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THE THIRD BOOK

I’m putting together the final edits for my new book, The Things Our Fathers Saw—The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation-Volume II. The subtitle is War in the Air—From the Great Depression to Combat. In it, I track the wartime experiences of seven or eight veterans of the air war over Europe. I also make some surprising discoveries regarding a family cousin who was killed at age 20. I’ll be posting some excerpts over the next few days.

I know that some folks subscribed to this site for the Holocaust educational material. While this may not be directly related to the Holocaust, understand that it is all about keeping the memory alive. And I have to tell you that some of my biggest cheerleaders for these stories about our World War II veterans come from the Holocaust survivor community.

Maybe I’ll start with the guy who lived on the corner for most of my life. In 1969, he also became my younger brother’s godfather. Thirty-four years later he ran into some of my students at a garage sale. They found out he was in World War II, and asked him for an interview for my class.

I had no idea that Dick was even in World War II. Here’s just an excerpt. You can order the full book here; the paperback edition will be out Sept. 1, 2017.

 

War in the Air-Flight Engineer Dick Varney

Richard Varney

I grew up during the Depression. I remember that day in 1929 [when the stock market crashed] very well. I was about 17 or 18. I had been working for two years; I went to work at 15 years old with working papers. My parents, God bless them, they grew up in an era when school was not that important. You went to work as soon as you were able to help the family. I don’t think you people understand what I am saying or what that means, but it meant a lot. But I wish that I had gone to school. I did later on, but I made it in life without [a formal education]. I had to do it my way. I worked at the sawmill on Haskell Avenue in Glens Falls; it’s not there now. I also started playing at dances in a band when I was 17 and did it for a long, long time; it was a lot of fun. It was quite necessary then because the wages then weren’t what they are now. I took lessons for a little while on the violin, but I played by ear from then on. I also taught myself to play the alto and tenor saxophone, which I still have, incidentally.

You have to realize that when I went to work at the Imperial factory, later, if you weren’t late or forgot to ring in and out, you got 40 cents an hour. Can you imagine that? You worked 40 hours; you got sixteen dollars a week! Now on this, you had a family to support—it isn’t like what it’s like today. In the Depression era you could buy a home for 1,500 dollars. You couldn’t hang a door for that now! Money was something you didn’t have, but you didn’t feel deprived in those days because nobody else had any money. No, you probably had one change of clothes, maybe one pair of shoes if you were lucky. You didn’t wear them in the summer because you didn’t want to wear them out. I’m not exaggerating, because you just didn’t have the money. You made do. You didn’t eat a lot of prepared food, you [improvised and] cooked your own. You ate a lot of things… [Have you ever had] dandelions? We used to go and pick them. Clean them, cook them, you make do. You just didn’t always have money with those kinds of wages.

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On December 7, 1941, I was working at the Imperial Color paint factory in Glens Falls. It was a shock— I was outraged naturally, because it was a sneak attack.  But it was not unexpected; believe me, we had been heading towards it. In fact, in my opinion we were already in an undeclared war; we were actually in it because we were supporting England. We had been giving them everything they needed; from then on it was just a matter of time before we all got into it.  But Germany and Japan declared war on us first.

I was not a kid; I was 30 years old at the time. I was married and I had no idea what the future was going to bring for us, because I did not know what they wanted to do. I don’t think anybody relished the idea of going to war; nobody does. But nevertheless, I think we had a level of patriotism at that time that we won’t ever see again; certainly we don’t have it now. Everybody was behind it, the whole situation, at that time. I don’t think you heard anybody wondering whether we should go in or not, because we were in. In retrospect it was so long ago now, a lot of the details are not as sharp as they should be maybe, but I can remember most of it.

Richard ‘Dick’ Varney, flight engineer, first row second from right, and the crew of his B-24 Liberator Source: Richard Varney, Sr..

I was drafted in April of 1943, I think. Then we went through God knows how many schools, how much training, to prepare us for it.

