He’ll tell his story at a Hanukkah celebration
By Maggie Fitzroy
Story updated at 11:03 PM on Friday, Dec. 11, 2009
They were bone thin, sick and weak, packed standing up so tightly into train cars that they couldn’t move.
When American soldiers opened the doors, those who could stumbled out.
The 2,500 men, women and children had been on the train for six days, and before that they were imprisoned at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
They were dirty, starving and dehydrated. Some were dead.
“We’d heard stories about the mistreatment of Jews, about them being tortured and being put to death,” said Frank Towers, who as a young Army first lieutenant helped rescue the Jews from the Nazi death train at the end of World War II.
“But we dismissed what we thought was propaganda,” said Towers, now 92, who will be a guest speaker and help light the menorah at the Chabad at the Beaches Hanukkah celebration Monday night at Hampton Inn in Jacksonville Beach.
“We didn’t believe one group of human beings could do that to another group of human beings,” he said. “It wasn’t until we saw this trainload of Jews that we believed.”
Rabbi Nochum Kurinsky said he invited Towers, who is Catholic, to the Hanukkah event because “he’s a guy who’s a real hero.”
Towers, who lives in Brooker, near Gainesville, speaks about his war experiences around the country and the world. He said he’s honored to tell his story at the Beaches.
“There are thousands of people alive today who are descendents of those Holocaust survivors,” Kurinsky said. “We owe him a debt of gratitude.”
Towers, who fought at the Battle of Normandy, who took refuge in foxholes and who watched friends die in bombings and battles, said it’s important to tell the story of how he and other soldiers rescued Jews from a train in April 1945.
“The train story is a small part of my service,” he said this week as he recalled those days so many years ago. “But it’s a tragedy that should never be forgotten.”
Towers joined the National Guard in 1940 in Vermont, where he lived at the time. In 1941, he was sent to Camp Blanding in southwest Clay County for training, and when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor Dec. 7 of that year, he knew he would become an Army soldier “for the duration.”
He went for further training at several bases around the country and became a commissioned officer. In 1943, he married his girlfriend, Mary, was promoted to first lieutenant, assigned to the 30th Infantry Division then stationed in Indiana.
In February 1944, his entire 120th Regiment joined one of the largest convoys to ever cross the Atlantic Ocean, bound for England. On June 6, D-Day, he said they knew it was “the day and the real thing” when they heard the roar of planes overhead.
Towers’ division was not part of the first invasion of Normandy, but they saw the “horrible and frightening sight” of “the carnage that befell their predecessors” when they landed first on Utah Beach, then Omaha Beach, Towers said.
They fought the enemy as they chased them, moving forward each day, eating C and K rations of canned and concentrated food. They scrounged for more food from “liberated” farms and were constantly on guard against booby trap bombs left by the Germans.
They moved 25 to 50 miles a day, keeping the Germans on the run across Northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands, fighting snipers along the way.
They helped capture Aachen, the first city in Germany to be taken, and moving east, arrived at the city of Magdeburg, by the Elbe River, in April 1945. That river was the demarcation line between American and Russian troops, Towers said. Berlin was 75 miles to the northeast but they had orders to stop at the river.
Discovering the prisoners
That’s when they learned the 743rd Tank Battalion had discovered a train that was stalled on tracks nearby in the small town of Farsleben. When they found the Jewish prisoners, they learned that they had been loaded into the boxcars in Bergen-Belsen, and were en route to Thersienstadt in Poland, where they would be killed as part of “the Final Solution.”
The train had run into Russian-occupied territory then reversed direction to avoid detection. After heading toward Farsleben, the engineers learned the Americans were there. And stopped, Towers said.
“The train commander didn’t know what to do, so they were sitting on the track.”
They had orders to take the train to a wrecked bridge in Magdeburg that crossed the Elbe River, “and were told to drive the train onto the bridge and into the water,” Towers said.
But the engineers realized they too would die, “so they were disputing what to do when we found them.”
