Maj. Towers, 95, shares a dramatic Holocaust story


Published: Friday, May 17, 2013 at 5:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 20, 2013 at 4:52 p.m.

World War II veteran Frank Towers is the last known surviving liberator of a train that in April 1945 was en route to the Bergen-Belsen death camp. A story published Saturday in The Sun was unclear on how many survivors remained from the effort to liberate the train.

When the doors of the train opened, Frank Towers couldn't believe the horrors inside.

The date was April 13, 1945, and a task force of American soldiers, including Maj. Frank Towers of the 30th Infantry Division, had just stumbled upon a train full of 2,500 Jewish prisoners heading toward the Bergen-Belsen death camp in northwestern Germany.

On Friday, Towers, who is now 95 years old and the last living member of his infantry division, told the harrowing story of the group's discovery and subsequent liberation of the prisoners to about 120 seventh-graders and a dozen parents and teachers at High Springs Community School.

It's a message that bears repeating often, said seventh-grade reading teacher Sherry Maguire, who helped organize the school's third annual Holocaust remembrance program, made possible by a grant from the Jewish Council of North Central Florida.

“It's not beyond the scope of imagination to think that this could happen again,” Maguire said.

She hopes that by understanding how the Holocaust began, her students will be part of the effort to prevent history from repeating itself.

Kim Lehnan, the school's dean, felt the need for a more meaningful Holocaust remembrance program after she visited the Auschwitz death camp three years ago. Lehnan and school librarian Judith Weaver began writing grants so they could buy books for each seventh grader studying the atrocities.

The first year, a benefactor in New York City wrote a single check for $800 to cover the book costs.

This is the third consecutive year High Springs Community School received a grant from the Jewish Council of North Central Florida. The $2,500 grant, the largest to the school so far, will cover the entire seventh-grade class' trip to the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg next week.

It also covered the cost of buying copies of “Night,” by renowned author Elie Wiesel, for each of the school's 120 seventh-grade students.

But the most powerful part of the program, by far, was Towers' presentation.

He took his audience back to that day in 1945, when the soldiers captured the stopped train and threw open the doors of the cars.

Each car was meant to hold 40 men at a maximum. But the cars on the death train contained double that number of men, women and children.

The 2,500 prisoners had been trapped on the train for six days, crammed together, starving and deprived of every basic human right.

“When the door was open, they just spilled out,” Towers said. “The stench was so horrible that some of our men had to just turn and vomit.”

But the prisoners were grateful. They would not be among the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

They fell on the ground, grasping at the soldiers, thanking them in their native languages of Polish, Hungarian and Romanian.

When he returned home after the war, Towers said, he tried to forget the horror of what he had seen.

But decades later, he began to wonder what happened to the survivors he helped to freedom.

He was haunted by the number of children he'd seen on the death train that day.

About 700 of the 2,500 prisoners were under the age of 21. One of them had been born just a day or two before the liberation.

Since 2005, through extensive research, Towers has made contact with 235 of the surviving “children,” who now live all over the world and have led full lives, made families and worked in a variety of professions.

“It has made me very, very proud to know that I have played a small part in bringing a new life to these people and allowing them to come back into society and a part of our culture today,” Towers said.

As he talked, some members of his audience dabbed their eyes.

Traci D'Agostino wept listening to Towers recount his experience, which she suspected was similar to her grandfather's.

Her grandfather never talked about the war, said D'Agostino, whose 12-year-old son Aidan was also in the audience. Now, she realizes the reason for her grandfather's stoicism.

“From what I understand, he was a changed man after the war,” she said. “Now I have a better understanding as to why.”

Alexandra Young and Kellie Cauthon have been learning about the Holocaust for about a month in Maguire's class. But they didn't realize until Friday that so many of the victims had been children about their age.

“I was really surprised that people could do that,” said Alexandra, 12.

Kellie, 14, thought Towers' presentation was relatable to everyone.

“Just hearing about it, it really does change you and how you act,” she said.

Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or erin.jester@gainesville.com.

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