Posts Tagged ‘International Holocaust Remembrance Day’

Today we mark the 78th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most notorious of the murderous camps of the Third Reich and its supporters. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. And Majdanek, Belzec, Treblinka, many others. I wrote about my journey in 2016, and continue to learn, lecture, and try to keep the memory alive.

As you probably know, I’ve talked to soldier-liberators and many, many, survivors. This weekend I will be presenting in Orlando Florida; below are the details.

Thanks for remembering with me. Maybe you can join us.

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Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27.

It’s the 74th anniversary of the day that the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was liberated, where more than 1.1 million persons, including some of my friends’ parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters were murdered, while the world went about its business.

A million and a half of those murdered were children, and it’s a reason this quote hits me hard.

It was written by a child survivor of Bergen Belsen, in fact a survivor also of one of the three transports that left Belsen. All three transports were headed to Theresienstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia; the first transport actually made it there. My book focuses on the second transport that was liberated by the Americans. Joseph Polak, now a Boston University professor and rabbi,  was on the third transport, liberated by the Red Army 10 days after that.

I liked the book [After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring, Urim Publications, 2015] on many levels, but I guess that some of the ‘imaginary’ conversations he carries on, struggling to come to grips with ‘what happened’ and the fact that it never really is ‘over’, and that there are many things that need to be discussed with God, appealed to my sense of my own purpose on this earth. ‘Struggling to come to grips’ I don’t think is the right phrase though, it’s more of an eternal processing, or those attempts, and maybe that is the best link I can come up for now.

Anyway, I leave you with the quote and the book link here. An excellent intro is by his good friend, master teacher Elie Weisel.


Angel: The King, whom we entreat on the Day of Judgment to move from the throne of Justice to the throne of Mercy, is no longer very much apparent in the Hall of Judgment, and instead it is the children who sit there, their faces ashen, their hair grey, weeping, weeping, not understanding.

There they inquire of every returning soul – what have you done during your sojourn on earth to avenge our slaughter? How have you restored love and compassion and justice to the world? What have you done to shame the perpetrators? The bystanders? To call them and their descendants for ever after to account?

Have you asked God about us?


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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?



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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January 30th, 1933. Adolf Hitler comes to power in Germany. Friday, January 27th,  was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The Museum is compelled to clarify exactly what the Holocaust is all about.


On the day of his appointment as German chancellor, Adolf Hitler greets a crowd of enthusiastic Germans from a window in the Chancellery building. Berlin, Germany, January 30, 1933. —Bayerische Staatsbibliothek via USHMM

JANUARY 30, 2017


WASHINGTON, DC – The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. Nazi ideology cast the world as a racial struggle, and the singular focus on the total destruction of every Jewish person was at its racist core. Millions of other innocent civilians were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, but the elimination of Jews was central to Nazi policy. As Elie Wiesel said, “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”

The Holocaust teaches us profound truths about human societies and our capacity for evil. An accurate understanding of this history is critical if we are to learn its lessons and honor its victims.

A living memorial to the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. Its far-reaching education programs and global impact are made possible by generous donors. Learn more at ushmm.org.


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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?



See the Altantic’s photo essay here.


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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This week I introduced what will be a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and discovery of the magnitude of the most horrific crime in the history of the world, the Holocaust.

Today I travel again back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, sharing some of my personal observations and photographs on the anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops 70 years ago this week.


July 12.

After the tour of Auschwitz I, our teacher travel study group has lunch on the bus in the parking lot, then drive the three kilometers through town to Birkenau.

There it is. The entry tower. The iconic symbol of evil.


Main entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. USHMM

Main entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau . USHMM


We follow the guide up the stairs in the tower. From here we can see the sheer vastness of the camp.



Women's Barracks. Auschwitz II.

Women’s Barracks. Auschwitz II.


Dozens of long narrow women’s barracks, brick, still stand, albeit some braced with wood on the gable ends to keep them from toppling until they can be re-pointed. A. indicates that historic preservation here is a major concern.



The rest of the camp is many square kilometers of row upon row of foundations and brick chimney stubs, surrounded by the menacing curved and tapered concrete concrete posts dotted with white insulators and strung with miles of parallel lines of barbed wire. In the summer of 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian families were deported here, the rail lines came right into the camp.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.


View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.


Following the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews  were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.


The Walk.

Our guide leads us along the path through the camp that leads to the gas chamber and crematorium. We walk in in silence along the roadway, the only sound the crunching of brick fragments and gravel underfoot.




