I was 19 years old, a Brooklyn kid two semesters into college at Penn State, when I was called up for service in the Army in 1943. For a while, I was lucky; I was sent to school for training as an engineer rather than training for the beach landing of D-Day. But in 1944 that program ended, and in December of that year I was shivering in the snow in western Germany, just across the Belgian border.
On December 16, early in the morning, we heard a bombardment, the first real action we’d seen. Orders came back to the cooks: “Make all the food. Get the men up to feed them and do it fast.” We had a banquet. We had French toast and pancakes and eggs. We were going into battle.
War historians have examined the events that led to the Battle of the Bulge and the miserable days that lay ahead for me and for thousands of my fellow soldiers in the 423rd Regiment, which was part of the 106th Infantry Division. We were unprepared for winter fighting. WWII bombers were mostly effective in clear weather, and low cloud cover had limited our most valuable weapon. And the Allied generals thought the Germans were in retreat, falling back to defend prewar German borders. It didn’t occur to them that the Germans were capable of—or interested in—mounting a major counterattack.
The shelling we heard was that counterattack on a massive scale. To both the north and south of our position, German troops were advancing incredibly quickly—creating the Bulge. We were being surrounded.
Our officers received orders to break out of the trap forming around us. All the vehicles were lined up into a convoy and we were going to fight our way back to St. Vith, a Belgian town we had passed on our way to the front.
My squad’s 57-millimeter antitank gun was the only one in our battalion that was still operational. The convoy’s officers told us, “You are now the rear guard. You’re the last truck in the convoy. As soon as the convoy stops, unhitch your gun from the truck and get it ready to fire to the rear. Stay there for 15 to 20 minutes. If you don’t see the Germans, load up again, get the hell back on the road and catch up to us. OK?”
That’s what we did. We were the last defense between the convoy and any German troops behind us.
It’s astonishing how quickly an army can collapse. In 36 hours, I went from being part of a well-armed, highly mechanized force to a foot soldier to being lost in the woods with three other guys—no other Americans in sight. The attack had cut off our supply and communication lines, so our convoy disintegrated. Trucks ran out of gas. Others got stuck in ice and mud or slid off the road. The road became impassable. We had to leave our truck and gun and start walking.
In the chaos, we all became separated from our divisions and officers. Officers near me tried to organize groups, and I joined one. We had been on the move for an hour or two when we spied a German combat patrol heading right for us. We hid, but four of us at the end of the line had to wait for them to pass and were separated from the rest. We started forward, hoping to catch up, but we lost track of the men ahead. We spent the night hidden under the low-hanging branches of an evergreen tree.
As dawn started to break we could see out through the branches. In the dim light, we could see that the Germans had set up camp right near our hiding place.
Outnumbered and isolated, we broke down our weapons and created a white flag, someone’s handkerchief. We started walking up a hill. Then we started running up. We knew there was a road to St. Vith in this direction but didn’t know how far it was. Maybe we could sneak through. We approached the top of the hill and somebody yelled, “Halt!”
There were four German soldiers. They had rifles. We had a white flag.
From the top of the hill we were able to look down at the road and there was a parade like 42nd Street on Christmas Day: an endless convoy of German vehicles and tanks going in the direction of Saint Vith. We could never have gotten away.
The Germans marched us to a barn. Inside there were other GIs. A German officer came through, looking for American officers. The sergeant I’d been captured with stood up and said something to him. The officer stopped, then motioned for the sergeant to come outside. A little while later the sergeant came in and he had part of a loaf of bread and some kind of sausage. He didn’t share it with anyone. We had already gone four or five days without eating. Here he came back with food. What the hell did he tell the Nazis?
They formed us up and we started marching with hundreds of other American POWs. Mostly we were on country roads. At times, we could look down on a town below us, snow covered, with a church steeple in the middle, as yet untouched by battle. It looked like a Christmas card.
As we passed one farm house, an elderly woman had a basket of apples that she was handing out to the POWs. That one generous German civilian kept me alive.
Finally, we reached the railroad. The train was a line of boxcars, perhaps one they’d used to transport people to the concentration camps. They closed us in the train car and locked it. We still hadn’t eaten, and there was no food. We had no water. At least when we were marching we’d been able to scoop up snow for water. Not now. A steel helmet became the latrine for 80 men. It was terrible.
