When aging World War II veterans come to Matt Rozell’s high school history class to speak to students, the men often cry.
“It’s catharsis for the adults, and for the kids it’s a realization that 60 years ago — if it hadn’t been for this generation— we wouldn’t be here,” said Rozell, a member of the Hudson Falls Teacher Association in Washington County.
For students, history crawls out from behind the cobwebs with these veterans. In sometimes-shaky voices, they say: “‘This is what happened to me when I was 19 years old,’’’ Rozell said. “They tell dramatic stories of sacrifice.”
Rozell has made those stories available to others throughout his 25 years of teaching. First, students wrote up the narratives from interviews and then from video recorders. Local newspapers wrote about the oral history project and the veterans. And then — once it arrived — the Internet was used to post the veterans’ stories.
And that’s when the world started noticing, and veterans and Holocaust survivors started showing up in tiny Hudson Falls with the dust of Germany still in their hearts.
Hudson Falls war veteran Carroll Walsh, who went on to become a New York Supreme Court justice, spoke to Rozell’s class about his duties as a tank commander blasting through Holland, France and Germany during a bitter winter. Walsh and his band of brothers secured towns took prisoners and fought battles. When Rozell videotaped him at his home, Walsh unearthed an amazing story about a train they found that spring, halted in a ravine.
Walsh and comrade, George Gross, who went on to become a college professor in California, were sent to investigate the train. Some German soldiers took off running when the tanks arrived. It was Friday the 13th, 1945.
A few dozen people began coming out of the trains.
“They smelled like vomit, diarrhea and were covered with lice. They were disheveled,” said Rozell, basing the account on his interviews.
The train had been stopped on tracks blown up earlier by American forces, Rozell said. Inside were 2,500 Jewish people, who had been taken from Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp as the British arrived to liberate the death camps. Germans had ordered that the train be driven over a river and blown up, Rozell said.
Once they saw the Americans, people spilled from the train. Gross had a Brownie camera and began taking their photos. Walsh and Gross spent the night with the Jewish people, guarding them. From there, other American soldiers took them to a nearby town where they were housed in an abandoned German barracks and tended to by doctors.
(Historic photo taken by Major Clarence Benjamin, 743rd Tank Battalion, April 13, 1945)
When Walsh told Rozell the story, he mentioned the photographs that Gross had taken. Rozell called Gross, and the veteran (who is now deceased) sent them. They were posted on the website http://teachinghistorymatters.wordpress.com/.
People began noticing. And soon, connections were being made among the people who were on that train – many of them children at the time —and the soldiers who rescued them. People from different countries reached out in thanks and gratitude.
“Two hundred thirty people on the train that are still alive have found us and them (the veterans),” Rozell said.
Hudson Falls has since hosted three reunions, with the most attention coming at the 2009 reunion. Not only did veterans and Holocaust survivors from that train show up but so did news anchor Diane Sawyer. Her crew filmed the story for ABC News, and named Rozell “Person of the Week” for his efforts. Representatives from the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. came to the reunion, as did officials from the Bergen-Belsen Museum in Germany.
Last month, (October 2012) Rozell was awarded the National Society of the Daughters of American Revolution Mary S. Lockwood Medal for Education. Previous honorees include Pulitzer Prize historian David McCullough and singer/philanthropist Dolly Parton. The award honors individuals who have showing outstanding achievement in promoting education outside the formal education process.
In 2008, Rozell was awarded a Museum Teacher Fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His work is being modeled in educational programs across the nation.
“I tell these kids they’re witnesses. Now we have obligations to make sure the sacrifices of the soldiers and the suffering of the soldiers and Holocaust victims are not forgotten,” said Rozell, who noted that many of his students have gone on to college and careers in history education. The stories they have heard travel with them.
“We've spoken at length with a pilot forced to bail out at 28,000 feet of his flaming B-17 bomber, only to watch crew members die in the subsequent explosion and then be taken prisoner himself. We have had conversations with POWs who survived forced marches in brutal weather, and with Jewish infantrymen who were among the first to liberate the death camp at Dachau. We have met men who were handcuffed to Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg and who were assigned to suicide watch guard shifts there after fighting their way across Germany. We listened to what it was like to sail eerily into Pearl Harbor 36 hours after the Japanese attack and see no lights except the USS Arizona still blazing with the bodies of hundreds of Americans entombed in it. We are there with the torpedo bomber pilot as he takes off from the flight deck of the carrier USS Yorktown during the epic battle of Midway, and is forced to land on the deck of another carrier as the Yorktown burns and later slides to the bottom of the sea. A blind Marine described what it was like to lose his eyesight, speaking nearly 60 years after being struck by mortar fragments, not once, but twice in the same day at Okinawa. And he told us that ‘the hardest part was telling my mother,’” Rozell recalled.
“Sixty-plus years ago these men and women saved the world. I think about this: By the time my teaching career ends in 10 or 15 years, almost all of these veterans will be gone. Some of them, I have already lost,” said Rozell.
On his website, Teaching History Matters, he shares that he writes observations on the power of teaching, how crucial it is to teach history and the importance of the lessons we must learn from the Holocaust.
-- Liza Frenette
(Matt Rozell is a member of Hudson Falls TA)