As a Jewish prisoner of war, Bernie Levine of Hackensack, N.J., took part in what may have been the only Jewish prayer service in a Nazi prison camp. Bernie's wife, Lenore, and his daughter, Sharon, participated in this interview.
Hackensack, N.J. 1998
Bernie Levine: Since this discussion concerns my experience as a Jew in Nazi Germany and my role as a "Minyonaire," let me read a part here (of a talk Levine gave to the Men's Club of the Jewish Community Center in Teaneck, N.J.) that describes my background as far as Yiddishkeit is concerned. "Born and lived in Hackensack. Orthodox home. Eight years in Hebrew School. Compulsory attendance in Shul on Friday night and Saturday or no movies that week. Parents were charter members of the Hebrew Institute and my father was a member of the Board of Directors for 40 years. Neighborhood mostly non-Jewish but social activities almost exclusively with Jewish group. Family emphasis on Jewish aspects of Hebrew School, which, as in other small metropolitan towns, was taught by a non-professional. Summary: formal education in Hebrew deficient but sensitive to values and morals of Jewish living." I think that gives you a capsule description.
Aaron Elson: Were you drafted or did you enlist?
Bernie Levine: I enlisted.
Aaron Elson: What made you enlist?
Bernie Levine: Well, thats a story. I worked in a real estate office during the day and attended college at night. I got in with a fraternity of evening students who were more mature than students attending classes during the day. We used to meet every weekend and have serious discussions. We were pretty well convinced that the United States was on a course that inevitably could lead only to war. No question about it. It was just a question of time. As events proved, we were right.
Aaron Elson: What college did you attend?
Bernie Levine: I went to New York University School of Commerce. About this time, I faced a choice of waiting to be drafted or signing up for the one year of military service, complete the tour and be discharged and return to my normal routine. Also, I had no marital or family obligations. So, let's get it over with. I went up to the armory on 168th Street in New York City, walked into the first open door, saw an officer sitting at a desk and announced to him that I would like to sign up for the one-year enlistment. He was a captain, and, as I later learned, a graduate of West Point. He and I hit it off immediately -- especially when I told him that I had an office background and could type.
"You can type. Sit down." It was an ordnance company in the National Guard, which had recently been federalized. Personally, I didn't know the difference between ordnance, artillery and infantry, but I learned soon enough. Ordnance personnel were mostly technical, so when I told the captain about my office and administrative experience, it made me a desirable addition to the company. As a result, when we arrived in Fort McClellan, Alabama, I was rarely assigned KP duties and avoided a lot, but not all, of the rookie training because my office duties required me to be at Company headquarters.
We were at Fort McClellan for about six months. Then the 27th Division went on maneuvers in Tennessee and Arkansas. I had previously applied for transfer to the Air Corps. The orders came through while we were on maneuvers and I was transferred to Mitchel Field on Long Island.
Aaron Elson: Where were you when Pearl Harbor was attacked?
Bernie Levine: I was driving the family to visit relatives in Brooklyn. When we stopped to pay the toll at the Holland Tunnel, the toll collector told me that Pearl Harbor had been attacked and radio announcements were ordering all military personnel to return to their posts. I remember going outside on Eastern Parkway, away from family and relatives, to sit on a bench by myself to think about the attack and how it would impact on the lives of everyone. Personally, as I mentioned before, I was convinced that our country would be involved in a war -- but now it was a reality.
Not long after arriving at Mitchel Field, I applied for transfer to the Cadets for flight training. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, everything changed and I couldn't be sure of the status of my application. While I was waiting, our Company received orders to prepare for moving out to Iceland. I presented this dilemma to my commanding officer, explaining that I had my private pilot's license, had my application for transfer to the Cadets in process and that I could certainly be of more service to our country as a pilot than as a clerk in an office in Iceland. The commanding officer was sympathetic and assured me that he would do everything he could to expedite the transfer, but if the Iceland orders came in first, his hands would be tied. Fortunately, my orders came in first, and I was transferred to the Cadet Corps at Maxwell Field in Alabama.
A side note: There were two lieutenants in our company at Mitchel Field with whom I became quite familiar. They were from somewhere in the Midwest and they were really enjoying the social scene at the officers' club and at the many social functions on Long Island with the society girls. They had more time available for social activities because I assumed some of their administrative responsibilities. When they heard that I wanted to transfer, they said, "Levine, what are you doing? We'll get you assigned to permanent personnel and you can stay here at Mitchel Field for the duration." I said, "That's not the reason I joined the Army. I joined to get into the Air Corps and not the Chair Corps. For that, i could have waited to be drafted!
Aaron Elson: Did you want to be a fighter pilot?
