Veterans Day this year took place on an ideal date, a Sunday, when more people had the opportunity to thank veterans and attend the parade on Fifth Avenue. As all the veterans in my family have passed, I took my children to Manhattan. They are innocent in their admiration of the flags, uniforms, and medals, not knowing of the human cost behind the pageantry.
Only a police barricade separated us from the veterans, and it was easy to get a front row position at a parade that really deserves better attendance from our fellow citizens. Fortunately there is David Levitt, a longtime reader of this newspaper who volunteers with elderly veterans and introduced me to Irving Goldstein, 97, who resides at Boulevard ALP. “You should meet him. He has quite a story to share. He dropped paratroopers over Normandy, and airlifted liberated concentration camp survivors to hospitals in Paris.”
On Sunday, I met Goldstein at a Holiday Inn in Plainview where the 8th Air Force Historical Society’s New York State Southern Wing Chapter held its meeting. At the outbreak of the war, Goldstein had nine aunts and uncles trapped in Europe and volunteered to fight for the country. With nearly a century of memories, there is more to Goldstein than D-Day. “My family emigrated from Lodz to Paterson, New Jersey, as both cities had textile industries. When the Great Depression hit, we moved to the South Bronx.” At the time, the borough had a sizable Jewish population. “I had my bar mitzvah at Torah Moshe. The cantor had a marvelous voice but he did not go into the entertainment business.”
In the army, Goldstein initially encountered anti-Semitic taunts from comrades who likely had never met a Jew before. A six-foot-tall comrade grabbed one of the bigots by his neck and announced that he was Jewish. “‘When you talk about one of us, you talk about all of us,’ and after that we lived like brothers,” he said.
On the week of D-Day, the men were brought to a top-secret briefing on when and where they would fly and drop off paratroopers. “Three of the men were alcoholics. They refused to go. “I was an assistant crew chief. I wasn’t scheduled to fly. I volunteered. Three hands went up to replace them – all three were Jews from New York. We didn’t plan it.”
I asked Friedman whether his hand went up as a result of patriotism, Jewish pride, or perhaps the bravado of youth. “We had flown many night training flights over England. It was getting boring. We entertained ourselves listening on the radio to Axis Sally telling us to surrender.” By volunteering, he was seeking to break the monotony by putting the training to use, at the risk to his life.
Upon arriving in liberated France, Goldstein learned that his aunt in Belgium had survived the war by hiding on a farm and had returned to her home in Charleroi. “I asked my commanding officer for a three-day pass to see her and he refused. I then went to Father Whelan and told him my story.” Within ten minutes, the chaplain returned with a pass and Goldstein took the train to Belgium. “There were few Jewish boys in my unit, but Father Whelan took good care of us.”
“My aunt had never met me, but instantly she recognized me. How did she know? Because the last time she had seen my father, he was 22, my age. I was a clone of my father!” The mood was celebratory in her home. “It was like a New Year’s Eve every night that I was there.”
The war continued for Goldstein as his plane relieved the trapped American fighters in Bastogne at the Battle of the Bulge, pushing the front line east to Pilsen in Czechoslovakia. “I met survivors of concentration camps. One asked me if I was a Jew and when I answered, he kissed me. We took him to Paris.” On the flight, survivors were given sweets, which made their health worse, as their bodies were not used to sizable portions of food, let alone desserts.
Goldstein was brought to the luncheon by his daughter, Hope Friedman, of Commack. “After the war, he worked as a mechanic at LaGuardia Airport. He also operated laundromats in the Bronx,” said Friedman. “We lived above one, and people knocked on our door during dinner complaining when machines did not return their coins.” Increased crime in the South Bronx triggered a Jewish exodus. Goldstein moved to Co-op City, and then to Queens.
On a nearby table, Levitt sat near Shira Weinberg, who came with her grandmother Joan and father Stewart. Shira was raised in Kew Gardens Hills and presently resides in Washington Heights. “I wrote my thesis in college on the strategic bombing,” she said. “I visited the Library of Congress, National Archives, and Churchill’s War Room in London.” A 2018 graduate of City College, the history and biology major developed an interest in World War II from the comedy show Hogan’s Heroes. “It was controversial that they made light of the Nazis, and one of the actors was a survivor.”
Levitt is the son of a veteran. His father Sherman was a B-24 bomber mechanic, and I shared that both of my grandfathers were veterans, with one losing an arm at Stalingrad. Looking over the memorabilia and photos of the 8th Air Force, I was thankful to Levitt for introducing me to Goldstein and other veterans of the sky who contributed to the victory over fascism.
By Sergey Kadinsky