Archive for February, 2019

I saw a friend on TV the other night. About 50 million other Americans did too; maybe you were one. Well, here is a backstory to all that.

After the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting in October, a couple of people familiar with the Train Near Magdeburg story reached out to me to ask if Judah Samet, a member of that community who had arrived four minutes late for his usual Saturday morning gathering the day of the assault, was liberated on the train in 1945. It turns out, he certainly was. I did some detective work and tracked down his daughter, who told me that liberator Frank Towers was one of his heroes. So I called Judah, and we spoke a few times on the phone at length. His story is amazing, which comes as no surprise—all of my survivor friends have them, and though they are all different, they all converge at the moment of liberation at the hands of the U.S. Army.

Judah and his family were Hungarians, part of the massive deportations that followed the German invasion of that country in 1944.  By a miracle that I have also heard about from some of my other survivors, the transport they were on which was headed for Auschwitz was diverted instead to Austria, and then to Bergen-Belsen. He turned seven there, and remembers always looking for food, but staying always curious and resourceful. In early April 1945, with mountains of corpses everywhere, his mother and father and he and his brothers boarded the transport that was destined to be liberated by the Americans on 13 April 1945 at Farsleben. His father died a short time later at Hillersleben, the captured German base where survivors were hospitalized. He and his mother made it to Paris, and then to Palestine, which of course became Israel. He became an Israeli paratrooper and was at the Eichmann trial (Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust in Hungary, captured by Israeli agents in 1960), he told me. He lost a brother in the 1956 Suez War.

After emigrating, he met his wife and they settled into her hometown of Pittsburgh. She passed a couple years ago, but before that, he decided that he would have to talk about his Holocaust experiences, long buried— not because he necessarily wanted to, but because older survivors were passing away, and he was troubled by the lack of knowledge and memory, and of course the ever-present deniers and haters. He also gave me extensive telephonic lessons on the history of the Jews in Hungary—’We came in with Attila the Hun’— antisemitism through the ages, with a long detour into the Middle Ages and the Crusades, all of which I am proud to say that I could follow, given my advanced training as a Holocaust educator. ‘In Debrecen (Hungary), we were 73,000.’ Almost all were murdered in the late spring and early summer of 1944. Just five hundred, he said, live there today (he went back with his family last May), almost all of them ‘transplants’. [By the time young men stormed the beaches of Normandy, most of Europe’s Jews were already dead, and it was far too late for the Jews of Hungary. And as I have stated many times here at this blog and in my book, the world stood back and let it happen.]

I sent him my book after our first conversation, and he called me up again after that, to say that it was well written and documented, and that much of what I wrote brought back memories he had suppressed. Some things he could recall; others, not so much. But he said he appreciated the fact that I used actual personal narratives which offered many points of view, not just the ‘Anne Frank’ version. ‘It speaks to my heart’, he told me. My friend Mike Edwards and his team went to interview him at home in December, and we hope to use some of that interview in our finished film.

The morning of the attack, he was pulling into the handicap parking spot at the synagogue when an officer in a black coat and windbreaker rapped on his window and told him to leave, but it was impossible, as the shooter was emerging from the building and firing rounds. ‘The guy was firing five rounds at a time. This I was sure of—as a paratrooper, we were trained to count rounds, to not waste ammunition.’ And ‘the old soldier in me wanted to take in everything, wanted to see the enemy’—’the killer was focused, the smoke was coming out of his muzzle’—but Judah said he was not frightened. He gave his witness statement, and soon enough, the news media was interviewing him. ‘I knew every one of the victims’, he said, but he also told me that he was not traumatized. As a former soldier, he remains vigilant, because, ‘it never ends’.

He is a passionate supporter of the President and the State of Israel. But in spite of the terrible divisiveness and the political differences in this country at this time, it was truly something to see the representatives of the United States of America get behind Judah, to sing to him in the moment, and I hope we can agree that the deeds of our young American soldiers so many years ago truly represented a moment in time that we can all be bursting with pride about. That is the main takeaway of the night which I will choose to keep close. Watch for yourself below at about 1:30:25. ‘If anything good came out of the Holocaust’,  a survivor I once met said, ‘it was my liberators’.

And I’d like to think that we could come together on that.

Judah Samet, member of the Tree of Life Synagogue and Holocaust survivor. White House photo.

[Thanks to my friend Stacey Petito Nowack for inspiring the title of this post!]

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George Gross, former tank commander in Company D of the 743rd Tank Battalion, died ten years ago today. In his declining years before he died, I was able to bring him much joy in introducing him to several of the children he saved. He sent me the photographs, and wanted me to tell his story.  And I brought him together again with his old Army buddy, Red Walsh.  So I am re-posting this today on the 10th anniversary of Dr. Gross’ death.
Where does the time go? He lived a good life, and at the end, got to see the results of his actions six decades before.
We are all traveling our own roads. Days like this, I like to stop and ponder what it all means. I’m glad that I had a small role to play in his life.

~George C. Gross, 1922-2009~

Yesterday my son turned 11. And at about 11 pm yesterday on the West Coast, Dr. Gross died at home with his family around him.

I just found out. More than anyone else, he is the one responsible for this website and the hundreds of lives changed because of it.

