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Memorial to Warsaw Uprising

You have heard a lot from me this week because April is a special month for Holocaust commemoration and remembrance. Besides marking the 1945 anniversary of the liberation of many of the camps, it also marks the anniversary of the largest single uprising against German oppression of the Jews, which occurred in Warsaw in 1943. It is important to note, however that resistance to evil manifested in many different forms, not just physical ‘pushback’, as I was reminded on my Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers Program tour in 2013. As the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is now upon us, I share this post, an excerpt from my recent book, also recounting the narrative of a fourteen year old Jewish resistance fighter who was told she had to leave the ghetto by her leaders, so that she might live to remember them and tell this story.

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As 1943 dawned, the SS returned to the ghetto for another major deportation. They encountered the first armed resistance from the ghetto fighters and beat a hasty retreat, leaving behind wounded and weapons, and calling off the operation. For the next three months, the ghetto fighters organized and prepared for the final struggle. On the eve of Passover, April 19th, the Germans returned again, this time with the aim of liquidating the ghetto once and for all, in time for Hitler’s birthday on the 20th. By then, there were between 300-350 active fighters; the young were now the real leaders of the ghetto, having decided not between life and death, but rather, how to die.* Aliza recorded her observations of the preparations for the final battle they all knew was coming.

Jews captured by SS and SD troops during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising are forced to leave their shelter and march to the Umschlagplatz for deportation.  from the notorious Stroop Report. USHMM.

Aliza Melamed Vitis–Shomron

Spring, 1943

As spring approached, the atmosphere in the reduced ghetto changed. We waited for the final ‘aktion’, for the final extermination of the Jews of Warsaw’. People began to build bunkers. Experts turned up, engineers who built bunkers with electric light, in wells and toilets. Most of the bunkers were dug in cellars. There were various ways to enter the bunkers from the ground floor: by raising a cover in the kitchen stove or through an opening in the large stove attached to the wall, or in many other strange ways, according to the fertile imagination of the builders. The ghetto was preparing for a struggle.

March passed, and April came. Talk about the approaching final liquidation of the ghetto intensified. The ghetto was fully aware of it and prepared. It was the calm before the storm, suffused with energy and tension. Frequent shots near the ghetto and sudden evening searches by the SS command cars heralded what was to come. Sending off the people working for Töbens and Schultz factory workshops to Poniatow and Travniki* caused apprehension, even though they had gone of their own free will. If they are sending out the workers, what will happen to all the rest? The companies of the SS General Globocnik *, in charge of extermination, again arrived in Warsaw.

The only possibility left is to escape to the Aryan side, to dress up as a Pole and look for acquaintances or people willing to hide Jews in exchange for money. For a few thousand zloty, one could get a Polish birth certificate and a ration card. People handed over their children to Christian clerics, to monasteries and to peasants in the villages. Sacks were thrown over the walls daily and openly, at least on our side. People paid bribes to the foremen of the work crews to be able to join them going out to work on the Aryan side. Some of them did not look Jewish and were lucky enough to find ‘good’ Poles. Women dyed and oxidized their hair, and created curls by rolling their hair in pieces of paper, to look like blonde gentile girls. But they could not change the color of their eyes, or their dejected and pallid look. A Jew could also be picked out by his hesitant walk, his bent back, and his eyes constantly darting around him. We were so preoccupied by our aspiration to look like ‘goyim’ that we examined ourselves and others: Does that man look like a Jew? Will they recognize him in the street?

Of course, a new profession cropped up among the simple Polish people, with many demanding a bribe, or being paid to be an informer, a blackmailer. We were deeply disappointed; we thought that as witnesses of our tragedy, our compatriots, sharing the same language and culture, they would hold out a hand to save us. But it did not happen. A few of them hid Jews for large sums of money; these were mostly people connected to socialist activities and the left wing parties. Many devout Christians and religious scholars did so without taking money, out of true nobility of spirit. Many others, from among the simple folk, made a living by informing on Jews to the Gestapo, and collaborated willingly out of pure antisemitism. They walked around in the streets close to the ghetto, spied by the gates and the places where Jews worked on the Aryan side and looked for victims. Thousands made a living in this way.

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The state of our family grew worse. We began to suffer from hunger. There were no clothes left to sell, we lived on the food we had received in the workshop, distributed by the Germans.

