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.