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Posts Tagged ‘Teaching the Holocaust’

This originally appeared at the Huffington Post website for Veterans Day.  Maybe it is appropriate to share for Thanksgiving.

The author contacted me in 2007 when news of our first reunion went viral  in the Associated Press. Later, in 2009, he was invited to a gathering of the soldiers who saved his father and other survivors on this train here at our high school. His talk to our gathering can be seen below, published here for the first time.

Praise for the American Soldiers Who Saved My Father From a Death Train

By Lev Raphael

 In early April 1945, my father was packed into a train with 2500 other prisoners from Bergen-Belsen as the Nazis insanely tried to keep British and American troops from rescuing them. The train was made up of 45 cars with their doors sealed shut; the crowding was horrific and of course there was no food or water.

 In the chaos of war, this hellish train wandered for a week and finally stopped at Farsleben, a tiny town not far from the Elbe, sixteen kilometers from Magdeburg, the site of one of Germany’s largest munitions plants. German communications had collapsed and the commander couldn’t get clearance to move across the Elbe, so he ended up decamping ahead of the American troops he knew were coming. When two American tanks appeared on April 13th, the remaining guards escaped.

 Frank W. Towers, a 1st Lieutenant of the 30th Infantry Division, reported that the stench when the locked cattle cars were opened “was almost unbearable, and many of the men had to rush away and vomit. We had heard of the cruel treatment which the Nazis had been handing out to Jews and political opponents of the Nazi regime, whom they had enslaved, but we thought it was propaganda and exaggerated. As we went along [in Germany] it became more apparent that this barbaric savagery was actually true.”

 The troops that had found this train were racing to the Elbe because it was the last barrier to their advance across Germany, and now they had a totally unexpected burden of some twenty-five hundred prisoners to house and provide for. The answer was about nine miles to the west. American troops had just captured several hundred Germans at the Wehrmacht base and proving ground in Hillersleben where tests had been conducted for giant railway guns manufactured by Krupp.

 It was an ironic place for Jews to be sheltered, cared for, and brought back to life. But then what place in Germany wouldn’t have been an ironic location?

 This verdant military setting with its clean, heated quarters for officers and soldiers was a virtual paradise for people who had been treated like animals for years. That’s where my parents met and fell in love. My mother was in Hillersleben because she had escaped from a slave labor camp in Magdeburg and been brought there by American troops now using it as a temporary Displaced Persons camp.

 She and my father had each lost everything in what would come to be called the Holocaust: home, families, countries. So there wasn’t any time to play any pre-war games. “Do you like me?” he asked. She did, and as my father tersely put it years later, from that moment on “She was mine and I was hers.” My mother moved in with him that night, beginning their fifty-four years together.

 Frank Towers, who is 97, is the last surviving soldier who rescued the prisoners on that train, who saved my father from almost certain death and brought about his encounter with my mother. I’ve had the honor of meeting Frank and shaking his hand, and I’ve written about him in my memoir My Germany, but on this Veteran’s Day, with the survivors of the Holocaust and their saviors dwindling faster and faster, it’s more important than ever to thank him in public, and praise the memory of those other “train heroes” who are no longer alive.

The account in this blog is excerpted from My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped.

 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lev-raphael/veterans-day-praise-for-t_b_6124862.html

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Five years ago this fall, we put on quite a show at our high school.  High school kids listening to, meeting, sharing, laughing, crying, even dancing  with octogenarian U.S. soldiers and Holocaust survivors. Here, Raphael shares his remarks with the soldiers, survivors, and students about growing up in a survivor household, and his coming to terms with Germany.

 

 

 

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Veterans Day: Hudson Falls teacher’s stories unite veterans with survivors

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications

veterans day

Caption: Photo of Matt Rozell by Andrew Watson.

History teacher Matt Rozell knows where he will be on Veterans Day. He’ll be in same place he is every year: working with students to help veterans. This year, he and 28 of his Hudson Falls high school students will be out raking leaves and doing yard work at the homes of veterans.

In his world, the one he shares with students, veterans are held in the highest regard.

“These soldiers, and what they’ve gone through for our country…” he said, trailing off. Rozell, a member of the Hudson Falls Teachers Association, was standing in the school entryway in front of a new display called The Veterans Wall. It is filled with photographs and stories of veterans from World War II through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their mission was protection. Rozell’s mission has been to make sure students know what that protection cost and what it preserved. In a metal filing cabinet in Rozell’s living history classroom there are 200 written student interviews with World War II veterans. Each folder includes the interview, positions papers, fact checks, photographs, letters and other primary sources.

[Hudson Falls Teachers Association member Matt Rozell on the history of Veterans Day and keeping history alive through the “power of the narrative story.”]

That’s 200 stories now documented; important pieces of history, of personal lives that intersected and collided with the deadliest war in history. These veterans became part of the Allies Forces in a brutal war from 1939 to 1945 – a war involving most nations of the world, the Holocaust, nuclear bombing, and sobering losses. According to the World War II Museum, there were 15 million combat deaths; 25 million wounded; and 45 million civilian deaths.

