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Archive for March, 2016

At the high school where I have taught for nearly 30 years, we got a notification early in the day on Monday that one of our former principals had died suddenly in an accident. He was just 51, a little bit younger than me, but he was a giant both in his stature and presence, and also especially the way he conducted himself inside and outside the school. We worked together closely on a lot of stuff, so hearing the news of his passing was a jolt.

A good man.

A good man.

C.J. Hebert was our leader for eight years. In 2010 he spread his wings and expanded his horizons and took a job as superintendent in the Cooperstown, NY school district. He just grew, and was ready to grow some more. He was excited, and told me at one of our last meetings that he was thrilled that his new office would not be out of the way, but would be near where the kids were all the time.

It turned out to be a long day to get through. When I got home last night, I read some of the online comments from his colleagues and former students. C.J. was a big outdoorsman. He liked to shoot, hunt, and fish. If he went into the woods unarmed looking for a bear, you’d worry about the bear. When the kids in the National Honor Society would come to him selling our magazine subscription fundraiser, he always opened his checkbook, though he told me with a chuckle that his subscription to Field and Stream was now paid up to 2025.  And some of these kids I read about last night he even shepherded through bowhunting classes.

He could be tough, but was always respectful in his professional demeanor. And when you were sitting with him in his office, you could talk to him man-to-man. He always liked hearing what I was up to. He had an easy laugh and though it may be a cliché, there was a twinkle in his eye that told of a deep personal interest in you, genuine good will and a down-to-earth contentedness that just radiated and went unspoken miles.

My current principal made the rounds to see how some of us old dogs were doing with the news. He knew him well too and I know we were all shocked by the loss. My dear friend Mary was his secretary all the time he was here, and even though C.J. left our school 6 years ago, the loss just hits you, like the wall you used to lean on suddenly falling down on you. I can’t imagine what it must be like for his family and his community now.

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Later in the day and totally unrelated, I was gently reminded by a friend in the IT department that I should do something with my school email inbox-that it had reclaimed its place as the largest in the school district.   (Okay, I admit it, I’m bad. I’m not a hoarder, but I’m not an immediate deleter, either…) At first I felt mildly chastised at being reminded at least twice. But through my friend, the universe dropped me a notice. Maybe not so unrelated, after all.

So I set about it- going back and deleting, one by one, the emails I do not want to keep, and do not wish to archive. Today I was on Day Two of this activity-which in a way is turning out to be some kind of release, an ablution of sorts, as I wind down my career. Staring at the screen and hammering away for all of the spare time that I can afford seems at first like a mindless endeavor, but then it slowly dawns that me that I am processing a loss that I did not ever expect to deal with-and here on Day Two I find the last email from C.J. to me, from June 2010, six years ago.

I save that one.

And I remember that I saved all of the handwritten cards and formal letters that he took the time to write to me, over the years, as a supporter of my work in the classroom and in this school, expressing appreciation for the true meaning of what it is to be an educator- the connecting with other human beings, to foster their development, to watch them grow, with pride. He did not mind chewing a little ass when it needed to be chewed, but that was always a flash and the twinkle always returned.

When he was leaving our school district, a local paper asked him what he would remember from his time here at Hudson Falls High. I did not see the article, but I was told that he held a special place in his heart for the two soldiers-survivors reunions we held while he was at the helm here. We planned it and between C.J. and many, many committed others, we pulled it off, and even made it on the the ABC World News. It touched me that this meant so much to him, but in hindsight, that is what he was all about- providing students with life changing opportunities and fostering their development as human beings.

So, it turns out that for me, across time and space, there is a significant loss here. There are no special words of wisdom, or special comforts that I can present to his wife, his son, his family-only that the universe presented him to so many people in so many different ways, most which you may never even know about- but that in the bigger picture, perhaps the one that we cannot see just yet, there is that glow of contentedness and confidence, that twinkle and the easy laugh, and that unassuming good will towards others that will always inspire, and that we can all aspire to. And that it won’t just go away. Though I have not talked to him in six years, there is a warmth that I can feel enveloping my insides almost physically right now, thinking of him.

And it feels damn good.

I’ll be pecking away at my email inbox again tomorrow. It will take a lot longer, as  I have another six years to go-now back to the time when C.J. Hebert was at our helm-and I will probably have to read each one from him, I suspect. And with a twinkle, or something, in my own eye.

