Posts Tagged ‘95th Medical Battalion’

Only a few weeks back, I was teaching a lesson to my 12th graders on the German invasion of the USSR in the second half of 1941. We were at December 6th, 1941, and the dramatic launching of Marshal Zhukov’s counteroffensive outside of Moscow, to be followed the next day by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that drew us into the war, when the phone rang in the back of the classroom. It could have been one of the school secretaries calling to let me know that a student needed to be excused, so I told the seniors it was probably the President calling again,  so ‘Hold that thought’, and I dashed to the back of the room.

Now, my classroom has enjoyed an outside line for a while, ever since the American soldiers and the Holocaust survivors began to find me and this website. I have fielded calls from all over the world, from survivors and their families and even major news organizations and museums. So I picked up the phone, and was met by a familiar voice with a delightful cadence and greeting: “Matt Rozell, God bless you!”

Walter Gantz, March 14, 2016. Credit: Mike Edwards, 5 Stones Group.

Walter Gantz, March 14, 2016.
Credit: Mike Edwards, 5 Stones Group.

It was Walter, the 92 year old former medic who had taken care of the sick and dying Holocaust survivors at Hillersleben in 1945 after the liberation of the train. He was calling to praise my recent book, which I had sent to him, telling me that he had read it in three or four sittings and needed to read it again, and again. He thanked me over and over for remembering him, and the medics and soldiers and officers of the 95th Medical Battalion, who raced to save as many as they could. I told the kids later that Walter had told me that at their WWII reunions, these medics never spoke about Hillersleben. It was just too traumatic.

I turned the speakerphone on and the kids got to listen in. I passed the book around the room as he spoke, the chapter called ‘The Medics’ marked on the page with Walter’s photograph. As we talked, I noticed that one of the senior girls in the class was very moved by the conversation, which struck us out of the blue, just as did Walter’s initial call to me five years ago. He closed by wishing us all well, a blessing to our families as well.

We did some good in the world, here in this classroom, and in keeping the good deeds of Walter and the medics of the 95th Medical Battalion alive. Here’s to Walter and all of the old soldiers and survivors we have been blessed to connect with, and here is to the kids, who want to KNOW. Here is to the magic that ushers forth from the universe when a teacher connects with his students to trip the wires of the cosmos, again and again. We did not just teach history here; we made it. These are the thoughts that I think I will hold on to, when my time in this room is up.



The Medics

A few weeks following the last school reunion in 2011, I got a phone call in my classroom from a man in Scranton, Pennsylvania. To this day, I do not know how he found me. After four years of not hearing from any other American soldier who had something to do with this ‘Train near Magdeburg’, I had come to the conclusion that it was now all over. Walter Gantz proved me wrong, and not only did he play an important role, he knew of several others who were also still alive to share their experiences at the convalescent base/camp at Hillersleben.

Walter was part of the 95th Medical Gas Treatment Battalion, trained extensively to treat chemical warfare casualties. When no gas was deployed by the enemy in combat, Walter and his outfit stepped right into the role of treating other casualties of the battlefield. He recalled surveying the train at Farsleben, and the memories of treating the victims over the next seven weeks haunted him right up until his contact with me. I spoke with Walter several times on the phone, and we exchanged letters; I also put him in contact with at least four of the survivors of the train, two of whom would go on to meet him in Scranton to speak at a Holocaust symposium. At my suggestion, Walter was interviewed by a film crew in 2016.

Walter ‘Babe’ Gantz

Basically, there were four medical battalions—the 92nd, 93rd, 94th, and 95th. We were the ‘baby battalion’. We were extensively trained in chemical warfare. In fact, that was our top priority, in case they used chemical agents and that was it. We were a sophisticated outfit. In fact, Colonel Bill Hurteau, our commander, he said we were the cream of the crop [chuckles]. Maybe he was right, I don’t know.

I was part of a so-called ‘advance party’. There were about 10 or 12 of us from the 95th and as you know the train was discovered on the 13th of April of ’45. Our advance party was at Farsleben on the 14th, or the next day—the situation was beyond description. These people were emaciated and like they say, ‘living skeletons’; most of them could hardly walk. [Shakes head] It was a horrible sight. Some people say there were sixteen that passed away on the train. Other reports say thirty, so I would say thirty. They were buried down the knoll adjacent to the train.

When we left the 95th on detached service [to investigate the train, we went with] Captain Deutsch, who was one of the surgeons… He was numb. He didn’t say anything, just that we were ‘on a special assignment’. That was the extent of it, until we got to Farsleben and we went down to the train itself. That was a nightmare… God Almighty! [Shakes head] Boy… [Pauses]… Unbelievable. That’s the only word I can think of, unbelievable…You know, you’re seeing these people in person, and yet you just couldn’t comprehend that these things happened in this world that people would be so inhuman to other human beings. It was tough. You felt helpless, really.

[The initial scene] was chaotic. Most of the survivors were just wandering around and you have to remember these people, they were treated worse than animals. They were starved and like I said, it was very chaotic. They were looting the homes and I can understand. They were getting fur coats and dresses. In fact, I remember there was one woman, I think she had three different dresses on. It was tough but … A lot of them were lice-infested. God, I’ve seen so many lice, unbelievable. You could grab quite a handful, really. A lot of these people we had to clip their hair. There were so many unsanitary conditions. These people were in rags. In most cases, we had to burn their clothes. Fortunately, we had a means of setting up showers. There was a nearby pond and we had generators because we were a sophisticated unit, as I said. We would give these people showers or wash them down.

How do you settle all these people? We’re talking like twenty-four hundred people, and how do you feed them? That was one of the biggest problems we had, but fortunately, we found several ‘food dumps’ as we called them, and we were fortunate in getting a lot. Actually, we took over a dairy farm, and we were provided with beef, and pork, and milk for those who could sustain milk. You have to remember a lot of these people couldn’t eat whole food because if they did, if they were to gorge for themselves, they would die. We had to feed them intravenously and that was one of my jobs. I have to say, I was a sharpshooter when it came to injections. It was difficult. We had so many.