The front wall of Rozell’s classroom is covered with the front pages of actual newspapers chronicling stages of the war as it stormed across the world: “France Joins Britain in War on Germany;” “Roosevelt is Dead; Truman Sworn In;” “Germans Take Oslo: Sweden Gets Warning;” “Reich Scraps Versailles Pact.”

But it is on the last wall where the stories uncovered by Rozell and his students are the most personal. Here, there is a map of the world. In certain sections, it is dense with colored pushpins that students insert for tracking survivors.

The pins represent people: Jewish people who were rescued by American soldiers in Germany on a train from Bergen Belsen concentration camp, destined to be killed at the end of the war. The pins also represent the soldiers who saved them and the soldiers’ families.

“There were 2,500 Jews inside,” said the soft-spoken Rozell, whose blue eyes fill with tears telling the story. Some were already dead; all were emaciated. It was April 13, 1945. They were covered with lice. Some had typhus.

“It was at the point in the war when everything was collapsing under the Third Reich,” Rozell said. “Their final order was to murder everyone on the train.” German soldiers were to drive the train onto a bridge and blow up the bridge. But first, they ordered the men and boys off the train.

“They were going to machine gun them,” Rozell said.

Then the Americans, en route to a nearby battle, crested the hill in their tanks. They stayed 24 hours to guard the train, and then other soldiers came in to help transport the survivors.

In the last 10 years, 275 rescuers and survivors have been reunited through Rozell, the web site he created,https://teachinghistorymatters.com/tag/matthew-rozell/, and veteran Frank Towers, now 97. Towers was a soldier with the 30th Infantry Division who was charged with relocating the train survivors to a safe place for medical care and treatment the day after the rescue.

“His job was to move people out of harm’s way. He had trucks. It took all day,” Rozell said.

Towers, 97 has now met children of those train survivors, “people who would not exist if Americans hadn’t liberated the train,” Rozell said.

Rozell’s  determination to have his students experience the meaning of the closing days of WWII drew the attention not only of families and survivors, but also of the media. He and his students have been featured on NBC Learn as part of “Lessons of the Holocaust” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koQCU9Rhys0.

In September 2009 ABC World News with Diane Sawyer named them as “Persons of the Week.”

Rozell also works with the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

His story of action in the classroom began years ago when he had students first start interviewing veterans and videotaping them. Then they would transcribe them and type them up.  “This was before the internet,” he said.

In the mid 90s he began putting the stories online.  Rozell also conducted interviews, and one of them was with the grandfather of one of his students, a WWII veteran. He set up a video camera and the pair talked for two hours. A retired state Supreme Court justice, Carrol Walsh had been in combat in a tank.

“He hated it. Once he was trapped for three days,” Rozell said.

As the interview was winding down, Rozell recalls, Judge Walsh’s daughter stepped in and said “Did you tell him about the train?”

Walsh was one the soldiers who came across the train full of imprisoned Jewish people as they were driving their tanks. He told Rozell how they found the people on the train and scared off the German soldiers guarding it.

liberation

Next, Walsh directed Rozell to George Gross, a fellow tank commander who had taken photographs that day from the tank. More recently, Gross had written a narrative about his part in the liberation of the train.

Rozell eventually interviewed him by speakerphone in a class interview.

Rozell posted the transcripts of the interviews with Walsh and Gross – now deceased – on the school web site under a WWII history project.

The site got hits, but it more or less languished for about four years.

Then the trickle started. A grandmother from Australia who had been a little girl on the train contacted Rozell. Then a doctor in London, a scientist in Brooklyn and a retired airline executive in New Jersey found him through his site. They were all survivors from the train.

Rozell decided to host a reunion for them in 2007 at the school, and of course Walsh was invited.

“Judge Walsh – the only soldier there – met them with a laugh, and said ‘Long time, no see!'” Rozell recalls.

The Associated Press picked up the story about the reunion, and the school’s web site got so many hits it crashed the system. Rozell heard from 60 more people who were on that train.


The AP story is how veteran Frank Towers found out about the story. He contacted Rozell and they worked together. Since then there have been over 10 reunions – three of them in Hudson Falls,one in Israel, and many organized by Towers. Besides Israel and New York, they’ve been held in North and South Carolina  Tennessee, and Florida. With the help of survivors daughter Varda Weisskopf in Israel, they have brought survivors and their descendants together with American soldiers and their descendants. Their homes are now in places such as Great Britain, Canada, Israel, America, and Australia.

In 2011, Rozell and his son were given a gift of attending one of the reunions in Israel. There, he met 65 people who were on the train.

“The survivors [and soldiers] chipped in and bought a ticket for me and my son,” he said, still awestruck about the event three years later. “I’ve never been in the Middle East.”

NBC News recently heralded Towers’ quest to reunite survivors in http://www.nbcnews.com/watch/ann-curry-reports/children-from-death-train-reunited-346382403757.

In the video, a young girl cries, trying to express how much it means to her to meet the man who liberated her grandfather on the train.

Rozell, a graduate of SUNY Geneseo, is in his 29th year of teaching history. He says his journey is about “the power of teaching.”

