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Posts Tagged ‘Holocaust’


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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George Gross, former tank commander in Company D of the 743rd Tank Battalion, died ten years ago today. In his declining years before he died, I was able to bring him much joy in introducing him to several of the children he saved. He sent me the photographs, and wanted me to tell his story.  And I brought him together again with his old Army buddy, Red Walsh.  So I am re-posting this today on the 10th anniversary of Dr. Gross’ death.
Where does the time go? He lived a good life, and at the end, got to see the results of his actions six decades before.
We are all traveling our own roads. Days like this, I like to stop and ponder what it all means. I’m glad that I had a small role to play in his life.
george-gross-1945

~George C. Gross, 1922-2009~

Yesterday my son turned 11. And at about 11 pm yesterday on the West Coast, Dr. Gross died at home with his family around him.

I just found out. More than anyone else, he is the one responsible for this website and the hundreds of lives changed because of it.

You see, he took the photo that you may not really notice in the heading above, along with 9 other photographs that forever imprint the evidence not only of man’s inhumanity to man, but of the affirmation, hope and promise of mankind. It was he who wrote the prose that led me to the survivors, and vice versa. And it was he who cultivated a deep friendship with me via his wonderful writings and telephone conversation. How amazed and happy he seemed to be to hear from all the survivors.

In the summer of 2001, I did an interview with his comrade in arms, army buddy Carrol Walsh. Judge Walsh put me in touch with Dr. Gross. If you go back through the archives you know the rest of the story. It has changed my life and the lives of my students in that we are now trying to rescue the evidence, the testimony of the Holocaust and the World War Two veterans, for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And today I received in the mail a bulletin from this Museum, reaffirming the mission that Dr. Gross had everything to do with setting me on.

He came into my life during a dark time for me- we had just lost our father (who thankfully, like Dr. Gross, passed on from his own bed at home), and our mother was battling the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, or dementia, or whatever that nightmare was called…. we began a conversation that has yielded so much fruit.

Lately, I knew he wasn’t well. I actually had looked into flights across the country before Christmas for my son and I to pay a visit, but we just couldn’t seem to swing it financially, with Christmas bills coming in and holiday fares going up. My back up plan, in my head, was to go out in February, when fares were half the cost… Well, February arrived yesterday and now it is too late, I never got to shake the hand of a man who helped reshape my own life, and the lives of so many others.

His 8×10 liberation photos are mounted in the front of my classroom, with his captions for all to see. So I see George and just one of the noteworthy products of his life, everyday. The captions that he wrote for each are mounted below each print, a testament to his humanity and to his graciousness.

I know it is selfish to feel so bad about the fact that I was not able to literally reach out and touch him. I’m just so damned disappointed.  Right now it’s another dark day for Matt, but I am comforted that he was surely welcomed by his beloved wife, parents, and maybe even my folks as well.

From his statement read at the occasion of the first reunion, September 14th, 2007.

Sincere greetings to all of you gathered at this celebration of the indomitable spirit of mankind!

Greetings first to all the admirable survivors of the train near Magdeburg, and our thanks to you for proving Hitler wrong. You did not vanish from the face of the earth as he and his evil followers planned, but rather your survived, and grew, and became successful and contributing members of free countries, and you are adding your share of free offspring to those free societies.

You have vowed that the world will never forget the horrors of the Holocaust, and you spread the message by giving interviews, visiting schools, writing memoirs, and publishing powerful books on the evil that infected Nazi Germany and threatens still to infect the world. I am enriched by the friendship of such courageous people who somehow have maintained a healthy sense of humor and a desire to serve through all the evils inflicted upon you.

Greetings also to the dedicated teacher whose efforts have brought us all together through the classes he has taught on World War 2 and the web site he maintains at the cost of hours of time not easily found in his duty as a high school teacher. I know that several of you found your quest for knowledge of your past rewarded by the interviews and pictures Matt Rozell and his classes have gathered and maintained. Selfishly, I am grateful to Mr. Rozell for leading several of you to me, bringing added joy to my retiring years.

Greetings also to all the faculty, staff, students, parents, and friends of the school at which this important gathering takes place. Thank you for your interest in the survivors of the Holocaust and their message.