We talk about nightmares and flashbacks. I never had any nightmares where I would scream, but there are two so-called flashbacks I remember and they stayed with me for many, many years. [In the first] I could see myself climbing these stairs and all of a sudden, I’m inserting a needle into this elderly gentleman’s arm. Of course, you have to remember, they were skin and bones. The veins would roll and he was screaming, really screaming. That had to be very painful, because they were skin and bones—to try to find a vein; it was easy to overshoot a vein. It was heart wrenching to hear those people sobbing and actually screaming because a lot of them thought they were still at Bergen–Belsen, really.

[In the second] incident, I used to work a twelve-hour shift, from eight in the evening to eight in the morning. In the wee hours of the morning, this young girl died. For some reason, I wrapped her up in a blanket and I carried her down the stairs and I was crying.

We had a war tent that was used as a makeshift morgue. I placed her in there. I wonder why I would do that; I must have liked her for some reason. I didn’t have to do that, because we had a team that took care of those who died, and placed them in the morgue.

I spent seven weeks with these people. Most of us spent seven weeks and during our so-called watch, 106 people died… God, it was tough. [This girl] was actually fifteen years old. Her name was Eva and you might say, ‘How was it possible that he could carry her?’ She probably weighed 60 pounds, maybe. I thought about that many times, and I must have been attracted to her for some reason. That haunted me, really. It really haunted me.

I must admit I shed a lot of tears and I prayed. I prayed that they would pass on, that they would find peace and for those who survived, that their health would be restored—and dignity. Dignity is so important in life—dignity, that was the main thing. It was difficult.

The full narrative is available here.


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Victory, 1945. Watercolor, Ervin Abadi. Train Near Magdeburg survivor. Hillersleben, Germany, May 1945.

Victory, 1945. Watercolor, Ervin Abadi. Train Near Magdeburg survivor. Hillersleben, Germany, May 1945.

I am in Israel now, getting ready to study at the International School for Holocaust Studies for several weeks. On Thursday, back in Washington DC, USHMM Chief Acquisitions Curator Judy Cohen met with a person who contacted me over a year ago with a question about some artwork that her grandfather had brought back from World War II, serving in the 95th Medical Gas Treatment Battalion, helping out with Holocaust survivors at the captured Luftwaffe base at Hillersleben, Germany. Chriss Brown wanted to know more about the artist, and I think because she had typed his information into a search engine, found me through this website. I immediately recognized the artist’s hand, and I told her that he was on the Train Near Magdeburg, and also sent her more information about him. Later in life, the artist stated,

“Let these drawings serve as proof of my everlasting gratitude towards those to whom I owe my life. … To the soldiers of the United States Army, particularly to our immediate liberators, those soldiers of the 9th regiment [sic] who first entered the village of Zilitz and gave us bread, milk, chocolate, and cigarettes….”

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was pretty thrilled about the acquisition, and received the donation from Chriss and her family with gratitude.

Good in the world. Amidst all the evil and darkness forces at work, it is here today. And we are reminded that it saved the world 70 yrs. ago.



You can read the serendipitous backstory/role I had in it all, here:


and here:


and read more about it in my upcoming book.

Here are some pics about the acquisition, from this past Thursday, June 30th.

Chriss Brown when she first started showing Mr. Abadi's drawings to USHMM curator Judith Cohen. #USHMMCurators

Chriss Brown when she first started showing Mr. Abadi’s drawings to USHMM curator Judith Cohen. #USHMMCurators

Art by Hungarian survivor Ervin Abadi made for US GI Donald W. Rust after liberation. #USHMM Curators

Art by Hungarian survivor Ervin Abadi made for US GI Donald W. Rust after liberation. #USHMM Curators

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I’ve been working a bit lately on my next two upcoming books, The Things Our Fathers Saw II and the one closest to my heart, working title, A Train Near Magdeburg or The Last Transport. And I have been struggling with that book for years. It’s a hard story to tell because it has to be done right, the first time.

TNMMy own personal connection and closeness to the subject has been documented at this blog since 2007, when we hosted the first reunion before a student audience at our high school, when we knew of only 2 liberators and 4 survivors. Today, that number has grown over 7 fold. Unbeknownst when we began, this story has grown and taken over the second half of my career as an educator.

Trying to take on the subject matter of the Holocaust as a classroom teacher is a daunting task, and one not to be taken lightly. Trying to convey that through the eyes of your survivor friends is exponentially difficult. But when you open yourself up, palms up and arms out, especially at the authentic sites where millions of families suffered, there is a coupling of the past and the present.

It’s not an easy thing to open yourself up to. But if you think that it is all in the past, you are very, very mistaken.

Now throw into the mix the experience of the young American boys, battle hardened and hardly innocents by now, who stumbled across the train and the horrors of the Holocaust. Confronted with the reality of sick and starving people, and a war in its closing days where the enemy, the perpetrators of this evil, are still shooting at them. They have a mission they have been tasked with, and it’s not a humanitarian rescue operation that they trained for.

Oh no. They had no idea. Many of these young guys were haunted for life by what they encountered.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say. In my case, more like one hundred thousand. Behind the camera, the major in the jeep snaps a photo as specters emerge from the springtime morning mist. The little girl turns her head in terror at the two monsters clamoring behind the jeep with the white star,  Tanks 12 and 13 of the 743rd Tank Battalion and the 30th Infantry Division of the United States Army. It is April 13, 1945, deep in the heart of the Reich. Friday the 13th. Tank 13 stays on after securing the perimeter to protect the vulnerable from their would-be murderers.

For the young beautiful men with perfect teeth and handsome uniforms, the first instinct is to recoil. This is not natural and these people have been reduced to stinking animals. Lice infested. Stench ridden. Infected with bad, bad disease. Revulsion and vomiting is a common reaction.  These are not human beings.

But, they are.

They are.

