Not too many Jewish World War II survivors from Germany can say that they had the distinction of being both interned in a concentration camp and liberating the captives in that same camp. Erwin Weinberg did just that. He survived being a prisoner in Buchenwald near Weimar, Germany and then returned as an American soldier to liberate the camp. Overcoming countless hurdles, including a rough childhood in hostile Germany, being interned immediately after Kristalnacht, fleeing to England, and then starting a new life in America, Erwin Weinberg was a survivor tenfold. Mr. Weinberg was niftar this past January at the age of 91. The following is based on a recent interview The Jewish Press conducted with his son, David Weinberg.
Jewish Press: Please share with our readers a little of your father’s background.
David Weinberg: My father, Erwin Weinberg (Eliezer ben Hachover Meir hk’m) was born in 1922 in Fulda, Germany. He was raised in an Orthodox home where he was the oldest of four children. His formal religious and secular education stopped when he was 15, a year before he was brought to Buchenwald He lived in Germany until he fled at the age of 16. He served in the US Army Air Force during WW II, married my mother Matilda Weinberg a”h and raised his family in Philadelphia. He moved to Riverdale in the early 70s where he spent the rest of his life.
He has two brothers, Rabbi S.K. Weinberg (Toronto) and Rabbi Meier Weinberg (Boro Park), and a sister, Mrs. Hanna Taub, who lives in Philadelphia..
The most salient feature of his biography perhaps is that he was president of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia for 50 years. He passed away this year on the 7th day of Shevat.
What was his personality like?
My father was a soft-spoken man especially in the last years of his life. He was a skilled and sophisticated businessman despite having had no formal training.
What was life like in Germany for your father?
It wasn’t good to begin with, and his surroundings became increasingly hostile as the years went by. My grandfather, Max Weinberg a”h, tried to immigrate to what was then Palestine, South America or South Africa as early as 1934 or 1935, but was unsuccessful. Ultimately he and his family did receive an immigration quota number from the United States. Partially due to this, he was granted permission to come to England once my father was able to secure the necessary affidavits and guarantees. He wanted to get out of Europe as quickly and expeditiously as possible. He didn’t feel safe there anymore, and so once granted the opportunity he took immediate advantage.
What was your father’s experience like in Buchenwald?
My father was taken to Buchenwald on the morning of November 10, 1938. The Germans said that men were being taken there for their own protection, as the general population was intent on fomenting a pogrom against the Jews. Although even at that point many people had died there, it wasn’t designated as a death camp; there were no gas chambers or crematoria. It was a very harsh internment camp. There were severe beatings and long hours of being exposed to the elements in late November and December while standing at attention on the camp’s parade ground. Sanitary facilities were non-existent. My father soon contracted dysentery and almost died; he lost 50 pounds in just five weeks. My grandfather was allowed to leave the camp after giving the Germans papers showing that he had served in the Prussian army for 5 years, even fighting with an artillery unit at the battle of Verdun. He had been cited for bravery and honorably discharged.
My father was released 2 weeks later. While he was in Buchenwald, his mother, my grandmother, Lina Weinberg a”h had been working feverishly to secure a student visa for my father from England. To everyone’s relief, she succeeded when invitations arrived from both the Yeshivos of Gateshead and Manchester. The Germans were more than happy to deport anyone who could demonstrate that they would be accepted and allowed to enter at port of destination. My father arrived back home, and in less than a week was on his way, carrying just his ticket, a few personal possessions and ten German marks (about two British pounds).
Somewhat, but I wouldn’t describe this as a favorite topic of conversation, Once or twice he alluded to events that he could not bring himself to speak of fully, however, we all knew the story of R’Boruch Kunstadt z’l and the coat. Rav Kundstadt was the dayan of Fulda, and ultimately went on, together with Rav Schlesinger z’l, to found Yeshiva Kol Torah in Bayit V’gan, where R’ Shlomo Zalmen Aurbach gave his shiurim. Rabbi Kunstadt credited my father with saving his life. He had been brought to Buchenwald at approximately the same time as my father and grandfather and soon developed pneumonia. His coat had been taken from him, so he had no protection at all from the winter weather – day or night. There were no blankets or mattresses. The inmates slept on wooden shelves and kept themselves warm with whatever clothing they had with them. Pneumonia, for a middle-aged man under these circumstances, was a virtual death sentence.
