Military service is in the Perl family’s blood.
Pvt. Otto Perl spent nearly a year in the Austrian army from 1937 to 1938. His father had been an officer in that same army in World War I, and two of his uncles had served in WWI.
Perl, a tailor, was 22 in early 1938 when he was discharged a few months before his homeland was annexed by Nazi Germany. A Jew, he was arrested and sent to the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps for a year. He survived the forced labor and beatings and frigid weather.
“I was a young guy, in good physical shape,” he says.
An American visa brought his release from Buchenwald. He left Austria, “alone,” in June 1939, went to England and arrived in the United States in March 1940. Working again as a tailor, he went for a physical to join the U.S. Army. The doctors found a hernia — 4-F, ineligible to serve.
Perl decided to have surgery on the hernia. “I went to a Viennese doctor,” he recalls. On his second Army physical, he was deemed 1-A — fit for service.
“It was an obligation to go into the Army,” says Perl, who now lives in Teaneck, N.J. “I thought it was important to fight against Hitler.”
He served from 1943 to 1945. By then, the peril to Europe’s Jews was clear.
“I had a whole group of friends” — fellow Jewish refugees — “I knew from Vienna,” he says, sitting in his living room. “They also served in the Army.”
Perl picks up a fading photograph of his buddies, circa 1942. “He joined” the army, he says, pointing to one face. “He joined,” he says, pointing to another.
They came to the United States before World War II, tens of thousands of Jews from Germany and Austria, fewer from Poland and Czechoslovakia and France and other threatened European countries, and adapted to a new culture, a new language. Like Perl, many came here alone and penniless.
When the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941, many of the newcomers became soldiers.
“It was taken for granted,” says Dr. Doris Whiteman, a Vienna-born psychotherapist who has studied the immigrant experience. “The feeling was, if you are old enough, you go. I don’t know anybody in my acquaintance who choose to stay civilian.”
“It’s a unique chapter in American Jewish history,” says Michael Berenbaum, an expert on the history of the Holocaust and former president of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. “It wasn’t that well known” until recent years, he adds.
With Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day, being marked this year on Sunday, The Jewish Week gives some belated attention to the refugee soldiers.
In other corners of the Jewish community, this part of the Holocaust-World War II experience is drawing increased recognition.
The exploits of the refugee soldiers are being featured in current exhibitions at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Manhattan and at the Judaica Museum of the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, in a forthcoming book about Jewish GIs in WWII, and in a documentary to be released within the year.
“Most people had relatives over there,” Whiteman says. “They didn’t know there were [death] camps, but they knew what [the Nazis] were doing. They wanted to rescue as many people as possible. There was a tremendous passion to overcome Hitler.”
In their ranks were men like Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of State, and countless other Jews who risked their lives and comfort here to return to Europe in U.S. uniforms.
“I’m probably one of the few people who … felt cheated … when the war in Europe was over,” says Benjamin Hirsch, an Atlanta architect who was a teenage refugee from Germany during the war and too young to join the army. “I wanted to go over.”
Hirsch wanted to fight the Nazis and look for two younger siblings who reportedly had become part of the Six Million.
He became a soldier during the Korean War, spent several months in Germany, and found that his brother and sister indeed had perished. Hirsch, consulting architect at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, tells his story in “Hearing a Different Drummer: A Holocaust survivor’s search for identity” (Mercer University Press, 2000).
The number who volunteered to return to Europe in khaki during the war “would be in the thousands — it may be as many as 10,000,” says Deborah Dash Moore, professor of religion at Vassar College and author of the forthcoming “GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation” (Harvard University Press).
More than 750,000 American Jews joined the U.S. military in World War II, says Albert Lerner, historian at the National Museum of American Military Jewish History in Washington.
The foreign-born soldiers “refused to be victims,” says Steve Karras, director of “About Face,” a documentary in progress about their experiences and memories.
“The ability to give back gave them a reason to live,” says Rose Lizarraga, the documentary’s producer.
About Face (email@example.com), which will be released in about a year, depending on the producers finding more financial support and a distributor, tells the story of a score of European-born veterans culled from some 200 who were interviewed for the film and a visual archive.
The first known documentary on the subject, it relates soldiers guarding German soldiers from their hometowns, liberating relatives from concentration camps and meeting their future spouses among the survivors.
