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Today marks a watershed moment in the history of the Holocaust, one I knew little about until my advanced studies.

Over 33,000 people were murdered, by hand, at close range, at the edge of a ravine.

In two days.

Did you learn about this in school? Why was it not widely known? The killers came from all over Germany, ‘ordinary men’, the bulk of whom went on to live out their days unaccountable for their crimes. Perhaps some are still walking among us.

So I’ll share these two posts that came up in my social media feed this morning. The first is from the organization. ‘Yahad – In Unum is the leading research organization investigating the mass executions of more than 2 million Jews and tens of thousands Roma/Gypsy people in Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1944.’ Important, literally groundbreaking work. Check Father out.

The second is from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (where I studied for three incredible weeks!), Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority and World Holocaust Remembrance Center, ‘the ultimate source for Holocaust education, remembrance, documentation, and research. From the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem’s approach incorporates meaningful educational initiatives, groundbreaking research, and inspirational exhibits,’ one of which is in the link.

Study the faces. Never forget.


80 long years have passed since the 29th and 30th September 1941. Commemorating the Babi Yar massacre is not about remembering a number, however great it may be.
It is about remembering that more than 30,000 women, children, men, grandparents were taken from their homes, were forced to move to an unknown destination, a destination that would become their Babi Yar grave, simply because they were born Jewish.

The Ravine at Babi-Yar. September, 1941.


They were shot by German gunmen from all over Germany. And then thousands of neighbors watched, most of them passive, as their Jewish neighbors left the building forever.
80 years have passed. The memory was suppressed during the Soviet era, the bodies were burned by the Germans to erase forever the evidence of the crimes committed.
Finally, a memorial is being built after so many years of absence. It will probably be the first large memorial located near a mass grave.
Mass graves do not usually serve as memorials. The victims are killed, the pits are filled and silence falls.
This memorial is an act of justice for these women, children, adults shot because they were Jews. One by one we find the sacred names of each of them.
Today, over 150 German criminals at Babi Yar have been identified. Tens of thousands of Jewish victims are being identified.
A man-made mass crime machine is made up of human beings. Every German, every Ukrainian is fully responsible for having taken part in the Nazi criminal machine.
Babi Yar also represents a reminder that other mass murders have been perpetrated, by ISIS in broad daylight in Syria, in Iraq, by Boko Haram in Nigeria, by others in the Mail, in Niger.
Babi Yar is also a signal: sooner or later, where you kill, throw bodies into pits, we will come back. The names of the victims will be found and sanctified. The names of the perpetrators will not be drowned in silence.

-Father Patrick Desbois, Yahad – In Unum


Marking 80 years to the Murder of the Jews at Babi Yar >> https://bit.ly/3kGVRSh

On 29-30 September 1941, approximately 33,771 Jewish men, women and children from Kiev and the surrounding areas were murdered at Babi Yar by Einsatzgruppe C soldiers with the assistance of local collaborators. Jews who managed to escape the massacre in September but were discovered in the ensuing months, were also brought to Babi Yar and murdered.

80 photos and stories of the Jews murdered at Babi Yar are now online in a special exhibit just launched on the Yad Vashem website.

The photos were submitted to Yad Vashem together with Pages of Testimony containing the names and brief biographical information of the victims. Each Page is a mute testament to the persecution of an entire Jewish community: Rabbis, teachers and pupils, traders and artisans, philosophers and scientists- and in many cases entire families.

In this moving exhibit we can see the faces and explore the stories of 80 of the Jewish men, women and children who were murdered 80 years ago at a ravine called Babi Yar. Explore the exhibit here >> https://bit.ly/3kGVRSh

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Holocaust survivor Ariela Rojek, right, was 11 years old in 1945 when she and 2,500 other concentration camp prisoners aboard a train near Magdeburg, Germany, were liberated by American forces including 1st Lt. Frank Towers, left with his son Frank Towers Jr., center. “You gave me my second life,” Rojek told Towers Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, at Hudson Falls High School during an event reuniting soldiers and survivors. Jason McKibben Glens Falls Post Star

It was 12 years ago years ago this evening, we shared a meal on the eve of Shabbat, after watching ourselves on a national broadcast that reached millions. Why does it seem, so long ago?

Maybe because it all seems so unbelievable- that out of the darkness of the past, on a day when the sun dawned clearly and was warming the Earth in its mid-April morning ascent, a low rumble was heard by  hushed and huddled groupings of tormented humanity as they strained to hope for friends amidst their lurking murderers. As the metallic clanking grew louder, over the horizon broke the earthly angels, two Sherman light tanks and an American Jeep with the emblem of the white star. A cry broke out. They realized they were saved, and the American major snapped a photograph at the exact moment the overjoyed survivors realized it.

And out of the past on a warm September day, we brought them all together again. Who would have believed that 62 years later, a high school in a quiet, rural part of the world would  bring the soldier-liberators and the rescued survivors together from the US, Canada, Israel and elsewhere? All because I couldn’t let go of a good narrative history, and pursued the story behind the photographs that proved it really happened?

And think about the risk you run, inviting hundreds of octogenarians to come to a high school for half a week to mingle with thousands of high school and middle schoolers? Talk about sweating bullets. What if they are uncomfortable? Cranky? Complaining? What if the kids I can’t control are rude? And what if one of these “old” folks, who I don’t even know, dies on our watch? I would lie awake at night wondering if I was out of my mind.

But the miracle came to be-for the two dozen or so elders who could come, tears flowed, wine spilled, and our “new grandparents” danced with young teenagers who adored them, but only after the risk was accepted, with the enthusiastic help of Mary Murray, Tara Winchell-Sano, and Lisa Hogan, Rene Roberge and others. Have a look at the videos, and feel the love. We created ripples, and tripped the wires of the cosmos, and the reverberations are still echoing. To date, with Varda Weisskopf’s and Frank Towers’ help, the list is at 275 survivors whom we have found. And how many generations has it effected?

This is the subject of my second book, A TRAIN NEAR MAGDEBURG, the PBS film of which is due out in 2022. In the meantime, I am working on a shorter work of what I have learned in teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. So take a look at the videos, and remember the words of the liberator:

“Here we are! We have arrived!”

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In my hometown of Hudson Falls, New York, atop the hill overlooking the majestic Hudson River, there is a monument commemorating the liberation by U.S. forces of the horribly persecuted victims of the Holocaust, and a tree planted in memory of this 1945 World War II action, now 76 years past. It seems like a long time, but it was really just an eyeblink ago.

The Holocaust started with words. Hateful words led to hateful actions. Neighbors knew, and looked away. Did you know that by the end of World War II, 44,000 concentration camps, ghettos, and detention centers had been established by what had been considered one of the most highly cultured and advance nations in Europe? The 12-year era of Hitler and the Nazis, malevolent, criminal, and corrupt, excused and sanctioned immoral and murderous behavior. It harbored and nurtured the darkest impulses of mankind. In my talks I always prod audiences by asking how many people were killed by Hitler with his own hands. The answer is, he had a lot for help. From the murder squads of the ordinary reservist police battalions, civil servants in ‘real’ life, trained to kill families with one shot to the back of the neck each, to the good folks operating the railroads of the Reichsbahn, delivering boxcars of tortured human beings to their final destinations. The numbers people who ran the figures and devised the schedules to annihilation. The neighbors who drew the curtains as the persecuted paraded down the street, or worse, jeered and spat upon those going to their deaths.

Last week, a member of the community and his partner were attacked in broad daylight on one of the most beautiful streets in our town. The abuse was repeated this week in front of their house, more drive-by threats and harassment. He posted in a community group:

“We need your help. We are, for the first time in our lives, being harassed. On June 28, an individual attempted to hit my car head on, on Pearl St. I was at a full stop. He aimed for my car, as he passed he shouted “You f–k–g fa—t!) I was taken aback let’s say. Never have I experienced this before, especially in my beautiful Hudson Falls.”