We arrived at Stalag IV-B on New Year’s Eve, having gone two weeks without food. The Stalag was near an eastern German town called Mühlberg, 300 miles from where we’d first boarded the train. We got there at about midnight and lined up in front of a barracks. It was snowing and again very cold. That New Year’s Eve, we were not celebrating.
When my turn came to enter the building, I saw there were six desks with a line of maybe five men in front of each, waiting to be interrogated. At each desk was an officer in a British uniform. They spoke with English accents. Whether it was from delirium or fear or reasonable suspicion, I was not persuaded by these officers’ uniforms or perfect English. It did not make sense to me that I would be registered at a prison camp by British officers. I was sure they were Germans.
As I got nearer to the desks I could hear the questions being asked of the men in front of me. In our training, we had been told that the only information we should supply was name, rank, and serial number. Now the questions were clear:
What was your outfit?
Where were you captured?
Where are you from?
… on and on, about 30 questions in all.
When my turn came, I answered the first three questions, then kept answering “Sorry, sir. Sorry, sir,” as we had been trained. My questioner went through the whole list then stopped and said in his English accent, “How long has it been since you’ve eaten, soldier?” This question I answered: “Two weeks, sir.”
“Soldier, I will ask these questions one more time. If you don’t answer, you won’t eat for another month!”
To not answer now would be suicide, so I answered. When it came to religion, lying seemed the safe thing to do. I hadn’t heard anyone else admit to being Jewish. But I didn’t care. In my mind I said, “Fuck you!” I was young, angry, and by any measure stupid. I answered, “Jewish.”
I fully expected to be pulled out of the line by my interrogator, but I wasn’t. I was led out with others and assigned to a barracks.
The next morning we were lined up and counted. The officer in charge barked out a number of orders in English:
“All medical personnel take one step forward.”
“All cooks and bakers take two steps forward.”
“All Jews take three steps forward.”
Again, I was sure that those of us who identified ourselves as Jewish would be marched off to who knows what fate. We knew the Nazis enslaved and murdered Jews, though we did not then know the extent of the slaughter at the death camps. Along with a handful of other Jewish GIs, I stepped forward anyway. We were not rounded up. Some prisoners who had not stepped forward were picked out for work details. The rest of us were dismissed.
Had I been in another prison camp, that moment might have turned out differently. A contingent of Jewish-American GIs and other “troublemakers” were sent from Stalag IX-B to the Berga slave camp, part of the Buchenwald complex. Some were worked to death. More died on a forced march as Allied troops approached.
Over time, I learned how my camp worked, and why Jewish soldiers were not abused there. By this point in the war, the Germans had minimized the number of German guards at POW camps to send more soldiers into battle. Most of the guards were not German, but from the countries Germany had annexed. Allied officers, mostly British, were in charge of a lot of the internal workings at the camp. They did their best to protect Jewish soldiers, keeping us from interacting with German guards or civilians. My interrogator had in fact been British, and the comprehensive information he’d demanded allowed him to report my capture to the War Department, the Red Cross, and, in turn, my parents. My defiant pronouncement of my religion probably helped save my life.
I have also heard that the Germans themselves did not want Jewish prisoners on work details outside the camp, where we would meet German civilians. They did not want civilians to know that there were brave, strong American Jews, willing to fight. It belied their propaganda.
My best friend in the Army, Blue Caldwell, was in my barracks. Blue was from Mississippi, and culturally we could not have been more different. But we’d hit it off while training in Indiana. We got together to try to support each other. We shared our food and tried to do our best to survive. The food was inadequate and it seemed the temperature just kept dropping. The barracks had no heat.
On the 11th day in prison camp, I felt desperately weak and cold. I’d heard the infirmary was heated. If you went on sick call, it would take an hour or two before you were examined and for a while you’d be warm.
At the infirmary, I tried to position myself so as not to be taken early. When my turn came, a South African doctor examined me, dictating to his orderly. Although some of the words he spoke were English, he was primarily speaking Boer. At one point he said, “TBC.” With that, they wrapped me in a blanket and carried me off to the camp hospital on the stretcher. “TBC” was tuberculosis. Now I could admit to myself that I really was sick.
