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Archive for August, 2013

guns at last lightI’m recovering from a foot injury and it has given me time to finish Rick Atkinson’s latest release, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 in his Liberation Trilogy. With school around the corner, I am excited to be teaching a couple dozen seniors once again about World War II, and in the springtime, the Holocaust.

I’m happy with Mr. Atkinson’s coverage of the heroics of the 30th Infantry Division-he even made a research pilgrimage to Hill 314 in Mortain, where elements of the 30th held off against a Hitler-ordered panzer counterattack for 6 days, saving the Allied breakout in Normandy in August 1944. 

If you are a follower of this site, you will know that that division is dear to my heart, not because of any blood relations who fought in it, but because they named me an honorary member of their Veterans of World War II Association for my work in the classroom and in uncovering and reuniting the story of the liberation of the concentration camp train at Farsleben, Germany on Friday, April 13, 1945.

So you can imagine my excitement when I ran across this passage last evening from page 599 of Rick’s book. He writes about some of the chaos that unfolded as POWs, slave laborers, and concentration camps were liberated in Germany:

“Instead, starvation, revenge, indiscipline, and chaos often created what Allied officers called a “liberation complex.” SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces ] had presumed that refugees “would be tractable, grateful, and powerless after their domination for from two to five years as the objects of German slave policies.” As an Army assessment concluded, “They were none of these things.… Newly liberated persons looted, robbed, murdered, and in some cases destroyed their own shelter.” Freed laborers plundered houses in the Ruhr, burning furniture for cook fires and discarding slave rags to dress in business suits, pajamas, and evening clothes ransacked from German wardrobes. Ravenous ex-prisoners licked flour off the floor of a Farsleben bakery. In Osnabrück, “rampageous” Russian slaves died after swilling V-2 rocket fuel discovered in a storage yard. Others smashed wine barrels and liquor bottles in a Hanover cellar, drinking so heavily from a sloshing, six-inch-deep pool of alcohol on the floor that several collapsed in a stupor and drowned before U.S. MPs could close the entrance.”

So I did a double take: Ravenous ex-prisoners licked flour off the floor of a Farsleben bakery. I checked his notes-page 801, sure enough, 30th Division G-2 report. I know I have read this before in my research of primary source documentation, originally sent to me by Frank Towers, one of the liberators.  Here it is.

30th Division Medical Detachment Diary & Log

Of course, the backstory surrounding the document above is the story that I have to tell- the soldiers of the 30th Infantry Division and the attached 743rd Tank Battalion, the Holocaust survivors whom they stumbled upon, liberated, and were reunited with 62 years later at our high school and subsequent events.  I’ll probably share the Benjamin photo with Mr. Atkinson on his FB page. 

Anyway, I recommend the book to any of my followers interested in the history of World War II in the European theater, and am really pumped to teach some very excited and motivated students this year, including the grandson of the tank commander who was sent to investigate the train.

This is how you “do” history, and how the teaching of history can sometimes take on a life of its own. So cool to be a part of it, and to read something in a best seller and be able to grasp the incredible backstory that awaits to be told.

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My son, brother, and I were up at our camp retreat in the Adirondacks, begun by our dad 36 years ago.  Just six miles away is one of the most famous forts in colonial America. After breakfast, for fun, we thought we might see if it was possible to re-visit the fort, having heard that a few things had changed since our last time there.

the books.

the books.

Sure enough, there was now a new entryway, complete with an admission booth. I pulled the truck up to it, and inquired whether we might proceed to the bookstore, which had always stocked a fair amount of titles, where one could peruse the stock, before deciding whether today would be the day to pay the full admission to check on any updates in the exhibits inside.

Not today. Not anymore. No  money up front, no visit to the bookstore.

Having served on an authentic historical site as a board member, I understand the desperate need to raise funds, but I did not have the $52.50 in my pocket that morning. We had not planned to spend the entire day there.

As the nice woman shrugged and turned us away, my brother said, “you should have told them who you are”.

Ha. He was having fun with me, and joking, of course. But it kind of brought forth  a sense of wonderment about my experiences this summer the authentic historical sites I visited all over the world.

I thought some about it. The bookstore that I had wanted to visit this morning stocked titles that featured my work as a history teacher and avocational archaeologist. I’m actually written about in some of the books.

I remembered I had a similar experience at our first major stop on the Holocaust Resistance  tour in Europe a few weeks back. As twenty five educators toured the site, all of my colleagues chose to give up part of their lunch hour for a private introduction by a key staff member who took the time to explain my role in helping that museum/memorial site create a special exhibition on the evacuation transports that left that concentration camp in April 1945.  As we boarded the bus at the end of the day, someone opened the Bergen Belsen official guidebook they had purchased in the bookstore (which in my excitement I had overlooked)- and there was the Benjamin photo, and summary of my work.

Later in the tour at another authentic site, concentration camp Ravensbruck in Germany, after an intense day I spied a different title and pulled it off the shelf, and showed it to another colleague. It’s the story of a survivor that I know, and this book probably would not have been written had it not been for the efforts that I had made in my teaching career.

The following week in Poland, the same thing happened to me with another title. I was able to open the book and point to my name in the credits and acknowledgments, and show where my work made a significant impact for the author and his thesis.
Pretentious bragging? I really, really hope not.   In fact I wrote this post weeks ago, not at all anxious to share, but as I process what has happened this summer, I figure stunned realization is more like it .

To visit authentic historical sites, some halfway around the world where I have never been before, and see the impact of this passion on others, is something both profound and humbling. I feel it has been transformative at some base level, yet I have not even completed my own book yet (it just keeps changing in my head- and believe me, it is up there). So it goes up to be added to the archive of happenings that occasionally knock me on the head.

