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My heart is broken.

My dear friend Lily Cohen passed away two weeks ago at her home in Tel Aviv. I think today would have been her birthday. And I have been struggling to find the words ever since.

 

Lily came into my life with an email ten years ago. My friend Varda had tracked her down from a book written by a woman who had brought her young son and several orphan children to the fledgling state of Israel. In one of the first Holocaust survivor memoirs, Hilde Huppert describes the precocious young Lily, perhaps four years of age in 1945, persuading her to reluctantly accompany her on the Train Near Magdeburg with her young son Tommy.

 

 

“Knowing that I will forever be loved and never be forgotten”….

Lily’s father was killed in Warsaw. Her mother died trying to care for her in Bergen-Belsen. In a complicated story, her mother paid a man, fellow prisoner, to pretend—he had papers for a wife and child, who had since died— that Lily’s mom was his wife their three or four-year-old daughter. Lily’s mother shortly got sick and died in Bergen-Belsen. The man then ignored and essentially abandoned Lily in the exchange camp.

She did not remember much about her early life—flashes in black and white, a later writer put it—people running in Warsaw, loud noises and booms, her mother screaming, soldiers. Flashes of a long journey on a train, her mother carrying her into a cold shower, then her mother being gone. Not understanding, protesting at her blonde locks being lopped off by women in the women’s barracks, who had decided to care for her, in the effort to rid her of lice. Later, she recalled snippets of being placed on another train transport, which turned out to be the Train Near Magdeburg liberated by American GIs on April 13, 1945.

The group of orphans led by Hilde Huppert made it to Israel via France after a long journey, one of the first ships carrying survivor refugees. Lily was adopted on a kibbutz and raised in a loving family; I met her adoptive mother at near 100 years old in that very home outside of Jerusalem in 2011, a pioneer of early childhood education in the new state. Like Lily, she radiated goodness and love, and it was important to Lily that I meet her.

You see, my life had taken a turn where I was engaged in connecting Holocaust survivors with their American soldier liberators. I was in Israel that time to watch 55 or 60 survivors have the opportunity to meet liberator Frank Towers. But I had met Lily the year before, when she was in New York and wanted to journey the four hours north to specifically meet ME. She just had to meet me—not a soldier, not a liberator, not another survivor—ME.

She came with her friend Lynda, and as it happened, almost exactly ten years ago, she was also set to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. She had questions about her early life, having been born in Poland to secular Jewish parents, but not even entirely sure of her actual birth date. Some of my friends at the Museum found the documentation to help her on that journey, so I think she would have turned just 79 or so this year, which is pretty young for a Holocaust survivor. In fact I think her birthday would have been next week.

She was young, beautiful, blonde, so vital and full of life. We had lunch on a steamboat cruise on Lake George, and I arranged for her to be interviewed by my college alma mater magazine, in town for a piece on me and the train. My friend John and his family arranged for her to have a private tour at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga the next day: she was a dancer of some renown herself, you see, followed by a special dinner put on by John at his exclusive restaurant.

Me and Lily, Lake George, NY, June 24, 2010.

I saw her the next year in Israel, bringing along my 10 year old son. She zipped us along in her car, laughing, telling stories, joking that if she got pulled over for speeding she would bat her long eyelashes admiringly at the traffic officer, give him “Look #9”, and get off scot-free.  I also got to meet her girlfriends and two of her granddaughters, I think both at the time serving in the IDF. On the way to Jerusalem we stopped at the kibbutz, still perched on a hillside above and Arab village, having survived the 1948 war as well. Imagine being a young girl, Holocaust survivor, and now being subjected to another war, all before age ten. She looked fondly after my son, encouraging him to drink, drink, drink more water, as it was May in Israel and we were about to embark in the desert of the Holy Land to the fortress at Masada.

I saw her again in 2016 as I studied at Yad Vashem. I purposely came early to Tel Aviv to see her, because I knew that my three-week course would leave no room for much personal time. I was there to study the Holocaust.

But Lily never let the Holocaust define her. She told me she grew up a happy child, perhaps being so young a survivor, but there were times in her life when she felt there was something different about her. Later, she wanted to know. Maybe she saw some of that in me. At her death, her friend Lynda told me that I had made an enormous difference in her life, “Enormous beyond belief… You are Lily’s savior…”

I so wanted to take my wife to Israel to meet her again there. We were supposed to see her in Germany this past April 2020 for the 75th anniversary of the liberation, but we all know that got pushed off. Now I will never see her again, but I won’t let her be forgotten.

I will leave you with the chapter in my book, A Train Near Magdeburg, dedicated to her. Goodbye, young girl. I will see you again someday, hand in hand.

Lily meets one of her liberators, Frank Towers, in Israel, 2011.

 

Lily introduces us to a friend and her mother, Israel, 2011.

 

Me and lily a year after our first meeting, now on her home turf, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2011.

 


The Orphan

Hello, Matthew,

My name is Lily Cohen and I was a little girl who was on that train coming from Bergen-Belsen. I was an orphan, probably about five or six years old at that time. I don’t know my birthday, or year I was born. For so many years I didn’t talk about my childhood even with my children; deep, deep, down I had the feeling that something was probably very wrong with me, something I should be ashamed of.

I am so moved to find this research, as most of my early life appeared to be ‘erased’ somehow by the Holocaust, and only now am I able to take small steps into what was my past to piece together fragments of memories. I remember the train. I remember the hill, I remember a German soldier running away, and I remember a woman who was trying to take care of me, dying at my side.

Tonight, I made dinner for 10 people in my home in Tel Aviv – six of whom came from me! My life has turned into a really wonderful victory over Hitler’s attempt to obliterate the Jewish people.

You are really doing a holy work and I do hope to meet you some day. Amazing how things can come together when there are people dedicated to finding out ‘the rest of the story.’ Thank you for your dedication.

 

Still youthful and vivacious, Lily Cohen defies any mental stereotype of ‘Holocaust survivor’ with her presence, grace, and humor. Lily and I did meet, on several occasions; she came over to the United States to have dinner with my wife and me. Later, I arranged an interview for her at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and they had done their homework, having researched her actual date of birth. I visited Lily in Israel in 2011, and again in 2016.

Like many of the survivors I know who were liberated on the train, Lily speaks to students. We had lunch, and she told me of her latest encounter with at-risk teens at a teen center in Jaffa outside of Tel Aviv. Before her presentation, they had self-segregated by group—Israeli-Ethiopian teens, Israeli-Russian teens, Jewish and Arab teens. And here she was, a survivor of the Holocaust, and a survivor of the War for Independence as a pre-teen in 1948-49, when the kibbutz that adopted her came under attack.

She measured the kids up quickly, and spoke directly to their own experiences with alienation from larger society:

Maybe you are feeling like an outsider in a world that seems hostile, but you do not have to be a victim. I did not look like the rest of the children—I was blonde and blue-eyed. I did not want to play piano as a youngster; I wanted to dance. I did not know my parents; I did not know my past. But I made my way, became a professional dancer, and built a strong family. Maybe you can make your way, too.

A forty-five-minute talk turned into over two hours from the heart of Lily Cohen, World War II orphan, Holocaust survivor, stage dancer and choreographer, therapist, and Tai Chi master. From out of the ashes, new life begins; the kids hung on her every word as they accompanied Lily out to her car in the parking lot. Maybe here by the sea in the ancient port of Jaffa, a cool night breeze also blew in a new outlook on life.

Lily by friend Linda Wells. Linda on Lily: “Such a survivor… and I always told her, ‘Honey, you did more than just survive. You THRIVED!'”


Here is a link to an article published by my college alma mater, SUNY Geneseo, those 10 years ago. [Opens as PDF] Lily is a focus of the article.

 

YOU MAY THINK I am a little late with this Memorial Day post, but in reality it was early this crazy 2020 year, wasn’t it?
As I write this on May 30th, I can smell the lilac bush, my favorite smell of spring.

     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.

April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

April 30 1945 Headlines, on display in my classroom.

Today, April 29th, is the anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, 75 years on.

Today, if it is brought up at all, some of us might respond with a vacant stare. More might shrug and turn away. I suppose that is to be expected. But you know me. I just think that as a nation, sometimes we allow things to slip from memory at our peril.

It was real, and it happened. And it was American GIs who overran this camp and many others in the closing days of World War II.

The men of the 42nd and 45th Infantry Division arrived independently of each other, here, in southern Germany, at Dachau, on this day. A concentration camp, they were told. Their noses gave them a hint of what they were about to uncover, miles before the camp appeared in sight.

Read the headlines, above. Note the subarticle:

Boxcars of Dead at Dachau. 32,000 captives freed.

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

And so after some resistance, into the camp they entered. Life changing events were about to unfold for the American soldier.

***

For me, it’s not about hero worship, or glorifying the liberator or any World War II soldier by placing him on a pedestal. Our time with them is now limited, but many of the liberating soldiers I know push back at this, to the point of rejecting the term, “liberator”- “It all sounds so exalted, so glamorous” said one. But they will all accept the term, “eyewitness”.

Witnesses to the greatest crime in the history of the world.

So instead I think it is about honoring their experiences, their shock, the horror, the puking and the crying, the rage-and then, the American GIs recognizing that something had to be done. And they did suffer for it, for trying to do the right thing. Many tried to help by offering food to starving prisoners who just were not ready to handle it, only to see them drop dead. Or having to manhandle these emaciated victims who were tearing away at each other as food was being offered.

Some guys never got over it. How could you?

I have learned so much over the past few years from these guys, just through the way that they carried themselves and tried to cope with what they witnessed. In my World War II studies and Holocaust class, we discuss these issues at length. I’m so lucky to be able to teach it.

A few years back, I was privileged to teach a lesson to my high school seniors for NBC Learn, which was shared with other districts across the nation. Later, I stumbled upon this piece by the late author Tony Hays, who writes about his liberator father and his own encounter with the past. Thanks to the Get It Write folks; the original link is at the bottom.

***

Dachau Will Always Be With Us

by Tony Hays

This is not so much a post about writing as one about a writer’s education, about one of those experiences that molds us, shapes us into storytellers. I read yesterday the story of Joseph Corbsie, whose father, a World War II veteran, left him with a special legacy from the war, from the hideous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. I feel a particular kinship with Mr. Corbsie.

My father, Robert Hays, was the son of an alcoholic tenant farmer in rural west Tennessee. If the appellation “dirt poor” fit anyone, it fit my grandfather’s family. Daddy served in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 30s. He and my mother, who was in the woman’s equivalent of the CCC, working as a nurse’s aide at Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee, met on a blind date in early 1940 and married in September of that year.

