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A survivor writes to his fellow survivors today, on the anniversary of their liberation. An excerpt:

For the 13th of April 2016.
Hello again to all of you ‘my twins’ on our 71st birthday.
I hope my good wishes find all of you in good health, both physical and mental.
It is a blessing to be alive and being able to think back of that ‘special birthday’ of ours.
To think about those who fought to give back our lives, whom we call ‘our angels of life’.
Like the years before; there are no words enough to express our thanks for them.

 

[My new book on this will be out this July. You can put in a pre-order notice, above- GET THE BOOK HERE]

30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II, Nashville Tennessee, April 2015, 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. Credit: Larry S Powell.

30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II, Nashville Tennessee, April 2015, 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. Credit: Larry S Powell.

Here also is an anniversary poem.

The poet Yaakov Barzilai was on the ‘Train Near Magdeburg’. Originally composed in Hebrew, a  translation has been provided by fellow survivor Micha Tomkiewicz. He has agreed to share his poem on the 70th anniversary of the liberation. ’11:55′  refers to the author’s recollection of the time of the day of the liberation of the train transport; ‘five minutes before the bitter end’.

Dedicated to Frank Towers and 30th Infantry Division soldiers, US liberators of the death train from Bergen-Belsen on April 13, 1945

 

At Eleven fifty-five.

Return to the Place of Liberation, April 13, 1945                                                                                 

The train stopped under the hill, huffing and puffing, as though it reached the end of the road.

An old locomotive pulling deteriorating train cars that became obsolete long ago, not even fit for carrying horses.

To an approaching visitor, the experience was of a factory of awful smell – really stinking.

Two thousand four hundred stinking cattle heading for slaughter were shoved to the train cars.

The butterflies into the surrounding air were blinded by the poisonous stench.

The train moved for five days back and forth between Bergen-Belsen and nowhere.

On the sixth day, a new morning came to shine over our heads.

Suddenly the heavy car doors were opened.

Living and dead overflowed into the surrounding green meadow.

Was it a dream or a delayed awakening of God?

When we identified the symbols of the American army, we ran to the top of the hill as though bitten by an army of scorpions, to kiss the treads of the tanks and to hug the soldiers with overflowing love.

Somebody cried: “Don’t believe it, it is a dream”. When we pinched ourselves; we felt the pain – it was real.

Mama climbed to the top of the hill. She stood in the middle of the field of flowers and prayed an almost a silent prayer from the heart.

Only few words escaped to the blowing wind:

‘Soon…Now

From the chimneys of death, I gave new life, to my children….

And this day-my grandchildren were born,  to a good life.

Amen and Amen’.

-Yaakov Barzilai.

*

בְּאַחַת עֶשְׂרֵה חֲמִשִּׁים וְחָמֵשׁ 

שִׁיבָה לִמְקוֹם הַשִּׁחְרוּר בִּ 13 בְּאַפְּרִיל 1945

                     כַּעֲבֹר 65 שָׁנָה

הָרַכֶּבֶת עָצְרָה מִתַּחַת לַגִּבְעָה

נוֹשֶׁפֶת וְנוֹהֶמֶת

כְּמִי שֶׁהִגִּיעַ לְסוֹף דַּרְכּוֹ

קַטָּר זָקֵן גָּרַר קְרוֹנוֹת יְשָׁנִים

שֶׁאָבַד עֲלֵיהֶם כֶּלַח,

לֹא רְאוּיִים אֲפִלּוּ לִמְגוּרֵי סוּסִים.

מִי שֶׁהִזְדַּמֵּן לַסְּבִיבָה

הֶאֱמִין שֶׁנִּקְלַע לְבֵית חֲרֹשֶׁת לְסֵרָחוֹן

אַלְפַּיִם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת רָאשֵׁי בָּקָר מַסְרִיחִים

שֶׁנּוֹעֲדוּ לִשְׁחִיטָה

נִדְחְסוּ לַקְּרוֹנוֹת

כָּל הַפַּרְפַּרִים בַּסְּבִיבָה הִתְעַוְרוּ

מִסֵּרָחוֹן מַדְמִיעַ.

