Archive for July, 2010

I was the featured speaker at this event hosted by the NYC Next Generation Board held on July 28th, 2010 at CitiField  in NYC. I spoke about this project and on behalf of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Teacher Fellowship Program.

Good evening and thank you for your welcome. I would like to thank the Next Generation Board and staff for having me here this evening.

As you have just heard, I am particularly devoted to the mission of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Teacher Fellowship program. In April I was honored to be in Washington, DC with these fine veterans at the Days of Remembrance ceremonies with over 100 other liberators. Tonight I would like to present you with some snapshots of the people I have encountered in my work, and how the ripple effect has led to these worldwide connections. I also think it is important to place my work in the context of the Museum’s mission and to place it in a perspective that illustrates why we are all gathered here this evening.

As Ms. Sawyer explained, this endeavor began as a simple oral history project and it has now taken on a life of its own. The photograph on the screen was taken by Major Clarence Benjamin and is one of the most dramatic liberation photographs ever to come to light. What is unique about this and the other ten liberator photographs is that we have now identified several persons who are still living. They in turn contact other survivors and their families. Some just stumble across my website. On Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, April 12th, a major Israeli daily that reaches a quarter million households ran a lead story; here in NY the newspaper Hamodia ran an article that reached 50,000 in January. This has multiplied the ripple effect; to date, we have uncovered 165 survivors who were aboard that train near Magdeburg Germany.

Right now, rescuing the evidence is my main mission. There are so many lessons here – lessons of self-sacrifice and duty, of courage and kindness, but also of horror, cruelty and sorrow.  This war brought out the worst in people and it brought out the best of people. And when you look at this mini snapshot of time, you see it all. In the end, good triumphs over evil.

Here are some sample vignettes from my work with the testimony of survivors I know, and this is just scratching the surface. Here they recall the moment of liberation at the hands of the Americans.

Jacob, a four year old boy, has very vivid memories of recalling that this was the first time in his young life that he ever saw an adult smile. He also recalls an angry American major cocking his .45 and putting it to the head of a burgermiester who was reluctant to order the neighboring townspeople to provide shelter and food for the starving victims, a story which has been corroborated by many survivors.

Ina, a seventeen year old Dutch Jew, remembered the straight white teeth of her liberators and thinking in her famished and confused state that they all must have had the same dentist.

Bob, a fifteen year old, recalled hearing somebody fiddling with the lock on the railcar door and sliding it open. They were soldiers with Red Cross armbands who were shocked as the bodies tumbled out on top of them. QUOTE “The degree of shock, their shock, surprise, questioning on their faces-Where did these people come from? How did this happen? But within a few minutes this combination of emotions got transferred into the demonstration of concern, care, interest, a demonstration of wish, and good intentions, which was conspicuously demonstrated to each and every one of us. Before I realized just what was happening, the strong arms of that young man with the white armband grabbed me- I don’t know why, he probably didn’t know how many lice I had on my skull-He pulled me out of that car and then the other soldiers started pulling guys out of it. ”

21 year old Steve, who celebrated his 20th birthday freezing in a locked boxcar in early Dec. 1944  on the way to Bergen Belsen, recalled sitting on the embankment the evening before the liberation and  watching the Allied carpet bombing of Magdeburg and hoping that the bombs would fall on him. QUOTE  ” The next morning, we had this tiny little fire going and we were sitting next to it and I was sitting there with this great big abandoned SS overcoat on, to keep warm.  One GI walked down the embankment, came over to the fire, sat next to me, took out his pen knife, and he cut off the SS insignia from my coat, and slowly dropped it into the fire…”

Micha, a six year old boy from Poland, remembers visits to the house where he and his mom were quartered by a huge black American soldier who constantly smiled, bringing him chocolate, which he had never tasted before.

Matthew Rozell at CitiField event, July 28, 2010. USHMM photo.

Several of these child survivors have told me that they recall the camp in shades of gray and black and white, but they remember the liberation in vivid Technicolor. Elisabeth from Holland: “I got out of the train and I saw the greenery and the wild flowers. It was wonderful because suddenly I was seeing things in color. Everything that I’d remembered about the camp was black and white…”

