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A Conversation with Rona Arato, author of THE LAST TRAIN: A HOLOCAUST STORY

By Sharon Salluzzo

In The Last Train, Rona Arato deftly tells her husband Paul’s remembrances of his life between April 1944 and November 1945. Paul was five years old when he, his ten-year-old brother, Oscar, and their mother (his father had already been taken away to a work camp) were taken from their home and forced into a ghetto, put in boxcars and taken to a farm in Austria, and finally to Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp. In April 1945, Paul and his family were again put in boxcars. American soldiers, who were in combat at the time, liberated the train near Farsleben, Germany. The physical and psychological horrors endured by Paul make a very strong impact. Rona lets the events carry the book.

But the story doesn’t end there. In September 2009, Hudson Falls, NY history teacher, Matt Rozell, held a Holocaust Symposium and a reunion for the train survivors and the soldiers who liberated the train. They spoke with students, and with one another. It was a time of great emotion, constantly moving between sorrow and joy. I am so glad that Rona included Paul’s remarks to the students in her book. I was fortunate to be in the audience at the symposium, and I will never forget listening to Paul as he spoke. I grew up having seen a photograph that Paul waited sixty years to see. My father was one of the U.S. soldiers who liberated the train. I sat next to Rona at dinner that last night of the reunion. She said she wanted to write Paul’s story. Four years later it has now been published. I am delighted to share a conversation I recently had with her.

Sharon: What kind of preparation did you have to do in order to write THE LAST TRAIN?

Rona: I often tell people that when I married Paul, I married the Holocaust. While it was at the symposium at Hudson Falls High School that I became determined to write Paul’s story, I have been accumulating information and background since our marriage. To get a better understanding of his background, I interviewed Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoa Visual History Foundation between 1994 and 1998. Paul had applied for family reparations after the War, and I read the outlines. Occasionally, he would tell me some of his experiences. In the late 1970s or early 80s, he and I visited Karcag, Hungary, Paul’s hometown. It was still under Communist control and very much the way it was when Paul lived there. The roads were mud. Some of the people were still pumping their water from the community well. I was able to get a feeling for his life and what they had been through. Writing this book was an emotional journey but also a fascinating journey. I heard the testimony of other train survivors during the symposium. One of them, Leslie Meisels, had worked with Paul for years before they discovered they were both on that train. Isn’t that an amazing coincidence? Of course I was doing research through books and online websites right up to publication. In fact, I had to call my editor and say “Stop the presses!” as I discovered a key fact. We had thought that these Hungarian Jews were rounded up and sent off by Nazi SS guards. Paul and I learned that it was actually Hungarian Gendarmes under SS troops who were sent by Adolf Eichmann. Paul said to me, “No wonder I could understand them. They were speaking Hungarian.” The end papers of the book are a copy of the transport page from the Bergen Belsen Memorial in Germany. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum checked facts for me. And my editor was wonderful in telling me where I needed to fill in background information.

Sharon: Paul has his sixth birthday during this time. How do you get into the mind of a six-year-old boy who is held in a Nazi Concentration Camp?

Rona: While Paul’s childhood in Hungary and mine in the United States were very different, the timeframe was the same. It was easy for me to go back to what it was like growing up in the 1940s. I have a good imagination and can close my eyes and remember what it felt like to be that age. In addition, my grandchildren are young, and I am able to observe them and their reactions to situations.

Sharon: There are a number of photographs, including Paul’s parents as a young married couple, and Paul’s nursery school picture. How were these preserved?

Rona: Their house in Hungary was bombed, so there were no pictures left there after the war. Some photos were sent to Paul’s uncle in Cleveland. After the war, almost every town made a Yizkor book – Yizkor is the Hebrew word for memorial. These books chronicle the history of the town, the Jews who lived there before the war and list those who did not return. Paul’s nursery school picture comes from the Karcag book. When Paul and I visited Karcag, we photographed the water pump and the Synagogue. Some of the photos in the book were taken by the soldiers on the days the train and the camp were liberated. Did you know that the photograph of the woman and her daughter emerging from the death train is now on a list of the 40 most iconic Jewish pictures?

Sharon: That is amazing, Rona, because until a few years ago, it was known to only the soldiers who liberated the train. My Dad kept it in his top dresser drawer. When he told his story to (history teacher) Matt Rozell, Matt put it on his website. The Internet has been a powerful tool in spreading this story.

moment-of-liberation1.jpg

Rona: That was how we learned about the work Matt Rozell was doing. My son read an article on the Internet about the train and sent it to me. I gave it to Paul who recognized it as the train he had been on. We contacted Matt who said he was organizing a symposium at Hudson Falls High School. It was there that Paul and your Dad (Carrol Walsh) met. I included that wonderful picture of Paul and your Dad embracing right after Paul said, “Give me a hug. You saved my life!”

Sharon: Not only is it a great picture of Paul and Dad, but it captures the feeling of all the survivors who had spent a lifetime searching for the soldiers who saved them.

