COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — In the aftermath of the 2018 antisemitic massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, central Ohio-based documentarian Mike Edwards said he nearly fell out of his chair when he read a USA Today article about Judah Samet.
Samet, who was running four minutes late to his synagogue on that October day where 11 were killed, told the reporter he was a halted train away from Auschwitz in 1945, too.
Author Matthew Rozell immediately got to work to track down Samet, eventually getting into contact with his daughter. Edwards traveled to Pittsburgh, and it was in Scranton, Pa., where they were able to introduce — for the first time — the Holocaust survivor to Walter Gantz, a World War II combat medic, over lunch.
It is in this way that Edwards has worked to tell on screen the stories of Holocaust survivors liberated on that Nazi train and their American military liberators for close to eight years. Edwards was born and raised in Westerville, but now lives in Gahanna.
For Rozell, a former longtime New York state high school teacher, the medium of his storytelling has varied. His original mission from decades ago remains much the same.
Neither of the men are Jewish. But they both said in an interview with NBC4 they are continuously fueled to document Holocaust survivors and WWII veterans — populations that are dwindling with each year — to better educate future generations.
Watch NBC 4’s Eric Halperin’s full interview with Mike Edwards and Matthew Rozell in the video player below.
“A Train Near Magdeburg” is several months away and about $600,000 short from the finish line, Edwards said. The entire project — stemming from Rozell’s book of the same name — includes a documentary mini-series, an educational curriculum to go along with it, and a screening tour of the film.
“If I had a magic wand, I’d like to finish the project this year, if we can, and then try to release it sometime next year,” Edwards said.
One photograph gives way to a decade-long project
The entire chain of events kicked off with a single photograph, as Edwards and Rozell tell it.
That now-widely circulated picture — shot by U.S. Army Major Clarence Benjamin freeze-framing the emotions of a beaming liberated woman, a frightened-looking child, and others running from a train in the background — was tucked away in a shoebox collecting dust for more than six decades.
“When you think about photographs of trains and associate them with the Holocaust, you don’t think about people being liberated,” Rozell said.
But in 2001, Rozell was recording an interview alongside students for an oral history with Carrol Walsh, an 80-year-old veteran who served in WWII as a tank commander.
After a lengthy conversation — and just before the camera shut off — Walsh’s daughter prompted her father to tell Rozell “about the train.” Walsh talked of how American military forces on their way to a battle in April 1945 located and liberated close to 2,500 Jews on an abandoned train near the German city of Magdeburg that was originally routed to Theresienstadt.
“They had a job to do, and it wasn’t to take care of people. It wasn’t a humanitarian mission. But they did,” Rozell said. “They got the people out of harm’s way, they got them medical attention.”
After that interview, Rozell dug in.
He tracked down the photograph, which was at the bottom of a closet in the San Diego home of former tank commander George Gross. Holocaust Memorial Museum staff was “blown away” by the photograph when they saw it, he said.
Since then, Rozell received emails from tens of dozens of survivors who were on that same train, connected some of them with the less than a dozen surviving 30th Infantry Division members he’s come across in his extensive research, retired from teaching, and published a 500-page book.
For the last eight years, he and Edwards have also worked as a team, traveling to and from Israel and elsewhere to turn these stories into a documentary mini-series.
“I was honestly tired, I wasn’t really looking for another project. But this story grabbed my heart,” Edwards said.
Antisemitism on the rise creates urgency to document stories
Incidents of antisemitism steadily rose in the U.S. over the last decade — by 392% since 2013, according to global anti-hate organization the Anti-Defamation League. From 2021 to 2022 alone, they increased by 36% year-over-year.
“There’s so much ignorance and fear in the world,” Rozell said. “I’ve been teaching this for 20, 30 years now. It’s discouraging to see.”
Even when the documentary comes to fruition, he said their line of work doesn’t truly end.
“It’s never over,” Rozell said. “You can never stop educating, because even when you think you’re doing a great job — antisemitism is on the rise. We’re not doing a good enough job. That’s the whole point of our project.”
More information about continued progress on the project A Train to Magdeburg is available here. Edwards and Rozell also spoke at the Ohio Statehouse on Thursday alongside Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, for its annual Holocaust Commemoration event.
NBC4 reporter Eric Halperin contributed to this report.