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Posts Tagged ‘Holocaust Education’

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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Clara Rudnick around age 15.

Clara Rudnick around age 15.

I’m sharing a pair of articles that I think are illuminating on the state of affairs regarding the Holocaust in Lithuania. In previous posts I have told the story of my friend Clara Rudnick who somehow was able to survive where most all of her friends and family in Lithuania were murdered. She also bravely went back for a visit in 2013 with her son, and found that people did not know, or pretended not to know, what happened only a couple generations back.

New book prompts soul-searching in Lithuania about Holocaust-era complicity

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Feb. 17, 2016

By Cnaan Liphshiz

As the author of a best-seller that deals with female sexuality after 50, the Lithuanian novelist Ruta Vanagaite is used to embarrassing questions from journalists about her private life.

But even she was astonished when a reporter for a popular television station demanded to see her birth certificate to ascertain the veracity of claims that she is Jewish.

The question came during an interview about Vanagaite’s latest book, “Musiskiai” (“Our People”), a travelogue about the Holocaust consisting of interviews with witnesses to the atrocities perpetrated by Lithuanians against their Jewish neighbors.

The book’s publication last month has triggered the first major public debate in Lithuania about local Lithuanians’ complicity in the genocide of the Jews. It currently tops the best-seller list of the Pegasas chain of bookstores and has prompted officials to promise to publish this year the names of 1,000 Holocaust perpetrators they have been keeping under wraps for years.

Vanagaite, who is 61 and not Jewish, visited killing fields in Lithuania and Belarus to research the book, which she co-authored with Efraim Zuroff, the renowned Nazi hunter and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office. Though she found the journalist’s request to see her birth certificate unsettling, she complied anyway.

“I know where it’s coming from,” Vanagaite told JTA. “Lithuanian involvement in the Holocaust is such a taboo that being a Jew or a Russian spy are the only explanations for wanting to talk about it.”

But that is beginning to change thanks to Vanagaite’s book.

“In one fell swoop, the book has brought a wave of truth telling about the Holocaust to the mainstream of society who follow the large media outlets,” said Dovid Katz, a Yiddish scholar in Vilnius who has campaigned for historical accuracy on the Lithuanians’ Holocaust-era role in the near annihilation of the Lithuanian Jewish community of 220,000. “It is of notable importance that a born and bred Lithuanian author tells the simple truth as it has never been told in a trade book not intended for scholars and specialists.”

Geoff Vasil, a spokesman for the Jewish Community of Lithuania, said “the turning of the tide within Lithuanian society” on this issue “now appears to be taking place like never before.”
The 304-page volume has prompted not just the official Jewish Community of Lithuania but also local media outlets to demand the government publish its list of suspected war criminals. The government received the names in 2012 from its own Genocide and Resistance Research Center but failed to publish them or issue any indictments. The center’s director now has promised to publish the names by 2017.

Vanagaite’s book also has highlighted the fact that despite ample evidence and testimonies of widespread complicity, not a single person has been imprisoned in Lithuania for killing Jews during the Holocaust.

“Germany, Austria, even Hungary and Poland have had this reckoning a decade ago, but there’s a strong resistance in Lithuanian society to follow suit and confront this stain in our history,” Vanagaite said. Yet failing to do so, she said, “will mean we will be branded as a whole nation of murderers, and rightly so, because we refuse to acknowledge and condemn a murderous fringe.”

Vanagaite experienced this reluctance personally last year when she made an unwelcome discovery that served as her motivation to write the book in the first place.

In researching the life story of her grandfather — a well-known activist against communist Russia’s occupation of Lithuania until 1991 — she found documents that showed he helped German authorities compile a list of 10 Jewish communists during World War II. The German authorities then gave him some Jews to work on his farm as slave laborers before they were murdered.

“It was devastating,” Vanagaite recalls. “This was a man who was a hero to me and my family.”

In Lithuania, locals who fought with the Germans against the Red Army are widely revered as patriotic freedom fighters — including Juozas Ambrazevicius, the leader of the Nazi collaborationist government. In a funeral organized by the central government, Ambrazevicius was reburied in 2012 with full national honors in the city of Kaunas. Four years earlier, Lithuanian prosecutors investigated for alleged war crimes four Jews who fought against the Nazis with the Russians. The investigation was dropped amid an international outcry.

Lithuania is the only country whose government officially branded Soviet occupation as a form of genocide. That “Soviet-sponsored genocide” is commemorated in Lithuania far more prominently than the Holocaust. And even any mention of the Jewish genocide had been absent from Vilnius’ state Museum of Genocide Victims until 2011.

“Exposing that some Lithuanians who are considered patriotic heroes are really war criminals would undermine the good-versus-evil narrative,” Katz noted.

It is precisely Vanagaite’s credentials as a good Lithuanian from a good Lithuanian family that has made her message so piercing to fellow Lithuanians, said Zuroff, the co-author of “Our People” and longtime critic of Lithuanian governments.

“My voice [about Lithuania] was loud in international media, but I was not getting heard inside Lithuania, where I was pretty much portrayed as an enemy of the people,” Zuroff told JTA. “It took someone like Ruta to achieve that.”

The second part of Vanagaite’s book is about her travels with Zuroff, where they spoke to octogenarians who witnessed mass executions. Referencing Zuroff – a reviled figure by many Lithuanians, including well-known cartoonists and nationalist columnists – Vanagaite titled that part of the book “Journey with an Enemy.”

But Vanagaite and Zuroff are not in full accord. She believes that in lieu of Lithuanian introspection, the extent and cruelty of Lithuanian complicity has been vastly exaggerated – including in survivors’ testimonies. She cast doubt on testimonies about a man who was boiled alive in Panevezys and an account that locals, after slaughtering dozens of Jews in Kaunas, sang the Lithuanian anthem. Zuroff says he has no reason to doubt these accounts.