Bernie Levine: At that time, I really had no preference. In retrospect, as I think back on my experience in pilot training, I would have been better suited temperamentally as a bomber pilot. But that's all a matter of speculation because I washed out of flight school before the end of the primary training.
Aaron Elson: What caused that?
Bernie Levine: My instructors just didn't think I would be suitable for military flying. I felt very badly and disappointed, but after observing the demands made for military flying, especially in combat, it probably was for the best.
Aaron Elson: Once you were not going to be a pilot, did you stay in the Air Corps?
Bernie Levine: Yes. I went back into the regular ground forces. I felt downhearted and disappointed for a couple of months. One of the lieutenants suggested that I put in for Officers Candidate School. He said, "You really should. The Army can always use another good officer." So I applied, was accepted and went to Officers Candidate School in Miami Beach. I graduated from there and was assigned to the Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis.
Aaron Elson: What outfit were you assigned to?
Bernie Levine: I hadnt been assigned to any particular duty. Actually, our group of new officers was part of a pool waiting for assignment to a post that could have been anywhere in the world. But I think our status was put on hold because it was about that time when plans for the African invasion were being finalized. Personally, I wasn't too upset about having to mark time as a 2nd Lieutenant around St. Louis. However, I still very much wanted to be part of a flight crew, so I requested a transfer to flight duty. I was transferred to Ellington Field in Houston and then to Midland, Texas, for bombardier training., to Salt Lake City for processing and to Moses Lake, Washington, where we met our crew and participated in preliminary flight training. Then we transferred to Kearney, Nebraska, for our final training together. Our final stop was Fort Dix, New Jersey, to prepare for shipping overseas. You would think that being in the Air Corps we, of course, would fly overseas. But we went over by boat.
Aaron Elson: Did you go over on a liberty ship?
Bernie Levine: No, we went over on the Queen Mary with 18,000 men aboard.
Aaron Elson: Being an officer, did you at least have good quarters?
Bernie Levine: Well, as officers, we slept in staterooms with only eight men on two-tiered cots. The Queen Mary was fast enough to outrun submarines, so we did not go over as a convoy.
When we got overseas, we were assigned to the 100th Bomb Group -- more affectionately known, we later learned, as "the Bloody 100th." We went through phase training to familiarize ourselves with various flight patterns around the airport, radio navigation, practice bombing, etc. Then on December 31st, we flew our first mission. To Paris.
Aaron Elson: To bomb Paris?
Bernie Levine: Not the center of Paris. Our target was some industrial plant on the outskirts of the city. It was a sight I won't forget when I looked out over the city and for the first time saw the Eiffel Tower from the air.
Aaron Elson: Did you encounter a lot of flak?
Bernie Levine: My memory doesn't associate a lot of flak with that first mission such as we experienced on subsequent missions, but we did encounter some. Interestingly, when I first saw the puffs of black smoke from the flak ahead of us in our line of flight, I didn't associate them with the red flashes which I saw on the ground, but it didn't take too long to realize that these were batteries of anti-aircraft guns shooting the flak up at us.
Aaron Elson: Were you tense?
Bernie Levine: Of course. I wasnt an idiot.
One incident that helped to ease some of the tension happened when a piece of flak pierced through the plexiglass and ricocheted around the nose of the plane where the navigator and I were seated. My navigator, Marty Keker, a fine broth of a lad from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, exclaimed in his best Irish brogue, "For Jehsus sake, Bertie (my nickname), they're trying to kill us now, you know!" I replied, "Faith and begorrah, Mahrty, sure and let's be getting the hell out of here!"
Aaron Elson: Was it a clear day?
Bernie Levine: Yes, it was a cloudless sky, as I remember.
Aaron Elson: How high up were you?
Bernie Levine: Not too high -- only about 8,000 to 10,000 feet. I guess for our first mission, it served as an introduction to combat flying compared to later missions where the flak and enemy fighters were much heavier.
It was New Year's Eve, and to celebrate after the mission we went up to Norwich. On the return trip there was a full moon, and I remember looking up at the moon and thinking that in a few hours it would be shining down on my family and the heartaches they would be feeling because of my being overseas and in combat, not knowing what kind of news that day would bring.
Aaron Elson: How many missions did you fly in all?
Bernie Levine: I was shot down on my ninth.
Aaron Elson: And when was that?
Bernie Levine: February 4th, 1944.
Aaron Elson: Where was the mission to?
Bernie Levine: Frankfurt. (A side note: We had been on a mission to Frankfurt the day before, and on the return trip one of the propellers malfunctioned. When we landed, the ground crew found sand or something in the crankcase. The assumption was that a Nazi sympathizer among the Irish workers on the base had done it. However, that didn't stop us from going back to Frankfurt the next day.)
Aaron Elson: Can you describe what happened from the moment you were hit?