And what are we going to do about this? The battalion commander cocks his .45 and calmly places it to the head of the local burgermeister when he displays reluctance to comply with the order to open homes and feed the prisoners.

And next up on the roller coaster ride for the incredulous GIs  is stomping rage and jags of crying. Generations later, an 89 year old tells me, “My parents wondered why I couldn’t sleep at night, after returning home.”

The soldiers transport the victims out of the line of fire. The medics get to work. People continue to die, but somehow humanity returns. The war ends. The survivors and the soldiers go their own ways, most refusing to speak of this time for decades. For many, the trauma passes onto the children  of the generations that come after.

And then, in the twilight of living memory, a high school teacher with an unassuming project has the encounter with the unknown photographs, and asks the unasked questions.

Seventy years later, across time and space, the portal has been entered. The wires of the cosmos have been tripped. And the universe channels the unassuming power of love across the abyss as the aged rescuers and survivors and their descendants are brought together to meet again.

It is a miracle of healing and reconnection. A cosmic circuit has been completed, but maybe, in some small way, another pathway to undoing a tragic cycle is opened. And it is not a coincidence.

As I wrap up this post, I am pinged with an email from my ‘second mom’ in Toronto, survivor Ariela. She was 11 when she was liberated on the train with her aunt. Her parents and grandparents were murdered in Poland by the Germans. She’s good on Facebook, but has a tough time with email. She’s thinking of me, and the book which has to tell the story. The email comes through now, loud and clear.

This is the train that should have led to death. Instead, it leads to life, and a legacy of the triumph of good over evil. And maybe, just maybe, amidst all of the horror and the suffering, there is a lesson here, somewhere.

I’d like to think so.



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Friday the 13th. Today is the 70th anniversary, to the day.

This account comes to me from a survivor’s son who lives in Hungary. He had read of Carrol Walsh’s passing on the internet and contacted me. It is Carrol who is commanding one of these tanks. Sgt. George Gross commanded the other, and took photographs.

I just came across this website . My father was on this train.
He passed away twenty years ago, in April 1992.

Here is an excerpt from his memoirs about his liberation day.

Translation from my father’s Memoirs pp. 302-304.

The day of April 13 1945 was a Friday and a sunny and windy day. In the morning, the SS opened the doors of the freight cars, after they had argued with each other whether they should kill us with their submachine guns. But the US troops were too close.


Perhaps it was an older SS man who prevented our execution. Later that day, a Jewish woman, who had been his lover in the camp, saved him from becoming a prisoner of war or worse. She got him civilian clothes, I do not know how. The same woman became the lover of an American soldier later.

Several hundred people wrapped in rags streamed through the open doors, if they could be called people at all. We were all mere skeletons.

The train was idling in a deepening, so I climbed uphill, across a road and to a field. I was pulling out potatoes planted on the field, when a motorcycle approached. It was a motorcycle with a side-car. There was an elegant SS or Nazi leader in the front: I could not decide, since he was wearing a mixture of uniform and civilian clothes. It must have been his wife sitting behind him and his child in the side-car. He pulled over and offered me a cigarette. I told him I did not smoke, so he closed his silver-looking cigarette-case and started the engine.
He seemed to hesitate about the direction he should take.

Prisoner taken. Photo by tank commander George C Gross, April, 1945.

Prisoner taken. Photo by tank commander George C Gross, April, 1945.

Then two small American tanks arrived. I was standing in the middle of the road, and noticed that the American soldier leaning out of the turret of one of the tanks aimed his gun at me.
The tank came closer and closer, and the soldier lowered his submachine gun. I must have looked terrible, so he did not take me for an enemy. I was lucky he had not shot me from the distance, since my small coat and boots vaguely resembled a military uniform. Lice were crawling all over my clothes and skin.

The few hundred former inhabitants of the concentration camp surrounded the tanks right away. Suddenly somebody remembered that the SS guarding us were still in the carriages. The SS were caught quickly, and lined up. The “intrepid” SS were trembling so heavily that their pants were flapping.

The first thing a Jewish woman asked from the soldier leaning out from the tank was money, and she received a dollar bill. She must have established her future with this dollar.

My attention was drawn to something else: in the rear of the tank there was a box of canned food. I climbed under the tank, emerged at its end, and pulled out a can. It turned out that I stole a can of oranges. This was my luck. I ate the potatoes charred in the can with the oranges, and probably this combination saved my life. Everyone who ate meat or anything greasy died within hours or within one or two days at the latest.

I felt fever in my body, undressed completely naked in front of staring women, and went into the ice-cold water of the lake next to the railroad. People warned me not to do this, but I went into the water, felt good, felt that I got rid of the lice and the burning heat of the fever. When I put on my rags again, I felt the fever ever stronger.

I asked an American soldier to sign the photo of my fiancee (I still have this photo). To my surprise, he signed the name Churchill. I thought he was joking. But he reassured me that his name was really Churchill.

(Once I read about a father named Churchill, who went to see his son’s grave in Vietnam during that war. The report mentioned that the father had been a soldier in World War II. He must have been my Churchill)

In the evening, there were news that we should flee, because the Germans pushed back the Americans. The Germans would massacre us for sure, the women had pulled out material for parachutes from a carriage in order to make clothes.

I was already so weak that I did not care whether the returning Germans would kill me: I stayed in one of the carriages, and fell asleep.

On Saturday, April 14, German peasant [horse-drawn] carts came for us by some order, so I was carried to Hillersleben. I dragged myself to the first floor of the first building, it looked like an office building, lay down under the sink of the bathroom, and fell asleep.

I am sure the American soldiers had no idea who we were and what we went through.


First published in 2013. I am off to the last survivors/liberators reunion in Nashville Tennessee, this weekend.

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The cosmos trips once more. This month, shortly after my previous post about the discovery of previously unknown artwork by Hungarian Holocaust survivor Ervin Abadi, I was contacted by the family of another American soldier who was at Hillersleben camp as the survivors of the train were being nursed back to health by the medics of the 95th Medical Gas Battalion. They sent me most of the drawings below [Monroe Williams credit, courtesy the Williams family], published here for the first time.