חֲמִשָּׁה יָמִים נָסְעָה הָרַכֶּבֶת הָלוֹךְ וַחֲזֹר

בֵּין בֶּרְגֶן-בֶּלְזֶן לְשׁוּם מָקוֹם

בַּיּוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי, בֹּקֶר חָדָשׁ זָרַח מֵעָלֵינוּ.

בְּבַת אַחַת נִפְתְחוּ הַדְּלָתוֹת הַכְּבֵדוֹת שֶׁל הַקְּרוֹנוֹת

חַיִּים וּמֵתִים נִשְׁפְּכוּ בְּיַחַד

אֶל הַיָּרֹק הַמִּשְׁתּוֹלֵל בַּשָּׂדוֹת.

הַאִם הָיָה זֶה חֲלוֹם

אוֹ הַצָּתָה מְאֻחֶרֶת שֶׁל אֱלֹהִים?

כְּשֶׁזִּהִינוּ אֶת סֵמֶל הַצָּבָא הַאָמֶרִיקָאִי,

כִּנְשׁוּכֵי עַקְרָב שָׁעֲטְנוּ בְּמַעֲלֵה הַגִּבְעָה

לְנַשֵּׁק אֶת שַׁרְשְׁרָאוֹת הַטַּנְקִים

וְלַחֲנֹק אֶת הַחַיָּלִים מֵרֹב אַהֲבָה.

מִישֶׁהוּ צָעַק: “אַל תַּאֲמִינוּ זֶה רַק חֲלוֹם”

וּכְשֶׁצָּבַטְנוּ אֶת עָצַמְנוּ

כָּאָב לָנוּ בֶּאֱמֶת.

גַּם אִמָּא טִפְּסָה אֶל גִּבְעַת הַנִּצָּחוֹן

הִיא עָמְדָה בְּתוֹךְ שָׂדֶה שֶׁל פְּרָחִים וְהִתְפַּלְּלָה

מִתּוֹךְ הַתְּפִלָּה הַחֲרִישִׁית שֶׁנֶּאֶמְרָה בַּלֵּב

רַק מִלִּים בּוֹדְדוֹת הִסְתַנְנוּ אֶל אֲוִיר הָעוֹלָם:

” וְכָאן… וְעַכְשָׁו… עַל פַּסֵי הָרַכֶּבֶת…

קָרוֹב… לַאֲרֻבּוֹת הַמָּוֶת…נָתַתִּי…

חַיִּים חֲדָשִׁים…לִילָדַי… וְהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה…

נוֹלְדוּ גַּם נְכָדַי… לְחַיִּים טוֹבִים…

אָמֵן… וְאָמֵן…                                                                     יעקב ברזילי

‘Yaakov Barzilai is an esteemed Israeli poet; he is also a survivor of The Shoah. Born in Hungary in 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany he shares, in poetry and prose, a child’s memories of the horrors that befell the Jewish people. He tells of acts of great humanity and others of exceptional, he recounts tales of transportation and eventual rescue. He speaks of losses – family, potential and describes the eventual triumph of man over inhumanity.’ [www.cduniverse.com/productinfo.asp?pid=8756081]

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Here is one that has been making the rounds for a while (note the age of the veteran- he would have been 11 in 1944). I’ve gotten it forwarded to me or seen it online for like the 25th time since it first appeared about a dozen years ago.

 

83 yr old army veteran

 

Give it to him, Gramps!

Too bad it’s not true. You can substitute the American soldier for British or Canadian, if you really want to google it.

I suppose I should laugh, take it as a joke, if that was the purpose.  There are rude customs officials, for sure. And on my first read,  I’m sure the tale resonated at some level that made me proud.