Sharon: How did you approach the actual writing and selection of words and language?

Rona: I wrote the story in English, not Hungarian, but I wrote in a way they might have spoken. I tried to use the vernacular of the time. We don’t have a record of their exact words but we do know how they would have spoken, and what they were feeling at the time. When I have included Hungarian or Yiddish words, I have included explanations for them. Writers always need to listen to how people speak.

Sharon: THE LAST TRAIN recounts historical events for which you have created dialogue between characters. How would you classify this book?

Rona: I would call it creative nonfiction, or fictionalized nonfiction. The events that happened to Paul are all true. Occasionally, I needed a bridge between incidents or to show the passage of time. When I created a scene, I discussed it with Paul for authenticity. For example, I included a scene in which Paul sights the return of the storks, and has a conversation with his mother. I needed something to create a sense of time and place, and what they were feeling in the absence of Paul’s father. When Paul told me there were storks that returned every spring, I knew I had found the bridge I needed. My intention was to recreate the history. To bring the reader along, the writer needs to show the drama of the events.

Sharon: There are many heart-stopping scenes: when Paul is confronted, nose-to-snout with the ferocious German Shepherd dogs; when he is separated from his mother and brother at the train station; when he sneaks through Bergen Belsen to visit his uncle; and, of course, when the SS guard shoots the boy standing next to Paul.

Rona: I was not going to include that last event. I thought it was too strong for my audience. I was telling my editor about it, and he insisted that I include it. He said it was important to tell exactly what happened.

Sharon: What did Paul think of the way you portray him?

Rona: When he first read it he said, “You are making me look like a bratty little kid.” I responded, “Well, you were!” But what I actually meant by that is he acted like a typical 5 or 6 year-old in that he was terrified. But his own distinctive personality also shows through where he was both feisty and stubborn. These were important traits to have.

Sharon: Why did you include the reunion in the book?

Rona: The reunion was approximately 60 years after their liberation. It was, without a doubt, one of the most amazing shared experiences of my life. The powerful feelings shared by the soldiers and survivors radiated to their families and to the students at the high school. They were reunited because a high school history teacher interviewed a soldier and the information was put on his website. For the survivors and soldiers to share this experience with the students is so important. These students will share what they heard with their children. They are the ones who will pass along what happened. It was a life changing experience for everyone involved.

Sharon: What has surprised you most about the publication of THE LAST TRAIN?

Rona: That the audience goes beyond middle school and high school. Their parents and other adults are reading the book and responding.

Sharon: What would you like to see children and adults take away from this book?

Rona: This is a universal story of survival. I want my readers to see how this family and their extended family took care of each other and watched over each other. Paul’s mother was suffering with typhus and her young sons literally propped her up at roll call so the soldiers would not see how ill she was. Oscar became a father figure for Paul. He told Paul to stand up straight and not to cry. In the camps you don’t break down. I want my readers to be able to say, “Thank God I have the right to show my emotions. It’s okay to be a kid.”

Sharon: Thank you for speaking with me today. Paul’s family returned to Hungary, but life changed tremendously. He eventually came to Canada. Is there another book here?

Rona: There very well could be! It was not easy getting out of Communist Hungary.

The Last Train offers so much in terms of discussion points. It makes a huge impact in its 142 pages. It would be a great introduction to a study of the Holocaust for high school students. It is also accessible for 10 year-year-olds. Adults will truly understand the importance of both parts of this story. Of course there are the general topics of World War II and the Holocaust but there are also topics of bullying, physical and psychological fears, strength and courage, mother-child relationship, sibling relationship, family and friendship, defining a hero, the impact of a photograph, and hope. It is a story of captivity and deliverance; a story of new-found friendships, deep respect and a sense of inner peace discovered sixty years beyond the events of World War II.

WATCH PAUL ARATO SPEAK TO STUDENTS FOR THE FIRST TIME

Rona’s presentation on THE LAST TRAIN includes a Power Point display including original photographs. It is suitable for children nine and up as well as adults. For more information about Rona Arato, her books and her presentations, visit www.ronaarato.com.

To book Rona for a visit, go to www.childrenslit.com/bookingservice/arato-rona

If, after reading The Last Train, you would like more information about the train to Magdeburg and the Hudson Falls High School symposium, please go to Matt Rozell’s site: https://teachinghistorymatters.com/. By the way, train survivors are still contacting Matt from all around the world. Frank Towers, the lieutenant who oversaw the liberation, has made it his life’s work to locate any remaining survivors. To date, about 350 have been found.

found at http://www.clcd.com/features/th_Rona_Arato_Final.php

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World War II infantry veteran Carrol Walsh, top, hugs Holocaust survivor Paul Arato at a reunion in Queensbury, N.Y., on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009. Walsh’s unit liberated a Nazi train carrying 2,500 Jewish prisoners, including Arato, from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany during the war’s waning days. (AP Photo/Tim Roske)

I am reposting this today to honor both of the men below. Paul Arato passed away this week in Toronto, Canada and his memorial service is today. Carrol Walsh, his liberator, died in Dec. at his home in Florida and his memorial service was last Friday in New York.

