School Holocaust project re-unites liberated with liberators

September 27, 2009 by Henry Benjamin
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Sydneysider Lexie Keston came face to face with her past through a Holocaust project set by a schoolteacher in the tiny town of Hudson Falls in New York State.

Credit Major Clarence Benjamin - 743rd Tank Battalion

On the Road to Freedom Photo: Major Clarence Benjamin - 743rd Tank Battalion

In 2001 ,  history teacher Matthew Rozell established an oral history project documenting stories of World War II.  His pupils unearthed the story of the American 30th Infrantry Division’s discovery in April 1945 of an 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.

Hungarian artist Ervin Abadi was on the train and drew this image

Hungarian artist Ervin Abadi was on the train and drew this image

Amongst the children liberated was the then 6½ -yr-old Lexie Keston.

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 the former concentration camp. 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 sufer, 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.

Lexie Keston

Lexie Keston

Keston told J-Wire: “There then followed dozens of e-mails between us. It was a very emotional time.” Keston has never met Matt Rozell although she communicates with him through Skype and e-mail.

She told J-Wire about the train. “We travelled 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.

Click the link to visit Matt Rozell’s Hudson Falls High School World War II Living Project

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