The Walk.


It appears to have been paved with brick, slave labor, though in some spots it is hard to tell anymore. No one speaks, and on and on we walk. Two minutes. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. I’ve been on battlefields that are smaller than this site.


Flower ring as we make final approach to the chambers tucked into the wooded area nearby.

Finally we reach the end of the camp where the kitchens stood. A round concrete ring rises out of the earth, maybe 6 feet in diameter. Someone finally speaks and asks A. what it was. A giant flowerpot. She tells us also that they were placed near the entrances of the gas chambers. Flowers at the gas chambers.

Waiting. For what we do not know.

Waiting. For what we do not know. Exhausted from deportation and “travel”. We now know who they were. Yad Vashem.


We turn left, and keep walking past interpretative signage. It seems like we are walking outside of camp perimeter. But we are not. Beautiful woods appear and we are walking on the edge of the woods with the camp to our left. We stop near another sign and rest for a moment, allowing the others to catch up. Then our guide calls our attention to the photo on the sign, showing Hungarian mothers and children doing the same thing we are doing. Halting and resting.  And a short path through the woods will take us to the ruins of the gas chamber/crematorium Number Five.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.


We are resting at the spot they rested at, 20 minutes after walking, immediately after disembarking of overcrowded transports that had been traveling for days. Here they waited, anxiously, as their turn to approach the chamber would come. But the victims of the transport ahead of them had to be removed from the chamber first. Some days in the summer of 1944 these victims were backed up for hours.

I pick up a rock from the path and carry it with me past the ruins. At the ashfield there is more signage and a memorial asking visitors not to walk through the field. I place my stone on the memorial, looking down to watch where I step. But it is probably a futile gesture-this whole place is an ashyard, a graveyard.


The secret sonderKommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

The secret sonderkommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.


“So many Hungarian Jews were killed in the Auschwitz camps during that period that the crematoria were incapable of consuming all the bodies, and open pits for the purpose were dug.”


We turn again, and walk past the remains of crematorium Number Four. To the disinfection center for those selected to be worked to death. Again, a system. Disrobing. Wading through disinfectant. Shower. Uniform thrown at you, mismatched clogs or shoes.


E’s mother spent two years here. Her grandmother and the little ones were selected upon arrival. Her mom’s beloved sister was murdered in the quarry after slipping while carrying a large pot of soup in the ice and snow with three other girls. Today is a hard day. I want to comfort her, to carry her pack for her. I feel helpless. There is nothing I can do.


At the Soviet memorial constructed near the two destroyed gas chamber/crematoria at the end, we have a remembrance ceremony. Kaddish is recited in Hebrew. I read it aloud in English. With tears, E. tells us that she feels her grandmother smiling down on this extraordinary group of dedicated teachers. A lump rises, again. I swallow hard and try to blink back the wetness I feel welling in my eyes. Damn, I almost made it. Glad for the sunglasses, even though there is no sun.







“A Warning to Humanity.”

We light candles, turn our backs, and walk out, which provides another twenty-minute stretch of personal reflection. We have toured the epicenter of evil. We have been here, we try to process-but we just cannot. We need the individuals to speak to us. And like E’s family, they do.




At the close of the disinfection center exhibit there are hundreds of photographs that had been discovered years after the camp was abandoned by the Germans. Pictures of loved ones who perished here.

For me, like the personal home movies of pre-war life for the victims at the exhibit at Auschwitz I, this is what has the most meaning. So I will leave you for now with a few close ups.






To Life.To Life.


From National Public Radio:

A Holocaust Survivor, Spared From Gas Chamber By Twist Of Fate

by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, International Correspondent, Berlin

January 27, 2015 3:40 PM ET


Jack Mandelbaum, a Holocaust survivor from the Polish city of Gdynia, poses in front of a photograph showing him as a youth.

Jack Mandelbaum, a Holocaust survivor from the Polish city of Gdynia, poses in front of a photograph showing him as a youth. Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

Seventy years ago, Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz, the most notorious of Nazi concentration camps.

Some 300 Holocaust survivors were at Auschwitz on Tuesday, along with several European presidents and other government officials, to honor at least 1.1 million people who were murdered, 1 million of whom were Jewish.

Among those killed there were Jack Mandelbaum’s mother and brother. The Polish-born Mandelbaum survived, spared at the last minute by an officer of the dreaded SS who yanked the teen away from his family and sent him instead to a forced labor camp.

