by Frank W. Towers | 2008-07-17
The 30th Infantry Division had just liberated Brunswick, and our next objective was Magdeburg on the western bank of the Elbe River. Unknown to us at this time, the Elbe River had been designated as the “political boundary” between the Allied and Russian Armies.
In between Brunswick and Magdeburg was the city of Hillersleben, where there was a large German Luftwaffe airbase with many 2 story barracks buildings, for the Nazi German personnel, who had recently been evicted by the 30th Infantry Division during the capturing of Hillersleben.
At this point, a small task force, led by the 743rd Tank Battalion, with infantrymen of the 119th Regiment was mounted on these tanks. As they were forging ahead towards Magdeburg, they entered the small town of Farsleben, about 10 km north of Magdeburg, with the mission of clearing out all of the German soldiers who may be waiting there for us, and may have set up an ambush.
Only very recently, I learned that a Mr. George C. Gross, and a Mr. Caroll Walsh, were the two tank commanders involved in this task force which found and liberated this train.
Upon entering and capturing the village, no German soldiers were found who may have been intent on setting up an ambush when we appeared. However, the lead elements of the 743rd Recon discovered a long freight train on the railroad track, which had been guarded by several Nazi guards. The engine was standing ready with a full head of steam and awaiting orders as to where to go. The guards and the train crew fled the area as soon as they realized that they were well outnumbered, although they were rounded up in a short time.
As the train was sitting idly by, while the train crew was awaiting orders and making a decision as to where to go, many of the occupants of some of the passenger cars had dismounted and were relaxing on the ground near the train.
This train which contained about 2,500 Jews, had a few days previously left the Bergen-Belsen death camp. Men, women and children, were all loaded into a few available railway cars, some passenger and some freight, but mostly the typical antiquated freight cars, termed as “40 and 8” a WWI terminology. This signified that these cars would accommodate 40 men or 8 horses.
They were crammed into all available space and the freight cars were packed with about 60 – 70 of the Jewish Holocaust victims, with standing room only for most of them, so that they were packed in like sardines.
Why those people had not been exterminated earlier, we never did learn. However, the Nazis were attempting to move them out of Bergen-Belsen so that the advancing Allied Army would not see the condition of this mass of frail humanity, if it could be called that. They had been moved eastward from the Camp, to the Elbe River, where they were informed that it would not be advisable to proceed further because of the rapidly advancing Russian Army. The train then reversed direction and proceeded to Farsleben, where they were then told that they were heading into the advancing American Army. Consequently, the train halted at Farsleben and was awaiting further orders as to where to go next. The engineers had then received their orders, to drive the train to, and onto the bridge over the Elbe River, and either blow it up, or just drive it off the end of the damaged bridge, with all of the cars of the train crashing into the river, and killing or drowning all of the occupants. The engineers were having some second thoughts about this action, as they too would be hurtling themselves to death also This is the point at which they were discovered, just shortly after the leading elements of the 743rd Tank Battalion arrived on the scene.
It was believed that this train was initially enroute to Auschwitz or Buchenwald, to be a part of the “Final Solution”.
Some of these prisoners had dismounted from the passenger cars and were milling about near the train and relaxing, as best they could, under the watchful eyes of their Nazi guards. Those in the freight cars were still locked in the cars when discovered, but shortly they were released.
The men of the 743rd Tank Battalion and the 119th Regiment, who discovered this train, could not believe what they were seeing, nor what they had upon their hands at this moment. Upon speaking to some of those victims, a few of whom could speak a little English, they began to learn what they had uncovered. Each one had a slightly different story to tell, so there is no way of accurately knowing what the real story was. Now after 60 plus years, and having heard the stories from their parents, there is a good possibility that there may be some inaccuracies or exaggerations.
They immediately unlocked all of the freight cars and allowed these pathetic victims to be released and dismount from the cars and enjoy their first taste of Freedom. Many were hesitant at first because they had been advised by their Nazi guards that “if and when they ever became prisoners of the Americans, they would be executed immediately.” Little did they know what to expect at the hands of these savage Americans??
