Wandering through the books on Amazon.com, I came across a history series whose titles began “The Things Our Fathers Saw,” written by Matthew Rozell, a high school history teacher, now retired.
Each book in the series relates interviews with WWII veterans from across the different parts of the military. The first book concerns the war in the Pacific, the next two are about the Air War, the fourth is about the WWII generation, and the fifth addresses WWII in the European theater from D-Day up to the Battle of the Bulge.
For those of you who have read my historical fiction book, Teddy’s War, or have read the first two chapters of it on my website, the story is centered around the experiences of a young man going through three years in the European Theater during World War Two, with a healthy context of his life before and after. I begin and end the book with a question of my own: why didn’t my dad talk about what he did in World War II and why didn’t I ask him? He never said a thing. He had some souvenirs, pictures, European coins and currency, and some other stuff, but he never told me or my brothers what he did, where he went, who his buddies were, or described any of his memories during the war.
I’ve only discovered pieces in the last couple of decades: he trained in England for a year, landed on Omaha Beach, and was at Bastogne when the Bulge started. He served under both Bradley and Patton.
I believe that if he would have said anything, he would have had a lot to tell.
My dad’s silence is pretty much standard for parents of other post-war children like me. Of my friends I’ve asked, none of their parents talked about what they did during the war, whether they were in combat or not, where they were, what they saw, or what kind of experiences they had. I wish I had a couple of hours, or days, to talk with my dad about the war; there are things I passionately want to know.
The book by Matthew Rozell filled in a lot of what might have come out of that conversation. He was a history teacher in Glens Falls, New York when on the occasion of the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he asked his students to interview family members about their involvement in the war. The students were so interested and enthusiastic about what they found that, on the 50th Anniversary of the end of the war, he expanded the assignment to include people in the community. His students became collectors of stories, and, thirty years later, now internationally known for working with veterans and survivors of the Holocaust, Rozell is currently working on book number six of a ten-book series about what veterans would say if someone asked them to describe what they saw.
In the book that starts with D-Day, he interviews a master mechanic, a paratrooper, a glider pilot, a cryptographer, a combat engineer, a demolition engineer, a tank driver who unloaded his tank on Omaha Beach on D-Day, a Military Policeman, an artillery sergeant, a Navy Signalman, and others. The interviews cover the veteran’s pre-war story, then follows each one through the end of the war and sometimes beyond. He transcribes the actual words of those interviews, surrounds the interview with context, and makes each a compelling story.
The stories present incident-by-incident actions – detailed, gritty, violent, confusing – of what the war was like on a daily basis for the veterans and how those days stretched into years of fighting the German Army in Europe. He also captures how they felt at the time and how it still affects them. It’s the stuff of good men doing hero work, though they typically don’t like being called heroes.
It’s usually heart-wrenching but the authenticity of the experience is unquestioned.
I wish that Matthew Rozell had interviewed an SC-584 Signal Aircraft Warning radar operator, which is what my dad was, but he didn’t. It leaves me still wishing for my own conversation with my dad, but the book gives me some collective information to reconstruct part of what I might hear.
I’d give a set of Rozell’s books to every high school history class in America if I could. How can we expect the coming generations to “never forget” if they don’t know what we’re talking about in the first place?
Matthew Rozell’s website is teachinghistorymatters.com.
Most of us know the story of the Bataan Death March. On April 9, 1942, after three months of holding off the Japanese invasion of the island of Luzan (the island where Manila is located), U. S. General Edward King Jr. surrendered the approximately 75,000 American and Filipino troops on the Bataan Peninsula. The Japanese rounded up their prisoners and promptly marched them to a POW camp at San Fernando, 65 miles up the island.
The exact figures are not known, but thousands of prisoners died because of the brutality of their captors. They were starved, beaten, or bayoneted to death.
I read recently of similar marches made by Allied POWs in Europe, in the winter and spring of 1945, but they were more extensive and involved many more miles. Collectively, these forced marches are referred to as the March, the Black Death March, the Death March, the Bread March, or other names. Most survivors just call it “The March”.
There were 257,000 Allied prisoners held in German military prison-of-war camps throughout Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and other occupied lands. Between January and April, 1945, over 80,000 of these POWs were forced to march from camps in Eastern Europe to camps in the west.
