapping a photo would still take you back to 1860s and 70s.
   
 It is much unchanged today, in the gentle, rolling hills near where I live, just a hundred and fifty miles south of the Canadian border. Except for the ‘Stars and Bars’ snapping profanely and contemptuously in the breeze down the road.
*****
     
The holiday we now know as Memorial Day
started in 1968 as ‘Decoration Day’, when a general order was issued designating May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” When Congress passed a law formally recognizing the last Monday in May as the day of national celebration, we effectively got our three-day weekend and our de facto beginning of summer.
     
This Memorial Day I am reminded of the many World War II veterans I interviewed who still remembered the Civil War veterans of their own youth. So I share a reminiscence from the late historian Bruce Catton, and highly recommend this compilation of his work to reflect on what it all meant. Here are the Civil War veterans of his youth, remembering their friends, in Michigan, who did not return home. Have a contemplative holiday. MR
*****
Underneath the Lilacs
One of the most pleasant holidays of the year was Memorial Day, universally known then as Decoration Day because it was the day when you went out to the cemetery and decorated graves. This day, of course, belonged to the Civil War veterans, although as years passed, it more and more became a day to put flowers on the grave of any loved one who had died, and when it came, just about everyone in town went to the cemetery with a basket of lilacs. Lilacs grow like weeds in our part of the country, and most farmers planted a long row of lilacs as windbreaks around their houses; in town, almost every house had lilacs in the yard, and in late May, the scent of them lay on the breeze. To this day, I never see lilac blossoms without remembering those Decoration Day observances of long ago.

The Civil War veterans were men set apart.
On formal occasions, they wore blue uniforms with brass buttons and black campaign hats, by the time I knew them, most had long gray beards, and whatever they may have been as young men they had an unassuming natural dignity in old age. They were pillars, not so much of the church (although most of them were devout communicants) as of the community; the keepers of its patriotic traditions, the living embodiment, so to speak, of what it most deeply believed about the nation’s greatness and high destiny. They gave an especial flavor to the life of the village. Years ago they had marched thousands of miles to legendary battlefields, and although they had lived half a century since then in our quiet backwater all anyone ever thought of was that they had once gone to the ends of the earth and seen beyond the farthest horizon. There was something faintly pathetic about these lonely old men who lived so completely in the past that they had come to see the war of their youth as a kind of lost golden age, but as small boys, we never saw the pathos. We looked at these men in blue, existing in pensioned security, honored and respected by all, moving past the mounded graves with their little flags and their heaps of lilacs, and we were in awe of them. Those terrible names out of the history books – Gettysburg, Shiloh, Stone’s River, Cold Harbor – came alive through these men. They had been there. And now they stood by the G.A.R. monument in the cemetery and listened to the orations and the prayers and the patriotic songs, and to watch them was to be deeply moved.

The G.A.R., of course, was the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans’ organization of those days. The Benzonia [Michigan] local of this organization was officially the E. P. Case Post Number 372, and it had been named for Edward Payson Case, a Benzonia man who died in 1886, a year before the post was organized. He must have been quite a man; he had enlisted in 1864, in the artillery, and his unit had been sent to Cumberland Gap on garrison duty and had finished out the war there, never getting into combat. Almost to a man, our G.A.R. members had been in violent action during the war, and they never would have named the local post after a noncombat soldier if he had not been an impressive sort of person. The monument they built, sometime in the late 1880s or early 1890s, was completely homemade. It was a fat column of field stone and mortar, no more than four or five feet tall, capped by a round slab of rock that was just a little wider than the supporting column; it looks like an overgrown toadstool, and it would be funny if it were not so unmistakably the work of men who were determined to have a monument and built one with their own hands because they could not pay for a professional job. The spirit that built it redeems it; it stands today as the most eloquent, heart-warming Civil War memorial I ever saw.

I remember the G.A.R. men as a group, rather than as individuals, although a few do stand out. There was Elihu Linkletter, a retired minister when I knew him, who had lost his left arm in the Wilderness. I never looked at him without thinking (in bemused small-boy fashion) how proud he must be to carry this visible sign of his sacrifice for all to see. Mr. Linkletter was devoted to birds, and he waged unceasing war on red squirrels because they robbed birds’ nests and ate fledglings. He used to tramp about with a .22 rifle, shooting every red squirrel he saw; he could use it one-handed and he was a remarkably good marksman with it.

There was John Van Deman, who once told me how he had been wounded in some battle in West Virginia; like all the other veterans he pronounced “wounded” to rhyme with “sounded,” which somehow made it more impressive. There was Lyman Judson, who had served in the cavalry under Phil Sheridan and who had been invalided out of the service when, his horse being shot out from under him, he had fallen heavily on the base of his spine so that he suffered thereafter from a weak back. Forty-five years later, in Benzonia, he slipped on the ice and again fell heavily on the base of his spine. In some unaccountable way, this cured him, and for the rest of his life, his back was as sound and as pain-free as anyone’s.

