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Posts Tagged ‘Hillersleben’


There was another shooting at a synagogue on American soil. Sometimes I wonder if my efforts to teach about the Holocaust mean anything. Sometimes you just feel helpless. But I realize now that it is probably the most important job I have ever done, maybe now more than ever. Two weeks ago I introduced Pittsburgh survivor Judah Samet to the American soldier who had a lot to do with his liberation. On my newsletter list, less than a week later, I mentioned I would be talking at a college in New Jersey; the next day, the following encounter occurred. And I think it will stay with these kids for the rest of their lives, and probably those ripples will create new waves.


A few days ago I drove 5 hours to a tiny community college in a rural section of New Jersey to speak on the subject of the Holocaust. I got there early because just yesterday I learned that a ‘new’ Holocaust survivor of the train would be attending, one whom I have never met before. He wanted to attend because he was on the train, and he also did not want to miss the opportunity to meet the WWII medic, Walter Gantz, who also wanted to attend my lecture. Walter was a 20-year-old American soldier who spent seven weeks with the survivors.

I was unloading my books and equipment when Walter and his son-in-law Kenny arrived, themselves coming from 2 hours away. Ken dropped Walter off at the entrance and went to park the car; I did likewise. Just as I got back into the truck, a saw a man wearing a kippah approaching Walter, hand extended, hailing him with ‘Mr. Gantz?’ I fumbled for my camera and took a shot of the first meeting of the two in 74 years.

Oscar S. was on the train with his family, many brothers and sisters who all survived the war, all resting and recuperating at the makeshift hospital and displaced persons camp that was Hillersleben, only a few miles from the train liberation site at Farsleben. Walter was there the entire time, remembering the children quite clearly, and profoundly moved by the appearance another person who had been one of those children.

A couple classes of college kids came in. They found seats, and more seats were arranged in the back as the word got out that this might be something special. I’m sure most of them didn’t know what to expect; I began my talk by asking how many of the young people actually knew an actual veteran of World War II who was still alive. No hands went up. I waited, and asked again—sometimes young adults are shy to volunteer—and there was no response. I didn’t expect a lot of hands, but I didn’t expect that NONE of the 18 to 21-year-olds in the room would respond. I immediately realized that we were in new territory.

I began the talk by explaining that the reason for my being there to speak to them was because I had asked the same question to a roomful of high school sophomores 25 years ago, and almost every kid raised not one hand but two. So I got curious, and made up a simple 2-page survey form—what branch were you in, what was your job, do you remember when you heard of Pearl Harbor, what things would you share with young people today—and I again was flooded with genuine, heartfelt responses. I invited veterans into the classroom to tell their stories, recorded them on videotape for posterity, and went off in search of more stories in the community. And that is how I got to sit down with one tank commander who shared a story and led me to another tank commander who wrote to me about the day their two tanks came across a train with nearly 2500 refugees, as it turned out, Jewish families who had been prisoners at Bergen-Belsen, shipped away by the Germans in the final days of the war to evade the advance of the Allied armies in the west. And these Americans who came across the train had even taken photographs of the dramatic rescue as it all unfolded. So I had a story to tell, about those final days of World War II and the Holocaust, and about what had happened since. That ten years after it all started, just when I thought I would not hear from any other soldiers associated with this train rescue story—I had met several others, but none more after the first four years had come and gone since that first reunion in 2007—the phone rang in my classroom, and the greeting that would become so familiar to me rang in my ear for the first time—“Matt Rozell, God bless you!” It was Walter Gantz, now 94, once the 20-year-old medic, now sitting in the midst of 20-year-olds who could not recall a living World War II veteran, and a former 7-year-old boy who he had a hand in saving.

We moved on to the subject of the Holocaust. I asked the kids: How many people were murdered in the Holocaust? What does that number look like? And just how did that happen?

So who was responsible for the biggest crime in the history of the world? Hitler alone?

How were the people freed on the train a ‘snapshot’ of European Jewry persecuted by the Nazis-and others?

