I met Leslie Meisels exactly four years ago today, when he and Ariela Rojek and Paul Arato drove all the way down from Toronto, Canada to meet their actual liberators.
Leslie is one of the most gracious men I have ever met; I am honored to have him as one of my friends and am proud to be in on what he calls the latest miracle of his life.
I wrote to a reporter/columnist in Toronto, Canada, several months back to comment on a story that she had written, and she then had the opportunity to interview several of my survivor friends in the community who had been liberated on the Train Near Magdeburg. She struck up a friendship with Leslie, and this ebook resulted.
When I first reached Leslie Meisels on the phone one afternoon in late April and asked for an interview, he told me to hold on a minute — he needed to get his day planner.
I thought he was joking.
Leslie is 86. What could he possibly be doing to fill up a day planner?
A lot, it turns out.
He has a wife, two daughters, four grandchildren. He is an active member of the North York Philatelic Society and a committee member of Circle of Care, an organization that provides services for Holocaust survivors. And he is a regular speaker with the Holocaust Education Centre’s survivor speakers bureau. This spring there were weeks when he addressed four different groups of students about his experience during World War II.
This was one of those weeks. He squeezed me in. I wanted to talk to him about the Holocaust and, more precisely, about his liberation from the Nazi murderers by a dozen surprised American soldiers who found Leslie and about 2,500 other captives near the end of the war, packed in cattle cars on a German train.
An email from an American teacher had tipped me off to the fact that a number of Toronto Holocaust survivors had recently been reunited with their liberators.
Leslie was one of them.
Of course, you can’t talk about liberation without talking first about enslavement. So, sitting on the couch of the neat, spacious penthouse condominium he shares with his wife, Eva, in Thornhill, Leslie started proudly with his family history in eastern Hungary.
Then came his carefree childhood. Then the introduction of anti-Semitic laws, the ghetto, the trains, the months of slave labour and the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where more than 70,000 prisoners — most of them Jews — were killed.
Our interview lasted more than three hours, fueled by many cups of coffee and servings of fresh cheese palacsintas (crêpes) whipped up by Eva.
I noticed Leslie’s hands while we spoke. They are enormous — each finger twice as thick as mine, the palms like dinner plates. They are a working man’s hands, without any of the dirt. Everything about Leslie is immaculate — his neatly clipped and cleaned fingernails, his ironed pants and pressed dress shirt with a silver pen poking from its breast pocket, his freshly shaven face. His stories of being treated like a rabid dog were cast in relief by the careful pride he took in his appearance. There is an Old World elegance about him.
But the thing that struck me most about Leslie was his cheeky humour. His brown eyes narrowed and sparkled repeatedly as he took a “side step” to tell me about the girl he was “necking” with while a slave labourer or a refugee. Despite the horrors he endured, or perhaps because of them, Leslie maintained his champagne spirit.
Near the end of the interview, a question bubbled in my mind: what did you take with you? The Nazis had invaded Hungary in 1944. They ordered all the Jews in Leslie’s and other towns to first leave their homes, and then to leave town altogether on a train we now know was headed towards slavery or murder. What would you take if you could carry only a small bag or pillowcase to hold your belongings?
“Underwear,” Leslie responded, “and my stamp collection.”
I wrote that down and moved on. There were a lot of overpowering details in Leslie’s stories, and I still needed to hear about the reunion. But the stamps snagged my attention. There was a boyish innocence about them.
What happened to those stamps, I asked him over the phone a couple days later.
He responded: “I still have them. My mother sewed them into the lining of my jacket.”
Imagine that! Most Jews had all their clothing and belongings stripped away upon entering the concentration camps. You can see their boot brushes, ceramic pots and dolls piled up behind glass cases in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland. That Leslie managed to keep his jacket was surprising enough. But that fragile pieces of paper survived the horrendous conditions — well,that seemed miraculous.
I drove back to their condominium for a third interview, this one in Leslie and Eva’s little office. I asked to see some of those stamps.
So Leslie pulled out his master list — a two-page typewritten list of all the stamp albums he has. There are dozens and dozens. He found one with his early Hungarian stamps and pulled it down from the shelf. Inside he’d arranged thousands of stamps in neat rows.
When I expressed surprise at the number of stamps he had, he smiled and opened a drawer in his desk.
“A crazy stamp collector saves all the stamps he comes across,” he said, pulling out a Tupperware container brimming with stamps. “When there are many, many, many, he bundles them up . . . and stores them away. I have millions of stamps.”
Leslie’s wife calls herself a “stamp widow.” She says he spends hours with his stamps a day. He loves them still, like he did when he started his collection 78 years ago. He loves the precision of arranging them. He loves the challenge of collecting a full set of stamps. He loves their colours and their stories. Every stamp, he says, depicts a story of a place, a historic moment or figure, a cause. “You can learn about the world through stamps,” he said.
As we flipped through his collection and he began to tell me the rest of his story, I could see snatches of it reflected in his stamps.
It is the tale not just of an idyllic childhood followed by the horrors of the Holocaust, but also that of a man who lived under Communism, escaped, lived for two years in a refugee camp, arrived in North America with nothing and then built up his life for a second time. Just as every stamp embodies a public story, a bit of history, Leslie’s stamps also tell the story of his life, its joys and deep sorrows, its disasters and its miracles.
He is giving his 25th lecture on the Holocaust since April.
“Put yourself in my shoes,” he says to the Cardinal Carter Catholic High School students. “I think you are between 16 and 18, right? You can feel what I felt when I experienced those horrors.”