And there was Cassius Judson (no relation) who in 1916 went down to Manistee to see [the first ever motion picture film] The Birth of a Nation. When he got back, I asked him if he had not been impressed by the picture’s portrayal of the Battle of Atlanta. Mr. Judson, who had been in that battle personally, smiled faintly and said: “Well, it wasn’t much like the real thing.”

Then, finally, there was John Morrow, who had been an infantryman in an Ohio regiment and who had once exchanged words with General William T. Sherman himself. (“Exchanged” probably is not the word, because Sherman did all of the talking.) Anyway, during the Atlanta campaign Morrow and some comrades were out on patrol, and they came to a stream where there was a grassy bank with trees to cast a pleasant shade, and the day was mortally hot, and so they all stacked arms and stretched out for a breather. Just then, Sherman and some of his staff rode up, and Sherman came over to find out what these soldiers were doing. When he found out, as Morrow remembered it, he “used language that would make a mule driver blush” and in no time, the boys were back on patrol in the hot sun. They did not hold this against General Sherman, figuring that it was just part of the fortunes of war.

By the time I knew them, these veterans were in their seventies, or very close to it, and a hale and hearty lot they were. There was one man, whose name I do not remember, who lived on a farm a few miles south of town. He had fought at Gettysburg, and in 1913, there was a big fiftieth-anniversary celebration of that battle, with surviving veterans invited to attend. This old chap went to Gettysburg, enjoyed the three days’ activities, and then came home by train, and when he finished the trip, at Beulah, he found that the friend who was to have met him with a buggy to drive him out to his farm had somehow failed to make it. Quite undaunted, the seventy-year-old veteran picked up his carpetbag and hiked the five miles home. He could see nothing remarkable in this because he had had many worse hikes during the war.

In their final years, the G.A.R. men quietly faded away. Their story had been told and retold, affectionate tolerance was beginning to take the place of respectful awe, and in Europe, there was a new war that by its sheer incomprehensible magnitude seemed to dwarf that earlier war we knew so well. One by one, the old men went up to that sun-swept hilltop to sleep beneath the lilacs, and as they departed, we began to lose more than we knew we were losing. For these old soldiers, simply by existing, had unfailingly expressed the faith we lived by; not merely a faith learned in church, but something that shaped us as we grew up. We could hardly have put it into words, and it would not have occurred to us to try, but we oriented our lives to it, and if disorientation lay ahead of us, it would come very hard. It was a faith in the continuity of human experience, in the progress of the nation toward an ideal, in the ability of men to come triumphantly through any challenge. That faith lived, and we lived by it.

Now it is under the lilacs.

Excerpt from Catton, Bruce. Bruce Catton’s America. New Word City, Inc., 2017.

My tree in my hometown of Hudson Falls NY, 2018, and some of the just-liberated survivors of the ‘Train near Magdeburg’ on Friday, April 13, 1945, Farsleben, Nazi Germany. Sgt. George C. Gross photo.

The Remembering Tree {Words written for the occasion of the dedication of a tree in my honor in my hometown, May, 2018.}

I recently got a late-night email from a friend whose father I wrote about in my first book on the War in the Pacific.

“Thank you for helping my dad live forever.”

I met Ron when he emailed to say that he often thought of my own father, his high school history teacher, class of 1965. It was in my dad’s class that he and a friend made plans to join the Marines, where they would wind up in combat in Vietnam.

Ron’s dad had been a survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March, and a prisoner of the Japanese for three and a half years. As a result, he was bedridden by the time Ron reached his teens. He died as Ron started high school. Fifty years later, I wrote about his dad; the book has been a best seller in World War II circles.

Over the course of writing another four (and counting) books profiling the men and women who fought in World War II, or survived the Holocaust, I have heard similar statements, most from people who I never even met.

“My father would never talk about it. Thank you for helping me understand him.”

 “I thought about my father and cried all the way through your book.”

“Thank you for sharing the love and admiration you had for the survivors and the liberators.”

“Thank you for giving back to your community by making history real for your students and readers.”

And the comments, really I suppose the catharses, always move me, especially when I think of where, and how, it all started.

***

When I was a kid, I rose early on summer mornings to get out of the house at 2 Main Street before the rest of my four siblings got up. The subliminal goal was to have some time to myself, to explore the village where I was about to awaken to so much history. I walked uptown past the new ‘savings & loan’ on the corner of the block, past the stately brick mansion where General Lafayette himself lunched after the Revolution he helped to save fifty years before was being fought in the vicinity. So here, along the banks of the meandering Hudson River, I was heading to while away the summer morning in search of old bottle dumps and buried treasures from the Revolution and colonial wars that raged through two hundred years ago.

