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Posts Tagged ‘World War II Living History Project’

My friend Gordon Hanna died the other day. He was my electrician, and I’m sure the electrician for half of the small town I live in, at least. He was 90.

He was also a World War II veteran. How wonderful that we had the foresight to interview him at his homestead here in Hartford a few years back. We always ask, ‘when and where were you born’. Kaylee got a surprise when he pointed up over his head- to the bedroom upstairs. As Gordon’s generation go, we are leaving an older world behind. I’m not convinced that the newer one is better.

I always say that this is the toughest part about doing projects like these; your friends go and die on you.

Next time I flip the switch in my house I’ll think of him.

Gordon Hanna : There was a big farm down the road. It was the Clifford Sheldon farm, about a three hundred acre farm. And I started working for him when I was eleven year old. Nights after school, and Saturdays and Sundays.
Kaylee Merlow (student interviewer): Where your parents farmers, or …?
GH: My parents, lived down the road, where my father, and my uncle, and my grandfather, owned Hanna Hardware up in Hartford, up here.
KM: Was it difficult for you to balance both school and working on a farm?
GH: No, it wasn’t that bad. Because you got out early. We got out about three o’clock. You would work until dark. But, I worked Saturdays and Sundays. I did all the plowing and fitting the ground and like that. I thought I was doing pretty good. I was getting $1 a day. When that’s when, grown men, that’s all they were getting for work at that time.
KM: Were you raised in like a religious home or….? Like did you attending church every Sunday?
GH: Yes I went to church regularity. White church, Congregational church up here. Then later on I taught Sunday school up there.
KM: Mr. Rozell told me that you worked in Smiths Basin harvesting ice?
GH: Yes, Mr. Rozell thought that that might be something you hadn’t ever heard of. Well, milk was transported from all the farms. There used to be a lot more farms around here than there are now. And the milk was transported in cans. Over to Smiths Basin there’s a big, well, you ever go through Smiths Basin, across the railroad tracks? There’s still a great big building there. That was a creamery. And the milk was all taken in there. Well in that time there was no chemical refrigeration as you know it today, so we had to refrigerate everything with ice. So the canal runs right along there and up the canal right next to the locks they used to cut the ice. They cut it with an old model Ford motor and a great big 48 inch round circle saw. Which you probably never saw sawing wood or anything but that’s what they used. And they cut slices in the ice two feet wide and then they would cross cut them, every three feet, so a cake of ice was two by three by whatever depth it froze to. Long later in the winter, February, like that, they would get up to three feet thick. So a cake of ice, at that time, would weigh probably three hundred lbs. They had, the canal sits a lot lower than about the bank up here when you go down the canal. They had a long ramp made of wood with sides on it, narrow sides like that [hand gestures for ramp], with a walkway up and down it. Then they had a winch, up on top, which one of the farmers would bring his tractor there and run this winch. And they had what the called a ‘crab’ which was a metal thing, shaped like that [hand gestures], with a handle up there. What they would do, they had this ice all scored. They would take it and they had it right up to that ramp. They would take spuds,  just a big knife, about that wide [hand gestures for width], sharp, on a handle. They take that go in the scores where they scored the ice, and that would split off the cakes, individual cakes. They would bring them over to the ramp. Then they would  hook that back of it, then the farmer would start the winch, pulling it up. He’d have to walk along the side of it to keep it from kicking up.
KM: My gosh.
GH: Well, some of the guys he’d go up then up onto a platform up on top. Then all the farmers that brought in milk would have their trucks there. That was a big thing, since that paid good money at that time. And they would slide it onto the trucks, then they’d transport it over to the ice house. Then at the ice house, they had a …. Ice house, about three stories high, they had a big frame work that went up. It had a, like an elevator, well it was slanted like that, made of steel. A farmer would have a tractor on a winch, at that point. He would slide the cake on, when he brought out the truck, it would go onto the elevator. Of course it started down oh say this high, so the elevator would just go up , the cake would slide off into the ice house. Well, as it got a layer of ice, of course it kept going higher and higher and higher. Enough, about three stories high.
KM: When did you ice harvest?
GH: January. It was done in January and February.
KM: So it was only just two months?
GH: Yes.
KM: Because an ice house can only be –
GH: Yes. It normally started in January, which was of course good for me because – [interrupted]
KM: Because of the timing?
GH: -The vacation in January, from school. And I was able to get on the job, that was a privilege to get on that job because at that time, it was paying as I remember, I think it was paying $5 an hour – when the average man was getting $1 a day.

