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Posts Tagged ‘Farsleben’

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

The Old Coach is being buried today. As I write this, he is being eulogized by those who knew him and loved him best. Losing an old soldier is a heavy road I have been down many times, but it’s taken me a week to compose my thoughts on best serving his memory.

In a previous Army life, combat medic Walter Gantz of the 95th Medical Battalion was known as the ‘Sharpshooter’, not for killing people in wartime, but for his uncanny ability to sight in on impossible to find veins in skin-and-bones-bodies racked with disease, malnutrition, and dehydration with a life-giving needle. And he went on giving life after the war, leading by example and taking the needle himself, personally donating 27 gallons of blood to the American Red Cross and spearheading the collection of thousands more in his hometown.

I last talked to Babe, as he liked to sign off in his letters, a few months ago. It had crossed my mind to call him again on his 95th birthday this year, November 1st, but I guess I was busy or put it off to the weekend, figuring I still had time.

I wanted to ask him if he would like to return to Germany with us this coming April, to the site of the Holocaust train liberation of the Train Near Magdeburg and a monument unveiling for the 75th anniversary, in the presence of survivors and 2nd and 3rd generation descendants of survivors and other American liberators associated with the liberation of the train. And to meet the German schoolkids, one a 17-year-old who became a pen pal for a while, when I told her to write to him with her questions. Of course, he wrote back!

You see, Walter was a hero to a lot of people. Mike, the filmmaker for the documentary we are working on, remembers driving many hours to pull up at his house to meet him, to get an interview for our film—”I got out of my car, Walter took my hand and looked me straight in the eye and thanked me for coming to tell the story.”

Walter died on November 27th, in the morning, exactly a week ago. His son-in-law Ken reached out to me shortly afterwards, and I have been struggling to find the words ever since; it did not register at first because it just did not seem possible. When I met him in April—he was waiting for me in the lobby of the hotel. He had arrived an hour early, having driven himself to the hotel where we were staying.

I don’t have many heroes. But I met one in April. WW2 combat medic, Walter Gantz–and he squeezed my hands so hard…

Walter got emotional. The Old Coach in his red athletic hoodie grabbed my two hands with the grip of the 20-year-old he had been as a medic at Hillersleben, the captured German Luftwaffe base and weapons proving ground 74 years before. “Matt Rozell, God bless you!” Mike snapped a picture. “It’s a good thing I am as cool as a cucumber; otherwise I would be real nervous about all this!”

We talked for a while. He lived only three minutes away in the hills overlooking the city, the ‘Polish Alps’ as he calls it, where his parents had raised him, most of the community having emigrated from Poland in the early part of the previous century to work in the mines. He remembered attempts at conversations with the Polish survivors at Hillersleben, how he could pick up word and phrases, and he remembered child survivor Micha Tomkiewicz’s Polish mother distinctly, an educated woman who also had medical knowledge and training. He remembered Gina Rappaport, a survivor from the Krakow Ghetto who spoke seven languages and translated for the people on the train. And he was so sorry to have missed the reunions (11 in all) in the past, but I did not even know about him until he called my classroom in October 2011, shortly after our Sept. 2011 final school reunion.

We were in Scranton for a film shoot-re-introducing him to survivor Judah Samet of Pittsburgh, who came with his daughter for a meeting and lunch with Walter and his family. Walter cried.

As it happened, I was scheduled to give a talk in New Jersey the next week. Walter and his son-in-law Ken made the trip, and when a New York based train survivor learned about it, he and his family came to meet Walter in another emotional meeting. More tears were shed, and students got to witness it.

As he recalled,

“After 70 years, I still get emotional. I try to control my emotions, but it’s impossible. I know I keep repeating the word, ‘helpless.’ It’s a good way to describe this situation, really. Yet as medics we did everything humanly possible to help; I would say without a question we saved a lot of lives. We really did save a lot of lives. When you hear them saying ‘heroes,’ we medics weren’t considered heroes, but I guess we were the unsung heroes. It’s a long time ago, over 70 years. It’s a lifetime. Sadly, in time, your memories become dimmed—but there are certain events that will stay with a person all of their lifetime.

 The whole experience [of being reunited with survivors over 70 years later] has made me feel ten feet tall, and I have to use the word ‘mind-boggling’—I guess you’d have to put it in the category of a dream… all the survivors keep saying is, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

Walter signed off on one of his letters to me.

Some of the boys couldn’t take this type of duty and had to be sent back to our headquarters… My parents never knew of Hillersleben; the 95th held more than 40 reunions and barely a word was mentioned concerning Hillersleben.

Matt, I wish you well in all your endeavors. God’s blessings to you and yours.

 

As ever,

Walter (Babe) Gantz

Member, 95th Medical Bn.

 

I think the best way to serve your memory, Walter, is to keep on keeping on in our ongoing endeavor, that you and your deeds are never forgotten, and generations of people will know and celebrate the goodness in humanity in recalling your life and the lives of all the soldiers and liberators through the book A Train Near Magdeburg, and our upcoming film of the same name. God bless YOU, my friend, and Godspeed.



Walter (Babe) Gantz Obituary

Walter (Babe) Gantz, 95, South Scranton, died peacefully Wednesday morning at Geisinger Community Medical Center surrounded by his family. His wife of 69 years, Charlotte Jean Kester Gantz, died in 2018.

