67 years later – Train Survivors meet

January 12, 2012 by Henry Benjamin
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In April 1945, Lexie Keston, Micha Tomkiewicz, Eva Reed and Ana Deleon were little children traveling on a train en route from Bergen-Belsen to Theriesendat when it was abandoned by the Germans and discovered by the advancing U.S. forces. Brooklyn-based Tomkiewicz recently met the Sydney women for the first time.

Micha Tomkiewicz, Lexie Keston, Louise Hainline (Micha's wife) and Ana Deleon

Thanks to a project initiated by a teacher in an upstate New York school in 2001, the story of the abandoned train was discovered. One of Matthew Rozell’s pupils  unearthed the story of the American 30th Infrantry Division’s discovery of the abandoned train near the town of Magdeburg, Germany. Tank commander Carrol Walsh told how the train’s freight wagons had been jammed packed with Jews, many emaciated , ragged and originally destined for death. Walsh, now a Californian-based retired Supreme Court judge, said there had been scores of children in and around the train.
Last week, nine of the surviving liberated prisoners met six of their liberators at a reunion held at the American school.

Amongst the children liberated were children Keston, Deleon, Reed and Tomkiewicz. The Brooklyn professor of physics also traveled to Melbourne to meet train survivor Debra Herzog

There have been several reunions including one last year year in Israel…but for Tomkiewicz the journey to Australia has been a voyage into the past. He told J-Wire: “After the Warsaw uprising our family was transported to Treblinka. My father tried to escape from the train and was killed on the spot. When my mother heard the news she secured papers which put us on the Palestine list through which the Germans held Jewish hostages to exchange for German prisoners of war in Palestine. So my mother and I stayed together in Bergen-Belsen and spent two years there. In April 1945 when the Allied forces were approaching the Germans tried to move us to Theriesenstadt. Three trains left Bergen-Belsen with only one making it to the camp. The second train was intercepted by the Russians. I was on the third train abandoned at Magdeburg. There was a huge typhoid epidemic spread though the camp claiming hundreds of lives including Anne Frank’s. We believe that may have been partially the reason the Germans abandoned the train.”

Keston told J-Wire that a few years ago, two of her friends, guides at Sydney’s Jewish Museum, told her about an upcoming  talk to be given at the Museum by two Germans currently working at Bergen-Belsen. Keston met them and asked them if they had any details of the train and received information a few months later. Keston, a keen Internet surfer, used the information to locate  Rozell’s project’s web site. She said: “I looked at the photos of the train and the Americans and I freaked out…although I did not see myself in any of the shots. But I clearly remember the train, the time, the place…”

For Rozell, too, the experience was mind-boggling. He said that hearing from someone in Australia who had been on the train “hit me like a steamroller. This is history coming alive”.
Keston set about trying to make contact  with the soldiers whose names she had learned from the site. Carrol Walsh and George Gross were not be found on the Internet, but the enterprising survivor would not give up. E-mails to the Bergen-Belsen guides bounced and the only avenue left was the American phone book. She struck gold on her first attempt to find George Gross and quietly told the voice on the other end of the phone “I am one of the people you saved on that train.”
Walsh’s grandson was one of Rozell’s pupils and the reunion marked the first time he has had any contact with the survivors he and Gross rescued from the train.

Liberators Gross and Carroll

In 2002 Matt Rozell established the train web site. Micha continued:  “After five years, Lexie and I got the notification from Bergen-Belsen to check out the site. We got in touch with Matt and the US commanders. Frank Towers of the 30th division became the official historian. I met three survivors in Sydney and I am meeting a survivor from the train in Melbourne.

On Friday, Tomkiewicz met Keston, Reed and Deleo for the first time in Sydney. “We knew about each other through the schoolteacher in Hudson Falls. I became an honorary member of the 30th division of the US army. There are 90 survivors in Israel and we met many at the reunion in Israel last year. The details of the story are less important than the story itself. Lexie was only 6 and I was couple of years younger.”

Keston told J-Wire about the train. “We traveled for seven days. I don’t think the Germans knew what to do with us. As the Allies began to close in, the Germans abandoned the train and fled. I remember picking up a gun and was going to shoot them but an adult grabbed it out of my hand. The Americans had a huge job on their hands as there more than 2000 of us and we had no food or water. They went to the nearby villages for provisions and found accommodation for us. I remember falling asleep for the first time in a warm bed with a doona and having toys to play with. Most of the orphaned children were taken by the Zionists to Palestine, but my mother and father were on the train, too, and we went to Belgium for six years before emigrating to Sydney.”

