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~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~


A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

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July 13. Our last day in this beautiful, revitalized city of Krakow. And like the city, the Jewish community is also trying to revitalize. There is even a Jewish Cultural Festival coming up in Krakow. Our non-Jewish young Polish guides here have certainly been passionate about not letting the past die, as were our German historians encountered on our trip. Gusia takes us to the Jewish Community Center, and Jakub gives us a guided tour in the new Jewish Heritage Museum. He reaches 12,000 schoolchildren, doing outreach, and works with others to resurrect desecrated Jewish cemeteries. As he puts it, it is Polish heritage as well as Jewish heritage. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Poland was the center of European Jewish life.  In fact, at the end of the 18th century, 75% of the world’s Jews lived in the former Galicia,  once part of Poland, Ukraine and the Austria-Hungarian empire. Still, in most places in Poland there is nothing left of what was. Out of what was once millions, today only between 12,000 and 14,000 Jews call Poland home. Let’s not forget that after the war, Jewish survivors were not exactly welcomed back by their neighbors with open arms. And the Communist regime conducted its own purges of Jews as well.

All the more reason to embrace the work of Gusia and Jakub and other dedicated Poles.

Jewish Community Center, Krakow

Jewish Community Center, Krakow.

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letter from AR at Belzec July 2013

July 14. Bus ride is long, from Krakow to Belzec (pronounced “Bel-zich”) Memorial site. Five hours. Imagine what it was like traveling in a packed railcar.   Well, we can’t.

I carry a letter with me written by my friend, survivor Ariela, who, like many friends is supporting me in my travel here. It has been in my pocket for weeks. Ariela was 11 when she was liberated with her aunt on the train near Magdeburg, from Bergen Belsen. She too had been in the prison at Montelupich in Krakow.

A little girl.

In a political prison.

 

Ariela R. at the time of her liberation. Age 11. April 1945. Photograph by liberator George C. Gross.

Ariela R. at the time of her liberation. Age 11. April 1945. Photograph by liberator George C. Gross.

 

So, I am kind of quiet as we approach the memorial site. Ariela’s mother, only 36, both of her grandmothers, her grandfather and two aunts were murdered here in 1942. Her father, other grandfather, and uncle were murdered in Auschwitz, where we were two days ago.

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Belzec, Poland. Half a million people murdered on this site. Half a million.

Belzec, Poland. Half a million people murdered on this site. Half a million. Unreal.

From the USHMM:

“In November 1941, SS and police authorities in Lublin District began construction of a killing center on the site of the former Belzec labor camp. The choice of location was dictated by good rail connections and proximity to significant Jewish populations in the Lvov, Krakow, and Lublin districts of the Generalgouvernement. The facility was finished in the late winter of 1942 as part of what later would be called Operation Reinhard (also called Aktion Reinhard), the plan implemented by the SS and Police Leader in Lublin to murder the Jews of the Generalgouvernement. Belzec began operations on March 17, 1942.”

Belzec Memorial.

Belzec Memorial.

Belzec Memorial site. There was no memorial for nearly 60 years.

Belzec Memorial site. There was no memorial for nearly 60 years.

“Trains of 40 to 60 freight cars, with 80 to 100 people crowded into each car, arrived at the Belzec railway station. Twenty freight cars at a time were brought into the camp. Arriving Jews were ordered to disembark. German SS and police personnel announced that the Jewish deportees had arrived at a transit camp and were to hand over all valuables.”

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“Initially, men were separated from women and children, though in later months, as transport arrivals became more chaotic due to increased awareness of the victims of what would happen, the Germans and the Trawniki-trained auxiliaries could not always implement this segregation. The Jews were forced to undress and run through the “tube,” which led directly into gas chambers deceptively labeled as showers. Once the chamber doors were sealed, auxiliary police guards started an engine located outside the building housing the gas chambers. Carbon monoxide was funneled into the gas chambers, killing all those inside. The process was then repeated with deportees in the next 20 freight cars. ”

Jews are forced into boxcars destined for the Belzec extermination camp. Lublin, Poland, 1942. USHMM.

Jews are forced into boxcars destined for the Belzec extermination camp. Lublin, Poland, 1942. USHMM.

“Groups of prisoners selected to remain alive as forced laborers removed bodies from the gas chambers and buried the victims in mass graves. Other prisoners were forced to sort the victims’ possessions and clean out freight cars for the next deportation. Camp staff periodically murdered these forced laborers, and replaced them with newly arrived prisoners. In October 1942, German SS and police personnel, using groups of Jewish prisoners, began to exhume the mass graves at Belzec and burn the bodies on open-air “ovens” made from rail track. The Germans also utilized a machine to crush bone fragments into powder. By late spring 1943, the camp was dismantled. During June 1943, the remaining Jewish prisoners were either shot in Belzec or deported to the Sobibor killing center to be gassed. After Belzec was dismantled, the Germans plowed over the site. Soviet forces overran the region in July 1944.”-USHMM

Belzec.