How could I make people care, today, about what happened nearly 3 generations ago?

Why is it important to listen to those who were the first witnesses? What happens when these stories are no longer with us?

Once people have absorbed the stories, do they have a moral responsibility to act on the ‘lessons’? And then, for emphasis:

Is there such a thing as ‘being a witness’, when you yourself were not there?

I spoke for an hour. I didn’t notice any outright indifference at the start [a minor concern in the case of any event outside of regular classroom hours]; kids were very respectful and I think, curious, and I had their rapt attention at the end, though I waited for a few questions. None came, and Walter took that as his cue to stand up, because he had something to say. And he got right down to the point, with passion, a rising voice from a gentle soul. He motioned for Oscar to stand up and join him, and he embraced him with emotion.

“I spent seven weeks with these people. During my stay, there was about one hundred and twenty who passed away. Basically, it was from the typhus disease; most of them were over fifty; most of the young people survived. And there were a lot of young people, I mean, little children [motions with hand, palm down to his knee], infants, and it was living hell [shakes head incredulously].

After we set up our hospital in Hillersleben, a few days later, five or six of us went back to see the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp… and—you have to believe me when I say, the bodies were piled up like cordwood [raises his hand to over his head]! Everywhere you looked, I remember looking down a lane, probably a quarter of a mile, trees on each side, bodies, hundreds and hundreds of bodies laying around…

I had a strange experience. I’m Polish, and at the time, I could speak Polish very well—and I remember a gentleman at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, he kept saying, [speaks with emphasis, in Polish], which means, ‘Do you understand Polish?’ And I said, ‘Yes’ [begins to cry]…and he grabbed me, and he hugged me [hugs Oscar, the survivor he met today for the first time, both cry]… and I felt so helpless! I broke down…and the stench was terrible…We are living proof that there is such a thing as the Holocaust!”

Walter Gantz, WW2 medic, recounts his visit to Bergen-Belsen in 1945.[2:30]

There were muffled sobs throughout the room. No one spoke; one girl sitting in the second row was visibly emotional and profoundly moved.

Walter thanked God again for his good health and his mobility, at being able to come out and address the young people, noting that he once coached young people their age, and he closed his impromptu remarks by bringing laughter through the tears with his admission that though he could still move, he probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with the young women in the room.

 

So it was time to close. I went back to the beginning. It had turned out to be an almost religious experience for everyone in the room; I didn’t have to tell them that they had been graced with a once in their lifetime opportunity in what they had witnessed in the last few minutes. And I repeated the questions:

‘Once the survivors and liberators are gone, who is left to tell the stories? Once you have heard or read the testimony, are you the new witnesses? Do you carry a moral responsibility to act on what you have absorbed?’

And I hope it sank in, for the sake of humanity.

‘…And whoever saves one life saves the world entire’

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The portal opened a crack this week and I stepped through it once more.

We pulled it off, in this time of reflection, Passover and the Easter season. Liberation. Resurrection. New Life. And a reunion of sorts, 74 years in the making, to commemorate it all.

Holocaust survivor Judah Samet and WWII medic Walter Gantz, 4-17-19.

There were a lot of moving parts, but we got a chance to orchestrate another survivor-soldier reunion—this time with WWII Army medic Walter Gantz and Holocaust survivor Judah Samet, in Walter’s hometown of Scranton, PA. We had a very short window of time, as we needed also to film the encounter for our upcoming PBS documentary, and my friend Mike Edwards and his crew of film and sound techs had to be available. Since Judah is 5 hours+ away in Pittsburgh—remember, he is also a survivor of the horrible shooting mass murder at his synagogue there last October—and he was coming east to visit for the Passover holiday. His daughter had to be available to drive him a couple more hours north, and then be back home later for family obligations. Walter was preparing for Holy Week and Easter. Mike was to be soon traveling to Africa on another filming expedition, so we picked Wed, April 17th, for the meeting at a hotel in Scranton.

