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A Train Of Life / Eldad Beck, Berlin

This story ran in the major Israeli daily “Yediot Aharonot”on Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 12th, to a quarter million households.  Thanks to the author for his interest and to Varda W. for contacting him.

Translated from Hebrew by Professor Amiela Globerson, Rehovot, Israel

 

This story ran in the major Israeli daily “Yediot Aharonot”on Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 12th, to a quarter million households.

On Friday, April 13 1945, at the midst of war on the grounds of Germany, the thoughts of the 30th Division of American soldiers were concerned not only with the situation in the frontier, but rather a the message on the death of their president Franklin Roosevelt who had led the USA in the world war.

The division was on its way to conquer the city Magdeburg, on the western side of the river Elba. A limited artillery troop entered the village of Farsleben, in order to “clean it up” from the last Nazi soldiers. No Nazi soldiers were found there. However, the American soldiers came across prisoners of war from Finland who told them a strange story, namely that they had escaped from a train loaded with people, nearby.

Indeed, in a valley near Farsleben, the Americans were astonished to notice a train guarded by Nazi guards. The locomotive was still active, the train being ready to move. Nearby the railway, on the green loan among the trees, there were several people sitting or lying down – enjoying the sunshine and the fresh air. The view was absolutely surrealistic: in the midst of frontier between the Americans and the Germans, where on one side of the Elba River the Red Army Forces were approaching driving Nazi troops, a train was taking a rest – as if time and war have stopped moving.

 

The hysterical sigh of relief

 

The idyll terminated when the Nazi guards noticed the American tanks. In view of the size of their enemy, these guards realized that they had no chance and that should rather escape. They were captured after a short while. While the Nazis were still escaping, there were a few civilians, mainly women, girls and children, who approached the Americans with joyful screaming. Only then did the Americans realize the horrible appearance of the train passengers. George C. Gross, the commander of the American Force, reported last year – just before his death, on that meeting: “Each one of them looked like a skeleton, reflecting the signs of starvation and morbidity on their face. Moreover, when they saw us they burst into laughter of joy, if one can indeed name it ‘laugh’.

It was a burst of pure sigh of relief, almost hysterical”.

“One of the women”, Gross remembered witnessing, “found a package that a Nazi had left while escaping. She checked the package and waved  in victory movement with the food kit. She was immediately surrounded by a shoal of skeletons, each one of them trying to dominate the ‘prize’. My shouting at them did not help. I had to leave the tank, to pave my way among the weak, erased bodies, in order to save that woman, who quickly escaped with food”.

The American soldiers did not understand what was going on. The explanation was waiting for them within the wagons that were staying there silently. In the language of the First World War these wagons (“boxcars”) were designated “40 or 8”, namely, they could accommodate 40 people or 8 horses. When the Americans opened the doors they found inside hundreds of people loaded, standing, stinking horribly. After having evacuated the train, there were the remaining bodies of those who did not manage to survive following that journey.

The many people who were released from the train told the Americans, in a mix of languages, a story that was impossible to understand. Eventually, a young woman, Gina Rappaport, a fluently English speaking survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto, told them that this was an exportation of Jews, loaded on the train a week earlier at the concentration camp of Bergen Belsen, on the way to an unknown destination. Investigating the guards of the train and the personnel, it appeared that they had received clear-cut orders to lead the train with its 2,500 passengers – to one of the bridges on the Elbe River, and to explode it there.

“At that time we knew very little about the holocaust”, says Frank W. Towers, one of the commanders of the 30th division, whose soldiers found the train. “We have read in the newspapers descriptions of concentration camps, but we did not realize what it was all about. Our forces entered Germany on October 1944,and here we were on April 1945, and so far had not seen those camps and the prisoners. We thought that it was all just propaganda, to enhance our determination to fight Germany. It was hard to believe that people can carry out such horrible things to other people. We then found the train”.

Towers nowadays 93 year old, continues, “I arrived at the train on the following day after it was found,  I have never seen people in such conditions – skinny, weak, filthy, stinking, fighting for their life. Many of them could not even stand up. They have already been taken out of the train, sitting around it, anticipating food and medical treatment. During the six days on the train all they have received was tasteless soup. We could not understand the situation in which they were. We had plenty of food, so we provided them our war-servings of food and chocolates. They ate immediately, but their bodies were not used to food anymore, and they started vomiting. The medical personnel called in emergence instructed us to stop serving the food, and the recommended treatment was to provide the food in by far smaller amounts”.