Bernie Levine: We were in formation flying towards Frankfurt when we took a hit in one of the engines and the prop wouldn't feather. You know what that means? The forward speed of the plane causes the prop to turn too fast. To adjust for this, the blades of the prop are turned into the wind so that it doesn't turn too fast or "run away." We had to be concerned that if the propeller continued to race, causing the engine to vibrate, it would tear loose from the plane. When you're flying in formation, a loose propeller is a threat to hit one of the other planes. So the pilot feathered the prop and flew on three engines into the target. We dropped the bombs and dropped out of formation, and on the return trip, another engine was hit. That one also wouldn't feather, so now we had two runaway engines.
Under ordinary circumstances, the plane could fly on two engines, but the pilots decided that we couldn't make it back to England. That left us with a choice: to parachute out of the plane or crash land. The pilot was able to control the plane and decided that we would have a better chance to survive by crash-landing. So the crew threw all of the guns and everything movable out of the plane and the navigator and I left the nose and went to the back of the plane.
There was a complete undercast of clouds, so we didn't have the visual reference to the ground until we broke out at about 1,200 feet. We were over farmland, which would have made it easier, but the windshield was frozen over and the pilot's side window wouldn't open. So the co-pilot had to fly and land the plane with his head out the side window. With absolutely no margin for error, he brought it in safely with no serious injury to anyone on the crew.
Aaron Elson: What things did you think of?
Bernie Levine: You've heard the expression "There are no atheists in foxholes." The same can be said for those in a crritically damaged plane, coming down through a complete undercast and not knowing when, where or if we would land safely -- only that we would be in Nazi Germany! What a pleasant concept to contemplate.
Aaron Elson: Up to this point, what had you known about the Nazis treatment of Jews?
Bernie Levine: We were not aware of all the terrible atrocities because it was too early and the extermination camps hadn't been disclosed at that time. We knew about Kristallnacht, the mistreatment of all the Jews and how they had their businesses taken away, how the schools were closed to the Jews and how, socially, the Jews were completely ostracized.
Aaron Elson: Did you think about the H on your dogtag? Were you aware of that?
Bernie Levine: Yes, I was, and I left the "H" on the tag. I knew several Jewish fellows who never put the "H" on their dogtag or threw it away before they were captured. Personally, to me it would have been an exercise in futility trying to conceal my Jewish identity with the name Levine. Maybe I was thinking of the Jewish martyrs who during the Spanish Inquisition and through history had suffered torture and death rather than deny their Jewish heritage.
Aaron Elson: Do you know what the target was on the mission to Frankfurt?
Bernie Levine: I dont recall the exact target, but I do remember that there was a huge industrial plant on a hill in the suburbs of Frankfurt. Several times the city had been the target of saturation bombing but that plant, until that time, had not been touched. I later learned that it was a General Motors plant.
Aaron Elson: When you crash-landed, everybody got out uninjured?
Bernie Levine: Yes, but we were shaken up quite a bit.
Aaron Elson: What happened next?
Bernie Levine: As I said, we crash-landed on farmland, and as I found out later, it was near Cologne. (Side note: As we jumped out of the plane, we saw a farmer across the road plowing his field behind a team of horses. He couldn't have been more than 100 yards away from where we had just crash-landed -- and he never looked up! Just kept right on plowing as if it were an everyday occurrence for him to have an enemy B-17 crash land in his field with a crew of "Luftgangsters." He was probably too terrified to react or run away.)
When we jumped out of the plane and looked around, we saw a farm house in a clump of trees about 300 yards away. The co-pilot and engineer started back into the plane, intending to set it on fire using the silk parachutes. But we called them back when we saw a man come out of the house and motion for us to come to him. I thought he must be a member of the Underground and will help us escape. We ran over to him and I asked, "Where are we?" We didn't know our precise location because of the evasive action we had to fly after we left the formation, the length of time and distances while we were coming down and the comparatively short distance between countries when you are near borders.
He started to speak in English, with a heavy German dialect. He said, "You know, I have a cousin in Salt Lake City."
I said, "That's very nice, but where are we?"
Then he mentioned that he also had relatives in Chicago and several other major cities in the U.S. and kept stalling us until a young soldier with a Swastika on his arm and a gun in his hand came running up. That was it! He had all ten of us!
I looked at the man we were talking to and said, "You son of a bitch! You stalled us on purpose."
He said with that German dialect, "Don't feel badly. Now for you the war is over. Now you will go home and be with your families again. You try to run away, the Gestapo find you and you won't get home again." As it turned out, in this case he was right.
Aaron Elson: So youve been taken into this house
Bernie Levine: No, we didnt go into the house. By this time, a couple of other men (civilians) had come over and the whole group of us were taken to a schoolhouse in the vicinity. I understand a little German because of its similarity to Yiddish. I was not letting on that I understood any of their conversation because I thought that perhaps I could learn something that could help us escape.
