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Two Toronto Holocaust survivors meet their liberators 65 years later
Two survivors of a death train out of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp finally link up with American soldiers who freed them in 1945.

A WWII-era booklet still possessed by Leslie Meisels documents his liberation as a young boy from a train destined for a death camp. Meisels, who eventually ended in Toronto, met a few of the surviving soldiers who freed him and 2,500 prisoners on the train.

A WWII-era booklet still possessed by Leslie Meisels documents his liberation as a young boy from a train destined for a death camp. Meisels, who eventually ended in Toronto, met a few of the surviving soldiers who freed him and 2,500 prisoners on the train.

Leslie Meisels is 86.

Leslie Meisels turned 68 last month.

Every April, since he was 18, Meisels has celebrated his rebirth. Sixty-eight years ago he was on the cusp of death, packed into a cattle car in a freight train with some 2,500 other skeletal Jewish prisoners. He weighed only 75 pounds.

Then a miracle. That train, which had set off from a concentration camp, was liberated by 12 shocked American soldiers in two tanks and an army jeep near Farsleben, Germany.

Up until then, the American GIs had assumed the gruesome stories they had heard about German death camps were just Allied propaganda devised to make them fight harder. But as they unlocked the boxcar doors, they witnessed humanity’s true capacity for evil.

They called it the death train. For Meisels, it was a train of life.

This past week marked the 68th anniversary of V-E Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe. It’s a good moment to tell the story of that train from Bergen-Belsen.

I heard about it last month in an email from a history teacher in upstate New York. He put me in touch with Meisels and Paul Arato: two Holocaust survivors from Hungary who in 1956 escaped their homeland, by then under Communist rule, and settled in North York.

Their stories are remarkably parallel. They grew up in nearby towns in eastern Hungary, they were both imprisoned by the Nazis in 1944, and they were sent first to Austrian farms as slave labourers and then to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany.

Have you ever seen the horrifying Holocaust photos of dead, naked bodies being pushed by a bulldozer into open pits? That was Bergen-Belsen. Some 70,000 people were murdered there, including Anne Frank. They weren’t killed in gas chambers, like at Auschwitz. Instead the Nazis used starvation, sadism and disease here.

Meisels remembers mostly the hunger. They were given only watery turnip soup and a piece of bread each day. In four months, he lost 100 pounds.

Arato, just 6 then, remembers the rattling cold and twice-daily roll calls that often lasted hours. He and his older brother Oscar had to hold their mother upright, she was so weak from typhus. One day a boy in their line smiled because it was his birthday. As his “present,” an SS guard shot him dead. It was Oscar’s birthday the next day.

The horror is ungraspable.

By April 1945, the Nazis were retreating as both the Allied and Soviet armies advanced. One morning, both Meisels and Arato were awakened by guards and told to march. “We dragged our bodies over five kilometres,” says Meisels, “back to the train.”

Trains in Nazi Germany usually led to death. This one was no different. It was destined for another concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, but the guards also had orders to execute passengers. Meisels remembers one afternoon when all males 12 and older were ordered out of the packed boxcars and lined up in front of machine guns. They stood there two hours before being herded back into the putrid cars.

Over six days, the train progressed only 135 kilometres.

Arato remembers peering through between the wooden boxcar slats and seeing the SS guards drop their weapons and start running. Then he glimpsed a tank with a star on it.

The door slid open shortly and they were greeted by stunned American soldiers.

“It was hard for us to believe what we were actually seeing,” says one of those soldiers, Frank Towers, on the phone from Brooker, Fla. “We weren’t prepared for it. We were there to fight a war. We weren’t humanitarians. We didn’t know what to do.”

Says Meisels: “We cried, ‘Oh God, we are going to be free. We are going to be human beings again.’ ”

Towers, who was serving in the 30th Infantry Division, spent a day those taken off the train to convalescence homes and a hospital nearby before he had to push on with his battalion.

Meisels and Arato spent five months recovering in Germany before they could finally return to Hungary to search for the rest of their families. Eleven years later, they escaped Hungary and started their lives for a second time: getting married, building careers, having children, then grandchildren. Decades went by.

