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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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Dentistry in Africa

Local father-daughter duo fix teeth in Jewish Ugandan village

Kayla Grunstein’s parents, Shira and Dr. Robert Grunstein, didn’t want her to “be a brat,” Kayla said.

They wanted her to learn something about the world and her place in it, about the importance of work and the satisfaction of a job well done, about gratitude and generosity and giving.

They also were not adverse to allowing the 14-year-old some excitement and adventure at the same time.

In fact, a lot of excitement and adventure. With the Abayudaya in Uganda.

This is how it happened.

Her father, Dr. Robert Grunstein, is a dentist. He lives in Teaneck but has spent his career working mainly with lower-income children in Passaic and Paterson. He had the brilliant idea (yes, this is journalism, but some things are so clear that they just must be said, so brilliant idea it is) of buying an old fire truck and turning it into a mobile dental office. “Kids love fire trucks, and they are ambivalent at best about going to the dentist,” he said. “If you mix the two, it becomes more palatable.

 

We’ve got the horse right here…

Local Orthodox family wins the Kentucky Derby. Really!

It took American Pharoah barely more than two minutes and two seconds to win the 2015 Kentucky Derby.

For Joanne Zayat of Teaneck, whose husband, Ahmed, owns American Pharoah (and yes, that is how it is spelled), those two minutes and barely more than two seconds stretched out and then blurred and bore little relation to regular time as it usually passes.

There she was — really, there they were, Ahmed and Joanne Zayat, their four children — all Orthodox Jews — and a small crowd of friends and relatives, in one of the owners’ boxes at Churchill Downs in Lexington, Kentucky, on a glorious flowering spring Shabbat, watching as their horse won America’s most iconic horse race.

How did they get there?

 

Born to lead

The head of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey tells his story — and federation’s

Learning to cull less-than-perfect goldfish as they hurtle by you on a slimy assembly line, using your bare hands, disposing of them in garbage bags, is not a skill most nice Jewish boys acquire.

Nor is standing in the middle of an ice-cold pond in a torn wetsuit and hand-selecting the most decorative available koi, at the orders of overseas hoteliers, again with your bare hands.

Jason Shames of Haworth did both those things, during a stay on an Israeli kibbutz. Those and similar skills, oddly enough, were part of a logical progression that took Mr. Shames from the Bronx to the helm of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, a job he accepted four years ago this week.

 

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‘Indescribable’ connections

Zahal Shalom brings Israeli veterans to Ridgewood for touring, love

What happened when the alarm went off in the Pentagon was a reminder of one of the reasons local volunteers behind Zahal Shalom are so eager to open their homes, their schedules, and their wallets to 10 wounded Israeli veterans each year.

During their two-week stay, the Israelis get to see New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C.

In Washington, they visited the monuments, ate in the Senate dining room, and took a tour of the Pentagon, where — and this was not on the five-page itinerary — a fire drill caused alarms to clang loudly.

For Anat Nitsan, the alarm brought back memories from the Yom Kippur war, more than 40 years ago. Now an art curator, then she was a soldier at the air force base at Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of Sinai. She survived the initial surprise attack from the Egyptian air force. And then, in a case of friendly fire, she watched in horror as a missile seemed to target her directly. Somehow she survived that too — though not without a case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

We’ve got the horse right here…

Local Orthodox family wins the Kentucky Derby. Really!

It took American Pharoah barely more than two minutes and two seconds to win the 2015 Kentucky Derby.

For Joanne Zayat of Teaneck, whose husband, Ahmed, owns American Pharoah (and yes, that is how it is spelled), those two minutes and barely more than two seconds stretched out and then blurred and bore little relation to regular time as it usually passes.

There she was — really, there they were, Ahmed and Joanne Zayat, their four children — all Orthodox Jews — and a small crowd of friends and relatives, in one of the owners’ boxes at Churchill Downs in Lexington, Kentucky, on a glorious flowering spring Shabbat, watching as their horse won America’s most iconic horse race.

How did they get there?

 

100 years in Hoboken

United Synagogue’s building celebrates its centennial

Hoboken is surprisingly small, given its outsize reputation.

It’s only got 50,000 residents, and its nickname, Mile Square City, is roughly accurate. (“It actually covers an area of two square miles when including the under-water parts in the Hudson River,” Wikipedia helpfully tells us. It’s hard to understand why anyone would want to count the underwater parts.)

It’s a city with a storied history — Frank Sinatra, “On the Waterfront” and therefore Marlon Brando, gangsters, music, angst, longshoremen, gritty local color. Its lack of parking, which makes finding a space in Manhattan seem relatively as easy as finding one in, say, Montana, is legendary.

For the last few decades, Hoboken’s been home to young people who work in Manhattan but don’t want or can’t afford to live there; it pulses with singles, who might make noises about staying but have tended to move once they’re married and certainly once they have kids.

Hoboken also has a more recent history of apparently being on the cusp, the verge, the very sharp tip of change, but somehow not quite making it.

 
 
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