Aliza’s family decided to split up to increase chances of survival. Her more ‘Aryan-looking’ mother and younger sister, with a great deal of bribery, subterfuge, and nerves of steel, went into hiding on the Aryan side. Her father decided to take the chance and volunteer to go to the work camp near Lublin. Aliza herself wanted to stay and fight in the ghetto, but now only fourteen she was deemed too young and directed by the leadership of the resistance to make her way to the Aryan side as well, to live to tell the story. 

Aliza’s cousin stayed in the ghetto to fight the Germans. For three days, the resistance fought on, against impossible odds. It was weeks before the ghetto was overcome; there were few survivors.

Lazar

In the morning, we heard dull sounds of firing and explosions. In another house, in Swentojerska Street 34, the Z.O.B. had their positions. People from the organization told us about a mine they had detonated when the Germans decided to penetrate into our area; about battles leaving ten Germans dead; about a ‘peace delegation’ of SS officers who came with a white flag asking for an armistice to pick up their wounded, and how they fired at them at once. The fighters were elated, exhausted—but looked happy.

The battle in most of the houses in that area lasted two days. They ran from house to house. The leader of the group was the commander Marek Edelman. Dozens of fighters took part in the battle; some of them were killed. They went out at night to try to make contact with their friends. They told us that the battle inside the ghetto was still going on, that the fighters had delayed the entry of the tanks and set fire to them with homemade Molotov bottles. They were stationed at windows and changed their positions by moving across the rooftops. We in the shelters decided to open fire only when they discovered us. We made up our minds to defend our families to the end, not let them take us to Treblinka.

On the third day, fighting also broke out in the area of the workshops of Töbens and Schultz. At the last moment many people preferred to move to the Poniatow camp. In the meantime, the Germans began to set fire to the houses. On the second day of the uprising, the fighters told us about fires in the ghetto. We sat in the crowded shelter, praying that they wouldn’t get to us. We had expected the worst, but not fires. The people in the shelter said goodbye to each other. We were in despair, expecting certain death. We could already smell the smoke. Someone came from the neighboring house; people were fleeing from adjacent houses. There were no Germans around. After a night full of dread, just before dawn, we did hear German voices in the courtyard. They were calling to the Jews to come out at once, or else they’d burn us alive.

The artillery was constantly firing incendiary bombs. Whole blocks of houses were on fire. The shelter was not damaged, but the water stopped running. The electricity went out. The walls of the shelter became unbearably hot, smoke penetrated the cellar. We sat there, coughing, wrapped up in wet sheets. People wept, dragged themselves to the courtyard with the last vestige of strength. We had no choice, we would defend ourselves in the yard. The men cleared the opening and gave the order—‘wrap yourselves up in sheets soaked in the remnants of water, lie in the middle of the courtyard, in the garden.’

The yard is full of people, smoke covers everything, the top floors are in flames, the fire is running wild without any interference, parts of walls are collapsing and falling into the yard. People lying on the ground are groaning with pain…

Suddenly, we hear German voices in the street. God! We thought it was all over, that they’ve left us here. What shall we do? Several Germans burst in through the gate…

 

Lazar was captured and beaten, but managed to escape deportation, and made it to his cousin’s hiding place on the Aryan side.

 

I saw a different Lazar before me. He used to be arrogant, a show-off. The person sitting here now was thin, withdrawn; he stammered slightly when he spoke. We’ll have to live together in that small room in the cellar. Who knows how long? Until this damned war is over?

The Beginning of May, 1943

They say that the ghetto no longer exists. The wreckage of the houses is still standing; the piles of cinders still crackle, and at night shadowy figures, seeking food and shelter, still move about in there. But the ghetto no longer exists; 500,000 people have gone up in smoke. And those still alive bleed inwardly, their deep wounds will never heal. And maybe there will be no one left when freedom comes? Why are human beings so cruel and evil? They speak about the future, about truth, about Man as proof of God’s great wisdom, and it’s all lies, lies!

I know there are also good people, but they are persecuted; society rejects them as weaklings. Why am I prevented from seeing the wonders of nature and the world, from breathing fresh air?

The full narrative is available here.

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The full narrative is available here.

In 2013 I visited Warsaw, rebuilt; almost nothing remains of the ghetto itself- with slight exceptions.