Interviewed by Kaylee Merlow, Dec. 19, 2010.

 

 

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I hope you had a great weekend. I decided to spend my weekend with a fellow who has been gone for a while. And I had a blast.

tom collins jan 04

This weekend I edited an interview we did six or seven years before the our veteran, sitting comfortably in his favorite chair in his button-down sweater in front of the Christmas tree, passed. He was suddenly alive, animated, an old man telegraphing the emotions and feelings long buried about some of the most formative years of his life-conveying them to a young person who was genuinely interested; who CARED.

When you edit a raw interview, you have to absorb it all first. The surroundings, the line of questioning, the emotions and the back and forth of the memory machine. You pray that the transcriber, if it was not you originally, was relatively engaged and committed to a literal interpretation. And thank goodness for the advent of the digital access to the tapes we made, when we donated a copy to the New York State Military Museum.

We’d move on a minute’s notice and find a place to put our guns into position. [When we were in combat] there was fear, lots of it. But I was in charge of the howitzer and the gun crew. We might be getting shelled ourselves and our infantry getting pounded. We sometimes found ourselves in fluid situations. The Germans might be attacking or we might be attacking and it was very fluid—we might be moving forward or backing up. You never knew—[behind the lines], you never knew what was happening, whether we had them on the run or whether they were counterattacking—so we had to think in terms of getting things ready to move, because we might have to get the hell out of here. We had the fear but we were so busy and had so much to do and make sure it got done that it sort of beat the fear. In other words, you were scared to death, but you did the best you possibly could.

Armed with all this, without putting words in the subject’s mouth, I have to arrange his recollections in line with the actual events of the day. Thus it was with Mr. Tom Collins, an artillery sergeant responsible for a 105 mm gun crew in Italy.  As it turned out, he was interviewed by his own granddaughter, one of my students a long time before he passed. And he told her things that he had never told anyone else in his life–but only because she cared, and asked the right follow-up questions. That is clear in the transcript she produced for her project afterwards.

When we got home, the sudden change [to civilian life] seemed difficult for me. I felt more and more that I had changed, so I would stay home. I didn’t go anywhere. It took me a couple of weeks before I would go out, you know, go downtown. I remember the first few times I went uptown from there—I wouldn’t go unless my sister was with me, I wouldn’t go alone. I can’t really put words on it but I really felt strange. I felt unusual. I thought, ‘Will I talk right, will I act right?’ because when we were in the army, foul language was common place and using crazy phrases like the southerners used, things like that, it became the way I was speaking and living. But [after a while] I warmed up and I was fine.

Tom Collins passed in 2011. Yet because of the prescient efforts  we made, years and years ago, he will live on in the minds of more than just his family. You can see more about him below, and you can read about him in the upcoming book I am working on. You did good, young Catie.

Thank you, sweetheart. It was a pleasure.

Rest on, Tom Collins.

(You can order the first book here.)

 

 

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Seventy one years ago, it began. Hitler’s last gamble would claim more American lives than any battle in U.S. History. Frank Curry was there, and on a cold winter day in December, saved five men and kille scores of Germans singlehandedly. Frank was in the 30th Infantry Division, which liberated the Train Near Magdeburg; he came to our school.

The morning of December 16, 1944. A lonely outpost on the Belgian frontier.