But, then I read comments online like this:

“I have heard about that encounter before and I love to hear it re-told……too bad some of the nations thatt America has liberated or protected no longer appreciate it….or even seem to remember.” 

And since that seems to be a very common reaction, maybe it’s time to call bullshit.

Here’s why.

I know a ton of American World War II veterans who returned to France and the Low Countries after they retired, well after the war. And far from forgetting, the memory of what the liberators underwent is indelibly seared into the consciousness on the continent where our troops fought, three generations later, and passed on to the children in who live in those places today. They turn out by the THOUSANDS to greet our veterans, and adopt the graves of fallen Americans to care for in their lands.

This American soldier was killed a month before the war ended and lies in the Netherlands, his grave tended by three generations of the same family. And the little guy, probably the 4th generation, is not American.

The vets are honored everywhere they go. One of my overseas acquaintances even runs a private museum (link above) dedicated to the sacrifices of the American soldiers who liberated his town in the Netherlands. I have been to WWII reunions here in the States where citizens and film crews from these countries have flown over to attend and honor these veterans. They are welcomed back to the concentration camp memorials in Germany with red carpet treatment and private tours.

The meme makes us feel good for our imaginary veteran, I suppose. But I get more misty-eyed watching my ninety-something year old friend from Buffalo, NY, Dick Lacey, riding in the jeep, overwhelmed at all the attention, who can only choke back five words- “Wow! Look at all the people!”  – seeing the crowds who have come out to wish him well.

***

Read this article for starts. Look at the monuments to honor the American sacrifices throughout NW Europe, through the eyes and the ears of our veterans returning one last time.

PNGAnd did you know that France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor, is given to American veterans who fought in France? The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon, and is reserved for  outstanding service to France. A lot of my friends have received it in ceremonies at French embassies or consulates, and it proudly donned on very special occasions.  [Download the form below if you know a qualifying vet, before it is too late.  They don’t award it posthumously.] So when it comes to our veterans, so much for that legendary French snobbery and ingratitude.

The Legion d’Honneur for US Veterans

Upon presentation of their military file as detailed hereunder, US veterans who risked their life during World War II to fight on French territory, may be awarded this distinction. Those selected are appointed to the rank of Knight of the Legion of Honor.

thank you very much

 

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Last night we were all jolted out of our comfortable lives with the news of the attacks in Paris by what appears to be, once again, the handiwork of radical Islamists. I felt distress as the waves of Twitter updates came cascading in from Europe. Distress at the live updates, the storming of the Bataclan Theatre, the rising body counts, the survivor descriptions of what was unfolding, the young people being murdered on a Friday night out.  I felt distress at sitting on the couch in a warm comfortable home reading the updates. But what can one do?

So I sat there, maybe like you, feeling helpless. Maybe feeling guilty as well, for at times lately it seems as if I am rushing through my life with no time or appreciation for the little things, which, in truth, are the only things that matter.

Saturday morning now. After getting more updates on the latest crimes against humanity in Europe, I think back to an email I got this week from a producer of an about to be released film that features some of my work as a Holocaust/World War II educator, and as a “connector” between Holocaust survivors and their American soldier-liberators. He says ‘thank you’ for my help, my input and my interview, and that the documentary is ready for viewing with a private code, before its world premiere on Nov. 19th.

But I’ve been in documentaries before, and I’m busy, so I had put it off. Until just now, when I watched it for the first time.

And the light bulb just went off, like the kid in the class who finally gets the ‘big picture’. Like the 90 year old liberator to whom I  had introduced  people he saved 62 years ago, and to whom I taught about the Holocaust-for the first time in his life– who proclaimed excitedly “Yes! Yes! Now I know what I fought for!” And although on some level I have always ‘gotten it’, I see more clearly that this is what I am teaching for, and speaking for, and writing about-that this is what I am here to do-“to prevent one of history’s darkest chapters from repeating.”

