Mr. Moskin, please tell our readers about your family background?
I was born in Englewood, New Jersey on May 30, 1926, so I just turned 87. When I was a kid back in the 30’s and 40’s, very few people reached that age. Although my family was not overly observant, I did have a bar mitzvah and attend a Hebrew high school. As I got older, I started to relate more to Conservative Judaism rather than Orthodox. I feel strongly about my Jewish heritage but it is more in my heart than in my being ritualistic, going to temple on Shabbos, etc.
My father was a pharmacist and the mayor of Englewood for a number of years. My mother, like most women at that time, was a homemaker. She came from Latvia when she was very young and later became the matriarch of the family. I also have a younger brother. I graduated high school a few weeks after my 17 birthday, started Syracuse University in the summer of 1943, and a year later upon turning 18, was drafted into the United States Army.
How did you feel being drafted?
I felt it was my duty to serve. People were so patriotic in those days. I personally believe very strongly in the draft system. I feel everyone physically able should be willing to serve to protect the liberty and freedom we have in this great republic, the United States of America.
I was sent to Camp Blanding in Florida for 3 and half months of infantry basic training. That is where you learned to fire various weapons, traverse obstacle courses, go on long marches, dig fox holes, etc. It was learning how to survive in combat, how to kill or be killed. That was quite a transition for me, from being a student to learning how to shoot and kill people. After basic training, I was shipped overseas and joined the 66th infantry regiment, 71st division part of the third army led by General Patton. Our outfit fought in combat against the Nazis in various battles during the Rhineland Campaign and the Central European Campaign.
Did you encounter any anti-Semitism in the military?
Unfortunately, yes. You have to understand it was in the south in Florida in the 40s where I went for basic training. It was not uncommon to see signs posted in front of country clubs and elsewhere “No Colored, Jews or Dogs Allowed.” I recall putting up a picture behind my bunk of a winning basketball team, where I had my arms embracing two of my teammates who were colored (now called Black). The southern boys were very upset seeing that photo and shouted at me for having my arms around a – well its an expression you wouldn’t use today. I was called many names including “Christ killer.”
As a result I did get into some fights. The problem I had with all of this stuff was that here we were, the good guy, getting ready to fight the Nazis, the evil, bad guys, and I had a group on my team thinking and talking like that. It truly disturbed me. But let me make it clear that I never encountered any of that stuff during my service overseas. In combat, we all looked out for each other; we truly were a “band of brothers.”
Were you able to be observant while serving?
In basic training we were able to observe the Jewish holidays. There was a chaplain available. Overseas, in combat, it was obviously difficult and really not possible much of the time.
When we liberated Gunskirchen, a sub camp of Mauthausen in Austria it was the most horrific sight I had ever seen. The stench was overpowering; it permeated into your nostril and into your brain. These “poor souls” (as my Lt. called them) who were alive were so emaciated it defies description. They looked like living skeletons. They all looked alike to me. I don’t think any could have weighed more than 75-80 pounds, if that. There were piles of dead bodies all over the place. When we handed out some cigarettes, many tore off the wrapping and started to chew and swallow the tobacco. I saw 3 of the inmates eating the entrails of a dead horse. When we handed out rations many appeared to be choking and gagging – not able to swallow. It was a chaotic scene. Most of the inmates were Hungarian Jews who came to Gunskirchen on death marches. Naturally as a Jew, I was very upset at what at happened to my fellow brethren. I couldn’t believe that any group of people could possibly treat other human beings this way. But I always felt that what I witnessed was not solely a crime against Jews; it was a crime against humanity committed by the Nazis. Someone told me later that when you liberate one person it is like liberating over a hundred since they end up having children, grandchildren etc. I guess there is some truth in the saying, “when you save a soul you save the world.” I’d like to think so.Ita Yankovich
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