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Posts Tagged ‘Teaching the Holocaust’

This week I introduced what will be a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and discovery of the magnitude of the most horrific crime in the history of the world, the Holocaust.

Today I travel again back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, sharing some of my personal observations and photographs on the anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops 70 years ago this week.

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July 12.

After the tour of Auschwitz I, our teacher travel study group has lunch on the bus in the parking lot, then drive the three kilometers through town to Birkenau.

There it is. The entry tower. The iconic symbol of evil.

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Main entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. USHMM

Main entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau . USHMM

 

We follow the guide up the stairs in the tower. From here we can see the sheer vastness of the camp.

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Women's Barracks. Auschwitz II.

Women’s Barracks. Auschwitz II.

 

Dozens of long narrow women’s barracks, brick, still stand, albeit some braced with wood on the gable ends to keep them from toppling until they can be re-pointed. A. indicates that historic preservation here is a major concern.

 

Vastness

The rest of the camp is many square kilometers of row upon row of foundations and brick chimney stubs, surrounded by the menacing curved and tapered concrete concrete posts dotted with white insulators and strung with miles of parallel lines of barbed wire. In the summer of 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian families were deported here, the rail lines came right into the camp.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

 

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

 

Following the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews  were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

 

The Walk.

Our guide leads us along the path through the camp that leads to the gas chamber and crematorium. We walk in in silence along the roadway, the only sound the crunching of brick fragments and gravel underfoot.

Selected.

Selected.

 

The Walk.

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It appears to have been paved with brick, slave labor, though in some spots it is hard to tell anymore. No one speaks, and on and on we walk. Two minutes. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. I’ve been on battlefields that are smaller than this site.

 

Flower ring as we make final approach to the chambers tucked into the wooded area nearby.

Finally we reach the end of the camp where the kitchens stood. A round concrete ring rises out of the earth, maybe 6 feet in diameter. Someone finally speaks and asks A. what it was. A giant flowerpot. She tells us also that they were placed near the entrances of the gas chambers. Flowers at the gas chambers.

Waiting. For what we do not know.

Waiting. For what we do not know. Exhausted from deportation and “travel”. We now know who they were. Yad Vashem.

 

We turn left, and keep walking past interpretative signage. It seems like we are walking outside of camp perimeter. But we are not. Beautiful woods appear and we are walking on the edge of the woods with the camp to our left. We stop near another sign and rest for a moment, allowing the others to catch up. Then our guide calls our attention to the photo on the sign, showing Hungarian mothers and children doing the same thing we are doing. Halting and resting.  And a short path through the woods will take us to the ruins of the gas chamber/crematorium Number Five.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

 

We are resting at the spot they rested at, 20 minutes after walking, immediately after disembarking of overcrowded transports that had been traveling for days. Here they waited, anxiously, as their turn to approach the chamber would come. But the victims of the transport ahead of them had to be removed from the chamber first. Some days in the summer of 1944 these victims were backed up for hours.

I pick up a rock from the path and carry it with me past the ruins. At the ashfield there is more signage and a memorial asking visitors not to walk through the field. I place my stone on the memorial, looking down to watch where I step. But it is probably a futile gesture-this whole place is an ashyard, a graveyard.

 

The secret sonderKommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

The secret sonderkommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

 

“So many Hungarian Jews were killed in the Auschwitz camps during that period that the crematoria were incapable of consuming all the bodies, and open pits for the purpose were dug.”

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We turn again, and walk past the remains of crematorium Number Four. To the disinfection center for those selected to be worked to death. Again, a system. Disrobing. Wading through disinfectant. Shower. Uniform thrown at you, mismatched clogs or shoes.

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E’s mother spent two years here. Her grandmother and the little ones were selected upon arrival. Her mom’s beloved sister was murdered in the quarry after slipping while carrying a large pot of soup in the ice and snow with three other girls. Today is a hard day. I want to comfort her, to carry her pack for her. I feel helpless. There is nothing I can do.

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At the Soviet memorial constructed near the two destroyed gas chamber/crematoria at the end, we have a remembrance ceremony. Kaddish is recited in Hebrew. I read it aloud in English. With tears, E. tells us that she feels her grandmother smiling down on this extraordinary group of dedicated teachers. A lump rises, again. I swallow hard and try to blink back the wetness I feel welling in my eyes. Damn, I almost made it. Glad for the sunglasses, even though there is no sun.