A wagon loaded with explosives

 

At the midst of the war against Germany, Towers decided to stop the progression of his fighting forces and to direct all the resources towards rescuing the Jews who were in the train. Firstly, the Americans asked the inhabitants of Farsleben to collect food, clothes and medications for the Jews. The Germans were also requested to accommodate survivor Jews in their homes, particularly elderly and families with children. The Farsleben inhabitants objected to these instructions, and complied only upon the threat that unless they obey – the Mayor of the village will be killed. At the same time, the American soldiers prepared a collective grave near the small town, to burry all the dead victims of the train.

Dr. Mordechai Weisskopf, then – a 15 year old boy born in Budapest, was among the survivors. A few months earlier he was deported from Hungary by the “Arrow Cross” fascist party, and then transferred by Nazis to Bergen Belsen, along with hundreds of Budapest Jews. The Hungarian Jews were placed in “zunderlager”, a special site at the camp, probably as based on the intention to use them in an exchange arrangement with the Allies, similarly to the arrangement that went on with Kastner.

“It was all about at the time when the second transport of ‘Kastner’s Jews’” was moved out”, saysWeisskopf. “We were transferred to their place. The Germans allowed us to keep our clothes and personal back-packs. We had the privilege of special conditions, and exempted from the slavery. We suffered from hunger and the torture of standing up in orders in the snow and rain. A few days after the end of Passover we were transferred to a train, claiming that we would be released upon an exchange arrangement. Obviously, this was misleading”.

Two additional trains loaded with Jew prisoners left Bergen Belsen on the following days. One of them disappeared, leaving no traces. Until now, it is not clear what the Nazis intended to do with those Jews. “Our train started moving”, recalls Weisskopf. “We were moving back and forth, until we stopped near Magdeburg. We knew that we were entering the area of the frontier. The survivors had several different versions on what was happening there. I heard that the commander of the train called the representatives of the Jews and told them ‘Germany is lost and the war is about its end’. He told them that he got an order to move the train onto one of the Elba bridges and there to explode it. As he said, one of the wagons was full of explosives. He said that he had decided not to carry out that order, pending on an agreement that the Jews will guarantee his life as well as his soldiers, in case they are captured by the Americans. He asked the Jews to provide him with their civil clothes for himself and his soldiers, and they all left the train. The Americans arrived there on the following morning day, in two tanks”.

“When we saw the Americans we all hugged and cried in joy, happy to have survived and be acquitted that day”, continues the Israeli doctor. “There was the great excitement. One of the Americans was a Jew, and said in Jewish: ‘I am also a Jew”. Later on I entered a house in a nearby village that had been evacuated of its inhabitants. We went straight into the pantry, looking for food. My body weight at that time was 30 Kg. I, as well as the others, started eating with no control, and then suffered from severe diarrheas. Afterwards there was a burst of typhus epidemics. I was hospitalized. One day, a Red Cross representative came in, telling me that an American Rabbi was organizing a group of Jewish children to migrate to Palestine. My brother in-law, being with me in Bergen Belsen and in the train, convinced me to join that group. We were transferred to Buchenwald, from there to Marseille, and then to boats on the way to Haifa”.

The officer Frank W. Towers remained there to organize the transfer of the survivors,

after they were first sprayed with DDT and received medical treatment, and were then transferred to an abandoned German Airport, where they stayed until they were moved to refugee camps. Subsequently, he returned with his people to resume their role in the war. Two days after having rescued the survivors from the train, the British soldiers released also the Bergen Belsen camp.

Towers fought until the victory, returned to the USA and has never engage in the story of the train ever since, for the whole period of 62 years. Then, one day he received a letter from a friend, another veteran soldier, who suggested viewing an internet site of a high school in New York. The name was: ”The second world war, a living history project, a train near Magdeburg”. “It sounds familiar”, Towers responded laughing.

Listening to the rescuers

 

Matt Rozell, a history teacher at the Hudson Falls High school, asked his students nine years ago, to interview war soldier veterans. One of the students interviewed his grandfather, Carrol Walsh-a judge in Florida, who happened to be one of the two commanders of the American tank. Rozell was move on with that story. The witness referred the teacher to George C. Gross in California, a university lecturer at that time, who delivered to the teacher photographs that he had made on the day when the train was released. “The photographs were amazing”, Rozell says. “I organized the witnessing data along with the photographs and placed them all on the internet site. Four years later, I had the first call from one of the train survivors, in Australia, who was a child on the train. Slowly, the circle of connections with survivors and rescuers has expanded. A meeting of these people was organized on September 2007.  At that time I knew about only four of them”.

