Frank Towers, a U.S. officer who helped liberate 2,500 Jews from a train bound for extermination at the end of World War II, died this month at 99. In later life he contacted some of the people he had helped save, and either met or spoke to more than 200 of them in the past decade.
On April 7, 1945, about a week before the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, 2,500 Jewish prisoners from Hungary, Poland, The Netherlands, Slovakia and Greece were ordered to leave the camp. They were marched 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) to the town of Celle, where they were put on a train, for the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, and watched over by SS guards.
On April 13, after six days of traveling, the train suddenly stopped. The SS guards were ordered to destroy the train and drown the passengers in the Elbe river if they couldn’t reach their destination.
The tanks of Regiment 743 of the 30th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, who had received information about the Jews imprisoned on the train, approached. The prisoners came running out of the train, shouting to the American soldiers, “We’re Jews!”
The division’s liaison officer, Lt. Frank Winchester Towers, who wasn’t Jewish, orchestrated the logistical side of the dramatic rescue. He mobilized ambulances, jeeps and trucks, and made sure the released prisoners were taken to a safe place.
He navigated through side roads, which he knew well, and took them to the nearby town of Hillersleben, where a German air force camp was located. The Americans set up a hospital in the town to treat the liberated Jews, stealing medical equipment from German stores.
“I feel pride and joy to know I had a small part in their release,” Towers said in a 2010 interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. “They rose from the ashes like the phoenix. It warms my heart.”
Towers was born in Boston in 1917, and moved to Vermont in his childhood. He then worked as an insurance surveyor, before being recruited to the local National Guard in 1940. He was transferred to the 30th Infantry Division during the war, where he served as liaison officer.
In 1944, he took part in the invasion of Normandy and later took part in the fighting in Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany. In April 1945, as well as rescuing the prisoners on the Theresienstadt-bound train, he also helped liberate Jewish prisoners from the forced labor camp near Magdeburg.
He was invited to Israel in 2011, where he met 55 of the 700 children who had been on that train in April 1945.
A year later, he told The Gainesville Sun that he had been able to contact 226 of the survivors from the train, and had either talked to them via email, the telephone or met them in person. He spent his later years speaking at Holocaust programs around the United States, sharing his story with students, educators and community groups.
He died on July 4, survived by his wife Mary, three daughters, a son, grandchildren and great grandchildren.