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775

 

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“A Warning to Humanity.”

We light candles, turn our backs, and walk out, which provides another twenty-minute stretch of personal reflection. We have toured the epicenter of evil. We have been here, we try to process-but we just cannot. We need the individuals to speak to us. And like E’s family, they do.

 

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At the close of the disinfection center exhibit there are hundreds of photographs that had been discovered years after the camp was abandoned by the Germans. Pictures of loved ones who perished here.

For me, like the personal home movies of pre-war life for the victims at the exhibit at Auschwitz I, this is what has the most meaning. So I will leave you for now with a few close ups.

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To Life.To Life.

*****

From National Public Radio:

A Holocaust Survivor, Spared From Gas Chamber By Twist Of Fate

by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, International Correspondent, Berlin

January 27, 2015 3:40 PM ET

 

Jack Mandelbaum, a Holocaust survivor from the Polish city of Gdynia, poses in front of a photograph showing him as a youth.

Jack Mandelbaum, a Holocaust survivor from the Polish city of Gdynia, poses in front of a photograph showing him as a youth. Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

Seventy years ago, Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz, the most notorious of Nazi concentration camps.

Some 300 Holocaust survivors were at Auschwitz on Tuesday, along with several European presidents and other government officials, to honor at least 1.1 million people who were murdered, 1 million of whom were Jewish.

Among those killed there were Jack Mandelbaum’s mother and brother. The Polish-born Mandelbaum survived, spared at the last minute by an officer of the dreaded SS who yanked the teen away from his family and sent him instead to a forced labor camp.

Last week, Mandelbaum flew from his Naples, Fla., home to Berlin, to help open an exhibit on the children of Auschwitz, and to tell his story.

“I’m a person of action,” he says. “Anger doesn’t get you anyplace. Hate doesn’t get you anyplace.”

In August 1939, as the Nazis were about to invade Poland, Mandelbaum was 13 and living in the Polish port city of Gdynia. Mandelbaum says his father worried that the port would be attacked, so he sent his wife and three children to stay with relatives in the countryside.

He promised to join them six weeks later, but he never arrived. About a year later, he sent them a postcard from the Stutthof concentration camp.

“I guess he didn’t want us to worry about him, so he said he was OK,” Mandelbaum says.

He never saw his father again. His sister later died on a forced march to another concentration camp.

Prisoner 16013

Then, before dawn on June 14, 1942, the SS came for what was left of the family.

“They banged on the door and everyone had to come out in five minutes, and there was a lot of shooting and crying, and people didn’t know what was happening because they had to rush out,” Mandelbaum recalls. “Many people were even in their bed clothes. And we were lined up in the market square, and then we were marched to a local brewery.”

An SS officer there began separating people to the left and to the right. Mandelbaum says he clung to his mother and brother, who were sent to the left. But the SS officer saw in his documents that Mandelbaum had worked as an electrician’s helper.

“He grabbed me and pushed me to the other side,” Mandelbaum says. As for his family, he says, “The people who were to the left were sent to Auschwitz to be gassed. I never saw them again.”

To the Nazis, he became prisoner 16013 and spent the next three years at seven concentration camps. The first was Gross-Rosen, where prisoners worked in a granite quarry.

“There were so many prisoners,” he says. “We were in a big barrack, it had a concrete floor, it had no beds. And we were lined up like herring on the floor, so when one person turned, everybody else had to turn, it was so tight.”

Food was scarce, and the daily meal amounted to a single piece of bread and what Mandelbaum describes as soup made out of grass.

He recalls emaciated prisoners stuffing paper into their mouths to fatten their cheeks so they’d look healthier to the guards assigned to remove the weak for extermination. His own weight eventually dropped to 80 pounds.

But Mandelbaum says he refused to give up hope. He poured what little energy he had into work, hoping it would eventually lead to his release.

Suddenly, Freedom

“We had a good life before the war. I went to a public school, I had good clothes and good food and a nice apartment,” he says. “My dream was to go back to this life and be reunited with my family and my sister and my brother, and that sustained me.”

It also helped that he didn’t know the Nazis were trying to slaughter all Jews, something he says he and other prisoners learned only after liberation.