“We can use the power of history to get kids involved, engaged and more empowered themselves,” he said.

The Washington County Historical Society has published some of the student stories in the file cabinet, giving both students and veterans, a voice.

http://www.nysut.org/news/2014/november/veterans-day-using-the-power-of-story-to-make-history-come-alive-for-hudson-falls-students

Thanks, Liza, Andrew and Leslie for visiting our school and seeing the power for yourselves.

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Carrol S Walsh Jr. At rest in Johnstown, NY. Photo by Elizabeth Connolly.

Carrol S Walsh Jr. At rest in Johnstown, NY. Photo by Elizabeth Connolly.

Thirteen summers ago, I sat down for an interview with an amazing man. What he would relate to me, and what I would do with it, would go on to change both of our lives.  A seemingly small incident would be recalled almost as an aside in the wider context of World War II, but then would go on to reverberate through time, and space, creating ripples in the cosmos that grew into waves. Big waves that would carry me, and many others, to places we had never thought possible.

You see, on Friday, April 13th, 1945, twenty-five hundred lives were saved as advance elements of the U.S. Army 743rd Tank Battalion, 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, and  30th Infantry Division stumbled across the crime of the century, perhaps of all time.

A train transport stopped at a railroad siding. Open boxcars, sealed boxcars, shabby passenger cars, engine. Some people wandering about, others too ill to move. Sick and emaciated human beings.  Women. Men. Children. SS bands roaming the countryside. Orders to execute. A bridge over the River Elbe ahead to be blown to smithereens. With the transport, and the people on it.

The soldiers told me their stories.  In the course of collecting their narratives, we found others who played their parts and rescued those people.

I listened. We wrote. We recorded, and I posted. Then, the wires began tripping. Seven Septembers ago, we put together the first of many reunions between these soldiers and the child survivors of the Holocaust they rescued.

“Joyful” does not do it justice. What do you say to the men who saved you and your family when you were a child?

Carrol smiles, grips their arms in greeting, and laughs, “Long time, no see!” Sixty-two years, that’s all. On April 13th, 1945, the war weary, “seen-it-all” twenty-four year old second lieutenant is in for the shock of his life.

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Five years ago this week, we put on quite a show at our high school.  High school kids listening to, meeting, sharing, laughing, crying, even dancing  with octogenarian U.S. soldiers and Holocaust survivors. ABC World News called my classroom and told me they were on their way up from NYC headquarters to film us. You can see Carrol, and listen to fellow tank commander George Gross’ narrative from our interviews, and hear fellow soldier Frank Towers describe his role in the liberation.

The last evening together, soldiers and survivors from all over the world watched the broadcast together, and we said our prayer of thanksgiving. Hundreds of students became the witnesses for the generations to come.

And so it comes full circle. Nearly ten percent of the passenger list has been found, over 60 years later. Profound things keep happening.

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We lost Carrol less than two years ago, George earlier. So I write this week to remember, and remind myself of what a legacy, and gift, they left us. While it may have been a tiny part of  very productive lives (a New York State Supreme Court justice, and English literature professor, respectively), for the rest of my days I will think of the times I got to talk to them, and smile.

And think about their own words: “What are we going to do with all these people?”

Indeed. Just look at the generations that sprang forth, because of what our soldiers stopped to do, in a shooting war. In complex, fluid situations, there are no easy answers, but don’t you think that there is a very important lesson here?

It was not part of the mission. But maybe as a society we should break down and examine the values that made the mission change, if even as a “sideline”.

Sometimes it just feels good to feel proud.

But temper pride with the wisdom of the retired New York State Supreme Court justice:

“No.

They don’t owe us anything. Not a thing.

We owe them~

For what the world allowed to happen to them.”

 

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NBC Video about liberator Frank Towers, based on our project here at this website, and what has driven Frank since we met up in 2007.
Godspeed survivors, family members, soldier liberators.  Keep going, Frank.
Remember.
Children from Death Train Reunited
The emotional reunion of a former American soldier and the Jewish children he helped save from the Holocaust 70 years ago. Link below:
OR

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Meet my friend Frank. He’s 97. The story continues…. from the Boston Globe.

WW2 liberator reunites with Holocaust survivors

By Victoria Bedford
| Globe Correspondent   October 12, 2014

“If not now, when?’’ asked Rabbi Joel Sisenwine, quoting from Hillel the Elder, a revered Jewish leader who lived at the time of King Herod. “If not me, who?”

It was Oct. 4, Yom Kippur, and Sisenwine stood before the congregation at Wellesley’s Temple Beth Elohim, introducing a very special visitor.

As Frank Towers walked up to speak, the teary-eyed congregation of 1,500 rose to give him a standing ovation.

Towers never considered himself special. Now 97, the South Boston native is living in Florida, where he spent most of his adult life as an office manager at a university data processing center. But in the early spring of 1945, in Farsleben, Germany, he was among a group of soldiers who liberated thousands of Nazi prisoners.

The rabbi invited two of those survivors, and their families, to step forward and stand beside Towers.

