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COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

“T-minus” 77 DAYS Countdown to Commemoration at Farsleben-the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau II

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the train liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local school kids and others.

In our countdown to commemoration at the site of liberation in Germany, I will share updates and circle back to some of my earlier writings.


Auschwitz-Birkenau-July, 2013

75 years ago, today, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated.

After the ‘tour’ of Auschwitz I, we have lunch on the bus in the parking lot, and then drive the three kilometers through town to Birkenau.

The entry tower is the iconic symbol of evil, menacing and devouring as we are pulled closer on this overcast day. We follow the guide up the stairs in the tower. From here we can see the sheer vastness of the camp.

Dozens of long, narrow women’s barracks, brick, still stand, albeit some braced with wood on the gable ends to keep them from toppling until they can be re-pointed. Our guide indicates that historic preservation here is a major concern.

The rest of the camp is many square kilometers of row upon row of foundations and brick chimney stubs, surrounded by the intimidating curved and tapered concrete posts dotted with white insulators and strung with miles of parallel lines of barbed wire.

In the summer of 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian families were deported here, the rail lines came right into the camp. Following the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews- ushmm

Our guide leads us along the path through the camp that leads to the gas chamber and crematorium. We walk in silence along the roadway, the only sound the crunching of brick fragments and gravel underfoot. It appears to have been paved with brick, slave labor of course, though in some spots it is hard to tell anymore. No one speaks, and on and on we walk.

Two minutes.

Five minutes.

Ten minutes.

Fifteen minutes. I’ve been on historic battlefields that are smaller than this site.

Finally we reach the end of the camp where the kitchens stood. A round concrete ring rises out of the earth, maybe 6 feet in diameter. Someone finally speaks and asks our guide what it was. It was for flowers, a giant flowerpot.  She tells us that they were also placed near the entrances of the gas chambers.

Flowers at the gas chambers.

We turn left and keep walking past interpretative signage. It seems like we are walking outside of the camp perimeter, but we are not. Beautiful woods of white birch appear, and we are walking on the edge of the woods with the camp to our left.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

We stop near another sign and rest for a moment, allowing the others to catch up. Then our guide calls our attention to the photo on the sign, showing Hungarian mothers and children doing the same thing we are doing. Halting and resting.

And a short path through the woods will take us to the ruins of the gas chamber/crematorium Number Five.

We are resting at the spot they rested at, 20 minutes after walking, immediately after disembarking from overcrowded transports that they had been traveling on for days. Here they waited, anxiously, as their turn to approach the chamber would come. But the victims of the transport ahead of them had to be removed from the chamber first. Some days in the summer of 1944, these victims were backed up for hours.

I pick up a rock from the path and carry it with me past the ruins. At the ash field there is more signage and a memorial asking visitors not to walk through the field. I place my stone on the memorial, looking down to watch where I step. But it is probably a futile gesture—this whole place is an ash yard, a graveyard. So many Hungarian Jews were killed in the Auschwitz camps in that season of murder that the crematoria were incapable of burning all the bodies, so open-air burning pits had to be utilized.

The secret sondercommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

We turn again and walk past the remains of crematorium Number Four to the disinfection center for those selected to be worked to death. Again, there was a system.

Disrobing.

Wading through disinfectant.

Shower.

Uniform thrown at you, mismatched clogs or shoes.

Elaine’s mother spent two years here. Her grandmother and the little ones were selected upon arrival. Her mom’s teenage sister was shot in the quarry after slipping while carrying a large pot of soup in the ice and snow with three other girls.

Today is a hard day. I feel helpless. There is nothing I can do.

The Red Army liberated this place on January 27, 1945. At the Soviet memorial constructed near the two destroyed gas chambers/crematorium at the end, we have a remembrance ceremony. Kaddish is recited in Hebrew. I read it aloud in English today to the group. With tears, Elaine tells us that she feels her grandmother smiling down on this extraordinary group of dedicated teachers. A lump rises in my throat again. I swallow hard and try to blink back the wetness I feel welling in my eyes, so I am glad for the sunglasses, even though there is no sun. The plaque reminds:

A Warning to Humanity.’

We light candles, turn our backs, and just walk out, which allows for another twenty-minute stretch of quiet, personal reflection. We have come to the epicenter of evil. We have been to Auschwitz; we try to process—but we just cannot.

 

COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

“T-minus” 78 DAYS-the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau

January 27, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Red Army. The concentration camp Majdanek had been captured intact the previous summer.

On the other side of Europe,  the Allies had landed in Normandy the previous summer as well. The Battle of the Bulge was just ending; the western allies were fighting through the Low Countries and had actually already crossed the West Wall, or Siegfried Line. In 2001, I interviewed a tank commander who had experienced all of this. But nothing would prepare young soldiers for their encounters with the Holocaust in the months to follow.

