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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.

What If?

 

(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?”

***

 

My Friend Frank.

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.

 

 

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.”

“Pictures.

Video games.

Movies.

Words.

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.”

http://news.yahoo.com/d-day-view-tank-omaha-beach-104656852.html

*****************************************

     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.

My tree in my hometown of Hudson Falls NY, 2018, and some of the just-liberated survivors of the ‘Train near Magdeburg’ on Friday, April 13, 1945, Farsleben, Nazi Germany. Sgt. George C. Gross photo.

The Remembering Tree {Words written for the occasion of the dedication of a tree in my honor in my hometown, May, 2018.}

I recently got a late-night email from a friend whose father I wrote about in my first book on the War in the Pacific.

“Thank you for helping my dad live forever.”

I met Ron when he emailed to say that he often thought of my own father, his high school history teacher, class of 1965. It was in my dad’s class that he and a friend made plans to join the Marines, where they would wind up in combat in Vietnam.

Ron’s dad had been a survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March, and a prisoner of the Japanese for three and a half years. As a result, he was bedridden by the time Ron reached his teens. He died as Ron started high school. Fifty years later, I wrote about his dad; the book has been a best seller in World War II circles.

Over the course of writing another four (and counting) books profiling the men and women who fought in World War II, or survived the Holocaust, I have heard similar statements, most from people who I never even met.

“My father would never talk about it. Thank you for helping me understand him.”

 “I thought about my father and cried all the way through your book.”

“Thank you for sharing the love and admiration you had for the survivors and the liberators.”

“Thank you for giving back to your community by making history real for your students and readers.”

And the comments, really I suppose the catharses, always move me, especially when I think of where, and how, it all started.

***

When I was a kid, I rose early on summer mornings to get out of the house at 2 Main Street before the rest of my four siblings got up. The subliminal goal was to have some time to myself, to explore the village where I was about to awaken to so much history. I walked uptown past the new ‘savings & loan’ on the corner of the block, past the stately brick mansion where General Lafayette himself lunched after the Revolution he helped to save fifty years before was being fought in the vicinity. So here, along the banks of the meandering Hudson River, I was heading to while away the summer morning in search of old bottle dumps and buried treasures from the Revolution and colonial wars that raged through two hundred years ago.

I continued past Fielder’s Drug Store and Carleton’s Funeral Home, past the august old high school that now served as the place where we ‘southies’ attended our sixth grade before moving up to the new junior high school. I walked past the New Deal post office with its earthy WPA murals of local scenes of the river industries, logging and paper making, Depression-era farmers in blue overalls coming into town. The churches were now in sight, as was the turn-of-the-century county courthouse on the corner. Crossing Maple Street, I was in the heart of the business district, full of former hotels and more family drugstores and businesses.

Soldiers Monument, Hudson Falls, on the Hudson River, in 1946.

And looming at the head of the village park was Miss Columbia atop the Civil War Soldiers Monument, who with her drawn sword and battle shield struck a commanding posture that seemed to say, ‘Go ahead. Make my day’.

I’d oblige the old girl in a few years as a mid-teen, a brush that involved my first and last tastes of whiskey from the bottle and a rude late-night attempt to scale her. When I awoke the next morning (to my horrified stupefaction, in my mother’s bed), I think Miss Columbia cracked a stony smile from her perch a mile away. A youthful indiscretion, a painful lesson learned. This teen burned with shame, but he would make amends someday, and somehow Miss Columbia knew that.

***

By 1979 when I graduated from Hudson Falls High School, I had also acquired the teenage itch to leave for the greener pastures of higher education. In conversation with my father as a senior in high school, I responded to his questions about my plans with the timeless wisdom and wit of the eighteen-year old—‘I’m leaving this town, I don’t know what I want to do, but I do know I am NOT going to become a teacher, like you’—a passing shot before I headed off to college a few hundred miles away. Take that, old man.

But, touché. He had the last laugh, because at 26, I was now paying him a token in rent and driving his old car around town. And I became a teacher, a high school teacher like him, and wait—oh, yes—teaching the exact same subject that he had been teaching for thirty years, high school history. Even the young can’t outrun the karmic wheel. But then, maybe there was a higher purpose in coming home to serve my community that I could not begin to understand yet. You see, if I had not returned, a lot of very cool things would not have happened, and it’s times like these that I have to just stop and think about that.

I was a young teacher, but soon enough I began casting pebbles. I began to interview World War II veterans when they were still ‘a dime a dozen’, drawing their stories out, following leads, and putting my own students on the hunt for a good story. It took a bit of time and an almost obsessive dedication. But thank goodness I did that, as an adult coming of age, back in my hometown.

