Archive for April, 2022

For Walter.

On April 15, we were in Germany and visited the site of one of former medic Walter Gantz’s recurring nightmares. Walter passed about six months after Mike Edwards, the director of the upcoming film A Train Near Magdeburg, took this photo at his final interview with us in his hometown of Scranton, PA. I wrote the post shortly after; our Easter Saturday visit to the cemetery: I hope somehow there was a measure of closure for him, in talking to this German student, and for us to find her resting spot.

“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.

From the new exhibition at the Wolmirstedt Museum.

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.”

Easter Saturday was grey, cold and overcast, occasionally spitting rain. We picked up Johanna, our now-established translator, and headed to Hillersleben, to meet Daniel Keweloh and his family, to conduct interviews with Germans who were alive when the train was liberated and remembered the soldiers, the Jewish victims, and the hospital at Hillersleben where Walter Gantz and other GIs cared for them. About 150 died here in the next month, and were buried here, including a 15-year-old girl who Walter had become attached to. When she died five weeks later, he carried her body out to the morgue tent.

This greatly affected him the rest of his life.

In 2018, when she was 16, Johanna wrote to me to ask if there were any soldiers still alive. I responded with Walter’s contact information, and she reached out to him. They carried on a warm relationship by mail over the next year, just before his death; I know on a special level that this helped heal the trauma that he could not speak about for most of his life.

Daniel K. and his father Klaus-Peter took us to the now practically abandoned cemetery, surrounded by a sea of solar panels where the hospital and garrison complex had been-first German, then Soviet occupation until the end of the Cold War. No individual graves were individually marked, as they were buried in an old air raid shelter outside of the hospital.

There, with Johanna present, we found Eva’s name on the wall…

The now torn down hospital at Hillersleben. Where solar panel farm is today.
We found her name…

Josh films the cemetery…

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DAY 4. Today, Thursday, we interviewed German students in their former school near the liberation site. They discuss the responsibility of keeping history alive, and the worldwide impact of this important story that unfolded in their literal backyard.

We arrived at the school and met Johanna, and were let in by a custodian, as the students and teachers are on their Easter spring break. I toured the school with her as the guys set up the set, set up in the former classroom of her former history teacher, Karin P. at the end of a long corridor.

Johanna was interviewed there, as were some of her former schoolmates.

One of the sets in the school. Mike, Joe, Josh.

Their history teacher had attended a lecture in the spring of 2018 by local Hillersleben father and son historians Daniel and Klaus-Peter Keweloh in Farsleben. If you recall, Farsleben is where the train had stopped, stranded, with the Holocaust prisoners awaiting their fate uneasily, some younger ones entering the village to look or beg for food, others going to the small lake or pond near the tracks on April 12th. After the liberation by the tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion on the 13th, more troops of the 30th Infantry Division and the attached 95th Medical Gas Battalion arrived to evacuate the sick and emaciated people to the newly captured garrison town and hospitals at Hillersleben. The 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion had by then also arrived to take over the town of Farsleben, where its commander had placed his service weapon to the head of the mayor of the town to quietly assure him that he expected his orders to provide for the survivors that Friday be carried out with immediate assistance of food and shelter; bakeries cooked all the night and local farmers were ordered to bring in food supplies as well.

Johanna and Mike the director.

So today we talked to theses schoolkids, and teacher, later, at her home. The English of the students ranged from quite acceptable to outstanding, they actually begin language studies quite young, with the emphasis in the fifth through 12th grade on English. Interesting, and naturally, their parents learned Russian, but you have to remember that six weeks after the Americans took this area, the terms of the Yalta Agreement kicked in, and the Soviet Red Army moved in, Soviet control lasting until the fall of the USSR in1991, and Russian occupation until 1994.

These kids spoke first without their teacher present. They all attested to her fire, her passion for history—like me, a thirty-year veteran of the classroom. Johanna especially recounted her interest in modern European and world history taking off with the introduction of things like the French Revolution, World War I and World War II in the tenth level or grade, the exact age group that I also taught it in the United States, to 15 and 16-year-olds. I felt like I was back in the classroom myself, with my own interested students. I told them that, and that their history teacher sounded a lot like me in her delivery of the material to be learned; you don’t just tell the kids to ‘open up to page 142 and read aloud’. You teach them real facts, for sure, but then you probe further into motivations, opposing perspectives and viewpoints; you ask them to delve into sections that others might dismiss or move right along over. You guide them to question their own processes, emotions, and to use newly practiced skills of reasoning, writing and detective work in their own lives. Sometimes, a teacher is presented with an opportunity to ‘do history’ in a very big way. And most of those times, this involves taking big risks, stepping out of traditional comfort zones, putting one’s self on the line, one’s ‘money where one’s mouth’ is, ‘walking the talk’. But have you ever had a fire within burning, expressed it in a special setting, and seen it jump to others? Because it will take on a life of its own, and you get to witness new ideas and concrete happenings that never existed being created before your eyes. It is the most exciting feeling, like falling in love for the first time. And it spontaneously grows almost out of your original control, but you also realize that had it not been for your passion, and later your patient nurturing, it might not have even ever existed. And that is a humbling thing to be lucky enough to realize.

