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Archive for October, 2010

Legacy of freedom.

My college alma mater recently released their Fall 2010 edition of the alumni magazine. We were the cover story. It focuses on the ripple effect and the power of connections, but also the importance of teaching. There is a lot of negative educational press out there right now, some of it justified, but here, we are making a difference and maybe even offering a partial solution…something I’m told a recent runaway film really fails to do… thanks to my college for recognizing that.

The article that accompanies this graphic can be seen at this link. Look for it on page 10 of the browser window. It was written by Kris Dreessen and she did a fine job. (Varda lives in Israel, though, not in Canada.)

I’m working on a book about these experiences, and have recently completed a 2 DVD set of the Sept. 2009 reunion, the one that culminated in ABC World News Person of the Week honors.  The conference and symposium took place over 3 1/2 days and  combined liberator and survivor testimony before packed houses of students and community members.

If you are an educator inspired by what has transpired in Hudson Falls, please consider an oral history program or project in your school. For World War II or the Holocaust  in particular, I don’t have to tell you that time is running short.

I’d like to say hello to all of my SUNY Geneseo friends and alumni, and the veterans and the families who are also included in the article. It was my honor to read about you, and thank you for stopping by to visit this site.

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2 DVD Set now available.

In 2001, as part of a class project collecting the testimony of World War II veterans, Mr. Matthew Rozell, a teacher at Hudson Falls High School in a small town in upstate New York, interviewed a tank commander, the grandfather of one of his students, who mentioned one day in combat in April, 1945 in which he and another tank commander were ordered to go and investigate a train full of civilians that they stumbled across during the final battles of the war in Nazi Germany.  His curiosity heightened, Mr. Rozell began to dig deeper into what had really unfolded on that day. This long forgotten event was about to spring to life; the result of this teacher’s work has made a profound impact on thousands of lives all over the world.

Rescuing the evidence of the Holocaust and of World War IIand honoring the history all of the veterans and survivors  is Rozell’s mission. “There are so many lessons here – lessons of self-sacrifice and duty. This war brought out the worst in people and it brought out the best of people,” says Rozell. “When you look at this mini snapshot of time, you see it all. In the end, good triumphs over evil.”

In April 2010, as a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow, Mr. Rozell was  invited to witness the nation’s Days of Remembrance ceremonies held in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, honoring the liberators of the camps. He was also named as the 2009 Daughters of the American Revolution Outstanding Teacher of American History for New York State, and on the national level, chosen as the 2010 Organization of American Historians Tachau Teacher of the Year in Washington, DC. To date, he has organized five reunions and was also  honored on September 25th, 2009 as the ABC World News Person of the Week for his efforts to keep history alive (“Teacher takes students on a journey of humanity”). He has taught history at his alma mater for over two decades.

The 2 DVD set celebrates the American soldiers and the Holocaust survivors whose lives were saved by this chance encounter. Soldiers from all over the nation and survivors from all over the world have come together to offer testimony and meet each other, in many instances, for the first time since liberation day on April 13th, 1945.

The program notes for the DVD are below. If interested, you may email Mr. Rozell at marozell@hfcsd.org to request an order form for this and other items. Proceeds go to support Hudson Falls High School History Club and programs like these.