In the end, getting turned away from the bookstore didn’t matter at all, except maybe to kindle a flame… though it is always a thrill to hold the book in your hands, and thumb to the page with your name on it.

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Matthew Rozell rediscovers and rekindles interest in sutler site, 1996.

Matthew Rozell rediscovers and rekindles interest in sutler site, 1996.

Today I am going to get a special phone call from an archaeologist whom I have known and worked for for thirty years. David wants me to be present for the removal of three intact 18th century olive green glass spirits bottles from a French and Indian War sutling house, or trading post, just outside of the British fort on the banks of the Hudson River near Rogers Island. Two intact bayonets were discovered here earlier in the week, but more exciting for us is the fact that we now think that we have found the elusive 4th wall of this building, which burned to the ground a few years into its existence. We have been searching for it for twelve summers.

Excavations began here in 2001, with me and digger Johnny Kosek and Mark Van Valkenburg. I had stumbled upon it during a pensive walk in the woods near our fort excavations in the summer of 1996. I had found a looters’ hole in the ground, spadefuls of earth littered with fragments of the very same bottle glass fragments from the period. On the ground I spied what looked like a shiny silver dime partially covered by the sand. A heavy rain had uncovered what the looters had wanted- a Spanish silver coin from 1748. Remember Hawkeye of the Last of the Mohicans? He would have drawn a dram or two here.

Period map showing location of sutler's complex. Island just to west of river.

Period map showing location of sutler’s complex. Island just to west of river.

My association with this important ground, so fundamental to the formation of our nation, began in 7th or 8th grade. Four of us would ride our banana seat bikes down to Rogers Island one summer in the early 1970s, sneaking smokes, getting away from our parents and siblings, and just dig holes in the ground with our moms’ gardening tools. I recall digging a hole as deep as my arm would allow, a tunnel straight down, a criminal activity in the eyes of any competent archeologist. Thankfully, we never found anything.

A dozen years later, in 1986, I would return as a volunteer crew member on an archaeological dig searching for General Gate’s American headquarters at the Saratoga National battlefield Park. Here I would encounter David for the first time. I remember him asking me, after my first two weeks as a newbie, if I would ever consider going into anthropology/archaeology as a career. I think I was flattered, but I had just wrapped up my undergraduate work and was sending resumes out for teaching.

I followed him though, in 1991, to return to this Island. I had gotten hired at my high school alma mater 3 miles up the river and now had the opportunity to professionally learn what secrets the Island held. In 1992, David felt confident enough in my abilities to give me the reigns of the search for the elusive smallpox hospital at the southern end of the Island. We found it after three years of digging in the summer of 1994. 800 people died here. It was the only smallpox hospital from this era ever discovered in North America. I began to write.

hero discovers ft edIn 1995 and 1996 we professionally dug at the site of Fort Edward, no easy feat considering that today twelve houses are built upon it. At one point we were excavating a bastion (corner) in the basement of a house! We opened up a pit in a front lawn, properly protected and barricaded, but the paper boy still managed to stumble into it. I found the West Curtain wall with Johns F and K, Mark, Brad and Susan and Hans. And one hot summer day took a stroll down the riverbank to stumble upon the sutlers house.

From 1997 to 2000 I worked at the parade ground of Fort William Henry, the one where the final siege takes place in Coopers Last of the Mohicans. We found the charred remains of the East and West barracks, the exact footprint of the original fort.

In 2001 we returned to the sutlers’ complex just south of Fort Edward. I directed the digs here for many many summers,

Our high school kids learning how to think, placing the artifacts at hand in the context of a major world war that was partially fought in their own backyard.

Our high school kids learning how to think, placing the artifacts at hand in the context of a major world war that was partially fought in their own backyard.

and later returned with high school students to teach them how to professionally draft a research question, study primary source maps, diaries and other documents, and begin to look for clues, and only then to dig properly, mapping all  the artifacts and features as they emerge. They learned how to dig, yes, but more, they learned how to think.

Egyptian Archaeologists visit the sutlers site, 2009. My baby. They were impressed. Proud daddy.

Egyptian Archaeologists visit the sutlers site, 2009. My baby. They were impressed.

Lots of times when everyone would leave I would just sit at the sit alone  for an hour or so. Just sit in the stillness and wonderment of this place. Just something I have always felt a need to do. It’s like the place has some kind of power over me. It’s my baby. When we are digging, we are touching objects that have been lost for over two hundred sixty years. I am the first to touch this bayonet, this coin, this tobacco pipe, this bottle since it was last handled. Thus the anticipation of touching these three intact, upright bottles.

My house building activities have kept the project at arm’s length, but the excitement is still there and rekindled. If you want to learn more, there are several books out by David Starbuck. I’m in this one quite a bit. After today, I joked to him yesterday, he may have to update it.

POSTSCRIPT: I was given the honor of extracting the three bottles. We also found three additional ones behind them. The Egyptian archaeologists would have been proud- my personal King Tut’s tomb moment. The bottles were all complete, two thirds of them totally intact.

The Bottles. Unbroken. Filled? King Tut's tomb moment. "The tension mounts..."

The Bottles. Unbroken. Filled? King Tut’s tomb moment. “The tension mounts…”

My son Ned and I, 2002, the sutler's site, Fort Edward.

My son Ned and I, 2002, the sutler’s site, Fort Edward.

Son Ned and I at the sutler's site. Thursday morning, August 8, 2013

Son Ned and I at the sutler’s site. Thursday morning, August 8, 2013

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