Last week, Mandelbaum flew from his Naples, Fla., home to Berlin, to help open an exhibit on the children of Auschwitz, and to tell his story.

“I’m a person of action,” he says. “Anger doesn’t get you anyplace. Hate doesn’t get you anyplace.”

In August 1939, as the Nazis were about to invade Poland, Mandelbaum was 13 and living in the Polish port city of Gdynia. Mandelbaum says his father worried that the port would be attacked, so he sent his wife and three children to stay with relatives in the countryside.

He promised to join them six weeks later, but he never arrived. About a year later, he sent them a postcard from the Stutthof concentration camp.

“I guess he didn’t want us to worry about him, so he said he was OK,” Mandelbaum says.

He never saw his father again. His sister later died on a forced march to another concentration camp.

Prisoner 16013

Then, before dawn on June 14, 1942, the SS came for what was left of the family.

“They banged on the door and everyone had to come out in five minutes, and there was a lot of shooting and crying, and people didn’t know what was happening because they had to rush out,” Mandelbaum recalls. “Many people were even in their bed clothes. And we were lined up in the market square, and then we were marched to a local brewery.”

An SS officer there began separating people to the left and to the right. Mandelbaum says he clung to his mother and brother, who were sent to the left. But the SS officer saw in his documents that Mandelbaum had worked as an electrician’s helper.

“He grabbed me and pushed me to the other side,” Mandelbaum says. As for his family, he says, “The people who were to the left were sent to Auschwitz to be gassed. I never saw them again.”

To the Nazis, he became prisoner 16013 and spent the next three years at seven concentration camps. The first was Gross-Rosen, where prisoners worked in a granite quarry.

“There were so many prisoners,” he says. “We were in a big barrack, it had a concrete floor, it had no beds. And we were lined up like herring on the floor, so when one person turned, everybody else had to turn, it was so tight.”

Food was scarce, and the daily meal amounted to a single piece of bread and what Mandelbaum describes as soup made out of grass.

He recalls emaciated prisoners stuffing paper into their mouths to fatten their cheeks so they’d look healthier to the guards assigned to remove the weak for extermination. His own weight eventually dropped to 80 pounds.

But Mandelbaum says he refused to give up hope. He poured what little energy he had into work, hoping it would eventually lead to his release.

Suddenly, Freedom

“We had a good life before the war. I went to a public school, I had good clothes and good food and a nice apartment,” he says. “My dream was to go back to this life and be reunited with my family and my sister and my brother, and that sustained me.”

It also helped that he didn’t know the Nazis were trying to slaughter all Jews, something he says he and other prisoners learned only after liberation.

Their sudden freedom, too, was a complete shock, Mandelbaum says. “We didn’t know anything, only on the morning when we woke up and the Nazi flag wasn’t flying and the guards weren’t there.”

Unlike at Auschwitz, Allied soldiers did not free them, as his camp was in a no man’s land between the fleeing Nazis and advancing Russians. He and a friend from the camp grabbed an abandoned horse-drawn wagon and left as quickly as they could.

“We came across a women’s concentration camp and they were still locked up, so we actually became the ‘liberators’ of the camp,” he says, with a laugh.

Mandelbaum was 17 when the Holocaust ended. He says he returned to Poland several times to see if he could find his family but failed. He did find an uncle living in a hamlet near Munich.

The following year, he immigrated to the United States and settled in Kansas City, Mo., where he married, had four children and became a successful importer of ladies’ handbags. It would be 16 years before he began speaking publicly about the Holocaust, something he says he decided to do after talking to one of his neighbors.

“He asked me what kind of sports did I play in the concentration camp, so all of the sudden it just opened everything up, how little people knew what was going on, and this was when I started to speak in different venues about my experiences,” he says.

That desire to educate people brought Mandelbaum, 87, to Berlin last week. He says it’s sad to see anti-Semitism on the rise in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, but he hopes he and other Holocaust survivors can make a difference.

“You know, when we were in the camps, we would always ask, ‘How can the world stand by and let this happen?’ ” he says. “So it’s a matter of being vigilant, a matter of trying to do as much as you can in order to enlighten people [about] how dangerous it is when you become a bystander.”




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Yesterday I introduced what will be a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and discovery of the magnitude of the most horrific crime in the history of the world, the Holocaust.

Today I travel back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, sharing some of my personal observations and photographs on the anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops 70 years ago this week.


July 12.