And special greetings also to my old Army buddy, Judge Carrol Walsh, and his great family. Carrol fought many battles beside me, saved my life and sanity, and resuscitated my sense of humor often. We had just finished a grueling three weeks of fighting across Germany, moving twenty or more hours per day, rushing on to reach the Elbe River. Carrol and I were again side by side as we came up to the train with Major Benjamin, chased the remaining German guards away, and declared the train and its captives free members of society under the protection of the United States Army as represented by two light tanks.

Unfortunately, Carrol was soon ordered back to the column on its way to Magdeburg while, luckily for me, I was assigned to stay overnight with the train, to let any stray German soldiers know that it was part of the free world and not to be bothered again.

Carrol missed much heartbreaking and heartwarming experience as I met the people of the train. I was shocked to see the half-starved bodies of young children and their mothers and old men—all sent by the Nazis on their way to extermination.

I was honored to shake the hands of the large numbers who spontaneously lined up in orderly single file to introduce themselves and greet me in a ritual that seemed to satisfy their need to declare their return to honored membership in the free society of humanity.

I was heartbroken that I could do nothing to satisfy their need for food that night, but I was assured that other units were taking care of that and the problem of housing so many free people.

Sixty years later, I was pleased to hear that the Army did well in caring for their new colleagues in the battle for freedom. I saw many mothers protecting their little ones as best they could, and pushing them out, as proud mothers will, to be photographed. I was surprised and please by the smiles I saw on so many young faces.

Some of you have found yourselves among those pictured children, and you have proved that you still have those smiles. I was terribly upset at the proof of man’s inhumanity to man, but I was profoundly uplifted by the dignity and courage shown by you indomitable survivors. I have since been further rewarded to learn what successful, giving lives you have lived since April 13, 1945.

I wish I could be with you in person at this celebration, as I am with you in spirit. I hope you enjoy meeting each other and getting to know Matt Rozell and Carrol Walsh. I look forward to seeing again my friends whom I have met and to meeting the rest of you either in person or by E-mail. My experience at the train was rich and moving, and it has remained so, locked quietly in my heart until sixty years later, when the appearance of you survivors began to brighten up a sedate retirement.

You have blessed me, friends, and I thank you deeply. May your lives, in turn, bring you the great blessings you so richly deserve.

Fondly yours,

George C. Gross

September, 2007

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Memorial to Warsaw Uprising

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which marks the anniversary of the largest single uprising against German oppression of the Jews, which occurred in Warsaw in 1943. It is important to note, however that resistance to evil manifested in many different forms, not just physical ‘pushback’, as I was reminded on my Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers Program tour in 2013. As the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is now upon us, I share this post, an excerpt from my recent book, also recounting the narrative of a fourteen year old Jewish resistance fighter who was told she had to leave the ghetto by her leaders, so that she might live to remember them and tell this story.

*****

As 1943 dawned, the SS returned to the ghetto for another major deportation. They encountered the first armed resistance from the ghetto fighters and beat a hasty retreat, leaving behind wounded and weapons, and calling off the operation. For the next three months, the ghetto fighters organized and prepared for the final struggle. On the eve of Passover, April 19th, the Germans returned again, this time with the aim of liquidating the ghetto once and for all, in time for Hitler’s birthday on the 20th. By then, there were between 300-350 active fighters; the young were now the real leaders of the ghetto, having decided not between life and death, but rather, how to die.* Aliza recorded her observations of the preparations for the final battle they all knew was coming.

Jews captured by SS and SD troops during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising are forced to leave their shelter and march to the Umschlagplatz for deportation.  from the notorious Stroop Report. USHMM.

Aliza Melamed Vitis–Shomron

Spring, 1943

As spring approached, the atmosphere in the reduced ghetto changed. We waited for the final ‘aktion’, for the final extermination of the Jews of Warsaw’. People began to build bunkers. Experts turned up, engineers who built bunkers with electric light, in wells and toilets. Most of the bunkers were dug in cellars. There were various ways to enter the bunkers from the ground floor: by raising a cover in the kitchen stove or through an opening in the large stove attached to the wall, or in many other strange ways, according to the fertile imagination of the builders. The ghetto was preparing for a struggle.