Belzec.

Open air ovens. Rail track. Machine. Bone fragments. Powder.

 

End of the Belzec extermination camp, c 1944.  USHMM

End of the Belzec killing center, c 1944. USHMM

 

Belzec.

Belzec.

The women in our group enter the memorial for a private ceremony. The seven men walk the perimeter, near the hillside. The memorial project leaders were told that during the Operation Reinhard actions, some of the locals would picnic on the hillside behind us as transports pulled in to discharge the terrified and doomed victims.

They would watch.

After the German attempt to destroy the site and hide the evidence of a half a million  gassed and cremated, the site would be rifled for gold, pockmarked with shovel pits by the local population.

Surely those Jews had gold with them, when they were killed.

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When Ariela came here in 1993, it had reverted to forested hillside.

I unfold the letter and step out into the volcanic type rocks imported here to build the memorial. I am setting up my own memorial.

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Matt Rozell at Belzec, 2013. Photo by Alan Bush.

Matt Rozell at Belzec, 2013. Photo by Alan Bush.

 

Belzec.

Belzec.

After the touring of the memorial (though “touring” is the wrong word, perhaps “witnessing” is the right one), I am lost in thought.  I had kept the letter to myself. Alan asks, gently,  if he may see it. It gets passed around in the back of the bus on our way to the hotel in Lublin. After what we have seen today, I think it makes an important impact on all.

Later, Alan sends his photograph of me placing the letter on the memorial, to Ariela. She is touched and writes back:

I want to thank you with all my heart for what you did for me, by taking my letter and putting it on the ground where my mother’s bones are spread. When I saw the picture, I cried. It is already 71 years but my heart still has feeling, for all my family. My father asked in his last letter from jail that I should pray for him, and believe me that I do.

Ariela went on to marry and have a wonderful family. Her beloved husband, another survivor, passed a short time ago.

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Yes, it was another tough day, but somehow I feel like we are making a difference by coming here. I come with no agenda other than to see what happened, though obviously I too feel a personal stake in it all.

*

Sometimes, when I’m working on the woodpile or resting on the tailgate of my truck, I wonder why I was chosen to connect Holocaust survivors with their “angels”. Like this little girl with her liberators. And from there, to journey back in time to uncover what happened here.

Ariela meets her liberator Carrol "Red" Walsh, Sept. 2009, at our "reunion".

Ariela meets her liberator, tank commander Carrol “Red” Walsh, Sept. 2009, at our “reunion”.

I suppose I could have just let things be.

But I couldn’t leave things alone.

Holocaust survivor Ariela Rojek, right, was 11 years old in 1945 when she and 2,500 other concentration camp prisoners aboard a train near Magdeburg, Germany, were liberated by American forces including 1st Lt. Frank Towers, left with his son Frank Towers Jr., center. "You gave me my second life," Rojek told Towers Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, at Hudson Falls High School during an event reuniting soldiers and survivors. Jason McKibben Glens Falls Post Star

Holocaust survivor Ariela Rojek, right, was 11 years old in 1945 when she and 2,500 other concentration camp prisoners aboard a train near Magdeburg, Germany, were liberated by American forces including 1st Lt. Frank Towers, left with his son Frank Towers Jr., center. “You gave me my second life,” Rojek told Towers Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, at Hudson Falls High School during an event reuniting soldiers and survivors.
Photo by Jason McKibben, Glens Falls Post Star

It certainly seems that one thing builds upon another for a reason, and though we may not know that reason, it is there. Our actions reverberate across borders and through time.

It’s true.

So I’m here to make another special connection.

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Maybe from little girl to mother.

So no one forgets.

 

 

Kisses for Grandma.

Kisses for Grandma.

 

And the cycle, the mystery, the life continues.

 

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~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~


A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

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

July 13. By now it’s probable that you have seen the film Schindler’s List. Today we visited his enamelware factory, now a museum.  Part of the film was shot here.

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Here is a look at some of the things inside:

Schindler factory. Stairwell leading to office.

Schindler factory. Stairwell leading to office.

 

Schindler factory. Oscar Schindler's office.

Schindler factory. Oskar Schindler’s office. His desk, chair, wall map.

Schindler factory. Alan Bush photo.

Schindler factory. Alan Bush photo.

 

Gusia moves us on to some of the other exhibits, explaining life in Krakow pre-war as well as life during the occupation. By 1943, when the ghetto in Krakow was liquidated, 21,000 Germans lived here.