Being packed in these antiquated freight cars for a long undetermined time, with only a once a day dispensing of rations, consisting of a thin and cold potato soup, it was surprising that more of them were not dead.
They were packed in there so tightly that they did not have room to sit or lay down, so they just had to stand upright until they collapsed and crumpled to the floor because of exhaustion. They had no sanitary facilities except a single bucket in one corner of the car, which most could not even reach as the sudden necessity arose. The consequence was that most, in having to relieve themselves, just urinated and had bowel movements, and just let it run down their legs! Such a stench!!
Such humiliation for these people to have to endure!
Needless to say, the stench from the cars was almost unbearable, and many of our men had to rush away and vomit.
We had heard of the cruel treatment which the Nazis had been handing out to Jews and political opponents of the Nazi regime, whom they had enslaved, but we thought that it was propaganda and slightly exaggerated. As we went along, it became more apparent that this barbaric savagery was actually true. The stories of German inhumanity were being corroborated before our own eyes. The condition of these people had deteriorated to the lowest level imaginable.
During this European war, I was a 1st Lieutenant and was a Liaison Officer between the 30th Infantry Division Hq. and the 120th Regimental Hq During this time I was closely associated with a 1st Lt. Floyd Mitchell, (now deceased), who was the Liaison Officer from the 743rd Tank Battalion. We became very close friends during the war, exchanging many stories and assisting in our duties along the way. It was through Floyd that I had the experience of visiting the site of this tragic scene at Farsleben.
After the initial discovery and capture of Farsleben, the 743rd Tank Battalion had to move on towards Magdeburg and assist in the reduction of this city as quickly as possible. At this point, the custody of guarding this very sad group of humanity fell to the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion.
First of importance was getting food, water and medical assistance to these victims. Our 105th Medical Battalion was called upon to survey this group and give immediate attention to those most in need. The 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Dettmer immediately contacted the Burgomaster of Farsleben, and without any hesitation, ordered the Burgomaster to order his citizens to gather up all of the food, clothing, soap and sanitary supplies, to help the situation that these victims found themselves in. Secondly, they were ordered to offer them any housing facilities that were available, particularly for the elderly and those families with children
The German people caused these victims to be in the situation in which they were found, so therefore it was felt that it was their responsibility to rectify what they had done to them over the past five years.
At first they rebelled at these orders, but upon the threat of execution of the Burgomaster, and with a pistol held to his head, the citizens of Farsleben complied and went about the task which they had been ordered to do.
At this time the Burgomaster began to cooperate, and told his citizens to take some of these Jews into their homes and give them some comfort, which they did, very grudgingly. This was the first taste of “Home” for many of them after some months or years of inhuman incarceration.
Since my duties as a Liaison Officer were at a minimum at this point, I was placed in charge of procuring sufficient vehicles from our Quartermaster Company and other units, on which these 2,500 Jewish victims could be loaded, and to relocate them to Hillersleben, about 10 km distant.
It must be noted here that in most cases, it was not possible to drive directly from “point A to point B” which may in fact be only 5 – 10 km. With bridges on all main roads either bombed or deliberately blown up by the retreating German army, it required navigating over many secondary and unimproved farm roads to find a suitable route to get from “point A to point B”, which in some cases was 25 – 30 km.
Having driven over these roads for the previous few days, I was relatively familiar with these deviations, and was thus chosen for this job.
After loading up these Jewish victims on our trucks and navigating the convoy over a devious route, we arrived at the designated site in Hillersleben, where their custody was turned over to the American Military Government for further processing.
Initially, they were deloused! Their bodies and clothing were totally infested with lice, so they were heavily dusted with DDT, stripped of their clothing, which was burned, given a shower, then re-supplied with adequate clothing, which had been furnished by the people of Farsleben.
Settled in to their new surroundings, here they were given appropriate medical care according to their needs, and fed with adequate but rationed food,+ they were eventually processed for repatriation to their homelands.
