Wednesday, March 26, 2008


I found Murray Dressler at, a website dedicated to the 11 concentration camps near the towns of Kaufering and Landsberg in Bavaria. The camps were small, but, even so, more than 14,000 people, mostly Jews, died there. Murray’s father survived. More than anything, I wanted to talk to him, because men in my father’s platoon were some of the first to discover the Kaufering camps. Murray helped make that happen.

Henry Dressler’s voice is deep and strong and carries a hint of his native Poland. It is a serious voice. As he speaks, there is a sense that he has told this story many times. He speaks without emotion; it is recitation.

Interviewing someone who survived the Holocaust is difficult, I discovered. “What was it like? How did you feel?” What insipid questions. What can you ask that will help you understand a horror that is beyond words? How can we expect someone to describe it in a way that helps us even begin to comprehend? I spoke with Mr. Dressler on the phone, but I needed to see his face as we talked; I needed to look into his eyes. Maybe comprehension was there.

"I was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1925," Henry Dressler begins.

The Germans walked into my city in 1939 within months of my Bar Mitzvah. They marched in on a Friday, right after the candle-lighting. From the day they first arrived, we couldn’t walk on the main streets. We had to go to the back streets. We couldn’t go to school.

We were moved into a ghetto in 1940. Things were very bad there. There was no food. People were starving, dying in the streets. The ghetto had its own government – police, fire, distribution of food, even its own currency.

Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski was chosen to run the ghetto. He thought he was a king. He’d go to the cemetery and talk to his wife: “I’m the king of the ghetto,” he’d tell her. He had been the head of an orphanage before the war. He had done a lot of good, but after the war started he came under the influence of the Germans. In the end, he went to Auschwitz like everyone else.

In the ghetto we had no wood, no heat. In the winter the walls were covered with snow. Beginning in August 1944, every second day people would be called away. Trucks took them to Auschwitz.

One of my two sisters died in the ghetto, and my father died of starvation. In 1944, my brother, my other sister, my mother, and I were sent to Auschwitz. It took three days to get there. During that time, we had no food and no sanitation.

At Auschwitz, my brother and I were separated from my sister and mother. They went straight to the ovens. We had heard that if you had the same last name, you would be separated, so I used my mother’s maiden name. That way my brother and I were able to stay together.

My brother and I didn’t stay long at Auschwitz. Within days we were transported to Landsberg to work – Landsberg was where Hitler wrote Mein Kampf.

We were working every day in Landsberg. We worked on the railroad, fixing the rails. Some days they gave us just worthless work to keep us tired and busy.

What food there was there was bad; everyone got sick. Later on we didn’t work – it just became a death camp. That was about two months before liberation. My brother died in April, the month we were liberated, beaten by the capos and the Germans.

The German citizens, the people who lived in Landsberg and Kaufering, they saw us each day. They watched us go to work and called us bad names. We would see them standing in front of their houses laughing. They knew. They saw it. And they just stood laughing and making jokes. They knew exactly who we were – "Juden," they called us. Everyone knew. After the war, no one knew anything.

It wasn’t easy to deal with it all. But we were so hungry, we only thought of food. We were sick and isolated. We had a little watery soup. Everyone ate it and everyone got sick. The Germans were afraid of our sickness, so they would stay away from us. The capos did everything.

We didn’t know the Americans were coming until the day they came. One day in late April the Germans gave us a piece of bread and lined us up for our “last march.” Then a high officer came and said it was too late, that we couldn’t leave. That night we heard shooting and bombardments, and the next day the Germans were gone.

When we woke up on the morning of April 27, we went out like we always did to be counted, and the camp was empty and the gates were open. We were free. The Germans had left their tanks, trucks, everything. We started to grab bread, but it made us sick.

Some of the Germans who had been guarding the camp changed out of their uniforms. They just disappeared, they ran away so fast. But most of them were caught.

In camp #1 they didn’t have time to run. A Russian Christian in that camp took a shovel and opened the head of one of the Germans. The Jews didn’t do that.

The Americans helped us by transporting the very sick to hospitals, by giving us food. Still, after the war many more people died.

We were put in a displaced persons camp for four years after the war. We had classes in the occupational trades. I worked in a metal workshop. Some people worked in the kitchen. Everyone did something.

I met my wife in 1946 in the displaced persons camp. The Nazis had her working in an ammunition factory during the war. She lost everyone. Like me, she was from Lodz. She had her mother with her. Her sister, brother, and father had left for Warsaw, thinking it would be better. Once they got there, they planned to send for the rest of the family. Of course, they couldn’t.