I continued past Fielder’s Drug Store and Carleton’s Funeral Home, past the august old high school that now served as the place where we ‘southies’ attended our sixth grade before moving up to the new junior high school. I walked past the New Deal post office with its earthy WPA murals of local scenes of the river industries, logging and paper making, Depression-era farmers in blue overalls coming into town. The churches were now in sight, as was the turn-of-the-century county courthouse on the corner. Crossing Maple Street, I was in the heart of the business district, full of former hotels and more family drugstores and businesses.

Soldiers Monument, Hudson Falls, on the Hudson River, in 1946.

And looming at the head of the village park was Miss Columbia atop the Civil War Soldiers Monument, who with her drawn sword and battle shield struck a commanding posture that seemed to say, ‘Go ahead. Make my day’.

I’d oblige the old girl in a few years as a mid-teen, a brush that involved my first and last tastes of whiskey from the bottle and a rude late-night attempt to scale her. When I awoke the next morning (to my horrified stupefaction, in my mother’s bed), I think Miss Columbia cracked a stony smile from her perch a mile away. A youthful indiscretion, a painful lesson learned. This teen burned with shame, but he would make amends someday, and somehow Miss Columbia knew that.

***

By 1979 when I graduated from Hudson Falls High School, I had also acquired the teenage itch to leave for the greener pastures of higher education. In conversation with my father as a senior in high school, I responded to his questions about my plans with the timeless wisdom and wit of the eighteen-year old—‘I’m leaving this town, I don’t know what I want to do, but I do know I am NOT going to become a teacher, like you’—a passing shot before I headed off to college a few hundred miles away. Take that, old man.

But, touché. He had the last laugh, because at 26, I was now paying him a token in rent and driving his old car around town. And I became a teacher, a high school teacher like him, and wait—oh, yes—teaching the exact same subject that he had been teaching for thirty years, high school history. Even the young can’t outrun the karmic wheel. But then, maybe there was a higher purpose in coming home to serve my community that I could not begin to understand yet. You see, if I had not returned, a lot of very cool things would not have happened, and it’s times like these that I have to just stop and think about that.

I was a young teacher, but soon enough I began casting pebbles. I began to interview World War II veterans when they were still ‘a dime a dozen’, drawing their stories out, following leads, and putting my own students on the hunt for a good story. It took a bit of time and an almost obsessive dedication. But thank goodness I did that, as an adult coming of age, back in my hometown.

I’d have more encounters with that monument in the park, too. I wanted to know her history, what she admonished, and what that terrible war meant to our town and our nation. She obliged one Saturday evening when I sat with a survivor of the WWII Battle of Midway, a recipient of the Navy Cross and the Silver Star. I remember:

He settles into a comfortable chair across from me and lights up a cigarette, relaxing and clearly delighted with the company. His wife has passed, his children have long since moved on, and he and I are alone. With a twinkle in his eye, he tells me joke after joke and regales me with one incredible World War II story after the other. We laugh and pass the time; the lifeblood of this small town is being transfused as he recalls his life and his old companions in the quiet of his living room, and then he tells me something that will resonate with me to this day:

‘This monument is presented by Dr. Erskine G. Clark to the Village of Sandy Hill
Dedicated to the honor and patriotism of the soldiers of Washington County who served in our war to suppress the southern rebellion of 1861, waged against the life of the nation.
———————-
Dedicated June 30, 1887′

A little boy in the 1920s walks the streets of this town with his grandfather, hand in hand. They near the Soldiers Monument erected in the 1880s to remember the young men of the community who fell in the Civil War. The old man stops, points, and wipes his eye, proclaiming bitterly to the youngster that ‘there stands nothing but a tribute to Southern marksmanship’. Here is the young kid who would go on to pilot dozens of harrowing combat missions in World War II, the little boy holding the hand of his aged grandfather who had fought at terrible places like Gettysburg two generations earlier. In shaking Judge John Leary’s hand, eighty years on, I am suddenly conscious that I am now physically connected to the sixteen-year-old boy from our town who fought in the furious action at the turning point of the Civil War.[1]

So there it was. This is what Miss Columbia wanted me to find out, to try to understand.[i] We had come full circle, I supposed. But not quite yet. For it was also in this time that I sat down with another veteran here in my hometown as he recounted his Army travails as a combat tank soldier across northern Europe into Germany. I took the time to talk to Judge Carrol Walsh, and somehow the universe tilted just long enough for a crack to be opened across time and space.