“Both the enemy and the weather could kill you, and the two of them together was a pretty deadly combination.” Bulge veteran Bart Hagerman. Photo: George Silk/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images Dec 20, 1944

In subzero temperatures, the last German counteroffensive of World War II had begun. Nineteen thousand American lives would be lost in the Battle of the Bulge. “Hell came in like a freight train. I heard an explosion and went back to where my friend was. His legs were blown off-he bled to death in my arms.” The average age of the American “replacement” soldier? 19.

Of the sixteen million American men and women who served in WWII, four and a quarter hundred thousand died on the field of conflict. In 2015, on the downward bell curve slope, nearly 500 veterans of World War II quietly slip away every day. The national memory of the war that did more than any other event in the last century to shape the history of the American nation is dying with them. The Germans threw 250,000 well trained troops and tanks against a lightly defended line on the Ardennes frontier in Belgium and Luxembourg, which created a pocket or “bulge” in the Allied offensive line, the objective being to drive to the port of Antwerp to split the American and British advance and force a separate peace with the Western Allies. What ensued was the bloodiest battle in American history. It saddens me that it comes as a shock to many Americans today that the “Battle of the Bulge” didn’t originate as a weight-loss term.

On a personal note, I have had the privilege of interviewing many of the veterans of this battle. In the high school where I teach, I have been inviting veterans to my classroom to share their experiences with our students. As their numbers dwindled, I smartened up, bought a camera, and began to record their stories. And for the past decade, I have been sending kids out into the field to record the stories of World War II before this generation fades altogether. These men and women have helped to spark students’ interest in finding out more about our nation’s past and the role of the individual in shaping it. In our books we have worked to weave the stories of our community’s sacrifices into the fabric of our national history. And that, to me, is what teaching history should be all about. After all, if we allow ourselves to forget about the teenager who bled to death in his buddy’s arms, if we overlook the sacrifices it took to make this nation strong and proud, we may as well forget everything else. I shudder for this country when I see what we have all forgotten, so soon. But if you are taking the time to read this post I suppose I am preaching to the saved.

I will close with the account of a nineteen year old infantryman who in fact survived the battle and the war, and who I was able to introduce to many Hudson Falls students on more than one occasion. Sixty-nine years ago this December, a day began that would forever change his life.  Frank is now the only living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II left in New York State and New England.

In the winter of 1944, nineteen year old Private First Class Currey’s infantry squad was fighting the Germans in the Belgian town of Malmédy to help contain the German counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge. Before dawn on December 21, Currey’s unit was defending a strong point when a sudden German armored advance overran American antitank guns and caused a general withdrawal. Currey and five other soldiers—the oldest was twenty-one—were cut off and surrounded by several German tanks and a large number of infantrymen. They began a daylong effort to survive.

Francis Currey MOH and Ned Rozell March 2010-Ned is friends with the last WWII Medal of Honor recipient in NY and NE, Frances Currey. Yes, the special edition GI Joe he signed for Ned is 19 yr. old Frank!

Francis Currey MOH and Ned Rozell March 2010-Ned is friends with the last WWII Medal of Honor recipient in NY and NE, Frances Currey. Yes, the special edition GI Joe he signed for Ned is 19 yr. old Frank!

The six GIs withdrew into an abandoned factory, where they found a bazooka left behind by American troops. Currey knew how to operate one, thanks to his time in Officer Candidate School, but this one had no ammunition. From the window of the factory, he saw that an abandoned half-track across the street contained rockets. Under intense enemy fire, he ran to the half-track, loaded the bazooka, and fired at the nearest tank. By what he would later call a miracle, the rocket hit the exact spot where the turret joined the chassis and disabled the vehicle.