Towers said he knew more about the back roads in the area than anyone else, so he was assigned to round up as many trucks as he could to transport the Jews to the nearby town of Hillersleben, which had just been liberated by the Americans. There was an abandoned hospital there, and American medical personnel began arriving.
The prisoners had been stacked in the train cars like wood, so crowded they had no room to move around, Towers said. During their six-day odyssey around Germany, their only bathroom facility was a bucket in the corner of each car. “Since they couldn’t move, they had to let it run down their legs,” he said. “The stench was unbearable.”
Every night, they were taken out of the cars and given bowls of soup made from turnip or potato peelings, leftovers from soup served to the Germans.
When the Americans first arrived, many of the Jews were afraid to come out of the train because they didn’t know what worse fate might be in store for them, Towers said. As they moved forward to get out, the dead fell to the floor “and there wasn’t anything anyone could do.”
At the time, Towers said he and the other soldiers were “hardened” to what they saw because they had seen so much death and suffering across Europe among their own troops, German soldiers and civilians.
“Death was not anything new to us,” he said.
Helping the survivors
The 105th Medical Battalion arrived to help the survivors, and the citizens of Farsleben were ordered to bring food to the train site, which they did “reluctantly,” Towers said.
Towers led three truck convoys full of Jews to Hillersleben and turned them over to the U.S. military government there.
The Jews were so full of lice and fleas that all of their clothing had to burned. They showered, and the people of Hillersleben brought them food and new clothes “reluctantly.”
Towers said he didn’t understand German, but he could see what was going on “at the point of the rifles” the American leaders pointed at the heads of the mayors of the towns.
The citizens of those towns “did not appreciate having to give up their food and clothing to this pile of Jewish trash,” he said. “They weren’t smiling about it.”
In the following days, and years, Towers said he never thought any more about the Jewish prisoners he’d helped rescue. The war was ending in Europe, and he was getting ready to go to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended that prospect, and after serving three more years in Europe after the war, Towers went home to Mary and a new home in Brooker, where they’ve lived since.
Remembering the horror
Towers said for years he couldn’t talk about the war. He was depressed, in denial and probably suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome. He opened a grocery store and raised a family.
Then in 1974, he visited Normandy, where he found many buddies’ graves. He broke down and cried, a flood of emotion breaking through, and he began to talk. He said he hasn’t stopped talking since.
Several years ago, he found a Web site, created by a history teacher in New York, that told the story of the train near Magdeburg, with photos. He got in touch with the teacher, Matthew Rozell, and they have communicated since, and attended reunions where Towers has met some train survivors.
The ones still living were children at the time, he said. There are possibly 600 still alive today, and he’s been in touch with about 60, who live around the world – in Israel, the United States, Canada, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and The Netherlands. Many are highly educated professionals, doctors, college professors and artists.
One, Sara Atzmon, who was 7 years old in 1945, is a well-known artist and sculptor living in Israel. At a reunion in New York in September, she gave Towers a painting depicting the train story to hang in the Camp Blanding Museum, where Towers volunteers once a week.
“We don’t ever want to forget what happened to the Jews,” Towers said. As the war was ending, the Germans tried “to hide evidence” of what they’d done in the concentration camps, and he said the people he helped rescue were destined for the gas chambers.
“I feel happy and proud that I had a small part to play at giving them a second chance at life,” he said.
The Hanukkah party and menorah lighting are open to the public, with a fun and food fair beginning at 4:30 p.m., followed by the menorah lighting at 6 p.m. and Towers’ talk at 6:30.
Kurinsky said he’s heard Holocaust survivor accounts before, but not one from an American soldier.
He said Towers’ story is particularly appropriate for Hanukkah.
“Hanukkah is a holiday for celebrating life, victory, and religious freedom,” Kurinsky said. “America is about religious tolerance, and here’s somebody who really epitomizes what Hanukkah’s all about.”