So this is what I saw these students describing about their teacher. To myself, I thought that when Karin does see the competed film, with their testimony we recorded today, she will be one of the lucky ones, the teacher who can see what her passion wrought outside of the classroom, with out having it come out only 30 or 40 years later when people remember you fondly at your own funeral.

The other thing that struck me today was what the teacher felt when she learned of this story in 2018 from the historians, and saw was the photographs and soldier and survivor testimony [from this website and the Hudson Falls school one that preceded it], about what was really a lost event that linked their two small hamlets.

“How could I not know about this?”

So she put out all call for interested students to join her at a meeting after school, and a core group got involved the next fall school term. They learned of a local woman who remembered the incident, and who had one of the Greek Jews boarding at her home, where they did become close. Johanna learned that indeed, some of the local families did express compassion, kindness; others, of course, were fearful, wary of these thousand of persons now on the outside of the town. Who are they? Where did they come from?

They teamed up with the local museum to create an exhibit, and met survivors who traveled once again to the town of their liberation as children. Ron Chaulet set up a foundation in the Netherlands to collect donations for a proper, permanent memorial.

Teenagers got to meet the first Jewish persons they ever encountered. They entered this project in a history competition and won a prize. And they wanted to learn more about the Holocaust. They organized a trip to Bergen Belsen. The came face to face with the horrors inflicted upon their world by a government that existed for twelve years in their own country— one their own grandparents and great grandparents lived in.

Karin P. and director Mike at her home after tea and coffee.

The teacher was brave to introduce her students to this history, to go forth with this project. Some of the students got subtle pushback when reaction to their project was publicized; a fatigue of sorts by ordinary Germans being called to account for the crimes of their grandparents generation, at home and abroad.

That’s not what the project was about, though as Johanna noted in one of her recorded statements, it is about feeling responsibility for keeping the knowledge of the Holocaust, and what happened in her backyard, in the front of people’s minds. For Karin, it was about doing the right thing not only as a teacher, but as a human being. Since the publication of the liberator photographs on my website and now others, and my 2016 book, survivors have been coming here to see where their parents, and in some cases, they themselves as children, were liberated, or where parents or grandparents succumbed and were buried. How could there be nothing at the liberation site to recall, honor, and remember?

Josh F. pans the permanent exhibition at Wolmirstedt Museum directed by Anette Pilz. Wonderful, accurate, necessary fruition of this project.

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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.

Finding the route of the tankers of the 743, 77 years from the moment they discovered the train and took the now famous liberation photo.

I think back to twenty-one summers ago, when I sat down to record the memories of a then 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 wondered, ‘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. And now, 77 years on, we are here to remember and record the events of today, the dedication of the monument, and commemorate the memory of what happened, in the company of perhaps 50 community members and leaders who made this happen, as well as the local former students who did much of the work uncovering what transpired in their own backyard, and some of the 2nd Generation survivors from Israel.

As I string these thoughts together, I’m especially moved by these German students and their teacher, 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―to me, especially in this form of a girl [who is now actually our film crew’s liaison and translator!] 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.

Johanna, 4.12.22.

My name is Johanna, I am [20] 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. 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.

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We got to Magdeburg this afternoon, checked in to the lovely hotel, strolled down to the Elbe River a block away. The current was swift on this lovely April day, probably not unlike the spring of 1945 when American GIs met up with their Red Army counterparts on the 25th April 1945 following the climactic, destructive Battle for Magdeburg by the 30th Infantry Division and the 743rd Tank Battalion only two days after the train liberation; this , after all, was the Army objective, and the reason the Jewish victims had to be moved out of harm’s way.

77 years ago at the moment I type this, the not-yet-liberated Holocaust victims witnessed the most awesome carpet bombing of Magdeburg in preparation for the April 15th attack. The earth shook as they looked skyward; one train survivor mentioned that they shouted with joy, not caring if they themselves were killed in the attack by an errant bomb.

