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Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Rozell’

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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How soon we forget. Or perhaps, we were never told. That is understandable, given what they saw.

But, it happened. Many of the boys never came home.

And that, dear reader, is why we can’t afford to forget.

You can read the reviews, but my favorite commentary on my first book was not written or published. A dear friend told me that one of her close relatives read the book, and that she had cried all the way through it. She finally realized what her father had seen, and gone through, and the friends that he had lost.

And it helped her make sense of her own life.

Just because the shooting stopped, it did not mean that the war ended. In many ways, it still lives on. And I hope that this book takes a step in the healing process. The book is a catharsis, for both the veterans and their families. But more importantly, it’s a way to honor and remember those who did not return home. The veterans are leaving us, and it is up to us to remember. For own own sakes, as much as theirs.

You can get the book here at Amazon, in print and electronic format. For signed copies, you can go here.

I have more books on the way, if you care to sign up for advance notification.

Thanks for taking the time to stop by, and for being one of those who appreciates that Memorial Day as more than just the de facto start of summer. Hit a ‘SHARE’ button below if you think someone else will appreciate it.

Matthew Rozell

Author, teacher of young people, and blogger on things that matter.

 

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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:

‘Soon…Now

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 just finished the first draft of Chapter One of my new book. It took several weeks but in my head I have been writing it for years.

The chapter is called ‘Hell on Earth’. It’s Bergen Belsen in the spring of 1945. If you don’t know a lot about the concentration camp system, this 40 plus page chapter will tell you, but for now it is where Anne Frank, her sister, and 70,000 others were murdered.

The chapter has been a ton of research and I think kind of draining, but you get through it. In order to show the tremendous highs, you kind of have to go and plumb the depths. Hard to get much lower than this. And for you teachers out there, remember to be judicious with the graphic imagery in the classroom. Answer the question first- why am I teaching this? It should be more than a cheap gimmick to grab a kid’s attention. In the chapter, I chose to use some troublesome material. Not for shock value, but to better serve humanity, in context–but I am not publishing that here right now because that context is missing.

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Some of my research material. Books presented to me by my friends at the 2009 reunion; the 20th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Bergen Belsen book, and Volume 1 of the Book of Names, an attempt to compile the list of all those who suffered here.

I learned a lot. Sometimes you wonder how much you take for granted. And that is probably one of the main points of my book.

This excerpt from an eleven year old girl.

At the end of November it was very cold in Europe. Finally I was given some rags and one black ladies shoe with a high heel and one red girl’s shoe. Imagine the agony of a young girl having to walk unevenly like that for half a year.

In those shoes I marched into Bergen Belsen concentration camp on December 2nd, 1944. In those shoes my legs froze while I was enduring roll calls, which lasted between two to five hours.

When the mounds of dead bodies started to pile up nearby in a frightening manner, we, the children, made bets between us, as to who would die tomorrow and who would die the day after. Every one of them had his signs. I had become an old woman already, eleven and half years old.

During the breaks between roll calls, if it wasn’t too cold, I would stand by the fence and look at the naked dead bodies with their gaping mouths. I used to wonder what it was that they still wanted to shout out loud and couldn’t. I tried to determine who were men, and who were women. But they were only skin and bones. I tried to imagine how I could dress these dead bodies in clothes for dinner; their pale skin color did not always match the clothes.

Another eleven year old girl:

When told to prepare ourselves for the departure in the train I was already very weak and sick. Two weeks prior I had a very high fever. I was in Bergen Belsen with my aunt, my father’s sister, as by then I had lost my entire family.

The Germans let us know that all those who could not walk would have to stay behind. My aunt wanted to stay because she knew that I was already very weak; however, I insisted on going. I said to my aunt, “You know that they kill the weak and the sick. We will go with the healthy people.” Although I was only 11½ years old, my aunt listened to me. I probably had a very strong will to live.

Before we left, they gave each of us a raw potato, and somehow we managed to bake them over a wood fire. My aunt then said to me, “You know that now is the Passover holiday”—we barely remembered what day of the week it was, let alone the date. On Passover, according to the story, our forefather Moses took us out of Egypt. Maybe G–d is bringing us to freedom, and maybe we will live?

