Click here for memoir introduction.
September 1969 (30 years from September 1, 1939, the infamous date when the Nazis invaded Poland, starting WWII)
On our honeymoon in Israel my husband Mitch and I took a bus tour that visited the Chamber of the Holocaust, Israel’s first Holocaust museum, on Mount Zion. I walked through the series of exhibition rooms, the walls of the rooms covered with tombstone-like plaques, each plaque memorializing one of the more than 2,000 Jewish communities destroyed by the Holocaust.
As a 21-year-old American Jew who grew up in a non-survivor community, I knew very little about the Holocaust or how many Jewish communities had been destroyed by the Nazis. I remember stopping in front of a plaque that noted the destruction of Greek Jews.
Greek Jews? I had no idea that there had been Greek Jews.
Nor did I have any expectation that exactly a year later Mitch and I would be living in Munich, Germany, the birthplace of the Nazi movement. Then just two years after our arrival in Munich, I would be the editor and publisher of first-hand survivor and savior stories for a Jewish publication in Philadelphia.
Nor did I have any premonition that, years later in Los Angeles, Mitch and I would attend the funeral of a Greek Jew, the father of a friend, who had been saved by an unknown Greek woman. The father, a young man at that time, had been taken for a task outside the camp that Greek Jews were being held in before being shipped to their deaths in Auschwitz. A young Greek woman spotted the prisoner and intentionally flirted with the Nazi guard to give the prisoner a moment to slip away. That moment saved the father’s life. Ninety percent of the Greek Jewish community wasn’t as lucky — they all perished at the hands of the Nazis.
A rabbi in Los Angeles once said to me that it took 10 days for the Greek Jews shipped in cattle train cars to arrive at Auschwitz. Then he added, “The lucky ones died before they arrived.”
It wasn’t that difficult of a choice for my husband and myself — either Mitch signed up for an extra year of active duty Army service (and be stationed in Europe) before having an unaccompanied tour (translation: Vietnam) or go directly to Vietnam.
The only concern about this decision that my husband and I had was that most Army personnel in Europe were stationed in Germany — the country that had murdered six million of our fellow Jews and millions of other noncombatants. When I told my mother our decision she said, “Europe is so far away.” I replied, “Vietnam is further.”
In September of 1970 Mitch and I flew from Baltimore, Maryland, where he had been attending six weeks of Military Intelligence training at Ft. Holabird, to Chicago, where I would stay with my parents in Elgin, Illinois, until my concurrent travel orders came through to join him in Europe (destination still unknown).
Two hours after he flew back East he called me from Baltimore. He had just been paged at the airport and told that my concurrent orders had come through. We were going to be stationed in Munich.
Time for full confession: I had to look up Munich on the map to find where it was located in West Germany. And while I knew about Anne Frank and the six million Jews, I had no idea at this time that Munich had been the crucible for the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.
Yet from the moment Mitch and I landed on a chartered military flight in Frankfurt and we took the train to Munich, I began to be exposed to the history I dreaded.
From taking a Jewish literature course at Michigan State University while an undergrad, I knew that cattle train cars were used to transfer Jews to their deaths in concentration camps. I also knew that men, women and children were crammed into these cars for days with no food, no water, no sanitary facilities, and very little air. Many people died during the days it took the trains to reach their destinations of death.
There’s a passage in the book THE PAWNBROKER by Edward Lewis Wallant (original copyright 1961 with a 1964 movie version) that had always haunted me since that MSU course. The fictional protagonist, a Harlem pawnbroker and survivor of the Nazi death camps, remembers when he, his wife and children were crammed into cattle cars on their way to their deaths. I recalled the scene in my memory:
The stench of human waste deposited on the train car floor for lack of sanitary facilities was so overwhelming that, when one of his beloved children slipped into the muck, the protagonist could not bring himself to reach down and lift up the child.
As Mitch and I rode in comfort in September 1970 from Frankfurt to Munich, I stared out the window at the freight cars that passed us. I knew no German, although Mitch had taken German in high school and college, and the names of the towns through which we passed at that time meant nothing to me.
What did register is that we arrived at the Munich train station on a Sunday in the midst of Oktoberfest with drunken gastarbeiters milling around us and our eight suitcases to be taken somewhere. That somewhere was elusive as Mitch’s orders to report to the 18th Military Intelligence Battalion didn’t include an address.
Mitch managed to snag a taxi, and we got us and the eight suitcases loaded into it. To the question of “Wohin?” Mitch said, “Amerkanischer kaserne.”
Luck was with us at this point because, as we later learned, the German authorities had convinced the U.S. military to move units out of Munich ahead of the scheduled 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Therefore in September 1970 only one American base remained in Munich — McGraw Kaserne — that of the 66th Military Intelligence Group.
We arrived there only to be told that 1) the 18th MI Battalion didn’t have a duty officer on weekends so the 66th MI Group duty officer was the correct officer to whom to report and 2) we had to go back downtown to near the train station to the army transit hotel.
Then once we got to the transit hotel, accompanied by my raging cold — a tall young officer appeared who said he and his wife were our sponsors and he had come to take us to their housing unit for dinner. This housing unit turned out to be almost adjacent to the 66th MI Group headquarters, so back we went again.
On the way there I could only worry about the pork that we might be offered because, even though Mitch and I didn’t observe the laws of keeping kosher, I didn’t eat pork. Thankfully the officer and his wife were Southerners — and served us fried chicken.
Within days Mitch had been assigned to work on the Sociological Desk at the 18th — one of four subject desks — under a non-Jewish Department of the Army civilian, Lucian — Lutz — Kempner, who had his own Nazi victim story including being kidnapped by the Gestapo.
Two weeks later a second Jewish officer and his wife arrived in Munich, and he would be assigned to work for the Jewish Department of the Army civilian, Henry Einstein, who as a teen-age Jew had gotten out of Germany in time and now headed the Military Geography Desk.
The stories of these two men were bound together through Lutz’s father, Robert Kempner, who had served as assistant U.S. chief counsel during the Nazi War Crimes Trials at the Internal Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, where Henry Einstein had worked as a clerk for Lutz’s father.
We would learn the stories of these two men against the backdrop of living in Germany surrounded by thousands of former Nazis.
Click here to read the formal book proposal for SURVIVORS AND SAVIORS.
© 2017 Miller Mosaic LLC
Phyllis Zimbler Miller (@ZimblerMiller) has an M.B.A. from The Wharton School and is the author of fiction and nonfiction books/ebooks. Phyllis is available by skype for book group discussions and may be reached at email@example.com
Her Kindle fiction ebooks may be read for free with a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription — see www.amazon.com/author/phylliszimblermiller — and her Kindle nonfiction ebooks may also be read for free with a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription — see www.amazon.com/author/phylliszmiller