Born in 1926 in Germany in a small town , 89 years old.
Enlisted in the U.S. Army. Served in the Pacific in the Infantry as rifleman.
In 1938 I was one of a very small group of Jewish kids from Germany who were on a kinder transport. You’ve probably heard of kinder transports to England. Well, I was on a kinder transport to the United States. I don’t remember who was responsible for it and got it through Congress but consequently a number of people in our government were very upset about bringing more refugees to the United States. It was because I was a Jewish child and it was organized in the United States by the Jewish social service and I think overseas by HIAS which is a Hebrew International Aid Society. When I came to the United States I ended up with a poor Jewish family in Albany, NY, who needed the eight dollars a week that they got for my room and board. This was in 1938. I come from a family that had three children. My older brother came over two years earlier, and he was taken care of by relatives. Then I had a younger brother who ended up in a gas chamber as did my parents. So I came to the United States and I lived with these people for 6 years, almost 6 years, and then I just left. Somebody from the Jewish social service was obviously some kind of a so-called volunteer but knew nothing about anything. And wasn’t really interested but just wanted to do something good and never enquired about how I was doing and how I wasn’t doing. So as soon as I could leave and I gathered enough money together by working, I started working. As soon as I came to the States, I sold magazines then newspapers and I had every conceivable job you could think of. I had a paper route among other things, I stacked pins in bowling alleys. So that was my existence. I left as soon as I could and the war was already, as you know it, started in 1941. I didn’t know whether my parents were alive or dead. I didn’t find out until I got out of the Army that they had died, that they had been murdered.
6:10- I went to the University of Wisconsin. I had saved enough money, and I was very eager to get into the Army as soon as possible. Not only because I wanted to be in the war and I had dreams of going back to Germany in the Army and killing a lot of people, but that didn’t come to pass because I was considered an enemy alien. They wouldn’t let me enlist, so I wrote my draft board. I said, “As soon as I’m 18 I would appreciate you taking me into the service.” And they did within a week or so after my birthday. I was in the Army Navy and I said, “please send me to Europe I speak German fluently,” but anyway, they didn’t. They sent me to the Philippines and I was a replacement in the 81st infantry division. First I got my citizenship in the U.S. Army, I think it was March 1945, and the war in Europe wound down very quickly, but the war in the Far East continued until August if you remember the history. So, I was in the Philippines and we were anticipating invading Japan. I was a rifleman in an infantry unit, and I was involved in mopping up operations one late day where one of the last big battles in the Far East took place. Then when they dropped the first bomb there was jubilation because some of us who hadn’t even considered the possibility that we might die because our mopping up operations were relatively safe. The Japanese that were still around were in very bad straits. Then they dropped the second bomb and the war ended, I think it was August 14th about 1945. A few weeks later my division was transferred and ended up in Northern Japan at the very tip of Honshu which is a main island of Japan at a place called Aromor. We were placed in a huge vacated Air Force base of the Japanese Air Force called Masawa. After a few months the U.S. felt safe enough to take the 81st division home to the United States, but those of us who hadn’t been in the Army that long stayed in Japan as occupation forces. After a while I must say I developed a tremendous respect for the Japanese, because on the one hand were these people who were responsible for the rape of Nanking and they did terrible things in China. They did terrible things everywhere, but I noticed that they treated their troops really bad. And seeing a policeman take hold of a civilian, I didn’t know for what, and just slapping them around right on the street and the poor civilian tried to make excuses for whatever terrible thing he may have done, like maybe spitting on the street, and then he bowed down and that was it. So this was not unusual, at least in the beginning. On the other hand there was another side to the Japanese, particularly when you get to know them well. In general I found them to be really good people. I got to know a number of Japanese extremely well, made a very good friend in Japan. Eventually I was still in Northern Japan and they asked me whether I’d like to become a supply sargent, which is the world’s best job, in a medical unit and that medical unit ended up in the Tokyo mahama (?) area. It was fantastic for me because I had at my disposal a small truck, a three quarter ton truck, any time I needed it and a jeep whenever I needed it. I had never driven before, but they asked me whether I could drive, and one of my friends who could gave me one or two lessons and I started driving. I was a really lousy driver. Anyway I ended up in the Tokyoyomahama (?) area until the end of 1946.