But just over a year later, Pearl Harbor happened. America was in the war. My father was among the first of those drafted in 1942. I won’t bore you with the details, but he participated in the North African, Salerno, Anzio, and southern France invasions, saved by the luck of the draw from Normandy. But they slogged through France and on to Germany. On April 29, 1945, Allied troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp. I don’t know whether he entered Dachau that day or the next, but that he was there within hours of the liberation is beyond dispute. A few months later, after more than three years overseas, he came home.

In later years, he would talk occasionally about the war, providing anecdotes that showed the chaos and random chance of battle. He spoke of driving through Kasserine Pass in North Africa just hours before the Germans killed thousands of Allied troops in a stunning attack. He spoke of a friend, defending his position from a foxhole, who was thought dead after an artillery shell landed right next to him. When the dust cleared, the friend was buried up to his neck in dirt, but did not have a scratch on him. He spoke often of Anzio, where he was wounded, and of the massive German air assaults on those soldiers clinging to that tiny sliver of beach along the Italian coast.

But he never spoke of Dachau.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945. USHMM.

 

Ever.

When he died in 1981, we found a photo in his wallet. An old sepia-toned shot like others he had taken during the war, pictures that he kept in an old brown bag. But this one was different.

It showed a pile of naked bodies. Well, really more skeletons than not, with their skin stretched pitifully over their bones. On the back, as had been his habit, was typed simply “Dachau.”

I was confused. Why would he keep this one photo in his wallet all of those years? Especially a photo of a place and event that he never spoke about. It obviously had some deeper meaning for him than the other photographs. If it had been a shot of the building he was in when he was wounded (hit by an artillery shell), I could have seen that. A reminder of his closest brush with death. Yeah, I could buy that. But this macabre photo? That, I couldn’t see.

So, for the next fifteen years, I remained puzzled.

Until the fall of 1996. I was working in Poland, and I had some time off. I took an overnight bus from Katowice, Poland to Munich. It was an interesting trip all in itself. We sat in a line of buses at midnight on the Polish/German border, waiting for our turn to cross, next to a cemetery, as if in some Cold War spy movie. I remember passing Nuremburg and thinking that my father had been there at the end of the war. And then there was Munich.

I spent a day or two wandering through the streets, drinking beer in the Marienplatz. I’m a historical novelist, so the short trip out to Dachau was a no-brainer. Of course it was as much my father’s connection with it as anything else that spurred the visit. But I’m not sure that I was completely aware of that at the time.

Dachau literally sits just on the outskirts of the Munich metropolitan area. I looked at the sign on the train station with a sadness, wondering for how many people that had been one of the last things they saw. It was only later that I discovered there had been another depot for those passengers.

The Dachau Memorial is a place of deep emotion. In the camp proper, mostly all that are left are the foundations of the barracks. One has been reconstructed to give an idea of how horrible life must have been. The camp was originally intended to hold 6,000 inmates; when the Allies liberated Dachau in 1945, they found 30,000. The museum and exhibits are primarily in the old maintenance building. I looked with awe at life size photos of prisoners machine gunned, their hands torn to ribbons from the barbed wire they had tried to climb in a futile attempt at escape.

I followed the visitors (I can’t call them tourists) north to where you crossed over into the crematorium area. It was there that the full brunt of what had taken place at Dachau really hit me. A simple brick complex, it seemed so peaceful on the fall day that I stood before it. But as I read the plaques and consulted my guidebook, as I stepped through the door and actually saw the “shower” rooms where the prisoners were gassed, as I stared into the open doors of the ovens, I felt a rage unlike any I had ever known consume me.[i]

That night, I went to the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich, to wash the images of the ovens away with some beer. I hadn’t been there long when an elderly American couple sat at the table. They were from Florida, a pleasant couple. He had been a young lieutenant in the American army on the push into Munich. In fact, it had been his pleasure to liberate the Hofbrauhaus from the Germans.

Of course, I asked the question. “Were you at Dachau?”

He didn’t answer for several seconds, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes as his wife’s hand covered his and squeezed. Finally, he nodded, reached into a back pocket and pulled out his wallet.

With a flick of his wrist, a photo, just as wrinkled, just as bent, as the one my father had carried landed on the table. It wasn’t the same scene, but one just like it.

Here was my chance, the opportunity to ask the question I had never been able to ask my father. I pulled the photo from my own wallet and lay it next to his. “Why? Why have you carried it so long? To remind you of the horror of Dachau, of what had been done here?”

His face carried the faintest of smiles as he shook his head. “No, son, to remind us of the horrors that we are capable of, to remind us not to go down that road again.”

The difference was subtle, but in that moment, I learned two lessons invaluable to a writer, subtle differences are important, and when you want to know the truth, go to the source.

As I sit here now and look at that same photograph, I realize that it was my father’s legacy to me, of Dachau. Joe Corbsie’s father left him something more tangible, a reminder of the same thing for the same reason, but more forcefully stated — a tiny box of human ash from the ovens.

Dachau is still with us, and I hope the legacy left by our fathers always will be.

The late Tony Hays.

[i] Where the prisoners were gassed- “In 1942, the crematorium area was constructed next to the main camp. It included the old crematorium and the new crematorium (Barrack X) with a gas chamber. There is no credible evidence that the gas chamber in Barrack X was used to murder human beings. Instead, prisoners underwent “selection”; those who were judged too sick or weak to continue working were sent to the Hartheim “euthanasia” killing center near Linz, Austria. Several thousand Dachau prisoners were murdered at Hartheim. Further, the SS used the firing range and the gallows in the crematoria area as killing sites for prisoners.” Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Dachau” Holocaust Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/dachau

“I have a picture of several girls,” train liberator George Gross recalled.

“They were ghostly thin, with hollow cheeks, huge eyes that had seen a lot of evil and horror, and yet smiles that broke my heart.”

 

So, I have been wondering about today, this day, for a long, long time. It is finally here.

The blog is blowing up and I have to return calls to people who are trying to find me, to tell me that their parent was on the train as a young person, and liberated this day, exactly 75 years ago this morning, at Passover time, springtime, Easter, the symbols of rebirth and new life.

I am supposed to be in Germany around now with maybe a hundred people at the liberation site. Dedicated planners in Europe (thanks Ron Chaulet, especially, and the German organizers at the site of the train liberation!) invited dozens of train survivors, their offspring, and the second generation of the American soldier liberators for ceremonies with German high schoolers in unveiling a monument to the survivors and the 743rd Tank Battalion, and 30th Infantry Division. And it was to be filmed professionally for the amazing documentary we are working on. A mammoth undertaking, just swept away, but not forever.

I think back to eighteen summers ago, when I sat down to record the memories of an 80-year-old tank commander, Carrol Walsh, who had fought from Normandy, into Germany, back into Belgium for the Battle of the Bulge, and then back across Hitler’s Western Wall, who almost forgot to tell me the story of the train fifty-six years before. About his rejection of the mantle of “LIBERATOR”, but his acceptance of being a WITNESS, of being a symbol of the army that did something about what they saw.

I think today about George Gross, the other tank commander that day who had the camera and the photographs to prove that 2500 souls on their way to being murdered were in fact REAL, that the event DID happen, and that the Holocaust would never be forgotten. Of his years recounting the girls on that train, the children, and speaking to them and meeting the ones who could make the pilgrimage to meet him.

I think about Frank Towers, the lieutenant charged with getting these poor people out of harm’s way, as a new battle for the city of Magdeburg was about to unfold. The same Frank who excitedly beat a path to my door sixty-one years later to explain his role, and who went on with train survivor’s daughter Varda Weisskopf and I to track down over 275 survivors of that train all those years later, organizing over 11 reunions on 3 continents over 10 years.

I think today about the medic Walter Gantz, who suffered nightmares for decades after treating the victims on the train for six weeks after liberation, some literally dying on him, his trauma evident sixty-six years later in recalling carrying in his arms a sixty-pound fifteen-year-old girl’s body down the stairs in the middle of the night to a makeshift tent morgue. Of his call to my classroom to introduce himself, telling these thoughts to my high school seniors, and the salving of his scars in getting to speak to the former young people he saved so many decades later.

I think about all the beloved survivors and their families―such loving people who broke down, cried, laughed, danced with their liberators and fellow American WWII soldiers―so many whom I hold close in my heart forever.

I think about the words of one of them every year, an annual email that would arrive on this day from Leslie Meisels, recalling with his survivor “twins” the anniversary of their “re -birth”, their good fortune and gratitude for their liberating heroes, the miracles of survival and liberation, and the miracle of meeting them again.

And I wonder again why God put me on this path to bring a bit of healing to the world.

I have asked Him, ‘why me’, over and over.

And why can’t I see this fruition one last time, on this date, with these ‘new’ teenagers discovering the history in their own backyard and their willing, enthusiastic interaction with it?

I should know better by now than to ask. I really should. But as I string these thoughts together, I’m reminded of the note I got in my email inbox so early this morning from Germany, so I think today also about this lone German high school student laying flowers at the site of the liberation―not out of a sense of atonement for the deeds of generations past―no one can atone for those crimes, and frankly that is not her ‘job’―but simply out of LOVE.

Johanna M. laying flowers 75 years to the hour at the site of the liberation of the Train Near Magdeburg, April 13th, 2020.

LOVE. And HOPE. And maybe even FAITH.

I see this single, lone young person—and yes, one who will miss finishing her own graduating year with her friends now—in this sudden age of darkness and uncertainty as some sort of new symbol, the newest witness, at once comforting and profound and at once a source of light, of life, and yes maybe re-birth. Today I can’t witness the re-unification of the saved and the saviors, the healing touches passing in the land where the crimes were perpetrated, but in seeing this photograph I am renewed by witnessing a new generation arising out of the utter destruction, the evil, and the hatred of 75 plus years ago― in this form of a girl and her teenage friends planting new seeds, literally, at this site where people expired with the words “SALVATION” and “FREEDOM” on their lips, and I see from afar the honoring of the goodness that radiated from the deeds of those American soldiers, really not so long ago.


Life never goes the way we expect it to. It always gives us new challenges to rise above and though that may seem hard at times, it is still the only way we truly learn and grow, as long as we do not lose hope.
I am sure everyone of us expected this year to be very different. For many of us students it is the last year of high school, and we definitely did not expect our graduation year to be like this, but I believe that everything happens for a reason, and we must simply trust and believe that everything is going to be okay.
Today we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the stranded train in Farsleben, and it is not the way we planned it, but that does not mean that we cannot remember this day 75 years ago, and every person that was involved. None of us might physically be at the same place right now, but that should not stop us from letting the memory of the stranded train unite us on this day.
Sure, we wanted this entire week to be about remembering the story of the stranded train, we wanted to welcome people from all over the world in Farsleben to celebrate this day with us, we had planned a lot and we were excited, and this is not the way we wanted it to be, but we have not forgotten and no matter how difficult these times might be right now, we want to give you a reason to smile today, to never lose hope and to stay healthy and safe, so that we can welcome you here in April 2021.
On behalf of the entire project group “Stranded Train” I therefore wish you all the best in the world and send you much love from Farsleben.