Most recently, this was confirmed once more by this woman, a little girl who had been an orphan in Bergen Belsen. Back in Israel where she lives, she got a phone call from the daughter of another survivor who had tracked her down. Lily got a call as she was cooking dinner at home for her extended family in Tel Aviv last March, and was completely shocked as she knew very little of the details of her early life. She did immediately decide to travel to the United States to meet me, and came up here about a month ago. Lily’s father had been shot in the Warsaw ghetto and her mother died in Belsen shortly after their arrival. She was “purchased” with bread rations from a man who she had been entrusted to but who was actually neglecting her, and then she was cared for by a series of women whose faces and names she cannot recall. Eventually she was taken to Israel and raise on a kibbutz, and when she met me; she confided that she did not even know her birth date. She did remember the liberation, that all these young soldiers were chewing gum and gave her her first chocolates. I then arranged for her to have an interview at the Museum, and she called me up, very excitedly after the fact to say that she was received very well, and that her interviewer even had done research in the archives before she had gotten there and was able to tell her the day she was born…June 15th. As she and many others have told me, her family is proof that Hitler did not win.

I’d like to think that this project has done a great deal to undo Hitler’s legacy. The ripple effect of that we spoke of is reaching many thousands of lives- liberators, survivors, their children and grandchildren, and generations to come.  In perspective, though, we have to understand that for every soul saved on the train, another 2500 perished during the Holocaust.

Just as importantly, the project has touch thousands of students. You see, one of the points that I stress is that now these students become the new witnesses, just as you are also here to hopefully help us to carry the ripple forward to the future generations. I point out to the kids that they have a responsibility now to use what they have witnessed, and I show them the Holocaust denial website that is out there specifically devoted to the refuting of my story. It’s still out there, and ignoring it is not going to go make it go away.

I have talked to plenty of my peers who did not really learn about the Holocaust in own their days in the classroom, and who really have difficulty grasping how to teach it effectively. There is a lot more to teaching about the Holocaust than collecting bottle caps or counting pull tabs in a crate. Realistically, only a handful can bring their students to the Museum in Washington, but what we have to realize is that this Museum is much more than a brick and mortar building. As was previously mentioned, the Museum Teacher Fellowship program has developed into cutting edge national outreach to nurture Holocaust education in this nation, but a lot more needs to be done. Last year the Education Division reached 5000 teachers across the nation, and the good news is that the ripple effect means that if each committed teacher reaches 100 students over the course of ten years or so, we have now carried the message to fifty thousand kids.  In perspective, however, we have to keep in mind that there are at least 14 million secondary school students in the United States. But just imagine the potential of a program where even more highly qualified and committed MTF teachers could be trained to reach 100 or more fellow teachers over the years!

People often ask me how my work as an MTF impacts students. For a long time I really struggled with this question-I myself have never taken students on a field trip to the Museum-until last month when a reporter for my college alumni magazine showed up in town to find out.

“He puts history right in front of your eyes,” one of my students said. “Never could I have gotten the experience of meeting such inspiring people who learned to love after the ultimate form of prejudice was thrust upon them. A message of acceptance not only reached the little town of Hudson Falls, but the entire world.”

“It’s life altering,” said another. “And because we’ve heard these stories, it’s our job to make sure it won’t happen again.”

My friends, these high school kids now know that what they do matters, and whatever we can do to support these programs will pay dividends later. Now I can say truly that my getting up and going to work each day makes a difference. And now like them, when it comes down to what really matters, I just can’t be a bystander.

Thank you for your attention and I hope that you enjoy the game.

28 July, 2010 the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s New York Next Generation Citi Field event to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.

Read Full Post »

“Never have I met such devoted human kindness. Their humanity led us back to our rightful life as human beings on earth…

Now, after so many years, let me at least say, “thank you very much” to those devoted and kind US soldiers.

This valuable narrative surfaced a few months ago when it was sent to me by Shoshana Ben-Tora of Israel, written by her mother. Two of her brothers who were on the train are still alive, and remember this event with tears in their eyes… She sent it to me on Israel’s Independence Day. I share it on our Independence Day. Following that , you can see the letter that Chuck Kincaid wrote, as read out during our Soldier-Survivor Reunion last fall, of the sights that effected him for the rest of his life.

April 7-13, 1945

After suffering from constant starvation for six long months at the death factory of Bergen-Belsen the SS left us now in total hunger and total thirst. By now, we had been steadily crouching inside the crowded cattle trucks for five days. We were too exhausted, dizzy and weak to grasp how grave our situation was. What do the Nazis have in mind?

Turning Point – 12 April, 1945

We now reached the most crucial hour of our life during World War II under German Nazi rule. From each and every truck, a Jewish leader was asked to appear before a high-ranking SS officer, who issued a disastrous order that we immediately carried out. All men between the ages of sixteen and sixty were to line up in columns of five in front of the cattle trucks, with the angels of death fluttering around. We had to fight them off, and – luckily for us – we won! Our deteriorating health prevented us from comprehending the great life-and-death peril we were in at the time. We did not sense how we hovered between life and death, but our subconscious felt and knew it.

