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‘If I ever feel lost, or if I ever question the world and humanity, I will be able to find comfort in your words.’

Today was my last day with my seniors- they are on a senior trip tomorrow. One of them took the time to send me this email last night, finishing homework that I had assigned-(reading my book of course, on the Holocaust):
Hi Mr. Rozell, I know it is late and it probably isn’t the best thing for me to be telling you that I just finished your book (haha) but I was completely taken away by the ending and I had to say something.
The way you wrote the ending was incredibly insightful and clarifying, it was an amazing comparison between the Holocaust and our world today. I couldn’t get over how thoughtful the questions that you asked the reader [to consider] and what you realized during your time in Jerusalem as it came to an end. It was by far my favorite ending to any book I have ever read and I can see myself looking back years from now on the last few pages, if I ever feel lost or if I ever question the world and humanity, and I will be able to find comfort in your words. Thank you for being an inspiration to the entire class of 2017, we were truly lucky to have you!

I hope I served you well, kids. And I hope you can teach others. Ciao, baby. I’ll be around.

The last crew, June, 2017. Credit: Joan K. Lentini

Now I’m letting you know about this upcoming event below, so that you know. My blog certainly will not end, but a big part of me will be always in Room A-8.

Note: “Matthew Rozell is retiring. He will be honored as a Righteous Gentile on June 11th, 2017. In addition to his being honored, Matt will discuss his new book, “A Train Near Magdeburg,” about Jewish prisoners from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the U.S. soldiers who saved them, and how he and his students were able to unite the prisoners with their saviors. The general public is invited to attend this free, very special evening followed by a reception in Matt’s honor.”

Sunday, June 11, 2017, 7pm
Synagogue Center, Shaaray Tefila, 68 Bay St. Glens Falls NY 12801
Phone: (518) 792-4945

Books will be available for $20.

 

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-second. 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.”

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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.

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

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Blair Williams grave by Vincent Heggen, 2017. Netherlands American Cemetery.

Here in the United States, Memorial Day will be upon us soon.

In interviewing WW II veterans over the years, I found that most whom I was privileged to know shied away from honors and recognition on Memorial Day.  I was reminded of the sacrifices that the veterans made, again and again, but they all told me that the real heroes were the ones that did not come home. And that Memorial Day was the day reserved for THEM; contrary to popular American opinion, it’s not another Veterans Day. But this weekend we tip our hat to the veterans among us, and post that ‘salute to the troops’, thank them for their service, and we are free to start our summer vacation. Did we just give ourselves some kind of pass?

The holiday known originally as “Decoration Day” originated at the end of the Civil War 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 remembrance, we effectively got our three-day weekend and our de facto beginning of summer. But do we really want to know?  If we do, maybe we can take the time to seek out one of those who fell on those faraway fields, and think about what it means on a personal level, try to find out more about a life that was cut short. Here are a few to think about.

***

Riverside Cemetery, Oshkosh, Winnebago County, Wisconsin, USA. Credit: J M Schumann

This is Marvin Boller. His remains did make it home. A Thanksgiving letter written  to him did not. The backstory:

In writing my second book, I revisited a horrific incident that occurred in the earliest days of American penetration onto enemy soil in Germany.  Resistance was stiff; on a cold and rainy day before Thanksgiving, 1944, 3 tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion’s ‘D’ Company were wiped out in a muddy apple orchard a few miles across the river.

In 2012, I was alerted to the existence of this WWII era letter in a memorial museum in Belgium. The envelope was postmarked Nov. 27, 1944, and addressed from the USA to PFC Marvin K. Boller, D Co., 743rd Tank Battalion. It was also stamped ‘DECEASED’.

Vince Heggen, who tends graves of the men who were killed with Martin, posted this for Memorial Day:

 Co D 743rd Tank Bn was moving from Langendorf to Erberich in November, 1944. It kept raining the whole day before they arrived in the orchards near Erberich. It was 8h20 when a German tank opened fire and knocked out 3 light tanks… All the crews were killed and a few of them are buried at the cemetery of Margraten. The letter, in front of the graves , was written by Marvin Boller’s wife. Marvin was killed just the day before Thanksgiving and the letter was marked ‘return to sender’.  The letter made the link between the crew members of Marvin’s tank  buried here, and Marvin who was buried [elsewhere].