A seventeen year old girl:

Saturday, ‎April 7th, ‎ ‎1945. Our transport is stranded at the Bergen–Celle railway station. Our irresponsible captors no longer provide us with food. After suffering from constant starvation for six long months at the death factory of Bergen Belsen, the German SS leaves us now in total hunger and total thirst. We are too exhausted, dizzy and weak to grasp how grave our situation is.

What do the Nazis have in mind?

What do the Nazis have in mind, indeed. On to Chapter Two to find out. The book should be done this summer.

For updates, follow this blog. For advance notice, sign up at bit.ly/RozellNewBook.

 

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So, how was your weekend? We had a great one here, weatherwise. I have the pics to prove it.

Im call this one, 'harbinger'.

I call this one, ‘harbinger’.

 

But, in reality, I did not get out too much, other than to feed the horses and move up some firewood with the tractor. I wasn’t here, really.

I was portalling over 70 years into the past, fast. I was working on my new book, I was researching and writing. I had questions that needed to be answered. So I read the entire transcript of the Belsen trial that followed the liberation of the camp. I highlighted, I made notes, all day Saturday. And on Sunday, I wrote.

One of my students asked me on Friday, what I was going to do this weekend? He already knew the answer, as he asks every Friday. But what he may not know, is that I do it for him, and for the sake of humanity. It’s not easy, but I feel that I have made a breakthrough here. This is my life’s work, after all.

So, back to school tomorrow. He’ll ask how my weekend was.

Intense. Someday soon you will know, too.

 

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I’ve been working a bit lately on my next two upcoming books, The Things Our Fathers Saw II and the one closest to my heart, working title, A Train Near Magdeburg or The Last Transport. And I have been struggling with that book for years. It’s a hard story to tell because it has to be done right, the first time.

TNMMy own personal connection and closeness to the subject has been documented at this blog since 2007, when we hosted the first reunion before a student audience at our high school, when we knew of only 2 liberators and 4 survivors. Today, that number has grown over 7 fold. Unbeknownst when we began, this story has grown and taken over the second half of my career as an educator.

Trying to take on the subject matter of the Holocaust as a classroom teacher is a daunting task, and one not to be taken lightly. Trying to convey that through the eyes of your survivor friends is exponentially difficult. But when you open yourself up, palms up and arms out, especially at the authentic sites where millions of families suffered, there is a coupling of the past and the present.

It’s not an easy thing to open yourself up to. But if you think that it is all in the past, you are very, very mistaken.

Now throw into the mix the experience of the young American boys, battle hardened and hardly innocents by now, who stumbled across the train and the horrors of the Holocaust. Confronted with the reality of sick and starving people, and a war in its closing days where the enemy, the perpetrators of this evil, are still shooting at them. They have a mission they have been tasked with, and it’s not a humanitarian rescue operation that they trained for.

Oh no. They had no idea. Many of these young guys were haunted for life by what they encountered.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say. In my case, more like one hundred thousand. Behind the camera, the major in the jeep snaps a photo as specters emerge from the springtime morning mist. The little girl turns her head in terror at the two monsters clamoring behind the jeep with the white star,  Tanks 12 and 13 of the 743rd Tank Battalion and the 30th Infantry Division of the United States Army. It is April 13, 1945, deep in the heart of the Reich. Friday the 13th. Tank 13 stays on after securing the perimeter to protect the vulnerable from their would-be murderers.

For the young beautiful men with perfect teeth and handsome uniforms, the first instinct is to recoil. This is not natural and these people have been reduced to stinking animals. Lice infested. Stench ridden. Infected with bad, bad disease. Revulsion and vomiting is a common reaction.  These are not human beings.

But, they are.

They are.

And what are we going to do about this? The battalion commander cocks his .45 and calmly places it to the head of the local burgermeister when he displays reluctance to comply with the order to open homes and feed the prisoners.

