Posts Tagged ‘Leslie Meisels’

A survivor writes to his fellow survivors today, on the anniversary of their liberation. An excerpt:

For the 13th of April 2016.
Hello again to all of you ‘my twins’ on our 71st birthday.
I hope my good wishes find all of you in good health, both physical and mental.
It is a blessing to be alive and being able to think back of that ‘special birthday’ of ours.
To think about those who fought to give back our lives, whom we call ‘our angels of life’.
Like the years before; there are no words enough to express our thanks for them.


[My new book on this will be out this July. You can put in a pre-order notice, above- GET THE BOOK HERE]

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

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

Here also is an anniversary poem.

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

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


At Eleven fifty-five.

Return to the Place of Liberation, April 13, 1945                                                                                 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly the heavy car doors were opened.

Living and dead overflowed into the surrounding green meadow.

Was it a dream or a delayed awakening of God?

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

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

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

Only few words escaped to the blowing wind:


From the chimneys of death, I gave new life, to my children….

And this day-my grandchildren were born,  to a good life.

Amen and Amen’.

-Yaakov Barzilai.


בְּאַחַת עֶשְׂרֵה חֲמִשִּׁים וְחָמֵשׁ 

שִׁיבָה לִמְקוֹם הַשִּׁחְרוּר בִּ 13 בְּאַפְּרִיל 1945

                     כַּעֲבֹר 65 שָׁנָה

הָרַכֶּבֶת עָצְרָה מִתַּחַת לַגִּבְעָה

נוֹשֶׁפֶת וְנוֹהֶמֶת

כְּמִי שֶׁהִגִּיעַ לְסוֹף דַּרְכּוֹ

קַטָּר זָקֵן גָּרַר קְרוֹנוֹת יְשָׁנִים

שֶׁאָבַד עֲלֵיהֶם כֶּלַח,

לֹא רְאוּיִים אֲפִלּוּ לִמְגוּרֵי סוּסִים.

מִי שֶׁהִזְדַּמֵּן לַסְּבִיבָה

הֶאֱמִין שֶׁנִּקְלַע לְבֵית חֲרֹשֶׁת לְסֵרָחוֹן

אַלְפַּיִם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת רָאשֵׁי בָּקָר מַסְרִיחִים

שֶׁנּוֹעֲדוּ לִשְׁחִיטָה

נִדְחְסוּ לַקְּרוֹנוֹת

כָּל הַפַּרְפַּרִים בַּסְּבִיבָה הִתְעַוְרוּ

מִסֵּרָחוֹן מַדְמִיעַ.

חֲמִשָּׁה יָמִים נָסְעָה הָרַכֶּבֶת הָלוֹךְ וַחֲזֹר

בֵּין בֶּרְגֶן-בֶּלְזֶן לְשׁוּם מָקוֹם

בַּיּוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי, בֹּקֶר חָדָשׁ זָרַח מֵעָלֵינוּ.

בְּבַת אַחַת נִפְתְחוּ הַדְּלָתוֹת הַכְּבֵדוֹת שֶׁל הַקְּרוֹנוֹת

חַיִּים וּמֵתִים נִשְׁפְּכוּ בְּיַחַד

אֶל הַיָּרֹק הַמִּשְׁתּוֹלֵל בַּשָּׂדוֹת.

הַאִם הָיָה זֶה חֲלוֹם

אוֹ הַצָּתָה מְאֻחֶרֶת שֶׁל אֱלֹהִים?

כְּשֶׁזִּהִינוּ אֶת סֵמֶל הַצָּבָא הַאָמֶרִיקָאִי,

כִּנְשׁוּכֵי עַקְרָב שָׁעֲטְנוּ בְּמַעֲלֵה הַגִּבְעָה

לְנַשֵּׁק אֶת שַׁרְשְׁרָאוֹת הַטַּנְקִים

וְלַחֲנֹק אֶת הַחַיָּלִים מֵרֹב אַהֲבָה.