One of the exhibits is on the Montelupich Prison, the Gestapo prison where people would be interrogated and tortured. When I see the sign, my heart skips a beat. I KNOW people who have been locked up here. So it is not ancient history, and here it is before my very eyes:

Montelupich Prison, the Gestapo prison in Krakow.

Montelupich Prison, the Gestapo prison in Krakow.

 

Montelupich Prison.

Montelupich Prison.

Our survivor Gina continues her story from the previous post:

One day in November I left my family with the purpose of finding work outside the ghetto with the idea of returning later to take them with me.
I left at 10 o’clock at night. I was accompanied by a young Pole who took me to Lemberg, where we arrived on the evening of the next day at ten o’clock. I had to stay over for a night in a farm while the young Pole went to see what possibilities there were for me. He came back next day at seven o’clock in the morning and he informed me that other Jews having obtained Aryan papers were in the district and they were trying to do something for me.
These people had obtained responsible posts in several factories as Aryans, and they helped me as much as they could. I got a job in a German office as typist. Nobody knew that I was a Jewess. After a few days the owner of the factory told me he wanted to court me as he liked my looks, and I had to run away from him.
I had to change my papers and my name so that he couldn’t find me. I altered my papers and I said that I was married. I then took up work in another factory where I could work without being disturbed.
One night I was sitting at home. I heard somebody knock at the door. It was the German police. I was asked for my papers, I showed them to them. And after examining them they told me I was a Jewess. I was asked to accompany them to the Gestapo. I refused to go saying that I preferred to die on the spot rather than go to the Gestapo. We talked for one hour and I was obliged to accompany them. In the street they took away from me all my valuables, my watch, my money and told me to leave Lemberg immediately. I was left alone in a solitary street. I couldn’t find a bed for the night. I had to change again my papers. I was tired out. I wanted to commit suicide. Next day I found a new home and I had many new troubles.
Coming in one day I was told by the land-lady that the policemen looked for me during the day. I left the house and I went to the place where I received the correspondence from my mother, in which she was telling that we had received foreign naturalization papers which would allow us to go to Palestine. I packed my things and returned home immediately.
When I returned home my mother was in one ghetto and my sister in the other. I had to hide in a cellar because if the German discovered that i had false Aryan papers I could be shot. I kept in hiding in this place for about two months.
Being now of foreign nationality we had to present ourselves regularly to the Gestapo. At one day they informed us that we would be sent to Palestine to be exchanged with German prisoners. On the next day the German police came at our house at 3 o’clock in the night and told us to pack up our things and go to the station. They told us we would go directly to Palestine.
Instead of Palestine they carried us in a prison in the town of Krakow; we were conducted in one of the prison cells where there were already 26 persons. It was a very dark place. We were very depressed and disappointed. We knew already what the Germans were capable of but it was new sadism on their part. The only food they give us was a tiny piece of bread and watery soup. At night we slept on the floor and we heard people crying because they were being beaten. We heard also a good deal of firing. We had always the impression that they will come to take us.
Then they informed us that we were interned and that we should have to wait. We waited and waited. In the day time we could observe how they were making sadistic gymnastics with the people. This made a very bad impression on us.

Gina was later sent to Bergen Belsen, where more trials awaited, and was liberated on April 13th, 1945 by the Americans who came across the evacuation transport near Farsleben, Germany.

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If you have watched Schindler’s List, you may be familiar with the scene of the liquidation of the ghetto in March, 1943, in accordance with Operation Reinhard. From the USHMM:

The SS and police planned the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto for mid-March 1943, in accordance with the Himmler’s order in October 1942 to complete the murder of the Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement, incarcerating those few whose labor was still required in forced-labor camps.

On March 13-14, 1943, the SS and police carried out the operation, shooting some 2,000 Jews in the ghetto. The SS transferred another 2,000 Jews — those capable of work and the surviving members of the Jewish Council and the Jewish police force  — to the Plaszow forced-labor camp, and the rest of the Jews, approximately 3,000, to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center in two transports, arriving on March 13 and March 16. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camp authorities selected 549 persons from the two transports (499 men and 50 women) to be registered as prisoners and murdered the others, approximately 2,450, in the gas chambers.”

 

Liquidation of the Krakow ghetto.

Liquidation of the Krakow ghetto.

 

Memorial, Krakow Ghetto.

Memorial, Krakow Ghetto.

 

Liquidation of the Krakow ghetto.

Liquidation of the Krakow ghetto.

 

Belzec Site memorial.

Belzec Site memorial.

So now it’s time to reflect again on where this all fits into the big picture.

Humans want resolution, closure, whatever you want to call it. Oskar Schindler was a complex man who made a difference.  But he was one of the very few, and in reality there are no happy endings to this story.

Important lessons, yes. Happy endings, no.

Tomorrow we head to Belzec.

 

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