However, most of these Jews were from Poland, Russia, Hungary and other Eastern block countries, so with the total destruction of their homes, loss of families and the serious prospects of coming under the jurisdiction of the Russians, most were fearful about their future. Most chose the option of remaining in Germany, or the possibility of being repatriated to some other Western European countries. Eventually, many were finally repatriated to Palestine, South American countries, for which many had passports, England, Canada and to the United States of America.
At this point, I reverted back to my original duties through the next month and the end of the war, and pursued our duties of Occupation in this devastated land, and finally returning to the United States in August of 1945.
In the next 60+ years, not much thought was given to these victims, as we thought that they were now in good hands, and would be starting out on a new life somewhere in the future. We had our own problems. We were soon alerted to be shipped to the Pacific to help in the finalizing of that phase of the war in the Pacific Theater, and bringing the end of WWII to a close.
Then it was “Home to take up our lives where we had left off 4 – 5 years earlier”.
From then on, we had little time to worry about these Jewish victims of the Holocaust. We were busy finding jobs and raising our families.
Fast Forward 62 years:
Through a quirk of fate, I received an e-mail message from a friend, indicating that I should look at the attached Website. Out of curiosity, I opened the Website, and I was astonished at what I was about to see! ( http://hfcsd.org/ww2/ )
This Website was entitled: “The World War !! Living History Project” with a subtitled article: “A Train Near Magdeburg”! Sounded familiar.
It seems that a teacher, Matt Rozell, in Hudson Falls High School, near Albany, NY, had organized a project on the Holocaust, and this segment was a part of the project. The story that was told by two former members of the 743rd Tank Battalion, just dovetailed into my recollections of this account.
Also, attached to this Website were several e-mail messages from survivors of this tragic event, but one in particular caught m y eye – it was a message from a daughter of a survivor. This one really intrigued me because this girl’s mother, Jean, (nee: Gusia Weinstock), who was a 15 year old girl, along with her parents, had been survivors of this “Death Train from Bergen-Belsen”. She and her parents were among those that I had convoyed to Hillersleben!! They soon relocated to Liege, then to Brussels in Belgium, for a few years. Then they emigrated to the U.S.A., settling in Brooklyn, NY
In about 1950, Jean married Sol Lazinger 6 months after they met, who was a 30th Division veteran!! This is what intrigued me.
I contacted Lisette, the daughter, by e-mail, and then soon we were on the phone, she telling me briefly about the odyssey of her parents. Next, I called her parents, Jean & Sol Lazinger, and we had a very nice and informative conversation with each of us giving our versions of the “Death Train” episode in April 1945.
Sol had been in the U.S. Army and was assigned to the 30thInfantry Division as a replacement in August 1944. He was seriously injured near Essen, Germany in October 1944 during the Rhineland Campaign. He never returned to the 30th and was sent back to the U.S.A. and discharged, and was never aware of our 30th Infantry Division Veterans organization until this time.
Now at this point, Matt Rozell has been in contact with several Holocaust survivors, and has interviewed each one, and getting some real in depth stories from them. He had organized a Reunion of these Holocaust survivors and their liberators that he had been able to contact, this past September, and perhaps another will be scheduled some time in the near future..
It seems quite ironic, that after 60+ years, that I should come in contact with this Holocaust survivor, that I had assisted in giving a new start in life in 1945….
Plus, another Holocaust survivor from Magdeburg, Germany, Ernest Kan, who had been incarcerated as a Slave Laborer in the Polte Ammunition Factory, at Magdeburg.
How many more of these survivors are there out there who were liberated by the 30th Infantry Division and attached units??? Perhaps we will never know.
I am now working with Matt Rozell to try to organize another Reunion this next March, in order to bring these survivors, their liberators and even more victims that may be found in the next few months, together for another Reunion. We are all getting to be of an age where time is running out for us, so time is of essence.
Frank W. Towers © 2008
30th Inf. Div. Veterans of WWII