Yvette Namias, 92, of Peabody, did so. She was 22 in 1945 and long a prisoner at the notorious Bergen Belsen death camp before the liberation. She had never met Towers. Her family — children, grandchildren — stood around her.

Namias was joined by Charles Elbaum of Providence, a 17-year-old prisoner at the time of liberation, now surrounded by his children and grandchildren.

“Well,” Towers said to Namias after the ceremony, “I’ve spent a long time chasing you around the world.”

“He’s responsible for my family,” said Namias. “Without him, my family would not be here.”

Nothing in his life had prepared Towers for what he came upon on April 14, 1945. He was a young lieutenant in the 30th Infantry Division, a unit of the US Army National Guard, heading for Magdeburg, Germany, to fight one last major battle. In the town of Farsleben, they encountered a train that had been seized by the Army’s 743d Tank Battalion the day before. Towers was told it held 2,500 Jewish prisoners, and he was responsible for taking them to safety.

“What if you find a train loaded with Jews, what are you going to do? Nothing was ever said about anything like that.” Towers said. “If you come across a camp, like Dachau or Buchenwald, what are you going to do? We didn’t know anything about that situation.”

But the lieutenant found himself faced with a train full of death camp prisoners, 60 to 70 men, women, and children crammed into each train car, forced to stand until they collapsed from exhaustion, with a daily ration of thin potato soup, and one bucket for a bathroom. They were starved, sick, overworked, and in desperate need of medical assistance, which Towers and his men were wholly unprepared to provide.

Still, Towers and his men sprang into action, rounding up as much transportation as they could, and took the prisoners to the town of Hillersleben. There, a Red Cross unit processed the thousands of Jewish prisoners, gave them showers, provided clean clothes and dusted them with DDT, now a prohibited carcinogen, to kill lice and fleas.

Knowing that he was leaving the prisoners in good hands, Towers went on to fight a last battle, and returned to the States later in 1945. Soon, he started a family with his wife, Mary. Like many who lived through the war, he put his experiences in the rearview mirror for years, never talking much about what he had seen of the Holocaust.

“But I could tell it was eating him inside,” Mary said. “I knew that.”

Towers said his focus was just to move on. “Not much thought was given to the victims,” Towers said. “They were starting out on a new life somewhere.”

That all changed for him in 2005, when he was invited back to Magdeburg to speak about what happened 60 years before. There, he met Ernest Kahn, a survivor of Buchenwald who had been liberated by Towers’ division (“It was very emotional,’’ said Towers), and Kahn put him in touch with Matt Rozell, a high school teacher from Hudson Falls, N.Y., who was assembling an online archive of stories from the war. The two began working together to locate survivors from the train in Farsleben.

“The thing just snowballed,” Towers said. “Today we have located 275 of these children.”

Like Towers, Charles Elbaum, who was a 17-year-old prisoner when rescued from the train, rarely spoke about the Holocaust to his family. After his liberation, he went on to become a physics professor at Brown University, a husband, a father to three sons, and a grandfather to eight children. His son Dan, of Newton, and grandson Nathan met Towers at a reunion, and invited him to speak before the congregation at Temple Beth Elohim.

“Without what they did,” Dan Elbaum said, “I wouldn’t be here. Frank is the last known surviving veteran who was actually present at the liberation of the train.”

For Towers, who now travels around the world to tell his story, preserving the memory is the most important aspect of these talks.

“Dan and his family, and others just like him, he’s second-generation,” Towers said. “Many of them knew nothing about the incarceration of their parents. This second generation is entitled to know what happened, and how it happened, so that they in turn can pass it on to their children, and this will never happen again. That’s the hope in all of us.”

http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/regionals/west/2014/10/11/liberator-reunites-with-holocaust-survivors/FGUj2uW2crSYIiQIUbdbWM/story.html

 

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


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

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July 18.

It’s been a helluva trip. I have toured authentic sites, met some good people, forged some pretty strong bonds with other educators as colleagues and friends. I’ve tramped the grounds where hundreds of my Holocaust survivor friends were held and/or had family members perish.

Our teachers in Cracow, Poland, Schindler Factory Museum of Cracow.

Our teachers in Cracow, Poland, Schindler Factory Museum of Cracow.

So. Now it is time to begin processing it all.

Writing this, I have been traveling and pondering for over 24 hours now. I am back in the USA – missing a flight,  the airlines seemingly conspired to help  extend my pensive mood by granting me a complimentary hotel room on the outskirt of nowhere near Dulles Airport- so my adventure will be extended one more night. I hardly know what day of the week it is but in a way that is kind of refreshing.

From Day One I think all of us on the trip are in the same boat- folks you know are excited and proud of you for being selected on an elite study tour for teachers, but maybe question a bit why one would spend $3 or 4K of one’s own treasure*, leave your family and loved ones for three weeks to travel with “strangers”, or forfeit 3 weeks of summer earning potential to tour the sites of the scenes of the greatest crime in the history of the world.

Well, you gotta give them that. This is kind of strange- or so it may seem if you are on the outside cupping your hand on the window glass trying to look in.

I think, as one of my Facebook followers put it,  that we did something very brave. We toured over two dozen places where I figure 3 million people were murdered.