Son of the late Frank and Rose Slangan Gantz, he spent his entire life in the South Side area. A graduate of Central High School and Keystone Junior College, he was a member of St. Stanislaus Polish National Catholic Cathedral.

During World War II, he served as a surgical technician with the 95th Medical Battalion. He was the recipient of the Combat Medical Badge, Bronze Star, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Meritorious Unit Citation and many other awards. He served in northern France, Rhineland, central Europe and Ardennes campaigns. During the Korean War, he was a member of the 79th Infantry Division.

In early 1944, he volunteered on a secret mission in the wetlands of southern Florida. It was a joint effort involving American, British, Canadian and French Armed Forces. Their task was to test clothing to be used in the event of chemical warfare. He was seriously burned by nitrogen mustard gas and was hospitalized at MacDill Air Force Base. His group was placed under 24-hour guard.

One of the greatest satisfactions of his lifetime was to reunite with the boys from his medical battalion after being separated for 18 years. He always referred to it as a “labor of love.” The first three reunions were held in Scranton and the 50th anniversary was also held locally. He remained as the only president of its association.

He was a great sports enthusiast throughout his lifetime, both as a player and coach. He was a member of the YMS of R team in the first-class Scranton association, the top amateur league. He also played with some of the best softball teams in the area. In 1945, while waiting to be transferred to the Pacific, his battalion’s softball team won the championship at the Arles staging area with a record of 35 wins and five losses. The staging area, located in northern France, consisted of more than 250,000 troops. In 1960, he formed the first slow-pitch league in NEPA. An outstanding distance runner, he continued to do so in his middle 70s. He was considered one of the top speed skaters in the area. While in the service, he was an assistant coach and member of the battalion boxing team. While in his 80s, Babe was a team adviser to the women’s softball team at Baptist Bible College. He continued in this role well into his 90s. He derived great satisfaction in hearing the players refer to him as Coach Walt. Most of the young generation referred to him as the “Old Coach.”

Babe was involved in community affairs throughout his lifetime. He was elected to a six-year term on the Scranton School Board in the 1970s. As the overseer of athletics, he was successful in introducing cross county in the district. He was noted for his objectivity while on the board. In the early 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic became known, he was a member of the initial committee to study its local impact.

As an AIDS instructor, he spoke at many of our high schools and colleges. Babe also served on the hemodialysis commission. As a combat medic, it was an easy decision for him to join our blood program in 1948. He served at the head of every volunteer office at the Scranton Chapter blood program and was its first representative to the NEPA Blood Center. He was the sole remaining member of the initial committee that organized the South Scranton Ecumenical Blood Council. The group collected more than 17,000 units of blood. Leading by example, he donated 27 gallons locally. In 2015, he retired from the program after 65 years. As the Americanism chairman for the American Legion Central District, he attended many services for those who made the supreme sacrifice during the Vietnam War.

Babe was an ardent believer in physical fitness. He would say to both young and old, “Keep those legs moving.”

Babe had a perpetual smile and when greeting you by your first name, he would always follow it with “God bless you.” It was easy for him to find the good in everyone. A spiritual individual, he tried his best to walk in the path of God.

He always said that he was truly blessed that he rubbed shoulders with so many individuals. In many instances he played the role of mentor, conveying any words of wisdom that he possessed.

He enjoyed music and said it was a source of strength during difficult times. His favorites were bluegrass, hymns, big band and the classics. In the evening, he spent many hours reading in his den. His topics ranged from Abraham Lincoln, World War II and those of a spiritual nature. For many years, he and Jeanie were seen at the area polka dances. Also for many years, the family enjoyed walking around Lake Scranton. He was an ardent fisherman and spent much time at his favorite pond, saying it was a great way to relax.

One of the most memorable events in his later years was having the honor and pleasure of meeting many Holocaust survivors at the Teen Symposium sponsored by the Holocaust Education Resource Center. For a number of years, he related his experience treating survivors from the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. His medical battalion set up a hospital to meet their needs. They were victims of what was known as “The Death Train at Magdeburg.”

In 2010, Babe was the recipient of the Hero of Combat, Hero of Compassion award by our local group for his humane endeavors. He is also portrayed in the book called “A Train Near Magdeburg,” written by Matt Rozell, and will be featured in the upcoming documentary by the same name.

Although he was very devoted to his family, he credits his wife, Jeanie, for faithfully providing the everyday needs of their children while he was away or on assignment.

Surviving are three daughters, Debbie Gantz, Lake Winola; Linda Guarino and husband, James, Blakely; and Doreen Klinkel and husband, Kenneth, Dalton; grandson, Tony Guarino; great-grandson, Elijah Guarino; nieces and nephews; and a sister-in-law, Shirley Angelis, Lake Ariel.

He was preceded in death by a brother, Frank Gantz, and two infant brothers, Steven and Walter Gantz.

The funeral will be Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. from the Leon S. Gorgol Funeral Home, 1131 Pittston Ave., with Mass at 10 in St. Stanislaus Polish National Catholic Cathedral. Interment with military honors will be at Abington Hills Cemetery.