Abadi’s recently discovered artwork matches that of his previously known work, some of which is housed in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Ervin Abadi, Typhus. USHMM Collection. Probably completed at Hillersleben DP Camp, May, 1945.

Ervin Abadi, Typhus. USHMM Collection. Probably completed at Hillersleben DP Camp, May, 1945.

(If you suspect that you have any of Abadi’s art in your family, or if anyone remembers his time at Hillersleben or Bergen Belsen, please drop me a line at the bottom.)


He was driven to express his gratitude for the American soldiers who freed him from the train, brought him to the hospital at Hillersleben, nursed him back to health and protected him in his stay at the displaced persons camp. These important drawings are proof of that, and confirm his dedication to feverishly recording everything that he could about those days. He drew his surroundings, his memories of the horrors of Bergen Belsen, and the beautiful young American soldiers around him, and even their precious photos of loved ones in their wallets!

In his words:

“Let these drawings serve as proof of my everlasting gratitude towards those to whom I owe my life. … To the soldiers of the United States Army, particularly to our immediate liberators, those soldiers of the 9th regiment who first entered the village of Zilitz and gave us bread, milk, chocolate, and cigarettes….”

American soldier at Hillersleben, 'Man'.  Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

American soldier at Hillersleben, ‘Man’. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

American soldier-medic at Hillersleben.  Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

American soldier-medic at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

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

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

The American hospital at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

The American hospital at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

Soldier Monroe Williams' parents. Probably sketched from wallet photo.  Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

Soldier Monroe Williams’ parents. Probably sketched from wallet photo. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

The 'casino' at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection. Note Red Cross tents in foreground. May have served as temporary morgue station.

The ‘casino’ at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection. Note Red Cross tents in foreground. May have served as temporary morgue station.

Former hospital at Hillersleben today. (Christian Wolpers photo.)

Former hospital at Hillersleben today. (Christian Wolpers photo.)

'Hillersleben-some disorderly DPs getting a shower bath (DDT?)' Soldier Luca Furnari photograph.

‘Hillersleben-some disorderly DPs getting a shower bath (DDT?)’ Soldier Luca Furnari photograph.


Former American medic Walter Gantz called me out of the blue 3 years ago. Like all of the soldiers now reappearing in Abadi’s drawings, he was there. A couple newspaper articles appeared about Walter’s experience at  Hillersleben shortly thereafter. I put survivors in touch with him:

By the fall of 1944, the 95th [Medical Gas]Battalion was stationed at the Belgian-German border.

That winter, Mr. Gantz helped treat the wounded at the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes region, and by the spring of ’45 his unit had made its way into Germany.

In mid-April, they were in the town of Hillersleben setting up a displaced persons hospital when the Allies came across a train that had come from the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, where over 35,000 people, the vast majority of them Eastern European Jews, had died of typhus during the first few months of that year.

All told, there were roughly 2,400 emotionally damaged, disease-ridden and terribly malnourished people aboard the train. “Walking skeletons” was an apt description, according to Mr. Gantz.

“We weren’t knowledgeable about these (concentration camps) at the time,” said Mr. Gantz, who visited Bergen-Belsen days after it was liberated. There, he saw countless dead bodies “strewn everywhere.”

“It was hard to explain,” he said. “I cried. And then I prayed for these people. Not only were you angry about what happened, but you felt so helpless.”

Mr. Gantz’s unit spent about six weeks treating the survivors. A good 70 or 80 of them died, mostly of typhus. Among the biggest challenges was acquiring enough food supplies to feed them all. Many could only take their nourishment intravenously.

“A lot of them, if you were to give them food, they would gorge themselves and kill themselves. You had to be very careful as to what they ate,” he said. “Boy, oh boy, they would scream. Those screams would go right through your body.”

“Hillersleben was a living nightmare,” he added. “You don’t shake these horrible scenes from one’s mind.” {see more https://teachinghistorymatters.com/2011/11/04/my-parents-couldnt-understand-why-i-couldnt-sleep-at-times/}


Blessed – or maybe cursed – with a terrific memory, he can vividly recall the screams and overall sense of dread permeating the hospital, where he and his fellow medics wore a daily uniform of surgical masks, gloves and rubber aprons.

He remembers scooping handfuls of lice out of patients’ hair and administering countless needles and the time he had to carry the body of a little girl to a tent serving as a makeshift morgue.

“I still get flashbacks to that,” he said.

Many died, mostly of typhus. Among the biggest challenges was acquiring enough food to feed them all, since a good portion of them could only take their nourishment intravenously. One of the survivors Mr. Gantz has spoken with, Lexie Keston, now a resident of Australia, told him she weighed just 30 pounds at the time of the rescue. She was 8 years old.

As a result of Mr. Rozell’s [work], a handful of Bergen-Belsen survivors have been in touch with Mr. Gantz, including Ariela Rojek, a Toronto resident who was 11-1/2 years old at the time of the rescue.

Mrs. Rojek, a Pole who lost all but an aunt during the Holocaust, was among those suffering from typhus. She spent three weeks in semi-consciousness, and remembers having to be tied to the bed by medics trying to restrain her. Mr. Gantz could have been one of them, she said.

“Those soldiers, they gave me my life. Because I was very sick,” she said.

“It was tough. Some of our guys couldn’t take it,” Mr. Gantz said. “I have to admit, I did a lot of crying. I tried not to do it around the patients.”

Now, though, he has the peace of mind of knowing firsthand that, despite all the horrors, life did go on for the survivors of Bergen-Belsen, just as it did for him and his fellow veterans. Asked once by a friend what he took from his wartime experience, Mr. Gantz thought for a moment, then replied, “It made me stronger spiritually.”

“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “I thank the good Lord every day.”

“He’s one of the angels,” Mrs. Rojek said of Mr. Gantz. “I’m really grateful. Whenever I get a name and phone number, I always call them. They gave me a second life.”