Johanna


The poet Yaakov Barzilai was on the ‘Train Near Magdeburg’. Originally composed in Hebrew, a  translation has been provided by fellow survivor Micha Tomkiewicz. He agreed to share his poem on the 70th anniversary of the liberation. ’11:55′  refers to the author’s recollection of the time of the day of the liberation of the train transport; ‘five minutes before the bitter end’.

Dedicated to US liberators of the death train from Bergen-Belsen on April 13, 1945

 

At Eleven fifty-five.

Return to the Place of Liberation, April 13, 1945, after 65 years.

                                                                                    

The train stopped under the hill, huffing and puffing,

as though it reached the end of the road.

An old locomotive pulling deteriorating train cars

that became obsolete long ago, not even fit for carrying horses.

To an approaching visitor, the experience was of a factory of awful smell – really stinking.

Two thousand four hundred stinking cattle

heading for slaughter were shoved to the train cars.

The butterflies into the surrounding air were blinded by the poisonous stench.

The train moved for five days back and forth between Bergen-Belsen and nowhere.

On the sixth day, a new morning came to shine over our heads.

Suddenly the heavy car doors were opened.

Living and dead overflowed into the surrounding green meadow.

Was it a dream or a delayed awakening of God?

When we identified the symbols of the American army,

we ran to the top of the hill as though bitten by an army of scorpions,

to kiss the treads of the tanks and to hug the soldiers with overflowing love.

Somebody cried: “Don’t believe it, it is a dream”.

When we pinched ourselves; we felt the pain – it was real.

 

Mama climbed to the top of the hill.

She stood in the middle of the field of flowers and prayed an almost a silent prayer from the heart.

Only few words escaped to the blowing wind:

‘Soon…Now…..To the chimneys of death…I gave new life….to my children….

and this day… my grandchildren were born… to a good life.’

Amen and Amen.

-Yaakov Barzilai


TOP STORY

Author couldn’t travel to Germany for train liberation anniversary

 

by Gretta Hochsprung, Glens Falls Post-Star, April 16, 2020

HARTFORD N.Y.— Author Matthew Rozell was planning to travel to Germany to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the train liberation near Magdeburg.

“I’m supposed to be there right now,” said Rozell, who, due to the coronavirus pandemic, couldn’t travel from his hilltop home in Hartford to the small German town where Americans liberated a train of Jews 75 years ago on April 13, 1945.

A ceremony was supposed to take place at the site Friday, but that, too, was canceled due to the pandemic.

Instead, a lone German high school student named Johanna Mücke placed flowers on the base where a monument was to be dedicated. Mücke’s class had worked on an award-winning project about the liberation.

About 15 Holocaust survivors, the children of the liberators and tank commanders, German politicians — about 100 people in total — were planning to travel to this small German town this week.

Rozell, himself, was going to give a speech at the Friday event.

“We’re disappointed that we can’t be there,” Rozell said, adding, “I take immense gratification that there’s a high school kid in her class 3,000 miles away on top of this thing, and they’re not forgetting it. I think that’s really important, especially considering the fact that they’re German.”

The story of the train started in Rozell’s classroom when he was a history teacher at Hudson Falls. Rozell was interviewing veterans for the Hudson Falls High School World War II Living History Project he started.

An interview with retired U.S. Army Sgt. Carrol “Red” Walsh of Johnstown unearthed the story, which turned into Rozell’s second book and an upcoming documentary film to be aired on PBS.

In April 1945, near the end of World War II, Army Sgt. George Gross and Walsh were deep in the heart of Nazi Germany, part of the U.S. 30th Infantry Division and the 743rd Tank Battalion, when they spotted a train sitting on the tracks.

The train contained 2,500 Jews, who were saved at the last moment from extermination.

Rozell and filmmaker Mike Edwards were planning to capture the ceremony in Germany to be used in the film as well as conduct additional interviews with Germans connected to the liberation.

“We were going to film it all,” Rozell said. “And we were going to go to Bergen-Belsen, which is where the train originated from.”

Monday was the 75th anniversary of the train. Wednesday was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, the Nazi concentration camp.

Rozell gives credit to the students and their teacher for studying this part of their history and commemorating the 75th anniversary with Mücke’s flowers.

“This whole project started in my history class here,” Rozell said, “and I’m retired now, but these kids over in Germany with their teacher, I don’t know, it’s kind of like coming full circle in a way.”

 

 

When you feel like the floor keeps dropping out, remember how we rose to the fight in difficult times.
As we navigate these new waters together, maybe all those lessons from our past can help bring us the inspiration we need to see us through these troubling times.
Remember the Holocaust survivors who pushed to get through one more day. Remember the World War II soldiers and their stories of combat and survival; I’m offering one below. Free.
I’m doing okay up here on my hill in northern New York State. I was planning on stepping on an airplane in a few weeks to Germany, to record the monument being unveiled in honor of American soldier liberators in front of dozens of Holocaust survivors and 2nd Generation survivors and liberators, but we will get to that in due time… I miss my wife of 30 years right now, who is looking after her dad in Texas at the moment, but two of my college age children are at home with me riding it out… I write, work in my woodshop, take care of the 64 acres and animals we have.

I think a key for all of us is to take things day-by-day, to keep the mind and body active, and to look after others. But also remember to take time for yourself if you find yourself overwhelmed or getting anxious.
Turn off the TV and social media feeds.
Go for a walk.
Be open to new sights and sounds, ones that perhaps were always there.
Make a list of your blessings.
Call a loved one.
Write a letter.
Create some art.
Try to notice the simpler things and how they keep keeping on.
Listen to the birds.
Appreciate the quiet.
Talk to a neighbor.
Open a new book.

I’m offering my second book in The Things Our Fathers Saw series for FREE from March 25 thru March 29. Be uplifted by a generation of Americans whose young lives were forged in the skies over war-torn Europe, and truly saved the world. Maybe they can inspire you, or someone you know.


75 Years: “The sky was black with flak…
You’ve got to go right through it.”

The Radar Man

Martin ‘Hap’ Bezon was from Port Henry, New York on Lake Champlain in northern New York. Near here is a statue to Samuel De Champlain, who navigated down the lake from New France (Canada) in 1609, literally in uncharted waters. Martin himself became a navigator, a radar man, in a B-24 Liberator. Martin’s grandparents emigrated from Poland; little did he know that he would find himself unexpectedly there during the war, trying to convince advancing Red Army soldiers not to shoot him after he bailed out of his crippled bomber 75 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK. This interview was given at his home in 2012 when he was ninety years old.

We were assigned to the 466th Bomb Group in the 8th Air Force. I went up to headquarters the next day after I got settled down and asked if I could get on a plane and start flying my missions as quick as possible. I said that I’m a qualified navigator and qualified bombardier. I’m a qualified air-to-air gunner and I said that I would sure like to start ’em up. They said that they can’t do it, that there was ‘too much money spent on you radar guys’—that there was a lot of expense to train one of us. Then the officer said, ‘Are you that anxious to start your missions?’
I said, ‘Yes, I am.’
He said, ‘The next group to us—the 467th—has a crew that is waiting for a radar man. Do you want to transfer?’
I said, ‘Yes, I do.’
That was the first time Broadway and I split. I went over to the 467th and got on with [pilot] Bill Chapman and his crew and flew my missions with Chapman. We flew together until our 18th or 19th mission, when we got shot down.

Berlin

Our last mission was on March 18, 1945. It seems like our worst mission was on a Sunday. They gave fresh eggs, so we knew it was going to be a rough one. If it wasn’t going to be a rough mission, you usually get powdered eggs for breakfast.
We went outside after the briefing. There was a Catholic priest there. He’s there at every briefing—not at the briefing but outside waiting. We would come out, and a lot of us Catholic boys would kneel down and some received communion. He gave us the blessing, then we all jumped in the wagons and went out to our planes. The target was Berlin. By the looks on their faces, a couple of guys kind of almost knew it was going to be a bad one.
Going over was good; navigation was super—we were leading the squadron at that time. We were coming up on the bomb run. We had a little plane that attacked us for a while and then the flak started greeting us; up ahead we could see it. The sky was black with flak. You can’t swerve [or take evasive action]. You’ve got to go right through it.
We got right into it. I had my bomb bay doors open. I was ready to turn it over and get the bombs off. We got an explosion; I thought it was inside the plane, it was so loud. Directly underneath the plane we had taken a direct hit. We had fires in the bomb bays. Up where the pilot was, there was some kind of white-hot metal that landed. The co-pilot stamped on it. It burned right down through the ship, and a hole was left behind.
The pilot and co-pilot had bucket seats made out of heavy steel. The rest of us had safety vests that sometimes stop the flak. There was fire where I was, around my legs. I turned around and grabbed the extinguisher; the plane went into a dive, and of course, it was hard to maneuver. It forced me down on the deck. I finally got the fire extinguisher and stood up and started to put the fire out. I got the fire pretty well out and looked around; my navigator wasn’t helping me. I noticed he was lying down and his eyes were very grey. His brains were hanging down the side of his head. All I could think of is that they looked like frog eggs. I went over and picked up the brains with my hands. They were warm yet. I didn’t know what to do. Hell, he’s dead. So, I spread some sulfa on it and went up to the pilot. [The engineer was supposed to be] in the bomb bay just below me where I could [normally] tap him on the head. I looked down. He was gone. I could see a piece of his clothes and stuff on the side of the plane; he was shot off when it hit. He just dropped out of the plane without a parachute.
The nose was burning pretty good. They got that fire out with the wind that was coming through the nose; it put that fire out. The waist wasn’t hurt too much. Nobody got hurt back there. The steel seat the pilot was sitting in was hit so hard that [he had a minor injury on] his backside, but nothing serious at all.