“They have to know,” Leslie says. “Otherwise, it will be forgotten and could be repeated.”
He talks for just over an hour, pausing only twice for a sip of water.
The stories pour out of him — of the deaf village elder who was strung up by his wrists to a cattle car, of the SS guards with their dogs who laughed at the sight of him naked with his grandmother and mother, of the hunger. He stirs in life lessons — like how his woodworking knowledge saved his life in Bergen-Belsen. “You are the same age as I was,” he says. “Never think you are studying for your teachers or your parents. Whatever you are putting in your head, you never know how it will serve you in life.”
But Leslie’s descriptions are muted at times. He clutters his sentences with clauses and chooses math over graphic detail to describe some horrors. The train crowding, for instance, affords each person a “square foot.” He mentions the bucket but doesn’t fill in the details of how that meant people were forced to defecate in their pants. He is old-school; talk like that seems degrading. Or perhaps the pungent details are too dangerous for him, scratching away the protective layers on his memories.
A girl in a powder-blue sweatshirt in the second-last row appears to have fallen asleep.
Is he getting through to them? Like most Holocaust survivors,
Leslie won’t be around to recount these stories for much longer. That inescapable truth adds an urgency to his message. Who then will bear witness?
Holocaust survivor Leslie Meisels, left, signs a program for Hudson Falls senior Taylor Bump during Wednesday’s “Remembering the Holocaust, Repairing the World” event. Meisels, who currently lives in Toronto, stressed the importance of relaying his experience to young people “so they remember and fight against discrimination, hatred and injustice.”
Jason McKibben Glens Falls Post Star
He finishes his talk and asks for questions. The girl in the powder- blue sweatshirt from the back asks two. The second one is: “If you could go back, would you change any decisions you made?” She was listening, just with her eyes closed. Holocaust educator Ruth Ekstein says she often sees that — “the most fidgety kids you want to strangle, they are absorbing the most.” The content is so painful, it forces people to scratch and shuffle, or to close their eyes.
“Never allow this to happen to someone in the future, if you see an injustice,” Leslie tells the group. “Never just look at each other as equals. Treat each other as equals.”
The last miracle
In 2001, Matt Rozell went to the home of one of his students in Hudson Falls, N.Y. Rozell is a high school history teacher there. He regularly assigned his Grade 10 students to interview the veterans in their family about World War II as a way to bring history alive.
That summer, he decided he would do the interviewing himself.
The veteran was retired New York State Supreme Court Justice Carrol Walsh Jr.
After two hours, when the interview was ending, Walsh’s daughter elbowed him and said, “Did you mention the train at all?”
“What?” Walsh said.
So Rozell asked to hear about this train, whatever it was.
Walsh told him about the beautiful, sunny day in April 1945, when after 10 months of fighting their way through France, Belgium,and Holland, and into Germany, his tank and his buddy George Gross’s tank were pulled out of the battalion to check out an abandoned train. An army scout had come across some Finnish prisoners of war in bad condition who reported they had escaped ,the train and that it was packed with prisoners.
Rozell posted the moving interview, as well as Gross’s astonishing photos from that day, on the school’s oral history website, where it sat quietly for four years.
That is, until a grandmother from Australia contacted him to ,say she had been a little girl on that train. The next month he got another email, and another, and another.
In September 2007, Rozell hosted the first reunion of Walsh and three survivors from that train. An Associated Press reporter wrote a story about the day-long event which was published around the world.
Paul Arato’s son Daniel read the story on the Internet. Arato was the 5-year-old boy who witnessed the birthday “present” of a bullet to the head in the Bergen-Belsen roll call. He was also a ,Hungarian Jew who grew up not far from Leslie. He, too, escaped Hungary in 1956 and resettled in Canada. An industrial designer, he was a work associate of Leslie. At the end of a business meeting, the topic of the Holocaust somehow came up. They discovered, to their shock, that they had both been on that train from Bergen-
Belsen. Paul, in turn, told Leslie about the Hudson Falls reunion.
Two years later, they both ventured down to Hudson Falls for a second reunion — a three-day symposium that brought together nine survivors and seven soldiers, including two of their liberators
— Frank Towers and Carrol Walsh.
On the drive down, Leslie was very excited. The initial meeting, over dinner, was spectacular.
“No words can explain the feeling of shaking hands, hugging, laughing and crying with the people who gave me back my life on April 13,” he says. “I never ever imagined that would happen.”
He calls the veterans “angels of my life.” They, in turn, said they were just doing their job.
Leslie and Walsh became close friends. They talked regularly on the phone. They spent some time together in Florida, before Walsh died last winter at the age of 91.
Leslie calls that friendship the last miracle of his life.
Leslie’s 17-year-old granddaughter, Jessica, visited Auschwitz last spring while participating in the two-week educational trip March of the Living. She left behind a small, hand-written sign that said: “I am marching in honour of my grandparents Eva and Leslie Meisels. As well as a soldier, Carrol Walsh.”
Leslie’s Stamps: A Saga of the Holocaust and Escape to Freedom
He had an idyllic childhood in a small Hungarian town where, it seemed, there was no animosity between the Christian majority and Jews like him. But with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, everything changed for Leslie Meisels, who ended up in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with his family. Through his wartime ordeals, Leslie carried his stamp collection, started when he was 8, in the lining of his jacket. In Leslie’s Stamps: A Saga of the Holocaust and Escape to Freedom, award-winning Toronto Star columnist Catherine Porter tells the dramatic story of Leslie’s life through his stamps. It is a tale of love, courage and the power of the human spirit.
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