Harry Zaslow leaned forward in his wheelchair and began to reminisce about his Army days, almost 70 years to the day after the Nazis surrendered to Allied forces at the end of World War II.
Although he is proud of his service and the country he fought for, he doesn’t flinch from revealing a less noble aspect of the American military at the time: the pervasive anti-Semitism among his fellow soldiers.
It’s a story he has shared before, in a videotaped testimony for the Shoah Foundation and in a 2006 memoir, A Teenager’s Journey in War & Peace.
Now, at age 90, he and his wife, Naomi, are residents of the Judy & Josh Weston Assisted Living Residence at the Lester Senior Housing Community in Whippany.
Joined May 19 in the library by their daughter, Lisa Zaslow Segelman of Randolph (a former employee of NJ Jewish News), he described once again his encounters with fellow Jews in Europe, and the insults from his fellow GIs.
“I suffered from anti-Semitism throughout the war,” he told NJJN.
In his 1997 testimony with the Shoah Foundation, Zaslow recalled how during his first nine months in the army he kept his religious identity hidden from his fellow recruits “because I wanted to make an experiment. I was just one of the regular guys.”
He was one of only four Jewish soldiers in a 100-person army unit deployed to England and Wales to prepare for the Allied landing at Normandy.
Two months after the initial D-Day assault on June 6, 1944, they arrived on Utah Beach and proceeded into heavy combat zones in France and Germany.
In September of that year, Zaslow and several other Jewish soldiers visited the town of Charlori, Belgium. There, a small remnant of its Jewish community observed Yom Kippur near a synagogue the Nazis had burned to the ground.
The locals told of having had family members murdered while others hid in fear of their lives. The Belgians “looked up to us as though we were saviors,” Zaslow wrote in his memoir, compiled from 350 letters he had sent home from combat.
In March 1945, on patrol near the Rhine River, he spotted a cloud of black smoke a few miles away. It rose from a barn the Nazis had packed with concentration camp inmates and set ablaze. “Every person met a horrible death of fire and conflagration,” he wrote in the memoir.
Ironically, Zaslow’s most painful exposure to the anti-Semitism of his fellow Americans came on April 29, 1945, the day that he and four other GIs were dispatched to the concentration camp at Dachau.
When they arrived he spotted a long line of railroad boxcars “filled with a mass of dead bodies…. I stood there frozen, not understanding who these dead people were and what they had done that caused their deaths,” he wrote.
“Sardines in a sardine can would have had more room,” he told the Shoah Foundation interviewer, noting that “the Germans and the American government did a pretty good job of hiding the atrocities against the Jews in Germany and many other minorities. Here I am, a 19-year-old soldier, not knowing anything.”
But apparently, one of his fellow soldiers was better informed.
“When we faced these boxcars, one of my buddies said to me, ‘Hey, Zaslow, if you’re not careful you are going to be in that boxcar, too.’ When he said that, I thought that maybe these people in those boxcars were Jewish. I was stunned by this, but I was not about to argue with him. I just let it go because we had a job to do,” he told the foundation interviewer.
Zaslow watched as the newly freed inmates took revenge on the guards, who were Eastern European conscripts ordered to remain after the Nazis had fled Dachau. The emaciated prisoners beat their tormentors with the bullwhips their captors once used to torture them.
Several months later, as part of the American Occupation Army in Germany, he spotted painful words carved on a railing as he stood guard on a prison camp watchtower. The graffiti said: “Harry Zaslow is a damn Jew.”
“It was probably from one of the fellas in my own outfit,” he conjectured in his memoir. “I said to myself, ‘Here we fought our way all through Europe and we saw these concentration camps and all the victims and we have American soldiers who have the same attitude the Nazis had.’ That got to me.”
On another occasion, twin brothers in his outfit said to him, “Zaslow, you’re a dirty Jew.”
“So I stood there facing them and I moved my hand up and down the strap of my carbine rifle,” he told the Shoah Foundation interviewer. “I had them in a quandary…so I just stared at them and kept walking. Being Jewish and being stuck in that situation was very difficult. Are you going to fight or just walk away? I had enough fights already.”
Reflecting on these memories 70 years later, Zaslow said, “We didn’t go through anything as bad as survivors in the concentration camps, but it was pretty ugly what we went through.”
“But he didn’t talk about it much for years,” added his daughter, “and he didn’t tell us the details about Dachau.”
“The war was so ugly,” he told NJJN. “Now I don’t think that much about it.”