***

We were at the last reunion of the 30th Infantry Veterans of World War II in Nashville, where I met Evelyn Marcus, the daughter of survivors and whose mom was liberated on the Train near Magdeburg in 1945. Raised in the Netherlands, she emigrated to the USA about a dozen years ago, due in large part to a rising wave of antisemitism sweeping that country, and Europe. And now she confronts it, after meeting her mother’s actual American liberators, and returns to the Netherlands for a deeper understanding of what is happening. And she is determined to make a difference.

And so am I. It’s what we do to honor the lives stolen, and to remember that we are all part of humanity and each one of us has a responsibility, and a role to play. I hope you have an opportunity to see the film. Maybe it’s time to ‘get it’ that ‘never again is now’.

*

FRANK, EVELYN

My name is Evelyn Markus. I am a Jew. I was born and raised in the Netherlands where my family history goes back more than 400 years. I grew up in the 60s and 70s in the world’s most liberal city –Amsterdam, where I enjoyed life with my long-time partner, Rosa. But 15 years ago, things started to change.

 We noticed and personally experienced rising anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe. As second-generation Holocaust survivors, we sensed a familiar evil on the horizon. In 2004, we decided to leave Europe for the United States, the nation that liberated my family from the horrors of the Holocaust.

 70 years later, I now understand the need to fight for freedom and the importance of acting on principles. America has molded my mission -–to tell the world, through my story —that Never Again Is Now.

FRANK

 

Watch the trailer.

NAIS

http://www.neveragainisnowfilm.com/#open

 

The film premieres on TheBlaze TV  on Thursday, Nov. 19 at 8PM. It will be released later to larger outlets, like Amazon.

Some quotes:

“If we bear all this suffering and if there are still Jews left, when it is over, then Jews, instead of being doomed, will be held up as an example.” 

Anne Frank

“Never in our training were we taught to be a humanitarian.  We were taught to be soldiers.”

Frank Towers

“It really is an incredible thing and I think about it all the time. I think it’s really important to keep the memory and the history alive.”

Matt Rozell

“My message was to make up for what Hitler destroyed. That was my function in life.”

Rosa Zeegers

“Life in the Netherlands if you are Jewish and you’re not ashamed oyour Jewishness is a predicament”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

“The Jews were killed for the simple fact that they were Jews, and that made a very deep impression on me.”

Rabbi Raphael Evers

“These are the final struggles of a lost fight. Jewish life in Holland is almost non-existent.  In that regard, Hitler won.”

Leon de Winter

“At the end of the day for my children, if they want to live a Jewish life, I would honestly not advise them to stay in Europe.”

David Beesemer

“If you feel what happens, the horror of it, and you feel the pain of individuals it’s so much more important than if you just know facts.”

Jessica Durlacher

“I think if you have an opportunity to speak for those who are voiceless, who might be victims, I think it’s a responsibility.”

Qanta Ahmed

 

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APRIL 19, 2015, 3:09 P.M. E.D.T.

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungarian Holocaust survivors rescued 70 years ago from a train taking them from one concentration camp to another on Sunday paid tribute to the American soldiers who helped liberate them.

Julia Kadar, who organized a commemorative meeting in Budapest, was among those who spoke via Skype with Lt. Frank Towers, who was in Nashville, Tennessee. He had been the liaison officer of the 30th Infantry Division which liberated the train near the German village of Farsleben on April 13, 1945.

“We thank the heroic American soldiers for being able to live meaningful, useful lives — we are grateful for being able to grow old,” said Kadar, who was 6 at the time.

About 2,500 Jewish prisoners, including 560 children, were being taken from the Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany to the Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia when they were rescued.

Colleen Bell, the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, highlighted the “indelible imprints” made over the years by those who Towers helped to freedom.

“This is my reward,” Towers said. “They were nobody. They had nothing and they have risen up from the ashes and have become doctors and lawyers, engineers, all high-level professional people.”