In 1945, Sergeant Walsh was a tank commander fighting across northern Europe and into Germany. That July afternoon nearly sixty years later he told me many stories of pitched battles and close calls, of weeks that alternated between the extremes of boredom and sheer terror. And then at his daughter’s prompting, he spoke of this:

Well, late in the war, again a nice, beautiful April day—we were shooting like crazy across the top of Germany, and Major Benjamin of the 743rd was kind of out ahead scouting a little bit—he came back to the battalion and he pulled my tank and George Gross’s tank [fellow tank commander] out. He told us to go with him. So we did.

We came to a place where there was a long train of boxcars. I can remember pulling up alongside the train of boxcars, Gross and I, and Major Benjamin. As it turned out, it was a train full of concentration camp victims, prisoners who were being transported from one of their camps… I think they had been in Bergen-Belsen, on their way to another camp…

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

So there they were. All of these people, men, women, children, jam-packed in those boxcars, I couldn’t believe my eyes. And there they were! So, now they knew they were free, they were liberated. That was a nice, nice thing. I was there for a while that afternoon. You know, you got to feed these people! Give them water. They are in bad shape! Major Benjamin took some pictures, and George Gross took some pictures too…[2]

 

‘That was a nice, nice thing.’ Later, this will strike me as the under-statement of all time. Though we could not know it at that moment in the summer of 2001, a portal across time and space had just unlocked, and I would wind up stepping across the threshold; our lives and the lives of thousands of other people would be affected, for the better, and there was healing.

***

Ten years after that interview on Coleman Avenue in this village, I was invited to attend a special reunion in Rehovot, Israel, where liberator Frank Towers and I addressed an auditorium filled with fifty-five survivors of the ‘Train Near Magdeburg’ and their children and grandchildren.[3] In the audience were over 500 people who probably would not have been born, had it not been for the actions of this soldier and the others. As we listened to the testimony, a woman began softly crying behind me. I kept my cool and bit my lip and didn’t cry until another survivor’s daughter approached me and told me that my name in Hebrew meant something along the lines of, ‘Mystery of God’. Heavy, heavy words. Yet here I was, halfway around the world, connecting people unknowingly bound together in the greatest crime in the history of the world. Watching families heal. We would have eleven reunions on three continents, the first right here in Hudson Falls. The ripples continue to reverberate; I still get emails expressing thanks and amazement from survivor families who come across my work anew.

That’s not to say it’s all been an easy road. I had to become extremely conversant in the macro and micro aspects of the study of the Holocaust, and extremely proficient in the teaching of it (and there are a lot of ways to get it wrong). I’ve sat at the feet of the best instructors in the world, who helped me reach powerful insights, and gave me the tools to defend myself and to prepare my course of action when I come under attack by Holocaust deniers and minimizers.

Don’t forget, I am not Jewish, and I will assert that that is not without some import here (I don’t think I was even in a synagogue or temple until my forties, though our folks certainly had Jewish friends). It’s important because I truly believe I was chosen, as a gentile, to be a witness myself. I had no ‘agenda’, and I can’t explain why I have the occasion now to write all this any other way, let alone start this blog 10.5 years ago (closing this year in on a half-million hits), or write that book for ten years that clocked in at 500 pages (and nearly killed me in the process). And now I’m working with an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, also a gentile and a friend, to bring it to the world on another platform it deserves. The Greater Glens Falls Jewish community has honored me many times over, contributing to my journeys to the authentic sites of the Holocaust and my study in Israel.[4] Now they have asked the village for permission to honor me where it all started, the hometown where I wandered so freely, the hometown I tried to escape as a restless teen, the hometown that called me back and gave rise to an incredible career. This is the place where the trauma was recalled, and where our students became new witnesses. My hometown is also where new miracles occurred, and where this healing first began. My survivor friend Leslie, who traveled from Toronto to be at two of the Hudson Falls reunions, expressed to his liberators and to the students at Hudson Falls High:

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

***

I recently left the classroom after more than 31 years, but with my fifth book due in a few weeks, I’m still busy honoring memory. My dear mother and father, and many of the World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors I interviewed, are now gone. And so we come back to this tree. If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are like the leaf that doesn’t know it is part of the tree.[5] This tree commemorating my pilgrimage is an appropriate symbol, a gentle reminder to the young to be curious, to wonder, to hope, to dream, to take risks, to take advantage of the memory and knowledge of those who came before them. This tree symbolizes life, and its roots are anchored in memory.

‘Prosit’, the old man would say on occasion, invoking his schoolboy Latin. ‘So it is, and may it be to your advantage.’ As the breezes caress this maple’s leaves, in the rustling may you hear the whispers of those who came before us, those who like Miss Columbia inexorably called me home to attend to a life’s work. Now with this ‘remembering tree’ growing in her garden, may the ripples continue to go forth and ping the past, and may your fathers, and mothers, live forever.

