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Posts Tagged ‘Walter Gantz’

Only a few weeks back, I was teaching a lesson to my 12th graders on the German invasion of the USSR in the second half of 1941. We were at December 6th, 1941, and the dramatic launching of Marshal Zhukov’s counteroffensive outside of Moscow, to be followed the next day by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that drew us into the war, when the phone rang in the back of the classroom. It could have been one of the school secretaries calling to let me know that a student needed to be excused, so I told the seniors it was probably the President calling again,  so ‘Hold that thought’, and I dashed to the back of the room.

Now, my classroom has enjoyed an outside line for a while, ever since the American soldiers and the Holocaust survivors began to find me and this website. I have fielded calls from all over the world, from survivors and their families and even major news organizations and museums. So I picked up the phone, and was met by a familiar voice with a delightful cadence and greeting: “Matt Rozell, God bless you!”

Walter Gantz, March 14, 2016. Credit: Mike Edwards, 5 Stones Group.

Walter Gantz, March 14, 2016.
Credit: Mike Edwards, 5 Stones Group.

It was Walter, the 92 year old former medic who had taken care of the sick and dying Holocaust survivors at Hillersleben in 1945 after the liberation of the train. He was calling to praise my recent book, which I had sent to him, telling me that he had read it in three or four sittings and needed to read it again, and again. He thanked me over and over for remembering him, and the medics and soldiers and officers of the 95th Medical Battalion, who raced to save as many as they could. I told the kids later that Walter had told me that at their WWII reunions, these medics never spoke about Hillersleben. It was just too traumatic.

I turned the speakerphone on and the kids got to listen in. I passed the book around the room as he spoke, the chapter called ‘The Medics’ marked on the page with Walter’s photograph. As we talked, I noticed that one of the senior girls in the class was very moved by the conversation, which struck us out of the blue, just as did Walter’s initial call to me five years ago. He closed by wishing us all well, a blessing to our families as well.

We did some good in the world, here in this classroom, and in keeping the good deeds of Walter and the medics of the 95th Medical Battalion alive. Here’s to Walter and all of the old soldiers and survivors we have been blessed to connect with, and here is to the kids, who want to KNOW. Here is to the magic that ushers forth from the universe when a teacher connects with his students to trip the wires of the cosmos, again and again. We did not just teach history here; we made it. These are the thoughts that I think I will hold on to, when my time in this room is up.

 

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Excerpt from CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
The Medics

A few weeks following the last school reunion in 2011, I got a phone call in my classroom from a man in Scranton, Pennsylvania. To this day, I do not know how he found me. After four years of not hearing from any other American soldier who had something to do with this ‘Train near Magdeburg’, I had come to the conclusion that it was now all over. Walter Gantz proved me wrong, and not only did he play an important role, he knew of several others who were also still alive to share their experiences at the convalescent base/camp at Hillersleben.

Walter was part of the 95th Medical Gas Treatment Battalion, trained extensively to treat chemical warfare casualties. When no gas was deployed by the enemy in combat, Walter and his outfit stepped right into the role of treating other casualties of the battlefield. He recalled surveying the train at Farsleben, and the memories of treating the victims over the next seven weeks haunted him right up until his contact with me. I spoke with Walter several times on the phone, and we exchanged letters; I also put him in contact with at least four of the survivors of the train, two of whom would go on to meet him in Scranton to speak at a Holocaust symposium. At my suggestion, Walter was interviewed by a film crew in 2016.

Walter ‘Babe’ Gantz

Basically, there were four medical battalions—the 92nd, 93rd, 94th, and 95th. We were the ‘baby battalion’. We were extensively trained in chemical warfare. In fact, that was our top priority, in case they used chemical agents and that was it. We were a sophisticated outfit. In fact, Colonel Bill Hurteau, our commander, he said we were the cream of the crop [chuckles]. Maybe he was right, I don’t know.

