Recently I had the opportunity to spend some times with Bernard (Bernie) Walz and get a glimpse of his war experiences.
Please tell our readers a little about your background?
Bernie: I was born in Germany in 1922. I had an older sister, Irene, who passed away a little over a year ago. I came to America in 1940 when I was 18 years old. My family settled in the Washington Heights section of New York.
What was Washington Heights like in the 40’s?
It was full of Yekkes as a large Jewish-German population had settled there.
What was your occupation?
I worked as a painter and then I worked in a wood working shop as a cabinet maker. It was hard to find work in those days because bosses expected you to work on Shabbos and I refused.
And then, of course, America became involved in World War II
Like many young adults, I was drafted into the military in 1942. I wasn’t even a citizen at that point but they made me one right then and there. I joined the army’s 3rd division. My father, Solomon, had been an officer in the military as well. He served in Germany during WWI. He was thrown into Dachau in 1938 and was released after being beaten.
Were you scared to join the military?
Of course! I just arrived in this country 2 years prior and my English was still weak.
How did your parents feel about you joining the service?
They were not happy about it, but I wasn’t given a choice.
What was your position?
I was a soldier and a medic and at some point I also did some interpreting since I spoke German.
Can you tell us about any encounters you faced?
I will never forget the Battle of Anzio when the Germans invaded Italy. They were on top of a hill and we were situated on the bottom. If they would see us moving, they would kill us on the spot. We were stacked there in a foxhole trying to hide our faces. By the grace of G-d, I survived.
One of my first war experiences was when we were sent to Casablanca (Morocco) and then to Oran (Algeria) in North Africa then on to Italy. It was in North Africa where I witnessed an Arab stabbing a Jew. It was a scary place to be stationed because we were fighting the Germans and then we were in a hostile Arab environment.
Were you ever in any of the concentration camps?
Thank G-d no.
Did you experience any anti-Semitism?
At first they probably didn’t know if I was a Jew or a spy because of my German looks and accent, but then they started treating me like I was “just one of the boys.” A Jew is always a Jew, but once again I have to thank Hashem that I didn’t really experience any acts of anti-Semitism. There were many Jewish-German boys in my infantry unit. If I did sense some hostility, I didn’t let it bother me I just went along with the others were doing.
Were you ever on the frontlines?
No. Actually, the officers nicknamed me Fritz because I looked German and spoke very little English. They protected me by specifically preventing me from being on the frontlines because if the Germans would capture me, I could have been arrested as a German for treason and as a Jew sent to the camps.
What was it like being observant in the army?
It was virtually impossible to keep anything. I basically lived on bread and water. Some people got packages for Passover and other holidays but my unit never did.
Did you make any friends while in the service?
I made some friends from New York whom I kept up with over the years, but unfortunately they are all gone now. I used to visit many of them in Elmhurst, Queens.
Do you harbor any resentful feelings toward Germany?
I never went back to my homeland. I am resentful of Germany. They kicked my family out, but we were not entitled to any compensation for our pain and suffering.