Published in Scranton Times on Dec. 1, 2019

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George Gross, former tank commander in Company D of the 743rd Tank Battalion, died ten years ago today. In his declining years before he died, I was able to bring him much joy in introducing him to several of the children he saved. He sent me the photographs, and wanted me to tell his story.  And I brought him together again with his old Army buddy, Red Walsh.  So I am re-posting this today on the 10th anniversary of Dr. Gross’ death.
Where does the time go? He lived a good life, and at the end, got to see the results of his actions six decades before.
We are all traveling our own roads. Days like this, I like to stop and ponder what it all means. I’m glad that I had a small role to play in his life.
george-gross-1945

~George C. Gross, 1922-2009~

Yesterday my son turned 11. And at about 11 pm yesterday on the West Coast, Dr. Gross died at home with his family around him.

I just found out. More than anyone else, he is the one responsible for this website and the hundreds of lives changed because of it.

You see, he took the photo that you may not really notice in the heading above, along with 9 other photographs that forever imprint the evidence not only of man’s inhumanity to man, but of the affirmation, hope and promise of mankind. It was he who wrote the prose that led me to the survivors, and vice versa. And it was he who cultivated a deep friendship with me via his wonderful writings and telephone conversation. How amazed and happy he seemed to be to hear from all the survivors.

In the summer of 2001, I did an interview with his comrade in arms, army buddy Carrol Walsh. Judge Walsh put me in touch with Dr. Gross. If you go back through the archives you know the rest of the story. It has changed my life and the lives of my students in that we are now trying to rescue the evidence, the testimony of the Holocaust and the World War Two veterans, for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And today I received in the mail a bulletin from this Museum, reaffirming the mission that Dr. Gross had everything to do with setting me on.

He came into my life during a dark time for me- we had just lost our father (who thankfully, like Dr. Gross, passed on from his own bed at home), and our mother was battling the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, or dementia, or whatever that nightmare was called…. we began a conversation that has yielded so much fruit.

Lately, I knew he wasn’t well. I actually had looked into flights across the country before Christmas for my son and I to pay a visit, but we just couldn’t seem to swing it financially, with Christmas bills coming in and holiday fares going up. My back up plan, in my head, was to go out in February, when fares were half the cost… Well, February arrived yesterday and now it is too late, I never got to shake the hand of a man who helped reshape my own life, and the lives of so many others.

His 8×10 liberation photos are mounted in the front of my classroom, with his captions for all to see. So I see George and just one of the noteworthy products of his life, everyday. The captions that he wrote for each are mounted below each print, a testament to his humanity and to his graciousness.

I know it is selfish to feel so bad about the fact that I was not able to literally reach out and touch him. I’m just so damned disappointed.  Right now it’s another dark day for Matt, but I am comforted that he was surely welcomed by his beloved wife, parents, and maybe even my folks as well.

From his statement read at the occasion of the first reunion, September 14th, 2007.

Sincere greetings to all of you gathered at this celebration of the indomitable spirit of mankind!

Greetings first to all the admirable survivors of the train near Magdeburg, and our thanks to you for proving Hitler wrong. You did not vanish from the face of the earth as he and his evil followers planned, but rather your survived, and grew, and became successful and contributing members of free countries, and you are adding your share of free offspring to those free societies.

You have vowed that the world will never forget the horrors of the Holocaust, and you spread the message by giving interviews, visiting schools, writing memoirs, and publishing powerful books on the evil that infected Nazi Germany and threatens still to infect the world. I am enriched by the friendship of such courageous people who somehow have maintained a healthy sense of humor and a desire to serve through all the evils inflicted upon you.

Greetings also to the dedicated teacher whose efforts have brought us all together through the classes he has taught on World War 2 and the web site he maintains at the cost of hours of time not easily found in his duty as a high school teacher. I know that several of you found your quest for knowledge of your past rewarded by the interviews and pictures Matt Rozell and his classes have gathered and maintained. Selfishly, I am grateful to Mr. Rozell for leading several of you to me, bringing added joy to my retiring years.

Greetings also to all the faculty, staff, students, parents, and friends of the school at which this important gathering takes place. Thank you for your interest in the survivors of the Holocaust and their message.

And special greetings also to my old Army buddy, Judge Carrol Walsh, and his great family. Carrol fought many battles beside me, saved my life and sanity, and resuscitated my sense of humor often. We had just finished a grueling three weeks of fighting across Germany, moving twenty or more hours per day, rushing on to reach the Elbe River. Carrol and I were again side by side as we came up to the train with Major Benjamin, chased the remaining German guards away, and declared the train and its captives free members of society under the protection of the United States Army as represented by two light tanks.

Unfortunately, Carrol was soon ordered back to the column on its way to Magdeburg while, luckily for me, I was assigned to stay overnight with the train, to let any stray German soldiers know that it was part of the free world and not to be bothered again.

Carrol missed much heartbreaking and heartwarming experience as I met the people of the train. I was shocked to see the half-starved bodies of young children and their mothers and old men—all sent by the Nazis on their way to extermination.

I was honored to shake the hands of the large numbers who spontaneously lined up in orderly single file to introduce themselves and greet me in a ritual that seemed to satisfy their need to declare their return to honored membership in the free society of humanity.