You see, he took the photo that you may not really notice in the heading above, along with 9 other photographs that forever imprint the evidence not only of man’s inhumanity to man, but of the affirmation, hope and promise of mankind. It was he who wrote the prose that led me to the survivors, and vice versa. And it was he who cultivated a deep friendship with me via his wonderful writings and telephone conversation. How amazed and happy he seemed to be to hear from all the survivors.

In the summer of 2001, I did an interview with his comrade in arms, army buddy Carrol Walsh. Judge Walsh put me in touch with Dr. Gross. If you go back through the archives you know the rest of the story. It has changed my life and the lives of my students in that we are now trying to rescue the evidence, the testimony of the Holocaust and the World War Two veterans, for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And today I received in the mail a bulletin from this Museum, reaffirming the mission that Dr. Gross had everything to do with setting me on.

He came into my life during a dark time for me- we had just lost our father (who thankfully, like Dr. Gross, passed on from his own bed at home), and our mother was battling the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, or dementia, or whatever that nightmare was called…. we began a conversation that has yielded so much fruit.

Lately, I knew he wasn’t well. I actually had looked into flights across the country before Christmas for my son and I to pay a visit, but we just couldn’t seem to swing it financially, with Christmas bills coming in and holiday fares going up. My back up plan, in my head, was to go out in February, when fares were half the cost… Well, February arrived yesterday and now it is too late, I never got to shake the hand of a man who helped reshape my own life, and the lives of so many others.

His 8×10 liberation photos are mounted in the front of my classroom, with his captions for all to see. So I see George and just one of the noteworthy products of his life, everyday. The captions that he wrote for each are mounted below each print, a testament to his humanity and to his graciousness.

I know it is selfish to feel so bad about the fact that I was not able to literally reach out and touch him. I’m just so damned disappointed.  Right now it’s another dark day for Matt, but I am comforted that he was surely welcomed by his beloved wife, parents, and maybe even my folks as well.

From his statement read at the occasion of the first reunion, September 14th, 2007.

Sincere greetings to all of you gathered at this celebration of the indomitable spirit of mankind!

Greetings first to all the admirable survivors of the train near Magdeburg, and our thanks to you for proving Hitler wrong. You did not vanish from the face of the earth as he and his evil followers planned, but rather your survived, and grew, and became successful and contributing members of free countries, and you are adding your share of free offspring to those free societies.

You have vowed that the world will never forget the horrors of the Holocaust, and you spread the message by giving interviews, visiting schools, writing memoirs, and publishing powerful books on the evil that infected Nazi Germany and threatens still to infect the world. I am enriched by the friendship of such courageous people who somehow have maintained a healthy sense of humor and a desire to serve through all the evils inflicted upon you.

Greetings also to the dedicated teacher whose efforts have brought us all together through the classes he has taught on World War 2 and the web site he maintains at the cost of hours of time not easily found in his duty as a high school teacher. I know that several of you found your quest for knowledge of your past rewarded by the interviews and pictures Matt Rozell and his classes have gathered and maintained. Selfishly, I am grateful to Mr. Rozell for leading several of you to me, bringing added joy to my retiring years.

Greetings also to all the faculty, staff, students, parents, and friends of the school at which this important gathering takes place. Thank you for your interest in the survivors of the Holocaust and their message.

And special greetings also to my old Army buddy, Judge Carrol Walsh, and his great family. Carrol fought many battles beside me, saved my life and sanity, and resuscitated my sense of humor often. We had just finished a grueling three weeks of fighting across Germany, moving twenty or more hours per day, rushing on to reach the Elbe River. Carrol and I were again side by side as we came up to the train with Major Benjamin, chased the remaining German guards away, and declared the train and its captives free members of society under the protection of the United States Army as represented by two light tanks.

Unfortunately, Carrol was soon ordered back to the column on its way to Magdeburg while, luckily for me, I was assigned to stay overnight with the train, to let any stray German soldiers know that it was part of the free world and not to be bothered again.

Carrol missed much heartbreaking and heartwarming experience as I met the people of the train. I was shocked to see the half-starved bodies of young children and their mothers and old men—all sent by the Nazis on their way to extermination.

I was honored to shake the hands of the large numbers who spontaneously lined up in orderly single file to introduce themselves and greet me in a ritual that seemed to satisfy their need to declare their return to honored membership in the free society of humanity.

I was heartbroken that I could do nothing to satisfy their need for food that night, but I was assured that other units were taking care of that and the problem of housing so many free people.

Sixty years later, I was pleased to hear that the Army did well in caring for their new colleagues in the battle for freedom. I saw many mothers protecting their little ones as best they could, and pushing them out, as proud mothers will, to be photographed. I was surprised and please by the smiles I saw on so many young faces.

Some of you have found yourselves among those pictured children, and you have proved that you still have those smiles. I was terribly upset at the proof of man’s inhumanity to man, but I was profoundly uplifted by the dignity and courage shown by you indomitable survivors. I have since been further rewarded to learn what successful, giving lives you have lived since April 13, 1945.

I wish I could be with you in person at this celebration, as I am with you in spirit. I hope you enjoy meeting each other and getting to know Matt Rozell and Carrol Walsh. I look forward to seeing again my friends whom I have met and to meeting the rest of you either in person or by E-mail. My experience at the train was rich and moving, and it has remained so, locked quietly in my heart until sixty years later, when the appearance of you survivors began to brighten up a sedate retirement.

You have blessed me, friends, and I thank you deeply. May your lives, in turn, bring you the great blessings you so richly deserve.

Fondly yours,

George C. Gross

September, 2007

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