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D-Day and Beyond: The Things Our Fathers Saw—The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation-Volume V

NEW BOOK: D-DAY AND BEYOND

 

“We know we don’t have much time left, so I tell my story, so people know it was because of that generation, because of those guys in this cemetery. All these generals with all this brass, that don’t mean nothing. These guys in the cemetery, they are the heroes.” 

-99-year-old Steve Melnikoff, World War II veteran, standing at the Normandy American Cemetery, June 6, 2019.


Did you pay attention when the 75th anniversary of D-Day rolled around?

Only a few of our veterans of the battle of Normandy and France who still with us were able to make the trip. In my time on this planet, I knew of several who landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6th, 1944, and in the weeks that followed. I talked to them, recorded what they had to say, as did my like-minded students and friends. And that is what this book is about; sadly, most have now passed on, but I want to keep them alive for future generations of Americans.

I talked to them, recorded what they had to say, as did my like-minded students and friends. And that is what this book is about; sadly, most have now passed on, but I want to keep them alive for future generations of Americans.

For the cover, I went to the National Archives and chose a public domain photograph that is very famous; in fact, it has been used several times before for books on D-Day. My book is a bit different than all the others, though, and I wanted the cover to reflect that. So I had my designer zoom in on the men—the face of the soldier half-turned, the image of the men wading through the murderous surf toward the obstacle littered Omaha Beach, their backs laden down with equipment and trying to keep rifles dry.

What makes this book different from all the rest? Well, like the rest of the books in my ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’ series, I wanted the men to speak for themselves; I weave their stories into a tapestry of contextual historical experience for the reader, but I want the overall impression you get to be as if you yourself are sitting down across the kitchen table with someone who is baring his soul. When interviewed, our World War II generation realized that time was no longer on their side, and they had something to get off their chests, some never having spoken about their wartime experiences before. Some guys got emotional. Some were speaking to young people about their own age when they had to go to war. It was cathartic, and I wanted this book to reflect that.


An engineer dropping into the surf to clear beach obstacles is suddenly struck by a vision of the postman delivering his KIA telegram to the family house back home.
*
A tank driver recalls the bullets pinging off his Sherman as it advanced up the beach, like someone throwing marbles at a car, wondering, with his limited view, if he was driving over the bodies of dead and dying men.
*
The Coast Guardsman directed back to the fantail of his ship, only to find his hometown friend, killed earlier that day, propped up for the return to England.
*
The GI later buried alive in his foxhole by a German artillery round, teeth knocked out, still feeling the shrapnel in his cheek every morning when he shaves.


And many more. To be sure, this is an important work; it’s currently battling it out for the #1 New Release in United States Veterans History over at Amazon. While I am still working on it, I have made the ebook available for pre-order for my followers at a discounted price, which will rise the day it is released. Once the ebook is released, the paperback and hardcover versions also be available. (Some of you have asked about the availability of hardcover books; I am happy to report that you can order them for all of my titles, from Amazon and other booksellers or directly from me, autographed).

Just 4 summers ago, I released my first book. This will be my 6th new title. As always, thanks for your support and I think you will enjoy this volume. Remember.

Matthew Rozell

Two Franks.

The “Two Franks” in this story are American World War II soldier/liberator Frank Towers and a Dutch teen named Anne Frank. Today is Anne Frank’s 90th birthday, had she survived; Frank would be 102 tomorrow, so I’m re-posting from the original in 2017.  Rest easy, friends. The world is a better place because you were in it.


My friend Frank Towers would have turned 102 years old tomorrow. Frank passed on July 4th, 2016.

Frank W. Towers.

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

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

Frank Towers by Pete Fredlake, USHMM, 2010.

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

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

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

*

There’s talk this week in Holocaust education circles of another important birthday, and another ‘Frank’—Anne Frank would have turned 90 today.  She came into the world on June 12, 1929, in Frankfurt, Germany; I’ve seen the house where she was born, and I’ve been to the place where she died, at age 15. I’ve met some of her friends. Just shy of her last birthday, on June 6th, 1944, she recorded the following entry:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tuesday morning, June 6, 1944. Omaha Beach. National Archives.

So, it is the sixth of June again.

American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, the primary landing zone for Americans during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

The ocean pounds the advance of sand amidst the relics of a different age, the hulking remnants of the tide of battle. The surf rolls in and kisses the beach, as the last participants mix on the hallowed bluff above with the politicians who have gathered from all over the world.

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

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

I wanted to talk to the men who were there.

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

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

So now it is the seventy-fifth. On the 65th, I wrote about a friend, Buster Simmonds, a combat medic who is no longer with us. Last year, I featured a living D-Day veteran, Bill Gast, a tanker who made it from surf to beach and beyond. Sadly, Bill passed last December.

And today I am hard at work on the fifth oral history in my World War II series, ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw: D-Day and Beyond’, due for release in August. Featured in it is one of our frequent classroom visitors, Tony Leone, a Coast Guard veteran of D-Day aboard an LST. And as I was working on his narrative this past March, footage of his ACTUAL SHIP, LST 27, was discovered, loading up for D-Day [click the photo below, it is only a minute long].