When you’re a supply sergeant you have control of a lot of stuff. And I was in a position sometimes to do somebody a terrific favor, which was great. I like to do favors. For instance, the sergeant in charge of our mess hall apparently developed VD and at that time if you had VD you could be drummed out of the Army with a dishonorable discharge. So several of his friends approached me and said “can you get some penicillin for us?” So I said, “I can get you some penicillin but what are you going to do with it?” So one of the guys said, “I can give injections no problem,” so I said, I’ll get you the penicillin and I’ll get you the needles and syringes. And the mess hall sergeant got a penicillin shot every three hours for two weeks. I never felt in danger whether it was at four o’ clock in the morning or whether it was in some little village fifty miles away where they’d never seen a Caucasian and I’d drive in there and people would look at me like I was some outer space alien.
16:16 Just eighteen when he entered the military: I remember at that time the battle of the bulge occurred, and we were suffering some defeats there and some of my friends ended up in Europe, some friends who didn’t have to worry about being enemy aliens. The battle of the bulge was a major part of the war. It was the Germans’ last major attempt to maintain their hegemony over Europe, although they pretty well lost by that time. I remember seeing articles occasionally about what was going on with Jews in Europe, particularly in Poland and I kept wondering what’s happening with my parents and my brother and my sister. She just kind of escaped from Europe in the nick of time, because we were really Polish Jews who lived in Germany and never got German citizenship. I don’t know why we didn’t, but I believe the Germans were really discrete about not giving citizenship to Jews from Eastern Europe. I don’t know whether anybody got citizenship. There were not a lot of Jews in all of Germany. You always hear about German Jews, but at the time Germany was a country including about eighty million people and there were about 570,000 Jews in the entire country. Many of them had been there for hundreds of years. All the Polish Jews were kicked out of Germany and sent to the Polish border. And there were about 12,000 Polish Jews including my parents and my brother and my oldest sister. My father and mother met at a wedding of my mother’s uncle. My mother’s uncle married my father’s sister. It was a big romance. It was the talk of the family and the romance lasted for as long as they lived. They developed a small business in this small town, Unna, which is a small town in Westphalia not far from Cologne, about 60 miles from Cologne. He took hides and skins from local farmers and hunters. They would bring them to him and originally he was doing some tanning but then he gave that up. He was a pretty amazing guy, because he did all of his business by bicycle. He would ride maybe 30-40 miles in a day and then he would do really physical work, because he had to do all kinds of stuff with these hides at a place called Rymanow. Somehow my mother found out about how young women could go to London as au pair girls, so she managed to sign up my sister to that. My sister left Poland perhaps three weeks before the war started which saved her life so she ended up in London but eventually came to the States.
23:56 It was very difficult to get information, but when I came home from the war my sister had gotten a letter from one of my cousins who ended up in the Russian part of Poland and then was sent to sort of a gulag in Siberia. He then eventually after the war went back to Europe and he was put in a camp for displaced persons. Then he worked for a Jewish agency and tried to find out what happened to various people. He wrote a letter to my sister that he thought my parents had been killed in one of the killing camps but the one that he talked about was not the right one. I subsequently found out exactly where they had been murdered, a place called Belzec. It’s a camp, you always hear about Auschwitz, but this is a camp where they killed about 600,000 Jews and 50 of them apparently survived. I know how they were killed because eventually I heard of a group of people that were in this small town where they lived until they ended up in this killing camp. They were a couple of brothers who were interested in finding out what had happened to the Jews in the town and the town had been about 30,000 people. It had close to 1800 or 1900 people who were Jewish, but if you go back to the town now there’s not a single Jew in the town.
After the war there was a pogrom by the Poles trying to kill off whatever Jews were coming back.
