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Archive for January, 2020

COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

“T-minus” 77 DAYS Countdown to Commemoration at Farsleben-the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau II

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the train liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local school kids and others.

In our countdown to commemoration at the site of liberation in Germany, I will share updates and circle back to some of my earlier writings.


Auschwitz-Birkenau-July, 2013

75 years ago, today, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated.

After the ‘tour’ of Auschwitz I, we have lunch on the bus in the parking lot, and then drive the three kilometers through town to Birkenau.

The entry tower is the iconic symbol of evil, menacing and devouring as we are pulled closer on this overcast day. We follow the guide up the stairs in the tower. From here we can see the sheer vastness of the camp.

Dozens of long, narrow women’s barracks, brick, still stand, albeit some braced with wood on the gable ends to keep them from toppling until they can be re-pointed. Our guide indicates that historic preservation here is a major concern.

The rest of the camp is many square kilometers of row upon row of foundations and brick chimney stubs, surrounded by the intimidating curved and tapered concrete posts dotted with white insulators and strung with miles of parallel lines of barbed wire.

In the summer of 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian families were deported here, the rail lines came right into the camp. Following the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews- ushmm

Our guide leads us along the path through the camp that leads to the gas chamber and crematorium. We walk in silence along the roadway, the only sound the crunching of brick fragments and gravel underfoot. It appears to have been paved with brick, slave labor of course, though in some spots it is hard to tell anymore. No one speaks, and on and on we walk.

Two minutes.

Five minutes.

Ten minutes.

Fifteen minutes. I’ve been on historic battlefields that are smaller than this site.

Finally we reach the end of the camp where the kitchens stood. A round concrete ring rises out of the earth, maybe 6 feet in diameter. Someone finally speaks and asks our guide what it was. It was for flowers, a giant flowerpot.  She tells us that they were also placed near the entrances of the gas chambers.

Flowers at the gas chambers.

We turn left and keep walking past interpretative signage. It seems like we are walking outside of the camp perimeter, but we are not. Beautiful woods of white birch appear, and we are walking on the edge of the woods with the camp to our left.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

We stop near another sign and rest for a moment, allowing the others to catch up. Then our guide calls our attention to the photo on the sign, showing Hungarian mothers and children doing the same thing we are doing. Halting and resting.

And a short path through the woods will take us to the ruins of the gas chamber/crematorium Number Five.

We are resting at the spot they rested at, 20 minutes after walking, immediately after disembarking from overcrowded transports that they had been traveling on for days. Here they waited, anxiously, as their turn to approach the chamber would come. But the victims of the transport ahead of them had to be removed from the chamber first. Some days in the summer of 1944, these victims were backed up for hours.

I pick up a rock from the path and carry it with me past the ruins. At the ash field there is more signage and a memorial asking visitors not to walk through the field. I place my stone on the memorial, looking down to watch where I step. But it is probably a futile gesture—this whole place is an ash yard, a graveyard. So many Hungarian Jews were killed in the Auschwitz camps in that season of murder that the crematoria were incapable of burning all the bodies, so open-air burning pits had to be utilized.

The secret sondercommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

We turn again and walk past the remains of crematorium Number Four to the disinfection center for those selected to be worked to death. Again, there was a system.

Disrobing.

Wading through disinfectant.

Shower.

Uniform thrown at you, mismatched clogs or shoes.

Elaine’s mother spent two years here. Her grandmother and the little ones were selected upon arrival. Her mom’s teenage sister was shot in the quarry after slipping while carrying a large pot of soup in the ice and snow with three other girls.

Today is a hard day. I feel helpless. There is nothing I can do.

The Red Army liberated this place on January 27, 1945. At the Soviet memorial constructed near the two destroyed gas chambers/crematorium at the end, we have a remembrance ceremony. Kaddish is recited in Hebrew. I read it aloud in English today to the group. With tears, Elaine tells us that she feels her grandmother smiling down on this extraordinary group of dedicated teachers. A lump rises in my throat again. I swallow hard and try to blink back the wetness I feel welling in my eyes, so I am glad for the sunglasses, even though there is no sun. The plaque reminds:

A Warning to Humanity.’

We light candles, turn our backs, and just walk out, which allows for another twenty-minute stretch of quiet, personal reflection. We have come to the epicenter of evil. We have been to Auschwitz; we try to process—but we just cannot.

 

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COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

“T-minus” 78 DAYS-the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau

January 27, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Red Army. The concentration camp Majdanek had been captured intact the previous summer.

