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Staten Island Holocaust Commemoration April 7th, 2013, Bnai Jeshrun Honoring World War II Veterans
On April 30th, 1945, the day that Adolf Hitler committed suicide in Berlin, the headline of the Staten Island Advance read: “7th Mows Down Munich Die-Hards, Overruns Torture Camp.” “While…General Patton’s Third Army, swept up thousands of political prisoners…” the paper reported, “Yanks killed or captured 300 SS Guards” at the “notorious Dachau concentration camp—the first and blackest of the political death camps established in the early days of the Hitler Regime.” At Dachau, the U.S. 7th Army liberated 32,000 political and religious prisoners, including at least 20,000 Jews, who greeted their rescuers with “hysterical joy.” One of the veterans here tonight, Sgt. Issac Cohen, a Combat Engineer in Company A, 287th Battalion, who I had the honor to interview, witnessed the devastation shortly after liberation. As a Brooklyn-born, Jewish-American soldier, whose parents immigrated from Greece, Cohen experienced acts of anti-semitism in army training camp in Alabama. Thus the moment of entering Dachau was particularly poignant. As Sgt. Cohen sadly recalled the moment: “There were bodies piled up in warehouses and railroad cars. Survivors were running around, who were so run down, had lost so much weight. Truthfully, we got sick watching it all. That’s the situation we talked about and we will never forget in our lifetime what we’ve all seen.”
On the day Dachau was liberated, the Staten Island Advance also shared the news that Private first class William Kwasnaza of West Brighton, was freed by Russian Soldiers from two years in a Nazi Prison camp, and more tragically 21-year old Lloyd Ikefugi, graduate of Curtis HS, assistant scout master, born in New Brighton and now namesake of a park there, who was killed on the Italian front while serving in the all Japanese-American 442nd Infantry.
Not a day passed between the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor—a day that, as President Roosevelt said, will live in infamy–and the end of World War II, without sacrifice made by those in uniform. “Thank you for our liberty” are words we must say, words that were said to veterans like Private first class Edwin Petrozzula of Staten Island when he helped to liberate Belgium in the Battle of the Bulge. My brief remarks attempt to capture the contributions of Staten Islanders, men and women of all religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds. I will pay special attention to the one dozen veterans or their descendents who told me their stories in person and who often made me cry but also feel proud to be an American and a teacher of the Holocaust and World War II. It is a great honor to be speaking here today.
The Allied military effort brought an end to the war and the Holocaust. 1 million New Yorkers, or just over 12% of each borough, including Brooklyn and Staten Island, served directly in the effort to end Nazi tyranny and restore democracy to Europe. Among the 21,000 Staten Islanders who served were pilots like Arthur Huss and Robert Connelly (the late husband of Elizabeth Connolly), who served stateside and Burt Bleiman in the Panama Canal Zone. They were supported by the efforts of countless other volunteers and civilians on Staten Island who bought war bonds, worked in munitions factories or gave blood. Organizations like the Red Cross sent local women such as Eleanor Miller of Thompkinsville (May 21, 1943) to help troops in Africa and around the world. ***
Let us focus tonight, however, on the critical final two years of the war. With the U.S. Fleet battling Japan in the Pacific, the Allied armies embarked on a campaign in North Africa. Among those fighting in General Patton’s Army was a graduate of Port Richmond High School, William Criaris of Bull’s Head, Chief Warrant Officer (later), 94th battalion, one of 35,000 troops who landed at Casablanca. William was one of 41 men from the Greek Orthodox Church of Staten Island who served in WWII.