The POWs traveled in groups of 250 to 300 men and not all groups followed the same route. They marched maybe 15 to 25 miles a day – resting at night in factories, churches, barns, or even in the open. Soon, long columns of POWs were wandering over the northern part of Germany with little or nothing in the way of food, clothing, shelter, or medical care. It seems that three major routes were followed, but the longer they marched, the more confusing the situation became. Getting to a destination seemed less important than to just keep marching.
In addition, January and February were among the coldest winter months on record, with blizzards and temperatures as low as minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit. Even the month of March had temperatures consistently below freezing. Most of the POWs lacked the basics of cold weather clothing, and given their poor rations and already poor health, the situation was appalling. The men resorted to stealing food along the way, sometimes eating dogs, cats, rats, or vegetation. There were no bathroom facilities, no water except for snow, streams, ponds, and rivers crossed along the way, if they were allowed close to them, and it was rare that any shelters provided protection against the weather.
After being liberated, one survivor said that his four-month journey zig-zagged across Germany, and even circled back to where they had been, covering an estimated 990 miles! More typical were travels of 500-600 miles.
Because of the unsanitary conditions, near starvation diet, and the exposure to the weather, hundreds of POWs died of diseases like dysentery and typhus, exposure like frostbite, gangrene, and literally freezing to death, plus exhaustion and malnutrition, not to mention that stragglers and poor performers were typically taken into the woods and shot.
I can’t figure this out. I’ve read common explanations: that Hitler was moving them to concentration camps to be killed in retaliation for the intense bombing by the Allies, but the fronts kept shifting, changing their destinations; that Hitler wanted to keep the POWs away from the invading Soviets but he didn’t really know what to do with them; that he was keeping them on the move so the POW camps would not look overcrowded when liberated; that the Nazis were planning on negotiating a peace deal using the POWs as bargaining chips, so it was better if they looked like hostages rather than prisoners; or that the Nazis were hoping most of the men would die from exhaustion, malnutrition, or exposure while on the marches so that their deaths could be counted as a natural deaths, as opposed to having been executed - it would make a difference if someone was accused of war crimes.
The more I’ve read the less I can make sense of it all.
I want to make an observation, though.
During this time, there were also attempts to empty the concentration camps on the Eastern Front and move the populations to other camps. Auschwitz, in Poland, had been discovered and liberated by the Russian Army on January 27th, 1945, so the news was getting out about the conditions in the German concentration camps. As the shock and horror was growing, Hitler ordered the evacuation of some of the concentration camps, putting the inmates in railway cars, trucks, or moving by foot. A vast number were murdered along the way (there were several instances where inmates were locked in train cars and left to die on sidings along the way), probably by design.
Secondly, during this time, there were also constant movements by the German Army, typically by train and truck convoy, but increasingly by foot because of the congestion of the railway system and the shrinking geography. Thirdly, because of the expansion of the Soviet front into Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, a huge number of German inhabitants of those countries were trying to escape to the west, trying to reach Germany; the number was maybe in the millions. Fourthly, there were non-German refugees (from liberated German labor camps, for example) that followed the Allied armies as they moved toward the east.
Fifthly, the Allied armies were encountering miles-long lines of surrendering Germany soldiers walking west. The Ninth Army in the north was repeatedly slowed because of having to stop and set up temporary barbed-wire areas to accommodate the flood of soldiers with their hands up. It had become obvious that Hitler was insane, the officers were running away, Germany was losing the war, and the soldiers knew that it was much better to surrender to the Americans or the British than to the Russians.
And let’s not forget all the Allied soldiers that were invading Germany from every direction. By May, there would be a million and a half American soldiers in Germany, not counting the British, the Canadian, the French, and the Soviets.
Yeah, it was crowded. My point?
Every country road, lane, by-way, regular road, highway, railroad track, railyard, every town, village, city center, every place that people could travel was full of people, many of them not speaking the same language. Millions of people, most of them in a state of confusion wandering through a territory that wasn’t that big – it’s only 400 miles from one side of Germany to the other.
Chaos. It must have been utter chaos. And anything to make it even more chaotic would have helped anyone who wanted to disappear into the crowd.
I think that’s what the Nazi commanders wanted. Hitler was going to die; he believed that it was his destiny, so he’s out of the picture. But the other commanders had long been developing escape plans. They needed camouflage to get the hell out of Dodge and hiding themselves in plain sight was the ticket to South America. That meant creating an atmosphere of utter chaos so that individuals could slip out the back door unnoticed.
