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The View From a Soldier’s Life

If I could plot my maternal grandfather’s life on a graph, it would start with a steady rise in his teens, skyrocket in his early 20s and show an abrupt drop by age 30, which would be around 1950. Myron Moses, affectionately known to me as “Grandpa Mike,” had an abnormally bright future prior to the Second World War. At the age of 17, he co-wrote the lyrics to “Everything Happens to Me,” a song that was recorded by many of the biggest names of his era, including Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. In college, Mike was a pitcher for New York University’s baseball team. By the end of World War II, he had risen to the rank of highly decorated captain, participated in the D-Day landing at Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge, and had received numerous commendations and two Purple Hearts.

If his life were a movie, Mike would have returned from World War II, married his sweetheart, and lived happily ever after. In real life, he was married four times and fathered five children with different wives, and his lifetime employment was sporadic at best. He sold that hit song he co-wrote for Sinatra for a mere $50.

When I was a teenager, I would frequently ask my grandfather about his heroic exploits. I would ask about the Invasion of Normandy and what it was like to be pinned down by machine gun fire on the beach for two days without sleep, food or water; about the telegram the Army mistakenly sent to Mike’s parents stating he was Missing in Action and presumed dead (he actually got separated from his unit on D-Day and fell in with a different platoon); the shrapnel that hit Mike in the backside at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, or the V2 rocket that hit him in London on his very first day out of the military hospital, only to send him back to the same dreary recovery ward that had just treated his earlier wounds. In hindsight, my Grandpa Mike’s song “Everything Happens to Me” turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In March 2003, six decades after cheating death in Central Europe, Mike passed away. That same month, I lost the first of three high school classmates to the war in Iraq. Thomas Robbins had been on the track team with me, and his death by an exploded bomb triggered a great deal of introspection. As my former high school classmates became cannon fodder for a war I did not believe in, I began to reflect on my grandfather’s wartime experience. It helped that I inherited his World War II photo collection. But I also inherited a pile of dirty laundry that my grandmother, divorced from Mike for more than 50 years, suddenly shared with us on the car ride back from his funeral: the gambling; the bookie in Queens; the smalltime stealing to pay off debts. Years later, I asked my grandmother if Mike’s wartime experiences might have contributed to this clandestine behavior that was hidden from even my mother until Mike’s death. “Your grandfather would wake up in the middle of the night shouting and believing he was still in his foxhole. He had nightmares and would debate in his sleep with fellow soldiers about whether or not they should shoot, and whether it would reveal their positions. He was very affected by the war. They didn’t have psychologists or counselors to talk with back then. He became impossible to deal with.”

While the extermination of 6 million Jews — representing well over 60% of Europe’s prewar Jewish population — is well documented, far less has been written about the fate of Jewish-American soldiers captured by the Nazis. In his book “Soldiers and Slaves,” Roger Cohen notes that Jews accounted for about 3% of the American armed forces during the Second World War; however, at least 23% of the American soldiers captured during the Battle of the Bulge and sent to the Berga concentration camp were Jews. At the time, German efforts to identify Jews among American prisoners of war were gravely effective. While American POWs generally received far better treatment than their allied counterparts from Russia or Poland, a Jewish-sounding last name, Semitic features or an “H” (for ‘Hebrew’) on one’s dog tag often spelled a death sentence for captured American soldiers unable to pass themselves off as “Anglo.”

Shortly before my grandfather’s death, I posited a question about what would have happened had he become a Jewish American POW in German hands during the Battle of the Bulge. “I was captured by the Nazis,” he calmly stated. “I escaped with a few other American prisoners at night by knifing the guard and fleeing the camp.” This was the first and only time anyone in our family ever heard about this harrowing and almost certainly lifesaving incident; that Mike did not tell any of us about this experience until well into his early 80s will always remain something of a mystery, and was presumably a conscious decision.