VardaWeisskopf, the daughter of Mordechai Weisskopf, learned about the renewing contact with the rescuers of her father while she was searching material about him in the archives of Bergen Belsen. Recently, in January, following correspondence with Rozell and talks with Towers, she took it to locate additional survivors. “Talking with Towers was a mighty shock to me”, says Varda. “How many people are privileged to talk with people who have released their parents, people who thanks to them we live? As a second generation daughter to holocaust survivor, I have the feeling of a personal mission to record the information on the holocaust, and to see to it that it will be passed on to the coming generations. From my point of view, there were also miracles in the holocaust, and the event of the train was one of these. Actually, the Americans could have left behind the train with its passengers, and continue their role of fighting in the war. Moreover, the train could have been target to direct shelling”.

Within two months Varda managed to locate about 70 survivors, most of them in Israel. So far, a total of 140 survivors have been located. The meetings of survivors and rescuers at the High School continue, and the number of participants is increasing. “The students are very enthusiastic about these meetings”, says Rozell “From their point of view there is a tremendous difference between reading a history book and listening directly to people who were involved in the events. The students realize that they are the last generation having the chance of interviewing directly  these people, so they take it as an obligation to see to it that the information will be brought to the coming generations.”.

“Only for the last two years we have started knowing the people whom we have saved”, emphasizes Towers. “I feel proud and happy knowing that I have had a small part in saving them. They have come up from the ashes, like a Phoenix. It is amazing to see what they did with themselves. We have afforded them a second chance to live, and it warms my heart  to see the results”.

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Quotes from American Soldiers/Holocaust Survivors Reunion   9/22-26/09

Compiled by Mrs. Hales, English teacher, Hudson Falls High School.

You are free to share or use this page, provided the following conditions are met:

  • Attribution — You must attribute the work. That means you need to credit me, even if you are a student working on a last minute paper for your history teacher at 2am, searching for that killer quote. Your teacher will be impressed; otherwise, he or she will go online and find the quote the same way you did, and let you have it for stealing. So I’ll make it easy: Rozell, Matthew. Quotes from the American Soldiers/Holocaust Survivors Reunion, Hudson Falls High School, New York, USA;   9/22-9/26/2009. World War II Living History Project/Teaching History Matters https://teachinghistorymatters.wordpress.com. Accessed (you fill in the blank with a date here).
  • Noncommercial — You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Please don’t try to make money off of our  educational project.
  • No Derivative Works — You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work. If you want to copy it for use on your website, fine, but it must be copied in its entirety and duly credited with the reciprocal link.

Credit Matthew Rozell and World War II Living History Project/Teaching History Matters. .. If re-posting  include the link, https://teachinghistorymatters.wordpress.com.

  • “How could we [the world] have stood by and let that happen to them?  We owe them.”   Carrol Walsh, 743rd Tank Battalion, Liberator
  • “I often wonder what this world would be like if those 6 million had never perished.”  Frank Towers, 30th Infantry Division, Liberator
  • “Against all odds I am standing here before you.”  Steven Barry, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary, Florida)
  • “I tell my story so that they might tell the next generation.”  Sara Atzmon, Holocaust Survivor, artist, (Hungary, Israel)
  • “Love gives us wings to soar above it all.”  Sara Atzmon, Holocaust Survivor, artist, (Hungary, Israel)
  • “Hatred is something we must fight against.”  Leslie Meisels, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary, Toronto)
  • “Silence helps the oppressors.” Leslie Meisels, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary, Toronto)
  • “I tell my story so that it won’t become your future.”  Leslie Meisels, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary, Toronto)
  • “We cannot be lax at all.  We must keep the faith.  We must tell others.”  Buster Simmons, Chaplain, 30th Infantry Division Veterans of WWII.
  • “I’m listed as a liberator, but I’m a survivor of WWII.”  William Gast, 743rd Tank Battalion
  • “We keep the faith.”  Motto of the 743rd Tank Battalion
  • “Freedom is not free; there is a high price tag attached.”  William Gast, 743rd Tank Battalion
  • “We must ever be thankful [for our freedom].  We must NEVER take freedom for granted.”  William Gast, 743rd Tank Battalion
  • “After they gave us back our lives, we needed to live each day.”  Paul Arato, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary;  Toronto, Canada)
  • “I live some of the horrors of 65 years ago everyday.”  Paul Arato, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary;  Toronto, Canada)
  • “You have the power to heal the world.”  Lev Raphael, son of Holocaust survivors
  • “Don’t be a bystander.”  Mr. Rozell, see below.

Credit Matthew Rozell and World War II Living History Project/Teaching History Matters. .. If re-posting  include the link, https://teachinghistorymatters.wordpress.com.

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The Story with Dick Gordon -SB and CWThe Story with Dick Gordon.

Steve Barry and Carrol Walsh did an interview with Dick Gordon of American Public Media for National Public Radio. It was broadcast, appropriately, on Memorial Day. Very well done and very powerful.