“But these details are less significant in light of the movement that this book started,” he said.

Meanwhile, Vanagaite is experiencing the public denunciation that for years has been directed at Zuroff, Katz and other critics of Lithuania’s refusal to prosecute Holocaust perpetrators.

Cast as a Kremlin agent in some publications and as a closeted Jew in others, Vanagaite says some of her friends no longer wish to speak to her.

At a book fair next month, Vanagaite says she will hand out stones to visitors of her booth with the following instruction: “Any Lithuanian who’s certain that their family wasn’t involved in the Holocaust should throw one right at me.”

Source: http://www.jta.org/2016/02/17/news-opinion/world/new-book-prompts-soul-searching-in-lithuania-about-holocaust-era-complicity

Author explores Holocaust in Lithuania: ‘Our own boys used to go shooting people after school’

The Lithuania Tribune

Friday, January 29, 2016

Author Rūta Vanagaitė recently presented a book, “Our Own”, about the Holocaust in Lithuania. Although historians have been researching the topic for years, the Lithuanian society has yet to realize and acknowledge the part their compatriots, ordinary Lithuanians, played in the mass killings of Jews, Vanagaitė says.  It is a book dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the great Jewish massacre in 1941 when almost the entire Jewish community in Lithuania was killed. In total, about 200,000 Jews were killed in Lithuania between 1941-1944. There were 227 mass killings of Jews all over Lithuania. “I took this theme because I was struck by how feared it is in Lithuania. I wanted to understand what really happened in our country and to our people, and why it happened. This is not a historical book – this is a book for self-development. I know that Lithuania did not wait for this book. That is why I wrote it. It was the most important moment, when somebody had to write this book. Those witnesses are 85-90 years old, they will no longer be with us in a few years,” said Vanagaitė.

While writing the book, she researched archives and travelled to killing sites across Lithuania, together with the ‘Nazi hunter’ Efraim Zuroff, to talk to living witnesses. “They are now 85 or 90 years old. Over the last 75 years, no one came to ask them about [the Holocaust], so now they are afraid to talk,” Vanagaitė tells in an interview to the LRT TV programme Dėmesio Centre.

How would this explain the enthusiasm with which Lithuanians took part in massacring Jews during World War Two?

There wasn’t much enthusiasm, except for a few [who] were motivated by it. The rest were simply doing their work.

But it seems that your book is precisely about how willingly Lithuanians were killing Jews?

Those who took part in the killings for spoils were probably willing. Ordinary Lithuanians joined battalions because they were told that those battalions were the seeds of the army of independent Lithuania, that they would be going to fight against the soviets and defend Lithuania. At first, these battalions would be sent to guard buildings, later Jews, and after that they took the Jews to pits and lined them up. It took enormous willpower to say “I will not shoot.” But there were some who did not shoot Jews.

Would they get away with it?

Yes. Officers [overseeing the killings] were usually Lithuanians, Germans would not even go to massacre sites in the provinces. If a Lithuanian officer saw that your hands were shaking, how could he be sure you would not turn and shoot at him? If he saw you were nervous, on the edge, you would not even get a weapon. But there were some who wanted to shoot. Those with enthusiasm were the marginals. Meanwhile those who were joining the battalions were motivated by a sense of duty or something else. Some wanted money, others had no home, yet others loved their country and hated the Soviets. There were those who killed 20,000 people with their own hands over four years.

While researching for the book, you must have read everything written on the topic in Lithuanian?

I have. But my main sources were files [in archives] and conversations with people. An ordinary person would not go to archives and spend six months going through files. Or read all the books. So my goal was to put all information into 300 pages so people could grasp what really happened.

Why did you take up this subject?

I have done several other projects [on the Holocaust] before, I find the topic interesting, although I do not have any Jewish ancestry myself. There are few Jews left in Lithuania, only several thousand, but we continue to hate them. Moreover, there is great fear and reluctance to discuss the subject. People working in public institutions are particularly fearful. You give a new angle on the subject. What was your goal? I tried to take a closer look at people who killed, to understand them, to see how they started, what motivated them. We still don’t know what was happening by the pits. All we know is that thousands of Jews were killed and that it was the marginals who did it. But what do we know about the fact that they wouldn’t shoot children, but pound them against trees to save bullets? That there have been found a lot of children’s bodies with intact skulls? This means they were buried alive. Do we know about the incredible anti-Semitism that the Lithuanian government of the time fostered? It emboldened people, they would be told that Jews were lice, mites, communists and what have you. We can still hear people saying that Jews were communists. These are words of Hitler and Goebbels. You visited the killing sites.

Are there still many witnesses left?

Yes. There are people living near each killing site who remember well. They are now 85 or 90 years old. Over the last 75 years, no one came to ask them about it, so now they are afraid to talk. No one, except Romas from Šeduva, agreed to tell me their name or take a picture. They said they were afraid, that someone might come and kill them. Who will come, who will kill, I asked. Lithuanians, they said.

“Nazi hunter” Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center who attended the presentation of your book, said that the Lithuanian government was reluctant to do much about the Holocaust. What did he mean?

When the United States deported war criminals – Kazys Gimžauskas, Aleksandras Lileikis, Algimantas Dailidė – the process was stalled and not one criminal was sentenced. I am surprised by one more thing. I went to the government to enquire about a list of 2,055 names prepared by the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre; this list is gathering dust at the government’s chancellery since 2012. I asked if it were possible to take that list out, to give it to prosecutors. The Genocide and Resistance Research Centre worked three years compiling the list of 2,055 names and there are tens of thousands files left; the centre does not know what to do next. This is what I was told by the deputy chancellor: whatever we do, the Jews will never have enough.

In your book, you dethrone certain individuals and events in Lithuania’s anti-Soviet resistance. Like the June 1941 uprising, Lithuania’s provisional government, the white-bands (anti-Soviet volunteer squads).