March passed, and April came. Talk about the approaching final liquidation of the ghetto intensified. The ghetto was fully aware of it and prepared. It was the calm before the storm, suffused with energy and tension. Frequent shots near the ghetto and sudden evening searches by the SS command cars heralded what was to come. Sending off the people working for Töbens and Schultz factory workshops to Poniatow and Travniki* caused apprehension, even though they had gone of their own free will. If they are sending out the workers, what will happen to all the rest? The companies of the SS General Globocnik *, in charge of extermination, again arrived in Warsaw.

The only possibility left is to escape to the Aryan side, to dress up as a Pole and look for acquaintances or people willing to hide Jews in exchange for money. For a few thousand zloty, one could get a Polish birth certificate and a ration card. People handed over their children to Christian clerics, to monasteries and to peasants in the villages. Sacks were thrown over the walls daily and openly, at least on our side. People paid bribes to the foremen of the work crews to be able to join them going out to work on the Aryan side. Some of them did not look Jewish and were lucky enough to find ‘good’ Poles. Women dyed and oxidized their hair, and created curls by rolling their hair in pieces of paper, to look like blonde gentile girls. But they could not change the color of their eyes, or their dejected and pallid look. A Jew could also be picked out by his hesitant walk, his bent back, and his eyes constantly darting around him. We were so preoccupied by our aspiration to look like ‘goyim’ that we examined ourselves and others: Does that man look like a Jew? Will they recognize him in the street?

Of course, a new profession cropped up among the simple Polish people, with many demanding a bribe, or being paid to be an informer, a blackmailer. We were deeply disappointed; we thought that as witnesses of our tragedy, our compatriots, sharing the same language and culture, they would hold out a hand to save us. But it did not happen. A few of them hid Jews for large sums of money; these were mostly people connected to socialist activities and the left wing parties. Many devout Christians and religious scholars did so without taking money, out of true nobility of spirit. Many others, from among the simple folk, made a living by informing on Jews to the Gestapo, and collaborated willingly out of pure antisemitism. They walked around in the streets close to the ghetto, spied by the gates and the places where Jews worked on the Aryan side and looked for victims. Thousands made a living in this way.

*

The state of our family grew worse. We began to suffer from hunger. There were no clothes left to sell, we lived on the food we had received in the workshop, distributed by the Germans.

Aliza’s family decided to split up to increase chances of survival. Her more ‘Aryan-looking’ mother and younger sister, with a great deal of bribery, subterfuge, and nerves of steel, went into hiding on the Aryan side. Her father decided to take the chance and volunteer to go to the work camp near Lublin. Aliza herself wanted to stay and fight in the ghetto, but now only fourteen she was deemed too young and directed by the leadership of the resistance to make her way to the Aryan side as well, to live to tell the story. 

Aliza’s cousin stayed in the ghetto to fight the Germans. For three days, the resistance fought on, against impossible odds. It was weeks before the ghetto was overcome; there were few survivors.

Lazar

In the morning, we heard dull sounds of firing and explosions. In another house, in Swentojerska Street 34, the Z.O.B. had their positions. People from the organization told us about a mine they had detonated when the Germans decided to penetrate into our area; about battles leaving ten Germans dead; about a ‘peace delegation’ of SS officers who came with a white flag asking for an armistice to pick up their wounded, and how they fired at them at once. The fighters were elated, exhausted—but looked happy.

The battle in most of the houses in that area lasted two days. They ran from house to house. The leader of the group was the commander Marek Edelman. Dozens of fighters took part in the battle; some of them were killed. They went out at night to try to make contact with their friends. They told us that the battle inside the ghetto was still going on, that the fighters had delayed the entry of the tanks and set fire to them with homemade Molotov bottles. They were stationed at windows and changed their positions by moving across the rooftops. We in the shelters decided to open fire only when they discovered us. We made up our minds to defend our families to the end, not let them take us to Treblinka.