Tony left us in 2010. I’ll leave you with the book excerpt below. And remember to pause for a moment this day, June 6th, to think about what they did, 75 years ago.



Excerpt from ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw: D-Day and Beyond, by Matthew A. Rozell

He sits behind a student desk, wearing a medal presented to him by the French government that he also wears to Mass every Sunday. ‘I wear it with pride to pay homage to those fellows who burned alive next to me. I made it and they didn’t. It still bothers me.’

He rests on his walking cane and leans forward as he speaks. He is animated—he motions with his hands to emphasize his points. A prolific author and newspaper letter writer, Anthony’s mission is to educate the public about what his generation of Americans went through: ‘It would be at least 25 years after World War II before I could begin to think about the experiences of that time. They were buried deep in my subconscious and remained there so that my mind and body could heal.’

Anthony F.J. Leone

The Invasion of Normandy

 

I got assigned to USS LST 27. I said to myself, ‘What the heck is an LST?’ We boarded in Norfolk, Virginia. I carried my sea bag, along with the rest of the graduates of boot camp, up this long gangway. This was the biggest vessel I had ever seen in my life! If you had it up here on Lake George, it was 327 feet long, imagine that, and 50 feet wide. That’s a big ship.

‘LST’ stands for ‘Landing Ship, Tanks’. What we did is to carry small boats. We sent the small boats in first loaded with troops and vital supplies, then we came in right up to the beachhead with the LSTs and opened the bow doors and dropped the ramps. But on D-Day, not even the small boats could get in among the obstacles, and there were mines all over the place. They were killing our soldiers like sheep to the slaughter.

*

We left Norfolk in March of 1944 and landed in Africa. We had gone through bad air raids by the Germans in the Mediterranean and U-boat attacks but we survived. One ship was hit and set afire, a ship carrying lumber, and incidentally the crews couldn’t get the fire out; it was in the stern of our convoy. We got attacked by the Luftwaffe, JU-88s and Dornier torpedo bombers.

We reached Africa without further incident and then we sailed for England. We landed in Swansea, Wales, and we got liberty [after] we unloaded an LCT from the ship. An LCT is a long, wide, flat-box sort of landing craft where the ramp drops down and the conning tower is in the back, and we had one topside. We carried it piggyback; what we did was fill the starboard bilge tanks with water and then chop the cables holding the LCT on, onto these greased wooden skids. By severing the cables, the thing would slam into the water with a big splash. We got rid of that thing because there were some heavy seas and we were top heavy. These were the craft that what would land the men, later on.

About the end of May, about a week before D-Day, we went to Southampton, and then to Falmouth, to become part of the back-up force for the D-Day landings. We took on units from the 175th Infantry, which belonged to the 29th Division. Everything was frozen in place, we couldn’t move. The area was sealed off, we couldn’t go on liberty, we couldn’t visit the British girls, which was quite a sacrifice in those days, since they were all over the Yanks. We were like the invention of sliced bread; the British girls couldn’t get enough of the Yanks. [Laughs] We had a lot of money I guess, and we showed up the British service men pretty bad. The American troops over there, their behavior was abominable. The British treated them really good, but the Americans were spoiled had a lot of money, and… well, it’s the same old story.

They sealed us off, and on the 4th and 5th of June we were ready to go. We headed toward ‘Piccadilly Circus’, that was the code name of the circle in the middle of the Channel that we were supposed rendezvous at, from there the flotillas would go towards the English beachheads [in Normandy] and we would go towards the American beachheads, Omaha Beach and Utah Beach.

We went out to the sea on the 5th, and it was really stormy. Eisenhower was really blown away by [the weather]. So, they waited, and I guess a British meteorologist saw a break, a window in the weather. Eisenhower had decided to go for it, he had his fingers crossed, he had a letter ready apologizing for the loss of lives and withdraw from the continent in case it failed.[1] So, we went, the first units moved up from British ports of Southampton, London, Plymouth and Portland. We were the second, the backup force from Falmouth.

The Americans had gotten off the beach by late June 6th. Of course, [before that], the Germans had mowed them down like a wheat field. As I said before, there were German privates just sitting there with machine guns, just killing Americans and crying as they were doing it, ‘Please go back, I don’t want to kill no more!’ [Repeats this line in German]. At one point, General Bradley was going to pull them off, take all the people at Omaha Beach and bring them over to Utah. Utah was a pretty successful landing—there, casualties were [far less].

By the time we got to the [Omaha] beachhead the next day, it was a mess. We came in with the LSTs. We had already launched our LCVPs [on June 6] which brought in the troops, the ‘Landing Craft Vehicle-Personnel’, that is, a Higgins Boat. It was invented by Andrew Higgins, a boat builder from the United States. Then it was time for us to come in and unload the tanks.

