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Posts Tagged ‘95th Medical Gas Treatment Battalion’

“Is this Matt Rozell, the history teacher? Yes? Well Matt Rozell, God bless you and your family!”

Tomorrow I am going to meet the man who called me on the telephone in my classroom in October 2011. To this day I’m not sure how he found me, or how he got my number at school. Though we have talked many, many times over the telephone, we have never actually met. I suppose I will ask him then.

The school district powers-that-be (probably my secretary friends, ha ha) had a telephone line to the outside world installed in my classroom shortly after our first reunions of Holocaust survivors and their liberators occurred at our school in 2007 and 2009. Now 2011, we were still fielding calls from all over the world, but following the last reunion at the high school in 2011, while we had many survivor inquiries into our story about the ‘Train Near Magdeburg’, I had not heard from any soldiers related to the historic liberation and aftermath for 4+ years. I thought they all must be gone.

[74 years ago today—April 15, 1945—elements of the British 11th Armored Division passed through the gates of Bergen-Belsen and were immediately confronted with 10,000 unburied corpses; 800 people died on the day they were liberated. Three train transports carrying 6700 sick and starving prisoners had left the week before, and this Train Near Magdeburg was liberated by the American 30th Infantry Division and 743rd Tank Battalion on April 13th. As one of the tank commanders arriving on the scene, Carrol Walsh, later remarked, “What are we going to do with all these people?”]

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

 

And then the phone rang, and Walter Gantz entered my world, and introduced a whole new angle on the story. You see, he was a medic assigned to care for the victims liberated at the train site for the next six weeks after the soldiers went off to fight the final battles of World War II. Not only that, he knew of several other American soldiers who had been assigned with him. In the ensuing months and years we reached out and interviewed several of them.

At the recuperation site of Hillersleben, a German Luftwaffe base and top-secret proving ground, complete with barracks and hospital, it was a mix of relief and trauma for both Holocaust survivors and American soldiers. Walter grew attached to some in his care—one girl in particular who died on him, and he remembers carrying her body himself to the makeshift tent morgue—and as a young man after the war ended, he brought those memories home with him, along with the memories of treating the American wounded during the Battle of the Bulge and other horrors. He believes his youthful innocence and his spirituality helped to save him, but troubles were not always far away soon after returning home. “My parents couldn’t understand why I couldn’t sleep at times.” He told me also that while he enjoyed the reunions with his medical battalion as the years went on, one thing they never would bring up was the collective experience of the trauma they witnessed, and felt, at Hillersleben. From our interview with Walter:

“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.”

But now many of my survivor friends have reached out to him, called him on the phone at home, or even appeared with him on stage at symposiums in Scranton, Pennsylvania where he lives. I’m driving there tomorrow, and survivor Judah Samet and his daughter are driving up on Wednesday. [Judah’s father passed at Hillersleben shortly after liberation; Walter and Judah have also never met before.]

In 1945, Walter was 20. Judah was 7. Walter is now 94; Judah, 81.

George Gross passed on my son’s 10th birthday in 2009, before I could meet him. Carrol Walsh has passed, and his life was celebrated by his family and friends, including survivors, they day I had my fateful tour of Bergen-Belsen in Germany in 2013. Frank Towers died at age 99 as I began my advanced Holocaust studies in Jerusalem on July 4th, 2016. So I’m not going to miss meeting Walter, and my friend Mike Edwards is going to get it all on film for our documentary.

Time may be running out, but this project, powered by good, and love, has broken the barriers of time and space over and over. So God bless you, Walter. We’ll see you tomorrow night.

 

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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:

https://teachinghistorymatters.com/2015/02/09/seventy-years-if-his-name-is-mentioned-a-person-lives-forever/

and here:

https://teachinghistorymatters.com/2015/02/20/seventy-years-the-american-angels-of-hillersleben/

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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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.

 

 

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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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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, The Twilight of Living Memory: Reflections of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA is due out this spring. His second book, in progress, is on the power of  teaching, and remembering the Holocaust.

 

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