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local school kids and others. In 2013, I traveled the same railroad route from near Bergen-Belsen to Magdeburg in less than an hour. In 1945, starved, emaciated, and typhus-stricken prisoners covered the same journey with little food and water or sanitation for nearly a week. Then, the tank commander appeared on the scene, in his tank with the white star, with another tank commander and their crews, and their major who snapped one of the Most Iconic Photos of the 20th Century. It is fitting that I travel back to this place, this time with an Emmy Award-winning film director and crew, with our own cameras rolling.

The two tank commanders, by the way, were not Jewish, contrary to some things you may find on the internet.  The two filmmakers, Mike and I, are not Jewish either. Does that matter? To us, of course not. But in a world where Jew hatred has existed for millennia, and antisemitism rears again, we stand with the Jewish people as those American soldiers did in 1945. They were faced with a moral choice in a shooting war. And they chose to DEFEND, PROTECT, AND CONFRONT. And with our film, based on my book, we choose to affirm and promote those values. We will witness, once more, and we want our viewers to think about what they saw, and what they did, and the lessons they now pass on to us all as they take their final leave.

In our countdown to commemoration, I will share updates and circle back to some of my earlier writings.


Auschwitz-Birkenau-July, 2013

What is this place? Our guide is a top-notch scholar, and she leads us on a day-long tour that is hard to put into words.

We begin at Auschwitz I, the first camp. This place is centrally located, a railway hub dating back to the turn of the century.

The first prisoners, after it is converted from a Polish military facility, are Soviet POWs and Polish prisoners and other ‘security risks’ who will be worked to death slowly expanding this camp, and the much larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau. She walks us through the exhibits and the displays at the various blocks. Block 4 is the ‘Extermination Exhibit.’ We think about the words, the language used by the perpetrators: ‘extermination’—as if the victims were vermin. Over 1,100,000 human beings were killed here, most of them Jews. Now, 1.4 million people visit here every year.

We see the map with the spiderlike rail lines radiating outward from Auschwitz like tentacles, from northern Poland, from Germany, Hungary, as far south as Greece and as west as Paris and the Netherlands. In the summer of 1944, tens of thousands were murdered here, per day; Primo Levi put the record at 24,000 on a single day in August 1944.[i]

We see the large-scale terra cotta model of the process, which the German engineers had perfected at Auschwitz II-Birkenau—the arrival of the transports, the undressing rooms with signs admonishing bewildered people to hang their belongings carefully and to remember the number of the wall pegs where they left them for quick retrieval later. We peer into the shower rooms that could fit in some cases entire transports, which were in fact the hermetically sealed gas chambers. The figurines of the Germans stand above them with their gas masks, waiting for the proper temperature to be reached through body heat, just the right humidity to be achieved before dropping in the pellets so the gas released would work more effectively. The anguished death throes of the thousands of naked figurines assault our senses. The process is not complete until the corpses are carried out by the sondercommando slaves, defiled for any gold fillings, the hair shorn from the women, the bodies then burned in the open air behind or cremated in the ovens.

But the experience is just beginning. Minutes before, we were looking at a terra cotta model. And now in Block 5 we will be presented with the evidence. This is an exhibition, after all. ‘Exhibit A’ in the evidence file is about to slap us in the face.

It is a room, 50 feet long, with nothing but human hair piled several feet back and as many feet tall. My heart skips a beat.

What do our eyes perceive? Now we see a photo of stacks of bale bags, carefully labeled, packed, and stacked, awaiting shipment back to the Reich for use in various products for the German war effort. Slippers for submariners so they can walk quietly aboard ship to evade Allied sonar. Stuffing for the seats of German pilots.

We shuffle on in silence with hundreds of others past the mountains of eyeglasses and frames, the pots and pans, the suitcases carefully labelled by their owners with chalk on the orders of the perpetrators, again, for ‘quick retrieval after disinfection.’ And the shoes, all sorted, case after case of women’s shoes. Men’s footwear. And then, the children’s shoes.

Our knowledgeable guide takes us into Block 27, the new exhibit on the Shoah. This is a temporary relief of sorts as now we see faces, film and stills, of prewar Jewish life, projected on the walls. We hear songs and voices, see people dancing in a past life.

At the end of this is the Book of Life, rows of giant suspended volumes containing four million names compiled thus far. When Elaine and others in our tight-knit group find entire pages with the names and dates of family members murdered during the Holocaust, there are gasps, and tears.

And now it is on to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

[i] Levi, Primo. Primo Levi’s Heartbreaking, Heroic Answers to the Most Common Questions He Was Asked About ‘Survival in Auschwitz’. The New Republic, February 17, 1986. newrepublic.com/article/119959/interview-primo-levi-survival-auschwitz

A TALK BY MATTHEW ROZELL, FRIDAY, JAN. 17, 7PM

Matthew Rozell will discuss his newest book: The Things Our Fathers Saw―D-Day and Beyond: The War in France, this Friday, Jan. 17, at 7pm at the Rogers Island Visitors Center, 11 Rogers Island Dr., Fort Edward, NY. Come out and pick one up, or just sit and have a listen. https://www.facebook.com/events/542669763258537/

WHEN YOU STEP OFF THE LANDING CRAFT into the sea, bullets flying at 0630, how do you react to your vision of your mother opening the telegram that you have been killed?

