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Memorial to Warsaw Uprising

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

*****

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

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

Aliza Melamed Vitis–Shomron

Spring, 1943

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Lazar

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

The Beginning of May, 1943

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

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

The full narrative is available here.

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

The full narrative is available here.

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

July 17, 2013

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

 

 

 

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

 

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

 

1227

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.

 

 

 

1240

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.

***

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

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

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

 

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The cosmos trips once more. This month, shortly after my previous post about the discovery of previously unknown artwork by Hungarian Holocaust survivor Ervin Abadi, I was contacted by the family of another American soldier who was at Hillersleben camp as the survivors of the train were being nursed back to health by the medics of the 95th Medical Gas Battalion. They sent me most of the drawings below [Monroe Williams credit, courtesy the Williams family], published here for the first time.

Abadi’s recently discovered artwork matches that of his previously known work, some of which is housed in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Ervin Abadi, Typhus. USHMM Collection. Probably completed at Hillersleben DP Camp, May, 1945.

Ervin Abadi, Typhus. USHMM Collection. Probably completed at Hillersleben DP Camp, May, 1945.

(If you suspect that you have any of Abadi’s art in your family, or if anyone remembers his time at Hillersleben or Bergen Belsen, please drop me a line at the bottom.)

 

He was driven to express his gratitude for the American soldiers who freed him from the train, brought him to the hospital at Hillersleben, nursed him back to health and protected him in his stay at the displaced persons camp. These important drawings are proof of that, and confirm his dedication to feverishly recording everything that he could about those days. He drew his surroundings, his memories of the horrors of Bergen Belsen, and the beautiful young American soldiers around him, and even their precious photos of loved ones in their wallets!

In his words:

“Let these drawings serve as proof of my everlasting gratitude towards those to whom I owe my life. … To the soldiers of the United States Army, particularly to our immediate liberators, those soldiers of the 9th regiment who first entered the village of Zilitz and gave us bread, milk, chocolate, and cigarettes….”

American soldier at Hillersleben, 'Man'.  Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

American soldier at Hillersleben, ‘Man’. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

American soldier-medic at Hillersleben.  Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

American soldier-medic at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

A kapo inflicts a beating at Bergen-Belsen. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

A kapo inflicts a beating at Bergen-Belsen. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

The American hospital at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

The American hospital at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

Soldier Monroe Williams' parents. Probably sketched from wallet photo.  Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

Soldier Monroe Williams’ parents. Probably sketched from wallet photo. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection.

The 'casino' at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection. Note Red Cross tents in foreground. May have served as temporary morgue station.

The ‘casino’ at Hillersleben. Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection. Note Red Cross tents in foreground. May have served as temporary morgue station.

Former hospital at Hillersleben today. (Christian Wolpers photo.)

Former hospital at Hillersleben today. (Christian Wolpers photo.)

'Hillersleben-some disorderly DPs getting a shower bath (DDT?)' Soldier Luca Furnari photograph.

‘Hillersleben-some disorderly DPs getting a shower bath (DDT?)’ Soldier Luca Furnari photograph.

*****

Former American medic Walter Gantz called me out of the blue 3 years ago. Like all of the soldiers now reappearing in Abadi’s drawings, he was there. A couple newspaper articles appeared about Walter’s experience at  Hillersleben shortly thereafter. I put survivors in touch with him:

By the fall of 1944, the 95th [Medical Gas]Battalion was stationed at the Belgian-German border.

That winter, Mr. Gantz helped treat the wounded at the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes region, and by the spring of ’45 his unit had made its way into Germany.

In mid-April, they were in the town of Hillersleben setting up a displaced persons hospital when the Allies came across a train that had come from the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, where over 35,000 people, the vast majority of them Eastern European Jews, had died of typhus during the first few months of that year.

All told, there were roughly 2,400 emotionally damaged, disease-ridden and terribly malnourished people aboard the train. “Walking skeletons” was an apt description, according to Mr. Gantz.

“We weren’t knowledgeable about these (concentration camps) at the time,” said Mr. Gantz, who visited Bergen-Belsen days after it was liberated. There, he saw countless dead bodies “strewn everywhere.”

“It was hard to explain,” he said. “I cried. And then I prayed for these people. Not only were you angry about what happened, but you felt so helpless.”

Mr. Gantz’s unit spent about six weeks treating the survivors. A good 70 or 80 of them died, mostly of typhus. Among the biggest challenges was acquiring enough food supplies to feed them all. Many could only take their nourishment intravenously.