The June uprising was started by a man named Norkus who hoisted a Lithuanian tricolour on the Resurrection Church in Kaunas. Later, he was one of the commanders of the Nation’s Defence battalion and, in early July, 3,000 innocent people were killed under his command. The white-bands were very expertly used by the Nazis. The Lithuanian government of the time set up the first concentration camp at the 7th Fort in Kaunas, where these Jews were murdered. The killings were directed by a man who, just days before, had raised a Lithuanian flag at a church. What is he? A hero?

You also write that even priests were rather lenient about such “sins”. For instance, a Catholic church in Minsk offered absolutions to Lithuanians who killed Jews in Belarus.

Each battalion had a chaplain who would hold service every Sunday. At times, the guys would go to the confessional five at a time. To make it faster, the sins were identical after all. Afterwards they’d sing the Lithuanian anthem.

What is it that you want people to take away from your book? The take-away is very simple. All this happened at the intersection of very many unfortunate circumstances. Thousands of young Lithuanians were pushed into this. I cannot blame them, nor can I justify them. If, under particular circumstances, it happened once, can we be sure it won’t happen again? How can we condemn the boys of Islamic State, if our own boys of 15-16 years used to go shooting people after school? This has happened and it can happen again.

We cannot close our eyes to truth, however painful and ugly it is.

Source: http://en.delfi.lt/lithuania/society/author-explores-holocaust-in-lithuania-our-own-boys-used-to-go-shooting-people-after-school.d?id=70250476

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Holocaust Survivor Clara Rudnick in her home, Photo Erica Miller 8/31/10

Holocaust Survivor Clara Rudnick in her home, Photo Erica Miller 8/31/10

I have a friend who lost her entire family and just barely survived the Holocaust in her homeland of Lithuania, and elsewhere.

I gave a talk a while back and Clara was there. Here is what I wrote then:

I gave my first talk last night after returning  from an intensive 3 week European study tour. Arriving early to prepare and set up, I looked up and in walked Siobhan, a former student, and her mom, followed a little while by an older woman I was surprised and delighted to see- Mrs. Rudnick, or Clara. She gave me a hug and took off her coat and told me that she had taken a cab to the site of the lecture, and, oh, could I please give her a ride home? I was delighted.

During the lecture I recognized her before the audience, and thanked her for coming out. She told the audience how proud she was to live in the “North Country” of upstate New York. Heck, she’s lived here since 1949, a dozen years before I was born! She was moved to tears, as was Siobhan, who gave her a hug.

During the talk, she nodded her head in agreement to many of my points. Afterwards, she pulled out a piece of paper, a short statement that she had written, explaining that she had been meaning to call me.  You see, she was not the only traveler to Europe this summer. While I was in Poland touring Holocaust related sites, Mrs. Rudnick had returned to Lithuania of her youth.

Not an easy thing, given that

a. Clara is 89 years old;

b. Clara is a Holocaust survivor;

c. Clara lost most of her family to the SS Einsatzgruppen and their Lithuanian collaborators.

She and her late husband Abe were two of only 7000 survivors of the 70,000 Jews of Vilna. I was familiar with a lot of the history, but to understand more of what she had gone through, I looked up the following at the USHMM website:

The Lithuanians carried out violent riots against the Jews both shortly before and immediately after the arrival of German forces. In June and July 1941, detachments of German Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), together with Lithuanian auxiliaries, began murdering the Jews of Lithuania. By the end of August 1941, most Jews in rural Lithuania had been shot. By November 1941, the Germans also massacred most of the Jews who had been concentrated in ghettos in the larger cities. The surviving 40,000 Jews were concentrated in the Vilna, Kovno, Siauliai, and Svencionys ghettos, and in various labor camps in Lithuania. Living conditions were miserable, with severe food shortages, outbreaks of disease, and overcrowding.

In 1943, the Germans destroyed the Vilna and Svencionys ghettos, and converted the Kovno and Siauliai ghettos into concentration camps. Some 15,000 Lithuanian Jews were deported to labor camps in Latvia and Estonia. About 5,000 Jews were deported to extermination camps in Poland, where they were murdered. Shortly before withdrawing from Lithuania in the fall of 1944, the Germans deported about 10,000 Jews from Kovno and Siauliai to concentration camps in Germany.

Soviet troops reoccupied Lithuania in the summer of 1944. In the previous three years, the Germans had murdered about 90 percent of Lithuanian Jews, one of the highest victim rates in Europe.

Clara was anxious to speak to me. She told me of her trip with her son. Together they returned to Svinsyan, where her parents, two sisters and two brothers lived. To one of my students, a few years back, she told the following story:

On June 21st, 1941, the Nazis came into my town, I lived with my mother and father, two brother and two sisters. In July 4th, they took my oldest brother and burned him alive, with 90 other Jewish teenagers in my town. In the early part of August they came in and took my twin brother, along with another 100 teenagers and dug a big hole and buried them alive. In September they took the whole town about 8,000 people and brought then to where we held our flea markets- this was both of my sisters and my mother- out into the woods where they lined them up and shot them and left them there. This is where my father and I escaped- he knew a lot of men- and we went to farm to farm and hid out until the Nazis would come, and we would leave because if they caught us they would kill us and the people we were staying with, because they were harboring  fugitives.

At the town’s museum, she stopped to ask where the memorial of the murder site, Poligon, could be found. Clara said that they  told her that they did not know where it was, though half the town’s population, many of the families having lived their since the 1300s, had been murdered there.

At the hotel in Vilna she inquired how she could get to Ponary, and was simply told “there is nothing there”. Google Ponary. 110000 relevant results. 70,000 Jews were shot to death there by the Germans and Lithuanians.

