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Today is Why.

I had some pretty big news I wanted to share today. Good news. But on Saturday, eleven human beings were slaughtered in their sacred house of worship, their synagogue, in Pittsburgh, PA, USA.

It can wait a little longer.

I was at my six-year-old niece’s birthday party as the news unfolded. Little ones were running about the house—it was raining hard outside, the chill of a late October Saturday nor’easter—laughing, playing, joyful. Life!

But an all-too-familiar numbness crept in. How does one make sense of the senseless? How does one begin to find the words, to explain, to understand? And I began to sense the continuation of a profound shift on a national level.

And today we are approaching the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the so-called Night of Broken Glass, when the massive state orchestrated pogrom against the Jews in Germany was unleashed.

How many Americans even know what that means? Or that it all started years before, with words?

Burning synagogue in Ober-Ramstadt, Hesse; Darmstadt, Germany, November 10, 1938. Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Trudy Isenberg


How many good, ordinary Germans looked the other way? Or straight into the camera as their neighbors’ synagogue went up in flames, the firemen dousing the nearby non-Jewish community houses to keep those flames from jumping?

How many good, ordinary Americans read those newspaper headlines on Nov. 10, 1938, and turned to the sports pages? In a just a few short years, two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish community would be slaughtered.

New York Times, November 11th 1938. Nazis smash, loot and burn Jewish shops and temples. Credit: New York Times


And writing this, here in America, brings forth a flash of memory. Several summers back I was flipping through the Wall Street Journal in a quiet setting with a companion sitting nearby, normally a champion of human rights for all. It was just the two of us and he suddenly remarked something to the effect that “it’s the Jews who control Wall Street”. I was shocked, because he was aware of my work with Holocaust survivors and Holocaust education. He has Jewish  friends, so I think he thought he was needling me, but he kept pushing—”you going to tell me it’s not true?”—so that he could argue it, and he struck me as serious. I felt a chill. I didn’t understand then, and I don’t now, what brought that on. For sport? I didn’t engage with him, like he wanted, but something shifted then on a level that I’m still trying to figure out.

And I’ve been trying to figure out a lot of things these past couple years. Because I think words, like history, matter.

I will always love my friend, but I sometimes think there are times when some people may wonder when I’m going to get off this ‘Holocaust affectation’. Well, probably never.  Because I guess they don’t get it. There is a reason I am here to do what I do. There is a reason I spent ten years, the last one feverishly, writing a book while teaching full time, a couple times wondering if I would survive it. If they struggle to understand how an interest became a passion that became a mission, they should pick it up sometime.

Because it’s never over.

Because I’m tired of trying to explain, to ‘understand’.


Richard Gottfried, 65
Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Cecil Rosenthal, 59
David Rosenthal, 54
Bernice Simon, 84
Sylvan Simon, 86
Daniel Stein, 71
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69


Eleven gentle souls brutally taken in their sanctuary.

In the United States of America.


Because today is ‘why’.


A mutual friend in Holocaust education circles found the words on Saturday.

Today is why.

By Juanita Ray, North Carolina Council on the Holocaust

October 27, 2018


If you want to know why I study the causes, events, and horrors of the Holocaust…today is why.


If you want to know why I left my dear, beloved theatre kids to teach this dark history…today is why.


If you want to know why I spend my retirement time working with the NC Council on the Holocaust and the NC Center for the Advancement of Teaching to train teachers in Holocaust Education…today is why.


If you want to know why many of my posts are about love, acceptance, justice, and tolerance…today is why.


If you want to know why we still bother to teach this history that “was so long ago” and

“not on my end of course test”…today is why.


If you want to know why I still read and research and teach about the dangers of extremist political ideologies…today is why.


If you want to know why I taught my students to be upstanders- not bystanders…today is why.


If you want to know why when I visited a synagogue in Vienna in 2011, I had to show my passport…today is why.


If you still believe the horrors of past antisemitism could never happen here, or again…open your eyes.


Don’t become too comfortable with events like today. Guard you words, guard your hearts. Love your neighbors as yourselves. Seek to do good and repair the world– Tikkun Olam.


If you have any doubt where I stand… I stand with, for, and beside those who are hated, bullied, dehumanized, ostracized, targeted, scapegoated, threatened, harmed, and sadly, killed. But I cannot just stand by. Perhaps I have a bleeding heart, but I cannot have a hardened heart.


Esther 4:14– Perhaps you were born for such a time as this.


NO ONE, EVER, ANYWHERE should have to be afraid to enter a house of worship.

[Further Reading: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/antisemitism]


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On the Run.

Floyd Dumas (L) and two other escapees, Bill Robb of Scotland and a South African, pose for a portrait while behind enemy lines in Rome, 1944.
Courtesy Floyd Dumas.

Last night I gave a talk about my books and focused on the new one, The Things Our Fathers Saw-The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation-Volume IV: Up the Bloody Boot-The War in Italy (Volume 4).  It was well received and I shared the story of my 98 year old friend Floyd Dumas, who was captured at a German counterattack during the battle for Anzio in early 1944 and spent the next 4 months after escaping on the run behind German lines.

I’ll share a few more stories from the book in the coming weeks.

