Archive for April, 2019

There was another shooting at a synagogue on American soil. Sometimes I wonder if my efforts to teach about the Holocaust mean anything. Sometimes you just feel helpless. But I realize now that it is probably the most important job I have ever done, maybe now more than ever. Two weeks ago I introduced Pittsburgh survivor Judah Samet to the American soldier who had a lot to do with his liberation. On my newsletter list, less than a week later, I mentioned I would be talking at a college in New Jersey; the next day, the following encounter occurred. And I think it will stay with these kids for the rest of their lives, and probably those ripples will create new waves.

A few days ago I drove 5 hours to a tiny community college in a rural section of New Jersey to speak on the subject of the Holocaust. I got there early because just yesterday I learned that a ‘new’ Holocaust survivor of the train would be attending, one whom I have never met before. He wanted to attend because he was on the train, and he also did not want to miss the opportunity to meet the WWII medic, Walter Gantz, who also wanted to attend my lecture. Walter was a 20-year-old American soldier who spent seven weeks with the survivors.

I was unloading my books and equipment when Walter and his son-in-law Kenny arrived, themselves coming from 2 hours away. Ken dropped Walter off at the entrance and went to park the car; I did likewise. Just as I got back into the truck, a saw a man wearing a kippah approaching Walter, hand extended, hailing him with ‘Mr. Gantz?’ I fumbled for my camera and took a shot of the first meeting of the two in 74 years.

Oscar S. was on the train with his family, many brothers and sisters who all survived the war, all resting and recuperating at the makeshift hospital and displaced persons camp that was Hillersleben, only a few miles from the train liberation site at Farsleben. Walter was there the entire time, remembering the children quite clearly, and profoundly moved by the appearance another person who had been one of those children.

A couple classes of college kids came in. They found seats, and more seats were arranged in the back as the word got out that this might be something special. I’m sure most of them didn’t know what to expect; I began my talk by asking how many of the young people actually knew an actual veteran of World War II who was still alive. No hands went up. I waited, and asked again—sometimes young adults are shy to volunteer—and there was no response. I didn’t expect a lot of hands, but I didn’t expect that NONE of the 18 to 21-year-olds in the room would respond. I immediately realized that we were in new territory.

I began the talk by explaining that the reason for my being there to speak to them was because I had asked the same question to a roomful of high school sophomores 25 years ago, and almost every kid raised not one hand but two. So I got curious, and made up a simple 2-page survey form—what branch were you in, what was your job, do you remember when you heard of Pearl Harbor, what things would you share with young people today—and I again was flooded with genuine, heartfelt responses. I invited veterans into the classroom to tell their stories, recorded them on videotape for posterity, and went off in search of more stories in the community. And that is how I got to sit down with one tank commander who shared a story and led me to another tank commander who wrote to me about the day their two tanks came across a train with nearly 2500 refugees, as it turned out, Jewish families who had been prisoners at Bergen-Belsen, shipped away by the Germans in the final days of the war to evade the advance of the Allied armies in the west. And these Americans who came across the train had even taken photographs of the dramatic rescue as it all unfolded. So I had a story to tell, about those final days of World War II and the Holocaust, and about what had happened since. That ten years after it all started, just when I thought I would not hear from any other soldiers associated with this train rescue story—I had met several others, but none more after the first four years had come and gone since that first reunion in 2007—the phone rang in my classroom, and the greeting that would become so familiar to me rang in my ear for the first time—“Matt Rozell, God bless you!” It was Walter Gantz, now 94, once the 20-year-old medic, now sitting in the midst of 20-year-olds who could not recall a living World War II veteran, and a former 7-year-old boy who he had a hand in saving.

We moved on to the subject of the Holocaust. I asked the kids: How many people were murdered in the Holocaust? What does that number look like? And just how did that happen?

So who was responsible for the biggest crime in the history of the world? Hitler alone?

How were the people freed on the train a ‘snapshot’ of European Jewry persecuted by the Nazis-and others?

How could I make people care, today, about what happened nearly 3 generations ago?

Why is it important to listen to those who were the first witnesses? What happens when these stories are no longer with us?

Once people have absorbed the stories, do they have a moral responsibility to act on the ‘lessons’? And then, for emphasis:

Is there such a thing as ‘being a witness’, when you yourself were not there?

I spoke for an hour. I didn’t notice any outright indifference at the start [a minor concern in the case of any event outside of regular classroom hours]; kids were very respectful and I think, curious, and I had their rapt attention at the end, though I waited for a few questions. None came, and Walter took that as his cue to stand up, because he had something to say. And he got right down to the point, with passion, a rising voice from a gentle soul. He motioned for Oscar to stand up and join him, and he embraced him with emotion.

“I spent seven weeks with these people. During my stay, there was about one hundred and twenty who passed away. Basically, it was from the typhus disease; most of them were over fifty; most of the young people survived. And there were a lot of young people, I mean, little children [motions with hand, palm down to his knee], infants, and it was living hell [shakes head incredulously].

