Archive for July, 2016

Yesterday in Jerusalem 29 other educators from all over the world and I wrapped up our 19-day study at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. And for me, the most profound speaker out of the dozens of excellent scholars and presenters we heard from was Dr. Yehuda Bauer, age 90, the godfather of Holocaust historians.

Dr. Yehuda Bauer. Palmach fighter, 1944-1949. Cow milker on Kibbutz, 41 years. Historian and I dare say, philosopher. Honored today to be in his presence.

Dr. Yehuda Bauer. Palmach fighter, 1944-1949. Cow milker on kibbutz, 41 years. Historian and I dare say, philosopher. Honored today to be in his presence. Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

When he was asked today, what is the lesson of the Holocaust, he simply said something to the effect of-There is no lesson, except not to repeat it. It is brought up for various agendas and causes…ok, fine. But ask your students, ‘what do you want the world to be?’ And then, maybe it is time to introduce them to the study of the Holocaust. Because maybe it is the exact opposite of what they envision, unprecedented in scope and sequence, but it happened, which means, you know, it can happen again… So let’s look at how, and why. This is important (me: and in many ways, urgent).

Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

When we got back to the hotel to pack and have a final evening here, I found out I could not even cross the street- our hotel was now right on the route of one of the largest ‘gay pride’ parades in the world. Security was tight; last year, a religious maniac stabbed six, and one 16 yr. old little girl died here.

So now I recalled the words of Dr. Bauer just hours ago, who had reminded us that democracy is not only very fragile, it is hardly even out of the cradle in the backdrop of world history. The world does not have to be united, and in fact it never has been and never will be. We argue and we disagree all of the time. But that is as it is, and as it should be. And at the end of the day, we either kill each other, or we live, and let live. 

You decide.

Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

For me, this was not a gay pride march; it was miles and miles of humanity celebrating life, despite our differences, and a fitting cap to my educator’s journey back into the Holocaust, and safely out again.


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I am studying in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, for 19 days with 29 other educators from all over the world.

I went to the Great Synagogue here in Jerusalem as a guest for Shabbat services. I had a guidebook with English, but I just followed the service in Hebrew, even though I don’t understand. Somehow this symbolizes my state of being right now. Almost half a world away, the last liberator Frank W. Towers is being bid goodbye by his friends and family, as the cantor wails here. My eyes well up, and a single tear begins its run. I am powerless to push it away.

It has been an extraordinary day. It began with a tour of the Old City on foot with a very knowledgeable guide who is also an archeologist here in Israel. We walk near the ruins of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, see the remnants of the ritual purification baths before one could go near the Temple. We walk up the steps hewn into solid bedrock where a young rabbi named Jesus strode. At the Western Wall, I take it all in, and approach the site which for Jews is closest to the Holiest of the Holies. This has great significance; God dwells here. For the souls of Frank, and Carrol, and George, my friends, the liberators, for my survivor friends who have passed, for my own parents and loved ones I place a scrap of paper with my prayer for their souls into a crevice in the millennia old stones.


Western Wall, Jerusalem, Friday, July 8th, 2016.

We move on to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the church built over Christ’s Crucifixion and Tomb. Incense blasts us as we move into the doors. Jesus entered into Jerusalem the day after Shabbat, Palm Sunday, in very tense political situation. We know how that turned out, and I am at the very place where a Jewish sect shortly after his execution would grow to become one of the world’s largest religions. I’m free to walk about and drink it all in. And at this place I leave the same petition for God.

At the Great Synagogue at sunset, I try to enter into God’s presence again in a more focused way, but I am finding it difficult. Thoughts come rushing forth, the same thoughts and questions I have entertained for years, but right now they hit me like a steamroller.

The last liberator has passed. And the mystery of the role I played in bringing the liberators and survivors, hundreds of them now, together with these old men in the sunset of their lives does not become clearer, but remains hidden somehow behind a fog that I cannot push away.

The sun has set.


I came to the Holy Land the first time for a 2011 reunion here with Frank, where he met 500 people who would not have been alive today had it not been for the swift arrival the soldiers of the 743rd Tank Battalion and 30th Infantry Division of the US Army. People are able to meet one of the actual soldiers who saved their families from annihilation; a woman was sobbing right behind me through much of the ceremony. Another woman, a granddaughter of one of those survivors whose name I cannot recall, stopped me. She thanked me and told me that my name meant something along the lines of ‘mystery of God’. This struck me hard, and it remains something that now roars forth in my turbulent state of mind. I don’t understand it all.

At the Friday evening communal Shabbat meal with the educators back at the hotel, we continue our mediation on entering into God’s grace and allowing Him to dwell us. We break bread, have the meal and conversation together. I’m very quiet because at the end of this long day, the mystery remains.