“A lot of them, if you were to give them food, they would gorge themselves and kill themselves. You had to be very careful as to what they ate,” he said. “Boy, oh boy, they would scream. Those screams would go right through your body.”

“Hillersleben was a living nightmare,” he added. “You don’t shake these horrible scenes from one’s mind.” {see more https://teachinghistorymatters.com/2011/11/04/my-parents-couldnt-understand-why-i-couldnt-sleep-at-times/}

***

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.

“I still get flashbacks to that,” he said.

Many died, mostly of typhus. Among the biggest challenges was acquiring enough food to feed them all, since a good portion of them could only take their nourishment intravenously. One of the survivors Mr. Gantz has spoken with, Lexie Keston, now a resident of Australia, told him she weighed just 30 pounds at the time of the rescue. She was 8 years old.

As a result of Mr. Rozell’s [work], a handful of Bergen-Belsen survivors have been in touch with Mr. Gantz, including Ariela Rojek, a Toronto resident who was 11-1/2 years old at the time of the rescue.

Mrs. Rojek, a Pole who lost all but an aunt during the Holocaust, was among those suffering from typhus. She spent three weeks in semi-consciousness, and remembers having to be tied to the bed by medics trying to restrain her. Mr. Gantz could have been one of them, she said.

“Those soldiers, they gave me my life. Because I was very sick,” she said.

“It was tough. Some of our guys couldn’t take it,” Mr. Gantz said. “I have to admit, I did a lot of crying. I tried not to do it around the patients.”

Now, though, he has the peace of mind of knowing firsthand that, despite all the horrors, life did go on for the survivors of Bergen-Belsen, just as it did for him and his fellow veterans. Asked once by a friend what he took from his wartime experience, Mr. Gantz thought for a moment, then replied, “It made me stronger spiritually.”

“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “I thank the good Lord every day.”

“He’s one of the angels,” Mrs. Rojek said of Mr. Gantz. “I’m really grateful. Whenever I get a name and phone number, I always call them. They gave me a second life.”

Mr. Gantz, 87, said the whole experience has made him feel “10 feet tall.”

“I have to use the word mind-boggling. I guess you’d have to put it in the category of a dream,” he said. “I have to be honest with you, it’s embarrassing. All they keep saying is, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

{see more https://teachinghistorymatters.com/2012/03/04/it-was-tough-some-of-our-guys-couldnt-take-it/}

********

FINAL NOTE. We are also looking for this little girl, a survivor at Hillersleben. Her name was Irene. You can read the backstory here. Please contact me below.

'Hillersleben-Irene is in the flowered dress' Soldier Luca Furnari photograph.

‘Hillersleben-Irene is in the flowered dress’ Soldier Luca Furnari photograph.

 

 

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Matthew Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow and teaches history at his alma mater in upstate New York. This year, he is authoring a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and of the ‘liberation phase’  of the Holocaust. His work has reunited 275 Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who freed them.

His first book, a narrative of World War II in the Pacific as told through the previously unpublished recollections of two dozen veterans, is due out this spring. His second book, in progress, is on the power of  teaching, remembering the Holocaust, and this “Train Near Magdeburg’. He can be reached at marozell at gmail dot com.

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Victory, 1945. By Ervin Abadi. Hilersleben, Germany, May 1945.

Victory, 1945. By Ervin Abadi. Hillersleben, Germany, May 1945. Courtesy Chriss Brown, granddaughter of American soldier Don Rust.

The wires of the cosmos trip once more.

After almost exactly 70 years, a person came to this site on Jan. 30th with an inquiry:

I recently came across this site looking for a gentleman my grandfather became close to. My grandfather, Donald W. Rust of the 95th Medical Gas Treatment Battalion, helped him … and often spent time with him. The gentleman drew several pictures for my grandfather and I still have them today.

Donald W Rust of Kansas City KS. Hillersleben DP Camp, May 1945. Source: Chriss Brown, granddaughter of Don Rust.

Donald W Rust of Kansas City KS. Hillersleben DP Camp, May 1945. By Ervin Abadi. Source: Chriss Brown, granddaughter of Don Rust.

We looked while my grandfather was still alive but were unable to find any lists of the survivors until now. We cannot read his name clearly but we think the drawer’s name is ‘Albadi’ or something close to it. I would love to share the pictures he drew and also would like to hear if anyone can help me contact the survivor’s family. My grandmother turns 90 in March and it would mean the world to her to know what become of him.