It was now June 7th; all you saw was a layer of white smoke on the beach. The [US Army] Rangers had gotten in behind the Germans, but when we [first arrived there with the big ship], it was still hot, there were still mines all over the place, hedgehogs and stakes driven in the ground with Teller mines sitting on them. At high tide when you came in you couldn’t see them. Our LCVPs had to negotiate between them, this was impossible at high tide, you had to wait until the tide was way out, then the soldiers had to walk almost half a mile over bare land, no foliage or anything.

As we came in, it was pretty hard to negotiate because the mined obstacles were still all over the place and there were pieces of human bodies floating all over. The American soldiers had the life belts on that you activate, and they inflated because they had a CO2 cartridge. But because the guys had heavy packs on, it would up-end them and drown them because they couldn’t get loose. We saw a lot of soldiers floating that way. Their life belts worked alright, but they killed them. Their bodies floated to and fro all day long.

After we saw that, we were not too enthusiastic about going in and hitting the beach—we said, ‘If this is happening out here, what is going to happen there?’ Even though it was a couple days later, we were all armed to the teeth. We had our clothing well-impregnated with chemicals to withstand a gas attack, and when your body got out of it, that stuff would drive you crazy.

We proceeded in. Now up in our conning tower, our officers had barricaded themselves behind a pile of mattresses up in the bridge, not that they were ‘chicken’, they were just being smart about the whole thing, they didn’t want to get hit with shrapnel.

We had that on and we were all ready to go over, life jackets and helmets, I was manning the 20mm gun and all of a sudden, the public address system crackled. I heard the damnedest noise, that scared me more than the enemy, really, when it first came on [singing], ‘Mairzy doats and dozy doats And liddle lamzy divey/ A kiddley divey too/ Wouldn’t you?’. It was the voice of our skipper, and he was dead drunk. [Laughs] Now understand that he was a very solemn-looking individual, dark, so dark that at night we couldn’t see him, so we called him ‘The Shadow’—when he walked on the bridge, all you would see was the glow of his cigarette. He would let it burn to his lips and then spit it out, he was [tough as nails]. So here is this guy who is fearless, and as we were going in, he is singing ‘Mairzy Doats’[2] I would have chosen a different tune really, but everyone burst out laughing, so it was a morale builder in a sense. It told us the captain was human after all, and he was just as much afraid as we were!

So we went in and hit the beach, started up the ventilator fans as we had big tubes coming out of the tank deck to suck the exhaust fumes out—and incidentally, both their vehicles were burning oil, don’t know why, poor maintenance. They got them going and the trucks were towing—this was the 175th Heavy Tank Company, it was part of the 29th Division—they started to move out when the brake seized on the 57mm anti-tank cannon carriage they were towing in the back of the lead truck. Marion Burroughs, a friend of mine who was driving it later told me, ‘God that saved my life, that brake locking up like that, it never happened before in all my years of working with it.’ That’s the way things happen, you know. He motioned for the other truck to go back around him—it was an army wrecker, used for picking up tanks or wrecked vehicles. It went around and both of the vehicles went out, the wrecker hit a mine just coming off the ramp. They had it taped off where it was safe you know, I still think they went ‘off the tape’, the taped-off lanes to distinguish between the mined and unmined areas… It blew up and there were bodies all over the place and the trucks were filled with Chesterfield and Old Gold cigarettes, I remember vividly; ‘Lucky Strike had gone to war’ with gold packaging—they had taken the green out of the cigarette wrapper to save the cadmium that was green, I think—well, I remember those cigarettes just went all over the place, bazooka shells, the thing was loaded with ammo and gasoline and it went up, a flaming cauldron—it was like a blast furnace! These poor guys were screaming and they were pinned to the frame and you could see the rubber of the tires all turning to liquid and dripping. And their screams! It seemed like they screamed long after life left their bodies. I still hear them sometimes. If you ever hear a person screaming in agony when they were being burned alive… [looks down, shakes head]

We went out to see what we could do. I reached down and a piece of shrapnel came through the top of my helmet, punched it open, and broke some skin. I didn’t realize it until later, when the thing fell off my head and landed on the deck. You couldn’t get near the fire because the flames were so hot. A couple of individuals did rescue somebody, and I went out again to get another helmet. They were all over the place, like coconuts. I saw one with netting on it, and I went to get it and ‘zing-zing-zing’ [gestures quickly, tapping the air in succession three times], there were little bursts of sand right in front of it, some German probably anticipated my move and said, ‘well, this guy’s not going to get his helmet.’

One of our officers, a deck officer, a little fellow named Serge, went out and dragged somebody back to the ship. Now they had always made fun of Serge because of his size; he was puny, like another Don Knotts, all nervous and such. They all used to pick on him, like making him stand on a table because he was Jewish, things like that; that was World War II, you know. A colored steward would have to stand on the back of the bus—even though he survived a lot of battles, he had to stand on the back of the bus in Norfolk, Virginia. This is what World War II was really like.

