Jewish World War II vets tell of battle experiences
Walter Reed, left, a German-born Jew who was drafted into theU.S. Army at 22, sits with Cyndee Schaffer, author of "Mollie's War," during a forum at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center May 9. | Jackie Pilossoph~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 18, 2012 8:30AM
“War. You can’t describe the damage it does, and you have no idea how scary it is to be in a war.”
These are the words of 92-year-old Monty Nachman, a Jewish World War II veteran who served on the front lines and who experienced firsthand the horrifying atrocities of the Germans. Nachman and his platoon found dead bodies of thousands of Jews in the death camps in Poland.
“There was this terrible smell I’ll never forget,” says Nachman, who grew up in Detroit and who volunteered in the Navy in 1939 and served in Europe from that time until the end of the war, “Bodies were all over the place and guys were throwing up. I had nightmares and flashbacks and post-traumatic syndrome for years after.”
Nachman is one of 500,000 Jews who served in the U.S. military during World War II. He was one of three panelists who spoke on Thursday night at the Illinois Holocaust Museum about their wartime experiences and the impact their religion had on them during that time. The event, In conversation with Jewish GIs of World War II was moderated by Howard Reich, jazz critic for the Chicago Tribune and son of holocaust survivors, and is part of the museum’s special exhibit, Ours to Fight For: American Jews in the Second World War, which has been on display since February.
Walter Reed, a German-born Jew who was drafted into the Army at 22, and who served from 1943-46 was also a panelist. He says being in the Army made him a true American awfully fast.
“Living in Brooklyn, I’d never seen guys from Nebraska and Oklahoma. I stood out. I didn’t know anything about baseball or anything,” says Reed, who at 14 saw his father sent to a concentration camp just before Reed himself was given a visa to come to the states to live with relatives, “The other guys had entirely different backgrounds and ideas and they would shoot craps, and I didn’t even know what that was.”
Reed says he felt different and excluded, but that the other soldiers weren’t really anti-Semitic, however they were prejudiced in other ways.
“They were anti-black and their prejudice wasn’t my being Jewish, it was me being from New York. They said things like ‘polack’ and ‘dago’ but they weren’t said with anger.”
Reed’s replacement battalion landed in Normandy a week after the invasion. He says he was the only soldier who spoke French and German, and that because he knew both languages, he was trained as a German prisoner interrogator.
“Some of the Germans were scared s___less,” he says, “And some were clever. They would lie to me.”
The third panelist was Cyndee Schaffer, whose mother, Mollie Weinstein Schaffer served in the Women’s Army Corps from 1943 until the end of the war. Schaffer took her mother’s stories and wrote the book, “Mollie’s War: The Story of a World War II WAC in Europe,” published in 2010.
“She really wanted to fight the Germans,” says Schaffer of her mother, who worked in medical intelligence in England, France and Germany, “And she never really talked about the war to us when we were kids. When my mother was 92, I decided it was time to tell her story.”
Schaffer read letters that are included in the book that were written by her mother during the war.
The letters include everything from daily challenges to exciting experiences, and some personal stories of victims and survivors. Mollie Weinstein Schaffer passed away a few weeks ago.
Reed says during his wartime experience, he never knew about the murder camps.
“No one did,” says Reed, who became a U.S. citizen six months after he was drafted, “We were soldiers and we were concerned with the food and seeing girls. What was going on in Europe was completely unknown to us. The Nazis kept it a deep dark secret.”
“Fighting a war is a very dangerous game,” says Nachman, who says that knowing Yiddish helped him a lot during the war, since the Yiddish and German languages are so similar, “People are trying to kill you all the time.”
“Ours to Fight For: American Jews in the Second World War” will be on display at the museum until June 17. To learn more: www.ilholocaustmuseum.org.