Only a few weeks back, I was teaching a lesson to my 12th graders on the German invasion of the USSR in the second half of 1941. We were at December 6th, 1941, and the dramatic launching of Marshal Zhukov’s counteroffensive outside of Moscow, to be followed the next day by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that drew us into the war, when the phone rang in the back of the classroom. It could have been one of the school secretaries calling to let me know that a student needed to be excused, so I told the seniors it was probably the President calling again, so ‘Hold that thought’, and I dashed to the back of the room.
Now, my classroom has enjoyed an outside line for a while, ever since the American soldiers and the Holocaust survivors began to find me and this website. I have fielded calls from all over the world, from survivors and their families and even major news organizations and museums. So I picked up the phone, and was met by a familiar voice with a delightful cadence and greeting: “Matt Rozell, God bless you!”
It was Walter, the 92 year old former medic who had taken care of the sick and dying Holocaust survivors at Hillersleben in 1945 after the liberation of the train. He was calling to praise my recent book, which I had sent to him, telling me that he had read it in three or four sittings and needed to read it again, and again. He thanked me over and over for remembering him, and the medics and soldiers and officers of the 95th Medical Battalion, who raced to save as many as they could. I told the kids later that Walter had told me that at their WWII reunions, these medics never spoke about Hillersleben. It was just too traumatic.
I turned the speakerphone on and the kids got to listen in. I passed the book around the room as he spoke, the chapter called ‘The Medics’ marked on the page with Walter’s photograph. As we talked, I noticed that one of the senior girls in the class was very moved by the conversation, which struck us out of the blue, just as did Walter’s initial call to me five years ago. He closed by wishing us all well, a blessing to our families as well. Afterwards, the kids asked about learning more about Walter and asked if they could be reading my second book in our class (they just finished the first one). I told them I hoped so—I’ll bring in a case of books. It’s an excellent introduction to the most horrific crime in the history of the world, and written in many ways to them, our young people. The class last year before them told me this—they actually served as beta readers, and helped to shape the final product.
We did some good in the world, here in this classroom, and in keeping the good deeds of Walter and the medics of the 95th Medical Battalion alive. Here’s to Walter and all of the old soldiers and survivors we have been blessed to connect with, and here is to the kids, who want to KNOW. Here is to the magic that ushers forth from the universe when a teacher connects with his students to trip the wires of the cosmos, again and again. We did not just teach history here; we made it. These are the thoughts that I think I will hold on to, when my time in this room is up.
Excerpt from CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
A few weeks following the last school reunion in 2011, I got a phone call in my classroom from a man in Scranton, Pennsylvania. To this day, I do not know how he found me. After four years of not hearing from any other American soldier who had something to do with this ‘Train near Magdeburg’, I had come to the conclusion that it was now all over. Walter Gantz proved me wrong, and not only did he play an important role, he knew of several others who were also still alive to share their experiences at the convalescent base/camp at Hillersleben.
Walter was part of the 95th Medical Gas Treatment Battalion, trained extensively to treat chemical warfare casualties. When no gas was deployed by the enemy in combat, Walter and his outfit stepped right into the role of treating other casualties of the battlefield. He recalled surveying the train at Farsleben, and the memories of treating the victims over the next seven weeks haunted him right up until his contact with me. I spoke with Walter several times on the phone, and we exchanged letters; I also put him in contact with at least four of the survivors of the train, two of whom would go on to meet him in Scranton to speak at a Holocaust symposium. At my suggestion, Walter was interviewed by a film crew in 2016.
Walter ‘Babe’ Gantz
Basically, there were four medical battalions—the 92nd, 93rd, 94th, and 95th. We were the ‘baby battalion’. We were extensively trained in chemical warfare. In fact, that was our top priority, in case they used chemical agents and that was it. We were a sophisticated outfit. In fact, Colonel Bill Hurteau, our commander, he said we were the cream of the crop [chuckles]. Maybe he was right, I don’t know.
