November 10, 2014

Veterans Day: Hudson Falls teacher's stories unite veterans with survivors

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
veterans day
Caption: Photo of Matt Rozell by Andrew Watson.

History teacher Matt Rozell knows where he will be on Veterans Day. He'll be in same place he is every year: working with students to help veterans. This year, he and 28 of his Hudson Falls high school students will be out raking leaves and doing yard work at the homes of veterans.

Veterans Day Celebration and Education in Hudson Falls.

Hudson Falls Teachers Association member Matt Rozell and Hudson Falls High School senior Emma Kitchner talk about the history of Veterans Day and keeping history alive through the "power of the narrative story." Producer/Editor: Leslie Duncan Fottrell; Videography and Photo Restoration: Andrew Watson. 

In his world, the one he shares with students, veterans are held in the highest regard.

"These soldiers, and what they've gone through for our country…" he said, trailing off. Rozell, a member of the Hudson Falls Teachers Association, was standing in the school entryway in front of a new display called The Veterans Wall. It is filled with photographs and stories of veterans from World War II through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their mission was protection. Rozell's mission has been to make sure students know what that protection cost and what it preserved. In a metal filing cabinet in Rozell's living history classroom there are 200 written student interviews with World War II veterans. Each folder includes the interview, positions papers, fact checks, photographs, letters and other primary sources.

That's 200 stories now documented; important pieces of history, of personal lives that intersected and collided with the deadliest war in history. These veterans became part of the Allies Forces in a brutal war from 1939 to 1945 - a war involving most nations of the world, the Holocaust, nuclear bombing, and sobering losses. According to the World War II Museum, there were 15 million combat deaths; 25 million wounded; and 45 million civilian deaths.

The front wall of Rozell's classroom is covered with the front pages of actual newspapers chronicling stages of the war as it stormed across the world: "France Joins Britain in War on Germany;" "Roosevelt is Dead; Truman Sworn In;" "Germans Take Oslo: Sweden Gets Warning;" "Reich Scraps Versailles Pact."

But it is on the last wall where the stories uncovered by Rozell and his students are the most personal. Here, there is a map of the world. In certain sections, it is dense with colored pushpins that students insert for tracking survivors.

The pins represent people: Jewish people who were rescued by American soldiers in Germany on a train from Bergen Belsen concentration camp, destined to be killed at the end of the war. The pins also represent the soldiers who saved them and the soldiers' families.

"There were 2,500 Jews inside," said the soft-spoken Rozell, whose blue eyes fill with tears telling the story. Some were already dead; all were emaciated. It was April 13, 1945. They were covered with lice. Some had typhus.

"It was at the point in the war when everything was collapsing under the Third Reich," Rozell said. "Their final order was to murder everyone on the train." German soldiers were to drive the train onto a bridge and blow up the bridge. But first, they ordered the men and boys off the train.

"They were going to machine gun them," Rozell said.

Then the Americans, en route to a nearby battle, crested the hill in their tanks. They stayed 24 hours to guard the train, and then other soldiers came in to help transport the survivors.

In the last 10 years, 275 rescuers and survivors have been reunited through Rozell, the web site he created,http://teachinghistorymatters.com/tag/matthew-rozell/, and veteran Frank Towers, now 97. Towers was a soldier with the 30th Infantry Division who was charged with relocating the train survivors to a safe place for medical care and treatment the day after the rescue.

"His job was to move people out of harm's way. He had trucks. It took all day," Rozell said.

Towers, 97 has now met children of those train survivors, "people who would not exist if Americans hadn't liberated the train," Rozell said.

Rozell's  determination to have his students experience the meaning of the closing days of WWII drew the attention not only of families and survivors, but also of the media. He and his students have been featured on NBC Learn as part of "Lessons of the Holocaust" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koQCU9Rhys0.

In September 2009 ABC World News with Diane Sawyer named them as "Persons of the Week."

Rozell also works with the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

His story of action in the classroom began years ago when he had students first start interviewing veterans and videotaping them. Then they would transcribe them and type them up.  "This was before the internet," he said.

In the mid 90s he began putting the stories online.  Rozell also conducted interviews, and one of them was with the grandfather of one of his students, a WWII veteran. He set up a video camera and the pair talked for two hours. A retired state Supreme Court justice, Carrol Walsh had been in combat in a tank.

"He hated it. Once he was trapped for three days," Rozell said.

As the interview was winding down, Rozell recalls, Judge Walsh's daughter stepped in and said "Did you tell him about the train?"

Walsh was one the soldiers who came across the train full of imprisoned Jewish people as they were driving their tanks. He told Rozell how they found the people on the train and scared off the German soldiers guarding it.

liberation 

Next, Walsh directed Rozell to George Gross, a fellow tank commander who had taken photographs that day from the tank. More recently, Gross had written a narrative about his part in the liberation of the train.

Rozell eventually interviewed him by speakerphone in a class interview.

Rozell posted the transcripts of the interviews with Walsh and Gross - now deceased - on the school web site under a WWII history project.

The site got hits, but it more or less languished for about four years.

Then the trickle started. A grandmother from Australia who had been a little girl on the train contacted Rozell. Then a doctor in London, a scientist in Brooklyn and a retired airline executive in New Jersey found him through his site. They were all survivors from the train.

Rozell decided to host a reunion for them in 2007 at the school, and of course Walsh was invited.

"Judge Walsh - the only soldier there - met them with a laugh, and said 'Long time, no see!'" Rozell recalls.

The Associated Press picked up the story about the reunion, and the school's web site got so many hits it crashed the system. Rozell heard from 60 more people who were on that train.

The AP story is how veteran Frank Towers found out about the story. He contacted Rozell and they worked together. Since then there have been more than ten reunions – three of them in Hudson Falls, one in Israel, and seven organized by Towers. They've been held in North and South Carolina,Tennessee, and Florida with survivor's daughter Varda Weiskopf. They have brought survivors and their descendants together with American soldiers and their descendants. Their homes are now in places such as Great Britain, Canada, Israel, America, and Australia.

In 2011, Rozell and his son were given a gift of attending one of the reunions in Israel. There, he met 65 people who were on the train.

"The survivors chipped in and bought a ticket for me and my son," he said, still awestruck about the event three years later. "I've never been in the Middle East."

NBC News recently heralded Towers' quest to reunite survivors in http://www.nbcnews.com/watch/ann-curry-reports/children-from-death-train-reunited-346382403757.

In the video, a young girl cries, trying to express how much it means to her to meet the man who liberated her grandfather on the train.

Rozell, a graduate of SUNY Geneseo, is in his 29th year of teaching history. He says his journey is about "the power of teaching."

"We can use the power of history to get kids involved, engaged and more empowered themselves," he said.

The Washington County Historical Society has published some of the student stories in the file cabinet, giving both students and veterans, a voice.