‘Thanks, Van’

We were blown into a dive, and to this day, I don’t know how we could have managed to pull out of that dive, because the number one and number two engines were shot out altogether. The number three engine was only pulling half power and was running at around twenty; number four was the only good engine, and he was pushing it to the limit, about sixty-two, sixty-three. If we had flown another hour, that engine would have blown up. There must have been terrific pressure. They pulled it out of the dive.
We were also still carrying a full load of bombs in to the target. Because the explosion tangled up the releases and everything so bad, they asked me to go back in the waist into the bomb bays. I took my parachute off. It was only a six-inch walkway; there was nothing underneath me but a six-inch catwalk. I had a big screwdriver and I put all the weight that I dared to put on it to try to open the releases and drop the bombs.
I unhooked the arming wire. The arming wire goes from the nose of the plane up to the little place you hook on, and down to the point where it’s going to the arming pin. When the bombs hit with the nose, the arming pin drives it in and makes the explosion. I unhooked that wire so they wouldn’t go off when they dropped. I fixed the ignition and all of that so they wouldn’t explode, and shut a cotter key in it so there’s no way they could slip forward. So if the plane did land, [hopefully] none of the bombs would explode.
We were over the middle of Berlin. I remember when we pulled out of the dive, I put my parachute on. Of course, the navigator [who had been killed], his parachute was okay. Mine had a hole in it; it was just burnt a little bit but I knew I couldn’t use it. So, I took his and remember saying, ‘Thanks, pal. Thanks, Van.’
I’m up talking to the other navigator and the bombardier. I was kneeling right between them. I tell the pilot that Van [DR navigator] is gone and George Fuller [engineer] is gone. I contacted the waist. The waist was okay. I said, ‘The waists are all okay.’ So I said that we had two killed in action. I told him where we were, and I gave him a heading to pull and said, ‘Take it 90 degrees for the time being.’

The Russian Lines

I went and set up and used my drift meter and all of that, and I gave him a corrected heading more south because that’s the closest the Russians were to us, to the German boundary line, or rather the frontlines. As we were heading there, the plane stayed level but she kept losing altitude. So, it was only a matter of time before we would have to bail out, and there was no way we could land it because everything was shot up on the flight deck—the controls and everything. How he kept it level, I don’t know.
We got over the lines and we started getting strafed by a German plane; he had one landing gear down, I remember, the other one was up. He made a pass and turned around to get another pass at us. Then, three Russian Yaks came in. The German flew away and they circled us a couple of times, and then they came in and started strafing us to knock us down!
The emblem was American on the plane, but I don’t think they could tell [from the angle]. After years went by, I think they must have seen the bomb bay doors open and saw the bombs in it, so probably figured maybe we were on a bombing mission. However, that day we were bombing Berlin, three American ships were knocked down by Russians. So, the Russians did it every once in a while. Of course, a couple of Americans knocked down a couple of theirs, too.
They started strafing us, and Chapman asked me to give the waist gunners the signal to bail because the radio system between the waist and the flight deck was out. So, I had some object there that I heaved at the doors, so they opened up the door going into the waist and I patted my parachute and said, ‘Go!’ He nodded okay.
We got ready. I went over and touched my dead navigator again and went out and sat down by the bomb bay. I climbed down the bomb bay and sat on the walkway there—that six-inch beam. I sat with my feet dangling out. I never jumped out of a plane before. I waited for the co-pilot to come close to me, that way we’d be close enough that when we landed, we’d find each other quick.
The waist gunner, Twyford, jumped first. I bailed out and put my head between my legs and rolled out and fell far enough to make sure that I wouldn’t be around the plane. I pulled the rip cord and nothing happened, and I started clawing at the thing and then finally it popped open—there’s an auxiliary parachute in there. It’s under spring tension and that popped a little parachute out; that auxiliary chute is fitted into your main chute, and it pops out first and drives the main chute out. All I remember was an awful jar.
As I was going down, I see the three Russian planes come down again. One picked on the pilot. One picked me, one was on the waist gunner. He started strafing me while I was falling, and I waved my hands at him and everything, and he’s coming right at me. I saw him and thought, ‘Lord, what am I going to do?’ What you should do if you are far enough from the ground, you pull the cord on one side and it collapses the chute right away, and you freefall and just let it go and you get away before you hit the ground.
I chose to play dead. I waited until he went around, and he came back around and he’s heading square at me. I see the guns going off. I slumped down, put my hands along my side, and hung my head down to my chest. He circled me two or three times then flew off.
Then I heard popping and looked on the ground, and I could see it looked like a hundred people on the ground shooting at us! I heard the bullets, maybe two or three went through the canopy. I [later] cut that piece out to take it home, but somebody on the ship coming home stole it from me. I was not hit.
We were dropping down, and as I looked down there was a sharp-peaked house coming up right in front of me. I moved over a little bit with the shroud line. Down along the side of the house, there’s a little cavity in the ground, like some kind of excavation, I would say maybe three feet deep. I landed right in there, and, of course, it cut the wind, so my chute collapsed there and didn’t have to be dragged along or anything.
I see the emblem on their hats and uniform that they’re Russians, so I started yelling. My mother and father came from Krakow, Poland, back in 1911, so as we were growing up we had to learn Polish, because that’s the only way we spoke. I knew enough of Polish to say, ‘I beg you, do not shoot, I am an American.’ I said, ‘I have some papers, easy, easy!’ [Speaks in Polish]
I reached in. We had these papers. They were small—you fold it, you take them out and open it, it’s a big poster. It had a picture of Stalin and a picture of Roosevelt on it, and underneath them it says ‘Komrades,’ then it had a lot of Russian writing underneath it saying that we’re American and all of that.
A couple of Russians started saying, ‘Americans, Americans!’ Then a big, black ‘Cadillac’ lookalike limo came along and had three officers in it. I could see that they were high-ranking officers, and they were told we’re Americans. One reached down, took my hand, and pulled me up out of there. That was the first time I had a sigh of relief.
They found Wallace almost immediately. I told the Russians that the guys falling out of the sky, they’re all Americans. So, they sent word around to make sure that they’re all right. They were able to find my navigator. His body was burned up but they found he was all in one piece.
Chapman collapsed his chute, then free-fell and opened it up again. When he hit the ground, they put him in a truck, and some Russian on a horse came up to him with a pistol and put it to his head and pulled the trigger three times, but the gun wouldn’t go off. Then the truck pulled away; he could see the guy working on his pistol. He finally fixed it, but the truck was too far away so he didn’t chase it.
So, Wallace and me and Twyford, they brought us to this building. They had some interrogators there. They asked me first; I told them I spoke some Polish. They brought a woman over to act as an interpreter, but I couldn’t understand her and she couldn’t understand me. They then brought in a fella by the name of Walter. He was a big, gangly guy and the type of guy that you see that you like him. We spoke to each other just like talking to my mother or father. He told the Russians that he knows what he is seeing.
They asked through the interpreter what were we bombing. Of course, generally you don’t give information to the enemies except the name and serial number. But in this case, the newspapers would be blasting that, I think it was, 2,000 planes would hit Berlin that day in an all-out effort.
I told him we were bombing Berlin. He said, ‘Good, good. How many planes?’
Again, I knew the newspapers would give the amount of planes. I said, ‘2,000.’
They were pleased with that. He said, ‘How come you didn’t shoot us down when the Russians were strafing you?’
I didn’t tell him all our guns were all knocked out and that we couldn’t shoot any of the guns. I said, ‘We knew you were Russians so we didn’t want to shoot back.’ I had to lie a little bit.
Then they brought out a bottle of some kind of white liquor. He said, ‘Have a drink.’
I said, ‘Yeah, I need one.’ So, they gave me a little shot. Then some woman there said to put some water in it.
The Russian said, ‘No, he can drink it.’ I drank it and, boy, was it strong! It went down and I felt better after I warmed up. The waist gunner [drank his] and almost went down to his knees. They put us up, and the next day got the rest of the crew together. There were two more missing but we were going to meet them at the end of the day. They said we were going to bury the navigator. They found him and they found my log. I was hoping that they’d give it to me. It was partially burnt but you could still read it.
They picked us up in two trucks. One of these flat-bottom trucks with green cloth or something over the bottom had a casket on the front. There were two Russians in the front and two in the back with rifles riding with them. The other truck had three seat benches. We sat on that and rode backwards.
We went up to a cemetery in Landsberg and they had a ceremony there. They said something in Russian. They asked me through my interpreter if one of us wanted to say something. I told Chapman they wanted to know if anyone wanted to say the last few words. Chapman said, ‘Yeah, I would.’ He gave a nice talk about Van Tress being a good navigator. He had been just married for one month; he married an English girl. He was a wonderful man, not only a great navigator.
He ended up having a great big tombstone there. They came to see me and asked me what I wanted on it. I put ‘Harold B. Van Tress, born 1923/Killed in action today March 18, 1945/bombing mission Berlin’—they had that all inscribed overnight, they had it on there. That was a big stone that stood up there at least four or five feet. I asked the girl taking the photograph of everything if she would send me or give me a photograph. She said she’d try, but I never got it.

‘They’re All Gone’

Van Tress had a son born. He was married for a month. Chapman and I tried to talk him out of it, to wait until the war was over. He married this girl he was wild about. Then he died.
After we got shot down and then came back to base, there were a couple of guys who came over from some other base and wanted to talk to me about Van. His mother asked them to go see me because Van slept right next to me. I gave them a whole bunch of pictures of Van and his new wife and all of that. So, they took them with them. The last time I talked to Twyford, he said he heard from Mrs. Van Tress. Her son’s wife and his son are coming over. So, he would be her grandchild.
I could never find the co-pilot, Wallace. He sent me a letter in 1947. He was taking engineering up in college. He let me know that he and his wife Betty are good and he hoped that I go to college too. I wrote him a letter back and then we kind of let time slip by a little bit. One time heading out to Las Vegas I landed in St. Louis, where I last knew he lived. We had about a three-hour layover and I called up his home. The people who were living there then never remembered him. My son found around ten Wallaces around the area. I called three but none of them were there. The next night I called three more, so I gave it up. I even put an inquiry in American Legion Magazine and the VFW Magazine to see if anybody knew his whereabouts; called the 2nd Air Division Association, which I belonged to, and they tried to find him and they couldn’t.
All the rest of the men are gone. Chapman was the last one. I used to call Chapman several times. We talked to each other quite a bit. I know the first time I sent him a Christmas card, he sent one back. He wrote, ‘Please, if you ever come down and see me, don’t ever talk to my wife about what we did in the service.’ [Laughs] He lived in Alabama. He became quite wealthy. He had a crew of men out—carpentry work, anything. He worked the whole of Alabama and even part of Florida doing construction or anything he’d want or excavating or whatever. He owned a local Howard Johnson franchise and he owned a big share of the local bank. He had a loan company and a motel. He said, ‘If you ever come down, I don’t want you paying for any meals or rooms. You come here; I’ve got a place, and I am looking forward to seeing you.’ We tried a couple of times, but something happened. He wasn’t feeling good or I wasn’t feeling good or something.
I called him up. Every Christmas Day I’d call him up after twelve noon; I’d just call him up and have a talk. The last time I called just a few years ago—it can’t be over five years ago—his wife answered. Of course, down there they don’t use your first name. They just go by your last name.
She said, ‘Who is this?’
I said, ‘That Polish Yankee from upstate New York.’
She said, ‘Oh, Bezon! Just a minute. I’ll see if Bill can get on the phone.’ I said to myself, ‘Oh, sounds like he is not good.’
He got on and he said, ‘Martin, you don’t know what this means to me when you call.’ I think it bothered him what happened the time that I was [reprimanded] and got chewed out, and I think it might have bothered him quite a bit later in life.
I said, ‘What’s the matter with you, Bill?’
He said, ‘I just had open-heart surgery and I’m recuperating.’ And then he had something wrong with his leg.
I said, ‘Geez, Bill, we’ve got to get together at least once.’
He said, ‘Boy, we’ve got to!’
I got worried about him. A few days later I called up again.
I said, ‘I just want to know how Bill’s doing.’
His wife said, ‘I am sorry to tell you, he died last night.’
So then Twyford died, and that was the last of them.
Anderson was on the police force and died from a heart attack. Yarcusko was out in California laying rugs and he died. So they’re all gone, and I stay here.
Marty Bezon passed away at the age of 90 in April 2012, only three weeks after this interview took place.
Get the full book here.– it’s Vol. II. Don’t forget it is FREE Wed thru Sunday. AND FEEL FREE TO DROP ME A LINE at Matthew AT TeachingHistoryMatters.com or in the comments about anything you might want to talk about! We’ll get through this!