After we set up our hospital in Hillersleben, a few days later, five or six of us went back to see the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp… and—you have to believe me when I say, the bodies were piled up like cordwood [raises his hand to over his head]! Everywhere you looked, I remember looking down a lane, probably a quarter of a mile, trees on each side, bodies, hundreds and hundreds of bodies laying around…

I had a strange experience. I’m Polish, and at the time, I could speak Polish very well—and I remember a gentleman at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, he kept saying, [speaks with emphasis, in Polish], which means, ‘Do you understand Polish?’ And I said, ‘Yes’ [begins to cry]…and he grabbed me, and he hugged me [hugs Oscar, the survivor he met today for the first time, both cry]… and I felt so helpless! I broke down…and the stench was terrible…We are living proof that there is such a thing as the Holocaust!”

Walter Gantz, WW2 medic, recounts his visit to Bergen-Belsen in 1945.[2:30]

There were muffled sobs throughout the room. No one spoke; one girl sitting in the second row was visibly emotional and profoundly moved.

Walter thanked God again for his good health and his mobility, at being able to come out and address the young people, noting that he once coached young people their age, and he closed his impromptu remarks by bringing laughter through the tears with his admission that though he could still move, he probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with the young women in the room.


So it was time to close. I went back to the beginning. It had turned out to be an almost religious experience for everyone in the room; I didn’t have to tell them that they had been graced with a once in their lifetime opportunity in what they had witnessed in the last few minutes. And I repeated the questions:

‘Once the survivors and liberators are gone, who is left to tell the stories? Once you have heard or read the testimony, are you the new witnesses? Do you carry a moral responsibility to act on what you have absorbed?’

And I hope it sank in, for the sake of humanity.

‘…And whoever saves one life saves the world entire’

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The portal opened a crack this week and I stepped through it once more.

We pulled it off, in this time of reflection, Passover and the Easter season. Liberation. Resurrection. New Life. And a reunion of sorts, 74 years in the making, to commemorate it all.

Holocaust survivor Judah Samet and WWII medic Walter Gantz, 4-17-19.

There were a lot of moving parts, but we got a chance to orchestrate another survivor-soldier reunion—this time with WWII Army medic Walter Gantz and Holocaust survivor Judah Samet, in Walter’s hometown of Scranton, PA. We had a very short window of time, as we needed also to film the encounter for our upcoming PBS documentary, and my friend Mike Edwards and his crew of film and sound techs had to be available. Since Judah is 5 hours+ away in Pittsburgh—remember, he is also a survivor of the horrible shooting mass murder at his synagogue there last October—and he was coming east to visit for the Passover holiday. His daughter had to be available to drive him a couple more hours north, and then be back home later for family obligations. Walter was preparing for Holy Week and Easter. Mike was to be soon traveling to Africa on another filming expedition, so we picked Wed, April 17th, for the meeting at a hotel in Scranton.

I drove down from the North Country of upstate New York the evening before. Settling into the hotel, management called my room to tell me that Walter was in the lobby, so I hurried down. Mike had arrived with his crew, Joe and Danny; Mike the sound guy was coming in from Brooklyn later.

Now, though I have been conversing with Walter for eight years on the telephone, I had not met him ever before. He’d met other survivors, notably Micha Tomkiewicz and Elisabeth Seaman, and had been called by others like Ariela Rojek in Toronto. But it was the first time he would be meeting me, and he arrived an hour before the dinner we had scheduled with his family and loved ones.

Walter got emotional. At ninety-four years old, the old Coach grabbed my two hands with the grip of the 20-year-old he had been as a medic at Hillersleben, the captured German Luftwaffe base and weapons proving ground 74  years before. “Matt Rozell, God bless you!” Mike snapped a picture. “It’s a good thing I am as cool as a cucumber; otherwise I would be real nervous about all this!”

I don’t have many heroes. But I met one this week. 94-year-old combat medic, Walter Gantz–and he squeezed my hands so hard…

We talked for a while. He lives only three minutes away in the hills overlooking the city, the ‘Polish Alps’ as he calls it, where his parents had raised him, most of the community having emigrated from Poland in the early part of the previous century to work in the mines. He remembered attempts at conversations with the Polish survivors at Hillersleben, how he could pick up word and phrases, and he remembered Micha’s Polish mother distinctly, an educated woman who also had medical knowledge and training. He remembers Gina Rappaport, a survivor from the Krakow Ghetto who spoke seven languages and translated for the people on the train. And he was so sorry to have missed the reunions (11 in all) in the past, but I did not even know about him until he called my classroom in October 2011, shortly after our Sept. 2011 final school reunion… It was liberator Frank Towers who had given him my number, it turns out, and it was Frank who had also contacted Judah Samet in the years before Frank’s passing at 99 in 2016; I suppose then that Frank had a hand in organizing this mini-reunion.

Walter’s three daughters and sons-in-laws arrived for the dinner, taking pictures, getting me to sign copies of my book. The next morning at breakfast, Mike explained how he hoped the day’s filming would go, but we were both of the mind to have everything unfold as naturally as possible. Walter would be waiting in a private room, and I would walk Judah down after he arrived with his daughter.