He went out in the surf, the crazy [son of a gun, and rescued some guys], and he got back, I think he got the Silver Star or something for it. He was ten-foot-tall in our eyes after that. Finally, we closed the damn bow door; we lifted the ramp—it takes ages for that thing to come up on chains—and we closed the bow. We waited for the fires to subside and the flames went down, and we went out. We hated to see what was still out there. Things were still hot, fires were still burning, everything was gone—it was just bones sitting there, grinning skeletons.

[Later] on Utah Beach on June 19, a big storm stirred up a lot of mines. As we were coming in our lookout yelled, ‘Stop engines! Wreckage in the water, dead ahead!’ We slowed and stopped. Apparently, there was an LCT that had been hit earlier and it was laying there. Had we gone another 25 or 30 feet, we would have been impaled, practically stuck on the thing—so we couldn’t move. We reversed and motioned for the LST in line behind us to go around us. When they went around us, and as they made that move alongside, they blew right in half; they struck a mine. Now try to picture a huge structure like an LST, 327 feet long, welded steel, 50 feet wide, blowing in two, [lifting out of the water and straight up into the air]. The crew aboard it had a motley assortment of pets. They had pigeons, and chickens—what the hell would you have a chicken onboard for?—chickens, and dogs and cats; this was strictly forbidden, but they let them get away with it. Just before, we had been waving to the guys and laughing at the animals. We were the ‘Suicide Navy’, they called us. A very apropos title.

There were medical teams assigned to all the landing ships, like the LSTs, and they were composed of one or two naval doctors and a team of corpsmen. We had a surgical operating station in the back of the tank section, it was a complete operating room and they operated on the wounded there. At times we’d go back to eat, and we’d set our trays down in the dining room. They’d operate on the tables there, and our trays would slide in the blood—well, you don’t feel much like eating after that.

That is what I had to live with every day. The wounded, the dying, the death, it became a way of life. That’s bad, that’s real bad. When I got discharged from the service, I got a 100 percent disability because I was a basket case. I had to get some shock treatment, once or twice. I spent ten years at the VA hospital in out-patient treatment, I’m still going there in Albany. But I would do it all over again, because it was a cause. A cause célèbre, you might say. It’s nothing like what’s going on today.

War itself should be abolished, it should be outlawed. There can’t conceivably be any winners, [with these nuclear weapons]. For me it was bad enough to see men die all the time. I’d hate to see, right now today, a dog die—if a dog got hit by a car, I’d die, I’d feel badly. But now think about seeing human beings die, and then you get used to it, to endure you have to say to yourself, ‘This is a way of life, I have to live with it’. That crew became my family for two years, the only home I had. The medal presented to [us veterans by France] is the most beautiful medal I’ve ever seen, and I wear it with honor every Sunday. The priest doesn’t like the medal because to him it speaks of violence and war, but this is the biggest argument against war there is. For kids to even think of settling arguments with violence and war, that just shouldn’t be considered, because it is a foolish move. The innocent die.


MATTHEW ROZELL is an award-winning history teacher, author, blogger and speaker. He has been featured as the ABC World News ‘Person of the Week’ and has had his work filmed for CBS News, NBC Learn, the Israeli Broadcast Authority, the New York State United Teachers, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and one book will soon be released as a documentary on PBS. His books have been read by hundreds of thousands. You can follow him at www.facebook.com/AuthorMatthewRozell


[1] he had a letter ready-Eisenhower had hastily drafted a letter accepting responsibility in the event of a colossal failure at the Normandy landings: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” National Archives.

[2] Mairzy Doats-A silly novelty song that hit #1 in the US pop charts in March 1944. As others have noted, the amusing sheet music lyrics sung by Mr. Leone are revealed in the song’s bridge, “If the words sound queer and funny to your ear/ A little bit jumbled and jivey/ Sing ‘Mares eat oats and does eat oats/ And little lambs eat ivy/ A kid’ll eat ivy too/ Wouldn’t you?”.

  • From the Portsmouth D-Day Story Museum: “The number of people killed in the fighting is not known exactly. Accurate record keeping was very difficult under the circumstances. Books often give a figure of 2,500 Allied dead for D-Day. However, research by the US National D-Day Memorial Foundation has uncovered a more accurate figure of 4,414 Allied personnel killed on D-Day. These include 2,501 from the USA, 1,449 British dead, 391 Canadians and 73 from other Allied countries. Total German losses on D-Day (not just deaths, but also wounded and prisoners of war) are estimated as being between 4,000 and 9,000. Over 100,000 Allied and German troops were killed during the whole of the Battle of Normandy, as well as around 20,000 French civilians, many as a result of Allied bombing.”

This newest trailer for our upcoming film, showing the uniting of a World War II medic and a Holocaust survivor for the first time, was filmed just one month ago near the 74th anniversary of the liberation of the Train Near Magdeburg.