July 17, 2013

We tour Jewish Warsaw and finally the remnants of the ghetto wall, and also the Umschlagplatz. It is here that forced gatherings for the mass deportations to Treblinka took place. I am also reminded of the scene from the film “The Pianist”.

 

 

 

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

 

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

 

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The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

We walk the edge of the wall, memorialized in bronze in the sidewalk.

 

 

 

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And we come to a section that still stands.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

 

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are hear, listening to their teacher.

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are here, listening to their teacher.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was the first open fight in an occupied city against the Germans. And it was conducted by Jewish youth, who held off the Germans for half a month in the spring of 1943. Utterly inspiring and amazing. We make our way to Mila 18, the bunker command post where Mordechai Anielewicz and many of the resistance fighters breathed their last. It is another solemn moment.

18 Mila Street.

18 Mila Street.

Monument at Mila 18.

Monument at Mila 18.

 

We know why we are here. We are not only witnesses, but we were chosen to become, for many, the point of entry on the immense and sometimes unfathomable subject of the Holocaust, and the many forms of resistance that were taken during it.  And so rightly, our trip is concluding here. The processing will only come over time.

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* By then, there were between 300-350 fighters- Bauer, Yehuda. ‘Current Issues in Holocaust Education and Research: The Unprecedentedness of the Holocaust in an Age of Genocide.’ Lecture notes, International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel. July 21, 2016.

* Poniatow and Travniki– forced–labor camps for Jews in Lublin District near the concentration camp Majdanek.

* SS General Globocnik –SS and police leader who directed Operation Reinhard between autumn 1941 and summer 1943.

 

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Seventy-two years ago, it began. Hitler’s last gamble would claim more American lives than any battle in U.S. History. Frank Currey was there, and on a cold winter day in December, saved five men and killed scores of Germans single handedly. Frank was in the 30th Infantry Division, which liberated the Train Near Magdeburg; he came to our school.

The morning of December 16, 1944. A lonely outpost on the Belgian frontier.

In subzero temperatures, the last German counteroffensive of World War II had begun. Nineteen thousand American lives would be lost in the Battle of the Bulge. “Hell came in like a freight train. I heard an explosion and went back to where my friend was. His legs were blown off-he bled to death in my arms.” The average age of the American “replacement” soldier? 19.

Of the sixteen million American men and women who served in WWII, four and a quarter hundred thousand died on the field of conflict. In 2015, on the downward bell curve slope, nearly 500 veterans of World War II quietly slip away every day. The national memory of the war that did more than any other event in the last century to shape the history of the American nation is dying with them. The Germans threw 250,000 well trained troops and tanks against a lightly defended line on the Ardennes frontier in Belgium and Luxembourg, which created a pocket or “bulge” in the Allied offensive line, the objective being to drive to the port of Antwerp to split the American and British advance and force a separate peace with the Western Allies. What ensued was the bloodiest battle in American history. It saddens me that it comes as a shock to many Americans today that the “Battle of the Bulge” didn’t originate as a weight-loss term.

On a personal note, I have had the privilege of interviewing many of the veterans of this battle. In the high school where I teach, I have been inviting veterans to my classroom to share their experiences with our students. As their numbers dwindled, I smartened up, bought a camera, and began to record their stories. And for the past decade, I have been sending kids out into the field to record the stories of World War II before this generation fades altogether. These men and women have helped to spark students’ interest in finding out more about our nation’s past and the role of the individual in shaping it. In our books we have worked to weave the stories of our community’s sacrifices into the fabric of our national history. And that, to me, is what teaching history should be all about. After all, if we allow ourselves to forget about the teenager who bled to death in his buddy’s arms, if we overlook the sacrifices it took to make this nation strong and proud, we may as well forget everything else. I shudder for this country when I see what we have all forgotten, so soon. But if you are taking the time to read this post I suppose I am preaching to the saved.

I will close with the account of a nineteen year old infantryman who in fact survived the battle and the war, and who I was able to introduce to many Hudson Falls students on more than one occasion. Sixty-nine years ago this December, a day began that would forever change his life.  Frank is now the only living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II left in New York State and New England.