Frank McWilliams grave by Vincent Heggen, 2017. Netherlands American Cemetery.

 

{You can read a Washington Post article:

Americans gave their lives to defeat the Nazis. The Dutch have never forgotten.}

 

I wrote to Carrol Walsh, a liberator of the train near Magdeburg and a fellow member of Company D, and asked if he knew Boller; I also sent him this image of the envelope.

He wrote back:

‘Hi Matt, I was stunned when I read your message. I remember Boller very well and remember when he got killed.  I believe it was just before Thanksgiving 1944 when a big German tank wiped out three tanks of the first platoon of Co. D of the 743rd. Every member of every crew of every one of the tanks was killed.  I seem to remember packages arriving for some of these guys after they had been killed.  I used to tease Boller, who was an older man, because he wanted to vote for Tom Dewey and I was big for my pal, FDR.  Boy what a memory you stirred up.  I knew all the guys that got killed in that engagement.’

Walsh and others would survive and go on to liberate Holocaust survivors on April 13th, 1945. And the letter has never been opened.

I did not know you, I don’t know if anyone is alive who knew you, but you are not forgotten.

 

 

MARVIN K. BOLLER

PFC, 743 TANK BN WORLD WAR II

Birth: Oct. 9, 1908
Death: Nov. 22, 1944

More can also be seen here.

Two of our high school classes went to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York on Friday. We blew a bus tire on the way down, but managed to get a replacement bus to make it all the way there, about two and a half hours away. Because our visit was very abbreviated, I’ll touch on the exhibit that moved us the most, where we spent most of our time.

 

It was fitting that we arrived during this last week of April, though it was not planned this way. You see, the apple blossoms were blooming, just as they probably were exactly 75 years ago, when notices like these sprang up all over California. Executive Order 9066 had been signed by FDR only as few months before, and now, it was taking effect.

April 25th, 1942-75 yrs this past week.
Anxious residents wait outside a ‘civil control station’ in San Francisco where they will be given their instructions for evacuation day. Dorothea Lange

From the Museum: “On February 19, 2017 — the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 — the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum opened a new photographic exhibition entitled, IMAGES OF INTERNMENT: THE INCARCERATION OF JAPANESE AMERICANS DURING WORLD WAR II, with over 200 photographs including the work of Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams. Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Executive Order 9066 led to the incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent — including approximately 80,000 American citizens — during World War II.”

“In the tense weeks after Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, many Americans — particularly those on the Pacific Coast — feared enemy attack and saw danger in every corner. Rumors and sensational media reports heightened the climate of fear. Under pressure from military and political leaders, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. It is widely viewed today as a serious violation of civil liberties.”

I’ll leave you with more photos of photos I took on our visit.

Kimiko Kitagaki waits for an ‘evacuation’ bus that is due to leave in 30 minutes. Dorothea Lange, May 6, 1942

 

Kimito’s dad, former owner of a dyeing and cleaning business.

Members of the Mochida Family Awaiting Evacuation

Arrival at the Santa Anita Assembly Center from San Pedro.

1945. A girl exits a truck that transported her family from the Granada, Colorado camp to a railroad depot, where they will board a train for California. Hikaru Iwasaki .Oct. 6, 1945

 

We will debrief and unpack our trip down to Hyde Park on Monday-there were many more things to see, but this is where we spent our 2 hours.

 

And I’d say the kids learned that the past is still relevant, with no prompting needed. But how little we adults really seem to learn from the past.