Mr. Gantz, 87, said the whole experience has made him feel “10 feet tall.”

“I have to use the word mind-boggling. I guess you’d have to put it in the category of a dream,” he said. “I have to be honest with you, it’s embarrassing. All they keep saying is, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

{see more https://teachinghistorymatters.com/2012/03/04/it-was-tough-some-of-our-guys-couldnt-take-it/}


FINAL NOTE. We are also looking for this little girl, a survivor at Hillersleben. Her name was Irene. You can read the backstory here. Please contact me below.

'Hillersleben-Irene is in the flowered dress' Soldier Luca Furnari photograph.

‘Hillersleben-Irene is in the flowered dress’ Soldier Luca Furnari photograph.




Matthew Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow and teaches history at his alma mater in upstate New York. This year, he is authoring a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and of the ‘liberation phase’  of the Holocaust. His work has reunited 275 Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who freed them.

His first book, a narrative of World War II in the Pacific as told through the previously unpublished recollections of two dozen veterans, is due out this spring. His second book, in progress, is on the power of  teaching, remembering the Holocaust, and this “Train Near Magdeburg’. He can be reached at marozell at gmail dot com.

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Victory, 1945. By Ervin Abadi. Hilersleben, Germany, May 1945.

Victory, 1945. By Ervin Abadi. Hillersleben, Germany, May 1945. Courtesy Chriss Brown, granddaughter of American soldier Don Rust.

The wires of the cosmos trip once more.

After almost exactly 70 years, a person came to this site on Jan. 30th with an inquiry:

I recently came across this site looking for a gentleman my grandfather became close to. My grandfather, Donald W. Rust of the 95th Medical Gas Treatment Battalion, helped him … and often spent time with him. The gentleman drew several pictures for my grandfather and I still have them today.

Donald W Rust of Kansas City KS. Hillersleben DP Camp, May 1945. Source: Chriss Brown, granddaughter of Don Rust.

Donald W Rust of Kansas City KS. Hillersleben DP Camp, May 1945. By Ervin Abadi. Source: Chriss Brown, granddaughter of Don Rust.

We looked while my grandfather was still alive but were unable to find any lists of the survivors until now. We cannot read his name clearly but we think the drawer’s name is ‘Albadi’ or something close to it. I would love to share the pictures he drew and also would like to hear if anyone can help me contact the survivor’s family. My grandmother turns 90 in March and it would mean the world to her to know what become of him.

My grandfather told us the gentleman was from Poland, but we don’t know what city. Unfortunately, my grandfather could not remember his name. If anyone can help, it would be much appreciated.  ~Chriss B.


I immediately knew who she was talking about (though he hailed from Hungary, not Poland) and  got in touch with her. She sent me samples, and sure enough it was Ervin Abadi, whose work I was very familiar with. He had even sketched a drawing of the liberation with the tanks rolling in, but unfortunately he passed away 22 years before I sat down to do my interview with one of the tank commanders in the drawing.

Liberation, April 13th, 1945. Drawing by survivor Ervin Abadi. USHMM.

Liberation, April 13th, 1945. Drawing by survivor Ervin Abadi. USHMM.

The Liberation of the Train, by Ervin Abadi. USHMM.

The Liberation of the Train, Farsleben, Germany, April, 1945. Ervin Abadi. USHMM.


Dozens of Abadi’s pieces are at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and his bio there reads as follows:

In his early twenties when the war broke out, Ervin Abadi lived in Budapest, Hungary and wanted to be a painter. But, as with all Jewish males his age, he was taken to Russia by the Hungarian Army as a forced laborer. Abadi managed to escape but was captured after hiding out in the Karpet Mountains. After being brutally mistreated he managed to escape again, but was recaptured and taken to Bergen Belsen. When the camp was liberated  by the US Army [incorrect: his train transport from Belsen to Theresienstadt] on April 13, 1945, Abadi was taken to a hospital in Hillersleben, where he recovered. While in the hospital (and possibly earlier in the camp) he made 25-30 watercolors, dealing with his arrival at Bergen Belsen, life in the camp and its liberation by the US Army. Abadi returned to Budapest where he told about his life as a forced laborer and and an inmate of Bergen Belsen in a collection of 30 ink drawings. The work was published in 500 copies with Hungarian and English captions in 1946. The foreword of the book says, in part, “Let these drawings serve as proof of my everlasting gratitude towards those to whom I owe my life. … To the soldiers of the United States Army, particularly to our immediate liberators, those soldiers of the 9th regiment who first entered the village of Zilitz and gave us bread, milk, chocolate, and cigarettes….” Abadi, however, became disallusioned by Communist Hungary and managed to leave for Israel in 1947 or 1948 where he lived in Israel for the rest of his life. There he wrote 15 books in both Hebrew and Hungarian. He died in 1979.  [my emphasis]


Ervin Abadi’s name is also the first on the existing manifest list. Some years ago, with the help of Varda W. in Israel, his daughter got in contact with me, and sent me his DP [displaced persons] document from Hillersleben:

Hillerleben Displaced Persons certificate-Ervin Abadi

Hillerleben Displaced Persons certificate-Ervin Abadi.

At that time, 5 years ago, his daughter wrote:

As you know, my father is a survivor from Bergen Belsen on the Magdeburg train. He got sick with typhus and was taken to the American Hospital at Hillersleben.

All my life my father told me to remember that he was saved by the Americans, and for that he will be grateful until his last day- and so must I, because if he was not to be saved- I wouldn’t be born.

My father passed away in 1979, and since then I tried to keep my promise to my father. I went to Normandy in France and walked the beaches that are soaked with the blood of the American soldiers and wanted to honor their memory, for because of them, I am living today.

A few years later I visited the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. I met there an old gentleman and I found out that he was one of the American soldiers who fought on the beach on D-Day! I told him the story about my father and we both fell into each others arms crying. I felt like I fulfilled my promise to my father. ~Julia A. H.