 

“Marker for special dedication ceremony ​to ​​honor Matthew Rozell​ on Sunday, May 27, 2018, at 1:00 p.m. at Juckett Park in downtown Hudson Falls. At this ceremony, ​we will dedicate ​the tree ​purchased by the Greater Glens Falls Jewish Community​ in recognition of Matt​ as a righteous human being​ for his work as a historian, teacher, Holocaust educator and author who reunited survivors and their American liberators.
Through his teachings, writings and efforts, Matt has brought a greater awareness of the Holocaust not only to our community but also globally.
The tree was ​planted by ​the Village of Hudson Falls​,​​ and ​the ​special marker ​was ​installed by Loiselle Memorials.”

 

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Some notes:

[1] Excerpted from my first book, The Things Our Fathers Saw—The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation From Hometown, USA-Volume I: Voices of the Pacific Theater.

[2] Excerpted from my second book, A Train Near Magdeburg: A Teacher’s Journey into the Holocaust, and the reuniting of the survivors and liberators, 70 years on.

[3] Expertly organized by survivor’s daughter and my friend, Varda Weisskopf.

[4] My dear friend and supporter Sunny Buchman spearheaded this effort.

[5] I stole this leaf/tree quote from Michael Crichton’s book, Timeline.

[i] This is what Miss Columbia wanted me to find out, to try to understand—As a ‘soapbox’ aside, the teacher still in me has to add that learning all this is one of the reasons I find the I’m-a-rebel-on-a-new-bandwagon-and-in-your-face-if you-don’t-like-it display of the Stars and Bars locally both profane and contemptuous. Because here in the northern towns where your own great-great-great-grandfathers were from, fighting and dying in those far-off fields, never to return home, there is still something to be said about cracking a book and educating oneself, or not sleeping or texting thru history class… something important about REMEMBERING.

So there.

Today they started shooting the trailer for the Train story, on the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Look for it on PBS someday or better yet, give a shout if you can help us get it funded. It will happen. Maybe you can help or know somebody who wants to be a part of it.

matthew@teachinghistorymatters.com

It is a cool spring morning. In the background, down the hill, are two cattle cars. If we look closely, we can see a figure sitting on the edge of the opening of a boxcar, perhaps too weak to climb out yet soaking up some energy from the warming April sun. In front of him, a wisp of smoke seems to rise from a small makeshift fire that others have gathered around. The sound of gunfire is echoing nearby; a metallic clanking sound is growing louder at the top of the hill.

This is an appropriate backdrop for the marvel unfolding in the foreground. Now only a few steps away, a woman and perhaps her young daughter are trudging up the hill toward the photographer. The woman has her hair wrapped in a scarf and is clutching the hand of the girl with her right hand. Her left arm is extended outward as if in greeting; her face is turning into a half smile in a mixture of astonishment and enveloping joy, as if she is on the cusp of accepting the belief that she and her daughter have just been saved.

It is Friday, the 13th of April, 1945. Led by their major scouting in a Jeep, Tanks 12 and 13 of ‘D’ Company, 743rd Tank Battalion, US Army, have just liberated a train transport with thou-sands of sick and emaciated victims of the Holocaust. In an instant, Major Clarence L. Benjamin snaps a photograph so fresh and raw that if one did not know better, one might think it was from a modern cellphone, although it will be soon buried into his official report back to headquarters. 
But what have they stumbled upon? Where have these people come from? 
And what do the soldiers do now?

And on a related note, here is the USHMM social media #AskWhy short released last week, on the 73rd anniversary of the liberation (1:16) Thanks to the Museum’s Josh Blinder and his team…

Memorial to Warsaw Uprising

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which marks the anniversary of the largest single uprising against German oppression of the Jews, which occurred in Warsaw in 1943. It is important to note, however that resistance to evil manifested in many different forms, not just physical ‘pushback’, as I was reminded on my Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers Program tour in 2013. As the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is now upon us, I share this post, an excerpt from my recent book, also recounting the narrative of a fourteen year old Jewish resistance fighter who was told she had to leave the ghetto by her leaders, so that she might live to remember them and tell this story.

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As 1943 dawned, the SS returned to the ghetto for another major deportation. They encountered the first armed resistance from the ghetto fighters and beat a hasty retreat, leaving behind wounded and weapons, and calling off the operation. For the next three months, the ghetto fighters organized and prepared for the final struggle. On the eve of Passover, April 19th, the Germans returned again, this time with the aim of liquidating the ghetto once and for all, in time for Hitler’s birthday on the 20th. By then, there were between 300-350 active fighters; the young were now the real leaders of the ghetto, having decided not between life and death, but rather, how to die.* Aliza recorded her observations of the preparations for the final battle they all knew was coming.