Taking the English-speaking bus tour of the Old City of Vilna, the guide described the Philharmonic Hall but did not tell the tourists that this was the entrance to the Vilna Ghetto, where she had been imprisoned until being deported to a slave labor camp and later to a concentration camp. When Clara asked why the guide did not mention this, the guide said that she “did not know.”

Maybe the guide was young and was not taught this history in school. Or maybe it was not important enough to be part of the official program. 90 to 95% of Lithuania’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. To one lady on the bus, and her son, it was important. In Clara’s words, “In just three days, I learned that Lithuania has not faced it history of the destruction of its 250,000 Jews”.

Clara is happy that I am keeping the memory alive. She put on her coat and climbed up into my pickup truck without assistance. She chatted all the way home as I tried to navigate to her house in the dark. She thanked me over and over. Not at all. Thank you for coming into my life and making me, and my students, a part of yours.

***

Here then, is some welcome news from Europe. But you have to wonder how far it will really go.

“Lithuania pledges to publish names of 1,000 suspected Holocaust perpetrators”

 

Following the publication in Lithuania of a groundbreaking book on local complicity during the Holocaust, a state museum on genocide said it would publish a list of 1,000 suspected perpetrators.

Terese Birute Burauskaite, who heads the Vilnius-based Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania, said her institution would “this year try to publish a book” containing “over 1,000 Lithuanian residents who are connected to the Holocaust,” the news website Delfi.lt reported Tuesday.

Burauskaite made her remarks in an interview on the findings of a book titled “Musiskiai” (“Our Own”) that was released last week. Co-authored by the Israeli Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff and Ruta Vanagaite, a local author who began studying the Holocaust after discovering that members of her own family played a role in the murder of Jews during the genocide, the book focused media attention on the controversial issue of local complicity.

In 2012, the museum gave the government a list containing 2,055 names of supposed perpetrators, Vanagaite said in the Delfi interview last week about her book, but Vilnius neither published it nor made any attempt to investigate the people concerned.

Rimantas Vaitkus, a deputy minister for education, told Delfi: “We do not have such a list,” explaining that compiling one was up to the genocide center. But Burauskaite, the center’s director, said her organization had discussed the list with the government. After studying the list for three years, she said her organization eliminated approximately 1,000 suspects.

According to Zuroff, the list was published in 2012 briefly on the website of the museum but taken offline after 24 hours.

The book by Zuroff, who is the Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Vanagaite chronicles their journeys last summer across Lithuania, where they spoke with people who witnessed locals killing Jews. Its 2,500 copies were sold out within two days of its Jan. 26 publication release.

More than 95 percent of the 220,000 Jews who lived in Lithuania during the Holocaust were murdered, many of them by local Nazis and Nazi collaborators. Some of the perpetrators are celebrated as heroes in Lithuania, where many perceive them as national heroes for their opposition to Russian domination of the country.

“There has been a stubborn reluctance in Lithuania to start the retrospection that went on elsewhere in Europe,” Zuroff said. “There are signs this book is changing that.”

http://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Lithuania-pledges-to-publish-names-of-1000-suspected-Holocaust-perpetrators-443624

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I have just returned from an invitation to participate in Toronto’s Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre’s Holocaust Education Week, spending some time with maybe a thousand high school kids at the Cardinal Newman Catholic High School. I had  a morning and an afternoon session.

image (1)

Holocaust survivor Ariela Rojek and her young admirers at Blessed Cardinal Newman Catholic High School.

I had an hour in the morning and I ended early so that they could come up and meet Ariela, my  “adoptive mother”. You see, a few years back, I connected her and several Toronto area survivors with their actual American liberators. Yesterday, at a family gathering at her daughter’s house, she brought out the scrapbook and showed me the pictures of her parents and family who did not survive the Holocaust, and even the original letter that her father wrote on the eve of his transfer from prison to Auschwitz-where he would be murdered, along with her grandfather and uncle. Ariela’s mother, only 36, both of her grandmothers, her other grandfather and two aunts were murdered at Belzec.

 

With Mark Celinscak, York University professor and author of the new book, "Distance from the Belsen Heap: Allied Forces and the Liberation of a Nazi Concentration Camp", and survivor Leslie Meisels before our afternoon talk.

With Mark Celinscak, Trent University professor and author of the new book, “Distance from the Belsen Heap: Allied Forces and the Liberation of a Nazi Concentration Camp”, and survivor Leslie Meisels before our afternoon talk.

Toronto talk descriptionIn the afternoon, I was with my good friend Leslie Meisels, an experienced speaker who told the kids about his Holocaust journey, and the miracles in his life that led he and I to be on the same stage together. Leslie was from Hungary, and liberated on the same day as Ariela, on the same train, and by the same soldiers. I did my bit and turned it over to him, and relayed questions from the students to him.

Now when you are teaching it is true that many times you have no idea of whether or not you are getting through to the kids. Some may have a bored expression as you hammer the message home, eyes not meeting yours, or looking like this is the last place they want to be. But in the end, you know, it behooves us as educators to give them space, and maybe time, to process. (And I did include a brief “debriefing guide” for teachers to use if they wanted to, after the presentation.)

But it was the outpouring of love for the survivors who were with me today, that really made my trip, and my efforts worth it.

Holocaust survivor Leslie Meisels with Blessed Cardinal Newman Catholic High School students  where they learned about reuniting Holocaust survivors with their American liberators. Photo by Joan Shapero.

Holocaust survivor Leslie Meisels with Blessed Cardinal Newman Catholic High School students where they learned about reuniting Holocaust survivors with their American liberators.

Leslie and Ariela are family, and a new group of students became witnesses to the greatest crime in history, and one that the world allowed to unfold. In the end my message was to simply amplify the lessons these survivors, and liberators, have inspired through their example- that we are all part of the family of mankind and that in living out our lives, we have the responsibility to make a difference- and that one person can make a change that will ripple onward for generations to come.