I’d have more encounters with that monument in the park, too. I wanted to know her history, what she admonished, and what that terrible war meant to our town and our nation. She obliged one Saturday evening when I sat with a survivor of the WWII Battle of Midway, a recipient of the Navy Cross and the Silver Star. I remember:

He settles into a comfortable chair across from me and lights up a cigarette, relaxing and clearly delighted with the company. His wife has passed, his children have long since moved on, and he and I are alone. With a twinkle in his eye, he tells me joke after joke and regales me with one incredible World War II story after the other. We laugh and pass the time; the lifeblood of this small town is being transfused as he recalls his life and his old companions in the quiet of his living room, and then he tells me something that will resonate with me to this day:

‘This monument is presented by Dr. Erskine G. Clark to the Village of Sandy Hill
Dedicated to the honor and patriotism of the soldiers of Washington County who served in our war to suppress the southern rebellion of 1861, waged against the life of the nation.
———————-
Dedicated June 30, 1887′

A little boy in the 1920s walks the streets of this town with his grandfather, hand in hand. They near the Soldiers Monument erected in the 1880s to remember the young men of the community who fell in the Civil War. The old man stops, points, and wipes his eye, proclaiming bitterly to the youngster that ‘there stands nothing but a tribute to Southern marksmanship’. Here is the young kid who would go on to pilot dozens of harrowing combat missions in World War II, the little boy holding the hand of his aged grandfather who had fought at terrible places like Gettysburg two generations earlier. In shaking Judge John Leary’s hand, eighty years on, I am suddenly conscious that I am now physically connected to the sixteen-year-old boy from our town who fought in the furious action at the turning point of the Civil War.[1]

So there it was. This is what Miss Columbia wanted me to find out, to try to understand.[i] We had come full circle, I supposed. But not quite yet. For it was also in this time that I sat down with another veteran here in my hometown as he recounted his Army travails as a combat tank soldier across northern Europe into Germany. I took the time to talk to Judge Carrol Walsh, and somehow the universe tilted just long enough for a crack to be opened across time and space.

In 1945, Sergeant Walsh was a tank commander fighting across northern Europe and into Germany. That July afternoon nearly sixty years later he told me many stories of pitched battles and close calls, of weeks that alternated between the extremes of boredom and sheer terror. And then at his daughter’s prompting, he spoke of this:

Well, late in the war, again a nice, beautiful April day—we were shooting like crazy across the top of Germany, and Major Benjamin of the 743rd was kind of out ahead scouting a little bit—he came back to the battalion and he pulled my tank and George Gross’s tank [fellow tank commander] out. He told us to go with him. So we did.

We came to a place where there was a long train of boxcars. I can remember pulling up alongside the train of boxcars, Gross and I, and Major Benjamin. As it turned out, it was a train full of concentration camp victims, prisoners who were being transported from one of their camps… I think they had been in Bergen-Belsen, on their way to another camp…

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

So there they were. All of these people, men, women, children, jam-packed in those boxcars, I couldn’t believe my eyes. And there they were! So, now they knew they were free, they were liberated. That was a nice, nice thing. I was there for a while that afternoon. You know, you got to feed these people! Give them water. They are in bad shape! Major Benjamin took some pictures, and George Gross took some pictures too…[2]

 

‘That was a nice, nice thing.’ Later, this will strike me as the under-statement of all time. Though we could not know it at that moment in the summer of 2001, a portal across time and space had just unlocked, and I would wind up stepping across the threshold; our lives and the lives of thousands of other people would be affected, for the better, and there was healing.

***

Ten years after that interview on Coleman Avenue in this village, I was invited to attend a special reunion in Rehovot, Israel, where liberator Frank Towers and I addressed an auditorium filled with fifty-five survivors of the ‘Train Near Magdeburg’ and their children and grandchildren.[3] In the audience were over 500 people who probably would not have been born, had it not been for the actions of this soldier and the others. As we listened to the testimony, a woman began softly crying behind me. I kept my cool and bit my lip and didn’t cry until another survivor’s daughter approached me and told me that my name in Hebrew meant something along the lines of, ‘Mystery of God’. Heavy, heavy words. Yet here I was, halfway around the world, connecting people unknowingly bound together in the greatest crime in the history of the world. Watching families heal. We would have eleven reunions on three continents, the first right here in Hudson Falls. The ripples continue to reverberate; I still get emails expressing thanks and amazement from survivor families who come across my work anew.

That’s not to say it’s all been an easy road. I had to become extremely conversant in the macro and micro aspects of the study of the Holocaust, and extremely proficient in the teaching of it (and there are a lot of ways to get it wrong). I’ve sat at the feet of the best instructors in the world, who helped me reach powerful insights, and gave me the tools to defend myself and to prepare my course of action when I come under attack by Holocaust deniers and minimizers.

Don’t forget, I am not Jewish, and I will assert that that is not without some import here (I don’t think I was even in a synagogue or temple until my forties, though our folks certainly had Jewish friends). It’s important because I truly believe I was chosen, as a gentile, to be a witness myself. I had no ‘agenda’, and I can’t explain why I have the occasion now to write all this any other way, let alone start this blog 10.5 years ago (closing this year in on a half-million hits), or write that book for ten years that clocked in at 500 pages (and nearly killed me in the process). And now I’m working with an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, also a gentile and a friend, to bring it to the world on another platform it deserves. The Greater Glens Falls Jewish community has honored me many times over, contributing to my journeys to the authentic sites of the Holocaust and my study in Israel.[4] Now they have asked the village for permission to honor me where it all started, the hometown where I wandered so freely, the hometown I tried to escape as a restless teen, the hometown that called me back and gave rise to an incredible career. This is the place where the trauma was recalled, and where our students became new witnesses. My hometown is also where new miracles occurred, and where this healing first began. My survivor friend Leslie, who traveled from Toronto to be at two of the Hudson Falls reunions, expressed to his liberators and to the students at Hudson Falls High:

“I survived because of many miracles. But for me to actually meet, shake hands, hug, and cry together with my liberators—the ‘angels of life’ who literally gave me back my life—was just beyond imagination.”

