A Tikkun For Two Young Soldiers After 70 Years

Sar-Elnik Howie Mischel seeks to uncover a part of his family’s past.

Life comes with countless unanticipated twists and turns and when we open ourselves to these unexpected moments, they sometimes lead to incredible opportunities to learn and to understand, to deepen emotions and to come closer to others in the most unbelievable of ways. This is one such story.

It had its beginning when I was growing up in Queens, N.Y. in the 1960s, spending countless hours in the home of my paternal grandparents. It recently reached its climax in the American military cemetery located in Henri-Chapelle, Belgium.

Like most young boys of my generation, I was immersed in a post-war culture heavily influenced by my parents’ involvement in World War II. My dad, Julie Mischel, was drafted right out of high school in the Spring of 1944, quickly deployed to Belgium and ultimately into Germany. He was part of a large contingent of infantry soldiers sent to beef up US forces following the D-Day invasion. Qualified as a sharpshooter during his training, he became an antitank gunner armed with a bazooka rocket launcher. Private Julie Mischel, H.Q. Company, Ist Battalion, 311th Infantry of the 78th Lightning Division.

Although he didn’t tell us much of what happened to him in Europe, we were aware that he had been severely wounded when he hit a trip wire that exploded a land mine in Germany’s Huertgen Forest in December 1944. It took quite some time for him to be evacuated from the battlefield and he had several months of recovery in military hospitals in Europe before being shipped home. What he never discussed, but what I became keenly aware of, was that his best friend had been killed in action as their army unit moved deeper into Germany in January 1945. The name of my father’s friend was Solomon Mosner, but everyone in our family called him “Sid”.

They lived within a few blocks of each other in their old Queens neighborhood. My grandparents and uncles would quietly speak of him, but not in front of my dad. I can’t actually recall my dad saying anything at all about Sid yet I was aware of him from a very young age. Looking back, I realize that Sid’s death was something very traumatic for our entire family. Nearly 20 years after his death, he was still being spoken about at home. Not only were my dad and Sid close friends growing up, but they were inducted into the army and went through basic training together and then were assigned to the 311th Infantry Regiment of the 78th “Lightning” Division. From my dad’s army mementos and other sources, I pieced together a portrait of Sid that reveals an incredibly bright honor student who graduated from high school more than a year early and who actually completed at least a year of college in NYC before heading to the army. He had a very close connection to our family, and seemed to be very fond of my grandmother, his own mother having passed away when he was rather young.

The single most revealing thing I know about him and his friendship with my dad comes from a military V-gram that Sid wrote to my grandmother shortly before his death. It is a letter that was talked about in our family, but one my dad never read; it was too upsetting for him. It sat in a box with other war mementos that were rarely looked at after he died at age 43 in the summer of 1969.

That all changed in May 2010. An Amazing Coincidence? My wife Terry and I immigrated to Israel from Teaneck, NJ in 2009. Nine months after moving we were contacted by Abigail Leichman, a writer with Bergen County’s Jewish Standard. She wanted to interview us about our transition to our new life. We were glad to help promote aliyah to others back in the U.S. Abigail told me to look for the interview on the newspaper’s website around Memorial Day weekend. You can imagine the shock I felt, when instead of finding an article about us, I saw a photograph on the front page of the paper showing the gravestone of my father’s best friend, Sid Mosner!

The New Jersey Jewish Standard dated May 28, 2010

Marty Siegel, a retired army colonel and county resident, had written a short article reminding Jewish Standard readers about the contributions and sacrifices of Jewish American soldiers in WWII. But of all the soldiers who lost their lives in the defense of the nation, what were the odds that the one he chose to use as an example would be my dad’s best friend? I immediately called the newspaper to connect to Marty. The article lamented the fact that little was known of this all but forgotten 18-year old who had died 65 years earlier, apparently with no surviving relatives.

Seeking to reconstruct his short life there was little information that could be found. Written in a style that paid homage to him, it also reminded readers of the sacrifices of so many other young people of that era. I desperately wanted to let Marty know that there indeed was someone on this earth who knew the name Sid Mosner, and more importantly, had information about his life and an understanding of what he meant to my family. I

I learned that Marty made contact some months earlier with a young Belgian named Fabrice Dubois who had been seeking information about Sid by running a notice in the Jewish War Veteran magazine. Marty’s interest was piqued by this ad, prompting him to correspond with Fabrice. He revealed that his family had ‘adopted’ the grave of Sid Mosner, buried in the US Military Cemetery in Henri-Chapelle. The cemetery holds the graves of 8000 US soldiers killed in the Battle of the Bulge and is one of several throughout Europe containing the graves of some 125,000 US soldiers.

