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Archive for the ‘TRAIN NEAR MAGDEBURG LIBERATION 75’ Category

“I have a picture of several girls,” train liberator George Gross recalled.

“They were ghostly thin, with hollow cheeks, huge eyes that had seen a lot of evil and horror, and yet smiles that broke my heart.”

 

So, I have been wondering about today, this day, for a long, long time. It is finally here.

The blog is blowing up and I have to return calls to people who are trying to find me, to tell me that their parent was on the train as a young person, and liberated this day, exactly 75 years ago this morning, at Passover time, springtime, Easter, the symbols of rebirth and new life.

I am supposed to be in Germany around now with maybe a hundred people at the liberation site. Dedicated planners in Europe (thanks Ron Chaulet, especially, and the German organizers at the site of the train liberation!) invited dozens of train survivors, their offspring, and the second generation of the American soldier liberators for ceremonies with German high schoolers in unveiling a monument to the survivors and the 743rd Tank Battalion, and 30th Infantry Division. And it was to be filmed professionally for the amazing documentary we are working on. A mammoth undertaking, just swept away, but not forever.

I think back to eighteen 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.

And why can’t I see this fruition one last time, on this date, with these ‘new’ teenagers discovering the history in their own backyard and their willing, enthusiastic interaction with it?

I should know better by now than to ask. I really should. But as I string these thoughts together, I’m reminded of the note I got in my email inbox so early this morning from Germany, so I think today also about this lone German high school student laying flowers at the site of the liberation―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 her ‘job’―but simply out of LOVE.

Johanna M. laying flowers 75 years to the hour at the site of the liberation of the Train Near Magdeburg, April 13th, 2020.

LOVE. And HOPE. And maybe even FAITH.

I see this single, lone young person—and yes, one who will miss finishing her own graduating year with her friends now—in this sudden age of darkness and uncertainty as some sort of new symbol, the newest witness, at once comforting and profound and at once a source of light, of life, and yes maybe re-birth. Today I can’t witness the re-unification of the saved and the saviors, the healing touches passing in the land where the crimes were perpetrated, but in seeing this photograph 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.


Life never goes the way we expect it to. It always gives us new challenges to rise above and though that may seem hard at times, it is still the only way we truly learn and grow, as long as we do not lose hope.
I am sure everyone of us expected this year to be very different. For many of us students it is the last year of high school, and we definitely did not expect our graduation year to be like this, but I believe that everything happens for a reason, and we must simply trust and believe that everything is going to be okay.
Today we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the stranded train in Farsleben, and it is not the way we planned it, but that does not mean that we cannot remember this day 75 years ago, and every person that was involved. None of us might physically be at the same place right now, but that should not stop us from letting the memory of the stranded train unite us on this day.
Sure, we wanted this entire week to be about remembering the story of the stranded train, we wanted to welcome people from all over the world in Farsleben to celebrate this day with us, we had planned a lot and we were excited, and this is not the way we wanted it to be, but we have not forgotten and no matter how difficult these times might be right now, we want to give you a reason to smile today, to never lose hope and to stay healthy and safe, so that we can welcome you here in April 2021.
On behalf of the entire project group “Stranded Train” I therefore wish you all the best in the world and send you much love from Farsleben.

Johanna


The poet Yaakov Barzilai was on the ‘Train Near Magdeburg’. Originally composed in Hebrew, a  translation has been provided by fellow survivor Micha Tomkiewicz. He agreed to share his poem on the 70th anniversary of the liberation. ’11:55′  refers to the author’s recollection of the time of the day of the liberation of the train transport; ‘five minutes before the bitter end’.

Dedicated to US liberators of the death train from Bergen-Belsen on April 13, 1945

 

At Eleven fifty-five.

Return to the Place of Liberation, April 13, 1945, after 65 years.

                                                                                    

The train stopped under the hill, huffing and puffing,

as though it reached the end of the road.

An old locomotive pulling deteriorating train cars

that became obsolete long ago, not even fit for carrying horses.

To an approaching visitor, the experience was of a factory of awful smell – really stinking.

Two thousand four hundred stinking cattle

heading for slaughter were shoved to the train cars.

The butterflies into the surrounding air were blinded by the poisonous stench.

The train moved for five days back and forth between Bergen-Belsen and nowhere.

On the sixth day, a new morning came to shine over our heads.

Suddenly the heavy car doors were opened.

Living and dead overflowed into the surrounding green meadow.

Was it a dream or a delayed awakening of God?

When we identified the symbols of the American army,

we ran to the top of the hill as though bitten by an army of scorpions,

to kiss the treads of the tanks and to hug the soldiers with overflowing love.