So the day that all of us in our teacher travel study group approach with a bit of apprehension is finally here. We are on the bus from our hotel in Cracow to Auschwitz, about 40 miles to the west south west.

Yesterday we arrived in Crakow from Prague, taking the night train on a sleeper car.


Rolling southward one of our tour leaders points out an impressive large building on the top of a hill that looks like a five star hotel. Built after the German invasion in 1939, it was a rest and relaxation villa for Wehrmacht officers rotating off the Russian front to unwind for a bit, as industrialized mass murder was unfolding every single day less than an hour away.

Hocker Album- Dr. Josef Mengele, Rudolf Höss, Josef Kramer, and an unidentified officer. —USHMM

So, to introduce some of the major players:

I don’t make it a habit to showcase the perpetrators on this site, but in this one incredible photograph, taken at Auschwitz, you can see some of them above. Hoss was hung at Auschwitz  following his trial after the war. Kramer was executed by the British after his stint presiding of the horrors of Belsen after his transfer there. Of course, smiling Dr. Mengele escaped to Argentina and died in a drowning accident in the late 1970s. (The pictures in this photo album surfaced only a few years ago and were studied by my friend archivist Rebecca Erbelding at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can read more at the weblink above if you like.)

On to the tour.


Soon we see the road signs for Oswiecim, the small Polish town at a railroad hub that has become one of the most visited tourist sites in Poland. Most of the world knows it by its German name-Auschwitz.

The bus lumbers into the overcrowded parking lot and docks in the slot. The driver kills the engine. And it begins to rain as our other leader, E.,  relates the story of her mother’s family, the idyllic childhood in this beautiful prewar country, a young teen when the nation is invaded, the oldest of four children. No one on the bus makes a sound. It is now raining very hard.


What is this place? Our guide A. is a top notch scholar, and she leads us on a day long tour that is hard to put into words.


We begin at Auschwitz I, the first camp. This place is centrally located, a railway hub dating back to the turn of the century.


The first prisoners, after it is converted from a Polish military facility, are Soviet POWs and Polish prisoners and other “security risks” who will be worked to death slowly expanding this camp, and the much larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau. She walks us through the exhibits and the displays at the various blocks. Block 4 is the “Extermination Exhibit”. We think about the words, the language. Extermination- as if the victims were vermin. Over 1,100,000 were killed here, most of them Jews.

The Hub. The tentacles during the Holocaust.

We see the map with the spiderlike rail lines radiating inward to Auschwitz like tentacles, from northern Poland, from Germany, Hungary, as far south as Greece and as west as Paris and the Netherlands. In the summer of 1944, tens of thousands were murdered here, per day.

This place is ALWAYS crowded.

We see again the large scale terra cotta model of the process, which the German engineers had perfected  at Auschwitz II-Birkenau- the arrival of the transports, the undressing rooms with signs admonishing bewildered people to hang their belongings carefully and to remember the number of the wall pegs where they left them for quick retrieval later. The shower rooms that could fit in some cases entire transports, which were in fact the hermetically sealed gas chambers. The Germans above with their gas masks, waiting for the proper temperature to be reached through body heat, just the right humidity to be achieved before dropping in the pellets so the gas released would work more effectively. The anguished death throes of the thousands of naked figurines assault our senses. The process is not complete until the corpses are carried out by the sondercommando slaves, defiled for any gold fillings, the hair shorn from the women, the bodies then burned in the open air behind or cremated in the ovens.


But the tour is now just beginning.  Minutes before, we were looking at a terra cotta model. And now in Block 5 we will be presented with the evidence. This is an exhibition, after all. Exhibit A is about to slap us in the face. Hard. It is a room, 50 feet long, with nothing but human hair piled several feet back and as many feet tall. My heart skips a beat.

What are my eyes perceiving? Now we see a photo of stacks of bale bags, carefully labeled, packed and stacked, awaiting shipment back to the Reich for use in various products for the German war effort. Slippers for submariners so they can walk quietly aboard ship to evade Allied sonar. Stuffing for the seats of German pilots.

We shuffle on in silence with hundreds of others past the spectacles, the pots and pans, the suitcases carefully labelled by their owners with chalk on the orders of the perpetrators, again, for “quick retrieval”. And the shoes. Sorted. Case after case of women’s shoes. Men’s footwear. And then the children’s shoes.


Our knowledgeable guide takes us into Block 27, the new exhibit on the Shoah. This is a temporary relief of sorts as now we see faces, film and stills, of pre war Jewish life, projected on the walls. We hear songs and voices.