The follow-up comments were heartwarming and reassuring of love and promises to help catch the perpetrator and bring him out from under the rock where he nurtures his insecurities. For me though, the larger issue goes beyond bringing the perp to justice. It’s that people need to know that the persecuted have allies. That our friendsthough I have only met them once, when they opened their beautiful gardens to my daughter’s high school class for their prom picturesare not alone, because an attack on them is an attack on the community. Though I don’t live in my hometown at the moment, I take this attack personally.

I’ll conclude by stating that I spend a lot of time trying to educate on the difficulties of Holocaust comparisons and pointing out the false equivalencies. There are a ton of them, which I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say that I’ve spent weeks at a time studying the Holocaust at the feet of master teachers [and survivors!] at world-renowned institutions and authentic sites of mass murder. Frankly, those deep immersion dives into this study of the millennia-long causes and motivations often sparks more questions than answers, but occasionally, deep, deep revelations are possible. I’ll close with this one that concludes my 2016 book, A Train Near Magdeburg. I really did not know how that book was going to end, but a Pride parade through the streets of the City of God, Jerusalem, just brought my study of the Holocaust all full circle.

I’ll leave that essay below if you are interested. In the meantime, I’m promoting an effort in solidarity to stand against this attack on our neighbors and by extension, all of us. I’d like to see their street, and all of our hometown, really, adorned with the colors of solidarity, so I’m working with a neighbor to make them available for free if you want to show your support, for the rest of the flag season. Details here. Thanks for reading.

Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.


I reached some of my final revelations in the summer of 2016 as the writing of this book drew to a close while I was studying in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. My fellow educators and I heard from dozens of excellent scholars and presenters in the field of the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, of antisemitism through the ages, and learned from the nuanced dissections what we thought we knew about the Holocaust.

One of our final lectures was from Dr. Yehuda Bauer, who at age 90 I consider to be the godfather of Holocaust historians. Sitting six feet away from me was a man who narrowly escaped the Holocaust himself, coming with his family in 1939 to the Palestine Mandate before the window closed. He became active in the resistance to British rule, and later fought in Israel’s War for Independence. Early in his career he was challenged to study the Holocaust when few others were doing it. He mastered many languages, and it was he, after years of research, who concluded that the Holocaust was a watershed event in human history.

Today, sitting in his presence, and listening to him, I got the feeling that I was listening to a philosopher, one who also had been milking cows on a kibbutz for the past 41 years.

So the question came, as it always does—

What is the overarching lesson that we should take away from the study of the Holocaust?

To paraphrase his answer, he simply said, ‘There is no lesson, except not to repeat it. The Shoah is used, all the time, for various agendas and causes…okay, fine. But there is no lesson.’

And I think I get it. When we talk about the Holocaust, its sheer magnitude and ‘unprecedentedness’ denies us the comfort of walking away with an overarching ‘lesson.’ ‘Bullying gone wild’ it was not. Instead, he continued, ‘Maybe the real question to ask yourself, and ask your students, is this—What do you want the world to be? And then, maybe it is time to introduce them to the study of the Holocaust, because maybe the Shoah is the exact opposite of what they envision for their world, unprecedented in scope and sequence—but it happened, which means it can happen again.’

*

When we got back to the hotel to pack our bags and have a final evening to ourselves, we found out that for a few hours, we could not even cross the street to go back out—our hotel was now right on the route of one of the largest ‘gay pride’ parades in the world, right through Jerusalem. Security was tight; last year, a religious maniac stabbed six, and one teenage girl died here. But standing on the second-story hotel balcony, I could hear Dr. Bauer’s words echoing in my ears, reminding us that democracy is not only very fragile, it is hardly even out of the cradle in the backdrop of world history. But what sets democracy apart from every other experiment in history, in its pure form and in theory, is its defense of minorities. It doesn’t exist yet, but maybe this form of government needs to be protected, and nourished. And maybe this is what the soldiers were fighting for. The world does not have to be united, and, in fact, it never has been and never will be. We argue and we disagree all of the time. That is as it is, and as it should be. At the end of the day, we either kill each other, or we live, and let live.

We decide.

I had never seen a so-called ‘gay pride’ event before, so as I watched, there was another revelation. For over an hour, my fellow educators and I witnessed miles and miles of this parade of young and old, of men and women, smiling and cheering and singing; I’m quite sure that many participants, and maybe even most, were, in fact, heterosexual. And for me, this experience became a metaphor for our common experience here in Jerusalem—from that hotel balcony, we were witnessing what simply was a massive celebration of life. In studying the Holocaust together, we have plumbed the depths of the abyss that humanity is capable of, but not because of a fascination with evil and death; rather, it is because of the opposite, because of our commitment to humanity. For me also there is this burgeoning sense of righteousness in promoting the men who made a difference with their sacrifices in slaying the Nazi beast. And these American soldiers who encountered the Holocaust were not some kind of super-action heroes who arrived on the scene to save the day, just in the nick of time. As you have read, there was no plan, and they had no idea. What matters more is what they did when they encountered this trauma deep in a war zone with people still shooting at them, and later committing themselves in their sunset years to reaching out to others, so that, in Dr. Bauer’s words, the formally ‘unprecedented’ watershed event is not repeated. And maybe it’s time for a good long look at the world we live in today.

I have been on a journey that has consumed half the career that I never even set out to have. I have been joined by many along the way, and I thank the reader for also sharing it with me; that afternoon in Jerusalem, I parted with my educator friends with a final word in our closing discussion:

We are the new witnesses. We bear an awesome responsibility when we become aware, when we teach, when we communicate with others; now, more than ever, what we do matters, especially in entering this world of the Holocaust—because there is no past, and it is never over.

The tunnel can lead to the light.

You decide.

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April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

April 30 1945 Headlines, on display in my classroom.

A few days ago, it was the anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, 76 years on. This is a post I have shared in the past. I think it is important.

Today, if the anniversary is brought up at all, some of us might respond with a vacant stare. More might shrug and turn away. I suppose that is to be expected. But you know me. I just think that as a nation, sometimes we allow things to slip from memory at our peril.

It was real, and it happened. And it was American GIs who overran this camp and many others in the closing days of World War II.

The men of the 42nd and 45th Infantry Division arrived independently of each other, here, in southern Germany, at Dachau, on this day. A concentration camp, they were told. Their noses gave them a hint of what they were about to uncover, miles before the camp appeared in sight.

Read the headlines, above. Note the subarticle:

Boxcars of Dead at Dachau. 32,000 captives freed.

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

And so after some resistance, into the camp they entered. Life changing events were about to unfold for the American soldier.

***

For me, it’s not about hero worship, or glorifying the liberator or any World War II soldier by placing him on a pedestal. Our time with them is now limited, but many of the liberating soldiers I know push back at this, to the point of rejecting the term, “liberator”- “It all sounds so exalted, so glamorous” said one. But they will all accept the term, “eyewitness”.

Witnesses to the greatest crime in the history of the world.

So instead I think it is about honoring their experiences, their shock, the horror, the puking and the crying, the rage-and then, the American GIs recognizing that something had to be done. And they did suffer for it, for trying to do the right thing. Many tried to help by offering food to starving prisoners who just were not ready to handle it, only to see them drop dead. Or having to manhandle these emaciated victims who were tearing away at each other as food was being offered.

Some guys never got over it. How could you?

I have learned so much over the past few years from these guys, just through the way that they carried themselves and tried to cope with what they witnessed. In my World War II studies and Holocaust class, we discuss these issues at length. I’m so lucky to be able to teach it.

A few years back, I was privileged to teach a lesson to my high school seniors for NBC Learn, which was shared with other districts across the nation. Later, I stumbled upon this piece by the late author Tony Hays, who writes about his liberator father and his own encounter with the past. Thanks to the Get It Write folks; the original link is at the bottom.

***

Dachau Will Always Be With Us

by Tony Hays

This is not so much a post about writing as one about a writer’s education, about one of those experiences that molds us, shapes us into storytellers. I read yesterday the story of Joseph Corbsie, whose father, a World War II veteran, left him with a special legacy from the war, from the hideous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. I feel a particular kinship with Mr. Corbsie.