The author with Karen Korematsu, daughter of Fred, now head of the Korematsu Institute, at a plenary presentation on Human Rights for the Law, Youth and Citizenship Program of the New York State Bar Association, Oct. 2015. (see above)

Memorial to Warsaw Uprising

You have heard a lot from me this week because April is a special month for Holocaust commemoration and remembrance. Besides marking the 1945 anniversary of the liberation of many of the camps, it also marks the anniversary of the largest single uprising against German oppression of the Jews, which occurred in Warsaw in 1943. It is important to note, however that resistance to evil manifested in many different forms, not just physical ‘pushback’, as I was reminded on my Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers Program tour in 2013. As the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is now upon us, I share this post, an excerpt from my recent book, also recounting the narrative of a fourteen year old Jewish resistance fighter who was told she had to leave the ghetto by her leaders, so that she might live to remember them and tell this story.

*****

As 1943 dawned, the SS returned to the ghetto for another major deportation. They encountered the first armed resistance from the ghetto fighters and beat a hasty retreat, leaving behind wounded and weapons, and calling off the operation. For the next three months, the ghetto fighters organized and prepared for the final struggle. On the eve of Passover, April 19th, the Germans returned again, this time with the aim of liquidating the ghetto once and for all, in time for Hitler’s birthday on the 20th. By then, there were between 300-350 active fighters; the young were now the real leaders of the ghetto, having decided not between life and death, but rather, how to die.* Aliza recorded her observations of the preparations for the final battle they all knew was coming.

Jews captured by SS and SD troops during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising are forced to leave their shelter and march to the Umschlagplatz for deportation.  from the notorious Stroop Report. USHMM.

Aliza Melamed Vitis–Shomron

Spring, 1943

As spring approached, the atmosphere in the reduced ghetto changed. We waited for the final ‘aktion’, for the final extermination of the Jews of Warsaw’. People began to build bunkers. Experts turned up, engineers who built bunkers with electric light, in wells and toilets. Most of the bunkers were dug in cellars. There were various ways to enter the bunkers from the ground floor: by raising a cover in the kitchen stove or through an opening in the large stove attached to the wall, or in many other strange ways, according to the fertile imagination of the builders. The ghetto was preparing for a struggle.

March passed, and April came. Talk about the approaching final liquidation of the ghetto intensified. The ghetto was fully aware of it and prepared. It was the calm before the storm, suffused with energy and tension. Frequent shots near the ghetto and sudden evening searches by the SS command cars heralded what was to come. Sending off the people working for Töbens and Schultz factory workshops to Poniatow and Travniki* caused apprehension, even though they had gone of their own free will. If they are sending out the workers, what will happen to all the rest? The companies of the SS General Globocnik *, in charge of extermination, again arrived in Warsaw.

The only possibility left is to escape to the Aryan side, to dress up as a Pole and look for acquaintances or people willing to hide Jews in exchange for money. For a few thousand zloty, one could get a Polish birth certificate and a ration card. People handed over their children to Christian clerics, to monasteries and to peasants in the villages. Sacks were thrown over the walls daily and openly, at least on our side. People paid bribes to the foremen of the work crews to be able to join them going out to work on the Aryan side. Some of them did not look Jewish and were lucky enough to find ‘good’ Poles. Women dyed and oxidized their hair, and created curls by rolling their hair in pieces of paper, to look like blonde gentile girls. But they could not change the color of their eyes, or their dejected and pallid look. A Jew could also be picked out by his hesitant walk, his bent back, and his eyes constantly darting around him. We were so preoccupied by our aspiration to look like ‘goyim’ that we examined ourselves and others: Does that man look like a Jew? Will they recognize him in the street?

Of course, a new profession cropped up among the simple Polish people, with many demanding a bribe, or being paid to be an informer, a blackmailer. We were deeply disappointed; we thought that as witnesses of our tragedy, our compatriots, sharing the same language and culture, they would hold out a hand to save us. But it did not happen. A few of them hid Jews for large sums of money; these were mostly people connected to socialist activities and the left wing parties. Many devout Christians and religious scholars did so without taking money, out of true nobility of spirit. Many others, from among the simple folk, made a living by informing on Jews to the Gestapo, and collaborated willingly out of pure antisemitism. They walked around in the streets close to the ghetto, spied by the gates and the places where Jews worked on the Aryan side and looked for victims. Thousands made a living in this way.