Laszlo Ungvari, 7 when he was freed and who helped Towers compile a list of the Hungarian survivors, bought a cup from an American military mess kit to Sunday’s remembrance, a memento found then by his grandfather in Hillersleben, the German town where those rescued from the train were initially taken.

The metallic cup, which had belonged to a U.S. soldier from Nebraska, was etched with the names of the locations where the soldier had been, including London and Holland.

“The names and places on the cup are like a historical exhibit,” said Ungvari, a retired computer expert who spent four months in the Bergen-Belsen camp. “It’s been a penholder on my desk for decades.”

Ungvari ‘s father died of typhus a few days after their rescue and his mother didn’t speak about the Holocaust until a few years before her death a few years ago, though the family kept their Jewish identity.

Sunday’s meeting was attended by 20 Holocaust survivors rescued from the train and dozens of their descendants and relatives. About 550,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Today, there are an estimated 100,000 Jews in Hungary, the largest Jewish community in Central Europe, and the number of Jewish festivals, schools and synagogues is growing.

Still, many are concerned about anti-Semitism and the success of the far-right Jobbik party, which won 20 percent of the votes in last year’s parliamentary elections and has become a serious challenger to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party.

“Nearly half of the Holocaust survivors here rejected being photographed” during the meeting, said Kadar, a retired psychologist and university professor. “They are afraid … and were worried about appearing in front of a camera.”

___

Johnny Clark in Nashville contributed to this report.

http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/04/19/world/europe/ap-eu-hungary-us-holocaust.html?_r=0

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Received from Frank Towers,97 yr old Sec/Treasurer of the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II.  I am going to be there. I hope to see all you survivors there, Holocaust and World War II,  for this last hurrah…love these guys. It will be the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the “Train Near Magdeburg”. In the pic below are soldiers and Holocaust survivors, and yours truly, in Nashville from 2010.

#30th Infantry Division, Survivors, M. Rozell

Nashville is Next!
And sadly to say, it will be the LAST Reunion of the“30th Infantry Division Veterans of WWII”….

30th Infantry Division Veterans of WWII
National Reunion April 15 – 18, 2015
Holiday Inn- Nashville-Opryland/Airport
Nashville, TN

The time has come when all good things must come to an end. We have had some great times in the past few years, but time and age is taking a toll on our membership, and the numbers are dwindling faster than we would like. Our Executive Committee has decided, that since our numbers of attendees has dropped off, it is becoming a financial burden to continue having reunions without adequate financial support. It takes a great deal of work on the part of the Exec. Sec-Treas. and the Reunion Chairman, Mrs. Nancy-Lee Pitts and Family, to prepare all of the necessary paper work, contract, preparing a program and the process of cleaning up and winding down from the Reunion. At our age, this is becoming a burden and almost prohibitive, so, very sadly, we must call it Adieu !!

So, all we ask is that as many of you who are able, Please come to this Reunion, to have a good time and enjoy the company of each other, and make this a memorable reunion.

This may be the last opportunity that you will have to see and visit with “old buddies”, whom you have known for the past many years.

Remember, Nashville was the site of the very first Reunion of the 30th Division Veterans in 1947, and it is quite appropriate that we should have the last one at this same site.

Come One and Come All, and make this a Big Blast, for the last time.

We will be looking forward to seeing ALL of you.

 

Old Hickory Re-Enactors

As usual, many, many thanks go to all of the guys who were representing the Old Hickory Re-Enactors, by Posting the Colors at each event as required, tending the bar in a most efficient manner, and best of all, their Artifacts, Weapons and other Memorabilia which is always a big hit with everyone. If you have not visited their displays, you are missing a lot ! We need to give these guys a big hand for what they do for us.