My father, Robert Hays, was the son of an alcoholic tenant farmer in rural west Tennessee. If the appellation “dirt poor” fit anyone, it fit my grandfather’s family. Daddy served in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 30s. He and my mother, who was in the woman’s equivalent of the CCC, working as a nurse’s aide at Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee, met on a blind date in early 1940 and married in September of that year.

But just over a year later, Pearl Harbor happened. America was in the war. My father was among the first of those drafted in 1942. I won’t bore you with the details, but he participated in the North African, Salerno, Anzio, and southern France invasions, saved by the luck of the draw from Normandy. But they slogged through France and on to Germany. On April 29, 1945, Allied troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp. I don’t know whether he entered Dachau that day or the next, but that he was there within hours of the liberation is beyond dispute. A few months later, after more than three years overseas, he came home.

In later years, he would talk occasionally about the war, providing anecdotes that showed the chaos and random chance of battle. He spoke of driving through Kasserine Pass in North Africa just hours before the Germans killed thousands of Allied troops in a stunning attack. He spoke of a friend, defending his position from a foxhole, who was thought dead after an artillery shell landed right next to him. When the dust cleared, the friend was buried up to his neck in dirt, but did not have a scratch on him. He spoke often of Anzio, where he was wounded, and of the massive German air assaults on those soldiers clinging to that tiny sliver of beach along the Italian coast.

But he never spoke of Dachau.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945. USHMM.

Ever.

When he died in 1981, we found a photo in his wallet. An old sepia-toned shot like others he had taken during the war, pictures that he kept in an old brown bag. But this one was different.

It showed a pile of naked bodies. Well, really more skeletons than not, with their skin stretched pitifully over their bones. On the back, as had been his habit, was typed simply “Dachau.”

I was confused. Why would he keep this one photo in his wallet all of those years? Especially a photo of a place and event that he never spoke about. It obviously had some deeper meaning for him than the other photographs. If it had been a shot of the building he was in when he was wounded (hit by an artillery shell), I could have seen that. A reminder of his closest brush with death. Yeah, I could buy that. But this macabre photo? That, I couldn’t see.

So, for the next fifteen years, I remained puzzled.

Until the fall of 1996. I was working in Poland, and I had some time off. I took an overnight bus from Katowice, Poland to Munich. It was an interesting trip all in itself. We sat in a line of buses at midnight on the Polish/German border, waiting for our turn to cross, next to a cemetery, as if in some Cold War spy movie. I remember passing Nuremburg and thinking that my father had been there at the end of the war. And then there was Munich.

I spent a day or two wandering through the streets, drinking beer in the Marienplatz. I’m a historical novelist, so the short trip out to Dachau was a no-brainer. Of course it was as much my father’s connection with it as anything else that spurred the visit. But I’m not sure that I was completely aware of that at the time.

Dachau literally sits just on the outskirts of the Munich metropolitan area. I looked at the sign on the train station with a sadness, wondering for how many people that had been one of the last things they saw. It was only later that I discovered there had been another depot for those passengers.

The Dachau Memorial is a place of deep emotion. In the camp proper, mostly all that are left are the foundations of the barracks. One has been reconstructed to give an idea of how horrible life must have been. The camp was originally intended to hold 6,000 inmates; when the Allies liberated Dachau in 1945, they found 30,000. The museum and exhibits are primarily in the old maintenance building. I looked with awe at life size photos of prisoners machine gunned, their hands torn to ribbons from the barbed wire they had tried to climb in a futile attempt at escape.

I followed the visitors (I can’t call them tourists) north to where you crossed over into the crematorium area. It was there that the full brunt of what had taken place at Dachau really hit me. A simple brick complex, it seemed so peaceful on the fall day that I stood before it. But as I read the plaques and consulted my guidebook, as I stepped through the door and actually saw the “shower” rooms where the prisoners were gassed, as I stared into the open doors of the ovens, I felt a rage unlike any I had ever known consume me.[i]

That night, I went to the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich, to wash the images of the ovens away with some beer. I hadn’t been there long when an elderly American couple sat at the table. They were from Florida, a pleasant couple. He had been a young lieutenant in the American army on the push into Munich. In fact, it had been his pleasure to liberate the Hofbrauhaus from the Germans.

Of course, I asked the question. “Were you at Dachau?”

He didn’t answer for several seconds, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes as his wife’s hand covered his and squeezed. Finally, he nodded, reached into a back pocket and pulled out his wallet.

With a flick of his wrist, a photo, just as wrinkled, just as bent, as the one my father had carried landed on the table. It wasn’t the same scene, but one just like it.

Here was my chance, the opportunity to ask the question I had never been able to ask my father. I pulled the photo from my own wallet and lay it next to his. “Why? Why have you carried it so long? To remind you of the horror of Dachau, of what had been done here?”

His face carried the faintest of smiles as he shook his head. “No, son, to remind us of the horrors that we are capable of, to remind us not to go down that road again.”

The difference was subtle, but in that moment, I learned two lessons invaluable to a writer, subtle differences are important, and when you want to know the truth, go to the source.

As I sit here now and look at that same photograph, I realize that it was my father’s legacy to me, of Dachau. Joe Corbsie’s father left him something more tangible, a reminder of the same thing for the same reason, but more forcefully stated — a tiny box of human ash from the ovens.

Dachau is still with us, and I hope the legacy left by our fathers always will be.

The late Tony Hays.

[i] Where the prisoners were gassed- “In 1942, the crematorium area was constructed next to the main camp. It included the old crematorium and the new crematorium (Barrack X) with a gas chamber. There is no credible evidence that the gas chamber in Barrack X was used to murder human beings. Instead, prisoners underwent “selection”; those who were judged too sick or weak to continue working were sent to the Hartheim “euthanasia” killing center near Linz, Austria. Several thousand Dachau prisoners were murdered at Hartheim. Further, the SS used the firing range and the gallows in the crematoria area as killing sites for prisoners.” Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Dachau” Holocaust Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/dachau

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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.

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.


SCREENSHOT OF ‘A MIGHTY GIRL’ POST. CLICK TO READ ORIGINAL. [THEY ACTUALLY READ THE BOOK…]

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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Dr. David Starbuck maps the Officers Dwelling on Rogers Island, September, 2019. Matthew Rozell photo.

Longtime readers may know that even before I began interviewing WWII veterans and started my work with Holocaust survivors—in fact, even before my teaching career began—I began doing important historical archeological work locally with Dr. David Starbuck, who recently passed away at the young age of 71. We spent a lot of time in the middle of the 1750s, David Starbuck and I and others, tediously teasing clues out of the physical remains of our colonial wars. But what was most fun was the speculation and the pursuit of hunches and leads, through steamy summer days and cool fall mornings, for over 35 years, digging these important military sites along the Hudson River/Lake Champlain/Lake George corridor, ‘The Great Warpath’, developing a delicate touch in reading the soil and the scattered fragments of nation-building events now nearly 275 years away.

I met David Starbuck the summer after I turned 24, just six years out of high school. I had visited the Saratoga National Battlefield and picked up a flyer regarding a field school doing archeology at the American Headquarters of General Horatio Gates, a major turning point of the American Revolution. In that summer of 1985, I rode my motorcycle down scenic US Route 4, following the meandering Hudson River just as British General John Burgoyne’s army had in the summer of 1777. I pulled into an old farmhouse on Bemis Heights, just in time for the morning announcements and opening introductions that he would conduct at 9AM over the course of every one of the 70 field schools he led over the years. By the end of the Saratoga season I had found the only evidence of military occupation, canister shot that would have been fired out of a cannon, large pea-sized lead balls that would rake through men on the field, in the rubble of the excavated house that had served as Gates’ Field Headquarters for two or so weeks.