Judah Samet (also a survivor of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting last October) and his daughter traveled to Scranton, PA, to meet Walter Gantz, the medic who saved as many sick and emaciated people as he could from the train, though Judah’s father was one of the many who succumbed shortly after liberation. Walter’s daughters were present as well, and I was there as to pull things together. Mike Edwards and his film crew and I were fortunate to have been able to align all the moving parts, and here is the result. We did a group hug!

To complete the film, we have a letter of intent with the major distributor to PBS and now we need to get to Europe to finish filming at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the liberation site, and interview more people, including German eyewitnesses, before it is too late. We want to have this film ready for the spring 2020 75th anniversary of the train liberation.

Walter is 94 and one of the few remaining soldiers left who had something to do with the liberation of this train of 2500 souls, the descendants of whom probably now number in the tens of thousands because of the actions of the American soldiers like Walter. And we would love to bring him over to Germany with us! We would love to introduce him to more survivors and their families, and also to German schoolchildren, at least one of whom he is exchanging letters with at a school near the liberation site, kids who now want to make a difference themselves in being part of memorializing and remembering what happened not far from their schoolhouse door.

Watch the moving trailer below. At 2:10 mark of embrace, you will notice a white wristband Walter has worn since 2011 when I sent it to him, a memento for students from our high school soldier-survivor reunions. It reads, “Repairing the World”.

WHAT YOU DO MATTERS. Seek to do good and repair the world– Tikkun Olam.

Thanks to all who have helped us thus far, and have shared this message of healing and hope! To become a part of our efforts to “Repair the World” to finish filming, or to learn more, head to the following link.

https://squareup.com/store/augusta-chiwy-foundation

Please share below!

 

A girl smiles while recuperating from the concentration camp Bergen Belsen sometime following liberation in the spring of 1945.

A Holocaust survivor recounts how she got a message to her mother that she was still alive, a beautiful anecdote that can also be found in my book ‘A Train Near Magdeburg’. There are no coincidences.

It was a beautiful, balmy morning in April 1945, when I entered Major Adams’ makeshift office in Farsleben, a small town in Germany, to offer my services as an interpreter.  It made me feel good that I could show, in a small way, the gratitude I felt for the 9th American Army, which had liberated us as we were being transported from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Orders found by the Americans in the German officer’s car directed that the train was to be stopped on the bridge crossing the Elbe River at Magdeburg, then the bridge was to be blown up, also destroying the train and its cargo all at once. The deadline was noon, Friday the 13th, and at 11 A.M. we were liberated!

With the liberation had come the disquieting news that President Roosevelt had died, and while I was airing concern that the new President, Harry Truman, (a man unknown to us) could continue the war, a sergeant suddenly said, “Hey, you speak pretty good English. I am sure the major would like to have you serve as his interpreter.”

Major Adams had not been told of my coming, so he was startled when he saw me. No wonder! There stood a young woman as thin as a skeleton, dressed in a two-piece suit full of holes. The suit had been in the bottom of my rucksack for 20 months, saved for the day we might be liberated, but the rats in Bergen-Belsen must have been as hungry as we were and had found an earlier use for my suit. For nine days we had been on the train, and this was the only clean clothing I owned.

Major Adams quickly recovered from his initial shock and seemed delighted after I explained why I had come. He asked how his men had treated us, and I heaped glowing praise on the American soldiers who had shared their food so generously with the starving prisoners. Then he took me outside to meet the “notables” of the German population, and with glee I translated orders given to them by the American commander. The irony of the reversal of roles was not lost on me nor the recipients; I was now delivering orders to those who had been ordering me around for so long! The Germans were obsequious, profusely claiming they never wanted Hitler or agreed with his policies and hoped the war would soon be over.

When asked to come back the next day, I was delighted but hesitated, wondering if it would be appropriate to ask a favor. Major Adams picked up on my hesitation, so I asked him to help me contact my family in America. We had emigrated to the U.S. in 1939, but after six months I returned to Holland to join my fiancé who was in the Dutch army. My parents knew that eight months after we were married my husband was taken as a hostage and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp where he was killed in 1941, but they did not know if I was alive, not having heard from me in more than two years.

Major Adams gave me a kind glance, saying, “Give me a few handwritten lines, in English, and I will ask my parents to forward the letter to them.”

When he saw the address on the note he looked at me, his mouth open in total amazement, and then he started to laugh – his parents and my parents lived in the same apartment building in New York City!

And so it was on Mother’s Day that his mother brought to my mother my message:

“I am alive!”

Lisette Lamon was a Holocaust survivor liberated on the Train near Magdeburg on April 13, 1945, and later in life became a psychotherapist at White Plains Hospital outside of New York City, a pioneer in the treatment of trauma back in the days when the field was in its infancy. 

 


There was another shooting at a synagogue on American soil. Sometimes I wonder if my efforts to teach about the Holocaust mean anything. Sometimes you just feel helpless. But I realize now that it is probably the most important job I have ever done, maybe now more than ever. Two weeks ago I introduced Pittsburgh survivor Judah Samet to the American soldier who had a lot to do with his liberation. On my newsletter list, less than a week later, I mentioned I would be talking at a college in New Jersey; the next day, the following encounter occurred. And I think it will stay with these kids for the rest of their lives, and probably those ripples will create new waves.