Their sudden freedom, too, was a complete shock, Mandelbaum says. “We didn’t know anything, only on the morning when we woke up and the Nazi flag wasn’t flying and the guards weren’t there.”

Unlike at Auschwitz, Allied soldiers did not free them, as his camp was in a no man’s land between the fleeing Nazis and advancing Russians. He and a friend from the camp grabbed an abandoned horse-drawn wagon and left as quickly as they could.

“We came across a women’s concentration camp and they were still locked up, so we actually became the ‘liberators’ of the camp,” he says, with a laugh.

Mandelbaum was 17 when the Holocaust ended. He says he returned to Poland several times to see if he could find his family but failed. He did find an uncle living in a hamlet near Munich.

The following year, he immigrated to the United States and settled in Kansas City, Mo., where he married, had four children and became a successful importer of ladies’ handbags. It would be 16 years before he began speaking publicly about the Holocaust, something he says he decided to do after talking to one of his neighbors.

“He asked me what kind of sports did I play in the concentration camp, so all of the sudden it just opened everything up, how little people knew what was going on, and this was when I started to speak in different venues about my experiences,” he says.

That desire to educate people brought Mandelbaum, 87, to Berlin last week. He says it’s sad to see anti-Semitism on the rise in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, but he hopes he and other Holocaust survivors can make a difference.

“You know, when we were in the camps, we would always ask, ‘How can the world stand by and let this happen?’ ” he says. “So it’s a matter of being vigilant, a matter of trying to do as much as you can in order to enlighten people [about] how dangerous it is when you become a bystander.”

http://www.npr.org/2015/01/27/381876276/a-holocaust-survivor-spared-from-auschwitz-at-the-last-second

*****

 

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Yesterday I introduced what will be a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and discovery of the magnitude of the most horrific crime in the history of the world, the Holocaust.

Today I travel back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, sharing some of my personal observations and photographs on the anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops 70 years ago this week.

*****

July 12.

So the day that all of us in our teacher travel study group approach with a bit of apprehension is finally here. We are on the bus from our hotel in Cracow to Auschwitz, about 40 miles to the west south west.

Yesterday we arrived in Crakow from Prague, taking the night train on a sleeper car.

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Rolling southward one of our tour leaders points out an impressive large building on the top of a hill that looks like a five star hotel. Built after the German invasion in 1939, it was a rest and relaxation villa for Wehrmacht officers rotating off the Russian front to unwind for a bit, as industrialized mass murder was unfolding every single day less than an hour away.

Hocker Album- Dr. Josef Mengele, Rudolf Höss, Josef Kramer, and an unidentified officer. —USHMM

So, to introduce some of the major players:

I don’t make it a habit to showcase the perpetrators on this site, but in this one incredible photograph, taken at Auschwitz, you can see some of them above. Hoss was hung at Auschwitz  following his trial after the war. Kramer was executed by the British after his stint presiding of the horrors of Belsen after his transfer there. Of course, smiling Dr. Mengele escaped to Argentina and died in a drowning accident in the late 1970s. (The pictures in this photo album surfaced only a few years ago and were studied by my friend archivist Rebecca Erbelding at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can read more at the weblink above if you like.)

On to the tour.

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Soon we see the road signs for Oswiecim, the small Polish town at a railroad hub that has become one of the most visited tourist sites in Poland. Most of the world knows it by its German name-Auschwitz.

The bus lumbers into the overcrowded parking lot and docks in the slot. The driver kills the engine. And it begins to rain as our other leader, E.,  relates the story of her mother’s family, the idyllic childhood in this beautiful prewar country, a young teen when the nation is invaded, the oldest of four children. No one on the bus makes a sound. It is now raining very hard.

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What is this place? Our guide A. is a top notch scholar, and she leads us on a day long tour that is hard to put into words.

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We begin at Auschwitz I, the first camp. This place is centrally located, a railway hub dating back to the turn of the century.

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The first prisoners, after it is converted from a Polish military facility, are Soviet POWs and Polish prisoners and other “security risks” who will be worked to death slowly expanding this camp, and the much larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau. She walks us through the exhibits and the displays at the various blocks. Block 4 is the “Extermination Exhibit”. We think about the words, the language. Extermination- as if the victims were vermin. Over 1,100,000 were killed here, most of them Jews.