Then, a few years ago, their paths crossed at a business meeting. Arato, since retired, was an industrial designer. Meisels ran a family company making plastic moulds. At the end of the meeting, the topic of the Holocaust was raised. They discovered, to their shock, they had both been on that train from Bergen-Belsen.

Around the same time, that high school history teacher in New York named Matt Rozell stumbled upon the story.

To bring Second World War history alive, he’d instructed his Grade 10 students to interview their grandparents about the war. One summer, he visited one of his students’ grandfather: Carrol Walsh, a veteran turned New York State Supreme Court judge.

“After two hours, when the interview was ending, his daughter elbowed him and told him to tell me about the train,” Rozell says.

He learned Walsh had been in one of those tanks that chased away the SS soldiers and liberated the train.

Rozell posted the story on his website, Teaching History Matters, and a few years later a survivor from that train contacted him from Australia. Since then, 240 more have been located.

In 2007, Rozell hosted his first symposium on the train, bringing together survivors and liberators. Arato’s son came across a story about the reunion on the Internet by chance.

Arato told Meisels about it, and two years later they both traveled down to Hudson Falls, N.Y., for the second symposium. There they met Walsh and Towers.

That moment was a second liberation for Arato, now 74.

“A blanket was pulled from me,” he says. “I was always very lonesome. I didn’t share my stories with anybody. I grew up and spent all my years being angry. This meant I don’t have to be angry anymore.”

His wife, Rona, has just published a book about his story called The Last Train: A Holocaust Story.

Meisels visits schools around Toronto to speak about the Holocaust every week.

His message? “Hatred is something we have to fight against. When you hear a derogatory comment, say out loud that it is not right. When you are silent, you are not neutral. You are supporting the oppressor.”

He and Towers went to Washington, D.C. last month to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Holocaust Museum there. Towers, now 96, is the last living U.S. veteran who liberated that train. Walsh died last December.

“We hugged,” Meisels says. “Whenever we are together, I am so overwhelmed by gratitude and joy.”

Truth can be more horrifying and wonderful than fiction. Every life is precious.

CLICK HERE FOR THE STORY OF ANOTHER TORONTO RESIDENT WHO FOUND HERSELF IN THE 1945 PHOTOGRAPHS

 

by Catherine Porter 

http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/05/10/two_toronto_holocaust_survivors_meet_their_liberators_65_years_later_porter.html

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Friday the 13th.

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.

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Class Act
Historic Reuniter
By Nancy Cooper
Photography by Erica Miller
Volume 147, Number 1, January/February 2013, Page 7

How does a young man from a small town with no experience in Holocaust education become a well-regarded figure in World War II and Holocaust history nationwide?

Matthew Rozell 12-12 American Spirit magazine

Not purposely posed. Erica Miller photo. Click the photo to see what I mean…. Only thing missing from 1992 is Dad.

The answer is part of the story of the remarkable career of Matthew Rozell, history teacher at Hudson Falls High School in New York. Following in the footsteps of his father, who was a history teacher in a nearby town, Rozell has taught at his alma mater for the past 25 years.

When Rozell emphasizes to his students the importance of tracking down primary sources, he has a dramatic way of proving his point. Through such primary research, he and his students have been able to identify and reunite Holocaust survivors with the U.S. soldiers who freed them.

Rozell’s instrumental role in such a historic reunion began in 2001 when he sat with Carrol “Red” Walsh, tank commander, U.S. Army 743rd Tank Battalion, to listen to some of his World War II tales. After nearly two hours of conversation, Walsh was reminded by his daughter to “tell [Rozell] about the train.” That prompt was a catalyst to a bigger story.

Walsh related that in April 13, 1945, his tank division saw something unexpected near Magdeburg, Germany: freight train cars alone on a track. When he drove his tank alongside the train, he could see that the cars were filled with Jewish men, women and children—more than 2,000 of them.

Intrigued by the story, Rozell searched for photographs of the liberation, which he posted on his school’s website in 2002. It wasn’t until four years later that Rozell received an e-mail from a grandmother in Australia who had been a 7-year-old girl on that train. She said that as soon as saw the photographs, she fell out of her chair: This was the day of her liberation in 1945.

From then on, “Almost every time I opened my e-mail inbox, there would be another message from a survivor, somebody that I wasn’t aware of before,” Rozell says. “These people weren’t aware of each other for the most part before finding the site.”