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This is an important story which aired on Oct. 4th on CBS 60 Minutes. I’ve known about Father Dubois for quite some time and we do have mutual friends/acquaintances. His book,  The Holocaust by Bullets, can be ordered here. I’m glad that his important work is having such an impact, and being recognized as groundbreaking. Remember, we are only 75 years after the events… As I am at work on my own book about the Holocaust, I find myself admiring a kindred spirit, in a sense. I’m not Jewish, but Catholic like him, but that is hardly relevant, except to call attention to what happened from the perspective of a non-Jew. For deniers, it won’t make a difference-but as we study, and interview, we become witnesses, too. 

He can’t mark the mass graves that he finds, and sadly I already knew what to expect when I reached the comments section of the article. And I am told that Father Dubois has received death threats at his residence in Paris.

hidden holocaust

“The Holocaust is marked and memorialized at places like Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen, Dachau. But nearly half of the six million Jewish victims were executed in fields and forests and ravines, places that were not named and remain mostly unmarked today. They were slaughtered in mass shootings and buried in mass graves in the former Soviet Union, where until very recently, little had been done to find them.

Our story is about a man who’s brought these crimes of the Holocaust to light. He is not a historian, or a detective or a Jew. He’s a French Catholic priest named Father Patrick Desbois. And for the past 13 years, he has been tracking down the sites where many of the victims lie and searching for witnesses who are still alive; many of whom had never been asked before to describe the horrors they had seen more than 70 years ago.”

Lara Logan: So what you’re learning here is completely unrecorded?

Father Desbois: Yeah, if we didn’t come, we’ll never know they killed Jews. These Jews would have never been counted as dead, never known, and the mass grave is totally unknown.

Gheorghe brought us down this road where, he said, all the Jewish families from the village were taken. He told us the day of the shooting he was tending to cows nearby. Now 70 years later, we watched as he traced the victims steps to the edge of the ravine.

Read the transcript and view the report: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/hidden-holocaust-60-minutes/

http://www.yahadinunum.org/

Rleated article: Voices of ghosts: Remembering the Holocaust’s mass killings
‘I have lived with the Holocaust my entire life — and I still don’t understand how this could have happened’

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It was six years ago this evening, we shared a meal on the eve of Shabbat, after watching ourselves on a national broadcast that reached millions. Why does it seem, so long ago?

Maybe because it all seems so unbelievable- that out of the darkness of the past, on a day when the sun dawned clearly and was warming the Earth in its mid-April morning ascent, a low rumble was heard by  hushed and huddled groupings of tormented humanity as they strained to hope for friends amidst their lurking murderers. As the metallic clanking grew louder, over the horizon broke the earthly angels, two Sherman light tanks and an American Jeep with the emblem of the white star. A cry broke out. They realized they were saved, and the American major snapped a photograph at the exact moment the overjoyed survivors realized it.

And out of the past on a warm September day, we brought them all together again. Who would have believed that 62 years later, a high school in a quiet, rural part of the world would  bring the soldier-liberators and the rescued survivors together from the US, Canada, Israel and elsewhere? All because I couldn’t let go of a good narrative history, and pursued the story behind the photographs that proved it really happened?

And think about the risk you run, inviting hundreds of octogenarians to come to a high school for half a week to mingle with thousands of high school and middle schoolers? Talk about sweating bullets. What if they are uncomfortable? Cranky? Complaining? What if the kids I can’t control are rude? And what if one of these “old” folks, who I don’t even know, dies on our watch? I would lie awake at night wondering if I was out of my mind.

But the miracle came to be-for the two dozen or so elders who could come, tears flowed, wine spilled, and our “new grandparents” danced with young teenagers who adored them, but only after the risk was accepted, with the enthusiastic help of Mary Murray, Tara Winchell-Sano, and Lisa Hogan, Rene Roberge and others. Have a look at the videos, and feel the love. We created ripples, and tripped the wires of the cosmos, and the reverberations are still echoing. To date, with Varda Weisskopf’s and Frank Towers’ help, the list is at 275 survivors whom we have found. And how many generations has it effected?

This is the subject of my second book, due out this next summer. In the meantime, I am working on a shorter work of what I have learned in teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. So take a look at the videos, and remember the words of the liberator:

“Here we are! We have arrived!”

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At my keynote talk in Rochester, NY, two weeks ago, several people came up to me after the ceremony and greeted me warmly. One man came with an envelope and shook my hand, explaining that his father had been an American medic. In the envelope were photographs and Vincent’s handwritten letter describing a talk that he had had with his dad a couple years before he passed. I have finally gotten around to transcribing it; it comes on the 70th anniversary of his father’s traumatic shock at a subcamp of Dachau where Jewish slave laborers were being worked to death mining out mountains so the Reich could shelter its fledgling jet industries from Allied bombing. Many of the prisoners were dying of typhus. Below you will find the letter and two of his photos.

Vincent F. Butler, Sr.

Vincent F. Butler, Sr.

4/15/2015

Dear Matt,

These are copies made from the original pictures taken by my father, Vincent F. Butler, Sr., at the concentration camp in Landsberg, Germany toward the end of World War II. He did not date the pictures, but I have included a copy in his handwriting of the location. My father was a medic in the XXI Medical Corps when his unit liberated this camp.

My father never really talked about the war except for a funny story once in a while. About 2 years before he died he first showed me these pictures. He described the encounter as “the worst thing I had ever seen”. That says a lot considering he was a frontline medic in Europe. He also said that he “could not understand how someone could do something so horrible against other human beings.” He uttered “Why…Why…Why…” several times during our talk. He gave me these pictures with the directive: “Never let anyone say that this did not happen. It did – I saw it.”

Landsberg Area, Germany. A subcamp of Dachau.

Landsberg Area, Germany. A subcamp of Dachau.

