My cousin Sidney Parmet died last week, at age 99. With him went the last of his generation, leaving the role of elder statesmen to me and to my siblings and cousins of our generation. How did it happen so quickly?
For decades Sid was a dentist in Allentown, Pennsylvania. His life, though, was shaped by his experiences as a private in the United States Army during World War II. He enlisted in 1942, because as he explained “we heard what Hitler was doing to the Jews, and we felt it was our obligation to do what we could to stop it.”
Sid hit the beach at Anzio in Italy during early 1943 with the fighting 45th Division, the “Thunderbirds”. Following the battle of Monte Casino, Sid was captured by the Germans while transporting wounded American soldiers. His unit was surrounded during a German offensive, and a Panzer tank was bearing down on him.
The prisoners were force marched from Anzio to Rome. The prisoners were given very little to eat. A loaf of bread fed ten men. There was only one oil drum for 3,000 prisoners for sewage. Eventually they were sent by train in heavily crowded boxcars to German Prisoner of War Camp Stalag VII.
The prisoners surrendered their possessions to the Germans. Included among Sid’s possessions was his Bible, which was in English but was a Jewish Bible (only containing the Old Testament). The prison camp was run by the German Army, the Wermacht, and not the SS. The guards reviewed his possessions, including his Bible, and gave them back to him.
I would ask Uncle Sid sometimes what was it like being a prisoner of the Nazis? “I was never a prisoner of the Nazis,” Sid always would respond. “I was a prisoner of the Wermacht.”
That distinction was very important to Uncle Sid. He felt he had seen firsthand that despite being a part of the same military that was trying to wipe out Jewish life from the face of the earth, there still was a distinction among the people – and institutions – involved.
After their possessions were checked the German guards told the prisoners to take a shower. It actually was a shower, not a gas chamber as in the concentration camps, and the prisoners then took their places in the bunks, where they generally were treated humanely.
That doesn’t mean life was easy, of course. They were prisoners of war, and each prisoner was treated that way. At one point the prisoners were sent on a work detail. The area was being bombed by the American Air Force, and the German guards scurried into a bomb shelter. Ironically, the bombs scored a direct hit on the shelter, killing the guards. The prisoners were now outside of the camp, unguarded. Years later, my cousin Jonathan asked his father why he didn’t try to escape? “Where were we going to go?” came the simple, and obvious response.
As the war entered its closing stages in 1945, the Germans were in full retreat. Sid and the prisoners were emaciated. His weight shrunk to 96 pounds. Still, he would remind us, “at that point in the war the Germans were starving also.”
One morning the prisoners woke up and found that all the guards had fled. They went into the Commandant’s office, checked the prisoner register and noticed that every Jewish prisoner’s name had been circled in red.
Now unguarded, the POW’s had to find their way back to Allied lines. Sid and many of his fellow prisoners went east. Others went the other way. Those who went west were captured again by the SS, and executed.
Eventually, Sid reached Allied forces at Nancy, France. From there he was sent to Paris, repatriated and sent home. For the rest of his life little scared Sid, and he always feel back on his time as a Prisoner of War to reorient his emotions when times were difficult.
Nothing in this story is meant to diminish the enormity of the sufferings of the Holocaust victims, or to further the cause of those who, like German General Halder, after the war tries to portray so much of German society – and the German military- as being victims of a rather small group or fanatic Nazis.
That being said, it is important to remember that not every person who served even in the most immoral army of all time was a monster. Even among those people seeking to enslave the world under its greatest darkness, there are those who refuse to relinquish their humanity. Uncle Sid always made us remember that. Let us always try to find them.