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Posts Tagged ‘oral history’


April 17, 1945, was a Sunday. It was three days after the liberation of the train near Magdeburg, near the Elbe River, just miles from Berlin. War weary GIs had their first encounters with the conditions at the train. They would never forget what they saw.

April 17th. (1945)

Dear Chaplain;-

Haven’t written you in many months now, its funny how a few moments are so hard to find in which to write a letter way past due; it’s much easier to keep putting it off the way I’ve done. I’ll try to make up for it in this letter.

Today I saw a sight that’s impossible to describe, however I’ll try. Between 2400 and 3000 German refugees were overran by my division during our last operation; most of them were, or had been, inmates of concentration camps, their crimes the usual ones, – Jewish parentage, political differences with der Fuhrer, lack of sympathy for the SS, or just plain bad luck. Not one of these hundreds could walk one mile and survive; they had been packed on a train whose normal capacity was perhaps four or five hundred, and had been left there days without food.

Our division military government unit took charge of them, and immediately saw what a huge job it was going to be, so they sent out a call for help. Several of our officers went out to help them organize the camp they were setting up for them. The situation was extremely ticklish we soon learned; no one could smoke as it started a riot when the refugees saw the cigarette, and we couldn’t give the kiddies anything or they would have been trampled to death in the rush that would result when anything resembling food was displayed. The only nourishment they were capable of eating was soup; now the army doesn’t issue any of the Heinz’s 57 varieties, so we watered down C-ration[s] and it served quite well.  It was necessary to use force to make the people stay in line in order to serve them. They had no will power left, only the characteristics of beasts.

A few weeks of decent food will change them into a semblance of normal human beings; with God willing the plague of disease that was already underway, will be diverted; but I’m wondering what the affect of their ordeal they have been through, will be on their minds; most will carry scars for the rest of their days for the beatings that they were given. No other single thing had convinced me as this experience has that Germany isn’t fit to survive as a nation. I’ll never forget today.

I was going to write mother tonight but thought better of it. I’ll be in a better frame of mind tomorrow. I’m only a few dozen miles from Berlin right now, and its hard to realize the end is in sight. I’m always glad to receive your scandal sheet. You perhaps missed your calling, as your editorial abilities are quite plain.

As ever,

Charles.

March 11th, 2009

Dear Mr. Rozell: My father-in-law was 1st. Lt. Charles M. Kincaid. He was a Liaison Officer with the 30th. Division Artillery.  He was honored with an Air Medal in the battle of Mortain and a Bronze Medal in the battle of St. Lo.  In the battle of Mortain he won his Air Medal by calling in artillery adjustments while flying in a Piper L-4 over 4 panzer divisions on August 9, 1944.

He rarely wrote home. He did write home to his minister about one event that evidently really caused him to stop and think. Attached is a copy of that letter that his sister transcribed – making copies for others to read.  The letter describes the Farsleben train and his experience there.

I need to thank you for your website and work. You and your students work enabled me to connect the letter with the actual historical event. It further enabled me to show my children the pictures and to make their grandfather’s experience real, not just an old letter – that this event so affected him that he needed to tell his minister before he told his mother.

Thank you,
Mark A.

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I am in Israel now to embark upon two and a half weeks of study at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. I am humbled. But I was here before, in 2011, with liberator Frank Towers as he was recognized for his efforts 70 years ago, on behalf of American liberators everywhere. Here in Israel he met with statesmen and the head of the IDF, as well as over 50 survivors and their families who were liberated on April 13, 1945, an event that Frank had a direct hand in.

Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.

Varda Weisskopf, liberator Frank Towers, Matthew Rozell at Yad Vashem, May, 2011.

It’s a long story, but my work as a teacher has been here, too. In the background, note the Benjamin photo at the 2015 70th anniversary state ceremonies.

"The anguish of the liberation and return to life". Note the Benjamin photograph on the banner. Yad Vashem, 2015.

“The anguish of the liberation and return to life”. Note the Benjamin photograph on the banner. Yad Vashem, April 2015.

The short version of the story:

Fifteen summers ago I sat down to listen to an old gentleman in a rocking chair. A  war weary tank commander in 1945, he told me stories of his World War II experiences and then led me to his fellow tank commander, who showed me a picture that their major had taken on April 13, 1945. You see, those two were there, and their two tanks had liberated a concentration camp transport deep in the heart of war-torn Germany.

It would be the first time in decades that this picture had seen the light of day. And because of its discovery, and what we would do with it, thousands of lives were about to change.