At 4 pm we were met at the hotel by Johanna M., a German 20 yr. old who, as a high school student, was inspired by the story of the train and its liberation—literally in her own backyard. With flawless English, she guided us to the site of the liberation. [Her teacher, Karin P., had started Johanna and her classmates on this odyssey to learn as much as they could, organizing events with survivors and others, after teacher Karin was directed to my book by local historian Daniel K. and his father. (Our mutual friend Ron Chaulet was a major force in organizing the local Stranded Train Committee’, after convincing enough folks that this was important and perhaps needed a monument to honor the survivors who were liberated-and many then perished here—as well as to the liberating soldiers.)]

Well. We drove to the liberation site, about 20 minutes away, rural, but not-too-far outside the ‘big city’. The monument was placed two years ago, ceremonies for the 75th anniversary postponed. Now, here we were. The team of Mike Edwards, director, Joe and Josh, expert videographers and photographers, and Johanna and I compared the April 13 & 14,1945 liberation photographs with the April 12, 2022 topography.

Trains whizzed by as we walked the tracks and hillside for a half mile and back, stopping to look at the 1945 pics, wondering if we could find the actual site of the now famous Major Benjamin photo. It was hard, but on the way back to where we can see in the 1945 photos the hillside and first railroad cars, we ‘thought’ we had found it. (Sometimes you have to walk in the footsteps of the direction the American GIs came from!)

And just then, a railroad transport of industrial cars came by, in the same southernly direction of the Train Near Magdeburg’s route. We had found the site of the famous photo, the only place where the topography really lined up, and now in the film footage we shot, the knolls visible behind the trains matched, without a doubt.

One of the photos taken by George C. Gross. The rest are here.

Filming where the famous Clarence Benjamin photo was taken, 4.12.22.
After action report with the photo taken by Major Benjamin, 4.13.1945.

Major Benjamin, George Gross, and Carrol Walsh were smiling down on us. We celebrated by going out to dinner in Johanna’s hometown.

Today is the [smaller, post Covid] 77th anniversary ceremony; in the next few days we will speak with her teacher Karin P. (and I can’t wait—teacher to teacher, you know), her classmates, these German kids who recognize that ‘What You Do Matters’. As Bergen Belsen historian Bernd Horstmann told us yesterday, in his view, an almost 80 year old [cosmic] circle is closing, and on many levels, which Mike and I will explore in the film.

We will also speak with other local eyewitnesses. Thanks for reading.

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After 36 hours of travel and lost luggage, I arrived at Celle, Germany, joining film director Mike Edwards and crew members Joel and Josh. Six hours later we were on our way to Bergen Belsen to get an interview with staff and tour the grounds and railway ramp for footage for the upcoming film ‘A Train Near Magdeburg.’ I will post some photos and descriptions; it was a beautiful April day, in fact the same week that the transport was loaded and evacuated.

So much respect for German historians and friends Bernd Horstmann and Stephanie Billib. Being the historian when your subjects are the ‘good guys’ is easy. They do the tough work here, and gave great interviews, providing context for what happened in the overall camp system, and that last spring of horrors in 1945. On to the liberation site for the 77th anniversary at Farsleben.

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I’ve just returned from a homecoming of sorts, and truth be told, I’m kind of wiped out. Yes, the emotion that is summoned when recalling my old friends, now gone, liberating solders and noble survivors alike, is powerful enough to carry me away every time, but lately in a manner that conjures up joy as well as sorrow at the loss. The memory of the lives they rebuilt after the war, the recounting of the trauma that both survivor and soldier contended with brings forth the memory of one tanker, who landed on D-Day, who told a student audience at my high school, “I’m listed in the program as a liberating soldier, but I can tell you that I am a survivor, too”, another victim of the war himself. It was probably the first time in over 60 years that he had spoken about it publicly.

Speaking at SUNY Geneseo, 4.6.22, the 77th anniversary of the day that the transport left Bergen-Belsen.

In my talk this week, I introduced new audiences, staff, students, and public alike, to them, and I think in this way I kept them, my old friends now passed, alive. I know I will never stop talking about them, what they went through, but more importantly, why they opened up with their stories in the end, what they wanted the world to remember, maybe really in most cases now, to really learn and be moved to action by for the first time. “The best lecture I have ever attended”, was a comment I heard from a top school official afterwards as she warmly took my hand; I noted others in the crowd welling up as I spoke from the heart, but I managed to complete the mission, not a real easy thing to do when you are feeling it too, though maybe on a more personal loss level. I guess I feel like I am channeling a major part of what defined my old friends, a message, a connection that will live on as long as I can summon the spirit to speak of them.

As we move into a new era, it is important to have the toolbox that our survivors and soldiers testimony can help us navigate with. And, given the images now beamed to us nightly from a ‘civilized’ place not so far away, it’s important to remember not to become desensitized to the horror as it unfolds, but to become educated and commit ourselves to more than just ‘Never Again’.