I took my army basic training in Miami Beach. It was tough duty in Miami Beach. [Laughs] After that we were assigned to air mechanic school, and there I was trained for the B-24 Liberator. I was being trained as the aircraft flight engineer, and my job at that time was everything mechanical on the plane. It was the flight engineer’s responsibility, so you were taught everything about the airplane. Then after we graduated from there, they sent us to Panama City for air gunnery. After that we went to various places and to Westover, and from there our crew was formed. Now this crew, when it was put together, was the first time that I had met most of these people, the enlisted men I met. Then we went to Walker Air Base in South Carolina, and there we met our pilot, copilot, navigator, and bombardier; from then on, we were a unit—we stayed together, we trained together, all our practice missions and everything. Then we went to Langley, Virginia, and from there we took radar training. And that was the last duty in this part of the world—from there we flew to Goose Bay, Labrador and then to Iceland and from there to Wales. We flew all the way over. Now as a unit we stayed that way. And then when we got there, we were assigned to our bomb group. And there we went through even more training—that’s all you ever did, you train, train, train, and train.

‘There Are No Heroes’

The B-17 crews were the glory boys. The B-24 flew faster, carried more bombs, and flew higher, but the B-17s were the glory boys. We didn’t name our planes like they did. We had ten to a crew in the 24s, yes. Originally they had a ball turret on the bottom but when we got over across the ocean they took that out and they put the radar transmitter in the bottom, where the belly turret was. That left the engineer free to do everything mechanical and the assistant engineer flew the top turret [gun] in my plane.

Finally we were scheduled for our first mission, to Hamburg. It was a vital mission, in the sense that Hamburg had all their oil refineries. And without that, they couldn’t fly, they couldn’t have gasoline, they couldn’t have anything, so you could destroy it because it would certainly limit their supplies. It was a very important mission. And because of that they concentrated their [fighter] aircraft and anti-aircraft guns to protect it. So that’s a target I really remember, believe me.

I’ve seen planes go down, naturally. And the only things you’d look for were how many ‘chutes came out of it because when an airplane gets spinning, you couldn’t get out. Sometimes because of centrifugal force, the spinning of the plane would kill you, because you couldn’t get out. As I said before, I never got hurt. It was always the other guy. And the frame of mind that you have is something that most people can’t understand—you can see this happening, but it’s not you. It becomes an impersonal thing; it has to be, because you would go crazy if it wasn’t. Not that you didn’t have sympathy for the people but still, it wasn’t you. I don’t know how to explain it. But there are no heroes, contrary to what people may think. It’s like a job. I don’t think there are any heroes up there because you’re just doing your job, you have to—you either did, or you didn’t come back. You don’t have time enough really to be scared a lot.

*

Our missions were all over. They were over the Rhineland, yes sure. And Cologne, Dusseldorf, whatever you can think of. And we hit them wherever they were—we bombed as far as Austria and Czechoslovakia; in fact we even hit Berchtesgaden, which was Hitler’s retreat.

Most of the missions we flew were around 20,000 feet and believe me, in the winter time at that altitude, it’s about minus 70 degrees. That’s cold. But we did have heated suits, heated clothes. And of course under those circumstances we still had our job to do. As an engineer, I had duties at the time. I had to check to make sure the generators were synchronized, I opened the bomb bay doors, and I transferred fuel. All of these things were part of my job. I won’t speak for the other people; they had their own jobs. But that is what I did.

*

‘Something Always Goes Wrong’

Did anything ever go wrong during your job?