I’m just making this up, but it doesn’t sound too far-fetched.
The Terezin ghetto and concentration camp were built out of a small city forty miles north of Prague, Czechoslovakia. Contained within the walls of a large fortress built in the late 18th century, the major part of the city was converted in 1941 by the Nazis to be a Jewish ghetto where Jews from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria could live and work comfortably, protected from the vagaries and stresses of war. In a smaller fortress across the river, a prison and a more common concentration camp were built to control those who disturbed the calm of the ghetto.
The ghetto housed Jewish intellectuals, musicians, writers, scientists, philosophers, artists, and civic leaders from the invaded nations. There was large adult choir made up of residents that gave routine concerts; a number of chamber orchestras played at various times; distinguished composers created new works, including a children’s operetta; writers, professors, and actors gave lectures; and there was a library – a hundred thousand books – that had fifteen full-time librarians.
Residents strolling the streets saw freshly painted houses, gardens, and renovated barracks, as well as a bakery full of fresh bread and even a candy shop that provided bon-bons to be eaten in little cafes along the sidewalk.
Some German officials described it as a “spa” for the Jewish elderly.
In late 1943, the King of Denmark wanted to know the condition of the 466 Danish Jews the Nazis had recently deported to Terezin. Of course, the Nazis said. They would be more than happy to show off their model city.
The inspection was held on June 23, 1944 and the inspectors found all those things described above. The Danish delegation, plus representatives of the Red Cross visited freshly painted rooms in the barracks, which held not more than three people at one time; saw large bathrooms with sinks and showers; and noted the bunk beds with mattresses filled with straw. The delegation walked a predetermined path and spoke to Jewish residents along the way. The choir gave a concert. There was no mention of the smaller fortress.
A movie film was shot as the inspectors walked the city. The film’s director was even a famous Jew. That film – a documentary film of Jewish resettlement – was what Hitler planned to show to the rest of the world. It would confirm the Terezin that the Third Reich had been describing to other nations during the last two years. It would help dispel all the vicious rumors concerning the supposed “extermination” camps.
The film would show the glory of “the city that Hitler gave to the Jews.”
The film, however, did not reveal the truth.
Committed to the coming inspection, the Germans immediately launched a beautification program for the ghetto – “Operation Embellishment.” The day before the inspection, many of the inmates of Terezin were sent to other camps to decrease the perceived population. Terezin normally housed 5,000 people but at the height of the war, 55,000 people were crowded inside the fortress. Those barrack rooms with no more than three people typically held hundreds; full barracks typically held thousands. Those large bathrooms with sinks and showers were never connected to water; the straw in the mattresses were home to blood-sucking insects. The questions asked by the inspectors had been written and handed out beforehand to the residents, along with the answers. Anyone answering an unofficial question or giving a non-approved answer were deported. The choir’s director was deported to Auschwitz two months afterwards and gassed the following day. Those bakeries, shops, and cafes were fake: props to give the impression of comfort. Those loaves of fresh bread were never seen again.
At the time, though, the inspection was a success. The Danish delegation and the Red Cross were duly satisfied that the Jews were being treated well enough.
They should have looked closer. Terezin wasn’t a typical concentration camp; it was a redistribution camp whose appearance had been managed as Nazi propaganda. Beginning in 1942, Jews were sent to the Terezin ghetto and then deported to other ghettos, concentration camps, and killing centers in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe. Once at their destination, the Jews were either immediately murdered or deported to other camps. Terezin had direct rails to Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka.
Between October 16, 1941, and when it was liberated on May 8, 1945, more than 155,000 Jews passed through Terezin. Eighty percent of them died after being deported, or died in the ghetto itself from starvation or disease. There were more than 16,000 still imprisoned when it was liberated. There was no crematorium in Terezin, but the local death rate grew so high that one was built south of the ghetto, capable of handling almost 200 bodies a day.
There were 15,000 children sent to Terezin. Only 132 children were known to have survived. But, while they were there, children found paper and drew what they saw. They also wrote poems or descriptions of what they saw, thought, or dreamed. They hid the papers in cracks in the walls around town. Many thousands of these honest depictions of life in Terezin have been found and are now on display as part of the museum and memorial.
What Hitler wanted was a charade that he could display to the world so that the world would look away from the reality of what the Third Reich was doing. In today’s parlance, it was the control of the media for the purpose of fooling the masses, and it worked remarkably well for a long time. Unfortunately, the film was never released. The production was halted as soon as it was obvious that Germany was losing the war. Snippets of the film would be shown at the Nuremburg trials.
