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.
Do you think the United States government knew more than what they told people?
From what I read and learned after the war, I am convinced that President Franklin Roosevelt knew about the concentration camps. It appeared he felt the Jews were not a priority and he did nothing to help. This was very disturbing and hurtful to me on a personal level because I, and everyone I knew, had always loved and admired F.D.R.
You told me that when you encountered survivors, you said “Ich been a Yid”? What was their reaction?
It was very weird because I didn’t really know how to speak Yiddish! My parents and grandparents always spoke English in my presence and that was second nature to me. I think what I said was actually German. I must have heard it before but I don’t know from where. When the survivors heard me they started to smile and give thanks. One elderly man was so emotional that he knelt down to the ground and started kissing my boots, which were covered with mud, feces and blood. This made me uncomfortable so I picked him up and as I did I saw these open festered sores all down his neck covered with lice. This and the stench from his body made me want to pull away, but I hugged him and he hugged me and we started to cry. It was very emotional and something I can never forget.
After the war ended, you remained in Europe until June 1946 as a member of the U.S. Army of Occupation. What was that like?
One of my tasks was to try to help survivors in the Displaced Person’s camp locate their family members. Most often the information we were able to obtain was not very good – that unfortunately some or all of their relatives had not survived. To have to give them this terrible news on top of what they had already experienced was extremely difficult. This was like hitting them on the head with a sledgehammer. Here these poor souls had survived the worse hell and horror humanly possible and now to inflict more pain on them – I found this to be very upsetting.
After the war ended, I also had the opportunity to attend the Nuremberg war crimes trials. To summarize, the hours of testimony that I heard at these trials about the treatment the inmates received from Dr. Mengele and the other Nazis were horrific; it curdles my blood. Simply put, it was mind-boggling bestiality.
Do you harbor any negative feelings towards the German people?
No I do not. I realize that many of my survivor friends, who lost their entire families feel otherwise. They hate Germans in general and will not purchase anything made in Germany. But I feel differently. As the saying goes, I do not believe that the sins of the father should be placed on their sons or daughters. I think we should try not to hate. In my judgment “hate begets hate.”
Has the experience of liberating a concentration camp made you resentful or doubt God?
It is very hard for me to properly answer that question. I really never felt a personal resentment towards G-d as a result of what happened during the Holocaust. But many of my survivor friends, who lost their entire families, have expressed to me their bitterness and resentment and ask how could G-d let something like the Holocaust happen and allow millions of men, women and children, to be murdered etc. I can certainly understand how they feel. My only answer is that G-d often acts in very strange ways that we have difficulty in understanding.
Many veterans suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome. What has been your experience?
They didn’t know about that during the World War II era. The term they used is “shell shock.” I am fairly certain that I had it. I remember having trouble sleeping right after the war ended. I had horrible nightmares and would wake up crying, shaking, sweating etc. As the years went by, thankfully the nightmares gradually dissipated. In this regard, I believe that finally going out and speaking to both students and adult groups about my experience in combat and as a liberator has been very helpful in keeping me in good health.
Unfortunately, we are losing about 1,100 World War II veterans everyday along with the many thousands of survivors. So in another 10 years, or even less, there will be probably very few, if any of us left to speak about what happened. It is like a calling with me now. In truth, my generation did not get rid of hate, prejudice and bigotry – they still exist all over the world. So, I tell the young generation that it is their job to get rid of that hate so that people everywhere can hopefully live side by side in peace and harmony, without the fear of there ever being another Holocaust.
What‘s their reaction to meeting with you?
Almost always it has been very positive. The students seem interested and after ask very good questions. Many come up to me afterward and give me a big hug and tell me to keep speaking and also thank me for my service. When I spoke to several hundred students at the German school in White Plains, NY several years ago, many of the students were apologetic and expressed deep remorse for what had happened during the Holocaust. Some even asked for forgiveness. I told them that it was not necessary; I wasn’t there to impose guilt on them for what their forefathers had done years before. I found it to be a very emotional experience.
You presently serve on the Board of Trustees of the Holocaust Museum and Study Center in Rockland County. What does that involve?
After I moved from NJ to Rockland County, I learned about the local Holocaust museum. I decided to join and become an active member. Later on I became a vice president and I also serve on the Board of Trustees. I believe very strongly in the mission of the museum, which is to educate, examine, and explain the history of the Holocaust with authenticity, dignity and compassion. This is accomplished through educational programs, lectures, exhibitions, teacher training, and commemoration ceremonies. Within the concept of the mission, the lessons of cultural diversity, mutual respect and understanding are emphasized. I am proud to be an active participant.
What’s next for you?
To date, I have spoken to over 10,000 middle school, high school, and college students in NY, NJ, CT, FL, PA and North and South Caroline and elsewhere. I have also spoken to many adult groups and participated in programs at the U.S. Military Academy, at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, on Russian television, CBS radio network and in the documentary “The Jewish Americans” at the PBS television network. In addition, I have done video recordings at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NY, at our local Holocaust museum and at a number of other venues. It is my intention to keep on speaking out as long as G-d gives me the strength to do so.
Any message for our readers?
I always felt that Maya Angelou, the poet, was absolutely correct when she said that people were truly more alike than different. We have to learn to stop prejudging people because of their race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or pigmentation of their skin. More importantly, we have to get rid of the hate, prejudice and bigotry that still exist in so many places. Hopefully, by speaking out, if I can convince even one person to stop hating his fellow human beings then I will feel I have succeeded in my personal mission.Ita Yankovich
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