We're in the schoolhouse, sitting on the floor with our backs against the wall and just waiting for something to happen. Later, a small group of German Air Corps officers came in to look at us, more curious than anything else. They were from a local air base and were handsome young men. A couple of them spoke English very well. They had spent time attending school in the States and had gone back when Germany got into the war.
We sat there for quite a while until a German major arrived. He was a short, pompous typical German Nazi. When he walked in, we didn't get up and stand at attention the way the other German officers did. We just sat there. He became very indignant and shouted in German, "Mach mit der Hochsen!" (Make with the heels). I made believe I didn't understand him. So one of the lieutenants there said to us very nicely, "The Major wants you to stand at attention."
Bernie Levine: When we all had to empty our pockets, the Germans were very interested in what they saw. We had our flight suits on and carried an escape map in one of the pockets. They were very interested in that and in the chemicals we carried for purifying water in case we escaped and no clean water was available.
I carried the money for our crew because with the weather over Europe during the winter months, we never knew if we would return to our own base and might have to pay for expenses at an RAF base.
When they were searching me, they came across the money. The Major, with an incredulous expression on his face, looked around at us and at the other officers and said, "Kein gelt!" ("No money.") Our watches and other possessions they left for later interrogators. Later, after it became dark, we were taken by truck to an air base in Cologne. The truck we were in was very slow and noisy and we assumed it must have been burning wood for power instead of internal combustion because the Germans were short of gasoline.
When we arrived at the air base, we were taken, one at a time, to an office for our first interrogation. When it was my time, I found myself in a room with a Hauptmann (captain) sitting behind one desk busily working on some papers. At the other desk was a sergeant who looked up at me, saw the name on my flight suit, and with an expression of complete contempt in his voice said, "Levine, you're a Jew, aren't you?"
I said, "Yes, I am."
Turning to the officer, he exclaimed very excitedly, "Hauptmann! Jude! Jude!" At this moment I was thinking, "Well, this is where it starts." Fortunately for me, the Hauptmann was too busy with whatever he was working on and showed no reaction. The sergeant ordered me to empty my pockets. When he saw the money, he looked at me and said, "You might know a Jew would have all the money!"
Sharon Levine: Did he say that in German or in English?
Bernie Levine: In English -- very good English, with no German dialect. There were a number of Germans living here in the States who, when Germany entered the war and was so successful, returned to Germany to get on the bandwagon. Some of them were used in the German armed forces where their ability to speak and understand English was very useful.
When we were through with the interrogation, I was taken downstairs and put into one of the empty cells with iron bars. When they closed the door, I turned around and looked out through the bars. Until then, it seemed it was all unreal -- it can't be happening to me! But when I heard the doors lock and saw a guard outside the door with a gun in his hand, I thought, "It has happened to me!" For the first time, I am completely out of control of my circumstances. In retrospect, I would say this was the low point in my thoughts and emotions.
(Side note: When I went overseas and was passing the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, all the fellows came over to the side of the ship to see the Statue. I studied the expressions on their faces and wondered what thoughts were going through their minds. I became quite sentimental and thought to myself, "How many of these men will not be coming back when this war is over." I said, "these men," because it never occurred to me that it could happen to me and I wouldn't come back.)
Aaron Elson: Now youre in the cellar, and you realize youre a prisoner. ...
Bernie Levine: Yes, the reality of the whole situation set in: Was I still as firm in my original convictions about the importance of getting into combat instead of taking advantage of the several opportunities which I had to avoid combat by staying in an administrative job? That thought lasted momentarily because I never could have lived with myself if I accepted the alternative regardless of what my personal fate might be. Another thought that weighed heavily on my conscience was what effect the news of my being shot down would have on my family, especially my mother, who had two other sons in combat.
The next morning we were taken to the huge railroad station in Cologne. Two of the outstanding buildings in Cologne are the beautiful cathedral, which until that time had not been bombed, and the huge train station with the roof blown off. We went by train down the Rhine Valley. The trip took a whole day because we had to stop several times while the train was being attacked by low-flying U.S. planes.
Aaron Elson: The American bombers were going overhead?
Bernie Levine: We assumed that they were American fighter pilots who had no way of knowing that they were firing at American POWs and had come in to attack the train as a "target of opportunity" on their way back from the day's main target.
Aaron Elson: Was that terrifying?
Bernie Levine: Yes, of course it was terrifying! We had never had that kind of experience when we had to lie on the floor of the train car praying that we would not be blown up. I guess the terror was increased because with the blinds drawn, we had no visual reference to what was happening. They pulled the shades down because they didn't want us to see the devastation that had already been done.