WHEN YOUR GLIDER CRASHES AND BREAKS APART, what do you when you are shot and the Germans are bearing down on you, and you know your dogtags identify you as a Jew?


— “I had a vision, if you want to call it that. At my home, the mailman would walk up towards the front porch, and I saw it just as clear as if he’s standing beside me—I see his blue jacket and the blue cap and the leather mailbag. Here he goes up to the house, but he doesn’t turn. He goes right up the front steps. This happened so fast, probably a matter of seconds, but the first thing that came to mind, that’s the way my folks would find out what happened to me. The next thing I know, I kind of come to, and I’m in the push-up mode. I’m half up out of the underwater depression, and I’m trying to figure out what the hell happened to those prone figures on the beach, and all of a sudden, I realized I’m in amongst those bodies!” —Army demolition engineer, Omaha Beach, D-Day


Dying for freedom isn’t the worst that could happen. Being forgotten is.


— “My last mission was the Bastogne mission. We were being towed, we’re approaching Bastogne, and I see a cloud of flak, anti-aircraft fire. I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to make it.’ There were a couple of groups ahead of us, so now the anti-aircraft batteries are zeroing in. Every time a new group came over, they kept zeroing in. My outfit had, I think, 95% casualties.” —Glider pilot, D-Day and beyond


Maybe our veterans did not volunteer to tell us their stories; perhaps we were too busy with our own lives to ask. But they opened up to a younger generation, when a history teacher taught his students to engage.


— “I was fighting in the hedgerows for five days; it was murder. But psychologically, we were the best troops in the world. There was nobody like us; I had all the training that they could give us, but nothing prepares you for some things. You know, in my platoon, the assistant platoon leader got shot right through the head, right through the helmet, dead, right there in front of me. That affects you, doesn’t it?”” —Paratrooper, D-Day and beyond


As we forge ahead as a nation, do 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?

This is the fifth book in the masterful WWII oral history series, but you can read them in any order.


— “Somebody asked me once, what was the hardest part for you in the war? And I thought about a young boy who came in as a replacement; the first thing he said was, ‘How long will it be before I’m a veteran?’I said, ‘If I’m talking to you the day after you’re in combat, you’re a veteran.’He replaced one of the gunners who had been killed on the back of the half-track. Now, all of a sudden, the Germans were pouring this fire in on us. He was working on the track and when he jumped off, he went down, called my name. I ran over to him and he was bleeding in the mouth… From my experience before, all I could do was hold that kid’s hand and tell him it’s going to be all right. ‘You’ll be all right.’ I knew he wasn’t going to last, and he was gone the minute that he squeezed my hand…” —Armored sergeant, D-Day and beyond


It’s time to listen to them. Read some of the reviews below and REMEMBER how a generation of young Americans truly saved the world. Or maybe it was all for nothing?

— “A must-read in every high school in America. It is a very poignant look back at our greatest generation; maybe it will inspire the next one.”

Reviewer, Vol. I

My wife and I drove to the state capital to present a talk to representatives of the United States Army last Saturday. I was invited to speak at the Albany Recruiting Battalion’s Annual Training Conference, seven companies from the Northeastern United States and Europe. I think it was the first time that they had invited a civilian to address them as their keynote speaker. And I think that took some boldness, a willingness to ‘think outside the box’, as most certainly had no idea who I was. [Thank you SFC Christian O’Keeffe for being a reader and a fan!]

There were 350+ present, a culmination of their weekend gathering and training, a sea of dress uniforms and evening gowns, some formality and protocol but also a chance to celebrate and take pride in serving the United States of America. We were honored to be seated at the table with the Command of the Albany Battalion.

As we took our seats the ceremony began with the posting of the colors by the local Christian Brothers Academy Color Guard. The MC also pointed to the Missing Man/Fallen Comrade Table, set up for one, but highlighted by the absence of those who were no longer present. It instantly reminded me of all of the times I had been with my World War II veteran friends for their annual reunion ceremonies, which began exactly the same way. And as I was readying to take to the podium, I was frankly struck with an emotion I did not expect, a profound sense of sadness:

All of my old friends who led or organized these ceremonies, in reunions of Army veterans all over the south, are now dead.

Matthew Rozell, 30th Infantry Veterans of WWII, Holocaust survivors at Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, March 2, 2012.