  • “Today I saw a sight that is impossible to describe…I’ll never forget today….”-letter home from Charles Kincaid, 30th Infantry Division, US 9th Army
  • “Carrol and I were again side by side as we came up to the train with Major Benjamin, chased the remaining German guards away, and declared the train and its captives free members of society under the protection of the United States Army, as represented by two light tanks….” George C. Gross, 743rd Tank Battalion, US 9th Army
  • “How could we [the world] have stood by and let that happen to them?  We owe them.”   Carrol Walsh, 743rd Tank Battalion, US 9th Army
  • “I often wonder what this world would be like if those six million had never perished.”  Frank Towers, 30th Infantry Division, US 9th Army
  • “I got out of this 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…” Elisabeth Seaman,  Survivor
  • “Against all odds I am standing here before you.”  Steven Barry, Survivor
  • “Hatred is something we must fight against…silence helps the oppressors. I tell my story so that it won’t become your future…”   Leslie Meisels,  Survivor
  • “We cannot be lax at all.  We must keep the faith.  We must tell others.”  Buster Simmons, 30th Infantry Division, US 9th Army
  •  “I’m listed as a liberator, but I’m a survivor of WWII… We must ever be thankful.  We must never take freedom for granted.”   William Gast, 743rd Tank Battalion, US 9th Army
  •  “After they gave us back our lives, we need to live each day.”  Paul Arato, Survivor
  • “You have the power to heal the world.”  Lev Raphael, son of Holocaust survivors
  • ” The smell of cordite… that is one of the things you remember…” Francis Currey, MOH, 30th Infantry Division, US 9th Army
  • ” The day my father was liberated from the POW camp, he left hating behind and began living.” Robert Miller, son of 30th Infantry Division soldier
  • “The Germans didn’t get a chance to kill us, because  you, the American angels, came on time.” Ariela Rojek,  Survivor
  • “We were kids-kids are the future-people were starving to death-but {the adults} made sure that the kids ate…” Micha Tomkiewicz, Survivor 
  • “During the war, the majority… did not care. Even if a neighbor was taken away, it did not mean a damn thing…” Fred Spiegel,  Survivor
  • “Love gives us wings to soar above it all.”  Sara Atzmon, Survivor

 Program Notes: “Americans came to Liberate, Not Conquer”

Americans Soldiers/Holocaust Survivors Reunion

Disc One: The American Soldier Liberators (124 minutes)

Introduction by  Mr. Rene Roberge, Hudson Falls High School

Film, Honoring Liberation, USHMM (April 2010)/ABC World News Persons of the Week (9-25-09)

Reading: A Letter to the Chaplain: A Liberator’s 1945 Eyewitness Account of the Farsleben Train

Tribute to Liberator/Photographer George C. Gross, 743rd Tank Battalion

Speakers:

Tim Gross, son of liberator George C. Gross

Carrol Walsh, 743rd Tank Battalion

Frank Towers, 30th Infantry Division

Francis Currey, Recipient, Medal of Honor, 30th Infantry Division

Buster Simmons, 30th Infantry Division

William Gast, 743rd Tank Battalion

Robert Miller, author, Finding My Father’s War (son of 30th ID member)

Disc Two: The Holocaust Survivors (144 minutes)

Albany New York Television News Coverage

Speakers: Survivors-

Sara Atzmon (Hungary; Israel)

Fred Spiegel (Germany; Howell, NJ)

Ariela Rojek (Poland; Toronto, Canada)

Leslie Meisels (Hungary; Toronto, Canada)

Paul Arato (Hungary; Toronto, Canada)

Elisabeth Seaman (Netherlands; Palo Alto, California)

Micha Tomkiewicz (Poland; Brooklyn, New York)

Lev Raphael: (son of train survivor) Author, My Germany- “Revisiting Germany”

Speaker: Survivor Steven Barry (Hungary; Boca Raton, Fla.)

Film, A Special Reunion

Student Performance, Miss Kylie James, Hudson Falls Class of 2010 “This Is For Remembrance”

Speaker: Teacher Organizer Matthew Rozell

Supplemental Material: Guidelines for Teaching the Holocaust, USHMM Museum Teacher Fellowship Outreach Project, Matthew Rozell and Sara Kollbaum, 2008

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Just returned from a three day conference.

As Holocaust educators, we talk about the choices that individuals face and the patterns that one may follow in making one’s choice. The trend seems to be to focus on the role of the “perpetrator” and “bystander”  in the greatest crime in the history of the world, to examine the nuances of their behavior, to perhaps gain insight into why the Holocaust occurred. Yes. Very, very,  important.