מִישֶׁהוּ צָעַק: “אַל תַּאֲמִינוּ זֶה רַק חֲלוֹם”

וּכְשֶׁצָּבַטְנוּ אֶת עָצַמְנוּ

כָּאָב לָנוּ בֶּאֱמֶת.

גַּם אִמָּא טִפְּסָה אֶל גִּבְעַת הַנִּצָּחוֹן

הִיא עָמְדָה בְּתוֹךְ שָׂדֶה שֶׁל פְּרָחִים וְהִתְפַּלְּלָה

מִתּוֹךְ הַתְּפִלָּה הַחֲרִישִׁית שֶׁנֶּאֶמְרָה בַּלֵּב

רַק מִלִּים בּוֹדְדוֹת הִסְתַנְנוּ אֶל אֲוִיר הָעוֹלָם:

” וְכָאן… וְעַכְשָׁו… עַל פַּסֵי הָרַכֶּבֶת…

קָרוֹב… לַאֲרֻבּוֹת הַמָּוֶת…נָתַתִּי…

חַיִּים חֲדָשִׁים…לִילָדַי… וְהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה…

נוֹלְדוּ גַּם נְכָדַי… לְחַיִּים טוֹבִים…

אָמֵן… וְאָמֵן…                                                                     יעקב ברזילי

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

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

image (1)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sample:

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

I thought he was joking.

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

A lot, it turns out.

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

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

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

Leslie was one of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The last miracle

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

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

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

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

“What?” Walsh said.

“The train.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Frank Towers and Carrol Walsh.

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

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

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

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

Leslie calls that friendship the last miracle of his life.

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


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

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

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

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Two Toronto Holocaust survivors meet their liberators 65 years later
Two survivors of a death train out of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp finally link up with American soldiers who freed them in 1945.

A WWII-era booklet still possessed by Leslie Meisels documents his liberation as a young boy from a train destined for a death camp. Meisels, who eventually ended in Toronto, met a few of the surviving soldiers who freed him and 2,500 prisoners on the train.

A WWII-era booklet still possessed by Leslie Meisels documents his liberation as a young boy from a train destined for a death camp. Meisels, who eventually ended in Toronto, met a few of the surviving soldiers who freed him and 2,500 prisoners on the train.

Leslie Meisels is 86.

Leslie Meisels turned 68 last month.

Every April, since he was 18, Meisels has celebrated his rebirth. Sixty-eight years ago he was on the cusp of death, packed into a cattle car in a freight train with some 2,500 other skeletal Jewish prisoners. He weighed only 75 pounds.

Then a miracle. That train, which had set off from a concentration camp, was liberated by 12 shocked American soldiers in two tanks and an army jeep near Farsleben, Germany.

Up until then, the American GIs had assumed the gruesome stories they had heard about German death camps were just Allied propaganda devised to make them fight harder. But as they unlocked the boxcar doors, they witnessed humanity’s true capacity for evil.

They called it the death train. For Meisels, it was a train of life.

This past week marked the 68th anniversary of V-E Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe. It’s a good moment to tell the story of that train from Bergen-Belsen.

I heard about it last month in an email from a history teacher in upstate New York. He put me in touch with Meisels and Paul Arato: two Holocaust survivors from Hungary who in 1956 escaped their homeland, by then under Communist rule, and settled in North York.

Their stories are remarkably parallel. They grew up in nearby towns in eastern Hungary, they were both imprisoned by the Nazis in 1944, and they were sent first to Austrian farms as slave labourers and then to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany.

Have you ever seen the horrifying Holocaust photos of dead, naked bodies being pushed by a bulldozer into open pits? That was Bergen-Belsen. Some 70,000 people were murdered there, including Anne Frank. They weren’t killed in gas chambers, like at Auschwitz. Instead the Nazis used starvation, sadism and disease here.

Meisels remembers mostly the hunger. They were given only watery turnip soup and a piece of bread each day. In four months, he lost 100 pounds.