From the deserts of North Africa to the mountains of Italy, the men and women veterans of the Italian campaign open up about a war that was so brutal, news of it was downplayed at home. As we forge ahead as a nation, we owe it to ourselves to become reacquainted with a generation that is fast leaving us, who asked for nothing but gave everything, to attune ourselves as Americans to a broader appreciation of what we stand for.


Floyd Dumas was a soldier in the 45th Infantry Division. The author had heard about Floyd’s story and called him up to invite him in for a World War II prisoner of war symposium at his high school. Mr. Dumas was gracious and thankful on the phone, but initially declined. Then he had a change of heart. He had something to say.


[The day I escaped], it was in the afternoon and we were in the big building where they’d lock us in at night, after they gave us the loaf of bread. During the day they kept it unlocked, so you could be in the building or out in the yard. There were a bunch of us playing cards in the big building when an air raid sounded. All the guards were looking up at the sky and watching our Air Force bombing near the prison camp. One of the men who was in the yard came in while we were playing cards and said two men ripped the fence and escaped. He asked if anyone else wanted to try and get out. I said, ‘I’ll go,’ and a British guy said, ‘I’ll go,’ but no one else would try.

We went out in the yard. The fence was ripped open and a large group stood around to block the guards’ view, and the Englishman and I went through, but we were still inside the prison camp! We scouted around and found a small room with fake scenery in it, I suppose as a part of the movie industry. We hid in this room until dark, [and miraculously] a storm came up and it started to rain hard, with thunder and lightning, which was good for us—I don’t know how we got that lucky. Now I don’t care if you’re an American soldier, a British soldier, or a Japanese soldier, but when you’re on guard duty and it’s raining, you’re going to look for a spot where you’re not going to get too wet, and that’s what the Germans did—they never saw us going through the yard even with the lights on.

The Germans must’ve been doing some work next to the [outside] wall, and they had thrown dirt up against it just high enough so we could get up to the top of the wall and throw ourselves over. They had barbed wire and broken glass on top of the wall, but the two of us got over and fell down on the other side.

We ran across the countryside, and on the way we were so hungry, we’re pulling up carrots and stuff and eating the dirt and all. We came upon a farmhouse and knocked on the door, and an old Italian couple was sleeping next to a fireplace on the floor, an old man and the old lady. We knocked on the door, they came, and we had little [Army] booklets with Italian language phrases, you know, so we said, ‘Americano soldato’ and ‘Inglese soldato.’ They said, ‘Sì,’ and let us in. We were wringing wet, but we were able to dry out our clothes; they had us sit by the fireplace and dry off and gave us some bread and ricotta, which the woman warmed up. The old man spoke a little English, he said, ‘You no can stay here tomorrow, the Germans catch you here, they kill us.’
We said, ‘Well, what are we going to do? Where are we going to go?’

He said, ‘Half a mile away down the road there’s a bombed-out house. You can go down in there and hide for a while.’
At daybreak, the Englishman and I left and found it, but then he wanted to try to get back to our lines. Can you imagine that? [Laughs] Here we are, way behind the German lines, and he wants to get back to our lines.

I said, ‘What are you, crazy? You can’t get through all those German soldiers!’
He said, ‘Well, I think we should try.’
I said, ‘You want to try, you go ahead.’

He tried, he got challenged by a German outpost, and they shot him right there. I heard the shot.

I stayed at that bombed house for three or four days, and I still had an American uniform on. I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to do something pretty soon.’ There was a small town not too far away. I said, ‘I got to take a chance and when there’s no Germans around, I’m going to have to walk into the [town] and tell them I’m an American soldier.’ The people all hated the Germans anyway, so they greeted me, and I was all right.

They got me into civilian clothes. I traded my combat jacket to a sheep herder for his long black coat, [and the family I stayed with gave me] a silk shirt and an old pair of shoes with holes in the toes; I wish I had a picture of that. I held on to my dog tags and put them in my shoe, to prove I was an American GI, and I stayed there quite a few days. I heard there was another soldier nearby—an Indian soldier who spoke English, so they got me in touch with him. I don’t know if he was [an escaped] prisoner of war, I don’t know what he was. He was staying with an Italian family and had learned a lot of the language, and we got to talking.

Each morning, the Indian and I would go to a neighbor with a bucket to get some ricotta cheese. There were a lot of Germans manning anti-aircraft guns in the area. One morning, one of the Germans asked the Indian, ‘Why doesn’t your friend with you ever talk?’
The Indian responded, ‘He was in the Italian Army and a bomb fell near him, and he became deaf and dumb.’
The German said, ‘That’s too bad.’ So this is what I did. After living in this little village for about a month, more and more German soldiers arrived in and around the village. I started to get a bit scared that I would get caught; maybe one of the villagers would squeal on me. I said to the Indian, ‘I don’t like staying in the country here like this.’
He said, ‘Well, I’ve been here quite a while, and they haven’t been bothering me at all.’
I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to notice that the Vatican was taking in escaped prisoners of war, so you suppose you could get me into Rome and over to the Vatican and I could try to get in there?’
He said, ‘Yes, in a couple of days.’ So we headed for Rome.