We finally arrived in Frankfurt at the huge train station -- also with the roof blown off. We had four guards with us and a fifth who was in charge. The soldier in charge of the detail did not know where to go and was going to the stationmaster to get directions. He said, "Wait here," and started to walk away. There were a lot of German commuters on the platform looking at us, pointing fingers and mumbling, which was understandable knowing that their families had been killed and their homes destroyed by us "Terrorfliegers" the day before when our target had been Frankfurt.
I called after the man in charge and said, "Where are you going? Don't leave us here!" He got his instructions and we went by trolley to the Dulag Luft -- a processing center for interrogating POWs. Here we were put in small cubicle-like rooms to spend time in solitary confinement.
So you sit there in this small room, with a small window near the ceiling. I got up there and saw the General Motors building again, this time from the ground, much closer than previously, and could see that there had been no bomb damage to the building. So we sat there for a couple of days in solitary, out of cigarettes and with German food that we could call something less than desirable. After about three days to allow us time to think, a German officer comes in and starts asking questions about which Air Force, Group and Squadron I had been in.
I said, "Lieutenant, you're an officer, I'm an officer. I'm going to give you my name, rank and serial number, that's all."
He said, "You know, Lieutenant, you would be a lot better off if you talk and answer my questions. Keep in mind, you're in Nazi Germany.
I said, "Whatever happens, happens. That's all the information I'm going to give you."
I sat in the cell for another couple of days. I had read the writing on the wall from the previous occupants many times and was communicating with the occupant of the adjoining cell by tapping on the wall in Morse code. After about seven days, I was taken to a large office for what proved to be the main interrogation. There was a Hauptmann sitting behind a clear desk smoking American cigarettes with some cans of American food at the side of the desk. He did not offer me a cigarette or any of the food even though I was desperate for both.
When I came in he was quite friendly. He started with some general conversation, in very good English, and then started asking some specific questions. I told him the same as the other two interrogators, "Captain, you're a soldier, I'm a soldier. I'm only going to give you my name, rank and serial number -- that's all." With that, he opened a drawer in his desk, took out a file with my name on it and said, "Let's see what we know about you." He went over to the wall, pulled down a map, pointed to a location and said, "You were stationed here at Thorpe Abbot," and then proceeded to list every mission we had flown and what our position had been on each.
I said, "What happened? Did you get someone on the crew to talk?"
He said, "No, we really don't need it," and went on to tell me what he knows about me. He said he knew every mission we had flown, where I went to school before I came into the Army and every base I had been at! I found out later they even knew where my grandparents had been born.
Aaron Elson: How did they find this out?
Bernie Levine: I said to him, "Thats a pretty good espionage system youve got. His answer to me was, "Yes, ours is pretty good, but yours is much better because you've got more money to pay for it!"
Then he said, "There's nothing you can tell me. Nothing you or the men on your crew can tell us that we don't already know. We know that you are not familiar with the 'G' box, so this questioning is just a formality." I was dismissed and that was it.
(Side note: There was actually nothing we could tell the Germans that they didn't already know. The only information they didn't have was the 'G' box, which enabled our planes to bomb accurately through complete undercast and on which only specially trained pilots and navigators were trained. They were the ones the Germans were anxious to capture.)
The next day we were put on a train -- destination unknown. We traveled quite a distance, then north through Frankfurt-am-Oder and on to Barth, a small town on the Baltic Sea about 100 miles north of Berlin. During the trip, we had to stop a few times because the train was attacked by Allied planes.
Aaron Elson: Were any of the flyers who were prisoners wounded or killed?
Bernie Levine: I dont remember. There was nobody in our car that was hit.
Aaron Elson: Would the German guards stay with you or leave you when that was happening?
Bernie Levine: They were somewhere on the train, but not standing close to us. We had a compartment for four that had eight men in it.
Aaron Elson: Did some stand while others were sitting?
Bernie Levine: No. Youd lie on the floor or walk around in the passageway.
Aaron Elson: Theres eight guys in a compartment and these planes are coming in bombing and strafing. Where did you go? Did you huddle together?
Bernie Levine: I lay down on the floor.
Aaron Elson: Could you see the planes?
Bernie Levine: No, we couldn't see them.
Aaron Elson: After the strafing, what happened next?
Bernie Levine: Well, it took several days, but we finally arrived at Barth. We walked through the town and every building had a Nazi flag; every window, it seemed, had a large picture of one of the Nazi leaders, and most of the people on the streets gave us the 'Heil Hitler' greeting. After a long walk, we finally arrived at the camp.
Aaron Elson: Is this the camp you stayed in for the rest of the war?
Bernie Levine: Yes.
Aaron Elson: Do you remember the date that you arrived?