Art LaPorte, 2002.

Last year I lost one of my first World War II interviewees, Art LaPorte. He was a wiry, tough, battle-scarred 18-year-old boy-Marine veteran of Iwo Jima and Korea. He kept diaries and drawings of his time on Iwo and wrote poetry and narratives about his experiences. I remember lugging an early version of a video camera and my then 3-year-old daughter;  the interview went on for hours after school one day at his kitchen table. Almost two decades later, he came out to my first book signings and sat with me; he was happy to be in the book in a big way (see below).

I spent a lot of time interviewing the Marines who were on this tiny island—just eight square miles—of black volcanic sand for a month longer than the 3 days planned to take it.  My cousin, a Marine, led a tour there and brought me back some of that sand.

Iwo Jima, or ‘Sulfur Island,’ was eight square miles of sand, ash, and rock lying 660 miles southeast of Tokyo. It could serve as a refueling stop for the B–29s and B–24s that were now flying almost daily out of the fields in the Marianas to bomb the Japanese mainland. In late November 1944, aerial bombardment of Iwo Jima with high explosives began and continued for a record 74 straight days. The 21,000 Japanese defenders survived this with scores of underground fortresses connected by 16 miles of tunnels stocked with food, water, and ammunition. The surface was covered with concrete pillboxes and blockhouses housing some 800 gun positions. On February 19, 1945, the attack began as the landing ships brought the Marines towards the beaches of that blackened volcanic sand.

Arthur LaPorte was an eighteen–year-old Marine, trained on the light machine gun in the 4th Marine Division. His convoy left training at Pearl Harbor for the long journey across the Pacific. It would be his first time in combat, as an ammunition carrier for a gun squad.

 

Art LaPorte

We went aboard ships right to Pearl [Harbor] and stayed at Pearl for a couple weeks until they got supplies and got the convoy together, and then we headed out, not knowing where we were going, across the Pacific on a huge convoy. We did not have any Japanese resistance; we were very lucky, no torpedoes or anything. We got out to Saipan and stayed offshore. After that, when we got going again, they brought out an easel, and they told us about how the Japanese had gun emplacements and what we would meet there. And that was our first knowledge that we were going to Iwo Jima.

We approached Iwo at night, and we could hear the gunfire from the ships. We could see the flashes and the firing, but we could not see Iwo at that time. Us new guys were too nervous to sleep, and we played poker all night. And even some of the old-timers, who were shaken up going into another battle, would be there with us.

Early in the morning, they fed us a steak dinner. Then we went up on deck, and we watched the ‘goings-on’ over Iwo. We looked out the stern of the ship, and there was Iwo standing right in front of us—Mount Suribachi to the left and a long stretch of beach, and to the right, some higher ground. The first outfit [went in] at 9:00. They hit the beaches, and we weren’t scheduled to go in till the afternoon, but they lost so many men that we went in at 11:00. The thing that really got to us almost immediately—the boats were bringing back the wounded to our ship. I guess they were at least not-so-badly-hit casualties; the worst ones were being taken to the hospital ship. But they were bringing casualties back to our ship, and of course that made us quite nervous because we knew what we were getting into.

Our turn to hit the beach came at 11:00 a.m.; we were called in early. And the Japs didn’t fire on us as we went in; I hardly saw any shells… When we got close to shore we were told to get in the landing craft. And when we landed at the beachhead, we ran out, and there was a slight rise ahead of us. It was hard to get over it because it was a mix of that black sand and volcanic ash and it was awful hard to get over it, and we were worried about the bullets.

Our target was an airbase. They had one main airfield, and they had another smaller one, and the third one they were still working on. That was where I got wounded, the unfinished airfield. They had Mount Suribachi, the highest peak, which the 5th Division took. We had the next highest peak, which was Hill 382—you name them by height. The day I got hit, my company went against it. They lost half of the men and had to pull back.

“Smashed by Jap mortar and shellfire, trapped by Iwo’s treacherous black-ash sands, amtracs and other vehicles of war lay knocked out on the black sands of the volcanic fortress.”  Robert M. Warren, ca. February/March 1945. National Archives.

Mount Suribachi was quite a sight, too. There, for a while, you could watch what was going on. They put spotlights on it at night, and they were pounding with everything they had! They put 20-mm and 5-inch guns—and the 16s—they were really pounding it. I don’t know if it did any good, the [Japanese] had the caves. But they were really working it over!

 AP combat photographer Joe Rosenthal took the iconic photo of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. As at Peleliu, mission planners had expected the island to fall within a few days. Only a third of Iwo Jima had been taken when the U.S. flag appeared over the peak of Mount Suribachi on D–Day+4.

I didn’t actually see the flag go up. We were pretty far inland, by that time, from the cliffs. I volunteered with another guy to go and get some food for the platoon. As we approached the cliffs, I looked over and I saw the flag flying. I said to my buddy—not knowing that it would become so famous—I said, ‘What in the devil do they have that flying for? We haven’t even taken this damned place…’

Art’s unit moved up to secure the unfinished airfield. Looking for cover, he received a shock.

We got the word that one of our outfits got the pounding pretty bad, so we were the replacements. We went up during the night, early morning, and moved into position. They told us to get in a foxhole. I got into a foxhole quickly, and there was another Marine sitting there. I see his feet. I brought my eyes up his body, and his rifle was standing beside him. So I said to him, ‘I’m going to get in with you, all right?’ And no answer. As I come up his body, no head [motions across his neck]. Some Japanese officer or somebody with a sword had taken his head off during the night. I felt the hair raise on the back of my head, and I got away from there! I found another foxhole and jumped in it.

‘I’ve got a good one for you, Doc.’

That morning, 12 days into the attack, Art was hit.

I was kind of in a shallow place, I was going to run up and join my outfit—they were a little ahead. All of a sudden a sniper was putting shots right by my head. I could almost feel it, so I figured I better run. So I zigzagged. Of course, if you zigzag, you make yourself a harder target. Next thing I know, I’m flying through the air. A machine gun burst had gone by me, and they were using explosive bullets. And so, luckily, I landed in a 5-inch shell hole; our guns on the destroyers were 5 inches in diameter across the shell, like the battlewagons had 16-inch diameters across that shell. Now the 16-inch shell was about across-my-body wide [motioning], 2,000 pounds, and you can imagine what explosive that is. You could put about 15 or 20 people in the [crater made by the shell on impact], I’d say. So I looked down at my leg, and I could see the bone, and you could put your fist into it. I could hear some guys in the next 16-inch shell hole, so I think I hollered over to them, ‘I’m hit.’ I wasn’t feeling any pain, I was in shock. As bad as it is, it was no pain that I remember. And so, I heard somebody running, and somebody popped down on me, and the machine gun was trying to get him. And it was my sergeant, section leader. And he says, ‘How bad you hit?’ And I said, ‘Pretty bad.’ I think he said, ‘Jesus,’ and he ran into the 16-inch shell hole. And this time, another body landed on me, and it was a corpsman this time. And he tried to patch me up, but that machine gun kept trying to pick him off. So he says, ‘I can’t work on you here, I haven’t got room enough,’ because it was very shallow. And he said, ‘Would you take a chance? We can push you across to the 16-inch shell hole.’ It was a short distance, maybe 10 feet. I said, ‘Sure, I got to get patched up.’ So he pushed against my good leg, and I’m trying to crawl. And the other guys in the 16-inch shell hole are reaching out for me. And one of them got a graze against the wrist.

They got me down in the hole; it was pretty deep, probably six or eight feet deep. Quite wide, too. They worked on me—patched me up. Then they left; they had to go to Hill 382. So all day I was there, I tried to drink water. But I couldn’t, I’d throw it up. Tried to eat food, same thing. I noticed a funny sensation, like something wet. I knew that they had bound up the wounds good. I was worried about hemorrhaging, so I pulled up my pants leg, and there was a fountain—about an inch or two high—coming out of my kneecap. A piece of shrapnel had gone in and hit an artery or whatever is in there. I had used my bandage on my wounds; the only thing I had was toilet paper. So I put that on with some pressure, and it stopped the bleeding.

Art shows students where he was hit on Iwo Jima.

I was by myself in the shell crater. I was all alone. All kinds of weapons were firing because they were trying to pick our men off. My company was going against 382. And, of course, I was right in line with it. I’d peep up and try to see how they were doing, but I didn’t dare to stand up on my good leg. I looked back toward some rocks behind me. Some of our men were there, and stretcher-bearers, but they didn’t dare send anyone because there were so many bullets flying around. And they didn’t want to lose four men to save one.[1]

I was there about eight hours. I was concerned that they would leave me there and the Japanese would get me. Then, my sergeant came by and asked if I was still there. I don’t know how he got me out of that 16-inch shell hole but he asked me if I could stand on the good leg. He put me in a fireman’s carry and carried me out under fire.

On the hospital ship, LaPorte waited his turn for surgery.

From where I was I could watch the doctors operate. It was a table, and around the table was a trough. What fascinated me was when the trough was filled with blood, and when the ship would rock, the blood would go back and forth in unison with the ship.

They finally got to me, and I believe I said to the doctor, ‘I’ve got a good one for you, Doc.’ Because the one that was ahead of me apparently couldn’t take the pain too good. And he was screaming and hollering, and I could see the doctor. They were working right around the clock, and they looked awful tired. And I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to give them a hard time’—they had enough trouble. So when he got to me, I watched him. It really didn’t bother me. I could see him clipping with scissors around the wound, taking the jagged edges off. Then, when I got done, they put me out on the side where I could look out and see Iwo. Like a sundeck or something. That was the last time I saw Iwo—we sailed for Guam.

