Latest update: April 18th, 2013
They are known as the Greatest Generation, and for good reason. As children of the Depression, they learned to make do with little, and lacked, most significantly, a sense of entitlement. As they came of age, they were called upon to serve and defend their country, and they did so magnificently, many with their very lives. They then went on to raise families and build the country into the superpower it has become – all with little noise and fanfare; continuing, through it all, to quietly do their duty.
For an example, par excellence, of this Greatest Generation, meet Harry Rosenthal.
Mr. Rosenthal served for three years in the U.S. military during World War Two as a member of the 100 Signal Company, where he repaired radios for the military. After the war, he married and settled in Brooklyn, where he raised his son, while playing an integral role in building up The Jewish Press, both as its director of advertising, as well as by bringing in many new printing jobs, essential to the paper’s financial viability. But what strikes one most upon speaking with him and his wife Rivi (long-time political cartoonist for The Jewish Press) is their humility. Refreshing in today’s age of self-promotion, there is a lot to learn from Mr. Rosenthal’s self-deprecating smile and shrug, and the strong conviction he gives over, that, far from doing anything great, he was merely doing his duty.
But, then again, having that sense of duty is the beginning of greatness.
Ita Yankovitch: How did your serving in the military during WWII come about?
Harry: Unlike many others at the time, who were drafted, I actually enlisted in the army. There was a radio repair course I was interested in taking, and in order to register for it, one had to enlist. In the end, it was actually a blessing in disguise because due to this course, I learned a specialized skill which spared me from being on enemy lines or from being drafted to G-d knows what location. I served from 1942-1945.
Can you tell us about a little about your background?
I was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Russian parents. I attended Torah Voddath high school and then Brooklyn College. Let me tell you, it was a different world then. We were poor, of course, but it was the Depression, and everyone was poor. My father bought a house on Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg, but after a while he couldn’t afford the mortgage so he sold it and we moved into an apartment. Not only did I not have my own room; I didn’t even have my own bed! I shared one with my brother. Still, poverty didn’t stop my mother from helping out needy immigrant families. She did this so modestly that I didn’t even find out about it until her funeral, when I saw some unfamiliar faces crying, and I learned how she’d been helping them.
I sang in a boys’ choir, performing in shuls and at weddings. We got paid for the wedding performances – ten whole dollars! Actually, that was a nice amount of money in those days. Seymour Silbermintz, one of my fellow choir members, later became a name in his own right, going on to direct his own choir. Many years later, he even had my granddaughter in one of his elementary-school choirs.
What was your parents’ reaction to your enlistment?
My mother passed away before the war. My father was not too happy about it.
How did the neighborhood react to you joining the army?
People didn’t have strong opinions on the matter. Citizens today don’t respect veterans like they used to. I recall feeling, while serving, that society appreciated my duty. They didn’t let soldiers pay for anything in those days. I went to a baseball game and a Broadway show for free and I remember being charged $1 for eating at a fancy restaurant. Today there is a shift in attitude.
What was the overall Jewish reaction to you joining the war?
Many had ways to avoid being drafted. I remember one guy from yeshiva who was puzzled as to why I enlisted and asked why I don’t sit and learn to avoid serving. But I could never do that. I don’t harbor any ill feelings towards those that did and I don’t judge them, but I could never do that.
Rivi Rosenthal: I was often set up with young men who avoided the draft either through learning or reporting some sort of disability. My husband never used religion as a means to escape the war and I am very proud of him and his service. Harry is a very honorable man.
As I said, before I met him, I went out with several other men. There was one man in particular who wanted to continue, but I saw he wasn’t for me. I felt I had to let him down gently, so I told him I had given a commitment to a fellow serving overseas. One month later, I met Harry – so my words were proven correct!
Rivi, did you take part in the military?
I was a telephonist and a student at Pratt Institute. It was my job as a telephonist to monitor the phone for the police department’s emergency line just in case they needed back up. I received a citation for this after the war. I also volunteered for the Jewish Welfare Board to help soldiers.
Why do you think society today is critical of war and veterans?
Harry: The war we fought was not like the war in Afghanistan, Iran or Iraq. We all had a common enemy and a common desire to see them eradicated. There was no controversy in going to war.