I was heartbroken that I could do nothing to satisfy their need for food that night, but I was assured that other units were taking care of that and the problem of housing so many free people.

Sixty years later, I was pleased to hear that the Army did well in caring for their new colleagues in the battle for freedom. I saw many mothers protecting their little ones as best they could, and pushing them out, as proud mothers will, to be photographed. I was surprised and please by the smiles I saw on so many young faces.

Some of you have found yourselves among those pictured children, and you have proved that you still have those smiles. I was terribly upset at the proof of man’s inhumanity to man, but I was profoundly uplifted by the dignity and courage shown by you indomitable survivors. I have since been further rewarded to learn what successful, giving lives you have lived since April 13, 1945.

I wish I could be with you in person at this celebration, as I am with you in spirit. I hope you enjoy meeting each other and getting to know Matt Rozell and Carrol Walsh. I look forward to seeing again my friends whom I have met and to meeting the rest of you either in person or by E-mail. My experience at the train was rich and moving, and it has remained so, locked quietly in my heart until sixty years later, when the appearance of you survivors began to brighten up a sedate retirement.

You have blessed me, friends, and I thank you deeply. May your lives, in turn, bring you the great blessings you so richly deserve.

Fondly yours,

George C. Gross

September, 2007

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April 17, 1945, was a Sunday. It was three days after the liberation of the train near Magdeburg, near the Elbe River, just miles from Berlin. War weary GIs had their first encounters with the conditions at the train. They would never forget what they saw.

April 17th. (1945)

Dear Chaplain;-

Haven’t written you in many months now, its funny how a few moments are so hard to find in which to write a letter way past due; it’s much easier to keep putting it off the way I’ve done. I’ll try to make up for it in this letter.

Today I saw a sight that’s impossible to describe, however I’ll try. Between 2400 and 3000 German refugees were overran by my division during our last operation; most of them were, or had been, inmates of concentration camps, their crimes the usual ones, – Jewish parentage, political differences with der Fuhrer, lack of sympathy for the SS, or just plain bad luck. Not one of these hundreds could walk one mile and survive; they had been packed on a train whose normal capacity was perhaps four or five hundred, and had been left there days without food.

Our division military government unit took charge of them, and immediately saw what a huge job it was going to be, so they sent out a call for help. Several of our officers went out to help them organize the camp they were setting up for them. The situation was extremely ticklish we soon learned; no one could smoke as it started a riot when the refugees saw the cigarette, and we couldn’t give the kiddies anything or they would have been trampled to death in the rush that would result when anything resembling food was displayed. The only nourishment they were capable of eating was soup; now the army doesn’t issue any of the Heinz’s 57 varieties, so we watered down C-ration[s] and it served quite well.  It was necessary to use force to make the people stay in line in order to serve them. They had no will power left, only the characteristics of beasts.

A few weeks of decent food will change them into a semblance of normal human beings; with God willing the plague of disease that was already underway, will be diverted; but I’m wondering what the affect of their ordeal they have been through, will be on their minds; most will carry scars for the rest of their days for the beatings that they were given. No other single thing had convinced me as this experience has that Germany isn’t fit to survive as a nation. I’ll never forget today.

I was going to write mother tonight but thought better of it. I’ll be in a better frame of mind tomorrow. I’m only a few dozen miles from Berlin right now, and its hard to realize the end is in sight. I’m always glad to receive your scandal sheet. You perhaps missed your calling, as your editorial abilities are quite plain.

As ever,

Charles.

March 11th, 2009

Dear Mr. Rozell: My father-in-law was 1st. Lt. Charles M. Kincaid. He was a Liaison Officer with the 30th. Division Artillery.  He was honored with an Air Medal in the battle of Mortain and a Bronze Medal in the battle of St. Lo.  In the battle of Mortain he won his Air Medal by calling in artillery adjustments while flying in a Piper L-4 over 4 panzer divisions on August 9, 1944.

He rarely wrote home. He did write home to his minister about one event that evidently really caused him to stop and think. Attached is a copy of that letter that his sister transcribed – making copies for others to read.  The letter describes the Farsleben train and his experience there.

I need to thank you for your website and work. You and your students work enabled me to connect the letter with the actual historical event. It further enabled me to show my children the pictures and to make their grandfather’s experience real, not just an old letter – that this event so affected him that he needed to tell his minister before he told his mother.

Thank you,
Mark A.

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I am in Israel now to embark upon two and a half weeks of study at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. I am humbled. But I was here before, in 2011, with liberator Frank Towers as he was recognized for his efforts 70 years ago, on behalf of American liberators everywhere. Here in Israel he met with statesmen and the head of the IDF, as well as over 50 survivors and their families who were liberated on April 13, 1945, an event that Frank had a direct hand in.

Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.

Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.

It’s a long story, but my work as a teacher has been here, too. In the background, note the Benjamin photo at the 2015 70th anniversary state ceremonies.

"The anguish of the liberation and return to life". Note the Benjamin photograph on the banner. Yad Vashem, 2015.

“The anguish of the liberation and return to life”. Note the Benjamin photograph on the banner. Yad Vashem, April 2015.