The hotel this evening in Jerusalem is jam-packed with Jewish families settling in for Shabbat-noisy, crowded, together to bring in the Sabbath.  Underlying the ebb and flow of this activity all around, inside me there is the disquieting undercurrent about the fact that this day has arrived, the day that the last liberator is being buried. I know that it will really never end, this story of the liberators and the survivors of the train near Magdeburg in April 1945, their precipitous fateful encounter, and their reuniting six/seven decades later. But tonight I am engulfed in a profound heavyheartedness, this loss, this questioning, this wondering. What does it all mean?

The giant dining room next door breaks out in rhythmic hand clapping, voices singing a song of happiness symbolizing the togetherness and communal unity that closes out the Shabbat meal. I glance at the time; at this very moment back home, Frank is being lowered into the earth.


Later, I awake with a start in a bed that is not my own. A newborn is wailing somewhere, nearby. The hotel here in Jerusalem is filled with Jewish families in town for Shabbat, full of young families, of young children. Crying babies at 2 AM. But though I have been jolted awake, nothing close to annoyance enters my being. Lying in the dark, deep within my soul I am warming with joy through the sadness; through the crying of the baby and the voices of the children outside my door I hear the song of the angels carrying Frank, and all the liberators I was privileged to know, onward and upward. The children are their legacy, and in this moment I know that I will perhaps never understand why God chose me to bring them together with the thousands of people alive on the earth today because of their deeds, but it does not matter:

He wanted me here in Jerusalem for this moment, when the last liberator left me.

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The Last Liberator.

I’m in the City of God now, Jerusalem. The last time I was here was in 2011, with Frank Towers, his son Frank Jr., my ten-year-old son, and Varda Weisskopf, a Holocaust survivor’s daughter.

Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.

Survivor’s daughter and reunion organizer Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.


Why am I here? I am studying at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, for 19 days with 29 other educators from all over the world. And although we just started, one of the early takeaways is, think about what the world lost.

“I often wonder what this world would be like, if those 6 million had never perished.” Frank Towers, 30th Infantry Division, Liberator

We talk about the story of human beings. Of the ‘choiceless choices’, in the ghettos and the camps. About the will to live, about what it means to have nothing, from the perspective of the survivors. Maybe also the ”survivors’ guilt”, but also the victory over Hitler and Nazi ideology, as seen in the 2nd and 3rd generations of Holocaust survivors alive and flourishing today.

Matt Rozell, survivor Bruria's son, Frank Towers, two survivors Bruria Falik (of Woodstock, NY) and her sister at Israel's Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem.

Matt Rozell, survivor Bruria’s son Dan F., Frank Towers, two survivors Bruria Falik (of Woodstock, NY) and her sister at Israel’s Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem.

I am learning so much, and I am eager to learn more. But yesterday I learned that Frank Towers, Sr., age 99, passed away peacefully with his family by his side in Florida, on July 4th, 2016. Independence Day.


Frank was born on June 13, 1917. Think about that for a minute. John F. Kennedy also came into the world, less than a month before Frank. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody left the world. American involvement in WWI was just getting underway, and Frank’s future 30th Infantry Divison was formally activated. Gandhi was tromping around India, investigating the poor conditions of local farmers. The Russian Revolution was just getting started. American suffragettes that summer were arrested for picketing the White House for the right to vote for women.

So into this world came Frank W. Towers. And Frank Towers came into my life after he had already lived a good, long one, in September, 2007, shortly after he turned 90. But he had more things to do before the Almighty called him home.

He did not know me, and I did not know him-I have never even been to Florida, where he lived. But, from the news he learned of a reunion that we had recently done at our high school. He read about how I had reunited World War II tank commanders  from the US Army 743rd Tank Battalion and 30th Infantry Division with the children of the Holocaust who he also had helped to liberate. And Frank said to himself, “Wait, I know about this. I was there, too.”

Frank reached out to me and we began a fruitful partnership in trying to locate more of the survivors who were on that train. He invited me, and the survivors, to the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II reunions that they held annually down south. And these were powerfully moving events, to see the soldiers touched by the gestures of the survivors; and for the survivors to laugh and cry with their liberators was a gift that they, their children and grandchildren, will never forget. We also held additional reunions at our school, for the sake of making students the new witnesses to what happened during the Holocaust.