Dr. Starbuck must have seen something in me, because he asked about my training―I was finishing my studies to be a history teacher―and asked me if I would ever consider the field of archeology. Well, as it turned out, I didn’t have to; I would go on to be by his side as one of his main field supervisors for the next three decades coming up, where I met many of my lifelong friends. He gave me the go-ahead to lead others and disappear into the excavation pits, lost in the discovery of the tangible remains of a people and story I had grown up hearing about―think ‘Last of The Mohicans’, and you’d be about right. It was all in my backyard, and now, Dr. Starbuck was giving me the latitude to uncover and record things that had not seen the light of day since the fall of Fort William Henry, like the only known smallpox hospital from the French and Indian War discovered in North America, on Rogers Island in Fort Edward. The West Barracks and west curtain wall of Fort Edward herself and the actual East and West Barracks of Fort William Henry, burned to the ground by French forces in 1757. Taking the troweling lead on the historical exhumation investigation into what really happened to Jane McCrea, victim of Burgoyne’s foray into Fort Edward as part of the ill-fated Saratoga campaign.

The incredibly rich Sutlers House near Fort Edward, where we would spend over a decade unearthing and recording this amazing frontier fort ‘store’, where the soldiers bought their booze and tobacco, littered with bottles and pipes, with coins lost everywhere in the process into the cellar hole, burned staircases and all, an otherwise worthless parcel of land prone to flooding on the banks of the Hudson just south of the fort. But not to us—not to David, who was able to purchase this land and which he would wind up leaving to the Fort Edward community’s Visitors Center on Rogers Island.

He had such grand plans—outdoor exhibits and walking trails, signage and interactive interpretation. He felt strongly that the artifacts we discovered which told our collective early history should remain in the community where they were found, so much of our nation’s heritage being sold off on collectors sites and lost to history forever. He was meticulous about record keeping and mapping and photographing, and he drove that ethic, that mantra, into me as well.

David was a prodigious writer, publishing books on our finds with color plates that he paid for out of his own pocket, because, what is the point of excavating if you are not also teaching about your finds and contextualizing them for generations to come to learn from? He was not a boring academic at all. When he spoke, you could feel his excitement every time, no matter how many times you had heard the story before.

And most of us in the field also fell victim to his penchant for taking candid photographs, which would invariably appear on the screen of his public presentations larger than life and in full color as he told an anecdote about that day, and what you were doing in the picture. He would rock on the balls of his feet with a devilish grin on his face, beaming in his target’s direction, though he was not a fan of having his own photo taken. He wanted to celebrate you, doing something that we knew was important, that tied us all together.

Every time I walked into a lecture room, I could not sneak in unnoticed in the back; he would either stop to introduce me, going back to that summer of 1985, or work me into the context of what he was talking to the group about—and he always ask me if I had something to say, to which I would generally deflect, to shift the focus back on him. And goodness help you if you were in his sights when he needed a lunchtime speaker, his traditional 12:30 mini-lecture series where diggers would relax out of the summer heat or rain showers, which on many occasions stretched on for over an hour. The point was, you were still learning, and we were all in each other’s company.

At his farmhouse, he would order dinner each weeknight for the students staying with him, and some of them would keep him up all night with their shenanigans, but he never complained to them, whereas I would have probably gotten out of bed and knocked one or two out cold. That just wasn’t how he was wired. He didn’t drink—not even coffee— or smoke, or use strong language. From the oldest farm in Warren County, he baked blueberry pies with the berries plucked from his family’s own bushes to share at our lunchtime meals. He was a patient teacher who always had the time for his students, never cancelling lessons even when a huge find was emerging in the field—never. If you asked him a question, he would think about it aloud, sometimes, formulating his answer, covering all of the bases until you were both satisfied.

His love for history also showed in his restoration of the family farm complex. He had grand dreams of preserving it as a working farm museum of sorts, an astronomy center, an archeological workshop, and studio. He loved his sports cars, too. I understand that he attracted the attention of the State Police in the last season of his life, but that the officer really was only interested in the make, model, and potential performance of the car on a personal level.

David Starbuck (white coat) tours with visiting Egyptian archaeologists, the Sutlers House, 2009. They were impressed.

Somewhere in the second decade of the 2000s, I let life get in the way a bit—to the extent of relinquishing supervisor control of the Sutlers House that I had led him to in the summer of 1996, me summoning him to point out a small silver Spanish coin on the edge of a looter’s depression in the ground. The depression would grow to become the largest single site, over the longest sustained period of time, that we ever worked together. He would call me on the phone in the offseason, we would talk and speculate and bounce ideas and plans off each other for hours—to the point where my wife would roll her eyes in the background [I normally eschew the phone!]. A growing family and burgeoning career now competed a bit for my attention with archeology with David; though my own kids played in mountains of backdirt and my own students would come into the field for formal summer lessons as well. It devolved to the point where I would come down with my digging friend John K., and the two of us would catch up with David and put in a day or two of work, before cutting out to fulfill these other obligations of life.

It was on one of these late-July visits in 2019 when David told us that the previous week, his doctor was concerned about his jaundiced appearance and other symptoms. The diagnosis came back—pancreatic cancer. A few weeks later—Stage Four. I was in shock. He had to immediately commence treatments which would knock him out. I told him I would help him finish his ‘rekindled-after-20-years-work’ on the so-called Officers Dwelling just north of the Rangers Hut John K. and I excavated in the summer of 1991 on the Island. Great artifacts here being found, and respectful of the NYS guidelines, I re-gridded the entire site and took over as supervisor for the rest of the season. Incredible things were being uncovered on an almost daily basis. This was important to him, and kept him going in these troubled times for a man who had never been in a hospital before for any time in his life. He told those close to him that this was his purpose. We had to answer these research questions.

David joined us in the field, digging more than I ever remember him being ‘a digger’, filling buckets like a man possessed, trying to reach the floor, and the conclusions. We took turn lifting and sifting these buckets and moved around our tarps to keep him out of the late summer sun. He only stopped to answer his phone, in anticipation of the hospital call— ‘Hello, this is David Starbuck’—and sputtering under his breath when the expected call began with, ‘We have been trying to reach you about your car’s warranty’. On more than one occasion he muttered something ‘about a special place in hell’ for the robo-scammers, but that was as strong as it got. He just never had much time for anger or resentment, and it served him well. He was not happy about his hospital stays, but he loved the nurses and doctor who cared for him (he told me that more than one of them were my former students).

We worked together with others in the field though the summer and into the fall when he was up for it. Other diggers were especially attentive to his personal comfort, as were those closer to him on the home front. He was blessed with good friends, and he knew it, the Adirondack Chapter of the NYS Archaeological Association being full of them.

David Starbuck, Rogers Island, Nov. 1, 2019. M. Rozell photo.

David Starbuck, cufflink from Officers Dwelling, Rogers Island, Nov. 1, 2019. M. Rozell photo.

We finished the major portion of the Officers Dwelling just as winter arrived in 2019. He had lost nearly 70 pounds by then, less than five months after being diagnosed. I volunteered to help lead a tour of the Island down to the site of the smallpox hospital that had been the center of archeological attention nearly 20 years before, giving the history to the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology conference participants as he shivered off the very sudden onset of winter on their bus. I was so pleased that I was able to give him my time and efforts in what turned out to be the twilight of his life; I cherish most not our discoveries, but his determination and excitement to see the project though, despite his discomfort, and our unspoken ‘alone-time’ at the end of the day on the site, just me and him, me an old sounding board for him to process what was happening, an almost stream of consciousness flow down what were to be the final chapters of his life. I’m sure he did this with several people in his life, and looking back, those conversations are what meant the most. At some point, talking about our own parents and mortality, I reminded him that his mother and my father had passed on the exact same August day two decades before, the first of our folks to pass. “That’s right”, he said. “I had almost forgotten about that.” He spoke about his mother, and his father who died at the farmhouse after that, and his brother James who died in an accident in the early days of the Sutlers House dig. David was the last of his line.

David Starbuck photographs fireplace hearth from Officers Dwelling, Rogers Island, Nov. 5, 2019. M. Rozell photo. One of the last photos I took of him.

