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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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Scheherazade in Cresskill

Former Palmach, Palyam fighter talks about his adventures in Russia, Palestine, Egypt, and Brooklyn

So you walk into the big, airy, neat, well-furnished Cresskill apartment, full of pale winter sun, and it’s almost like walking into Scheherazade’s rooms.

Presiding over this comfortable, profoundly suburban setting, Shlomo Lev spins stories, one after the other, improbable but true, of times and places close enough to us for us to know they were real, but far enough away to be mythic nonetheless.

Mr. Lev is a small-boned, taut, wiry man, muscular still, even at 87. His close-cropped white hair, white mustache and carefully trimmed beard, and light eyes, his blue jeans and windbreaker make him look less like Shloime Levitsky, as he once was, and more like a retired British sailor about to head out to the pub with his mates in a 1950s movie.

So why is he showing you what looks like a very fancy pair of men’s underpants?

 

Past and future in Kosovo

In heart of Muslim province, Jewish remnant stakes its claim

PRISTINA, Kosovo — Boxing Club Prishtina is a squat building on a narrow street around the corner from the parliament in the heart of Kosovo’s capital city.

Around the corner, a popular Italian restaurant draws the young Western Europeans and Americans in button-down shirts and open-toed heels who help keep the country running. Walk the other way and you’ll find a dim hole-in-the-wall bar/gallery crammed with their Kosovar peers.

But Boxing Club Prishtina stands unattended, plaster cracked or stripped away by wind, rain, and time. Its rusted metal awning droops into Mark Isaki Street.

Before World War II, the Jews of Kosovo will tell you, the building housed a yeshiva or Jewish community center or maybe both — or maybe neither. Maybe it will be restored or torn down, become a monument or a memory.

 

Slaughter in Paris

Dirty Charlie

Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French weekly, entered American consciousness last week when terrorists attacked an editorial meeting, killing 12 people, among them five staff cartoonists.

Afterwards, the phrase “Je suis Charlie” was spread by people who wanted to signal their support for freedom of expression — many of whom, outside of France, had never heard of the publication.

But Edward Portnoy was a longtime Charlie fan.

Dr. Portnoy, who teaches Jewish studies courses at Rutgers, discovered the magazine 20 years ago, when he spent a year in France. When he was a child, when his friends collected baseball cards, he had collected Wacky Packs — stickers that parody actual boxes or labels. Later, he earned a doctorate in Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America; his dissertation was on political cartoons in the American Yiddish press.

 

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Standardizing the Times

In which we announce and describe our new online partnership with the Times of Israel

The Jewish Standard is excited and pleased to announce our online partnership with the Times of Israel.

What does that mean to us, and to you?

It means that our hard copy version will stay as it is, but in the next two months or so our web presence will change entirely.

To explain, first we have to go backward.

Not really so very long ago, the world was so much more black and white.

Take newspapers. To begin with, they actually were black and white (and no matter what color your fingers were when you started to read, they’d be black by the time you were done. Ink didn’t stick on newsprint very well).

 

Vaccinate your kid!

Local Jewish leaders talk about their policies

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was a great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov; he was a chasidic master whose mysticism, extremism, creativity, asceticism, willfulness, and wild emotional swings from despair to ecstasy and then always back to despair make him an almost Byronic figure — had Byron, his contemporary, been a Jew from eastern Europe.

Nachman was thought to be so irreplaceable to his chasidim that they never did replace him; his spiritual descendants go to his grave in Uman, an otherwise obscure Russian town, around Rosh Hashanah every year, wearing their Na-Nach-Nachman-Me-Uman kippot as they brawl noisily around the town.

So why, you might wonder, is Nachman at the start of a story about vaccines?

 

Vaccinate your kid!

While all local day schools canvassed by the Jewish Standard adhere to state guidelines on vaccination, some school health professionals are particularly passionate about the need for families to comply. (For the state guidelines, see sidebar.)

“All kids needs to be immunized,” said Toby Eizig, the nurse at Englewood’s Moriah School. “There should be no picking or choosing — one from column ‘a’ and one from column ‘b.’ I’ve sent letters home saying students don’t have a certain vaccine — and unless they have it as of a certain date, they may not attend school.”

Believing that “these vaccines are used with the best interests of children in mind… [that] there are illnesses that can be eradicated… and that some of these illnesses can have devastating effects,” Ms. Eizig said she does not understand why parents would opt not to have their children vaccinated.

 
 
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