Yad Vashem contacted me in December 2014 to inquire about using the Major Benjamin photo. I immediately sent them a high resolution copy. My friend Varda in Israel writes, ‘[The photograph above was taken] during the main ceremony at  the Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem. This photo shows the President of Israel Reuven Rivlin make his speech. You can see your photo there at the middle (banner) and I now think it was there throughout all the ceremony.’

Below, a post from the time of the event in April, 2015..

 

My good friend in Israel let me know that the April 15th  commemoration of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Israel was a moving event and sent me the link to the video of the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation. While the  narrative  behind the Major Benjamin photograph was not a focus, the photo that which now seems to be becoming a cornerstone of the history of Holocaust liberation is all throughout the ceremony, and especially at 8:31. One of my friends, a survivor who had been a six-year old boy on this transport that Major Benjamin photographed at the moment his jeep arrived at the train, notes,

The photograph wouldn’t be there if not for your effort. It was presiding on 1.5 hrs of national ceremony in the presence of Israel’s president, prime minister, the entire government, the top army guys, survivors, chief rabbis and was nationally broadcast. You have a direct hand in this.

Me, a lowly teacher, whose work for an evening is presiding as the backdrop for presidents and prime ministers. I am proud and hope that the story is told over and over, and that it serves the memory of the victims, the survivors, and the liberators well. I just can’t believe sometimes this path I have been down, since the day over a dozen years ago when I took the time to listen to a war veteran, and began to backtrack his story.  There are other forces at work here, I think… and there is a cosmic force that reverberates in you when you teach the Holocaust from the heart.

Teachers out there, you all know the power of what we do. I hope this serves as an affirmation.

 

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

Matthew Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow and teaches history at his alma mater in upstate New York. His work has resulted in the reuniting of 275 Holocaust survivors and the American soldiers who freed them.

His first book, ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’, was released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. His second book,  is on the power of  teaching, remembering the Holocaust, the Benjamin photograph and this ‘Train Near Magdeburg’. 

 

 

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My friend Gordon Hanna died the other day. He was my electrician, and I’m sure the electrician for half of the small town I live in, at least. He was 90.

He was also a World War II veteran. How wonderful that we had the foresight to interview him at his homestead here in Hartford a few years back. We always ask, ‘when and where were you born’. Kaylee got a surprise when he pointed up over his head- to the bedroom upstairs. As Gordon’s generation go, we are leaving an older world behind. I’m not convinced that the newer one is better.

I always say that this is the toughest part about doing projects like these; your friends go and die on you.

Next time I flip the switch in my house I’ll think of him.