I was part of a so-called ‘advance party’. There were about 10 or 12 of us from the 95th and as you know the train was discovered on the 13th of April of ’45. Our advance party was at Farsleben on the 14th, or the next day—the situation was beyond description. These people were emaciated and like they say, ‘living skeletons’; most of them could hardly walk. [Shakes head] It was a horrible sight. Some people say there were sixteen that passed away on the train. Other reports say thirty, so I would say thirty. They were buried down the knoll adjacent to the train.
When we left the 95th on detached service [to investigate the train, we went with] Captain Deutsch, who was one of the surgeons… He was numb. He didn’t say anything, just that we were ‘on a special assignment’. That was the extent of it, until we got to Farsleben and we went down to the train itself. That was a nightmare… God Almighty! [Shakes head] Boy… [Pauses]… Unbelievable. That’s the only word I can think of, unbelievable…You know, you’re seeing these people in person, and yet you just couldn’t comprehend that these things happened in this world that people would be so inhuman to other human beings. It was tough. You felt helpless, really.
[The initial scene] was chaotic. Most of the survivors were just wandering around and you have to remember these people, they were treated worse than animals. They were starved and like I said, it was very chaotic. They were looting the homes and I can understand. They were getting fur coats and dresses. In fact, I remember there was one woman, I think she had three different dresses on. It was tough but … A lot of them were lice-infested. God, I’ve seen so many lice, unbelievable. You could grab quite a handful, really. A lot of these people we had to clip their hair. There were so many unsanitary conditions. These people were in rags. In most cases, we had to burn their clothes. Fortunately, we had a means of setting up showers. There was a nearby pond and we had generators because we were a sophisticated unit, as I said. We would give these people showers or wash them down.
How do you settle all these people? We’re talking like twenty-four hundred people, and how do you feed them? That was one of the biggest problems we had, but fortunately, we found several ‘food dumps’ as we called them, and we were fortunate in getting a lot. Actually, we took over a dairy farm, and we were provided with beef, and pork, and milk for those who could sustain milk. You have to remember a lot of these people couldn’t eat whole food because if they did, if they were to gorge for themselves, they would die. We had to feed them intravenously and that was one of my jobs. I have to say, I was a sharpshooter when it came to injections. It was difficult. We had so many.
We talk about nightmares and flashbacks. I never had any nightmares where I would scream, but there are two so-called flashbacks I remember and they stayed with me for many, many years. [In the first] I could see myself climbing these stairs and all of a sudden, I’m inserting a needle into this elderly gentleman’s arm. Of course, you have to remember, they were skin and bones. The veins would roll and he was screaming, really screaming. That had to be very painful, because they were skin and bones—to try to find a vein; it was easy to overshoot a vein. It was heart wrenching to hear those people sobbing and actually screaming because a lot of them thought they were still at Bergen–Belsen, really.
[In the second] incident, I used to work a twelve-hour shift, from eight in the evening to eight in the morning. In the wee hours of the morning, this young girl died. For some reason, I wrapped her up in a blanket and I carried her down the stairs and I was crying.
We had a war tent that was used as a makeshift morgue. I placed her in there. I wonder why I would do that; I must have liked her for some reason. I didn’t have to do that, because we had a team that took care of those who died, and placed them in the morgue.
I spent seven weeks with these people. Most of us spent seven weeks and during our so-called watch, 106 people died… God, it was tough. [This girl] was actually fifteen years old. Her name was Eva and you might say, ‘How was it possible that he could carry her?’ She probably weighed 60 pounds, maybe. I thought about that many times, and I must have been attracted to her for some reason. That haunted me, really. It really haunted me.
I must admit I shed a lot of tears and I prayed. I prayed that they would pass on, that they would find peace and for those who survived, that their health would be restored—and dignity. Dignity is so important in life—dignity, that was the main thing. It was difficult.
The full narrative is available here.