Like all Jewish soldiers, the foreign-born ones faced particular risks if captured. “Every Jewish soldier had the H [for Hebrew] on his dog tag,” Lerner says, and were often used in intelligence work.
“They made a vital contribution,” Berenbaum says. “It intensified their American identification, and it intensified their feelings as a Jew.”
It hastened their adaptation to America, too. “They had the great agent of Americanization — World War II,” Berenbaum says. And it gave them a psychological advantage. “They probably are less wounded” than Holocaust survivors and other refugees who, to some degree, were unable to shed their identities as victims. “Because they had the opportunity to fight back.”
“George, go and see what you can find out.”
George Auman’s captain was speaking. The order sounded vague, but Corporal Auman, stationed with the 172nd Field Artillery Battalion a few miles outside of Aachen, in Germany near the Belgian border, knew what the order meant — he was going to risk his life.
It was early 1945. Auman, who had left Germany seven years earlier and enlisted in the U.S. Army because “it was a mulchemet mitzvah,” an “obligatory war against evil,” had received artillery training.
Since he spoke German, Auman was being sent on a reconnaissance mission. His CO wanted him to infiltrate Aachen, the town from which the American troops were being shelled, and gather some information about the Germans’ military strength.
George Auman, nee Georg Aumann, became Johann Schmidt. “I made up a name,” he says.
In captured German civilian clothing, topped by a Tyrolean hat with a feather, with fake identity documents, with an American pistol in his pocket, Auman set out on a half-hour’s walk alone, through no-man’s land of empty fields and deserted roads.
Approaching Aachen, he heard “a commotion” around a corner. Two civilians appeared, young men. They eyed him suspiciously, apparently reaching for their own firearms.
“So I shot them,” Auman says.
Auman raced back to the field and returned to his unit. No more undercover work there.
Later in the war, elsewhere in Germany, twice he was sent on similar spy missions, accompanied by another German-speaking soldier, a non-Jew. They spent a few hours in small towns, striking up conversations in bars and shops, nonchalantly asking how many soldiers were posted in the area.
The pair of Americans obtained “very little” useful information, Auman says. “There was very little [of military significance] going on in those towns.”
No one suspected that the strangers’ real identity. “When I was young I was a good actor,” Auman says, adding, “I didn’t look ‘real Jewish.’ ”
They returned safely to their units, their bivouac mates remarking that “your number wasn’t up.”
At other times in the war Auman used his linguistic skills to interview captured soldiers and civilians, and to assist Jewish inmates of Nordhausen when his unit helped liberate the concentration camp.
“You become a man overnight in the Army,” says Auman, 83, who lives in Brooklyn and has worked as a stockbroker for a half-century. “It helped me throughout my life. You have to get along with everybody. It was a tremendous lesson for life.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” he says. “I never got a scratch in the army. God was with me. I’m a survivor.”
Dr. Michael Levi always knew that his German-born father had served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He knew that Eric Levi was in a unit that had captured his hometown at the end of the war.
But Michael Levi didn’t find out until two years ago that his father was still a folk hero to some people in Ellwangen.
Last year, a year after he had visited Ellwangen for the opening of an exhibit about the former Jewish community in the small farming town in southern Germany, Levi, a microbiologist at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, unexpectedly received several e-mail messages from Georg Fuchs, a fellow microbiologist in Germany. Fuchs wrote with information of how Erich Levi had helped save Ellwangen.
This is the story that Michael Levi has been able to scrap together:
His father — he was Erich while growing up in Germany — had grown up in one of Ellwangen’s few Jewish families. His family was cattle dealers. When the Nazis came, Eric was kicked out of his high school, the family’s cattle were drowned and their money in the bank was nationalized.
The Levis left Germany in 1938, before Kristallnacht, and came to the United States. Eric joined the Army in 1942 and became a sergeant in the 100th Airborne Division. He was with a unit headed south from Crailsheim in April 1945, drawing heavy fire from the direction of Ellwangen.
Along the road Levi spotted a Herr Koenig, a shepherd he had known years before. He explained that the troops were looking for the SS garrison that was attacking the Americans; Ellwangen would be shelled unless the SS location was uncovered.
Koenig directed the soldiers to Schafhof, a hill about half a mile north of the town.