I drove down from the North Country of upstate New York the evening before. Settling into the hotel, management called my room to tell me that Walter was in the lobby, so I hurried down. Mike had arrived with his crew, Joe and Danny; Mike the sound guy was coming in from Brooklyn later.

Now, though I have been conversing with Walter for eight years on the telephone, I had not met him ever before. He’d met other survivors, notably Micha Tomkiewicz and Elisabeth Seaman, and had been called by others like Ariela Rojek in Toronto. But it was the first time he would be meeting me, and he arrived an hour before the dinner we had scheduled with his family and loved ones.

Walter got emotional. At ninety-four years old, the old Coach 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!”

I don’t have many heroes. But I met one this week. 94-year-old combat medic, Walter Gantz–and he squeezed my hands so hard…

We talked for a while. He lives 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 Micha’s Polish mother distinctly, an educated woman who also had medical knowledge and training. He remembers 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… It was liberator Frank Towers who had given him my number, it turns out, and it was Frank who had also contacted Judah Samet in the years before Frank’s passing at 99 in 2016; I suppose then that Frank had a hand in organizing this mini-reunion.

Walter’s three daughters and sons-in-laws arrived for the dinner, taking pictures, getting me to sign copies of my book. The next morning at breakfast, Mike explained how he hoped the day’s filming would go, but we were both of the mind to have everything unfold as naturally as possible. Walter would be waiting in a private room, and I would walk Judah down after he arrived with his daughter.

Judah was right on time at 11 AM, and I got to meet him for the first time since speaking to him at length on the telephone in November. He hugged me, and was also so appreciate of my efforts; he said that my book brought a lot of the memories back for him; I suppose that is the highest honor I could hope for, things that he had previously long buried. I walked him down the hotel corridor to the corner room where Walter waited. At the door, I motioned for him to continue on to Walter, who stood up, hugged Judah, and softly began to cry, greeting Judah with “God bless you, God bless you!”

Holocaust survivor Judah Samet and WWII medic Walter Gantz, 4-17-19. CR: 5 Stones Group.

They sat down and began to speak like they had know each other all of their lives. I sat with them and nodded quietly as the cameras rolled and asked clarifying questions when I could help out. But they had it together, as I knew they would, Walter gripping Judah’s hand. We took it outside on the street for a mini-photoshoot, and Judah’s daughter got acquainted with Walter’s daughters, coming outside to join in. The local newspaper guys arrived, and got a good story for the hometown hero (Walter just called me tonight to say that he had even fielded a congratulatory phone call from California!).

What does it all mean? Well, I think of this season of freedom and new life, about how, 74 years almost exactly to the date of release from oppression (but certainly not hard times—Judah’s father and many others died after liberation as well) these two men, the 94-year-old and the 81-year-old (the former 20-year-old and 7-year-old) and their families had the chance to re-connect and embrace, to recall and to marvel at the wonders of the power of love eclipsing the barriers of time and space.

Thank you to all of the film donors who helped to bring this about; we look forward to sharing this footage with the world when the next anniversary of the liberation rolls around (though we still have to get to Germany, etc). The wires are tripping, and the cosmos are opening once again.

 

 

 


South Scranton WWII Medic Meets Survivor He Helped Rescue From Train…

‘THEY WERE LOOKING FOR A PLACE TO FINISH US’ Scranton Times-Tribune Publication date: 4/18/2019 By JON O’CONNELL

SCRANTON — The Army medics who helped rescue about 2,500 prisoners aboard the train from Bergen-Belsen struggled to insert intravenous feeding tubes into their skin-and-bone arms. The prisoners had departed the concentration camp six days earlier bound for [Theresienstadt in German-occupied Czechoslovakia]. They were starving and emaciated. They couldn’t eat, and their veins rolled under their skin. But Walter Gantz, a combat medic from South Scranton who was just 20 years old in the spring of 1945, had a knack for it. He was known as a “sharp shooter when it came to needles,” he said.

