On April 13, 1945, two American tanks encountered
a train near Magdeburg, Germany, with thousands of concentration
camp survivors. George C. Gross, one of the tank commanders,
reflected on the moment many years later: 'Each one of them was
skeleton-thin with starvation, a sickness in their faces and the way
in which they stood. Little children came around with shy smiles,
and mothers with proud smiles happily pushed them forward to get
their pictures taken. I walked up and down the train, seeing some
lying in pain or lack of energy, and some sitting and making hopeful
plans for a future that suddenly seemed possible again.' Maj.
Clarence Benjamin took this photo just as a few of the prisoners
realized they had been rescued.
Buddies George Gross of California and Carrol Walsh,
formerly of Johnstown, were commanding the tanks that freed more
than 2,000 concentration camp survivors from the
Alexandra Keston as a child, shortly after her
liberation, walks with her mother and father in Belgium. There, she
tasted freedom and ice cream for the first time, 'and it was
delicious,' she said.
Published on 5/28/2006
The U.S. Army was driving its way eastward through
Germany at the end of the second great war, when a small task force
came upon a strange, despairing scene in a wooded ravine.
Two tanks, one commanded by Carrol Walsh of Johnstown,
stopped dead in the morning sun. There, on the tracks, was a
gathering of exhausted, starving people, lying on the ground near
the stinking sidecars of a freight train. Some were already dead.
"We were moving forward, pursuing German troops, cleaning up
pockets of resistance," said Walsh, now 87. "We were in combat, on
the move, and somehow we just came across this train."
Alexandra Keston, now 67, who was on the train with her
parents, remembers watching the few remaining SS soldiers -- her
captors -- drop their guns and run without a firefight.
Keston was just a child, but knew she was free.
only thing I remember of that day was picking up the gun," Keston
said. "I was only 6, but I wanted to shoot the Germans."
great stir went through the strange camp. According to witnesses, on
that day -- Friday, April 13, 1945 -- the sickly figures began to
comprehend their liberation. They laughed and cried in a
simultaneous display of happiness and hysterical relief.
commanding officer ordered nearby farmers to stay up all night to
get food to the survivors, and saw to it that bedding was made
available. They stood proudly, introduced themselves to the
Americans and offered their hands for shaking. They took advantage
of a cold stream nearby to wash.
Piece by piece, over the
next 24 hours, the story emerged.
Nearly 2,500 people had
been packed into boxcars a week earlier at Bergen-Belsen, the
notorious death camp where Anne Frank was buried in an unmarked mass
The train had gone back and forth across Germany,
avoiding Allied air raids and interceptions -- its human cargo to be
used in exchange for German prisoners, or exterminated.
taking of the train was a small police operation, but it would not
be forgotten easily.
It would be remembered vividly 61 years
later -- by Keston, in Australia; by Walsh, in Florida; and by
Walsh's family, in Hudson Falls -- thanks to Matt Rozell, a teacher
at Hudson Falls High School.
-- -- --
Matt Rozell's classroom is a shrine to 20th-century
battle, decorated with old recruitment posters, reprints of wartime
newspapers, propaganda and maps of Europe.
director of the Hudson Falls High School World War II Living History
Project, a teaching tool he started in the 1980s as a survey sent
home with his students. It was designed to get them interested in
their own history -- to make World War II more than a sound bite in
the 5,000 years' worth of history high school students have to
absorb -- but it has since evolved into a detailed Web site,
chronicling local stories of service and war.
really colorful, vivid things these people remember," Rozell said.
"When I hear it, I just can't believe what has happened to people
all within a 5-mile radius."
Walsh, now a resident of
Florida, lived for a long time in Johnstown, and his grandson, Sean
Connolly, was one of Rozell's students.
A few years ago,
after Connolly came forward, Rozell interviewed Walsh for two hours.
"We sat and watched the interview as they were taping it,"
Connolly said. "I think our entire extended family was very excited
that Papa had sat down and talked to someone on tape."
That's when Rozell first heard the tale of the "death
From there, Rozell spoke with one of Walsh's war
buddies, George Gross of California, who had written about that day
extensively and constructed a detailed account of the event: "A
Train Near Magdeburg." A world away, Keston found the story on her
"I put the story up on our Web site," said
Rozell, "but I didn't have any inkling something like this would
Nor did Walsh, it would seem.
imagined that I would ever contact or hear from anyone who was on
that death train so many years ago," Walsh said.
amazing. Hard to believe. I never thought much about it through the
years. At the time, it was just another day in
-- -- --
Alexandra Keston remembers
little about life in a concentration camp.
lining up for roll call every morning. She remembers falling ill.
But she doesn't remember the horrors of her week in a boxcar on that
After her liberation, Keston and her family lived in
Belgium for a time, then moved to Australia when the Korean War
threatened to erupt into a world conflict. She kept her story close
to her chest for many years.
"I felt -- how would say it? --
unfortunately unique. I couldn't cope with it," Keston said. "When
you were growing up, no one identified that they had Holocaust
experiences. In Australia, I thought I was the only one. There was
no support network."
When her parents finally passed away,
Keston realized a great chunk of her personal history had died with
them, so she joined a child survivor movement and began researching
Staff at the Bergen-Belsen Memorial filled her in
Keston (then Friedman) had arrived at the camp
with her parents in 1943, and was placed in the "Sonderlager" -- a
special camp for Jews with foreign connections. They were kept in
strict isolation, but they did not have to work. They were to be
used in exchanges for German prisoners.
The people at the
Memorial didn't know much more. One of them, however, had read a
story called "A Train Near Magdeburg," on the Living History Web
site of a little school in upstate New York. The Web site even had
"When I opened the Web site and looked at the
photographs of the place of my liberation, I was in a daze," Keston
said. "It didn't trigger anything. It's so deeply blocked. But the
whole experience, viewing them. I just burst into tears."
Sixty years after gaining her freedom, Keston had found a
pivotal moment in her life re-created in words and pictures. Numbers
were called, e-mails were exchanged and, within weeks, the circle
"It's just absolutely incredible that all of
this has happened," she said. "Matt Rozell has done a beautiful
thing for me. I've always had a deep love of the Americans, and
that's stayed with me. Making this connection with these men, and
finding them to be such lovely people, has completed that picture.
It has just been a beautiful ending."
information, including one soldier's story "A Train Near Magdeburg,"
more photographs of that day and a 2001 interview with Carrol "Red"
Walsh, visit the Hudson Falls High School World War II Living
History Project at www.hfcsd.org/ww2.
Tell your story
If you have a World War II story in danger of being lost to
history, Matt Rozell of Hudson Falls High School may be interested
in recording an account of your experience.
information, call 747-2121.
Editor's note: Many
of the details in this story were garnered from previously recorded
interviews and testimonies from George Gross and Carrol Walsh, with
the help of Matt Rozell of Hudson Falls High School.