Archive for April, 2021

On this day the Train Near Magdeburg, pictured above in the 743rd Tank Battalion’s After Action Report following the 4-13-1945 liberation near the Elbe River, was just beginning its week-long final journey from the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

I think back to nineteen summers ago, when I sat down to record the memories of an 80-year-old tank commander, Carrol Walsh, who had fought from Normandy, into Germany, back into Belgium for the Battle of the Bulge, and then back across Hitler’s Western Wall, who almost forgot to tell me the story of the train fifty-six years before. About his rejection of the mantle of “LIBERATOR”, but his acceptance of being a WITNESS, of being a symbol of the army that did something about what they saw.

I think today about George Gross, the other tank commander that day who had the camera and the photographs to prove that 2500 souls on their way to being murdered were in fact REAL, that the event DID happen, and that the Holocaust would never be forgotten. Of his years recounting the girls on that train, the children, and speaking to them and meeting the ones who could make the pilgrimage to meet him.

I think about Frank Towers, the lieutenant charged with getting these poor people out of harm’s way, as a new battle for the city of Magdeburg was about to unfold. The same Frank who excitedly beat a path to my door sixty-one years later to explain his role, and who went on with train survivor’s daughter Varda Weisskopf and I to track down over 275 survivors of that train all those years later, organizing over 11 reunions on 3 continents over 10 years.

I think today about the medic Walter Gantz, who suffered nightmares for decades after treating the victims on the train for six weeks after liberation, some literally dying on him, his trauma evident sixty-six years later in recalling carrying in his arms a sixty-pound fifteen-year-old girl’s body down the stairs in the middle of the night to a makeshift tent morgue. Of his call to my classroom to introduce himself, telling these thoughts to my high school seniors, and the salving of his scars in getting to speak to the former young people he saved so many decades later.

I think about all the beloved survivors and their families―such loving people who broke down, cried, laughed, danced with their liberators and fellow American WWII soldiers―so many whom I hold close in my heart forever.

I think about the words of one of them every year, an annual email that would arrive on this day from Leslie Meisels, recalling with his survivor “twins” the anniversary of their “re -birth”, their good fortune and gratitude for their liberating heroes, the miracles of survival and liberation, and the miracle of meeting them again.

And I wonder again why God put me on this path to bring a bit of healing to the world.

I have asked Him, ‘why me’, over and over.

So we planned a trip to the proposed 75th anniversary of liberation ceremony with survivors, 2nd and 3rd Generation survivors and liberating soldiers’ families. Funds were raised and a monument created. The pandemic hit, the event was postponed, and in the meantime, several survivor friends have passed. One wonders what it all means, from time to time. But German high schoolers and their teacher and others have gotten involved in the project to honor the survivors, and have been fortunate enough to meet some very special ones. Our film project is back on track, the monument has been laid, and I have published a Young Adult version of the story.

But as I string these thoughts together, I’m reminded of the notes I got in my email inbox so early on the morning of the 75th anniversary from Germany at the liberation site, and again today on the 76th, so I think also about these German students so focused now on learning more about what transpired in their country, in their own backyard―not out of a sense of atonement for the deeds of generations past―no one can atone for those crimes, and frankly that is not their ‘job’―but simply out of LOVE.

LOVE. And HOPE. And maybe even FAITH.

And I still see these young adults as some sort of new symbol, the newest witnesses, at once comforting and profound and at once a source of light, of life, and yes maybe re-birth.

Last year I could not witness the planned re-unification of the saved and the saviors, the healing touches passing in the land where the crimes were perpetrated, but in reading these narratives and seeing these photographs I am renewed by witnessing a new generation arising out of the utter destruction, the evil, and the hatred of 75 plus years ago― in this form of a girl and her teenage friends planting new seeds, literally, at this site where people expired with the words “SALVATION” and “FREEDOM” on their lips, and I see from afar the honoring of the goodness that radiated from the deeds of those American soldiers, really not so long ago.

My name is Johanna, I am 19 years old and from Wolmirstedt near Farsleben. I have always taken a huge interest in history, but other than the important happenings and times you get taught at school, I would rather be told the unknown stories, the events that, in the grand scheme of things seemed so unimportant, but still impacted numerous people deeply, moved them enormously and, unfortunately, are forgotten about way too often.
When I first heard the story of the train, I thought to myself: “This cannot actually have happened so close to my home, otherwise we would have surely heard about it before. How could this remarkable story have been forgotten?”

1945 this day . The hill behind Johanna and the stone is visible. people were dead or dying there. George C Gross

So, I joined the project group of the story of the “Stranded Train”, and what started out as wanting to learn more  about what had actually happened on  April 13, 1945 and also seizing the opportunity to speak English more often, soon turned into this mission that I just could not let go… I suddenly found myself doing more and more research, about people who were a part of these events all those years ago and almost naturally , the stories of the survivors,  those who liberated them, and those who took them into their homes after this train had stopped right on their  doorstep, all became a part of my life.


RECENT UPDATES: A recent write-up on A Train Near Magdeburg was posted by “A Mighty Girl” on their FB page, with 2.5 M followers. I was impressed, they actually read the book, and continue to empower girls and young women, featured especially in the Young Adult version of the book.

Our film plans were sidelined, along with the rest of life, but now are back on track. Seeking sponsorship at all levels, especially corporate, for our PBS distributor-accepted film. Details on benefits and how to help are here (OPENS AS PDF). Thank you if you have given in the past, and be assured that it will happen!

The Young Adult version of our book is here, if you would like to check it out.

The Young Adult version is here.

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