Holocaust survivor Ariela Rojek, right, was 11 years old in 1945 when she and 2,500 other concentration camp prisoners aboard a train near Magdeburg, Germany, were liberated by American forces including 1st Lt. Frank Towers, left with his son Frank Towers Jr., center. "You gave me my second life," Rojek told Towers Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, at Hudson Falls High School during an event reuniting soldiers and survivors. Jason McKibben Glens Falls Post Star

Holocaust survivor Ariela Rojek, right, was 11 years old in 1945 when she and 2,500 other concentration camp prisoners aboard a train near Magdeburg, Germany, were liberated by American forces including 1st Lt. Frank Towers, left with his son Frank Towers Jr., center. “You gave me my second life,” Rojek told Towers Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, at Hudson Falls High School during an event reuniting soldiers and survivors. [Jason McKibben Glens Falls Post Star]


Today in class I was given the opportunity to speak in an open forum, ostensibly to comment on my thoughts about our collective, moving experience in being guided through the museum by our program leader Ephraim. He knew I had just lost Frank, and I think he knew that I needed to talk about it.

So I began. I told the group that I had been to Yad Vashem before, and that it was because of something very special in my life. In 2011, I was accompanying a then 94-year-old American liberator, who had just met over 500 people who were alive  because of the liberators’ intervention and efforts at the ‘Train Near Magdeburg’ on April 13, 1945. Over 50 survivors were present, and later, Frank, his son, my son, Varda, and some survivors had a personal tour of Yad Vashem.

Frank W. Towers, Yad Vashem, 2011.

Frank W. Towers, Yad Vashem, 2011.

The museum is designed almost as a triangular tunnel, from which, as you move from prewar Jewish life to increasing persecution and eventual mass murder, gets purposely more bottlenecked and constricting and troubling as you move through the wings of increasing destruction. But in the course of this harrowing encounter with the past, always you draw nearer to an opening, a triangular apex of light that gets bigger, as you pass through time. And I tell the group that for me, the image I so recall, was the image of Frank and survivor’s daughter Varda, in the light and in the opening. It is highly likely that Varda would not be alive today, had it not been for Frank and the soldiers of the 30th Infantry Division and the 743rd Tank Battalion. So now she gave him a great gift, to be able to come to Jerusalem, the City of God, and see the fruits of victory, six and a half decades later-the hundreds of children and grandchildren he met and shook hands with. And I got to witness it all.

And then I paused, and told them that the world had lost Frank Towers only 36 hours before. And here I was, six thousand miles away, and unable to go to his services in Florida. Instead I am here at Yad Vashem, sitting in a classroom, pouring out my heart. And it hurts.

But this is not a lament. As I speak, the reason why I can’t go to Frank now crystallizes and becomes clarified for me. You see, led by Frank, the veterans of World War II have paved the way many times for me to travel abroad to study the Holocaust. Think about that. The American soldiers who encountered the Holocaust as young men in 1945, open their wallets to send a teacher to study, so that this history is not lost to upcoming generations. Of course, the survivor community has also been very generous in this regard, but the soldiers, led by Frank Towers, are so grateful, that the Holocaust-and their sacrifices in slaying the beast-will never be forgotten.

So, I’m at Yad Vashem studying the Holocaust when Frank passes for a reason-this is right where he would want me to be. And as I close with my new teacher friends, after a very long and emotionally charged day, I remind them that we all bear a collective responsibility as teachers to carry on doing what we do when we teach, especially in teaching the subject of the Holocaust:

Frank Jr, Frank, Varda. Yad Vashem, 2011

Frank Jr, Frank, Varda. Yad Vashem, 2011

We are creating human beings. We are cultivating humanity. There is no past, and it is never over. There is hope amidst all the darkness in the world. The tunnel will lead to the light.

This is the transformation that I feel, when I look at the photo of Frank here at Yad Vashem. I’m grateful for the words that I see as the backdrop for this sharing time in the classroom today:

Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken. -Albert Camus

That’s a tall order, today. Godspeed, Frank Towers.  Candles on almost all the continents are lit for you. The short newscasts below are a part of the legacy, of the last liberator.

NBC News w/ Ann Curry

ABC News w/ Diane Sawyer


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I am in Israel now to embark upon two and a half weeks of study at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. I am humbled. But I was here before, in 2011, with liberator Frank Towers as he was recognized for his efforts 70 years ago, on behalf of American liberators everywhere. Here in Israel he met with statesmen and the head of the IDF, as well as over 50 survivors and their families who were liberated on April 13, 1945, an event that Frank had a direct hand in.

Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.

Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.

It’s a long story, but my work as a teacher has been here, too. In the background, note the Benjamin photo at the 2015 70th anniversary state ceremonies.

"The anguish of the liberation and return to life". Note the Benjamin photograph on the banner. Yad Vashem, 2015.

