In October 1944, the month of my 21st birthday, I was a private in the infantry with Patton’s Third Army in France. My platoon directly faced the Germans; I could see them, and each of us had dug his own foxhole.
I was assigned to cross a muddy field to a supply station and bring back three loaves of bread for my platoon. I was making my way back, carrying the bread, when I became aware of the sound of an 88-mm shell coming directly at me. I dropped the bread and hit the ground. The shell buried itself in the mud five feet away but failed to explode.
It was a “dud,” and I was still alive. I searched frantically for a foxhole and came upon one dug by Sgt. Rowakowski, who let me climb in. He always carried an ax, lined his foxholes with pine boughs, and became known as the “Woodsman of Brooklyn.” At this early stage, his hole even had a roof of branches. From this extraordinary refuge, I counted at least five more shells exploding near me.
When the shelling finally stopped, I found my way to the front line and the hole that I had dug myself. I sat there alone and had time to think about the dud, my close encounter with death, and luck.
The dud shell had come from a nearby two-man German artillery piece, very maneuverable and accurate, and I believe to this day that they had me and my three loaves in their sights.
Much later I learned about the numerous small bomb factories, some in southern Poland or what would become East Germany, and the assembly lines of Jews, Poles, Russian prisoners of war, and others — those still strong enough to be marched there from the camps and work as slave laborers. Among this shapeless mass were some who were highly skilled. Somehow, resistance fighters taught a few of them how to disable a bomb, to deliberately tip their slim odds of survival against themselves, and create the type of dud to which I owed my life.
However, the shell that failed to kill me did kill many others. Dud shells, of which there were many, did not go unnoticed by the enemy. Retribution would be assured, falling on a randomly selected group, perhaps eventually on the perpetrators, who gave up their lives to give me mine.
The war ended, and I was honorably discharged as a private first-class, with my Combat Infantryman’s badge with three Battle Stars, a Bronze Star, and more or less whole, my frozen feet saved by the doctors at a hospital in Frankfurt. But I was forever shaped by what I had done, and seen, and remembered.
I went on to lead an ordinary life — went to school, married a lovely woman, raised two children, worked hard, and strove to get ahead. I had my share of joys, sorrows, and small triumphs.
I am now 88 and have had the precious ordinary life that so many others were denied. My friends call me “naive,” but I still believe with all my heart in the values of duty, courage, and honor. At Yom Hashoa, I want to make sure that the anonymous, doomed, brave slave laborers, who chose to do what they could, are also remembered and honored.