In one of his last morning announcement field school sessions following that summer’s diagnosis, he frankly laid out the prognosis and quietly shifted the direction back to what the gathering of diggers over the years meant to him, and to all of us who had been with him over the decades. Most diggers came and went, he said, but what remained in his field schools with volunteers and students was a quiet acceptance of our different backgrounds, of where we had all come from and been through, an honoring of the personality quirks and differences in an atmosphere of non-judging and equal standing as we all pursued the mission that we were doing together, which he was quietly leading us through. He said that our grouping was always special, even though our numbers seemed to fall over the years, because we all had the common love for learning from the past, of discovery, of being together doing something important. We frequently remembered our ‘old’ digging partners, Toni H., Bill K., John F., Nate L., and others, who were our sisters and brothers in the field who passed before us. I could get frustrated at times, when some of the new ‘kids’ did not pull their weight in the field, and so did he, but he never got angry or issued reprimands or ultimatums. That just wasn’t his style; he focused instead on being enthusiastic for the ones who were working hard, showing their curiosity and willingness to learn. He just kept going.

One of the young diggers got up and left the lecture room abruptly—to sob in the bathroom, as I later found out. A few weeks before he passed, he wrote to me after I reached out to congratulate him on a history award milestone, wishing me and my family a happy Thanksgiving and hoping I could be at the awards ceremony on January 30, 2021. Of course we would be there.

 

 

David did not live to collect his well-deserved award—he died on December 27th, 2020, but he left us with something important—the memories of that time together, the determination and hard work, in reconstructing and resurrecting the past. As for me, I will wander down to the sites, for the rest of my days, and ‘mash up’ these two worlds—the 1750s and our shared decades on the Island—and walk and wonder aloud with him. But now you know all the secrets, David. And I suppose I’ll take some comfort in that.

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A mushroom cloud billows about one hour after a nuclear bomb was detonated above Hiroshima.

A mushroom cloud billows about one hour after a nuclear bomb was detonated above Hiroshima.Credit…Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum/U.S. Army Via NYT

I recently opened a bookstore [matthewrozellbooks.com]  for direct sales of my titles and the response has been very good. It has kept me busy, almost too busy to find time to drop a few words here. I have been also running some advertising campaigns to get the word out, and trying to keep up with a flood of reactions; one of my popular Facebook ‘book ad’ posts is just two months old, and today has nearly 25,000 reactions, another four thousand comments and nearly 7K shares. So this post now stems from a comment that someone left there a few weeks ago.

*

Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bombing. In two days we will have the anniversary of the second. Bring it up, and it elicits a strong reaction—strong support for the decision on the one hand, coupled with an almost visceral reaction against those who might stop to ask more questions, as if it were ‘unpatriotic’ to even bring it up—to a persistent examination of the motivations and working knowledge of the facts of the day that led to it.

To be sure, I never met many World War II veterans who questioned Truman’s decision—but I did meet a couple: a Marine veteran of the landings at Iwo Jima, who changed his mind later, being one of those preparing for the mainland invasion, and an Army captain, sent to Nagasaki with the occupation forces, who became a vocal supporter of the National Association of Radiation Survivors and instrumental in lobbying legislators for benefits for the Atomic War Veterans; he thought the decision to use the atomic bombs had been misguided and wrong. They are in my first book, which has sold 65,000 copies in the 5 years since release. [Here]

But this is not a post set up to necessarily elicit that debate right now. Rather I think I’m writing it to pause and reflect on what happened, with the knowledge that the unimaginable is one ‘trigger pull’ away. How does one process that? And I got to thinking about some of the ‘collateral damage’ I never thought of in association with the bombings before. A man began writing an answer to my question about our World War II veterans: Do you really know what they went through? Did you learn it in school?”

He wrote [lightly edited]:
“My father took over 200,000 Japanese to their deaths in less than 4 days….. Hiroshima and Nagasaki..he suffered until the day he died…
Paul Tibbets said he’d do it all over again if need be….my dad flew the Straight Flush, taking photos and motion film …he was the one who gave the ok to drop Little Boy…..
I do think of that… that a full invasion of Japan would have cost so many American lives… it had to be done, twice, before the Japanese woke up…
I feel every member of the Enola Gay and Straight Flush were heroes, {and that] there should be a monument in Washington DC dedicated to them.
I do have all my father’s air medals, diary and goggles worn during the blast. I also have a engraved cigarette holder/lighter with the commemorative date of August 6, 1945… it’s never been used, it has his name engraved on it…

My dad was very private about his life and accomplishments… I know more about him in death than when he was alive. My parents did say they lived in Yosemite National Park after the war, it wasn’t until about 11 years ago I found out that the Wawohna Hotel there was a mental hospital for shell shocked soldiers… my father was a patient there for three years, he really never was mentally stable after that…
I wish I would have known, he and I fought much….I was a teenager, stupid, a hellion, mischievous and I didn’t like rules. I made his life hell, I know that now; things would have been so much different if I’d known… I beg his forgiveness…”

He continued:

“The bomb, Little Boy, was placed in the Enola Gay the day of the bombing, it was kept in a hanger that was private. The bombardier spent hours attaching all the wires to the bomb, over and over and over, the bomb was unarmed when placed in the Enola Gay, the bombardier spent the last few minutes attaching the wires in case the bomb went off accidentally, he really thought he’d wired it wrong when dropped because nothing happened in the first few minutes. He counted the minutes…..only then did the skies turn to fire. My dad’s plane was shook beyond belief, he was told to grip the yoke hard, wear his goggles as the rest of the crew keep circling and continue to photograph the results….many photos you’ll see this August 6th on TV were taken by him. My dad was told to report the weather over Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kobe and other metropolitan areas, he had no clue what was coming, he thought it strange he was receiving orders from Washington DC and not from Tinian Island… When my dad took off, he saw the Enola Gay enveloped in huge spotlights with armed guards surrounding the bomber,not a clue, he thought he was on a reconnaissance mission, no escort from fighters. The Enola Gay went in unprotected to make the Japanese keep their fighters on the ground, single bombers were seen daily over Japan and presented no threat, it wasn’t worth for the Zeros to take flight.
My dad’s diary was daily and on the 6th of August he wrote of a regular mission, only later in the diary did he write of the bombing. He was only in his 20s when it happened…
I understand he was like me, a hellion, trouble maker, fun loving, rules meant nothing. Afterward he was withdrawn, and I never knew who I was going to come home to…. if it was trouble, I kept walking right out the back door… I made mistakes I know…one day, I’ll tell my granddaughter…”

Now I don’t know his father’s name, or who particularly on the B-29 Straight Flush he is referring to. But this article from the NYT indicates that the pilot was definitely a troubled soul after the war. I guess my point in sharing this commenter’s remarks is similar to the one in the article:

“The U.S. service members tasked with dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the prime example of people caught in the Promethean gap. On the one hand, these U.S. servicemen were cogs in the atomic machine. They were couriers sent to deliver a deadly message about U.S. capability and commitment to winning the war. If one of them were to decline the assignment, someone else would have stepped up to fill his shoes. Under these circumstances, it was possible to be “guiltlessly guilty.” On the other hand, as participants in and witnesses to the violence, these men came closer to connecting with the physical consequences of and responsibility for their actions than any others.
Once their initial sense of astonishment subsided, most of the airmen reconciled themselves to the bombings by focusing on their affiliation to their fellow American servicemen, whose lives they may have saved by obviating a need for a ground invasion of Japan. Others simply distanced themselves from the morality of the decision entirely. Col. Paul Tibbets Jr., who commanded the Army Air Forces unit tasked with delivering the atomic bombs and piloted the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, defended his actions until his dying days. “I made up my mind then that the morality of dropping that bomb was not my business,” he told an interviewer in 1989. “I have never lost a night’s sleep on the deal.”

Unlike Tibbets, Eatherly reported suffering from nightmares about the bombings, and his guilt drove him into a spiral of self sabotage.”

Perhaps I will share more posters’ comments later. They do make me stop and reflect. The trauma is real, 75 years later, on many levels.

NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE: BEYOND THE WORLD WAR II WE KNOW
The Hiroshima Pilot Who Became a Symbol of Antinuclear Protest
Claude Eatherly spent years punishing himself for his role in the first atomic bombing.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/06/magazine/hiroshima-claude-eatherly-antinuclear.html

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My heart is broken.