Jews captured by SS and SD troops during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising are forced to leave their shelter and march to the Umschlagplatz for deportation.  from the notorious Stroop Report. USHMM.

Aliza Melamed Vitis–Shomron

Spring, 1943

As spring approached, the atmosphere in the reduced ghetto changed. We waited for the final ‘aktion’, for the final extermination of the Jews of Warsaw’. People began to build bunkers. Experts turned up, engineers who built bunkers with electric light, in wells and toilets. Most of the bunkers were dug in cellars. There were various ways to enter the bunkers from the ground floor: by raising a cover in the kitchen stove or through an opening in the large stove attached to the wall, or in many other strange ways, according to the fertile imagination of the builders. The ghetto was preparing for a struggle.

March passed, and April came. Talk about the approaching final liquidation of the ghetto intensified. The ghetto was fully aware of it and prepared. It was the calm before the storm, suffused with energy and tension. Frequent shots near the ghetto and sudden evening searches by the SS command cars heralded what was to come. Sending off the people working for Töbens and Schultz factory workshops to Poniatow and Travniki* caused apprehension, even though they had gone of their own free will. If they are sending out the workers, what will happen to all the rest? The companies of the SS General Globocnik *, in charge of extermination, again arrived in Warsaw.

The only possibility left is to escape to the Aryan side, to dress up as a Pole and look for acquaintances or people willing to hide Jews in exchange for money. For a few thousand zloty, one could get a Polish birth certificate and a ration card. People handed over their children to Christian clerics, to monasteries and to peasants in the villages. Sacks were thrown over the walls daily and openly, at least on our side. People paid bribes to the foremen of the work crews to be able to join them going out to work on the Aryan side. Some of them did not look Jewish and were lucky enough to find ‘good’ Poles. Women dyed and oxidized their hair, and created curls by rolling their hair in pieces of paper, to look like blonde gentile girls. But they could not change the color of their eyes, or their dejected and pallid look. A Jew could also be picked out by his hesitant walk, his bent back, and his eyes constantly darting around him. We were so preoccupied by our aspiration to look like ‘goyim’ that we examined ourselves and others: Does that man look like a Jew? Will they recognize him in the street?

Of course, a new profession cropped up among the simple Polish people, with many demanding a bribe, or being paid to be an informer, a blackmailer. We were deeply disappointed; we thought that as witnesses of our tragedy, our compatriots, sharing the same language and culture, they would hold out a hand to save us. But it did not happen. A few of them hid Jews for large sums of money; these were mostly people connected to socialist activities and the left wing parties. Many devout Christians and religious scholars did so without taking money, out of true nobility of spirit. Many others, from among the simple folk, made a living by informing on Jews to the Gestapo, and collaborated willingly out of pure antisemitism. They walked around in the streets close to the ghetto, spied by the gates and the places where Jews worked on the Aryan side and looked for victims. Thousands made a living in this way.

*

The state of our family grew worse. We began to suffer from hunger. There were no clothes left to sell, we lived on the food we had received in the workshop, distributed by the Germans.

Aliza’s family decided to split up to increase chances of survival. Her more ‘Aryan-looking’ mother and younger sister, with a great deal of bribery, subterfuge, and nerves of steel, went into hiding on the Aryan side. Her father decided to take the chance and volunteer to go to the work camp near Lublin. Aliza herself wanted to stay and fight in the ghetto, but now only fourteen she was deemed too young and directed by the leadership of the resistance to make her way to the Aryan side as well, to live to tell the story. 

Aliza’s cousin stayed in the ghetto to fight the Germans. For three days, the resistance fought on, against impossible odds. It was weeks before the ghetto was overcome; there were few survivors.

Lazar

In the morning, we heard dull sounds of firing and explosions. In another house, in Swentojerska Street 34, the Z.O.B. had their positions. People from the organization told us about a mine they had detonated when the Germans decided to penetrate into our area; about battles leaving ten Germans dead; about a ‘peace delegation’ of SS officers who came with a white flag asking for an armistice to pick up their wounded, and how they fired at them at once. The fighters were elated, exhausted—but looked happy.

The battle in most of the houses in that area lasted two days. They ran from house to house. The leader of the group was the commander Marek Edelman. Dozens of fighters took part in the battle; some of them were killed. They went out at night to try to make contact with their friends. They told us that the battle inside the ghetto was still going on, that the fighters had delayed the entry of the tanks and set fire to them with homemade Molotov bottles. They were stationed at windows and changed their positions by moving across the rooftops. We in the shelters decided to open fire only when they discovered us. We made up our minds to defend our families to the end, not let them take us to Treblinka.