In the winter of 1944, nineteen year old Private First Class Currey’s infantry squad was fighting the Germans in the Belgian town of Malmédy to help contain the German counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge. Before dawn on December 21, Currey’s unit was defending a strong point when a sudden German armored advance overran American antitank guns and caused a general withdrawal. Currey and five other soldiers—the oldest was twenty-one—were cut off and surrounded by several German tanks and a large number of infantrymen. They began a daylong effort to survive.

Francis Currey MOH and Ned Rozell March 2010-Ned is friends with the last WWII Medal of Honor recipient in NY and NE, Frances Currey. Yes, the special edition GI Joe he signed for Ned is 19 yr. old Frank!

Francis Currey MOH and Ned Rozell March 2010-Ned is friends with the last WWII Medal of Honor recipient in NY and NE, Frances Currey. Yes, the special edition GI Joe he signed for Ned is 19 yr. old Frank!

The six GIs withdrew into an abandoned factory, where they found a bazooka left behind by American troops. Currey knew how to operate one, thanks to his time in Officer Candidate School, but this one had no ammunition. From the window of the factory, he saw that an abandoned half-track across the street contained rockets. Under intense enemy fire, he ran to the half-track, loaded the bazooka, and fired at the nearest tank. By what he would later call a miracle, the rocket hit the exact spot where the turret joined the chassis and disabled the vehicle.

Moving to another position, Currey saw three Germans in the doorway of an enemy-held house and shot all of them with his Browning Automatic Rifle. He then picked up the bazooka again and advanced, alone, to within fifty yards of the house. He fired a shot that collapsed one of its walls, scattering the remaining German soldiers inside. From this forward position, he saw five more GIs who had been cut off during the American withdrawal and were now under fire from three nearby German tanks. With antitank grenades he’d collected from the half-track, he forced the crews to abandon the tanks. Next, finding a machine gun whose crew had been killed, he opened fire on the retreating Germans, allowing the five trapped Americans to escape.

Deprived of tanks and with heavy infantry casualties, the enemy was forced to withdraw. Through his extensive knowledge of weapons and by his heroic and repeated braving of murderous enemy fire, Currey was greatly responsible for inflicting heavy losses in men and material on the enemy, for rescuing 5 comrades, 2 of whom were wounded, and for stemming an attack which threatened to flank his battalion’s position.

At nightfall, as Currey and his squad, including the two seriously wounded men, tried to find their way back to the American lines, they came across an abandoned Army jeep fitted out with stretcher mounts. They loaded the wounded onto it, and Currey, perched on the jeep’s spare wheel with a Browning automatic rifle in his hand, rode shotgun back to the American lines.

After the war in Europe had officially ended, Major General Leland Hobbs made the presentation on July 27, 1945, at a division parade in France.

source material Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty by Peter Collier.

 

Frank signs autographs at our school.
Frank signs autographs at our school.

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Paige and flag. Credit: Dan Hogan

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

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

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

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

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Teacher and student. Credit: Dan Hogan

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

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

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

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

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

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You wonder if the lesson will stay with them.

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

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

‘One of Their Own’

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

From the Remembering Pearl Harbor, 75 years later series

by BILL TOSCANO btoscano@poststar.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identification ongoing

Holmes may yet come home.

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

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

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

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

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

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

UPDATE: 

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

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

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

 

 A highly recommended PBS video is below.

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

 

 

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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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So, it is the sixth of June again.

American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, the primary landing zone for Americans during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944. (U.S. Air Force Photo)The ocean pounds the advance of sand amidst the relics of a different age, the hulking remnants of the tide of battle. The surf rolls in and kisses the beach, as the last participants mix on the hallowed bluff above with the politicians who have gathered from all over the world.

Thirty-two years ago I watched as the American president honored  the fallen, and the living, at the cemetery for the fortieth anniversary. Just out of college, something stirred inside me. Something was awoken.

I began by writing letters to the newspaper. I began to interview D-Day veterans and others. I began to collect stories- not relics, prizes, or artifacts. I really had little interest in captured Nazi flags or samurai swords.

I wanted to talk to the men who were there.

The fiftieth anniversary came next with great pomp and more reflection. It graced the covers of the major newsweeklies. “Saving Private Ryan” stirred the consciousness of a new generation, and reflections of the old. And I learned so much more of the war beyond the beachhead. That there were so many beachheads.

