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As WWII came to an end, attempts were made to evacuate concentration camps before Allied troops arrived. Three trains were sent from Bergen-Belsen on April 10, 1945, intended for Theresienstadt. This train got as far as Farsleben, near Magdeburg, when US troops freed the prisoners on April 13, 1945. It is estimated that about 2,500 prisoners were aboard this train when it started out on its fateful journey from Bergen-Belsen on April 10, 1945.
A description of the liberation, including amazing pictures, is available at the USHMM web site. Recently some of the soldiers who liberated these emaciated prisoners have written about this episode.
An article written in 2008 by Frank W. Towers of the 30th Infantry Division (http://www.30thinfantry.org/holocaust.shtml) gives a very personal overview of the encounter with this train. The Farsleben Medical Detachment account provides another perspective. Wayne Robinson, Move out Verify: the Combat Story of the 743rd Tank Battalion (Germany, no publisher, 1945), wrote, pp. 162-63:
"This had been - and was - a horror train. In these freight cars had been shipped 2500 people, jam-packed in like sardines, and they were people that had two things in common, one with the other: They were prisoners of the German State and they were Jews.
These 2,500 wretched people, starved, beaten, ill, some dying, were political prisoners who had until a few days before been held at concentration camp near Hanover. When the Allied armies smashed through beyond the Rhine and began slicing into central Germany, the tragic 2,500 had been loaded into old railroad cars-as many as 68 in one filthy boxcar - and brought in a torturous journey to this railroad siding by the Elbe. They were to be taken still deeper into Germany beyond the Elbe when German trainmen got into an argument about the route and the cars had been shunted onto the siding. Here the tide of the Ninth Army's rush had found them.
They found it hard to believe they were in friendly hands once more: they were fearful that the Germans would return. They had been guarded by a large force of SS troopers, most of whom had disappeared in the night. Major Benjamin, knowing there were many German Army stragglers still in the area...."
Mr. Towers wrote:
"In between Brunswick and Magdeburg was the city of Hillersleben, where there was a large German Luftwaffe airbase with many two-story barracks buildings for the Nazi German personnel who had recently been evicted by the 30th Infantry Division during the capturing of Hillersleben.
At this point, a small task force, led by the 743rd Tank Battalion, with infantrymen of the 119th Regiment, was mounted on these tanks. As they were forging ahead towards Magdeburg, they entered the small town of Farsleben, about 10 km north of Magdeburg, with the mission of clearing out all of the German soldiers who may be waiting there for us, and may have set up an ambush.
Only very recently, I learned that a Mr. George C. Gross, and a Mr. Caroll Walsh were the two tank commanders involved in this task force which found and liberated this train.
Upon entering and capturing the village, no German soldiers were found who may have been intent on setting up an ambush when we appeared. However, the lead elements of the 743rd Recon discovered a long freight train on the railroad track, which had been guarded by several Nazi guards. The engine was standing ready with a full head of steam and awaiting orders as to where to go. The guards and the train crew fled the area as soon as they realized that they were well outnumbered, although they were rounded up in a short time.
As the train was sitting idly by, while the train crew was awaiting orders and making a decision as to where to go, many of the occupants of some of the passenger cars had dismounted and were relaxing on the ground near the train.
This train, which contained about 2,500 Jews, had a few days previously left the Bergen-Belsen death camp. Men, women and children, were all loaded into a few available railway cars, some passenger and some freight, but mostly the typical antiquated freight cars, termed as "40 and 8" a WWI terminology. This signified that these cars would accommodate 40 men or 8 horses.
They were crammed into all available space and the freight cars were packed with about 60-70 of the Jewish Holocaust victims, with standing room only for most of them, so that they were packed in like sardines....
Some of these prisoners had dismounted from the passenger cars and were milling about near the train and relaxing, as best they could, under the watchful eyes of their Nazi guards. Those in the freight cars were still locked in the cars when discovered, but shortly they were released.
The men of the 743rd Tank Battalion and the 119th Regiment, who discovered this train, could not believe what they were seeing, nor what they had upon their hands at this moment. Upon speaking to some of those victims, a few of whom could speak a little English, they began to learn what they had uncovered. Each one had a slightly different story to tell, so there is no way of accurately knowing what the real story was. Now after 60 plus years, and having heard the stories from their parents, there is a good possibility that there may be some inaccuracies or exaggerations.
They immediately unlocked all of the freight cars and allowed these pathetic victims to be released and dismount from the cars and enjoy their first taste of freedom. Many were hesitant at first because they had been advised by their Nazi guards that 'if and when they ever became prisoners of the Americans, they would be executed immediately.' Little did they know what to expect at the hands of these savage Americans."
Mr. Towers then moves to 62 years later and describes his chance encounter with a website called "The World War II Living History Project" by Matt Rozell, a teacher at Hudson Falls High School near Albany, NY. "A Train Near Magdeburg," part of the Holocaust project, was written by two former members of the 743rd Tank Battalion. ( http://www.hfcsd.org/ww2/Interviews/GEORGE%20GROSS/george%20gross.htm).
In March 2008 there was a reunion of the 30th Infantry Division Veterans attended by five Farsleben survivors. There will be another reunion in March 2009, and the group hopes that more survivors will attend.
Also see the Introduction to the database of another of the three trains from Bergen-Belsen, called "The Lost Train: Bergen-Belsen to Tröbitz", at http://www.jewishgen.org/databases/Holocaust/0170_lost_train.html.
This database includes 2,018 prisoners who were liberated April 13, 1945. The fields of the database are as follows:
Thanks to Frank W. Towers for permission to quote from his article and for alerting us to the Farsleben Medical Report. Thanks to Bernd Horstmann for preparing and donating this list from the files at Gedenkstätte Bergen-Belsen. The The 30th Infantry Division Veterans of WWII will be holding another reunion of the survivors and their liberators in 2009. Any persons having updated information on the survivors should contact Mr. Towers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition, thanks to JewishGen Inc. for providing the website and database expertise to make this database accessible. Special thanks to Warren Blatt and Michael Tobias for their continued contributions to Jewish genealogy. Particular thanks to the Research Division headed by Joyce Field and to Nolan Altman, coordinator of Holocaust files.
This database is searchable via JewishGen's Holocaust Database.
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Last Update: 28 Dec 2008 by MFK