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Portraits of veterans

Just a boy from Bayonne

 
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Army service and a landmine changed everything for Fort Lee man
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Huertgen Forest, November 1944; the battle there was both devastating and inconclusive. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J28303 / CC-BY-SA

It’s easy to say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Sometimes it might even be true.

Martin Weinberger, who now lives in Fort Lee, was born in Bayonne on November 28, 1923; he turns 90 at the end of this month. Although his father came from New York, his mother, too, was born into the once-vibrant Hudson County Jewish community.

In 1939, the 16-year-old Martin entered NYU. He was in the Reserve Officers Training Corps for his first two years — an NYU requirement for male students in the immediate prewar era — and then he chose to continue in ROTC through graduation.

“I majored in liberal arts, but as the time grew closer to senior year, all that any of us ever thought about was going into service,” Mr. Weinberger recalled. “We didn’t pay much attention to our studies. Some of us were premed or prelaw, and they did, but not the rest of us.

“This was a just war — later it turned out to be the last just war,” he continued. “Everyone was gung-ho about going to war.”

Normally, four-year ROTC students would graduate college as second lieutenants, but by 1943 that had changed, and Mr. Weinberger found himself at Fort Benning, Ga., in basic training; he was not commissioned until he had completed it. Three months later, training done, he was assigned to the 75th Army division, which was on maneuvers in Louisiana.

Basic training was the first time he had ever lived away from home; the only times he’d slept out of his house was when he’d visited his grandparents. He had lived at home throughout college — it was a major trek to go between Bayonne and NYU’s uptown campus, in the Bronx, but he could sleep in his own bed every night.

And then there was the strange authority of his position.

“You have to understand that I was a second lieutenant at 20 years of age,” Mr. Weinberger said. “Everybody was much older than I was. I had people who were 30 years old, and older, coming to me with their troubles.

“I didn’t even know those troubles existed, much less how to deal with them,” he added ruefully.

Instead of staying with the 75th division, Mr. Weinberger was sent to England as a replacement to fill an opening in the 8th Infantry Division. The invasion of Omaha Beach was on June 6; three weeks later, the 8th went in.

“There was a lull between the time we landed and the middle of July, and then a big push started,” he said. “On the first day of that push, I was shot by a German soldier who I thought was surrendering.

“He was a lone soldier in the middle of the field, walking toward us, holding a rifle over his head.

“I assumed he was surrendering.”

Weinberger was wrong.

“I turned to my radio operator, and said, ‘When he comes in, take his rifle and bring him back to headquarters.’

“The next thing I knew, he shot me.”

The wound, to his buttocks, normally would have been painful, but not dangerous, but because the bullet first hit and then ricocheted off a dirty shovel Mr. Weinberger had been carrying before it penetrated him, doctors were worried about infection. He was sent to England — there were no closer surgical facilities. He later rejoined his unit in Luxembourg.

And the German who shot him? “He didn’t last for more than a few seconds,” Mr. Weinberger said. “Everybody opened fire. My whole platoon was lined up along the hedgerow, and as soon as he shot they fired.”

A few months after he returned to active duty, his division replaced the 29th division in Huertgen Forest in Germany.

“It was one of the worse campaigns of the war,” Mr. Weinberger said. “There is very little mention of it, because the Battle of the Bulge was shortly after it, but it was terrible. There was terrible loss of life; incredible loss of life. The division we replaced was decimated — no, it was more than decimated. And we took a terrible beating as well.”

The battle, in fact, was the longest fought on German soil during World War II. It was also the longest single battle that the U.S. Army has ever fought. Reports say that 33,000 Americans and 28,000 Germans were killed or wounded. It is not clear who won; the fact that the fight was inconclusive and the death toll astronomic has led to the conclusion that the Allies lost.

That soon became academic for Mr. Weinberger.

“Right after Thanksgiving we were ordered to advance,” he said. “We had been ordered to advance three or four times, and each time we met very heavy fire. This time, it was incredibly bad. It is hard — it is impossible — to describe the constant bombardment. And this is in heavy forest.

“We took terrible casualties.

“My company was down 50 percent by the second week. The whole operation was ill-conceived. There was no reason to be fighting in the forest. We should have bypassed it, and let the Air Force bomb it — but that’s not how it works.

“A day or two after Thanksgiving, we were ordered to advance, and my forward squad called back, saying they had reached barbed wire,” he continued. “I said, ‘Let me come up.’

“And as I walked up, I said, ‘Be careful. There might be mines.’

“And as I said that, I stepped on one.”

Martin Weinberger’s leg was mangled beyond repair.

“I had to be brought down to the road — we were on top of the hill. It had been raining, and it was cold.