Judah Samet, 81, was aboard one of those train cars. On Wednesday, liberator and ex-prisoner met for the first time at the Hilton Scranton and Conference Center for a PBS documentary called “A Train Near Magdeburg.” It’s slated for release next year. Samet, who lives in Pittsburgh, gained national attention when he survived the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in October, and attended the State of the Union address in February as a special guest of President Donald Trump. Back in 1945, Samet was only 7, but he remembers using a man’s corpse as a pillow and to block the April chill leaking through the slats of the car. He remembers feeling angry when Nazi soldiers eventually threw the body off the train. He recognized their murderous intent. “They were looking for a place to finish us,” Samet said.

Gantz, now 94, was part of an advance party sweeping through Nazi Germany in the final days of World War II that stumbled upon a train — cattle cars abandoned by Nazi soldiers who learned that their hold on Europe was about to break. “They were living skeletons really. Most of them only weighed half of their normal weight,” he said, describing the prisoners’ screams when medics inserted needles. “It was heart-wrenching really.”

Historian Matthew Rozell, a retired world history teacher who began interviewing World War II veterans with his students in Hudson Falls, New York, has become an expert on the April 13, 1945, liberation. His research, and a book he wrote about the liberation, laid a foundation for the documentary. He brought Samet and Gantz together for one of the last joint interviews between prisoners and soldiers for the documentary. Since first learning about the rescue in 2001, Rozell, [liberating soldier Frank Towers, now deceased, and survivor’s daughter Varda Weisskopf] have found nearly 300 survivors. They’ve held 11 reunions on three continents, he said. “Walter never went to any of the reunions [held at my high school] because I didn’t know Walter existed,” Rozell said, explaining how Gantz eventually learned about his work and tracked him down.

The 743rd Tank Battalion, which had been attached to the 30th Infantry Division, discovered the train in Farsleben, near Hillersleben where the 30th infantry had taken over a Luftwaffe air force base and research facility where top Nazi scientists developed secret weapons, Rozell said. The medic, who gave up his “sharp shooter” nickname and now introduces himself as “the coach,” spent seven weeks in Hillersleben tending the rescued prisoners, nursing back to health those who could be saved. Still, more than 100 died after the rescue, Gantz said.

Seated next to Gantz inside the hotel on Wednesday, Samet remembers the strength he drew from his mother, Rachel, a brilliant caregiver whom he says outsmarted the Nazis and kept them alive by rationing bits of hard black bread the size of olives throughout their 10½ month ordeal.

The train rescue at Farsleben gets little mention in history books, if any, Rozell said. He believes World War II has countless other untold accounts that were never written down and are waiting to be found again. “The more you think you know, the more you realize you don’t know,” he said. “Other stories like this absolutely are still out there.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“We talk about nightmares and flashbacks. I never had any nightmares where I would scream, but there are two so-called flashbacks I remember and they stayed with me for many, many years. [In the first] I could see myself climbing these stairs and all of a sudden, I’m inserting a needle into this elderly gentleman’s arm. Of course, you have to remember, they were skin and bones. The veins would roll and he was screaming, really screaming. That had to be very painful, because they were skin and bones—to try to find a vein; it was easy to overshoot a vein. It was heart wrenching to hear those people sobbing and actually screaming because a lot of them thought they were still at Bergen–Belsen, really.

[In the second] incident, I used to work a twelve-hour shift, from eight in the evening to eight in the morning. In the wee hours of the morning, this young girl died. For some reason, I wrapped her up in a blanket and I carried her down the stairs and I was crying.

We had a war tent that was used as a makeshift morgue. I placed her in there. I wonder why I would do that; I must have liked her for some reason. I didn’t have to do that, because we had a team that took care of those who died, and placed them in the morgue.

I spent seven weeks with these people. Most of us spent seven weeks and during our so-called watch, 106 people died… God, it was tough. [This girl] was actually fifteen years old. Her name was Eva and you might say, ‘How was it possible that he could carry her?’ She probably weighed 60 pounds, maybe. I thought about that many times, and I must have been attracted to her for some reason. That haunted me, really. It really haunted me.