Another young Marine, Herb Altshuler, recalled,

One thing I will always remember is the day or two before we left the island, before we got back on that ship, they had services and they dedicated the cemetery on Iwo. I remember sitting on a hill looking down and there was a flag pole—they used dogs for bringing messages back from the front forward to the firing units in the back, and they had the [dead] dogs lined up around the flagpole where they were to be buried… You see a large area of your [dead] men just lined up, and… then I saw heavy equipment, and that [the ground] was plowed, and all the dead bodies were laid out. You could see dead bodies as far as you wanted to look, and then you realized that war was not fun and games. These were the guys that were left behind.

A total of 27 Medals of Honor were awarded for individual acts of heroism under fire at Iwo Jima. The island was deemed secure on March 25—25 days longer than planners had counted on. Nearly 7,000 Americans and 19,000 Japanese died at Iwo Jima. It was the Marines’ costliest battle ever.[2]


Most of the above was 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. A best-seller, it can claim a readership of upwards of 75,000 thus far. Get yours by clicking on the link.

 

75,000 readers. Did you read it yet?

 

 

[1] As on Peleliu and in other battles, the Japanese would target corpsmen and stretcher-bearers.

[2]World War II: Time-Life Books History of the Second World War. New York: Prentice Hall, 1989.

 

 

“The (Germans) held all the high ground, and one felt like he was in the bottom of a bowl with the enemy sitting on two-thirds of the rim looking down upon you. There was about as much concealment as a goldfish would have in a bowl.”–10th Mountain Division soldier[i]

“The general said to one of the battalion commanders, ‘I want you to take Riva Ridge tomorrow night. Go out and scout how you’re going to do it. You guys are a bunch of hotshots, you’re skiers and mountain climbers, find a way on top of that ridge!”–10th Mountain Division soldier

Rock climbing at Camp Hale, CO.

DID YOU KNOW that the United States had mountain troops in World War II?

That the last division to ship out to the European Theater of Operations actually originated as a brainstorm of civilians who recognized the Nazi threat of alpine troops striking the United States?

And were you aware that today, February 18, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the 10th Mountain Division’s nighttime assault, incredibly scaling the heights of a sheer slope of a mountain ridge in the darkness, in total silence, to surprise a deadly German observation post overlooking Allied positions for weeks?

The fighting force, eventually known as the 10th Mountain Division, would train hard for this new specialized type of warfare. Near Thanksgiving, 1944, it finally got the call, the last of sixty-three U.S. Army divisions to be sent to the European Theater. It would spearhead the closing push in Italy into the Po Valley north of Rome and Florence in the winter/spring of 1945. Though it would spend less than four months in combat, it would suffer ten percent losses and garner acclaim for helping bring the Italian Campaign to a conclusion. The heroic climb up Riva Ridge in Hitler’s Gothic Line of defenses in northern Italy in the winter of 1945, and subsequent German counter attacks and battles, are hardly even known today. Here are some oral history excerpts by veterans who were there, from my 2018 book The Things Our Fathers Saw—The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation-Volume IV: Up the Bloody Boot—The War in Italy.

Frederick Vetter

[The climb up Riva Ridge]  was done at night, and with raw troops… They had had a little bit of patrol activity but had never been in a major battle to that time. And to put them into a nighttime situation—this ridge was about 1,600 feet from the base to the top. Very rugged, a very steep slope, and rocky. It was in the wintertime, February 18 I think it was, in 1945. And it was an escarpment that overlooked the valley where the Americans were. On top, the Germans held this ridge, and they had observation posts looking out over all of this area, including Mount Belvedere off to the right.

The Americans had tried to take Mount Belvedere three times before, in November and early December, previous to us getting there. And each time they had gained the summit, they were driven off by counterattacks. One of the keys was that the Germans had observation posts on top of Mount Belvedere, from Riva Ridge. So when the mission was given to the 10th Mountain to take Mount Belvedere, Hays, the commanding general, insisted that he first had to take Riva Ridge. And that was the key to taking Belvedere.

Anyway, they did go up. [Rock climbing had been part of our basic training.] A full battalion, there’d probably be 800 to 900 men, fully loaded with all their equipment, had to climb this Riva Ridge. And they had done a lot of scouting and they were not discovered, which was very fortunate; some of the scouting was done at night and some during the day. They established about three or four routes that could be done, up the ridge. In places they had fixed ropes. And that was tricky, when you had to put in pitons, the little pieces of spiked metal to hold these ropes. And they were pretty clever about that. They had their hammers, and they muffled them with cloth, putting in the pitons. They had those in the worst spots, where they had the fixed ropes. They gathered about a day or two earlier, going in at night through this valley into a number of small villages, and staying hidden during the day. And they started up at night, and they gained the summit, some of them by two in the morning, three o’clock in the morning; they were all on the top by the time dawn came. And the Germans had never figured that any large group would ever come up that cliff! That was their mistake. If they had defended it, as they probably should have, it would have been a different story, but these attack team groups—and they went up in three or four different groups—were not discovered until well after dawn. And the Germans were asleep behind the ridge! And our men attacked and took care of the ones that were up there, but the Germans soon came in and counterattacked.

A brutal fight for the five-mile ridge had begun.

Harold J. Wusterbarth

We’re going to go into a night attack. Night attack? You wouldn’t have any contact with each other, and single file, which means if the line breaks, you don’t know where you are. Well, if the line breaks and you don’t know where you are, the goal is to keep going up. Okay, so much for that. But what about friendly fire? We’re going to be in the dark and we’re loaded with all kinds of weapons. No, you’re going to clear your piece. That’s army talk for you’re going to take all the rounds from your BARs and rifles. Not loaded, so nobody’s going to be shooting. You’re going to know who the enemy is because they’re going to be shooting at you! That sounded like a hare-brained idea to some of us. We never had a training session where we attacked a mountain in the dark with no ammunition!

We went back to our areas. I had to explain this to the guys. All I could think of was the Charge of the Light Brigade, ‘Ours is not to reason why/ours is but to do and die.’ But orders are orders.

[We got to the top], and soon we were under fire, and we just went around the guys that were firing. Pretty soon the Germans firing the machine guns realized, ‘Hey, there are Americans above, on either side, and below,’ and they surrendered, but not before we took some casualties, because there were minefields we had to go through. I didn’t get caught in that minefield. And we held it. Incidentally, that wasn’t the end of the day. We were on top of the mountain by dawn, but Mount Belvedere was connected by lesser mountains that went off to the northeast, and we had to take that along with Mount Belvedere. It was like a Fort Benning exercise at this point. One company would move up and get shot up, then the battalion commander would move another company through. Then a platoon, the company commander would move one platoon up, and when they got shot up, another platoon would go through. I was the last platoon to be assigned and there was a stopping point—at the end of this [string] of mountains, I had half a platoon left. My platoon sergeant had been killed, a couple of guys had to take prisoners back, and a couple of guys just drifted off. In fact, I went back because the company CP told me to come back for instructions, and I saw two of my guys. They were so scared they were behind a tree with their back to the tree shivering. I said, ‘Hey, guys, you’re in trouble. You get back to your squad right now.’ They did, and I never brought it up. I was a little sympathetic to them because I was scared stiff too! [Chuckles] But officers aren’t supposed to get scared.

At the end of the day I had just about half of a platoon, and I was heading in a defensive position and I said, ‘These Germans are going to counterattack, they never give up without a counterattack.’ I said, ‘We are going to be slaughtered.’

Carl Newton

I never got shot at until I got on Riva Ridge.

Well, of course we climbed it at night. We had to cross a stream with a temporary log bridge on the way up, and we couldn’t see anything, couldn’t really know what was going on. There were fixed ropes here and there on the real steep parts. I remember a guy said, ‘Oh, I lost my helmet,’ and we heard a little clink way down.

I said, ‘Oh my God, where are we?’ Well, we got up on top of Riva Ridge, and it was foggy, and so we were well covered. The Germans were all in bunkers. Some of the guys went down and woke them up with a rifle pointed at them; we captured a lot of them. In fact, I captured a guy, he surrendered really, running down across this hill on top of the ridge. He was dressed in white like we were and I thought it was one of our guys. Well, he got maybe 100 feet from me and he dropped his pistol belt and threw his rifle down, put his hands up, and I realized it was a German. He said to me, ‘Got an American cigarette?’ He spoke pretty good English. He said he’d been freezing his feet off up there for three months and he was glad to get out of there, because all they did was observe. They were artillery observers. They didn’t have any artillery, they would just call it back to the artillery emplacements, and they would shoot, so every time we did much of anything, they would throw a shell at us.

Counterattacked

We could have captured all of them easily, except that one of the guys in the company took a potshot with his sniper rifle at a [German] relief column coming up and alerted them. They turned around and went back down, then that night we got a counter-attack and one of our squads was separated from the rest of the company out on a nose of the ridge. We lost quite a few people there, wounded and killed. So, we had to retake that the next day.

Fred Schuler was pinned down in a foxhole halfway between this platoon and the company, and with his white helmet with a red cross up there made it a good target; they were shooting at him too. Then we had a running, screaming assault to retake that position and I got a [bullet] crease across the back of my helmet, just above my ear on one side. [Another bullet] hit my arm and I turned around and looked at the guy behind me, because I thought he threw something at me to get my attention or something, but it was a bullet. A German hand grenade landed right in front of me, one of those potato mashers. I picked it up and threw it back, and it never did go off; it was a dud, thank goodness.

I had quite a few close calls. Later on, I was running across a potato field outside of Sassomolare; we lost a lot of people in that assault. A bullet went through my helmet, through my wool cap, through my hair, and out the back end, but it never touched me. I wish I could have kept that helmet, but you used the helmet for everything, and it wasn’t that good with a hole in it, so I threw it away. It would have been a good souvenir to have.

Up in Riva Ridge, after that assault, it was a very difficult night, because there were wounded Germans out in front of us. One guy was screaming that he was freezing to death and wanted us to help him. One of the guys in my squad, my assistant gunner on the BAR, had been educated in Switzerland as a young kid and he understood German. And he said, ‘He’s freezing to death, we have to go out and help him.’ We did, and the squad leader interrogated [the German]; he was a captain, but he was shot up really bad and he didn’t make it.