And next up on the roller coaster ride for the incredulous GIs  is stomping rage and jags of crying. Generations later, an 89 year old tells me, “My parents wondered why I couldn’t sleep at night, after returning home.”

The soldiers transport the victims out of the line of fire. The medics get to work. People continue to die, but somehow humanity returns. The war ends. The survivors and the soldiers go their own ways, most refusing to speak of this time for decades. For many, the trauma passes onto the children  of the generations that come after.

And then, in the twilight of living memory, a high school teacher with an unassuming project has the encounter with the unknown photographs, and asks the unasked questions.

Seventy years later, across time and space, the portal has been entered. The wires of the cosmos have been tripped. And the universe channels the unassuming power of love across the abyss as the aged rescuers and survivors and their descendants are brought together to meet again.

It is a miracle of healing and reconnection. A cosmic circuit has been completed, but maybe, in some small way, another pathway to undoing a tragic cycle is opened. And it is not a coincidence.

As I wrap up this post, I am pinged with an email from my ‘second mom’ in Toronto, survivor Ariela. She was 11 when she was liberated on the train with her aunt. Her parents and grandparents were murdered in Poland by the Germans. She’s good on Facebook, but has a tough time with email. She’s thinking of me, and the book which has to tell the story. The email comes through now, loud and clear.

This is the train that should have led to death. Instead, it leads to life, and a legacy of the triumph of good over evil. And maybe, just maybe, amidst all of the horror and the suffering, there is a lesson here, somewhere.

I’d like to think so.

 

 

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edwin israel by matt rozell

edwin israel by matt rozell

I’m working on my second and third books simultaneously, the trilogy of World War II and Holocaust stories that have shaped my life though the narratives of those who lived through it. One of the most gratifying things is recalling the conversations I recorded over the course of nearly two decades. Most of the subjects are now deceased.

Edwin Israel participated in the invasion of Normandy, Sicily and North Africa. He received 2 Bronze Stars. One time he captured three soldiers who were trying to kill him, marching them back to his lines at gunpoint, with an empty rifle pointed at them. Another time he evaded capture by pretending he was dead and lying down on top of a German soldier he had just mortally wounded. When the enemy patrol passed, the dying German, in perfect English, told him to take his stuff.

I got up and [this German I shot] starts talking to me in English, he says he’s from Coney Island, in Brooklyn, he went to visit his mother in Germany and they put him in the army. And he was dying, and he says to me, ‘you can take my cigarettes; you can take my schnapps’. Then he died right underneath me. And I imagine he knew I had shot him…

He was a first scout who navigated his way back to his lines at night by following the stars. One time he crossed through a minefield and back without knowing it.

Before the invasion of Normandy, he rolled craps all night before going in on Omaha Beach. He had all the money at the end, and loaned out money to the guys who wanted to keep playing. Not one of them survived.

His beloved captain, who had been his CO all through the war, warned him about the mines on the beach before disembarking. The first thing that he did after that was step on a mine and get killed.

 

Everything was very lucky for me.  I just happened to do this, or happened to do that.  When they counterattacked that time on the hill, I just figured I’ll lay down on top of that soldier and make believe I’m dead. I used to go scouting at night by the stars—I used to look up and see where certain stars were, so that I could find my way back. That was how I found my way back when the fellas and I went to the mountain—by stars—through the minefield. We were so lucky. But you know, I never worried about getting wounded; it never bothered me.  I was only worried about getting captured, never worried about getting shot.  I said, ‘They’re not going to shoot me.’  That was my attitude. I volunteered for everything. I only worried that I was going to get captured.  With my name, I figured, oh, they’re going to kill me. That’s the only thing I worried about.

 

I interviewed him four months before he died, twelve years ago. The tape was then buried but has since been rediscovered. Lately I have been working on and editing his transcript for days. There is a noble feeling akin to resurrecting these men that makes the time so worthwhile.

Look for the next book this summer. We’re bringing Ed back.