The sixtieth anniversary came around. Students on their bi-annual trips to France would bring me back their photographs and the requisite grains of white sand from Omaha Beach. Teenagers had their emotions  a bit tempered, I think. I would go on to introduce them to so many who were there. When they themselves were teenagers.

So now it is the seventy-second. On the 65th, I wrote about a friend who is no longer here for the 72nd,  and the 75th will bring fewer who were there back to Normandy.

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Today I would like to introduce you to a survivor of D Day who is still with us.

I first met Bill Gast at a reunion of 30th Infantry Division and 743rd Tank Battalion soldiers at a reunion in March 2008, in which I  was present with several Holocaust survivors who were meeting their liberating soldiers for the first time. Later, Bill came to my high school to speak to students. I think the experience of sharing, and meeting the Holocaust survivors whom the 743rd came upon and liberated, affected him deeply.

Unlike many who may be physically able, Bill has no intention of going back to the sands of Omaha for this anniversary. As he explained to our students in 2009,

“I’m listed [in the event program] as a liberator- however, I am also a survivor of World War II, having landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on D-day and fighting through to the end when the Germans surrendered, May the 7th, 1945.”

“Pictures.

Video games.

Movies.

Words.

They simply do not covey the feeling of fear.

The shock.

The stench.

The noise.

The horror, and the tragedy.

The injured.

The suffering.

The dying, and the dead.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmKNYMaa_sU

 

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D-Day: the view from a tank on Omaha Beach

Washington (AFP) – From inside his tank, the young soldier could see “practically nothing” on Omaha Beach.

Seventy years later, William Gast still wonders whether he rolled over his comrades sheltering from German gunfire that day.

Gast was 19 years old the morning of June 6, 1944. “We came in at H-10, that was 10 minutes before the designated hour.”

He cannot recall why he and his fellow soldiers arrived early, but he has other memories that have never left him.

As part of Company A, 743rd Tank Battalion, 1st Army, Gast remembers the training beforehand in Britain, when he rehearsed driving the Sherman tank onto the landing craft. And then floating in the English Channel.

“Another night we went out and we didn’t come back. That was it.”

Gast got to know the captain of the landing craft that would ferry his tank to the beaches of Normandy.

The skipper promised he would get them close enough that they would not be submerged in water, like so many tanks were that day.

He kept his word.

Another tank unit at Omaha Beach was less fortunate, with 27 of 32 tanks launched at sea five kilometers (three miles) from the coast sinking before they could reach land, despite being outfitted with a flotation screens.

“The order was given to go, we started our engines up, they lowered the ramp,” said Gast.

Amid German shrapnel and sea spray, he “could feel the tracks spinning.”

At last, the tank tracks took hold on the sandy sea bottom and he drove up the beach.

 

– Like throwing marbles at a car –

Down below in the driver’s seat, Gast tried to steer the tank with the aid of a small, manual periscope.

“You can imagine how much we could see, practically nothing,” he said.

The radios inside the tank were so unreliable that his commander would tell Gast which way to turn by kicking him on the left or right shoulder.

The difficulty in seeing the way ahead has left Gast with a gnawing sense that he may have run over the bodies of American soldiers on the beach.

“The saddest part about the whole thing is, not being able to see, I may have run over some of my own people.

“And if I did, I don’t even know it. I can’t ever get that out of my mind, you know?”

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Corporal Gast heard machine gun bullets hitting the side of the tank, “like throwing marbles at a car — that’s what it sounded like.”

“And there were shells that exploded right beside me. You could feel the tank shake.”

For Gast, it was a day of fear and terror, and following orders without reflection.

“I can’t tell much about what happened, I was scared to death to start with,” he said.

“It was just like putting it on automatic, you just did what you had to do, did what you were told to do.”

By noon, close to 19,000 American soldiers who landed at Omaha were still pinned down on the beach.

– High school sweetheart –

Carefully laid plans had unraveled as the beach became a killing zone, with troops mowed down under a fusillade of German machine gun, artillery and mortar fire.

Small teams of US troops eventually managed to break through on the bluffs between German positions, with the help of combat engineers blowing up obstacles.

The losses were staggering: more than 2,000 dead, wounded and missing on Omaha beach. The exact toll is still unknown. Of the 15 tanks in Gast’s Company A, only five survived without damage.

Gast, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, earned the Silver Star and the Purple Heart during his combat tour, and went on to marry his high school sweetheart.

