Posts Tagged ‘Holocaust survivor-liberator reunion’

April 17th. (1945)

Dear Chaplain;-

Haven’t written you in many months now, its funny how a few moments are so hard to find in which to write a letter way past due; it’s much easier to keep putting it off the way I’ve done. I’ll try to make up for it in this letter.

Today I saw a sight that’s impossible to describe, however I’ll try. Between 2400 and 3000 German refugees were overran by my division during our last operation; most of them were, or had been, inmates of concentration camps, their crimes the usual ones, – Jewish parentage, political differences with der Fuhrer, lack of sympathy for the SS, or just plain bad luck. Not one of these hundreds could walk one mile and survive; they had been packed on a train whose normal capacity was perhaps four or five hundred, and had been left there days without food.

Our division military government unit took charge of them, and immediately saw what a huge job it was going to be, so they sent out a call for help. Several of our officers went out to help them organize the camp they were setting up for them. The situation was extremely ticklish we soon learned; no one could smoke as it started a riot when the refugees saw the cigarette, and we couldn’t give the kiddies anything or they would have been trampled to death in the rush that would result when anything resembling food was displayed. The only nourishment they were capable of eating was soup; now the army doesn’t issue any of the Heinz’s 57 varieties, so we watered down C-ration[s] and it served quite well.  It was necessary to use force to make the people stay in line in order to serve them. They had no will power left, only the characteristics of beasts.

A few weeks of decent food will change them into a semblance of normal human beings; with God willing the plague of disease that was already underway, will be diverted; but I’m wondering what the affect of their ordeal they have been through, will be on their minds; most will carry scars for the rest of their days for the beatings that they were given. No other single thing had convinced me as this experience has that Germany isn’t fit to survive as a nation. I’ll never forget today.

I was going to write mother tonight but thought better of it. I’ll be in a better frame of mind tomorrow. I’m only a few dozen miles from Berlin right now, and its hard to realize the end is in sight. I’m always glad to receive your scandal sheet. You perhaps missed your calling, as your editorial abilities are quite plain.

As ever,


March 11th, 2009

Dear Mr. Rozell:

My father-in-law was 1st. Lt. Charles M. Kincaid. He was a Liason Officer with the 30th. Division Artillery.  He was honored with an Air Medal in the battle of Mortain and a Bronze Medal in the battle of St. Lo.  In the battle of Mortain he won his Air Medal by calling in artillery adjustments while flying in a Piper L-4 over 4 panzer divisions on August 9, 1944.

first-lt-chuck-kincaid-sept-1944He rarely wrote home. He did write home to his minister about one event that evidently really caused him to stop and think. Attached is a copy of that letter that his sister transcribed – making copies for others to read.  The letter describes the Farsleben train and his experience there.

I need to thank you for your website and work. You and your students work enabled me to connect the letter with the actual historical event. It further enabled me to show my children the pictures and to make their Grandfather’s experience real, not just an old letter – that this event so affected him that he needed to tell his minister before he told his mother.

Thank you,
Mark A.

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A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me. Not weighty tomes, but maybe a picture and a note from the diary.

Bergen Belsen on July 5, 2013.

Bergen Belsen on July 5, 2013.

“Belsen! I think they had been in Belsen.”

On July 5, 2013, we are on our way from the hotel in nearly Celle to this destination. Our first concentration camp of the tour.

Trying to remember the name of the concentration camp, the elderly gentleman exclaimed these words as he animated his story from the rocking chair across from me. I was in his daughter’s house on a brilliant July day, twelve summers before. It seems like a lifetime ago. But if I had not taken the time to go there and sit down with him, you would not be reading any of this.

People, mostly news media, get the story wrong all the time.  I had not invited the veteran to class because I had had his grandson. It was a series of coincidences that changed so many lives, but then again, I am sure there are no coincidences.

Is it a coincidence that I am making my first trip to Belsen on the day that he is being laid to rest in his hometown back in New York state? Or that by 8pm I will be traveling on the same spur of tracks toward Magdeburg, on which the Sherman light tank he was commanding sixty-eight springs ago came to the train with 2500 Jewish victims of the Holocaust onboard?

I was picking my young children up from daycare. I knew Tim, the other father there at the same time, picking up his young son. I had his older son in class at the time. Tim knew I liked to talk to World War II veterans, and he invited me to come over and speak to his father in law, a retired NYS Supreme Court justice, who was coming up to stay for the summer. So I took him up on it. What a great man, funny too. We conversed on tape for nearly two hours, and I was about to turn the camera off, and his daughter, Tim’s wife Elizabeth, spoke up:

Daughter: Did you mention the train at all? That was kind of interesting.
CW: No, I didn’t tell him about the train.
MR: What was that?
CW: Well, late in the war, again a nice, beautiful April day… we were shooting like crazy across the top of Germany and Major Benjamin of the 743rd was kind of out ahead scouting a little bit… he came back to the battalion and he pulled my tank and George Gross’s tank [fellow tank commander] out. He told us to go with him. So we did.
We came to a place where there was a long train of boxcars. … I can remember pulling up alongside the train of boxcars, Gross and I, and Major Benjamin. As it turned out, it was a train full of concentration camp victims, prisoners, who were being transported from one of their camps…Belsen!  I think they had been in Belsen, on their way to another camp…
So there they were. All of these people, men, women, children, jam-packed in those boxcars, I couldn’t believe my eyes. And there they were! So, now they knew they were free, they were liberated. That was a nice, nice thing. I was there for a while that afternoon. You know, you got to feed these people. Give them water. They are in bad shape. Major Benjamin took some pictures, and George Gross took some pictures too…

 Bernd Horstmann, Custodian of the Book of Names,  Matthew Rozell, History Teacher, July 5, 2013. Bergen Belsen, Evacuation transports exhibit.

Bernd Horstmann, Custodian of the Book of Names, Matthew Rozell, History Teacher, July 5, 2013. Bergen Belsen, Evacuation transports exhibit.