So I dug out the letter, got in contact with Julia again,  and put her in touch with Chriss, the granddaughter of the soldier who in befriending Abadi, helped him in his recuperation.

Raymond D. Rape of Zelienople, PA ; Grafton D Junkin of Kennedy, Alabama ; Donald W Rust of Kansas City KS. Hillersleben DP Camp, May 1945. Source: Chriss Brown, granddaughter of Don Rust.

Raymond D. Rape of Zelienople, PA ; Grafton D Junkin of Kennedy, Alabama ; Donald W Rust of Kansas City KS. Hillersleben DP Camp, May 1945. Source: Chriss Brown, granddaughter of Don Rust.

From Julia, the artist’s daughter, last week:

I was very touched… 70 years after it happened, my father’s drawings came back to us.

We use to say that if his name is mentioned, a person lives forever.

Thank you again for remembering my father’s work of art.



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This originally appeared at the Huffington Post website for Veterans Day.  Maybe it is appropriate to share for Thanksgiving.

The author contacted me in 2007 when news of our first reunion went viral  in the Associated Press. Later, in 2009, he was invited to a gathering of the soldiers who saved his father and other survivors on this train here at our high school. His talk to our gathering can be seen below, published here for the first time.

Praise for the American Soldiers Who Saved My Father From a Death Train

By Lev Raphael

 In early April 1945, my father was packed into a train with 2500 other prisoners from Bergen-Belsen as the Nazis insanely tried to keep British and American troops from rescuing them. The train was made up of 45 cars with their doors sealed shut; the crowding was horrific and of course there was no food or water.

 In the chaos of war, this hellish train wandered for a week and finally stopped at Farsleben, a tiny town not far from the Elbe, sixteen kilometers from Magdeburg, the site of one of Germany’s largest munitions plants. German communications had collapsed and the commander couldn’t get clearance to move across the Elbe, so he ended up decamping ahead of the American troops he knew were coming. When two American tanks appeared on April 13th, the remaining guards escaped.

 Frank W. Towers, a 1st Lieutenant of the 30th Infantry Division, reported that the stench when the locked cattle cars were opened “was almost unbearable, and many of the men had to rush away and vomit. We had heard of the cruel treatment which the Nazis had been handing out to Jews and political opponents of the Nazi regime, whom they had enslaved, but we thought it was propaganda and exaggerated. As we went along [in Germany] it became more apparent that this barbaric savagery was actually true.”

 The troops that had found this train were racing to the Elbe because it was the last barrier to their advance across Germany, and now they had a totally unexpected burden of some twenty-five hundred prisoners to house and provide for. The answer was about nine miles to the west. American troops had just captured several hundred Germans at the Wehrmacht base and proving ground in Hillersleben where tests had been conducted for giant railway guns manufactured by Krupp.

 It was an ironic place for Jews to be sheltered, cared for, and brought back to life. But then what place in Germany wouldn’t have been an ironic location?

 This verdant military setting with its clean, heated quarters for officers and soldiers was a virtual paradise for people who had been treated like animals for years. That’s where my parents met and fell in love. My mother was in Hillersleben because she had escaped from a slave labor camp in Magdeburg and been brought there by American troops now using it as a temporary Displaced Persons camp.

 She and my father had each lost everything in what would come to be called the Holocaust: home, families, countries. So there wasn’t any time to play any pre-war games. “Do you like me?” he asked. She did, and as my father tersely put it years later, from that moment on “She was mine and I was hers.” My mother moved in with him that night, beginning their fifty-four years together.

 Frank Towers, who is 97, is the last surviving soldier who rescued the prisoners on that train, who saved my father from almost certain death and brought about his encounter with my mother. I’ve had the honor of meeting Frank and shaking his hand, and I’ve written about him in my memoir My Germany, but on this Veteran’s Day, with the survivors of the Holocaust and their saviors dwindling faster and faster, it’s more important than ever to thank him in public, and praise the memory of those other “train heroes” who are no longer alive.

The account in this blog is excerpted from My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped.



Five years ago this fall, we put on quite a show at our high school.  High school kids listening to, meeting, sharing, laughing, crying, even dancing  with octogenarian U.S. soldiers and Holocaust survivors. Here, Raphael shares his remarks with the soldiers, survivors, and students about growing up in a survivor household, and his coming to terms with Germany.




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Veterans Day: Hudson Falls teacher’s stories unite veterans with survivors

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications

veterans day

Caption: Photo of Matt Rozell by Andrew Watson.

History teacher Matt Rozell knows where he will be on Veterans Day. He’ll be in same place he is every year: working with students to help veterans. This year, he and 28 of his Hudson Falls high school students will be out raking leaves and doing yard work at the homes of veterans.

In his world, the one he shares with students, veterans are held in the highest regard.

“These soldiers, and what they’ve gone through for our country…” he said, trailing off. Rozell, a member of the Hudson Falls Teachers Association, was standing in the school entryway in front of a new display called The Veterans Wall. It is filled with photographs and stories of veterans from World War II through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their mission was protection. Rozell’s mission has been to make sure students know what that protection cost and what it preserved. In a metal filing cabinet in Rozell’s living history classroom there are 200 written student interviews with World War II veterans. Each folder includes the interview, positions papers, fact checks, photographs, letters and other primary sources.

[Hudson Falls Teachers Association member Matt Rozell on the history of Veterans Day and keeping history alive through the “power of the narrative story.”]

That’s 200 stories now documented; important pieces of history, of personal lives that intersected and collided with the deadliest war in history. These veterans became part of the Allies Forces in a brutal war from 1939 to 1945 – a war involving most nations of the world, the Holocaust, nuclear bombing, and sobering losses. According to the World War II Museum, there were 15 million combat deaths; 25 million wounded; and 45 million civilian deaths.

The front wall of Rozell’s classroom is covered with the front pages of actual newspapers chronicling stages of the war as it stormed across the world: “France Joins Britain in War on Germany;” “Roosevelt is Dead; Truman Sworn In;” “Germans Take Oslo: Sweden Gets Warning;” “Reich Scraps Versailles Pact.”