On the other side of Europe,  the Allies had landed in Normandy the previous summer as well. The Battle of the Bulge was just ending; the western allies were fighting through the Low Countries and had actually already crossed the West Wall, or Siegfried Line. In 2001, I interviewed a tank commander who had experienced all of this. But nothing would prepare young soldiers for their encounters with the Holocaust in the months to follow.

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local school kids and others. In 2013, I traveled the same railroad route from near Bergen-Belsen to Magdeburg in less than an hour. In 1945, starved, emaciated, and typhus-stricken prisoners covered the same journey with little food and water or sanitation for nearly a week. Then, the tank commander appeared on the scene, in his tank with the white star, with another tank commander and their crews, and their major who snapped one of the Most Iconic Photos of the 20th Century. It is fitting that I travel back to this place, this time with an Emmy Award-winning film director and crew, with our own cameras rolling.

The two tank commanders, by the way, were not Jewish, contrary to some things you may find on the internet.  The two filmmakers, Mike and I, are not Jewish either. Does that matter? To us, of course not. But in a world where Jew hatred has existed for millennia, and antisemitism rears again, we stand with the Jewish people as those American soldiers did in 1945. They were faced with a moral choice in a shooting war. And they chose to DEFEND, PROTECT, AND CONFRONT. And with our film, based on my book, we choose to affirm and promote those values. We will witness, once more, and we want our viewers to think about what they saw, and what they did, and the lessons they now pass on to us all as they take their final leave.

In our countdown to commemoration, I will share updates and circle back to some of my earlier writings.


Auschwitz-Birkenau-July, 2013

What is this place? Our guide is a top-notch scholar, and she leads us on a day-long tour that is hard to put into words.

We begin at Auschwitz I, the first camp. This place is centrally located, a railway hub dating back to the turn of the century.

The first prisoners, after it is converted from a Polish military facility, are Soviet POWs and Polish prisoners and other ‘security risks’ who will be worked to death slowly expanding this camp, and the much larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau. She walks us through the exhibits and the displays at the various blocks. Block 4 is the ‘Extermination Exhibit.’ We think about the words, the language used by the perpetrators: ‘extermination’—as if the victims were vermin. Over 1,100,000 human beings were killed here, most of them Jews. Now, 1.4 million people visit here every year.

We see the map with the spiderlike rail lines radiating outward from Auschwitz like tentacles, from northern Poland, from Germany, Hungary, as far south as Greece and as west as Paris and the Netherlands. In the summer of 1944, tens of thousands were murdered here, per day; Primo Levi put the record at 24,000 on a single day in August 1944.[i]

We see the large-scale terra cotta model of the process, which the German engineers had perfected at Auschwitz II-Birkenau—the arrival of the transports, the undressing rooms with signs admonishing bewildered people to hang their belongings carefully and to remember the number of the wall pegs where they left them for quick retrieval later. We peer into the shower rooms that could fit in some cases entire transports, which were in fact the hermetically sealed gas chambers. The figurines of the Germans stand above them with their gas masks, waiting for the proper temperature to be reached through body heat, just the right humidity to be achieved before dropping in the pellets so the gas released would work more effectively. The anguished death throes of the thousands of naked figurines assault our senses. The process is not complete until the corpses are carried out by the sondercommando slaves, defiled for any gold fillings, the hair shorn from the women, the bodies then burned in the open air behind or cremated in the ovens.

But the experience is just beginning. Minutes before, we were looking at a terra cotta model. And now in Block 5 we will be presented with the evidence. This is an exhibition, after all. ‘Exhibit A’ in the evidence file is about to slap us in the face.

It is a room, 50 feet long, with nothing but human hair piled several feet back and as many feet tall. My heart skips a beat.

What do our eyes perceive? Now we see a photo of stacks of bale bags, carefully labeled, packed, and stacked, awaiting shipment back to the Reich for use in various products for the German war effort. Slippers for submariners so they can walk quietly aboard ship to evade Allied sonar. Stuffing for the seats of German pilots.

We shuffle on in silence with hundreds of others past the mountains of eyeglasses and frames, the pots and pans, the suitcases carefully labelled by their owners with chalk on the orders of the perpetrators, again, for ‘quick retrieval after disinfection.’ And the shoes, all sorted, case after case of women’s shoes. Men’s footwear. And then, the children’s shoes.

Our knowledgeable guide takes us into Block 27, the new exhibit on the Shoah. This is a temporary relief of sorts as now we see faces, film and stills, of prewar Jewish life, projected on the walls. We hear songs and voices, see people dancing in a past life.

At the end of this is the Book of Life, rows of giant suspended volumes containing four million names compiled thus far. When Elaine and others in our tight-knit group find entire pages with the names and dates of family members murdered during the Holocaust, there are gasps, and tears.