You can read the previous post for  more information and links.

You can go to the link here to listen in.    For Memorial Day: A Special Reunion

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(originally posted November, 2007)…are one in the same person! Had a great lesson 4th block today.Steve Barry 1945, 2008

My high school seniors and I were treated to a wonderful interview with Mr. Steve Barry, 83, of Florida, who graphically described his liberation from that train nearly 63 years ago. He said “The South Florida Sun-Sentinel published an article titled “Vet unites with 3 death train survivors” Needless to say I was in a state of shock, and to some degree I still am, to find out after all the years, that the event burned in to my soul for all eternity, is shared with a lot of other people.” He went on to relate to my students and I the account of his ordeal and liberation, his emigration to the United States and his experience in becoming the “happiest Korean War draftee”, who ironically served his adopted country as a US Army Ranger in Germany.

His written account of his meeting with his liberator Carrol Walsh follows:

SOMETIMES THE FACTS OF REALITY DWARF THE WILDEST FICTION.

NOTE* The story continues…Steve, a Hungarian Jew, lives in Florida is one of the 13 latest survivors to see the Associated Press article on our reunion and contact us. (*now 60+ survivors) He was 21 at time of liberation and remembers a mobile SS death squad setting up their guns near the train. The people refused to get out of the boxcars as everyone knew the Americans were nearby…

My odds to meet, after 62 years, one of the brave soldiers who came across “ That Train Near Magdeburg” on April 13, 1945 was less then nil. I beat those odds and managed to survive and preserve my body and sanity.

Carrol Walsh fought his way from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge and to the Elbe River earning five well-deserved battle stars. For him, coming upon that train and a mass of emaciated, skeletal men, women and children was only one of many sad episodes of the war. Little did he realize it then that to me and countless other survivors he became an ICON rekindling our faith in human kindness. He became our LIBERATOR and will always remain that.


As it was prearranged on November 3, 2007, after picking up my daughter Barbara at the Tampa airport, (she flew in from Baltimore just for the occasion, traveling with my daughter Jamie and son-in-law Jerry, drove to the home of the Walsh’s in New Port Richey, FL. Carrol and his wife Dorothy stood at the driveway waiting for us.


I walked over to Carrol, shook his hand and we embraced, then I proceeded to kiss Dorothy. My entire family followed my example. Later after our meeting came to a conclusion, Carrol and I both felt like two old friends meeting after many years.


Inside, the table was set for coffee and tea and assorted snacks. We decided that it was more important first to engage in conversation, reminiscing about the discovery of the train and the aftermath. It was sort of a Q & E. Then we talked about our lives after the war. We learned that Carrol became a State Supreme Court Justice. We exchange some pictures and observed a wonderful photo of the Walsh’s large, attractive family.


During conversation it was discovered that Carrol’s grandson, Sean, attends G. W. University just as my granddaughter Amanda does.


Meeting Carrol and Dorothy Walsh is one of my most treasured experiences. They are, without a doubt, the sweetest, warmest and kindest people I have met. Meeting Carrol was dream come through and I especially enjoyed his boundless sense of humor.

Dear friends, Carrol and Dorothy, you restored some of my faith in humanity and I never, ever will forget the privilege to know you and call you my friends.

Steve

Boca Raton, FL 11/04/2007


P. S. Yes, there are Angels but they have no wings; we call them FRIENDS.

“Red” Walsh to Steve: “You don’t owe us – we owe you! We can never repay you and the Jewish people of Europe 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.

The least I and the other American soldiers could do was to eliminate such people as the Nazis and their armies and their police and leaders … doing what we were morally obligated to do.”

PLEASE VISIT “ABOUT THIS WEBLOG” FOR INFORMATION ON THE HIGH SCHOOL PROJECT THAT BROUGHT CARROL AND STEVE TOGETHER…

READ THE ORIGINAL INTERVIEW WITH CARROL WALSH

HEAR THE TWO TANK COMMANDERS DESCRIBE THE LIBERATION 9:32

SEE CARROL’S MEETING WITH SURVIVOR FRED SPIEGEL 3:12

Contact the teacher, Matthew Rozell, at marozell@hfcsd.org


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last-battleI received this email while I was at the last liberator-survivor reunion.

March 27th, 2009.

“Dear Mr. Rozell,

My father was a medical officer with the 30th Infantry.  It is astounding to me that I saw the article just now in the NY Times on line, and this week will be my father’s 20th Yahrzeit (anniversary of his death).  Cornelius Ryan interviewed him for the book The Last Battle. On page 329 of that book he wrote:

“The psychological effect of the camps on officers and men was beyond assessment.  On the Ninth Army front in a village near Magdeburg, Major Julius Rock, a medical officer with the 30th Infantry, came up to inspect a freight train which the 30th had stopped.  It was loaded with concentration camp inmates.  Rock, horrified, immediately unloaded the train.  Over the local burgomaster’s vehement protests, Rock billeted the inmates in German homes–but not until his battalion commander had given a crisp command to the complaining burgomaster. “If you refuse,”he said simply, “I’ll take hostages and shoot them.”

