Posts Tagged ‘WW2 medic’

There was another shooting at a synagogue on American soil. Sometimes I wonder if my efforts to teach about the Holocaust mean anything. Sometimes you just feel helpless. But I realize now that it is probably the most important job I have ever done, maybe now more than ever. Two weeks ago I introduced Pittsburgh survivor Judah Samet to the American soldier who had a lot to do with his liberation. On my newsletter list, less than a week later, I mentioned I would be talking at a college in New Jersey; the next day, the following encounter occurred. And I think it will stay with these kids for the rest of their lives, and probably those ripples will create new waves.

A few days ago I drove 5 hours to a tiny community college in a rural section of New Jersey to speak on the subject of the Holocaust. I got there early because just yesterday I learned that a ‘new’ Holocaust survivor of the train would be attending, one whom I have never met before. He wanted to attend because he was on the train, and he also did not want to miss the opportunity to meet the WWII medic, Walter Gantz, who also wanted to attend my lecture. Walter was a 20-year-old American soldier who spent seven weeks with the survivors.

I was unloading my books and equipment when Walter and his son-in-law Kenny arrived, themselves coming from 2 hours away. Ken dropped Walter off at the entrance and went to park the car; I did likewise. Just as I got back into the truck, a saw a man wearing a kippah approaching Walter, hand extended, hailing him with ‘Mr. Gantz?’ I fumbled for my camera and took a shot of the first meeting of the two in 74 years.

Oscar S. was on the train with his family, many brothers and sisters who all survived the war, all resting and recuperating at the makeshift hospital and displaced persons camp that was Hillersleben, only a few miles from the train liberation site at Farsleben. Walter was there the entire time, remembering the children quite clearly, and profoundly moved by the appearance another person who had been one of those children.

A couple classes of college kids came in. They found seats, and more seats were arranged in the back as the word got out that this might be something special. I’m sure most of them didn’t know what to expect; I began my talk by asking how many of the young people actually knew an actual veteran of World War II who was still alive. No hands went up. I waited, and asked again—sometimes young adults are shy to volunteer—and there was no response. I didn’t expect a lot of hands, but I didn’t expect that NONE of the 18 to 21-year-olds in the room would respond. I immediately realized that we were in new territory.

I began the talk by explaining that the reason for my being there to speak to them was because I had asked the same question to a roomful of high school sophomores 25 years ago, and almost every kid raised not one hand but two. So I got curious, and made up a simple 2-page survey form—what branch were you in, what was your job, do you remember when you heard of Pearl Harbor, what things would you share with young people today—and I again was flooded with genuine, heartfelt responses. I invited veterans into the classroom to tell their stories, recorded them on videotape for posterity, and went off in search of more stories in the community. And that is how I got to sit down with one tank commander who shared a story and led me to another tank commander who wrote to me about the day their two tanks came across a train with nearly 2500 refugees, as it turned out, Jewish families who had been prisoners at Bergen-Belsen, shipped away by the Germans in the final days of the war to evade the advance of the Allied armies in the west. And these Americans who came across the train had even taken photographs of the dramatic rescue as it all unfolded. So I had a story to tell, about those final days of World War II and the Holocaust, and about what had happened since. That ten years after it all started, just when I thought I would not hear from any other soldiers associated with this train rescue story—I had met several others, but none more after the first four years had come and gone since that first reunion in 2007—the phone rang in my classroom, and the greeting that would become so familiar to me rang in my ear for the first time—“Matt Rozell, God bless you!” It was Walter Gantz, now 94, once the 20-year-old medic, now sitting in the midst of 20-year-olds who could not recall a living World War II veteran, and a former 7-year-old boy who he had a hand in saving.

We moved on to the subject of the Holocaust. I asked the kids: How many people were murdered in the Holocaust? What does that number look like? And just how did that happen?

So who was responsible for the biggest crime in the history of the world? Hitler alone?

How were the people freed on the train a ‘snapshot’ of European Jewry persecuted by the Nazis-and others?

How could I make people care, today, about what happened nearly 3 generations ago?

Why is it important to listen to those who were the first witnesses? What happens when these stories are no longer with us?

Once people have absorbed the stories, do they have a moral responsibility to act on the ‘lessons’? And then, for emphasis:

Is there such a thing as ‘being a witness’, when you yourself were not there?

I spoke for an hour. I didn’t notice any outright indifference at the start [a minor concern in the case of any event outside of regular classroom hours]; kids were very respectful and I think, curious, and I had their rapt attention at the end, though I waited for a few questions. None came, and Walter took that as his cue to stand up, because he had something to say. And he got right down to the point, with passion, a rising voice from a gentle soul. He motioned for Oscar to stand up and join him, and he embraced him with emotion.

“I spent seven weeks with these people. During my stay, there was about one hundred and twenty who passed away. Basically, it was from the typhus disease; most of them were over fifty; most of the young people survived. And there were a lot of young people, I mean, little children [motions with hand, palm down to his knee], infants, and it was living hell [shakes head incredulously].

After we set up our hospital in Hillersleben, a few days later, five or six of us went back to see the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp… and—you have to believe me when I say, the bodies were piled up like cordwood [raises his hand to over his head]! Everywhere you looked, I remember looking down a lane, probably a quarter of a mile, trees on each side, bodies, hundreds and hundreds of bodies laying around…

I had a strange experience. I’m Polish, and at the time, I could speak Polish very well—and I remember a gentleman at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, he kept saying, [speaks with emphasis, in Polish], which means, ‘Do you understand Polish?’ And I said, ‘Yes’ [begins to cry]…and he grabbed me, and he hugged me [hugs Oscar, the survivor he met today for the first time, both cry]… and I felt so helpless! I broke down…and the stench was terrible…We are living proof that there is such a thing as the Holocaust!”

Walter Gantz, WW2 medic, recounts his visit to Bergen-Belsen in 1945.[2:30]

There were muffled sobs throughout the room. No one spoke; one girl sitting in the second row was visibly emotional and profoundly moved.

Walter thanked God again for his good health and his mobility, at being able to come out and address the young people, noting that he once coached young people their age, and he closed his impromptu remarks by bringing laughter through the tears with his admission that though he could still move, he probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with the young women in the room.


So it was time to close. I went back to the beginning. It had turned out to be an almost religious experience for everyone in the room; I didn’t have to tell them that they had been graced with a once in their lifetime opportunity in what they had witnessed in the last few minutes. And I repeated the questions:

‘Once the survivors and liberators are gone, who is left to tell the stories? Once you have heard or read the testimony, are you the new witnesses? Do you carry a moral responsibility to act on what you have absorbed?’

And I hope it sank in, for the sake of humanity.

‘…And whoever saves one life saves the world entire’

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