Archive for January, 2016

I hope you had a great weekend. I decided to spend my weekend with a fellow who has been gone for a while. And I had a blast.

tom collins jan 04

This weekend I edited an interview we did six or seven years before the our veteran, sitting comfortably in his favorite chair in his button-down sweater in front of the Christmas tree, passed. He was suddenly alive, animated, an old man telegraphing the emotions and feelings long buried about some of the most formative years of his life-conveying them to a young person who was genuinely interested; who CARED.

When you edit a raw interview, you have to absorb it all first. The surroundings, the line of questioning, the emotions and the back and forth of the memory machine. You pray that the transcriber, if it was not you originally, was relatively engaged and committed to a literal interpretation. And thank goodness for the advent of the digital access to the tapes we made, when we donated a copy to the New York State Military Museum.

We’d move on a minute’s notice and find a place to put our guns into position. [When we were in combat] there was fear, lots of it. But I was in charge of the howitzer and the gun crew. We might be getting shelled ourselves and our infantry getting pounded. We sometimes found ourselves in fluid situations. The Germans might be attacking or we might be attacking and it was very fluid—we might be moving forward or backing up. You never knew—[behind the lines], you never knew what was happening, whether we had them on the run or whether they were counterattacking—so we had to think in terms of getting things ready to move, because we might have to get the hell out of here. We had the fear but we were so busy and had so much to do and make sure it got done that it sort of beat the fear. In other words, you were scared to death, but you did the best you possibly could.

Armed with all this, without putting words in the subject’s mouth, I have to arrange his recollections in line with the actual events of the day. Thus it was with Mr. Tom Collins, an artillery sergeant responsible for a 105 mm gun crew in Italy.  As it turned out, he was interviewed by his own granddaughter, one of my students a long time before he passed. And he told her things that he had never told anyone else in his life–but only because she cared, and asked the right follow-up questions. That is clear in the transcript she produced for her project afterwards.

When we got home, the sudden change [to civilian life] seemed difficult for me. I felt more and more that I had changed, so I would stay home. I didn’t go anywhere. It took me a couple of weeks before I would go out, you know, go downtown. I remember the first few times I went uptown from there—I wouldn’t go unless my sister was with me, I wouldn’t go alone. I can’t really put words on it but I really felt strange. I felt unusual. I thought, ‘Will I talk right, will I act right?’ because when we were in the army, foul language was common place and using crazy phrases like the southerners used, things like that, it became the way I was speaking and living. But [after a while] I warmed up and I was fine.

Tom Collins passed in 2011. Yet because of the prescient efforts  we made, years and years ago, he will live on in the minds of more than just his family. You can see more about him below, and you can read about him in the upcoming book I am working on. You did good, young Catie.

Thank you, sweetheart. It was a pleasure.

Rest on, Tom Collins.

(You can order the first book here.)



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Why should I think about yesterday
and lose this beautiful today?
Why should I worry about a tomorrow
that may never be?
So live for today
Because yesterday will never return,
And who knows what tomorrow will be.
–Holocaust survivor Frank Burstin

affectionately known as “Pop”

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Student civil rights activists join hands and sing as they prepare to leave Ohio to register black voters in Mississippi. The 1964 voter registration campaign was known as Freedom Summer. {Ted Polumbaum/Newseum} link

Sometimes you wonder, after a class, if anyone really gets it, or really thinks about the points you are trying to make. I’ve been teaching the civil rights movement in the United States as of late. What strikes me is how this movement was led by young people who were passionate. Young people who were willing to shed their own blood, even to the point of taking the risk of laying down their lives for an idea, a principle that MATTERED to them. And so this is my thesis, and this is my point, to my young charges, not much younger than the college kids that sparked a revolution because they cared enough to do the RIGHT.

It all starts with the young. 

Of course, they got their ideas from somewhere. So when I think about the Freedom Riders, who crossed state lines to force the federal government to do something about segregated busing, and got their heads split open because of it, or the young people who went to Mississippi to register black voters in the summer of 1964, where some of them were murdered, I think about the passionate teachers and parents who instilled such values in the young. And I whisper a prayer of gratitude for all of them.

This past Sunday I attended the interfaith celebration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr right here in our own community. And what struck me again, was the passion of the young. Students from three local districts, including Hudson Falls, lit the fire and led the way.

What brings this post on now, after the fact, is a nice email letter today from a former student. Here are young people who fight for the folks who can’t fight for themselves, who rose above their own trying circumstances to engage the system to make the world a better place.

Sometimes you wonder.

But maybe those teachers get across after all.


