The Holocaust Train That Led Jews to Freedom Instead of Death

After stumbling upon an amazing photograph at WWII veteran's home, a history teacher from a small New York town embarks on a search to discover the extraordinary rescue story behind it.

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A day after the liberation of the train at Farsleben.
A day after the liberation of the train at Farsleben. Credit: Courtesy of Flora Carasso Mihael
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In 2001, Matt Rozell, a high-school history teacher in the upstate New York town of Hudson Falls, had concluded another successful interview for his project of documenting World War II veterans. He’d spent two riveting hours with 80-year-old Carrol Walsh, a retired judge and the grandfather of one of his students. In the war, Walsh was a tank commander with the U.S. Army. As Rozell was packing up his equipment and getting ready to leave, Walsh’s daughter, Elizabeth, came into the living room and asked her father whether he’d told Rozell about the train.

“It’s a pretty interesting story,” she added.

“Ah, right, the train,” Walsh said.

Rozell didn’t know it, but he was about to embark on an international historical adventure in the wake of an extraordinary story of rescue and survival. In its course, he was to discover one of the war’s most powerful and jolting photographs, which for decades had lain, forgotten, in a shoebox in a San Diego, California, home.

Last month, Rozell’s book, “A Train Near Magdeburg,” subtitled, “A Teacher’s Journey into the Holocaust and the Reuniting of the Survivors and Liberators, 70 Years On,” was published, by Woodchuck Hollow Press. The book documents the story behind the powerful photograph that came into his possession.

In the center of the image is a woman holding the hand of a little girl, possibly a mother and her daughter. The woman is wearing a kerchief. The expression on her face is an amalgam of fright, sadness, surprise and joy. Both the woman and the girl are well dressed – not as we might expect of people who had just been liberated from a death train that had set out from a concentration camp.

Behind the woman and the girl is a group of women, two of them thinner and less well-to-do. In the background, at the foot of a hill, two train cars can be seen. We can make out a person still sitting in one of the cars, perhaps someone who found it difficult to walk, trying to muster strength for the trek to freedom.

“No written words can describe so vividly the events of that day as this picture does,” Rozell told me, via an email interview. The historical events relating to the picture came to light due to several memoirs written by survivors who witnessed them, but Rozell was the first person, other than a few elderly American war veterans, who saw the photograph itself. In recent years, thanks to his efforts, it has become one of the best-known and most talked-about images of the Holocaust.

Matt Rozell.Credit: Courtesy

The story behind the photograph dates to early April 1945, just a few days before the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. The Nazis were in a hurry to get rid of the inmates. Three train transports left the camp between April 6 and April 11, each consisting of about 2,500 prisoners. Their destination was the Theresienstadt concentration camp, in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. Ultimately only one train reached the camp, after a few dozen of its passengers were killed in an aerial bombing by Allied forces. A second, later known as the “lost train,” traveled for two weeks back and forth between the lines of combatants, was caught in Russian-German crossfire, and finally came to a halt near the town of Troebitz, in eastern Germany, where the prisoners were liberated by the Red Army.

‘I am a Jew, too’

'The joy that seized us at the sight of the American tank is indescribable. Suddenly, from, nonhuman slaves, we were transformed into free people.'

It’s the fate of the third train – actually the first of the three to leave Bergen-Belsen – the one in the photo, that is of interest to us here. Its passengers exited the camp’s gates on April 7, trudged 10 kilometers to the town of Celle, where they boarded the train. Among them were Jews from Hungary, Holland, Poland, Greece and Slovakia. Many of them were “privileged” prisoners who had previously been in the “special camp” at Bergen-Belsen: They had been selected by the Germans for future prisoner exchanges with the Allies.

Aliza Vitis-Shomron, who lives today on Kibbutz Givat Oz in northern Israel, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen, was one of the 2,500 people on the train.

“The train moved little; it remained standing a great deal,” Vitis-Shomron wrote in her memoir, “Youth in Flames” (English translation: Hana Raz). “The front line was everywhere and chaos all around us. German families fled with their belongings in all directions in carts and on foot Experts in solving riddles and interpreting rumors said that the Germans wanted to use us as hostages.” She describes a scene that would not be out of place in a surreal movie: “One day the officer commanding the military escort called our representatives. He was well-mannered and received them politely.” He then removed his military cap, “turned to the Jews in fear” and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the end of the war is near. What shall we do?”