All we thought about were our families. I was alone. I knew what happened to my mother and one sister, but not my other sister. Not what happened to all my aunts, uncles, cousins. I had one friend from our city, and he and I went back to Poland in 1945 to look for our families. The Poles saw us and said, “Look at how many Jews are left.”

I couldn’t find any of my family, so I returned to Germany. We didn’t want to go back to Poland. No one accepted us. They didn’t accept us before the war or after.

Everyone was gone. It was very hard, very painful. I am the only surviving member of my family, except for two uncles who left Poland in 1916; one went to America and one to Switzerland.

I was in Germany until 1949, then I went to Israel until 1961. I finally found my uncle in America, and he sent for me. My wife and I have two sons and four grandchildren. A small family. I don’t talk much about the past. One son reads a lot, and he knows what it was. I don’t like to talk about it; it makes them upset. The thoughts are with myself. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my family that is lost.

Henry Dressler lets me know the interview is over with an expression he had used many times when I expressed sorrow at what he went through. This time it had a note of finality: “It was what it was,” he says. “It was what it was.”

Monday, March 24, 2008

Three women

When Buck Fluharty sent me a packet of photos (See earlier post, “Fluharty’s Photos.”) he included a photo of three women: Magdalena Levasier and her daughters, Anna and Regina. At the end of the war, he had been billeted in their home for a short time.

“I wonder what ever happened to them,” he wrote.

That one question has shown me how small the world really is.

With only a shred of hope, I sent an e-mail to the tourism department of the city, hoping someone in that department might speak English. My letter ended up in the hands of Petra Wooden, who was born and raised in Lorsch, but had also spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force and spoke perfect English. She said she would be happy to help me.

In just a few days she not only had located the Levasier sisters, now Anna Gutschalk and Regina Brunnengräber, but had contacted them. They would be willing to see me when I came to Germany.

Lorsch was my next-to-the-last stop in Germany. Petra picked me up and drove me to Frau Brunnengräber’s house around 3 p.m. one afternoon. We picked her up, and then drove to Frau Gutschalk’s. Frau Gutschalk, who lived in the same house where they had lived in 1945, had just had surgery, so I promised to keep the visit short.

On the outside, the house looked much the same as it had in 1945. It had been updated, but the shape and the windows remained as they had been. Inside, the walls were covered with family photos, icons, and crosses, and the windows were covered with lace curtains.

Although neither sister spoke English, and I spoke almost no German, I understood the one phrase they repeated over and over: “We never thought of each other as enemies, only as friends.”

It was a short meeting since Anna was so recently home from the hospital and because the language barrier made easy conversation difficult.

Once home, I thought of these two ladies often and wished I could somehow convey what meeting them had meant to me.

More than a year after my trip to Germany, I received an email from a woman who expressed surprise in finding photos of her two aunts on my website. Her father was their brother, Valentin, who had spent the war on the Russian front. He didn’t come home from the war.

She and I have written back and forth – she now lives in Canada. We both wish we knew more about our fathers and what it was like for them in the war. She has sent me more photos: photos of her father, her grandmother and grandfather, and her aunts. From her cousin, who lives in Germany, have come photos of even more American soldiers stationed near Lorsch after the war.

I can’t help thinking of ripples in a pond, in spite of knowing better than to fall back on clichés. In 2003, I wanted to find one or two men who could help me know what my father did in the war, so I threw in a stone. I hoped to raise a ripple or two. Instead I am amazed by the rush of waves.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Children of the Silent Generation

[Pictured left to right: Abe Friedman and Roy Ramuar]

I have heard from a number of people whose fathers served in World War II. They contact me, either asking for information about their fathers or wanting me to post information about their fathers on the website.

Janet Willemain of New York was one of the first to contact me, sending a few photos for the website and asking if anyone remembered her father, Bernard Willemain, a lieutenant with Troop B, 101st Squadron.

Lev Friedman’s father served in the 101st from 1940 or 1941 until 1946, when he was mustered out as a Major. He was awarded the Bronze Star.

“Certainly his experiences affected me profoundly,” said Friedman.

Bruce Peele found his father’s name listed on the site and wrote: “My father Louis Peele was in the 116th, Troop E. He was a tank gunner who served with Sgt. Pollack and was awarded a Silver Star and Purple Heart.

Peele wanted to make sure his father’s Silver Star was mentioned on the site. I hoped to interview his father; however, I received another e-mail before I could.