 

Holocaust Survivors

We cordially invite all of the Holocaust Survivors from the Farsleben Train, to join with us for this special event. If you have not been with us before, please do not pass up this opportunity to meet your Liberators. This will be the last time that you will have an opportunity to meet them, as we will not be having these Reunions any longer, so this will be your last chance. Many of you have been with us before, and we hope to see you all again. Kosher food will be available for all of those who require this.

Weferlingen – Walbeck – Grasleben

On 10 April 1945, Brunswick, Germany was captured by the 30th Infantry Division, with the next objective being Magdeburg.

The following day 11 April 1945, proceeding on towards Magdeburg, the town of Hillersleben was attacked and captured with little or no major battle. At the edge of the town, there was a large German Luftwaffe Airbase and an Armaments Research Center. This base was composed of several operations buildings, several 2 story block barracks, and several private homes for the officers and a small hospital.
Continuing to press on towards Magdeburg, during the 12th of April, the 120th Regiment over-ran the village of Walbeck, and the 117th Regiment over-ran the village of Grasleben, and in between these two villages, was another small village, “Weferlingen”, which was liberated by the 120th Regiment. [Ed. note: On 13 April the train at Farsleben was discovered.]

No mention was ever made in the journals of these regiments, about the capture of these villages, nor was any mention made of them in the 30th Division History Book or either of the Regimental History Books. Only from the Journal of the 30th Military Government, was this action discovered recently. (2012)
At Weferlingen, the site of a former potash mine was discovered – a mine operated by Jewish and D.P slave laborers, under the direction of their Nazi slave-masters. This mine had been enlarged and deepened, from its original size as a potash mine, and was in operation of fabricating submarine engines, airplane engines and rocket engines. It was deep and well protected from American bombing attacks.
This “camp” was named “ Camp Gazelle” by the Germans, and it was a sub-camp of Buchenwald, and when discovered, consisted of 421 (political prisoners), slave laborers. As any of these laborers became ill or otherwise incapacitated, they were sent back to Buchenwald, and fresh laborers were sent to the camp to take their place and to keep the labor force consistent with their needs. All of these prisoners were found in very poor physical condition, due to malnutrition because of being underfed, and overworked for 12-15 hours per day. Almost all of them required immediate medical attention.

Arrangements were made with the Burgomasters of Walbeck and Grasleben to furnish adequate food for these people. Our own 105th Medical Battalion personnel furnished them with immediate needs of medical supplies.
They were almost immediately sent back to the American Military Government and the American Red Cross, then located at Hillersleben, Germany, for appropriate processing and repatriation back to their homelands wherever possible.
It was on the basis of the liberation of this “CAMP” that the 30th Infantry Division was given the distinction of being named a “Liberating Unit” by the Center for Military History and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, thereby allowing our Colors to be displayed in the lobby of the US. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This is to honor the men of the 30th Infantry Division who had a part to play in the liberation of numerous Jewish slave laborers of the Holocaust.
This was actually the very first viewing that any man of the 30th Infantry Division had of the “supposed” propaganda of the “Torture of the Jews by the Nazis”, later to be known as “The Holocaust” .These liberating soldiers had no training as humanitarians- they were trained to be soldiers, fighting a war against Nazi aggression and really did not know what they had on their hands, nor the scope of this captivity of the Jews. -Frank Towers