Rivi: Once America became involved in more controversial wars like Vietnam, that’s when morals declined and you see drugs enter the picture and many veterans suffer from mental illness and unemployment.
I will tell you one story that when Rabbi Riesman heard it, he said it was a “Nes mi shamayim.” I was based in Fort Manmouth, NJ at one point and we were being relocated; it happened to be Yom Kippur that day. We were ordered to pack up all our equipment and ship out. My sleeping blanket had a hole in it and my sergeant instructed me to patch it up. I tried explaining to him that this was the holiest day of my year and if he could just give me until sundown, I’ll surely sew it, but he refused and demanded I fix the hole immediately. I didn’t know what to do, but all of a sudden out of nowhere a fellow soldier who was part of my group said he would do it for me. You have to understand this was a tough Irish Christian; I didn’t see it coming.
Let me tell you another story.
A Jewish fellow in my outfit was killed and in planning his funeral, we realized that there would be no chance for the Jewish Chaplain to make it in time for the eulogy. The rest of the group was arranging for the priest to come and conduct the funeral, but I managed to get them to let me lead the minyan and Kaddish service thereby allowing him to have a proper Jewish funeral.
Did you ever hear bombs exploding?
Mostly I was away from combat zone, but once I was 1 mile from the frontlines fixing radio wire and I heard guns going off. I still remember that feeling of terror.
Did you experience any anti-Semitism?
No. At the same time, it was nearly impossible to be outwardly Jewish in the army. Often we didn’t know what day of the week it was or when holidays came out. But I do recall getting packages from the Agudah and Young Israel for Pesach. There was an overabundance of food sent to us, so we shared it with everyone.
Were your fellow comrades resentful of being in a war that many perceived as a “Jewish problem?”
No one thought of it that way. We all felt threatened by the Axis of Evil. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor; it wasn’t just about Germany and the Jews.
I didn’t liberate any camps, but after the war we visited some DP camps. I will never forget meeting this one Jewish Polish girl and listening to her desire to return to Poland. She referred to it as “my home.” I’ve always wondered what happened to her. I spent a lot of time in the DP camp in Stuttgart, talking to the survivors. But we didn’t speak about their war experiences; we spokes about their future. People didn’t want to talk about the Holocaust, it was too painful. I remember, months later, davening in a shul in New York, and seeing a familiar face there. It hit me that this man was a survivor from the Stuttgart DP camp. I was prepared to go over to him – but he simply gave me a small wave and walked away. Apparently, he didn’t want to be reminded of that time.
Do you harbor any hatred towards Germany?
I will never go back to Germany. I was there on a tour of duty after the war, though I never fought there on the front lines.
Was it hard to return to civilian life?
No, I was looking forward to it. After the war, I worked with my father as a glazier.
What was the most challenging facet of the military?
Nothing and everything. It was a job we had to do. We had to defend our county. There was no time to dwell on such issues. I went through basic training learning how to march and shoot at targets, but other than that you are never prepared.
What are your thoughts on the military today?
If somebody wants to serve-go ahead! Why not? I couldn’t wait to serve my country. Although war then was different than the way it is today. I think many of the wars we engage in now are unnecessary.
Josh Rosenthal, Harry’s son, later joined us for the interview. I commented on how proud he must have been being a child with a father who served in WWII. Josh added his own perspective to the portrait of his father:
Josh: My father’s army experience always appeared to be the defining moment of his life. He is very proud of his service to his country, knowing he was fighting a noble war, but at the same time, true to his humble nature, he would minimize his own contributions. Interestingly, my father never encouraged me or others to join the army during the Vietnam War. He felt that was a less noble war, and not worth risking your life for.
My father loves telling his army stories to his grandchildren and now great-grandchildren, who by now know them by heart. Even as he’s aged, and his memory has diminished as is typical for someone in his nineties, those army memories still remain indelible.
Above all, my father is proud that he both did his patriotic duty, and returned home unscathed by the ravages of war. Throughout his life, he has remained true to his Torah beliefs and has been zocheh to see his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all shomrei Torah u’mitzvos – the biggest reward of all for a life well lived.
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