The Hub. The tentacles during the Holocaust.

We see the map with the spiderlike rail lines radiating inward to Auschwitz like tentacles, from northern Poland, from Germany, Hungary, as far south as Greece and as west as Paris and the Netherlands. In the summer of 1944, tens of thousands were murdered here, per day.

This place is ALWAYS crowded.

We see again the large scale terra cotta model of the process, which the German engineers had perfected  at Auschwitz II-Birkenau- the arrival of the transports, the undressing rooms with signs admonishing bewildered people to hang their belongings carefully and to remember the number of the wall pegs where they left them for quick retrieval later. The shower rooms that could fit in some cases entire transports, which were in fact the hermetically sealed gas chambers. The Germans above with their gas masks, waiting for the proper temperature to be reached through body heat, just the right humidity to be achieved before dropping in the pellets so the gas released would work more effectively. The anguished death throes of the thousands of naked figurines assault our senses. The process is not complete until the corpses are carried out by the sondercommando slaves, defiled for any gold fillings, the hair shorn from the women, the bodies then burned in the open air behind or cremated in the ovens.

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But the tour is now just beginning.  Minutes before, we were looking at a terra cotta model. And now in Block 5 we will be presented with the evidence. This is an exhibition, after all. Exhibit A is about to slap us in the face. Hard. It is a room, 50 feet long, with nothing but human hair piled several feet back and as many feet tall. My heart skips a beat.

What are my eyes perceiving? Now we see a photo of stacks of bale bags, carefully labeled, packed and stacked, awaiting shipment back to the Reich for use in various products for the German war effort. Slippers for submariners so they can walk quietly aboard ship to evade Allied sonar. Stuffing for the seats of German pilots.

We shuffle on in silence with hundreds of others past the spectacles, the pots and pans, the suitcases carefully labelled by their owners with chalk on the orders of the perpetrators, again, for “quick retrieval”. And the shoes. Sorted. Case after case of women’s shoes. Men’s footwear. And then the children’s shoes.

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Our knowledgeable guide takes us into Block 27, the new exhibit on the Shoah. This is a temporary relief of sorts as now we see faces, film and stills, of pre war Jewish life, projected on the walls. We hear songs and voices.

Book of Names. people cry again.

At the end is the Book of Life, containing four million names compiled thus far. A moving moment when E. and others in our tight knit group find entire pages with the names and dates of family members murdered during the Holocaust.

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Girls. Shorn, beaten,  and photographed.

This is the Core.

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Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945. — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I study this photograph,

and so it begins.

Seventy Years Later.

The war comes to a devastating conclusion.

The discoveries unfold:

Eyewitness encounters with the most horrific crime in the history of the world.

Battle-hardened tough guys cry.

They stomp their feet in rage, and get sick,

but the lost are lost.

The Survivors ‘carry on’.

The Soldiers ‘carry on’.

Now, it is Seventy Years.

But it is not over,

because ‘closure’ is a myth.

And for the rest of humanity-

How much have we learned?

How much have we forgotten?

Is it even important, for us to stop and think

about snowflakes on little boys?

*****

See the Altantic’s photo essay here.

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Matthew Rozell teaches history at his alma mater in Hudson Falls, New York. His first book, The Twilight of Living Memory: Reflections of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA is due out this spring. His second book, in the works, is on teaching and remembering the Holocaust.

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Received from Frank Towers,97 yr old Sec/Treasurer of the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II.  I am going to be there. I hope to see all you survivors there, Holocaust and World War II,  for this last hurrah…love these guys. It will be the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the “Train Near Magdeburg”. In the pic below are soldiers and Holocaust survivors, and yours truly, in Nashville from 2010.

#30th Infantry Division, Survivors, M. Rozell

Nashville is Next!
And sadly to say, it will be the LAST Reunion of the“30th Infantry Division Veterans of WWII”….

30th Infantry Division Veterans of WWII
National Reunion April 15 – 18, 2015
Holiday Inn- Nashville-Opryland/Airport
Nashville, TN

The time has come when all good things must come to an end. We have had some great times in the past few years, but time and age is taking a toll on our membership, and the numbers are dwindling faster than we would like. Our Executive Committee has decided, that since our numbers of attendees has dropped off, it is becoming a financial burden to continue having reunions without adequate financial support. It takes a great deal of work on the part of the Exec. Sec-Treas. and the Reunion Chairman, Mrs. Nancy-Lee Pitts and Family, to prepare all of the necessary paper work, contract, preparing a program and the process of cleaning up and winding down from the Reunion. At our age, this is becoming a burden and almost prohibitive, so, very sadly, we must call it Adieu !!