The SS was routed. Ellwangen, which surrendered peacefully, was spared.
Eric, then 22, remained in the area for a while after the war, ordering the restoration of the village’s small Jewish cemetery, meeting his one-time neighbors.
After the war Eric returned to the States, settling in Great Neck, L.I., establishing an export-import business. He died in 1966, at 46, in an automobile accident. He didn’t tell his son about his wartime experiences.
“I never heard any of this,” says Levi, of Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Until Fuchs contacted him.
Levi has visited Ellwangen three times with family members since 2002. He has been interviewed by students intrigued by the history of Jews in Ellwangen — the community of 20,000 had none between 1938 and a decade ago, when some emigres from the former Soviet Union settled there.
He attended the opening of an exhibition titled “Wer war Erich Levi?” [Who was Erich Levi?] — as the school’s last Jewish student and as the returning GI, Eric has become a symbolic figure in Ellwangen.
Levi, in conversations with people who had known his family before the war, has learned about a man he barely knew.
It would have been in character, Levi says, for his father to have treated his hometown charitably in 1945.
Levi gave his first public speech recently, at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, about his father’s adventure. The title of his speech was “The Jew Who Saved Ellwangen.”
When Otto Perl entered the Army, he hadn’t heard from his parents for a few years. He thought they might still be alive; he applied to go to Europe.
“My CO said, ‘You stay here.’ ”
With his linguistic ability, Perl, a sergeant, was assigned to military intelligence and counter intelligence. Assigned to two army bases in Maryland, he interrogated German POWs, translated German documents and taught German to officers.
After the war he discovered his parents’ fate: His father suffered a fatal heart attack on the way to a death camp and his mother took her own life. Other relatives also died in the Holocaust.
Growing up in Chicago, Steve Karras heard a lot of stories about Jews suffering in the Holocaust and a few about them fighting back — the partisans. And he remembered one story about the father of a camp counselor, a refugee who had come to the U.S. and went back to Nazi Europe in an Army uniform.
The story was “extremely appealing to me,” says Karras, who had a sales job and training as a filmmaker, and decided to record the experiences of soldiers who came here from Nazi Europe.
The result is “About Face: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Soldiers of World War II,” a documentary on which he and Rose Lizarraga, a veteran documentary maker in Chicago, have been working for four years.
About Face (firstname.lastname@example.org), which will be released in about a year, depending on the producers finding more financial support and a distributor, tells the story of a score of European-born veterans, including Henry Kissinger, culled from some 200 who were interviewed for the film and a visual archive.
It will be the first known documentary on the subject.
“Why hasn’t it been told before?” the vets asked Karras.
Probably because most stories of the Shoah emphasize Jewish losses, and because the soldiers with European roots are numerically dwarfed by the U.S.-born Jews who joined the service during the war, Karras guesses.
He searched for interview subjects on the Internet. “In one week I heard from all these men with accents, all these Fritzes and Clauses,” he says in a telephone interview.
“All these people were interviewed by the Shoah Foundation,” Steven Spielberg’s collection of taped wartime recollections. “Shpielberg was here,” they told Karras.
“How much did they ask you about the Army experience?” he asked.
“Very little,” they answered. “They were interested in the suffering.”
The documentary relates soldiers guarding German soldiers from their hometowns, liberating relatives from concentration camps and meeting their future spouses among the survivors.
Their stories are about “flight, redemption and transformation,” says Lizarraga, who had completed a project about the Hungarian Revolution when she met Karras. “I was looking for another project of social significance. Here is a group of people who were lucky enough to get out, and had a choice, and had the courage to go back.”
Revenge, they agreed, was not their motivation.
“Every time I would get to a revenge story,” a Jew in position to kill a Nazi, “there was a sense of pity,” Karras says. “They felt bad” about taking a life, even of an enemy.
“It’s no fun to see crying wives,” one interviewee said. “Revenge doesn’t get you very far.”
It was “very humbling” to meet these refugees turned soldiers, Karras says. “Their sense of community in exile was inspiring. They all stayed in touch,” he says.
Their advanced age gives him incentive to complete the documentary.
“We have such an urgency,” Karras says, “because they’re starting to die. We want them to see the film.”
