Fighting during World War II took on special significance for U. S. Jewish servicemen and women in the 1940′s. They understood that they were fighting a double war – one against the Axis of Evil, and one against blatant world anti-semitism. As Americans, they fought to protect their country, and as Jews they fought to protect their brethren suffering Nazi persecution. According to the Department of Defense, Jews made up 4.3% of the armed forces, while they were only about 3% of the overall population. Some 550,000 American Jews fought during World Ware II; 11,000 of them were killed and 40,000 wounded. They were an integral part of the Allied war effort.
The Jewish Press has been privileged to have one of those former servicemen on its staff for many years. Arthur Federman, our controller, was a member of the 103rd infantry division. The following is his story.
Ita Yankovich: Tell me about your background.
Arthur Federman: I was born in Manhattan, on the Lower East Side in 1922. My parents were both Polish immigrants. My father came in here 1912, when he was 14 and my mother came from Warsaw as an infant in 1900.
As with many of the apartments on the Lower East Side, we had no central hot water or central heat. (We had a coal stove – but rarely had coal!) We had no electricity, but we had a gas pipe hanging from the kitchen ceiling that we used for light. We had no bathroom. There was a toilet in the hallway of the building that all four families used. When it was time to take a bath, we would go to the public bath house on Rivington or Allen Street.
Around 1932 my family moved to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. This was during the Great Depression. A few years later we were lucky enough to move into a public housing development in Red Hook – there we had hot running water and central heat.
There were no shuls in Red Hook then, so my father rented a store on Columbia Street, and with the help of a few neighbors, started a shul which was in use seven days a week. This was the focal point in building the Jewish community there. I am reminded of an amusing incident that occurred soon after the shul opened. One Monday morning a young man walked into the shul. When it was time to layn, my father who was the gabbi, asked this fellow if he was a Kohen or a Levi, he answered, “No, I’m a plumber’s helper.”
No, I wanted to go. I felt it was my duty. In fact, when I got the draft notice and went down for the physical, the military wouldn’t accept me because I had a hernia. Unbeknownst to my parents, I went to Bellvue Hospital and had surgery so I could enlist.
You and your wife married while you were in the service. How did you meet?
I was first stationed in Fort Bragg in North Carolina. We were then shipped overseas, and landed in Liverpool, England. There was a shul there which posted lists of homes where soldiers could eat a Friday night meal; I went to eat at the Simpson home. The rest as they say is history. I met my lovely wife Anita. We have been happily married for 67 years and are great-grandparents to 22 great-grandchildren.
What was it like being a Jew in the Army?
Life changed for me dramatically, especially during basic training. There was no Shabbos or Yom Tov. Food was a big issue. Kashrus certification was not even a dream, and so for the three years that I was in the Army I survived on a more or less vegetarian diet.
When we got overseas we were always on the move, either going forward or retreating. We had no barracks or shelter. When we could rest, we slept on the ground in the snow or mud or in a ditch along the road. Regular meals did not exist. Being on the move all the time, we ate when and where we could. The meals consisted of C rations or K rations, which we carried with us. These C and K ration packets contained a variety of items, such as biscuits, cereal, chocolate peanut butter bar, dehydrated soup, hard candy, gum, cigarettes and Spam (a canned pork product) which I always traded for other goodies. Occasionally we got some hot cereal, powdered eggs, and hot coffee from the mess truck, but this did not happen too often.
I didn’t experience the comfort of a chair or table for more than 6 months, until the war in Europe ended for us in Innsbruck, Austria. It was also the first time in more than half a year that I slept in a real bed, in a house that we commandeered from a Nazi Austrian family.
I recall a memorable incident when our unit had reached the outskirts of Munich, Germany. We didn’t know what day of the week it was, or what day of the month, but the snow was no longer on the ground, and the weather was turning mild so it must have been time for Pesach. I asked our commanding officer if we could get a place so I could round up a few GI’s and have a “seder.” We found the basement of a bombed out school; it was pitch black so we used a couple flashlights for light. Naturally we had no wine, no matzos, and no Haggadas. As I was finishing the Mah Nishtana someone called out from the darkness, “Arthur is that you?” It was a cousin of mine, Hy Federman who was with a medical unit passing through. He had heard there was going to be a seder, so he came.
