The Hand Not Given
The mists of memory now shroud my experiences in the last days of the
battle and what followed. Only later did I learn that my personal disaster
was called "The Battle of the Bulge". What remains of this early scar,
inflicted in the young days of life, overlaid now with other hurts as
severe and deep, acquired in the subsequent thirty-five years of living
My division--the l06th--was at the very point of the massive enemy assault
in the Ardennes Forest. Retreat or withdrawal was cut off. A break-through
effort by our infantry was tried and failed. We then went forward in the
direction of the West Wall to escape enemy pressure. Once again, we tried
going back towards our lines. At one moment, our artillery vehicles were
drawn up in a circle, frontier style. We proceeded to move out. Going
through a valley, shells began to pour in on us. Bravely, a l05 mm gun
crew set up, tried to reply, and was silenced by a hit.
After half an hour of mortar fire and shelling by 88mm anti-aircraft by
the Germans, there was a shattering cry. ""Every man for himself" still
echoes chillingly, carrying the message of aloneness and abandonment in
the face of imminent destruction. A panoramic view flashes before me as I
see hundreds of us, trapped, bewildered, defenseless...the release of
captured German prisoners running back to their lines screaming for a halt
in the firing until they were safe...my helmet flying from my head as face
and body are pressed into the earth, seeking safety as shrapnel pours
merciless hell, sharing the very ground sought as a haven..."Medic! Medic"
is screamed out from those unfortunates already hit, and their pitiful
cries still reverberate and chill me!
A brief respite from the shelling. White rags appear from nowhere...a
panicked oozing of a line of our men, growing from a trickle into a heavy
flow, moving towards the enemy lines. The invisible foe loosens briefly
the ring of steel to gather the harvest of the stampeded and defeated
We were set down in a field, grouped then into long lines, and sent on a
wandering, interminable march. We passed the Dragon's Teeth and anti-tank
traps and block houses that were part of the Siegfried Line. We marched
through Prum, a dead city, battered and broken. Even now, incredibly, I
recall the beauty of the hills and streams of Luxembourg. Wearily putting
one foot in front of the other, exhausted, we continued on. There could be
no dropping out. Fantasy and reality interchanged places, and I still see
the image of a German soldier, dead and frozen, sitting upright on his
At the railroad siding, a long train of cattle cars awaited. The loading
of the dispirited prisoners began. Willie calls out, "Let's get on this
box car". Dan says, "Let's get on the next one!"
Still I see short Willie. Clearer is the earlier image of him with a
bandage around his head. Willie had been waylaid in Scully Square in
Boston while on our last leave from the port of embarkation, Camp Miles
Standish. He had been beaten and concussed, and he missed sailing with us
on the USS Wakefield, our troop ship. He joined us later in England.
Dan was tall, spare, quiet spoken. For whatever reason--or none--I walked
to the next cattle car, separating from Willie, accompanying Dan.
The stench of the manure-laden straw on the floor of the cattle car is
smelled no more. Did we really pass three days without water or food? At
last, relief! The delight of swallowing the icy cold wetness when the
locked door opened at a siding! Our thirst-tortured bodies this slight but
needed succor. The damp and metallic feel of the helmet-ful of water as it
was passed from hand to hand! The urgent press of others' unslaked demands
on the lucky ones who had first received the helmet! "That's enough! Pass
it on!" was the repeated cry. Unsatisfied, one more brief swallow, and the
precious gift was handed on. The drink was not nearly enough, not nearly
long enough, but the container was given up to be fairly shared. Each of
us received a couple of hard crackers, barely chewable, inadequate--but
Once more, the boxcar was locked. The high, piercing, tremulous whistle of
the locomotive cut through the air. The boxcars smashed and jerked as
other cars were added or taken off the train. There was the slow pull;
halt; pull; halt; then forward once more until, finally, there was an
established rhythm as the freight train won its freedom to continue its
slow and weary pace. The quiet clacking of the wheels filled the air until
progress was halted at another railway siding. Again and again this
pattern was repeated. For us, crowded together, we had hours and hours of
simply standing or sitting, waiting on the louse-ridden, foul-smelling
The night. That night! Halted in a freight yard--it was Limburg. There was
the sudden wailing of air raid sirens that cut through the stillness with
their fearsome message. There was hysterical shouting by the soldiers
guarding us as airplanes were heard passing over. Then came the shriek of
bombs as one explosive followed another in the midnight rain of hell and
terror. The bombs were coming closer and closer to our boxcar, destroying
the boxcars and killing the helpless, hapless prisoners who could only
listen as death crept up, nearer, nearer, nearer…
And now there is a scene that is indelibly branded in my mind. It cannot
have been imagined because it is so clear and so well remembered. We did
believe that we were in the last moments of our lives. I, the Jewish
prisoner, was told "We are going to pray!" "I will , too," I remember
saying. Men were on their knees. "Hail Mary, Mother of God"..., and a
chorus of voices!
Only once since have I had occasion to be in a church, yet the prayer is
part of me. How could this not have occurred?
As if in answer to the imploring cry of the trapped men, there was a
scrabbling noise at the box car door. The lock was removed, and the door
was pushed open. We jumped out of the wooden boxcar and ran, ran, ran,
seeking safety wherever that might be. I sighted an embankment about six
feet high some fifty or more feet away. Quickly, I covered that distance.
On top of the wall was an enemy; foolishly, to get away from the terror
behind I reached out my hand to be lifted up on the wall.
He looked. He moved away. Just that. He moved away. His statement. My
memory. Man and man. Naive, then--and still today. Had he been low and I
high, would I have acted differently? A desperate hand extended and no
Sadly, I seem to have had the same experience several times since, in
other contexts, surely the same empty act. The hand not given....
The bombing airplanes passed overhead and left. Stillness returned, the
raid ended. Voices were again heard as the guards returned, excited and
shouting and rounding up the prisoners .
English airmen bombed the Limburg rail yard in Germany on the night of
December 23, 1944. Unknowing, they did their duty and they hit their
target--the freight yard, the train--and us.
And Willie Warmuth died that night, killed but a few feet away. He died
where I might have been if I had accompanied him. Would it have been me
rather than Willie? And here he died in captivity, buried under tons of
German dirt in that freight yard. Willie was going to be a journalist in
Ohio. He uncle owned a newspaper there.
Who remembers Willie today?
I do. For as long as I shall live, he will be remembered. For a few
brief years, I am his eternity.
I am alive because I did not accept his camaraderie and enter the same
boxcar with him.
Willie is long gone, and when I think of him, I realize that I have had
those years of life that he lost that dark and terrible night. What would
he have done with those lost years? What have I?
And I think, too, of that hand not given. It is a memory of a foolish
hurt. Unreasonable, yes, but lingering nonetheless.
In the years that have followed, then, there have been many wounds, some
as rasping and deep, but these were some of my first; and they have
endured, as I have, to this day.