TOFS Book Presentation

 

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Vet tells his story: from Pearl Harbor to the classroom

by Liza Frenette

Alvin Peachman

Nineteen-year-old Alvin Peachman was playing pingpong when he heard about the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. His heart might have skipped a few beats, like a ping-pong ball skittering across the table. But it didn’t take too many heartbeats after that for him to enlist in the Navy.

“We heard the news on the radio. There was no TV then,” he told students at Hudson Falls High School recently. The idea of the U.S. Navy being so outrageously attacked seemed unthinkable.

“We thought it was a joke. Then, we heard President Roosevelt ask Congress for a Declaration of War. And I knew that I’d be in it,” Peachman said. “There was war fever. There were posters to inflame your patriotism.”

Always interested in history and geography, he said he knew right where Pearl Harbor was. Information about Pearl Harbor Day can be accessed in a free lesson plan at the American Federation of Teachers’ “Share My Lesson” site.

“I volunteered for the Navy. You had to be in perfect physical condition,” Peachman said.

At the time, he was working on the docks in New York City, where he’d come to find work away from the coal mines of Appalachia, where he grew up. He unloaded coffee on the piers. “I could rip the pier up!” he boasted.

It’s been a long time since Peachman was in front of a classroom, teaching students about history. But, at 93, he still lives just down the street from the small and rural Hudson Falls High School where he taught from 1951 to 1983. So he came on over recently to spend several hours with two classes of students, talking about his experiences during WWII. He fought in the Pacific Theater, which spilled out on a map behind him for students to see. A white-haired man with sparkling blue eyes, he sat comfortably in front of the students, wearing a brown cardigan, telling them how he slept in a hammock on his ship with 50 men in a room the size of their classroom.

He showed them a metal chunk from a kamikaze plane that attacked the U.S.S. Witter, a destroyer escort ship off Okinawa. Peachman worked as a radio operator and barely escaped death. Students marveled at the piece of history.

Peachman earned $21 a month for his service in the military, but he had to pay $6.50 of that for insurance because, he recalled, “If you got killed and didn’t have insurance, your mother got nothing.”

His service included fighting in the Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands and New Zealand. When fighting on land, he said his helmet served as a wash basin to shave and wash. Many comrades got malaria or other tropical diseases. “You’d get dysentery and be so sick, you wish you were dead,” he said.

Sometimes he was “10,000 to 12,000 miles away from anywhere on the ship,” he said. He crossed the equator a half dozen times and lived through a typhoon, where waves slammed the ships sideways. People had to be tied down so they didn’t get washed away. More than a thousand lives were lost during the two-week storm, Peachman said.

Those weren’t the only challenges.

“I saw no girls for two years and that bothered me,” he said, as students laughed with him. “You go nuts!”

He got out of the service on a Friday and enrolled in college in New York City the following Monday. “I studied like a bulldog,” he said. He worked on Wall Street and then for Western Electric, but his commute was long and he found the city crowded. He went to New York University to get his history degree, and then found a listing for a teaching job in Hudson Falls.

“When they told me the train fare was $15, I almost collapsed,” he said, breaking out into a huge smile.

His host for the day at the school was Matt Rozell, who used to be Peachman’s student. Now, Rozell has written a book, The Things Our Fathers Saw (The Untold Stories of the WWII Generation from Hometown USA — which includes interviews with Peachman and many other veterans. Peachman also passed around a book with photos of his bombed out ship and pictures of his comrades.

“This book will help to remind those who are young and who are living in today’s confused world, that freedom is not free,” Peachman said.

http://blogs.nysut.org/blog/2015/12/07/pearl-harbor-attack-prompted-dockworker-to-enlist-retired-vet-and-teacher-tells-students/

 

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This past Friday, I spoke to scores of educators interested in the Holocaust and genocide, people who were also attempting to teach about these crimes against humanity. As a teacher, you have to be very committed to do this seriously- just to try to attempt to understand these events, let alone teach about them to young people.

I was invited by the New Jersey Council of Holocaust Educators in cooperation with the Center for the Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education at Brookdale College. I have my take on things, and that is what I am working on now, in my new book. I was also in some pretty good company.

My good friend and fellow educator Alan Bush, who drove two hours on his own time to come out and support me (even though he told me I was not as attractive as the previous speakers).