My dear friend Lily Cohen passed away two weeks ago at her home in Tel Aviv. I think today would have been her birthday. And I have been struggling to find the words ever since.

 

Lily came into my life with an email ten years ago. My friend Varda had tracked her down from a book written by a woman who had brought her young son and several orphan children to the fledgling state of Israel. In one of the first Holocaust survivor memoirs, Hilde Huppert describes the precocious young Lily, perhaps four years of age in 1945, persuading her to reluctantly accompany her on the Train Near Magdeburg with her young son Tommy.

 

 

“Knowing that I will forever be loved and never be forgotten”….

Lily’s father was killed in Warsaw. Her mother died trying to care for her in Bergen-Belsen. In a complicated story, her mother paid a man, fellow prisoner, to pretend—he had papers for a wife and child, who had since died— that Lily’s mom was his wife their three or four-year-old daughter. Lily’s mother shortly got sick and died in Bergen-Belsen. The man then ignored and essentially abandoned Lily in the exchange camp.

She did not remember much about her early life—flashes in black and white, a later writer put it—people running in Warsaw, loud noises and booms, her mother screaming, soldiers. Flashes of a long journey on a train, her mother carrying her into a cold shower, then her mother being gone. Not understanding, protesting at her blonde locks being lopped off by women in the women’s barracks, who had decided to care for her, in the effort to rid her of lice. Later, she recalled snippets of being placed on another train transport, which turned out to be the Train Near Magdeburg liberated by American GIs on April 13, 1945.

The group of orphans led by Hilde Huppert made it to Israel via France after a long journey, one of the first ships carrying survivor refugees. Lily was adopted on a kibbutz and raised in a loving family; I met her adoptive mother at near 100 years old in that very home outside of Jerusalem in 2011, a pioneer of early childhood education in the new state. Like Lily, she radiated goodness and love, and it was important to Lily that I meet her.

You see, my life had taken a turn where I was engaged in connecting Holocaust survivors with their American soldier liberators. I was in Israel that time to watch 55 or 60 survivors have the opportunity to meet liberator Frank Towers. But I had met Lily the year before, when she was in New York and wanted to journey the four hours north to specifically meet ME. She just had to meet me—not a soldier, not a liberator, not another survivor—ME.

She came with her friend Lynda, and as it happened, almost exactly ten years ago, she was also set to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. She had questions about her early life, having been born in Poland to secular Jewish parents, but not even entirely sure of her actual birth date. Some of my friends at the Museum found the documentation to help her on that journey, so I think she would have turned just 79 or so this year, which is pretty young for a Holocaust survivor. In fact I think her birthday would have been next week.

She was young, beautiful, blonde, so vital and full of life. We had lunch on a steamboat cruise on Lake George, and I arranged for her to be interviewed by my college alma mater magazine, in town for a piece on me and the train. My friend John and his family arranged for her to have a private tour at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga the next day: she was a dancer of some renown herself, you see, followed by a special dinner put on by John at his exclusive restaurant.

Me and Lily, Lake George, NY, June 24, 2010.

I saw her the next year in Israel, bringing along my 10 year old son. She zipped us along in her car, laughing, telling stories, joking that if she got pulled over for speeding she would bat her long eyelashes admiringly at the traffic officer, give him “Look #9”, and get off scot-free.  I also got to meet her girlfriends and two of her granddaughters, I think both at the time serving in the IDF. On the way to Jerusalem we stopped at the kibbutz, still perched on a hillside above and Arab village, having survived the 1948 war as well. Imagine being a young girl, Holocaust survivor, and now being subjected to another war, all before age ten. She looked fondly after my son, encouraging him to drink, drink, drink more water, as it was May in Israel and we were about to embark in the desert of the Holy Land to the fortress at Masada.

I saw her again in 2016 as I studied at Yad Vashem. I purposely came early to Tel Aviv to see her, because I knew that my three-week course would leave no room for much personal time. I was there to study the Holocaust.

But Lily never let the Holocaust define her. She told me she grew up a happy child, perhaps being so young a survivor, but there were times in her life when she felt there was something different about her. Later, she wanted to know. Maybe she saw some of that in me. At her death, her friend Lynda told me that I had made an enormous difference in her life, “Enormous beyond belief… You are Lily’s savior…”

I so wanted to take my wife to Israel to meet her again there. We were supposed to see her in Germany this past April 2020 for the 75th anniversary of the liberation, but we all know that got pushed off. Now I will never see her again, but I won’t let her be forgotten.

I will leave you with the chapter in my book, A Train Near Magdeburg, dedicated to her. Goodbye, young girl. I will see you again someday, hand in hand.

Lily meets one of her liberators, Frank Towers, in Israel, 2011.

 

Lily introduces us to a friend and her mother, Israel, 2011.

 

Me and lily a year after our first meeting, now on her home turf, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2011.

 


The Orphan

Hello, Matthew,

My name is Lily Cohen and I was a little girl who was on that train coming from Bergen-Belsen. I was an orphan, probably about five or six years old at that time. I don’t know my birthday, or year I was born. For so many years I didn’t talk about my childhood even with my children; deep, deep, down I had the feeling that something was probably very wrong with me, something I should be ashamed of.

I am so moved to find this research, as most of my early life appeared to be ‘erased’ somehow by the Holocaust, and only now am I able to take small steps into what was my past to piece together fragments of memories. I remember the train. I remember the hill, I remember a German soldier running away, and I remember a woman who was trying to take care of me, dying at my side.

Tonight, I made dinner for 10 people in my home in Tel Aviv – six of whom came from me! My life has turned into a really wonderful victory over Hitler’s attempt to obliterate the Jewish people.

You are really doing a holy work and I do hope to meet you some day. Amazing how things can come together when there are people dedicated to finding out ‘the rest of the story.’ Thank you for your dedication.

 

Still youthful and vivacious, Lily Cohen defies any mental stereotype of ‘Holocaust survivor’ with her presence, grace, and humor. Lily and I did meet, on several occasions; she came over to the United States to have dinner with my wife and me. Later, I arranged an interview for her at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and they had done their homework, having researched her actual date of birth. I visited Lily in Israel in 2011, and again in 2016.

Like many of the survivors I know who were liberated on the train, Lily speaks to students. We had lunch, and she told me of her latest encounter with at-risk teens at a teen center in Jaffa outside of Tel Aviv. Before her presentation, they had self-segregated by group—Israeli-Ethiopian teens, Israeli-Russian teens, Jewish and Arab teens. And here she was, a survivor of the Holocaust, and a survivor of the War for Independence as a pre-teen in 1948-49, when the kibbutz that adopted her came under attack.

She measured the kids up quickly, and spoke directly to their own experiences with alienation from larger society:

Maybe you are feeling like an outsider in a world that seems hostile, but you do not have to be a victim. I did not look like the rest of the children—I was blonde and blue-eyed. I did not want to play piano as a youngster; I wanted to dance. I did not know my parents; I did not know my past. But I made my way, became a professional dancer, and built a strong family. Maybe you can make your way, too.

A forty-five-minute talk turned into over two hours from the heart of Lily Cohen, World War II orphan, Holocaust survivor, stage dancer and choreographer, therapist, and Tai Chi master. From out of the ashes, new life begins; the kids hung on her every word as they accompanied Lily out to her car in the parking lot. Maybe here by the sea in the ancient port of Jaffa, a cool night breeze also blew in a new outlook on life.

Lily by friend Linda Wells. Linda on Lily: “Such a survivor… and I always told her, ‘Honey, you did more than just survive. You THRIVED!'”


Here is a link to an article published by my college alma mater, SUNY Geneseo, those 10 years ago. [Opens as PDF] Lily is a focus of the article.

 

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YOU MAY THINK I am a little late with this Memorial Day post, but in reality it was early this crazy 2020 year, wasn’t it?
As I write this on May 30th, I can smell the lilac bush, my favorite smell of spring.

