Thanks to Alan Smason for a nice article. I have added some clarifying remarks in brackets for posterity and additional accuracy.
Soldiers, survivors converge in Louisville
April 19, 2013
By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN
Frank Towers remembers the day through the haze of 68 years, a footnote at the end of World War II. Matt Rozell was never there, but through his efforts and those of his students, he can dictate with amazing accuracy what happened in Farsleben, Germany those many years ago. Yet to the five Holocaust survivors who met with Towers and Rozell at a World War II reunion this past weekend in Louisville, KY, it was a day they will never forget. It was the day American forces gave them something they thought they would never see again: freedom!
30th Division U.S. Army Infantry Veterans executive secretary Frank Towers, center, welcomes Gideon Kornblum, left, and Kurt Bronner. (Photo by Alan Smason)
At 95 years, Towers is the last of the 30th Division of the United States Army Infantry members who can say he was there and had personal contact with this almost forgotten chapter of history. His testimony shows he was assigned the duty of dealing with what the Nazis regarded as human refuge on April 14, the day after the survivors, crammed into tiny freight cars, starving and in some cases dying, had been freed from their captors by members of the Tank Destroyer Batallion 743 [note: 743rd Tank Battalion. 823rd Tank Destroyer battalion assisted later in the day.]assigned to Tower’s 30th Division named for Andrew Jackson and fondly referred to as “Old Hickory.”
Rozell, a high school teacher in Hudson Falls, NY, is the conduit by which Towers and the remaining 30th Division members have connected to the Holocaust survivors, all now septgenarians or octogenarians, from the first of three trains sent out from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on April 6. It is through his “Teaching History Matters” website set up decades ago and fueled as part of his commitment to teaching his students the lessons of World War II that he has become heralded as an authority on an event that took place years before he was born.
It is through his efforts and the resources he and his students have placed on the Internet that reunions where veterans can meet with survivors have been possible. More than 200 survivors of what Towers calls “the death train” have been identified and contacted through Rozell’s networking efforts.The five survivors who traveled to Louisville to spend time with their families touring the Louisville Slugger plant and other city sites are part of a vast network of Holocaust train survivors now living throughout the United States, Canada, Israel, Europe and as far away as Australia. The manifest of the names of all those loaded on the train is now listed on Rozell’s site and linked with the United States Holocaust Museum and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
This year two train survivors, Ariel University emeritus math professor Gideon Kornblum from Jerusalem and retired graphics printer Kurt Bronner from Los Angeles, were new to the gathering. They joined with retired Duke University medical professor Dr. George Somjen from Durham, NC; Brooklyn College physics professor Micha Tomkiewicz from Brooklyn, NY; and Bruria Bodek Falik from Woodstock, NY, all of whom have attended reunions with the remaining veterans beginning in 2008 and continuing ever since.
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp survivors (from left) Micha Tomkiewicz, Bruria Falik and Kurt Bronner. (Photo by Alan Smason)
In every case these Holocaust survivors brought their wives, children and grandchildren with them to meet and socialize with the children and grandchildren of the men they consider the liberators of their families.
This year only 12 veterans were in attendance. Their number was lessened in December with the passing away in Florida of Carrol Walsh, a retired New York State Supreme Court judge, who was one of the two tank commanders that captured the train in question.
It was through Walsh’s grandson, a student in Rozell’s history class more than a decade ago, that Rozell first learned of what occurred on that date. Beginning in 2001, he heard first-hand in a series of interviews with Walsh how he and fellow tank commander George Gross happened onto the train and its human cargo.
Rozell explained how the train got there. On April 6 the Bergen-Belsen commander, fearing the approach of the Soviet Army [note: the British Army] and not wanting to let the world know of the savagery of the Third Reich and its “Final Solution,” dispatched three separate trains crammed full with prisoners to Theresienstadt concentration camp, also known by the name of its garrison city, Terezin. Of the three trains sent out that date [note: not all three trains were dispatched on same day], the first with 2,500 aboard encountered a series of mishaps that made it fall into the hands of the Americans on April 13. A second train with 1,700 prisoners aboard, using information it gleaned from the first train, eventually made it to Terezin on April 20, where most of its inhabitants were liberated on May 8 by the Soviet Army. The third train with 2,400 souls aboard also was liberated by Soviet troops on April 23 at Trobitz.
With laser pointer in hand, former 1st Lt. Frank Towers prepares to show audience members where the train was liberated at Farsleben. (Photo by Alan Smason)
Walsh and Gross were on a scouting mission along with members of the 119th regiment, having been dispatched from the recently captured town of Hillersleben by Major Clarence Benjamin. Benjamin had come upon several Jews who had escaped the train while it lay in wait. They had told him of the train’s existence and he instructed Walsh and Gross to accompany him.
Despite its holding a full head of steam, the train commanded by SS Captain Hugo Schlegel and its complement of a dozen guards or SS troops were contemplating orders from the German command. In front of them were the Allied forces, while behind them the Soviet troops were advancing. The orders were chilling. Either blow up the train there with explosives found in one of the freight cars or advance the train to the Elbe River, blow up a bridge there and plunge the train into the waters below, killing all aboard including the guards.
The train was standing at a spot so remote it was originally considered as Magdeburg by the World War II veterans who first began to tell their stories. Walsh and Gross saw several Jewish prisoners milling about, but when they pressed their tanks into service, the German guards threw their rifles down, ran away or disrobed, attempting to evade capture by donning the clothes of their captives. It was in vain, though, because their much better physical condition gave them away almost immediately.