“My medic was two steps behind me, and he gave me a shot of morphine immediately. Still, it was a terrible trip, just getting down to the aid station.

“And that,” he concluded, “is the story of my life.”

He was taken to a hospital in Verviers, Belgium, where his leg was amputated. “That was on November 27,” he said. “On the 28th, I became 21 years of age. That was not a great birthday.”

When he was strong enough to be sent home, the Army sent Mr. Weinberger to Lawson General Hospital in Atlanta for recuperation. “I was to have the Army record for the longest-staying single amputee, because I turned out to be a very slow healer,” he said. “I finally got to go in June of 1946. I was in the hospital longer than some of my doctors had been doctors.

“I was very anxious to get out. I really had had enough of military service, and of the hospital. I wanted to get back and start my life.”

He did. He earned an MBA at NYU, got married, and worked in an advertising agency, Riedel and Freed; among other accounts, the Clifton-based firm worked on Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential campaigns in New Jersey. He and his wife moved to Teaneck; about eight years ago he moved to Fort Lee.

There was nothing particularly Jewish that characterized his Army career, Mr. Weinberger said. He was used to a certain background level of anti-Semitism. “When I lived in Bayonne, on many Mondays I got beaten up because in the Sunday sermon the kids had been told that the Jews killed Christ. And I was a 90-pound weakling as a youngster.

“My company commander and my battalion commander were very anti-Semitic, and made no bones about it, but I gave as well as I got.”

There is no question that the army changed his life. Certainly it changed his body. Much of it was terrible, but some of it was not. “I really had been a weakling. I lived at home. And then I really grew up, very rapidly.

“I learned a lot. It prepared me for life,” Mr. Weinberger said.

 

More on: Portraits of veterans

 
 
 

Veterans day wounds

The day after my 18th birthday, my father took me to a place called the Customs House in Baltimore. It was September 29, 1971, and I was there to register with the Selective Service.

A lady with silver grey curly hair and a darkly colored print dress, whose badge said she was Mrs. Lieb, asked me in businesslike tones why my birth certificate spelled my first name Phillip with two ls but I filled out the SS application as Philip with one l.

I didn’t know that my birth certificate had that error. Neither did my father. Mrs. Lieb raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. I guess she was worried that I was trying in my own way to evade the draft.

 
 

He knew what he wanted

Camp counselor guided Bergen teen to ROTC and an army career

From the time he was in his early teens, Benjamin Glasgall, who grew up in Harrington Park, knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up.

Other kids might have gone through their fireman and policeman stages or aim themselves at law or medicine, or — given that this was the 1980s, at the wads of money wafting from the towers of Wall Street — but not Ben.

He didn’t even want to be politician, even though when he got to high school, at Northern Valley in Old Tappan, the large shadow cast by the fairly-recent-graduate and all-around superman Corey Booker, in defiance of all laws of physics, still was visible.

No, Ben wanted to be a soldier.

 
 

A chaplain’s calling

Pastoral work in the USAF led rabbi into life as a counselor

A certain kind of impersonal authority comes with some positions — just for argument’s sake, say that position is as a Jewish Air Force chaplain.

Then there’s the kind of authority that someone — say, perhaps, a Jewish Air Force chaplain — grows into.

That was the experience of Rabbi Reuben E. Gross — now Dr. Gross, of Teaneck, and then Lt. Gross, of the United States Air Force — as he served as chaplain in the Philippines. His was a peacetime stint — he was in the Philippines just before the just-begun Vietnam war caused the United States to bring what it called advisors there to oversee that conflict.

 
 

Shot down over Belgium

Local man remembers the uncle he never knew

“I saw tracers hitting the front part of our ship,” recounted Sergeant Beverly Geyer in his formal debriefing. “It must have hit our controls, for the plane fell over on one wing. We were heavily hit in the oil tanks. Oil and pieces of wing came flying by me. The navigator called and wanted to know what was popping. The pilot ordered us to bail out.”

And there are the details of the mission.

The B-17 that Bernie flew was known as “The Flying Fortress.” The Air Force had hoped that its defenses — including many machine guns — and its high altitude would let it fly safely through Nazi airspace. The reality was less kind to the pilots.

 
 
 
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Sending socks to the IDF

Teaneck rabbi to bring much-needed supplies to soldiers in Israel

Rabbi Tomer Ronen, rosh yeshiva of Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, and his wife, Deganit, are the proud parents of a son in the IDF.

Their son, a 20-year-old who went all the way through SAR in Riverdale and then went to Israel, where he studied at a yeshiva for a year and then joined the IDF exactly a year ago, is in a parachute unit. “For the last three weeks, they were training and training and training,” Rabbi Ronen said. Last Thursday, “he called and said, ‘Abba, Ima, we are out. We are giving away our cell phones.’ So we knew that it was happening that night.”