Bernie Levine: We were shot down on the Fourth, arrived at the Dulag on the night of the Fifth, kept in solitary for six days until the 11th, were en route for three days and arrived at the Stalag on the 14th.
Aaron Elson: How big a camp was it?
Bernie Levine: When we arrived at the camp, there were about 3,000 men. Most of them were from the Royal Air Force -- Canadians, Free French, Czechoslovakians and Spaniards who went over and joined the RAF. By the time we left, there were more than 12,000 POWs.
Aaron Elson: What can you remember about D-Day? Did the news come into the camp that the invasion had begun?
Bernie Levine: Yes. We were aware of it because the POWs had a secret radio which the Germans apparently knew nothing about and which was moved each day to a different room. We hadn't been aware that the invasion was so imminent, so when the news was broadcast over the BBC, there was an immediate reaction among all the POWs who gathered outside the barracks and were cheered.
We were fed with daily exposure to German propaganda broadcasts which described how the German armed forces were defeating the Allies on all fronts and how they would be victorious. One of their propaganda efforts was a newspaper called the "O.K. Kid" which was distributed one copy per month. Its purpose was to create doubt in the minds of the "Kriegies" about the validity of the Allied cause, and sympathy for the Germans being bombed and create dissatisfaction in the Kriegie minds about the inequities of their suffering as POWs while other Americans were home enjoying security and prosperity for themselves and their families -- especially the Jews. During the discussion among the fellows on that particular item, one of the men said, "Well, this is true, isn't it?" I said, "You stupid bastard! There are 10,000 men in this camp and 300 of them are Jews. That's 3 percent of the total population. How do you think we got here, by special invitation?" Fortunately, the German propaganda only affected a few of the POWs who were gullible enough to believe it.
Here's a telegram that was delivered to my family after I was shot down.
Aaron Elson: (reading) "March 9, 1944: Report just received through the International Red Cross states that your son, Second Lieutenant Bernard B. Levine, is a prisoner of war of the German government. Letter of information follows from Provost Marshal General, the adjutant general." To Henry Levine, 15 Warren Street.
Bernie Levine: This only confirmed previous phone calls from ham radio operators who called my family with the news which they had heard on German propaganda broadcasts.
You talked about dogtags. Heres mine with the "H" on it. And this Log Book which we received from the YMCA (Switzerland) and which I kept on a running basis. It contains inscriptions from each of my roommates and other Kriegies. They all came from different sections of the country and from different walks of life. I think their writings reflect a longing to be back home again with their families and loved ones.
When we arrived at the Stalag, we were given "premium" accommodations -- only 16 men to each room, which we organized on a communal basis. Each week, we would take turns being responsible for a different task: cooking for the entire room, k.p. -- cleaning the pans handmade (by Kriegies) from Klim cans which had contained powdered milk, going down to bring back the food, such as it was, going for the daily ration of coal for the room, etc. After several weeks, we wound up with me being the permanent cook, because, I guess, I was better at the job than the others. We had an understanding among us in the room that in the event anyone complained about the job someone else was doing, he would take over that job for the following week.
Aaron Elson: What kind of things would you cook?
Bernie Levine: We used to get the parcels from the American Red Cross. I have a list of the contents here in this Log Book.
(Side note: Not long after we came back from overseas, I sent a letter to the Red Cross expressing my appreciation and, I'm sure, the appreciation of every other Kriegie, for their efforts to keep us supplied with food that had been so vital for our survival.
In the early days, when conditions were "normal" for a stalag, we received one parcel per week per man. After some time, the Germans claimed that the railways and highways had been damaged and the food parcels could not be delivered as they had been. The rations were cut to one parcel each ten days, then one every two weeks, and for quite a time, we received no parcels and had to exist on the meager rations the Germans chose to supply to us. To me, the food they gave us was not palatable and we ate it to avoid starving.
It was interesting to note that when the war was over nd the Germans evacuated the camp, a huge supply of Red Cross parcels was discovered in several of their warehouses).
Aaron Elson: (reading) "Spam; 12 ounces. Corned beef; 12 ounces."
Bernie Levine: Pate, jam, Kraft cheese, sugar, Klim (powdered milk), raisins, margarine, K-Rations, salmon, cigarettes.
Sharon Levine: Whats in a K-Ration, Dad?
Aaron Elson: This said K-Ration crackers. So it wouldnt be a whole K-ration, would it?
Bernie Levine: No, just the K-Ration crackers. Anyway, that was the food. We put all the parcels into one community pool and lived off that for the week. When I became cook, I had a couple of special dishes, one of which was to roll out some K-Ration crackers into crumbs, put in some powdered milk, a little bit of sugar and some shaved chocolate and bake it on a stove which we had at the end of the barracks. We could toast on a coal-burning heater in our room.
Cigarettes, of course, were a desirable commodity and you could practically name your price. This was very valuable to the Kriegies who didn't smoke.