And now it is on to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

[i] Levi, Primo. Primo Levi’s Heartbreaking, Heroic Answers to the Most Common Questions He Was Asked About ‘Survival in Auschwitz’. The New Republic, February 17, 1986. newrepublic.com/article/119959/interview-primo-levi-survival-auschwitz

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A TALK BY MATTHEW ROZELL, FRIDAY, JAN. 17, 7PM

Matthew Rozell will discuss his newest book: The Things Our Fathers Saw―D-Day and Beyond: The War in France, this Friday, Jan. 17, at 7pm at the Rogers Island Visitors Center, 11 Rogers Island Dr., Fort Edward, NY. Come out and pick one up, or just sit and have a listen. https://www.facebook.com/events/542669763258537/

WHEN YOU STEP OFF THE LANDING CRAFT into the sea, bullets flying at 0630, how do you react to your vision of your mother opening the telegram that you have been killed?

WHEN YOUR GLIDER CRASHES AND BREAKS APART, what do you when you are shot and the Germans are bearing down on you, and you know your dogtags identify you as a Jew?


— “I had a vision, if you want to call it that. At my home, the mailman would walk up towards the front porch, and I saw it just as clear as if he’s standing beside me—I see his blue jacket and the blue cap and the leather mailbag. Here he goes up to the house, but he doesn’t turn. He goes right up the front steps. This happened so fast, probably a matter of seconds, but the first thing that came to mind, that’s the way my folks would find out what happened to me. The next thing I know, I kind of come to, and I’m in the push-up mode. I’m half up out of the underwater depression, and I’m trying to figure out what the hell happened to those prone figures on the beach, and all of a sudden, I realized I’m in amongst those bodies!” —Army demolition engineer, Omaha Beach, D-Day


Dying for freedom isn’t the worst that could happen. Being forgotten is.


— “My last mission was the Bastogne mission. We were being towed, we’re approaching Bastogne, and I see a cloud of flak, anti-aircraft fire. I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to make it.’ There were a couple of groups ahead of us, so now the anti-aircraft batteries are zeroing in. Every time a new group came over, they kept zeroing in. My outfit had, I think, 95% casualties.” —Glider pilot, D-Day and beyond


Maybe our veterans did not volunteer to tell us their stories; perhaps we were too busy with our own lives to ask. But they opened up to a younger generation, when a history teacher taught his students to engage.


— “I was fighting in the hedgerows for five days; it was murder. But psychologically, we were the best troops in the world. There was nobody like us; I had all the training that they could give us, but nothing prepares you for some things. You know, in my platoon, the assistant platoon leader got shot right through the head, right through the helmet, dead, right there in front of me. That affects you, doesn’t it?”” —Paratrooper, D-Day and beyond


As we forge ahead as a nation, do we owe it to ourselves to become reacquainted with a generation that is fast leaving us, who asked for nothing but gave everything, to attune ourselves as Americans to a broader appreciation of what we stand for?

This is the fifth book in the masterful WWII oral history series, but you can read them in any order.


— “Somebody asked me once, what was the hardest part for you in the war? And I thought about a young boy who came in as a replacement; the first thing he said was, ‘How long will it be before I’m a veteran?’I said, ‘If I’m talking to you the day after you’re in combat, you’re a veteran.’He replaced one of the gunners who had been killed on the back of the half-track. Now, all of a sudden, the Germans were pouring this fire in on us. He was working on the track and when he jumped off, he went down, called my name. I ran over to him and he was bleeding in the mouth… From my experience before, all I could do was hold that kid’s hand and tell him it’s going to be all right. ‘You’ll be all right.’ I knew he wasn’t going to last, and he was gone the minute that he squeezed my hand…” —Armored sergeant, D-Day and beyond


It’s time to listen to them. Read some of the reviews below and REMEMBER how a generation of young Americans truly saved the world. Or maybe it was all for nothing?

— “A must-read in every high school in America. It is a very poignant look back at our greatest generation; maybe it will inspire the next one.”

Reviewer, Vol. I

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My wife and I drove to the state capital to present a talk to representatives of the United States Army last Saturday. I was invited to speak at the Albany Recruiting Battalion’s Annual Training Conference, seven companies from the Northeastern United States and Europe. I think it was the first time that they had invited a civilian to address them as their keynote speaker. And I think that took some boldness, a willingness to ‘think outside the box’, as most certainly had no idea who I was. [Thank you SFC Christian O’Keeffe for being a reader and a fan!]

There were 350+ present, a culmination of their weekend gathering and training, a sea of dress uniforms and evening gowns, some formality and protocol but also a chance to celebrate and take pride in serving the United States of America. We were honored to be seated at the table with the Command of the Albany Battalion.