Book of Names. people cry again.

At the end is the Book of Life, containing four million names compiled thus far. A moving moment when E. and others in our tight knit group find entire pages with the names and dates of family members murdered during the Holocaust.


Girls. Shorn, beaten,  and photographed.

This is the Core.


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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 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’.

Now, it is Seventy Years.

But it is not over,

because ‘closure’ is a myth.

And for the rest of humanity-

How much have we learned?

How much have we forgotten?

Is it even important, for us to stop and think

about snowflakes on little boys?


See the Altantic’s photo essay here.


Matthew Rozell teaches history at his alma mater in Hudson Falls, New York. His first book, The Twilight of Living Memory: Reflections of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA is due out this spring. His second book, in the works, is on teaching and remembering the Holocaust.

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Today is the 68th anniversary of the liberation of the train. We’ll have 80 for the final banquet tonight.

I am here in Louisville, KY at the reunion of 12 WW2 soldiers of the 30th Infantry Division and 5 Holocaust survivors who were given new life by these guys 68 years ago. And lots of 2nd generation and 3rd generation-sons and daughters, children and grandchildren, many here meeting their liberators for the first time.

In many ways it is a spiritual event.

Frank gave the introduction and described his role in transporting the prisoners from the train to safety. I spoke on how there were too many random “quirks of fate” to attribute this present gathering to coincidence. Had my wishes come true, and had I never returned to my hometown as I had hoped when I left it for college, the room would have been half empty. I would have never interviewed the tank commander who told me his story. None of these survivors would have known the rest of the story, so to speak; perhaps the soldiers too-

John D. thanked me afterward, describing his time carrying his rifle across Europe as a combat infantryman nearly seventy years ago. He told me now he knows, after meeting the survivors that he helped to liberate, what the true meaning of FREEDOM is, and what he fought for. He thanked me, a teacher. I resisted. He insisted. That about blew me away.

There was more to come.

Kurt and Gideon, “new” survivors, gave testimony for the first time to their liberators. Emotional. True freedom. Kurt remarked that he felt it when the Americans uttered “One Only” as nearly two dozen survivors were shown a clean room after liberation and proceed to attempt to occupy it. To be able to close the door when entering a bathroom, alone.

Eve, Kurt’s daughter, remarked through tears how she knew emotions would overwhelm, but she carried on and read fellow 2nd Generation survivor Sandy’s poem “I am a Survivor”.

She spoke of how difficult it was to grow up, with her two loving parents, knowing what they had been through-how do you, as a teen,  issue the normal teenage complaints when your parents had had it so much worse when they were your age? She ends beaming at her audience through wet eyes, the soldiers of World War II and their families who are returning the love in spades over this weekend.

Later I was very moved at Friday dinner when Gideon’s daughter gathered the children and others in the front, after calling our attention, and thanking God for these soldiers coming into their lives on April 13, 1945 and again now. Candles were lit, prayers were said, and Shabbat was ushered in, and we broke bread together, Gentile and Jew, survivor and soldier, sharing laughter and tears.

More later. For now would like to leave you with an account of the liberation by survivor Aliza Vitis-Shomron, who was recently featured in an AP article about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. She, too, was a teen in the spring of 1945…


In Bergen Belsen

It is spring outside. The news we get from the older German soldiers who treat us humanely is that the end is approaching. Beyond the fence of the Dutch camp there is an open field. The wind brings in a horrible smell from there. In the distance we can see circles of smoke rising, and dark figures busy round the fire. What are they carrying? They are corpses for which there is no room in the crematorium, they are burning them on the ground one by one. Their ashes mingle with the soil, the rain creates human mud.

“All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again” – said the Lord.

Maybe that is God’s will – if He exists at all.

Human beings: beautiful, with black eyes, blue eyes; writers, teachers, students, disappointed lovers, proud, cowardly, selling fish on the market, fathers and mothers and those who had not yet tasted love. “The Chosen Jewish People” burnt like dung in the field.

At the beginning of 1945 the winter was hard. What may have saved us from starvation and death were the Red Cross parcels that arrived in March.

At the beginning of spring 1945 the cannons thundered. We felt that the end for the Germans was near, and there were many indications that it was so. The main one was that they stopped giving us food. Every day we stood at the fence along the main road, waiting for the soup which came late, often only in the evening.