My father gave his rebbe his coat – his only outer garment.
My father had many admirable achievements, outstanding achievements, and who are we to judge, but one could well argue that, at age 16, this was his finest hour.
Some 23 years later in Eretz Yisroel, when they next met, R’ Boruch emotionally proclaimed to all who were there that my father had indeed saved his life, allowing him to move on and establish the world-famous Yeshiva Kol Torah.
How did he react to being released?
From Germany? It was strange. We always asked him this and he said he had no recollection of it. Maybe it was too emotional. He just blocked it out.
Tell us about his stay in England.
As I mentioned, in 1938, he was invited to attend the Yeshiva of Manchester by Rav Segal, the rosh yeshiva. Once there, was able to obtain 28 affidavits for members of his immediate and extended family to come to England as well.
When the Germans began bombing the cities after his family arrived, his siblings were sent to the English countryside. My father and grandfather as enemy aliens (though not hostile, of course) were interned. My father was at Ascot, where he had a ringside view of the Battle of London. My grandfather was sent, I believe to the Isle of Wight where he led a protest of Jewish inmates asking that they be given vegetables and fruit to eat, rather than meat, and that they be permitted to prepare their own food. He was successful in this effort. The British allowed the Jewish camp population to run a kosher kitchen – no small feat since severe rationing was in effect.
My grandfather’s immediate family remained in England from before Pesach 1939 until after Yom Kippur 1940. At that time their quota number for emigration to the US came current and they booked transport on one of the last ships to carry civilians across the Atlantic until the end of the war. The ship traveled in a protected convoy because German U-boats were already patrolling the Atlantic shipping lanes. The trip was both dangerous and unpleasant. They traveled in steerage and experienced overt anti-Semitism during the two-week sailing.
They arrived in New York and traveled directly to Philadelphia where my grandmother’s sister and brother-in-law, the Loewensterns lived. Relatives of the Loewensterns, had vouched for our family so that they could enter the United States and begin the naturalization process.
In the spring of 1943, my father was drafted, and once he reported to the Army Induction Center, he, his parents and siblings were offered the privilege of taking the Oath of Allegiance and became US citizens.
How did your father feel about being conscripted into the military?
He was 21 years old when drafted into the army. He knew it was important and worth the danger to which he might be exposed, since he was going to fight a vicious enemy with whom he had personal experience.
What were his duties?
My father was ultimately assigned to Army Air Force intelligence in 1944 at the headquarters of the U.S. Strategic Air Command near London. He translated German and French documents obtained by American spies, interrogated some German POW’s and examined aerial photography of bomb damage inflicted on the European continent by the Allies. He worked under Major Louis Powell (who later went on to become a Justice in the Supreme Court).
What was it like working with Major Powell?
There was a great deal of mutual respect and they maintained a relationship for many years after the war. In fact, once our family was in Washington and spent a very pleasant half hour in his chambers in the Supreme Court Building while he reminisced about his war-time days and his relationship with my father. He even allowed me to take some pictures with my children around him and on his lap. He then arranged a quick pass into the Supreme Court hearing room where oral arguments were in progress. The sense of power and dignity in the courtroom was tangible and the whole visit was memorable.
It seems that Powell respected my father’s religious observance. Corporal Weinberg once needed a nine-day pass in order to celebrate a kosher Pesach with his uncle and family in Manchester. The war was raging and the Army was not granting extended furloughs to active members at that time. Powell realized the significance of the holiday observance and judged that the corporal could be spared for the week or so he would be away. He then issued orders for my father to travel from near London to Manchester and remain there for nine days to see to official Army business. No furlough was required at all.
Your father’s German was valuable to him during the war.
The fact that he was a German native paid off in several respects. He served as a translator to Major Powell as they followed the advancing Allied line through a vanquished Germany, and he was able to easily translate certain German documents that came into Allied hands. Occasionally he was called upon to interrogate German POW’s.
Your father was praised for helping the U.S. Army bomb some key points in Germany. Can you elaborate on that?
Being familiar with German geography, especially the layout of his hometown, Fulda, he was able to provide information that facilitated the bombing of a ball-bearing manufacturer and rubber plant.