If you make it to the Prague area, there are many guided tours available or you can visit Terezin on your own. There are several websites that give more information.
Ever listen to a discussion about how long we’ll be wearing masks in public, doing social distancing, or obeying periods of quarantine? We are certainly a pitiful people to have to suffer such trials and tribulations.
In July of 1942, Hitler double-crossed Stalin and launched his invasion of Russia with a three-prong attack. The top line of offense went north toward Leningrad, the middle line was pointed east towards Moscow, and the bottom line of offense headed for Stalingrad and the Crimea.
Hitler’s armies had previously stormed across the border with Poland, crashing through Slovakia, Romania, and the Ukraine. With a policy of focused racial hatred, Jews all over Eastern Europe were divested of their property, stripped of their rights, and driven into exile from towns where their families had lived for hundreds of years.
Now, with the goal of invading and occupying Russia, the rush of the Germany Army was accompanied by even more brutal persecution of Jews and other nationalities by the Gestapo. Jewish settlements were devastated, whole populations of towns were captured and carried off to concentration camps or extermination camps, and many people were slaughtered where they lived.
A town near the Ukraine/Romania border, named Korolowka, was in the path of Hitler’s war machine and the Jews living there fled into larger cities or into hiding places scattered around the countryside. In the fall of 1942, a number of families committed to remain together and sought out a nearby underground cave system, a well-known location named Verteba, where they would crawl deep into the caves and hide for the winter when Verteba was closed to the public. In the spring, they would search for another hiding place.
With members of the families periodically stealing out to bring back sacks of potatoes, grain, flour, kerosene, matches, candles, water, and whatever else they could pilfer or buy on the black market, it was a constant state of survival for the thirty or so Jews.
They hid in the darkness of the cave system for about 150 days.
In the spring of 1943, a few members were discovered and captured by the Gestapo. Those remaining in the cave escaped by way of a secret outlet they had dug during their confinement. Temporarily hiding in the attic of their old houses, in barns, or in other refuges in town, they were eventually led by a hunter to a sinkhole that formed the entrance to another cave system, locally called The Priest’s Grotto because it lay in the field of a local priest. It was not a publicly known or used cave system; later it would be determined to be the ninth largest cave system in the world.
But it was not spacious and roomy like a Carlsbad Caverns. It was a labyrinth of narrow passageways wandering throughout a hollowed-out layer of limestone. However, the Jews discovered small sinks of water formed by internal springs, as well as circulating air currents that allowed small fires to be lit for cooking. It was quite an improvement over Verteba.
Again expecting members of the families to periodically sneak out to find food, firewood, blankets, and other necessities, Esther and Zeida Stermer, their six children, four relatives, and twenty-six other Jews, on May 5, 1943, fled to the Priest’s Grotto to escape the certainty of the horrors of the Gestapo, the Russians, and the Ukranian police.
Feeling their way down in the darkness, the families lowered themselves through the narrow opening to the chambers below. It would be the last time for many of them to see the sky for nearly a year.
In fact, the majority of that community would live in hiding for 344 days.
Seventy feet below the surface, in total darkness, at a constant temperature of fifty degrees, these thirty-eight individuals lived in a state of near hibernation. They could not tell day from night and their bodies adjusted until they slept eighteen to twenty-two hours at a time, lying on wooden planks scavenged from above, and stayed awake only to perform the very basic needs of survival – cooking, eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, and trying to make their situation more tolerable.
The youngest girl was three; several women were elderly.
Close to a year after they had descended, a message dropped in a bottle down the entrance shaft by a friend, the thirty-eight survivors learned that the Germans had left for good, and, on April 12, 1944, each of them made the arduous climb out the entrance – jaundiced, weak, their skin covered in mud, about two-thirds of their entry weight, blinded by the sun.
They were no longer interested in returning to their town. They made their way through temporary refugee camps in Germany, then fled to the United States. Some of them and their children now live in New York City, Florida, and Canada. To hear more of the details of their story and to read the reasons that they gave for their ability to have survived such a remarkable situation, read The Secret of Priest’s Grotto, by Peter Lane Taylor with Christos Nicola.
Perhaps instead of talking about our extraordinary troubles, we should talk about our opportunities to show extraordinary courage.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.