 

Did anything ever go wrong? [Chuckles] Oh, something always goes wrong. Yes, I remember one time when we got ready on the ‘IP’, which is the Initial Point, where we start the bomb run to the target—I forget where the mission was to—well, they loaded the bombs all right. But there’s a propeller on the back of it, and when you drop them, the wind screws the propeller off. When that propeller comes off, that bomb is armed; it won’t go off otherwise. But when the group crews load them, they’re supposed to put a safety wire through it, in each thing. Well, somebody on that mission [laughs], they didn’t put the safety wires in. So when I opened the bomb bay doors, the wind hit them and I called the pilot on the intercom and I said, ‘I got news for you, we got 10 thousand pound bombs here that are now armed. The propellers are all off.’ Any piece of flak coming through would hit the nose of them and… [Makes the sound of an explosion] that would be all she wrote, you wouldn’t find anything! It didn’t though. But that’s one time I sweated a little bit, I can tell you. [Chuckles]  You couldn’t fix anything. We were on the ‘IP’. You couldn’t take evasive action, you couldn’t do anything and we’re flying right through that flak. But when they dropped the bombs, it was fine.

Flak

I learned more about the German anti-aircraft than I did about anything else because that was the only way you could defend yourself against anti-aircraft; oh yes, we picked up holes, sure. Flak holes. And they generally fired in bursts of three. They used their 88s, they called them, and at different levels. The first one would be 18,500 feet, and another one would be at 18,700 and so on; three. They’re like steps. And they would try to bracket you with the target. And each battery they had of anti-aircraft was three guns, usually. But they so had many of those batteries at some of our targets! When they started firing, you would have thought there was a thunderstorm up there, you know what I mean? But I never lost it, I never lost an engine. I did lose the oil out of one when we landed because there was a hole in the oil reservoir, but the pump in it was strong enough so I didn’t lose the engine in the air. No, I made sure the engines were alright before we went up. As I said before, I don’t make that much of that because there’s not many heroes up there. You’re doing your job, that’s all. But for flying personnel, we had the highest rate of causalities than any branch of the service, because there’s no foxholes up there either, no place to hide, but [we were lucky.] Out of our original crew of ten, we only lost two. There was a bomb group that was short a co-pilot and a tail gunner. And we weren’t scheduled to fly that day, so they assigned them to that other aircraft, from the other group. And they got shot down. They didn’t come back.

You didn’t do too much worrying because it’s something that you were trained to do, and you had to do it and you’re busy and taking care of the duties of the job. You didn’t have much time to think about anything else. No, I don’t think we always wondered—of course, it crosses your mind naturally, why wouldn’t it? When you look out the side window and see a plane going down, it isn’t you, but naturally you’re going to wonder about it, you know… But as far as that, that’s all there’s to it. I mean, the way the job was—what in retrospect, what I did like about the air corps was that despite the hazards, if you went over and came back, you did have a place to sleep. You weren’t like an infantryman sleeping in a foxhole! You ate in the mess halls; you did get your hot food. But outside of that, as I said, I don’t think there were many heroes flying up there—I can’t say I worried too much—because what are you going to do? If you don’t like it, are you going to get out and walk? You’re going where the plane goes, that’s all there is to it. And that’s it. But I can’t say I got to take much credit for that. The only thing you can take credit for is being able to function under those conditions. You take 70 degrees below zero and you’ve got murderous work, and if you take your gloves off, it wouldn’t be for two minutes and your hands would be frozen. Outside of that, that’s the part of it.

*

I’m just telling you that I don’t feel that air combat was such a personal thing. It only gets personal when you’re flying through flak or got another plane coming at you or something—then it gets a little bit personal. So, like I say—what are you going to do? So I don’t pretend to be a hero; I just did my job, and I was good at my job, too. I made it a point to be, because I wanted to learn everything about that plane that I could. [When I entered the service] I never expected to fly. I thought I’d be a mechanic at my age. Instead of that, I wound up over places, I’ll never know how, but I did. I was in pretty good condition physically I guess. Not very exciting, but that’s the way it is.

This interview took place in 2003. Dick Varney passed away on April 28th, 2008, just shy of his 97th birthday.

Mr. and Mrs. Varney and my kid brother, 1969.

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‘If I ever feel lost, or if I ever question the world and humanity, I will be able to find comfort in your words.’