After the book was published, my father received a letter from a Connecticut woman who had been a child on that train, along with her mother.  Dad had never spoken about this to me, but he began to talk about it.  He talked about the strict orders given about how to feed the liberated survivors; he said that only rice water was to be given for the first several days.  I understand that in other places many survivors died in similar situations from gastro-intestinal shutdown from being overfed.

All of my father’s maps and pictures are archived in the Jewish War Veterans’ Museum in Washington, D.C.  I do have some photocopies of some of the pictures, including, I believe, the train.

Thank you for keeping alive this outstanding testimony to the heroism of these brave soldiers, survivors and physicians.”

I’m heading to Washington this summer to conduct more research at the Holocaust Museum and to see Rock’s documents at the Jewish War Veterans’ Museum. I have  located the woman in CT that this writer speaks of, as well as 60 or so other child survivors. Actually, she located me almost 2 years ago, and now Rock’s daughter has found me.

And to find this information in a major work that was published 4 decades ago is amazing to me. I asked the school librarian to see if we had it yesterday. He handed me a first edition that had not circulated since 1978! It is chock full of references to the 30th Infantry Division, and in the back I even found in his list of interviewees  a 30th ID vet from Hudson Falls, NY, our own town! I’ll be chasing down that lead, you can be sure.

Post Script: I was very lucky to find author Cornelius Ryan’s (The Longest DayThe Last Battle, A Bridge Too Far”) daughter as well. He passed away in 1974. When the star studded film “A Bridge Too Far” came out, I remember it was one of the rare moments in high school when my father and I did something together and went to see the film at the local cinema (and I remember it vividly- we both commented how much our butts hurt from sitting for three hours in the uncomfortable chairs, but it was still a father-teenage son moment).

I also called the widow of the 30th Infantry Division veteran that Ryan interviewed for the book from our own small town- he passed away the same year as Ryan, 35 years ago. But his widow remembered the interview well. Now I’m off in search of additional liberators of the train in Ryan’s notes with his archivist in Ohio.

Mr Ryan’s daughter wrote to me a few nights ago (Mr. Ryan was born in Dublin, went to England, and served as a war correspondent before settling in the US):

“This is really a amazing series of events.. Strange, I was watching Schindler’s List on HBO last night and I was so moved by the ending when the living survivors paid tribute to him at his headstone. I guess I will never be able to “get my head around” what happened to the Jewish people and man’s inhumanity to man.
cornelius-ryan
You have certainly touched on a special person in my life, my father. Oh how he would have loved to have heard this. I can just imagine him putting on his high British accent (something he learned to do when he went to England at 19 years old. Apparently having an Irish brogue was not synonymous with being particularly learned.). Anyway, he would have loved this new information and the fact you have located the woman in CT and so many other child survivors. I am pretty sure he would have been thrilled. While I know that my father was quite able to be true to the specific “facts”, I believe what interested him the most were the people. He used to say that the “major players” had plenty of notoriety and any “Tom, Dick or Harry could write about those poor bastards.” But he believed, it was the “little people, caught up in the tragedy of war” who had the real stories to tell. And once again, he was right.”

Cornelius Ryan was the rock star amongst U.S. WWII historians. To find these references in his book and to be in contact with his family… she concluded with:

“How great of you to send me news of this. There are really no coincidences…..these interlocking series of events were all truly too remarkable…Seems to me that someone is hollering at you to follow your dream. “

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Martin Spett, "The Ashes"

I was the guest speaker at a local temple this evening. It was a beautiful ceremony of remembrance, with music and song…. I may have been the only non-Jew there and I was the honored guest.

Honored guest!

I kept biting my lip and hoping I would not lose it, or cry, when it was my turn to speak. And then it dawns on me… the last time I got really emotional about all this was at the same time last year, sitting in the temple, participating in the service and waiting for the cue. Sometimes I wonder how I manage to hold it all together… and I know it’s because I do not force myself to slow down and think about it all.

Why is this happening to me? How can I be so blessed as to be a conduit between survivors and their new found liberators, the American soldiers responsible for the lives and the families that they have created over the past 64 years? Why do these new coincidences and miracles, these amazing  people with stories of tragedy and triumph, of survival against the odds, keep coming to my inbox or telephone, without solicitation? Why do these amazing, interconnected and intertwining  threads seem almost to be weaving themselves into a tapestry of unfolding time?  In the end, I can’t go there. How can I? Just let it be, just let it unfold, I tell myself.

