Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Last Train by Rona Arato

This amazing little book has a back story that is worth relating so readers can understand the events they will read about. In 2001 students at Hudson Valley High School were assigned to interview local residents and family members about World War II as part of a history class run by Mark Rozell. Rozell wanted to make history come alive for his students in a more meaningful way and he also believed that history has some important lessons to teach young people. When the students interviewed American veterans they came across an unbelievable story about the liberation of a train holding 2500 Jewish prisoners, many sick, all starving and filthy.

It was during an interview in July, 2001 with Carrol Walsh, who in April 13, 1945, was a 24 year old American tank commander with the American 30th Infantry Division, that Rozell learned about the American liberation of a large transport train near Magdeburg. Walsh had not thought about the train until his daughter urged him to tell the history teacher about it during the interview. Soldiers had uncovered an incredible situation; boxcars jam-packed with starving Jewish prisoners. The historic liberation was recorded in photographs taken by George C. Gross, a friend and fellow tank commander who, unlike Walsh, stayed with the train overnight and into the next day. Gross' unit went to the local German's and ordered them to provide food and lodgings for the Jewish survivors.

Walsh also related that he received the 30th Division newsletters and one of those newsletters had published a letter from a survivor of a "death train" asking if anyone was there when it was liberated. It turned out that this was the same train near Magdeburg that Walsh, Gross and also Major Benjamin had liberated. Walsh wrote to the editor and advised them that a better contact would be George Gross.

Rozell then contacted tank commander George Gross who was now living in San Deigo, California and working as a professor of English. Gross had a negative of the most famous picture as well as ten other photographs of the liberation of the train. Rozell was then able to hear Gross' account of his time spent at the train near Magdeburg. Rozell then posted the interviews to his oral history website where they sat for four years before being noticed by a survivor from Australia. Since then the website interviews, along with help from 1st Lt. Frank Towers, has been a focal point for reuniting survivors and their liberators in a series of reunions. Many of these survivors had searched for years, in vain, for some information about their liberators and the train. The pictures taken by Prof. Gross and U.S. Army Major Clarence Benjamin can now been seen in slideshow format.

This background sets the stage for this tiny but very informative narrative nonfiction book, The Last Train, which has been written for children, by Rona Arato who is the wife of Paul (Auslander)Arato, who was on the Magdeburg Train when he was just five years old.  These trains were called "the last trains" because they contained the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps who were being shunted around in an attempt by the Nazi's to avoid liberation by Allied troops, before they could be exterminated.

Arato writes that her husband's story only came out after his son, Daniel, found Rozell's website. Although she knew about Paul's past, he had never told their children. It was a haunting memory that she did not press him to divulge.

Paul Arato
The Last Train tells his family's story in a sanitized way that still captures some of the fear and confusion the Auslander's experienced as their native Hungary was invaded by Nazi's in 1944. Prior to this, Hungary was pro-fascist and had been allied with Germany. It had participated in Hitler's invasion of communist Russia. But when Hitler discovered that Hungary was attempting to broker a peace treaty with the Allied Forces, Hitler invaded and almost immediately began rounding up the Jewish population.

The Auslanders were initially sent to work on a farm in Austria but eventually ended up in the infamous Bergen Belsen concentration camp in Germany by December, 1944. During this time, Lenke Auslander became chronically ill. She made it through the work camp and the concentration camp with the help of both her sons, Oscar and Paul. At the end of the war the Auslanders were reunited. Their situation was very unusual because they were likely one of the few families who survived the Holocaust intact.

Arato has included many photographs both of her family before and after the war, the liberation of the transport train near Magdeburg and the reunion of Jewish survivors and American liberators some sixty years later which help young readers understand this important historical event. Although The Last Train is about a real event, Arato has recreated much of the dialogue based on interviews and research. This has resulted in a well-written, concise account of a little known event in the liberation of Europe.

Book Details:
The Last Train by Rona Arato
Toronto: Owlkids Books Inc.     2013
142 pp.

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