“My father was never sick a day in his life that I remember, and never complained about anything. However, he died on Friday. He opted not to do chemotherapy and died relatively quickly from lung cancer. My dad had an incredibly strong spiritual conviction, so for him death was as much a cause for exultation as it may have been for despair. Until the moment he died, he was more concerned about his family. I will miss him, but have the same confidence as he did about seeing each other again in the next life.”

Over and over, I find myself sharing other people’s grief. We should all be grieving, really, because, as each of these veterans dies, a piece of the larger story of World War II goes with them.

Even when we wanted to hear our fathers’ stories and asked, many of them resisted, afraid we couldn’t bear to hear what they had to say.

Lou Kiessler, whose father David Gay served in the 101st Squadron, B Troop, wrote:

“I became interested in my father’s war record when he was around seven years old. It was when Rat Patrol and other World War II television shows were popular. I would see these fictional heroes and wonder what my father had done. I ask him one time if he had ever killed anyone during the war. My dad is a gentle man and never loses his temper, but that did it. He became very upset and even grabbed me, yelling, ‘Don’t ever ask me that again.’ It was so unlike him that it even frightened my mother. She was afraid he might hurt me. I never asked him personal questions about his time in the war after that.”

There is a refrain that I have heard from a number of the children of the veterans: “I just knew there were questions you didn’t ask.”

Sheila Ramuar Abshire’s father, Roy W. Ramuar, was in Troop B, 116th Squadron, like my father. He was a truck driver and served from December 21, 1942, to November 21, 1945.

“I was in the dark about his service,” she said. “Dad didn’t want to talk about all of that with us. He was not a conventional man and not highly talkative.” Her father died on November 9, 1989, “the day the wall came down,” she notes. “We buried him on Veterans Day. It was fitting.

Like many of us, she became interested in her father’s service as she watched WWII movies as a kid. “You know,” she said, “John Wayne, Audie Murphy and the like. I love old war movies.”

“In your interviews with the men, would you mind asking if they remember the Cajun who loved to dance,” Abshire asked me. “I am almost certain that if there was a dance hall near the base that Daddy would have gone dancing every chance he got.”

“Dad was a loner and he had hard memories from the war,” said Cheryl Kashuba, Charlie Kashuba’s daughter. Charlie spent years going around and visiting the men he served with, and was even called a “professional visitor” by some of the men.

“Visiting the other men was a catalyst for him to discuss the war,” said his daughter. “He’d have terrible nightmares about things he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – share with us. He wanted to be with people who understood his sadness.”

The desire to know more doesn’t end with us. The grandchildren also write, filled with pride in the service of their grandfathers. Like their parents, they want to know more.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Fluharty's Photos

Four men, members of F Company, 101st Cavalry, squat in front of a 16-ton, M5 light tank. Someone has painted “Fightin’ Bastard” on its side. Ralph Nichols (Nick), Wilmer Fluharty (Buck), and Dominic Stolt (Dom) grin into the camera, cradling rifles in their arms. Unarmed, William Olsen (Bill) rests his left elbow on his knee, at ease. All the men wear combat helmets. It is April 1945, on the German border. On the back of this photo, taken in St. Avold, France, Buck has written, “Fightin’ Bastard Ready.” “Ready” means ready to go to war.

Buck Fluharty had sent me a dozen photos, most of which feature the Fightin’ Bastard and the four men who drove it through Germany. In one, Buck, Dom and Nick have just repaired their tank after it met a large tree head-on. Dom stands shirtless, cigarette in his hand, goggles on his forehead and dog tags hanging on his bare chest. Nick wears a rumpled shirt covered in oil and grime, and Buck, head bowed slightly, looks back at the camera over his left shoulder and grins. They are so young, and with their even features, strong chins, dimples and wavy hair, they look more like movie stars than soldiers. I had begun to love them a little already, but this photo cinched the deal. I am head-over-heels for the guys in these photos.

Within days of receiving the photos, I tracked down an address in Illinois for Dominic Stolt. I sent him a letter and copies of Buck’s photos, enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope. In less than two weeks, the envelope is back, a gift in my post office box. I am always excited when these envelopes return to me, even though, more often than not, they contain words similar to the ones written by Dominic Stolt’s daughter, Suzanne Stolt:

“Thank you for your letter. I lost Buck’s address, so I could not inform him that my dad passed away last year. He had a massive stroke, went into a coma and never came out of it again. Thank you for the pictures. Tell Buck I’m sorry. Dad always talked about the war and his friends.”