Twelve years later and here I am. I know some of the historians who work here-they have been to America to meet me- and I am going to see an exhibit that in fact incorporates some of the fruits of my labors. To date, we have reunited over 240 persons who were on that transport with the soldiers who liberated them. And I found the photographs that tell the story so well, photos that through the generosity of the soldiers who shared them with me, are now also in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, our national institution.

In brief context: 120,000 prisoners passed through Bergen Belsen, and not all of them Jewish. 52,000 died here, perhaps 30,000 of them were Jewish. Belsen actually began as a POW camp- 20,000 Russians died here in the winter of 1941-42. In 1943, Himmler (the head of the SS) ordered that an exchange camp be set up for Jews who might possess foreign certificates or visas to emigrate, perhaps to use to bargain for German families interned abroad. 14,000 people went through the exchange camp. In November, 1944, thousands of women, and some children, arrived from Auschwitz, to be “housed” near the exchange camp, including Anne Frank and her sister Margot. What they received, in their miserable condition, were 18 oversized old tents which promptly blew down during a winter storm shortly after their arrival. With the arrival also of brutal SS administrators and guards, conditions deteriorated rapidly as the winter of 1944-45 turned into spring.

The camp system began collapsing with the advance of the Red Army in the east and the British and Americans in the West. By the time the British arrived on April 15th at the camp gates, over 50,000 prisoners were suffering from extreme malnutrition, typhus, typhoid fever, and dysentery. Nearly ten thousand corpses lay about as the crematorium had long since broken down. Anne and Margot were dead, as the first Yanks crossed the Rhine River at the end of March. Hundreds died on the day of liberation. A true scene of horror.

Shortly before the liberation, between April 6 and 9, 1945, 6700 men, women, and children from the exchange camp passed through the camp gates and marched several kilometers to the railhead that many had arrived at months or years earlier. Three train transports of cattle cars and shabby passenger cars were prepared and loaded. Some people were executed for attempting to steal sugar beets at the railhead .
The transports would be headed for the Theresienstadt concentration camp, which at the time was far enough from advancing Allied lines and indeed would prove to be the last camp liberated on the last day of the war (I will trace that route later in our journey). Only one train made it there. The other two were liberated, one by the Americans at Farsleben near Magdeburg, and the other by the Russians near Tröbitz.
The first train left Bergen-Belsen on 6 April 1945 and travelled for six days before coming to a stop near the village of Farsleben. It was this transport that the soldiers I interviewed came upon on Friday, April 13, 1945.

I promised no weighty tomes, but maybe it is too late. After an introduction to the history of the site, we  watch the silent movies shot by the British beginning the second day after the liberation. Perhaps you’ve seen the photos or the films.  If you see a photo of a soldier wearing a mask, maneuvering a bulldozer to push corpses into an open pit, that was Bergen Belsen. Just over a month later, the British commander ordered the lice infested, typhus ridden barracks put to the torch. So today, to some visitors, there is nothing here, just inviting walkways with interpretive signage and some markers. Woods, and open fields.

Matthew Rozell and the ruins at Belsen, 7-5-2013. Jerrilyn Miller photo.

Matthew Rozell and the ruins at Belsen, 7-5-2013. Jerrilyn Miller photo.

But on closer inspection, we see the outlines of the past in the ruins. We walk to barracks ten of the exchange camp. You can see the outline at the woodline. Some of the foundation stones are marked with the names of those who passed through them. We retrace the steps from the barracks to the latrine, now many meters away off a footpath in the enveloping woods. Nature reclaims. Out of the corner of my eye, down the long narrow strip mowed to infinity where a fenceline once ran, I see a large deer guide out of the woods, pause and look my way, and vanish just as soon as it appeared. Is it obscene to find in this place now a feeling of inner peace, to find beauty in the stillness of a grey afternoon? Maybe so.

DSC00490Back out to the camp. The solemn monuments marking the mass graves. 1000 Tote. One thousand dead. 2500 Tote. Two thousand five hundred dead. And on and on, elevated mass graves. On to the commemoration room.

Candles are lit, stones are placed, the prayers are recited in Hebrew and English, led by Pauline, the only other New Yorker on the trip with me. We are all moved.

Now I think of Carrol Walsh, the tank commander who led me to this story, the liberator who did not want to be called a hero, or even a liberator. His own memorial service is today, half a world away, but I am here in this place to remember him as well. It is altogether fitting and proper. And I am sure that cosmically, it is also something destined to be.

This evening we depart from Hannover to Berlin. It is pretty crazy and unsettling at the Friday evening platform. 27 people have to run for the train, as the track has changed, with hundreds of others. Our original seats are taken, so we have to find other due to a mixup. But we do not lose anyone, and as I settle in next to a kind stranger, made welcome, I notice our station stops along the way- Brunswick. Magdeburg.

This was not planned, either. We are roughly following the route of the train, and the 30th Infantry Division in 1945. What take us 35 minutes to cover, takes 6 nights and 7 days in April 1945.

We tripped the wires of the cosmos. Today was the culmination of something incredible I am still trying to figure it all out- but this trip is helping me to place in proper context the elements of the greatest crime in the history of the world. As we leave this place of obscene beauty and peace, I think of  the I think of  the survivor’s words:

Remember Me.




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Matthew Rozell, Stephen Barry, National DOR Ceremony, Washington, DC April 2010. This photo was taken the day after the 65th anniversary of Steve's liberation in April 1945. We had just been honored by the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum before the national ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

Matthew Rozell, Stephen Barry, National DOR Ceremony, Washington, DC April 2010. This photo was taken the day after the 65th anniversary of Steve’s liberation in April 1945. We had just been honored by the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum before the national ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

So, the ripples continue. Somebody said it was like pebbles being tossed into the still water. This may sound strange, but I am keenly aware of the cosmic element. We tripped the wires of the cosmos.

~”It’s not for my sake, it’s for the sake of humanity, that they will remember”~

I got a nice email  recently. My friend Steve Barry was honored Tuesday evening at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Steve’s daughters wanted me to know that his family made a donation in his name and set up two fellowships for scholars at the USHMM in the Stephen B. Barry Memorial Fellowship. His girls mentioned me in their speech Tuesday night in Washington. Thanks ladies. You know he was a hero. He reached out and touched an awful lot of students in the short time that we were together.