Or to put it in maybe a more appropriate context, we saw, walked through, and touched the ground where  nearly a million families were killed. By no means did we tour the thousands of camps and subsites where millions more lives were destroyed.

 

The numbers tell the story in a way, but not completely, because try as one might, one cannot understand them. I know the numbers- I have the knowledge- but as Steve our tour historian says, there is a clear difference between knowledge and understanding. Some things are beyond comprehension.

 

Belzec. Letter from survivor to me, who lost her family there.

Belzec. Letter from survivor to me, who lost her family there.

400,000 murdered in Belzec.

1.1 million in Auschwitz II/Birkenau.

900,000 at Treblinka.

We have been to all of these places in the past three days. People comment that they can’t get their head around it, they can’t begin to fathom the mass indifference to human life that we have witnessed.

Treblinka. 900,000 lost.

Treblinka. 900,000 lost.

So let’s look at what we did come to some kind of understanding about.

What we learned was of the ripple effect of the seemingly small things that illustrated the resilience of the human spirit. That resistance does not have to be just using physical force against your tormentors- it goes way beyond that.

Madjanek. My "I'm in a really, really bad dream day". Under the Soviet era memorial lies a pile of ash and cremated bone the size of a small house.

Majdanek. My “I’m in a really, really bad dream” day. Under the Soviet era memorial dome lies a pile of ash and cremated bone the size of a small house.

The program has been in operation for 30 years, begun by survivors of  the Warsaw Ghetto, those who resisted but survived. Vladka Meed pointed out that the Ghetto Uprising in 1943, which held the Germans at bay for weeks, was begun by the young people. And it is for them, the young,  that we educators make this trip.

So, trying to keep it simple and summing it up:

1. This was not a trip about death. It was a trip about life.  I can’t say that I found God, but this trip was one of the most spiritually reflective journeys that I have ever been on, bordering on a religious experience. So folks will ask when I get home- how was it?-my answer will be:

Righteous.  For me, not epic, not amazing, not awesome.

Righteous.

2. I had many of my Holocaust educational and pedagogical thoughts confirmed and other assumptions challenged. Some ideas presented to me I felt comfortable enough to challenge myself, but in thinking about them, I came to deeper understanding. The most important understanding confirmed is a problem that all teachers must struggle with in our flawed educational system. We have to be diligent about avoiding the promotion of generalization as fact, to avoid doing a disservice to our students. If you are  teaching this history, you had better be versed enough and nuanced enough to accept inconsistencies, problematic complexities, and probe these things to induce a more intricate set of questions to your kids.

3. We have to be willing to accept that perhaps there are no correct answers- a notion that educators  are uncomfortable with- but  one that must  be accepted, nevertheless.  To promote generalities in this complex history, or any history is wrong. But especially this one, it seems to me. It was a watershed event in the history of the world, and for humanity, on many levels.

4. Lastly, it was certainly not just a trip to study how to teach the Holocaust. Perhaps reinforced more was how NOT to teach it. And  at the end of the day, it was a tour not only of authentic sites, but also of the mind, and how to make it work.

Sometimes I thought myself to the verge of tears, behind the sunglasses. Thinking-not only about answers- but about the questions.

And that’s what these teachers “did on our summer vacation”.

Memorial to Warsaw Uprising

Memorial to Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

* thanks to the American soldiers, Holocaust survivors, and special folks who were able to support my efforts.

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


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

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July 16. I wrote in my journal on the bus ride back from Treblinka. The handwriting is nearly illegible due to the poor roads, underscoring the remoteness of this place where 900,000 plus were murdered.

In the afternoon we headed to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. As in many occupied  areas the cemetery also contains a mass grave.

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Wall rebuilt with smashed stones. Warsaw Jewish cemetery.

A poignant memorial statue also exists here to Janusz Korczak (1878-1942), who was murdered at Treblinka with 200 of his orphaned charges, accompanying them to the gas chambers.

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There is so much more to learn here. In the evening we dress for a Chopin recital.

 

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The dichotomy is striking. Horrible places by day. Evening debriefing and intense discussions over dinner, palatial accommodations by night. The concert is in a former palace.

 

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I’d say we deserve it.

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July 17.

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

 

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

 

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

After my last post, I heard from a Holocaust survivor whom I feel very close to, several fellow travelers and supporters, and one person who appears convinced that I am a fool, though it is apparent that he did not study the full post, nor has any familiarity with my work. Not that he had any intention of that. He appears to be somewhat anally fixated on the gas chamber that I would not enter.

In fairness, even at the time I knew that my decision not to go into the gas chamber would spark a “reaction” like this. Here is what he wrote:

You’re an emotion and propaganda-susceptible gullible fool.

You’re “teaching history” and not going into the fraudulently alleged homicidal gas chambers? Or do you subconsciously already know it’s bullshit?

There were NO fake shower rooms disguised as gas chambers.

That’s a racist anti-German blood libel. Shame on you. The Bath and Disinfection 1 facility was just that!