Now 89 years old, he recently was awarded France’s Legion d’Honneur at a small ceremony for World War II veterans at the French embassy in Washington.

The short, soft spoken man stood up to receive the medal and shook hands with a French diplomat. But he has no plans to return to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

His son, Bill, said his father did not want to relive that day: “It’s important we don’t forget, but you try to hide things somewhere.”

Mr. & Mrs. Gast, Holocaust Survivors-American Soldiers reunion, 2009.

Mr. & Mrs. Gast, Holocaust Survivors-American Soldiers reunion, 2009.

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Lisette Lamon was a Holocaust survivor liberated on the train near Magdeburg on April 13, 1945, and later in life a psychotherapist at White Plains Hospital outside of New York City, a pioneer in the treatment of trauma back in the days when the field was in its infancy. She had experienced it herself. She was from the Netherlands, and lost her first husband Benjamin ‘Benno’ Soep at the Mauthausen slave labor concentration camp in Austria in 1941 (she appears on the manifest list: Soep-Lamon Lisette DOB 14.05.1920 Amsterdam).

This article originally appeared in the New York Times on Mother’s Day, May 12, 1979, back when I was a young buck itching to graduate high school and go out into the unknown world. Of course I did not see this article then, but the people she was with on that train and the soldiers who liberated them would go on to change my life. I wonder if at the time my own mother, relaxing in her silk robe on Sunday afternoons with the NYT as she frequently did in her respite from the workweek, read this letter… It was presented to me by fellow survivor Elisabeth Seaman, whose mother had been in contact with Ms. Lamon (Ms. Lamon passed in 1982).

Here’s to all mothers, a beautiful anecdote that will no doubt make it into my upcoming book. Happy Mother’s Day, indeed.

It was a beautiful, balmy morning in April 1945, when I entered Major Adams’ makeshift office in Farsleben, a small town in Germany, to offer my services as an interpreter.  It made me feel good that I could show, in a small way, the gratitude I felt for the 9th American Army, which had liberated us as we were being transported from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Orders found by the Americans in the German officer’s car directed that the train was to be stopped on the bridge crossing the Elbe River at Magdeburg, then the bridge was to be blown up, also destroying the train and its cargo all at once. The deadline was noon, Friday the 13th, and at 11 A.M. we were liberated!

Victory, 1945. Watercolor, Ervin Abadi. Train near Magdeburg survivor. Hillersleben, Germany, May 1945.

Victory, 1945. Watercolor, Ervin Abadi. Train Near Magdeburg survivor. Hillersleben, Germany, May 1945. Credit Chriss Brown.

With the liberation had come the disquieting news that President Roosevelt had died, and while I was airing concern that the new President, Harry Truman, (a man unknown to us) could continue the war, a sergeant suddenly said, “Hey, you speak pretty good English. I am sure the major would like to have you serve as his interpreter.”

Major Adams had not been told of my coming so he was startled when he saw me. No wonder! There stood a young woman as thin as a skeleton, dressed in a two-piece suit full of holes. The suit had been in the bottom of my rucksack for 20 months, saved for the day we might be liberated, but the rats in Bergen-Belsen must have been as hungry as we were and had found an earlier use for my suit. For nine days we had been on the train, and this was the only clean clothing I owned.

Major Adams quickly recovered from his initial shock and seemed delighted after I explained why I had come. He asked how his men had treated us, and I heaped glowing praise on the American soldiers who had shared their food so generously with the starving prisoners. Then he took me outside to meet the “notables” of the German population, and with glee I translated orders given to them by the American commander. The irony of the reversal of roles was not lost on me nor the recipients; I was now delivering orders to those who had been ordering me around for so long! The Germans were obsequious, profusely claiming they never wanted Hitler or agreed with his policies and hoped the war would soon be over.

When asked to come back the next day, I was delighted but hesitated, wondering if it would be appropriate to ask a favor. Major Adams picked up on my hesitation, so I asked him to help me contact my family in America. We had emigrated to the U.S. in 1939, but after six months I returned to Holland to join my fiancé who was in the Dutch army. My parents knew that eight months after we were married my husband was taken as a hostage and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp where he was killed in 1941, but they did not know if I was alive, not having heard from me in more than two years.