Steve will be one of the persons who will be featured in my book. Against all the odds he survived the Holocaust and later even went on to become a US Army Ranger in the Korean War! I was pretty close to him. Right now I am wistfully looking at his homemade holiday greeting cards under my desk glass, and to my left, a foot away, are the shelves containing his Holocaust library, which was passed on to me after he passed away. He was so funny, too.  He told me he nearly “choked on my bagel” a few years back when he opened his newspaper in Florida and read about me and the train he had been looking for, for so many years!

I miss the guy. You can read more about him here.


Steve's name on the wall of donors, USHMM, unveiled April 29, 2014.

Steve’s name on the wall of donors, USHMM, unveiled April 29, 2014.

The inscription kind of says it all. He uttered these words in my very classroom on a Thursday morning to a film crew from New York City, aimed at the 1500 students that he and the other survivors and American soldier/liberators had come to address. That Friday evening of our big soldier/survivor reunion, we watched it together on national news before our final banquet.

You can see the video at the bottom-he’s the one in the preview addressing the interviewer- but the transcript is below.


Diane Sawyer: And finally tonight, our Persons of the Week. It is a story that began almost 65 years ago in the darkest days of World War II. Yet this week, a new chapter unfolded. An unforgettable reunion of Holocaust survivors, and the American troops who freed them, and all made possible by a high school history class.

Matthew Rozell: This is history coming alive.
Veteran 1, entering school with his wife: Here we are, we have arrived!
Matthew Rozell: This is walking, talking, living history. They’re (the students) shaking hands with the past…

Diane Sawyer: It was 2001 when high school history teacher Matt Rozell decided to begin an oral history project. He and his students would just interview family members in the small town of Hudson Falls, New York, to capture fading stories of World War II.
Interviewer (soldier’s daughter): Did you mention the train [to Mr. Rozell] at all before?
Carrol Walsh, former soldier: No I didn’t tell him about the train.

Diane Sawyer: The students unearthed a forgotten crossroads in history. (Gunfire, archival film footage) Near the very end of World War II, April 13th, 1945, the American 30th Infantry Division was pushing its way into central Germany.
Carrol Walsh: We came to a place where there was a long train, of boxcars.

Diane Sawyer: They found a train, holding nearly 2,500 emaciated Jewish prisoners, many just children, being moved from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, to another camp and certain death. Their German guards had just abandoned them, fleeing the Americans.

Carrol Walsh: A feeling of helplessness. What are we going to do with all these people?
Frank Towers, former soldier: We had never ever seen anything so, (pauses) filthy.

Diane Sawyer: The American soldiers fed the prisoners, and brought them to safety.

Stephen Barry: For 42 years I collected anything that I could to try to find any article regarding the train. It just didn’t exist!

Diane Sawyer: But Mr. Rozell’s class put their interviews with veterans up on a website, along with these photographs taken by the American soldiers.

George Gross: Just very courageous people, little girls who with big smiles on their faces, one of them with their arms out, just aware that the Americans are there. [camera pans over 1945 liberation photograph]

Diane Sawyer: Out there on the web, Holocaust survivors all around the world began to notice.

Stephen Barry: I mean, how many people have a picture of their moment of liberation forever? [camera pans over 1945 liberation photograph]

(students and veterans and survivors singing “The Star Spangled Banner”)

Diane Sawyer: A reunion of the survivors and their liberators took place this week at Hudson Falls High School.

Emily Murphy, student: When they speak to us, you can’t say that you feel how they felt. But you get the feeling, you feel like you were there.

Diane Sawyer: In an age where there are still those who deny the Holocaust ever existed, these survivors say they are the living proof.

Stephen Barry: It’s not for my sake, it’s for the sake of humanity, that they will remember.

Diane Sawyer: And so we choose history teacher Matt Rozell, his class, the Holocaust survivors of that train, and the American soldiers who kept them and their story alive. And that is World News for this Friday. I am Diane Sawyer, and from all of us at ABC News, we hope you have a great weekend.

And here is a link to the 2014 United States Days of Remembrance Capitol Ceremony. Steve’s daughters and granddaughters are in the back row!


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Cover of After Action Report for April 1945.

Cover of After Action Report for April 1945.

Today is the 69th anniversary of the liberation of the train near Magdeburg. How fitting it was/is falling at Passover time.

Emails and greetings are flying back and forth through the liberator/survivor network that we created.  Liberator Frank Towers always sends a message on this anniversary to the survivors.

From my one of my survivor friends:

Hello to all of you ‘my twins’ on our 69th birthday and to those who fought to give back our lives. Like the years before, there are no words enough to express our thanks to them.

How appropriate is this year for us who celebrate Seder to read, as an addition to the Hagaddah, Frank Towers’ beautiful greetings remembering OUR liberation from not just slavery but certain death.

Here is the opening of my new article. You can see the rest in the previous post.

Blessings to all on this reflective occasion.




With the end of the war in sight, a startling encounter takes place between Jewish victims of the Holocaust and American combat troops who have survived nine months of grueling combat across Northern France, Belgium, Holland and now Germany. In 2001, interviews conducted by a high school history teacher and his class paved the way for several joyful reunions between the survivors and their American soldier liberators over sixty years later.


The photograph  is striking.

Query the word “train” and Holocaust” in an image search and the results returned generally show victims being deported to killing centers.

This is the opposite.Matthew Rozell

It is a cool spring morning. In the background, down the hill, are two cattle cars. At the opening of the sliding doors on one of the cars we can see a figure sitting on the edge, perhaps too weak to climb out yet soaking up some energy from the warming April sun. In front of him, a wisp of smoke seems to rise from a small makeshift fire that others have gathered around.