For reasons not yet understood, Fabrice had joined a Belgian program to adopt and visit the graves of US soldiers and selected Sid’s. He wanted to learn all he could about Sid and decided that the veteran’s magazine might be the best place to seek information. When we met recently, I asked him if he really expected to find out anything about Sid 65 years after the war had ended. He expressed his absolute faith that this would happen, and so it did.

I emailed Marty and Fabrice several scanned pages from my father’s war-time scrapbook, revealing what a refined and intelligent young man Sid had been. I also sent them the final V-Mail that Sid mailed to my grandmother before he died: Sid Mosner’s last V-Mail to my grandmother Two Messages Received? However, the coincidence of the newspaper article really continued to gnaw at me because it was not the first time I had a highly unusual occurrence in relation to my dad’s WWII experiences.

 

About 20 years earlier, on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, I was attending a business conference in Boston. At the end of the day’s sessions I went out for a drink with a former work colleague of mine. We were watching a TV on the wall and saw President Bill Clinton addressing a large audience at a memorial ceremony at Normandy Beach. We got to talking about our fathers’ service in World War II. It turned out both were in the Battle of Bulge and I started telling him the story of how my dad was wounded. In the midst of the battle, the soldier who was teamed with him to load his bazooka with anti-tank rockets fell ill with what appeared to be an appendicitis attack. He was in pain and my dad ended up carrying the soldier through deep snow to a field hospital where he handed him off to a medical officer inside a tent. My friend looked at me as I was describing this and with a big smile on his face began completing my sentences describing what had occurred. For you see, he knew this story as well because his dad had been the medical officer inside the tent!

 

However, for 50 years there had been two different endings to the story. In his dad’s version, he told of how amazed he was at the idea of a soldier carrying in another on his back in deep snow during a major battle in order to be treated for appendicitis. The sick young soldier became quite upset when he realized he had lost his helmet in the snow somewhere. The helmet contained precious photos of his family inside its liner. My dad offered to go back to try and retrieve the helmet. The end of the story for my friend’s father was that this poor soldier never returned and was presumed killed in the fighting.

The real story, as I described the ending, was that my dad took a shortcut through some woods to get to where he believed the helmet was and he hit a trip wire that triggered a land mine. My dad was badly wounded, lay in a foxhole for an extended period and was eventually evacuated out of the area. I was floored by the amazing coincidence on the day of that D-Day remembrance years ago and told that story to friends and relatives for some time. But as time passed, it simply became a good story to tell.

Now, this second amazing coincidence had happened relating to my dad’s war experience and I could not get it out of my mind. I came to the decision that I wasn’t going to wait for a third one. Decision To Visit Belgium In early 2014 I realized that we were fast approaching the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and Sid’s 70th yahrtzeit. I began thinking about the Jewish perspective on this coincidence that I experienced related to my dad. Was it just chance? Not knowing why, I began to feel a need to go to Belgium. I felt that I wanted to do this for my father. Where was this leading me? I posed these questions to my two sons who both happen to be rabbis.

My son Elie sent me the following source from Isaiah (30:21): ואזניך תשמענה דבר מאחריך לאמר: זה הדרך לכו בו כי תאמינו וכי תשמאילו And yours ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it, when you turn to the right hand and when you turn to the left’. He explained that Hashem often speaks to us “from behind”, in indirect ways. It is our job to tune in to the echoes of Hashem’s voice. We may think we’re going someplace, but Hashem has different ideas as to where we need to be. There are lessons He wants us to learn in every place.

My son Judah had a slightly different take. Speaking in more kabbalistic terms, he got me thinking about the concept of achieving a tikkun ( תקון ,( or correction or repair. He explained that wherever one’s feet might lead one, they are directed from above and I needed to be open to the idea that going to Belgium might be achieving a healing or transformation in this world or the next and in ways that I might not ever fully comprehend. I felt even more so that I needed to go on this trip, although not fully understanding what to expect nor what I would accomplish. I informed Marty and Fabrice of my plans.

Preparing for the journey and more revelations over the course of the several months leading up to our visit to Belgium in July 2014, I set about learning as much as I could about the Battle of the Bulge and specifically the movements of my father’s infantry unit. I combed through every page of his folder full of notes and documents from the war. The more I progressed through this tedious process, the more I experienced breakthroughs that I could not have anticipated.

The search began by reaching out to the Department of Defense Library as well as websites on-line. An initial major breakthrough came when I connected on-line with another son of a soldier from the same infantry unit. He lives in California and generously shared with me thousands of pages of battle records, maps and photos of the famed 78th Lightning Division. This was my jump-start into constructing a personal history and timeline for my dad and Sid of their journey from New York City, through basic training and ultimately into battle in Belgium and Germany. Some of the historical documents collected in preparation for the trip to Belgium The 78th Division invaded from Belgium into Germany.