A paralyzing darkness seized me. Time stood still until all the men returned to the cattle cars. Then, our leader told us what really took place. As our transport of two thousand souls somehow got caught up between two combatants – the US army fighting against Hitler’s cowards – our SS captors decided to annihilate us all. They were going to gun down the men with machine guns in front of the cattle cars, and then blow up the rest of us – babies, small children, women and the elderly – in the cattle cars. That was the decree that the Nazi beast devised when its hour of doom came. Our leaders persuaded the SS officers to withdraw the decree by bribing them with gold jewelry that the Spanish Jewish group had. The SS officers fled, leaving us to be liberated shortly by the US army. Thus, by the generous decree of the Almighty, we were rid of the cruel tormenting clutches of the German Nazis, on the precious date of April 12, 1945, around mid afternoon.

This is how our “door of freedom” opened wide before us. Our leaders told us how to behave, letting us know that we could leave the cattle cars, but must stay close by. We were also told that we were in close range of an ongoing heavy battle. Those who wished to sleep the night outside the cattle car could do so on top of the grassy hill just in front of us. We were presently situated twenty kilometers from the city of Magdeburg, between two small towns. To our right was Farsleben and to our left was Csilics. At long last, the enfeebled crowd began crawling out of its prison, although many were too faint to enjoy the very first steps of freedom. It looked like there was hope that the US army would liberate us for good from the barbaric domination of Nazi Germany by the morrow.

A Real Bath!

We soon spotted a small pond and together with my sister Jolan I took my first steps in its direction in order to take a “real bath in real water”. As we walked there, a band of SS German officers were running away. One of them aimed at us with his small gun and fired some bullets with an accompanying last farewell to us – “swine Jew”! Luckily for my sister and I, we were far enough not to get hurt.

In front of the cattle car, we could see German civilians from the two nearby towns running in opposite directions on the main road, trying to escape from the approaching US forces. With dulled sense, we glimpsed towards them. Several SS guards stayed with us. Some of them asked for – and received – civilian clothes from our people.

Many of us spent the night on the grassy hill beneath the open, starry blue sky. A nearby gun battle illuminated the area through the night. Sounds of cannons kept us awake and we prayed fervently now more than ever for our liberators’ swift victory.

The next morning we dug up recently planted potatoes we found between two stones, made a fire and cooked them. They tasted delicious. In the early afternoon, I again started walking towards the small pond, but then my little sister Jolan excitedly hollered to me: “hey you, come back fast, the US army has arrived”!

US Angel Soldiers

As much as my faint condition would allow me, I hurried to the scene of the miracle to welcome them, this being the big moment we so yearned for. Two angel-like American soldiers stood there beside their “magic” jeep. My sister and I looked on enchantedly as they took captive the several SS cowards who stayed in their shameful and disgraceful uniforms. The SS henchmen held up their hands while one of the Americans stood opposite them with a pointed weapon. Then, the second US officer searched their pockets.

These two dear, brave soldiers of valor hurried straight from the battlefield to liberate us from the satanic German Nazis. I just kept looking at their faces, which still reflected emotions of battle. Their eyes and face mirrored wrath as their glance fell on us, the feeble crowd. They came to liberate us and the many cadavers laid out in front of the cattle cars on the bare earth.

The American officers told us that an airplane spotted our transport leaving Bergen-Belsen, and that they escorted and watched us since then. In the event that our Nazi transport guards would attack us, they were ready to come to our defense. It was Friday, April the thirteenth, at about three p.m., when the gracious US army emancipated us – our group of two thousand living dead. They brought us back from the edge of the grave, from the satanic, barbaric, murderous clutches of the German Nazis.

Standing there and looking up at our liberators, I waited to sense some kind of emotion on this miraculous occasion – but no. Reality did not penetrate my consciousness. My senses were incapable of experiencing any signs of emotion – no tears of joy appeared, nor even the slightest smile. My senses were left stiff, in the aftermath of extended suffering. We are liberated, but only outwardly. Our mind still remained under great pressure, as heavy, dark clouds obscured our world of comprehension. It will take a good many years to be free completely. When that time comes, if ever, we will be able to feel wholly liberated and shake off the shackles of bondage and imperceptible suffering.