With ranks thinning, the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II (which had met annually since 1946, sometimes taking over more than one downtown city hotel) folded its reunion tent in April 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee, on the 70th anniversary of the 1945 Nazi death train liberation. And for the past ten years, led by Frank W. Towers, they had warmly hosted the Holocaust survivors that they liberated in April 1945. I remember the way they greeted my ten-year-old son at the reunions we attended with the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II, rubbing his head at the annual final banquets, the colorful fundraising auctions that followed with many laughs and jokes. They opened each reunion by reading the names of those fellow soldiers who had passed away in the past year, with the tolling the bell for each man who had passed on the previous year; my son and I, and the Holocaust survivors I helped to reunite with the men of the 30th, were privileged to witness this moving ceremony several times.

It was with these tempered feelings that I took the stage. I was introduced by the Command Sergeant Major as the dessert service was getting underway, and coupled with some blistering microphone feedback, it took a few seconds to get my audience’s full attention, but I had them as I began recounting some of the feelings I was having—these reminders which had been buried for the past five years—my sudden reckoning of the irrevocable certitude that those special weekends and touching moments with liberating soldiers and the people they saved now were firmly categorized as ‘Things of the Past’, now seemingly dissolved and flowing down the long Corridor of Time.

The slideshow the audience never saw…

My carefully tailored AV slides also had gone out the window—the Army laptops would not accept my work—but I was able to bring up the Major Benjamin photograph from the internet and ask a few questions.

743rd S-3 After Action journal report- the moment of liberation

743rd S-3 After Action journal report- the moment of liberation

How many people in this room have seen this image before? (Less than 1%). Well, settle back, and let me tell you a story, about a beautiful spring day in 1945, when two Army friends who had miraculously survived 10 months of vicious combat from the beaches of Normandy, across the Dragon’s Teeth into Germany, back down into the winter nightmare of the Battle of the Bulge—men who had seen their friends killed in front of their eyes and could no longer even recall their own mothers’ faces—would be shocked on this day to learn about the death of their President—the only one they had grown up with, their Commander in Chief—only to be confronted and stunned a few hours later with the horrors of the Holocaust—so unknown to them that it did not even have a name: THIS is what your forebearers ran into, were assaulted with, on that Friday in April 1945 as the killing went on around them.

And one of them said, “What Are We Going to Do With All These People?”

What would you do?  The tank commanders set up a perimeter guard and declared the train and its 2500 tortured occupants to be under the protection of the United States Army. Frank Towers, who arrived the next morning to transport the people out of harm’s way and toward medical attention, remembered, ‘Never in our training were we taught to be humanitarians. We were taught to be soldiers.’ And Walter Gantz, as a medic who nursed the survivors back to health over six weeks, recalled, ‘After I got home, I cried a lot. My parents couldn’t understand why I couldn’t sleep at times.’

Of course, the men and women in uniform, now listening intently, knew NOTHING about this incident, which, I posited, is really a lesson, an exercise in ethics and morality that took its place as a nano-incident in the most cataclysmic war in history, so infinitesimal it was virtually lost for 65 years, until those two tank commanders showed me that picture and others they had taken from that incident, and told me the story.

What happened next was just as mind-blowing, I continued, but for now, we will consider this:

In a shooting war, the rescue of the people on the train was not a military objective. The Army did not have to stop and help.

But it did.

Six/sevenths of European Jewry would be killed in four and a half years, but thanks to the soldiers’ actions, tens of thousands are alive today. And it’s not a nano-incident to them; ‘whoever saves one life, saves the world entire’.

As the ones who have picked up the mantle of your grandfathers, this is YOUR LEGACY: in learning this story, you become witnesses empowered to reflect on your roles as DEFENDERS of our core democratic values, as PROTECTORS of those in your path who are suffering, AS CONFRONTERS of injustice and indignity.

Thank you, indeed, for your sacrifice, and for all you do, and for allowing me to share this with you. I hope you can draw strength from what you have learned.

MALMEDY, BATTLE OF THE BULGE, DEC. 21, 1944. 75 YEARS AGO…

The last surviving World War II Medal of Honor recipient in New York State and New England died in Oct. this year at the age of 94. And I had the honor of calling him my friend and introducing him to some of the Holocaust survivors that he and the 30th Infantry Division helped to save in April 1945.

Francis Sherman Currey was humble; he was, as the time of our association from 2008 on, the vice president of the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II. He and Frank Towers, the president, helped to organize and come to our high school in upstate New York for our 2009 gathering of American soldier liberators and the Holocaust survivors they help rescue in 1945. Frank and the others signed autographs for the kids and were treated like rock stars. And in every sense of the word, they were more important than rock stars to these kids.

Frank told me he met Eisenhower, Bradley and Truman after the war. Ike told him that in his opinion, Frank’s actions had single-handedly shortened the war by six weeks or more, by stopping that German advance during the Battle of the Bulge.

[Frank’s son Jon sent this link to my Facebook page. There is a link to the source file at the end.]