*

The state of our family grew worse. We began to suffer from hunger. There were no clothes left to sell, we lived on the food we had received in the workshop, distributed by the Germans.

Aliza’s family decided to split up to increase chances of survival. Her more ‘Aryan-looking’ mother and younger sister, with a great deal of bribery, subterfuge, and nerves of steel, went into hiding on the Aryan side. Her father decided to take the chance and volunteer to go to the work camp near Lublin. Aliza herself wanted to stay and fight in the ghetto, but now only fourteen she was deemed too young and directed by the leadership of the resistance to make her way to the Aryan side as well, to live to tell the story. 

Aliza’s cousin stayed in the ghetto to fight the Germans. For three days, the resistance fought on, against impossible odds. It was weeks before the ghetto was overcome; there were few survivors.

Lazar

In the morning, we heard dull sounds of firing and explosions. In another house, in Swentojerska Street 34, the Z.O.B. had their positions. People from the organization told us about a mine they had detonated when the Germans decided to penetrate into our area; about battles leaving ten Germans dead; about a ‘peace delegation’ of SS officers who came with a white flag asking for an armistice to pick up their wounded, and how they fired at them at once. The fighters were elated, exhausted—but looked happy.

The battle in most of the houses in that area lasted two days. They ran from house to house. The leader of the group was the commander Marek Edelman. Dozens of fighters took part in the battle; some of them were killed. They went out at night to try to make contact with their friends. They told us that the battle inside the ghetto was still going on, that the fighters had delayed the entry of the tanks and set fire to them with homemade Molotov bottles. They were stationed at windows and changed their positions by moving across the rooftops. We in the shelters decided to open fire only when they discovered us. We made up our minds to defend our families to the end, not let them take us to Treblinka.

On the third day, fighting also broke out in the area of the workshops of Töbens and Schultz. At the last moment many people preferred to move to the Poniatow camp. In the meantime, the Germans began to set fire to the houses. On the second day of the uprising, the fighters told us about fires in the ghetto. We sat in the crowded shelter, praying that they wouldn’t get to us. We had expected the worst, but not fires. The people in the shelter said goodbye to each other. We were in despair, expecting certain death. We could already smell the smoke. Someone came from the neighboring house; people were fleeing from adjacent houses. There were no Germans around. After a night full of dread, just before dawn, we did hear German voices in the courtyard. They were calling to the Jews to come out at once, or else they’d burn us alive.

The artillery was constantly firing incendiary bombs. Whole blocks of houses were on fire. The shelter was not damaged, but the water stopped running. The electricity went out. The walls of the shelter became unbearably hot, smoke penetrated the cellar. We sat there, coughing, wrapped up in wet sheets. People wept, dragged themselves to the courtyard with the last vestige of strength. We had no choice, we would defend ourselves in the yard. The men cleared the opening and gave the order—‘wrap yourselves up in sheets soaked in the remnants of water, lie in the middle of the courtyard, in the garden.’

The yard is full of people, smoke covers everything, the top floors are in flames, the fire is running wild without any interference, parts of walls are collapsing and falling into the yard. People lying on the ground are groaning with pain…

Suddenly, we hear German voices in the street. God! We thought it was all over, that they’ve left us here. What shall we do? Several Germans burst in through the gate…

 

Lazar was captured and beaten, but managed to escape deportation, and made it to his cousin’s hiding place on the Aryan side.

 

I saw a different Lazar before me. He used to be arrogant, a show-off. The person sitting here now was thin, withdrawn; he stammered slightly when he spoke. We’ll have to live together in that small room in the cellar. Who knows how long? Until this damned war is over?

