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Archive for April, 2019

“Is this Matt Rozell, the history teacher? Yes? Well Matt Rozell, God bless you and your family!”

Tomorrow I am going to meet the man who called me on the telephone in my classroom in October 2011. To this day I’m not sure how he found me, or how he got my number at school. Though we have talked many, many times over the telephone, we have never actually met. I suppose I will ask him then.

The school district powers-that-be (probably my secretary friends, ha ha) had a telephone line to the outside world installed in my classroom shortly after our first reunions of Holocaust survivors and their liberators occurred at our school in 2007 and 2009. Now 2011, we were still fielding calls from all over the world, but following the last reunion at the high school in 2011, while we had many survivor inquiries into our story about the ‘Train Near Magdeburg’, I had not heard from any soldiers related to the historic liberation and aftermath for 4+ years. I thought they all must be gone.

[74 years ago today—April 15, 1945—elements of the British 11th Armored Division passed through the gates of Bergen-Belsen and were immediately confronted with 10,000 unburied corpses; 800 people died on the day they were liberated. Three train transports carrying 6700 sick and starving prisoners had left the week before, and this Train Near Magdeburg was liberated by the American 30th Infantry Division and 743rd Tank Battalion on April 13th. As one of the tank commanders arriving on the scene, Carrol Walsh, later remarked, “What are we going to do with all these people?”]

“To Mom and Dad, Babe” WW2 medic, Walter ‘Babe’ Gantz, left

 

And then the phone rang, and Walter Gantz entered my world, and introduced a whole new angle on the story. You see, he was a medic assigned to care for the victims liberated at the train site for the next six weeks after the soldiers went off to fight the final battles of World War II. Not only that, he knew of several other American soldiers who had been assigned with him. In the ensuing months and years we reached out and interviewed several of them.

At the recuperation site of Hillersleben, a German Luftwaffe base and top-secret proving ground, complete with barracks and hospital, it was a mix of relief and trauma for both Holocaust survivors and American soldiers. Walter grew attached to some in his care—one girl in particular who died on him, and he remembers carrying her body himself to the makeshift tent morgue—and as a young man after the war ended, he brought those memories home with him, along with the memories of treating the American wounded during the Battle of the Bulge and other horrors. He believes his youthful innocence and his spirituality helped to save him, but troubles were not always far away soon after returning home. “My parents couldn’t understand why I couldn’t sleep at times.” He told me also that while he enjoyed the reunions with his medical battalion as the years went on, one thing they never would bring up was the collective experience of the trauma they witnessed, and felt, at Hillersleben. From our interview with Walter:

“We talk about nightmares and flashbacks. I never had any nightmares where I would scream, but there are two so-called flashbacks I remember and they stayed with me for many, many years. [In the first] I could see myself climbing these stairs and all of a sudden, I’m inserting a needle into this elderly gentleman’s arm. Of course, you have to remember, they were skin and bones. The veins would roll and he was screaming, really screaming. That had to be very painful, because they were skin and bones—to try to find a vein; it was easy to overshoot a vein. It was heart wrenching to hear those people sobbing and actually screaming because a lot of them thought they were still at Bergen–Belsen, really.

[In the second] incident, I used to work a twelve-hour shift, from eight in the evening to eight in the morning. In the wee hours of the morning, this young girl died. For some reason, I wrapped her up in a blanket and I carried her down the stairs and I was crying.

We had a war tent that was used as a makeshift morgue. I placed her in there. I wonder why I would do that; I must have liked her for some reason. I didn’t have to do that, because we had a team that took care of those who died, and placed them in the morgue.

I spent seven weeks with these people. Most of us spent seven weeks and during our so-called watch, 106 people died… God, it was tough. [This girl] was actually fifteen years old. Her name was Eva and you might say, ‘How was it possible that he could carry her?’ She probably weighed 60 pounds, maybe. I thought about that many times, and I must have been attracted to her for some reason. That haunted me, really. It really haunted me.

I must admit I shed a lot of tears and I prayed. I prayed that they would pass on, that they would find peace and for those who survived, that their health would be restored—and dignity. Dignity is so important in life—dignity, that was the main thing. It was difficult.”

But now many of my survivor friends have reached out to him, called him on the phone at home, or even appeared with him on stage at symposiums in Scranton, Pennsylvania where he lives. I’m driving there tomorrow, and survivor Judah Samet and his daughter are driving up on Wednesday. [Judah’s father passed at Hillersleben shortly after liberation; Walter and Judah have also never met before.]