Francis Currey, WWII Medal of Honor recipient, passed away on October 8, 2019, at the age of 94. The New York native was orphaned as a 12-year-old child and passed through the New York State foster system, growing up with a foster family in the town of Hurleyville, New York. Upon his high school graduation, Currey wasted no time in enlisting in the US Army at the age of 17.

In September 1944, Currey was assigned as a replacement infantryman to the battle-hardened 30th Infantry Division, stationed at that time on the front lines in Holland. While he was stateside, Currey received extensive training on infantry weapons of all sorts, ranging from the standard M1 Garand, the Browning 1919 .30 caliber machine gun, the .50 caliber machine gun, the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), and the bazooka. Just a few months later, the young man from New York would put all of that training to the ultimate test.

On the morning of December 21, 1944, Currey was standing guard at a bridge crossing in the small Belgian town of Malmedy when his position came under fierce German artillery fire. The battle-experienced Currey assumed that the artillery barrage was cover for an enemy infantry assault. He had no idea that the infantry would be accompanied by something a bit heavier.

As the smoke from the artillery cleared, Currey looked down the road to see the barrel of a German tank protruding around a corner. Through the smoke and haze, Currey could see the German tank commander standing up in the turret of his tank, surveying the area. The enemy tank commander made a perfect target as Currey let loose with a burst from his BAR. As the tank continued down the road, he retreated across the bridge and ran towards a nearby barn, where inside he located a bazooka. Currey and another soldier loaded the weapon, and leveled and fired it at the oncoming German tank. The bazooka round struck the enemy tank at the base of the turret, thereby jamming the turret and rendering it ineffective. The German vehicle retreated in the direction from which it came, allowing Currey to assume his former position near the bridge.

Minutes later, three more German tanks rounded the corner and headed for the bridge and Currey. Eyeing a knocked-out antitank position nearby, Currey ran through furious German fire and located antitank grenades. He fired the grenades at the German tanks relentlessly by himself until the three German tanks were disabled, forcing their crews to either abandon their vehicles or retreat. Despite the retreat of the German tanks, enemy rifle and machine-gun fire was intense, and the Germans were determined to force the river crossing and get into Malmedy.

As Currey took cover from the enemy fire, he noticed that a machine gun crew just opposite of his position was knocked out, the entire crew either wounded or killed by enemy fire. Without regard for his personal safety, Currey crawled across the road under fire in order to aid the wounded machine gunner’s evacuation. Currey opened fire with the position’s 1919 .30 caliber weapon, providing covering for the wounded men as they escaped. He was able to escape the position as it became untenable due to the heavy enemy fire. For his bravery in action, Currey was awarded the nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor, for gallantry on July 27, 1945, while in Germany. He finished the war with the rank of 1st Sergeant, carrying the Medal of Honor, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. After the war, Currey worked for the Veterans Administration, retiring in 1980.

BY Seth Paridon, staff historian at The National WWII Museum. SOURCE FILE AND VIDEO: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/about-us/notes-museum/francis-currey

Okay, boomer.

 

On December 10, 2019, I surpassed 500,000 blog visits on TeachingHistoryMatters.com. Thank you for visiting; maybe you were the one who tripped the milestone.

I’ve been trying to think of what to write for this occasion, and set aside the time to get it done. (Did you know that every new original post takes me at least 2 days to write, edit, and proof?) Should I do a ‘greatest hits’ post, highlighting my most popular reads? A twelve-year retrospective of this journey I have been on which has carried me from mid-career teacher to published author, sought-out speaker, and historical commentator? Of the people who have crossed my path here and graced my life but who have now passed on?

Well, I suppose I can’t just let it pass.

I started this blog with a Sept 2007 entry after our very first soldiers-survivors reunion at the high school where  I had a 30-year career. Now I’m retired; my school honored me with a commencement address and induction into their honored graduates’ alumni, but sometimes I wonder if it’s all moving so fast that it’s all going to be lost in the current of time.

We did something important. We showed that teaching history does matter. And I want that to be remembered, because it is lazy to let it slip away, and as a nation we are complicit to an alarming extent.

So I write, first this blog, now my books. Now, some reviewers of the book around the events that began this blog took me to task for ‘Inserting Himself into the Narrative.’ Well, I am part of the narrative now. Get off my lawn and write your own damned book. That one nearly killed me on a few levels. Good luck on yours.

I didn’t write it as an exercise in self-promo; rather, one of the threads in it was more an ongoing dialogue with myself in attempting to come to grips with my mortal place in this universe, my sojourn on this earth, so to speak. And I literally did not figure it out until the last 20 pages of a 500-page odyssey. I’m no longer an observantly religious guy in the traditional sense, but the full weight of revelation hit me in the City of God, Jerusalem. Go figure.