On the third day, fighting also broke out in the area of the workshops of Töbens and Schultz. At the last moment many people preferred to move to the Poniatow camp. In the meantime, the Germans began to set fire to the houses. On the second day of the uprising, the fighters told us about fires in the ghetto. We sat in the crowded shelter, praying that they wouldn’t get to us. We had expected the worst, but not fires. The people in the shelter said goodbye to each other. We were in despair, expecting certain death. We could already smell the smoke. Someone came from the neighboring house; people were fleeing from adjacent houses. There were no Germans around. After a night full of dread, just before dawn, we did hear German voices in the courtyard. They were calling to the Jews to come out at once, or else they’d burn us alive.

The artillery was constantly firing incendiary bombs. Whole blocks of houses were on fire. The shelter was not damaged, but the water stopped running. The electricity went out. The walls of the shelter became unbearably hot, smoke penetrated the cellar. We sat there, coughing, wrapped up in wet sheets. People wept, dragged themselves to the courtyard with the last vestige of strength. We had no choice, we would defend ourselves in the yard. The men cleared the opening and gave the order—‘wrap yourselves up in sheets soaked in the remnants of water, lie in the middle of the courtyard, in the garden.’

The yard is full of people, smoke covers everything, the top floors are in flames, the fire is running wild without any interference, parts of walls are collapsing and falling into the yard. People lying on the ground are groaning with pain…

Suddenly, we hear German voices in the street. God! We thought it was all over, that they’ve left us here. What shall we do? Several Germans burst in through the gate…

 

Lazar was captured and beaten, but managed to escape deportation, and made it to his cousin’s hiding place on the Aryan side.

 

I saw a different Lazar before me. He used to be arrogant, a show-off. The person sitting here now was thin, withdrawn; he stammered slightly when he spoke. We’ll have to live together in that small room in the cellar. Who knows how long? Until this damned war is over?

The Beginning of May, 1943

They say that the ghetto no longer exists. The wreckage of the houses is still standing; the piles of cinders still crackle, and at night shadowy figures, seeking food and shelter, still move about in there. But the ghetto no longer exists; 500,000 people have gone up in smoke. And those still alive bleed inwardly, their deep wounds will never heal. And maybe there will be no one left when freedom comes? Why are human beings so cruel and evil? They speak about the future, about truth, about Man as proof of God’s great wisdom, and it’s all lies, lies!

I know there are also good people, but they are persecuted; society rejects them as weaklings. Why am I prevented from seeing the wonders of nature and the world, from breathing fresh air?

The full narrative is available here.

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In 2013 I visited Warsaw, rebuilt; almost nothing remains of the ghetto itself- with slight exceptions.

July 17, 2013

We tour Jewish Warsaw and finally the remnants of the ghetto wall, and also the Umschlagplatz. It is here that forced gatherings for the mass deportations to Treblinka took place. I am also reminded of the scene from the film “The Pianist”.

 

 

 

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

 

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

 

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The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

We walk the edge of the wall, memorialized in bronze in the sidewalk.

 

 

 

1240

And we come to a section that still stands.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

 

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are hear, listening to their teacher.

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are here, listening to their teacher.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was the first open fight in an occupied city against the Germans. And it was conducted by Jewish youth, who held off the Germans for half a month in the spring of 1943. Utterly inspiring and amazing. We make our way to Mila 18, the bunker command post where Mordechai Anielewicz and many of the resistance fighters breathed their last. It is another solemn moment.

18 Mila Street.

18 Mila Street.

Monument at Mila 18.

Monument at Mila 18.

 

We know why we are here. We are not only witnesses, but we were chosen to become, for many, the point of entry on the immense and sometimes unfathomable subject of the Holocaust, and the many forms of resistance that were taken during it.  And so rightly, our trip is concluding here. The processing will only come over time.

***

* By then, there were between 300-350 fighters- Bauer, Yehuda. ‘Current Issues in Holocaust Education and Research: The Unprecedentedness of the Holocaust in an Age of Genocide.’ Lecture notes, International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel. July 21, 2016.

* Poniatow and Travniki– forced–labor camps for Jews in Lublin District near the concentration camp Majdanek.

* SS General Globocnik –SS and police leader who directed Operation Reinhard between autumn 1941 and summer 1943.

 

A damn good man.

I was flipping through some photos I took about this time of year and found this one. I remember it. I took it on a Sunday night in late March 2016. About twenty-four hours later, same beautiful March weather, same glorious sky, a friend died in an accident. I found out the next day, and wrote this right before his funeral. I thought of that sunset and I thought of him. Coming to my admin page here, I see the original post has been visited many times over the last week or so. It turned out to be one of my most shared posts here, rightfully so. A damn good man. C.J. Hebert, 1964-2016.