Then he sent me to his website. Sure, I went. “Holocaust Hoax” or something original like that.  Why, there is even a PayPal button for donations. Working out great, I am sure. Sigh. Same old rehashed, regurgitated nonsense. Fred Leuchter a qualified expert. Uh-huh.  What else?  Jewish supremacy/conspiracy.  Okay. “Fraudulently alleged”. “Blood libel”. Hmm, heard that one before. The teaching history matters guy is “propaganda-susceptible”. Gullible. Racist at that, though I have written about my German friends and have gone out of my way to praise the German historians I have met on this journey.

Must be teaching the wrong history. So yes. Shame on me.

I get it. And I’m sure I’ll get a really well thought out nasty follow-up. But really, thanks  for reinforcing the importance of what I do. Your words mean more than you could ever know.

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

 July 16.

My impression of Poland is that it seems pretty flat. Makes sense, as this is in the heart of the great Northern Plain I have been teaching about for years. A natural invasion route. Sandy, too. After the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, the deployment of the Einsatzgruppen  began in earnest and the plans for the Final Solution became clearer.

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We are in Warsaw now.

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In fact, our hotel, the Bristol, is right next door to the Presidential Palace. We are in the top digs in the town-which of course the Germans occupied before the war. We go out at night, to purge some of the madness that, if you are not careful, can begin to accumulate like a toxin in the soul. Light, refreshing conversation. Good Polish beer. And yes, laughs with fellow travelers.

The Bristol in Warsaw. A backdrop for Leon Uris' classic Mila 18.

The Bristol in Warsaw. A backdrop for Leon Uris’ classic Mila 18.

The Bristol in Warsaw. A backdrop for Leon Uris' classic Mila 18.

The Bristol in Warsaw. A backdrop for Leon Uris’ classic Mila 18. Appropriate digs for superstar schoolteachers.

The Presidential Palace right next to the Bristol. Literally. Where they put us up.

The Presidential Palace right next to the Bristol. Literally. Where they put us up.

Tim, Scott, Alan. Warsaw. In front of our hotel, the Bristol.

Tim, Scott, Alan. Warsaw. In front of our hotel, the Bristol. Outlaws, livin’ life and loving every minute of it.

 

Warsaw of 2014 is an exciting place to be, as Krakow was. I’ll come back to this in the next post.

Today we are bussed to Treblinka, about 50 miles northeast.

The primary roads turn on to secondary roads. Towns become villages as we make the final approach on tertiary roads that are dirt. But there are railroad tracks that we cross, then follow.

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Treblinka I was a forced labor camp. Soon enough, orders came down to construct Treblinka II, a full-blown killing center authorized, like Sobibor and Belzec,  within the parameters of Aktion Reinhard.

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The language. “Extermination Camp.” Commonly used. Like human beings were bugs or something.

Much of the Warsaw ghetto occupants were murdered here, including, again, relatives of survivors I am close to. Micha Tomkiewitz’s father was shot down as he leapt from the train to Treblinka.

When we arrive here we go to a tiny museum where our guide Waclaw gives us the layout of the camp, overlooking a huge scale model.

Model of Treblinka II.

Model of Treblinka II.

SS guard vegetable garden in the front. The trains would roll in like clockwork, beginning in the early afternoon.

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The deception reaches its height at Treblinka. There is a station, and a sign.

Treblinka station sign. Yad Vashem.

Treblinka station sign. Yad Vashem.

A clock. The barbed wire double fence is cloaked in trees, some branches even woven into the fence itself. New arrivals in transports of up to seven thousand, are sometimes greeted with a speech by the camp commander, then are directed to step down and disembark, to hand over all valuables, as they are at a “transit center”.

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Scott contemplates disembarkation site. Treblinka II.

They undress in segregated areas, and  run naked down the “tube” a camouflaged fenced in path that led to the gas chambers. They are beaten by SS men and specially trained Ukrainian guards. The clothes are searched by the sondercommandos and sorted.

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We move on to the site of the gas chambers. Even the “bath house” has a Star of David, a Hebrew inscription that reads, “This is the gate through which the righteous pass.” Once inside, the doors are sealed, and a captured Soviet T-34 tank engine is started, pumping choking carbon monoxide into the chamber.

The Soviet memorial at the site of the gas chambers. Kaddish is said. Treblinka II.

The Soviet memorial at the site of the gas chambers. Kaddish is said. Treblinka II.

After a quarter-hour, the people would be dead. Bodies would then be pulled out and cavities searched for gold or other valuables. The disposition of the corpses evolved, almost as a science, at some of these centers. Iron railroad railswould be set up and huge pyres would be created. Near the end of the camp’s existence, Himmler ordered that bodies be exhumed and cremated, to hide the evidence. Ashes were scattered, mixed in with the sandy earth, and plowed over.  Treblinka was so far off the beaten path and so well hidden that for years the general public had no knowledge of it.

Memorial stones. 1700 of them. One for each shtetl, town, city destoryed or purged of its Jewish population in Poland. Treblinka II.

Memorial stones. 1700 of them. One for each shtetl, town, city destroyed or purged of its Jewish population in Poland. Treblinka II.