She was a total stranger, the young woman who came up to Walter Stern on the street of a small town near Leipzig during the second week of April 1945. He was a technical sergeant dressed in his U.S. Army uniform. But she sensed that he, too, was a Jew.
“She just appeared out of nowhere,” says Stern, who was out for a walk a day or two after Leipzig and its region fell to the Americans. “She came up to me and introduced herself.” She appeared to be 19 or 20 and “was nicely dressed.” And she was lonely.
“She was happy to meet a Jewish person,” Stern says. “It was very touching.”
Stern, who lives in Riverdale, doesn’t remember her name after all these years. He was 23 then. She started talking in German; he had left Frankfurt with his family in 1937. She had been in hiding for three years and didn’t offer any details about herself or her family. She didn’t ask for food or money.
The young woman had some relatives in New York — maybe Stern could contact them. He said he would try.
“I probably gave her some chocolates. I may have given her some cigarettes because I don’t smoke,” Stern says.
Then she disappeared.
That hour ranks among the most poignant wartime memories for Stern, a career military man who volunteered for the Army “on account of what was happening to the Jews.” He went ashore eight days after D-Day and worked in intelligence. Stern survived the Battle of the Bulge and got “all kinds of medals.” He served in England, France, Czechoslovakia and back in Germany.
Trained in field artillery, he was a classification clerk, coordinating soldiers’ work assignments during most of the war behind the front lines.
“I was very good at Army regulations,” he says. “It wasn’t frustrating for me” to handle files instead of a rifle. “That’s where they assigned me.” In his specialized way, Stern was helping the war effort.
The decisive Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and early 1945, the largest land battle of the war, in the Ardennes forest in eastern Belgium was “a mile away” from the headquarters where Stern worked. “You could hear the fighting. You got used to the noise. At one point we almost got overrun,” he says.
Then the tide turned for the Allies, who advanced into Germany.
Stern would interrogate captured German soldiers “once in a while.” After the war he continued to interview Nazi soldiers. None of them, of course, admitted that they had been Nazis.
Back in the United States, he learned that his family had lost relatives, “lots of ’em,” in the Holocaust. He contacted HIAS on behalf of the young woman from Leipzig. He told the immigration agency about her kin here.
HIAS asked if he had a romantic interest in her. “No,” he answered. “I just want to help her.”
That’s the last Stern heard about the stranger. HIAS never called him. Neither did she.
“I don’t know what happened to her,” he says.
The Allies were bombing ball-bearing factories in Germany during World War II — the little pieces of metal were crucial parts in armaments machinery.
But the Allies had overlooked Fulda.
The Gebaur and Moller plant, a factory in the city northwest of Frankfurt, wasn’t on the reconnaissance maps of the Army’s 8th Air Force.
So Cpl. Erwin Weinberg, a native of Fulda, told an officer about the factory.
Weinberg, who had left Germany in late 1939 and came with his family to the U.S. in 1940, waited to be drafted. “It was a foregone conclusion,” he says.
Assigned to Air Force intelligence, he was based in the autumn of 1944 at the headquarters of the U.S. Strategic Air Force near London, translating the flow of German and French documents obtained by American spies.
After telling his superiors about the ball-bearing plant in Fulda, Weinberg pointed to the site on reconnaissance photos. A few days later he was shown subsequent reconnaissance photos — the factory was destroyed.
“It was satisfactory,” says Weinberg, who lives in Riverdale. “I had done my job.”
After the war he toured the recently liberated Buchenwald and returned to Fulda in a jeep. He spent a few days there, helping identify the city’s wartime Nazi leaders.
Although his immediate family had escaped with him from Germany, a step-grandmother and her daughter had died in the Holocaust.
“I got my revenge,” Weinberg, now 82, says. “No,” he adds, “revenge isn’t the accurate word — I was part of an organized army.
“I think I did all I could for the Army,” Weinberg said in a story, “The Private Air Force of Cpl. Weinberg,” in the September 1945 issue of Air Force magazine.
Weinberg’s story is featured in an exhibit, “Contributions from the Community: American Jews in the Second World War,” at the Judaica Museum of the Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale.
Weinberg has returned to Fulda several times as a civilian. In 1987 he attended the dedication of a new synagogue and museum on the site of a former Jewish school.