Taps – 2014

ADKINSON, BRUCE 743 TkBn-C Garden City, NJ
BERKEL, John J. 119-I 5/26/14 Belleville, IL
BIGOS, Adolph J. 119 Tom’s River, NJ
BURLEIGH, James 117 Golden, CO
CONLEY SR., Leo J 119 Framingham, MA
COX, Henry G. 117-F 8/17/10* Loris, SC
COX, Joe M. 117-D 5/20/14 Bluff City, TN
DEAN JR., Preston A. 531 AAA Hq
ERICKSON, Mervin L. 119-K Windom, MN
FLOYD, Thomas A. 119-G 9/30/13* Forney,
GIACCHETTI, Hugo J. 119 E Chicago, IL
GRAPKOSKI, Walter E. 119-G 11/23/11* Danbury, CT
HOFFMAN, STANLEY 120-B 1/19/14 Princeton, NJ
HOLLOWELL JR, Ernest L. 105 Med D
HOUTEKIER, Louis 119 G 7/15/14 Big Rapids, MI
IACONO, George D. 197 FA Svc, 9/30/11 St. Petersburg,
JORDAN, Joseph S. 105 Med. BN A 7/26/12 Wilmington, NC
KEATING, Hubert M. 113 FA/A 6/06/13* Paducha, KY
LEY, Charles E. 120
MARKHAM, Cameron L. 117 1BnHq 5/15/14 Charleston, WV
MARSIGLIA, Joseph M. 119 Hq. 12/.03/14 Algonquin, IL
MARZILLI, Rocco D. 30 QM Co. 10/27/13 Waterbury, CT
MC MICHAEL, Roscoe 105 Med. Bn 10/08/13* Newnan, GA
MITCHELL, Kenneth 120 C
NOWLAND, Maland C. 30th Recon E. Vassalboro, ME
ORTIZ, Oscar A 105 Med B San Francisco, CA                                                                 OWENS, Livis 120-C
PARKER, Kanneth 120 B
POLAND, Claude E. 120-G 4/49/14 Columbus, IN
RINELLA, Donald. 105 Med Bn. C 5/11/14 Truckee, CA
SMALL, George 120-A 12/19/13 Augusta, MI
SUPER, Seymour 119-A Boynton Beach, FL
WAUGH, Wilford D. 120-I Buffalo, OK
WHITE, Carlton L. 120-K 1/29/12* Elizabeth City, NC
WILEY, A.P. 120-M 6/24/14 Dallas, TX
WYATT, Nell (Wid) W 2/06/14 Waynesville, NC

 

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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving day. Today I stumbled across a holiday greeting I received from Holocaust survivor Ernest Kan a while back. It was about being thankful, simply appreciating what you have.  So it reminded me to share Ern’s story (which I recorded) at a gathering of former American soldiers and Holocaust survivors.

It was Ern’s turn to speak. He came to the front of the room to address “his” soldiers:

My odyssey began in Riga, Latvia where the Germans occupied our apartment on the first of July, 1941. Shortly thereafter we were put into the Riga ghetto. During the partial liquidation of the ghetto on November 30 and Dec 9. 1941, my mother was murdered with 27,000 other Jews in the forest of Rumbula.

The ghetto was finally liquidated in 1943.  My dad was shipped to Auschwitz where he perished, and I was put into the concentration camp Kaiserwald near Riga. With the approach of the Soviet army in 1944, Kaiserwald was evacuated by ship and we were shipped to Stutthof concentration camp, after about a month to Polte in Magdeburg where I was liberated.

I was 19 years old at the time of imprisonment, and held captive altogether 44 months.

photo

The main gate through which the prisoners entered the factory every day for shifts of 12-14 hours. Source: Lev Raphael, Polte-Fabrik slave labor camp, http://www.levraphael.com/sg_poltefabrik.html.

The name of the factory was Polte; it was the largest ammunition factory in Germany. Conditions were very bad. They had 30,000 slaves working there in shifts. It manufactured heavy artillery shells, big coastal artillery shells about 30 inches long. And we had to work in 12 hour shifts.

They brought us there from a concentration camp Stutthof, near Danzig, by freight train, it took about two nights, and we got there we didn’t know where we wound up, we were assigned to bunks in a barracks, and it was about a mile to walk from the factory and back.

And that is where I was liberated in April 1945 by the 743rd US Tank Battalion, the 30th Infantry Division.

After an air raid by the United States [Army] Air Force, the camp was evacuated and they marched us southward, because the south was still unoccupied by Allied forces. So they assembled the prisoners and marched them out of the camp, and we had to move a large wagon with spoke wheels, they had no more horses to pull the wagon, we were pulling and shoving the wagon with all the luggage and personal belongings of the guards.