Hashem truly opened the door to all the needy Jewish soldiers for their own special redemption from their personal hell.
Did you encounter any religious persecution in the Army?
In the States we encountered some anti-semitism, but once we got into combat (I was in the 103rd Infantry Division) there was no hint of it. We all depended on each other. There were no thoughts of anti-semitism when our only thoughts were avoiding being torn to pieces by the German artillery, or their Stuka dive bombers or their tanks, infantry or mine fields. We were also too occupied with trying to kill as many of the Nazis as possible, in return.
What was it like liberating Dachau?
Dachau was made up of six death camps. We liberated the Kaufering camp just outside of Landsberg. I can’t begin to describe the horror of that camp. It is impossible for the Germans to say they were ignorant of what was happening there. We could smell the stench of the rotting victims at least 5 miles before we got to the camp. We saw hundreds of naked bodies piled one on top of another. The smell and the sight were so overwhelming, there was not one of us, tough battle hardened soldiers, who didn’t vomit our guts out and cry like babies.
Naturally, all the SS and Gestapo guards ran away before we got there. The German civilians from the surrounding area were brought to the camp so they could be shown the horror that they claimed they knew nothing about. They were made to pick up the skeleton bodies for a decent burial. We found a few survivors, some wandering aimlessly about, some too weak to stand or walk, crawling along the filthy ground. In the huts we found a few more who didn’t have the strength to move or get up. No one who had not been in any of the death camps when they were in operation, or during liberation, can possibly know or feel the enormous catastrophe. The smell of death and decay and the sight of the wretched remnants of the camp could never be adequately portrayed in a movie, a book or in photos.
What was life like after the war?
By the time I returned home I was already married. I returned to City College (I had started there in 1939, left temporarily to fight in a war) and eventually ended up being a CPA.
Do you harbor any ill feelings toward Germany today?
We are taught to forgive and forget. After having seen Dachau in operation, I will never forgive or forget. It is true that Germany has paid compensation in the form of reparations to some of the survivors, but no money in the world could ever compensate for the horrible crimes they committed. I blame not only the Nazi government but the German people who were complicit. The Nazis and the German people will always be a bloody stain on this good earth.
We asked Anita to share some of her war experiences as well:
Where you born and what was life like for you during the war?
Anita Federman: I was born and raised in Liverpool, England. My mother was from London and my father from Manchester. World War II in England started in 1939. I was 18 years old and all men and women over the age of 18 were conscripted. I was assigned to the Ambulance Corp as a driver. I was lucky enough to be stationed in my home city of Liverpool. I was the only Jew in my unit. There was no kosher food available in the service, but I was fortunate to be close to home so food was not an issue.
Liverpool was the second largest seaport in England at that time, and therefore became a prime target of the German Air Force. We were subject to some of the heaviest air raids. To protect our family, my father had the back garden dug out to build an underground air raid shelter.
Many of the wounded were brought to Liverpool from France, and it was our job to transport them from the hospital ships to the various hospitals. We did not have enough ambulances to tend to so many wounded, so commercial trucks were converted to ambulances.
I had a few incidents of hashgacha pratis. We always drove in convoys to the docks to meet the hospital ships. Liverpool, which is in the north of England, is normally covered with dense cloud cover. One night when I was driving the lead ambulance in a convoy of ambulances to the docks, no one had warned me in advance that there was a sharp turn at the end of the ramp. We were not allowed to use the headlights due to blackout regulations. Just before the turn, the clouds shifted just enough for the rays of the moon to glimmer on the sea right in front of me, giving me just enough time to make a sharp turn, avoiding falling into the sea.
Another incident occurred a few days after Arthur and I were married (in Liverpool, 1944). Arthur was moved to a transit camp for combat duty in France. He was able to get a 24-hour pass, and he arranged for us to meet in London. We were able to spend a couple of hours together, after which he returned to camp. In the meanwhile, I had missed the last train back to Liverpool. I phoned some friends who lived in London to ask if I could stay overnight with them. I borrowed an alarm clock so I would not have to wake them up in the morning.
Baruch Hashem, Arthur and I have been married for 67 years and have been blessed with very caring children, grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren from whom we have lots of nachas.
The Jewish Press thanks Arthur and Anita Federman for their self -sacrifice and wishes them many more years of nachas from their ever-growing family…
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