A few days ago I drove 5 hours to a tiny community college in a rural section of New Jersey to speak on the subject of the Holocaust. I got there early because just yesterday I learned that a ‘new’ Holocaust survivor of the train would be attending, one whom I have never met before. He wanted to attend because he was on the train, and he also did not want to miss the opportunity to meet the WWII medic, Walter Gantz, who also wanted to attend my lecture. Walter was a 20-year-old American soldier who spent seven weeks with the survivors.

I was unloading my books and equipment when Walter and his son-in-law Kenny arrived, themselves coming from 2 hours away. Ken dropped Walter off at the entrance and went to park the car; I did likewise. Just as I got back into the truck, a saw a man wearing a kippah approaching Walter, hand extended, hailing him with ‘Mr. Gantz?’ I fumbled for my camera and took a shot of the first meeting of the two in 74 years.

Oscar S. was on the train with his family, many brothers and sisters who all survived the war, all resting and recuperating at the makeshift hospital and displaced persons camp that was Hillersleben, only a few miles from the train liberation site at Farsleben. Walter was there the entire time, remembering the children quite clearly, and profoundly moved by the appearance another person who had been one of those children.

A couple classes of college kids came in. They found seats, and more seats were arranged in the back as the word got out that this might be something special. I’m sure most of them didn’t know what to expect; I began my talk by asking how many of the young people actually knew an actual veteran of World War II who was still alive. No hands went up. I waited, and asked again—sometimes young adults are shy to volunteer—and there was no response. I didn’t expect a lot of hands, but I didn’t expect that NONE of the 18 to 21-year-olds in the room would respond. I immediately realized that we were in new territory.

I began the talk by explaining that the reason for my being there to speak to them was because I had asked the same question to a roomful of high school sophomores 25 years ago, and almost every kid raised not one hand but two. So I got curious, and made up a simple 2-page survey form—what branch were you in, what was your job, do you remember when you heard of Pearl Harbor, what things would you share with young people today—and I again was flooded with genuine, heartfelt responses. I invited veterans into the classroom to tell their stories, recorded them on videotape for posterity, and went off in search of more stories in the community. And that is how I got to sit down with one tank commander who shared a story and led me to another tank commander who wrote to me about the day their two tanks came across a train with nearly 2500 refugees, as it turned out, Jewish families who had been prisoners at Bergen-Belsen, shipped away by the Germans in the final days of the war to evade the advance of the Allied armies in the west. And these Americans who came across the train had even taken photographs of the dramatic rescue as it all unfolded. So I had a story to tell, about those final days of World War II and the Holocaust, and about what had happened since. That ten years after it all started, just when I thought I would not hear from any other soldiers associated with this train rescue story—I had met several others, but none more after the first four years had come and gone since that first reunion in 2007—the phone rang in my classroom, and the greeting that would become so familiar to me rang in my ear for the first time—“Matt Rozell, God bless you!” It was Walter Gantz, now 94, once the 20-year-old medic, now sitting in the midst of 20-year-olds who could not recall a living World War II veteran, and a former 7-year-old boy who he had a hand in saving.

We moved on to the subject of the Holocaust. I asked the kids: How many people were murdered in the Holocaust? What does that number look like? And just how did that happen?

So who was responsible for the biggest crime in the history of the world? Hitler alone?

How were the people freed on the train a ‘snapshot’ of European Jewry persecuted by the Nazis-and others?

How could I make people care, today, about what happened nearly 3 generations ago?

Why is it important to listen to those who were the first witnesses? What happens when these stories are no longer with us?

Once people have absorbed the stories, do they have a moral responsibility to act on the ‘lessons’? And then, for emphasis:

Is there such a thing as ‘being a witness’, when you yourself were not there?

I spoke for an hour. I didn’t notice any outright indifference at the start [a minor concern in the case of any event outside of regular classroom hours]; kids were very respectful and I think, curious, and I had their rapt attention at the end, though I waited for a few questions. None came, and Walter took that as his cue to stand up, because he had something to say. And he got right down to the point, with passion, a rising voice from a gentle soul. He motioned for Oscar to stand up and join him, and he embraced him with emotion.

“I spent seven weeks with these people. During my stay, there was about one hundred and twenty who passed away. Basically, it was from the typhus disease; most of them were over fifty; most of the young people survived. And there were a lot of young people, I mean, little children [motions with hand, palm down to his knee], infants, and it was living hell [shakes head incredulously].

After we set up our hospital in Hillersleben, a few days later, five or six of us went back to see the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp… and—you have to believe me when I say, the bodies were piled up like cordwood [raises his hand to over his head]! Everywhere you looked, I remember looking down a lane, probably a quarter of a mile, trees on each side, bodies, hundreds and hundreds of bodies laying around…

I had a strange experience. I’m Polish, and at the time, I could speak Polish very well—and I remember a gentleman at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, he kept saying, [speaks with emphasis, in Polish], which means, ‘Do you understand Polish?’ And I said, ‘Yes’ [begins to cry]…and he grabbed me, and he hugged me [hugs Oscar, the survivor he met today for the first time, both cry]… and I felt so helpless! I broke down…and the stench was terrible…We are living proof that there is such a thing as the Holocaust!”