Major Adams gave me a kind glance and said “Give me a few lines in your handwriting, written in English, and I will ask my parents to forward it to them.” When he saw the address on the note he looked at me, his mouth open in total amazement, and then he started to laugh – his parents and my parents lived in the same apartment building in New York City!

And so it was on Mother’s Day that his mother brought to my mother my message:

“I am alive!”

Retyped by my student Caitlin Coutant ’16. Click here to learn more about my upcoming book on this subject. Feel free to ‘SHARE”, below!

 

 

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April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

Today, April 29th, is the anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, 71 years on.

Today, if it is brought up at all, some of us might respond with a vacant stare. More might shrug and turn away. I suppose that is to be expected. But you know me. I just think that as a nation, sometimes we allow things to slip from memory at our peril.

It was real, and it happened. And it was American GIs who overran this camp and many others in the closing days of World War II.

The men of the 42nd and 45th Infantry Division arrived independently of each other, here, in southern Germany, at Dachau, on this day. A concentration camp, they were told. Their noses gave them a hint of what they were about to uncover, miles before the camp appeared in sight.

Read the headlines, above. Note the subarticle:

Boxcars of Dead at Dachau. 32,000 captives freed.

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

And so after some resistance, into the camp they entered. Life changing events were about to unfold for the American soldier.

***

For me, it’s not about hero worship, or glorifying the liberator or any World War II soldier by placing him on a pedestal. Our time with them is now limited, but many of the liberating soldiers I know push back at this, to the point of rejecting the term, “liberator”- “It all sounds so exalted, so glamorous” said one. But they will all accept the term, “eyewitness”.

Witnesses to the greatest crime in the history of the world.

So instead I think it is about honoring their experiences, their shock, the horror, the puking and the crying, the rage-and then, the American GIs recognizing that something had to be done. And they did suffer for it, for trying to do the right thing. Many tried to help by offering food to starving prisoners who just were not ready to handle it, only to see them drop dead. Or having to manhandle these emaciated victims who were tearing away at each other as food was being offered.

Some guys never got over it. How could you?

I have learned so much over the past few years from these guys, just through the way that they carried themselves and tried to cope with what they witnessed. In my World War II studies and Holocaust class, we discuss these issues at length. I’m so lucky to be able to teach it.

Last year, I was privileged to teach a lesson to my high school seniors for NBC Learn, which was shared with other districts across the nation. Later, I stumbled upon this piece by the late author Tony Hays, who writes about his liberator father and his own encounter with the past. Thanks to the Get It Write folks; the original link is at the bottom.

***

Dachau Will Always Be With Us

by Tony Hays

This is not so much a post about writing as one about a writer’s education, about one of those experiences that molds us, shapes us into storytellers. I read yesterday the story of Joseph Corbsie, whose father, a World War II veteran, left him with a special legacy from the war, from the hideous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. I feel a particular kinship with Mr. Corbsie.

My father, Robert Hays, was the son of an alcoholic tenant farmer in rural west Tennessee. If the appellation “dirt poor” fit anyone, it fit my grandfather’s family. Daddy served in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 30s. He and my mother, who was in the woman’s equivalent of the CCC, working as a nurse’s aide at Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee, met on a blind date in early 1940 and married in September of that year.

But just over a year later, Pearl Harbor happened. America was in the war. My father was among the first of those drafted in 1942. I won’t bore you with the details, but he participated in the North African, Salerno, Anzio, and southern France invasions, saved by the luck of the draw from Normandy. But they slogged through France and on to Germany. On April 29, 1945, Allied troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp. I don’t know whether he entered Dachau that day or the next, but that he was there within hours of the liberation is beyond dispute. A few months later, after more than three years overseas, he came home.

In later years, he would talk occasionally about the war, providing anecdotes that showed the chaos and random chance of battle. He spoke of driving through Kasserine Pass in North Africa just hours before the Germans killed thousands of Allied troops in a stunning attack. He spoke of a friend, defending his position from a foxhole, who was thought dead after an artillery shell landed right next to him. When the dust cleared, the friend was buried up to his neck in dirt, but did not have a scratch on him. He spoke often of Anzio, where he was wounded, and of the massive German air assaults on those soldiers clinging to that tiny sliver of beach along the Italian coast.

But he never spoke of Dachau.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945. USHMM.

 

Ever.

