Archive for December, 2008

Here is a link to a project we recently completed for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC to help educators teach the Holocaust. It features the work of Kylie James, student, her song set to photographs collected by USHMM Fellow Sara Kollbaum and myself. It is four and a half minutes long. The song begins 30 seconds in.

Our school is proud that Pete Fredlake, the director of National Outreach for Teacher Initiatives at the USHMM’s National Institute for Holocaust Education has recognized this as an outstanding project. Kylie got a kick out of the fact that the teacher’s assignment was two months late!

Let us know what you think. The lyrics are included in the comments, below.

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Frank Towers and Ern Kan 3-08

Frank Towers, liberator (blue) and Ern Kan, survivor (gray), March, 2008. Rob Miller photo.

I received a Christmas greeting from Ernest Kan today.

It was about being thankful and appreciating what you have and counting your blessings. So I thought it appropriate to  share Ern’s story, which he told at the gathering of liberators and survivors last March.

“My odyssey began in Riga, Latvia where the Germans occupied our apartment on the first of July, 1941. Shortly thereafter we were put into the Riga ghetto. During the partial liquidation of the ghetto on November 30 and Dec 9. 1941, my mother was murdered with 27,000 other Jews in the forest of Rumbula.

The ghetto was finally liquidated in 1943.  My dad was shipped to Auschwitz where he perished and I, who was 20 at the time, was put into the concentration camp Kaiserwald near Riga. With the approach of the Soviet army in 1944, Kaiserwald was evacuated by ship and we were shipped to Stutthof concentration camp, after about a month to Polte in Magdeburg where I WAS LIBERATED.

I was 19 years old [at the time of imprisonment, held captive] altogether 44 months.

The name of the factory was Polte; it was the largest ammunition factory in Germany. [Conditions were very bad.] They had 30,000 slaves working there in shifts. It manufactured heavy artillery shells, big coastal artillery shells about 30 inches long. And we had to work in 12 hour shifts, they brought us there from a concentration camp Stutthof,  near Danzig, by freight train, it took about two nights, and we got there we didn’t know where we wound up, we were assigned to bunks in a barracks, and it was about a mile to walk from the factory and back. And that is where I was liberated in April 1945 by the 743rd US Tank Battalion. After an air raid by the United States [Army] Air Force, the camp was evacuated and they marched is southward because the south was still unoccupied by Allied forces. So they assembled the prisoners and marched them out of the camp, and we had to move a large wagon with spoke wheels, they had no more horses to pull the wagon, we were pulling and shoving the wagon with all the luggage and personal belongings of the guards.

So as when we passed that factory, Polte, me and three other guys, we ran into the open gate, the factory was already disabled-there was no more electricity, no water, no nothing, it couldn’t function anymore- [made] un-operational by air raids. So we ran and we hid, we changed our striped uniforms and we put on German overalls we found in a locker so we looked more or less human again, but we had no hair, the hair was shaved off. And we hid in an attic above the office …we stayed there one night, and in the morning four SS guards with drawn guns found us and said “Out you swines, hands up!” and marched us to the courtyard of the Polte factory, they had about 100 or so lined up with their hands up, and they came with little lorries, little trucks, that took groups of 10 away and returned within five to eight minutes empty for the next batch-so we knew they took them to the forest to shoot them and come for the next. And I thought that was the end of us, I was standing with my hands up and I said to the guy to my left, “this is it, we made it up until now” -and lo and behold, an air raid started! The United States [Army] Air Force, low flying bombers came, you could see the pilot’s eyes -that’s how low- they dropped the bomb load, [the guards] chased us in the adjacent air raid shelter, all the guys were at the wall in the air raid, they posted a guard in front of that door and as we walked in he said “I’m innocent, I never did you any harm.” He was an old, old man older than me today. So when I heard that, there was already music in my ears all of a sudden, I had never heard that from any guard to say something like that. So they locked the door and put a padlock on the out side. And you could hear the bombs falling and the smoke seeping through and it was chaos, we were singing inside and we were happy, praying the bombs should hit us and get us out of our misery, because by that point we were finished. So I leaned against the door and the door gives, so I don’t know to this very day whether the air pressure from falling bombs blew the lock off, it was a big padlock, or if the guard posted outside opened it up and took it away. At any rate the door was open, we all ran out scattered left, right and the 4 of us hid in an elevator shaft up above where the wheel is, and we waited until the air raid stopped and after about an hour we sent one guy out to reconnoiter what was happening, it was dead quiet. We didn’t know who was where and what was going on. So after about half an hour he came back with a big vat of soup, and he said (long pause, getting emotional) “Boys-we are free,-the Americans are here!”

