Archive for March, 2013

So I am going to the Stations of the Cross at our local church. I have never gone before.  It is Friday evening and there are about a dozen worshipers in attendance and my family is going to lead the procession. In fact, we are the procession.

My daughter and son flank me with candles and I have the heavy cross. We stand before each station as my wife is at the lectern reading the text for the parishioners to follow and respond to. At the cue of the organ, we move on.

Somewhere along the way the candles go out, first with Mary and then with Ned. Kind of symbolic given what comes next.

Laura reads the text from the proscribed booklet, beautifully.  I’m trying to follow along but frankly am kind of distracted by the candles going out and my aching feet. Maybe they are supposed to hurt, maybe that’s the point. To reflect on all this suffering, and then death.

But flanked by my children I am jolted back with the utterance from the lectern: something near the tenth station about how somebody in the storyline has to practice Christianity in secret, “…because of the Jews.”

It’s 2013. This is the church that reared me. At the lectern where I eulogized my  father, my wife reads the proscribed text: because of the Jews. After the service I check the booklet- yep, it’s there, she read it like she was supposed to. Imprimatur.

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Though my father would go to the Stations during Lent, this is our first time. To tell you the truth, I’m left a bit devastated. On the ride home, I can’t help but think back to the pogroms that would occur on Good Friday, where houses are torched and people are beat up and killed after church service. Jews. How innocent people who knew that to be on the streets this day was to be a target, instead had to “lay low” on that day. Since childhood I perceived being born on Good Friday as a badge of honor of sorts-so why now I am reflecting on people murdered by angry mobs on that day, throughout history?

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Sometimes I feel the eyebrows arching behind my back for my interest in studying and teaching the Holocaust.

Son at Western Wall, Jerusalem.

Son at Western Wall, Jerusalem.

First, the obvious. People I don’t know have railed against me on the Internet, implying that traumatized liberator soldiers are liars. The Jews are lying again. That the survivors are pictures of health. That I should educate myself.

Then, the more subtle. I’m not Jewish.  People I do know perpetuate stereotypes about Jews and money, Jews and finance- well, if I was Jewish, very likely at some point in time I would have been forbidden from practicing the trade of my choice. If an angry mob was going to burn down my business and drive me out of my home, my village, maybe I’d go into a more “portable” means of sustaining my family, too.

But also sometimes I think I’m regarded with curiosity by some people in the Jewish community. Some people wonder why I am so dedicated to this mission. Some do not understand why a non-Jew takes the interest to do what I have done, but to me it is simple.

Son at Christ's Tomb, Jerusalem.

Son at Christ’s Tomb, Jerusalem.

I’m a human being.

It was a Jewish catastrophe, but also an unprecedented tragedy for the entire human race. We all have to deal with it and sort it out. Being an educator, it naturally follows that there are significant lessons here.

I also think I am justified in arguing that these lessons are urgent.

Following the Sabbath, the Jewish mother goes to claim her Jewish son, so many years ago. In 2013, my birthday falls on Easter.

I’ll  think about this- meditating on the photos here that I took myself-that maybe it’s time to set aside what keeps us apart. We’ll light the candles again.

And as we begin Passover/Holy Week, I’ll end on this note: “Whether discovered in the story of a nation making the journey from Abraham’s early successes to the Israelites’ slavery and subsequent redemption, or in the story of one who lives, dies and is born again, we must all celebrate that life holds more possibility and potential than we first imagine — that there is reason for hope, and that in celebrating triumphs of hope from the past, we can unleash new stories of hope in the present and in the future.”1

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last trainOn the Occasion of the Release of Rona Arato’s The Last Train

My name is Matthew Rozell and I have the good fortune to call Paul and Rona Arato my friends.

I congratulate Paul and Rona on the launch of the new book, The Last Train. In my role as a teacher I sat down with an animated veteran of World War II a dozen summers ago. He was a tank commander and he had many stories to tell. Rocking back and forth, smiling, and with a twinkle in his eye, he recounted the events of 2 generations past. He told of many close calls and occasions when he was sure he was about to die. He talked about his friends and the bonds that were forged under combat, and the fellow soldiers that he lost. He remembered all of their names.

I would have been twenty-four. I would have been in combat for nine months. That is a long time to survive. To survive nine months was to survive a hundred years. I could not even remember my former life…I was a fugitive from the law of averages, as it was. 

Towards the end of my visit with him in the summer of 2001, his daughter, who was standing in the background, asked her father if I had been told about “the train”. No, Carrol Walsh, or “Red” as he was known by his soldier friends, for his fiery hair and the Irish temperament that accompanied it, he had not told me about the train. So he began:

Well, late in the war, again that nice, beautiful April day.  We were shooting like crazy across the top of Germany and Major Benjamin of the 743rd {Tank Battalion} was kind of out ahead scouting a little bit… he came back to the battalion and he pulled my tank and George Gross’s tank [fellow tank commander] out.  He told us to go with him.  So we did.