But it is on the last wall where the stories uncovered by Rozell and his students are the most personal. Here, there is a map of the world. In certain sections, it is dense with colored pushpins that students insert for tracking survivors.

The pins represent people: Jewish people who were rescued by American soldiers in Germany on a train from Bergen Belsen concentration camp, destined to be killed at the end of the war. The pins also represent the soldiers who saved them and the soldiers’ families.

“There were 2,500 Jews inside,” said the soft-spoken Rozell, whose blue eyes fill with tears telling the story. Some were already dead; all were emaciated. It was April 13, 1945. They were covered with lice. Some had typhus.

“It was at the point in the war when everything was collapsing under the Third Reich,” Rozell said. “Their final order was to murder everyone on the train.” German soldiers were to drive the train onto a bridge and blow up the bridge. But first, they ordered the men and boys off the train.

“They were going to machine gun them,” Rozell said.

Then the Americans, en route to a nearby battle, crested the hill in their tanks. They stayed 24 hours to guard the train, and then other soldiers came in to help transport the survivors.

In the last 10 years, 275 rescuers and survivors have been reunited through Rozell, the web site he created,https://teachinghistorymatters.com/tag/matthew-rozell/, and veteran Frank Towers, now 97. Towers was a soldier with the 30th Infantry Division who was charged with relocating the train survivors to a safe place for medical care and treatment the day after the rescue.

“His job was to move people out of harm’s way. He had trucks. It took all day,” Rozell said.

Towers, 97 has now met children of those train survivors, “people who would not exist if Americans hadn’t liberated the train,” Rozell said.

Rozell’s  determination to have his students experience the meaning of the closing days of WWII drew the attention not only of families and survivors, but also of the media. He and his students have been featured on NBC Learn as part of “Lessons of the Holocaust” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koQCU9Rhys0.

In September 2009 ABC World News with Diane Sawyer named them as “Persons of the Week.”

Rozell also works with the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

His story of action in the classroom began years ago when he had students first start interviewing veterans and videotaping them. Then they would transcribe them and type them up.  “This was before the internet,” he said.

In the mid 90s he began putting the stories online.  Rozell also conducted interviews, and one of them was with the grandfather of one of his students, a WWII veteran. He set up a video camera and the pair talked for two hours. A retired state Supreme Court justice, Carrol Walsh had been in combat in a tank.

“He hated it. Once he was trapped for three days,” Rozell said.

As the interview was winding down, Rozell recalls, Judge Walsh’s daughter stepped in and said “Did you tell him about the train?”

Walsh was one the soldiers who came across the train full of imprisoned Jewish people as they were driving their tanks. He told Rozell how they found the people on the train and scared off the German soldiers guarding it.


Next, Walsh directed Rozell to George Gross, a fellow tank commander who had taken photographs that day from the tank. More recently, Gross had written a narrative about his part in the liberation of the train.

Rozell eventually interviewed him by speakerphone in a class interview.

Rozell posted the transcripts of the interviews with Walsh and Gross – now deceased – on the school web site under a WWII history project.

The site got hits, but it more or less languished for about four years.

Then the trickle started. A grandmother from Australia who had been a little girl on the train contacted Rozell. Then a doctor in London, a scientist in Brooklyn and a retired airline executive in New Jersey found him through his site. They were all survivors from the train.

Rozell decided to host a reunion for them in 2007 at the school, and of course Walsh was invited.

“Judge Walsh – the only soldier there – met them with a laugh, and said ‘Long time, no see!'” Rozell recalls.

The Associated Press picked up the story about the reunion, and the school’s web site got so many hits it crashed the system. Rozell heard from 60 more people who were on that train.

The AP story is how veteran Frank Towers found out about the story. He contacted Rozell and they worked together. Since then there have been over 10 reunions – three of them in Hudson Falls,one in Israel, and many organized by Towers. Besides Israel and New York, they’ve been held in North and South Carolina  Tennessee, and Florida. With the help of survivors daughter Varda Weisskopf in Israel, they have brought survivors and their descendants together with American soldiers and their descendants. Their homes are now in places such as Great Britain, Canada, Israel, America, and Australia.

In 2011, Rozell and his son were given a gift of attending one of the reunions in Israel. There, he met 65 people who were on the train.

“The survivors [and soldiers] chipped in and bought a ticket for me and my son,” he said, still awestruck about the event three years later. “I’ve never been in the Middle East.”

NBC News recently heralded Towers’ quest to reunite survivors in http://www.nbcnews.com/watch/ann-curry-reports/children-from-death-train-reunited-346382403757.

In the video, a young girl cries, trying to express how much it means to her to meet the man who liberated her grandfather on the train.

Rozell, a graduate of SUNY Geneseo, is in his 29th year of teaching history. He says his journey is about “the power of teaching.”

“We can use the power of history to get kids involved, engaged and more empowered themselves,” he said.

The Washington County Historical Society has published some of the student stories in the file cabinet, giving both students and veterans, a voice.


Thanks, Liza, Andrew and Leslie for visiting our school and seeing the power for yourselves.

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Carrol S Walsh Jr. At rest in Johnstown, NY. Photo by Elizabeth Connolly.

Carrol S Walsh Jr. At rest in Johnstown, NY. Photo by Elizabeth Connolly.

Thirteen summers ago, I sat down for an interview with an amazing man. What he would relate to me, and what I would do with it, would go on to change both of our lives.  A seemingly small incident would be recalled almost as an aside in the wider context of World War II, but then would go on to reverberate through time, and space, creating ripples in the cosmos that grew into waves. Big waves that would carry me, and many others, to places we had never thought possible.

You see, on Friday, April 13th, 1945, twenty-five hundred lives were saved as advance elements of the U.S. Army 743rd Tank Battalion, 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, and  30th Infantry Division stumbled across the crime of the century, perhaps of all time.