My grandfather told us the gentleman was from Poland, but we don’t know what city. Unfortunately, my grandfather could not remember his name. If anyone can help, it would be much appreciated.  ~Chriss B.

***

I immediately knew who she was talking about (though he hailed from Hungary, not Poland) and  got in touch with her. She sent me samples, and sure enough it was Ervin Abadi, whose work I was very familiar with. He had even sketched a drawing of the liberation with the tanks rolling in, but unfortunately he passed away 22 years before I sat down to do my interview with one of the tank commanders in the drawing.

Liberation, April 13th, 1945. Drawing by survivor Ervin Abadi. USHMM.

Liberation, April 13th, 1945. Drawing by survivor Ervin Abadi. USHMM.

The Liberation of the Train, by Ervin Abadi. USHMM.

The Liberation of the Train, Farsleben, Germany, April, 1945. Ervin Abadi. USHMM.

 

Dozens of Abadi’s pieces are at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and his bio there reads as follows:

In his early twenties when the war broke out, Ervin Abadi lived in Budapest, Hungary and wanted to be a painter. But, as with all Jewish males his age, he was taken to Russia by the Hungarian Army as a forced laborer. Abadi managed to escape but was captured after hiding out in the Karpet Mountains. After being brutally mistreated he managed to escape again, but was recaptured and taken to Bergen Belsen. When the camp was liberated  by the US Army [incorrect: his train transport from Belsen to Theresienstadt] on April 13, 1945, Abadi was taken to a hospital in Hillersleben, where he recovered. While in the hospital (and possibly earlier in the camp) he made 25-30 watercolors, dealing with his arrival at Bergen Belsen, life in the camp and its liberation by the US Army. Abadi returned to Budapest where he told about his life as a forced laborer and and an inmate of Bergen Belsen in a collection of 30 ink drawings. The work was published in 500 copies with Hungarian and English captions in 1946. The foreword of the book says, in part, “Let these drawings serve as proof of my everlasting gratitude towards those to whom I owe my life. … To the soldiers of the United States Army, particularly to our immediate liberators, those soldiers of the 9th regiment who first entered the village of Zilitz and gave us bread, milk, chocolate, and cigarettes….” Abadi, however, became disallusioned by Communist Hungary and managed to leave for Israel in 1947 or 1948 where he lived in Israel for the rest of his life. There he wrote 15 books in both Hebrew and Hungarian. He died in 1979.  [my emphasis]

***

Ervin Abadi’s name is also the first on the existing manifest list. Some years ago, with the help of Varda W. in Israel, his daughter got in contact with me, and sent me his DP [displaced persons] document from Hillersleben:

Hillerleben Displaced Persons certificate-Ervin Abadi

Hillerleben Displaced Persons certificate-Ervin Abadi.

At that time, 5 years ago, his daughter wrote:

As you know, my father is a survivor from Bergen Belsen on the Magdeburg train. He got sick with typhus and was taken to the American Hospital at Hillersleben.

All my life my father told me to remember that he was saved by the Americans, and for that he will be grateful until his last day- and so must I, because if he was not to be saved- I wouldn’t be born.

My father passed away in 1979, and since then I tried to keep my promise to my father. I went to Normandy in France and walked the beaches that are soaked with the blood of the American soldiers and wanted to honor their memory, for because of them, I am living today.

A few years later I visited the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. I met there an old gentleman and I found out that he was one of the American soldiers who fought on the beach on D-Day! I told him the story about my father and we both fell into each others arms crying. I felt like I fulfilled my promise to my father. ~Julia A. H.

**

So I dug out the letter, got in contact with Julia again,  and put her in touch with Chriss, the granddaughter of the soldier who in befriending Abadi, helped him in his recuperation.

Raymond D. Rape of Zelienople, PA ; Grafton D Junkin of Kennedy, Alabama ; Donald W Rust of Kansas City KS. Hillersleben DP Camp, May 1945. Source: Chriss Brown, granddaughter of Don Rust.

Raymond D. Rape of Zelienople, PA ; Grafton D Junkin of Kennedy, Alabama ; Donald W Rust of Kansas City KS. Hillersleben DP Camp, May 1945. Source: Chriss Brown, granddaughter of Don Rust.