***

I recently left the classroom after more than 31 years, but with my fifth book due in a few weeks, I’m still busy honoring memory. My dear mother and father, and many of the World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors I interviewed, are now gone. And so we come back to this tree. If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are like the leaf that doesn’t know it is part of the tree.[5] This tree commemorating my pilgrimage is an appropriate symbol, a gentle reminder to the young to be curious, to wonder, to hope, to dream, to take risks, to take advantage of the memory and knowledge of those who came before them. This tree symbolizes life, and its roots are anchored in memory.

‘Prosit’, the old man would say on occasion, invoking his schoolboy Latin. ‘So it is, and may it be to your advantage.’ As the breezes caress this maple’s leaves, in the rustling may you hear the whispers of those who came before us, those who like Miss Columbia inexorably called me home to attend to a life’s work. Now with this ‘remembering tree’ growing in her garden, may the ripples continue to go forth and ping the past, and may your fathers, and mothers, live forever.

 

“Marker for special dedication ceremony ​to ​​honor Matthew Rozell​ on Sunday, May 27, 2018, at 1:00 p.m. at Juckett Park in downtown Hudson Falls. At this ceremony, ​we will dedicate ​the tree ​purchased by the Greater Glens Falls Jewish Community​ in recognition of Matt​ as a righteous human being​ for his work as a historian, teacher, Holocaust educator and author who reunited survivors and their American liberators.
Through his teachings, writings and efforts, Matt has brought a greater awareness of the Holocaust not only to our community but also globally.
The tree was ​planted by ​the Village of Hudson Falls​,​​ and ​the ​special marker ​was ​installed by Loiselle Memorials.”

 

*************

Some notes:

[1] Excerpted from my first book, The Things Our Fathers Saw—The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation From Hometown, USA-Volume I: Voices of the Pacific Theater.

[2] Excerpted from my second book, A Train Near Magdeburg: A Teacher’s Journey into the Holocaust, and the reuniting of the survivors and liberators, 70 years on.

[3] Expertly organized by survivor’s daughter and my friend, Varda Weisskopf.

[4] My dear friend and supporter Sunny Buchman spearheaded this effort.

[5] I stole this leaf/tree quote from Michael Crichton’s book, Timeline.

[i] This is what Miss Columbia wanted me to find out, to try to understand—As a ‘soapbox’ aside, the teacher still in me has to add that learning all this is one of the reasons I find the I’m-a-rebel-on-a-new-bandwagon-and-in-your-face-if you-don’t-like-it display of the Stars and Bars locally both profane and contemptuous. Because here in the northern towns where your own great-great-great-grandfathers were from, fighting and dying in those far-off fields, never to return home, there is still something to be said about cracking a book and educating oneself, or not sleeping or texting thru history class… something important about REMEMBERING.

So there.

Today they started shooting the trailer for the Train story, on the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Look for it on PBS someday or better yet, give a shout if you can help us get it funded. It will happen. Maybe you can help or know somebody who wants to be a part of it.

matthew@teachinghistorymatters.com

It is a cool spring morning. In the background, down the hill, are two cattle cars. If we look closely, we can see a figure sitting on the edge of the opening of a boxcar, perhaps too weak to climb out yet soaking up some energy from the warming April sun. In front of him, a wisp of smoke seems to rise from a small makeshift fire that others have gathered around. The sound of gunfire is echoing nearby; a metallic clanking sound is growing louder at the top of the hill.

This is an appropriate backdrop for the marvel unfolding in the foreground. Now only a few steps away, a woman and perhaps her young daughter are trudging up the hill toward the photographer. The woman has her hair wrapped in a scarf and is clutching the hand of the girl with her right hand. Her left arm is extended outward as if in greeting; her face is turning into a half smile in a mixture of astonishment and enveloping joy, as if she is on the cusp of accepting the belief that she and her daughter have just been saved.

It is Friday, the 13th of April, 1945. Led by their major scouting in a Jeep, Tanks 12 and 13 of ‘D’ Company, 743rd Tank Battalion, US Army, have just liberated a train transport with thou-sands of sick and emaciated victims of the Holocaust. In an instant, Major Clarence L. Benjamin snaps a photograph so fresh and raw that if one did not know better, one might think it was from a modern cellphone, although it will be soon buried into his official report back to headquarters. 
But what have they stumbled upon? Where have these people come from? 
And what do the soldiers do now?

And on a related note, here is the USHMM social media #AskWhy short released last week, on the 73rd anniversary of the liberation (1:16) Thanks to the Museum’s Josh Blinder and his team…