I had some hand written notes belonging to my father which tracked month to the month the places his unit had moved through. Setting sail from Southampton, England to Le Havre, France they then rolled into Belgium piled into freight trains. Using the documents I compiled I was able to develop a timeline to match up with the places mentioned in his notes. I was then very happy to get back in touch with Marty Siegel and Fabrice Dubois to announce to them that I had decided to travel to Belgium and visit the grave of Sid Mosner in HenriChapelle. Fabrice immediately volunteered to serve as our guide for the two days we planned to visit the Ardennes Region. We hoped to capture a sense of the battlegrounds as well as visit the cemetery.

During our correspondence, Fabrice was eager for any information I could provide about Sid, but he especially wanted a photo of him. Sadly, although my dad’s files did include a number of photos, none were labeled and I could not be sure that I actually had Sid’s picture.

I found a tattered photo of his overall unit, but couldn’t begin to know which one of the young men pictured was Sid: My father’s army unit before leaving for Europe Thinking about how to obtain a photo, I began to focus on where Sid went to high school in order to find his high school graduation yearbook. So began a lengthy correspondence with the New York Board of Education and several high schools. Bryant High School in Astoria, was a prime candidate, but there were three specialized high schools that were possibilities. I wrote to their school librarians and every one expressed interest in helping.

The one from Stuyvesant High School was primarily responsible for solving the puzzle. She first found two brief obituaries from long-defunct local newspapers. Long Island Star Journal obituary January 1943 high school yearbook They confirmed that Sid had attended Bryant High School. Unable to find the year book at school, she surprised me again with amazing news. She had checked E-Bay as a possible source for the yearbook and discovered that the very one I sought had just gone up for sale on-line. Of all the graduating classes, of all the high schools in America, for all the years that year books were published, the very one I needed was available! I successfully bid for the yearbook and had it shipped to my son Elie in New Jersey.

Within days an email arrived and attached was this photo: Sid Mosner’s yearbook photo We finally had a picture of Sid and further confirmation of what an outstanding student he had been. I immediately referenced back to my dad’s photos and after careful comparison, was able to confirm that in the large army unit photo, Sid had, of course, been standing right next to his best friend- two 18 year-olds preparing to go off to war. Sid Mosner and Julie Mischel .

The next thing I did was share the photos with Marty and Fabrice, and there was great surprise and happiness that this had been accomplished. I could see that filling in the blanks of Sid’s life truly meant alot to Fabrice and was a visible reward for the faith he displayed in reaching out to learn more about his ‘adopted’ soldier. For Marty, I believe this influx of additional information, about the ‘anonymous’ young soldier that he had written about four years earlier, inspired him to take all of us to the next incredible step in our journey of discovery.

Marty soon located the grave of Sid’s father Abraham in New York City. The shocker was that his epitaph included the words “Dear Father and Grandfather”. This meant that Sid’s sister Beatrice, who we mistakenly believed had not married, had at least one child. Within a very short time, Marty’s persistence on the internet paid off and he found him. Sid’s nephew, James Cowen, is living in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. His middle name was given to him in memory of his uncle Sid.

Just one week away from my journey to Belgium, Jim became acquainted with Marty, Fabrice and me via a rapid series of emails and phone calls. Jim initially found it hard to believe that there were complete strangers working very hard to learn as much as they could about an uncle that he himself never knew and had very little information about. Because his mother Beatrice died when he was young, he never really learned much about Sid and did not even have a photo of him! He wrote the following to me about his uncle, in a series of emails after we made initial contact: “I …. wish to thank both Fabrice Dubois and Martin Siegel for bringing this to my attention and keeping my Uncle alive. Although my middle name honors his memory and my mother spoke of him, I was too young at the time to fully comprehend what his loss meant. Now as we are in the 70th anniversary, all I can say again is thank you…..

When I was relaying the last 15-hours to my wife and reading your email to her, I was overcome with emotion to the point where she had to read it. What I find most amazing about all this is compared to the world where my daughter has instant everything, how difficult it is to find out about those that are only removed by a couple of generations…. What you, Marty and Howie, have done reminds me, as I told Marty yesterday on the phone, is a scene from the film “Saving Private Ryan” where he visits the grave of his rescuers. Except here it is saving the memory of Private First Class Solomon Mosner and so many others that have been lost over the past two generations.“

In Belgium Terry and I flew to Brussels. We headed east by train to Liege and met Fabrice and his wife Naty at the station. Fabrice had arranged a two-day tour using notes from my father’s army scrapbook detailing the advance of the 311th . Over the next two days we drove back and forth along the Belgian-German border. We visited Liege, Overrepen, Tongerin, Eupen, Aachen, and Vervier.