Somebody cried: “Don’t believe it, it is a dream”.

When we pinched ourselves; we felt the pain – it was real.

 

Mama climbed to the top of the hill.

She stood in the middle of the field of flowers and prayed an almost a silent prayer from the heart.

Only few words escaped to the blowing wind:

‘Soon…Now…..To the chimneys of death…I gave new life….to my children….

and this day… my grandchildren were born… to a good life.’

Amen and Amen.

-Yaakov Barzilai


TOP STORY

Author couldn’t travel to Germany for train liberation anniversary

 

by Gretta Hochsprung, Glens Falls Post-Star, April 16, 2020

HARTFORD N.Y.— Author Matthew Rozell was planning to travel to Germany to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the train liberation near Magdeburg.

“I’m supposed to be there right now,” said Rozell, who, due to the coronavirus pandemic, couldn’t travel from his hilltop home in Hartford to the small German town where Americans liberated a train of Jews 75 years ago on April 13, 1945.

A ceremony was supposed to take place at the site Friday, but that, too, was canceled due to the pandemic.

Instead, a lone German high school student named Johanna Mücke placed flowers on the base where a monument was to be dedicated. Mücke’s class had worked on an award-winning project about the liberation.

About 15 Holocaust survivors, the children of the liberators and tank commanders, German politicians — about 100 people in total — were planning to travel to this small German town this week.

Rozell, himself, was going to give a speech at the Friday event.

“We’re disappointed that we can’t be there,” Rozell said, adding, “I take immense gratification that there’s a high school kid in her class 3,000 miles away on top of this thing, and they’re not forgetting it. I think that’s really important, especially considering the fact that they’re German.”

The story of the train started in Rozell’s classroom when he was a history teacher at Hudson Falls. Rozell was interviewing veterans for the Hudson Falls High School World War II Living History Project he started.

An interview with retired U.S. Army Sgt. Carrol “Red” Walsh of Johnstown unearthed the story, which turned into Rozell’s second book and an upcoming documentary film to be aired on PBS.

In April 1945, near the end of World War II, Army Sgt. George Gross and Walsh were deep in the heart of Nazi Germany, part of the U.S. 30th Infantry Division and the 743rd Tank Battalion, when they spotted a train sitting on the tracks.

The train contained 2,500 Jews, who were saved at the last moment from extermination.

Rozell and filmmaker Mike Edwards were planning to capture the ceremony in Germany to be used in the film as well as conduct additional interviews with Germans connected to the liberation.

“We were going to film it all,” Rozell said. “And we were going to go to Bergen-Belsen, which is where the train originated from.”

Monday was the 75th anniversary of the train. Wednesday was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, the Nazi concentration camp.

Rozell gives credit to the students and their teacher for studying this part of their history and commemorating the 75th anniversary with Mücke’s flowers.

“This whole project started in my history class here,” Rozell said, “and I’m retired now, but these kids over in Germany with their teacher, I don’t know, it’s kind of like coming full circle in a way.”

 

 

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COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

A mother and her daughter murdered at Auschwitz, from a suitcase of photos discovered after the war. Author photo from a montage at Auschwitz Memorial, 2013.

“T-minus” 60 DAYS Countdown to Commemoration at Farsleben, Germany-Partners in the annihilation of millions of innocent souls.

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 students and others.

In our countdown to commemoration at the site of liberation in Germany, I will share updates and circle back to some early writings or book content.


TIMELINE

  • February 4-11 – The Big Three—FDR, Churchill, Stalin—meet at Yalta.
  • February 8 – Allies launch major offensive to reach the Rhine.
  • February 13-14 – Dresden is incinerated by a firestorm after Allied bombing raids.
  • February 15, 1945: The Red Army liberates the slave-labor camp at Neusalz, Poland.
  • February 17, 1945: Seven Jews, including a small orphan girl, are murdered by a Pole in Sokoly, Poland.
  • February 23, 1945: Nazis evacuate the Jews from the concentration camp at Schwarzheide, Germany. The 300 weakest prisoners are sent in open wagons to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, Germany.
  • February 18, 1945: Five hundred Jews married to Christians are seized throughout Germany and deported to the Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, camp/ghetto.

Source(s): Weber, Louis. The Holocaust Chronicle. Publications International Ltd., 2007. http://www.holocaustchronicle.org


Seventeen-year-old Irene Bleier, liberated at Farsleben that April of 1945, recalled her life turned upside-down after the Germans invaded Hungary in Spring, 1944, and her later arrival at Bergen-Belsen:

April, 1944

The Hungarian government introduced a degrading law forcing us to wear a yellow star on the left side of our clothes. Whoever disobeyed would be punished. My father prepared perfect yellow stars for each of us. Sad reflections overtook his face as he worked.