Lexie Keston was born in Krakow, Poland and spent two years in Bergen-Belsen. Her father had Palestinian papers as a result of which the family was held by the Germans as exchange prisoners.
Keston has two daughters and two grandchildren and is actively involved in the Child Survivor Group. She is recovering from an operation and was unable to attend the reunion.
Rozell told J-Wire that there had been no Jewish pupils in his class.

Micha Tomkiewicz  said that the next project was to establish an education program based on the train story for schools.

The Frank Towers story of the train:

Between 7 and 10 April 1945, there were three train loads of Jewish Prisoners from Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, destined for extermination camps located farther eastward in Germany.

Train #1,  containing about 2,500 Prisoners, was destined for Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, having left Bergen-Belsen on 6 April, and was joined by another train which left Bergen-Belsen on the 7th,  with about 179 more Prisoners. Due to a series of mishaps enroute, this train never was able to reach its intended destination, and ended its journey at Farsleben, Germany on Friday 13 April 1945.

Train #2, containing about 1,700 Prisoners, left Bergen-Belsen on 9 April, and was also destined for Theresienstadt, and arriving at its intended destination on 20 April 1945.

Train #3, with about 2,400 Jewish Prisoners was destined for Theresienstadt Germany, leaving Bergen-Belsen on 10 April but ended it’s trip, and arriving at Trobitz on 23 April 1945.

  The Evacuation of The Exchange Camp

In early April 1945, the SS evacuated the vast majority of prisoners from the exchange camp.  Between 6 and 10 April 1945, around 6,700 prisoners were to be taken on three trains, probably to the Theresienstadt ghetto.  However, only one of these transports actually arrived in Theresienstadt, where the prisoners were liberated on 8 May  by Soviet troops.  The other two trains were liberated on 13 April near Farsleben by American troops, and on 23 April near Trobitz by Soviet troops.

These transports were an additional strain on the already weakend prisoners.  In the train liberated near Trobitz alone, at least 133 prisoners died during the journey.  In total, several hundred prisoners of the exchange camp lost their lives during these evacuation transports and the first weeks after their liberation.

The German staff of Bergen-Belsen were well aware of the rapid approach of the Allied (British) Army, and the  more rapid withdrawal of the German Army towards  Berlin. They did not want the Allied Army to be able to witness the condition of those prisoners, and wanted to send them to other camps for the “Final Solution” – death in the gas chambers and disposal in the crematoria of these camps.

The 30th Infantry Division had just liberated Brunswick, and our next objective was Magdeburg on the western bank of the Elbe River.  Unknown to us at this time, the Elbe River had been designated as the “political boundary” between the Allied and Russian Armies.

In between Brunswick and Magdeburg was the city of Hillersleben, where there was a large German Luftwaffe airbase with many 2 story barracks buildings, private homes for the officers, and a hospital for the Nazi German personnel, who had recently been evicted by the 30th Infantry Division during the capturing of Hillersleben.

At this point, a small task force, led by the 743rd Tank Battalion, with infantrymen of the 119th Regiment was mounted on these tanks. As they were forging ahead towards Magdeburg, they entered the small town of Farsleben, about 10 km west of Magdeburg, with the mission of clearing out all of the German soldiers who may be waiting there for us, and may have set up an ambush.

Upon entering and capturing the village, no German soldiers were found who may have been intent on setting up an ambush when we appeared.  However, the lead elements of the 743rd Recon discovered a long freight train on the railroad track, which was being guarded by several Nazi guards.  The engine was standing ready with a full head of steam and awaiting orders as to where to go. The guards, recognizing the American troops approaching them, immediately threw down their rifles, and along with the train crew, fled the area as soon as they realized that they were well outnumbered, although they were rounded up in a short time.

As the train was sitting idly by, while the train crew was awaiting orders and making a decision as to where to go, many of the occupants of some of the passenger cars had dismounted and were relaxing on the ground near the train.

This train which contained about 2,500 Jews had a few days previously left the Bergen-Belsen death camp.  Men, women and children, were all loaded into a few available railway cars, some passenger and some freight, but mostly the typical antiquated freight cars, termed as “40 and 8” a WWI terminology. This signified that these cars would accommodate 40 men or 8 horses.

