HUDSON FALLS — Matt Rozell’s first book is ranked higher on the Kindle World War II best-sellers list than famed author Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken.”
It seems, then, a good time for the release of the Hudson Falls High School history teacher’s second book, “A Train Near Magdeburg: A Teacher’s Journey into the Holocaust and the Reuniting of the Survivors and Liberators, 70 Years On.”
Rozell has dedicated much of his career to leading his students through research on World War II, interviewing veterans and recording their stories (many of which are featured in his successful book, “The Things Our Father Saw: The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation from Hometown USA”).
One afternoon in 2001, he was interviewing World War II veteran Carrol Walsh.
“It was two hours worth of horrific World War II stories, being in a tank, being in combat constantly for 10 months with a lot of close calls,” Rozell recalled. “Then his daughter chimed in, ‘Did you tell him about the train?’”
Walsh was among U.S. soldiers at the scene of the liberation of a death train in a small town outside Madgeburg, Germany, in 1945. The retired state Supreme Court justice gave Rozell the name of a veteran who had a camera that day.
Rozell reached out to George Gross and discovered a photograph that would forever change his life and, in a small way, history.
Rozell posted the photograph — a woman running uphill away from the train, holding the hand of a child, surrounded by other Holocaust survivors — with Gross’ permission, on the school’s website. It received little attention.
Four years later, an Australian grandmother called Rozell, saying she was a 7-year-old on the train when it was liberated.
Bergen-Belsen, a German historic site marking the spot where a concentration camp stood, started directing survivors to the school’s website.
“It started to mushroom,” Rozell said. “I started to hear from survivors.”
In 2007, Rozell helped organize a reunion of Holocaust survivors rescued from the train and the U.S. veterans who were there. The Associated Press covered the event.
“It went everywhere, not just every major paper in the United States, but everywhere in the world,” Rozell said.
The school’s server, unable to handle the traffic, was shut down.
Within the next few months, 60 more people who were children on the train found Rozell.
“It just exploded in 2007,” he said.
Rozell started his now-popular blog, teachinghistorymatters.com, continued to meet veterans and survivors, and helped organize several more reunions, including one in Israel.
“(Veterans) got to meet the people they were over in Europe fighting for,” Rozell said.
“It was very emotional,” Henry Birnbrey, an Atlanta, Georgia, veteran said of a reunion.
Birnbrey had himself been rescued from Germany as a 14-year-old, taken out of the country as a kindertransport and sent to the United States, where he later enlisted.
The day the photograph was taken, Birnbrey arrived with his artillery battalion, looking for a gun position. He could smell something terrible and came upon the train being liberated.
“It’s something you just don’t expect to see,” he said.
Since the people coming out of the train were being shipped from the Bergen-Belsen camp, many were malnourished and ill.
“My biggest frustration was that I only had on combat gear — no food to share, nothing to share with them — and they were starving,” Birnbrey said. “I had no rations on me or nothing.”
Years later, even as he shared his story, Birnbrey didn’t realize the scope of the liberation that day until he saw Rozell’s work.
“It all came out in Matt’s research,” said Birnbrey, who was on page 174 of the book Thursday afternoon.
“A Train Near Magdeburg” is really four books, Rozell said.
First, he writes about the Holocaust, through the eyes of the people who lived through it and were saved on the train April 13, 1945.
“The event was totally buried,” he said. “The people in the book don’t know the backstory; the story has a lot of research in it.”
And, as he did in “The Things Our Fathers Saw,” Rozell tells the experiences of the soldiers through their own words.
“I think it’s really important for people to understand, because they deserve credit,” he said. “They didn’t have to do what they did. The war was not over, people were shooting at them. Some of them would be dead within a few days.”
“A Train Near Magdeburg” looks too at the liberation, with letters, soldiers’ accounts and after-action reports. And the book closes with the reunions, how they came about and how they grew from four survivors to more than 50, and from a few soldiers to dozens.
“It’s not about, ‘everyone hugs and kisses and goes home,’” Rozell said. “It goes deeper. They all have incredible stories and the teacher in me is trying to educate people.”
As Rozell looks to the future — retiring from teaching, continuing work on two more “The Things Our Father Saw” books — he’s cognizant of the impact his discovery of the train photo and ensuing research has had.
“The story is really incredible, and I’m part of it now,” he said. “I can’t explain it but somehow the cosmos tilted just long enough for past and present to blend, for time and space to be rendered irrelevant.”