But how about including in our discussion the actions and behaviors of the soldiers who ended the Holocaust? They faced a choice, too. They had seen their friends vaporized in front of their eyes, they were weary, and tired of being shot at, and utterly exhausted. They were twenty fours hours away from another major showdown at a “last stand” city. Many of the soldiers would not survive, though the end of the war was in sight.

But they stopped, even as the enemy was digging in behind the battlelines.

Horrified and in shock, they sprang into action. One 4 year old survivor remembers that it was the “first time in my life that I can recall an adult with a smile”. If someone were to argue that the world owes these soldiers a debt, I don’t think too many people would find that problematic.

If you have not viewed the news clips (about 3 minutes each), I welcome you to do so.  In doing so, however,  you are forewarned that there is  someone who vehemently disagrees with that argument. He even shakes his finger.

And what does that say about the soldiers in this story? We need to dissect the behavior of the collaborators and those who are complicit in the crime. But what is it about the decisions made  and actions taken by these soldiers that is important to study? Of course this is worthy of our consideration, and as I struggle with my own role  in  the future of Holocaust education, I don’t think it should be overlooked or worse, “sidebarred” in the larger narrative of choices, patterns of behavior, and decision making.

Remember, the permanent exhibition at the USHMM even opens with visitors listening to the narrative of one of these soldiers on the elevator ride up to the 4th floor.  Why? It is more than that soldier just becoming  the “set-up guy” for the shock that greets one when the elevator doors open. We need to really explore that further.

Frank Towers, a World War II veteran who helped liberate 2,500 Jews on a train bound for a Nazi concentration camp, meets Bruria Falik of Woodstock, who was on the train, at Arbor Ridge at Brookmeade in Rhinebeck. (Photos by Karl Rabe/Poughkeepsie Journal)

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to have you consider this, with the video  interviews, as well. And to the folks who might have thought otherwise, it’s not about me, finding and bringing folks  together- those soldiers are primary actors in this drama, and are survivors in their own right as well. {And note that throughout this discussion I have refrained from using the term “liberator”. My guys are not even officially recognized as “liberators”.}

What made them tick? Would one of us have picked up and carried a sick, lice-ridden, foul smelling “semblance” of a human being, exhausted and at the breaking point ourselves ?  Look below in the next post to get a Holocaust survivor’s take on it.

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{As part of the conclusion to my USHMM Teacher Fellowship project, I  am posting the unfolding nature of the discovery of the camps as Allied troops closed in from the East and the West, sixty-five years to the day that the discovery/event occurred. This post also gets an inordinate amount of hits; please be sure to visit the “About” link for context.}This was originally posted on 4-15-10.}

April 15, 1945: British troops reach the Bergen-Belsen, Germany, concentration camp and find 60,000 survivors and 27,000 unburied corpses. Following liberation, starvation and typhus will claim about 13,000 more…

(Weber, Louis. The Holocaust Chronicle. Publications International Ltd., 2007. http://www.holocaustchronicle.org)

See  Bob Spitz’ testimony of his liberation, and typhus.  In this video, filmed by my son Ned in March 2008, he is addressing his liberators for the first time since 1945.