Only about 175,000 of the German Jews were killed. The rest of them were able to leave, because most of them were in pretty good shape financially. Somehow they escaped whereas many of the Polish Jews, like my people, they were not as settled because they had been in Germany for a relatively short period of time. So the
Polish Jews they had well over three million Jews in Poland before the war and at the end of the war I don’t know how many of them were still alive.
28:52 A pogrom is where they seek out a particular group of people and they either murder them or they harm them. The Poles were doing it, ordinary Poles. They had a lot of heroic Poles. They had some 30 million people. So there were a lot of people who would do anything to make their own position better even at the expense of murdering others.
30:40 The Jews chose Poland because they knew that the anti-Semitism there was incredible.
There are quite a few Jews who came from Russia and settled in Germany and probably from other countries in Europe who settled in Germany. So I think there are well over 100.000 settled in Germany right now. Germany has been really good about admitting what happened and they are probably the least anti-Semitic country in Europe right now.
32:52- I’ve gone back and the first time it was somewhat difficult because I went back to my old home town. It’s impossible for me to blame the sins of the fathers on the children.
I’ll tell you what drove me to it. By 1936, I was just a kid. In fact, all of us were. In my family, my brothers and I spent a lot of time outside. We played soccer with the kids and we got along great. And then suddenly everything turned when Hitler came to power with his speeches which were really charismatic. He united the people. And my best friend, he joined what was the beginning of the pre-Hitler youth and he spent vast amounts of time at my house and vice versa prior to that. So I was very alone, and we had very few kids among the Jewish population. I think like a hundred something people in the whole surroundings of this town who were Jewish, so there weren’t any boys who were in my age. So in school it got very difficult and with my teacher. And actually of all the people I wanted to kill him first in a very painful way. He would take every opportunity he could to punish me and he would say things like “Penner, why don’t you go back to Palestine where you came from?” because Palestine is the name for what is now Israel and that’s what it was named by the Romans. So I hated the guy and I felt pretty uncomfortable. I ended up fighting my way to and from school. I was just a kid and I became very very aggressive. You know kids if they see someone who is isolated, they will take advantage of that. I recall a child moved to our area from the Rhineland from an area where they spoke a very different accent and it was very difficult to understand him. All the kids took advantage of him as well. I remember they were bothering this guy, and he was like a ferocious animal, suddenly he lashed out. The kids didn’t bother me if I didn’t bother them, but they didn’t want any part of me. However the bigger kids, especially if they caught me to or from school would try to beat me up,so I did a lot of running and I became a pretty good runner.
Our home environment was wonderful. The home environment here was not good, but the home environment in Germany was good.
11 years old when he came to U.S.
Between 11-18 everything was good as long as I wasn’t home.
My teachers were great. I liked my teachers they liked me,but my first few years were difficult because I didn’t speak English. And my first teacher she kept saying, “oh, you only understand what you want to” and she would send me to the principal’s office. And the principal would stand me up against the wall and take his index finger and poke me in the ribcage and say the same thing, “You only understand what you want to” which wasn’t true. I just hadn’t learned any English. But at 11 you learn really fast. Within a year I spoke fluently and within two years I became a pretty good student.
My parents were very knowledgeable and my grandfather, my father’s father, was a teacher of rabbis, so my father was very knowledgeable and my mother was very knowledgeable.
My biggest dream was to be reunited with my family. And then when I started thinking about my future. I came to the conclusion that the world is my oyster and whatever I want to do I’m going to do it. Before going into the Army, there were a number of things I considered. For a while I wanted to be a farmer, because one summer I worked on a farm and I liked that. And then I thought I’d like to become a writer…
1:00:33- I’ve seen so much suffering, and I hate to see people suffer.
1:02:30- I was 18 years old, and I have to be honest, I was not thinking about my purpose. I was thinking about what was motivating me, and what was motivating me was I wanted revenge. And I never got the revenge I had hoped that me going into the Army would help to accomplish that.
Contrary to the Christian religion, I’m not a believer in turning the other cheek. I’m very much a believer in that if someone hits you on one cheek, you hit them two times harder on their cheek and that’s the way I always felt.