As the commanding officer of his unit, Mike had a privilege that the enlisted men lacked: He could mail photos directly back to the States without interception by U.S. Army censors. An only child who was doted on by his parents, my grandfather delighted in mailing them photographs of his travels accompanied by detailed notes on the back of each picture. The hundreds of black-and-white photos I found in my grandfather’s closet after his death are among the most inspirational yet gruesome pictures I have ever seen. Unspeakable carnage and horrors are documented in the wartime shots, but they also validate the sacrifice and efforts of millions of American personnel who freed Europe from Nazi tyranny. The photos also provide a great deal of insight into the discordance between my grandfather’s early and later years. Although he was once a decisive and courageous Army captain, Mike was a less reliable postwar civilian.

His unit was one of the first to arrive at and liberate a concentration camp in Germany. Among the photographs in my grandfather’s collection are numerous Holocaust-related shots; body parts can be seen openly hanging out of an oven. In another photo, hundreds of Jewish victims are stacked in heaps on top of each other. Hailing from a secular third-generation Jewish household, my grandfather was never a religious man. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder what sort of impact the mass murder of his Eastern European brethren had on him as a U.S. Army captain. If he had doubts about the existence of God before the war, being one of the first officers to arrive at the scene of Nazi gas chambers and mass graves was hardly likely to change his mind.

A more uplifting photo in my grandfather’s collection is a shot of 200 Jewish American soldiers praying on Rosh Hashanah at a synagogue in newly liberated France. Had they been back home in Brooklyn or Chicago, the men would have been wearing yarmulkes, the traditional skullcaps worn in synagogue. Instead, since they were on active combat duty during the Jewish New Year, the soldiers had no choice but to wear their Army helmets at the service. Despite Mike’s nonreligious background, the prose written on the back of the photo is typical of his poetic style: “The four freedoms return once more to liberated France, and the same GIs who fought for them enjoy the freedom of worship in a country that was only a short time previously under Nazi domination. Jewish soldiers commemorate the Jewish New Year at services in the synagogue of Reims, France.”

Other photographs in my grandfather’s collection detail his unit’s progress and observations as the soldiers fought their way through France and Belgium and ultimately into Germany. There are happier moments, such as the posed shot in front of the Eiffel Tower and the picture with army buddies on a jeep appropriately emblazoned with the name “Hell’s Little Angels.” There is also plenty of destruction — photos of bombed-out bridges and passenger trains in Luxembourg; shots taken by Mike and sent to his parents of flattened neighborhoods in Cologne, Germany. (“Dear Mom & Dad: What could I possibly add? Cologne no longer exists.”)

Growing up in upstate New York in the 1980s, I assumed that everyone’s grandfather had served in World War II. Some of my fondest grade-school memories involve traipsing around the elementary school parking lot at the annual Halloween parade with Mike’s Army medals pinned to an ill-fitting shirt while wearing my other grandfather’s naval officer cap. Several friends wore similar costumes fashioned from their grandfathers’ service uniforms. Many an afternoon after grade school, we could be found in the woods of our small town, re-creating D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge. Of course, none of us ever played the Germans.

Years later, I still see my grandfather as a hero. With hindsight and an adult’s understanding, I also see him as someone whose life was forever altered by his wartime experiences. The hidden toll that World War II veterans bore for decades after “the Last Great War” serves as a reminder of the trouble lurking ahead for many of those who have served or are currently on duty in Iraq.

Would Mike have had the same gambling problems if he weren’t wounded twice in one month? I don’t believe so. Would my grandparents have remained together had adequate counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder existed during the World War II era? It’s possible, although speculative. Looking at my grandfather’s photographs more than 60 years after they were taken, I have a window into his troubled but extraordinary past and, by extension, a better understanding of my family — and myself.

Josh Norek is vice president of business affairs for Nacional Records. To some Forward readers, he may be better known as “Josué Noriega,” frontman of Latino-Jewish rappers Hip Hop Hoodíos.

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