My father’s instruction that I put on the yellow star filled me with enormous hatred and depression. We always showed great respect and love to both our parents—especially to our father—but now I had to refuse. ‘I cannot wear the disgracing badge,’ I told my father. My father answered that I should wear the star with pride. ‘Show them that you are proud to be a Jew,’ he said. ‘I am proud to be a Jew,’ I told my father. ‘But that pride does not mean that I will let them degrade me and make me a laughingstock.’ Those barbaric demands deeply hurt my self-dignity. The first day I wore the yellow star fell on my seventeenth birthday. Instead of marking the spring of life, my birthday turned into a dark omen for many more hopeless days that followed shortly.

***

The Allied air forces started conducting air raids since the Nazi occupation began. Looking up at the planes in the sky, I wondered why the free countries don’t do something to help us Jews before the Nazis exterminate us. We were innocent victims, and they could have helped us if they wanted to. My soul directed a silent prayer to them—please help us escape the devil’s clutches.

***

An order to pack our belongings and return to the ghetto came suddenly one afternoon. We had to quit work and go right away. Some of the girls cried hysterically, fearful that we would now all be taken with our families to Hitler’s death camps. I was scared stiff and overcome by tears, my brain stiffened by the worry. With great pain, we boarded the horse-cart.

Six horse-carts filled with fifty young Jewish girls made their way through town. Some of us cried uncontrollably, the tears streaming down our faces. The others just cried inside in their hearts. Starting at the outskirts of town, we passed by the Jewish cemetery. Two girls wailed bitterly at this point, bidding farewell to their dead—one to her late mother, the other to her late father. Many people stared at the pitiful sight. If they felt sympathy to the humiliated girl prisoners, none showed any signs.

June, 1944

Early afternoon. All the Jews of the ghetto stood by the gate in the schoolyard. A local Christian midwife had to undress all us women over 16 years old and check our bodies for hidden gold or jewelry. We all crowded into a classroom for this degrading event, but the woman did nothing to us. We just lingered there for a few minutes without being molested. Girls with long hair had to have their hair cut.

We stood in the courtyard with our meager possessions in the one backpack we were allowed to take. The gendarme officer asked if anyone still had any valuables—there were none. Then he shouted that if one person tried to escape, ten people would be shot dead. An old man cried out, ‘Someone please give me rope so that I can hang myself and die here. I do not want to go to a death camp to be killed by Hitler. I would rather do it with my own hands.’ Mrs. Grunfeld, a mother of four small children, quieted him down and asked him not to stir up a panic.

Contradictory thoughts overtook me. On the one hand, I very much wished to disobey these inhuman decrees, run away and hide somewhere. On the other, strong fears stifled my feelings and paralyzed my body, leaving me unable to resist those devilish decrees. I am sure that many others also felt this dissonance. We lived under great mental pressure, paralyzing fear. Our feelings were stifled, and our brains were unable to think clearly—as if dark clouds floated in our heads.

***

A uniformed German SS soldier appeared and called on rabbis and families with four children and more to gather at the center of the yard. Our empty stomachs rumbling, we heard this Nazi bawl out instructions to us. We were about to start a long ‘walking tour.’ For many of us, this would be a death march to Auschwitz.

Thus, after starving for four days, we commenced our march. German SS guards watched from both sides as we marched in rows of five. None of us tried to escape. We were too depressed, our will power broken down, wholly tormented. We soon arrived at a camp overcrowded with other fellow, desperate Jews, stopped for a while, and then continued the humiliating journey. As Jewish men aged 18-48 were long ago taken to forced labor camps, the marching contingent was composed of young girls, mothers, babies, and children, along with many old and sick human souls. Trucks car-ried our backpacks while we marched for grueling hours in our mournful procession through small towns. The Christian townsfolk stared at us, nobody pouring tears, nobody expressing sympathy.
We arrived one afternoon at a small farm where we were accommodated in empty tobacco sheds. The armed Hungarian gendarmes who carefully watched us let us walk outside a fixed distance from the sheds during the day. We saw how a heartless gendarme chased away a Jewish child who tried to pick up some food on the ground.
Another day of beautiful, joyous sunshine came Saturday morning, but not for us on June 25, 1944. By Sunday afternoon, we packed our backpacks and prepared to board the nearby train trucks. When we entered the strongly chloroformed boxcars, many people became dizzy or fainted. Ninety people crowded into each boxcar, and we were each given half a slice of tasty dark bread and a little water, which we quickly consumed. Quite a few people died during this week-long journey.