Today was my last day with my seniors- they are on a senior trip tomorrow. One of them took the time to send me this email last night, finishing homework that I had assigned-(reading my book of course, on the Holocaust):
Hi Mr. Rozell, I know it is late and it probably isn’t the best thing for me to be telling you that I just finished your book (haha) but I was completely taken away by the ending and I had to say something.
The way you wrote the ending was incredibly insightful and clarifying, it was an amazing comparison between the Holocaust and our world today. I couldn’t get over how thoughtful the questions that you asked the reader [to consider] and what you realized during your time in Jerusalem as it came to an end. It was by far my favorite ending to any book I have ever read and I can see myself looking back years from now on the last few pages, if I ever feel lost or if I ever question the world and humanity, and I will be able to find comfort in your words. Thank you for being an inspiration to the entire class of 2017, we were truly lucky to have you!

I hope I served you well, kids. And I hope you can teach others. Ciao, baby. I’ll be around.

The last crew, June, 2017. Credit: Joan K. Lentini

Now I’m letting you know about this upcoming event below, so that you know. My blog certainly will not end, but a big part of me will be always in Room A-8.

Note: “Matthew Rozell is retiring. He will be honored as a Righteous Gentile on June 11th, 2017. In addition to his being honored, Matt will discuss his new book, “A Train Near Magdeburg,” about Jewish prisoners from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the U.S. soldiers who saved them, and how he and his students were able to unite the prisoners with their saviors. The general public is invited to attend this free, very special evening followed by a reception in Matt’s honor.”

Sunday, June 11, 2017, 7pm
Synagogue Center, Shaaray Tefila, 68 Bay St. Glens Falls NY 12801
Phone: (518) 792-4945

Books will be available for $20.

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Paige and flag. Credit: Dan Hogan

We walked in the snow, squinting against the early winter sun, moving past the headstones in one of the older cemeteries in our town. Small talk wound down as we approached our destination. We stopped, and greeted the reporter who met us there for the event. Austin opened the small bag of black river stones, and each student picked one to write a message onto.

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We approached the grave. Well, it is not really a grave, you see—a nineteen year old kid’s body lies somewhere back in Hawaii, at a place called Pearl Harbor. His parents lay just to the south of this marker, passing on 14 and 18 years later. The kid’s body was never properly identified. He lies in a mass grave somewhere else, far, far away.

And here in his hometown, there is not even a flag on his marker. Why should there be? As far as I know, there is no immediate close family left here to tend to his stone, and he is not even here.

But we buy a flag, and Paige affixes it to the holder.

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Teacher and student. Credit: Dan Hogan

Paige holds the 1942 yearbook senior class dedication, and I pull out a copy of his photograph, and say a few words.

Seventy-five years after his death, after his parents’ pain and anguish at the telegram announcing he was ‘missing in action’, after his classmates’ angst that following June at graduating without him into the new world of 1942, where so many of them would go on to fight and die along with him, a bunch of kids from his high school return. The 17 and 18 year olds are on the cusp of entering a new world themselves, along with them the 55 year old man who was once also a young graduate-to-be of Hudson Falls High School.

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We come to remember, and to set down our memorial stones.

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The kids speak to the reporter, and we pose for one last picture.

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We are here for all of 15 minutes before the bus has to return to the school to make another run, due to parent-teacher conferences at the elementary level. It is quick, a surgical tactical strike in an overly crowded and rushed school day; some might say, hardly worth the effort.

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You wonder if the lesson will stay with them.

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They leave this cemetery, some certainly forever, to go out into the world, having paid their respects to the boy from Hudson Falls whose future ended on December 7th, 1941.

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Glens Falls Post-Star report, 12-7-2017 below, and with more pics here

‘One of Their Own’

Local sailor who died at Pearl Harbor remembered by teacher, students

From the Remembering Pearl Harbor, 75 years later series

by BILL TOSCANO btoscano@poststar.com

HUDSON FALLS — On a windy Tuesday morning, in a snow-covered cemetery, Matt Rozell’s history class took a somber turn.

Rozell and about 25 Hudson Falls High School seniors stood in the fresh snow at a memorial stone that read, “H. Randolph Holmes,” followed by the words, “Died in action at Pearl Harbor,” “Age 19 yrs” and “U.S. Navy.”