This year I lost one of my first World War II interviewees, Art LaPorte. He was a wiry, tough, battle-scarred 17-year-old boy-Marine veteran of Iwo Jima and Korea. He kept diaries and drawings of his time on Iwo and wrote poetry and narratives about his experiences. I remember lugging an early version of a video camera and my 3-year-old daughter to his kitchen table; the interview went on for so long that I think I remember I neglected my fatherly duties and she had a minor ‘accident’ off camera. Almost 2 decades later, he came out to my first book signings and sat with me; he was happy to be in the book in a big way. When he died in August his family mentioned me in his obituary. I found out after the fact, I missed his wake and service. At the time I was totally absorbed with helping another history friend conduct his life’s work shortly after being diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I felt bad about that, and that I have not brought Art up until now, but maybe it’s all part of whatever review this post is turning out to be. So long, Art.

I feel also super compelled to write a 75th anniversary post about the Battle of the Bulge, which unfolded tomorrow morning about this time. I have a lot of profound things to say, some of which I’ve definitely said before in blog posts here and in my new book, and probably my next one. But it’s 5:45 AM and I have to leave to do another book fair type show today, getting the word out on the street again that teaching history matters. It reminds me of my project 10 years ago, before any books, where on this blog I began a 65th anniversary tour of 1945 event posts entitled, ‘The Year of the Liberator’. You can look those up in the search bar, but I will probably be re-editing and re-introducing in 2020 if I have the time. I have half a dozen new book ideas to work on and I am looking to keep spreading the word on a national level with the documentary on the train. It’s a cliché that you can get even more busy with work in retirement, but for me it’s true. I still can’t believe that I knocked out my first 2 books while I was still a full-time teacher. How the hell did I pull that off? Well, any author knows the personal sacrifices; father and husband of the year I have not been awarded yet. Add full time job and responsibility to students to the pile! And I had my own kids in class and/or was their National Honor Society advisor, so I’m kinda grateful for that; at least we had that time together during those crazy days. Thank goodness for my wife…

The 75th anniversary of the Bulge also reminds me of the recent passing of Francis Currey, MOH. Frank was the sole surviving WWII MOH recipient in all of New York and New England, a nineteen year old replacement soldier looking to get the hell out of his hometown who became the hero of December 21, 1945 in a horrible place called Malmedy, and who was told by none other than the Supreme Allied Commander that his actions there that day may have shortened the war in Europe by 6 weeks. I shamefully lost touch with Frank over the last few years, but shared a place at the head table with him at many a 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II reunion; Frank donned his Medal of Honor, Frank Towers wore his Legion d’Honneur, and I felt no shame pinning on my national medal for American history education. I was honored by these heroes, to be in their presence, to be asked to speak to their deeds, not for their benefit, but for the betterment of humanity. Now they are gone.

I lost my 95-year-old friend Walter Gantz a few weeks later just before Thanksgiving, so suddenly it knocked the wind out of my sails for a time, that is for sure. He was the 95-year-old medic who I re-united with the children he nursed back to health after the horrors of the Holocaust, including Judah Samet, train survivor and Pittsburgh Tree of Life shooting survivor. Walter cried. And he was funny, so kind, gentle; his family told me that former student athletes of his coaching drove hundreds of miles to be at his funeral. And what do you say when they tell you that a copy of A Train Near Magdeburg was placed in his casket, to be with him for eternity?

I guess this brings me full circle. While working on the audio version of that book (supposedly out in a week, but don’t hold your breath), I was struck again by listening to the chapter where I try to reconcile my place in the universe with the memory of the passings of Frank Towers, George Gross and my first ‘train interviewee’, Carrol Walsh, seven years ago this coming week, and the beautiful survivors that I grew to know and love as well. So right now, it brings me back to the beginning again. I’m on the downhill side of my fifties now; my former 3-year-old is 25 soon. I’ve lost students, high school friends, parents, and all the friends mentioned above. So, it makes one wonder, rambling on here; half a million blog reads over 12 years is really nothing; I’m sure some ‘influencers’ get that in a few days or a week.

Somedays it feels like it is over, but as I have learned, it’s never over, is it?

“Okay, boomer.”  But yeah, it really is okay.

I’ll leave you with an accompanying news article that still hangs on the door in my woodworking shop, the event that kicked off this blog and miracle upon miracle after September 14, 2007.

 

“To Mom and Dad, Babe” WW2 medic, Walter ‘Babe’ Gantz, left

The Old Coach is being buried today. As I write this, he is being eulogized by those who knew him and loved him best. Losing an old soldier is a heavy road I have been down many times, but it’s taken me a week to compose my thoughts on best serving his memory.

In a previous Army life, combat medic Walter Gantz of the 95th Medical Battalion was known as the ‘Sharpshooter’, not for killing people in wartime, but for his uncanny ability to sight in on impossible to find veins in skin-and-bones-bodies racked with disease, malnutrition, and dehydration with a life-giving needle. And he went on giving life after the war, leading by example and taking the needle himself, personally donating 27 gallons of blood to the American Red Cross and spearheading the collection of thousands more in his hometown.