That is a moment I can never forget.

The soup was lentil soup, it was delicious, I ate and ate until I threw up-we hadn’t eaten in so many days, and I then I saw the first American in a Jeep.  I had never seen an American, he looked like a Martian to me with different weaponry and a Jeep. And he says to me, “Hands up! You are German?” I said, “No, I am a Jewish prisoner from the local concentration camp” but by my haggard appearance he could see that I was certainly not an enemy. I was about 75 pounds at that point and it so happened that when I found the overalls in the German locker, I put on a belt I found there and it had a swastika locket which I didn’t realize, I put on the belt not to lose my pants and he saw the swastika on it and he assumed I was a German in overalls, so I told him I was from the local camp.

It so happened that he was a Jewish GI and he embraced me and he said “You are free now, you can go wherever you want” and he gave me a  an army issued prayer book, and a mezuzah, that is something like sort of an amulet that some people wear, it contains some proverbs from the Deuteronomy inside, and he said “Go!” In the heat of the moment I was unable to ask him where he came from, what his name was, and it bothers to this day that I could never express my gratitude to this one man, but all these guys here are my liberators and they represent this first American I ever saw and he gave us back our life and our freedom and I will never forget it.

There are no words to express my gratitude for what they have done for us and never in my vaguest dreams would I have thought to be here  65 years after the war is over and meet these guys again, that is unbelievable, it is a moment, an unforgettable moment in my life.”

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The following was received from Ron Chaulet, the discoverer of the survivor narrative.

“A brief introduction is appropriate to explain the facts surrounding the Magdeburg letter before you decide to read it. On the 18th of November 2008, in my search for Polish history books on the internet varying from Amazon, AbeBooks and finally Ebay, I came across the following caption: “Typed Memoir WWII young Jewish Polish Girl 1939-1945”. Intrigued by this title I felt compelled to read the attached description: “This is the original heartbreaking memoir of a young WWII Polish Jewish Girl, who suffered greatly at the hands of the German Occupation…and survived. The 5-page account is in English and was typed in 1945, immediately after the Liberation. You can’t read it without recalling the similar sad episodes of Anne Frank.”

Thereafter I read the letter, which is well written in English by an unknown author, who described her life, her family, the fear and the places where she had lived during world war two. She explains how the Jews were treated and compelled to give up all their belongings and subjected to leave their homes to move into the ghetto. Life was not easy to find food and work and without them, there was no future. Death was constantly all around the Jews living in Poland. The fear of dying was relentless, as well as being sent away by train, never to be heard of again. This makes this document a firm memory of the Holocaust and inspired me to find it’s truthful author.

The memoirs start: “I begin the story of my sad experience in this terrible war as follows: The first of December 1939. The war broke out. It was a terrible day for all people of Poland. After several days of battle the first German troops occupied Cracow. It was a fatal moment in my life. I was eighteen years old.”

This initial paragraph was the first clue to find the author; she would now be 87 years old today. There is one slight error in the above statement and that is the war broke out in Poland on September 1st, 1939. The paper, that this memoir was typed written on was also a significant clue. It was thick German stationery from “Der Kommandant” at Hillersleben near Magdeburg, but not dated. The paper was old, because it was yellow faded and it was certainly the original as could be seen by the punctuation points, since they punched slightly through the paper as could be seen from the back of the paper.

The last passage provides another historical clue in order to find who the writer is: “I shall never forget what I owe the American Army. I hope I will be able to estimate its right value, what the Americans have done for us. Now, after five years of suffering I shall know to appreciate more my liberty. ”

Looking at the last statement it was possible to find the liberation of a German train on April 13th, 1945, since it was recently described on the internet by Dr. George C. Gross, the first liberator to arrive in his tank, his story being: “A Train Near Magdeburg”. I eventually found the officer and spoke with him on the phone about the letter. It was a meaningful conversation as he described the number of survivors, that since placing his story on the internet, together with the pictures that were taken that day, that had already contacted him after so many years to express their gratitude and thankfulness for his part in their liberation. His pictures captured all those precious moments for those who survived the train journey for seven days with standing room only. He also spoke about his interpreter during that event, Gina Rappaport, who assisted in translating all the experiences and thankful words from all the other passengers of the train wishing to speak to him and shake his hand. His help, photos and words word were listed on Matthew Rozell’s site, a history teacher from up state New York. Mr. Gross at the time of our conversation was not well and he was not able to review the letter until much later.