The short version of the story:

Fifteen summers ago I sat down to listen to an old gentleman in a rocking chair. A  war weary tank commander in 1945, he told me stories of his World War II experiences and then led me to his fellow tank commander, who showed me a picture that their major had taken on April 13, 1945. You see, those two were there, and their two tanks had liberated a concentration camp transport deep in the heart of war-torn Germany.

It would be the first time in decades that this picture had seen the light of day. And because of its discovery, and what we would do with it, thousands of lives were about to change.

Yad Vashem contacted me in December 2014 to inquire about using the Major Benjamin photo. I immediately sent them a high resolution copy. My friend Varda in Israel writes, ‘[The photograph above was taken] during the main ceremony at  the Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem. This photo shows the President of Israel Reuven Rivlin make his speech. You can see your photo there at the middle (banner) and I now think it was there throughout all the ceremony.’

Below, a post from the time of the event in April, 2015..

 

My good friend in Israel let me know that the April 15th  commemoration of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Israel was a moving event and sent me the link to the video of the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation. While the  narrative  behind the Major Benjamin photograph was not a focus, the photo that which now seems to be becoming a cornerstone of the history of Holocaust liberation is all throughout the ceremony, and especially at 8:31. One of my friends, a survivor who had been a six-year old boy on this transport that Major Benjamin photographed at the moment his jeep arrived at the train, notes,

The photograph wouldn’t be there if not for your effort. It was presiding on 1.5 hrs of national ceremony in the presence of Israel’s president, prime minister, the entire government, the top army guys, survivors, chief rabbis and was nationally broadcast. You have a direct hand in this.

Me, a lowly teacher, whose work for an evening is presiding as the backdrop for presidents and prime ministers. I am proud and hope that the story is told over and over, and that it serves the memory of the victims, the survivors, and the liberators well. I just can’t believe sometimes this path I have been down, since the day over a dozen years ago when I took the time to listen to a war veteran, and began to backtrack his story.  There are other forces at work here, I think… and there is a cosmic force that reverberates in you when you teach the Holocaust from the heart.

Teachers out there, you all know the power of what we do. I hope this serves as an affirmation.

 

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

Matthew Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow and teaches history at his alma mater in upstate New York. His work has resulted in the reuniting of 275 Holocaust survivors and the American soldiers who freed them.

His first book, ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’, was released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. His second book,  is on the power of  teaching, remembering the Holocaust, the Benjamin photograph and this ‘Train Near Magdeburg’. 

 

 

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Lisette Lamon was a Holocaust survivor liberated on the train near Magdeburg on April 13, 1945, and later in life a psychotherapist at White Plains Hospital outside of New York City, a pioneer in the treatment of trauma back in the days when the field was in its infancy. She had experienced it herself. She was from the Netherlands, and lost her first husband Benjamin ‘Benno’ Soep at the Mauthausen slave labor concentration camp in Austria in 1941 (she appears on the manifest list: Soep-Lamon Lisette DOB 14.05.1920 Amsterdam).

This article originally appeared in the New York Times on Mother’s Day, May 12, 1979, back when I was a young buck itching to graduate high school and go out into the unknown world. Of course I did not see this article then, but the people she was with on that train and the soldiers who liberated them would go on to change my life. I wonder if at the time my own mother, relaxing in her silk robe on Sunday afternoons with the NYT as she frequently did in her respite from the workweek, read this letter… It was presented to me by fellow survivor Elisabeth Seaman, whose mother had been in contact with Ms. Lamon (Ms. Lamon passed in 1982).

Here’s to all mothers, a beautiful anecdote that will no doubt make it into my upcoming book. Happy Mother’s Day, indeed.

It was a beautiful, balmy morning in April 1945, when I entered Major Adams’ makeshift office in Farsleben, a small town in Germany, to offer my services as an interpreter.  It made me feel good that I could show, in a small way, the gratitude I felt for the 9th American Army, which had liberated us as we were being transported from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Orders found by the Americans in the German officer’s car directed that the train was to be stopped on the bridge crossing the Elbe River at Magdeburg, then the bridge was to be blown up, also destroying the train and its cargo all at once. The deadline was noon, Friday the 13th, and at 11 A.M. we were liberated!

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. Credit Chriss Brown.

With the liberation had come the disquieting news that President Roosevelt had died, and while I was airing concern that the new President, Harry Truman, (a man unknown to us) could continue the war, a sergeant suddenly said, “Hey, you speak pretty good English. I am sure the major would like to have you serve as his interpreter.”

Major Adams had not been told of my coming so he was startled when he saw me. No wonder! There stood a young woman as thin as a skeleton, dressed in a two-piece suit full of holes. The suit had been in the bottom of my rucksack for 20 months, saved for the day we might be liberated, but the rats in Bergen-Belsen must have been as hungry as we were and had found an earlier use for my suit. For nine days we had been on the train, and this was the only clean clothing I owned.

Major Adams quickly recovered from his initial shock and seemed delighted after I explained why I had come. He asked how his men had treated us, and I heaped glowing praise on the American soldiers who had shared their food so generously with the starving prisoners. Then he took me outside to meet the “notables” of the German population, and with glee I translated orders given to them by the American commander. The irony of the reversal of roles was not lost on me nor the recipients; I was now delivering orders to those who had been ordering me around for so long! The Germans were obsequious, profusely claiming they never wanted Hitler or agreed with his policies and hoped the war would soon be over.