I last talked to Babe, as he liked to sign off in his letters, a few months ago. It had crossed my mind to call him again on his 95th birthday this year, November 1st, but I guess I was busy or put it off to the weekend, figuring I still had time.

I wanted to ask him if he would like to return to Germany with us this coming April, to the site of the Holocaust train liberation of the Train Near Magdeburg and a monument unveiling for the 75th anniversary, in the presence of survivors and 2nd and 3rd generation descendants of survivors and other American liberators associated with the liberation of the train. And to meet the German schoolkids, one a 17-year-old who became a pen pal for a while, when I told her to write to him with her questions. Of course, he wrote back!

You see, Walter was a hero to a lot of people. Mike, the filmmaker for the documentary we are working on, remembers driving many hours to pull up at his house to meet him, to get an interview for our film—”I got out of my car, Walter took my hand and looked me straight in the eye and thanked me for coming to tell the story.”

Walter died on November 27th, in the morning, exactly a week ago. His son-in-law Ken reached out to me shortly afterwards, and I have been struggling to find the words ever since; it did not register at first because it just did not seem possible. When I met him in April—he was waiting for me in the lobby of the hotel. He had arrived an hour early, having driven himself to the hotel where we were staying.

I don’t have many heroes. But I met one in April. WW2 combat medic, Walter Gantz–and he squeezed my hands so hard…

Walter got emotional. The Old Coach in his red athletic hoodie grabbed my two hands with the grip of the 20-year-old he had been as a medic at Hillersleben, the captured German Luftwaffe base and weapons proving ground 74 years before. “Matt Rozell, God bless you!” Mike snapped a picture. “It’s a good thing I am as cool as a cucumber; otherwise I would be real nervous about all this!”

We talked for a while. He lived only three minutes away in the hills overlooking the city, the ‘Polish Alps’ as he calls it, where his parents had raised him, most of the community having emigrated from Poland in the early part of the previous century to work in the mines. He remembered attempts at conversations with the Polish survivors at Hillersleben, how he could pick up word and phrases, and he remembered child survivor Micha Tomkiewicz’s Polish mother distinctly, an educated woman who also had medical knowledge and training. He remembered Gina Rappaport, a survivor from the Krakow Ghetto who spoke seven languages and translated for the people on the train. And he was so sorry to have missed the reunions (11 in all) in the past, but I did not even know about him until he called my classroom in October 2011, shortly after our Sept. 2011 final school reunion.

We were in Scranton for a film shoot-re-introducing him to survivor Judah Samet of Pittsburgh, who came with his daughter for a meeting and lunch with Walter and his family. Walter cried.

As it happened, I was scheduled to give a talk in New Jersey the next week. Walter and his son-in-law Ken made the trip, and when a New York based train survivor learned about it, he and his family came to meet Walter in another emotional meeting. More tears were shed, and students got to witness it.

As he recalled,

“After 70 years, I still get emotional. I try to control my emotions, but it’s impossible. I know I keep repeating the word, ‘helpless.’ It’s a good way to describe this situation, really. Yet as medics we did everything humanly possible to help; I would say without a question we saved a lot of lives. We really did save a lot of lives. When you hear them saying ‘heroes,’ we medics weren’t considered heroes, but I guess we were the unsung heroes. It’s a long time ago, over 70 years. It’s a lifetime. Sadly, in time, your memories become dimmed—but there are certain events that will stay with a person all of their lifetime.

 The whole experience [of being reunited with survivors over 70 years later] has made me feel ten feet tall, and I have to use the word ‘mind-boggling’—I guess you’d have to put it in the category of a dream… all the survivors keep saying is, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

Walter signed off on one of his letters to me.

Some of the boys couldn’t take this type of duty and had to be sent back to our headquarters… My parents never knew of Hillersleben; the 95th held more than 40 reunions and barely a word was mentioned concerning Hillersleben.

Matt, I wish you well in all your endeavors. God’s blessings to you and yours.

 

As ever,

Walter (Babe) Gantz

Member, 95th Medical Bn.

 

I think the best way to serve your memory, Walter, is to keep on keeping on in our ongoing endeavor, that you and your deeds are never forgotten, and generations of people will know and celebrate the goodness in humanity in recalling your life and the lives of all the soldiers and liberators through the book A Train Near Magdeburg, and our upcoming film of the same name. God bless YOU, my friend, and Godspeed.



Walter (Babe) Gantz Obituary

Walter (Babe) Gantz, 95, South Scranton, died peacefully Wednesday morning at Geisinger Community Medical Center surrounded by his family. His wife of 69 years, Charlotte Jean Kester Gantz, died in 2018.

Son of the late Frank and Rose Slangan Gantz, he spent his entire life in the South Side area. A graduate of Central High School and Keystone Junior College, he was a member of St. Stanislaus Polish National Catholic Cathedral.