Of particular importance to me were St. Trond, the town where my dad and Sid had gone on a 12-hour pass before heavy fighting began, as well as Bickerath, the place in Germany where Sid was killed in battle. The Ardennes is an extensive area of dense forest, and hilly, rough terrain. It was easy to visualize the difficulty of mounting an armored and infantry assault into this area, particularly when covered in deep snow. Remains of Siegfried Line Our first stop actually was at Malmedy, the sad place where 84 US prisoners of war were massacred by the German army in an open field at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. A museum was established at the site called the December 44 Museum which gives detailed information about the fighting and displays a large amount of military equipment and memorabilia.

I was immediately struck by the presence of a life size diorama on the main floor that resonated strongly- it showed a two-man, anti-tank bazooka team along with examples of land mines used by German army Opposite this display were examples of the countless land mines, that were placed by the Germans in the forests and certainly of the type that injured my dad.

Later that day we arrived in Stavelot, a very old and picturesque village of less than 7000 residents that was founded more than 1300 years ago. It is Fabrice’s home and we made arrangements to stay at a B&B in the village center, close to his home. As we learned during our stay, Stavelot went through a lot during the Battle of the Bulge. It had been occupied by German SS troops and they had murdered more than 100 villagers, including women and children. The recently restored B&B had been a house that was commandeered by the SS soldiers.

When we had morning coffee the next day, the innkeeper was eager to show us bullet holes in the floor and wall from the attacking American soldiers that liberated the village. He was quite interested to learn that I was the son of an American soldier who had fought in the vicinity and eagerly shared a large sized history and photo book that had been published about Stavelot’s role in the war. Yet another amazing coincidence occurred when I opened the book. I saw the following photo of an anti-tank bazooka team: Bazooka team photo found in Stavelot history book of WWII period.

Fabrice and Naty invited us to visit them at their home during the evening we spent in Stavelot. They are a warm and welcoming couple. Their modest row house overlooking a valley was very lovely, but the first thing that struck me as we entered through the front door was a large brass Chanukah menorah on the windowsill! I could contain myself no further – I needed to understand how Fabrice connected to Sid Mosner and why he had chosen to adopt the grave of one of the very few Jewish soldiers interred at Henri Chapelle.

Fabrice was very open to discussing this and I was grateful for his willingness to share with me. He intimated that he has had an interest in, and fondness for, Judaism for many years. He has a deep connection to Jewish philosophy and religious outlook and identifies with it very strongly. He recalled to me a teacher of his who was Jewish who clearly must have influenced him in his youth.

I explained to him how amazing it was to me that he kept a Chanukah menorah in his home, given that we live in Modiin, walking distance to an ancient synagogue and village dating back two thousand years that many believe is the home of the Maccabees of the Chanukah story. He very much wanted to explain what transpired in Stavelot in WWII and something very significant that occurred in this home where his grandmother grew up and his family suffered at the hands of the German occupiers during the war. Several of his grandmother’s family members fought in the Resistance and he explained that one of their hiding places was in a space below the house. Sadly, a collaborator betrayed them to the Germans and seven were machine-gunned standing along the foundation of the house in the backyard.

Fabrice pointed out that his grandmother, with whom he had a very close connection growing up, and Sid were the same age. He also noted that dates on Sid’s tombstone corresponded to dates important in his own life, and for this reason he decided that he wanted his to be the family that ‘adopted’ Sid’s grave. But much more deeply than this, it was quite apparent to me from the values his grandmother had instilled in him, that he was expressing the very traditional Jewish value of ‘hakarat hatov’, or showing appreciation for the good that is done for you.

Throughout our visit it was made exceptionally clear to us that the idea of showing gratitude to American soldiers, who had sacrificed so much for the Belgian people, was an important value for Fabrice and many others we met there.