We slowly recite the names: Belsen, Sobibor, Belzec, Buchenwald, Dachau, Treblinka, Chelmno, Auschwitz…, read the poems of destruction and the prayers of hope, and wonder about the redemption of the human race. The Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, is said.

It was touch and go for me for a little while. In the end, I did fine. Folks were very thankful and kept coming up to me after the service. A very nice lady came up and proudly insisted that she was my fourth grade teacher, though I don’t think that she was.

I told the congregation of my work and the work of my colleagues with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And I informed them of the death of our liberator Dr. George C.  Gross. I read to them the eyewitness liberator account that I received out of the blue on March 11th, and told them of our recent reunion and our plans for one final upcoming reunion between liberators and many survivors.

At the very end, a beautiful older woman approached me as I left the temple and told me that before her conversion to Judaism 15 years ago, she had never been taught about the Holocaust and knew very little of it…then, as she made small talk and I was contemplating my exit strategy, she touched me,  held my hand and stroked my arm warmly, and told me that I was blessed, and that I had a special place in heaven. God himself is preparing a special place. But not too soon, I try to joke.

The greatest crime in the history of the world. And I guess my own personal responsibility is to try to keep the memory alive, because it will fade as our liberators and survivors pass on.

But not too soon, I hope.

Painting: Martin Spett, The Ashes”

Each mound of victims’ ashes represents a different concentration camp. A traditional depiction of Death hovers over the six inmates of a camp who represent the six-million Jewish casualties during the Holocaust. On the left foreground is the exhortation: “Remember” in six languages.
Martin Spett was liberated on the train near Magdeburg.

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Liberators and Holocaust Survivors Reunited-World War II Living History ProjectSurvivors, (seated) 30th Infantry Division, Matthew Rozell. 3-27-09.

Survivors, (seated) 30th Infantry Division, Matthew Rozell. 3-27-09.

‘They were our angels’

Reunion sparks memories of Nazi prisoners’ train trip to freedom

By Schuyler Kropf, The Charleston Post and Courier

Saturday, March 28, 2009

They were teenaged G.I.s, happy that World War II was winding down and that they’d survived. But the story of what happened that April morning in 1945 still lingers.

It involved a train shuffling 2,500 Jews from one death camp to another as the Nazis tried to hide their crimes. But with American units approaching, the German guards had no choice but to strip off their uniforms and flee, abandoning their human cargo near a forest.

Luckily for 5-year-old Dutch Jew John Fransman, and the other riders of the liberation train, the U.S. Army showed up a few hours later. He remembers his mother’s body language changing when the soldiers came into view.

“It was transmitted that this was good, that we were being rescued,” said Fransman, now 64, of London.

For decades the tale of the liberation train was a forgotten chapter of World War II. But Friday in North Charleston, surviving members of the

Army’s 30th Infantry Division returned for a reunion that brought the story back.

Most of the U.S. troops who were there for the train rescue, near Magdeburg in northeastern Germany, have died. But seven of the train’s riders – who in 1945 were teens and children assigned to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp – have come in from all over the world.

Hungarian-born Jews Stephen Barry, 84, and Robert Spitz, 79, both lived in Budapest before the war and were sent to Bergen-Belsen, later surviving the train ride. But they’d never met before Friday, with Spitz coming in from Raleigh, N.C., and Barry from Boca Raton, Fla. “Ten minutes ago,” Spitz said of their new friendship.

Much of the train story came to light only in the last few years, including after history teacher Matthew Rozell of Hudson Falls, N.Y., got his students involved in World War II histories, sparking an Internet flurry of interest among survivors, soldiers and family members.

As the tale goes, the month of April 1945 was marked by a general collapse in Germany. The Nazis began shuffling prisoners around in movements that seemingly had no clear destinations. But on the fifth or sixth day of travel for the Bergen-Belsen prisoners, all movement stopped, with the train parked alongside a wooded ravine and the German guards in distress. The emaciated prisoners, many sick with typhoid and infested by “10 million lice” Spitz said, stood by waiting for something to happen.

Barry remembers German SS troops on horseback trying to push everyone out of the cars, movements that were physically impossible for some. The troops finally gave up and rode off, only to return an hour later – a signal Barry took to mean they were surrounded. Hours later, units of the American 30th Infantry began moving in.

“They were our angels,” said Ariela Rojek, 75, a train rider who emigrated to Canada after the war. She remembers the strange looks on the faces of war-hardened G.I.s who weren’t used to seeing atrocities against civilians. “They weren’t prepared,” she said.

