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From my good friend Leslie, who plays a major role in my recent book. Happy Thanksgiving indeed.

Hello Matt my dear friend. (I hope you allow me to call you that)

I have just finished reading A Train Near Magdeburg’s Kindle edition, all through your narratives and your humble self-description.

WOW what a book, what a very well deserved tribute to those liberating soldiers – whose simple task of just doing our job – nonetheless
became the ANGELS OF OUR LIVES, and it is also a tribute for us, the ones who were liberated on that train on that fateful day of April 13 1945.
For me, it is an honor that you have found quite a number of words of mine from the Hudson Falls meetings and segments of my memoirs to
be worthwhile to include in this remarkable book.

author and leslie meisels, Nov. 2015

author and leslie meisels, Nov. 2015

Without your work, without your inquisitive mind, without your beyond the call of duty and dedication to carry out the work what you are doing,
to which Frank Towers gave you his cooperation and support to the end of his life, this whole worldwide movement bringing us together
would have been lost in the annals of the horrors of the Holocaust and the chronicles of WWII.

Never in my dreams I thought that ever in my life I will meet those soldiers who gave me back my life with liberating the train. Through your work this
unimaginable new miracle happened to me. I have met seven of them developed warm friendship with Carrol and Frank and their families.
The sweet memory of their friendship will remain with me to the end of my life. I do not think that aside of a few coincidental happy occasions that
there are liberated survivors of the Holocaust who did ever met in person – or through our/your worldwide movement – the soldiers who liberated them.
And here we are hundreds of us thanks to you Matt.

You deserve all the accolade whatever is coming your way. I think George Gross  describes it most eloquently – through his own lifetime experiences –
what it takes for a teacher to do the work what you are doing and the way you are doing it.

I am groping, looking, searching to find words to describe the feeling and gratitude what makes to us survivors to our children, grand and great-grandchildren to
– through you – belonging to this worldwide movement created and keep going by you.

I would be amiss if I would not mention the tremendous impact what your ongoing blogs do. It is constantly keeps all of us abreast of what is going on.

I hope and pray that you would be able to continue it for decades to come.

Fondly yours truly

Leslie Meisels

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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.

photo

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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Here is the interview that I did with NYSUT last week.

A staff member who is maybe thinking of leaving the profession wrote me a nice card about a month ago. In a follow up conversation she told me she saw me as a “beacon”- her word- for other teachers. That’s fairly heavy stuff to hear.

I feel  responsibility to add some extra comments below for the benefit of  teachers in general, and anyone else who is interested.

http://itswhatwedo.nysut.org/

Photo credit: Kris Dressen.

The reporter was competent, engaged and interested, but she had her deadline and we ran out of time.

I did not have a chance to tell her about the medic. I’ll include it below and will be passing it on to her. Kind of like the “moral of the story”, especially when you realize what it means for the soldiers.

I hope it serves as a reminder to teachers that what we all do every day makes a difference.

Here is the postscript to the story.

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

An important epilogue to the NYSUT story.

I know that some of you have been following the unfolding of the train liberation and reunions.  The part that is not mentioned in the article  is a phone call I got last Oct. from an 88 year old man in Scranton, PA who found me- and really wanted to be put in touch with the survivors.

You see, he had been a twenty something Army medic in 1945 when ordered to move out to the abandoned German Air Force hospital grounds at Hilersleben, immediately after the tank commanders came across that “death train” and Frank Towers evacuated the occupants to get them out of the battle zone.

Blessed – or maybe cursed – with a terrific memory, he can vividly recall the screams and overall sense of dread permeating the hospital, where he and his fellow medics wore a daily uniform of surgical masks, gloves and rubber aprons.

He remembers scooping handfuls of lice out of patients’ hair and administering countless needles, and the time he had to carry the body of a little girl to a tent serving as a makeshift morgue.

For six nonstop weeks after the liberation they confronted the horror and the evil. Well over 100 Holocaust victims, now his patients, died after they were freed by our troops. No one had trained Walter for this, and  for all these years he has lived with the guilt, the nightmares, and the trauma.

For 60 years he and his wartime buddies met after the war. Walter told me and some of our kids that in recounting their war stories, not one of them ever brought up that place called Hilersleben.

Those guys must have suffered from PTSD. And like many soldiers, his generation just did not talk about that.

Now he calls me at school, to chat, laugh, to let me know which of our survivors has contacted him, and to tell me he wants to meet me.

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

Wait a minute-rewind- How did that happen?

I mean, Why did HE, find ME?

That all happened WAY before I was born.

I think about this, every single day.
Is there a reason I put on this earth? How do I make sense of my responsibility as a human being?

Did those soldiers have to put themselves in harm’s way, in many respects scarring themselves for life,  to care for “the brutalized and wretched” whom they did not even know?

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

What I offer to other teachers:
I’m an educator and so are you. As persons who spend most of our waking hours with young people, I can only postulate that we are in the “business” of molding human beings- which of course is not really a business at all. Like the soldiers thrust into that situation, ultimately we are caretakers of humanity.   It is an overwhelming responsibility, but it is not just a job.
It’s a mission.

Those soldiers made choices, confronted evil, sacrificed a ton, and saved humanity– Carrol, George, Frank, and Walter (“the Babe”)- and in doing so, I know they saved me, too. It sounds cliché, simplistic, Pollyanna, whatever- but it’s true.

You do your best to make a difference.

Lots of times you think you lose.

But here’s the real crazy part- most of the time you probably win.

Like these soldiers, sometimes you don’t know you have won until years later.

It’s just what we do.

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