According to one version, the S.S. personnel escorting the transport had been ordered to destroy the train and drown the prisoners in the adjacent Elbe River if they came under Allied fire. However, Israeli writer Uri Orlev, another passenger on the train, wrote in his book “The Sandgame” that the German commander stated to the prisoners from the beginning that he did not intend to drown the inmates. He said that once the train reached the front lines, he would flee with his troops.

In any event, after a six-day journey, the train stopped suddenly near the German village of Farsleben, which is located in a valley between two mountains and a river, 17 kilometers from the city of Magdeburg and seven kilometers from the Elbe. Exchanges of artillery fire between the Allied forces and the Germans echoed in the distance.

According to Vitis-Shomron, the Germans fled at night with the aid of the train’s locomotive, but returned before dawn. “They didn’t want to let the birds in their hands escape, even though the Allies had already encircled them on all sides,” she wrote. Orlev remembered that the Germans left behind two rather elderly soldiers to guard the Jews, and they were pummeled by the young people among the prisoners.

On April 13, American soldiers approached the train. “There must have been guards, but they evidently ran away before or as we arrived, for I remember no firefight,” recalls Sgt. George Gross, one of the liberators in the tank battalion, in the new book by Rozell. “Our taking of the train, therefore, was no great heroic action but a small police operation. The heroism that day was all with the prisoners on the train,” he recalls in the new book by Rozell.

Orlev, in “The Sandgame,” recalls that American troops in camouflage suddenly emerged from the forest and ran toward the prisoners with rifles ready to fire. When everyone started to cheer, one of the soldiers said they should temper their happiness, because President Roosevelt had just died (on April 12). Afterward, a U.S. Army vehicle distributed bread such as the prisoners had never before seen – a veritable American wonder.

According to Vitis-Shomron, “People burst out of the carriages. Suddenly someone shouted: ‘The Americans are coming!’ To our great surprise, a tank came slowly down the hill opposite, followed by another one. I ran toward the tank, laughing hysterically. It stopped. I embraced the wheels, kissed the iron plates We had won the war.”

Another woman on the train, Hilde Huppert, then in her mid-30s, recalled in her book “Hand in Hand with Tommy” (English translation: Yael Chaver and Reuven Morgan), that a jeep approached, “manned by four G.I.s with steel helmets coated in dust. They pulled up and approached us warily: a motley crowd of women and children together with a couple of men here and there, all clad in rags and tatters. We must have been a pitiful sight. ‘Who are you?’ they demanded. ‘Hello friends!’ we shouted back in a chorus [in English]. ‘We love you! We are Jews!’ They slipped off their helmets and mopped their brows. One of them pointed to the Star of David he wore on a chain around his neck. ‘So am I.’”

'We must have looked terrifying, like nightmare figures, monsters from science fiction, apparitions arisen from the grave.'

Dr. Mordechai Weisskopf, a retired physician who lives in Rehovot, was a boy of 14 on the train. “The train stopped, the Germans fled and we were there without a guard, in the midst of the front, with artillery fire in the background,” he told me. “The joy that seized us at the sight of the American tank is indescribable. Suddenly, from, nonhuman slaves, we were transformed into free people. It was very thrilling, unforgettable. We saw American soldiers, and one of them shouted in Yiddish, his eyes flowing with tears, ‘I am a Jew, too.’ There was an outburst of joy that is hard to describe.”

The American soldiers who liberated the train were from the 743rd Tank Battalion of the 30th Infantry Division of the Ninth Army. According to Fred Spiegel, one of the survivors, who was then 13, the soldiers weren’t sure who the passenger-inmates were. “We must have looked terrifying, like nightmare figures, monsters from science fiction, apparitions arisen from the grave,” he is quoted as saying in Rozell’s book.

Life’s mission

One of the first U.S. soldiers to see the Jewish prisoners on the train was Capt. Carrol Walsh, the veteran who later put history teacher Rozell onto the story. Walsh also told Rozell how to get in touch with George Gross, who went on to teach English literature at the University of San Diego. From Gross he received several rare photographs documenting the moments of liberation. One of them was the now-iconic image of the woman and child.

As it turned out, that photo was taken by another soldier, Maj. Clarence Benjamin, who was on his way to conquer the city of Magdeburg. Encountering the train, he considered it his moral and humane duty to rescue the prisoners from the Nazis. As such, he captured on film the first instant of the liberation. When Rozell first perused the photographs, he realized he had come upon a treasure of incalculable worth. “A historic miracle,” he said about the fact that the soldiers had reached the site equipped with cameras.