Lessons taught; the universe beckons. Godspeed, my good man.

 

Calling hours and memorial suggestions are below.

http://www.watertowndailytimes.com/obit/clifton-j-hebert-iii-cj-20160322

 

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I just finished the first draft of Chapter One of my new book. It took several weeks but in my head I have been writing it for years.

The chapter is called ‘Hell on Earth’. It’s Bergen Belsen in the spring of 1945. If you don’t know a lot about the concentration camp system, this 40 plus page chapter will tell you, but for now it is where Anne Frank, her sister, and 70,000 others were murdered.

The chapter has been a ton of research and I think kind of draining, but you get through it. In order to show the tremendous highs, you kind of have to go and plumb the depths. Hard to get much lower than this. And for you teachers out there, remember to be judicious with the graphic imagery in the classroom. Answer the question first- why am I teaching this? It should be more than a cheap gimmick to grab a kid’s attention. In the chapter, I chose to use some troublesome material. Not for shock value, but to better serve humanity, in context–but I am not publishing that here right now because that context is missing.

DSCN3857.2

Some of my research material. Books presented to me by my friends at the 2009 reunion; the 20th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Bergen Belsen book, and Volume 1 of the Book of Names, an attempt to compile the list of all those who suffered here.

I learned a lot. Sometimes you wonder how much you take for granted. And that is probably one of the main points of my book.

This excerpt from an eleven year old girl.

At the end of November it was very cold in Europe. Finally I was given some rags and one black ladies shoe with a high heel and one red girl’s shoe. Imagine the agony of a young girl having to walk unevenly like that for half a year.

In those shoes I marched into Bergen Belsen concentration camp on December 2nd, 1944. In those shoes my legs froze while I was enduring roll calls, which lasted between two to five hours.

When the mounds of dead bodies started to pile up nearby in a frightening manner, we, the children, made bets between us, as to who would die tomorrow and who would die the day after. Every one of them had his signs. I had become an old woman already, eleven and half years old.

During the breaks between roll calls, if it wasn’t too cold, I would stand by the fence and look at the naked dead bodies with their gaping mouths. I used to wonder what it was that they still wanted to shout out loud and couldn’t. I tried to determine who were men, and who were women. But they were only skin and bones. I tried to imagine how I could dress these dead bodies in clothes for dinner; their pale skin color did not always match the clothes.

Another eleven year old girl:

When told to prepare ourselves for the departure in the train I was already very weak and sick. Two weeks prior I had a very high fever. I was in Bergen Belsen with my aunt, my father’s sister, as by then I had lost my entire family.

The Germans let us know that all those who could not walk would have to stay behind. My aunt wanted to stay because she knew that I was already very weak; however, I insisted on going. I said to my aunt, “You know that they kill the weak and the sick. We will go with the healthy people.” Although I was only 11½ years old, my aunt listened to me. I probably had a very strong will to live.

Before we left, they gave each of us a raw potato, and somehow we managed to bake them over a wood fire. My aunt then said to me, “You know that now is the Passover holiday”—we barely remembered what day of the week it was, let alone the date. On Passover, according to the story, our forefather Moses took us out of Egypt. Maybe G–d is bringing us to freedom, and maybe we will live?

A seventeen year old girl:

Saturday, ‎April 7th, ‎ ‎1945. Our transport is stranded at the Bergen–Celle railway station. Our irresponsible captors no longer provide us with food. After suffering from constant starvation for six long months at the death factory of Bergen Belsen, the German SS leaves us now in total hunger and total thirst. We are too exhausted, dizzy and weak to grasp how grave our situation is.

What do the Nazis have in mind?

What do the Nazis have in mind, indeed. On to Chapter Two to find out. The book should be done this summer.

For updates, follow this blog. For advance notice, sign up at bit.ly/RozellNewBook.

 

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So, how was your weekend? We had a great one here, weatherwise. I have the pics to prove it.

Im call this one, 'harbinger'.

I call this one, ‘harbinger’.

 

But, in reality, I did not get out too much, other than to feed the horses and move up some firewood with the tractor. I wasn’t here, really.

I was portalling over 70 years into the past, fast. I was working on my new book, I was researching and writing. I had questions that needed to be answered. So I read the entire transcript of the Belsen trial that followed the liberation of the camp. I highlighted, I made notes, all day Saturday. And on Sunday, I wrote.