During World War II, he served as a surgical technician with the 95th Medical Battalion. He was the recipient of the Combat Medical Badge, Bronze Star, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Meritorious Unit Citation and many other awards. He served in northern France, Rhineland, central Europe and Ardennes campaigns. During the Korean War, he was a member of the 79th Infantry Division.

In early 1944, he volunteered on a secret mission in the wetlands of southern Florida. It was a joint effort involving American, British, Canadian and French Armed Forces. Their task was to test clothing to be used in the event of chemical warfare. He was seriously burned by nitrogen mustard gas and was hospitalized at MacDill Air Force Base. His group was placed under 24-hour guard.

One of the greatest satisfactions of his lifetime was to reunite with the boys from his medical battalion after being separated for 18 years. He always referred to it as a “labor of love.” The first three reunions were held in Scranton and the 50th anniversary was also held locally. He remained as the only president of its association.

He was a great sports enthusiast throughout his lifetime, both as a player and coach. He was a member of the YMS of R team in the first-class Scranton association, the top amateur league. He also played with some of the best softball teams in the area. In 1945, while waiting to be transferred to the Pacific, his battalion’s softball team won the championship at the Arles staging area with a record of 35 wins and five losses. The staging area, located in northern France, consisted of more than 250,000 troops. In 1960, he formed the first slow-pitch league in NEPA. An outstanding distance runner, he continued to do so in his middle 70s. He was considered one of the top speed skaters in the area. While in the service, he was an assistant coach and member of the battalion boxing team. While in his 80s, Babe was a team adviser to the women’s softball team at Baptist Bible College. He continued in this role well into his 90s. He derived great satisfaction in hearing the players refer to him as Coach Walt. Most of the young generation referred to him as the “Old Coach.”

Babe was involved in community affairs throughout his lifetime. He was elected to a six-year term on the Scranton School Board in the 1970s. As the overseer of athletics, he was successful in introducing cross county in the district. He was noted for his objectivity while on the board. In the early 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic became known, he was a member of the initial committee to study its local impact.

As an AIDS instructor, he spoke at many of our high schools and colleges. Babe also served on the hemodialysis commission. As a combat medic, it was an easy decision for him to join our blood program in 1948. He served at the head of every volunteer office at the Scranton Chapter blood program and was its first representative to the NEPA Blood Center. He was the sole remaining member of the initial committee that organized the South Scranton Ecumenical Blood Council. The group collected more than 17,000 units of blood. Leading by example, he donated 27 gallons locally. In 2015, he retired from the program after 65 years. As the Americanism chairman for the American Legion Central District, he attended many services for those who made the supreme sacrifice during the Vietnam War.

Babe was an ardent believer in physical fitness. He would say to both young and old, “Keep those legs moving.”

Babe had a perpetual smile and when greeting you by your first name, he would always follow it with “God bless you.” It was easy for him to find the good in everyone. A spiritual individual, he tried his best to walk in the path of God.

He always said that he was truly blessed that he rubbed shoulders with so many individuals. In many instances he played the role of mentor, conveying any words of wisdom that he possessed.

He enjoyed music and said it was a source of strength during difficult times. His favorites were bluegrass, hymns, big band and the classics. In the evening, he spent many hours reading in his den. His topics ranged from Abraham Lincoln, World War II and those of a spiritual nature. For many years, he and Jeanie were seen at the area polka dances. Also for many years, the family enjoyed walking around Lake Scranton. He was an ardent fisherman and spent much time at his favorite pond, saying it was a great way to relax.

One of the most memorable events in his later years was having the honor and pleasure of meeting many Holocaust survivors at the Teen Symposium sponsored by the Holocaust Education Resource Center. For a number of years, he related his experience treating survivors from the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. His medical battalion set up a hospital to meet their needs. They were victims of what was known as “The Death Train at Magdeburg.”

In 2010, Babe was the recipient of the Hero of Combat, Hero of Compassion award by our local group for his humane endeavors. He is also portrayed in the book called “A Train Near Magdeburg,” written by Matt Rozell, and will be featured in the upcoming documentary by the same name.

Although he was very devoted to his family, he credits his wife, Jeanie, for faithfully providing the everyday needs of their children while he was away or on assignment.

Surviving are three daughters, Debbie Gantz, Lake Winola; Linda Guarino and husband, James, Blakely; and Doreen Klinkel and husband, Kenneth, Dalton; grandson, Tony Guarino; great-grandson, Elijah Guarino; nieces and nephews; and a sister-in-law, Shirley Angelis, Lake Ariel.

He was preceded in death by a brother, Frank Gantz, and two infant brothers, Steven and Walter Gantz.

The funeral will be Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. from the Leon S. Gorgol Funeral Home, 1131 Pittston Ave., with Mass at 10 in St. Stanislaus Polish National Catholic Cathedral. Interment with military honors will be at Abington Hills Cemetery.

Published in Scranton Times on Dec. 1, 2019