When asked to come back the next day, I was delighted but hesitated, wondering if it would be appropriate to ask a favor. Major Adams picked up on my hesitation, so I asked him to help me contact my family in America. We had emigrated to the U.S. in 1939, but after six months I returned to Holland to join my fiancé who was in the Dutch army. My parents knew that eight months after we were married my husband was taken as a hostage and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp where he was killed in 1941, but they did not know if I was alive, not having heard from me in more than two years.

Major Adams gave me a kind glance and said “Give me a few lines in your handwriting, written in English, and I will ask my parents to forward it to them.” When he saw the address on the note he looked at me, his mouth open in total amazement, and then he started to laugh – his parents and my parents lived in the same apartment building in New York City!

And so it was on Mother’s Day that his mother brought to my mother my message:

“I am alive!”

Retyped by my student Caitlin Coutant ’16. Click here to learn more about my upcoming book on this subject. Feel free to ‘SHARE”, below!

 

 

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I just finished the first draft of Chapter One of my new book. It took several weeks but in my head I have been writing it for years.

The chapter is called ‘Hell on Earth’. It’s Bergen Belsen in the spring of 1945. If you don’t know a lot about the concentration camp system, this 40 plus page chapter will tell you, but for now it is where Anne Frank, her sister, and 70,000 others were murdered.

The chapter has been a ton of research and I think kind of draining, but you get through it. In order to show the tremendous highs, you kind of have to go and plumb the depths. Hard to get much lower than this. And for you teachers out there, remember to be judicious with the graphic imagery in the classroom. Answer the question first- why am I teaching this? It should be more than a cheap gimmick to grab a kid’s attention. In the chapter, I chose to use some troublesome material. Not for shock value, but to better serve humanity, in context–but I am not publishing that here right now because that context is missing.

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Some of my research material. Books presented to me by my friends at the 2009 reunion; the 20th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Bergen Belsen book, and Volume 1 of the Book of Names, an attempt to compile the list of all those who suffered here.

I learned a lot. Sometimes you wonder how much you take for granted. And that is probably one of the main points of my book.

This excerpt from an eleven year old girl.

At the end of November it was very cold in Europe. Finally I was given some rags and one black ladies shoe with a high heel and one red girl’s shoe. Imagine the agony of a young girl having to walk unevenly like that for half a year.

In those shoes I marched into Bergen Belsen concentration camp on December 2nd, 1944. In those shoes my legs froze while I was enduring roll calls, which lasted between two to five hours.

When the mounds of dead bodies started to pile up nearby in a frightening manner, we, the children, made bets between us, as to who would die tomorrow and who would die the day after. Every one of them had his signs. I had become an old woman already, eleven and half years old.

During the breaks between roll calls, if it wasn’t too cold, I would stand by the fence and look at the naked dead bodies with their gaping mouths. I used to wonder what it was that they still wanted to shout out loud and couldn’t. I tried to determine who were men, and who were women. But they were only skin and bones. I tried to imagine how I could dress these dead bodies in clothes for dinner; their pale skin color did not always match the clothes.

Another eleven year old girl:

When told to prepare ourselves for the departure in the train I was already very weak and sick. Two weeks prior I had a very high fever. I was in Bergen Belsen with my aunt, my father’s sister, as by then I had lost my entire family.

The Germans let us know that all those who could not walk would have to stay behind. My aunt wanted to stay because she knew that I was already very weak; however, I insisted on going. I said to my aunt, “You know that they kill the weak and the sick. We will go with the healthy people.” Although I was only 11½ years old, my aunt listened to me. I probably had a very strong will to live.

Before we left, they gave each of us a raw potato, and somehow we managed to bake them over a wood fire. My aunt then said to me, “You know that now is the Passover holiday”—we barely remembered what day of the week it was, let alone the date. On Passover, according to the story, our forefather Moses took us out of Egypt. Maybe G–d is bringing us to freedom, and maybe we will live?

A seventeen year old girl:

Saturday, ‎April 7th, ‎ ‎1945. Our transport is stranded at the Bergen–Celle railway station. Our irresponsible captors no longer provide us with food. After suffering from constant starvation for six long months at the death factory of Bergen Belsen, the German SS leaves us now in total hunger and total thirst. We are too exhausted, dizzy and weak to grasp how grave our situation is.

What do the Nazis have in mind?

What do the Nazis have in mind, indeed. On to Chapter Two to find out. The book should be done this summer.

For updates, follow this blog. For advance notice, sign up at bit.ly/RozellNewBook.

 

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April 15th 1945                                                                                                                   Somewhere in Germany

You will probably be wondering who I am and what business I have, writing to you.- I am one of the millions of soldiers of the United States Army, who is fighting for all the oppressed peoples of the world and hopes to have reestablished decency and honor to all mankind, with the defeat of Hitlerism.

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My friend Varda in Israel sent me a copy of this letter she recently received from the widow of  Mr. Shmuel ‘Tommy’ Huppert of Israel. In it, an American soldier is taking the time to write to the husband of a Holocaust survivor to let him know that his wife and young son (Tommy) have been liberated, and that they have survived the horrors of the Holocaust and the carnage of ‘Hitlerism’.