Paul and Rona would also check in annually for dinner with the Walsh family when they passed through our town. The last time I saw both of them together was in 2011 at one of these dinners in a local restaurant. They sat together and laughed and joked like old pals. Paul told the story of how he arrived in Detroit after the war as an eager late teen anxious to find work designing fast cars in the automobile industry and was driven to the bridge in Canada by law enforcement and pointed to the bridge to Canada, as he did not have the proper documentation. Picturing the scene in his mind, Carrol would laughed outloud and slapped his knee. Both men were so happy to have found each other.

Rest on, friends.

Holocaust Survivors Reunite With US Veterans

NY high school reunites Holocaust survivors liberated from Nazi death train by US soldiers

By CHRIS CAROLA

The Associated Press

HUDSON FALLS, N.Y.

The Holocaust survivor was 6 on that spring day in 1945 when he last saw the U.S. Army soldiers outside Magdeburg, Germany.

Paul Arato was among 2,500 starving and sickly Jewish prisoners from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, their train abandoned by its crew and Nazi guards as Allied forces advanced. Two U.S. Army tanks on a scouting patrol — one of them commanded by Carrol Walsh, then 24 — came upon the stopped boxcars.

Arato, now 71, and Walsh, 88, met again this week.

“Please give me a hug. You saved my life,” Arato told Walsh in an emotional reunion of concentration camp survivors and some of the veterans of the 30th Infantry Division who liberated them.

Arato, an industrial designer from Toronto, and Walsh, a retired state Supreme Court judge from Hudson Falls, came together for a Hudson Falls High School history symposium inspired by history teacher Matthew Rozell’s original World War II project in 2007.

“You were all kids on that train,” Walsh told the survivors, most of them in their early 70s, as they and their families greeted the veteran. “I was an old man. I was 24 years old!”

Those arriving early for Wednesday’s opening session gathered Tuesday night for an impromptu reunion before having dinner surrounded by the faux Adirondack decor of the nearly deserted indoor water park. Four of the five Nazi train survivors at the dinner had never met Walsh.

Walsh’s tank patrol discovered the desperate Bergen-Belsen survivors on April 13 — hundreds of emaciated Jewish prisoners who had been herded aboard one of three trains leaving the camp a week earlier to keep them from being liberated by advancing Allied forces.

Walsh’s patrol stayed for a time, handing out candy to some of the children, then moved on after reporting their discovery. Frank Towers, a 27-year-old first lieutenant in the 30th Division, led a convoy that took the newly liberated prisoners to a German town where they were given food and shelter.

For weeks, the men of the 30th had heard of Nazi atrocities against Jews and dismissed the stories as propaganda, Towers said. That all changed when they encountered the train.

“Then we believed,” said Towers, 93, of Brooker, Fla.

This week’s reunion is the fourth since 2007, when Walsh was joined by three of the train survivors at Hudson Falls High. History teacher Rozell’s World War II project included an Internet posting of Walsh’s account of the train liberation.

An Associated Press report of that first reunion prompted more survivors to come forward, some from as far away as Israel, Rozell said. In all, he has confirmed that more than 60 survivors are still living and has been in contact with about two dozen of them.

Nine survivors of the Nazi death train are participating in this symposium, along with Walsh, Towers and four other veterans of the 30th who fought in Germany. Rozell said this week’s gathering is likely to be the last such event of its scope, given the advanced ages of the veterans and survivors.

For Arato, Tuesday night’s reunion with Walsh brought back a flood of memories. He recalled getting candy from one of the soldiers and a handgun to play with.

“I remember it was a Tootsie Roll,” he said. “The gun wasn’t loaded.”

Arato fretted over one detail. He recalled seeing a Jeep along with the American tanks, but fellow survivor Fred Spiegel of Howell, N.J., didn’t remember seeing a third vehicle. Later, Walsh said his patrol consisted of two tanks — and a Jeep.

“There WAS a Jeep,” Arato said, a smile breaking out on his face. “I remembered it right.”

———

On the Net:

Hudson Falls High School World War II Living History Project: http://www.hfcsd.org/ww2

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wires/2009/09/23/holocaust-survivors-reuni_0_ws_296673.html

http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3781062,00.html

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

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

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

Leslie Meisels is 86.

Leslie Meisels turned 68 last month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The horror is ungraspable.

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

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

Over six days, the train progressed only 135 kilometres.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLICK HERE FOR THE STORY OF ANOTHER TORONTO RESIDENT WHO FOUND HERSELF IN THE 1945 PHOTOGRAPHS

 

by Catherine Porter 

http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/05/10/two_toronto_holocaust_survivors_meet_their_liberators_65_years_later_porter.html

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