Moving to another position, Currey saw three Germans in the doorway of an enemy-held house and shot all of them with his Browning Automatic Rifle. He then picked up the bazooka again and advanced, alone, to within fifty yards of the house. He fired a shot that collapsed one of its walls, scattering the remaining German soldiers inside. From this forward position, he saw five more GIs who had been cut off during the American withdrawal and were now under fire from three nearby German tanks. With antitank grenades he’d collected from the half-track, he forced the crews to abandon the tanks. Next, finding a machine gun whose crew had been killed, he opened fire on the retreating Germans, allowing the five trapped Americans to escape.

Deprived of tanks and with heavy infantry casualties, the enemy was forced to withdraw. Through his extensive knowledge of weapons and by his heroic and repeated braving of murderous enemy fire, Currey was greatly responsible for inflicting heavy losses in men and material on the enemy, for rescuing 5 comrades, 2 of whom were wounded, and for stemming an attack which threatened to flank his battalion’s position.

At nightfall, as Currey and his squad, including the two seriously wounded men, tried to find their way back to the American lines, they came across an abandoned Army jeep fitted out with stretcher mounts. They loaded the wounded onto it, and Currey, perched on the jeep’s spare wheel with a Browning automatic rifle in his hand, rode shotgun back to the American lines.

After the war in Europe had officially ended, Major General Leland Hobbs made the presentation on July 27, 1945, at a division parade in France.

source material Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty by Peter Collier.

 

Frank signs autographs at our school.
Frank signs autographs at our school.

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Helen Sperling passed away last week. She was an incredible woman, a Holocaust survivor whose mantra was “Thou shalt not be a bystander.”

I spoke at the annual Yom Hashoah lecture that she sponsored for her community in Utica a few years back. She lived about 100 miles away, so her friend Marsha drove her to Saratoga Springs, the halfway point for us, so that she could meet me and vet me for herself before committing to my lecture. I passed the test. later, my friends at the USHMM found some of her liberation documents for me, which I sent to her. I even found one of the US soldiers who liberated her, in the town near me.

The article and post below is from a couple years ago. I love the photo. Godspeed, Helen. Rest assured that all those whom you touched, will keep the memory alive.

******

Helen is a friend of mine. She was liberated in April 1945 by a division of American soldiers that included our high school secretary’s uncle.

At her invitation I traveled to central NY to speak 2 years ago.

She is still going strong. I love her! Her central message to students-“The world needs saving. So, get to it!”

BY RACHEL MURPHY
Rome Observer Staff Writer

Staff Photo by RACHEL MURPHY--Curtis Thompson, an eighth grader at Strough hugs Helen Sperling, a 93-year-old who survived the Holocaust. Sperling shared her story with the eighth grade class on Wednesday, after she finished every student hugged her.

ROME, NY. — Holocaust survivor Helen Sperling, 93, recounted the darkest moment of her life before a crowd of more than 300 eighth-graders at Lyndon H. Strough Middle School on Wednesday.

Sperling spoke for two hours about her time in the concentration camps.

Sperling was born to a middle class family where she lived in Poland.

During a school vacation when she was 22 years old, the Germans invaded her home and took her family into a ghetto.

“For the first time in my life, I was completely and utterly helpless,” she said.

During her time in the ghetto, Sperling remembered being able to contact a close friend to wish her a happy birthday. But when Sperling called her friend, who was a Gentile, the friend responded with a racial slur.

“You did not realize who was your friend and who was your enemy,” she said.

She explained that like many other Jewish families, hers was eventually taken from the ghetto and separated into prison camps. She was first placed into Ravensbrück, where she was forced to perform demeaning tasks the Nazi’s used as a way to break her spirit.

But despite the torture, hunger and fear, Sperling managed to survive, along with her younger brother.

“Ninety-nine percent of our survival was sheer luck,” she said. “A little tiny bit of it was hanging on to dignity. Once you lost that, you didn’t have a chance.”

Sperling’s parents did not survive.

Her family was among the 6 million other Jews that were sent to death camps and were killed by the Nazis.

Sperling placed two family photographs on a table nearby as she spoke to the students.

“These are mine, and I miss them terribly,” she said of her family members.