One American who remembers the refugees was Frank Towers, a 26-year-old Army lieutenant whose job included rounding up dozens of trucks and finding beds for the survivors in nearby villages.

Until then, he didn’t fully appreciate the anti-German soldier propaganda he’d seen. “The German people weren’t these kinds of monsters,” he’d thought before finding the train riders.

For the survivors, rescue marked the start of a long road of recovery, searching for relatives and starting new lives. But Barry still remembers one moment after his rescue when he sat by a campfire wearing a German SS soldier’s coat that he’d found to keep warm. An American G.I. came up to him, pulled out a pocket knife and cut the SS emblems off the jacket, dropping them in the fire.

“He didn’t say a word, but he didn’t have to,” Barry recalled, as the reality of his new life of freedom set in.
Copyright © 1995 – 2009 Evening Post Publishing Co.

NOTE: This newspaper did a fine article and has some video which you may be able to view here.

LINK TO ASSOCIATED PRESS ARTICLE/PHOTOGRAPHS

LINK TO LOCAL NEWS VIDEO/STORY

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By Blanca Gonzalez
STAFF WRITER

San Diego Tribune

February 18, 2009

George C. Gross was known locally as a scholar who inspired high school and college students to care about Chaucer, Keats and other academic pursuits.

Throughout the world, others knew him as a symbol of American liberators who played a role in the lives of Holocaust camp survivors.

Dr. Gross died of anemia Feb. 1 at his home in Spring Valley. He was 86.

More than half a century after World War II ended, Dr. Gross was asked to tell his story to Matthew Rozell, a Hudson Falls, N.Y., high school teacher who coordinates a World War II living history project and Web site. Rozell had heard about Dr. Gross from another veteran involved in the project.

In a narrative posted on the project Web site, Dr. Gross told of being among the first U.S. servicemen to come across about 2,500 people the Nazis had stuffed into a string of boxcars.

It was April 1945 and World War II was coming to an end in Europe. Dr. Gross was a sergeant commanding a light tank moving toward Magdeburg, Germany, as part of a tank battalion in the 30th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. The battalion had just finished a grueling three weeks of fighting across Germany when it came across some emaciated Finnish soldiers who had escaped from a nearby train full of starving prisoners.

Dr. Gross and fellow sergeant Carrol Walsh accompanied the battalion major to a small train station where they discovered a mass of people, some sitting or lying outside the train and others still in the boxcars. It is believed their German guards ran away as the U.S. tanks rumbled in.

The train contained Jewish prisoners who had been taken from Bergen-Belsen and forced into the cramped boxcars. Dr. Gross, Walsh and the major greeted survivors and took pictures of them, capturing their surprise and joy.

“I was assigned to stay overnight with the train,” Dr. Gross wrote years later, “to let any stray German soldiers know that it was part of the free world and not to be bothered again. I was honored to shake the hands of the large numbers (of survivors) who spontaneously lined up 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.

“The heroism that day was all with the prisoners on the train,” Dr. Gross wrote. “What stamina and regenerative spirit those brave people showed. I have one picture of several girls, specter-thin, hollow-cheeked, with enormous eyes that had seen much evil and terror, and yet with smiles to break one’s heart.”

His pictures were posted on the history Web site and sparked reunions and phone calls between survivors from around the world and between Dr. Gross and Walsh, a retired judge living in Hudson Falls.

Rozell said Dr. Gross was a very humble and gracious person. “He came from a generation that didn’t really trumpet their accomplishments,” he said.

Local friends and colleagues lauded Dr. Gross as a gentleman and a scholar who was fascinated by the language of Keats and Chaucer and enjoyed sharing that love with students.

Larry Durbin, a Grossmont High School graduate who became a close friend, said the class of 1958 made Dr. Gross an honorary classmate. “He was a pretty special guy. Chaucer’s English was very difficult to read and hard to listen to … but there he was, probably 36 or 37 years old, standing up in front of a class of 17-and 18-year-olds and getting them to be enthralled with Chaucer. At nearly every (class) reunion someone will start reciting ‘The Knight’s Tale’ (from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”) we learned in his class,” Durbin said.

“He was a sensitive, caring, warm guy and everybody liked him.”

Dr. Gross, who had boxed in the Army, served as adviser of the high school’s boxing club.

After teaching at Grossmont for about 10 years, Dr. Gross joined the San Diego State faculty in 1961. He was associate dean for faculty and dean of faculty affairs from 1970 to 1981 before returning to the classroom. He retired in 1985 but remained active on campus with the SDSU Honors Council.