Walter Gantz, WW2 medic, recounts his visit to Bergen-Belsen in 1945.[2:30]

There were muffled sobs throughout the room. No one spoke; one girl sitting in the second row was visibly emotional and profoundly moved.

Walter thanked God again for his good health and his mobility, at being able to come out and address the young people, noting that he once coached young people their age, and he closed his impromptu remarks by bringing laughter through the tears with his admission that though he could still move, he probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with the young women in the room.

 

So it was time to close. I went back to the beginning. It had turned out to be an almost religious experience for everyone in the room; I didn’t have to tell them that they had been graced with a once in their lifetime opportunity in what they had witnessed in the last few minutes. And I repeated the questions:

‘Once the survivors and liberators are gone, who is left to tell the stories? Once you have heard or read the testimony, are you the new witnesses? Do you carry a moral responsibility to act on what you have absorbed?’

And I hope it sank in, for the sake of humanity.

‘…And whoever saves one life saves the world entire’

The portal opened a crack this week and I stepped through it once more.

We pulled it off, in this time of reflection, Passover and the Easter season. Liberation. Resurrection. New Life. And a reunion of sorts, 74 years in the making, to commemorate it all.

Holocaust survivor Judah Samet and WWII medic Walter Gantz, 4-17-19.

There were a lot of moving parts, but we got a chance to orchestrate another survivor-soldier reunion—this time with WWII Army medic Walter Gantz and Holocaust survivor Judah Samet, in Walter’s hometown of Scranton, PA. We had a very short window of time, as we needed also to film the encounter for our upcoming PBS documentary, and my friend Mike Edwards and his crew of film and sound techs had to be available. Since Judah is 5 hours+ away in Pittsburgh—remember, he is also a survivor of the horrible shooting mass murder at his synagogue there last October—and he was coming east to visit for the Passover holiday. His daughter had to be available to drive him a couple more hours north, and then be back home later for family obligations. Walter was preparing for Holy Week and Easter. Mike was to be soon traveling to Africa on another filming expedition, so we picked Wed, April 17th, for the meeting at a hotel in Scranton.

I drove down from the North Country of upstate New York the evening before. Settling into the hotel, management called my room to tell me that Walter was in the lobby, so I hurried down. Mike had arrived with his crew, Joe and Danny; Mike the sound guy was coming in from Brooklyn later.

Now, though I have been conversing with Walter for eight years on the telephone, I had not met him ever before. He’d met other survivors, notably Micha Tomkiewicz and Elisabeth Seaman, and had been called by others like Ariela Rojek in Toronto. But it was the first time he would be meeting me, and he arrived an hour before the dinner we had scheduled with his family and loved ones.

Walter got emotional. At ninety-four years old, the old Coach grabbed my two hands with the grip of the 20-year-old he had been as a medic at Hillersleben, the captured German Luftwaffe base and weapons proving ground 74  years before. “Matt Rozell, God bless you!” Mike snapped a picture. “It’s a good thing I am as cool as a cucumber; otherwise I would be real nervous about all this!”

I don’t have many heroes. But I met one this week. 94-year-old combat medic, Walter Gantz–and he squeezed my hands so hard…

We talked for a while. He lives only three minutes away in the hills overlooking the city, the ‘Polish Alps’ as he calls it, where his parents had raised him, most of the community having emigrated from Poland in the early part of the previous century to work in the mines. He remembered attempts at conversations with the Polish survivors at Hillersleben, how he could pick up word and phrases, and he remembered Micha’s Polish mother distinctly, an educated woman who also had medical knowledge and training. He remembers Gina Rappaport, a survivor from the Krakow Ghetto who spoke seven languages and translated for the people on the train. And he was so sorry to have missed the reunions (11 in all) in the past, but I did not even know about him until he called my classroom in October 2011, shortly after our Sept. 2011 final school reunion… It was liberator Frank Towers who had given him my number, it turns out, and it was Frank who had also contacted Judah Samet in the years before Frank’s passing at 99 in 2016; I suppose then that Frank had a hand in organizing this mini-reunion.

Walter’s three daughters and sons-in-laws arrived for the dinner, taking pictures, getting me to sign copies of my book. The next morning at breakfast, Mike explained how he hoped the day’s filming would go, but we were both of the mind to have everything unfold as naturally as possible. Walter would be waiting in a private room, and I would walk Judah down after he arrived with his daughter.

Judah was right on time at 11 AM, and I got to meet him for the first time since speaking to him at length on the telephone in November. He hugged me, and was also so appreciate of my efforts; he said that my book brought a lot of the memories back for him; I suppose that is the highest honor I could hope for, things that he had previously long buried. I walked him down the hotel corridor to the corner room where Walter waited. At the door, I motioned for him to continue on to Walter, who stood up, hugged Judah, and softly began to cry, greeting Judah with “God bless you, God bless you!”

