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Posts Tagged ‘Frank W. Towers’

My friend Frank Towers would have turned 100 years old today. Frank passed on July 4th, 2016.

Frank W. Towers.

Frank was born on June 13, 1917. Think about that for a minute. John F. Kennedy also came into the world, less than a month before Frank. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody left the world. American involvement in WWI was just getting underway, and Frank’s future 30th Infantry Division was formally activated. Gandhi was tromping around India, investigating the poor conditions of local farmers under British rule. Revolutionaries in Ireland were still licking their wounds after the doomed Easter Rising against the British the year before. The Russian Revolution was just getting started. American suffragettes that summer were arrested for picketing the White House for the right to vote for women.

So into this world came Frank W. Towers. And Frank Towers came into my life after he had already lived a good, long one, in September, 2007, shortly after he turned 90. But he had more things to do before the Almighty called him home.

He did not know me, and I did not know him-I have never even been to Florida, where he lived. But, from the news he learned of a reunion that we had recently done at our high school. He read about how I had reunited World War II tank commanders from the US Army 743rd Tank Battalion and 30th Infantry Division with the children of the Holocaust who he also had helped to liberate. And Frank said to himself, “Wait, I know about this. I was there, too.”

Frank reached out to me and we began a fruitful partnership in trying to locate more of the survivors who were on that train. He invited me, and the survivors, to the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II reunions that they held annually down south. And these were powerfully moving events, to see the soldiers touched by the gestures of the survivors; and for the survivors to laugh and cry with their liberators was a gift that they, their children and grandchildren, will never forget. We also held additional reunions at our school, for the sake of making students the new witnesses to what happened during the Holocaust. Varda W., a survivor’s daughter in Israel, even orchestrated a massive reunion of 55 survivors and their children for Frank in Rehovot, Israel when he was almost 94… talk about a rock star. I was there to see him mobbed.

Frank Towers greeting survivors at the Weizmann Institute, Rehovot, Israel, May 2011. Credit: Matthew Rozell

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There’s talk this week in Holocaust education circles of another important birthday, and another ‘Frank’-Anne Frank would have turned 88 yesterday.  She came into the world on June 12, 1929, in Frankfurt, Germany; I’ve seen the house where she was born, and I’ve been to the place where she died, at age 15. Just shy of her last birthday, on June 6th, 1944, she recorded the following entry:

‘This is D-Day,’ the BBC announced at 12 o’clock. This is the day. The invasion has begun!

Anne Frank iat school in 1940,Amsterdam, the Netherlands). Unknown photographer; public domain.

Is this really the beginning of the long-awaited liberation? The liberation we’ve all talked so much about, which still seems too good, too much of a fairy tale ever to come true?… The best part of the invasion is that I have the feeling that friends are on the way. Those terrible Germans have oppressed and threatened us for so long that the thought of friends and salvation means everything to us!

On D-Day, 26 year old 1st Lieutenant Frank Towers was also listening to this news in England as the 30th Infantry Division was preparing to ship out to the battle a few days later. Anne and her family would be betrayed in Amsterdam that August, as Frank’s 30th infantry Division held off a massive German counterattack in Mortain, France. The family was deported to Auschwitz and then Anne and her sister Margot were sent to Bergen Belsen, all the while with the Allies slugged forth through that long summer, fall and winter into 1945. Anne and Margot died in Belsen before the spring came, and liberation; there is a marker to honor them but they lie in a mass grave there today, whereabouts unknown, like so many thousands of others. Frank would not know them, but would help to liberate and rescue some 2500 from the train near Magdeburg, including some who knew of the Frank sisters. And yes, we are left to ponder some of Anne Frank’s closing words to humanity:

I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that only 5,000 of the 107,000 Jews deported from the Netherlands between 1942 and 1944 survived. That’s less than 5%. But I close today with Frank Towers, at age 97, in the Netherlands in 2014 meeting the generations who survived because of that fateful day when the US Army investigated a curious Bergen-Belsen transport stopped by the tracks near the Elbe River. And listen to the little girl in the video. The world was too late for Anne Frank, but maybe her ideals indeed live on.