Getting to Rome was not a picnic. We had to go through a number of German roadblocks [to get to the train station], but they did not bother us as hundreds of people went into Rome each day to bring their produce to the open market. Some walked the eighteen miles; some took buses, drove horses and carts in, or took a train. We walked to the train station and got on the train. The train was always packed with people bringing in pigs, hens, and vegetables for the market. When the train stopped in Rome, we took a bus to Vatican City. We went up and the Indian talked to one of the Swiss guards at the Vatican.

He said, ‘No, they’ve not allowed any more prisoners in the Vatican. We’re neutral and we’re not allowed to do it.’
I said, ‘Well, we’ve heard that there were escaped prisoners in here.’
He said, ‘There are, but they’ve put a stop to it.’ They wouldn’t let us in.

He said, ‘But you’ve got to go back to the country where you were, and after three days, you come back here, and right over to the left here, there’s an alleyway. When that clock strikes twelve there, you look across the street. There’ll be a man standing there with a black overcoat on, and in his right-hand pocket he’ll have a newspaper. When he takes the newspaper down from his face and puts it in his pocket, you go across the street and say, ‘Americano soldato,’ and that’s all you’ve got to say.’

We went back to the country, and then three days later we went back there, and that’s exactly how it happened. The man I met with the newspaper was a priest; he worked with the Italian underground. The priest went ahead and I followed him onto a bus. He paid the tokens and we got on the bus, rode for a while, and then transferred to another very crowded bus. Finally, after about an hour of busing, we got off and walked two blocks and came to a big building surrounded by a high wall, with a huge iron gate and a bell on the side.
The priest rang the doorbell, and soon a nun came to the gate and let us in. We walked in a side entrance and opened a door that led to a small room. A small table for two was set with a loaf of bread and a bottle of red wine. The priest closed the door and put out his hand and said, ‘You did fine, and we got here okay.’
He said, ‘Tomorrow you will be introduced to a Scotsman who is here, and you will be together until Rome falls to the Allies.’

The Scotsman’s name was Bill Robb, from Aberdeen, Scotland. He was taken prisoner at Tobruk in the desert of North Africa by the Germans. [In Italy], the Germans piled him and a large group of prisoners into a train to send them to Germany. He tore the bars off the boxcars and jumped off the train. He broke his left leg in the jump, but the Italians hid him and nursed him back to health. He had been behind the lines a long time and learned the Italian language fluently. So, we met in that convent and would stay together until the war in Italy was over.


We went back up to [that cave near] Tor Sapienza. We had the young Italian kids on guard while we slept at night. Finally, one morning at 5:30, two of the young guards came in the cave and hollered, ‘The Americans are here, in the town next to us. There are dead German soldiers all over the place!’
We said, ‘Ahh, you’re crazy, they’re not here yet. They aren’t going to take Rome yet.’

‘Come here, come here!’ They showed us a package of Camel cigarettes, and Holy Jesus, right away I knew it was true! I’ll never forget it. Sure enough, the 88th Infantry Division was coming through, so we walked right in with them. We talked to an American officer and told him who we were; I showed him my dog tags and we followed them into the city of Rome. There were German tanks burning in the streets and snipers shooting all over the place in the city, but in six hours, Rome was completely taken.

We were interrogated by American officers and told them our story. They turned us over to a British outfit; I guess they were going to stay in Rome to keep things under control. The British said we had to get out of the civilian clothes. So, they gave us British uniforms, shorts, knee socks, heavy shoes, a shirt, and a beret.
They gave me the name of a captain who was in Naples and said I was to report to him as soon as possible.
I said, ‘How do I get to Naples?’
They gave me a map and said, ‘Hitchhike. We have no transportation for you.’

So, with my nice new British uniform on, I did just that. I found the address I had been given but it took some time, as Naples is a large city. The captain I was to see ran a PoW camp with hundreds of German prisoners. He asked me a lot of questions about what we did behind the lines and what we saw, then told me to get out of the British uniform and he would supply me with one of ours.
I was in Naples about a week before he could get me a plane to Oran on July 21, 1944, a mail plane with bucket seats and everything. From North Africa I was put on a ship for Hampton Roads, Virginia, for about ten days. Eventually I was flown with three other soldiers from Camp Pickett, Virginia, to Washington, D.C. The Army put us up in a beautiful hotel and gave us money from the American Red Cross. For two hours each morning, we had to answer questions from high officials at a building in Washington. After that, we were on our own to do whatever we wanted; we had a great time, drank a lot of beer, and ate in nice restaurants—but the next morning we had to go back to interrogation.


I was out of the Army in 1945 and was working for a milk company, and there was an ad in the paper for a men’s clothing store. I went and applied for the job; I had to learn tailoring, store management, window trimming, and all that. I got the job and I picked up the tailoring really quickly. I learned it in six months; they couldn’t understand [how I picked up the trade so fast]. I’m telling my sister this, and she said, ‘Well, your Uncle Eli was the top tailor in Malone here years ago, maybe he’s brushing off on you.’ After my training was done in the Malone store, they gave me a store to run in Danbury, Connecticut. Then they transferred me to Glens Falls, Steins’ Men’s Clothing Store, and I have been here ever since; now I do tailoring out of my [basement shop]. Do you know that I have had three millionaires as my clients? That’s right, Charley Wood used to come over to my house to get measured up. Then I started going to his place…


Bill Robb went back to Aberdeen, Scotland, and we kept in touch over the years. He had got married and had a child, but couldn’t find work in Aberdeen. [Unbeknownst to me], he moved to Montreal, Quebec, just an hour and a half from my hometown, Malone, New York! He was in a pub drinking beer in Montreal and these old guys were talking about Malone.
‘Jesus,’ he said, ‘that guy Giovanni behind the lines with me in Italy said he was from Malone!’ [Laughs] In Italy, my [alias] was Giovanni Ganzi; there’s no Floyd Dumas in Italy. [Laughs] So he said to his wife, ‘I’ve got to go see him,’ and jumped in his car and went to Malone. He found my parents on Brown Street, and my parents said, ‘No, he now lives in Danbury, Connecticut!’ They told him how to get there.