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At the high school where I have taught for nearly 30 years, we got a notification early in the week that one of our former principals had died suddenly in an accident. He was just 51, a little bit younger than me, but he was a giant both in his stature and presence, and also especially the way he conducted himself inside and outside the school. We worked together closely on a lot of stuff, so hearing the news of his passing was a jolt.

A good man.

A good man.

C.J. Hebert was our leader for eight years. In 2010 he spread his wings and expanded his horizons and took a job as superintendent in the Cooperstown, NY school district. He just grew, and was ready to grow some more. He was excited, and told me at one of our last meetings that he was thrilled that his new office would not be out of the way, but would be near where the kids were all the time.

It turned out to be a long day to get through. When I got home last night, I read some of the online comments from his colleagues and former students. C.J. was a big outdoorsman. He liked to shoot, hunt, and fish. If he went into the woods unarmed looking for a bear, you’d worry about the bear. When the kids in the National Honor Society would come to him selling our magazine subscription fundraiser, he always opened his checkbook, though he told me with a chuckle that his subscription to Field and Stream was now paid up to 2025.  And some of these kids I read about last night he even shepherded through bowhunting classes.

He could be tough, but was always respectful in his professional demeanor. And when you were sitting with him in his office, you could talk to him man-to-man. He always liked hearing what I was up to. He had an easy laugh and though it may be a cliché, there was a twinkle in his eye that told of a deep personal interest in you, genuine good will and a down-to-earth contentedness that just radiated and went unspoken miles.

My current principal made the rounds to see how some of us old dogs were doing with the news. He knew him well too and I know we were all shocked by the loss. My dear friend Mary was his secretary all the time he was here, and even though C.J. left our school 6 years ago, the loss just hits you, like the wall you used to lean on suddenly falling down on you. I can’t imagine what it must be like for his family and his community now.

*

Later in the day and totally unrelated, I was gently reminded by a friend in the IT department that I should do something with my school email inbox-that it had reclaimed its place as the largest in the school district.   (Okay, I admit it, I’m bad. I’m not a hoarder, but I’m not an immediate deleter, either…) At first I felt mildly chastised at being reminded at least twice. But through my friend, the universe dropped me a notice. Maybe not so unrelated, after all.

So I set about it- going back and deleting, one by one, the emails I do not want to keep, and do not wish to archive. Today I was on Day Two of this activity-which in a way is turning out to be some kind of release, an ablution of sorts, as I wind down my career. Staring at the screen and hammering away for all of the spare time that I can afford seems at first like a mindless endeavor, but then it slowly dawns that me that I am processing a loss that I did not ever expect to deal with-and here on Day Two I find the last email from C.J. to me, from June 2010, six years ago.

I save that one.

And I remember that I saved all of the handwritten cards and formal letters that he took the time to write to me, over the years, as a supporter of my work in the classroom and in this school, expressing appreciation for the true meaning of what it is to be an educator- the connecting with other human beings, to foster their development, to watch them grow, with pride. He did not mind chewing a little ass when it needed to be chewed, but that was always a flash and the twinkle always returned.

When he was leaving our school district, a local paper asked him what he would remember from his time here at Hudson Falls High. I did not see the article, but I was told that he held a special place in his heart for the two soldiers-survivors reunions we held while he was at the helm here. We planned it and between C.J. and many, many committed others, we pulled it off, and even made it on the ABC World News. It touched me that this meant so much to him, but in hindsight, that is what he was all about- providing students with life changing opportunities and fostering their development as human beings.

So, it turns out that for me, across time and space, there is a significant loss here. There are no special words of wisdom, or special comforts that I can present to his wife, his son, his family-only that the universe presented him to so many people in so many different ways, most which you may never even know about- but that in the bigger picture, perhaps the one that we cannot see just yet, there is that glow of contentedness and confidence, that twinkle and the easy laugh, and that unassuming good will towards others that will always inspire, and that we can all aspire to. And that it won’t just go away. Though I have not talked to him in six years, there is a warmth that I can feel enveloping my insides almost physically right now, thinking of him.

And it feels damn good.

I’ll be pecking away at my email inbox again tomorrow. It will take a lot longer, as  I have another six years to go-now back to the time when C.J. Hebert was at our helm-and I will probably have to read each one from him, I suspect. And with a twinkle, or something, in my own eye.

Lessons taught; the universe beckons. Godspeed, my good man.

 

Calling hours and memorial suggestions are below.

http://www.watertowndailytimes.com/obit/clifton-j-hebert-iii-cj-20160322

 

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