I was part of a so-called ‘advance party’. There were about 10 or 12 of us from the 95th and as you know the train was discovered on the 13th of April of ’45. Our advance party was at Farsleben on the 14th, or the next day—the situation was beyond description. These people were emaciated and like they say, ‘living skeletons’; most of them could hardly walk. [Shakes head] It was a horrible sight. Some people say there were sixteen that passed away on the train. Other reports say thirty, so I would say thirty. They were buried down the knoll adjacent to the train.

When we left the 95th on detached service [to investigate the train, we went with] Captain Deutsch, who was one of the surgeons… He was numb. He didn’t say anything, just that we were ‘on a special assignment’. That was the extent of it, until we got to Farsleben and we went down to the train itself. That was a nightmare… God Almighty! [Shakes head] Boy… [Pauses]… Unbelievable. That’s the only word I can think of, unbelievable…You know, you’re seeing these people in person, and yet you just couldn’t comprehend that these things happened in this world that people would be so inhuman to other human beings. It was tough. You felt helpless, really.

[The initial scene] was chaotic. Most of the survivors were just wandering around and you have to remember these people, they were treated worse than animals. They were starved and like I said, it was very chaotic. They were looting the homes and I can understand. They were getting fur coats and dresses. In fact, I remember there was one woman, I think she had three different dresses on. It was tough but … A lot of them were lice-infested. God, I’ve seen so many lice, unbelievable. You could grab quite a handful, really. A lot of these people we had to clip their hair. There were so many unsanitary conditions. These people were in rags. In most cases, we had to burn their clothes. Fortunately, we had a means of setting up showers. There was a nearby pond and we had generators because we were a sophisticated unit, as I said. We would give these people showers or wash them down.

How do you settle all these people? We’re talking like twenty-four hundred people, and how do you feed them? That was one of the biggest problems we had, but fortunately, we found several ‘food dumps’ as we called them, and we were fortunate in getting a lot. Actually, we took over a dairy farm, and we were provided with beef, and pork, and milk for those who could sustain milk. You have to remember a lot of these people couldn’t eat whole food because if they did, if they were to gorge for themselves, they would die. We had to feed them intravenously and that was one of my jobs. I have to say, I was a sharpshooter when it came to injections. It was difficult. We had so many.

We talk about nightmares and flashbacks. I never had any nightmares where I would scream, but there are two so-called flashbacks I remember and they stayed with me for many, many years. [In the first] I could see myself climbing these stairs and all of a sudden, I’m inserting a needle into this elderly gentleman’s arm. Of course, you have to remember, they were skin and bones. The veins would roll and he was screaming, really screaming. That had to be very painful, because they were skin and bones—to try to find a vein; it was easy to overshoot a vein. It was heart wrenching to hear those people sobbing and actually screaming because a lot of them thought they were still at Bergen–Belsen, really.

[In the second] incident, I used to work a twelve-hour shift, from eight in the evening to eight in the morning. In the wee hours of the morning, this young girl died. For some reason, I wrapped her up in a blanket and I carried her down the stairs and I was crying.

We had a war tent that was used as a makeshift morgue. I placed her in there. I wonder why I would do that; I must have liked her for some reason. I didn’t have to do that, because we had a team that took care of those who died, and placed them in the morgue.

I spent seven weeks with these people. Most of us spent seven weeks and during our so-called watch, 106 people died… God, it was tough. [This girl] was actually fifteen years old. Her name was Eva and you might say, ‘How was it possible that he could carry her?’ She probably weighed 60 pounds, maybe. I thought about that many times, and I must have been attracted to her for some reason. That haunted me, really. It really haunted me.

I must admit I shed a lot of tears and I prayed. I prayed that they would pass on, that they would find peace and for those who survived, that their health would be restored—and dignity. Dignity is so important in life—dignity, that was the main thing. It was difficult.

The full narrative is available here.

 

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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/}

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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/}

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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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