They were crowded  into all available space and the freight cars were packed with about 75 – 80 of the Jewish Holocaust victims, with standing room only for most of them, so that they were packed in like sardines.

Frank Towers

Why those people had not been exterminated earlier, we never did learn.  However, the Nazis were attempting to move them out of Bergen-Belsen so that the advancing Allied Army would not see the condition of this mass of frail humanity, if it could be called that.  They had been moved eastward from the Camp, to the Elbe River, where the train commander was informed that it would not be advisable to proceed further because of the rapidly advancing Russian Army.  The train then reversed direction and proceeded to Farsleben, where they were then told that they were heading into the advancing American Army.

Consequently, the train halted at Farsleben and was awaiting further orders as to where to go next. The engineers had then received their orders, to drive the train to, and onto the bridge over the Elbe River, and either blow it up, or just drive it off the end of the damaged bridge, with all of the cars of the train crashing into the river, and killing or drowning all of the occupants.  The engineers were having some second thoughts about this action, as they too would be hurtling themselves to death also.

Another solution for the disposal of these Jewish prisoners, was to blow the train up, right where it was, as one of the cattle car in the train was loaded with high explosives.  This is the point at which they were discovered, just shortly after the leading elements of the 743rd Tank Battalion arrived on the scene.

It was determined that this train was enroute to Theresienstadt, to be a part of the “Final Solution”.

What was the “Final Solution”?  Extermination in the gas chambers or other methods, to eliminate all of the Jews!!

Little did they know this, at the time of their liberation.

Some of these prisoners had dismounted from the passenger cars and were milling about near the train and relaxing, as best they could, under the watchful eyes of their Nazi guards.  Those in the freight cars were still locked in the cars when discovered.

The men of the 743rd Tank Battalion and the 119th Regiment, who discovered this train, could not believe what they were seeing nor what they had upon their hands at this moment.  Upon speaking to some of those victims, a few of whom could speak a little English, they began to learn what they had uncovered.

The train at Magdeburg - Pic: Major Clarence Benjamin - 743rd Tank Battalion

They immediately unlocked all of the freight cars and allowed these pathetic victims to be released and dismount from the cars and enjoy their first taste of Freedom.  Many were hesitant at first because they had been advised by their Nazi guards that, “if and when they ever became prisoners of the Americans, they would be executed immediately.”  Little did they know what to expect at the hands of these savage Americans??

Being packed in these antiquated freight cars for 6 days, with only a once a day dispensing of rations, consisting of a thin and cold potato soup and perhaps a slice of moldy bread, it was surprising that more of them were not dead. About 30 were actually dead at this point, and they were immediately buried in the Farsleben Cemetery, where they are still buried today.  Many died later on and are buried at the Hillersleben Cemetery, where they are still buried and memorialized.

They were packed in there so tightly that they did not have room to sit or lay down, so they just had to stand upright until they collapsed and crumpled to the floor because of exhaustion.  They had no sanitary facilities except a single bucket in one corner of the car, which most could not even reach as the sudden necessity arose.  The consequence was that most, in having to relieve themselves, just urinated and had bowel movements, and just let it run down their legs! Such a stench!!

Such humiliation for these people to have to endure!  Animals were treated better than this!!

Needless to say, the stench from the cars was almost unbearable, and many of our men had to rush away and vomit.

We had heard of the cruel treatment which the Nazis had been handing out to Jews and political opponents of the Nazi regime, whom they had enslaved, but we thought that it was propaganda and slightly exaggerated. As we encountered this situation, it became more apparent that this barbaric savagery was actually true.  The stories of German inhumanity were being corroborated before our own eyes. The condition of these people had deteriorated to the lowest level imaginable. Lower even than animals!

During this European war, I was a 1st Lieutenant and was a Liaison Officer between the 30th Infantry Division Hq. and the 120th Regimental Hq  During this time I was closely associated with a 1st Lt. Floyd Mitchell, (now deceased), who was the Liaison Officer from the 743rd Tank Battalion.  We became very close friends during the war, exchanging many stories and assisting in our duties along the way.  It was through Floyd that I had the experience of visiting the site of this tragic scene at Farsleben.