A train transport stopped at a railroad siding. Open boxcars, sealed boxcars, shabby passenger cars, engine. Some people wandering about, others too ill to move. Sick and emaciated human beings.  Women. Men. Children. SS bands roaming the countryside. Orders to execute. A bridge over the River Elbe ahead to be blown to smithereens. With the transport, and the people on it.

The soldiers told me their stories.  In the course of collecting their narratives, we found others who played their parts and rescued those people.

I listened. We wrote. We recorded, and I posted. Then, the wires began tripping. Seven Septembers ago, we put together the first of many reunions between these soldiers and the child survivors of the Holocaust they rescued.

“Joyful” does not do it justice. What do you say to the men who saved you and your family when you were a child?

Carrol smiles, grips their arms in greeting, and laughs, “Long time, no see!” Sixty-two years, that’s all. On April 13th, 1945, the war weary, “seen-it-all” twenty-four year old second lieutenant is in for the shock of his life.


Five years ago this week, we put on quite a show at our high school.  High school kids listening to, meeting, sharing, laughing, crying, even dancing  with octogenarian U.S. soldiers and Holocaust survivors. ABC World News called my classroom and told me they were on their way up from NYC headquarters to film us. You can see Carrol, and listen to fellow tank commander George Gross’ narrative from our interviews, and hear fellow soldier Frank Towers describe his role in the liberation.

The last evening together, soldiers and survivors from all over the world watched the broadcast together, and we said our prayer of thanksgiving. Hundreds of students became the witnesses for the generations to come.

And so it comes full circle. Nearly ten percent of the passenger list has been found, over 60 years later. Profound things keep happening.


We lost Carrol less than two years ago, George earlier. So I write this week to remember, and remind myself of what a legacy, and gift, they left us. While it may have been a tiny part of  very productive lives (a New York State Supreme Court justice, and English literature professor, respectively), for the rest of my days I will think of the times I got to talk to them, and smile.

And think about their own words: “What are we going to do with all these people?”

Indeed. Just look at the generations that sprang forth, because of what our soldiers stopped to do, in a shooting war. In complex, fluid situations, there are no easy answers, but don’t you think that there is a very important lesson here?

It was not part of the mission. But maybe as a society we should break down and examine the values that made the mission change, if even as a “sideline”.

Sometimes it just feels good to feel proud.

But temper pride with the wisdom of the retired New York State Supreme Court justice:


They don’t owe us anything. Not a thing.

We owe them~

For what the world allowed to happen to them.”


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Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945. — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945. — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the day Soviet troops over ran Auschwitz in 1945. This week I received a note from an Israeli survivor friend, shortly after the passing of one of her liberators, Carrol Walsh. Sara lost over 60 of her family there- and her immediate family was saved only because the day they arrived at Auschwitz, the death machinations were working at full capacity and her transport was rerouted to Belsen. She was liberated on 13 April on the evacuation transport near Farsleben, known here as the Train Near Magdeburg…

In her letter she asks important questions of me. I have responded the best that I could, below.

Dear Matthew,

 We were very sad to hear that Carrol Walsh passed away. Only lately did I get to know him, and he risked his life in order to save ours. It is a pity we did not get to meet more.

I can’t express in words the loving feelings for the young tank commander that for sure always had a smile on his face, and never stopped smiling after we met- 65 years after the victory. I am sure Carrol Walsh made the best out of his life; I was fulfilled to know him and his beautiful family.

I read about his profession in the years of his life. It was interesting to see how much meeting with us affected him.

I thank you for your unusual courage to initiate the exciting meeting [reunion].

I suppose you were very excited for the event you had initiated. Did the idea come in different parts? I am trying to understand the development of your thinking.
When you first wrote to me about the meeting [invitation to the proposed reunion], it was on the day we were released- the 13th of April. I got home after meeting my brothers and celebrating the release [liberation]day. I couldn’t relax, I immediately told all my brothers. I was so happy, as if it was happening again.

The meeting completed a missing part in the picture for me, after all the horrifying things we went through we couldn’t even dream of a miracle like that coming out of the blue.

I cannot go back more to the extermination camps and escort groups because I don’t have the physical nor mental power to do that anymore.

There are questions that bother me.

Are you able to answer them?

Why shouldn’t the world forget and let this be over?  

A. So, some people do want to forget. Others will say that it did not happen. For those reasons, it must never be forgotten. This is the biggest crime in the history of the world.

As Walsh states, how could humanity have stood by and let that happen?

Does my work, the hard work I do, do anything against the forgetting?

A.The most impressionable minds in the world are those of the youth. It is they who the Nazis “educated”; it made it easier for the crimes to be committed. This is why they must hear now.

The work that you, and I do, has an impression. I hope to continue this work after you must slow down. Please remember that.


You are a historian, should the memory be kept?

A.The memory must be kept. As educators it is our duty to keep it alive. We must fight those who trivialize or denigrate its importance.

Is there a proper way to keep the memory?

A.There is no one way except to be open to the discussion of humanity and how humans could do this to one another. We must also bear in mind however, that the soldiers who helped the suffering to new life bore their own pains in doing so, yet also made a choice to redeem humanity. Some did not sleep soundly for years.

I think this is so, and also must not be forgotten. The war brought out the most evil in the world. But I think it also revealed some goodness in the form of the soldiers who liberated or otherwise cared for the victims.

Who should be documenting everything, the “victim” or the “aggressor”?

A.The aggressor fades from memory. New generations asks questions. It is true that some are bothered by the questions. But the young will always be curious and want to know- is this a stain on the German people? I know some Germans today who work very hard to keep the memory alive, as you also do.

The victims give the testimony. This is all they can do. But it is the evidence of the crime, and one that new generations must work with. That is why your work is so important.

Who is in charge of making the conclusions?

A.I would say that institutions such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem are the world leaders in this area. I have been trained, well, I should hope, by the USHMM. I do not know enough about the German institutions but I hope to raise enough funds to travel to the camps and study there this summer.

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