The Last Train, A Holocaust Story, the latest book by Rona Arato, is based on the memories of her husband, Paul Auslander, about his family’s horrific journey from Hungary after they were forced from ghetto to work camps to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and finally to the death train from which they were miraculously saved.
Arato, author of 15 fiction and non-fiction children’s books, winner of the Norman Fleck Award for children’s non-fiction and many other awards, told The CJN that Paul was five years old when the Nazis occupied his hometown of Karcag in Hungary in April 1944. For the next year, Paul, his 11-year-old brother, Oscar, and his ailing mother endured the atrocities of the Holocaust.
After the war, the family returned to Hungary, where Paul’s father was a high school teacher. The country was then under Soviet rule, and the family name was changed from Auslander, which is German, to Arato, because the Communist government insisted that teachers have Hungarian names.
Paul escaped to Canada after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
Arato said her husband hesitated to speak about his childhood memories until the spring of 2008 when he stumbled upon photographs on his computer of the train from which thousands of Jewish prisoners, including his own family, were saved more than 60 years earlier.
“The picture on the screen showed a woman running toward a camera, arms outstretched, her face a mask of surprise. What caught my husband’s attention was in the backdrop – the abandoned freight train,” Arato said.
Two American soldiers were on a reconnaissance mission in Germany, she explained, when they drove their tank out of the forest and found the abandoned train filled with 2,500 prisoner-survivors from Bergen-Belsen.
“The German guards had dropped their guns and run off. The [American] men called for backup, and the soldiers in their division got the people off the train and took care of them.”
Matt Rozell, a high school teacher in Hudson Falls, N.Y., posted the pictures on the computer when he started a living history project on the saving of the Jews on the abandoned train.
Rozell was planning a reunion of the soldiers and the survivors, and he asked them to contact him. The Aratos responded, and subsequently attended the reunion at Rozell’s high school in Hudson Falls.
Arato, who lives in Toronto, is a sought-after speaker on human rights issues including discrimination, bullying, slavery, genocide and immigration. From 1994 to 1998, she interviewed Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
Recently, Arato did a presentation to Alberta schools in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Calgary. “I basically conducted my own Holocaust Education Week,” she said. “Most of the students are Christian, and their reception to the book is amazing.”
The Last Train is only the second non-fiction book to ever win a Rocky Mountain Book Award. The other was Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine.
“I introduce these subjects to children in a careful way that they can relate to and understand in the context of their own lives,” Arato said.
“Paul became ill while I was writing The Last Train and passed away three months after it was published. He was at the launch and was very proud of the book.”
Although The Last Train, A Holocaust Story was written for children and students, it can be appreciated by adult readers who can visualize the events of the Holocaust through the eyes of young survivors.