So now the Ronens are both proud and worried parents; worried enough, in fact, to decide that they could no longer sit at home in Teaneck and worry. “To be the parents of a lone soldier is hard,” Rabbi Ronen said. “To be the parent of a lone soldier and know that he is going in — that is even harder.”

 

Turning grief into action

Stephen Flatow talks about his long quest for justice for Alisa — and the fine assessed against BNP Paribas

As more and more bleak news from Israel continues to chill hearts here, the parents of all four murdered boys — the three Jews and the one Arab — will have to learn how to live without them.

It is a pain that they will feel forever, but they will learn to manage somehow, each in his or her own way.

In this country, Stephen Flatow models a way to take grief, fashion it into a lance, and wield it powerfully in his quest for justice. Ever since his daughter, Alisa — a Brandeis student who graduated from the Frisch School in Paramus and was spending her junior year abroad in Israel — was killed by terrorists, blown up, along with everyone else on board, as she rode a bus to an Israeli beach, Mr. Flatow has fought to make her murderers, and the terrorist state that supported them, pay for her death.

 

Born to heal

Dr. Sharyn Lewin, new to Holy Name, talks about gynecological oncology, helping women, and saving lives

Ever since she was a small girl, Sharyn Lewin knew that she wanted to be a doctor.

But not just any doctor. The laser-like precision of her goal, from the time she was very young, was oddly specific.

“My earliest memory was going to school with a white coat and a stethoscope for Career Day,” Dr. Lewin said. By the time she was about 8, “I didn’t even know what an obstetrician or a gynecologist was — but I knew I wanted to be one.”

Very soon, Dr. Lewin narrowed her goals even further. She wanted to be a gynecological oncologist, studying and curing women’s cancers. She wanted to take after her grandmother, Dr. Gerda Bruno, who was a gynecologist at a time when few women were. And she succeeded. Dr. Lewin is newly arrived at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, where she has begun a practice and eventually will inaugurate a full-service women’s health center. “It will be a comprehensive venue, where women can come for complete care,” she said.

 

RECENTLYADDED

Jews in the Garment Center

Local documentary maker looks at Jewish garmentos, anarchists, musicians, and other unusual Americans

What exactly is a garmento?

Is it a cringe-making label or a badge of honor?

Does the stereotypical garmento embody traditional Jewish values? Or does he (or far less often she) defy or deny them?

Why did so many Jews go into the rag trade anyway?

And Sam, really, why did you make the pants so long?

Steven Fischler of Teaneck and his business partner, Joel Sucher of Hartsdale, N.Y., examine these questions — well, at least some of them — and similar ones in a documentary, “Dressing America: Tales From the Garment Center.” Created in 2009, it will be broadcast a number of times on Channel 13 and on WLIW, beginning on September 2, to mark Fashion Week in New York City.

 

Paddling the Mediterranean

Local man navigates many-legged kayak trip from Spain to Cyprus

That may seem a pretentious term for someone who has done his seafaring not on a big ship, but in an 18-foot sea kayak. But it is fitting for an adventurer who has covered about 2,500 nautical miles, weathering strong winds and battling currents, and who has touched shore in seven Mediterranean countries, all under paddle power.

His journey was to take him from Barcelona, Spain, to Israel, but he ended the trip just short of his goal, in Cyprus, still covering a formidable distance.

“It was a personal odyssey,” Mr. Neimand said. “I traveled far outside the box. I saw wonders and lived legends. It was just amazing.”

While Mr. Neimand was soothing his sore muscles in Ma’ale Admim, Israel, where he lives, sighs of relief and pride were heard back in Teaneck, where Mr. Neimand’s parents, Jane and Jerry, admitted to having had the jitters over their son’s multiyear venture.

 

Unity from tragedy

Local group goes to Israel to show support, share grief and love

It was not a normal trip to Israel, this hastily organized, 80-person two-bus weeklong journey.

The travelers, mainly from Bergen County and almost exclusively from the New York metropolitan area, overwhelmingly veterans of many voyages to the Jewish state, did not go as tourists. Their goal, instead, was to provide comfort and support to Israelis, who are battered both by the rockets Hamas fires at them and by the disdain much of the rest of the world showers on them.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood led the trip. “Our congregation has gone in the past, under pretty much the same circumstances — the intifada, the Gulf War, Operation Cast Lead,” Rabbi Goldin said. “I will never forget being handed gas masks as we walked off the plane during the Gulf War. My image of that trip was walking through Yad VaShem holding a gas mask.”

Still, he said, the feeling this time was different. “The vulnerability seemed even greater.”

 
 
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