Initially Rozell posted the images on the high school’s website. “We didn’t have much traffic,” he recalls. No one imagined that within a short time the photographs would be sought after by the world’s major Holocaust archives: In the wake of a cooperative effort between Rozell and the Holocaust memorial site at Bergen-Belsen, the history teacher was flooded with emails from people in different countries who had identified themselves in the photographs. Grasping that he had come upon a huge story, Rozell decided to research it in depth.

“I feel that I was chosen, as a non-Jew, to document the experiences of the survivors and of the rescuing American soldiers,” he told me. For the next 15 years, and indeed to this moment, he has been collecting and recording testimonies from survivors and rescuers from around the world who are connected to the train’s liberation.

Along with the dramatic images, he has obtained moving documents, such as a letter sent by a G.I. named Frank Gartner, written on April 15, 1945, two days after the train’s liberation, to the husband (already living in the Land of Israel) of a woman named Hilde Huppert. “I am one of the millions of soldiers of the United States Army, who is fighting for all the oppressed peoples of the world,” he begins. “Two days ago, it was the privilege of our unit, to be able to liberate a trainload full of people of all nations imaginable That is how I became acquainted with your wife, Mrs. Hilde Huppert, who asked me to drop you this note, saying, that both she and your son Tommy, are both healthy and well.” (The letter was found by Varda Weisskopf, the daughter of the train survivor, in the possession of the Huppert family, which hopes to be able to locate the Gartner family in the wake of Rozell’s book.)

Rozell gradually understood that it was his life’s mission to reunite the American soldiers who took part in the rescue operation with the train’s survivors. In a series of meetings he arranged in the United States, close ties were forged between liberators and survivors. Afterward, Walsh wrote to one of the survivors who had contacted him, “You are always expressing gratitude to me and [my unit]. But I do not believe gratitude is deserved, because we were doing what we, and the whole world, should have been doing – rescuing and protecting innocent people from being killed, murdered by vicious criminals.”

From the ashes

Another high point in this story occurred in 2011, when 55 survivors of the train from Israel and other countries met in Rehovot. The guest of honor at the event, which was organized by Varda Weisskopf, was Maj. Frank Towers, who also took part in the liberation. He organized the transfer of the 2,500 released prisoners to a nearby town, Hillersleben, where they received medical treatment from Allied troops.

'If you search for ‘Holocaust’ and ‘train’ on the web, you get photographs of people being led to their death. This amazing picture shows the exact opposite.'

“With intelligence, infinite devotion and courage, risking infection, the soldiers of the medical battalion prevented a major disaster and saved the lives of more than 2,300 Jews, among them 700 children and adolescents,” Varda Weisskopf notes. Those who died succumbed to the crowded conditions on the train or to disease, exhaustion and perhaps just broken hearts in the hospital in the German town.

Speaking at the 2011 event, Towers said he was very proud to have been able to play a small part in paving the way to freedom and happiness for the victims. Towers died last July, aged 99.

A letter from Walsh was also read out at the meeting. He noted that he was ashamed that the survivors had thanked and praised him for saving their lives. They did not owe him anything, he told them, because it was his duty to do what he did. On the contrary, he added, the survivors were owed a great debt for their suffering: all of them innocent, accused unjustly. You were guilty of only one thing, he declared: of being Jews.

Thanks to Rozell, the photograph that captured the moment of the liberation has acquired worldwide resonance. “It’s been called ‘one of the most powerful photographs of the 20th century,’ it’s been shown in museums and memorial sites around the world, in exhibitions, films and articles. Students download it from the internet and filmmakers ask to use it in documentaries,” Rozell says.

The climax of the story came last year, when the photograph was displayed at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the war’s conclusion.

“If you search for ‘Holocaust’ and ‘train’ on the web, you get photographs of people being led to their death. This amazing picture shows the exact opposite,” Rozell observes.

Only one riddle remains: the identity of the two women at the center of the photo. Rozell told me that this summer he received a phone call from someone in the Orthodox community of New York, who thinks the woman in the foreground is his grandmother and that the little girl is his mother or his aunt. But, said Rozell, “another woman who’s quoted in the book maintains that the older woman is her aunt.”

The bottom line? “No one has yet produced convincing proof.”

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