My good friend and fellow educator Alan Bush, who drove two hours on his own time to come out and support me (even though he told me I was not as attractive as the previous speakers).

In the morning Alexandra Zapruder engaged with the teachers by reading excerpts from her seminal work, Savaged Pages, Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust, creating a dialogue about how the young people who left behind diaries left so much more than just the written word of their time of horror and oppression. This was not Anne Frank, but a deeper dialogue about attempting to make sense of the senseless, and the conflicting emotions that really encourage us to look into the abyss, beyond the standard narrative of what we think we know about the Holocaust- powerfully, from teenager to teenager. And Alex is the perfect vessel.

Meline Toumani read from her book, There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond, about growing up in the Armenian Diaspora community and her process of discovery in the context of the conflicting narratives of Armenian genocide of 1915 and her attempt to get to the root of her own self identity. Her book came out on the eve of the 100th anniversary, and the topic resonates especially as we try to make sense of the larger picture of genocide and the ripples that these actions, and our own re-actions, create. She spent her entire 30s in the process, and this is what also fascinated me, as her book is classified as a memoir. I am now tearing through her work, making notes, highlighting certain passages. For the passionate, writing indeed becomes a huge part of your life.

Then it was my turn.

I fumbled a bit, looking up this website to display for the crowd and typing in misspelling after misspelling for the Jumbotron, but quickly won them over by simply showing the teachers a photo of my classroom

the last generationand reminding them that I was also missing a day of school today,  but what were were all doing together had a meaning and importance that really transcended our normal daily routine. It was okay- we were in this together, and I would show them how one person could make a difference and that one person is YOU, the teacher.

So I began to tell my story, the one that I will be detailing in my upcoming book, about how I had no intention of becoming a teacher, in fact, NO intention of ever returning to my hometown after high school–and how seven years later I was living in a room off my parents’ garage, and working on the other side of the desk in the high school I swore I would never return to.  And it was survival mode for the first few years. If someone had shown me the easy way out, I would have jumped. But I did not, *for some reason*, and because I stuck with it I was standing before them that day, about to tell my story.

So I did. They laughed, and they got emotional. There were powerful messages imbedded in the narrative that followed, though I tried not to point them out. I didn’t have to-they got it. Some people teared up. I think I did too, when I showed the videos and remembered the people that I have lost over the course of this wonderful journey. So I share it here again for the benefit of those who maybe would like to see it again, or might like to use it in their own classrooms.

It is the story of my main character, the “liberator” Carrol “Red” Walsh, who passed three years ago this month, and Steve Barry, the 20 year old survivor who graphically describes his Holocaust experience, his day of liberation, and searching for so many years and finally finding his liberators, due to my teacher project. I forgot to tell my attentive audience that after Steve made it to the USA, he was drafted and served as a US Army Ranger in Korea- and that he called himself the “Happiest Korean Conflict Draftee”. Or that after he passed, his daughters boxed up his library of Holocaust-related books, and sent them to me. But I did tell them that forevermore, his words will remain inscribed in granite at the Donors’ Wall of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum- “It’s not for my sake that people should remember the Holocaust, it is FOR THE SAKE OF HUMANITY”.

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

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

When I was finished, there was no real time for a Q and A session left-but people streamed over to me, taking my hand in many instances, and thanked me for something really simple-inspiration. And that is what meant the most, that these people were TEACHERS, like me. I drove the next the five hours on a cloud, just thinking about the day.

We have so much power to change the world, so much responsibility. Especially those of us who take on these topics. We get so caught up in the day to day milieu- we don’t see the forest. Today, thanks to the program and its organizers and speakers, we all at least caught a glimpse of it. The chief architect and MC, Colleen Tambuscio, radiated the collaborative enthusiasm that really carried the day and tied everything, and everyone, together.

*So, the ripples continue, and the generations go forth. Somebody said it was like pebbles being tossed into the still water. This may sound strange, but I have become keenly aware of the cosmic element-

We have the power to trip the wires of the cosmos.

 

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