So as when we passed that factory, Polte, me and three other guys, we ran into the open gate, the factory was already disabled-there was no more electricity, no water, no nothing, it couldn’t function anymore- it had been made unoperational by air raids. So we ran and we hid, we changed our striped uniforms and we put on German overalls we found in a locker so we looked more or less human again, but we had no hair, the hair was shaved off.

And we hid in an attic above the office …we stayed there one night, and in the morning four SS guards with drawn guns found us and said “Out you swines, hands up!” and marched us to the courtyard of the Polte factory, they had about 100 or so lined up with their hands up, and they came with little lorries, little trucks, that took groups of 10 away and returned within five to eight minutes empty for the next batch-so we knew they took them to the forest to shoot them and come for the next.

And I thought that was the end of us, I was standing with my hands up and I said to the guy to my left, “this is it, we made it up until now” -and lo and behold, an air raid started! The United States [Army] Air Force, low flying bombers came, you could see the pilot’s eyes -that’s how low- they dropped the bomb load, [the guards] chased us in the adjacent air raid shelter, all the guys were at the wall in the air raid, they posted a guard in front of that door and as we walked in he said “I’m innocent, I never did you any harm.” He was an old, old man, older than me today. So when I heard that, there was already music in my ears all of a sudden, I had never heard that from any guard to say something like that.

So they locked the door and put a padlock on the outside. And you could hear the bombs falling and the smoke seeping through and it was chaos, we were singing inside and we were happy, praying the bombs should hit us and get us out of our misery, because by that point we were finished.

So I leaned against the door and the door gives, so I don’t know to this very day whether the air pressure from falling bombs blew the lock off, it was a big padlock, or if the guard posted outside opened it up and took it away. At any rate the door was open, we all ran out scattered left, right and the four of us hid in an elevator shaft up above where the wheel is, and we waited until the air raid stopped and after about an hour we sent one guy out to reconnoiter what was happening, it was dead quiet. We didn’t know who was where and what was going on. So after about half an hour he came back with a big vat of soup, and he said [Ern stops-long pause. He composes himself, and speaks slowly]:

“Boys-we are free-the Americans are here!”

That is a moment I can never forget.

The soup was lentil soup, it was delicious, I ate and ate until I threw up-we hadn’t eaten in so many days, and I then I saw the first American in a Jeep.

I had never seen an American, he looked like a Martian to me with different weaponry and a Jeep. And he says to me, “Hands up! You are German?” I said, “No, I am a Jewish prisoner from the local concentration camp” but by my haggard appearance he could see that I was certainly not an enemy. I was about 75 pounds at that point and it so happened that when I found the overalls in the German locker, I put on a belt I found there and it had a swastika locket which I didn’t realize, I put on the belt not to lose my pants and he saw the swastika on it and he assumed I was a German in overalls, so I told him I was from the local camp.

It so happened that he was a Jewish GI and he embraced me and he said “You are free now, you can go wherever you want” and he gave me a  an army issued prayer book, and a mezuzah, that is something like sort of an amulet that some people wear, it contains some proverbs from the Deuteronomy inside, and he said “Go!”

In the heat of the moment I was unable to ask him where he came from, what his name was, and it bothers to this day that I could never express my gratitude to this one man, but all these guys here are my liberators and they represent this first American I ever saw and he gave us back our life and our freedom and I will never forget it.

There are no words to express my gratitude for what they have done for us and never in my vaguest dreams would I have thought to be here  65 years after the war is over and meet these guys again, that is unbelievable, it is a moment, an unforgettable moment in my life.

RECORDED IN MARCH 2008.

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

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

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

By Lev Raphael

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lev-raphael/veterans-day-praise-for-t_b_6124862.html

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

 

 

 

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