He came and stayed two weeks with us; can you imagine that? [Laughs] Everything panned out good. And I used to hear from him here and there. In the last Christmas card I got from him quite a few years ago, he was a steel worker in Chicago working on bridges, but that was the end. I haven’t heard from him since; [he probably] died like a lot of them. I don’t know of one other person who is still alive in the company that I was in; I don’t even run into anybody in my division.


The war affected my life, sure, but I would say that I got over it good. Yes, I’ve thought a lot about it. I used to have wicked dreams, but I wouldn’t talk about it for a long, long time. Finally, I sat there with my wife and I said, ‘What’s the matter with me? They’re not teaching this in school. I better start opening my mouth.’ So, I went to Hudson Falls High School and I gave [several] talks over the years, and Mr. Rozell tells my story.

Vol. IV The War in Italy

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Looking out of my writing studio, Oct. 2017. Pic by me.


Matthew Rozell will have a book launch, talk and signing at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Easton Library, 1074 State Route 40, Easton, NY. Signed books will be available for $20.

As I write this, it’s rainy and cool here in upstate New York after a long hot summer. I haven’t posted in a while as I find myself making the transition from classroom teacher to full-time writer, and the seasonal changes are almost a metaphor for what’s going on in my life, though at heart I’ll always be an educator with something to say. So, I keep writing, and it’s that time of year to introduce a new book to the world. But first…

I’ve been fortunate that my books have resonated with people on a national scale. The other day I did an assessment and over 75K copies of my books have been sold, mostly ebooks but plenty of paperbacks, and some audiobooks as well, on a trajectory with some better known, more traditionally published authors. And it’s seven days a week hard work. I’m amazed, too, that I wrote the first three and a half while I was also teaching full time. This time of the year though, I like to set the pen down and go out into the world to meet the people who read them.

I did a session of meet and greet in our village park last Sunday, a beautiful second day of fall—brisk in the morning, warming by afternoon, bright sunshine and blue skies. Traffic was light, but people showed interest in the books and I had some great conversations. My fourth-grade teacher happened to pass by, and said she was downsizing last week and found a booklet of our class’s writings (1970-71) that she had ‘published’ on the old blue mimeograph paper, I think, including some words by yours truly! You know, I suddenly remembered all that, and how proud I was, how proud my mother in particular was, at the time. Unfortunately, Mrs. F tossed it in the dumpster, something I would have regretted if I were her [ha ha]… but don’t be surprised if I packed it away somewhere, too.

A young girl appeared, picked up my books, wondering incredulously if I had written them all. I told her I did. She was impressed, and had many questions about the process, even the cost, which I answered. “Make sure you hire a good cover artist, for one, and a proofreader!” She picked up the heftiest one, ‘A Train Near Magdeburg’, and asked flat out how long it had taken to write. “Ten years”, I replied. Her eyes bulged out of her sockets as she exclaimed, “Ten years! That’s how long I have been alive!” I chuckled at that, explaining that I had to learn a lot in order to understand what I was writing, and asked her if she liked to write. She nodded, and I asked her if she liked to read. “Good”, I said as she nodded again. “Because that is how you become a great writer.” She got it, thanked me politely, and scampered off to join her family, though she peppered me with questions for so long that they were no longer in sight!

A former student or two came by again, including one who told me she had been at the Red Lion Inn in a town in the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts, about a hundred miles away, a place my late mother loved to go to on her forays to the Berkshires arts scene. This former student, now a mom herself, overheard a group of women discussing a read about the Holocaust that they had undertaken together (as a book club probably), and she realized they were discussing ‘A Train Near Magdeburg’. I’ve been thinking of putting out a discussion guide for a while now, so maybe this was the sign to get moving on it. There is a lot to talk about…history is sooo not dead. To quote William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Some more of my superfans came by to pick up the ‘must have’ books that they missed, including a guy I was talking to for quite a while before he reminded me of his name, one of my sister’s first boyfriends going back to the days when he would help my father split wood at camp! Humbled and honored that people are touched enough by my words to come out and talk to me, and my next talk is in a couple days.

Anyway, thought I would give you an update. The new book is on the war in North Africa and Italy, a campaign so brutal, news of it was downplayed at home. Did you know that 20% of the Medal of Honor awards given in World War II came out of this 900-day campaign? Don’t worry, nobody does. My book helps to fill in the gaps, in their own words. I’ll give a talk about it Thursday evening, details below from today’s newspaper. I’ll also be posting more about the new book, upcoming gigs, and other developments; feel free to follow me at my Facebook author page for daily links to articles on WW2 and the Holocaust that I find facinating.