When I was in ninth grade, my education was disrupted brutally by having been transferred into a railroad yard, packed into cattle cars of the German government and ended up in Bergen Belsen with my father. We were in Bergen Belsen from late March to February, in which my father and I were separated. We were hiding the fact that we were father and son. He was taken away from me and he was shipped to a camp in Austria, the camp was called Mauthausenwhere he was killed. So I was in Bergen Belsen, all by myself, age 14-½ -15, and my physical situation was very, very bad. You heard from other former inmates that they had doctors and birth certificates. We had no no doctors or birth certificates. More often than not we had water problems. We didn’t have running water because the water system was probably in a very bad condition. We didn’t have water available 24 hours a day. I don’t think I have to discuss food with you, you’ve heard enough stories about the lack of food … So on that particular fateful April day, we’d received our orders to go to the railroad yard to be packed in because we we are now going to Theresienstadt. Theresienstadt is so many kilometers from Prague, Czechoslovakia; it was a military camp during the existence of the Austrian-Hungary Empire. Which disintegrated in 1918. Now it became a camp for Jewish inmates under the National Socialist system, you know our train made a drastic mistake in getting to Theresienstadt. It didn’t get into Theresienstadt; it didn’t make it because of you gentlemen of the 30th Division. It was certainly a big day, as I was sitting inside of that car, cattle car, where I would estimate that there were few inmates in the cattle car that had fewer then 1,000,000 lice each. Naturally starved to death, skin and bones, very, very  bad condition. Until we heard, I heard, that somebody was fiddling with the lock of my sliding door, from the outside. Obviously that sliding door, the lock was open and first thing I know is that the sliding door is sliding toward an open position. A young man who wore, for you veterans, an ‘OD’ uniform, which means olive drab in English, and he had a white  armband with a red cross in it. Behind him there were 2 or 3 younger men without the Red Cross armbands, they were talking a language that I understood. I assume that I was the only one in my car that understood/spoke English. I had English in school with other languages. I was the only one with these guys that was able to strike up a conversation. They were, I think, more delighted than I was. I didn’t realize just how many advantages I just gained because I have successfully established a line of communication with these guys from another part of the world. They were delighted that they could start finding out information that was never available to them. At this time I think I want to stop for a minute to try to convey to you the impressions that I gained at that time from these three guys.

It’s hard for me to describe it accurately because, a) I was sick, terribly sick, b) my perception did not function at all, I had a high fever so I’m trying to remember to the best of my ability: 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, that 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.

I forgot to tell you. When the first soldier opened that sliding door, some bodies-our bodies-fell on him from the railroad car. They were dead. Naturally that came as a surprise. To us, you know, it was a matter of an every day event. He pulled me out and I don’t know how, I didn’t know what was going on. I was out of it, first thing I knew, I am riding on a truck. Again I went out of it, the next thing I knew I was standing in front of a gun which was run by a gasoline-fed engine. They were spraying me with white powder, lots of it. Later on I found out that was procedure of DDT, de-lousing. Believe me they had to waste an awful lot of powder on me.

After this, they pulled me and took me into a room. Now I knew it by then that the city, the village of Hilersleben  all of a sudden gained 2500, 2600, 2700 new comers. From that train and many of them needed hospitalization. I assumed the majority needed hospitalization. I was put in a semi-private room, two people to the room. Well later I found out that the 2nd and 3rd floor consisted of wards with 70 bunks,  70 beds. Here I have a semi-private room because they could talk to me and I could talk to them. After God knows how many medical examinations and everything else the drastic change of tension in my diet was really very, very easy. Going from no diet to a diet is a drastic turnabout, but it’s an easy process. Again my food had to be supervised very carefully because many people, liberated people, got extremely sick and many died because of their food intake not being planned or controlled. A good Army major went from living quarters with a cocked 45 pistol in his hand, expressing his desire that the German peasant, the German farmer, the German citizen starts cooking for these guys. Many of these guys weren’t ready for that food. It played havoc.

So as time went on, I got better and better and I got rid of my typhus and my fever dropped. They called this “normalcy”. I have a problem with this word, normalcy, what is normal? What’s normal to you doesn’t have to be normal to me. I think it’s only a setting on a washing machine. My recovery was very nice and satisfactory except I assumed a new duty which I wasn’t aware of. Often, as the day went on, one medic after another said, ”Hey, Bob. Will you please come with me to the 3rd floor? We have a problem  with Tommy/ Billy/ etc. There’s a problem, he can’t talk to us, and we can’t talk to him.” I found myself acting as a translator. Little did I know that was going to be the beginning  of something big.

{transcribed by Ashleigh Fitzgerald, HFHS ’10.}

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