“The anguish of the liberation and return to life”. Note the Benjamin photograph on the banner. Yad Vashem, April 2015.

The short version of the story:

Fifteen summers ago I sat down to listen to an old gentleman in a rocking chair. A  war weary tank commander in 1945, he told me stories of his World War II experiences and then led me to his fellow tank commander, who showed me a picture that their major had taken on April 13, 1945. You see, those two were there, and their two tanks had liberated a concentration camp transport deep in the heart of war-torn Germany.

It would be the first time in decades that this picture had seen the light of day. And because of its discovery, and what we would do with it, thousands of lives were about to change.

Yad Vashem contacted me in December 2014 to inquire about using the Major Benjamin photo. I immediately sent them a copy. My friend Varda in Israel writes, ‘[The photograph above was taken] during the main ceremony at  the Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem. This photo shows the President of Israel Reuven Rivlin make his speech. You can see your photo there at the middle (banner) and I now think it was there throughout all the ceremony.’

Below, a post from the time of the event in April, 2015..


My good friend in Israel let me know that the April 15th  commemoration of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Israel was a moving event and sent me the link to the video of the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation. While the  narrative  behind the Major Benjamin photograph was not a focus, the photo that which now seems to be becoming a cornerstone of the history of Holocaust liberation is all throughout the ceremony, and especially at 8:31. One of my friends, a survivor who had been a six-year old boy on this transport that Major Benjamin photographed at the moment his jeep arrived at the train, notes,

The photograph wouldn’t be there if not for your effort. It was presiding on 1.5 hrs of national ceremony in the presence of Israel’s president, prime minister, the entire government, the top army guys, survivors, chief rabbis and was nationally broadcast. You have a direct hand in this.

Me, a lowly teacher, whose work for an evening is presiding as the backdrop for presidents and prime ministers. I am proud and hope that the story is told over and over, and that it serves the memory of the victims, the survivors, and the liberators well. I just can’t believe sometimes this path I have been down, since the day over a dozen years ago when I took the time to listen to a war veteran, and began to backtrack his story.  There are other forces at work here, I think… and there is a cosmic force that reverberates in you when you teach the Holocaust from the heart.

Teachers out there, you all know the power of what we do. I hope this serves as an affirmation.



Matthew Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow and teaches history at his alma mater in upstate New York. His work has resulted in the reuniting of 275 Holocaust survivors and the American soldiers who freed them.

His first book, ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’, was released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. His second book,  is on the power of  teaching, remembering the Holocaust, the Benjamin photograph and this ‘Train Near Magdeburg’. 



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Victory, 1945. Watercolor, Ervin Abadi. Train Near Magdeburg survivor. Hillersleben, Germany, May 1945.

Victory, 1945. Watercolor, Ervin Abadi. Train Near Magdeburg survivor. Hillersleben, Germany, May 1945.

I am in Israel now, getting ready to study at the International School for Holocaust Studies for several weeks. On Thursday, back in Washington DC, USHMM Chief Acquisitions Curator Judy Cohen met with a person who contacted me over a year ago with a question about some artwork that her grandfather had brought back from World War II, serving in the 95th Medical Gas Treatment Battalion, helping out with Holocaust survivors at the captured Luftwaffe base at Hillersleben, Germany. Chriss Brown wanted to know more about the artist, and I think because she had typed his information into a search engine, found me through this website. I immediately recognized the artist’s hand, and I told her that he was on the Train Near Magdeburg, and also sent her more information about him. Later in life, the artist stated,

“Let these drawings serve as proof of my everlasting gratitude towards those to whom I owe my life. … To the soldiers of the United States Army, particularly to our immediate liberators, those soldiers of the 9th regiment [sic] who first entered the village of Zilitz and gave us bread, milk, chocolate, and cigarettes….”

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was pretty thrilled about the acquisition, and received the donation from Chriss and her family with gratitude.

Good in the world. Amidst all the evil and darkness forces at work, it is here today. And we are reminded that it saved the world 70 yrs. ago.



You can read the serendipitous backstory/role I had in it all, here:


and here:


and read more about it in my upcoming book.

Here are some pics about the acquisition, from this past Thursday, June 30th.

Chriss Brown when she first started showing Mr. Abadi's drawings to USHMM curator Judith Cohen. #USHMMCurators

Chriss Brown when she first started showing Mr. Abadi’s drawings to USHMM curator Judith Cohen. #USHMMCurators

Art by Hungarian survivor Ervin Abadi made for US GI Donald W. Rust after liberation. #USHMM Curators

Art by Hungarian survivor Ervin Abadi made for US GI Donald W. Rust after liberation. #USHMM Curators

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