And that was [part of] the trouble we had, we couldn’t get our own wounded off [the mountain] until later when they built a tramway to take our wounded people down on the tram. Paul Petzoldt, the famous mountaineer, was assigned to build that tramway.[1] There was a huge rock at the bottom just across the stream where we started, and they anchored the cable there and then ran the cable up the mountain. Then they fastened the litters to the cable to run them down; it was a fun ride if you weren’t wounded. We had to walk down. See, Riva Ridge was very steep from the American side. On the other side, it was gradual, and the Germans could actually drive up there. It wasn’t easy going, but they could get up there. Of course, they could just hike out. But they never expected anybody could climb from the other way, so they didn’t man any positions at night. We were lucky there, because they could have rolled rocks down and knocked us off the mountain. It would have been absolutely [like] shooting fish in a barrel, because [the terrain] was so difficult. There weren’t any trees at that time. Now, when we went back in ’95, it was all second-growth trees. [Back then], the Italians had stripped the mountain of wood for fire.

[I received the Bronze Star] at Sassomolare. That’s where I got the bullet hole in my helmet. Our squad was going across this field and there was a machine gun in this house, up in the town. [The Germans] had good field of fire and we lost [Bill Crookshank], who got severely wounded; he wound up in the hospital for about three years. They never expected him to make it, but he did. He has his one arm, but it is somewhat useless. Two people in my squad were killed. When I saw them go down, I went out from where we were pinned down to try and see if I could help, but when I got out there, I found out they were both dead. So that’s what I got the Bronze Star for.


The Tenth suffered nearly 1000 killed with four times as many wounded in their four months of combat, including future U.S. Senator Robert Dole. Today, the Tenth was the first to be called up for the rugged terrain fighting in Afghanistan. Returning home after World War II, the veterans of the 10th Mountain Division went on to pioneer and nurture the booming alpine skiing industry.

You can read more in my book. And by the way, that’s the 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain on the cover, in Italy about a month after the capture of Riva Ridge.

Vol. IV The War in Italy. Click on the cover to buy from Amazon, or for hard cover/signed books get it directly from the author. Discounts for sets!

[1] Paul Petzoldt (1908-1999)- accomplished mountaineer, making his first ascent of the Grand Teton at the age of 16. In 1938 he was a member of the first American team to attempt a climb on K2. During the war, he pioneered medical evacuation techniques to soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division. He went on to establish the National Outdoor Leadership School in 1965.

[i]Kennedy, Michelle. Bootprints in History: Mountaineers take the Ridge. U.S. Army, February 19, 2015.

COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

A mother and her daughter murdered at Auschwitz, from a suitcase of photos discovered after the war. Author photo from a montage at Auschwitz Memorial, 2013.

“T-minus” 60 DAYS Countdown to Commemoration at Farsleben, Germany-Partners in the annihilation of millions of innocent souls.

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the train liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local students and others.

In our countdown to commemoration at the site of liberation in Germany, I will share updates and circle back to some early writings or book content.


TIMELINE

  • February 4-11 – The Big Three—FDR, Churchill, Stalin—meet at Yalta.
  • February 8 – Allies launch major offensive to reach the Rhine.
  • February 13-14 – Dresden is incinerated by a firestorm after Allied bombing raids.
  • February 15, 1945: The Red Army liberates the slave-labor camp at Neusalz, Poland.
  • February 17, 1945: Seven Jews, including a small orphan girl, are murdered by a Pole in Sokoly, Poland.
  • February 23, 1945: Nazis evacuate the Jews from the concentration camp at Schwarzheide, Germany. The 300 weakest prisoners are sent in open wagons to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, Germany.
  • February 18, 1945: Five hundred Jews married to Christians are seized throughout Germany and deported to the Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, camp/ghetto.

Source(s): Weber, Louis. The Holocaust Chronicle. Publications International Ltd., 2007. http://www.holocaustchronicle.org


Seventeen-year-old Irene Bleier, liberated at Farsleben that April of 1945, recalled her life turned upside-down after the Germans invaded Hungary in Spring, 1944, and her later arrival at Bergen-Belsen:

April, 1944

The Hungarian government introduced a degrading law forcing us to wear a yellow star on the left side of our clothes. Whoever disobeyed would be punished. My father prepared perfect yellow stars for each of us. Sad reflections overtook his face as he worked.

My father’s instruction that I put on the yellow star filled me with enormous hatred and depression. We always showed great respect and love to both our parents—especially to our father—but now I had to refuse. ‘I cannot wear the disgracing badge,’ I told my father. My father answered that I should wear the star with pride. ‘Show them that you are proud to be a Jew,’ he said. ‘I am proud to be a Jew,’ I told my father. ‘But that pride does not mean that I will let them degrade me and make me a laughingstock.’ Those barbaric demands deeply hurt my self-dignity. The first day I wore the yellow star fell on my seventeenth birthday. Instead of marking the spring of life, my birthday turned into a dark omen for many more hopeless days that followed shortly.

***

The Allied air forces started conducting air raids since the Nazi occupation began. Looking up at the planes in the sky, I wondered why the free countries don’t do something to help us Jews before the Nazis exterminate us. We were innocent victims, and they could have helped us if they wanted to. My soul directed a silent prayer to them—please help us escape the devil’s clutches.

***

An order to pack our belongings and return to the ghetto came suddenly one afternoon. We had to quit work and go right away. Some of the girls cried hysterically, fearful that we would now all be taken with our families to Hitler’s death camps. I was scared stiff and overcome by tears, my brain stiffened by the worry. With great pain, we boarded the horse-cart.

Six horse-carts filled with fifty young Jewish girls made their way through town. Some of us cried uncontrollably, the tears streaming down our faces. The others just cried inside in their hearts. Starting at the outskirts of town, we passed by the Jewish cemetery. Two girls wailed bitterly at this point, bidding farewell to their dead—one to her late mother, the other to her late father. Many people stared at the pitiful sight. If they felt sympathy to the humiliated girl prisoners, none showed any signs.

June, 1944

Early afternoon. All the Jews of the ghetto stood by the gate in the schoolyard. A local Christian midwife had to undress all us women over 16 years old and check our bodies for hidden gold or jewelry. We all crowded into a classroom for this degrading event, but the woman did nothing to us. We just lingered there for a few minutes without being molested. Girls with long hair had to have their hair cut.

We stood in the courtyard with our meager possessions in the one backpack we were allowed to take. The gendarme officer asked if anyone still had any valuables—there were none. Then he shouted that if one person tried to escape, ten people would be shot dead. An old man cried out, ‘Someone please give me rope so that I can hang myself and die here. I do not want to go to a death camp to be killed by Hitler. I would rather do it with my own hands.’ Mrs. Grunfeld, a mother of four small children, quieted him down and asked him not to stir up a panic.

Contradictory thoughts overtook me. On the one hand, I very much wished to disobey these inhuman decrees, run away and hide somewhere. On the other, strong fears stifled my feelings and paralyzed my body, leaving me unable to resist those devilish decrees. I am sure that many others also felt this dissonance. We lived under great mental pressure, paralyzing fear. Our feelings were stifled, and our brains were unable to think clearly—as if dark clouds floated in our heads.

***

A uniformed German SS soldier appeared and called on rabbis and families with four children and more to gather at the center of the yard. Our empty stomachs rumbling, we heard this Nazi bawl out instructions to us. We were about to start a long ‘walking tour.’ For many of us, this would be a death march to Auschwitz.

Thus, after starving for four days, we commenced our march. German SS guards watched from both sides as we marched in rows of five. None of us tried to escape. We were too depressed, our will power broken down, wholly tormented. We soon arrived at a camp overcrowded with other fellow, desperate Jews, stopped for a while, and then continued the humiliating journey. As Jewish men aged 18-48 were long ago taken to forced labor camps, the marching contingent was composed of young girls, mothers, babies, and children, along with many old and sick human souls. Trucks car-ried our backpacks while we marched for grueling hours in our mournful procession through small towns. The Christian townsfolk stared at us, nobody pouring tears, nobody expressing sympathy.
We arrived one afternoon at a small farm where we were accommodated in empty tobacco sheds. The armed Hungarian gendarmes who carefully watched us let us walk outside a fixed distance from the sheds during the day. We saw how a heartless gendarme chased away a Jewish child who tried to pick up some food on the ground.
Another day of beautiful, joyous sunshine came Saturday morning, but not for us on June 25, 1944. By Sunday afternoon, we packed our backpacks and prepared to board the nearby train trucks. When we entered the strongly chloroformed boxcars, many people became dizzy or fainted. Ninety people crowded into each boxcar, and we were each given half a slice of tasty dark bread and a little water, which we quickly consumed. Quite a few people died during this week-long journey.

As the Jewish transports did not appear on the regular railway schedule, we were often stranded for hours under the blazing sun waiting for our turn to travel. We received no food or water. People urinated and took care of their natural needs aboard the train, spreading a putrid odor. Small children and babies cried themselves to sleep out of sheer exhaustion, from hunger and thirst, from the wholly wretched situation we were in. Some of the men donned their tefillin and fervently beseeched the Almighty to save us, ‘Look upon your forsaken children, see what the world is doing to them and send help; pull us out of this catastrophe before it is too late—if it isn’t already.’

The transport hurtled along mostly at night, rocking us to sleep. We dreamed of freedom, of home, of plentiful food and water. Each time the train stopped, so did our dreams. We sadly woke up to the dreadful reality. During air raids, the cowardly SS guards locked us inside the train, taking cover themselves in bomb shelters.

Our transport stopped one day by the train station, with many Hungarian soldiers and civilians all around. My cousin Magda peeked out of a tiny window at the side of the boxcar and begged a Hungarian officer for a little water. He promptly denied Magda’s request. How could anyone be so cruel? Even dangerous criminals condemned to death receive their last request. Why are innocent Jews treated even worse?
Is there no more justice left on earth?

Our journey reached a turning point on Thursday afternoon as we left Hungarian territory, soon arriving at a nearby small Polish town. Our transport was delayed at the station and another transport with Jews being deported to annihilation centers stood nearby.

After a while, our transport’s locomotive went to the rear—we were going to travel backwards. We soon went back onto Hungarian soil. At first, we fooled ourselves into believing that the Hungarian government claimed us back and would not let us be taken to annihilation. It took just a short while, however, for us to face our destiny. Now our transport traveled swiftly. We left behind the country that we mistakenly believed was our homeland.

***

Thus our journey continued, coming to a stop after an unknown amount of time. We dragged ourselves out of the boxcars as the doors were unlatched, the Nazi guard roaring out orders. We had to line up at our destination, the Bergen–Celle train station, a slow and steady rainfall welcoming us.

Since we were chased out of our former homes, dark skies and steady rain greeted us at each new location. Such a marvelous sensation this phenomenon gave me. I was overcome with a special feeling that somehow even managed to uplift my darkened spirit. It came to me as a message from the heavens, which were venting their anger: The Almighty shares in our tragedy and is pouring tears of sorrow; He is crying on our behalf. These thoughts planted seeds of hope and faith into my soul against the backdrop of the great catastrophe.