     A dirt mound topped by an urn. A simple memorial built with their own hands.
This is what the farmers of Hartford, New York could afford to memorialize their sons who did not come home from the Civil War.
Across the street is only Civil War recruitment building still standing in New York; stepping into the street and snapping a photo would still take you back to 1860s and 70s.
It is much unchanged today, in the gentle, rolling hills near where I live, just a hundred and fifty miles south of the Canadian border. Except for the ‘Stars and Bars’ snapping profanely and contemptuously in the breeze down the road.
*****

The holiday we now know as Memorial Day
started in 1968 as ‘Decoration Day’, when a general order was issued designating May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” When Congress passed a law formally recognizing the last Monday in May as the day of national celebration, we effectively got our three-day weekend and our de facto beginning of summer.
This Memorial Day I am reminded of the many World War II veterans I interviewed who still remembered the Civil War veterans of their own youth. So I share a reminiscence from the late historian Bruce Catton, and highly recommend this compilation of his work to reflect on what it all meant. Here are the Civil War veterans of his youth, remembering their friends, in Michigan, who did not return home. Have a contemplative holiday. MR
*****
Underneath the Lilacs
One of the most pleasant holidays of the year was Memorial Day, universally known then as Decoration Day because it was the day when you went out to the cemetery and decorated graves. This day, of course, belonged to the Civil War veterans, although as years passed, it more and more became a day to put flowers on the grave of any loved one who had died, and when it came, just about everyone in town went to the cemetery with a basket of lilacs. Lilacs grow like weeds in our part of the country, and most farmers planted a long row of lilacs as windbreaks around their houses; in town, almost every house had lilacs in the yard, and in late May, the scent of them lay on the breeze. To this day, I never see lilac blossoms without remembering those Decoration Day observances of long ago.

The Civil War veterans were men set apart.
On formal occasions, they wore blue uniforms with brass buttons and black campaign hats, by the time I knew them, most had long gray beards, and whatever they may have been as young men they had an unassuming natural dignity in old age. They were pillars, not so much of the church (although most of them were devout communicants) as of the community; the keepers of its patriotic traditions, the living embodiment, so to speak, of what it most deeply believed about the nation’s greatness and high destiny. They gave an especial flavor to the life of the village. Years ago they had marched thousands of miles to legendary battlefields, and although they had lived half a century since then in our quiet backwater all anyone ever thought of was that they had once gone to the ends of the earth and seen beyond the farthest horizon. There was something faintly pathetic about these lonely old men who lived so completely in the past that they had come to see the war of their youth as a kind of lost golden age, but as small boys, we never saw the pathos. We looked at these men in blue, existing in pensioned security, honored and respected by all, moving past the mounded graves with their little flags and their heaps of lilacs, and we were in awe of them. Those terrible names out of the history books – Gettysburg, Shiloh, Stone’s River, Cold Harbor – came alive through these men. They had been there. And now they stood by the G.A.R. monument in the cemetery and listened to the orations and the prayers and the patriotic songs, and to watch them was to be deeply moved.

The G.A.R., of course, was the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans’ organization of those days. The Benzonia [Michigan] local of this organization was officially the E. P. Case Post Number 372, and it had been named for Edward Payson Case, a Benzonia man who died in 1886, a year before the post was organized. He must have been quite a man; he had enlisted in 1864, in the artillery, and his unit had been sent to Cumberland Gap on garrison duty and had finished out the war there, never getting into combat. Almost to a man, our G.A.R. members had been in violent action during the war, and they never would have named the local post after a noncombat soldier if he had not been an impressive sort of person. The monument they built, sometime in the late 1880s or early 1890s, was completely homemade. It was a fat column of field stone and mortar, no more than four or five feet tall, capped by a round slab of rock that was just a little wider than the supporting column; it looks like an overgrown toadstool, and it would be funny if it were not so unmistakably the work of men who were determined to have a monument and built one with their own hands because they could not pay for a professional job. The spirit that built it redeems it; it stands today as the most eloquent, heart-warming Civil War memorial I ever saw.

I remember the G.A.R. men as a group, rather than as individuals, although a few do stand out. There was Elihu Linkletter, a retired minister when I knew him, who had lost his left arm in the Wilderness. I never looked at him without thinking (in bemused small-boy fashion) how proud he must be to carry this visible sign of his sacrifice for all to see. Mr. Linkletter was devoted to birds, and he waged unceasing war on red squirrels because they robbed birds’ nests and ate fledglings. He used to tramp about with a .22 rifle, shooting every red squirrel he saw; he could use it one-handed and he was a remarkably good marksman with it.

There was John Van Deman, who once told me how he had been wounded in some battle in West Virginia; like all the other veterans he pronounced “wounded” to rhyme with “sounded,” which somehow made it more impressive. There was Lyman Judson, who had served in the cavalry under Phil Sheridan and who had been invalided out of the service when, his horse being shot out from under him, he had fallen heavily on the base of his spine so that he suffered thereafter from a weak back. Forty-five years later, in Benzonia, he slipped on the ice and again fell heavily on the base of his spine. In some unaccountable way, this cured him, and for the rest of his life, his back was as sound and as pain-free as anyone’s.

And there was Cassius Judson (no relation) who in 1916 went down to Manistee to see [the first ever motion picture film] The Birth of a Nation. When he got back, I asked him if he had not been impressed by the picture’s portrayal of the Battle of Atlanta. Mr. Judson, who had been in that battle personally, smiled faintly and said: “Well, it wasn’t much like the real thing.”

Then, finally, there was John Morrow, who had been an infantryman in an Ohio regiment and who had once exchanged words with General William T. Sherman himself. (“Exchanged” probably is not the word, because Sherman did all of the talking.) Anyway, during the Atlanta campaign Morrow and some comrades were out on patrol, and they came to a stream where there was a grassy bank with trees to cast a pleasant shade, and the day was mortally hot, and so they all stacked arms and stretched out for a breather. Just then, Sherman and some of his staff rode up, and Sherman came over to find out what these soldiers were doing. When he found out, as Morrow remembered it, he “used language that would make a mule driver blush” and in no time, the boys were back on patrol in the hot sun. They did not hold this against General Sherman, figuring that it was just part of the fortunes of war.

By the time I knew them, these veterans were in their seventies, or very close to it, and a hale and hearty lot they were. There was one man, whose name I do not remember, who lived on a farm a few miles south of town. He had fought at Gettysburg, and in 1913, there was a big fiftieth-anniversary celebration of that battle, with surviving veterans invited to attend. This old chap went to Gettysburg, enjoyed the three days’ activities, and then came home by train, and when he finished the trip, at Beulah, he found that the friend who was to have met him with a buggy to drive him out to his farm had somehow failed to make it. Quite undaunted, the seventy-year-old veteran picked up his carpetbag and hiked the five miles home. He could see nothing remarkable in this because he had had many worse hikes during the war.

In their final years, the G.A.R. men quietly faded away. Their story had been told and retold, affectionate tolerance was beginning to take the place of respectful awe, and in Europe, there was a new war that by its sheer incomprehensible magnitude seemed to dwarf that earlier war we knew so well. One by one, the old men went up to that sun-swept hilltop to sleep beneath the lilacs, and as they departed, we began to lose more than we knew we were losing. For these old soldiers, simply by existing, had unfailingly expressed the faith we lived by; not merely a faith learned in church, but something that shaped us as we grew up. We could hardly have put it into words, and it would not have occurred to us to try, but we oriented our lives to it, and if disorientation lay ahead of us, it would come very hard. It was a faith in the continuity of human experience, in the progress of the nation toward an ideal, in the ability of men to come triumphantly through any challenge. That faith lived, and we lived by it.

Now it is under the lilacs.

Excerpt from Catton, Bruce. Bruce Catton’s America. New Word City, Inc., 2017.

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April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

April 30 1945 Headlines, on display in my classroom.

Today, April 29th, is the anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, 75 years on.

Today, if it is brought up at all, some of us might respond with a vacant stare. More might shrug and turn away. I suppose that is to be expected. But you know me. I just think that as a nation, sometimes we allow things to slip from memory at our peril.