When he died in 1981, we found a photo in his wallet. An old sepia-toned shot like others he had taken during the war, pictures that he kept in an old brown bag. But this one was different.

It showed a pile of naked bodies. Well, really more skeletons than not, with their skin stretched pitifully over their bones. On the back, as had been his habit, was typed simply “Dachau.”

I was confused. Why would he keep this one photo in his wallet all of those years? Especially a photo of a place and event that he never spoke about. It obviously had some deeper meaning for him than the other photographs. If it had been a shot of the building he was in when he was wounded (hit by an artillery shell), I could have seen that. A reminder of his closest brush with death. Yeah, I could buy that. But this macabre photo? That, I couldn’t see.

So, for the next fifteen years, I remained puzzled.

Until the fall of 1996. I was working in Poland, and I had some time off. I took an overnight bus from Katowice, Poland to Munich. It was an interesting trip all in itself. We sat in a line of buses at midnight on the Polish/German border, waiting for our turn to cross, next to a cemetery, as if in some Cold War spy movie. I remember passing Nuremburg and thinking that my father had been there at the end of the war. And then there was Munich.

I spent a day or two wandering through the streets, drinking beer in the Marienplatz. I’m a historical novelist, so the short trip out to Dachau was a no-brainer. Of course it was as much my father’s connection with it as anything else that spurred the visit. But I’m not sure that I was completely aware of that at the time.

Dachau literally sits just on the outskirts of the Munich metropolitan area. I looked at the sign on the train station with a sadness, wondering for how many people that had been one of the last things they saw. It was only later that I discovered there had been another depot for those passengers.

The Dachau Memorial is a place of deep emotion. In the camp proper, mostly all that are left are the foundations of the barracks. One has been reconstructed to give an idea of how horrible life must have been. The camp was originally intended to hold 6,000 inmates; when the Allies liberated Dachau in 1945, they found 30,000. The museum and exhibits are primarily in the old maintenance building. I looked with awe at life size photos of prisoners machine gunned, their hands torn to ribbons from the barbed wire they had tried to climb in a futile attempt at escape.

I followed the visitors (I can’t call them tourists) north to where you crossed over into the crematorium area. It was there that the full brunt of what had taken place at Dachau really hit me. A simple brick complex, it seemed so peaceful on the fall day that I stood before it. But as I read the plaques and consulted my guidebook, as I stepped through the door and actually saw the “shower” rooms where the prisoners were gassed, as I stared into the open doors of the ovens, I felt a rage unlike any I had ever known consume me.
Covering my eyes, embarrassed at the tears, I slipped back outside. It took more than a few minutes to regain my composure. I thought then that I understood why my father kept that photo close to him for so long. It was a reminder of what one group of people had done to another group of fellow humans. The obscenity of it had overwhelmed him as it had me.

That night, I went to the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich, to wash the images of the ovens away with some beer. I hadn’t been there long when an elderly American couple sat at the table. They were from Florida, a pleasant couple. He had been a young lieutenant in the American army on the push into Munich. In fact, it had been his pleasure to liberate the Hofbrauhaus from the Germans.

Of course, I asked the question. “Were you at Dachau?”

He didn’t answer for several seconds, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes as his wife’s hand covered his and squeezed. Finally, he nodded, reached into a back pocket and pulled out his wallet.

With a flick of his wrist, a photo, just as wrinkled, just as bent, as the one my father had carried landed on the table. It wasn’t the same scene, but one just like it.

Here was my chance, the opportunity to ask the question I had never been able to ask my father. I pulled the photo from my own wallet and lay it next to his. “Why? Why have you carried it so long? To remind you of the horror of Dachau, of what had been done here?”

His face carried the faintest of smiles as he shook his head. “No, son, to remind us of the horrors that we are capable of, to remind us not to go down that road again.”

The difference was subtle, but in that moment, I learned two lessons invaluable to a writer, subtle differences are important, and when you want to know the truth, go to the source.

As I sit here now and look at that same photograph, I realize that it was my father’s legacy to me, of Dachau. Joe Corbsie’s father left him something more tangible, a reminder of the same thing for the same reason, but more forcefully stated — a tiny box of human ash from the ovens.

Now, nearly 70 years after that day in 1945, Dachau is still with us, and I hope the legacy left by our fathers always will be.

The late Tony Hays.

 

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