We headed to Henri-Chapelle the next day. I wasn’t prepared for the intensely sad and somber mood, the silence, the immense feeling of loss and sacrifice as we looked up into a gray and crying sky. There was a sea of thousands of graves– young soldiers who lost their lives in this battle that ultimately led to the fall of the Nazi enemy. I thought about the title of one of my favorite books: The Greatest Generation written by Tom Brokaw. There is a quote from his book describing his visit to Normandy Beach, summarizing so well the young men and women of my father’s generation. It helped me understand the magnitude of loss of all these young lives whose graves were set out in neat rows before me: “As I walked the beaches with the American veterans who had landed there and now returned for this anniversary…I was deeply moved and profoundly grateful for all they had done. I realized that they had been all around me as I was growing up and that I had failed to appreciate what they had been through and what they had accomplished….They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest…They stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith….. I think this is the greatest generation any society has ever produced. “

At the entrance hall to Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial These soldiers in Henri-Chapelle were among the tens of thousands who lay their young lives down here in Europe and never returned to their homes. As Marty wrote in his article about Sid: “ The world will never know what his contributions to society or his family could have been…. As we consider all the thousands of men and women, of all backgrounds, who died to protect our freedom, we must not forget what their friends and family lost for generations to come. The loss of one person ripples like a stone thrown into a pool of water.”

Graves of American soldiers at Henri-Chapelle Standing at Sid’s grave I thought of my dad and felt so certain that had he lived a longer life he would have found his way back to visit his dear friend, as I did in his stead that day. I recited the traditional mourners Kaddish to sanctify Hashem’s name and the Kel Maleh Rachamim prayer for the soul of the departed. In addition, I recited a short prayer that I had composed just a few days before arriving in Belgium. The very first time I sat down to try and write something appropriate, these words came down to me in an almost effortless way, as if they had already been written for me:

ריבונו של עולם- אשר דרכיו לא יידע איש. עשית זאת עבורנו לדבר אפשרי, במקום זה של עצב והקרבה, אנו נפגשים כדי שנוכל לזכור ולכבד את אבי וחברו האהוב— שלא חזר הביתה לעולם. יהי רצון שהביקור הזה ותפילותינו יביאו את התיקון לנשמותיהם, ינוחו בשלום על משכבם, תחת כנפי שכינתך המגנות, לנצח. Master of the Universe whose ways no man can truly know, You have made it possible for us to meet in this place of sadness and sacrifice, so that we may remember and honor my father and his beloved friend who never returned home. May this visit and our prayers bring a healing to their souls so that they may have rest under Your protective wing forever.

Amazingly, during the half hour we were at Sid’s grave, the sun broke through the heavily clouded, foggy and rainy sky. We had been so surprised that the weather for our entire trip had been rainy and at times even stormy and windy, particularly in the forests and other battlefield areas. The weather forecast right up to the night before our departure called for sunny skies and mild temperatures all through the coming week. Instead, rain continued for the entirety of our five day visit, except for our time at the graveside.

Only Hashem knows what going to Belgian accomplished for the neshamot (souls) of my father and Sid. I believe with all my heart the need for this trip came down to me and I have tremendous gratitude to Hashem for having been able to do this on their behalf. For me, there is the satisfaction of having learned much more about my dad and all that he went through as a young soldier. It has given me insight into the battle he fought in and allowed me to understand and appreciate his personal sadness and pain over losing his closest friend.

 

I think Marty’s own words explain best his feelings about honoring the sacrifice of American soldiers: “For myself it opened up memories of mine as well as bringing back to life a person whose life was cut terribly short. Having walked among U.S. military cemeteries in Europe, Italy and the Philippines it has been especially personally important to me. Having had the privilege of learning about a person and his family has made an indelible mark on all of us.”

Fabrice wrote the following: “Since the first day I adopted his grave in the cemetery of Henri-Chapelle, I wanted to give him the importance he had for me and all my family’s members. Solomon was THE symbol of the GI who saved my people and more [personally] my grandmother (she told me the history of WWII and all the respect she had for the Americans). Now that Marty found you [Jim], I thank him very, very much for all the research he has done to give a rebirth to a young soldier who gave his life to save OUR liberty and OUR country!! It seems that the circle is [complete].”

I believe Jim has been given back a piece of his family’s story that had been lost to him and can now be passed down to his own daughter and future members of the Mosner family. I am happy to know that both he and Marty are now planning their own visits to Belgium. For my dad and me, going to Belgium has firmly connected his story to my own and it will continue with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren he never knew.

My mother once told me that back in the very early days of the newly established state of Israel my parents were recruited to make aliyah. Israel’s newly formed Finance Ministry was seeking young people with my dad’s accounting experience. As staunch Zionists, they seriously considered it but just couldn’t get past the idea of leaving their parents and siblings behind at a time when travel to Israel was almost unheard of.

After my dad died I was determined to get to Israel as soon as possible and became the first in our family to go when I volunteered on a kibbutz in 1971. This began almost forty years of regular visits to the land that has now become our home. It will always fill me with wonder that it was our aliyah that triggered the interview in the newspaper, which further connected me to Sid Mosner and all that has since followed.

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