From Julia, the artist’s daughter, last week:

I was very touched… 70 years after it happened, my father’s drawings came back to us.

We use to say that if his name is mentioned, a person lives forever.

Thank you again for remembering my father’s work of art.

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

Matthew Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow and teaches history at his alma mater in upstate New York. This year, he is authoring a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and of the ‘liberation phase’  of the Holocaust. His work has reunited 275 Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who freed them.

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 progress, is on the power of  teaching, and remembering the Holocaust.

 

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The First Lesson I Really Learned as a First-Year Public School Teacher,

Though the Moral does not strike me for almost Thirty Years.

(subtitled, The Seven Simple Words: How having been labeled “INEFFECTIVE” as a young teacher would have stilled the ripples unfolding that will reverberate for generations.)

Where am I? And, more importantly, what the hell am I doing here? Taken by me, April 15, 2010.

Where am I? And, more importantly, what the hell am I doing here? Taken by me, April 15, 2010.

Recently, the New York State United Teachers did a couple features on my work in the classroom. If you have any friends or acquaintances who would like to pass some of my musings on to some the younger teachers of the world, even the pre-service students, feel free. It’s time to let them know that it’s a journey, after all. The following post is an excerpt from a draft of my second book, which will be published someday after my first book is actually published. (See more at the bottom.) Sigh.
Gotta teach, after all.

*****

I got to ride the special bus.

*

Pulsing red and blue lights ricochet off the subterranean tunnel walls from which our bus is emerging, announcing to the citizens of our nation’s capital that our convoy of VIPs is arriving, like conquering heroes of old returning home after a great victory. And in a real sense, that is what we are. But Wow.

What the hell is a TEACHER doing here on this bus?

Washington traffic in all directions grinds to a dead halt as our convoy  glides through intersections and sails down boulevards with a full Capitol police escort, every single crossroads blocked by police cars. We are on our way to the national ceremony at the United States Capitol Rotunda, and it won’t do for us to be late. The motorcade slows as it approaches Capitol Hill, and the three buses slowly maneuver and dock like lumbering giants at the sidewalk entrance. The pistons blast and the buses drop gently. The engines are cut. The doors open.

We have arrived. Springtime in Washington.

It is a beautiful morning, and the Capitol Police dismount from their escort motorcycles and walk over, motioning and instructing for occupants to disembark and follow the guides. Emerging slowly into the warm April sunlight are the guests of honor, many of whom step down gingerly, clutching canes or holding the arm of a relative or friendly government escort. Nearly all sport caps festooned with pins and patches. Here, now, nearly sixty-five years after the last battle was fought, the liberators of the concentration camps are returning, many for the first time since World War II ended.

One hundred twenty one old soldiers, eyes sparkling as they pose for photographs,  are escorted slowly through the entryway of the grand building. A single teacher follows the veterans on this beautiful spring day. And as far as I know, I am the only high school teacher in the country this year to be invited, specifically, to be with them. I know some of them, and several of the survivors of the Holocaust here today, on a very personal basis.

Teacher Matthew Rozell, Holocaust survivor Stephen Barry, National DOR Ceremony, Washington, DC April 2010. This photo was taken the day after the 65th anniversary of Steve’s liberation in April 1945. We had just been honored by the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum before the national ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

Teacher Matthew Rozell, Holocaust survivor Stephen Barry, National DOR Ceremony, Washington, DC April 2010. This photo was taken the day after the 65th anniversary of Steve’s liberation in April 1945. We had just been honored by the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum before the national ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

You see, we are walking into the Capitol Rotunda for the annual Days of Remembrance Ceremony, commemorating those lost in the Holocaust and today especially honoring  the liberators who put a stop to it. I am here because I teach the subject of history to teenagers; I am here because in my lessons and projects with students, we have been making the difference to defeat the legacy of Hitler in the classroom. And we honor what these men did as teenagers, and more. We have made our own mark and changed hundreds of lives in literally reuniting the survivors with the men who actually saved them. Six decades later.

Passing through security and now inside the Rotunda, I am amazed at its beauty but also at the intimacy that emanates from under the hallowed dome as the veterans and survivors, politicians and officials process in. Scaffolding with TV crews and narrow towers with klieg lights illuminate the area, and as the ceremony begins, I am one hundred feet from General David Petraeus, who is about to address these old soldiers. The haunting sound of the Marine Corps violinist serenades the gathering, carrying our thoughts to the victims of the Holocaust whom we remember today. The names of the liberating Army units are called out from the dais as each division is formally recognized, their unit colors hoisted aloft on cue and paraded in.