I shot at many people in the Philippines and to my knowledge I never killed anybody. If I had it would have been a very traumatic experience for me. I’m not somebody who believes in killing and potentially derives pleasure out of killing. But I believe at that time if I could have gone back to that town and found that teacher who was torturing me for more than a year, because he was my teacher for several years, I probably would have delighted in killing him in a very slow and painful way, I think.
Anti-Semitism: I experienced none in all my time in the United States. Now very few Jews will tell you that, but that’s been my experience. I had so many jobs and I never experienced any anti-Semitism.
I was very proud of being in the military. I loved being in the military and I was young enough that when I went in I didn’t even consider the possibility of dying like everybody else. I believe at the age of 18, barely 18, I think you have the sense that you are fairly indestructible.
I’ve always been the same, I’ve been a Jew all my life and I’m very comfortable with it.
1:10:07 I believe I owe a particular debt to the United States, because they saved my life; nobody in particular but the country saved my life. And by spending two years in the Army, meeting some terrific people, having some terrific mentors in the Army, I’ve just been unbelievably lucky.
War is horrendous and it can’t be outlawed. It’s like if you think of an outfit like this ISIS who are decapitating people because they don’t have the same beliefs that they feel everybody in the whole world should have they just take off their heads, I think when you are confronted with that kind of evil, war is probably the only answer.
BERNIE: Yeah, and I know you have to pull it down into the smallest number of words, which is fine. But at least you’ll have an idea of what it’s about. I came back from my vacation with a helluva cold.
So anyway, World War II was drawing to an end. I’d made several attempts to enlist, in the service, in the Army specifically. And they kept telling me that I couldn’t enlist because I was potentially an enemy alien. I came to the United States at eleven with a Polish passport. But I was born in Germany and I lived there for eleven years. And the not the draft board, but the enlistment station, they always informed me, you can’t sign up, we have to draft you. So I did contact my draft board and they said we can’t expedite things, you have to be at least eighteen years old.
So anyhow, as you know from my previous talk with you, I was one of a group of maybe 1200, maybe maximum of 1500 children that came to the United States on kinder- transports. Nobody in the United States knows about them, because they were kind of squelched after a few months. And the Congress was opposed to bringing any more foreigners to the United States at the time.
So, I was put up with a family in Albany, New York, a poor Jewish family who needed the eight bucks a week in order to pay for my room and board. It was a very unhappy relationship, and I left that home as soon as I had sufficient credits to complete high school.
By dent of various jobs, I had pulled together a nest egg of about 200 bucks, I don’t remember exactly how much, and I applied to the University of Wisconsin and promptly got in. And I sent my belongings, in the trunk my parents furnished me with, I sent them by Railway Express to Madison, Wisconsin, and I hitch-hiked to Madison, Wisconsin. So I was at the University, and at the time I had various jobs in Madison, but it wasn’t quite enough to really furnish me with sufficient food. So eventually, I had a double reason for getting into the service. I wanted to get in so I could get a decent meal, although I did get some decent meals working as a waiter in a woman’s’ dorm. Great job.
And then there was a childish hope of being sent to Europe, because I figured as a soldier I could avenge myself, not only for the agonies that I suffered before I left, but because my parents and brother, by that time, were back in Poland. They had been kicked out of Germany, and we knew that they were in terrible straights.
KATE: Bernie, that paper makes noise.
BERNIE: Oh, ok, sorry.
So anyway, as I was saying, I was hoping to avenge myself, you know, like the indomitable avenger that I planned on being. My draft board, at my urging, drafted me as soon as I was eighteen years old. And I entered the Army in December of 1944. I was trained as an infantryman at Camp Kroft, South Carolina. And I became a citizen within 90 days in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
And then, in the meantime, Germany surrendered in April of that year. But the Pacific war was still raging on. After a lengthy one-month convoy to the Philippines, I ended up on Letay, which was still the site of the ending of a major battle and a lot of mop-up operations. So I became a replacement infantryman in the 81st Division.