Knowing that the age of most of the survivors and liberators were well above retirement age, it was useful to have Matt to assist in finding the author, since he had so many contacts with his site: “Because History Matters.” The time was crucial to proceed as quickly as possibly to find others or the author to confirm who wrote this letter. It was then, decided to post the first part of the letter on Matt’s web site. Within a short time, contact was made by Yoav Leitersdorf, requesting Matt to send the full version of the letter to him. Yoav, soon thereafter, contacted me to speak about the letter and to arrange a visit with me in Amsterdam.

Yoav and I met to share the letter I had recently found: “The Memoirs of A Jewish Polish Girl.” This 63 year-old letter was quite an experience to step into someone’s life as the writer tells what had happened to her from September 1st 1939 up until her freedom on April 13th 1945, when the train she was on was liberated by the American Army. The events, the places and the dates were familiar stories for Yoav, since he was Gina Rappaport’s grandson. Thereafter we spoke on the phone with Yoav’s father, Eran Leitersdorf, he happened to be Gina Rappaport’s son. He confirmed many of the events and places in the letter. He stated that Gina did have a sister that she was also in the liberated train. Thereafter Yoav and I called to speak with his grandmother. Gina was in a very good mood then and after telling her that I had found her 63 year-old letter, she began to laugh and said: “does the post take that long to delivery!” We did have a nice conversation thereafter. I was convinced that Gina Rappaport was the author. The family agreed that this letter was a historic document and should be available for all to see on Matt’s website: “Because History Matters”.

Later that same week Dr. Gross sent me an email congratulating me. He also said: “You have verified one more piece of evidence to the remarkable lady, and I am glad of that. Please keep it with the other documents of Gina’s story, which must be kept alive. Please give Gina my best. I think of her every day. She is in my eyes a very great lady.”

I would like to thank Dr. Gross, Matt and Gina Rappaport and her family that made it possible for me to bring this letter back to it’s rightful owner and to share it with others.

Best Regards,

Ron Chaulet








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Hello friends,

You may be aware that a new friend in the Netherlands recently acquired this unsigned narrative by a Polish survivor who was liberated on the train from Belsen by the Americans. The narrative was written in English shortly after liberation in 1945 (as you can see from the letterhead, on the German commandant’s stationary) at Hillersleben, Germany, where the Americans billeted them to recuperate. This past week we were gina-rappaport-9-21-2007able to help identify the author, Gina Rappaport by following leads in Israel.

The author’s family is very excited, and would like me to share the five page document with the people at the Museum and Bergen Belsen Memorial. The transcript was typed by one of my students.

Matthew Rozell

“I begin the story of my sad experiences in this terrible war as follows:

The First of December [September] 1939. The war broke out. It was a terrible day for all people of Poland. After several days of battle the first German troops occupied Cracow. It was a fatal moment in my life. I was eighteen years old.

Until this day I did not know the meaning of fear, I was never afraid. I was standing near the window in my own room and looking down, my face was pale and tears were flowing down on my cheeks. I felt that now is the beginning of a new, bad life.

Just the second day of the German occupation all buildings were covered with orders and instructions. Everything was forbidden, we did not know what to do. All Jews of Poland were obliged to give up their foreign money and gold. After several days all Jews were obliged to leave their nice lodgings and move in the ugliest rooms of the town. After two weeks took place registration from people to work from 16-60.

Every day the German soldiers took people from the street to clean the town. All Jews were obliged to wear signs. In December was a search of all Jewish dwellings. The SS men took gold, money, and silver. Every man and every woman were compelled to take off all their underclothing. They searched very exactly. In the meantime they took away the nice furniture and nice clothing. The all goods of Jewish (people) shops were taken away and carried to Germany.

Every day were new instructions. Beside this every day were searches affected in different houses. It was forbidden for Jews to have food cards, and we were forced to buy everything at the dearest prices. If somebody of the German soldiers observed the buying of food on the part of Jews, we were punished. It was the preface of our bad life. And so things went until the 15 of August.

On that day a great part of Jews were compelled to leave Cracow for several nearby little towns and villages. I and my family left Cracow for Tarnow. We arrived Tarnow at the 16 of August. The first day in a strange town was terrible. I was awfully sorry. New troubles, new German orders and dispositions. What could we do?

We were without dwelling, without hot food. At last we got a little room on the third floor in the [sic] attick. We had lost everything because my father was abroad. My mother was ill. I was forced to earn our daily bread. I worked 10 hours a day. I taught girls and boys languages and literature. I liked to do it.
My sister worked very hard too. She found work in a German factory. We suffered very much. The German took young boys to other towns and there they were forced to work of munition. They never returned home.