As the Jewish transports did not appear on the regular railway schedule, we were often stranded for hours under the blazing sun waiting for our turn to travel. We received no food or water. People urinated and took care of their natural needs aboard the train, spreading a putrid odor. Small children and babies cried themselves to sleep out of sheer exhaustion, from hunger and thirst, from the wholly wretched situation we were in. Some of the men donned their tefillin and fervently beseeched the Almighty to save us, ‘Look upon your forsaken children, see what the world is doing to them and send help; pull us out of this catastrophe before it is too late—if it isn’t already.’

The transport hurtled along mostly at night, rocking us to sleep. We dreamed of freedom, of home, of plentiful food and water. Each time the train stopped, so did our dreams. We sadly woke up to the dreadful reality. During air raids, the cowardly SS guards locked us inside the train, taking cover themselves in bomb shelters.

Our transport stopped one day by the train station, with many Hungarian soldiers and civilians all around. My cousin Magda peeked out of a tiny window at the side of the boxcar and begged a Hungarian officer for a little water. He promptly denied Magda’s request. How could anyone be so cruel? Even dangerous criminals condemned to death receive their last request. Why are innocent Jews treated even worse?
Is there no more justice left on earth?

Our journey reached a turning point on Thursday afternoon as we left Hungarian territory, soon arriving at a nearby small Polish town. Our transport was delayed at the station and another transport with Jews being deported to annihilation centers stood nearby.

After a while, our transport’s locomotive went to the rear—we were going to travel backwards. We soon went back onto Hungarian soil. At first, we fooled ourselves into believing that the Hungarian government claimed us back and would not let us be taken to annihilation. It took just a short while, however, for us to face our destiny. Now our transport traveled swiftly. We left behind the country that we mistakenly believed was our homeland.

***

Thus our journey continued, coming to a stop after an unknown amount of time. We dragged ourselves out of the boxcars as the doors were unlatched, the Nazi guard roaring out orders. We had to line up at our destination, the Bergen–Celle train station, a slow and steady rainfall welcoming us.

Since we were chased out of our former homes, dark skies and steady rain greeted us at each new location. Such a marvelous sensation this phenomenon gave me. I was overcome with a special feeling that somehow even managed to uplift my darkened spirit. It came to me as a message from the heavens, which were venting their anger: The Almighty shares in our tragedy and is pouring tears of sorrow; He is crying on our behalf. These thoughts planted seeds of hope and faith into my soul against the backdrop of the great catastrophe.

Lined up in rows of five, we set out on our sad march. Army trucks delivered our backpacks. German SS Nazi soldiers escorted us. The group I was in consisted mainly of women and children, some old people and a few young ones; men aged 18 to 48 were taken to forced army labor several years before, where most had perished from starvation, from inhuman beatings, or from freezing to death in sub-zero weather.

Our group marched in the middle of the road, with a few stone houses to our left, curious eyes staring at us from the windows. I felt deep humiliation, but the people who should have felt the shame were those staring at us from the houses. We were innocent, defenseless people; they were partners in the annihilation of millions of innocent souls.

from the narrative of Irene Bleier Muskal, edited for inclusion in A Train Near Magdeburg (The Young Adult Adaptation): The Holocaust, the Survivors, and the American Soldiers who Saved Them 

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COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

“WATER, WATER!”
by Train Near Magdeburg survivor Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection. USHMM.

“T-minus” 65 DAYS Countdown to Commemoration at Farsleben, Germany-Millions of people were on the move.

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 students and others.

In our countdown to commemoration at the site of liberation in Germany, I will share updates and circle back to some early writings or book content. Millions of people were on the move; survivor Leslie Meisels remembers “the first miracle of my survival.”


  • Late January 1945: 29,000 Jews, mostly women, are evacuated on forced marches from Danzig, Poland, and Stutthof, Poland. Only 3000 survive.
  • Late January 1945: Thousands of Jews are sent on a death march from the Lamsdorf camp near Breslau, Germany, westward toward Thuringia, Germany. Hundreds die or are killed on the way.
  • February 1945: Ukrainian nationalists hunt down and murder Jews throughout the Ukraine.February 1945: Allied forces close on Cologne, Germany.
  • February 3, 1945: 3500 prisoners from Gross-Rosen, Germany, are marched southwest to the concentration camp at Flossenbürg, Germany, nearly 200 miles away. Five hundred will die on the way. Two thousand more are evacuated by train to the labor camp at Ebensee, Austria, near Mauthausen; 49 will die on the journey and another 182 will perish at the camp.
  • February 8, 1945: Soviet troops are 30 miles east of Dresden, Germany.
    February 13, 1945: German troops surrender Budapest, Hungary.
    February 13, 1945: The SS evacuates the concentration camp at Gross-Rosen, Germany.