Capitol Rotunda, 2010 DOR Ceremony.

Capitol Rotunda, 2010 DOR Ceremony. Liberating Army unit flags are paraded in.

Yes I am here, amid the pomp and ceremony, to commemorate the victims, the survivors and today, these soldiers:

Me, a high school teacher who began his career hoping for a pink slip, an easy way out so that he could simply walk away from this profession.

*****

“What’s your policy on homework, Mr. Anders?”

I’m leaning over the kid’s desk, hands placed firmly on either side. In suitcoat and tie, I’m trying to make myself into an imposing presence for my first high school history class. I’d just attempted to collect a handful of written assignments from  25 non-committed sixteen year olds, and now I’m wondering in desperation how to deal with the poor showing in my very first week of public school teaching. I am the third teacher that these kids have had this year, having just started last week, two days before the Thanksgiving break.

Should I assign the group of them to detention after school? Or choose one to make an example out of him?  I decide on the latter.

Lenny Anders, a tall long-haired ‘disengaged’ student with a black motorcycle jacket, lifts his head up long enough to answer coolly:

“Not to do it.”

Clunk. Lenny’s head returns to the desktop.

The class laughs, points, and hoots! Eyes roll, heads shake. Lenny does not even move in response to all the commotion-he’s still face down. And I’m left flapping in the breeze with my rookie mistake; how in the world would I make it until June? A very real question.

*

I’m 26, and I am on my own, but living back at home. A dual irony, really, as not only had I proclaimed defiantly (upon graduation from high school) to my [teacher] father that I would be leaving Hudson Falls FOR GOOD , but when queried about life after high school, I also puffed out my chest and exclaimed “I don’t know, but I certainly won’t be a teacher!” The desired effect was achieved by the angry teen; the wound was deep, and the twist of the knife distinct. I smugly went off to college, having no game plan or clue.

Okay, so what I told my father did not turn out to be the words to live by. Here I am, eight years after high school, on the other side of the desk, teaching the same subject as the old man. Living out of his garage, no less.

It’s my first few weeks back in my old high school, and I’m pushing what feels like a shopping cart through the crowded hallways, with lesson props, books, and marked-up papers to turn back, all akinder. I’m shuffling from classroom to classroom, like an itinerant peddler of obscure vials of “wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’ that nobody seems to want, and I don’t dare turn my back to the chalkboard. I have discovered that a new teacher is also a magician, and can, with this act, make pens, paperballs, and sometimes books fly and illustrate Newton’s Laws of Motion of their own accord. Maybe it’s me, but when I walk into the classroom, these students seem to rub their hands together in hormonal homicidal glee. To many of them, I am next on the hit parade, hopefully out by Christmas.

That’s power, and they have it. How I am hating these immature young savages. How they delight in torturing me.

But enough is enough. I make up my mind to do something about it. I hit on another idea. I’ll tell Johnny/Suzie in my gruffest voice, before the entire class, ‘I NEED TO SPEAK TO YOU AFTER THE LESSON‘- that should settle them all down! I’ll make an example out of one, so the kids will look at one other with a mixture of terror and relief that it was not them summoned after class!  I open my mouth to commence the New Regime, but even before the bell rings, they rise noisily and obliviously to my impending reign of terror and move as a herd for the door. And the teacher-owner of the classroom comes in anyway, clanking his briefcase and fishing for his keys to unlock his closet, as he does EVERY SINGLE DAY to interrupt the end of my lesson. I give up.  I have to be off to another classroom myself anyway, to begin the torture anew. And when I do drop the hammer later, I have my life threatened in front of the class by an older student. The office suggests strongly that I go to the police station to ‘swear out a complaint’.  A what?

For the first time in my life I’m sitting in a police station, in the first month of my public teaching career, trying to balance in a wobbly chair with stainless steel ankle-shackles affixed to the legs, listening to the officer clack out his report on a typewriter .

This is why I became a teacher?

I feel SO alone.

Sitting on the bed, I’m chain-smoking four cigarettes in a row in the twenty minutes before school in the room off my parents’ garage before heading off to work-to a place that, you will recall, in a previous existence, I swore an oath I would never return to.