After defeating Italians and Germans in North Africa, the Allies began the invasion of Italy. Jim Luzzi of Oakwood, formerly of Brooklyn, saw his first day of combat on New Year’s Day 1944—in Operation Shingle, the attempt to take Anzio Beachhead. For 123 days, he was under constant fire, along with other Staten Islanders like Alexander Lamanna, father of Mary LaManna, and 150,000 other allied soldiers. Already once wounded with shrapnel in his leg, Luzzi and other American soldiers feared the 350-pound shells that Anzio Annie, a long-rang artillery gun, delivered. Luzzi remembers: “When we started the break-out, that’s when the fighting was the fiercest. We advanced and liberated Rome, but kept fighting sporadically until June 4th.” Luzzi fought alongside Mariners Harbor resident Tony Moody, a rifle platoon leader with the Army’s 28th Infantry Division who designed the Battle of the Bulge monument that stands in Wolfe’s Pond Park today. [Winston Churchill credited the Anzio campaign with diverting troops from D-Day and saving many Allied lives during the Normandy invasion. ]
Giving the order for the D-Day landing on June 4th, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower warned: “the eyes of the world are upon you. “ The task, to eliminate Nazi tyranny over the oppressed people of Europe” “will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened….“ Sergeant William A. Morris, raised in West Brighton was an eyewitness to the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. He waited hours in the waters off of France for the order to lead his men to Omaha Beach. Hearing the bullets, they were “scared as heck” he confessed. When the gangplank opened, water flooded up to their necks, but far worse was the “terrible site in the waters. Blood and body parts. There are no words to describe the horror…worse than the bodies on Omaha beach were those in the waters.” Under fire of bombs and large boulders, Morris guided his men in 16 supply trucks from the beach to the top of the mountain. One of 75,000 Americans to land in Normandy, with an equal number of British and Canadian fighters, Morris and his men in 369th CAAA, an African-American regiment, drove up against the enemy to liberate France and Europe in the next major confrontation at the Battle of the Bulge.
Morris speaks every year to youth at PS 19 about his experiences.
In a final counteroffensive, the Germans drove through the densely forested Ardennes Mountains in Belgium. Private First Class Edwin Petrazzolo trained in radio and anti-aircraft detection, constantly on the move to avoid capture, often found himself dangerously isolated with his equipment as they tried to cross the Rhine. .As the war ended, Petrazzolo became an eyewitness to the suffering in one of the Buchenwald sub-camps, Camp Dora. This camp served as an underground factory for creating V-1 and V-2 bombs for the Germans. The 3rd Army Division that liberated the camp brought the few remaining inmate to hospitals and forced German townspeople move the dead bodies they found. At our event tonight, Sy Bosworth will also be discussing his reaction to witnessing Buchenwald, including seeing lampshades made with human skin. He used his Yiddish to communicate with German soldiers and as a New Yorker disobeyed a racist order from his commander. As we will hear, Sy Bosworth participated was face to face with a German soldier in the Battle of the Bulge.
The Battle of the Bulge ended in January 1945, but the fighting wasn’t over. Just shy of his 20th birthday, Private Joseph Merrell of Company J, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, was pinned down by two machine guns as they marched towards the German city of Nuremberg. Using rifles, pistols and grenades, Merrell killed 23 Germans in a 1-man attack, and disarmed weapons which, in the words of his commanding officers, “would have decimated his unit had he not assumed the burden of the assault and stormed the enemy positions with utter fearlessness, intrepidity of the highest order, and a willingness to sacrifice his own life so that his comrades could go on to victory.” Private Joseph Merrell lost his life in an unparalleled show of bravery that earned him the United States highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor and a monument stands on Victory Boulevard in his honor.
Nor was the fighting over in the Pacific Theater—On March 19th, 1945, John Byrnes story, a 20-year old gunner and airman on the USS Alaska, witnessed unparalleled devastation when a Kamikaze fighter in the Battle of Okinawa hit U.S.S. Franklin, killing almost 800 American servicemen. I could hardly bear to listen to his testimony in 2013, 70 years later. “We had to bring some of the bodies aboard our ship,” John said. “You see things you can’t believe are possible. You feel the pain—that’s when all your sense in your body go to work. You smell the fumes from the shells, you see what shrapnel can do. The bodies we brought up from the Franklin….I never saw half a man’s body burnt and disfigured and the other half still in one piece. That’s what you get exposed to at war. You have to learn to accept it.”
Just as the Staten Island community read about these loses, they had read about the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom and heard from German Jewish refugees who fled to safety here, joining congregations like Bnai Jeshrun (founded in 1884) where we stand today. According to Navy Nurse Bea Victor, it was the reports about Nazi persecution of Jews that motivated her to enlist. At the wars end, Holocaust survivors joined our community in significant numbers.
World War II resulted in an estimated 55 million deaths worldwide. It was the largest and most destructive conflict in history. Near and far, over 250,000 Americans, including more than 400 Staten Islanders, gave their lives in the war. Although almost 70 years have passed, we must never forget the sacrifices of the men and women determined to stop Nazi tyranny, bringing an end to the Holocaust.
I’d like to end with the words of Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel when he spoke last year at Wagner College on Staten Island: “Memory brings us together….Remember that hope is not a gift given from God to us; hope is a gift, an offering, that only we human beings can give to one another.” What gave hope to Europe’s Jews throughout the war and saved lives of millions, the determination of the men and women in the American and Allied military, continues to inspire us today on this important day to remember and to hope “Never Again.”