As we took our seats the ceremony began with the posting of the colors by the local Christian Brothers Academy Color Guard. The MC also pointed to the Missing Man/Fallen Comrade Table, set up for one, but highlighted by the absence of those who were no longer present. It instantly reminded me of all of the times I had been with my World War II veteran friends for their annual reunion ceremonies, which began exactly the same way. And as I was readying to take to the podium, I was frankly struck with an emotion I did not expect, a profound sense of sadness:

All of my old friends who led or organized these ceremonies, in reunions of Army veterans all over the south, are now dead.

Matthew Rozell, 30th Infantry Veterans of WWII, Holocaust survivors at Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, March 2, 2012.

With ranks thinning, the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II (which had met annually since 1946, sometimes taking over more than one downtown city hotel) folded its reunion tent in April 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee, on the 70th anniversary of the 1945 Nazi death train liberation. And for the past ten years, led by Frank W. Towers, they had warmly hosted the Holocaust survivors that they liberated in April 1945. I remember the way they greeted my ten-year-old son at the reunions we attended with the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II, rubbing his head at the annual final banquets, the colorful fundraising auctions that followed with many laughs and jokes. They opened each reunion by reading the names of those fellow soldiers who had passed away in the past year, with the tolling the bell for each man who had passed on the previous year; my son and I, and the Holocaust survivors I helped to reunite with the men of the 30th, were privileged to witness this moving ceremony several times.

It was with these tempered feelings that I took the stage. I was introduced by the Command Sergeant Major as the dessert service was getting underway, and coupled with some blistering microphone feedback, it took a few seconds to get my audience’s full attention, but I had them as I began recounting some of the feelings I was having—these reminders which had been buried for the past five years—my sudden reckoning of the irrevocable certitude that those special weekends and touching moments with liberating soldiers and the people they saved now were firmly categorized as ‘Things of the Past’, now seemingly dissolved and flowing down the long Corridor of Time.

The slideshow the audience never saw…

My carefully tailored AV slides also had gone out the window—the Army laptops would not accept my work—but I was able to bring up the Major Benjamin photograph from the internet and ask a few questions.

743rd S-3 After Action journal report- the moment of liberation

743rd S-3 After Action journal report- the moment of liberation

How many people in this room have seen this image before? (Less than 1%). Well, settle back, and let me tell you a story, about a beautiful spring day in 1945, when two Army friends who had miraculously survived 10 months of vicious combat from the beaches of Normandy, across the Dragon’s Teeth into Germany, back down into the winter nightmare of the Battle of the Bulge—men who had seen their friends killed in front of their eyes and could no longer even recall their own mothers’ faces—would be shocked on this day to learn about the death of their President—the only one they had grown up with, their Commander in Chief—only to be confronted and stunned a few hours later with the horrors of the Holocaust—so unknown to them that it did not even have a name: THIS is what your forebearers ran into, were assaulted with, on that Friday in April 1945 as the killing went on around them.

And one of them said, “What Are We Going to Do With All These People?”

What would you do?  The tank commanders set up a perimeter guard and declared the train and its 2500 tortured occupants to be under the protection of the United States Army. Frank Towers, who arrived the next morning to transport the people out of harm’s way and toward medical attention, remembered, ‘Never in our training were we taught to be humanitarians. We were taught to be soldiers.’ And Walter Gantz, as a medic who nursed the survivors back to health over six weeks, recalled, ‘After I got home, I cried a lot. My parents couldn’t understand why I couldn’t sleep at times.’

Of course, the men and women in uniform, now listening intently, knew NOTHING about this incident, which, I posited, is really a lesson, an exercise in ethics and morality that took its place as a nano-incident in the most cataclysmic war in history, so infinitesimal it was virtually lost for 65 years, until those two tank commanders showed me that picture and others they had taken from that incident, and told me the story.

What happened next was just as mind-blowing, I continued, but for now, we will consider this:

In a shooting war, the rescue of the people on the train was not a military objective. The Army did not have to stop and help.

But it did.

Six/sevenths of European Jewry would be killed in four and a half years, but thanks to the soldiers’ actions, tens of thousands are alive today. And it’s not a nano-incident to them; ‘whoever saves one life, saves the world entire’.

As the ones who have picked up the mantle of your grandfathers, this is YOUR LEGACY: in learning this story, you become witnesses empowered to reflect on your roles as DEFENDERS of our core democratic values, as PROTECTORS of those in your path who are suffering, AS CONFRONTERS of injustice and indignity.

Thank you, indeed, for your sacrifice, and for all you do, and for allowing me to share this with you. I hope you can draw strength from what you have learned.

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