Judah was right on time at 11 AM, and I got to meet him for the first time since speaking to him at length on the telephone in November. He hugged me, and was also so appreciate of my efforts; he said that my book brought a lot of the memories back for him; I suppose that is the highest honor I could hope for, things that he had previously long buried. I walked him down the hotel corridor to the corner room where Walter waited. At the door, I motioned for him to continue on to Walter, who stood up, hugged Judah, and softly began to cry, greeting Judah with “God bless you, God bless you!”

Holocaust survivor Judah Samet and WWII medic Walter Gantz, 4-17-19. CR: 5 Stones Group.

They sat down and began to speak like they had know each other all of their lives. I sat with them and nodded quietly as the cameras rolled and asked clarifying questions when I could help out. But they had it together, as I knew they would, Walter gripping Judah’s hand. We took it outside on the street for a mini-photoshoot, and Judah’s daughter got acquainted with Walter’s daughters, coming outside to join in. The local newspaper guys arrived, and got a good story for the hometown hero (Walter just called me tonight to say that he had even fielded a congratulatory phone call from California!).

What does it all mean? Well, I think of this season of freedom and new life, about how, 74 years almost exactly to the date of release from oppression (but certainly not hard times—Judah’s father and many others died after liberation as well) these two men, the 94-year-old and the 81-year-old (the former 20-year-old and 7-year-old) and their families had the chance to re-connect and embrace, to recall and to marvel at the wonders of the power of love eclipsing the barriers of time and space.

Thank you to all of the film donors who helped to bring this about; we look forward to sharing this footage with the world when the next anniversary of the liberation rolls around (though we still have to get to Germany, etc). The wires are tripping, and the cosmos are opening once again.




South Scranton WWII Medic Meets Survivor He Helped Rescue From Train…

‘THEY WERE LOOKING FOR A PLACE TO FINISH US’ Scranton Times-Tribune Publication date: 4/18/2019 By JON O’CONNELL

SCRANTON — The Army medics who helped rescue about 2,500 prisoners aboard the train from Bergen-Belsen struggled to insert intravenous feeding tubes into their skin-and-bone arms. The prisoners had departed the concentration camp six days earlier bound for [Theresienstadt in German-occupied Czechoslovakia]. They were starving and emaciated. They couldn’t eat, and their veins rolled under their skin. But Walter Gantz, a combat medic from South Scranton who was just 20 years old in the spring of 1945, had a knack for it. He was known as a “sharp shooter when it came to needles,” he said.

Judah Samet, 81, was aboard one of those train cars. On Wednesday, liberator and ex-prisoner met for the first time at the Hilton Scranton and Conference Center for a PBS documentary called “A Train Near Magdeburg.” It’s slated for release next year. Samet, who lives in Pittsburgh, gained national attention when he survived the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in October, and attended the State of the Union address in February as a special guest of President Donald Trump. Back in 1945, Samet was only 7, but he remembers using a man’s corpse as a pillow and to block the April chill leaking through the slats of the car. He remembers feeling angry when Nazi soldiers eventually threw the body off the train. He recognized their murderous intent. “They were looking for a place to finish us,” Samet said.

Gantz, now 94, was part of an advance party sweeping through Nazi Germany in the final days of World War II that stumbled upon a train — cattle cars abandoned by Nazi soldiers who learned that their hold on Europe was about to break. “They were living skeletons really. Most of them only weighed half of their normal weight,” he said, describing the prisoners’ screams when medics inserted needles. “It was heart-wrenching really.”

Historian Matthew Rozell, a retired world history teacher who began interviewing World War II veterans with his students in Hudson Falls, New York, has become an expert on the April 13, 1945, liberation. His research, and a book he wrote about the liberation, laid a foundation for the documentary. He brought Samet and Gantz together for one of the last joint interviews between prisoners and soldiers for the documentary. Since first learning about the rescue in 2001, Rozell, [liberating soldier Frank Towers, now deceased, and survivor’s daughter Varda Weisskopf] have found nearly 300 survivors. They’ve held 11 reunions on three continents, he said. “Walter never went to any of the reunions [held at my high school] because I didn’t know Walter existed,” Rozell said, explaining how Gantz eventually learned about his work and tracked him down.

The 743rd Tank Battalion, which had been attached to the 30th Infantry Division, discovered the train in Farsleben, near Hillersleben where the 30th infantry had taken over a Luftwaffe air force base and research facility where top Nazi scientists developed secret weapons, Rozell said. The medic, who gave up his “sharp shooter” nickname and now introduces himself as “the coach,” spent seven weeks in Hillersleben tending the rescued prisoners, nursing back to health those who could be saved. Still, more than 100 died after the rescue, Gantz said.

Seated next to Gantz inside the hotel on Wednesday, Samet remembers the strength he drew from his mother, Rachel, a brilliant caregiver whom he says outsmarted the Nazis and kept them alive by rationing bits of hard black bread the size of olives throughout their 10½ month ordeal.

The train rescue at Farsleben gets little mention in history books, if any, Rozell said. He believes World War II has countless other untold accounts that were never written down and are waiting to be found again. “The more you think you know, the more you realize you don’t know,” he said. “Other stories like this absolutely are still out there.”


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“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:




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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