Humanity turned away 75 plus years ago, but our soldiers, survivors themselves, committed themselves to humanitarian action, even outside of the mission. And I hope that lesson came forth, as I brought to the center stage my old friends, and introduced them to a new generation.

I’m off to Germany in less than 12 hours, to visit Bergen Belsen again, and then the site of the liberation of the train-for the first time-and meet with German historians, students, and witnesses. I’m lying if I state that I did not have some butterflies before my recent talk at SUNY Geneseo, my old school, and I would be lying if I said I did not have them now. But it is not about me- though by now, 21 years after the first interview, I think maybe this force is continuing to channel the cosmos through me, perhaps long overdue, and made possible by donors who share the spirit of remembrance, and the spirit of Tikkun Olam: Repairing the World.

Stay tuned.

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Wed. April 6, SUNY GENESEO, Kenneth Roemer Lecture, Doty Recital Hall 205. 2.30 PM. Free.

Tomorrow I am heading to address my college alma mater for its annual Roemer Lecture on World Affairs, followed by a President’s Reception at SUNY GENESEO, south of Rochester, NY.

I was actually invited for Spring 2020, but you can guess what happened. The next year, the campus was not yet fully open, and I did not relish doing a remote gig. I wanted to return; after all, I met my best friends in life here, including my future wife. We were married here, and I almost settled here, except for a pesky detail-for the life of me, I could not find a job teaching history anywhere in western New York.

I did my student teaching practice under the tutelage of Dr. Wayne Mahood, and Dr. John Herlihy and his teacher wife Myra at Geneseo & Livonia High Schools; all were huge influence on me, mentored me, encouraged me when somedays it felt hopeless. But I had one thing going for me, I really knew my history. In fact, I had loaded up on so many undergrad history courses that I had to go back after my BA to get my education credits and student teaching in.

But I could not find that elusive job; I remember coming in SECOND for the open Geneseo High social studies position (a board member told me!) competing against other 80 applicants.

Crushed, I turned my sights back towards home after doing a stint at the local summer school. I was hired by Principal John Christopher for grades 7,8,9 three weeks before school started in 1986, up on the third floor of St. Mary’s Academy in Glens Falls, then just a shell of its former glory, though I recall it with fondness. The high school closed two years later, I think; I had by then moved on to my high school alma mater, Hudson Falls High School, where I would spend the remainder of my 30+ year career.

But then, the magic that we created at HFHS is the reason for my being invited this week to address the college body, staff and students. The cosmos beckoned in my work at home, and abroad, but now I am returning with the story that I hope will be judged inspirational-though unfortunately it seems the topic is always relevant.

Just because I retired from the classroom doesn’t mean that I’m not still an educator, and education is the key. Maybe I’ll see you there. Next stop, Germany. More later.

Roemer Lecture on WWII Liberation

Educator and author Matthew Rozell ’83, ’88 MS, will deliver the annual Kenneth Roemer Lecture on World Affairs at SUNY Geneseo. His talk, “Liberation, 1945: An American GI Response to the Holocaust During WWII,” will take place at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 6, in the Doty Recital Hall. The event is free and open to the public. Please note that masks are required in all buildings on campus.

On April 13, 1945, three weeks before the end of World War II in Europe, two tank commanders of the 743rd Tank Battalion of the U.S. Ninth Army overran a train transport near Magdeburg, Germany, filled with 2,500 Jewish concentration camp victims, many of them children. One of the tank commanders had a Kodak Brownie camera and recorded the rescue. The dozen snapshots taken that day were stored a shoebox in the back of a closet for over 60 years until brought to light by a high school oral history project interviewing WWII soldiers. 

Rozell is an award-winning history teacher, author, speaker, and blogger on World War II and the Holocaust. He taught at Hudson Falls (NY) High School for thirty years. In 2009, he and his class helped to reunite more than 275 Holocaust survivors with their American soldier-liberators and were featured as an ABC World News Person of the Week. The work was later released as his 2016 book, A Train Near Magdeburg, which is in production for a major documentary film, and was recently featured on C-SPAN’s Book TV.

Rozell’s teaching has also been featured by the CBS Evening News, NBC Learn, the Israeli Broadcast Authority, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and New York State United Teachers. His multi-volume oral history book series of World War II, The Things Our Fathers Saw, has sold over a half-million copies in various formats.

The Kenneth Roemer Lecture on World Affairs is a memorial to Roemer’s longstanding interest in global issues. Spencer J. Roemer, emeritus director of admissions at Geneseo and member of the Geneseo Foundation Board of Directors, endowed the series in his brother’s name.

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