 

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I am studying in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, for 19 days with 29 other educators from all over the world.

I went to the Great Synagogue here in Jerusalem as a guest for Shabbat services. I had a guidebook with English, but I just followed the service in Hebrew, even though I don’t understand. Somehow this symbolizes my state of being right now. Almost half a world away, the last liberator Frank W. Towers is being bid goodbye by his friends and family, as the cantor wails here. My eyes well up, and a single tear begins its run. I am powerless to push it away.

It has been an extraordinary day. It began with a tour of the Old City on foot with a very knowledgeable guide who is also an archeologist here in Israel. We walk near the ruins of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, see the remnants of the ritual purification baths before one could go near the Temple. We walk up the steps hewn into solid bedrock where a young rabbi named Jesus strode. At the Western Wall, I take it all in, and approach the site which for Jews is closest to the Holiest of the Holies. This has great significance; God dwells here. For the souls of Frank, and Carrol, and George, my friends, the liberators, for my survivor friends who have passed, for my own parents and loved ones I place a scrap of paper with my prayer for their souls into a crevice in the millennia old stones.

IMG_0746

Western Wall, Jerusalem, Friday, July 8th, 2016.

We move on to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the church built over Christ’s Crucifixion and Tomb. Incense blasts us as we move into the doors. Jesus entered into Jerusalem the day after Shabbat, Palm Sunday, in very tense political situation. We know how that turned out, and I am at the very place where a Jewish sect shortly after his execution would grow to become one of the world’s largest religions. I’m free to walk about and drink it all in. And at this place I leave the same petition for God.

At the Great Synagogue at sunset, I try to enter into God’s presence again in a more focused way, but I am finding it difficult. Thoughts come rushing forth, the same thoughts and questions I have entertained for years, but right now they hit me like a steamroller.

The last liberator has passed. And the mystery of the role I played in bringing the liberators and survivors, hundreds of them now, together with these old men in the sunset of their lives does not become clearer, but remains hidden somehow behind a fog that I cannot push away.

The sun has set.

*

I came to the Holy Land the first time for a 2011 reunion here with Frank, where he met 500 people who would not have been alive today had it not been for the swift arrival the soldiers of the 743rd Tank Battalion and 30th Infantry Division of the US Army. People are able to meet one of the actual soldiers who saved their families from annihilation; a woman was sobbing right behind me through much of the ceremony. Another woman, a granddaughter of one of those survivors whose name I cannot recall, stopped me. She thanked me and told me that my name meant something along the lines of ‘mystery of God’. This struck me hard, and it remains something that now roars forth in my turbulent state of mind. I don’t understand it all.

At the Friday evening communal Shabbat meal with the educators back at the hotel, we continue our mediation on entering into God’s grace and allowing Him to dwell us. We break bread, have the meal and conversation together. I’m very quiet because at the end of this long day, the mystery remains.

The hotel this evening in Jerusalem is jam-packed with Jewish families settling in for Shabbat-noisy, crowded, together to bring in the Sabbath.  Underlying the ebb and flow of this activity all around, inside me there is the disquieting undercurrent about the fact that this day has arrived, the day that the last liberator is being buried. I know that it will really never end, this story of the liberators and the survivors of the train near Magdeburg in April 1945, their precipitous fateful encounter, and their reuniting six/seven decades later. But tonight I am engulfed in a profound heavyheartedness, this loss, this questioning, this wondering. What does it all mean?

The giant dining room next door breaks out in rhythmic hand clapping, voices singing a song of happiness symbolizing the togetherness and communal unity that closes out the Shabbat meal. I glance at the time; at this very moment back home, Frank is being lowered into the earth.