The Beginning of May, 1943

They say that the ghetto no longer exists. The wreckage of the houses is still standing; the piles of cinders still crackle, and at night shadowy figures, seeking food and shelter, still move about in there. But the ghetto no longer exists; 500,000 people have gone up in smoke. And those still alive bleed inwardly, their deep wounds will never heal. And maybe there will be no one left when freedom comes? Why are human beings so cruel and evil? They speak about the future, about truth, about Man as proof of God’s great wisdom, and it’s all lies, lies!

I know there are also good people, but they are persecuted; society rejects them as weaklings. Why am I prevented from seeing the wonders of nature and the world, from breathing fresh air?

The full narrative is available here.

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The full narrative is available here.

In 2013 I visited Warsaw, rebuilt; almost nothing remains of the ghetto itself- with slight exceptions.

July 17, 2013

We tour Jewish Warsaw and finally the remnants of the ghetto wall, and also the Umschlagplatz. It is here that forced gatherings for the mass deportations to Treblinka took place. I am also reminded of the scene from the film “The Pianist”.

 

 

 

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

 

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

 

1227

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

We walk the edge of the wall, memorialized in bronze in the sidewalk.

 

 

 

1240

And we come to a section that still stands.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

 

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are hear, listening to their teacher.

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are here, listening to their teacher.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was the first open fight in an occupied city against the Germans. And it was conducted by Jewish youth, who held off the Germans for half a month in the spring of 1943. Utterly inspiring and amazing. We make our way to Mila 18, the bunker command post where Mordechai Anielewicz and many of the resistance fighters breathed their last. It is another solemn moment.

18 Mila Street.

18 Mila Street.

Monument at Mila 18.

Monument at Mila 18.

 

We know why we are here. We are not only witnesses, but we were chosen to become, for many, the point of entry on the immense and sometimes unfathomable subject of the Holocaust, and the many forms of resistance that were taken during it.  And so rightly, our trip is concluding here. The processing will only come over time.

***

* By then, there were between 300-350 fighters- Bauer, Yehuda. ‘Current Issues in Holocaust Education and Research: The Unprecedentedness of the Holocaust in an Age of Genocide.’ Lecture notes, International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel. July 21, 2016.

* Poniatow and Travniki– forced–labor camps for Jews in Lublin District near the concentration camp Majdanek.

* SS General Globocnik –SS and police leader who directed Operation Reinhard between autumn 1941 and summer 1943.

 

72 years ago, on Friday the 13th of April, the 743rd Tank Battalion overran the train near Magdeburg, Germany. Shortly  thereafter, other attached units of the 30th Infantry Division, notably the 105th Medical Detachment and the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, also arrived at the liberation site and immediately set to work trying to handle this unexpected encounter. The account of T4 Wilson Rice as he reports on the disposition of the survivors and the soldiers in this combat zone is revealing. 

The following is an extract of more detailed information that is from the 30th Inf. Div. G-2 Report, 17 April 1945, about the concentration camp train:

CONCENTRATION CAMP TRAIN

On  13-14 April, 1945 troops of the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, moving into billets in the town of Farsleben, discovered that the normal population of 500 in the town, had been augmented by approximately 2,500 persons crammed onto a prison train of 45 cars, most of them freight wagons, which had been standing in the station for two days.  Conditions on the train were frightful.  It was critically overcrowded, and filthy almost beyond description, particularly in view of the lack of sanitary facilities. Nineteen persons had already been stricken with typhus and six more were already dead of the disease.  No food had been received for three days, and those who still had the strength, were almost dangerously ravenous, some swarming into the local bakery to lick up the raw flour.

“WATER, WATER!” Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

The commanding officer of the 823rd T.D. Bn immediately ordered the Burgomeister to provide food for the train’s passengers by the slaughtering of cattle and sheep, and the all night operation of the town’s two bakeries, and to provide housing by the community.  These arrangements were confirmed by the Military Government, which later moved the group to barracks in Neuhaldensleben.

Interrogation of 20 of the passengers revealed that they were Jews and some other political prisoners who had been confined in the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp located near Celle, Province of Hannover.  This section of Bergen-Belsen was believed to be the only camp set up exclusively for Jews, and was termed as a stopover to Camp xxx. The prisoners were supposed to be used in exchange for German citizens through neutral countries.