So, all we ask is that as many of you who are able, Please come to this Reunion, to have a good time and enjoy the company of each other, and make this a memorable reunion.

This may be the last opportunity that you will have to see and visit with “old buddies”, whom you have known for the past many years.

Remember, Nashville was the site of the very first Reunion of the 30th Division Veterans in 1947, and it is quite appropriate that we should have the last one at this same site.

Come One and Come All, and make this a Big Blast, for the last time.

We will be looking forward to seeing ALL of you.

 

Old Hickory Re-Enactors

As usual, many, many thanks go to all of the guys who were representing the Old Hickory Re-Enactors, by Posting the Colors at each event as required, tending the bar in a most efficient manner, and best of all, their Artifacts, Weapons and other Memorabilia which is always a big hit with everyone. If you have not visited their displays, you are missing a lot ! We need to give these guys a big hand for what they do for us.

 

Holocaust Survivors

We cordially invite all of the Holocaust Survivors from the Farsleben Train, to join with us for this special event. If you have not been with us before, please do not pass up this opportunity to meet your Liberators. This will be the last time that you will have an opportunity to meet them, as we will not be having these Reunions any longer, so this will be your last chance. Many of you have been with us before, and we hope to see you all again. Kosher food will be available for all of those who require this.

Weferlingen – Walbeck – Grasleben

On 10 April 1945, Brunswick, Germany was captured by the 30th Infantry Division, with the next objective being Magdeburg.

The following day 11 April 1945, proceeding on towards Magdeburg, the town of Hillersleben was attacked and captured with little or no major battle. At the edge of the town, there was a large German Luftwaffe Airbase and an Armaments Research Center. This base was composed of several operations buildings, several 2 story block barracks, and several private homes for the officers and a small hospital.
Continuing to press on towards Magdeburg, during the 12th of April, the 120th Regiment over-ran the village of Walbeck, and the 117th Regiment over-ran the village of Grasleben, and in between these two villages, was another small village, “Weferlingen”, which was liberated by the 120th Regiment. [Ed. note: On 13 April the train at Farsleben was discovered.]

No mention was ever made in the journals of these regiments, about the capture of these villages, nor was any mention made of them in the 30th Division History Book or either of the Regimental History Books. Only from the Journal of the 30th Military Government, was this action discovered recently. (2012)
At Weferlingen, the site of a former potash mine was discovered – a mine operated by Jewish and D.P slave laborers, under the direction of their Nazi slave-masters. This mine had been enlarged and deepened, from its original size as a potash mine, and was in operation of fabricating submarine engines, airplane engines and rocket engines. It was deep and well protected from American bombing attacks.
This “camp” was named “ Camp Gazelle” by the Germans, and it was a sub-camp of Buchenwald, and when discovered, consisted of 421 (political prisoners), slave laborers. As any of these laborers became ill or otherwise incapacitated, they were sent back to Buchenwald, and fresh laborers were sent to the camp to take their place and to keep the labor force consistent with their needs. All of these prisoners were found in very poor physical condition, due to malnutrition because of being underfed, and overworked for 12-15 hours per day. Almost all of them required immediate medical attention.

Arrangements were made with the Burgomasters of Walbeck and Grasleben to furnish adequate food for these people. Our own 105th Medical Battalion personnel furnished them with immediate needs of medical supplies.
They were almost immediately sent back to the American Military Government and the American Red Cross, then located at Hillersleben, Germany, for appropriate processing and repatriation back to their homelands wherever possible.
It was on the basis of the liberation of this “CAMP” that the 30th Infantry Division was given the distinction of being named a “Liberating Unit” by the Center for Military History and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, thereby allowing our Colors to be displayed in the lobby of the US. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This is to honor the men of the 30th Infantry Division who had a part to play in the liberation of numerous Jewish slave laborers of the Holocaust.
This was actually the very first viewing that any man of the 30th Infantry Division had of the “supposed” propaganda of the “Torture of the Jews by the Nazis”, later to be known as “The Holocaust” .These liberating soldiers had no training as humanitarians- they were trained to be soldiers, fighting a war against Nazi aggression and really did not know what they had on their hands, nor the scope of this captivity of the Jews. -Frank Towers