One of my students asked me on Friday, what I was going to do this weekend? He already knew the answer, as he asks every Friday. But what he may not know, is that I do it for him, and for the sake of humanity. It’s not easy, but I feel that I have made a breakthrough here. This is my life’s work, after all.

So, back to school tomorrow. He’ll ask how my weekend was.

Intense. Someday soon you will know, too.

 

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I’ve been working a bit lately on my next two upcoming books, The Things Our Fathers Saw II and the one closest to my heart, working title, A Train Near Magdeburg or The Last Transport. And I have been struggling with that book for years. It’s a hard story to tell because it has to be done right, the first time.

TNMMy own personal connection and closeness to the subject has been documented at this blog since 2007, when we hosted the first reunion before a student audience at our high school, when we knew of only 2 liberators and 4 survivors. Today, that number has grown over 7 fold. Unbeknownst when we began, this story has grown and taken over the second half of my career as an educator.

Trying to take on the subject matter of the Holocaust as a classroom teacher is a daunting task, and one not to be taken lightly. Trying to convey that through the eyes of your survivor friends is exponentially difficult. But when you open yourself up, palms up and arms out, especially at the authentic sites where millions of families suffered, there is a coupling of the past and the present.

It’s not an easy thing to open yourself up to. But if you think that it is all in the past, you are very, very mistaken.

Now throw into the mix the experience of the young American boys, battle hardened and hardly innocents by now, who stumbled across the train and the horrors of the Holocaust. Confronted with the reality of sick and starving people, and a war in its closing days where the enemy, the perpetrators of this evil, are still shooting at them. They have a mission they have been tasked with, and it’s not a humanitarian rescue operation that they trained for.

Oh no. They had no idea. Many of these young guys were haunted for life by what they encountered.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say. In my case, more like one hundred thousand. Behind the camera, the major in the jeep snaps a photo as specters emerge from the springtime morning mist. The little girl turns her head in terror at the two monsters clamoring behind the jeep with the white star,  Tanks 12 and 13 of the 743rd Tank Battalion and the 30th Infantry Division of the United States Army. It is April 13, 1945, deep in the heart of the Reich. Friday the 13th. Tank 13 stays on after securing the perimeter to protect the vulnerable from their would-be murderers.

For the young beautiful men with perfect teeth and handsome uniforms, the first instinct is to recoil. This is not natural and these people have been reduced to stinking animals. Lice infested. Stench ridden. Infected with bad, bad disease. Revulsion and vomiting is a common reaction.  These are not human beings.

But, they are.

They are.

And what are we going to do about this? The battalion commander cocks his .45 and calmly places it to the head of the local burgermeister when he displays reluctance to comply with the order to open homes and feed the prisoners.

And next up on the roller coaster ride for the incredulous GIs  is stomping rage and jags of crying. Generations later, an 89 year old tells me, “My parents wondered why I couldn’t sleep at night, after returning home.”

The soldiers transport the victims out of the line of fire. The medics get to work. People continue to die, but somehow humanity returns. The war ends. The survivors and the soldiers go their own ways, most refusing to speak of this time for decades. For many, the trauma passes onto the children  of the generations that come after.

And then, in the twilight of living memory, a high school teacher with an unassuming project has the encounter with the unknown photographs, and asks the unasked questions.

Seventy years later, across time and space, the portal has been entered. The wires of the cosmos have been tripped. And the universe channels the unassuming power of love across the abyss as the aged rescuers and survivors and their descendants are brought together to meet again.

It is a miracle of healing and reconnection. A cosmic circuit has been completed, but maybe, in some small way, another pathway to undoing a tragic cycle is opened. And it is not a coincidence.

As I wrap up this post, I am pinged with an email from my ‘second mom’ in Toronto, survivor Ariela. She was 11 when she was liberated on the train with her aunt. Her parents and grandparents were murdered in Poland by the Germans. She’s good on Facebook, but has a tough time with email. She’s thinking of me, and the book which has to tell the story. The email comes through now, loud and clear.

This is the train that should have led to death. Instead, it leads to life, and a legacy of the triumph of good over evil. And maybe, just maybe, amidst all of the horror and the suffering, there is a lesson here, somewhere.

I’d like to think so.

 

 

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