That was one of the few actual directives that my father ever gave me, and I must say, it was his most serious. Looking back, and finally knowing what he had been through, I am sure that this had the biggest impact and was the most traumatic effect on him.

He did talk about how they tried to save as many people as they could. He said they had to very slowly give people food because large amounts would shut their system down. He said he was not aware of these camps until they came upon this one.

Thank you for telling the story so that the Holocaust is never repeated. I think that my father’s pictures and his recollection through me may help in some small way.

Vincent Butler, Jr.

 

http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10006171

*************************************************************

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 the liberation of the “Train Near Magdeburg’. He can be reached at marozell at gmail dot com.

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April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

Today, April 29th, is the anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, 70 years on.

Today, if it is brought up at all, some of us might respond with a vacant stare. More might shrug and turn away. I suppose that is to be expected. But you know me. I just think that as a nation, sometimes we allow things to slip from memory at our peril.

It was real, and it happened. And it was American GIs who overran this camp and many others in the closing days of World War II.

The men of the 42nd and 45th Infantry Division arrived independently of each other, here, in southern Germany, at Dachau, on this day. A concentration camp, they were told. Their noses gave them a hint of what they were about to uncover, miles before the camp appeared in sight.

Read the headlines, above. Note the subarticle:

Boxcars of Dead at Dachau. 32,000 captives freed.

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

And so after some resistance, into the camp they entered. Life changing events were about to unfold for the American soldier.

***

For me, it’s not about hero worship, or glorifying the liberator or any World War II soldier as some kind of savior. Many of the liberating soldiers I know would resist this, to the point of rejecting the term, “liberator”… “It all sounds so exalted, so glamorous” said one. But they will all accept the term, “eyewitness”.

Witnesses to the greatest crime in the history of the world.

So instead I think it is about honoring their experiences, their shock, the horror, the puking and the crying, the rage-and then, the American GIs recognizing that something had to be done. And they did suffer for it, for trying to do the right thing. Many tried to help by offering food to starving prisoners who just were not ready to handle it, only to see them drop dead. Or having to manhandle these emaciated victims who were tearing away at each other as food was being offered.

Some guys never got over it. How could you?

I have learned so much over the past few years from these guys, just through the way that they carried themselves and tried to cope with what they witnessed. In my World War II studies and Holocaust class, we discuss these issues at length. I’m so lucky to be able to teach it.

Last year, I was privileged to teach a lesson to my high school seniors for NBC Learn, which was shared with other districts across the nation. This year, I stumbled upon this piece by the late author Tony Hays, who writes about his liberator father and his own encounter with the past. Thanks to the Get It Write folks; the original link is at the bottom.

***

Dachau Will Always Be With Us

by Tony Hays

This is not so much a post about writing as one about a writer’s education, about one of those experiences that molds us, shapes us into storytellers. I read yesterday the story of Joseph Corbsie, whose father, a World War II veteran, left him with a special legacy from the war, from the hideous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. I feel a particular kinship with Mr. Corbsie.

My father, Robert Hays, was the son of an alcoholic tenant farmer in rural west Tennessee. If the appellation “dirt poor” fit anyone, it fit my grandfather’s family. Daddy served in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 30s. He and my mother, who was in the woman’s equivalent of the CCC, working as a nurse’s aide at Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee, met on a blind date in early 1940 and married in September of that year.

But just over a year later, Pearl Harbor happened. America was in the war. My father was among the first of those drafted in 1942. I won’t bore you with the details, but he participated in the North African, Salerno, Anzio, and southern France invasions, saved by the luck of the draw from Normandy. But they slogged through France and on to Germany. On April 29, 1945, Allied troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp. I don’t know whether he entered Dachau that day or the next, but that he was there within hours of the liberation is beyond dispute. A few months later, after more than three years overseas, he came home.

In later years, he would talk occasionally about the war, providing anecdotes that showed the chaos and random chance of battle. He spoke of driving through Kasserine Pass in North Africa just hours before the Germans killed thousands of Allied troops in a stunning attack. He spoke of a friend, defending his position from a foxhole, who was thought dead after an artillery shell landed right next to him. When the dust cleared, the friend was buried up to his neck in dirt, but did not have a scratch on him. He spoke often of Anzio, where he was wounded, and of the massive German air assaults on those soldiers clinging to that tiny sliver of beach along the Italian coast.

But he never spoke of Dachau.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945. USHMM.

 

Ever.

When he died in 1981, we found a photo in his wallet. An old sepia-toned shot like others he had taken during the war, pictures that he kept in an old brown bag. But this one was different.

It showed a pile of naked bodies. Well, really more skeletons than not, with their skin stretched pitifully over their bones. On the back, as had been his habit, was typed simply “Dachau.”

I was confused. Why would he keep this one photo in his wallet all of those years? Especially a photo of a place and event that he never spoke about. It obviously had some deeper meaning for him than the other photographs. If it had been a shot of the building he was in when he was wounded (hit by an artillery shell), I could have seen that. A reminder of his closest brush with death. Yeah, I could buy that. But this macabre photo? That, I couldn’t see.

So, for the next fifteen years, I remained puzzled.

Until the fall of 1996. I was working in Poland, and I had some time off. I took an overnight bus from Katowice, Poland to Munich. It was an interesting trip all in itself. We sat in a line of buses at midnight on the Polish/German border, waiting for our turn to cross, next to a cemetery, as if in some Cold War spy movie. I remember passing Nuremburg and thinking that my father had been there at the end of the war. And then there was Munich.

I spent a day or two wandering through the streets, drinking beer in the Marienplatz. I’m a historical novelist, so the short trip out to Dachau was a no-brainer. Of course it was as much my father’s connection with it as anything else that spurred the visit. But I’m not sure that I was completely aware of that at the time.