Holmes had been a student in Hudson Falls’ Class of 1942 but left school early, joined the Navy and was killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“We wanted to make sure we didn’t forget Randy,” Rozell told the group, which had taken a quick bus ride on Route 4 to the Moss Street Cemetery. “Especially you in the Class of 2017 because it’s the 75th anniversary of the year he should have graduated.”

Holmes was aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma during the attack and was one of 429 men killed when the ship was struck and capsized. Like many of the sailors on the Oklahoma, his body was not recovered for 18 months and has never been identified. Holmes was buried, with the other “unknown” Oklahoma sailors, in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the “Punchbowl.”

Several years ago, one of Rozell’s students located Holmes’ name on the memorial to those who died on the Oklahoma.

Two of Rozell’s students said Tuesday they had no idea a former Hudson Falls student had died at Pearl Harbor.

“I had no clue,” said Alex Prouty, who went on to talk about what she and her classmates had

learned about the attack. “We learned that there was a loss of a lot of lives and that a lot of people went missing. No one was prepared for it, and our military did the best they could to protect us.”

Jacob Fabian said he learned about Holmes in class as well.

“Before class, no, I didn’t know anything, but now, yes, because of Mr. Rozell’s book,” Fabian said. “We learned a lot about Pearl Harbor, what its effects were, why and how it happened and how monumental it was.”

 During the brief ceremony Tuesday morning, one of the students held up a picture of Holmes from the Class of 1942 yearbook and another held the yearbook itself as they stood by the memorial stone. Rozell had a student hand out black stones, and the students wrote on them and left them on the stone.

“This year’s yearbook is also going to have a page for Randy,” said Rozell, who has written two books on World War II and is working on several more. “It’s important for us to remember him.”

Photo by Steve Jacobs, Post Star, Moss St Cemetery, Hudson Falls, NY, 12-6-2017.

Identification ongoing

Holmes may yet come home.

Five formerly “unknown” sailors from the USS Oklahoma were identified in January, using medical records. The identifications are the first to come from a project that began in April 2015 when the Defense Department announced plans to exhume an estimated 388 of the Oklahoma’s unknowns.

The first exhumations took place June 8, 2015, and the last four caskets were dug up Nov. 9, 2015.

Sixty-one caskets were retrieved from 45 graves. The caskets were heavily corroded and had to be forced open.

The remains were removed and cleaned and photographed. The skeletons were flown to the lab in Nebraska for further analysis, but skulls were retained in Hawaii, where the Defense Department’s forensic dentists are based.

http://poststar.com/news/local/local-sailor-who-died-at-pearl-harbor-remembered-by-teacher/article_8b7006ad-ba5f-5544-85a4-131a5a0b9430.html

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

UPDATE: 

As of Nov. 30, the Pentagon says it has ID’d 21 of the 388 unknowns.

You can see the news releases here. Hopefully someday they’ll ID Randy Holmes …

http://www.dpaa.mil/News-Stories/Releases/

 

 A highly recommended PBS video is below.

http://www.pbs.org/program/pearl-harbor-uss-oklahoma-final-story/

 

 

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NEW From Matthew Rozell

A Train Near Magdeburg

A Teacher’s Journey into the Holocaust, and the Reuniting of the Survivors and Liberators, 70 years on

 
tnm-fr-n-back

GET THE BOOK HERE

*****

The incredible TRUE STORY behind an iconic photograph, taken at the liberation of a death train deep in the heart of Nazi Germany, brought to life by the history teacher who reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors and their children with the actual American soldiers who saved them.