A time to write, a time to talk.


Hometown Column: Retired educator’s newest WWII book focuses on Italy

by Gretta Hochsprung

When Matthew Rozell started teaching history, he felt a two-day lesson on World War II just wasn’t enough.

“I said, ‘How many of you have a parent or grandparent who was in World War II?’ and every kid shot up at least one hand,’ ” said Rozell, who taught at Hudson Falls High School for almost 30 years.

He sent home surveys with his students with the assignment to interview their World War II veteran relatives, who had spent years keeping their war memories to themselves.

“These guys were ready to talk,” said Rozell, sitting in a windowed room at his post-and-beam Hartford home with views of Crane and Gore mountains.

Rozell and his students spent years interviewing veterans, resulting in six books. Rozell’s latest book, the fourth volume of the series “The Things Our Fathers Saw,” is now available. He has sold more than 75,000 books based on the interviews he has conducted with local World War II veterans.[1]

The fourth volume, “Up the Bloody Boot — The War in Italy,” tells firsthand accounts of combat and brotherhood from the war in Italy. One of the stories in the book is about local tailor Floyd Dumas, who was captured by the Germans at a major battle in Italy. He escaped and was on the run for four months.

“A lot of these guys were ready to talk to young people,” Rozell said, pointing out that “some of the stories that they told, they had never told anyone besides their friends who’d had the same experience.”

For some veterans, they were realizing that people were forgetting and didn’t understand the enormity and aftermath of the war that left no American community unscathed.

Rozell knew he needed to do something with all the research and collection of personal stories. He published his first book in July 2015, two years before he retired from teaching. It was about the men and women in the Pacific.

For some unexplained reason, book sales took off two years ago, and Rozell was selling 100 books a day in e-books, print books and audio books.

Through his interviews, research and books, Rozell has been able to reunite 275 Holocaust survivors with their liberators and has seen them come together at reunions.

“This is the story of a person,” Rozell said, “who had an interest, that turned into a passion, that turned into a mission.”

Rozell will have a book launch, talk and signing at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Easton Library, 1074 State Route 40. Signed books will be available for $20. All his books are available on Amazon or MatthewRozell.com.


[1] Almost all the first-person interviews my students and I collected over the years were deposited in the New York State Military Museum for future generations to learn from—over a hundred to date. As one of the most active contributors to their program, I also leaned on them for some related interviews I edited with a loving hand for this book.

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(What if you imagined something, beyond imagination?)


My last child graduated from high school today, the same high school that I graduated from nearly 40 years ago.

The two of us piled into the truck for the 15-minute commute to the school, one we have been making for the past 13 years. She had her green graduation gown already on, and before I turned the key, I turned to look at her and say, ‘You know, this is our last trip together to the school.’ Mary replied, ‘Let’s go Dad! I’m going to be late!’ And that was that…

I got the call about 6 weeks ago that they wanted to start a new tradition, and add a keynote speaker to the graduation program. They picked me for the inaugural. This is a class I regretted leaving when I retired just before their senior year.

The venue, our air conditioned high school gymnasium, was packed. The salutatorian and valedictorian, who I was so proud of, delivered their own addresses to their peers that mirrored what we all had to say perfectly.

Anyway, I was grateful for the opportunity to speak. Afterwards, I went to the cemetery and stood before my parents’ grave, in the pouring rain. I updated them on the kids, read their inscriptions aloud, wished them a happy upcoming anniversary, told them I hoped I’d made them and my hometown proud.

I walked away with the rain, and maybe something else, streaming down my face.


Today is the day of your high school graduation. It’s called commencement because today is the beginning of the rest of your life, beyond these hallowed halls.

This is the day that you have long awaited, that some of you perhaps are meeting with equal parts excitement and sorrow, a day that you may remember for the rest of your life. So when I was asked to address you, the Class of 2018, I was honored, I was flattered, and I was happy to know I would have your full and complete attention for at least one time in my life.


You are going out into a brave new world, a scary place to navigate. It helps to have a bedrock of confidence, a road map, a plan ‘A’, a plan ‘B’. But the fact is that you can’t plan. Some of my best planned lessons were destroyed by factors beyond my control, like the 3-minute PA announcement of Prom Court just as a World War II veteran was finishing a tearful story. And sometimes the best received lessons were totally unscripted and from the heart.

But alas, today I am forced to stay on message, so to keep this short, I came up with a ‘graduation advice list’ on my own, without cheating on Google. I now gift you with Mr. Rozell’s 15 Words of Wisdom.

#1. Don’t address your new boss, or your new drill instructor, or your new college professor by their last name only, no matter how cool it sounds. It’s not going to end well.

#2. It’s nice to have a plan. But if you don’t know what you want to do with your life right now, you don’t have to collapse into a quivering mess after the ceremony.

#3. A plan is a nice touch, but your life will thank you more if you have a passion. Now take that further. Turn your passion into a PURPOSE.