Dr. Gross is remembered on campus as one of the great chairmen of the English and Comparative Literature department, said current Chairman Bill Nerricio. “Tales of his generosity and intellect still shadow the corridors of our department. His skills as a master teacher, gifted scholar and top-shelf administrator are a hard act to follow.”

George C. Gross was born May 14, 1922, in Wilmington to Ada Bachmann and Henry Gross. He graduated from Hoover High School and married his high school sweetheart, the former Marlo Mumma, in 1940. She died in 2006.

He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature from San Diego State and received his doctorate from the University of Southern California in the early 1960s.

Dr. Gross is survived by two sons, Tim of Lakeside and John of Spring Valley; a granddaughter; and two sisters, Hazel Lemmons of San Diego and Betty Desport of Texas.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. March 7 at SDSU Aztec Center, Casa Real. Reservations can be made with Leslie Herrman at lherrman@mail.sdsu.edu or (619) 594-6337.

Donations may be made to the Campanile Foundation for the George C. Gross Memorial Fund benefiting the Department of English and Comparative Literature and Holocaust Studies, in the Department of History* or to the George Gross Memorial Scholarship at Grossmont High School.

*For those interested in donating a memorial gift, checks can be made out to The Campanile Foundation. Please note that donors should designate one of these options:

1) Designate the Department of English and Comparative Literature
2) Designate Holocaust Studies in the Department of History
3) Designate the “Memorial Fund” (60% English / 40% Holocaust Studies)

Checks can be mailed to:

SDSU, College of Arts & Letters
c/o Trina Hester
George C. Gross Memorial Fund
Arts and Letters, room 600
5500 Campanile Drive
San Diego, CA 92182-6060

You can also drop them off with staff in the Dean’s Development office, Arts and Letters 600. If someone wishes to use their credit card, please call Trina Hester at 619.594.1562.

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30th-patchThe next Annual Reunion of the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of WWII will be held on 26 – 29 March 2009, in Charleston, SC, at the Ramada Inn Charleston, located at 7401 Northwoods Blvd. just off of the #526 Expressway, in No. Charleston.

Hotel Reservation can be made at any time by calling: 1-843-572-2200

Program 2009

Ramada Inn, Charleston

Charleston, SC

26 – 29 March 2009

Wednesday 25 March

Early Registration 1:00 P.M. – 5:00 P.M.

Lobby

Thursday 26 March

Registration 9:00 A.M. – ?

Beauregard Room

Lunch On Own

Hospitality 1:00 P.M. – 6:30 P.M. Beauregard Room

Reception 7:00 P.M. – 8:30 P.M.

Beauregard Room

Hospitality 8:30 P.M. – 11:00 P.M.

Friday 27 March

Breakfast 6:30 A.M. – 8:30 A.M.

At your leisure in Atrium Restaurant

Memorial Service 10:00 A.M. – 11:30 A.M.

Laure/Caroline Room

Lunch in Hotel 12:00 Noon – 1:30 P.M.

Holocaust Survivors Presentation (more details to follow)

2:00 P.M. – 5:00 P.M.

Laure Room

Hospitality 4:30 P.M. – 6:30 P.M.

Beauregard Room

Dinner 7:00 P.M. – 8:30 P.M.

Armand Room

Hospitality 8:45 P.M. – 11:00 P.M.

Beauregard Room

Saturday 28 March 2009

Breakfast 6:30 A.M. – 8:30 A.M.

At your leisure in Atrium Restaurant

Business Mtg. 10:00 A.M. – 12:00 Noon

Laure Room

Lunch in Hotel 12:00 Noon– 1:30 P.M.

Holocaust Survivors Presentation (more details to follow)

2:00 P.M. – 4:30 P.M

Laure Room

Hospitality 1:00 P.M. – 5:00 P.M.

Beauregard Room

Banquet 7:00 P.M. – 9:30 P.M.

Armand Room

Dinner

Speaker

Raffle

Sunday 29 March 2008

Departures FINIS!!

Breakfast 6:30 A.M. – 8:30 A.M.

At your leisure in Atrium Restaurant

Rates are $79.00 per room, and include Free Hot Buffet Breakfast for 2 persons.

Complimentary Airport Shuttle to & from Hotel.

Contact:

Carolyn Ware, Reunion Chairperson at: 1-843-899-7082 or cware@co.berkeley.sc.us

Or

Frank W. Towers, President at: 1-352-485-1173 or towersfw@windstream.net

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I cleaned out my parents house a couple years ago after they passed on and found this memorial card among my father’s possessions. It’s for the grandmother that I never knew- she died a few years before I was born.

Tonight I was staring at it and turned it over to read the text. As you can see she passed away exactly 50 years ago today. I think my grandmother is trying to say something to me.

I include it here so I continue to think about it and because the subject seems appropriate.

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