Dachau literally sits just on the outskirts of the Munich metropolitan area. I looked at the sign on the train station with a sadness, wondering for how many people that had been one of the last things they saw. It was only later that I discovered there had been another depot for those passengers.

The Dachau Memorial is a place of deep emotion. In the camp proper, mostly all that are left are the foundations of the barracks. One has been reconstructed to give an idea of how horrible life must have been. The camp was originally intended to hold 6,000 inmates; when the Allies liberated Dachau in 1945, they found 30,000. The museum and exhibits are primarily in the old maintenance building. I looked with awe at life size photos of prisoners machine gunned, their hands torn to ribbons from the barbed wire they had tried to climb in a futile attempt at escape.

I followed the visitors (I can’t call them tourists) north to where you crossed over into the crematorium area. It was there that the full brunt of what had taken place at Dachau really hit me. A simple brick complex, it seemed so peaceful on the fall day that I stood before it. But as I read the plaques and consulted my guidebook, as I stepped through the door and actually saw the “shower” rooms where the prisoners were gassed, as I stared into the open doors of the ovens, I felt a rage unlike any I had ever known consume me.
Covering my eyes, embarrassed at the tears, I slipped back outside. It took more than a few minutes to regain my composure. I thought then that I understood why my father kept that photo close to him for so long. It was a reminder of what one group of people had done to another group of fellow humans. The obscenity of it had overwhelmed him as it had me.

That night, I went to the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich, to wash the images of the ovens away with some beer. I hadn’t been there long when an elderly American couple sat at the table. They were from Florida, a pleasant couple. He had been a young lieutenant in the American army on the push into Munich. In fact, it had been his pleasure to liberate the Hofbrauhaus from the Germans.

Of course, I asked the question. “Were you at Dachau?”

He didn’t answer for several seconds, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes as his wife’s hand covered his and squeezed. Finally, he nodded, reached into a back pocket and pulled out his wallet.

With a flick of his wrist, a photo, just as wrinkled, just as bent, as the one my father had carried landed on the table. It wasn’t the same scene, but one just like it.

Here was my chance, the opportunity to ask the question I had never been able to ask my father. I pulled the photo from my own wallet and lay it next to his. “Why? Why have you carried it so long? To remind you of the horror of Dachau, of what had been done here?”

His face carried the faintest of smiles as he shook his head. “No, son, to remind us of the horrors that we are capable of, to remind us not to go down that road again.”

The difference was subtle, but in that moment, I learned two lessons invaluable to a writer, subtle differences are important, and when you want to know the truth, go to the source.

As I sit here now and look at that same photograph, I realize that it was my father’s legacy to me, of Dachau. Joe Corbsie’s father left him something more tangible, a reminder of the same thing for the same reason, but more forcefully stated — a tiny box of human ash from the ovens.

Now, nearly 70 years after that day in 1945, Dachau is still with us, and I hope the legacy left by our fathers always will be.

 

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

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

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

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

 

At Eleven fifty-five.

Return to the Place of Liberation, April 13, 1945, after 65 years.

                                                                                    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly the heavy car doors were opened.

Living and dead overflowed into the surrounding green meadow.

Was it a dream or a delayed awakening of God?

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

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

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

Only few words escaped to the blowing wind:

‘Soon…Now…..To the chimneys of death…I gave new life….to my children…. and this day… my grandchildren were born… to a good life.

Amen and Amen’.

Yaakov Barzilai.

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

בְּאַחַת עֶשְׂרֵה חֲמִשִּׁים וְחָמֵשׁ

 

שִׁיבָה לִמְקוֹם הַשִּׁחְרוּר בִּ 13 בְּאַפְּרִיל 1945

                     כַּעֲבֹר 65 שָׁנָה

הָרַכֶּבֶת עָצְרָה מִתַּחַת לַגִּבְעָה

נוֹשֶׁפֶת וְנוֹהֶמֶת

כְּמִי שֶׁהִגִּיעַ לְסוֹף דַּרְכּוֹ

קַטָּר זָקֵן גָּרַר קְרוֹנוֹת יְשָׁנִים

שֶׁאָבַד עֲלֵיהֶם כֶּלַח,

לֹא רְאוּיִים אֲפִלּוּ לִמְגוּרֵי סוּסִים.

מִי שֶׁהִזְדַּמֵּן לַסְּבִיבָה

הֶאֱמִין שֶׁנִּקְלַע לְבֵית חֲרֹשֶׁת לְסֵרָחוֹן

אַלְפַּיִם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת רָאשֵׁי בָּקָר מַסְרִיחִים

שֶׁנּוֹעֲדוּ לִשְׁחִיטָה

נִדְחְסוּ לַקְּרוֹנוֹת

כָּל הַפַּרְפַּרִים בַּסְּבִיבָה הִתְעַוְרוּ

מִסֵּרָחוֹן מַדְמִיעַ.

חֲמִשָּׁה יָמִים נָסְעָה הָרַכֶּבֶת הָלוֹךְ וַחֲזֹר

בֵּין בֶּרְגֶן-בֶּלְזֶן לְשׁוּם מָקוֹם

בַּיּוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי, בֹּקֶר חָדָשׁ זָרַח מֵעָלֵינוּ.

בְּבַת אַחַת נִפְתְחוּ הַדְּלָתוֹת הַכְּבֵדוֹת שֶׁל הַקְּרוֹנוֹת

חַיִּים וּמֵתִים נִשְׁפְּכוּ בְּיַחַד

אֶל הַיָּרֹק הַמִּשְׁתּוֹלֵל בַּשָּׂדוֹת.

 

הַאִם הָיָה זֶה חֲלוֹם

אוֹ הַצָּתָה מְאֻחֶרֶת שֶׁל אֱלֹהִים?