Emeritus mathematics professor Gideon Kornblum traveled from Jerusalem to be a part of the reunion of the veterans and survivors. (Photo by Alan Smason)
Gross placed his tank in front of the train, while Walsh went back to the headquarters to alert them to their finding. With their Nazi captors away or arrested, the train’s doors were flung open and the wretched survivors began to slowly vacate the compartments to which they had been confined.
“These freight cars were much smaller than the ones we see on our normal railroads, about half to two-thirds the size of our freight cars,” Towers recounted. “These freight cars were left over and remodeled after World War I and became known as ’40 and 8s.’ They could easily hold 40 men or eight horses, thus the nomenclature.”
“These cars that they encountered contained 75 to 80 men, women and children,” Towers continued. “They’d been in these cars for six days, stopping at night to get their daily ration, which basically was a kettle of water with some potato skins or lentils. That was their ration for six days.”
When Walsh returned with backup troops, they came face to face with the horrors of the Holocaust, none of which they had seen in their march towards the heart of Germany.
Kurt Bronner, at his first reunion of the 30th Division of the U.S. Army Infantry, gives his thanks to the veterans, (Photo by Alan Smason)
“They had very little sanitary facilities. They were dirty, stinking, flea-infested and lice-infested and put into these cattle cars,” Towers recalled. “When they opened the doors of these cars, many of the victims just fell out to the ground. Some of our men just had to turn and throw up; the stench was so bad. This was inhumane. This was what the Germans were giving them: nothing. They were treated lower than animals.”
Rozell concurred, but gave an interesting sidenote. The German guards had radios and had informed the prisoners of the death less than 24 hours before of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Warm Springs, GA. Many of the U.S. soldiers were so busy fighting battles that they first found out about his death through the freed Holocaust survivors. [note: the reporter may have heard this from someone, but it was not me. I indicated what the soldiers told me- that the column was stopped and they were notified by their own commanders. Shocked, they went on to liberate the train the next day.] The prisoners were fearful at first because the Germans had told them the Americans would shoot them when they found them.
“There was one soldier, an individual I hear many soldiers talk about,” Rozell remembered. “Apparently, he came down from the hill and he said in Yiddish ‘I’m a Jew. I’m Jewish.’ He was from Brooklyn and I’ve heard it from at least a half-dozen people because it does make an impression.”
When 1st Lt. Towers was ordered to the train the following day he had several concerns. “The first thing we wanted to do was get these people medical care,” Towers stated.
“We were sort of in the middle of a no man’s land. We had to get these people out of there,” he noted. “So it fell in my lap to get transportation to get those people out of there and to remove them back to a previous town that had been liberated the day before at Hillersleben.”
Sadly, 30 of the victims on the train had already died of organ failure or starvation and were buried immediately at Farsleben, according to Towers. Over the course of the next two weeks, nearly another two dozen weakened survivors contracted typhus and died. They were buried in a cemetery in Hillersleben, some five miles away. One of these was Somjen’s father.[note: the number is over 100.]
Little did Towers know, but the interaction he had with transporting the victims of the Holocaust was to be short-lived. Within a few days of arranging their transportation and care by private citizens and for the sick to a nearby German field hospital, he and other segments of the 30th Division were moving out to fight the Germans in what turned out to be their final assault at Magdeburg. Within days the war was over for Towers and the entire 30th Division.
For the survivors they had liberated, most of whom were Hungarian Jews, there were many years of living in displaced persons camps, moving back to their hometowns to attempt to find parents or loved ones and, eventually, emigration to more welcoming countries as Communism gripped the Slavic states.
For Kornblum, who was only five at the end of the war and who was then an orphan, much of the story of his past was brought to life at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, near where he now resides with his wife Annette. Although several previous attendees had come in from European cities or like Falik had lived in Israel for a time, Kornblum is the first resident of the Jewish state to travel expressly [note: others have travelled to the USA to reunions from Israel] to a 30th Division reunion.
“Originally people gave me the impression that I was aboard the train headed for Tobitz. I was very happy to learn that I was in the so-called Magdeburg train liberated near Farsleben,” Kornblum confessed. He remembers some childhood memories such as celebrating Shabbat with his grandfather on Friday evenings in addition to the slaying of his mother at the hands of the Nazis and the death of his father at Bergen-Belsen. “But I have very little recollection,” he admitted.
Bronner, who was 18 at the time of liberation, had far more vivid memories of that day, even though he spoke no English at that time. “The first words in English I ever learned was (sic) ‘One only,’” he said. “That was when I went to the bathroom and I closed the door. Having the privacy to be by myself: that was freedom!”
Rozell first became aware of the impact his website was making in 2006, when he was contacted via email by an elderly [note: a grandmother, but not my idea of elderly] woman in Australia who was only seven at the time of the liberation of the train. She was amazed at the images displayed on the site captured on the day of her liberation by Benjamin and Gross. Thus began countless emails and telephone calls to many excited survivors with Rozell’s website as their focus.
When Rozell contacted the archivist at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, he received more material, such as the manifest list of passengers, which enabled him to do outreach with other survivors, who now were scattered across the globe. Rozell, Tomkiewicz and his wife [note: Rozell, Towers and Varda Wiesskopf] have now contacted approximately 240 survivors, all 18 years or under at the time of their liberation [note: a few were older].
Rozell has held several reunions with his high school class in Hudson Falls and has had Towers and Walsh meet with the survivors of the train, beginning in 2007. He has had oral histories recorded on video and transcribed for insertion on his website. Since 2008 the 30th Division members, led by executive secretary Towers, have invited the Holocaust train survivors to be included in their reunion activities as guests. The veterans and their families have joined with the Holocaust victims and their families to ensure that this small event at the end of World War II will always be remembered.
Crescent City Jewish News
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