It’s probably silly to cry for men I never knew, who didn’t even exist for me until a few months, sometimes only a few days, ago. But I do. I cry for myself, too, because this is just one more lost opportunity.

One snapshot, taken during the wet winter of ’45, shows the Fightin’ Bastard listing to the left, buried deep in mud with two shovels planted helplessly beside it. In another, Fluharty sits atop the tank, playing his guitar. The caption reads, “Nothing going on for a spell.” He still has that guitar, which is covered with the names of the towns he saw in Europe.

It’s obvious the men think a lot of the tank; it shows up in nearly every picture. In one, only the rear of the tank is visible, as Fluharty stands there, clutching a rope that is tied to a small wagon. He makes a show of pulling the wagon, probably a child’s, in which Nick rides. Nick holds a bottle high in one hand and in the other hand he holds an umbrella, and a toy gun. Fluharty wrote: “When the captain saw us, he said ‘Fluharty, get that man back in that tank.’ Nick is now dead, but for Fluharty, and now for me, Nick survives in the memory of a playful moment captured in black and white.

The last few photos were taken in June of 1945. In one, hundreds of tanks, jeeps and armored cars line up in neat rows, covering a meadow at the foot of German mountains. In the foreground a few men pitch tents. You can’t see the faces of the men, but, since the caption reads “101st in the field after 90 days combat,” it’s easy to guess what is in their hearts. That photo is the last one in which a tank – any tank — appears. Not even Fightin’ Bastard shows up again. Tanks belonged to the war, and, in Europe, the war was over.

On June 12, 1945, in Lorsch, Germany, Buck photographs the Levasiers: Mrs. Levasier with her hair pulled back tight in a bun and arms around her daughters’ waists. Her oldest daughter, Anna, is around 20; her husband is on the Russian front. Regina, the youngest, is around 16. I learn 60 years later from Anna and Regina that the smiles are sincere. “We were never enemies. We were friends.”

Another photo, taken from inside the Levasier home, looks across the street at a neighbor’s house: a tourist photo of unfamiliar architecture, a pleasant memory for the men to share with their families at home.

Fluharty’s final photograph was taken in Heidelberg. He stands beside an open boxcar; two other men and their gear are already inside. “Never saw the tank again,” he wrote on the back. “Note smile on face, going home.”

You can see all of Fluharty’s photos and many more

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Thanks to the web

When I began searching for information about my father and the 101st Cavalry, I posted this request on a couple of websites: “I’m looking for anyone from the 101st Cavalry Division, 116th Squadron, B Company, who might remember my father, Ted Welch.” I learned very quickly that I wasn’t alone. The web was filled similar questions, not just from the 101st, but from every unit with a website:

“Did anyone know my father? He was with the 189th heavy artillery.”

“I miss my dad very much. He was a member of the 45th infantry. Does anyone remember him?”

“My father fought at El-Alamein in June 1942. Does anyone remember him or that battle?”

“Did you know my dad? He was a physician with the 101st Cavalry.”

“I would like to know if anyone out there has any memories of my father. He was a ball turret gunner with the 303rd.”

“My father was killed in action, Luxembourg, Thanksgiving forty-four. No luck locating records.”

“My father was a medic, wounded in a minefield, November forty-four. Earned a Bronze Star. Please, if you have information ...”

“A tree, weakened by bursts from a German 88, fell and crushed my father’s spine. He was partially paralyzed the rest of his life.”

“My father was injured in November forty-four, Hurtgen Forest. We were writing his war stories when he passed away.”

“My dad was killed in action seven December forty-four, Bergistein, Germany. Born in New York City. Buried in Henri Chapelle, Belgium. I want to locate someone who knew my dad. Please, if you did, send me an e-mail.”

“On my father’s military gravestone: ‘PFC ENGINEERS,’ the sum total of my knowledge of my father's war experience.”

So many missing stories. So many missing fathers.

Thanks to the World Wide Web, I was able to find a lot of stories. I found my first list of veterans of the 101st on a website created by John Altizer, who told me about the first reunion where I met so many wonderful men. On the website I found the son of a Holocaust survivor who put me in touch with his father – a man whose path briefly crossed my father’s even though they never met. Now that my own website has been up for a couple of years, stories are finding me: the daughter of a German soldier, two grandsons of 101st Cavalry veterans, dozens of daughters and sons all either wanting their fathers names included on the site or congratulating me for telling their fathers’ stories to the world.

Approximately one thousand World War II veterans are dying every day. There isn’t much time to gather all their stories.