Gordon Hanna : There was a big farm down the road. It was the Clifford Sheldon farm, about a three hundred acre farm. And I started working for him when I was eleven year old. Nights after school, and Saturdays and Sundays.
Kaylee Merlow (student interviewer): Where your parents farmers, or …?
GH: My parents, lived down the road, where my father, and my uncle, and my grandfather, owned Hanna Hardware up in Hartford, up here.
KM: Was it difficult for you to balance both school and working on a farm?
GH: No, it wasn’t that bad. Because you got out early. We got out about three o’clock. You would work until dark. But, I worked Saturdays and Sundays. I did all the plowing and fitting the ground and like that. I thought I was doing pretty good. I was getting $1 a day. When that’s when, grown men, that’s all they were getting for work at that time.
KM: Were you raised in like a religious home or….? Like did you attending church every Sunday?
GH: Yes I went to church regularity. White church, Congregational church up here. Then later on I taught Sunday school up there.
KM: Mr. Rozell told me that you worked in Smiths Basin harvesting ice?
GH: Yes, Mr. Rozell thought that that might be something you hadn’t ever heard of. Well, milk was transported from all the farms. There used to be a lot more farms around here than there are now. And the milk was transported in cans. Over to Smiths Basin there’s a big, well, you ever go through Smiths Basin, across the railroad tracks? There’s still a great big building there. That was a creamery. And the milk was all taken in there. Well in that time there was no chemical refrigeration as you know it today, so we had to refrigerate everything with ice. So the canal runs right along there and up the canal right next to the locks they used to cut the ice. They cut it with an old model Ford motor and a great big 48 inch round circle saw. Which you probably never saw sawing wood or anything but that’s what they used. And they cut slices in the ice two feet wide and then they would cross cut them, every three feet, so a cake of ice was two by three by whatever depth it froze to. Long later in the winter, February, like that, they would get up to three feet thick. So a cake of ice, at that time, would weigh probably three hundred lbs. They had, the canal sits a lot lower than about the bank up here when you go down the canal. They had a long ramp made of wood with sides on it, narrow sides like that [hand gestures for ramp], with a walkway up and down it. Then they had a winch, up on top, which one of the farmers would bring his tractor there and run this winch. And they had what the called a ‘crab’ which was a metal thing, shaped like that [hand gestures], with a handle up there. What they would do, they had this ice all scored. They would take it and they had it right up to that ramp. They would take spuds,  just a big knife, about that wide [hand gestures for width], sharp, on a handle. They take that go in the scores where they scored the ice, and that would split off the cakes, individual cakes. They would bring them over to the ramp. Then they would  hook that back of it, then the farmer would start the winch, pulling it up. He’d have to walk along the side of it to keep it from kicking up.
KM: My gosh.
GH: Well, some of the guys he’d go up then up onto a platform up on top. Then all the farmers that brought in milk would have their trucks there. That was a big thing, since that paid good money at that time. And they would slide it onto the trucks, then they’d transport it over to the ice house. Then at the ice house, they had a …. Ice house, about three stories high, they had a big frame work that went up. It had a, like an elevator, well it was slanted like that, made of steel. A farmer would have a tractor on a winch, at that point. He would slide the cake on, when he brought out the truck, it would go onto the elevator. Of course it started down oh say this high, so the elevator would just go up , the cake would slide off into the ice house. Well, as it got a layer of ice, of course it kept going higher and higher and higher. Enough, about three stories high.
KM: When did you ice harvest?
GH: January. It was done in January and February.
KM: So it was only just two months?
GH: Yes.
KM: Because an ice house can only be –
GH: Yes. It normally started in January, which was of course good for me because – [interrupted]
KM: Because of the timing?
GH: -The vacation in January, from school. And I was able to get on the job, that was a privilege to get on that job because at that time, it was paying as I remember, I think it was paying $5 an hour – when the average man was getting $1 a day.

Interviewed by Kaylee Merlow, Dec. 19, 2010.

 

 

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April 15th 1945                                                                                                                   Somewhere in Germany

You will probably be wondering who I am and what business I have, writing to you.- I am one of the millions of soldiers of the United States Army, who is fighting for all the oppressed peoples of the world and hopes to have reestablished decency and honor to all mankind, with the defeat of Hitlerism.

*****

My friend Varda in Israel sent me a copy of this letter she recently received from the widow of  Mr. Shmuel ‘Tommy’ Huppert of Israel. In it, an American soldier is taking the time to write to the husband of a Holocaust survivor to let him know that his wife and young son (Tommy) have been liberated, and that they have survived the horrors of the Holocaust and the carnage of ‘Hitlerism’.

Young Tommy and his mother, Mrs. Hilde Huppert,  were liberated at Farsleben on the transport from Bergen Belsen on April 13th, 1945. They managed to get to Palestine shortly after liberation, bringing with them many, many orphaned children, including my friend Lily Cohen.  Hilde’s manuscript, Hand in Hand with Tommy, was one of the first Holocaust memoirs completed after the war and a cathartic way for her to attempt to come to terms with what had happened.

It took years to be properly published, as it was originally rejected because it was ‘too soon after the war’. Later, at 93 years of age, Hilde was asked if there was anything specific she wished to convey to American readers of her book. She replied, ‘Tell them I will never forget those American GIs who liberated us from the Germans…I can still recall their amazed faces in that dusty jeep and the U.S. Army symbol. I remember kissing one of them, and I want the American people to know that I am grateful to them.’

One of the soldiers, on the Sunday following the Friday liberation, took the time to send this note on her behalf to her husband in Palestine. It now resides in the collection at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Authority.

4-15-45 Gartner to Huppert 1

April 15th 1945                                                                                                                      Somewhere in Germany

Dear Mr. Huppert,

You will probably be wondering who I am and what business I have, writing to you.- I am one of the millions of soldiers of the United States Army, who is fighting for all the oppressed peoples of the world and hopes to have reestablished decency and honor to all mankind, with the defeat of Hitlerism.

Two days ago, it was the priviledge (sic) of our unit, to be able to liberate a trainload full of people of all nations imaginable, who were being transferred from a concentration camp near Hannover, to some other place. Our advances were so swift, that the SS guards, left this particular train where it was and took off.