Fulda, and his feelings about his hometown, has changed, he says. “I feel that the ambiance of the town has changed 180 degrees.”
First Maximilian Lerner put on a Nazi jacket. It was light blue, woolen, captured from someone in the German air force. Then he adjusted a Nazi cap on his head. It was SS, brown, also captured. Next came his khaki U.S. Army pants and boots, standard issue. At close range, in daylight, the makeshift uniform wouldn’t fool a German soldier.
But Lerner, a Jew born in Vienna, didn’t need to.
Late one night in March 1944, he and five other American soldiers were going to cross the Rhine in a rowboat. He was a special agent, a multilingual spy, assigned to the army’s Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA. He spent the war translating for the Army and interrogating prisoners.
Now he was based at a former French army jail and Gestapo headquarters in Verdun, just across from German territory. That March day he had interviewed two German frogmen, captured while trying to destroy the Remagen Bridge on which American troops crossed the Rhine.
“They were certainly going to try again,” Lerner says. Other frogmen would attack the bridge or a nearby pontoon.
So Lerner and some soldiers who were guarding the Verdun U.S. base made a decision: They would eliminate the other frogmen that night.
“It was important to get rid of them,” Lerner says. “It seemed like a matter of great urgency.”
Four other soldiers volunteered. They outfitted a rowboat with muffled oars. They would wear regular U.S. uniforms. Lerner, the only German speaker among them, would pose, in a manner, as a German.
The pieces of Nazi clothing, hanging on a hook in his room — a former prisoner’s cell — were taken from captured soldiers, waiting for such an occasion. If a German searchlight spotted the boat, Lerner would stand up. “I would have shouted out, ‘Don’t shoot. I am a comrade.’ ”
Crossing the river took “a good half hour. We all rowed.” The G.I.’s weren’t spotted by the Germans.
Silently they made their way on foot to the four tents where the frogmen were bivouacked and opened fire.
“We were heard,” Lerner says. “Then we ran,” German soldiers in pursuit. “We ran as fast as we could.”
Lerner had learned from the captured Germans the locations of a few barns nearby. The Americans found refuge in a hayloft in one. The Germans didn’t find them.
After two days and two nights they heard the voices of advancing U.S. soldiers outside and climbed down, Lerner still in his Nazi regalia.
“My companions had to testify that I was not a Nazi,” he recalls.
Back at the Verdun prison he switched back to his American uniform, and shipped the cap and jacket to the U.S. in a footlocker at war’s end. He didn’t need them again.
“I wore civilian clothes”— posing as German behind enemy lines – “a number of times,” he says.
“This was my war. I would do whatever it took,” says Lerner, now 79, who left Austria with his family two months after Germany’s March 1938 annexation of his homeland and, after layovers in Paris and Nice, came to the U.S., via Lisbon, in 1941.
By the time he volunteered for the draft the next year he knew that several relatives — nine was the final count — had died in the Holocaust.
Lerner says he was “very eager” to serve.
A retired businessman, he keeps his Nazi garb in a closet in his Upper East Side apartment. He’s also kept his U.S. Army jackets, with the “usual medals — nothing special.”
Lerner wrote a 1999 novel, “The Expendable Spy,” loosely based on his wartime experiences, and his memories are part of the catalog issued by the Museum of Jewish Heritage for its “Ours to Fight For” exhibition.
“It was adventurous,” he says of his dangerous missions. “It was worthwhile.”
After Lerner crossed the Rhine dressed as the enemy, the bridges used by the U.S. Army were saved from German frogmen. “None of them were ever hurt,” he says.
After the war Otto Perl returned to tailoring. The Army made him “an unbelievable offer” to re-enlist, he says, but he wanted to return to his young bride, Susanne.
Perl became the tailor to the stars, fashioning suits for the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Joe DiMaggio.
He is an active member of several Jewish organizations, including the Jewish War Veterans.
He and Susanne, a Vienna native who escaped on a Kindertransport, raised three children. None joined the Army.
But one grandson did military intelligence in the U.S. Army, and is now in the Secret Service. And a grandson and granddaughter in Israel have served in the Israeli army.
His mishpocha has heard stories of Perl’s army service. Maybe they influenced his grandchildren to follow in his footsteps, he says.
Perl allows himself a smile. “I’m very proud of them,” he says.