On 7 April 1945, the entire exchange group of Jews was suddenly alerted and bundled into the train which wound up on the Farsleben siding.  The train left 8 April and was said to be bound for Theresienstadt, in the Sudetenland.  The train was halted at Farsleben because of the advances of our troops; before the guards and crew abandoned it, the prisoners were told to cross the Elbe River on foot.

[Hauptmann Schlegel, the train commander] estimated that 15,000 persons had died at the camp during his stay there, out of a constantly changing population of about 40,000, attributing the deaths to typhus and typhoid, both of which were frequent, rather than to deliberate starvation.  He said he knew of two as doctors and a “number” of civilian doctors at the camp.  On the train, he stated, there were three civilian doctors.  Five persons died while enroute.  He believed that the 33,000 prisoners outside the stop-over camp at Bergen-Belsen, were about equally political and criminal cases.

A kapo inflicts a beating at Bergen-Belsen. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

A PW [prisoner of war] stated that the camp was run by two officers of the Totenkopf  Verbande, SS/Hauptsturmfuhrer (Capt.) Kramer and SS/Untersturmfuhrer (Lt.) Klipp.  His own attitude was one of hand-washing apathy.  He was not responsible for what went on, was just a pawn–and if he was bothered by some of the things that went on, no one knows about it.

This is one of the many stories of the Nazi’s organized cruelty of the German model of total warfare.  Two other suspects of the case which certainly will affect the task of Military Government, which will face many of the units now devoted to fighting, were developed at Farsleben.  The first in the report by many of the prisoners, that the inhabitants of the town were very friendly when the train first stopped there –because they expected the hourly arrival of the U.S. Troops.  Later, when our failure to arrive aroused some doubts, the populace reverted to hostility and contempt.  Our troops, when they did arrive, however, found the citizenry of Farsleben most eager to be of help to the prisoners.  The second observation was made by Military Government Officers, after the prisoners had been fed and deloused and after beds and clean bed-clothes had been set up for them in barns and other buildings. The set up looked beautiful, but only for a short time.  The personal standards of cleanliness of many members of the group were bad, and some even went so far as to defecate on the floor of their living quarters.  This rehabilitation for many of the victims of Hitler’s Europe, must mean far more than mere relocation and provision of adequate food and quarters, which itself is no great problem.  True rehabilitation must provide for even so fundamental a thing as a sense of physical decency, for a large number of those who have been treated have lived for years as animals.

Casualties to date:                              Division                      24,778

Civilian                                        974

Enemy                           2,100

Other Units                   3,628

31,480

Three months ago I got up early, fired up the computer, and typed out the letter that has been in the way back part of my mind for a while. At the end of this school year, I will have served thirty years in public education at my own alma mater, and over a year at St. Mary’s Academy, the Catholic school a town over.

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Passport photo for class trip to Spain, Summer 1977. 30 of us, peaking on hormones, were there a whole MONTH. God bless our chaperones…Mr. and Mrs Borys and Miss Schiavetti….

But in reality, I started here a long, long time ago. I don’t really recall tons from high school, but I well remember getting off the bus, scared, as an incoming ninth grader, and asking a neighborhood kid how to find my locker. He mercifully steered me in the right direction, and somehow I navigated through the labyrinth of this mystifying and terrifying place called high school; with the help of exceptional teachers, and a small circle of friends, in a snap of the fingers I found myself as a young man at age 18 longing to leave this community.

I’ve written before about my stinging teenage words to my father, when he asked about my plans for the future…  ‘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. Later, at 26, after several independent years on my own, I was paying him a token in rent, and driving his old car around town. And I was 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, world history. Even the young can’t outrun the karmic wheel, it seems.

Feb 3, 1992 Glens Falls Post Star story. Captain and the Kid.

Feb 2, 1992 Glens Falls Post Star story. Captain and the Kid.

