Archive for January, 2012

Holocaust survivor recalls kindness of US troops

Another survivor of the train near Magdeburg appears. International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2012. I hope she finds her way to this site so she can meet her actual liberators! Thanks for Leslie Meisels for tipping us off to the article. Aliza’s memoir of life in the Warsaw Ghetto and beyond is very moving and can be found here.

By GIL SHEFLER 01/27/2012 00:34

“The American soldiers didn’t know what to do and they showered us with chocolates and cigarettes.”

Aliza Vitis-Shomron on Thursday vividly recalled her brush with death on the eve of her liberation from the Nazis in 1945.

The survivor, who spoke on a panel at the Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Holocaust Museum the day before the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, said a rumor had spread among the group of Jewish prisoners she was part of in Poland that they were about to be murdered.

Rather than surrendering them to the Allies closing in from the east and west, the prisoners feared their captors were planning to plunge their train into the Elbe River and drown everyone.

“Panic and fear spread quickly,” recalled the Polish-born Israeli who survived the Warsaw Ghetto and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. “Just as we were at the point of despair, two American tanks came rolling down a hill and saved us.”

The feeble Jewish prisoners emerged from the train and embraced the stunned soldiers of the US 30th Armored Division.

the tank commanders who freed her.

“We were crying with joy,” she said. “The American soldiers didn’t know what to do and they showered us with chocolates and cigarettes.”

Vitis-Shomron said she did not feel that she had defeated the Nazis.

“I did not triumph,” said Vitis-Shomron, an educator who has four great-grandchildren.

“What happened accompanies me, but I try to live and live well. I try to teach humanitarian values to our youths. We must never do upon others what was done to us.”

The panel Vitis-Shomron was part of at Yad Mordechai, the kibbutz named after the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Mordechai Anielewicz), included Simcha “Kojak” Rotem, who fought in the uprising, and former defense minister Moshe Arens.

It was one of many events held in Israel and around the world commemorating the remembrance day.

On Wednesday, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor, American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris and members of the newly formed World Forum of Russian Jewry met at United Nations headquarters to honor the memory of those killed by the Nazis.

The AJC head said the lesson learned from the murder of six million Jews required the world to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities.

“This past September, indeed on these grounds, the notorious Holocaust denier, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, spoke,” Harris said. “To their credit, several UN member ambassadors walked out, but, shamefully, the majority stayed in the General Assembly hall and applauded his remarks.”

The president of the World Forum of Russian Jewry, Ukrainian businessman Alexander Levin, joined the call urging the UN to take action against the Islamic Republic.

More Holocaust memorial events are planned for Israel and around the world on Friday.

Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and ambassadors from more than a dozen countries including Germany, the US, Egypt and the Philippines are set to gather at the Massuah Institute for Holocaust Studies at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak near Netanya to take part in a memorial ceremony.

The UN designated January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005. It is marked by governments and organizations around the world.

Israel, however, observes its official Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 26th of Nissan, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, according to the Jewish calendar. Its selection reflects the Jewish state’s preference to emphasize Jewish resistance to the Nazis.


Read Full Post »

the consummate teacher.

A good man left us this week. As I attempt to ponder the why, I can only fall back on the memories of one of the most honorable human beings that I had the privilege of knowing, albeit for only a small window of our respective lives.

Brent and his twin Bruce were seniors; I was a freshman in high school trying to find my way; they looked out for me. So funny, so warm, so happy, and so willing to be present for others, as his obituary attests. My heart goes out to Brent’s mom and  Bruce, and his other siblings and family members.

Here is a man whose memory I will use to guide me in the rest of my career, and I hope my life.

Teaching history is the theme of this website, but truly, it does not matter what one teaches. Here is the consummate teacher who knew that the bottom line for all educators is be happy and in touch with the moment, and by extension seemingly effortlessly creating  better human beings in living by example, touching and molding young lives, forever. What other occupation is as important?

Rest on, friend. I’ll keep you close.

Brent J. Bertrand passed away the morning of Tuesday, January 10, 2012. A Hudson Falls native born on February 5, 1958, Brent graduated from Hudson Falls High School in 1976. He earned an Associate’s degree from Cobleskill College in 1978 and a Bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Oswego in 1982 before embarking on a very rewarding teaching career with the Warrensburg Central School District. He earned his Master’s degree from the State University of New York at Albany in 1988.

As a high school technology teacher, Brent shared his passion as a craftsman with countless students during his many years in Warrensburg. In teaching his students to shape rough lumber into polished furniture, he instilled in the students and those around him the patience and discipline of doing things the right way and of taking pride in one’s accomplishments. His “measure twice, cut once” philosophy was his simple way of expressing the valuable life lesson of thinking before acting.

A natural born educator, Brent’s devotion extended beyond the classroom on to the athletic fields. “Coach” Bertrand spent many seasons on the Warrensburg softball fields teaching students the life lessons of success and failure on the playing field. Displaying a consistent approach to teaching in both the classroom and the ball field, Brent urged his student athletes to “practice how you play” as yet another example of doing things the right way and taking pride in what one does.

Warrensburg was a very special community for Brent. Always with a friendly smile and a genuine interest and concern for others, he shared his dedication to education and to the Warrensburg students with the other employees in the school district. He prided himself on arriving early, being available and accessible to all and never missing a day of work. He became an integral member of the Warrensburg community and valued the relationships and friendships he developed over the years.