On the third day, fighting also broke out in the area of the workshops of Töbens and Schultz. At the last moment many people preferred to move to the Poniatow camp. In the meantime, the Germans began to set fire to the houses. On the second day of the uprising, the fighters told us about fires in the ghetto. We sat in the crowded shelter, praying that they wouldn’t get to us. We had expected the worst, but not fires. The people in the shelter said goodbye to each other. We were in despair, expecting certain death. We could already smell the smoke. Someone came from the neighboring house; people were fleeing from adjacent houses. There were no Germans around. After a night full of dread, just before dawn, we did hear German voices in the courtyard. They were calling to the Jews to come out at once, or else they’d burn us alive.

The artillery was constantly firing incendiary bombs. Whole blocks of houses were on fire. The shelter was not damaged, but the water stopped running. The electricity went out. The walls of the shelter became unbearably hot, smoke penetrated the cellar. We sat there, coughing, wrapped up in wet sheets. People wept, dragged themselves to the courtyard with the last vestige of strength. We had no choice, we would defend ourselves in the yard. The men cleared the opening and gave the order—‘wrap yourselves up in sheets soaked in the remnants of water, lie in the middle of the courtyard, in the garden.’

The yard is full of people, smoke covers everything, the top floors are in flames, the fire is running wild without any interference, parts of walls are collapsing and falling into the yard. People lying on the ground are groaning with pain…

Suddenly, we hear German voices in the street. God! We thought it was all over, that they’ve left us here. What shall we do? Several Germans burst in through the gate…

 

Lazar was captured and beaten, but managed to escape deportation, and made it to his cousin’s hiding place on the Aryan side.

 

I saw a different Lazar before me. He used to be arrogant, a show-off. The person sitting here now was thin, withdrawn; he stammered slightly when he spoke. We’ll have to live together in that small room in the cellar. Who knows how long? Until this damned war is over?

The Beginning of May, 1943

They say that the ghetto no longer exists. The wreckage of the houses is still standing; the piles of cinders still crackle, and at night shadowy figures, seeking food and shelter, still move about in there. But the ghetto no longer exists; 500,000 people have gone up in smoke. And those still alive bleed inwardly, their deep wounds will never heal. And maybe there will be no one left when freedom comes? Why are human beings so cruel and evil? They speak about the future, about truth, about Man as proof of God’s great wisdom, and it’s all lies, lies!

I know there are also good people, but they are persecuted; society rejects them as weaklings. Why am I prevented from seeing the wonders of nature and the world, from breathing fresh air?

The full narrative is available here.

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

In 2013 I visited Warsaw, rebuilt; almost nothing remains of the ghetto itself- with slight exceptions.

July 17, 2013

We tour Jewish Warsaw and finally the remnants of the ghetto wall, and also the Umschlagplatz. It is here that forced gatherings for the mass deportations to Treblinka took place. I am also reminded of the scene from the film “The Pianist”.

 

 

 

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

 

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

 

1227

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

We walk the edge of the wall, memorialized in bronze in the sidewalk.

 

 

 

1240

And we come to a section that still stands.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

 

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are hear, listening to their teacher.

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are here, listening to their teacher.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was the first open fight in an occupied city against the Germans. And it was conducted by Jewish youth, who held off the Germans for half a month in the spring of 1943. Utterly inspiring and amazing. We make our way to Mila 18, the bunker command post where Mordechai Anielewicz and many of the resistance fighters breathed their last. It is another solemn moment.

18 Mila Street.

18 Mila Street.

Monument at Mila 18.

Monument at Mila 18.

 

We know why we are here. We are not only witnesses, but we were chosen to become, for many, the point of entry on the immense and sometimes unfathomable subject of the Holocaust, and the many forms of resistance that were taken during it.  And so rightly, our trip is concluding here. The processing will only come over time.

***

* By then, there were between 300-350 fighters- Bauer, Yehuda. ‘Current Issues in Holocaust Education and Research: The Unprecedentedness of the Holocaust in an Age of Genocide.’ Lecture notes, International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel. July 21, 2016.

* Poniatow and Travniki– forced–labor camps for Jews in Lublin District near the concentration camp Majdanek.

* SS General Globocnik –SS and police leader who directed Operation Reinhard between autumn 1941 and summer 1943.

 

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Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I study this photograph,

and so it begins.

Seventy-three Years Later.

The war comes to a devastating conclusion.