From the book:
– ‘I survived because of many miracles. But for me to actually meet, shake hands, hug, and cry together with my liberators–the ‘angels of life’ who literally gave me back my life–was just beyond imagination.’Leslie Meisels, Holocaust Survivor

– ‘Battle-hardened veterans learn to contain their emotions, but it was difficult then, and I cry now to think about it. What stamina and regenerative spirit those brave people showed!’George C. Gross, Liberator

– ‘Never in our training were we taught to be humanitarians. We were taught to be soldiers.’Frank Towers, Liberator

– ‘I cannot believe, today, that the world almost ignored those people and what was happening. How could we have all stood by and have let that happen? They do not owe us anything. We owe them, for what we allowed to happen to them.’Carrol Walsh, Liberator

– ‘[People say it] cannot happen here in this country; yes, it can happen here. I was 21 years old. I was there to see it happen.’Luca Furnari, US Army

– ‘[After I got home] I cried a lot. My parents couldn’t understand why I couldn’t sleep at times.’Walter ‘Babe’ Gantz, US Army medic

– ‘I grew up and spent all my years being angry. This means I don’t have to be angry anymore.’Paul Arato, Holocaust Survivor

– ‘For the first time after going through sheer hell, I felt that there was such a thing as simple love coming from good people–young men who had left their families far behind, who wrapped us in warmth and love and cared for our well-being.’Sara Atzmon, Holocaust Survivor

– ‘It’s not for my sake, it’s for the sake of humanity, that they will remember.’Steve Barry, Holocaust Survivor 

-From the back cover-
THE HOLOCAUST was a watershed event in history. In this book, Matthew Rozell reconstructs a lost chapter–the liberation of a ‘death train’ deep in the heart of Nazi Germany in the closing days of the World War II. Drawing on never-before published eye-witness accounts, survivor testimony and memoirs, and wartime reports and letters, Rozell brings to life the incredible true stories behind the iconic 1945 liberation photographs taken by the soldiers who were there. He weaves together a chronology of the Holocaust as it unfolds across Europe, and goes back to literally retrace the steps of the survivors and the American soldiers who freed them. Rozell’s work results in joyful reunions on three continents, seven decades later. He offers his unique perspective on the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations, and the impact that one person, a teacher, can make.

*

–Featuring testimony from 15 American liberators and over 30 Holocaust survivors

10 custom maps

73 photographs and illustrations, many never before published.

502 PAGES-extensive notes and bibliographical references

INCLUDED:

BOOK ONE–THE HOLOCAUST

BOOK TWO–THE AMERICANS

BOOK THREE–LIBERATION

BOOK FOUR–REUNION

SOON TO BE A MAJOR DOCUMENTARY

GET THE BOOK HERE

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NEW From Matthew Rozell

 

A Train Near Magdeburg

A Teacher’s Journey into the Holocaust, and the Reuniting of the Survivors and Liberators, 70 years on

 
A Train Near Magdeburg - Ebook

COMING FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 16, 2016

*****

–From the author of ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’ World War II narrative history trilogy–

 

From the Preface:

The picture defies expectations. When the terms ‘Holocaust’ and ‘trains’ are paired in an online image search, the most common result is that of people being transported to killing centers—but this incredible photograph shows exactly the opposite. And there are many things about this story that will defy expectations. Fifteen years after I brought this haunting image to the light of day, it has been called one of the most powerful photographs of the 20th century. It has been used by museums and memorials across the world, in exhibitions, films, mission appeals, and photo essays. School children download it for reports; filmmakers ask to use it in Holocaust documentaries. Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, even employed it as the backdrop for Israel’s state ceremonies in the presence of survivors, their president, prime minister, the entire government, top army brass, and chief rabbi in a national broadcast on the 70th anniversary of the liberation and aftermath of the Holocaust. I know, because they reached out to me for it—me, an ordinary public school teacher, six thousand miles away.

For over half a century, copies of this photograph and others were hidden away in a shoebox in the back of an old soldier’s closet. By spending time with this soldier, I was able to set in motion an extraordinary confluence of events that unfolded organically in the second half of my career as a history teacher. Many of the children who suffered on that train found me, and I was able to link them forever with the men who I had come to know and love, the American GIs who saved them that beautiful April morning. A moment in history is captured on film, and we have reunited the actors, the persecuted and their liberators, two generations on.