In 1945, Walter was 20. Judah was 7. Walter is now 94; Judah, 81.

George Gross passed on my son’s 10th birthday in 2009, before I could meet him. Carrol Walsh has passed, and his life was celebrated by his family and friends, including survivors, they day I had my fateful tour of Bergen-Belsen in Germany in 2013. Frank Towers died at age 99 as I began my advanced Holocaust studies in Jerusalem on July 4th, 2016. So I’m not going to miss meeting Walter, and my friend Mike Edwards is going to get it all on film for our documentary.

Time may be running out, but this project, powered by good, and love, has broken the barriers of time and space over and over. So God bless you, Walter. We’ll see you tomorrow night.

 

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Today I traveled in a car with my wife to a high school in New Hampshire a couple of hours away to talk to high school students about the Holocaust, the power of remembering, and witnessing for others who can no longer be the witnesses. As we drove, my wife recalled fondly the many trips she and my mom had taken in years past, in the mountains and valleys of the Green Mountains, along these very roads.

We all have our great days, and not-so-great days. But then something happens to reminds us of what truly matters.

As it happened, I was speaking to several classes, the first time since my ‘retirement’ nearly 2 years ago.

As it happened, one of the classes contained my mom’s granddaughter, one who is studying Elie Weisel’s Night as a 9th grader, and has no real memory of my mom.

Oh, I hit it out of the park. (I still got it.) It was a great day. And it happened to be my mother Mary’s birthday in heaven. And so many things reminded me that my mom is still with me. So on her birthday, I’ll share this amazing story again, which begins in a more dark time. Mother Mary comes to me, someone once sang. Happy birthday, momma.



[Originally published in 2017.]

My second book, the one on the death train and my journey as a teacher in discovering and retracing the miracles in reuniting Holocaust survivors with their American soldier liberators, has had mostly positive reviews at Amazon. Then recently someone posted how he found himself “resenting” that I had clumsily inserted my own experiences into an otherwise tremendous story. (Fair enough—but ‘resentment’?) Part of it was how my parents, through their example to their children, help to set the trajectory of our lives, as they do for all of us. That, coupled with a resurgence of antisemitism and the other stuff in the public arena that bad dreams are woven of, sent a certain chill up this writer’s—this historian’s—spine.

Now if one really ‘got’ the point of my second book, it’s about miracles and goodness and common human decency and humanity; about a triumph of the power of good and love over evil, against crazy odds; about the lessons and the values which we should hold firm to in a world filled with pain and destruction, deception and deceit. I probe and I question: how was I to get on this path, of uncovering these mysteries, of connecting so many people all over the world, through time and across space? I can’t explain it, so I think back to the tangible people who cultivated this sense of wonder in me.

My mother and father.

Some days it is hard to see the good, and the world lately frankly leaves me feeling rather adrift; I wonder if it all is pointless.

And then, out of the blue, comes the quiet reminder…

Later this week I got an email from a new fan in Salt Lake City, Utah. We have never met or heard of each other until he bought my books at Amazon. He loved them, and then felt compelled to reach out to me (which I invite—it’s matthew@teachinghistorymatters.com). He wrote that as he neared the end of the book, he realized that his wife was from the area where I live and write about.
We went back and forth. Later on a whim he reached up on the bookshelf in his basement office and dusted off his wife’s high school yearbook. He opened it up, and sent me this:

mom-yrbk-1975

IT’S MY MOM.

 

Vintage 1975, autographing his wife’s graduating yearbook… turns out my mom was the school nurse teacher at his wife’s school, now nearly a continent away. Kim was heading out west after graduation, and my mother was going to head there to visit her brother and his family in California that summer. Neither I nor my siblings have ever seen this photo before; I can tell by her expression that Mom is laughing with the photographer and is insisting that he get the shot over with!

So now, on a dark day, my mother, Mary Rozell, is speaking to me.

She was taken from us since just before the Holocaust survivors I write about found me in 2006 and entered my life and the lives of the soldiers who freed them in such a profound way.

My mother reaches out  to remind me that there is still good in the world.

Maybe that reviewer could care less, but my mom will always be a part of the story—MY story. [Subtext: Write your own damn book, sir…]

Thanks, William, for sending it to me.

And thanks, Ma, for being there for me again.

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