After the initial discovery and capture of Farsleben, the 743rd Tank Battalion had to move on towards Magdeburg and assist in the reduction of this city as quickly as possible.  At this point, the custody of guarding this very sad group of humanity fell to the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion.

The 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Stanley Dettmer, immediately contacted the Burgomaster of Farsleben, and without any hesitation, ordered the Burgomaster to order his citizens to gather up all of the food, clothing, soap and other sanitary supplies, to help the situation that these victims found themselves in.  Secondly, they were ordered to offer them any housing facilities that were available, particularly for the elderly and those families with small children

Two of the town’s bakeries were ordered to operate on a 24 hour basis, until enough bread had been produced to feed all of these victims.  Local farmers were ordered to kill enough cows, sheep and chickens, to produce enough meat to feed all of these victims..

First of importance was getting food, water and medical assistance to these victims.  Our 105th Medical Battalion was called upon to survey this group and give immediate attention to those most in need.

The German people caused these victims to be in the situation in which they were found, so therefore it was felt that it was their responsibility to rectify what they had done to them over the past five years.

At first they rebelled at these orders, but upon the threat of execution of the Burgomaster, and with a pistol held to his head, the citizens of Farsleben complied and went about the task which they had been ordered to do.

At this time the Burgomaster began to cooperate, and told his citizens to take some of these Jews into their homes and give them some comfort, which they did, very grudgingly. This was the first taste of “Home” for many of them after some months or years of inhuman incarceration.

Since  my duties as a Liaison Officer were at a minimum at this point, I was placed in charge of procuring sufficient vehicles on which these 2,500 Jewish victims could be loaded, and to relocate them to Hillersleben, about 10 km distant.

It must be noted here that in most cases, it was not possible to drive directly from “point A to point B” which may in fact be only 5 – 10 km.  With bridges on all main roads either bombed or deliberately blown up by the retreating German army, it required navigating over many secondary and unimproved farm roads to find a suitable route to get from “point A to point B”, which in some cases was 25 – 30 km.

Having driven over these roads for the previous few days, I was relatively familiar with these deviations, and was thus chosen for this job.

After loading up these Jewish victims on our trucks, I organized and led this convoy of about 50 vehicles,  and navigating the convoy over a devious route, we arrived at the designated site in Hillersleben, where their custody was turned over to the American Military Government and the American Red Cross,  for further processing.

Initially, they were deloused!  Their bodies and clothing were totally infested with lice, so they were heavily dusted with DDT, stripped of their clothing, which was burned, given a shower, then re-supplied with adequate clothing, which had been furnished by the people of Hillersleben.

Settled in to their new surroundings, here they were given appropriate medical care according to their needs, which was then administered by the 95th Medical Battalion, who had taken over the operation of the hospital, and fed with adequate but rationed food, they were eventually processed for repatriation to their homelands.

In the next few weeks, about 145 of these victims died because of lack of medical attention in the many previous months and due to malnutrition over a long period of time, and did not have time to recover.  These victims were buried in a cemetery near the hospital there in Hillersleben.

However, most of these Jews were from Hungary, Poland, Russia, Greece and other Eastern block countries, and with the total destruction of their homes, loss of families and the serious prospects of coming under the jurisdiction of the Russians, most were fearful about their future.  Most chose the option of remaining in Germany, or the possibility of being repatriated to some other Western European countries. Eventually, many were finally repatriated to Israel and South American countries, for which many had passports to Brazil, Chile, England, Canada, and to the United States of America.

At this point, I reverted back to my original duties through the next month, which was to involve the capture of Magdeburg, Germany, and the end of the war.  After leaving Farsleben, our headquarters moved on to Barleben, a small town just north of Magdeburg, and this is where we made plans for the final assault on Magdeburg, the last city to be captured by the Allies of the U.S. 9th Army and the end of the fighting for the 30th Infantry Division.

This was a very bitter battle.  However, at this point, the highest ranking General of the German Army, Gen Kurt Dittmar, surrendered to us, rather than being captured by the Russian Army, which was rapidly approaching on the east bank of the Elbe River.

We had requested the surrender of the City of Magdeburg on 15 April, and this was refused by General Raegner, who was the Commanding Officer of all of the troops in the City.  Upon his refusal, we called for a final and devastating air strike on the City, and after several hours of bombing, the City surrendered, and thus the fighting was over for the 30th Infantry Division.