This is an appropriate backdrop for the drama unfolding in the foreground. Trudging up the hill toward the photographer, now only a few steps away, are a mother and her young daughter. The mother has her hair wrapped in a scarf and is clutching the hand of the girl with her right hand. Her left hand is extended outward as if in greeting; her face is turning into a half smile in a mixture of astonishment and enveloping joy, as if she is on the cusp of accepting the belief that she and her daughter have just been saved.

The little girl is shooting a sideways glance away from the camera. Her expression is one of distress- she looks terrified. On this morning in Germany in 1945, she may very well be responding to the two Sherman tanks that are now clanking up to the train, behind the photographer who is in the jeep with the white star.

Following the mother and daughter up the hill towards the soldiers are two other women. One welcomes the tanks with outstretched arms and a wide grin as she moves up the hill. The other follows behind her. She appears to be crying.

It is Friday, the 13th of April, 1945. Led by their major scouting in a jeep, Tanks 12 and 13 of the 743rd Tank Battalion of the U.S. Army have just liberated a train transport with thousands of sick and emaciated victims of the Holocaust. Major Clarence L. Benjamin snaps a photograph, which will be inserted into his official report back to headquarters.

But what have they stumbled upon? Where have these people come from?

And what do the soldiers do now?


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PRISM SPR. 2014 I’ve had an article published in the Spring 2014 edition of PRISM: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators, an “internationally renowned, annual, peer-reviewed journal” published by the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education of Yeshiva University of New York, reaching readers in 35 countries and in all 50 American states. It is important to me to set the record straight and allow others the opportunity to read how this  history unfolded.

“In preserving and investigating the history, in interviewing liberators and Holocaust survivors, and in working with museums and memorial sites, Mr. Rozell and his students are also creating new knowledge, the highest form of academic achievement. Most importantly, in studying about the Holocaust, he and his students are also helping to rescue the evidence that can help stem the rising and dangerous tide of denial before it is too late.”

You can read the full edition here. The article appears on page 94. Obviously space did not allow for the full story to be told but that will come out in the book, so if it appears that a supporter, survivor or liberator friend has been left out, that is not the  real case. As always, thanks for your support, and thanks to editor Dr. Karen Shawn for recognizing the significance and the potential.

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Matthew Rozell, 30th Infantry Veterans of WWII, Holocaust survivors at Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, March 2, 2012.

Matthew Rozell, 30th Infantry Veterans of WWII, Holocaust survivors at Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, March 2, 2012.

Have you ever been to a reunion of folks who have been annually meeting one another, every year, for nearly 70 years?

Where the main participants had their youths forged in the steel of battle, and come together annually to remind themselves of what it was all about?

I have been honored and privileged to attend six such reunions with the veterans of the 30th Infantry Division of World War II.

To sit with these men, and their wives and family members and hear their stories, and chuckle as they josh with each other, or to shed a tear at the memorial service for the ones who were lost, is an incredible experience.

What has made it even more profound, over the last few years, has been the inclusion of the Holocaust survivors that they saved, and their extended families who would not be here today, if not for their efforts, at these gatherings. And add a Medal of Honor recipient, one of the few surviving from World War II, for good measure.

Worthwhile? I had a 94 year old veteran grab me by the arm a couple years back, and he said to me, after listening to me and the survivors of the Holocaust speak, “Now I know what I fought for.”

This year, the reunion is unfolding as I write this in Savannah, Georgia, with the gracious hosts Carol Thompson and Jack Sullivan and his wife Stella, the children of one of the soldiers who served in the 118th Artillery.  Unfortunately I am snowed in up north, digging out under 18 inches. I’ve included my greetings to the gathering below as they meet on the 69th anniversary of the end of World War II. Next year is the 70th and I really hope that they meet again and that I can be there. As the letter indicates, they helped to send me to Europe this summer as well. Here is a PDF of what I saw.

Matthew Rozell

February 14, 2014


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A Conversation with Rona Arato, author of THE LAST TRAIN: A HOLOCAUST STORY

By Sharon Salluzzo

In The Last Train, Rona Arato deftly tells her husband Paul’s remembrances of his life between April 1944 and November 1945. Paul was five years old when he, his ten-year-old brother, Oscar, and their mother (his father had already been taken away to a work camp) were taken from their home and forced into a ghetto, put in boxcars and taken to a farm in Austria, and finally to Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp. In April 1945, Paul and his family were again put in boxcars. American soldiers, who were in combat at the time, liberated the train near Farsleben, Germany. The physical and psychological horrors endured by Paul make a very strong impact. Rona lets the events carry the book.

But the story doesn’t end there. In September 2009, Hudson Falls, NY history teacher, Matt Rozell, held a Holocaust Symposium and a reunion for the train survivors and the soldiers who liberated the train. They spoke with students, and with one another. It was a time of great emotion, constantly moving between sorrow and joy. I am so glad that Rona included Paul’s remarks to the students in her book. I was fortunate to be in the audience at the symposium, and I will never forget listening to Paul as he spoke. I grew up having seen a photograph that Paul waited sixty years to see. My father was one of the U.S. soldiers who liberated the train. I sat next to Rona at dinner that last night of the reunion. She said she wanted to write Paul’s story. Four years later it has now been published. I am delighted to share a conversation I recently had with her.

Sharon: What kind of preparation did you have to do in order to write THE LAST TRAIN?

Rona: I often tell people that when I married Paul, I married the Holocaust. While it was at the symposium at Hudson Falls High School that I became determined to write Paul’s story, I have been accumulating information and background since our marriage. To get a better understanding of his background, I interviewed Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoa Visual History Foundation between 1994 and 1998. Paul had applied for family reparations after the War, and I read the outlines. Occasionally, he would tell me some of his experiences. In the late 1970s or early 80s, he and I visited Karcag, Hungary, Paul’s hometown. It was still under Communist control and very much the way it was when Paul lived there. The roads were mud. Some of the people were still pumping their water from the community well. I was able to get a feeling for his life and what they had been through. Writing this book was an emotional journey but also a fascinating journey. I heard the testimony of other train survivors during the symposium. One of them, Leslie Meisels, had worked with Paul for years before they discovered they were both on that train. Isn’t that an amazing coincidence? Of course I was doing research through books and online websites right up to publication. In fact, I had to call my editor and say “Stop the presses!” as I discovered a key fact. We had thought that these Hungarian Jews were rounded up and sent off by Nazi SS guards. Paul and I learned that it was actually Hungarian Gendarmes under SS troops who were sent by Adolf Eichmann. Paul said to me, “No wonder I could understand them. They were speaking Hungarian.” The end papers of the book are a copy of the transport page from the Bergen Belsen Memorial in Germany. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum checked facts for me. And my editor was wonderful in telling me where I needed to fill in background information.