Sharon Levine: Youve got a cigarette there in your POW Log book.
Bernie Levine: Thats a Polish cigarette. They were so bad I couldn't smoke them even though American cigarettes were not available. This was during the time when parcels were scarce and we were desperate for a smoke.
Bernie Levine: I got this card when the German soldiers evacuated the camp at the end of the war. One of the first things we did was go over to their headquarters' barracks, go through our files and pick out our card with our picture which was their equivalent of our 201 file. If you notice here, it says, "Religion -- Jude." But here's something that's particularly interesting: "Grossaltern -- in Russland." They knew my grandparents were born in Russia! Now how the hell did they know that?
Aaron Elson: Your fathers name was Harry, and your mothers name was?
Bernie Levine: Yettie Rosenhaus.
Aaron Elson: Tell me about the prayer service.
Bernie Levine: We had religious services there in the camp. The prayers were spoken in Hebrew and English to the best of our collective memories. First let me read this from some personal comments I had previously written: "As Minyonaires, our primary interest is how, if at all, did religious training and background affect this Jewish POW? Each of us exposed to the same circumstances will react differently. The degree and intensity of our happiness, sorrow, pleasure, fear or other emotional reactions will be determined by the individual's background. Religious training must certainly be considered a factor in the process of our development. A capsule description of my rreligious background would probably be in order so that you can evaluate subsequent remarks.
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Bernie Levine: A few months after we arrived in the stalag, approximately twenty or more Jewish POWs decided to hold services on Saturday morning. This required our coming to the selected room, a different one each week, in twos, but never more than three because we didn't want the Germans to get any idea of what was going on. Non-Jewish friends placed themselves outside in various locations which would permit them to signal the approach of a guard in time to allow an orderly dispersal and avoid suspicion.
I think this was one of the few places in Nazi Germany where a minyon was held and Jewish services conducted. Prayer books, of course, were out of the question. The leader and "Rabbi" was a lawyer from Syracuse with a good Hebrew background. The "Chazan" was a printer in civilian life from New York City with a pretty good training in Hebrew liturgy.
Men were risking their lives to pray to their God. I doubt any of us will ever see a better example of living Judaism. Services for Kol Nidre were conducted in the afternoon instead of the traditional after sundown because POWs were confined to their own rooms in their barracks before dark with windows and doors locked.
Even now, every Kol Nidre night, I relive those moments. We did not have all the correct words, but were they really needed? Not when you looked at the expressions on the faces of the men and of the Chazan as he chanted the traditional Kol Nidre prayer from memory. Or if you felt, as all of us did, as the Chazan chanted the traditional Kol Nidre prayer for those men who had given up their Jewish identity on their dog tags. They were usually listed as Unitarians. Quite a throwback to the original basis for the Kol Nidre when prayers were said to God for those who had given up their Jewish heritage to escape death and torture as they did during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1490s.
Aaron Elson: What was a Chazan?
Bernie Levine: The Chazan is the cantor who chants the service.
Aaron Elson: What part did you play?
Bernie Levine: I was just a member of the congregation.
Aaron Elson: This is very educational for me.
Bernie Levine: There was a Jewish ritual observed by some of the non-Jewish Kriegies in the camp. Circumcision created some interest, because, under the circumstances, the men figured they wouldn't be using "it" for other purposes, so they took advantage of the opportunity to be circumcised. Besides, when would they have the opportunity to have one of England's leading brain surgeons, a POW, perform the surgery?
(Side note: I was always up early before the other fellows, so one of my pastimes was meeting with a German guard at 6 a.m. when he unlocked the barracks doors. For the first week or so, I would be smoking a cigarette when he opened the door, and then i would deliberately throw it on the floor and step on it. Charlie, who spoke broken English, showed very little reaction to my gesture.
By the way, Charlie told me that a pack of American cigarettes could buy one of the German guards the "domestic" services for a week from one of the frauleins whose husbands had been killed in action or went away in combat.
We became familiar, and I would trade cigarrettes for eggs, onions, fruit, etc. Charlie was an older man (Volksturm), not one of the younger "Deutschland zo leben for a thousand yahr" Nazi fanatics. He told me that he knew the Allies would win when America entered the war, but he regretted that we were on the wrong side. Now, he insisted, we would have to come back and fight Russia by ourselves and defeating them would be a question. Sheer madness, I thought at the time, but -- how prophetic.
When the war was over and I was in Paris on the way home, I was sitting at a table at an ourdoor cafe reading the Overseas edition of the Herald Tribune. One of the arrticles was about New Jersey's Senator Hawkes speaking in Italy to American troops on the way home. He was quoted as saying, "Do you want to go home now and come back later to fight the Russians or stay and finish the job now?" I re-read the quote several times in complete disbelief and finally concluded, "My God, Charlie was right!!")