So it was with this realization, and a small amount of sadness, that I began my day today teaching, finally knowing that my days in this room—this very school that produced me so many decades ago—this place where I have walked the halls more than any other place in my adult life—are numbered. I also well remember my father’s bittersweet retirement letter—remarking on his thirty years, how he loved it, but also how he wished no fanfare, but to leave as quietly as he had come in, thirty years before. At the time (1993), it was all a blur for me, banging out lesson plans, calling parents of troublesome kids, hammering my way forward into some toenail of a crack into their lives… how am I going to reach these kids? Some of my colleagues figured me for a ‘short-timer’, but as it turns out, I WAS A LIFER.

A lifer. How did that happen?  But, I did it. When times got tough, and I mean really, really brutal in our profession, I kept going. Many teachers left—but I and thousands and thousands of others did not.

A few years back I wrote, respectfully, about where I thought our profession was at, and what our anointed ones were doing in the name of ‘educational reform’. My busiest single day on this blog (14K reads on a January Saturday) was not over history or Holocaust education, but over the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads as a teaching profession. You get to the point where you have to just walk away from the political posturing, heading down the hall with your back to the noise and your feet carrying you back into the classroom, where nothing else matters. You are in your realm, your element. Of course, Dad knew this. The kids KNOW that you know what you are talking about. And some of them maybe see that this student—teacher connection is what real life is all about. You build a relationship, maybe even not one that can be quantified or measured by the bean counters—and sometimes you even go on to do great things together.

My father had a glimpse of that with his own teaching life, and a mirror to what the future had in store for me. “A teacher finds, eventually, their own niche, their own method,” he said. “Teaching is not a matter of how ‘smart’ you are, it’s a matter of personality. If you’re strong and fair, it doesn’t make any difference what you teach.”

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 My dad passed 17 years ago. I think of him a lot, now that my turn at ‘retirement’ has come around, I suppose. Sure, there is the excitement and happiness of starting onto something new; my wife retired from her 33 years in the classroom less than a year ago (I told the NYS Commissioner of Education and the NYS Board of Regents, in person, how I felt about her in this video). It feels like it is finally okay to clean house and throw out decades’ worth of academic accumulation, though I hesitate to call it ‘clutter’. With every folder that I gently tip over the edge of the wastebasket, or maybe no longer feel the need to replace into the filing cabinet, there is also a part of me that feels like it is gradually folding into the flotsam and jetsam of the river of time. Each day passes quicker now as the path takes a more defining bend in its long journey, where everything is finally blending and equalizing into the sea of tranquility and good intent. I am close enough to finally see this; I try to absorb it all, live each moment; I try to just ‘be’, with the kids.

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I told my freshmen and sophomore classes today (I teach all grade levels) that in fact they are my last respective ninth and tenth grade classes. I have been avoiding this, though I figured that the news was out, and they probably already knew. The young freshmen appeared not to know—there was an element of shock that took me aback for a moment—well, in truth, for the rest of the lesson. Though I am at my best teaching under emotionally searing moments, I think we were both rattled momentarily-they at realizing I won’t be here for them anymore in a few weeks, like old times; me at their reaction to that reality. While I look forward to the future, comes a time when you are confronted with the impact you are making, and the realization that after 30 plus years, you won’t be making it on that daily basis anymore.

My old man confined himself to the back porch the summer after he retired—back pain, he said. [He had never really had it before, except for the time he fell out of the tree while picking apples with us kids in our childhood. We were concerned, then snickered, as he writhed a bit on the ground. He uttered a few choice words in our direction, had his ribs and back wrapped for a couple weeks, and seemed fine after that.] He did not move off that porch all summer. Back pain, my ass. I’ve got your number now, old man.

And now with one click of the ‘post’ button, thirty plus years of service to ‘Hometown, USA’—to my country—and to humanity—begin the descent over the falls of history themselves. Prosit, my father would say. A toast—so be it, and may it benefit you.

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Nate St. John photo, 12-7-2016. Prosit.

 

Here is the Post Star article…. and here; thanks Bill Toscano…