#4 Accept that ‘stuff’ happens. For example, as I was typing this, my daughter decided that that exact moment would be the best time to finally turn on the vacuum cleaner and attack her room, instigating major writer’s distraction. But life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

#5. Recognize that your setbacks are gifts in disguise. How you react to your failures or disappointments can be defining moments and set the table for your achievements. [The noisy vacuum reminds me of my delight in being Mary’s dad, the daily gift of her presence in our lives, tinged with a bittersweet understanding that someday all will be quiet.]

#6. Appreciate your education. Value learning. Teach yourself something new every day. Ignorance is not really bliss, as proven hourly in your social media feed. Recognize too that knowledge does not always equate to understanding. Sometimes you just have to accept the mystery.

#7. See the world with a sense of wonder. Be open to new experiences and new people. Un-plug. If you can’t travel, lose yourself in a book.

#8. Try to see something good in a person or a situation where you think there can’t possibly be anything good. Take a sad song, and make it better.

#9 Be curious. Ask questions. Recognize that having the question is more important than getting the answer.

#10. Be terrified of that first new step. Then take it. Take risks. Ask yourself “WHAT IF?”

#11. Guard your reputation. Honor your integrity. Cultivate your character. And audit your friends for the same.

#12. Use your gifts for the power of good. Kindness is contagious. There’s no such thing as coincidence. There is such a thing as karma.

#13. Miracles happen. Recognize the miracles in your life. Recognize that your existence is a miracle.

#14. No matter how much you want to get out of Hudson Falls or the high school, don’t forget where you came from and the people who shaped you. I’ve met people who were honored by their school who then talked trash about their own hometown. Don’t be that guy or girl, ever. If you don’t like what you see, change it. Don’t walk away and badmouth it from a safe distance.

Finally, #15. If you ever have to give a speech like this, remember that no one will remember your advice unless you tell a story to go with it. Also remind your audience at that point that your remarks are half over.


Forty years ago when I was a senior in high school, I told my parents that I did not know what I wanted to do, but I did know I was not going to stay in Hudson Falls. I also smugly informed my father, a history teacher, that I was not going to be a teacher. Seven years later I was living back under their roof and driving his car up Main Street to Hudson Falls High School. Most of the waking hours of my life were spent in these very halls.

When I started as a teacher I was the students’ third teacher that year. They did not welcome me with open arms, and I saw them as mean 9th graders. It was rough. I was still living with my parents down across from the Dog Shack praying I would get laid off because I was too chicken to quit. I got through the first year, but I almost cried when I saw my class list the next fall. But a funny thing happened, the now-tenth graders were genuinely glad to see me. I became their class advisor, and some of them are friends and teachers today.

When we began to interview World War II veterans I let my passion become a purpose in the classroom and it became contagious. Seventeen summers ago, I interviewed Judge Walsh on Coleman Avenue. I was going to shut the video camera off, but his daughter Elizabeth Connolly prodded him to tell me about a train he encountered with another tank commander at the end of WW2. My PASSION to learn more would not allow me to let it go. I contacted the other tank commander, who had more stories and even pictures of the liberation of a train full of concentration camp victims.

With PURPOSE I put them on the school website I built. Four whole years went by and then I heard from a grandmother in Australia who had been a 7-year-old girl on that train. Just then three more survivors appeared-all organically, and all within reasonable distance, but in hindsight, I don’t believe in coincidences.

At the time I just asked myself, “WHAT IF?” And our school community got behind it and we pulled off a reunion at the high school between the survivors and Judge Walsh in 2007, the first of 11 reunions worldwide that reunited 300 survivors and their families with the soldiers who freed them. I had taken the risk and spent many sleepless nights, I was terrified. What if the students are rude? What if one of the elderly people has a heart attack? But it was nothing less than an outpouring of love from this school and this community. And this love was powerful enough to break the barriers of space and time; we all became overnight best friends.


I want to close with the miracles and mysteries of life. Leslie Meisels, a survivor from Hungary, told me he had always thought for all his adult life that he had been graced with three miracles.

The first was after the Germans had invaded his country and the family was forced to wait for transports that, unknown to his community were heading straight to Auschwitz where up to 25,000 people were being murdered every day. At a time when 17-year-old boys did not talk back to their mothers (his father was already taken) he defied her and insisted that his mother and his younger siblings board a train they were not supposed to be on. She relented, and that transport was the only one shunted away from Auschwitz that day.

The second miracle was as he just finished handing off a bag of stolen beets to his mother behind a guard’s back when the guard suddenly whipped around and barked orders to him. The guard then shot another boy to death, catching him in the act of stealing beets for survival as Leslie had just done.

The third miracle, he would tell his audiences, was the day of his liberation at the hands of U.S. forces. April 13th, 1945. Friday the 13th. His luckiest day, his new birthday.

Today Leslie goes to schools and tells of the fourth miracle, being able to meet and laugh and cry with his actual liberators, whom he met at this very high school nine years ago —and that it was ‘just beyond imagination’. And every April 13th, he emails birthday greetings to all his ‘twins’, his fellow survivors of that train whom he met right here in Hudson Falls.

Most of the soldiers are dead now, but those ripples go forth, still, and for all time. Why did that ‘fourth miracle’ unfold at that time in his life? That is the question I have asked myself many, many times. And to me it will have to remain a MYSTERY, one that began with another question: “WHAT IF?”