Young Tommy and his mother, Mrs. Hilde Huppert,  were liberated at Farsleben on the transport from Bergen Belsen on April 13th, 1945. They managed to get to Palestine shortly after liberation, bringing with them many, many orphaned children, including my friend Lily Cohen.  Hilde’s manuscript, Hand in Hand with Tommy, was one of the first Holocaust memoirs completed after the war and a cathartic way for her to attempt to come to terms with what had happened.

It took years to be properly published, as it was originally rejected because it was ‘too soon after the war’. Later, at 93 years of age, Hilde was asked if there was anything specific she wished to convey to American readers of her book. She replied, ‘Tell them I will never forget those American GIs who liberated us from the Germans…I can still recall their amazed faces in that dusty jeep and the U.S. Army symbol. I remember kissing one of them, and I want the American people to know that I am grateful to them.’

 


READ ALL ABOUT IT IN MY BOOK HERE


One of the soldiers, on the Sunday following the Friday liberation, took the time to send this note on her behalf to her husband in Palestine. It now resides in the collection at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Authority.

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April 15th 1945                                                                                                                      Somewhere in Germany

Dear Mr. Huppert,

You will probably be wondering who I am and what business I have, writing to you.- I am one of the millions of soldiers of the United States Army, who is fighting for all the oppressed peoples of the world and hopes to have reestablished decency and honor to all mankind, with the defeat of Hitlerism.

Two days ago, it was the priviledge (sic) of our unit, to be able to liberate a trainload full of people of all nations imaginable, who were being transferred from a concentration camp near Hannover, to some other place. Our advances were so swift, that the SS guards, left this particular train where it was and took off.

That is how I became acquainted with your wife, Mrs. Hilde Huppert, who asked me to drop you this note, saying, that both she and your son Tommy, are both healthy and well and now being well taken care of by our military governmental authorities. In actual fact, your wife wrote a message for you on a piece of paper in pencil, which she asked me to convey to you. Unfortunately, however, the penciled lines faded in my pocket, and I can no longer read what was written on it. The contents of the message, though, was to let you know that your wife and son are both safe and sound.

I am sure that your wife will soon be able to get into contact with you directly through the Red Cross, and I hope that in a none too distant future, your family will once more be peacefully united.

Sincerely yours,

Cpl. Frank Gartner

Fluent in many languages, Gartner was the translator for the 743rd Tank Battalion’s commander, Col. Duncan. He was originally from Estonia, and resided in Los Angeles, California.

BOOK HERE

If anyone knows more about Frank Gartner, please contact me at matthew @ teachinghistorymatters.com.. 

Transcribed by Alanna Belanger’15 and Alexis Winney ’15.

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My good friend in Israel let me know that the April 15th  commemoration of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Israel was a moving event and sent me the link to the video of the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation. While my work at piecing together the  narrative and the story behind the Major Benjamin photograph was not detailed, the photo which now seems to be becoming a cornerstone of the history of Holocaust liberation is all throughout the ceremony and especially at 8:31. One of my friends, a survivor who had been a six year old boy on this transport that Major Benjamin photographed at the moment his jeep arrived at the train, notes,

The photograph wouldn’t be there if not for your effort. It was presiding on 1.5 hrs of national ceremony in the presence of Israel’s president, prime minister, the entire government, the top army guys, survivors, chief rabbis and was nationally broadcast. You have a direct hand in this.

Me, a lowly teacher, whose work for an evening is presiding over presidents and prime ministers. I am proud and hope that the story is told over and over, and that it serves the memory of the victims, the survivors, and the liberators well. I just can’t believe sometimes this path I have been down, since the day 14 years ago when I took the time to listen to a war veteran, and began to backtrack his story.  There are other forces at work here, I think… and there is a cosmic force that reverberates in you when you teach the Holocaust from the heart.

Teachers out there, you all know the power of what we do. I hope this serves as an affirmation.

 

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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. His work has resulted in the reuniting of 275 Holocaust survivors and the American soldiers who freed them.

His first book, ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’, is being released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. His second book, in progress, is on the power of  teaching, remembering the Holocaust, the Benjamin photograph and this “Train Near Magdeburg’. He can be reached at marozell at gmail dot com.

 

 

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"The anguish of the liberation and return to life". Note the Benjamin photograph on the banner.

“The anguish of the liberation and return to life”. Note the Benjamin photograph on the banner. From the Yad Vashem website.

Fourteen summers ago I sat down to listen to an old gentleman in a rocking chair. A  war weary tank commander in 1945, he told me stories of his World War II experiences and then showed me a picture that his major had taken on April 13, 1945. You see, he was there. It would be the first time in decades that this picture had seen the light of day. And because of its discovery, and what we would do with it, thousands of lives were about to change.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Authority in Israel, contacted me in December 2014 to inquire about using the Major Benjamin photo. I did immediately send them a high resolution copy. My friend in Israel writes, ‘[The photograph above was taken] during the main ceremony at  the Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem. This photo shows the President of Israel Reuven Rivlin make his speech. You can see your photo there at the middle (banner) and I now think it was there throughout all the ceremony.’