Someone helped me remove my clothes and put on a hospital gown. I got in bed and they put my filthy clothes under my pillow.
I shared the ward with about 15 other men. As I lay there, an ambulatory patient came to my bed, reached under my pillow, and took my clothes. I thought, “This is the end. I’m in a prison camp. I have tuberculosis. Now my clothes have been stolen and I am too weak to do anything about it.”
Several hours later, this same patient returned. He had cleaned my clothes and folded them neatly. He put them under my pillow. This was my introduction to my Dutch friend, Ben ter Beck.
The first several days in the hospital I was too weak to get out of bed. The doctors determined I didn’t have tuberculosis but pneumonia, which was only slightly better. With close quarters, malnourishment, and no heat, many Allied prisoners died of disease in German POW camps. Ben took on the job of being my caregiver. He would almost force me to have my cup of soup and when I could eat no more, I noticed he would take any uneaten bread and eat it himself. Cynical, I was sure that’s why he was taking care of me.
As the days wore on I started to improve and my appetite returned. Now when they brought food, I didn’t eat it, I devoured it. Then I noticed something. When my food came, I’d find an extra slice of bread on my plate. Ben was paying me back.
About two weeks after I entered the hospital, I was well enough to be up and around. But what happened when Ben walked in one afternoon still brings tears to my eyes. Somehow, he had traded wheat germ from our Red Cross packages for the necessary ingredients and baked a cake. The frosting on top spelled out: CHEERS FOR USA.
It was the heaviest cake—and the most delicious one—I have ever eaten.
The first day of Passover in 1945 was March 29. A Jewish soldier, Joe Sedaka, came by my barracks. He said, “Come with me.” We got near a barracks and Joe looked to make sure no guards were watching.
When we went inside, there was a group of Jewish soldiers celebrating Passover. Not a Seder—we didn’t have the food—but a Passover service under the noses of the Nazis. Joe had a lucky charm in his wallet that his grandfather had given him at a Seder before Joe left for the Army: It was a small piece of matzo wrapped up in a cloth. For our prison camp Passover, we were able to bless a real piece of matzo.
Finally, on April 23, a Russian officer rode into camp—I’m not exaggerating—on a white horse. He had weapons coming out of his boots: a submachine gun and a rifle and everything else. He was armed to the teeth. He came into the camp and said, “You’re free.”
In 2018, there aren’t too many of us Jewish-American POWs left. The sniper of time has been steadily picking us off in ways that German shells and bullets tried but failed to do 74 years ago. As my generation dwindles, interest in WWII veterans has been rekindled, and I’m asked about it, thanked, celebrated and congratulated at every turn. I never thought I was a hero, and do not think so now. But to many, even survival is a form of heroism. So is living to 94.
When I tell my story, I sometimes choke up at the memory of being frozen and starved, or when I think about my parents—it’s still that alive for me. I don’t pretend it was easy. But I know that I was lucky in ways large and small. I was lucky to have been sent to school through part of the war, missing many months of battle. I was lucky to meet Blue Caldwell, lucky to have been issued an overcoat, lucky to have avoided the shells and bombs and bullets, lucky to have contracted pneumonia and not tuberculosis. I came back alive and healthy and mentally stable. I came back to lead a happy, prosperous life. I’m lucky to be 94 and able to write about my experiences.
But every day I read the papers and watch the news. I see American citizens who, astonishingly, seem bent on pulling us toward becoming the kind of brutal, prejudiced society we went to war against in 1941. The war led to tremendous social and global changes, from the end of Jim Crow to the creation of modern Europe and Japan and the progress of the women’s movement. By and large, American soldiers set an example for the world: We won without resorting to torture or rape or subjugation, then, with the Marshall Plan, showed that the U.S. valued functioning societies over national punishment. The global admiration for democracy, and for the United States, soared in the decades after the war.
The America I love and risked my life for is one where Blue Caldwell and I could recognize each other as friends and not stereotypes, where we could have each other’s backs through every kind of adversity. It’s one where immigrants like my parents can make a life they could not have hoped for in their native country. It’s a country built on laws and morality, where we recognize right and wrong, that ends don’t always justify means. It’s one for which people from countries all over the world might, like my Dutch friend Ben ter Beck, consider risking their freedom to bake a cake that says, “CHEERS FOR USA!”
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