However, she continues to share her story to hopefully inspire and educate others.

“I want them to know that they can do something. I don’t want them to be bystanders,” she said.

Sperling added that even though it is difficult to retell it’s worth it.

“As long as I can do and as many schools as I can cover I want to,” she said.

Assistant Principal Michael Stalteri explained that he hopes the students learn from Sperling’s life and positive outlook.

“Her story resonates with what goes on in their lives when they’re being persecuted, picked on, harassed, bullied or made to feel different,” he said. “Hearing Mrs. Sperling’s story of triumph and her message is exhilarating.”

After Sperling finished her story each student hugged her, and she gave them an anti-bullying bracelet.

http://romeobserver.com/articles/2013/03/15/news/doc5140d89a9dd53321768186.txt?viewmode=fullstory

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It was six years ago this evening, we shared a meal on the eve of Shabbat, after watching ourselves on a national broadcast that reached millions. Why does it seem, so long ago?

Maybe because it all seems so unbelievable- that out of the darkness of the past, on a day when the sun dawned clearly and was warming the Earth in its mid-April morning ascent, a low rumble was heard by  hushed and huddled groupings of tormented humanity as they strained to hope for friends amidst their lurking murderers. As the metallic clanking grew louder, over the horizon broke the earthly angels, two Sherman light tanks and an American Jeep with the emblem of the white star. A cry broke out. They realized they were saved, and the American major snapped a photograph at the exact moment the overjoyed survivors realized it.

And out of the past on a warm September day, we brought them all together again. Who would have believed that 62 years later, a high school in a quiet, rural part of the world would  bring the soldier-liberators and the rescued survivors together from the US, Canada, Israel and elsewhere? All because I couldn’t let go of a good narrative history, and pursued the story behind the photographs that proved it really happened?

And think about the risk you run, inviting hundreds of octogenarians to come to a high school for half a week to mingle with thousands of high school and middle schoolers? Talk about sweating bullets. What if they are uncomfortable? Cranky? Complaining? What if the kids I can’t control are rude? And what if one of these “old” folks, who I don’t even know, dies on our watch? I would lie awake at night wondering if I was out of my mind.

But the miracle came to be-for the two dozen or so elders who could come, tears flowed, wine spilled, and our “new grandparents” danced with young teenagers who adored them, but only after the risk was accepted, with the enthusiastic help of Mary Murray, Tara Winchell-Sano, and Lisa Hogan, Rene Roberge and others. Have a look at the videos, and feel the love. We created ripples, and tripped the wires of the cosmos, and the reverberations are still echoing. To date, with Varda Weisskopf’s and Frank Towers’ help, the list is at 275 survivors whom we have found. And how many generations has it effected?

This is the subject of my second book, due out this next summer. In the meantime, I am working on a shorter work of what I have learned in teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. So take a look at the videos, and remember the words of the liberator:

“Here we are! We have arrived!”

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April 15th 1945                                                                                                                   Somewhere in Germany

You will probably be wondering who I am and what business I have, writing to you.- I am one of the millions of soldiers of the United States Army, who is fighting for all the oppressed peoples of the world and hopes to have reestablished decency and honor to all mankind, with the defeat of Hitlerism.

*****

My friend Varda in Israel sent me a copy of this letter she recently received from the widow of  Mr. Shmuel ‘Tommy’ Huppert of Israel. In it, an American soldier is taking the time to write to the husband of a Holocaust survivor to let him know that his wife and young son (Tommy) have been liberated, and that they have survived the horrors of the Holocaust and the carnage of ‘Hitlerism’.

Young Tommy and his mother, Mrs. Hilde Huppert,  were liberated at Farsleben on the transport from Bergen Belsen on April 13th, 1945. They managed to get to Palestine shortly after liberation, bringing with them many, many orphaned children, including my friend Lily Cohen.  Hilde’s manuscript, Hand in Hand with Tommy, was one of the first Holocaust memoirs completed after the war and a cathartic way for her to attempt to come to terms with what had happened.