A final thought: Students like you had good questions, too. One asked another survivor if anything good came out of the Holocaust. The survivor thought a minute, because it was an important question, and replied, ‘Yes. My rescuers.’ A victim of the greatest crime in the history of the world found some good out of the evil.


Some of you will remember the days when I began my lessons with, ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your life’, and it wasn’t just on the days when I was passing tests back.

Maybe today you will take me seriously.

Your life is a miracle and you are adored by everyone in this room.

Have a purpose, cherish your honor, and don’t look back in old age with regrets.

Have fun, keep that sense of wonder, and don’t be afraid to ask the words, “WHAT IF?”



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My friend Frank Towers would have turned 101 years old today. Frank passed on July 4th, 2016.

Frank W. Towers.

Frank was born on June 13, 1917. Think about that for a minute. John F. Kennedy also came into the world, less than a month before Frank. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody left the world. American involvement in WWI was just getting underway, and Frank’s future 30th Infantry Division was formally activated. Gandhi was tromping around India, investigating the poor conditions of local farmers under British rule. Revolutionaries in Ireland were still licking their wounds after the doomed Easter Rising against the British the year before. The Russian Revolution was just getting started. American suffragettes that summer were arrested for picketing the White House for the right to vote for women.

So into this world came Frank W. Towers. And Frank Towers came into my life after he had already lived a good, long one, in September, 2007, shortly after he turned 90. But he had more things to do before the Almighty called him home.

Frank Towers by Pete Fredlake, USHMM, 2010.

He did not know me, and I did not know him-I have never even been to Florida, where he lived. But, from the news he learned of a reunion that we had recently done at our high school. He read about how I had reunited World War II tank commanders from the US Army 743rd Tank Battalion and 30th Infantry Division with the children of the Holocaust who he also had helped to liberate. And Frank said to himself, “Wait, I know about this. I was there, too.”

Frank reached out to me and we began a fruitful partnership in trying to locate more of the survivors who were on that train. He invited me, and the survivors, to the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II reunions that they held annually down south. And these were powerfully moving events, to see the soldiers touched by the gestures of the survivors; and for the survivors to laugh and cry with their liberators was a gift that they, their children and grandchildren, will never forget. We also held additional reunions at our school, for the sake of making students the new witnesses to what happened during the Holocaust. Varda W., a survivor’s daughter in Israel, even orchestrated a massive reunion of 55 survivors and their children for Frank in Rehovot, Israel when he was almost 94… talk about a rock star. I was there to see him mobbed.

Frank Towers greeting survivors at the Weizmann Institute, Rehovot, Israel, May 2011. Credit: Matthew Rozell


There’s talk this week in Holocaust education circles of another important birthday, and another ‘Frank’-Anne Frank would have turned 89 yesterday.  She came into the world on June 12, 1929, in Frankfurt, Germany; I’ve seen the house where she was born, and I’ve been to the place where she died, at age 15. Just shy of her last birthday, on June 6th, 1944, she recorded the following entry:

‘This is D-Day,’ the BBC announced at 12 o’clock. This is the day. The invasion has begun!

Anne Frank iat school in 1940,Amsterdam, the Netherlands). Unknown photographer; public domain.

Is this really the beginning of the long-awaited liberation? The liberation we’ve all talked so much about, which still seems too good, too much of a fairy tale ever to come true?… The best part of the invasion is that I have the feeling that friends are on the way. Those terrible Germans have oppressed and threatened us for so long that the thought of friends and salvation means everything to us!

On D-Day, 26 year old 1st Lieutenant Frank Towers was also listening to this news in England as the 30th Infantry Division was preparing to ship out to the battle a few days later. Anne and her family would be betrayed in Amsterdam that August, as Frank’s 30th infantry Division held off a massive German counterattack in Mortain, France. The family was deported to Auschwitz and then Anne and her sister Margot were sent to Bergen Belsen, all the while with the Allies slugged forth through that long summer, fall and winter into 1945. Anne and Margot died in Belsen before the spring came, and liberation; there is a marker to honor them but they lie in a mass grave there today, whereabouts unknown, like so many thousands of others. Frank would not know them, but would help to liberate and rescue some 2500 from the train near Magdeburg, including some who knew of the Frank sisters. And yes, we are left to ponder some of Anne Frank’s closing words to humanity:

I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that only 5,000 of the 107,000 Jews deported from the Netherlands between 1942 and 1944 survived. That’s less than 5%. But I close today with Frank Towers, at age 97, in the Netherlands in 2014 meeting the generations who survived because of that fateful day when the US Army investigated a curious Bergen-Belsen transport stopped by the tracks near the Elbe River. And listen to the little girl in the video. The world was too late for Anne Frank, but maybe her ideals indeed live on.


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So, it is the sixth of June again.

American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, the primary landing zone for Americans during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944. (U.S. Air Force Photo)The ocean pounds the advance of sand amidst the relics of a different age, the hulking remnants of the tide of battle. The surf rolls in and kisses the beach, as the last participants mix on the hallowed bluff above with the politicians who have gathered from all over the world.

Thirty years ago I watched as the American president honored  the fallen, and the living, at the cemetery for the fortieth anniversary. Just out of college, something stirred inside me. Something was awoken.