Brent was equally as dedicated to and compassionate about his family as he was to his profession. As one of seven siblings, he developed a strong work ethic and sense of commitment, responsibility and fairness during his formative years, traits that he exemplified throughout his life. He shared his love for the farm and the lake with his parents, siblings and their spouses, and his nieces and nephews, and realized the importance and meaning of the farm and the lake as the place for the family to gather.

Brent was predeceased by his father, Frank L. Bertrand. He is survived by his mother, Jane L. Bertrand; his sister, Susan Semiz; his brothers, Bruce, Frank, Matthew, Michael and Peter; his brother-in-law, John Semiz; sisters-in-law, Jane Bertrand, Patricia Bertrand and Sally Bertrand; his girlfriend, Missy Ackley; and several nieces and nephews who idolized and adored their Uncle Brent.

Friends may call on Brent’s family from 3-6 pm, Friday, January 13, 2012 at Alexander-Baker Funeral Home, 3809 Main Street, Warrensburg.


As of Thursday, hundreds of heartfelt tributes were scrawled on a 60-feet-long mural titled “Messages to Mr. Bertrand” that stretched the length of the school’s cafeteria wall.

 “Mister B” was known particularly for his ability to inspire students through his ever-present enthusiasm, sunny attitude and helpful spirit — and the messages on the mural reflected these themes. Here is a sampling of some of the messages:

#• “You were an amazing teacher — you made every student feel like they were important…”

#•“You moved every heart and touched every soul — I’m heartbroken not just for the loss of your upbeat smile and friendly waves in the halls, but for the students yet to come who will never have the pleasure of knowing you…”

“You looked past all of my flaws and actually saw me as a person…”

#• “There hasn’t been one day I’ve seen you without a smile on your face…”

#• “You were the reason I survived school…”

#• “You treated us with respect and never made us feel stupid. You knew exactly how to help us with any problem we faced…”

#• “You were the most genuine, strong and kind-hearted person I’ve ever known — You brightened the worst of people’s days and saw the good in everybody…”

#• “You inspired me to be an architect…”

#• “You taught me that no matter where I go, I will be walking into my future…”

Better man than I. A toast to you and your dad, my friend. Clink a glass with my old man.


Read Full Post »

I never met Gina, but did finally meet her family on my visit to Israel last May.

Gina was the only survivor who has been positively identified by the soldiers themselves- in this case, George C. Gross, who took a photo of her in front of his tank on April 13th, 1945, before moving out to fight the final battle at Magdeburg. He always wondered what had become of her. I would challenge you to read the last paragraph of his narrative, especially. Then refer to the photo above.

Gina passed away this week. I think that George Gross, who passed in 2009,  helped to welcome her home.

Gina Rappaport 4-13-45

From Sgt. George Gross (relayed to Matthew Rozell, March, 2002):

I spent part of the afternoon (13 April 1945) listening to the story of Gina Rappaport, who had served so well as interpreter. She was in the Warsaw ghetto for several years as the Nazis gradually emptied the ghetto to fill the death camps, until her turn finally came. She was taken to Bergen-Belsen, where the horrible conditions she described matched those official accounts I later heard. She and some 2500 others, Jews from all over Europe, Finnish prisoners of war, and others who had earned the enmity of Nazidom, were forced onto the train and taken on a back-and-forth journey across Germany, as their torturers tried to get them to a camp where they could be eliminated before Russians on one side or Americans on the other caught up with them. Since the prisoners had little food, many died on the purposeless journey, and they had felt no cause for hope when they were shunted into this little unimportant valley siding. Gina told her story well, but I have never been able to write it. I received a letter from her months later, when I was home in San Diego. I answered it but did not hear from her again. Her brief letter came from Paris, and she had great hopes for the future. I trust her dreams were realized.

We were relieved the next morning, started up the tank, waved good-bye to our new friends, and followed a guiding jeep down the road to rejoin our battalion. I looked back and saw a lonely Gina Rappaport standing in front of a line of people waving us good fortune. On an impulse I cannot explain, I stopped the tank, ran back, hugged Gina, and kissed her on the forehead in a gesture I intended as one asking forgiveness for man’s terrible cruelty and wishing her and all the people a healthy and happy future. I pray they have had it.

Today I had every intention to read aloud these paragraphs from Dr. Gross’ testimony to my 4th block tenth graders . I made it as far as the last two sentences, and had to stop, go back to my desk, and compose myself for a moment…when I passed around these two photographs and the email below, the kids understood…of course I reminded them that I was still a “tough guy”.

From my inbox, a week after the reunion…

Dear Madam /Sir,

I am referring to your amazing World War II project.

Mr. George Gross whose testimony is found in your site mentions the story of Gina Rappaport (and includes her photo) who happens to be my mother (!).

She survived the Holocaust and emigrated to Israel where she lives until today. In 1947 she married to my father  and gave birth to two children, my brother Giora and myself.

Could you please provide me with contact information of Mr. Gross? I would like to contact him as soon as possible.

Many thanks for your help!

Sincerely yours,
Eran L.
Jerusalem, Israel.

The follow up:

Dear Matthew,

Thanks for your letter and for this fascinating project which is highly important for my entire family!
I am enclosing a photograph taken yesterday showing my mother reading for the first time Dr. Gross’s article and watching her own photo in front of the tank.

With kind regards,


Read Full Post »