So let’s review, shall we? The position I had filled a quarter-way through the year had had this history. Would more blood flow? Does everyone in the school expect it to be mine? Another professional acquaintance comments, only half-jokingly I think, “We want to see if you suck and how long YOU will last.” (A feel-good fuzzy memory, looking back.)

*

In desperation, I am living day-by-day. I’m banging out lesson plans, notes, and tests nightly after dinner on the typewriter for hours at a stretch. I try calling parents, but there is no privacy at my house and surely it is a sign of weakness- after all, the old man doesn’t have to call parents.

As I struggle to survive in my first year, a tight budget year when layoffs are being presented as a distinct possibility, I secretly pray that a pink slip in my mailbox will end my misery and I will have an excuse to move on to another occupation- I have been trained in the restaurant business, after all, and people always have to eat. How I remember the anguish of a colleague in another department- I shared an “office” with her in the bowels of the building- when she got her pink slip and burst into tears and pointed at me and wailed aloud that “it should have been you, you don’t even want to be here”.. and I kept my silence, because I knew she was right. She got the slip, and I did not. I did not realize that my private anguish showed so much; I was afraid to talk to people about the troubles I faced each day in the classroom. And now I could add GUILT to the top of the heap.

What the hell am I doing here? I did not know it then, but I was DROWNING.

On schedule, the principal did his classroom observation for my official evaluation later that year, and a charitable description of the event would be ‘the great train wreck’. The ninth graders were flirting with each other, joking, and throwing stuff as I tried to bring order and conduct the lesson. At our post-observation conference, the boss leaned in and said, “You really did not have control, did you?” Eyes beginning to well, I slowly shook my head. He paused, looked me in the eye, smiled, and crumpled up the report he had written for my file and threw it in the waste can in front of me. He settled back in his chair, laced his fingers behind his head, and said seven words: When you are ready, let me know. A soul-crushing weight suddenly lifted. And looking back now, I see that those words had consequences.

Maybe this man saw something in me that I obviously could not see in myself. Nearly 30 years later, it’s clear to me that I was suffering from what I’ll call ‘first-year public teacher shell-shock tunnel vision’.

*

The pink slip eluded me that year, and I was too gutless to resign and end my misery. So imagine my dread as the new school year approached. I saw my roster and every shred of my being constricted and tightened. The same torturers were to be in my classes. AGAIN.

Then, a funny thing happened. The kids were a ‘summer away’ older. And they were genuinely glad to see me. I had survived, and as the year went on, we all grew together. The one thing I had going for me in the classroom was that I was a good storyteller, and I actually knew a lot about the history that I was supposed to be teaching students. I was enthusiastic, I was passionate. They started to listen. Over time, I became their class adviser, orchestrated their prom, took them on their senior trip. We survived together. They went on, some even to become teachers, and others today make many times my salary. I even had their kids in class (much better behaved, actually). We built a foundation and ventured forth on to great things.

*

Back home, in the same high school where I secretly prayed for that layoff slip years before, kids are in the auditorium tuning into the live broadcast and looking for their teacher in the gathering in the Capitol Rotunda as it is broadcast live to the nation.  In Washington, after the ceremony, there is a text message from my Congressman’s aide. The Congressman would like to meet me in his office, NOW, if possible. He is well aware of my invitation to Washington-that a small town high school history project has has altered thousands of lives throughout the world.

*****

So, the Moral of the First Lesson comes to me nearly thirty years after the occurrence:

I nearly left the teaching profession. With seven simple words, my principal threw me a lifeline. Where I would be today if, all those dark days ago, someone had slapped an INEFFECTIVE label on me to fulfill a political objective (‘Too many effective teachers, here, in New York State. Baloney! Find me some ineffective teachers. PRONTO!’) But today, given the proposals in New York State and elsewhere, it’s game on for the witchhunt of the people who devote their waking hours with the youth of our nation.

What if I had been labeled a failure before I even got out of the gate? “INEFFECTIVE, Year One” would have been all the push that I would have needed to exit the classroom forever- that simple push, over the cliff.

I KNOW I would have left the profession.

Maybe I’d have more money than I do now.

But I would not have more wealth.

Because NONE of this wonderful stuff in my life, or my impact on other people’s lives would have ever, ever happened.

 

 Maybe it’s time to nurture and cherish our young teachers, rather than tossing them under that next bus.

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

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 the power of listening, teaching, and remembering the Holocaust.

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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 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.

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

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.

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

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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