Source(s): Weber, Louis. The Holocaust Chronicle. Publications International Ltd., 2007. http://www.holocaustchronicle.org


Seventeen-year-old Leslie Meisels, liberated at Farsleben that April of 1945, recalled disobeying his mother for the first time in his life after the Germans invaded Hungary in Spring, 1944::

On the third day, there was an announcement that families with five or more children had to report to the railway track, where a group was being assembled for transport. We knew that people were being taken away, but the government’s propaganda emphasized that any rumors we heard about Jews undergoing cruelty at the hands of the Nazis was just that, a rumor; they made us believe that for the remainder of the war, which we hoped would be short, we were being sent somewhere for slave labor. As bad as that seemed, we still thought that if they wanted our labor, they would have to give us food and shelter. At the tannery we had nothing, and so we believed that anywhere else would be better. We didn’t know at that time about the Nazis’ unparalleled, unimaginable annihilation plan, already working full blast in Auschwitz and the other death camps.

Later, there was another announcement calling for families with four children to report to the train. One of my best friends, who had four siblings and was going to be on that transport, came to me saying that they had heard that they needed eight more families with three children to make up the quota and asked if we wanted to come along with their group. I went back to my mother and told her this, even though nobody knew where the people on the transport were going or what would happen to the rest of us. My mother said we shouldn’t go because they hadn’t called for families with three children.

I have to explain that in those days, a seventeen-year-old never, ever, said ‘no’ to his or her parents. Up to that moment, I, too, had never spoken back to my mother, but this time I said, ‘We’re not staying! We’re going!’ We argued back and forth until I grabbed my belongings and started to walk. She had no choice but to follow. My father had already been taken away to the unknown, and she didn’t want her family to be broken up any further.

I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know now, what made me defy my mother, but it was the first miracle of my survival, [for this was a transport that was shunted away from Auschwitz towards Austria].

***

The doors closed, and the train took off to an unknown destination. In that closed-in, dark, crowded place we were given two 25-liter pails, one with drinking water and one for human waste. The water was soon gone, and the waste pail flowed over. These were changed, refilled, and emptied once a day when we stopped at a station. On the seventh day, we arrived at a town called Strasshof in Austria, about 25 kilometers northeast of Vienna, a central transit station for deportees arriving from Hungary and other places. When the door opened, we heard Germans harshly yelling, ‘Raus! Raus!’ ‘Out! Out!’ As we left our car, I saw several bodies being carried out from each of the wagons. Six or eight bodies were carried out of ours. Many had succumbed from lack of food, water, and ventilation.

We were all sent into a large room and together—children, adolescent boys and girls, mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers—had to disrobe and march naked to a shower between two lines of laughing, pointing, machine-gun-toting SS guards with dogs. Walking to that shower was the very first real dehumanization I experienced. It drove into our minds the fact that we were not who we used to be, not individuals who had our own dignity, respected within our communities, but, rather, people who the SS guards considered to be subhuman. I was stunned, as were my mother and grandmother. All those laws that had existed in Hungary for a number of years and prevented Jews from living a free and normal life, even the German occupation and being forced to wear the yellow star—none of it was as psychologically damaging as this was. It wasn’t just a physically and mentally unpleasant experience—this was the ultimate shock from which I don’t think I recovered.

***

As we waited, we saw some of the people who had come with us on the train being led back to the cattle wagons, and we all wondered where they were going. When we saw that our respected rabbi and his wife who were both in their late seventies, were being forced into one of these cattle wagons, my mother gave me a half-full pot of roasted flour and goose fat we had been saving and told me to take it to them because they might need it. I went right over to the wagon and finding the door slightly open, gave them the pot from my mother. After thanking me, the rabbi put his hands on top of my head and recited the priestly blessing, ‘May God keep you… bless you and be gracious to you….’ It was very moving, and I felt touched. He had barely finished the blessing when an SS guard came over and slammed the door shut, pushing me away. This has always stayed with me.[1]

[1] This has always stayed with me-Thirty-five years later, Leslie had the opportunity to meet the granddaughter of this beloved rabbi, and share her grandfather’s blessing with her.

from the narrative of Leslie Meisels, used with his permission, edited for inclusion in A Train Near Magdeburg (The Young Adult Adaptation): The Holocaust, the Survivors, and the American Soldiers who Saved Them 

 

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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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