In the meantime they took all the intellectual people such as physicians, lawyers, ingenieurs (engineers) and sent them to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Two weeks afterwards the families of these people received advice telling them about their fathers’, brothers’, and sisters’ deaths. Every day they took new people and sent away. Every day was a searching conducted in another house. We suffered and suffered without interruption.

We changed our dwellings. The winter approached. Now we had new sorrow. We had no wood, no coal. We were frozen the whole winter. We caught a cold very often.


With the beginning of the year 1941 began the great tragedy of our nation. One day we heard a firing in the street. What happened? Nobody knew. Everyone was afraid to look through the window. After some hours i went down and the streets were full of blood. I went to search for my sister. Where is she? Perhaps dead. At last she returned home. I was happy she was alive. When she entered the room I couldn’t recognize her, she looked pale and full of fear. She couldn’t speak and did not want to describe what she had seen.

Every few days this story repeated itself.

On the 10 of June everybody from 12-60 was obliged to register at the working office. The German ordered that every one working with them should be allowed to remain at his place. The people were very irritated. The all streets were full of poor people hurrying to find work.

I was a teacher as i mentioned before. What could I do now? Where to look for work? What could I do with my mother and grandmother? They were not able to do anything. What i felt in this day was impossible to describe.

At last i found work in a factory. My luck was that my sister had found work, too, and we were able to help our family.

The night of the 10 of June. Nobody was sleeping in the whole town. The Jewish office registered the whole night under the control of the SS groups. They were obliged to make a list of people who were unable to work.

Five o’clock in the morning…. I was with my sister in the room. The mother and grand-mother were hidden in our [sic] attick. Suddenly we heard a knock at the door. At the doors were standing two SS men with revolvers in their hands.

The first asked “Why have you not answered at once?”
I couldn’t answer.
After a moment he asked “Where is your family?”
“Nobody is at home” I answered.
The SS man: “Where is your mother hidden? If you will not tell me at once I will shoot you.”
I repeated harshly “I don’t know.”
He got very angry and told me once more: “I will shoot you both at once.”
We had known their methods very well, and we were ready every minute.
He searched in our dwelling but he couldn’t find my mother. After several minutes they went away.

On this day perhaps 20 men visited our houses and every one of them wanted to take my mother but nobody could find her. On this day they killed in the streets 10,000 people and 15,000 were sent away to [sic] Belzec. From this village nobody returned.

This action lasted 8 days with two interruptions. During the free-time the grave diggers were obliged to bury the dead people.

Now the whole people were forced to move in one place, where they made a “ghetto”. After three months was a new action. In the meantime the SS men leaders killed everyday several persons. One of them couldn’t eat without shooting before. Before every meal he wanted to see blood.

On the 15 of September was a beginning of a new action. Every one of us received a sign on his work-card. There were two kinds of signs: 1) The first meant to live, 2) the second meant to die. I and my sister received signs to live. Our mother was hidden in a cellar.
On the 16 of September at 6 o’clock in the morning I was standing and waiting. I waited, for what? What could I expect? I was standing on a great square and the Nazi SS police started to make a selection of all old persons and children, putting them apart, whilst all young and valid persons were also put in a separate place.

Subsequently the children and old persons were shot before our eyes.

Now they took from the remaining young persons every tenth person standing in the turn and shot them too. I was lucky enough to be the eighth person and was thus saved from death from a pure [sic] coindidence.

I had no news from my mother whom I had left hidden in the cellar of my house. I was anxious lest my mother should be brought on the square and shot. We had to wait standing on the square until 7 o’clock in the evening without getting any food, closely guarded by Nazi barbarian soldiers. At 7 o’clock in the evening they brought in mothers having small babies and shot all the babies in the presence of their mothers. At 9 o’clock in the evening they allowed us to go home, where I had a great joy to find my family alive. It was a miracle.

After these scenes had taken place all Jews had to leave their homes and go to new lodgings in the ghetto, where they had to be all concentrated. A barbed wire had to be put around the ghetto and no Jew was allowed to come out of this place. So our martyrdom continued: every day being sadder than the foregoing.

After two months of this ghetto life a new action took place, as a result of which 13 thousand people were murdered and 2 thousand people remained on in the ghetto. It was a miracle that the members of my family remained alive. After this took place, the German declared that no Jew would be allowed to remain alive, and I then decided to take up Aryan papers. One day in November I left my family with the purpose of finding work outside the ghetto with the idea of returning later to take them with me.

I left at 10 o’clock at night. I was accompanied by a young Pole who took me to Lemberg, where we arrived on the evening of the next day at ten o’clock. I had to stay over for a night in a farm while the young Pole went to see what possibilities there were for me. He came back next day at seven o’clock in the morning and he informed me that other Jews having obtained Aryan papers were in the district and they were trying to do something for me.