The discoveries unfold:

Eyewitness encounters with the most horrific crime in the history of the world.

Battle-hardened tough guys cry.

They stomp their feet in rage, and get sick,

but the lost are lost.

The Survivors ‘carry on’.

The Soldiers ‘carry on’.

Some will be lost for the rest of their lives.

Now, it is Seventy-plus Years.

But it is not over,

because ‘closure’ is a myth,

and seven decades is but a blur.

The barracks door opens slowly. New tracks form in the snow

but how is life supposed to go on?

And now for the rest of humanity-

Just what have we learned,

Or have we just allowed ourselves to forget?

Is it even important, for us to stop and think

about snowflakes on little boys?

*****

-m.a.rozell-

See the Altantic’s photo essay here.

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

Matthew Rozell is a teacher who has studied at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority. His second book,  A Train Near Magdeburg, is on teaching and remembering the Holocaust.

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Memorial to Warsaw Uprising

You have heard a lot from me this week because April is a special month for Holocaust commemoration and remembrance. Besides marking the 1945 anniversary of the liberation of many of the camps, it also marks the anniversary of the largest single uprising against German oppression of the Jews, which occurred in Warsaw in 1943. It is important to note, however that resistance to evil manifested in many different forms, not just physical ‘pushback’, as I was reminded on my Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers Program tour in 2013. As the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is now upon us, I share this post, an excerpt from my recent book, also recounting the narrative of a fourteen year old Jewish resistance fighter who was told she had to leave the ghetto by her leaders, so that she might live to remember them and tell this story.

*****

As 1943 dawned, the SS returned to the ghetto for another major deportation. They encountered the first armed resistance from the ghetto fighters and beat a hasty retreat, leaving behind wounded and weapons, and calling off the operation. For the next three months, the ghetto fighters organized and prepared for the final struggle. On the eve of Passover, April 19th, the Germans returned again, this time with the aim of liquidating the ghetto once and for all, in time for Hitler’s birthday on the 20th. By then, there were between 300-350 active fighters; the young were now the real leaders of the ghetto, having decided not between life and death, but rather, how to die.* Aliza recorded her observations of the preparations for the final battle they all knew was coming.

Jews captured by SS and SD troops during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising are forced to leave their shelter and march to the Umschlagplatz for deportation.  from the notorious Stroop Report. USHMM.

Aliza Melamed Vitis–Shomron

Spring, 1943

As spring approached, the atmosphere in the reduced ghetto changed. We waited for the final ‘aktion’, for the final extermination of the Jews of Warsaw’. People began to build bunkers. Experts turned up, engineers who built bunkers with electric light, in wells and toilets. Most of the bunkers were dug in cellars. There were various ways to enter the bunkers from the ground floor: by raising a cover in the kitchen stove or through an opening in the large stove attached to the wall, or in many other strange ways, according to the fertile imagination of the builders. The ghetto was preparing for a struggle.

March passed, and April came. Talk about the approaching final liquidation of the ghetto intensified. The ghetto was fully aware of it and prepared. It was the calm before the storm, suffused with energy and tension. Frequent shots near the ghetto and sudden evening searches by the SS command cars heralded what was to come. Sending off the people working for Töbens and Schultz factory workshops to Poniatow and Travniki* caused apprehension, even though they had gone of their own free will. If they are sending out the workers, what will happen to all the rest? The companies of the SS General Globocnik *, in charge of extermination, again arrived in Warsaw.

The only possibility left is to escape to the Aryan side, to dress up as a Pole and look for acquaintances or people willing to hide Jews in exchange for money. For a few thousand zloty, one could get a Polish birth certificate and a ration card. People handed over their children to Christian clerics, to monasteries and to peasants in the villages. Sacks were thrown over the walls daily and openly, at least on our side. People paid bribes to the foremen of the work crews to be able to join them going out to work on the Aryan side. Some of them did not look Jewish and were lucky enough to find ‘good’ Poles. Women dyed and oxidized their hair, and created curls by rolling their hair in pieces of paper, to look like blonde gentile girls. But they could not change the color of their eyes, or their dejected and pallid look. A Jew could also be picked out by his hesitant walk, his bent back, and his eyes constantly darting around him. We were so preoccupied by our aspiration to look like ‘goyim’ that we examined ourselves and others: Does that man look like a Jew? Will they recognize him in the street?

