Leslie Meisels feels lucky to be a rare Holocaust survivor whose entire nuclear family “went through hell and lived.”
But the death last month of Lt. Frank Winchester Towers, the U.S. officer who helped liberate and rehabilitate 2,500 Jews in 1945 – Meisels among them – from a train bound for the Theresienstadt concentration camp has caused the 89-year-old survivor and Thornhill, Ont. resident “a great, great sadness.”
Especially painful is that Towers, who died at age 99 and whom Meisels said didn’t just save his and his fellow survivors’ lives but “nourished us back to human beings,” was the last of the U.S. veterans who liberated the train that fateful day to pass away.
“These soldiers gave me back my life – that’s not just an abstract expression, but literally… I feel extreme sadness that they have gone. But I have to accept it. I have no choice,” Meisels said.
In 2009, at a symposium held in Hudson Falls, N.Y., Meisels was one of seven survivors from the liberated train who were reunited with seven of the former soldiers who’d saved them 64 years earlier.
The event was organized by Matt Rozell, a non-Jewish high school history teacher in Hudson Falls whose commitment to Holocaust education has garnered him several awards and an invitation to speak at Yad Vashem.
Rozell had stumbled across the story of the liberated train and ultimately tracked down more than 200 survivors living all over the world.
He was able to bring together seven of them, as well as seven soldiers, for the 2009 symposium. All 14 spoke at numerous sessions over the course of three days to nearly 2,500 local high school students.
Meisels made the trip there with his wife Eva, now 77 and herself a survivor of the Budapest ghetto.
Of that initial meeting with the soldiers, Meisels said: “There are no words, in any language, to explain the feeling I had to shake hands with, hug, laugh and cry at the same time as these people who gave me back my life… They said, ‘We didn’t do anything heroic. We were just doing our jobs.’ But, in fact, they were the angels of my life. That’s what I call them.”
From then on, the Meisels developed a particularly close friendship with Carrol Walsh, a Hudson Falls resident and one of the tank commanders from the 30th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army who had liberated the train.
Walsh, who died in 2012 and whose funeral the Meisels attended with their children and grandchildren, became a New York state court judge who subsequently served on the New York Supreme Court.
The Meisels also became close with Towers and his family, who lived in Florida, and they continue to keep in touch with both Towers’ and Walsh’s remaining family.
“In the [online] guestbook commemorating Frank Towers I wrote about the gratefulness me, my children and grandchildren will have to him until the end of our lives,” Meisels said.
Meisels was born in Hungary in 1927.
In 1944, when the Nazis occupied the country, his father was sent to a forced labour camp while he, his mother, grandmother and two brothers were deported and eventually taken to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
In April 1945, with the war nearing an end, Meisels, then 18, along with his mother and two little brothers were among the 2,500 Jewish prisoners forced onto a train for Theresienstadt.
After several days of travelling, the train was stopped and SS guards were ordered to blow it up and drown the passengers in the Elbe River.
Meisels said the train’s engineer and conductor got wind of the plan and slipped away on April 12.
The next day, the tanks of Regiment 743 of the 30th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, of which Meisels became an honorary member in 2009, arrived on the scene.
The following day, Lt. Frank Towers was dispatched to co-ordinate the rescue and rehabilitation of what Meisels called “the 2,500 emaciated skeletons.”
He took them to the nearby town of Hillersleben and set up a hospital to treat the liberated Jews.
Meisels said he weighed 75 pounds.
After the war, Meisels and his mother and brothers returned to Hungary, where they reunited with his father.
In 1956, he and his brothers fled Communist Hungary, and he settled in Hartford, Conn., where he worked doing cabinet-making.
Two years later, his parents moved to Toronto.
After meeting Eva at his brother’s wedding in Montreal in 1959, the couple married. They eventually moved to Toronto in 1967 and have two children and four grandchildren.
Leslie and Eva are very active in Holocaust education, speaking about their harrowing experiences in schools, churches and synagogues across North America.
In 2012, Leslie was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Yom Hashoah commemoration in Ottawa.
In subsequent years, he was keynote speaker at Holocaust commemorations in Sydney, N.S., Toronto and Calgary.
In 2014, the Azrieli Foundation published the Meisels’ Holocaust memoirs in a joint book titled Suddenly the Shadow Fell.
As to whether they get tired, Eva chuckled, “Of course we get tired.”
“But we get so many letters from students who write us about their feelings after hearing us speak and that makes it worth it to talk about,” Leslie said.