I just finished reading a great and important book called “A Train Near Magdeburg” by Matthew A. Rozell. Using first-person accounts, for the most part, Mr. Rozell, a U.S. History teacher, describes the liberation of a train filled with starving, dying Jewish prisoners on their way to be executed by the Nazis toward the end of WWII. The photo on the front of the book was taken by a U.S. soldier who stumbled upon the train as he and his Unit chased the Germans back toward Berlin. The photo depicts the moment that these forlorn individuals realize that they have escaped death and are, in fact, going to be rescued. From Death to Life in the click of a camera’s shutter.
Mr. Rozell did a masterful job of stitching together the words of the survivors and provided an insider’s view of the Holocaust as it unfolded all around those who ended up on that train. He managed to tell their stories well and, in doing so, he brought dignity and a measure of humanity to each person.
When Mr. Rozell first became a teacher, he started a project aimed at documenting the experiences of U.S. soldiers while they were still young enough and mentally-alert enough to accurately tell their tales. He and his students conducted hundreds of personal interviews. They documented the results of their conversations in a website called TeachingHistoryMatters.com As luck would have it, one day Mr. Rozell was conducting an interview with a soldier who was now known as Judge Walsh. As the interview ended, Mr. Walsh’s daughter suggested he should tell Mr. Rozell “about the train”. As it turned out, Judge Walsh was one of the soldiers who liberated that train. He told Mr. Rozell his story. As it all turned out, Mr. Rozell helped co-ordinate a reunion of the remaining train survivors and the remaining U.S. soldiers who liberated them. This book describes the reunions (there were several). But, more than anything, it demonstrates the value of lives fully lived. For each survivor is accorded time to talk about the families that were raised because they got to live. They spoke of the careers they have had and the good they did for others because they became teachers or doctors or poets or artists. They talked about the good they have been able to do by talking about their experiences and warning of the dangers of fascism and genocide.
There were approximately 2, 500 Jewish prisoners on that train near Madgeburg, Germany. Each one a real person. Each one had a heart that beat. Each one had hopes and dreams for their future. Each person had a name and an identity that was uniquely theirs. None of them were “vermin”, as the Nazis called them. None of them were “cockroaches”, as the Rwandan Hutus called their Tutsi countryfolk before that slaughter began. None of them were “Base people” or “Depositees” as Pol Pot called those he sent to the Killing Fields of Cambodia in the 1970s. No, these 2,500 were all human beings in their own right and they deserved to live because of that fact.
Words matter. Who says them can matter even more. One of the first things a totalitarian regime does as it sets out to settle political or cultural scores is that it will begin a campaign of de-humanization. It is easier to incite violence against “enemies” if those enemies are portrayed as being sub-human. One way to tilt the playing field against a chosen person or group is to take away the individual identities of those involved and give the entire group a label. In Germany, the Nuremberg Laws set that process in motion, resulting in the creation of a sub-class of people with no rights and no worth. It is so much easier to do terrible things to those whose names you do not know and whose lives you firmly believe don’t matter.
Mr. Rozell believed it was important to preserve the history of those involved in WWII so that the lessons of that conflict could be shared with his students and with others in his sphere of influence. I am happy he did that because I enjoyed his book immensely. It is one of the best and most important books I have read in years. “A Train Near Magdeburg” was brought to my attention on Twitter by a man I follow there named McKay Smith. I, originally, came to know of Mr. Smith (@McKayMSmith) because he, too, is a storyteller. When I first encountered him, he was posting a comment thread about a family member who had landed behind enemy lines during the War. His story made for fascinating reading. But, more than that, Mr. Smith took great pains to pay tribute to those who had suffered along the way. He has told the stories of many people who died in the War, as well as those heroes who risked much to save others. In every case, Mr. Smith shows their photo and states their name. Words matter. Names are important.
After reading Mr. Smith’s tweets about “A Train Near Magdeburg”, I ordered the book the very next day. A decision over which I have no regrets. Thank you, McKay, for bringing dignity to those who suffered so many indignities during the War. You do right by them, just as Mr. Rozell did in his great book. There is a documentary slated to come out soon about this book and that train and those aboard it who got to see the light of another day. The trailer for that documentary is here. Hopefully, it will work for you.
As I type these words, it is less than 24 hours since there were two different mass shootings in the U.S. In both cases, the shooters were spurred on by words spoken by people of influence and/or authority. Words that acted to de-humanize a targeted group. Cataloguing History does no good for anyone if the lessons it contains go unheeded. We have seen leaders label citizens as “invaders” before. We have seen citizens labelled as “criminals” and “rapists” before. We have heard the words “rodents” and “infested” used before. And we are now seeing it again. President Trump’s use of these words is not by accident. His use of de-humanizing words that take away the worth of a targeted segment of his society is a trademark of those who practise in genocide. Now, it hasn’t come to genocide in the U.S. yet but, then again, Hitler had almost a decade to finalize his plans before the smokestacks belched and the mass graves filled with the bodies of real people known then, only as “vermin”.
“A Train Near Magdeburg” is a very impactful books. If you decide to read it for yourself, you will find yourself moved many times over. For me, I will end this post with the scene that most struck me. It was in the first hour or so after the U.S. soldiers had arrived and liberated the train. In that time, many of the Jewish prisoners were reluctant to leave the train cars or were too weak to do so. But, as the scene stabilized and the Jewish people began to realize that freedom might actually be at hand, they began to tidy themselves up as best they could and they lined up in as orderly a fashion as they could before the U.S. soldiers and then, one by one, they stated their names and where they had lived and, with that one act, they became real again.
Words matter. Names matter. I have a name. My name is Tom.