Of course, a new profession cropped up among the simple Polish people, with many demanding a bribe, or being paid to be an informer, a blackmailer. We were deeply disappointed; we thought that as witnesses of our tragedy, our compatriots, sharing the same language and culture, they would hold out a hand to save us. But it did not happen. A few of them hid Jews for large sums of money; these were mostly people connected to socialist activities and the left wing parties. Many devout Christians and religious scholars did so without taking money, out of true nobility of spirit. Many others, from among the simple folk, made a living by informing on Jews to the Gestapo, and collaborated willingly out of pure antisemitism. They walked around in the streets close to the ghetto, spied by the gates and the places where Jews worked on the Aryan side and looked for victims. Thousands made a living in this way.

*

The state of our family grew worse. We began to suffer from hunger. There were no clothes left to sell, we lived on the food we had received in the workshop, distributed by the Germans.

Aliza’s family decided to split up to increase chances of survival. Her more ‘Aryan-looking’ mother and younger sister, with a great deal of bribery, subterfuge, and nerves of steel, went into hiding on the Aryan side. Her father decided to take the chance and volunteer to go to the work camp near Lublin. Aliza herself wanted to stay and fight in the ghetto, but now only fourteen she was deemed too young and directed by the leadership of the resistance to make her way to the Aryan side as well, to live to tell the story. 

Aliza’s cousin stayed in the ghetto to fight the Germans. For three days, the resistance fought on, against impossible odds. It was weeks before the ghetto was overcome; there were few survivors.

Lazar

In the morning, we heard dull sounds of firing and explosions. In another house, in Swentojerska Street 34, the Z.O.B. had their positions. People from the organization told us about a mine they had detonated when the Germans decided to penetrate into our area; about battles leaving ten Germans dead; about a ‘peace delegation’ of SS officers who came with a white flag asking for an armistice to pick up their wounded, and how they fired at them at once. The fighters were elated, exhausted—but looked happy.

The battle in most of the houses in that area lasted two days. They ran from house to house. The leader of the group was the commander Marek Edelman. Dozens of fighters took part in the battle; some of them were killed. They went out at night to try to make contact with their friends. They told us that the battle inside the ghetto was still going on, that the fighters had delayed the entry of the tanks and set fire to them with homemade Molotov bottles. They were stationed at windows and changed their positions by moving across the rooftops. We in the shelters decided to open fire only when they discovered us. We made up our minds to defend our families to the end, not let them take us to Treblinka.

On the third day, fighting also broke out in the area of the workshops of Töbens and Schultz. At the last moment many people preferred to move to the Poniatow camp. In the meantime, the Germans began to set fire to the houses. On the second day of the uprising, the fighters told us about fires in the ghetto. We sat in the crowded shelter, praying that they wouldn’t get to us. We had expected the worst, but not fires. The people in the shelter said goodbye to each other. We were in despair, expecting certain death. We could already smell the smoke. Someone came from the neighboring house; people were fleeing from adjacent houses. There were no Germans around. After a night full of dread, just before dawn, we did hear German voices in the courtyard. They were calling to the Jews to come out at once, or else they’d burn us alive.

The artillery was constantly firing incendiary bombs. Whole blocks of houses were on fire. The shelter was not damaged, but the water stopped running. The electricity went out. The walls of the shelter became unbearably hot, smoke penetrated the cellar. We sat there, coughing, wrapped up in wet sheets. People wept, dragged themselves to the courtyard with the last vestige of strength. We had no choice, we would defend ourselves in the yard. The men cleared the opening and gave the order—‘wrap yourselves up in sheets soaked in the remnants of water, lie in the middle of the courtyard, in the garden.’

The yard is full of people, smoke covers everything, the top floors are in flames, the fire is running wild without any interference, parts of walls are collapsing and falling into the yard. People lying on the ground are groaning with pain…

Suddenly, we hear German voices in the street. God! We thought it was all over, that they’ve left us here. What shall we do? Several Germans burst in through the gate…

 

Lazar was captured and beaten, but managed to escape deportation, and made it to his cousin’s hiding place on the Aryan side.