*

Later, I awake with a start in a bed that is not my own. A newborn is wailing somewhere, nearby. The hotel here in Jerusalem is filled with Jewish families in town for Shabbat, full of young families, of young children. Crying babies at 2 AM. But though I have been jolted awake, nothing close to annoyance enters my being. Lying in the dark, deep within my soul I am warming with joy through the sadness; through the crying of the baby and the voices of the children outside my door I hear the song of the angels carrying Frank, and all the liberators I was privileged to know, onward and upward. The children are their legacy, and in this moment I know that I will perhaps never understand why God chose me to bring them together with the thousands of people alive on the earth today because of their deeds, but it does not matter:

He wanted me here in Jerusalem for this moment, when the last liberator left me.

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The Last Liberator.

I’m in the City of God now, Jerusalem. The last time I was here was in 2011, with Frank Towers, his son Frank Jr., my ten-year-old son, and Varda Weisskopf, a Holocaust survivor’s daughter.

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

Survivor’s daughter and reunion organizer Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.

 

Why am I here? I am studying at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, for 19 days with 29 other educators from all over the world. And although we just started, one of the early takeaways is, think about what the world lost.

“I often wonder what this world would be like, if those 6 million had never perished.” Frank Towers, 30th Infantry Division, Liberator

We talk about the story of human beings. Of the ‘choiceless choices’, in the ghettos and the camps. About the will to live, about what it means to have nothing, from the perspective of the survivors. Maybe also the ”survivors’ guilt”, but also the victory over Hitler and Nazi ideology, as seen in the 2nd and 3rd generations of Holocaust survivors alive and flourishing today.

Matt Rozell, survivor Bruria's son, Frank Towers, two survivors Bruria Falik (of Woodstock, NY) and her sister at Israel's Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem.

Matt Rozell, survivor Bruria’s son Dan F., Frank Towers, two survivors Bruria Falik (of Woodstock, NY) and her sister at Israel’s Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem.

I am learning so much, and I am eager to learn more. But yesterday I learned that Frank Towers, Sr., age 99, passed away peacefully with his family by his side in Florida, on July 4th, 2016. Independence Day.

*

Frank was born on June 13, 1917. Think about that for a minute. John F. Kennedy also came into the world, less than a month before Frank. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody left the world. American involvement in WWI was just getting underway, and Frank’s future 30th Infantry Divison was formally activated. Gandhi was tromping around India, investigating the poor conditions of local farmers. The Russian Revolution was just getting started. American suffragettes that summer were arrested for picketing the White House for the right to vote for women.

So into this world came Frank W. Towers. And Frank Towers came into my life after he had already lived a good, long one, in September, 2007, shortly after he turned 90. But he had more things to do before the Almighty called him home.

He did not know me, and I did not know him-I have never even been to Florida, where he lived. But, from the news he learned of a reunion that we had recently done at our high school. He read about how I had reunited World War II tank commanders  from the US Army 743rd Tank Battalion and 30th Infantry Division with the children of the Holocaust who he also had helped to liberate. And Frank said to himself, “Wait, I know about this. I was there, too.”

Frank reached out to me and we began a fruitful partnership in trying to locate more of the survivors who were on that train. He invited me, and the survivors, to the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II reunions that they held annually down south. And these were powerfully moving events, to see the soldiers touched by the gestures of the survivors; and for the survivors to laugh and cry with their liberators was a gift that they, their children and grandchildren, will never forget. We also held additional reunions at our school, for the sake of making students the new witnesses to what happened during the Holocaust.