Evacuation from Bergen-Belsen

Allied planes fly above us making a dull sound and there is nothing to stop them. A few days ago there was an air battle between English and German planes, right above the camp. I hid with the others under the bunks, not that I was afraid, but a shrewd thought was on my mind: Now, just before liberation and the end of the war, I could be killed by an allied bullet or bomb…

I am sure there is no God, only chance rules my life. There is no one to pray to, no one to beg – maybe my lucky star that has protected me until now will continue to do so… Will I manage to survive? A sweet feeling of revenge fills me as I realize that our murderers are also suffering and being killed! My strength        has waned, my feet are swollen from hunger, I have become apathetic to my surroundings.

On the 8th [7th] April, an unexpected order came to prepare for evacuation. We heard the thunder of cannons in the distance, they said that the city of Hanover was in the hands of the allied armies. And they are approaching the little town of Celle. Evacuation? Where? To the gas chambers?

There was a terrible smell in the air. I was hardened, cynical, no longer capable of feeling anything. After the terrible murders in Block Ten, adjacent to us, nothing could move me. I remembered I had to survive to tell the world about my friends. I hugged my mother and sister. They mustn’t separate us!

Mother consults uncle Leon Melamed. Aunt Irena, practical as usual, is already packing the most important things. “There is nothing we can do,” she says with typical decisiveness. “We have no choice. There is no point in staying in a camp that is no longer getting supplies of food. We’ll starve before they come to liberate us.” We agree with her. We get into a long line, men, women and the children who are with us, hundreds of Jews from various blocks.

The people’s faces mainly express uncertainty and acceptance of the situation. We again pass by the piles of skeletons, new ones every day. In the huge concentration camp on the other side of the road we see shadowy figures moving.

Mother and I take the few remaining clothes, the notes I have written in the camp and on the Aryan side, and a passport photo of father. We have no personal documents, nothing reminiscent of our previous life. Mother has only a silver fruit knife that she took with us when we went to the “selektzia” in Warsaw. My legs won’t carry me. We have to go eight kilometers to the railway station in Celle. The road seems endless, the body is weak and not used to moving. Every step calls for an inhuman effort. We crawl along slowly.

Gavriela is carrying her five-year-old brother on her back. Her face is red with the effort. The child has no strength left, he is apathetic. Their mother walks beside them and slaps him gently on his face. Her legs are also swollen from hunger. I walk on. I can’t help them, I have no strength left.

Suddenly a man walks up to me. I recognize him: It is my neighbor, from the next bunk. Without a word he puts his arms under my armpits and drags me along. I lean on him with all the weight of my body. I didn’t get to know him, although we “lived next door”; and now he is helping me!

Who can understand the depths of good and evil in the hearts of men! This small deed, the hand held out in support at a critical moment, imbued me with hope and strength to continue on my own.

People begin to drop their belongings. We also stop every fifteen minutes and sadly throw down a few things. At the end of the march my backpack only holds a little food and two or three items of underclothes.

This experience has affected my life-long attitude to things. Losing things or parting with them means nothing to me, causes me no sorrow. They certainly have no value in themselves, only if they are connected to some precious memory.

My legs are swollen and hurt. I can’t feel them any longer. I long to sit down, to rest, to close my eyes and disappear… I struggle constantly against this urge. Mother is dragging herself along, but walks erect, as always. Mirka walks along well. Suddenly we see railway carriages. Surprisingly, they are normal “pullmans”, not freight cars. The exhausted people lie down on the platform. At the station we are given a little food and water. The journey has begun.

The most precious turnips

We traveled by train for eight days. The train moved little, it remained standing a great deal. The frontline was everywhere and chaos all around us. German families flee with their belongings in all directions in carts and on foot. Have they been encircled? What a cheerful thought! Our leaders and various oracles, experts in solving riddles and interpreting rumors, say that the Germans want to use us as hostages. Besides our group, hundreds of Dutch, Greek and Hungarian Jews are with us on the train, all supposed to be exchanged, from the special camps in Bergen-Belsen. In the meantime the most important thing is to get hold of food.

During one of the stops I saw people jumping from the train and rolling down. I also wanted to do so, but my sister was quicker and out already. I joined her. We rolled down the high embankment to a wonderful pile of animal feed, yellow turnips. I filled up my dress feverishly, grabbing as much as I could carry and hop – climbed back. But at the moment when all the children and youth began climbing up, guards on the roof of the train opened fire on us. The Germans were apparently surprised and reacted late. I ran and lost my sister. I didn’t see a thing, but I was determined to get the turnips into the carriage. The bullets whistled around us, but I didn’t drop the turnips. I didn’t even look back to see who fell and who survived. Only on reaching the top, under cover, did I look back in great fear, in search of Mirka. She stood up next to me, trembling but smiling. We had food for the rest of the journey.