Those thirty years have passed. I began by writing letters to the newspaper. I began to interview D-Day veterans and others. I began to collect stories- not relics, prizes, or artifacts. I really had little interest in captured Nazi flags or samurai swords.

I wanted to talk to the men who were there.

The fiftieth anniversary came next with great pomp and more reflection. It graced the covers of the major newsweeklies. “Saving Private Ryan” stirred the consciousness of a new generation, and reflections of the old. And I learned so much more of the war beyond the beachhead. That there were so many beachheads.

The sixtieth anniversary came around. Students on their bi-annual trips to France would bring me back their photographs and the requisite grains of white sand from Omaha Beach. Teenagers had their emotions  a bit tempered, I think. I would go on to introduce them to so many who were there. When they themselves were teenagers.

So now it is the seventy-fourth. On the 65th, I wrote about a friend who is no longer here, but today I would like to introduce you to a survivor of D Day who is still with us.

I first met Bill Gast at a reunion of 30th Infantry Division and 743rd Tank Battalion soldiers at a reunion in March 2008, in which I  was present with several Holocaust survivors who were meeting their liberating soldiers for the first time. Later, Bill came to my high school to speak to students. I think the experience of sharing, and meeting the Holocaust survivors whom the 743rd came upon and liberated, affected him deeply.

Unlike many who may be physically able, Bill has no intention of going back to the sands of Omaha for this anniversary. As he explained to our students in 2009,

“I’m listed [in the event program] as a liberator- however, I am also a survivor of World War II, having landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on D-day and fighting through to the end when the Germans surrendered, May the 7th, 1945.”


Video games.



They simply do not covey the feeling of fear.

The shock.

The stench.

The noise.

The horror, and the tragedy.

The injured.

The suffering.

The dying, and the dead.”


D-Day: the view from a tank on Omaha Beach

Washington (AFP) – From inside his tank, the young soldier could see “practically nothing” on Omaha Beach.

Seventy years later, William Gast still wonders whether he rolled over his comrades sheltering from German gunfire that day.

Gast was 19 years old the morning of June 6, 1944. “We came in at H-10, that was 10 minutes before the designated hour.”

He cannot recall why he and his fellow soldiers arrived early, but he has other memories that have never left him.

As part of Company A, 743rd Tank Battalion, 1st Army, Gast remembers the training beforehand in Britain, when he rehearsed driving the Sherman tank onto the landing craft. And then floating in the English Channel.

“Another night we went out and we didn’t come back. That was it.”

Gast got to know the captain of the landing craft that would ferry his tank to the beaches of Normandy.

The skipper promised he would get them close enough that they would not be submerged in water, like so many tanks were that day.

He kept his word.

Another tank unit at Omaha Beach was less fortunate, with 27 of 32 tanks launched at sea five kilometers (three miles) from the coast sinking before they could reach land, despite being outfitted with a flotation screens.

“The order was given to go, we started our engines up, they lowered the ramp,” said Gast.

Amid German shrapnel and sea spray, he “could feel the tracks spinning.”

At last, the tank tracks took hold on the sandy sea bottom and he drove up the beach.

– Like throwing marbles at a car –

Down below in the driver’s seat, Gast tried to steer the tank with the aid of a small, manual periscope.

“You can imagine how much we could see, practically nothing,” he said.

The radios inside the tank were so unreliable that his commander would tell Gast which way to turn by kicking him on the left or right shoulder.

The difficulty in seeing the way ahead has left Gast with a gnawing sense that he may have run over the bodies of American soldiers on the beach.

“The saddest part about the whole thing is, not being able to see, I may have run over some of my own people.

“And if I did, I don’t even know it. I can’t ever get that out of my mind, you know?”

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Corporal Gast heard machine gun bullets hitting the side of the tank, “like throwing marbles at a car — that’s what it sounded like.”

“And there were shells that exploded right beside me. You could feel the tank shake.”

For Gast, it was a day of fear and terror, and following orders without reflection.

“I can’t tell much about what happened, I was scared to death to start with,” he said.

“It was just like putting it on automatic, you just did what you had to do, did what you were told to do.”

By noon, close to 19,000 American soldiers who landed at Omaha were still pinned down on the beach.

– High school sweetheart –

Carefully laid plans had unraveled as the beach became a killing zone, with troops mowed down under a fusillade of German machine gun, artillery and mortar fire.

Small teams of US troops eventually managed to break through on the bluffs between German positions, with the help of combat engineers blowing up obstacles.

The losses were staggering: more than 2,000 dead, wounded and missing on Omaha beach. The exact toll is still unknown. Of the 15 tanks in Gast’s Company A, only five survived without damage.

Gast, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, earned the Silver Star and the Purple Heart during his combat tour, and went on to marry his high school sweetheart.

Mr. & Mrs. Gast, Holocaust Survivors-American Soldiers reunion, 2009.

Mr. & Mrs. Gast, Holocaust Survivors-American Soldiers reunion, 2009.

Now 89 years old, he recently was awarded France’s Legion d’Honneur at a small ceremony for World War II veterans at the French embassy in Washington.

The short, soft spoken man stood up to receive the medal and shook hands with a French diplomat. But he has no plans to return to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

His son, Bill, said his father did not want to relive that day: “It’s important we don’t forget but you try to hide things somewhere.”



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     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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