Sharon: Paul has his sixth birthday during this time. How do you get into the mind of a six-year-old boy who is held in a Nazi Concentration Camp?

Rona: While Paul’s childhood in Hungary and mine in the United States were very different, the timeframe was the same. It was easy for me to go back to what it was like growing up in the 1940s. I have a good imagination and can close my eyes and remember what it felt like to be that age. In addition, my grandchildren are young, and I am able to observe them and their reactions to situations.

Sharon: There are a number of photographs, including Paul’s parents as a young married couple, and Paul’s nursery school picture. How were these preserved?

Rona: Their house in Hungary was bombed, so there were no pictures left there after the war. Some photos were sent to Paul’s uncle in Cleveland. After the war, almost every town made a Yizkor book – Yizkor is the Hebrew word for memorial. These books chronicle the history of the town, the Jews who lived there before the war and list those who did not return. Paul’s nursery school picture comes from the Karcag book. When Paul and I visited Karcag, we photographed the water pump and the Synagogue. Some of the photos in the book were taken by the soldiers on the days the train and the camp were liberated. Did you know that the photograph of the woman and her daughter emerging from the death train is now on a list of the 40 most iconic Jewish pictures?

Sharon: That is amazing, Rona, because until a few years ago, it was known to only the soldiers who liberated the train. My Dad kept it in his top dresser drawer. When he told his story to (history teacher) Matt Rozell, Matt put it on his website. The Internet has been a powerful tool in spreading this story.


Rona: That was how we learned about the work Matt Rozell was doing. My son read an article on the Internet about the train and sent it to me. I gave it to Paul who recognized it as the train he had been on. We contacted Matt who said he was organizing a symposium at Hudson Falls High School. It was there that Paul and your Dad (Carrol Walsh) met. I included that wonderful picture of Paul and your Dad embracing right after Paul said, “Give me a hug. You saved my life!”

Sharon: Not only is it a great picture of Paul and Dad, but it captures the feeling of all the survivors who had spent a lifetime searching for the soldiers who saved them.

Sharon: How did you approach the actual writing and selection of words and language?

Rona: I wrote the story in English, not Hungarian, but I wrote in a way they might have spoken. I tried to use the vernacular of the time. We don’t have a record of their exact words but we do know how they would have spoken, and what they were feeling at the time. When I have included Hungarian or Yiddish words, I have included explanations for them. Writers always need to listen to how people speak.

Sharon: THE LAST TRAIN recounts historical events for which you have created dialogue between characters. How would you classify this book?

Rona: I would call it creative nonfiction, or fictionalized nonfiction. The events that happened to Paul are all true. Occasionally, I needed a bridge between incidents or to show the passage of time. When I created a scene, I discussed it with Paul for authenticity. For example, I included a scene in which Paul sights the return of the storks, and has a conversation with his mother. I needed something to create a sense of time and place, and what they were feeling in the absence of Paul’s father. When Paul told me there were storks that returned every spring, I knew I had found the bridge I needed. My intention was to recreate the history. To bring the reader along, the writer needs to show the drama of the events.

Sharon: There are many heart-stopping scenes: when Paul is confronted, nose-to-snout with the ferocious German Shepherd dogs; when he is separated from his mother and brother at the train station; when he sneaks through Bergen Belsen to visit his uncle; and, of course, when the SS guard shoots the boy standing next to Paul.

Rona: I was not going to include that last event. I thought it was too strong for my audience. I was telling my editor about it, and he insisted that I include it. He said it was important to tell exactly what happened.

Sharon: What did Paul think of the way you portray him?

Rona: When he first read it he said, “You are making me look like a bratty little kid.” I responded, “Well, you were!” But what I actually meant by that is he acted like a typical 5 or 6 year-old in that he was terrified. But his own distinctive personality also shows through where he was both feisty and stubborn. These were important traits to have.

Sharon: Why did you include the reunion in the book?

Rona: The reunion was approximately 60 years after their liberation. It was, without a doubt, one of the most amazing shared experiences of my life. The powerful feelings shared by the soldiers and survivors radiated to their families and to the students at the high school. They were reunited because a high school history teacher interviewed a soldier and the information was put on his website. For the survivors and soldiers to share this experience with the students is so important. These students will share what they heard with their children. They are the ones who will pass along what happened. It was a life changing experience for everyone involved.

Sharon: What has surprised you most about the publication of THE LAST TRAIN?

Rona: That the audience goes beyond middle school and high school. Their parents and other adults are reading the book and responding.

Sharon: What would you like to see children and adults take away from this book?

Rona: This is a universal story of survival. I want my readers to see how this family and their extended family took care of each other and watched over each other. Paul’s mother was suffering with typhus and her young sons literally propped her up at roll call so the soldiers would not see how ill she was. Oscar became a father figure for Paul. He told Paul to stand up straight and not to cry. In the camps you don’t break down. I want my readers to be able to say, “Thank God I have the right to show my emotions. It’s okay to be a kid.”

Sharon: Thank you for speaking with me today. Paul’s family returned to Hungary, but life changed tremendously. He eventually came to Canada. Is there another book here?

Rona: There very well could be! It was not easy getting out of Communist Hungary.