כְּשֶׁזִּהִינוּ אֶת סֵמֶל הַצָּבָא הַאָמֶרִיקָאִי,

כִּנְשׁוּכֵי עַקְרָב שָׁעֲטְנוּ בְּמַעֲלֵה הַגִּבְעָה

לְנַשֵּׁק אֶת שַׁרְשְׁרָאוֹת הַטַּנְקִים

וְלַחֲנֹק אֶת הַחַיָּלִים מֵרֹב אַהֲבָה.

מִישֶׁהוּ צָעַק: “אַל תַּאֲמִינוּ זֶה רַק חֲלוֹם”

וּכְשֶׁצָּבַטְנוּ אֶת עָצַמְנוּ

כָּאָב לָנוּ בֶּאֱמֶת.

גַּם אִמָּא טִפְּסָה אֶל גִּבְעַת הַנִּצָּחוֹן

הִיא עָמְדָה בְּתוֹךְ שָׂדֶה שֶׁל פְּרָחִים וְהִתְפַּלְּלָה

מִתּוֹךְ הַתְּפִלָּה הַחֲרִישִׁית שֶׁנֶּאֶמְרָה בַּלֵּב

רַק מִלִּים בּוֹדְדוֹת הִסְתַנְנוּ אֶל אֲוִיר הָעוֹלָם:

” וְכָאן… וְעַכְשָׁו… עַל פַּסֵי הָרַכֶּבֶת…

קָרוֹב… לַאֲרֻבּוֹת הַמָּוֶת…נָתַתִּי…

חַיִּים חֲדָשִׁים…לִילָדַי… וְהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה…

נוֹלְדוּ גַּם נְכָדַי… לְחַיִּים טוֹבִים…

אָמֵן… וְאָמֵן…                                                                     יעקב ברזילי

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Friday the 13th. Today is the 70th anniversary, to the day.

This account comes to me from a survivor’s son who lives in Hungary. He had read of Carrol Walsh’s passing on the internet and contacted me. It is Carrol who is commanding one of these tanks. Sgt. George Gross commanded the other, and took photographs.

I just came across this website . My father was on this train.
He passed away twenty years ago, in April 1992.

Here is an excerpt from his memoirs about his liberation day.
—————————————————-

Translation from my father’s Memoirs pp. 302-304.
————————————————-

The day of April 13 1945 was a Friday and a sunny and windy day. In the morning, the SS opened the doors of the freight cars, after they had argued with each other whether they should kill us with their submachine guns. But the US troops were too close.

——————————————————————-

Perhaps it was an older SS man who prevented our execution. Later that day, a Jewish woman, who had been his lover in the camp, saved him from becoming a prisoner of war or worse. She got him civilian clothes, I do not know how. The same woman became the lover of an American soldier later.
——————————————————————

Several hundred people wrapped in rags streamed through the open doors, if they could be called people at all. We were all mere skeletons.

The train was idling in a deepening, so I climbed uphill, across a road and to a field. I was pulling out potatoes planted on the field, when a motorcycle approached. It was a motorcycle with a side-car. There was an elegant SS or Nazi leader in the front: I could not decide, since he was wearing a mixture of uniform and civilian clothes. It must have been his wife sitting behind him and his child in the side-car. He pulled over and offered me a cigarette. I told him I did not smoke, so he closed his silver-looking cigarette-case and started the engine.
He seemed to hesitate about the direction he should take.

Prisoner taken. Photo by tank commander George C Gross, April, 1945.

Prisoner taken. Photo by tank commander George C Gross, April, 1945.

Then two small American tanks arrived. I was standing in the middle of the road, and noticed that the American soldier leaning out of the turret of one of the tanks aimed his gun at me.
The tank came closer and closer, and the soldier lowered his submachine gun. I must have looked terrible, so he did not take me for an enemy. I was lucky he had not shot me from the distance, since my small coat and boots vaguely resembled a military uniform. Lice were crawling all over my clothes and skin.

The few hundred former inhabitants of the concentration camp surrounded the tanks right away. Suddenly somebody remembered that the SS guarding us were still in the carriages. The SS were caught quickly, and lined up. The “intrepid” SS were trembling so heavily that their pants were flapping.

The first thing a Jewish woman asked from the soldier leaning out from the tank was money, and she received a dollar bill. She must have established her future with this dollar.

My attention was drawn to something else: in the rear of the tank there was a box of canned food. I climbed under the tank, emerged at its end, and pulled out a can. It turned out that I stole a can of oranges. This was my luck. I ate the potatoes charred in the can with the oranges, and probably this combination saved my life. Everyone who ate meat or anything greasy died within hours or within one or two days at the latest.

I felt fever in my body, undressed completely naked in front of staring women, and went into the ice-cold water of the lake next to the railroad. People warned me not to do this, but I went into the water, felt good, felt that I got rid of the lice and the burning heat of the fever. When I put on my rags again, I felt the fever ever stronger.

I asked an American soldier to sign the photo of my fiancee (I still have this photo). To my surprise, he signed the name Churchill. I thought he was joking. But he reassured me that his name was really Churchill.

(Once I read about a father named Churchill, who went to see his son’s grave in Vietnam during that war. The report mentioned that the father had been a soldier in World War II. He must have been my Churchill)

In the evening, there were news that we should flee, because the Germans pushed back the Americans. The Germans would massacre us for sure, the women had pulled out material for parachutes from a carriage in order to make clothes.

I was already so weak that I did not care whether the returning Germans would kill me: I stayed in one of the carriages, and fell asleep.

On Saturday, April 14, German peasant [horse-drawn] carts came for us by some order, so I was carried to Hillersleben. I dragged myself to the first floor of the first building, it looked like an office building, lay down under the sink of the bathroom, and fell asleep.

I am sure the American soldiers had no idea who we were and what we went through.

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First published in 2013. I am off to the last survivors/liberators reunion in Nashville Tennessee, this weekend.

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