I must admit I shed a lot of tears and I prayed. I prayed that they would pass on, that they would find peace and for those who survived, that their health would be restored—and dignity. Dignity is so important in life—dignity, that was the main thing. It was difficult.”

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Only a few weeks back, I was teaching a lesson to my 12th graders on the German invasion of the USSR in the second half of 1941. We were at December 6th, 1941, and the dramatic launching of Marshal Zhukov’s counteroffensive outside of Moscow, to be followed the next day by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that drew us into the war, when the phone rang in the back of the classroom. It could have been one of the school secretaries calling to let me know that a student needed to be excused, so I told the seniors it was probably the President calling again,  so ‘Hold that thought’, and I dashed to the back of the room.

Now, my classroom has enjoyed an outside line for a while, ever since the American soldiers and the Holocaust survivors began to find me and this website. I have fielded calls from all over the world, from survivors and their families and even major news organizations and museums. So I picked up the phone, and was met by a familiar voice with a delightful cadence and greeting: “Matt Rozell, God bless you!”

Walter Gantz, March 14, 2016. Credit: Mike Edwards, 5 Stones Group.

Walter Gantz, March 14, 2016.
Credit: Mike Edwards, 5 Stones Group.

It was Walter, the 92 year old former medic who had taken care of the sick and dying Holocaust survivors at Hillersleben in 1945 after the liberation of the train. He was calling to praise my recent book, which I had sent to him, telling me that he had read it in three or four sittings and needed to read it again, and again. He thanked me over and over for remembering him, and the medics and soldiers and officers of the 95th Medical Battalion, who raced to save as many as they could. I told the kids later that Walter had told me that at their WWII reunions, these medics never spoke about Hillersleben. It was just too traumatic.

I turned the speakerphone on and the kids got to listen in. I passed the book around the room as he spoke, the chapter called ‘The Medics’ marked on the page with Walter’s photograph. As we talked, I noticed that one of the senior girls in the class was very moved by the conversation, which struck us out of the blue, just as did Walter’s initial call to me five years ago. He closed by wishing us all well, a blessing to our families as well.

We did some good in the world, here in this classroom, and in keeping the good deeds of Walter and the medics of the 95th Medical Battalion alive. Here’s to Walter and all of the old soldiers and survivors we have been blessed to connect with, and here is to the kids, who want to KNOW. Here is to the magic that ushers forth from the universe when a teacher connects with his students to trip the wires of the cosmos, again and again. We did not just teach history here; we made it. These are the thoughts that I think I will hold on to, when my time in this room is up.

 

*

Excerpt from CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
The Medics

A few weeks following the last school reunion in 2011, I got a phone call in my classroom from a man in Scranton, Pennsylvania. To this day, I do not know how he found me. After four years of not hearing from any other American soldier who had something to do with this ‘Train near Magdeburg’, I had come to the conclusion that it was now all over. Walter Gantz proved me wrong, and not only did he play an important role, he knew of several others who were also still alive to share their experiences at the convalescent base/camp at Hillersleben.

Walter was part of the 95th Medical Gas Treatment Battalion, trained extensively to treat chemical warfare casualties. When no gas was deployed by the enemy in combat, Walter and his outfit stepped right into the role of treating other casualties of the battlefield. He recalled surveying the train at Farsleben, and the memories of treating the victims over the next seven weeks haunted him right up until his contact with me. I spoke with Walter several times on the phone, and we exchanged letters; I also put him in contact with at least four of the survivors of the train, two of whom would go on to meet him in Scranton to speak at a Holocaust symposium. At my suggestion, Walter was interviewed by a film crew in 2016.

Walter ‘Babe’ Gantz

Basically, there were four medical battalions—the 92nd, 93rd, 94th, and 95th. We were the ‘baby battalion’. We were extensively trained in chemical warfare. In fact, that was our top priority, in case they used chemical agents and that was it. We were a sophisticated outfit. In fact, Colonel Bill Hurteau, our commander, he said we were the cream of the crop [chuckles]. Maybe he was right, I don’t know.