We came to a place where there was a long train of boxcars. … I can remember pulling up alongside the train of boxcars, Gross and I, and Major Benjamin. As it turned out, it was a train full of concentration camp victims, prisoners, who were being transported from one of their camps… I think they had been in Belsen, on their way to another camp…

 So there they were. All of these people, men, women, children, jam-packed in those boxcars, I couldn’t believe my eyes. And there they were! So, now they knew they were free, they were liberated. That was a nice, nice thing. I was there for a while that afternoon. You know, you got to feed these people. Give them water. They are in bad shape. Major Benjamin took some pictures, and George Gross took some pictures too…

I contacted George Gross, who gave me copies of the photographs that he and Major Benjamin took, some of which you see in this book. Dr. Gross also gave us a moving narrative that you will also find on our school website, along with dozens of other oral histories that the students and I collected.

Four years went by after they were placed online in 2002… Nothing happened. Then, out of the blue I heard from a grandmother who had been a seven year old girl on that train. She was utterly shocked to see photographs of the last transport she was ever on, and photographs of the day of her liberation. I am sure that Paul had similar feelings. And now the question Paul must have asked himself- do I really want to go there?

Thank heavens that he did.

Paul sent me the email described in Rona’s book four Thanksgivings ago. Little did he know how his life would be enriched, though I am certain that some of the horrors of his family’s experience in the Holocaust would be relived in the writing of this book, and as Paul told our high school kids, are relived in some fashion each day.

When I say enriched- that is not really the right word. I’m sure that for those who have witnessed Paul’s relationship with his liberators, we are witnessing a higher power at work.  It is the power of love that has transcended space and time, the same love that his beautiful mother showered on the children and the protectiveness of his older brother Oscar, revealed in Rona’s book.

Paul met his liberators on several occasions, but developed a particularly close bond with Red and his family. The last time I saw them together, we were at an intimate dinner gathering with Red and his family, Paul and Rona, and another survivor and her extend family.

I did not say much. I just wanted to watch and listen.

Paul and Red were seated together. Though Carrol was not feeling up to par, he roared with laughter as Paul told of flying to the USA at a tender age following his family’s move to Canada-Paul was going to design cars in Detroit, you see-and being picked up by law enforcement at the Detroit airport and driven to the bridge to Canada and bid farewell, as he had neglected the proper papers to emigrate. How Red got a kick out of that story.

But there was something else there, something that I will never be able to share, or that our families will never be quite able to touch, though Rona certainly comes the closest in her book. That was the bond between soldier and survivor, the unspoken love and joy at having been reconnected after so many years. Frank Towers, the lieutenant in the book, knows of this too.

Paul knows now that there are no coincidences. I think we all do.

On December 15th, 2012, I called Carrol in Florida where he was ailing. I did not want to admit it to myself, but my old friend was dying. We both knew it was our last conversation, but he was making jokes to the end. I fumbled a bit, and told him that the weather had been extremely cold up here in the North-ever since the Battle of the Bulge, freezing in subzero temperatures in his tank, he had hated the cold- and with fatigue in his voice he chuckled and said that “he hoped it was cold in the place where I am going”. Two days later after bidding his family goodbye, he slipped away peacefully.

World War II brought out the worst in humanity, and the Holocaust was the greatest crime in the history of the world. Carrol told us that he did not go to war to save the world- but that he had an obligation and he just wanted to get it over with. Survival would be a nice fringe benefit. Indeed, the liberation of the train was almost an afterthought for him.

But the actions of these soldiers, who after all had battles to fight and were still being shot at- to stop, and to take direct action so that hundreds and hundreds of sick and starving people were taken care of-that also speaks volumes of how the goodness of mankind manifested itself, and triumphed, in the cauldron of evil. We recognize as well the British and Canadian troops who would be traumatized at the liberation of Bergen Belsen two days after Paul and Oscar and their mom were freed from the train by the Americans. Sixty thousand sick and starving people greeted those soldiers, and eight hundred died the day of liberation. Thousands more would follow. The trauma is real, and it is felt by both survivor and soldier.

I send my well wishes to the survivor community in Toronto, where I have several additional friends who were also honored to forge a special bond with the soldiers who freed them from the train. Each has their own personal story, which I and my students have an obligation to keep with us as we have become the new witnesses.  I again congratulate Rona on the difficult job of writing this book. She too has added to our body of evidence of the greatest crime in the history of the world, but more importantly, she is keeping the word alive for the next generations of humanity-the obligation to never forget.

Matthew Rozell

Hudson Falls, New York

March 5th, 2013

Get the book here

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