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In picking up this book, you will learn of the tragedies and the triumphs behind the photograph. You will enter the abyss of the Holocaust with me, which the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum defines as ‘the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.’ You will meet the survivors of that train as they immerse you into their worlds as civilization collapsed around them. We will visit the camps and authentic sites together, and we will trace the route of the brave Americans who found themselves confronted with industrial scale genocide. And I will lead you safely out of the chasm as we witness the aftermath, the miracles of liberation and reunification, seven decades later.

In many respects, this story should still be buried, because there is no logical way to explain my role in the climactic aftermath. Somehow I got caught up in something much bigger than myself, driven by some invisible force which conquered the barriers of time and space. I was born sixteen years after the killing stopped, a continent away from the horrors and comfortably unaware of the events of the Holocaust and World War II for much of my life. I was raised in the sanctuary of a nurturing community and an intact family. I am not Jewish and had never even been inside a synagogue until my forties. I’m not observantly religious, but I am convinced that I was chosen to affirm and attest to what I have experienced. In this book I rewind the tape to reconstruct how indeed it all came to be—the horrors of the experiences of the Holocaust survivors, the ordeals and sacrifices of the American soldiers, and the miracles of liberation and reunification.

As the curtain begins its descent on a career spanning four decades, consider this one teacher’s testament—this is what happened, to me. I became a witness, and is what I saw.

Matthew Rozell

Hudson Falls, New York

September 2016

*

–Featuring testimony from 15 American liberators and over 30 Holocaust survivors

-10 custom maps

-73 photographs and illustrations, many never before published.

-extensive notes and bibliographical references

INCLUDED:

BOOK ONE–THE HOLOCAUST

BOOK TWO–THE AMERICANS

BOOK THREE–LIBERATION

BOOK FOUR–REUNION

 

COMING FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 16, 2016

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I am studying in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, for 19 days with 29 other educators from all over the world.

I went to the Great Synagogue here in Jerusalem as a guest for Shabbat services. I had a guidebook with English, but I just followed the service in Hebrew, even though I don’t understand. Somehow this symbolizes my state of being right now. Almost half a world away, the last liberator Frank W. Towers is being bid goodbye by his friends and family, as the cantor wails here. My eyes well up, and a single tear begins its run. I am powerless to push it away.

It has been an extraordinary day. It began with a tour of the Old City on foot with a very knowledgeable guide who is also an archeologist here in Israel. We walk near the ruins of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, see the remnants of the ritual purification baths before one could go near the Temple. We walk up the steps hewn into solid bedrock where a young rabbi named Jesus strode. At the Western Wall, I take it all in, and approach the site which for Jews is closest to the Holiest of the Holies. This has great significance; God dwells here. For the souls of Frank, and Carrol, and George, my friends, the liberators, for my survivor friends who have passed, for my own parents and loved ones I place a scrap of paper with my prayer for their souls into a crevice in the millennia old stones.

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Western Wall, Jerusalem, Friday, July 8th, 2016.

We move on to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the church built over Christ’s Crucifixion and Tomb. Incense blasts us as we move into the doors. Jesus entered into Jerusalem the day after Shabbat, Palm Sunday, in very tense political situation. We know how that turned out, and I am at the very place where a Jewish sect shortly after his execution would grow to become one of the world’s largest religions. I’m free to walk about and drink it all in. And at this place I leave the same petition for God.

At the Great Synagogue at sunset, I try to enter into God’s presence again in a more focused way, but I am finding it difficult. Thoughts come rushing forth, the same thoughts and questions I have entertained for years, but right now they hit me like a steamroller.

The last liberator has passed. And the mystery of the role I played in bringing the liberators and survivors, hundreds of them now, together with these old men in the sunset of their lives does not become clearer, but remains hidden somehow behind a fog that I cannot push away.

The sun has set.

