Archive for September, 2019

A Journey of Humanity.

TEN YEARS AGO today I looked up at a TV screen at a resort restaurant where I was gathered with some very special people—Holocaust survivors, American World War II veterans who became their liberators, family, students and the school staff who helped me pull off one of the most incredible experiences of our lives. The word was that we were going to be featured on national television that Friday night for the closing segment of the ABC World News. And as we gathered for our final banquet, were actually going to get to watch it together.

Earlier in the week, the soldiers and survivors shared their gripping testimony with high schoolers and news reporters. We had planned this three-day event for months—and don’t you think I wasn’t sweating bullets. What if the students are indifferent or inattentive? What if the octogenarian participants, traveling from all over the world, experience health issues, or worse? Who am I to have the audacity to attempt to bring them together for the first time since 1945? Will this event serve to rekindle trauma buried for decades?

All worries evaporated, from the first informal meetings between soldier, survivors, and families, to the formal presentations. Kids listen attentively, cheered their new heroes, formed lines to get autographs, even danced with our guests on a special evening lake cruise. Many tears flowed, but ones of joy and happiness and love in a special reunion across decades.

And just how had a schoolteacher found himself orchestrating a life-changing event that might have reverberations for generations to come?

Eight summers before that 2009 reunion, I sat down with an American World War II veteran, Carrol Walsh, to record his war story for posterity, in my hometown. He was the grandfather of one of my students, and I knew of the family because we shared the same day-care provider. Picking up children one day at the same time, Walsh’s son-in-law suggested I contact Walsh for an interview for my WWII oral history project.

So I did.

We sat down together, and I started questioning and filming. He told me of pitched battles and close calls, ten months of combat and 18-hour days on the move after crossing the Rhine in the spring of 1945.

But he very nearly did not tell me of the incident on Friday, April 13, 1945, when his tank and another reached a mysteriously stopped train near the Elbe River. He had overlooked it—his tank was only on site for an hour—but his daughter reminded him that it was an interesting story, and that he should share it with me.

So he did.

At his suggestion, I reached out to his friend George Gross, the other tank commander who was present that day. Walsh told me that Gross had taken photographs. Dr. Gross was delighted that I had an interest and gave me permission to put them on my school WWII oral history webpage. I did some research and shared those interviews and photos there; in one of them was one of the most spectacular photographs of Holocaust liberation that the world had never seen before. Gross also gave me his recollections of the encounter with the train.

That narrative seemed to just sit there on my obscure little website for four years, with no commentary and few visitors. Then in early 2006, a grandmother in Australia who had been a 7-year-old on the train found my website and got in touch with Gross and Walsh because of it. I cried when she wrote to me and told me what it all meant to her.

And then it really began.

After the fourth survivor contacted me in 2007, I organized the very first reunion at my high school between Walsh and three of the survivors. It was very emotional, and students were the witnesses. The news story that day also went viral; nearly 60 more survivors who had been children on the train contacted me. So did soldier Frank Towers, who would go on to partner with me and an Israeli survivor’s daughter to track down over 250 more train survivors on five continents and organize more reunions.

We had eleven reunions in total. We have since met the soldier-medics who nursed survivors back to health. I’ve visited Bergen-Belsen Memorial, where they have set up an exhibit on this transport, and authentic sites in Germany, Czech Republic, and Poland [with the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers Program], retracing the steps of the victims, the perpetrators, and the soldiers. I’ve also studied intensively at Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And I spent ten years gathering material and working on my 2016 book, A Train Near Magdeburg.

The banquet room hushed as ABC News anchor came on for the final three-minute segment. I had been after them for months to come the 3.5 hours north from New York City and film this event, but just weeks before the event all communication ceased as they dropped off the radar screen to cover the death of an important statesman. And then, just as the participants began to arrive on Tuesday, they called and said they would be up Thursday to film!

Holocaust Survivors, front row. Soldier-Liberators, back, and me, far right.

Friday night September 25, 2009, we all watched together. In the opening sequence, Frank Towers is walking his wife Mary into the high school, and he says, “Here we are! We have arrived!” And it was the perfect metaphor for the arrival of the liberators on the scene of the train; 64 years before, because tank commanders Carrol Walsh and George Gross did exactly that—they arrived on the scene with their two tanks to save 2500 Jews from probable death, just as the SS was fixing to set up machine guns. The next day, Frank arrived to transport those saved by the Americans out of harm’s way.


You can say that my ordinary schoolteacher’s life had taken quite a turn; and now ten years later (eighteen since interviewing Walsh), I have committed almost half of my adult life to telling this story. No one who becomes aware of it goes away untouched. I became a witness to the greatest crime in the history of the world. And that comes with an obligation to educate others, who themselves become the new witnesses.

We are working on a new film, and that is what it will be all about. Mike Edwards the filmmaker came into my life three years ago with an interest, which quickly became a commitment as he shared my vision. It became our vision, and he never has stopped pushing; we have witnessed new miracles together. And to reinforce that this is meant to be, we would like to thank all of our supporters, and announce that we last week received a $50,000 commitment to bring it closer!

I think about all this nearly every day. Most of the soldiers are gone now, as are many of the survivors; Gross died in 2009, Walsh in 2012, and Towers in 2016, but we are driven especially by Walsh’s commentary, as people were hailing him as a hero—a mantle he emphatically rejected:

“I cannot believe today, as I look back on those years and on what was happening, I cannot believe that the world almost ignored those people and what was happening! I cannot believe it! How could we have all stood by and have let that happen? We owe those [victims] a great deal; we owe those people everything—they do not owe us [liberators] anything! We owe them for what we allowed to happen to them! That is how I feel.”

Ariela meets her liberator Carrol “Red” Walsh, Sept. 2009, at our “reunion”.


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