Feeding Us Back to Life

Taking their German  SS captives along with them, the two American officers left us for now. The majority of our group was so feeble that they stayed inside the crowded cattle trucks. Some ventured to the nearby small towns for provisions. The following day, early in the afternoon, the US army arrived with a big army truck. They brought us a delicious hot meal, potato goulash with veal meat. Never before in my life, or after, did I eat as tasty a meal as this. I just looked on as those US soldiers of valor took care of our group of two thousand, going from cattle car to cattle car so patiently. After suffering so long from inhuman treatment, I felt a great distinction to be treated with human kindness by those American soldiers. It was like being born again.

With their kind devotion toward us they sowed back into our souls the sparks and seeds of human hopes and feelings. By Sunday morning, my sister Jolan and I plucked up some courage and crawled out of the cattle cars to look around at the nearby town of Farsleben. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that US officers were already strolling the locality, patrolling the place. Some of our fellow Jews were also around and about. The local population either locked themselves in their homes or escaped. None of them ventured to welcome the new liberators.

Suddenly we came by a friend of ours, Kati, with a smiling face. She invited us to taste from a big can of scrambled eggs that she just received from the American soldiers. Gladly, we did. With our bare hands, we grabbed a handful from it, thanking her for the kindheartedness.

Our Liberators

Now about our generous, kind, angelic liberators who freed us from Nazi hands. As I look back over the long years that passed, and recall the group of 2,000 of which I was a part – how we must have looked when we were freed from Bergen-Belsen! I must say that the soldiers who freed us were like angels from heaven. They took care of us with great devotion. They worked hard with their fine kindness that saved our lives. They placed us in the nicest looking houses in the area to make us comfortable. They prepared the special meals we needed because of our weak and sick condition. In short, the US army pulled us back to life from the edge of the grave. They did all they could to build up our spirit and health so damaged by the Nazis. Never have I met such devoted human kindness. Their humanity led us back to our rightful life as human beings on earth.

The US army freed us on the thirteenth of April 1945. When they left us we were all sorry that they hadn’t given us a chance to thank them for all their kindness. Now, after so many years, let me at least say, “thank you very much” to those devoted and kind US soldiers. Within 24 hours they put up a hospital for our sick! They put us up in comfortable quarters and went from room to room looking for the sick and infirm. If they found someone in bed or looking too pale-faced, they immediately carried them to the hospital. There they conducted their efficient check-ups. Many of us were sick with spotted-typhus, a very infectious disease. Two of the American doctors who treated us contracted it and sadly enough died from it.

April 17th. (1945)

Dear Chaplain;-

Haven’t written you in many months now, its funny how a few moments are so hard to find in which to write a letter way past due; it’s much easier to keep putting it off the way I’ve done. I’ll try to make up for it in this letter.

Today I saw a sight that’s impossible to describe, however I’ll try. Between 2400 and 3000 German refugees were overran by my division during our last operation; most of them were, or had been, inmates of concentration camps, their crimes the usual ones, – Jewish parentage, political differences with der Fuhrer, lack of sympathy for the SS, or just plain bad luck. Not one of these hundreds could walk one mile and survive; they had been packed on a train whose normal capacity was perhaps four or five hundred, and had been left there days without food.

Our division military government unit took charge of them, and immediately saw what a huge job it was going to be, so they sent out a call for help. Several of our officers went out to help them organize the camp they were setting up for them. The situation was extremely ticklish we soon learned; no one could smoke as it started a riot when the refugees saw the cigarette, and we couldn’t give the kiddies anything or they would have been trampled to death in the rush that would result when anything resembling food was displayed. The only nourishment they were capable of eating was soup; now the army doesn’t issue any of the Heinz’s 57 varieties, so we watered down C-ration[s] and it served quite well.  It was necessary to use force to make the people stay in line in order to serve them. They had no will power left, only the characteristics of beasts.

A few weeks of decent food will change them into a semblance of normal human beings; with God willing the plague of disease that was already underway, will be diverted; but I’m wondering what the affect of their ordeal they have been through, will be on their minds; most will carry scars for the rest of their days for the beatings that they were given. No other single thing had convinced me as this experience has that Germany isn’t fit to survive as a nation. I’ll never forget today.

I was going to write mother tonight but thought better of it. I’ll be in a better frame of mind tomorrow. I’m only a few dozen miles from Berlin right now, and its hard to realize the end is in sight. I’m always glad to receive your scandal sheet. You perhaps missed your calling, as your editorial abilities are quite plain.

As ever,

Charles. (transcribed by Kaylee Merlow, HFHS ’11.)

Read Full Post »