Between July 1942 and Nov. 1943, probably near 900,000 people were murdered here. But a little known part of the story focuses on the uprising that lead to the camp’s demise, documented in narrative style in Jean-François  Steiner’s 1966 book Treblinka. Under the noses of the SS and Ukrainians, a secret revolt manifested among the slave laborers. On August 2, 1943, six hundred attacked the guards, burned parts of the camp, and about half of them managed to escape into the forest. Most did not survive, but a few dozen did.

So we are at the scene of the crime , educators from across the USA, sharing this special bond, only 70 years later.

Talli: “There is such a presence”.

We gather at the site of the gas chambers. Mindy is reading her poem. Talli is crying. Beryl shares a special story. Elaine is crying. Matt’s tougher today, so after the prayer, he is going to wander the perimeter, by himself. Again.

We were only there for at the most a couple of hours. But, as my friend Alan, who shared these moments as well,  says, “Treblinka manifests the Absence of Presence, the Presence of Absence. What’s there is not there, what’s not there is there.”

And with a little quiet, you can feel it. There is such a presence.

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


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

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

July 14.

Belzec has changed me, somehow. Maybe the personal connection. At each new authentic site, where these unspeakable horrors were perpetrated, some kind of invisible hand pushes me just a little bit harder. It’s tough to explain. But this evening as I write into the early hours in my bed in the splendid Grand Hotel, perhaps Lublin’s most celebrated and storied, I am troubled a bit. I fall asleep fitfully, imagining the sounds of Nazi jackboots on the staircases outside the room where they once strode.

Grand Hotel, Lublin.

Grand Hotel, Lublin.

Grand Hotel, Lublin.

Grand Hotel, Lublin.

Grand Hotel, Lublin.

Grand Hotel, Lublin.

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

July 15.

The month after the invasion of the Soviet Union, Himmler ordered the construction of a new concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin, for centuries an important center of Jewish life and culture in Europe. The original purpose of the camp, to be known as Majdanek (pronounced “My-don-ek”), was to provide forced labor for the construction of SS and administrative centers in the planned eastern territories.

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Majdanek holds a central role in the administration of Operation Reinhard. To recap, for just over two years beginning in October 1941, the purpose of the operation was

1) the physical annihilation of the Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement (occupied Poland);
2) the exploitation of some Jews selected to survive temporarily as forced laborers;
3) the seizure, evaluation, and recycling of clothing, personal property, valuables, and currency taken from the murdered Jews at the killing centers; and
4) the identification of so-called hidden assets of the Jews in the Generalgouvernement.

Within the framework of Operation Reinhard, Majdanek primarily served to concentrate Jews whom the Germans spared temporarily for forced labor. It occasionally functioned as a killing site to murder victims who could not be killed at the Operation Reinhard killing centers: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II. It also contained a storage depot for property and valuables taken from the Jewish victims at the killing centers.

Like other concentration camps in the Reich, Majdanek also served as a killing site for targeted groups of individuals, including members of the Polish resistance, hostages taken from the Security Police prison in Lublin, and prisoners in the camp itself who were deemed no longer capable of work. ~USHMM

Majdanek. Photo by Alan Bush.

Majdanek. Photo by Alan Bush.

 

Majdanek.

Majdanek. Premier Soviet Sixties style.

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You know how a sound, or a smell, can bring trigger memory?

Creosote.

 

Majdanek.

Majdanek.

 

I am at Majdanek. This place is the real deal. The barracks are intact wooden shacks. The guard towers menace like creatures from “The War of the Worlds”.

On top of that, the Soviet Memorial in the far off distance resembles a flying saucer hovering over an unknown object.

Majdanek. Note Soviet Memorial. It is actually a mausoleum. Which I did not know until I saw it with my own eyes. Human remains.

Majdanek. Note Soviet Memorial at the end of the road… It is actually much more than a memorial. Which I did not know until I saw it with my own eyes.

 

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Approaching the memorial. Still no idea of what I am about to witness.

 

The buildings reek. I know that smell. Gasoline-like. My dad used to layer it on thick, this petroleum based wood preservative, on our hunting shack in the Adirondacks when I was a teenager, before the government outlawed it for public use.

Creosote.

At this site,  do you know that this camp is, to my knowledge, the only one that was captured intact, by Soviet forces, exactly 69 years ago this month as the Red Army overran this area? And it has an un-destroyed gas chamber?

So why not see it?

Go in it?

Majdanek. Gas Chamber building. "Showers".

Majdanek. Gas Chamber building. “Showers”.

 

Majdanek. Gas Chamber building. "Bath and Disinfection I"

Majdanek. Gas Chamber building. “Bath and Disinfection I”

Well, I did go in the building where it is housed.

Low ceiling. Dark. Concrete floors with gutter channels. Sinks. Pushing a bit deeper, my chest begins to constrict. Collar feels tighter. Into another door and room in the “assembly line”. Showerheads above, all connected, all so orderly.

Trailing behind, now.

To continue moving forward with the group will bring me to the gas chamber. I turn around and my feet carry me back, fast, and through the entrance, I exit.

I’m just not going there.