Lined up in rows of five, we set out on our sad march. Army trucks delivered our backpacks. German SS Nazi soldiers escorted us. The group I was in consisted mainly of women and children, some old people and a few young ones; men aged 18 to 48 were taken to forced army labor several years before, where most had perished from starvation, from inhuman beatings, or from freezing to death in sub-zero weather.

Our group marched in the middle of the road, with a few stone houses to our left, curious eyes staring at us from the windows. I felt deep humiliation, but the people who should have felt the shame were those staring at us from the houses. We were innocent, defenseless people; they were partners in the annihilation of millions of innocent souls.

from the narrative of Irene Bleier Muskal, edited for inclusion in A Train Near Magdeburg (The Young Adult Adaptation): The Holocaust, the Survivors, and the American Soldiers who Saved Them 

COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

“WATER, WATER!”
by Train Near Magdeburg survivor Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection. USHMM.

“T-minus” 65 DAYS Countdown to Commemoration at Farsleben, Germany-Millions of people were on the move.

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the train liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local students and others.

In our countdown to commemoration at the site of liberation in Germany, I will share updates and circle back to some early writings or book content. Millions of people were on the move; survivor Leslie Meisels remembers “the first miracle of my survival.”


  • Late January 1945: 29,000 Jews, mostly women, are evacuated on forced marches from Danzig, Poland, and Stutthof, Poland. Only 3000 survive.
  • Late January 1945: Thousands of Jews are sent on a death march from the Lamsdorf camp near Breslau, Germany, westward toward Thuringia, Germany. Hundreds die or are killed on the way.
  • February 1945: Ukrainian nationalists hunt down and murder Jews throughout the Ukraine.February 1945: Allied forces close on Cologne, Germany.
  • February 3, 1945: 3500 prisoners from Gross-Rosen, Germany, are marched southwest to the concentration camp at Flossenbürg, Germany, nearly 200 miles away. Five hundred will die on the way. Two thousand more are evacuated by train to the labor camp at Ebensee, Austria, near Mauthausen; 49 will die on the journey and another 182 will perish at the camp.
  • February 8, 1945: Soviet troops are 30 miles east of Dresden, Germany.
    February 13, 1945: German troops surrender Budapest, Hungary.
    February 13, 1945: The SS evacuates the concentration camp at Gross-Rosen, Germany.

Source(s): Weber, Louis. The Holocaust Chronicle. Publications International Ltd., 2007. http://www.holocaustchronicle.org


Seventeen-year-old Leslie Meisels, liberated at Farsleben that April of 1945, recalled disobeying his mother for the first time in his life after the Germans invaded Hungary in Spring, 1944::

On the third day, there was an announcement that families with five or more children had to report to the railway track, where a group was being assembled for transport. We knew that people were being taken away, but the government’s propaganda emphasized that any rumors we heard about Jews undergoing cruelty at the hands of the Nazis was just that, a rumor; they made us believe that for the remainder of the war, which we hoped would be short, we were being sent somewhere for slave labor. As bad as that seemed, we still thought that if they wanted our labor, they would have to give us food and shelter. At the tannery we had nothing, and so we believed that anywhere else would be better. We didn’t know at that time about the Nazis’ unparalleled, unimaginable annihilation plan, already working full blast in Auschwitz and the other death camps.

Later, there was another announcement calling for families with four children to report to the train. One of my best friends, who had four siblings and was going to be on that transport, came to me saying that they had heard that they needed eight more families with three children to make up the quota and asked if we wanted to come along with their group. I went back to my mother and told her this, even though nobody knew where the people on the transport were going or what would happen to the rest of us. My mother said we shouldn’t go because they hadn’t called for families with three children.

I have to explain that in those days, a seventeen-year-old never, ever, said ‘no’ to his or her parents. Up to that moment, I, too, had never spoken back to my mother, but this time I said, ‘We’re not staying! We’re going!’ We argued back and forth until I grabbed my belongings and started to walk. She had no choice but to follow. My father had already been taken away to the unknown, and she didn’t want her family to be broken up any further.

I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know now, what made me defy my mother, but it was the first miracle of my survival, [for this was a transport that was shunted away from Auschwitz towards Austria].

***

The doors closed, and the train took off to an unknown destination. In that closed-in, dark, crowded place we were given two 25-liter pails, one with drinking water and one for human waste. The water was soon gone, and the waste pail flowed over. These were changed, refilled, and emptied once a day when we stopped at a station. On the seventh day, we arrived at a town called Strasshof in Austria, about 25 kilometers northeast of Vienna, a central transit station for deportees arriving from Hungary and other places. When the door opened, we heard Germans harshly yelling, ‘Raus! Raus!’ ‘Out! Out!’ As we left our car, I saw several bodies being carried out from each of the wagons. Six or eight bodies were carried out of ours. Many had succumbed from lack of food, water, and ventilation.

We were all sent into a large room and together—children, adolescent boys and girls, mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers—had to disrobe and march naked to a shower between two lines of laughing, pointing, machine-gun-toting SS guards with dogs. Walking to that shower was the very first real dehumanization I experienced. It drove into our minds the fact that we were not who we used to be, not individuals who had our own dignity, respected within our communities, but, rather, people who the SS guards considered to be subhuman. I was stunned, as were my mother and grandmother. All those laws that had existed in Hungary for a number of years and prevented Jews from living a free and normal life, even the German occupation and being forced to wear the yellow star—none of it was as psychologically damaging as this was. It wasn’t just a physically and mentally unpleasant experience—this was the ultimate shock from which I don’t think I recovered.

***

As we waited, we saw some of the people who had come with us on the train being led back to the cattle wagons, and we all wondered where they were going. When we saw that our respected rabbi and his wife who were both in their late seventies, were being forced into one of these cattle wagons, my mother gave me a half-full pot of roasted flour and goose fat we had been saving and told me to take it to them because they might need it. I went right over to the wagon and finding the door slightly open, gave them the pot from my mother. After thanking me, the rabbi put his hands on top of my head and recited the priestly blessing, ‘May God keep you… bless you and be gracious to you….’ It was very moving, and I felt touched. He had barely finished the blessing when an SS guard came over and slammed the door shut, pushing me away. This has always stayed with me.[1]

[1] This has always stayed with me-Thirty-five years later, Leslie had the opportunity to meet the granddaughter of this beloved rabbi, and share her grandfather’s blessing with her.

from the narrative of Leslie Meisels, used with his permission, edited for inclusion in A Train Near Magdeburg (The Young Adult Adaptation): The Holocaust, the Survivors, and the American Soldiers who Saved Them 

 

COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

“T-minus” 77 DAYS Countdown to Commemoration at Farsleben-the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau II

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the train liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local school kids and others.

In our countdown to commemoration at the site of liberation in Germany, I will share updates and circle back to some of my earlier writings.


Auschwitz-Birkenau-July, 2013

75 years ago, today, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated.

After the ‘tour’ of Auschwitz I, we have lunch on the bus in the parking lot, and then drive the three kilometers through town to Birkenau.

The entry tower is the iconic symbol of evil, menacing and devouring as we are pulled closer on this overcast day. We follow the guide up the stairs in the tower. From here we can see the sheer vastness of the camp.

Dozens of long, narrow women’s barracks, brick, still stand, albeit some braced with wood on the gable ends to keep them from toppling until they can be re-pointed. Our guide indicates that historic preservation here is a major concern.

The rest of the camp is many square kilometers of row upon row of foundations and brick chimney stubs, surrounded by the intimidating curved and tapered concrete posts dotted with white insulators and strung with miles of parallel lines of barbed wire.

In the summer of 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian families were deported here, the rail lines came right into the camp. Following the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews- ushmm

Our guide leads us along the path through the camp that leads to the gas chamber and crematorium. We walk in silence along the roadway, the only sound the crunching of brick fragments and gravel underfoot. It appears to have been paved with brick, slave labor of course, though in some spots it is hard to tell anymore. No one speaks, and on and on we walk.

Two minutes.

Five minutes.

Ten minutes.

Fifteen minutes. I’ve been on historic battlefields that are smaller than this site.

Finally we reach the end of the camp where the kitchens stood. A round concrete ring rises out of the earth, maybe 6 feet in diameter. Someone finally speaks and asks our guide what it was. It was for flowers, a giant flowerpot.  She tells us that they were also placed near the entrances of the gas chambers.

Flowers at the gas chambers.

We turn left and keep walking past interpretative signage. It seems like we are walking outside of the camp perimeter, but we are not. Beautiful woods of white birch appear, and we are walking on the edge of the woods with the camp to our left.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

We stop near another sign and rest for a moment, allowing the others to catch up. Then our guide calls our attention to the photo on the sign, showing Hungarian mothers and children doing the same thing we are doing. Halting and resting.

And a short path through the woods will take us to the ruins of the gas chamber/crematorium Number Five.

We are resting at the spot they rested at, 20 minutes after walking, immediately after disembarking from overcrowded transports that they had been traveling on for days. Here they waited, anxiously, as their turn to approach the chamber would come. But the victims of the transport ahead of them had to be removed from the chamber first. Some days in the summer of 1944, these victims were backed up for hours.

I pick up a rock from the path and carry it with me past the ruins. At the ash field there is more signage and a memorial asking visitors not to walk through the field. I place my stone on the memorial, looking down to watch where I step. But it is probably a futile gesture—this whole place is an ash yard, a graveyard. So many Hungarian Jews were killed in the Auschwitz camps in that season of murder that the crematoria were incapable of burning all the bodies, so open-air burning pits had to be utilized.

The secret sondercommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

We turn again and walk past the remains of crematorium Number Four to the disinfection center for those selected to be worked to death. Again, there was a system.

Disrobing.

Wading through disinfectant.

Shower.

Uniform thrown at you, mismatched clogs or shoes.

Elaine’s mother spent two years here. Her grandmother and the little ones were selected upon arrival. Her mom’s teenage sister was shot in the quarry after slipping while carrying a large pot of soup in the ice and snow with three other girls.

Today is a hard day. I feel helpless. There is nothing I can do.

The Red Army liberated this place on January 27, 1945. At the Soviet memorial constructed near the two destroyed gas chambers/crematorium at the end, we have a remembrance ceremony. Kaddish is recited in Hebrew. I read it aloud in English today to the group. With tears, Elaine tells us that she feels her grandmother smiling down on this extraordinary group of dedicated teachers. A lump rises in my throat again. I swallow hard and try to blink back the wetness I feel welling in my eyes, so I am glad for the sunglasses, even though there is no sun. The plaque reminds:

A Warning to Humanity.’

We light candles, turn our backs, and just walk out, which allows for another twenty-minute stretch of quiet, personal reflection. We have come to the epicenter of evil. We have been to Auschwitz; we try to process—but we just cannot.