How are you?   I hope your books are coming well.  
On MLK day, I, like many others, take time to appreciate seminal movements for social justice in American history.  However, I make the effort to recall not just the parts that collectively most Americans seem aware of, but instead, the rest of it. The parts that are poignant, harrowing and, deeply disturbing and that seem all but forgotten from our collective memory, even though, they create, define or inform the events that dominate the national news cycles of late.  
Reflecting on this yesterday made me think of you, not because of what you taught me about social justice movements in high school (though you certainly did peek my interest), but for two other reasons.
First, because of your premise that teaching history matters and the of importance you put on drawing connections to the past. 
Second, because you inspired me to love history to the point that I got a degree in it.  In college I concentrated on studying the history of women and people of color in the United States, and liberation movements in the third world, and I absolutely loved it and on MLK Day, I am particularly thankful for this education.
These two points are of course related.  Studying history (for me) was the type of learning that feeds one’s soul.  However, it also shapes the lens through which I see the world.
For example, women’s suffrage; Alice Paul. I think about these things a lot in the course my daily life.  100 years ago, if I were alive, I would not legally have the right to vote.  Women died for me to have this right.  Women who fought for it were put in jail and were forced fed while on hunger strike.  So I exercise it.  For every election I am eligible to do so. I also deeply appreciate the individuals that came before me whose struggles would allow me to become an attorney.  I understand and work through the vehicles that I choose to deconstruct the deep seeded patriarchy, sexism and classism that would have previously shut these doors for me and other forms of oppression that would have shut this and different doors for others.  
I also use my lessons on history to think about intersectionalities of different forms of injustice on a regular basis.  I’m still struck by the fact that movements for social change repeatedly have worked in silos, failing to make connections between how different forms of oppression co-exist and are related.  On MLK Day I think about how MLK made some (but not all) of these connections in his public advocacy and fought for more than just racial justice but is rarely remembered for that.  And that the racial justice that he fought for is for a “color blind” society but not the kind where being “color blind” means being blind to the disadvantages people of color face in the United States today as a result of our collective past. 
My husband and I both are passionate about social justice and feel rooted in the history of these movements.  When I am frustrated with why we are so busy, I try to stop and remember that it is because we are both fighting in our own ways (while trying to be the best parents that we can be) for that bigger purpose and that our efforts are a very small part of a much bigger picture.  
I share this with you now to support your thesis on the value of history education (not to argue any of my opinions listed above).  As on MLK Day I acknowledge how thankful I am for having my history education, how the connections I list above shape my life and how excited I am to teach my daughter these lessons as she grows.
Lastly, I’m surprised by how much I wrote in this email.  I had more to say on this than expected.  
As always, be well, best wishes and many thanks,


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edwin israel by matt rozell

edwin israel by matt rozell

I’m working on my second and third books simultaneously, the trilogy of World War II and Holocaust stories that have shaped my life though the narratives of those who lived through it. One of the most gratifying things is recalling the conversations I recorded over the course of nearly two decades. Most of the subjects are now deceased.

Edwin Israel participated in the invasion of Normandy, Sicily and North Africa. He received 2 Bronze Stars. One time he captured three soldiers who were trying to kill him, marching them back to his lines at gunpoint, with an empty rifle pointed at them. Another time he evaded capture by pretending he was dead and lying down on top of a German soldier he had just mortally wounded. When the enemy patrol passed, the dying German, in perfect English, told him to take his stuff.

I got up and [this German I shot] starts talking to me in English, he says he’s from Coney Island, in Brooklyn, he went to visit his mother in Germany and they put him in the army. And he was dying, and he says to me, ‘you can take my cigarettes; you can take my schnapps’. Then he died right underneath me. And I imagine he knew I had shot him…

He was a first scout who navigated his way back to his lines at night by following the stars. One time he crossed through a minefield and back without knowing it.

Before the invasion of Normandy, he rolled craps all night before going in on Omaha Beach. He had all the money at the end, and loaned out money to the guys who wanted to keep playing. Not one of them survived.

His beloved captain, who had been his CO all through the war, warned him about the mines on the beach before disembarking. The first thing that he did after that was step on a mine and get killed.


Everything was very lucky for me.  I just happened to do this, or happened to do that.  When they counterattacked that time on the hill, I just figured I’ll lay down on top of that soldier and make believe I’m dead. I used to go scouting at night by the stars—I used to look up and see where certain stars were, so that I could find my way back. That was how I found my way back when the fellas and I went to the mountain—by stars—through the minefield. We were so lucky. But you know, I never worried about getting wounded; it never bothered me.  I was only worried about getting captured, never worried about getting shot.  I said, ‘They’re not going to shoot me.’  That was my attitude. I volunteered for everything. I only worried that I was going to get captured.  With my name, I figured, oh, they’re going to kill me. That’s the only thing I worried about.


I interviewed him four months before he died, twelve years ago. The tape was then buried but has since been rediscovered. Lately I have been working on and editing his transcript for days. There is a noble feeling akin to resurrecting these men that makes the time so worthwhile.

Look for the next book this summer. We’re bringing Ed back.

TOFS Book Presentation


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