Alan takes a photo inside, not of the chamber or the empty Zyklon B canisters, but of the sign:

Bath and Disinfection I-Fawn, Alan, Ashley, Beryl--Majdanek Poland 15 July 2014. Photo by Alan Bush.

Bath and Disinfection I-Fawn, Alan, Ashley, Beryl–Majdanek Poland 15 July 2014. Photo by Alan Bush.

 

I wait outside. I am conscious of a pull to witness, but today I am just not going to go in.

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The next building is the storehouse. “Majdanek also served another key Operation Reinhard function; it contained storage facilities for clothing and personal items stolen from the Jews before their deaths in the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II killing centers.” (USHMM)

Walking in here you are overpowered first by the smell of the creosote, then your eyes try to take it all in- row upon row of piles of shoes, behind chicken wire. Is this possible?

Shoes and lost dignity Majdanek Poland 15 July 13. Alan Bush photo.

Shoes and lost dignity, Majdanek Poland 15 July 13. Alan Bush photo.

Alan Bush photo.

Alan Bush photo.

Okay.

Time to move in to the barracks area.

Two young Polish women with a stroller casually pass us, chatting. They are cutting through Majdanek to take a shortcut to the Catholic cemetery on the outside of the memorial complex. The irony is not lost on the group.

And it is going to get a helluva lot more ironic in the next 20 minutes.

Barracks area.

Barracks area.

On to the Soviet Memorial and the crematorium. The crematorium is intact, too. Again I hang back.

 

My journal, written on the spot, at that moment:

majdanek excerpt

I am at Majdanek. I would not go into the gas chamber and right now I will not go into the crematorium.

 

I go over and check out a memorial stone with a plaque near the steps to the Soviet Memorial.

 

Memorial Stone. Note undulating terrain in background. Alan Bush photo.

Memorial Stone. Note undulating terrain in background. Alan Bush photo.

 

Me alone at Majdanek.

Me alone at Majdanek.

So what happened at this spot? I think I need to sit down. Now.

They play the music really loud to try to disguise the gunshots to the folks back in the town. It’s starting to have the makings of a really long day.  A bit chilly too, being early November and all.  The shooters.

 

Journal again:

Right now I am sitting on the concrete steps alone in front of a memorial stone, right before the ditches where 18,500 Jews were executed in the “Harvest Festival”.

I am in front of a mass grave by myself. I want to be alone so right now I am pretending to write something deep.

 

 

And here is your 1943 view.

And here is your 1943 view.

 

So I’m kinda stunned, sitting on the stairs and scratching such nothingness into my notebook. What else should I be doing?

When the group trickles over to the steps, we ascend. Someone asks if I am okay.

Yeah, I’m fine.

Eighteen thousand five hundred. Murdered right in front of me. In one day. That is twenty times the population of our high school, on a good day, when they all feel like coming to school.

 

Now we are under the dome, that stupid looking flying saucer. We are in it, looking down on a mound the size of a small house. Big pile of whitish grayish stuff. And as the realization dawns, now comes the shock that nearly knocks me over on my ass. What the poor saps in the Twilight Zone must have felt as they realized everything was the opposite of what they had assumed. I’m suddenly in a very personal episode of the Twilight Zone.

I don’t need a sign for this. As a trained archaeologist, I have excavated this more than a few times.

Cooked bone.

I am looking at a mountain of burned bone. Calcified bone fragments, powder, and earth.

Kippah on ashes Majdanek 15 July 13. Photo by Alan Bush.

Kippah on ashes Majdanek 15 July 13. It’s a giant urn, an open air mausoleum.          (Note people in background for scale.) Photo by Alan Bush.

I am face to face with cremated human remains. Bleached white and gray from superheat.

How many thousands of human beings are in front of me?

I don’t know why, but I don’t participate in the Kaddish here. Sorry. I don’t pocket a rock for a memorial memento, either.

 

Catholic cemetery, Poland.

Catholic cemetery, Poland. I suppose you could get an accurate count here.

Today was a bad dream day.

And if there are any words, they are drowned out by some kind of twisted irony here in Majdanek, this monument to the dead, in the sounds of being outflanked by a speeding baby stroller cutting through the camp, wheels squeaking-yes, maybe life, but an apt metaphor for the present, willful yet oblivious, dodging and darting the presence of the past.

But it’s here.

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


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

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

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

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

Jewish Community Center, Krakow

Jewish Community Center, Krakow.

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

letter from AR at Belzec July 2013

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

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

A little girl.

In a political prison.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

From the USHMM:

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

Belzec Memorial.

Belzec Memorial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belzec.

Belzec.

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

 

End of the Belzec extermination camp, c 1944.  USHMM

End of the Belzec killing center, c 1944. USHMM

 

Belzec.

Belzec.

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

They would watch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Belzec.

Belzec.

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

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

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

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

***

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

*

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

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

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

I suppose I could have just let things be.

But I couldn’t leave things alone.

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

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

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

It’s true.

So I’m here to make another special connection.

IMG_0001

 

Maybe from little girl to mother.

So no one forgets.

 

 

Kisses for Grandma.

Kisses for Grandma.

 

And the cycle, the mystery, the life continues.

 

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