Taps – 2014

ADKINSON, BRUCE 743 TkBn-C Garden City, NJ
BERKEL, John J. 119-I 5/26/14 Belleville, IL
BIGOS, Adolph J. 119 Tom’s River, NJ
BURLEIGH, James 117 Golden, CO
CONLEY SR., Leo J 119 Framingham, MA
COX, Henry G. 117-F 8/17/10* Loris, SC
COX, Joe M. 117-D 5/20/14 Bluff City, TN
DEAN JR., Preston A. 531 AAA Hq
ERICKSON, Mervin L. 119-K Windom, MN
FLOYD, Thomas A. 119-G 9/30/13* Forney,
GIACCHETTI, Hugo J. 119 E Chicago, IL
GRAPKOSKI, Walter E. 119-G 11/23/11* Danbury, CT
HOFFMAN, STANLEY 120-B 1/19/14 Princeton, NJ
HOLLOWELL JR, Ernest L. 105 Med D
HOUTEKIER, Louis 119 G 7/15/14 Big Rapids, MI
IACONO, George D. 197 FA Svc, 9/30/11 St. Petersburg,
JORDAN, Joseph S. 105 Med. BN A 7/26/12 Wilmington, NC
KEATING, Hubert M. 113 FA/A 6/06/13* Paducha, KY
LEY, Charles E. 120
MARKHAM, Cameron L. 117 1BnHq 5/15/14 Charleston, WV
MARSIGLIA, Joseph M. 119 Hq. 12/.03/14 Algonquin, IL
MARZILLI, Rocco D. 30 QM Co. 10/27/13 Waterbury, CT
MC MICHAEL, Roscoe 105 Med. Bn 10/08/13* Newnan, GA
MITCHELL, Kenneth 120 C
NOWLAND, Maland C. 30th Recon E. Vassalboro, ME
ORTIZ, Oscar A 105 Med B San Francisco, CA                                                                 OWENS, Livis 120-C
PARKER, Kanneth 120 B
POLAND, Claude E. 120-G 4/49/14 Columbus, IN
RINELLA, Donald. 105 Med Bn. C 5/11/14 Truckee, CA
SMALL, George 120-A 12/19/13 Augusta, MI
SUPER, Seymour 119-A Boynton Beach, FL
WAUGH, Wilford D. 120-I Buffalo, OK
WHITE, Carlton L. 120-K 1/29/12* Elizabeth City, NC
WILEY, A.P. 120-M 6/24/14 Dallas, TX
WYATT, Nell (Wid) W 2/06/14 Waynesville, NC

 

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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving day. Today I stumbled across a holiday greeting I received from Holocaust survivor Ernest Kan a while back. It was about being thankful, simply appreciating what you have.  So it reminded me to share Ern’s story (which I recorded) at a gathering of former American soldiers and Holocaust survivors.

It was Ern’s turn to speak. He came to the front of the room to address “his” soldiers:

My odyssey began in Riga, Latvia where the Germans occupied our apartment on the first of July, 1941. Shortly thereafter we were put into the Riga ghetto. During the partial liquidation of the ghetto on November 30 and Dec 9. 1941, my mother was murdered with 27,000 other Jews in the forest of Rumbula.

The ghetto was finally liquidated in 1943.  My dad was shipped to Auschwitz where he perished, and I was put into the concentration camp Kaiserwald near Riga. With the approach of the Soviet army in 1944, Kaiserwald was evacuated by ship and we were shipped to Stutthof concentration camp, after about a month to Polte in Magdeburg where I was liberated.

I was 19 years old at the time of imprisonment, and held captive altogether 44 months.

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The main gate through which the prisoners entered the factory every day for shifts of 12-14 hours. Source: Lev Raphael, Polte-Fabrik slave labor camp, http://www.levraphael.com/sg_poltefabrik.html.

The name of the factory was Polte; it was the largest ammunition factory in Germany. Conditions were very bad. They had 30,000 slaves working there in shifts. It manufactured heavy artillery shells, big coastal artillery shells about 30 inches long. And we had to work in 12 hour shifts.