That is how I became acquainted with your wife, Mrs. Hilde Huppert, who asked me to drop you this note, saying, that both she and your son Tommy, are both healthy and well and now being well taken care of by our military governmental authorities. In actual fact, your wife wrote a message for you on a piece of paper in pencil, which she asked me to convey to you. Unfortunately, however, the penciled lines faded in my pocket, and I can no longer read what was written on it. The contents of the message, though, was to let you know that your wife and son are both safe and sound.

I am sure that your wife will soon be able to get into contact with you directly through the Red Cross, and I hope that in a none too distant future, your family will once more be peacefully united.

Sincerely yours,

Cpl. Frank Gartner

Fluent in many languages, Gartner was the translator for the 743rd Tank Battalion’s commander, Col. Duncan. He was originally from Estonia, and resided in Los Angeles, California. If anyone knows more about him, please leave a reply on this page. More can be found about the 743rd Tank Battalion in their regimental history, which can be downloaded here.

Transcribed by Alanna Belanger’15 and Alexis Winney ’15.

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My good friend in Israel let me know that the April 15th  commemoration of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Israel was a moving event and sent me the link to the video of the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation. While my work at piecing together the  narrative and the story behind the Major Benjamin photograph was not detailed, the photo which now seems to be becoming a cornerstone of the history of Holocaust liberation is all throughout the ceremony and especially at 8:31. One of my friends, a survivor who had been a six year old boy on this transport that Major Benjamin photographed at the moment his jeep arrived at the train, notes,

The photograph wouldn’t be there if not for your effort. It was presiding on 1.5 hrs of national ceremony in the presence of Israel’s president, prime minister, the entire government, the top army guys, survivors, chief rabbis and was nationally broadcast. You have a direct hand in this.

Me, a lowly teacher, whose work for an evening is presiding over presidents and prime ministers. I am proud and hope that the story is told over and over, and that it serves the memory of the victims, the survivors, and the liberators well. I just can’t believe sometimes this path I have been down, since the day 14 years ago when I took the time to listen to a war veteran, and began to backtrack his story.  There are other forces at work here, I think… and there is a cosmic force that reverberates in you when you teach the Holocaust from the heart.

Teachers out there, you all know the power of what we do. I hope this serves as an affirmation.

 

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

Matthew Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow and teaches history at his alma mater in upstate New York. His work has resulted in the reuniting of 275 Holocaust survivors and the American soldiers who freed them.

His first book, ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’, is being released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. His second book, in progress, is on the power of  teaching, remembering the Holocaust, the Benjamin photograph and this “Train Near Magdeburg’. He can be reached at marozell at gmail dot com.

 

 

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"The anguish of the liberation and return to life". Note the Benjamin photograph on the banner.

“The anguish of the liberation and return to life”. Note the Benjamin photograph on the banner. From the Yad Vashem website.

Fourteen summers ago I sat down to listen to an old gentleman in a rocking chair. A  war weary tank commander in 1945, he told me stories of his World War II experiences and then showed me a picture that his major had taken on April 13, 1945. You see, he was there. It would be the first time in decades that this picture had seen the light of day. And because of its discovery, and what we would do with it, thousands of lives were about to change.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Authority in Israel, contacted me in December 2014 to inquire about using the Major Benjamin photo. I did immediately send them a high resolution copy. My friend in Israel writes, ‘[The photograph above was taken] during the main ceremony at  the Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem. This photo shows the President of Israel Reuven Rivlin make his speech. You can see your photo there at the middle (banner) and I now think it was there throughout all the ceremony.’

I hope that whoever was present or sees this photograph will visit our website to learn the powerful story behind this amazing photograph in the context of the 70th anniversary of the liberation. No wonder the survivors of the train refer to April 13th as the day they were reborn. Below is the proper information.

Matthew Rozell

From Yad Vashem:

Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah in Hebrew) is a national day of commemoration in Israel, on which the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust are memorialized. It is a solemn day, beginning at sunset on the 27th of the month of Nisan and ending the following evening, according to the traditional Jewish custom of marking a day. Places of entertainment are closed and memorial ceremonies are held throughout the country. The central ceremonies, in the evening and the following morning, are held at Yad Vashem and are broadcast on the television. Marking the start of the day-in the presence of the President of the State of Israel and the Prime Minister, dignitaries, survivors, children of survivors and their families, gather together with the general public to take part in the memorial ceremony at Yad Vashem in which six torches, representing the six million murdered Jews, are lit. The following morning, the ceremony at Yad Vashem begins with the sounding of a siren for two minutes throughout the entire country. For the duration of the sounding, work is halted, people walking in the streets stop, cars pull off to the side of the road and everybody stands at silent attention in reverence to the victims of the Holocaust. Afterward, the focus of the ceremony at Yad Vashem is the laying of wreaths at the foot of the six torches, by dignitaries and the representatives of survivor groups and institutions. Other sites of remembrance in Israel, such as the Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz and Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, also host memorial ceremonies, as do schools, military bases, municipalities and places of work. Throughout the day, both the television and radio broadcast programs about the Holocaust. In recent years, other countries and Jewish communities have adopted Yom Hashoah, the 27th of Nisan, to mark their own day of memorial for the victims of the Holocaust.

Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day 2015 will be on Thursday, 16 April. The State opening ceremony will be held at Yad Vashem on Wednesday 15 April at 20:00.

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Update from Nashville: At the 30th Infantry Veterans of WW2 70th anniversary reunion.

Today’s events began with the posting of the colors and a moving memorial service for the veterans of the 30th Infantry Division and 743rd Tank Battalion who have moved on. Missing many, especially for me Buster Simmons, who would offer up a prayer at this gathering in his capacity as chaplain. Rest on,old soldier.

94 year old veteran Marion Sanford comes up to me and grips my hand. I have not seen him in 2 years, but he is the same to me as he always was. As a reconnaissance man for the 30th Infantry Division, he tells me how much he saw and how much now in retrospect meeting the survivors and their families has meant to him. He saw many terrible things overseas, which he felt he had to leave out of his 2012 book, ‘Old Hickory Recon’. Don’t think for a minute that a soldier understood why a friend might be killed and the fickle hand of fate spared another. In what way can this be justified? Survivors’ guilt was not just for the Holocaust survivors to experience. But this ‘small’ incident, the liberation of the train near Magdeburg, seems to have altered his perspective and the perspective of many of the soldiers I have met at these reunions. It seems to have enhanced and  added to ‘man’s search for meaning’, in a sense, as far as the soldiers go.

0417151104-00

Posting the colors. MC Frank Towers in the background. Frank will be 98 in June.

 ***

After lunch, moving talks today by survivors George Somjen (Hungary), Elisabeth Seaman (Netherlands), Micha Tomkeiwitz (Poland) . To their liberators they recounted the events that they remembered and  more importantly, the impact that the liberation and the meeting of their liberators meant not only for them and their families, but also  the world.

Later, the amazing reflections of the 2nd generation ‘Train near Magdeburg’ survivors who are with us for the first time: Evelyn Marcus, formerly of the Netherlands, Orly Beigel of Mexico, and Marc Boyman of Canada. April 13th, the liberation date, for their families was a date always remembered and celebrated; a time to remember how the American soldiers loved life, and loved people, and treated the survivors with such tenderness, empathy, and respect, in marked contrast to the soldiers from another Allied nation who moved in to replace the Americans as the terms of the peace settlement were adjusted.

 

L-R: Peggy Wonder, 2nd G; Evelyn Markus, 2nd G; Frank Towers, liberator; Orly Beigel, 2nd G; Micha Tomkeiwicz, Elisabeth Seaman. Missing: Marc Boyman, 2nd G; George Somjen.

L-R: Marc Boyman, 2nd G; Peggy Wonder, 2nd G; Evelyn Markus, 2nd G; Frank Towers, liberator; Orly Beigel, 2nd G; Micha Tomkeiwicz, Elisabeth Seaman, Matthew Rozell Missing: George Somjen. Photo credit: Patti Jordan. 4-17-15.

I heard today so many vignettes of hope and promise for the future of mankind. And this, I witnessed with my own eyes. This gathering, this whole trip is an affirmation of the goodness of mankind, a meditation on the profound difference  that  one’s actions can make, and the confirmation that teaching history really does matter.

Orly Beigel’s mother, far left, 1945. Commonly mislabeled as ‘Buchenwald Survivors Entering Israel, 1945’. No. These girls ( L-Jetty (Jetta) Halpern and R-Magda Werber, together with Jetty’s older sister Golda Katz-Halpern, not pictured) pulled into the station at Guard d’Lion, Paris in France with much fanfare several weeks after liberation; there was a celebration as they arrived, so they thought that a celebrity must be on board. The war was over. In a rare instance, the survivors were the ones being celebrated.

 

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