*

I came to the Holy Land the first time for a 2011 reunion here with Frank, where he met 500 people who would not have been alive today had it not been for the swift arrival the soldiers of the 743rd Tank Battalion and 30th Infantry Division of the US Army. People are able to meet one of the actual soldiers who saved their families from annihilation; a woman was sobbing right behind me through much of the ceremony. Another woman, a granddaughter of one of those survivors whose name I cannot recall, stopped me. She thanked me and told me that my name meant something along the lines of ‘mystery of God’. This struck me hard, and it remains something that now roars forth in my turbulent state of mind. I don’t understand it all.

At the Friday evening communal Shabbat meal with the educators back at the hotel, we continue our mediation on entering into God’s grace and allowing Him to dwell us. We break bread, have the meal and conversation together. I’m very quiet because at the end of this long day, the mystery remains.

The hotel this evening in Jerusalem is jam-packed with Jewish families settling in for Shabbat-noisy, crowded, together to bring in the Sabbath.  Underlying the ebb and flow of this activity all around, inside me there is the disquieting undercurrent about the fact that this day has arrived, the day that the last liberator is being buried. I know that it will really never end, this story of the liberators and the survivors of the train near Magdeburg in April 1945, their precipitous fateful encounter, and their reuniting six/seven decades later. But tonight I am engulfed in a profound heavyheartedness, this loss, this questioning, this wondering. What does it all mean?

The giant dining room next door breaks out in rhythmic hand clapping, voices singing a song of happiness symbolizing the togetherness and communal unity that closes out the Shabbat meal. I glance at the time; at this very moment back home, Frank is being lowered into the earth.

*

Later, I awake with a start in a bed that is not my own. A newborn is wailing somewhere, nearby. The hotel here in Jerusalem is filled with Jewish families in town for Shabbat, full of young families, of young children. Crying babies at 2 AM. But though I have been jolted awake, nothing close to annoyance enters my being. Lying in the dark, deep within my soul I am warming with joy through the sadness; through the crying of the baby and the voices of the children outside my door I hear the song of the angels carrying Frank, and all the liberators I was privileged to know, onward and upward. The children are their legacy, and in this moment I know that I will perhaps never understand why God chose me to bring them together with the thousands of people alive on the earth today because of their deeds, but it does not matter:

He wanted me here in Jerusalem for this moment, when the last liberator left me.

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Thirty years ago next month I began my career teaching history in a summer school, getting my foot in the door. Shortly thereafter I wound up back at my own high school, just eight years after telling my parents I was leaving my hometown for good (I had also told my history teacher father that I certainly was NOT going to be an educator like him and my school-nurse mom). Now I was living in their garage, no less, commuting up the main street to my old high school in my dad’s  hand-me-down car. Karma can be a bitch.

So there I was, a rookie newbie history teacher shuffling from class to class with with no classroom to call my own, pushing a cart like an unknown peddler through the crowded halls of my alma mater. There were times when I was sure I was going to leave the profession in those early days. (Maybe in some of the later ones too.) But I kept plugging, through the rough days and good. I didn’t quit.

 

New York State Education Department Building. Photo by Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-3.0

New York State Education Department Building. Photo by Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-3.0

This week I was called to Albany to be honored by the New York State Education Department Board of Regents, and the Commissioner of Education herself. It is close to the highest honor that a teacher in this state can have, to get a standing ovation from the movers and shakers in the field, to sit at their table and be able to thank them for the recognition and to explain why you think that your career path was somehow ordained by forces beyond your control. To the Louis E. Yavner Award Committee, thank you for counting me as worthy.

 

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Commisioner Elia's (L) tweet. Chancellor Rosa, asked me to sit in her chair and address the Regents at their meeting, May 17. 2016.

Commissioner Elia’s (L) tweet. Chancellor Rosa, asked me to sit in her chair and address the Regents at their meeting, May 17. 2016.

Sometimes you lie awake and wonder if it has been worth it. I guess I don’t really need an award to tell me that it has, but it feels nice, and I hope that other teachers know that they make the same difference everyday.

Sometimes karma is not such a bitch, after all.

Video of acceptance speech below.

New York State United Teachers article here.

New York State Legislature recognition below.

 

 

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