Holocaust survivor Judah Samet and WWII medic Walter Gantz, 4-17-19. CR: 5 Stones Group.

They sat down and began to speak like they had know each other all of their lives. I sat with them and nodded quietly as the cameras rolled and asked clarifying questions when I could help out. But they had it together, as I knew they would, Walter gripping Judah’s hand. We took it outside on the street for a mini-photoshoot, and Judah’s daughter got acquainted with Walter’s daughters, coming outside to join in. The local newspaper guys arrived, and got a good story for the hometown hero (Walter just called me tonight to say that he had even fielded a congratulatory phone call from California!).

What does it all mean? Well, I think of this season of freedom and new life, about how, 74 years almost exactly to the date of release from oppression (but certainly not hard times—Judah’s father and many others died after liberation as well) these two men, the 94-year-old and the 81-year-old (the former 20-year-old and 7-year-old) and their families had the chance to re-connect and embrace, to recall and to marvel at the wonders of the power of love eclipsing the barriers of time and space.

Thank you to all of the film donors who helped to bring this about; we look forward to sharing this footage with the world when the next anniversary of the liberation rolls around (though we still have to get to Germany, etc). The wires are tripping, and the cosmos are opening once again.

 

 

 


South Scranton WWII Medic Meets Survivor He Helped Rescue From Train…

‘THEY WERE LOOKING FOR A PLACE TO FINISH US’ Scranton Times-Tribune Publication date: 4/18/2019 By JON O’CONNELL

SCRANTON — The Army medics who helped rescue about 2,500 prisoners aboard the train from Bergen-Belsen struggled to insert intravenous feeding tubes into their skin-and-bone arms. The prisoners had departed the concentration camp six days earlier bound for [Theresienstadt in German-occupied Czechoslovakia]. They were starving and emaciated. They couldn’t eat, and their veins rolled under their skin. But Walter Gantz, a combat medic from South Scranton who was just 20 years old in the spring of 1945, had a knack for it. He was known as a “sharp shooter when it came to needles,” he said.

Judah Samet, 81, was aboard one of those train cars. On Wednesday, liberator and ex-prisoner met for the first time at the Hilton Scranton and Conference Center for a PBS documentary called “A Train Near Magdeburg.” It’s slated for release next year. Samet, who lives in Pittsburgh, gained national attention when he survived the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in October, and attended the State of the Union address in February as a special guest of President Donald Trump. Back in 1945, Samet was only 7, but he remembers using a man’s corpse as a pillow and to block the April chill leaking through the slats of the car. He remembers feeling angry when Nazi soldiers eventually threw the body off the train. He recognized their murderous intent. “They were looking for a place to finish us,” Samet said.

Gantz, now 94, was part of an advance party sweeping through Nazi Germany in the final days of World War II that stumbled upon a train — cattle cars abandoned by Nazi soldiers who learned that their hold on Europe was about to break. “They were living skeletons really. Most of them only weighed half of their normal weight,” he said, describing the prisoners’ screams when medics inserted needles. “It was heart-wrenching really.”

Historian Matthew Rozell, a retired world history teacher who began interviewing World War II veterans with his students in Hudson Falls, New York, has become an expert on the April 13, 1945, liberation. His research, and a book he wrote about the liberation, laid a foundation for the documentary. He brought Samet and Gantz together for one of the last joint interviews between prisoners and soldiers for the documentary. Since first learning about the rescue in 2001, Rozell, [liberating soldier Frank Towers, now deceased, and survivor’s daughter Varda Weisskopf] have found nearly 300 survivors. They’ve held 11 reunions on three continents, he said. “Walter never went to any of the reunions [held at my high school] because I didn’t know Walter existed,” Rozell said, explaining how Gantz eventually learned about his work and tracked him down.

The 743rd Tank Battalion, which had been attached to the 30th Infantry Division, discovered the train in Farsleben, near Hillersleben where the 30th infantry had taken over a Luftwaffe air force base and research facility where top Nazi scientists developed secret weapons, Rozell said. The medic, who gave up his “sharp shooter” nickname and now introduces himself as “the coach,” spent seven weeks in Hillersleben tending the rescued prisoners, nursing back to health those who could be saved. Still, more than 100 died after the rescue, Gantz said.

Seated next to Gantz inside the hotel on Wednesday, Samet remembers the strength he drew from his mother, Rachel, a brilliant caregiver whom he says outsmarted the Nazis and kept them alive by rationing bits of hard black bread the size of olives throughout their 10½ month ordeal.

The train rescue at Farsleben gets little mention in history books, if any, Rozell said. He believes World War II has countless other untold accounts that were never written down and are waiting to be found again. “The more you think you know, the more you realize you don’t know,” he said. “Other stories like this absolutely are still out there.”