The Last Train offers so much in terms of discussion points. It makes a huge impact in its 142 pages. It would be a great introduction to a study of the Holocaust for high school students. It is also accessible for 10 year-year-olds. Adults will truly understand the importance of both parts of this story. Of course there are the general topics of World War II and the Holocaust but there are also topics of bullying, physical and psychological fears, strength and courage, mother-child relationship, sibling relationship, family and friendship, defining a hero, the impact of a photograph, and hope. It is a story of captivity and deliverance; a story of new-found friendships, deep respect and a sense of inner peace discovered sixty years beyond the events of World War II.


Rona’s presentation on THE LAST TRAIN includes a Power Point display including original photographs. It is suitable for children nine and up as well as adults. For more information about Rona Arato, her books and her presentations, visit www.ronaarato.com.

To book Rona for a visit, go to www.childrenslit.com/bookingservice/arato-rona

If, after reading The Last Train, you would like more information about the train to Magdeburg and the Hudson Falls High School symposium, please go to Matt Rozell’s site: https://teachinghistorymatters.com/. By the way, train survivors are still contacting Matt from all around the world. Frank Towers, the lieutenant who oversaw the liberation, has made it his life’s work to locate any remaining survivors. To date, about 350 have been found.

found at http://www.clcd.com/features/th_Rona_Arato_Final.php

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Francis Curry, WWII Medal of Honor, with students.

Francis Curry, WWII Medal of Honor, with students.

FOUR years ago today the most incredible week concluded with former soldiers and the Holocaust survivors they saved watching this newscast together in cocktail lounge of the Georgian Resort in Lake George along with teachers and students from Hudson Falls High School. Thank you Tara, Mary, Lisa, Rene, and all the staff. And to ABC World News for recognizing the importance of the occasion, and to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Bergen Belsen Memorial for their attendance and support.

A teacher’s job is to toss pebbles. Several of the participants are gone now, but the ripples here became huge, and no one will forget what they meant, where they came from, or what they have led to.

Watch a story about how a teacher fellow from the Museum reunited Jewish prisoners with U.S. Army soldiers who liberated them from a train near Magdeburg, Germany, on April 13, 1945.

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I met Leslie Meisels exactly four years ago today, when he and  Ariela Rojek and Paul Arato drove all the way down from Toronto, Canada to meet their actual liberators.

Leslie is one of the most gracious men I have ever met; I am honored to have him as one of my friends and am proud to be in on what he calls the latest miracle of his life.

I wrote to a reporter/columnist in Toronto, Canada, several months back to comment on a story that she had written, and she then had the opportunity to interview several of my survivor friends in the community who had been liberated on the Train Near Magdeburg. She struck up a friendship with Leslie, and this ebook resulted.

A sample:

When I first reached Leslie Meisels on the phone one afternoon in late April and asked for an interview, he told me to hold on a minute — he needed to get his day planner.

I thought he was joking.

Leslie is 86. What could he possibly be doing to fill up a day planner?

A lot, it turns out.

He has a wife, two daughters, four grandchildren. He is an active member of the North York Philatelic Society and a committee member of Circle of Care, an organization that provides services for Holocaust survivors. And he is a regular speaker with the Holocaust Education Centre’s survivor speakers bureau. This spring there were weeks when he addressed four different groups of students about his experience during World War II.

This was one of those weeks. He squeezed me in. I wanted to talk to him about the Holocaust and, more precisely, about his liberation from the Nazi murderers by a dozen surprised American soldiers who found Leslie and about 2,500 other captives near the end of the war, packed in cattle cars on a German train.

An email from an American teacher had tipped me off to the fact that a number of Toronto Holocaust survivors had recently been reunited with their liberators.

Leslie was one of them.

Of course, you can’t talk about liberation without talking first about enslavement. So, sitting on the couch of the neat, spacious penthouse condominium he shares with his wife, Eva, in Thornhill, Leslie started proudly with his family history in eastern Hungary.

Then came his carefree childhood. Then the introduction of anti-Semitic laws, the ghetto, the trains, the months of slave labour and the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where more than 70,000 prisoners — most of them Jews — were killed.

Our interview lasted more than three hours, fueled by many cups of coffee and servings of fresh cheese palacsintas (crêpes) whipped up by Eva.

I noticed Leslie’s hands while we spoke. They are enormous — each finger twice as thick as mine, the palms like dinner plates. They are a working man’s hands, without any of the dirt. Everything about Leslie is immaculate — his neatly clipped and cleaned fingernails, his ironed pants and pressed dress shirt with a silver pen poking from its breast pocket, his freshly shaven face. His stories of being treated like a rabid dog were cast in relief by the careful pride he took in his appearance. There is an Old World elegance about him.

But the thing that struck me most about Leslie was his cheeky humour. His brown eyes narrowed and sparkled repeatedly as he took a “side step” to tell me about the girl he was “necking” with while a slave labourer or a refugee. Despite the horrors he endured, or perhaps because of them, Leslie maintained his champagne spirit.

Near the end of the interview, a question bubbled in my mind: what did you take with you? The Nazis had invaded Hungary in 1944. They ordered all the Jews in Leslie’s and other towns to first leave their homes, and then to leave town altogether on a train we now know was headed towards slavery or murder. What would you take if you could carry only a small bag or pillowcase to hold your belongings?

“Underwear,” Leslie responded, “and my stamp collection.”

I wrote that down and moved on. There were a lot of overpowering details in Leslie’s stories, and I still needed to hear about the reunion. But the stamps snagged my attention. There was a boyish innocence about them.

What happened to those stamps, I asked him over the phone a couple days later.

He responded: “I still have them. My mother sewed them into the lining of my jacket.”

Imagine that! Most Jews had all their clothing and belongings stripped away upon entering the concentration camps. You can see their boot brushes, ceramic pots and dolls piled up behind glass cases in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland. That Leslie managed to keep his jacket was surprising enough. But that fragile pieces of paper survived the horrendous conditions — well,that seemed miraculous.

I drove back to their condominium for a third interview, this one in Leslie and Eva’s little office. I asked to see some of those stamps.

So Leslie pulled out his master list — a two-page typewritten list of all the stamp albums he has. There are dozens and dozens. He found one with his early Hungarian stamps and pulled it down from the shelf. Inside he’d arranged thousands of stamps in neat rows.