My job was the same as everybody else’s in our group, to mop up remaining straggly groups of Japanese who were underfed and undersupplied with weaponry. So, like our Garand rifles, our M-1’s were so superior to what they had. All them seemed to have left were ancient weapons and some 1903 Spinfield rifles. So anyhow, the big Battle of Letay had essentially been won.
My Judaism had lapsed for several years because I felt forsaken by my God (crying), and the God of my parents and my rabbi grandfather. However, at no point did I ever deny or hide my Jewishness, and never did I experience any anti-Semitism, not in the Army nor anytime since I came to the United States. I know vast numbers of people whom I knew, everywhere, frequently they came from New York. They complained about all the anti-Semitism. But I experienced, literally, none. I had all kinds of jobs, not in Jewish establishments or with Jews, but predominantly, overwhelmingly, with non-Jews.
Anyway, my one concession to still practicing my Judaism, after my Bar Mitzvah, which was in a conservative temple in Albany, New York, was to fast on Yom Kippur. So Yom Kippur in 1945 was on the 17th of September. And we were informed “by our superiors that there would be services for Jewish soldiers in an arena, actually a bull-ring in the then-capital- of the island of Letay, Tacloban. So I asked a number of the other Jewish guys in my outfit, in my company, there weren’t very many, but probably about six or seven, whether they’d like to join me and go to the bull-ring to attend services. But none of them wanted to go. So I walked the several miles to Tacloban on an empty stomach. And I recall my feelings at the time, thinking about my Judaism, which had lapsed. And I thought about my parents and all the other things that had transpired.
So anyway, I get close to the arena, and I hear this microphone voice which sounded very, very familiar. And I got closer, and I noticed there was kind of a makeshift bema in the bull-ring, and there was a group of perhaps 25 other Jewish soldiers, and the person who was doing the cantorial job turned out to be a guy whom I really, I just loved him. He was my mentor for my Bar Mitzvah. So this is like, thirteen, fourteen thousand million, more, fifteen thousand miles away from where we had last seen each other. So we had an emotional and very stirring reunion at the end of the service. And I continued fasting for the Yom Kippur as I have since I was probably ten years old.
So, anyhow, I went back to my company and by this time the atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we had actually started preparing for the invasion of Japan, which the rumor was, was going to be in October. But the Japanese, as you recall, you don’t recall but you’ve undoubtedly read, they ended the war, I think it was around the end of September. In my reading I found out that preparations had been made for the use of biologic weapons and they had a huge stockpile of various of the deadliest gases, phosgene, and some of the stuff that had been used in World War I on Lausanne. But that was before they knew that the atomic bomb was going to be dropped. And they anticipated a loss of well over a million GI’s and many millions of Japanese. So even though all of us had moral objections to the use of atomic bombs, we know that it ultimately saved a huge number of lives.
Anyway, within a week or so after Yom Kippur, our division headed for the northern tip of Japan and landed in a place called Aomuri, where our division disbanded. Actually they didn’t disband it immediately, probably about two or three months later. And then I spent the rest of my 15 months in Japan in the Tokyo/Yakahama area, and I got a terrific job as a supply sergeant. So, if you ever go into the army, be sure and become a supply sergeant.
So, anyway, at the end of the war I returned to the United States to Madison, Wisconsin, and finished my college education. There were 9,000 students before I left; there were 20,000 when I came back. So all the GI’s came back. That’s the story.
MAN’S VOICE: Did you go back to the waiter at the girls’ dorm?
BERNIE: That’s right, it was a great job. And actually, by that time, that had become a job just for the big athletes on campus. But I remember going to the House Mother, and she remembered me, and I said “I really need this job”, even though I really didn’t need it like I did before I went into the Army, because by now I had the GI Bill. And she gave me the job again and I worked there for the entire remaining several years in Madison.
KATE: I hear Madison’s a pretty nice town.
BERNIE: Oh, Madison was wonderful, wonderful.
KATE: I had dinner with the mayor of Madison once, in New Orleans. He just raved about it. What a nice town.
BERNIE: I loved the whole ambiance of being in a real campus town and I lived in a rooming house with wonderful people. The guy would be hunting for dinner in the Fall and we always had several venison dinners.