I hope that whoever was present or sees this photograph will visit our website to learn the powerful story behind this amazing photograph in the context of the 70th anniversary of the liberation. No wonder the survivors of the train refer to April 13th as the day they were reborn. Below is the proper information.

Matthew Rozell

From Yad Vashem:

Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah in Hebrew) is a national day of commemoration in Israel, on which the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust are memorialized. It is a solemn day, beginning at sunset on the 27th of the month of Nisan and ending the following evening, according to the traditional Jewish custom of marking a day. Places of entertainment are closed and memorial ceremonies are held throughout the country. The central ceremonies, in the evening and the following morning, are held at Yad Vashem and are broadcast on the television. Marking the start of the day-in the presence of the President of the State of Israel and the Prime Minister, dignitaries, survivors, children of survivors and their families, gather together with the general public to take part in the memorial ceremony at Yad Vashem in which six torches, representing the six million murdered Jews, are lit. The following morning, the ceremony at Yad Vashem begins with the sounding of a siren for two minutes throughout the entire country. For the duration of the sounding, work is halted, people walking in the streets stop, cars pull off to the side of the road and everybody stands at silent attention in reverence to the victims of the Holocaust. Afterward, the focus of the ceremony at Yad Vashem is the laying of wreaths at the foot of the six torches, by dignitaries and the representatives of survivor groups and institutions. Other sites of remembrance in Israel, such as the Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz and Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, also host memorial ceremonies, as do schools, military bases, municipalities and places of work. Throughout the day, both the television and radio broadcast programs about the Holocaust. In recent years, other countries and Jewish communities have adopted Yom Hashoah, the 27th of Nisan, to mark their own day of memorial for the victims of the Holocaust.

Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day 2015 will be on Thursday, 16 April. The State opening ceremony will be held at Yad Vashem on Wednesday 15 April at 20:00.

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Update from Nashville: At the 30th Infantry Veterans of WW2 70th anniversary reunion.

Today’s events began with the posting of the colors and a moving memorial service for the veterans of the 30th Infantry Division and 743rd Tank Battalion who have moved on. Missing many, especially for me Buster Simmons, who would offer up a prayer at this gathering in his capacity as chaplain. Rest on,old soldier.

94 year old veteran Marion Sanford comes up to me and grips my hand. I have not seen him in 2 years, but he is the same to me as he always was. As a reconnaissance man for the 30th Infantry Division, he tells me how much he saw and how much now in retrospect meeting the survivors and their families has meant to him. He saw many terrible things overseas, which he felt he had to leave out of his 2012 book, ‘Old Hickory Recon’. Don’t think for a minute that a soldier understood why a friend might be killed and the fickle hand of fate spared another. In what way can this be justified? Survivors’ guilt was not just for the Holocaust survivors to experience. But this ‘small’ incident, the liberation of the train near Magdeburg, seems to have altered his perspective and the perspective of many of the soldiers I have met at these reunions. It seems to have enhanced and  added to ‘man’s search for meaning’, in a sense, as far as the soldiers go.

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Posting the colors. MC Frank Towers in the background. Frank will be 98 in June.

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After lunch, moving talks today by survivors George Somjen (Hungary), Elisabeth Seaman (Netherlands), Micha Tomkeiwitz (Poland) . To their liberators they recounted the events that they remembered and  more importantly, the impact that the liberation and the meeting of their liberators meant not only for them and their families, but also  the world.

Later, the amazing reflections of the 2nd generation ‘Train near Magdeburg’ survivors who are with us for the first time: Evelyn Marcus, formerly of the Netherlands, Orly Beigel of Mexico, and Marc Boyman of Canada. April 13th, the liberation date, for their families was a date always remembered and celebrated; a time to remember how the American soldiers loved life, and loved people, and treated the survivors with such tenderness, empathy, and respect, in marked contrast to the soldiers from another Allied nation who moved in to replace the Americans as the terms of the peace settlement were adjusted.

 

L-R: Peggy Wonder, 2nd G; Evelyn Markus, 2nd G; Frank Towers, liberator; Orly Beigel, 2nd G; Micha Tomkeiwicz, Elisabeth Seaman. Missing: Marc Boyman, 2nd G; George Somjen.

L-R: Marc Boyman, 2nd G; Peggy Wonder, 2nd G; Evelyn Markus, 2nd G; Frank Towers, liberator; Orly Beigel, 2nd G; Micha Tomkeiwicz, Elisabeth Seaman, Matthew Rozell Missing: George Somjen. Photo credit: Patti Jordan. 4-17-15.

I heard today so many vignettes of hope and promise for the future of mankind. And this, I witnessed with my own eyes. This gathering, this whole trip is an affirmation of the goodness of mankind, a meditation on the profound difference  that  one’s actions can make, and the confirmation that teaching history really does matter.

Orly Beigel’s mother, far left, 1945. Commonly mislabeled as ‘Buchenwald Survivors Entering Israel, 1945’. No. These girls ( L-Jetty (Jetta) Halpern and R-Magda Werber, together with Jetty’s older sister Golda Katz-Halpern, not pictured) pulled into the station at Guard d’Lion, Paris in France with much fanfare several weeks after liberation; there was a celebration as they arrived, so they thought that a celebrity must be on board. The war was over. In a rare instance, the survivors were the ones being celebrated.

 

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