NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – Robert Spitz was an emaciated, lice-infested 15-year-old when he was put on an overcrowded train at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in the waning days of World War II. He was sure it was a journey to death.
Instead, it proved to be a trip to freedom as the train, moving prisoners before approaching Allied troops in April 1945, was abandoned by the Germans after five days and liberated by troops from the U.S. 30th Infantry Division.
On Friday, eight survivors of that horrific train ride attended an annual reunion that is held in different cities each year. The survivors shared stories and gave thanks with about 50 other people, including dozens of soldiers and their wives.
A number of them choked back tears during a memorial service when a brass bell sounded 80 times — once for each member of the Army division who died during the past year.
"As we marched out of the camp under SS guard, we were passing stacks of dead bodies. They were stacked like cordwood," said Spitz, 79, a Jew who was arrested in Budapest, Hungary, and spent 13 months in the camp before being put on the train. He weighed 65 pounds at the time.
"Only God knew where we were going or what the future held for us," said Spitz, who now lives in Fayetteville, Ark.
The train wandered for five days until it was abandoned near the town of Magdeburg, about 50 miles southwest of Berlin.
"When the American medics arrived they said, "You are free! You are free!" recalled Spitz. He said many on the train were too weak to move or even comprehend.
The train is thought to have carried 2,500 prisoners, and reunion organizers think as many as 400 may still be living. It included both passenger and cattle cars, which were used by the Germans to transport 40 soldiers. On this trip, however, those cattle cars were packed with 90 prisoners with no food or water.
"They were filthy. They were skin and bones. They were infested with lice," said Frank Towers, 92, of Brooker, Fla., a first lieutenant who led a convoy on a 50-mile ride to a town where those on the train could be cared for. "For five days they were allowed out of the train for only an hour a day to eat. And that was water with potato skins — potato soup."
John Fransman, 69, another train survivor, came from London for the reunion.
Originally from Amsterdam, he was just a child when he rode the hard, wooden seats in the passenger car with his mother. His father was executed in the concentration camp.
"I remember seeing the bodies of dead people every morning," he said. "We very much lost our childhood."
"I am very grateful to come here and express my thanks," he said.
The reunion with the Holocaust survivors results from a project started by Matthew Rozell, a history teacher from Hudson Falls, N.Y. He posted a soldier's account of the liberation on the Web in 2002 and survivors have found the site over the years.
To date, about 50 have been located, Rozell said. "They are all over the world. We want to find more," he said.
The train was liberated on April 13, 1945, days before Bergen-Belsen, which is in northwestern Germany.
The Magdeburg train was one of three to leave the concentration camp in the last days of the war. One arrived at another German concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, while the third was intercepted by the Soviets.