When I expressed surprise at the number of stamps he had, he smiled and opened a drawer in his desk.

“A crazy stamp collector saves all the stamps he comes across,” he said, pulling out a Tupperware container brimming with stamps. “When there are many, many, many, he bundles them up . . . and stores them away. I have millions of stamps.”

Leslie’s wife calls herself a “stamp widow.” She says he spends hours with his stamps a day. He loves them still, like he did when he started his collection 78 years ago. He loves the precision of arranging them. He loves the challenge of collecting a full set of stamps. He loves their colours and their stories. Every stamp, he says, depicts a story of a place, a historic moment or figure, a cause. “You can learn about the world through stamps,” he said.

As we flipped through his collection and he began to tell me the rest of his story, I could see snatches of it reflected in his stamps.

It is the tale not just of an idyllic childhood followed by the horrors of the Holocaust, but also that of a man who lived under Communism, escaped, lived for two years in a refugee camp, arrived in North America with nothing and then built up his life for a second time. Just as every stamp embodies a public story, a bit of history, Leslie’s stamps also tell the story of his life, its joys and deep sorrows, its disasters and its miracles.


He is giving his 25th lecture on the Holocaust since April.

“Put yourself in my shoes,” he says to the Cardinal Carter Catholic High School students. “I think you are between 16 and 18, right? You can feel what I felt when I experienced those horrors.”

“They have to know,” Leslie says. “Otherwise, it will be forgotten and could be repeated.”

He talks for just over an hour, pausing only twice for a sip of water.

The stories pour out of him — of the deaf village elder who was strung up by his wrists to a cattle car, of the SS guards with their dogs who laughed at the sight of him naked with his grandmother and mother, of the hunger. He stirs in life lessons — like how his woodworking knowledge saved his life in Bergen-Belsen. “You are the same age as I was,” he says. “Never think you are studying for your teachers or your parents. Whatever you are putting in your head, you never know how it will serve you in life.”

But Leslie’s descriptions are muted at times. He clutters his sentences with clauses and chooses math over graphic detail to describe some horrors. The train crowding, for instance, affords each person a “square foot.” He mentions the bucket but doesn’t fill in the details of how that meant people were forced to defecate in their pants. He is old-school; talk like that seems degrading. Or perhaps the pungent details are too dangerous for him, scratching away the protective layers on his memories.

A girl in a powder-blue sweatshirt in the second-last row appears to have fallen asleep.

Is he getting through to them? Like most Holocaust survivors,

Leslie won’t be around to recount these stories for much longer. That inescapable truth adds an urgency to his message. Who then will bear witness?

Holocaust survivor Leslie Meisels, left, signs a program for Hudson Falls senior Taylor Bump during Wednesday's "Remembering the Holocaust, Repairing the World" event. Meisels, who currently lives in Toronto, stressed the importance of relaying his experience to young people "so they remember and fight against discrimination, hatred and injustice." Jason McKibben Glens Falls Post Star

Holocaust survivor Leslie Meisels, left, signs a program for Hudson Falls senior Taylor Bump during Wednesday’s “Remembering the Holocaust, Repairing the World” event. Meisels, who currently lives in Toronto, stressed the importance of relaying his experience to young people “so they remember and fight against discrimination, hatred and injustice.”
Jason McKibben Glens Falls Post Star

He finishes his talk and asks for questions. The girl in the powder- blue sweatshirt from the back asks two. The second one is: “If you could go back, would you change any decisions you made?” She was listening, just with her eyes closed. Holocaust educator Ruth Ekstein says she often sees that — “the most fidgety kids you want to strangle, they are absorbing the most.” The content is so painful, it forces people to scratch and shuffle, or to close their eyes.

“Never allow this to happen to someone in the future, if you see an injustice,” Leslie tells the group. “Never just look at each other as equals. Treat each other as equals.”


The last miracle

In 2001, Matt Rozell went to the home of one of his students in Hudson Falls, N.Y. Rozell is a high school history teacher there. He regularly assigned his Grade 10 students to interview the veterans in their family about World War II as a way to bring history alive.

That summer, he decided he would do the interviewing himself.

The veteran was retired New York State Supreme Court Justice Carrol Walsh Jr.

After two hours, when the interview was ending, Walsh’s daughter elbowed him and said, “Did you mention the train at all?”

“What?” Walsh said.

“The train.”

So Rozell asked to hear about this train, whatever it was.

Walsh told him about the beautiful, sunny day in April 1945, when after 10 months of fighting their way through France, Belgium,and Holland, and into Germany, his tank and his buddy George Gross’s tank were pulled out of the battalion to check out an abandoned train. An army scout had come across some Finnish prisoners of war in bad condition who reported they had escaped ,the train and that it was packed with prisoners.

Rozell posted the moving interview, as well as Gross’s astonishing photos from that day, on the school’s oral history website, where it sat quietly for four years.

That is, until a grandmother from Australia contacted him to ,say she had been a little girl on that train. The next month he got another email, and another, and another.

In September 2007, Rozell hosted the first reunion of Walsh and three survivors from that train. An Associated Press reporter wrote a story about the day-long event which was published around the world.

Paul Arato’s son Daniel read the story on the Internet. Arato was the 5-year-old boy who witnessed the birthday “present” of a bullet to the head in the Bergen-Belsen roll call. He was also a ,Hungarian Jew who grew up not far from Leslie. He, too, escaped Hungary in 1956 and resettled in Canada. An industrial designer, he was a work associate of Leslie. At the end of a business meeting, the topic of the Holocaust somehow came up. They discovered, to their shock, that they had both been on that train from Bergen-

Belsen. Paul, in turn, told Leslie about the Hudson Falls reunion.

Two years later, they both ventured down to Hudson Falls for a second reunion — a three-day symposium that brought together nine survivors and seven soldiers, including two of their liberators

— Frank Towers and Carrol Walsh.

On the drive down, Leslie was very excited. The initial meeting, over dinner, was spectacular.

