Interview and Article by:
Josha Sietsma, Netherlands (MTF 2016)
For Matt Rozell (Granville, NY; MTF 2008), the term ‘retired’ doesn’t define his state of being. A real teacher never stops teaching. Writing books that educate, and with a bigger audience than ever, Matt talks to us on his connection with the Museum and connecting survivors with liberators: “I think [also] it is true that our work as educators is never ever done”.
To start, what are your tools of trade? What is essential to your work, your performance.
A passion to connect to history using real people. When I begin to speak about the history, Holocaust or otherwise, there is a level of excitement and passion that just flows out of me and engages my audience, be it high school students or senior citizens listening to one of my presentations. And it has been with me since my earliest days. As a kid I roamed the banks of the Hudson River looking for lost encampments and historic battle sites. On museum trips to NYC, I was the kid everyone else in the family had to wait for, lagging behind, lost in the exhibits.
You’ve been connected to the Museum for at least ten years. Looking back, what made you want to connect at first?
Honestly, the USHMM found me and invited me to apply for the Fellowship. An Associated Press article about my first foray into attempting a Holocaust survivor-liberator reunion in September 2007 went viral and the Museum contacted me. I am thankful for the opportunity to work with the Museum. My outreach project was another reunion in Sept. 2009, in which we were filmed by the Museum and also ABC World News as their Persons of the Week.
Over the years, I have helped the Museum identify photographs related to the ‘Train Near Magdeburg’ incident and acquire photographs and survivor artwork and testimony. I’ve worked closely with Judy Cohen in the Photo Archives and Steven Vitto in the Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center. I also reconnected around 275 survivors with the actual American soldiers who freed them. I wrote a book about this called Train Near Magdeburg; it nearly killed me in the process but it had to come out of me. The book is divided into four parts.
The first part of the book is the chronological unfolding of the Holocaust as it happened, through the eyes of train survivors, who hailed from all over Europe. The second is the experiences of the soldiers themselves, landing shortly after D-Day, knowing nothing about the Holocaust, just fighting for survival. By then of course, most of Europe’s Jews had already been murdered, but their encounters would be raw and searing. These battle hardened soldiers were about to be placed on an emotional roller-coaster.
Part three of the book is the actual liberation, recalled by dozens of survivors and the soldiers. Part four is the aftermath and the experiences of eleven reunions on three continents, including three at our own high school in upstate New York, and my observations and takeaways on what it all means.
And I had to write it from my own personal experience and perspective. My experience as a re-uniter, and as a Holocaust educator, unfolded organically. Any survivor you know will testify as to the miracle of their survival. I honestly think what happened here was also a miracle, being able to bring together over 275 survivors with their actual liberators 65+ years later, all due to the fact that I took the time to sit down and listen to a World War II veteran, and push a little further. But it nearly did not happen at all—he did not volunteer his experience with the ‘train’—his daughter reminded him to tell me after two hours of conversation, just as I was thinking we were done and about to turn the camera off.
You’ve been retired since June but still speak on the subject of the Holocaust and your books. Which book has influenced your work the most?
Yes. I dislike the term ‘retired’ because I don’t think a real teacher ever stops teaching, in a sense, and it is especially true since my books are designed to educate, but now perhaps the audience is the masses. I think also it is true that our work as educators is never ever done, as evidenced by the recent events in our own country highlighting the rise of antisemitism.
When I wrote Train Near Magdeburg, this was a constant in the back of my mind. I knew that my audience for the most part might not know much about the Holocaust, so it was essential to distill a historical backdrop for the narrative of survivors’ and soldiers’ voices. But how does one ‘distill’ the sheer magnitude of the Holocaust? This is a challenge. I also felt like I had an obligation to more knowledgeable readers to present the topic of the Holocaust in terms that might add to their experience in learning about it.
Finally, of course, I had an obligation to my survivor and soldier families to place their experiences in the proper context, so they might also learn something new about what happened to them. This was a very difficult thing to do; I struggled with it for ten years. It did not all come together until I was able to visit the authentic sites with the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers’ Program in 2013, and further study on a scholarship at Yad Vashem at the International School for Holocaust Studies in 2016.
There is a film in the works on the Train Near Magdeburg, and right now I am a consultant, making sure they get the Holocaust right (we are waiting with baited breath for word from the Claims Conference regarding some crucial funding). As we all know, there are a lot of ways to teach or present the Holocaust wrong.
In your work you focus on the testimony of survivors from WWII. How did this come to happen? Why and how did you start your research that eventually led to several publications and awards?
I was always interested in World War II—as a kid I devoured the ‘Sgt. Rock’ comic book series. Just after college, the 40th anniversary of D-Day and the liberation of the continent occurred. The vets began to gather in Normandy for the commemoration. Studs Terkel’s oral history on the war, ‘The Good War’, came out in 1984 and was a huge influence on my development as a teacher, and later, as an author. I decided to put kids in touch with our veterans. The veterans were ready, after 40 or 50 years of silence, to tell their stories to me and to the young people. And later I found a similar phenomenon with my Holocaust survivor friends. I think it was cathartic for them. Frankly, this is a model I would like to take further.
In addition to teaching about the Holocaust, you have an interest in archaeology. Is there any relation, for you, between archaeology and the field of Holocaust education?
Yes. My book opens in Bergen Belsen in the summer of 2013. I am walking the grounds, and I see things that the average person would not notice. The evidence of the past, just beneath the layers of the present, poking out obtrusively to remind one of the evil that occurred in what is a relatively peaceful and tranquil setting today. The original camp was burned down a month after liberation by the British, and nature has reclaimed the grounds. The fact is that these artifacts speak to you—broken window glass, brick fragments, a concrete gutter channel running through what is now woodlands—and you realize that you are having a personal encounter. This happened to me time and again at places where the Nazis tried to erase the evidence—Belzec, Treblinka, the destroyed structures at Auschwitz.
To round up a question from another context. The Paris Review asked Aldous Huxley, spring 1960: Do you keep a notebook and do you ever use maps or charts or diagrams in your writing [work]?
A notebook is absolutely critical for my personal recollections and growth. I carry a composition notebook on every tour, and they become the basis for my later book development. I have also been blogging for ten years straight, and this helped in honing my writing style and my past entries are a resource for further chapters and books. On a recent family trip to Ireland with a private guide, I was in the front seat everyday, making notes and observations on what I hope will become another history book with a personal twist. My grandfather was 18 at the time of the Easter Rising (1916) in Ireland. He was in the early IRA, as were most of his eight brothers, active in the most rebellious part of Ireland in the War of Independence (1918-1921). After the Irish won it, a civil war over the peace treaty broke out, and split the family. My grandfather came to America. We drove around and found the cottage where he was raised—nine boys in a small dwelling overlooking the Shannon. (If you are not familiar with this chapter in Irish history, watch the film ‘Michael Collins’ w/Liam Neeson. Or wait for my book to come out, ha ha.) But anyway, my journals/notebooks are very important.
My final comments: To anybody teaching today who is frustrated with lack of support or feeling shackled with testing, or stifled in their classroom creativity,–just do it. Close the door and channel your passion. Your kids will thank you for it, and who knows, maybe you will change the world.
Links on Matt Rozell
Amazon Author Page
ABC WORLD NEWS PERSON OF THE WEEK
FYI: the book is also for sale at the Museum shop