These people had obtained responsible posts in several factories as Aryans, and they helped me as much as they could. I got a job in a German office as typist. Nobody knew that I was a Jewess. After a few days the owner of the factory told me he wanted to court me as he liked my looks, and I had to run away from him.

I had to change my papers and my name so that he couldn’t find me. I altered my papers and I said that I was married. I then took up work in another factory where I could work without being disturbed.

One night I was sitting at home. I heard somebody knock at the door. It was the German police. I was asked for my papers, showed the, to them. And after examining them they told me I was a Jewess. I was asked to accompany them to the Gestapo. I refused to go saying that I preferred to die on the spot rather than go to the Gestapo. We talked for one hour and I was obliged to accompany them. In the street they took away from me all my valuables, my watch, my money and told me to leave Lemberg immediately. I was left alone in a solitary street. I couldn’t find a bed for the night. I had to change again my papers. I was tired out. I wanted to commit suicide. Next day I found a new home and I had many new troubles.

Coming in one day I was told by the land-lady that the policemen looked for me during the day. I left the house and I went to the place where i received the correspondence from my mother, in which she was telling that we had received foreign naturalization papers which would allow us to go to Palestine. I packed my things and returned home immediately.

When I returned home my mother was in one ghetto and my sister in the other. I had to hide in a cellar because if the German discovered that i had false Aryan papers I could be shot. I kept in hiding in this place for about two months.

Being now of foreign nationality we had to present ourselves regularly to the Gestapo. At one day they informed us that we would be sent to Palestine to be exchanged with German prisoners. On the next day the German police came at our house at 3 o’clock in the night and told us to pack up our things and go to the station. They told us we would go directly to Palestine.

Instead of Palestine they carried us in a prison in the town of Cracow; we were conducted in one of the prison cells where there were already 26 persons. It was a very dark place. We were very depressed and disappointed. We knew already what the Germans were capable of but it was new sadism on their part. The only food they give us was a tiny piece of bread and watery soup. At night we slept on the floor and we heard people crying because they were being beaten. We heard also a good deal of firing. We had always the impression that they will come to take us.

Then they informed us that we were interned and that we should have to wait. We waited and waited. In the day time we could observe how they were making sadistic gymnastics with the people. This made a very bad impression on us.

One day a SS man came suddenly in our cell saying that we have all false papers, and he kept smiling sardonically. Every day we had a new story. Another time they came and told us we were leaving in 5 minutes for Palestine. They took us then to station and put us in the train. We traveled 2 days and we arrived the concentrations camp Belsen Bergen where we had to live for about two years. This was Palestine.

We were lodged in old, damp wooden barracks. Three hundred people in one barrack. It was a terrible life. The only hot food they give us was a watery soup, besides a tiny piece of bread and ridiculously small piece of cheese. A great deal of people were very sick. We pass a very cold winter without wood and without clothing. We were hungry all the time and badly treated by the German. We had to stand up in all weathers for the” call-off”, which was a very tiring thing to do.

Beyond the barbed wires of our camp we observed there was another concentrations camp where other people were obliged to work. They worked very hard. We heard firing at night. We heard also the crying of the people who were beaten. Every day there was 500 deaths in the other camp. We were happy that because we were of foreign nationality we were not beaten. We heard that many people was dying of typhus. We learned that there was a big crematorium in the camp where people were burned. We had such a terrible life for two years. Every few days they told us that we would go home.

And one day after two years they told us to pack up our things and go to the station, and they put us in the train which traveled for a unknown destination. We were seven days in the train traveling very slowly, when we were liberated by the American Army on the 13 of April. It was the luckiest day of my life. At that moment I was bathing in the river when I saw the first American soldier from afar, what a joy. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was sure it was a dream, but still it was true.

A few minutes before the American soldiers arrived we were told that we should have to go on foot over the Elbe River. But the American Army saved us from a sure death, which we will never forget.

I was also sad this day because I remembered how many people of value had died and couldn’t see the liberation, and the fall of the barbarian, Hitler. I shall never forget what I owe to the American Army. I hope I will be able to estimate its right value, what the Americans have done for us. Now, after five years of suffering I shall know to appreciate the more my liberty.”

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A new friend in the Netherlands recently acquired this unsigned narrative by a Polish survivor who was liberated on the train by the Americans. This woman was eighteen when the war began, it looks like from Cracow, and the narrative was written shortly after liberation (as you can see from the letterhead, on the German commandant’s stationary) at Hillersleben. We are looking for the writer to release it to her. It is five pages long.

For more information or if you can help, send me an email.

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