With the help of liberator Frank Towers and a survivor’s daughter, Varda Weisskopf of Israel, Rozell and his students went on to reunite nearly 225 Holocaust survivors with their American liberators. Rozell organized 10 reunions: One took place in Israel and three happened at his school. Students recorded the individuals’ interviews as part of a World War II Living History Project (www.hfcsd.org/ww2). Learn more at https://teachinghistorymatters.wordpress.com.{clarification: there have been at least 10 reunions since Rozell began the project; however he did not organize the ones occurring off campus but rather participated in or otherwise helped to facilitate them.}

Students have said of Rozell and the project: “He puts history right in front of your eyes. Never could I have gotten the experience of meeting such inspiring people who learned to love after the ultimate form of prejudice was thrust upon them. A message of acceptance not only reached the little town of Hudson Falls, but the entire world.”

“It’s life-altering,” said another. “And because we’ve heard these stories, it’s our job to make sure it won’t happen again.”

The powerful lesson hasn’t been limited to his students at Hudson Falls. In 2008 Rozell was awarded a Museum Teacher Fellowship at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for his work in Holocaust education. The Tennessee Holocaust Commission has created workshops based on his work. On September 25, 2009, Rozell and his students were named ABC World News “Persons of the Week.” His project was also the subject of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum documentary “Honoring Liberation,” which debuted at the Holocaust Days of Remembrance in Washington, D.C., in April 2010.

To keep his teaching methods fresh, Rozell says, “I listen to the kids and adjust all the time. Some days you do not know the impact you have, but I can look to the dozens of kids who have gone into history education as a feather in my cap of sorts.”

He advises today’s youth not to take the sacrifices of the past for granted: “Talk to older Americans who served their nation.”

-American Spirit Magazine, Jan.Feb. 2013. National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.

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Quotes from American Soldiers/Holocaust Survivors Reunion   9/22-26/09

Compiled by Mrs. Hales, English teacher, Hudson Falls High School.

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Credit Matthew Rozell and World War II Living History Project/Teaching History Matters. .. If re-posting  include the link, https://teachinghistorymatters.wordpress.com.

  • “How could we [the world] have stood by and let that happen to them?  We owe them.”   Carrol Walsh, 743rd Tank Battalion, Liberator
  • “I often wonder what this world would be like if those 6 million had never perished.”  Frank Towers, 30th Infantry Division, Liberator
  • “Against all odds I am standing here before you.”  Steven Barry, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary, Florida)
  • “I tell my story so that they might tell the next generation.”  Sara Atzmon, Holocaust Survivor, artist, (Hungary, Israel)
  • “Love gives us wings to soar above it all.”  Sara Atzmon, Holocaust Survivor, artist, (Hungary, Israel)
  • “Hatred is something we must fight against.”  Leslie Meisels, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary, Toronto)
  • “Silence helps the oppressors.” Leslie Meisels, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary, Toronto)
  • “I tell my story so that it won’t become your future.”  Leslie Meisels, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary, Toronto)
  • “We cannot be lax at all.  We must keep the faith.  We must tell others.”  Buster Simmons, Chaplain, 30th Infantry Division Veterans of WWII.
  • “I’m listed as a liberator, but I’m a survivor of WWII.”  William Gast, 743rd Tank Battalion
  • “We keep the faith.”  Motto of the 743rd Tank Battalion
  • “Freedom is not free; there is a high price tag attached.”  William Gast, 743rd Tank Battalion
  • “We must ever be thankful [for our freedom].  We must NEVER take freedom for granted.”  William Gast, 743rd Tank Battalion
  • “After they gave us back our lives, we needed to live each day.”  Paul Arato, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary;  Toronto, Canada)
  • “I live some of the horrors of 65 years ago everyday.”  Paul Arato, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary;  Toronto, Canada)
  • “You have the power to heal the world.”  Lev Raphael, son of Holocaust survivors
  • “Don’t be a bystander.”  Mr. Rozell, see below.

Credit Matthew Rozell and World War II Living History Project/Teaching History Matters. .. If re-posting  include the link, https://teachinghistorymatters.wordpress.com.

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