The danger is not over yet…

After a six-day journey we approached the frontline. We realized that we were apparently traveling southeast. The “experts” say that we are approaching a large city in central Germany, Magdeburg, on the banks of the Elbe.

One day the officer commanding the military escort called our representatives. He was well-mannered and received them politely. Hela Schüpper wrote in her book: “The commander took off his military cap and turned to the Jews in fear: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the end of the war is near. What shall we do?’

Engineer Solovieczyk advised him to surrender to the Allies and put up a white flag on the roof of the train.” Our representatives came back and described the amazing meeting excitedly: The German asked the Jews for advice! Maybe he’ll also ask them for help? That’s a good sign.

In the night the whole escort team fled, using the locomotive. What will happen now, to us? We were alone. Slowly, people started leaving the carriages, the train was standing in the middle of a field. I also got off, with my faithful friend Tusia (Rina Altbecker). We saw a small pond not far away, and “our people” were catching little fish there. Those among them with initiative found a tin, made a fire and cooked the fish. We joined in, glad to share the job.

We breathe fresh air, the sky is clear, it is spring. Although we are weak, exhausted by hunger, hope is reflected in all the faces. Of course, there are also some “ravens”, prophesying that the Germans will not give up as long as they can harm us, but who listens to them? Mother is also pessimistic.

Visiting a village

Mirka and I join the stream of people going to the nearby village of Ferstleben [Farsleben]. The village houses are pretty, clean, surrounded by gardens with fruit trees. We entered a garden in fulllbloom. I knocked on the door of the house. A woman wearing a big apron came out. Her face expressed amazement at the two figures facing her. Evidently we looked like ghosts.

“Kartofel, Kartofel, bitte,” (Potatoes, potatoes, please) I whispered. At that moment the woman started to scream. I didn’t understand a word. She pushed us out. I ran to the trees and began to shake them, so the blossoms fell off the branches. A large stone flew at me. We ran away.

That was the first and last time I asked for food. I felt ashamed. Mirka and I decided not to tell mother about it.

The fate of the certificates

That night we were right in the frontline. We spent the night lying under the carriages. We did not dare flee from there, there was nowhere to go. To hide in the German village? They’ll chase us away like dogs and hand us over to the authorities. We had no choice but to remain in the carriages and underneath them. Whatever happens to the others will also happen to us. Cannon shells flew above us with a terrifying noise. They may have aimed at the train… It was a miracle that we survived till the next morning.

Before dawn the locomotive returned with our escort. People who got out of the carriages in the morning were amazed to see lots of pieces of paper floating on the small pond. They looked strange, and they had not been there on the previous day. When they went to look at them, they were devastated: these were our certificates and other papers protecting us! So we did have such papers. It wasn’t just a deception by the Germans!

{After the war the mystery was solved: as I wrote, at the end of 1944 a group of two thousand Hungarian Jews from Budapest came to Bergen-Belsen, on their way to Switzerland. Our leaders gave them a list of our names, and they passed it on to the Swiss and Jewish institutions in Palestine, trying to save Jews. Apparently it was only then that they sent us the certificates; now at the end of the war, the Germans found them useless.}

But the Germans escorting us had a different plan for getting rid of us. They didn’t want to let the birds in their hands escape, even though the Allies had already encircled them on all sides.


Suddenly someone ran from carriage to carriage, screaming in terror: “The Germans want to drown the train in the river Elbe. Save yourselves!”

At the height of the panic, when we heard shots in the distance, we ran outside. People burst out of the carriages. Suddenly someone shouted:

“The Americans are coming!”

To our great surprise, a tank came slowly down the hill opposite, followed by another one. I ran towards the tank, laughing hysterically. It stopped. I embraced the wheels, kissed the iron plates.

The amazed soldier who came out called his friends and they immediately started throwing chocolate to us. They smiled in embarrassment and didn’t know what to do. We had won the war!

It was the 13th April 1945.

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Marc Silver

National Geographic News

Published April 8, 2013

 Note: This is from National Geographic. As the nations commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Week, I’ll be flying to Louisville for the annual 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World war II reunion to take part in the reuniting of 5 survivors with the division that liberated them. The 30th will also be honored with a flag in the annual national ceremony at the Capitol Rotunda. In April 2010 I was honored to be in attendance at the Rotunda ceremony with 121 liberators and dozens of survivors.