I was part of a so-called ‘advance party’. There were about 10 or 12 of us from the 95th and as you know the train was discovered on the 13th of April of ’45. Our advance party was at Farsleben on the 14th, or the next day—the situation was beyond description. These people were emaciated and like they say, ‘living skeletons’; most of them could hardly walk. [Shakes head] It was a horrible sight. Some people say there were sixteen that passed away on the train. Other reports say thirty, so I would say thirty. They were buried down the knoll adjacent to the train.

When we left the 95th on detached service [to investigate the train, we went with] Captain Deutsch, who was one of the surgeons… He was numb. He didn’t say anything, just that we were ‘on a special assignment’. That was the extent of it, until we got to Farsleben and we went down to the train itself. That was a nightmare… God Almighty! [Shakes head] Boy… [Pauses]… Unbelievable. That’s the only word I can think of, unbelievable…You know, you’re seeing these people in person, and yet you just couldn’t comprehend that these things happened in this world that people would be so inhuman to other human beings. It was tough. You felt helpless, really.

[The initial scene] was chaotic. Most of the survivors were just wandering around and you have to remember these people, they were treated worse than animals. They were starved and like I said, it was very chaotic. They were looting the homes and I can understand. They were getting fur coats and dresses. In fact, I remember there was one woman, I think she had three different dresses on. It was tough but … A lot of them were lice-infested. God, I’ve seen so many lice, unbelievable. You could grab quite a handful, really. A lot of these people we had to clip their hair. There were so many unsanitary conditions. These people were in rags. In most cases, we had to burn their clothes. Fortunately, we had a means of setting up showers. There was a nearby pond and we had generators because we were a sophisticated unit, as I said. We would give these people showers or wash them down.

How do you settle all these people? We’re talking like twenty-four hundred people, and how do you feed them? That was one of the biggest problems we had, but fortunately, we found several ‘food dumps’ as we called them, and we were fortunate in getting a lot. Actually, we took over a dairy farm, and we were provided with beef, and pork, and milk for those who could sustain milk. You have to remember a lot of these people couldn’t eat whole food because if they did, if they were to gorge for themselves, they would die. We had to feed them intravenously and that was one of my jobs. I have to say, I was a sharpshooter when it came to injections. It was difficult. We had so many.

We talk about nightmares and flashbacks. I never had any nightmares where I would scream, but there are two so-called flashbacks I remember and they stayed with me for many, many years. [In the first] I could see myself climbing these stairs and all of a sudden, I’m inserting a needle into this elderly gentleman’s arm. Of course, you have to remember, they were skin and bones. The veins would roll and he was screaming, really screaming. That had to be very painful, because they were skin and bones—to try to find a vein; it was easy to overshoot a vein. It was heart wrenching to hear those people sobbing and actually screaming because a lot of them thought they were still at Bergen–Belsen, really.

[In the second] incident, I used to work a twelve-hour shift, from eight in the evening to eight in the morning. In the wee hours of the morning, this young girl died. For some reason, I wrapped her up in a blanket and I carried her down the stairs and I was crying.

We had a war tent that was used as a makeshift morgue. I placed her in there. I wonder why I would do that; I must have liked her for some reason. I didn’t have to do that, because we had a team that took care of those who died, and placed them in the morgue.

I spent seven weeks with these people. Most of us spent seven weeks and during our so-called watch, 106 people died… God, it was tough. [This girl] was actually fifteen years old. Her name was Eva and you might say, ‘How was it possible that he could carry her?’ She probably weighed 60 pounds, maybe. I thought about that many times, and I must have been attracted to her for some reason. That haunted me, really. It really haunted me.

I must admit I shed a lot of tears and I prayed. I prayed that they would pass on, that they would find peace and for those who survived, that their health would be restored—and dignity. Dignity is so important in life—dignity, that was the main thing. It was difficult.

The full narrative is available here.

 

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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.

 

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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’, 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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