“No words can explain the feeling of shaking hands, hugging, laughing and crying with the people who gave me back my life on April 13,” he says. “I never ever imagined that would happen.”

He calls the veterans “angels of my life.” They, in turn, said they were just doing their job.

Leslie and Walsh became close friends. They talked regularly on the phone. They spent some time together in Florida, before Walsh died last winter at the age of 91.

Leslie calls that friendship the last miracle of his life.

Leslie’s 17-year-old granddaughter, Jessica, visited Auschwitz last spring while participating in the two-week educational trip March of the Living. She left behind a small, hand-written sign that said: “I am marching in honour of my grandparents Eva and Leslie Meisels. As well as a soldier, Carrol Walsh.”


Leslie's StampsLeslie’s Stamps: A Saga of the Holocaust and Escape to Freedom

He had an idyllic childhood in a small Hungarian town where, it seemed, there was no animosity between the Christian majority and Jews like him. But with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, everything changed for Leslie Meisels, who ended up in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with his family. Through his wartime ordeals, Leslie carried his stamp collection, started when he was 8, in the lining of his jacket. In Leslie’s Stamps: A Saga of the Holocaust and Escape to Freedom, award-winning Toronto Star columnist Catherine Porter tells the dramatic story of Leslie’s life through his stamps. It is a tale of love, courage and the power of the human spirit.

Leslie’s Stamps: A Saga of the Holocaust and Escape to Freedom is available for $2.99 at http://starstore.ca/collections/star-dispatches-ereads/products/leslies-stamps and itunes.com/stardispatches.

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World War II infantry veteran Carrol Walsh, top, hugs Holocaust survivor Paul Arato at a reunion in Queensbury, N.Y., on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009. Walsh’s unit liberated a Nazi train carrying 2,500 Jewish prisoners, including Arato, from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany during the war’s waning days. (AP Photo/Tim Roske)

I am reposting this today to honor both of the men below. Paul Arato passed away this week in Toronto, Canada and his memorial service is today. Carrol Walsh, his liberator, died in Dec. at his home in Florida and his memorial service was last Friday in New York.

Paul and Rona would also check in annually for dinner with the Walsh family when they passed through our town. The last time I saw both of them together was in 2011 at one of these dinners in a local restaurant. They sat together and laughed and joked like old pals. Paul told the story of how he arrived in Detroit after the war as an eager late teen anxious to find work designing fast cars in the automobile industry and was driven to the bridge in Canada by law enforcement and pointed to the bridge to Canada, as he did not have the proper documentation. Picturing the scene in his mind, Carrol would laughed outloud and slapped his knee. Both men were so happy to have found each other.

Rest on, friends.

Holocaust Survivors Reunite With US Veterans

NY high school reunites Holocaust survivors liberated from Nazi death train by US soldiers


The Associated Press


The Holocaust survivor was 6 on that spring day in 1945 when he last saw the U.S. Army soldiers outside Magdeburg, Germany.

Paul Arato was among 2,500 starving and sickly Jewish prisoners from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, their train abandoned by its crew and Nazi guards as Allied forces advanced. Two U.S. Army tanks on a scouting patrol — one of them commanded by Carrol Walsh, then 24 — came upon the stopped boxcars.

Arato, now 71, and Walsh, 88, met again this week.

“Please give me a hug. You saved my life,” Arato told Walsh in an emotional reunion of concentration camp survivors and some of the veterans of the 30th Infantry Division who liberated them.

Arato, an industrial designer from Toronto, and Walsh, a retired state Supreme Court judge from Hudson Falls, came together for a Hudson Falls High School history symposium inspired by history teacher Matthew Rozell’s original World War II project in 2007.

“You were all kids on that train,” Walsh told the survivors, most of them in their early 70s, as they and their families greeted the veteran. “I was an old man. I was 24 years old!”

Those arriving early for Wednesday’s opening session gathered Tuesday night for an impromptu reunion before having dinner surrounded by the faux Adirondack decor of the nearly deserted indoor water park. Four of the five Nazi train survivors at the dinner had never met Walsh.

Walsh’s tank patrol discovered the desperate Bergen-Belsen survivors on April 13 — hundreds of emaciated Jewish prisoners who had been herded aboard one of three trains leaving the camp a week earlier to keep them from being liberated by advancing Allied forces.

Walsh’s patrol stayed for a time, handing out candy to some of the children, then moved on after reporting their discovery. Frank Towers, a 27-year-old first lieutenant in the 30th Division, led a convoy that took the newly liberated prisoners to a German town where they were given food and shelter.

For weeks, the men of the 30th had heard of Nazi atrocities against Jews and dismissed the stories as propaganda, Towers said. That all changed when they encountered the train.

“Then we believed,” said Towers, 93, of Brooker, Fla.

This week’s reunion is the fourth since 2007, when Walsh was joined by three of the train survivors at Hudson Falls High. History teacher Rozell’s World War II project included an Internet posting of Walsh’s account of the train liberation.

An Associated Press report of that first reunion prompted more survivors to come forward, some from as far away as Israel, Rozell said. In all, he has confirmed that more than 60 survivors are still living and has been in contact with about two dozen of them.

Nine survivors of the Nazi death train are participating in this symposium, along with Walsh, Towers and four other veterans of the 30th who fought in Germany. Rozell said this week’s gathering is likely to be the last such event of its scope, given the advanced ages of the veterans and survivors.

For Arato, Tuesday night’s reunion with Walsh brought back a flood of memories. He recalled getting candy from one of the soldiers and a handgun to play with.

“I remember it was a Tootsie Roll,” he said. “The gun wasn’t loaded.”

Arato fretted over one detail. He recalled seeing a Jeep along with the American tanks, but fellow survivor Fred Spiegel of Howell, N.J., didn’t remember seeing a third vehicle. Later, Walsh said his patrol consisted of two tanks — and a Jeep.

“There WAS a Jeep,” Arato said, a smile breaking out on his face. “I remembered it right.”


On the Net:

Hudson Falls High School World War II Living History Project: http://www.hfcsd.org/ww2



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