Aaron Elson: What kind of cruel things would the guards do? If somebody was punished, how would they be punished?
Bernie Levine: The POW would be put into solitary confinement, usually for a week, and depending on the whims of the German guards, would be subjected to physical abuse. Food, of course, consisted of the minimal German rations.
More than the physical, was the constant dread and pressure of what the next day would bring. The dread became more acute when orders were received in December for all Jewish POWs to be separated from the rest of the Stalag and moved in preparation for moving the Jewish fellows out. After that happened, of course, every time we heard a noise or any kind of movement outside our barracks, we thought, "This is it! They're getting ready to move us out." And we lived with that dread for five months. A few of the fellows found it too much of a strain to take the constant emotional and mental upset and, as we say, "blew their stacks."
Aaron Elson: When you say "blew their stacks," they got angry or they went crazy?
Bernie Levine: A couple of them became mentally unbalanced. For instance, one of the men in our room who was normally calm and easygoing became progressively more unbalanced until, on one occasion, he threatened to "split my skull" if I repeated some often-used gesture that he disregarded in the past. A couple of the men committed suicide by deliberately running into the barbed wire perimeter fence knowing that the German guards would shoot to kill.
Aaron Elson: When were you liberated?
Bernie Levine: We awoke on the morning of May 1st to find the guard towers empty and no German guards roaming around. They had evacuated during the night and left the camp completely in our control. "Our" control, of course, was the complete military organization of the POWs. The Commanding General and his staff of colonels, majors and junior officers had all been organized in anticipation of this moment. The ultimate authority, of course, was the Russian army, which occupied that section of Germany.
Aaron Elson: Tell me about the guard that your wife was telling me the story about.
Lenore Levine: This is the way the story developed. After the 50th anniversary of the liberation, we took a trip with other former POWs from all around the United States to the site of Stalag Luft 1. Since all of the men had been interned there, it was a very emotional experience.
We have pictures of it -- we were on the bus, and there's a German guide, a young fellow. He introduced this lady who made it her life's work for the past five years to find out about her father who had not returned from the war. Many, of course, from her town did not return, but they all knew that either they had gone to the Russians, they died, or they escaped to South America. Everybody was accounted for in some way, but the only one in the town who was not accounted for was her father. The mother died five years previously and she said she took it over as her mission. And at that time, Eastern Germany was opened up so there were many trips now and she got on every one of the buses whenever tourists were going to Barth.
She asked if anyone knew her father. No one did or said they did. And for all these years, she has been doing this. This time, she gets on the bus and tells the story about her father. He had been a German and had gone to America, bought a house there and he and his wife had a child. And he had a butcher shop. And Bernie goes like this to me...
Aaron Elson: He pinched you in the arm?
Lenore Levine: Or poked me in the ribs. And she said that just prior to the war, her grandmother got sick, so the father had to give up his business and his house and come back to Germany with his wife. Of course that was not true. They came back, as Bernie said, to get on the bandwagon. They thought there was going to be a war and Germany was going to win and they would live happily ever after. Anyhow, he got back to Germany and she was born. And then her father went into the army and got a job as a guard at Stalag Luft 1.
So Bernie said to me, "I know who he is. I wasnt there, but I know what happened."
I said, "Are you going to tell her?"
He said, "I havent decided yet." Then he thought about it and went up to her and asked, "If you feel that what anybody was to say about your father would be uncomplimentary and unkind, would you still want to hear about it?"
She said, "Absolutely." She said she knew her father was not well liked; that she has heard.
Bernie said, "If you can understand that, then I can tell you."
Bernie Levine: I told her of a guard at the Stalag who was a particularly disliked individual who did everything he could to taunt us. His name was "Henry the Butcher." He would walk around the camp with a look of disdain and contempt for the POWs. When the Allies started to win, and it became obvious that Germany was defeated, he still maintained the same attitude and used to taunt us with, "When this war is over, I'll be back in the States before you will." When the Germans had evacuated, a couple of the American POWs who had gone into the town came across Henry the Butcher who was hiding in civilian clothes and shot him. They found the camp Kommandant and shot him, too.
Lenore Levine: Now, there is one thing I dont know whether I mentioned to you; there was one disappointment that Bernie had when we were there that day in the camp. During the 15 months when he was at Stalag Luft 1, his only contact with the outer world was seeing the cathedral steeple in town, out beyond the barbed wire. So he expected to see it. But unfortunately, it was a foggy, overcast day and he couldnt see it. He was disappointed. So we did the next best thing. After the memorial ceremonies were complete, we went into town and entered the cathedral. And in the cathedral was Henry the Butcher's daughter kneeling, crying and praying.
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