WWII medic meets survivor he helped rescue from a train to Auschwitz
By JON O'CONNELL | The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa. | Published: April 18, 2019
SCRANTON, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — The Army medics who helped rescue about 2,500 prisoners aboard the train from Bergen-Belsen struggled to insert intravenous feeding tubes into their skin-and-bone arms.
The prisoners had departed the concentration camp six days earlier bound for Auschwitz. They were starving and emaciated. They couldn’t eat, and their veins rolled under their skin.
But Walter Gantz, a combat medic from South Scranton who was just 20 years old in the spring of 1945, had a knack for it.
He was known as a “sharp shooter when it came to needles,” he said.
Judah Samet, 81, was aboard one of those train cars.
On Wednesday, liberator and ex-prisoner met for the first time at the Hilton Scranton and Conference Center for a PBS documentary called “A Train Near Magdeburg.” It’s slated for release next year.
Samet, who lives in Pittsburgh, gained national attention when he survived the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in October, and attended the State of the Union address in February as a special guest of President Donald Trump.
Back in 1945, Samet was only 7, but he remembers using a man’s corpse as a pillow and to block the April chill leaking through the slats of the car.
He remembers feeling angry when Nazi soldiers eventually threw the body off the train. He recognized their murderous intent.
“They were looking for a place to finish us,” Samet said.
Gantz, now 94, was part of an advance party sweeping through Nazi Germany in the final days of World War II that stumbled upon a train — cattle cars abandoned by Nazi soldiers who learned that their hold on Europe was about to break.
“They were living skeletons really. Most of them only weighed half of their normal weight,” he said, describing the prisoners’ screams when medics inserted needles. “It was heart-wrenching really.”
Historian Matthew Rozell, a retired world history teacher who began interviewing World War II veterans with his students in Hudson Falls, New York, has become an expert on the April 13, 1945, liberation.
His research, and a book he wrote about the liberation, laid a foundation for the documentary. He brought Samet and Gantz together for one of the last joint interviews between prisoners and soldiers for the documentary.
Since first learning about the rescue in 2001, Rozell has found 300 survivors. He’s held 11 reunions on three continents, he said.
“Walter never went to any of them because I didn’t know Walter existed,” Rozell said, explaining how Gantz eventually learned about his work and tracked him down.
The 743rd Tank Battalion, which had been attached to the 30th Infantry Division, discovered the train in Farsleben, near Hillersleben where the 30th infantry had taken over a Luftwaffe air force base and research facility where top Nazi scientists developed secret weapons, Rozell said.
The medic, who gave up his “sharp shooter” nickname and now introduces himself as “the coach,” spent seven weeks in Hillersleben tending the rescued prisoners, nursing back to health those who could be saved.
Still, more than 100 died after the rescue, Gantz said.
Seated next to Gantz inside the hotel on Wednesday, Samet remembers the strength he drew from his mother, Rachel, a brilliant caregiver whom he says outsmarted the Nazis and kept them alive by rationing bits of hard black bread the size of olives throughout their 10½ month ordeal.
The train rescue at Farsleben gets little mention in history books, if any, Rozell said. He believes World War II has countless other untold accounts that were never written down and are waiting to be found again.
“The more you think you know, the more you realize you don’t know,” he said. “Other stories like this absolutely are still out there.”
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