It took years to be properly published, as it was originally rejected because it was ‘too soon after the war’. Later, at 93 years of age, Hilde was asked if there was anything specific she wished to convey to American readers of her book. She replied, ‘Tell them I will never forget those American GIs who liberated us from the Germans…I can still recall their amazed faces in that dusty jeep and the U.S. Army symbol. I remember kissing one of them, and I want the American people to know that I am grateful to them.’

 


READ ALL ABOUT IT IN MY BOOK HERE


One of the soldiers, on the Sunday following the Friday liberation, took the time to send this note on her behalf to her husband in Palestine. It now resides in the collection at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Authority.

4-15-45 Gartner to Huppert 1

April 15th 1945                                                                                                                      Somewhere in Germany

Dear Mr. Huppert,

You will probably be wondering who I am and what business I have, writing to you.- I am one of the millions of soldiers of the United States Army, who is fighting for all the oppressed peoples of the world and hopes to have reestablished decency and honor to all mankind, with the defeat of Hitlerism.

Two days ago, it was the priviledge (sic) of our unit, to be able to liberate a trainload full of people of all nations imaginable, who were being transferred from a concentration camp near Hannover, to some other place. Our advances were so swift, that the SS guards, left this particular train where it was and took off.

That is how I became acquainted with your wife, Mrs. Hilde Huppert, who asked me to drop you this note, saying, that both she and your son Tommy, are both healthy and well and now being well taken care of by our military governmental authorities. In actual fact, your wife wrote a message for you on a piece of paper in pencil, which she asked me to convey to you. Unfortunately, however, the penciled lines faded in my pocket, and I can no longer read what was written on it. The contents of the message, though, was to let you know that your wife and son are both safe and sound.

I am sure that your wife will soon be able to get into contact with you directly through the Red Cross, and I hope that in a none too distant future, your family will once more be peacefully united.

Sincerely yours,

Cpl. Frank Gartner

Fluent in many languages, Gartner was the translator for the 743rd Tank Battalion’s commander, Col. Duncan. He was originally from Estonia, and resided in Los Angeles, California.

BOOK HERE

If anyone knows more about Frank Gartner, please contact me at matthew @ teachinghistorymatters.com.. 

Transcribed by Alanna Belanger’15 and Alexis Winney ’15.

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My good friend in Israel let me know that the April 15th  commemoration of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Israel was a moving event and sent me the link to the video of the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation. While my work at piecing together the  narrative and the story behind the Major Benjamin photograph was not detailed, the photo which now seems to be becoming a cornerstone of the history of Holocaust liberation is all throughout the ceremony and especially at 8:31. One of my friends, a survivor who had been a six year old boy on this transport that Major Benjamin photographed at the moment his jeep arrived at the train, notes,

The photograph wouldn’t be there if not for your effort. It was presiding on 1.5 hrs of national ceremony in the presence of Israel’s president, prime minister, the entire government, the top army guys, survivors, chief rabbis and was nationally broadcast. You have a direct hand in this.

Me, a lowly teacher, whose work for an evening is presiding over presidents and prime ministers. I am proud and hope that the story is told over and over, and that it serves the memory of the victims, the survivors, and the liberators well. I just can’t believe sometimes this path I have been down, since the day 14 years ago when I took the time to listen to a war veteran, and began to backtrack his story.  There are other forces at work here, I think… and there is a cosmic force that reverberates in you when you teach the Holocaust from the heart.

Teachers out there, you all know the power of what we do. I hope this serves as an affirmation.

 

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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. His work has resulted in the reuniting of 275 Holocaust survivors and the American soldiers who freed them.

His first book, ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’, is being released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. His second book, in progress, is on the power of  teaching, remembering the Holocaust, the Benjamin photograph and this “Train Near Magdeburg’. He can be reached at marozell at gmail dot com.

 

 

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