They brought us there from a concentration camp Stutthof, near Danzig, by freight train, it took about two nights, and we got there we didn’t know where we wound up, we were assigned to bunks in a barracks, and it was about a mile to walk from the factory and back.

And that is where I was liberated in April 1945 by the 743rd US Tank Battalion, the 30th Infantry Division.

After an air raid by the United States [Army] Air Force, the camp was evacuated and they marched us southward, because the south was still unoccupied by Allied forces. So they assembled the prisoners and marched them out of the camp, and we had to move a large wagon with spoke wheels, they had no more horses to pull the wagon, we were pulling and shoving the wagon with all the luggage and personal belongings of the guards.

So as when we passed that factory, Polte, me and three other guys, we ran into the open gate, the factory was already disabled-there was no more electricity, no water, no nothing, it couldn’t function anymore- it had been made unoperational by air raids. So we ran and we hid, we changed our striped uniforms and we put on German overalls we found in a locker so we looked more or less human again, but we had no hair, the hair was shaved off.

And we hid in an attic above the office …we stayed there one night, and in the morning four SS guards with drawn guns found us and said “Out you swines, hands up!” and marched us to the courtyard of the Polte factory, they had about 100 or so lined up with their hands up, and they came with little lorries, little trucks, that took groups of 10 away and returned within five to eight minutes empty for the next batch-so we knew they took them to the forest to shoot them and come for the next.

And I thought that was the end of us, I was standing with my hands up and I said to the guy to my left, “this is it, we made it up until now” -and lo and behold, an air raid started! The United States [Army] Air Force, low flying bombers came, you could see the pilot’s eyes -that’s how low- they dropped the bomb load, [the guards] chased us in the adjacent air raid shelter, all the guys were at the wall in the air raid, they posted a guard in front of that door and as we walked in he said “I’m innocent, I never did you any harm.” He was an old, old man, older than me today. So when I heard that, there was already music in my ears all of a sudden, I had never heard that from any guard to say something like that.

So they locked the door and put a padlock on the outside. And you could hear the bombs falling and the smoke seeping through and it was chaos, we were singing inside and we were happy, praying the bombs should hit us and get us out of our misery, because by that point we were finished.

So I leaned against the door and the door gives, so I don’t know to this very day whether the air pressure from falling bombs blew the lock off, it was a big padlock, or if the guard posted outside opened it up and took it away. At any rate the door was open, we all ran out scattered left, right and the four of us hid in an elevator shaft up above where the wheel is, and we waited until the air raid stopped and after about an hour we sent one guy out to reconnoiter what was happening, it was dead quiet. We didn’t know who was where and what was going on. So after about half an hour he came back with a big vat of soup, and he said [Ern stops-long pause. He composes himself, and speaks slowly]:

“Boys-we are free-the Americans are here!”

That is a moment I can never forget.

The soup was lentil soup, it was delicious, I ate and ate until I threw up-we hadn’t eaten in so many days, and I then I saw the first American in a Jeep.

I had never seen an American, he looked like a Martian to me with different weaponry and a Jeep. And he says to me, “Hands up! You are German?” I said, “No, I am a Jewish prisoner from the local concentration camp” but by my haggard appearance he could see that I was certainly not an enemy. I was about 75 pounds at that point and it so happened that when I found the overalls in the German locker, I put on a belt I found there and it had a swastika locket which I didn’t realize, I put on the belt not to lose my pants and he saw the swastika on it and he assumed I was a German in overalls, so I told him I was from the local camp.

It so happened that he was a Jewish GI and he embraced me and he said “You are free now, you can go wherever you want” and he gave me a  an army issued prayer book, and a mezuzah, that is something like sort of an amulet that some people wear, it contains some proverbs from the Deuteronomy inside, and he said “Go!”

In the heat of the moment I was unable to ask him where he came from, what his name was, and it bothers to this day that I could never express my gratitude to this one man, but all these guys here are my liberators and they represent this first American I ever saw and he gave us back our life and our freedom and I will never forget it.

There are no words to express my gratitude for what they have done for us and never in my vaguest dreams would I have thought to be here  65 years after the war is over and meet these guys again, that is unbelievable, it is a moment, an unforgettable moment in my life.

RECORDED IN MARCH 2008.

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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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