 

I saw a different Lazar before me. He used to be arrogant, a show-off. The person sitting here now was thin, withdrawn; he stammered slightly when he spoke. We’ll have to live together in that small room in the cellar. Who knows how long? Until this damned war is over?

The Beginning of May, 1943

They say that the ghetto no longer exists. The wreckage of the houses is still standing; the piles of cinders still crackle, and at night shadowy figures, seeking food and shelter, still move about in there. But the ghetto no longer exists; 500,000 people have gone up in smoke. And those still alive bleed inwardly, their deep wounds will never heal. And maybe there will be no one left when freedom comes? Why are human beings so cruel and evil? They speak about the future, about truth, about Man as proof of God’s great wisdom, and it’s all lies, lies!

I know there are also good people, but they are persecuted; society rejects them as weaklings. Why am I prevented from seeing the wonders of nature and the world, from breathing fresh air?

The full narrative is available here.

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The full narrative is available here.

In 2013 I visited Warsaw, rebuilt; almost nothing remains of the ghetto itself- with slight exceptions.

July 17, 2013

We tour Jewish Warsaw and finally the remnants of the ghetto wall, and also the Umschlagplatz. It is here that forced gatherings for the mass deportations to Treblinka took place. I am also reminded of the scene from the film “The Pianist”.

 

 

 

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

 

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

 

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The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

We walk the edge of the wall, memorialized in bronze in the sidewalk.

 

 

 

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And we come to a section that still stands.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

 

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are hear, listening to their teacher.

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are here, listening to their teacher.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was the first open fight in an occupied city against the Germans. And it was conducted by Jewish youth, who held off the Germans for half a month in the spring of 1943. Utterly inspiring and amazing. We make our way to Mila 18, the bunker command post where Mordechai Anielewicz and many of the resistance fighters breathed their last. It is another solemn moment.

18 Mila Street.

18 Mila Street.

Monument at Mila 18.

Monument at Mila 18.

 

We know why we are here. We are not only witnesses, but we were chosen to become, for many, the point of entry on the immense and sometimes unfathomable subject of the Holocaust, and the many forms of resistance that were taken during it.  And so rightly, our trip is concluding here. The processing will only come over time.

***

* By then, there were between 300-350 fighters- Bauer, Yehuda. ‘Current Issues in Holocaust Education and Research: The Unprecedentedness of the Holocaust in an Age of Genocide.’ Lecture notes, International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel. July 21, 2016.

* Poniatow and Travniki– forced–labor camps for Jews in Lublin District near the concentration camp Majdanek.

* SS General Globocnik –SS and police leader who directed Operation Reinhard between autumn 1941 and summer 1943.

 

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April 17, 1945, was a Sunday. It was three days after the liberation of the train near Magdeburg, near the Elbe River, just miles from Berlin. War weary GIs had their first encounters with the conditions at the train. They would never forget what they saw.

April 17th. (1945)

Dear Chaplain;-

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

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

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

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

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

As ever,

Charles.

March 11th, 2009

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

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

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

Thank you,
Mark A.

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Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I study this photograph,

and so it begins.

Seventy-two Years Later.

The war comes to a devastating conclusion.

The discoveries unfold:

Eyewitness encounters with the most horrific crime in the history of the world.

Battle-hardened tough guys cry.

They stomp their feet in rage, and get sick,

but the lost are lost.

The Survivors ‘carry on’.

The Soldiers ‘carry on’.

Some will be lost for the rest of their lives.

Now, it is Seventy-plus Years.

But it is not over,

because ‘closure’ is a myth,

and seven decades is but a blur.

The barracks door opens slowly. New tracks form in the snow

but how is life supposed to go on?

And now for the rest of humanity-

Just what have we learned,

Or have we just allowed ourselves to forget?

Is it even important, for us to stop and think

about snowflakes on little boys?

*****

-m.a.rozell-

See the Altantic’s photo essay here.

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Matthew Rozell teaches history at his alma mater in Hudson Falls, New York. His second book,  A Train Near Magdeburg, is on teaching and remembering the Holocaust.

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