Thus ended the war in Europe for the 30th Infantry Division, and then we went about our duties of Occupational Troops, re-establishing the local government, and keeping control of the population, so as to prevent any riots or disturbances, and to get the towns and cities in the area, functional again, as nearly as possible to what it was in pre-war days.

After 2 months of Occupation duty, we were soon alerted to be shipped to the Pacific Theater, to help in finalizing that phase of the war, and bringing the end of WWII to a close.  Fortunately, while we were enroute to the States, the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, thereby ending the war in the Pacific.

Then it was “Home to take up where we had left off 4 – 5 years earlier”.

In the next 66+ years, not much thought was given to these victims of the Holocaust, as we thought that they were now in good hands, and would be starting out on a new life somewhere in the future.

From then on, we had little time to worry about these Jewish victims of the Holocaust. We were busy finding jobs, raising our families, and continuing our lives where we had let off in 1940 or earlier.

We must remember here that we were dealing mostly with parents with small children, infants up though 21 years of age.  Today, all of these parents are gone, and we are now in connection with the ‘children” who were truly “Holocaust Survivors”.

At this point in our research, we have been able to locate 216 of these ‘children’, scattered all over the world.  Today, many of them have been brought together, so as to meet each other for the very first time since their liberation, 66 years ago.  This has been very emotional!!

In the intervening years, many of these survivors have withheld telling their stories of hardship, their lives and incarceration in the various camps to which they were sent, and they have chosen to be “silent” about this period in their lives.

The moral of this story is to “not withhold your stories, and let your children and families be aware of what you as a Jew, were subjected to, went through during this early period of your life. Before the Liberation in 1945.  All just because “You were a Jew”!!

Never forget your individual stories.  They are unique. Once you are gone, so is this History, the stories of your life in the past.

Fast Forward 62 years:

Through a quirk of fate, I received an e-mail message from a friend, indicating that I should look at the attached Website.  Out of curiosity, I opened the Website, and I was astonished at what I was about to see!  ( http://hfcsd.org/ww2/ )

This Website was entitled: “The World War !! Living History Project” with a subtitled article: “A Train Near Magdeburg”!  Sounded familiar.

It seems that a teacher, Matt Rozell, in Hudson Falls High School, near Albany, NY, had organized a project on the Holocaust, and this segment was a part of the project.   The story that was told by two former members of the 743rd Tank Battalion, just dovetailed into my recollections of this account.

Also, attached to this Website were several e-mail messages from survivors of this tragic event, but one in particular caught m y eye – it was a message from a daughter of a survivor. This one really intrigued me because this girl’s mother, Jean, (nee: Gusia Weinstock), who was a 15 year old girl, along with her parents, had been survivors of this “Death Train from Bergen-Belsen”.  She and her parents were among those that I had convoyed to Hillersleben!!  They soon relocated to Liege, then to Brussels in Belgium, for a few years.  Then they emigrated to the U.S.A., settling in Brooklyn, NY

In about 1950, Jean married Sol Lazinger 6 months after they met, who was a 30th Division veteran!!  This is what intrigued me.

I contacted Lisette, the daughter, by e-mail, and then soon we were on the phone, she telling me briefly about the odyssey of her parents.  Next, I called her parents, Jean & Sol Lazinger, and we had a very nice and informative conversation with each of us giving our versions of the “Death Train” episode in April 1945.

Sol had been in the U.S. Army and was assigned to the 30thInfantry Division as a replacement in August 1944.  He was seriously injured near Essen, Germany in October 1944 during the Rhineland Campaign.  He never returned to the 30th and was sent back to the U.S.A. and discharged, and was never aware of our 30th Infantry Division Veterans organization until this time.

Now at this point, Matt Rozell has been in contact with several Holocaust survivors, and has interviewed each one, and getting some real in depth stories from them.  He had organized a Reunion of these Holocaust survivors and their liberators that he had been able to contact, this past September, and perhaps another will be scheduled some time in the near future..

It seems quite ironic, that after 60+ years that I should come in contact with this Holocaust survivor, that I had assisted in giving a new start in life in 1945.

Plus, another Holocaust survivor from Magdeburg, Germany, Ernest Kan, who had been incarcerated as a Slave Laborer in the Polte Ammunition Factory, at Magdeburg.

How many more of these survivors are there out there who were liberated by the 30th Infantry Division and attached units??? Perhaps we will never know.

 

 

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