Holocaust survivor Ariela Rojek, right, was 11 years old in 1945 when she and 2,500 other concentration camp prisoners aboard a train near Magdeburg, Germany, were liberated by American forces including 1st Lt. Frank Towers, left with his son Frank Towers Jr., center. "You gave me my second life," Rojek told Towers Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, at Hudson Falls High School during an event reuniting soldiers and survivors. Jason McKibben Glens Falls Post Star

Holocaust survivor Ariela Rojek, right, was 11 years old in 1945 when she and 2,500 other concentration camp prisoners aboard a train near Magdeburg, Germany, were liberated by American forces including 1st Lt. Frank Towers, left with his son Frank Towers Jr., center. “You gave me my second life,” Rojek told Towers Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, at Hudson Falls High School during an event reuniting soldiers and survivors. [Jason McKibben Glens Falls Post Star]

*

Today in class I was given the opportunity to speak in an open forum, ostensibly to comment on my thoughts about our collective, moving experience in being guided through the museum by our program leader Ephraim. He knew I had just lost Frank, and I think he knew that I needed to talk about it.

So I began. I told the group that I had been to Yad Vashem before, and that it was because of something very special in my life. In 2011, I was accompanying a then 94-year-old American liberator, who had just met over 500 people who were alive  because of the liberators’ intervention and efforts at the ‘Train Near Magdeburg’ on April 13, 1945. Over 50 survivors were present, and later, Frank, his son, my son, Varda, and some survivors had a personal tour of Yad Vashem.

Frank W. Towers, Yad Vashem, 2011.

Frank W. Towers, Yad Vashem, 2011.

The museum is designed almost as a triangular tunnel, from which, as you move from prewar Jewish life to increasing persecution and eventual mass murder, gets purposely more bottlenecked and constricting and troubling as you move through the wings of increasing destruction. But in the course of this harrowing encounter with the past, always you draw nearer to an opening, a triangular apex of light that gets bigger, as you pass through time. And I tell the group that for me, the image I so recall, was the image of Frank and survivor’s daughter Varda, in the light and in the opening. It is highly likely that Varda would not be alive today, had it not been for Frank and the soldiers of the 30th Infantry Division and the 743rd Tank Battalion. So now she gave him a great gift, to be able to come to Jerusalem, the City of God, and see the fruits of victory, six and a half decades later-the hundreds of children and grandchildren he met and shook hands with. And I got to witness it all.

And then I paused, and told them that the world had lost Frank Towers only 36 hours before. And here I was, six thousand miles away, and unable to go to his services in Florida. Instead I am here at Yad Vashem, sitting in a classroom, pouring out my heart. And it hurts.

But this is not a lament. As I speak, the reason why I can’t go to Frank now crystallizes and becomes clarified for me. You see, led by Frank, the veterans of World War II have paved the way many times for me to travel abroad to study the Holocaust. Think about that. The American soldiers who encountered the Holocaust as young men in 1945, open their wallets to send a teacher to study, so that this history is not lost to upcoming generations. Of course, the survivor community has also been very generous in this regard, but the soldiers, led by Frank Towers, are so grateful, that the Holocaust-and their sacrifices in slaying the beast-will never be forgotten.

So, I’m at Yad Vashem studying the Holocaust when Frank passes for a reason-this is right where he would want me to be. And as I close with my new teacher friends, after a very long and emotionally charged day, I remind them that we all bear a collective responsibility as teachers to carry on doing what we do when we teach, especially in teaching the subject of the Holocaust:

Frank Jr, Frank, Varda. Yad Vashem, 2011

Frank Jr, Frank, Varda. Yad Vashem, 2011

We are creating human beings. We are cultivating humanity. There is no past, and it is never over. There is hope amidst all the darkness in the world. The tunnel will lead to the light.

This is the transformation that I feel, when I look at the photo of Frank here at Yad Vashem. I’m grateful for the words that I see as the backdrop for this sharing time in the classroom today:

Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken. -Albert Camus

That’s a tall order, today. Godspeed, Frank Towers.  Candles on almost all the continents are lit for you. The short newscasts below are a part of the legacy, of the last liberator.

NBC News w/ Ann Curry

ABC News w/ Diane Sawyer

USHMM Video

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