He pointed to the sites on reconnaissance photos he was shown. A few days later he was shown subsequent pictures — to his great satisfaction, he saw that the factories were destroyed.
His comrades were sufficiently impressed to the extent that he was written up in a 1945 issue of the Air Force Magazine in an article titled “The Private Air Force of Cpl. Weinberg.”
Was he proud or resentful of being drafted?
It was very cathartic for him; after suffering so, and having his life permanently disrupted, he could see the enemy of our people defeated before his own eyes even though he was not involved directly in any hostile action, other than interrogating German prisoners. Our family is proud of the legacy of his time in the Army. His memorabilia from this time were showcased in an exhibit called, “Contributions from the Community: American Jews in the Second World War,” at the Judaica Museum of the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale. They also comprise a permanent exhibit in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, featuring European refugees who served in the US Military during World War II.
Did he experience any anti-Semitism?
Yes. My father put on his tefillin daily and often other soldiers made fun of him asking if he was taking his blood pressure. One as he moved through Germany his tefillin were stolen.
Was he able to stay religious in the army?
The Joint made sure that he always had kosher food as they did for all observant members of the armed forces. He always maintained his yiddishkeit and in fact he even once walked 20 miles to hear shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah because he could not get a release to travel on Erev Yom Tov.
What was his state of mind after returning home?
He was able to get many of his personal issues out of his system by serving in the military. He had no sympathy whatsoever for the Germans.
What did your father do once released from the military?
He was a wholesale food distributor in Philadelphia. He delivered a line of packaged soups and gravies out of the trunk of his car, and over time his business grew and he became successful.
He was very active in many community projects such as the Jewish day school and the mikvah in Philadelphia. However, he felt that his crowning achievement was serving as president of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia. As I mentioned, he served in this capacity for 50 years until his passing this January.
Did he ever return to his homeland?
He returned to Fulda several times as a civilian. In 1987 he attended the dedication of a new synagogue and museum on the site of a former Jewish school. The mayor of Fulda invited all the former Jewish residents of the town for a convocation despite the very vocal objections of the small neo-Nazi element in town. The mayor then quite publicly dis-invited the skinheads. About half the people who were invited actually came. Among other words, the mayor said that Fulda, and by extension Germany, was not asking for forgiveness. The inhumanity that was perpetrated during the Holocaust was too horrible for that. His only hope was that some sort of accommodation could be achieved and dialogue established so that the Germans could feel more deeply what had happened and that the hostility that the Jews surely felt could be somewhat abated with time. According to my father, for many of the attendees, the event went a long way wounds inflicted more than 45 years prior. Of course, the people who came probably were already inclined that way.
Did the war ever make him question his faith?
No, not to my knowledge. He came from a very religious home and was never “angry“ with G-d. As a general statement that was not the German way among the Orthodox. This was a matter of fundamental emunah. One does not complain about G-d’s ways.
Was your father a patriotic man?
I’ll share with you a story in response to that. My father was invited a couple of times to lecture in The Jewish Museum in Berlin, and one time I joined him. He spoke separately in front of two groups of students, a post-graduate group and a large number of high-school students. He was not shy about discussing his boyhood experiences. One student asked him how he felt returning to his home. He answered that America was his home. He had long stopped thinking of Germany in that way. He had been roughly expelled from his former home. I think this fairly demonstrates the direction of his patriotism. These students were given his life story before they met him and researched the historical background of the events in his life, so were prepared to ask him meaningful questions At the end of the seminar an Aryan looking gentleman stood up and told my father “I’ll never forget this day as long as I live.” This was after my father had said, “I am an American. America is my home. Germany only gave my family grief.”
What was your father’s view on Israel?
He was a disciple of the Gedolei Yisroel in this respect. He identified very closely with the Yishuv and always prayed for the welfare of the community there. He was also involved in various projects there, especially supporting Sharre Tzedek Hospital.
What would you like our readers to remember about your father?
On a purely personal level, I can say that he was very self-aware and courageous – in the true meaning of the word. He never took himself too seriously. In the end, I think anyone would say that he went remarkably far in fulfilling his potential. This was his aim in life.
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