It was real, and it happened. And it was American GIs who overran this camp and many others in the closing days of World War II.

The men of the 42nd and 45th Infantry Division arrived independently of each other, here, in southern Germany, at Dachau, on this day. A concentration camp, they were told. Their noses gave them a hint of what they were about to uncover, miles before the camp appeared in sight.

Read the headlines, above. Note the subarticle:

Boxcars of Dead at Dachau. 32,000 captives freed.

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

And so after some resistance, into the camp they entered. Life changing events were about to unfold for the American soldier.

***

For me, it’s not about hero worship, or glorifying the liberator or any World War II soldier by placing him on a pedestal. Our time with them is now limited, but many of the liberating soldiers I know push back at this, to the point of rejecting the term, “liberator”- “It all sounds so exalted, so glamorous” said one. But they will all accept the term, “eyewitness”.

Witnesses to the greatest crime in the history of the world.

So instead I think it is about honoring their experiences, their shock, the horror, the puking and the crying, the rage-and then, the American GIs recognizing that something had to be done. And they did suffer for it, for trying to do the right thing. Many tried to help by offering food to starving prisoners who just were not ready to handle it, only to see them drop dead. Or having to manhandle these emaciated victims who were tearing away at each other as food was being offered.

Some guys never got over it. How could you?

I have learned so much over the past few years from these guys, just through the way that they carried themselves and tried to cope with what they witnessed. In my World War II studies and Holocaust class, we discuss these issues at length. I’m so lucky to be able to teach it.

A few years back, I was privileged to teach a lesson to my high school seniors for NBC Learn, which was shared with other districts across the nation. Later, I stumbled upon this piece by the late author Tony Hays, who writes about his liberator father and his own encounter with the past. Thanks to the Get It Write folks; the original link is at the bottom.

***

Dachau Will Always Be With Us

by Tony Hays

This is not so much a post about writing as one about a writer’s education, about one of those experiences that molds us, shapes us into storytellers. I read yesterday the story of Joseph Corbsie, whose father, a World War II veteran, left him with a special legacy from the war, from the hideous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. I feel a particular kinship with Mr. Corbsie.

My father, Robert Hays, was the son of an alcoholic tenant farmer in rural west Tennessee. If the appellation “dirt poor” fit anyone, it fit my grandfather’s family. Daddy served in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 30s. He and my mother, who was in the woman’s equivalent of the CCC, working as a nurse’s aide at Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee, met on a blind date in early 1940 and married in September of that year.

But just over a year later, Pearl Harbor happened. America was in the war. My father was among the first of those drafted in 1942. I won’t bore you with the details, but he participated in the North African, Salerno, Anzio, and southern France invasions, saved by the luck of the draw from Normandy. But they slogged through France and on to Germany. On April 29, 1945, Allied troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp. I don’t know whether he entered Dachau that day or the next, but that he was there within hours of the liberation is beyond dispute. A few months later, after more than three years overseas, he came home.

In later years, he would talk occasionally about the war, providing anecdotes that showed the chaos and random chance of battle. He spoke of driving through Kasserine Pass in North Africa just hours before the Germans killed thousands of Allied troops in a stunning attack. He spoke of a friend, defending his position from a foxhole, who was thought dead after an artillery shell landed right next to him. When the dust cleared, the friend was buried up to his neck in dirt, but did not have a scratch on him. He spoke often of Anzio, where he was wounded, and of the massive German air assaults on those soldiers clinging to that tiny sliver of beach along the Italian coast.

But he never spoke of Dachau.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945. USHMM.

 

Ever.

When he died in 1981, we found a photo in his wallet. An old sepia-toned shot like others he had taken during the war, pictures that he kept in an old brown bag. But this one was different.

It showed a pile of naked bodies. Well, really more skeletons than not, with their skin stretched pitifully over their bones. On the back, as had been his habit, was typed simply “Dachau.”

I was confused. Why would he keep this one photo in his wallet all of those years? Especially a photo of a place and event that he never spoke about. It obviously had some deeper meaning for him than the other photographs. If it had been a shot of the building he was in when he was wounded (hit by an artillery shell), I could have seen that. A reminder of his closest brush with death. Yeah, I could buy that. But this macabre photo? That, I couldn’t see.

So, for the next fifteen years, I remained puzzled.

Until the fall of 1996. I was working in Poland, and I had some time off. I took an overnight bus from Katowice, Poland to Munich. It was an interesting trip all in itself. We sat in a line of buses at midnight on the Polish/German border, waiting for our turn to cross, next to a cemetery, as if in some Cold War spy movie. I remember passing Nuremburg and thinking that my father had been there at the end of the war. And then there was Munich.

I spent a day or two wandering through the streets, drinking beer in the Marienplatz. I’m a historical novelist, so the short trip out to Dachau was a no-brainer. Of course it was as much my father’s connection with it as anything else that spurred the visit. But I’m not sure that I was completely aware of that at the time.

Dachau literally sits just on the outskirts of the Munich metropolitan area. I looked at the sign on the train station with a sadness, wondering for how many people that had been one of the last things they saw. It was only later that I discovered there had been another depot for those passengers.

The Dachau Memorial is a place of deep emotion. In the camp proper, mostly all that are left are the foundations of the barracks. One has been reconstructed to give an idea of how horrible life must have been. The camp was originally intended to hold 6,000 inmates; when the Allies liberated Dachau in 1945, they found 30,000. The museum and exhibits are primarily in the old maintenance building. I looked with awe at life size photos of prisoners machine gunned, their hands torn to ribbons from the barbed wire they had tried to climb in a futile attempt at escape.

I followed the visitors (I can’t call them tourists) north to where you crossed over into the crematorium area. It was there that the full brunt of what had taken place at Dachau really hit me. A simple brick complex, it seemed so peaceful on the fall day that I stood before it. But as I read the plaques and consulted my guidebook, as I stepped through the door and actually saw the “shower” rooms where the prisoners were gassed, as I stared into the open doors of the ovens, I felt a rage unlike any I had ever known consume me.[i]

That night, I went to the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich, to wash the images of the ovens away with some beer. I hadn’t been there long when an elderly American couple sat at the table. They were from Florida, a pleasant couple. He had been a young lieutenant in the American army on the push into Munich. In fact, it had been his pleasure to liberate the Hofbrauhaus from the Germans.

Of course, I asked the question. “Were you at Dachau?”

He didn’t answer for several seconds, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes as his wife’s hand covered his and squeezed. Finally, he nodded, reached into a back pocket and pulled out his wallet.

With a flick of his wrist, a photo, just as wrinkled, just as bent, as the one my father had carried landed on the table. It wasn’t the same scene, but one just like it.

Here was my chance, the opportunity to ask the question I had never been able to ask my father. I pulled the photo from my own wallet and lay it next to his. “Why? Why have you carried it so long? To remind you of the horror of Dachau, of what had been done here?”

His face carried the faintest of smiles as he shook his head. “No, son, to remind us of the horrors that we are capable of, to remind us not to go down that road again.”

The difference was subtle, but in that moment, I learned two lessons invaluable to a writer, subtle differences are important, and when you want to know the truth, go to the source.

As I sit here now and look at that same photograph, I realize that it was my father’s legacy to me, of Dachau. Joe Corbsie’s father left him something more tangible, a reminder of the same thing for the same reason, but more forcefully stated — a tiny box of human ash from the ovens.

Dachau is still with us, and I hope the legacy left by our fathers always will be.

The late Tony Hays.

[i] Where the prisoners were gassed- “In 1942, the crematorium area was constructed next to the main camp. It included the old crematorium and the new crematorium (Barrack X) with a gas chamber. There is no credible evidence that the gas chamber in Barrack X was used to murder human beings. Instead, prisoners underwent “selection”; those who were judged too sick or weak to continue working were sent to the Hartheim “euthanasia” killing center near Linz, Austria. Several thousand Dachau prisoners were murdered at Hartheim. Further, the SS used the firing range and the gallows in the crematoria area as killing sites for prisoners.” Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Dachau” Holocaust Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/dachau

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