I will post more about these events later. In the meantime, if you have not read the news below, it is a staggering development.

The map of the Third Reich is being dramatically redrawn.

Thirteen years ago, when he started digging into the past to document the number and nature of Nazi-era ghettos and camps, scholar Geoffrey Megargee expected to identify perhaps 7,000 sites. He vastly underestimated his task. More than 42,200 sites will be named in the planned seven-volume encyclopedia that he is editing: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945.

This week is Holocaust remembrance week in the United States, with an official ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on April 11 at 11 a.m. For the latest insights into the Nazi era, we spoke with Megargee and Martin Dean, editor of volume two of the encyclopedia: Ghettos in German-Occupied Eastern Europe.

“To document this on a map and see how the Holocaust affected every single community throughout Europe makes quite clear the scope of the Nazi regime’s murder campaign,” says Dean.

Investigating the Sites

To be included in the encyclopedia, a site had to have housed at least 20 people and have been in existence for at least a month. In addition, it had to have been identified on a map—not the easiest thing to do when some towns in question have changed their names several times since  World War II ended.

The scholars drew upon past research and interviews with survivors but also sought records that have “disappeared into archives in a dozen different countries,” says Megargee. Many of the archives were behind the Iron Curtain until the 1990s, off limits to outside scholars. Even now some are restricted.

The sites include the extermination camps where gas chambers were built for “the final solution” of murdering the Jewish people. But that’s only part of the project’s scope.

“We’re not just looking at sites directly involved with the Holocaust,” says Megargee, “but [also] with the entire range of persecutory facilities that the Nazis and their allies ran.”

Forced Laborers Everywhere

Each listing has a careful yet hair-raising description of the site, drawing from records as well as survivor testimony. Many of the encyclopedia entries were forced labor camps.

“Think of what life was like in Germany,” Megargee says. “There were foreign forced laborers in every conceivable kind of business: farms, factories, retail shops, hospitals, railroads. You couldn’t go anywhere in Germany without encountering people being held against their will and forced to work. Their rights were being violated.”

And it would have been no secret to German citizens that these laborers were in their midst. “Even in a large city, you know who lives in your neighborhood—and who doesn’t,” Megargee says. “And you could see barracks where these forced laborers lived.”

Workers thought to be shirking their duties were sent to work education camps. They faced up to eight weeks of very hard labor along with beatings and possibly solitary confinement. If there was evidence of a change in behavior, the worker could go back to the forced labor camp. If not, he or she might be sent to a concentration camp.

The Work Education Camp Watenstedt-Salzgitter, established “in some woods just to the northeast of Hallendorf” in Germany, could hold about 800 female prisoners and 1,000 males at a time. The Encyclopedia entry mentions 492 documented deaths there in 1942 attributed to “weak heart” or “shot while trying to escape.” A survivor of the camp recalls an SS man “who beat the prisoners on their way to breakfast.” (There were Jewish inmates at this camp, but in most forced labor and work education camps in Germany, the internees were typically non-Jewish Europeans.)

Staggering Death Rate

Megargee says some of the categories of sites he found were “particularly surprising or horrible.” The so-called Care Facilities for Foreign Women and Their Children were essentially holding pens for female workers, typically from Eastern Europe, who had become pregnant. At an earlier stage in the Nazi regime, these women would have been sent home to have the child. After 1943, they were sent to the Care Facilities, where “the baby was either aborted or, after birth, would be killed by slow starvation,” says Megargee.

European Jews were first confined to ghettos. When the ghettos were shut down, most Jews were killed; only a few were selected for work and sent to forced labor and concentration camps, where they again were periodically selected to continue working or to be killed. The death rate for European Jews in the camps and ghettos was a “staggering” 90 percent, compared with 10 percent for the foreign workers held in German forced labor camps, Dean notes.

The Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos pays tribute to those many millions imprisoned and slaughtered by the Nazis by its memorialization of all the site names. On its pages a reader will find camps that few people have heard of, like the work camp at St. Martin’s Cemetery in Poznan, Poland, where Jews had to excavate Polish graves to look for gold teeth, jewelry, or brass, and even smash up the headstones for the Nazi war effort. And there are the infamous names etched in the world’s memory, like Auschwitz-Birkenau with its gas chambers.

“This is giving recognition to all of the thousands of places where people suffered and died,” says Martin, “that would otherwise fade from people’s consciousness.”


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