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

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

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

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

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

Victory, 1945. Watercolor, Ervin Abadi. Train near Magdeburg survivor. Hillersleben, Germany, May 1945.

Victory, 1945. Watercolor, Ervin Abadi. Train Near Magdeburg survivor. Hillersleben, Germany, May 1945. Credit Chriss Brown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am alive!”

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

This excerpt from an eleven year old girl.

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

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

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

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

Another eleven year old girl:

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

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

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

A seventeen year old girl:

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

What do the Nazis have in mind?

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

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

 

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April 15th 1945                                                                                                                   Somewhere in Germany

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

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

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

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

 


READ ALL ABOUT IT IN MY BOOK HERE


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

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April 15th 1945                                                                                                                      Somewhere in Germany

Dear Mr. Huppert,

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

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

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

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

Sincerely yours,

Cpl. Frank Gartner

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

BOOK HERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew Rozell

From Yad Vashem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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Yom HaShoah ceremony and service, Jewish Federation of greater Rochester, New York, April 15, 2015. 700 folks come out on a midweek night. From an audience member: ‘The most beautiful, inspirational Yom HaShoah service I have ever been to.’

It was indeed a moving service and I was honored to have a part in it.

We stop and we pause, to reflect and remember.

Key take-aways from my presentation:

 

  1. The American Army was involved in a shooting war. More soldiers would die in the days to come. But they stopped. They helped these people. And some carried the trauma with them for the rest of their lives.
  2. People need heroes. But few of the liberators would like to be remembered this way. Maybe we should all take a moment to think about our own obligation to humanity.
  3. For every one person who was liberated on this ‘Train Near Magdeburg, nearly 2500 persons, keep close the reality that another 2500 perished in the Holocaust.
  4. Finally, the voices of the eyewitnesses need to always be with us. We need to keep them close. Or forget at our peril.

***

Carrol Walsh, liberator: Our lives were joined at that moment on April 13, 1945, and now we meet face to face and recall together that moment when my tank reached the train.

Steve Barry, survivor:There is no other army in this world that would stop and help 2500 lice-ridden, emaciated Jews, to save them. What army would stop, except the American army?

Steve Barry: Mounted SS troops came around, rode by the train, and started to yell ‘Raus, Raus, get out of the train!  Get out of the cars!’  And we saw them putting up machine gun nests. So obviously, even at that last moment, they were still trying to murder us.

Carrol Walsh: I had no idea who they were, where they had come from, where they were going – nothing. No idea. All I knew: here’s a train with these boxcars and people jammed in those boxcars. No idea. No, I had no idea.

Steve Barry: Very shortly after that we saw the first American GIs.  Well, actually there were two tanks.  I still get tears in my eyes. Right now I have tears in my eyes and I always will when I think about it.  That’s when we knew we were safe.

Letter  from Carrol Walsh to Steve Barry, 2008: ‘You are always expressing gratitude to me, the 743rd Tank Battalion and the 30th Infantry Division. But I do not believe gratitude is deserved because we were doing what we, and the whole world, should have been doing- rescuing and protecting innocent people from being killed, murdered by vicious criminals. You do not owe us. We owe you.  We can never repay you and the Jewish people of Europe for what was stolen from you: your homes, your possessions, your businesses, your money, your art, your family life, your families, your childhood, your dreams, and all your lives.’

Steve Barry:  Is this a beautiful person?

Carrol Walsh:  I think, I cannot believe today, as I look back on those, on those years and on what was happening, I cannot believe that the… world almost ignored those people and what was happening. I cannot believe it. How could we have all stood by and have let that happen? We owe those people a great deal. We owe those people everything. They do not owe us anything. We owe them for what we allowed to happen to them. That is how I feel.

 

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