Arato, just 6 then, remembers the rattling cold and twice-daily roll calls that often lasted hours. He and his older brother Oscar had to hold their mother upright, she was so weak from typhus. One day a boy in their line smiled because it was his birthday. As his “present,” an SS guard shot him dead. It was Oscar’s birthday the next day.

The horror is ungraspable.

By April 1945, the Nazis were retreating as both the Allied and Soviet armies advanced. One morning, both Meisels and Arato were awakened by guards and told to march. “We dragged our bodies over five kilometres,” says Meisels, “back to the train.”

Trains in Nazi Germany usually led to death. This one was no different. It was destined for another concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, but the guards also had orders to execute passengers. Meisels remembers one afternoon when all males 12 and older were ordered out of the packed boxcars and lined up in front of machine guns. They stood there two hours before being herded back into the putrid cars.

Over six days, the train progressed only 135 kilometres.

Arato remembers peering through between the wooden boxcar slats and seeing the SS guards drop their weapons and start running. Then he glimpsed a tank with a star on it.

The door slid open shortly and they were greeted by stunned American soldiers.

“It was hard for us to believe what we were actually seeing,” says one of those soldiers, Frank Towers, on the phone from Brooker, Fla. “We weren’t prepared for it. We were there to fight a war. We weren’t humanitarians. We didn’t know what to do.”

Says Meisels: “We cried, ‘Oh God, we are going to be free. We are going to be human beings again.’ ”

Towers, who was serving in the 30th Infantry Division, spent a day those taken off the train to convalescence homes and a hospital nearby before he had to push on with his battalion.

Meisels and Arato spent five months recovering in Germany before they could finally return to Hungary to search for the rest of their families. Eleven years later, they escaped Hungary and started their lives for a second time: getting married, building careers, having children, then grandchildren. Decades went by.

Then, a few years ago, their paths crossed at a business meeting. Arato, since retired, was an industrial designer. Meisels ran a family company making plastic moulds. At the end of the meeting, the topic of the Holocaust was raised. They discovered, to their shock, they had both been on that train from Bergen-Belsen.

Around the same time, that high school history teacher in New York named Matt Rozell stumbled upon the story.

To bring Second World War history alive, he’d instructed his Grade 10 students to interview their grandparents about the war. One summer, he visited one of his students’ grandfather: Carrol Walsh, a veteran turned New York State Supreme Court judge.

“After two hours, when the interview was ending, his daughter elbowed him and told him to tell me about the train,” Rozell says.

He learned Walsh had been in one of those tanks that chased away the SS soldiers and liberated the train.

Rozell posted the story on his website, Teaching History Matters, and a few years later a survivor from that train contacted him from Australia. Since then, 240 more have been located.

In 2007, Rozell hosted his first symposium on the train, bringing together survivors and liberators. Arato’s son came across a story about the reunion on the Internet by chance.

Arato told Meisels about it, and two years later they both traveled down to Hudson Falls, N.Y., for the second symposium. There they met Walsh and Towers.

That moment was a second liberation for Arato, now 74.

“A blanket was pulled from me,” he says. “I was always very lonesome. I didn’t share my stories with anybody. I grew up and spent all my years being angry. This meant I don’t have to be angry anymore.”

His wife, Rona, has just published a book about his story called The Last Train: A Holocaust Story.

Meisels visits schools around Toronto to speak about the Holocaust every week.

His message? “Hatred is something we have to fight against. When you hear a derogatory comment, say out loud that it is not right. When you are silent, you are not neutral. You are supporting the oppressor.”

He and Towers went to Washington, D.C. last month to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Holocaust Museum there. Towers, now 96, is the last living U.S. veteran who liberated that train. Walsh died last December.

“We hugged,” Meisels says. “Whenever we are together, I am so overwhelmed by gratitude and joy.”

Truth can be more horrifying and wonderful than fiction. Every life is precious.



by Catherine Porter 


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