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WWII vets take a trip back in time

American Jewish WWII veterans, Cy Mermelstein, left, Donald Golde, center, and Shep Waldman stand at the entrance to the Dachau concentration camp memorial during a visit by a group of veterans to sites where they fought against Germany, May 13 near Munic (Toby Axelrod)

American Jewish WWII veterans, Cy Mermelstein, left, Donald Golde, center, and Shep Waldman stand at the entrance to the Dachau concentration camp memorial during a visit by a group of veterans to sites where they fought against Germany, May 13 near Munic (Toby Axelrod)

MUNICH (JTA) – When Stanford “Shep” Waldman landed on the beaches of Normandy 62 years ago, he saw body parts of fellow soldiers washing onto the shore.”You hated to look at it, but it was right there looking at you in the face,” said Waldman, a staff sergeant from Denver who was in an infantry unit.He recalls thinking, “Am I going to get through today with all my parts in place?”Waldman was among 22 World War II veterans who made a journey of remembrance organized by the 3-year-old, Denver-based Greatest Generations Foundation.The soldiers returned to battlefields where they had struggled not only with their enemies, but with their own fears.During the 13-day trip, the men viewed a V.E. Day re-enactment in London, walked on Omaha Beach – site of the D-Day invasion – revisited battlefields in France and Germany, and saw the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s retreat in Bavaria.Filmmakers accompanied the group on its journey, which concluded May 13 with ceremonies marking the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp by American soldiers.The goal is to ensure that the soldiers’ sacrifices are remembered, said Greatest Generations founder Tim Davis.At Dachau, the veterans spoke with survivors and German students.
They walked down the broad, stony path where the barracks had been, saw
the camp’s crematorium and listened to speeches on the former “Appelplatz,” where the SS held prisoner roll calls.”Hey Shep, what’s that poem you wanted to read?” Davis asked after the ceremonies.”It’s a prayer – Kaddish,” Waldman answered, turning to face east, toward Jerusalem.In flawless Hebrew, he recited, “May he who makes peace in the heights make peace in his mercy upon us all.”Davis, 31, of Denver, asked some veterans if they would go back to Europe if all expenses were paid.”Off the bat, most said no,” said Davis, whose grandfather, William Davis of the Australian Royal Navy, fought alongside U.S. Marines at Guadalcanal. “But after I asked would they go with other veterans together, most of them jumped at that.”Davis told them there was one catch: “You must share your wartime experience with us on the battlefield.”Many, like Waldman, had suppressed painful memories, not even discussing them with their children.Davis found a supporter in businessman Jeffrey Rosenthal of Beverly Hills, who covered most of the trip’s costs – more than $3,000 per veteran.Rosenthal said he had been moved to see young Europeans hugging and thanking U.S. veterans during a commemorative trip to Normandy in 2006.”It was almost like they were rock stars,” he recalled. “You just don’t see that kind of gratitude in the United States. The veterans said it was the greatest day of their lives.”The foundation, which has sponsored a handful of trips, next will seek out World War II veterans of the Pacific theater. It also aims to reach veterans of the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. Davis said veterans of World War II “have one more mission and battle to fight – to release their demons after 60 years.”Waldman was one of three Jewish veterans on the trip, along with Seymour “Cy” Mermelstein and Donald Golde.In 1943, Waldman was working at a Denver jewelry store earning $6 per
week when he and his boss enlisted. He hit the beaches of Normandy
right after the D-Day invasion in June 1944.

Despite the shock of seeing dead soldiers, “adrenalin takes over and
training takes over,” he said. In
April 1945, during a harrowing battle on the Elbe River, Waldman remembers coming face-to-face with a young German. Waldman had the advantage, but didn’t shoot.”I told him to throw his rifle down,” he said, then told the German, ” ‘Now get the hell out of here!’ And he did understand.”Shortly afterward, Waldman experienced hand-to-hand combat while trapped
with two comrades behind enemy lines. Waldman killed one German soldier
with his bayonet; his buddies killed the others.”I never knew I could do it,” he said.Mermelstein, growing up in Newark, N.J., was unaware of how Germany was treating Jews.”I knew about the Nazis, though,” he said, recalling how a local German immigrant family hung a swastika flag in their window.Mermelstein said he was “a young kid” when he went off to war in December 1942, “and I guess you take the invincibility attitude.” He fought with an infantry regiment and was among the soldiers to enter Buchenwald two days after its liberation.Now 82 and living in Pembroke Pines, Fla., Mermelstein said he cannot forget “the stench.””It was thrust upon you just walking in,” he said, adding that the liberated prisoners “were in horrible shape.”Mermelstein photographed piles of bodies, a whipping rack and a Nazi guard killed by inmates.”They carved an SS into his chest,” he said.Mermelstein gets riled when he hears people questioning whether the Holocaust happened.”I had the camera, and I have the negatives,” he said.Golde, a farmboy growing up in Michigan, was drafted at age 18 and fought in Italy. He said he’s still trying to get a Congressional Medal of Honor for rescuing a comrade who was severely
wounded by a landmine.When he learned about the Holocaust, Golde wished the Jews had fought back.”I would have killed the guards” in the camps, he said.