Today, Veterans Day, 2019, I recall the story I was told from the time I was a twelve year old. It is a story of an Italian-American soldier who was proud of his military experience in Patton’s Third Army as an eighteen year-old old boy from Brooklyn. He came from a loving Italian home where hard work and faith were the bedrocks of his family. As the only son, he was “worshipped”and protected by his mother, and sisters. He was drafted into WWII, beginning his tour of duty landing in France. He witnessed unimaginable atrocities to humanity as a Liberator of Ohrdruf Concentration Camp. His family never knew of what he saw, they did not live to see his name among other Liberators in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He never really spoke of his experience before giving testimony to the museum. That man was my father, and although the story was a difficult lesson for a twelve-year old to hear, it was the foundation of what was to become my life-long passions and career choices. Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, “My Italian Father, His Jewish Daughter.”
“Cara Mia, It Will Happen Again.”
On a tree-lined street on a beautiful spring day, Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, the sun was shining brightly. This Wednesday, April 4, 1945, was like most of the year for the extended Pandone family that lived at 41 Vernon Ave, Brooklyn. Millie Pandone, my grandmother, undoubtedly, had cooked by the light of the moon the night before (she did that every night!). Cooking was Millie’s way of showering those she loved with pasta and sausage love. Every single day, I am told, the morning aroma was eggs, peppers and sausage, regardless of what traumatic event(s) happening to this old-world Italian family. My grandfather, Frank, an immigrant from Naples, Italy, expected nothing less from his daughters (and their husbands) who all lived under one roof in the three-story brownstone walk up: Cook, pray, pay bills on time. It was like any other Wednesday, except for one thing…
My father, Vincent, the youngest of three (two boys died tragically as children) was in active military theatre on this day as a soldier in Patton’s U.S. Army. Events of that day likely unfolded for the Pandone’s of Brooklyn as follows: Millie cooked; Grandpa listened to the BBC on the radio; and, after breakfast the women strolled to Flushing Ave to attend Catholic mass. Church was Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday. My family were devoted attendees of the Catholic Church. For sure, the chapel of All Saints Catholic Church was filled to capacity with mothers, sisters, and wives of soldiers. Italian women prayed at mass — Italian men stayed at home. On this day, my grandma had no idea that her prayers, and novena candles to the Blessed Mother, were the light that was guiding my father into the hell he had no way of knowing he was entering.
My dad often said to me that what he remembers most about life in Brooklyn were the smells of his Italian home, the friends of all ethnic backgrounds, along with the bread truck, the milkman, the butcher man, and the boys who tossed newspapers on the “stoop” of his Brooklyn brownstone. Dad loved that brownstone, but he also had a yearning to leave it. In the most natural way of growing into oneself, dad wanted to get out of Brooklyn. Which is exactly what he did when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. The wanderlust for Vincent Pandone was attained, and paid for, by the U.S. government — not exactly the adventure an eighteen-year old had hoped for.
Far away, in a land of war and dying, the day of April 4, 1945, had a different smell. Not the aroma of pasta and sauce, but of death and dying. The smell of dead corpses in a hellish place south of Gotha, Germany. Dad’s rendezvous with the Gates of Hell was rapidly approaching.
Dad started his deployment, landing near Le Havre, France, with the 89th Infantry. The Rolling W, as they were called, landed on March 12,1945, cold and hungry. The camp was muddy, freezing cold, and without tents; a trip to the latrine was navigated around minefields. After a brief stay in France (enough time to frolic with the locals, but that is another story!), the 89th moved out to cross the Moselle and Rhine. Battles along that way inevitably came up in nightmares my father had in the years after the war. The screaming of , “No, No, No!” was a constant reminder of where my father had been.
Dad crossed the Rhine at Oberwesel, Germany, under heavy fire. Crossing the Rhine, the German army, in near defeat, was met by the 89th Infantry on March 26, 1945. Dad’s Third Battalion, 355th Regiment, was needed to close a widening gap in the center of the 353 Regimental Zone Division attached to another battalion. It crossed the river at Oberwesel. They remained for six day until April 2.
Late April 2, 1945, the 89th Division was ordered to move to Hersfeld in Central Germany as soon as possible, continuing to advance east. Many soldiers moved to Central Germany along the autobahn (the highway) in trucks. They were told to move fast as there was a Russian POW camp that needed to be liberated. At least, that is what they were told. Not so. Instead they were met by men in striped pajamas at Ohrdruf.
On April 4, 1945, the 89th Infantry Division of World War II, was the first unit of Americans soldiers to come upon Ohrdruf, the Gate of Hell. Dad’s sense of smell acute, he retold his story to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in 1996:
Mr. Pandone remembers going into nearby towns to get people to help clean up the camp from the stench from feces, urine and dead bodies. He remembers the German phrases used to get the people in the town to get out of their homes to help. Always the same response: ” It was not me, I knew nothing.”
Mr. Pandone still has a strong reaction to the smell of raw meat saying he has difficulty with smells and he has that smell stuck in his head. He would tell the Germans, with the help of the interpreter, ” You mean you did not smell it? Of course you did!
In my forthcoming book, “My Italian Father, His Jewish Daughter,” I will discuss in detail Dad’s life, my life, and the life of my family as the trauma unfolded in what we would call today, PTSD. It was no picnic growing up hearing screams coming from my parent’s bedroom — the screams of a father tormented by an experience that would never leave him.
If one would call this experience of my father’s a blessing (it was nothing of the sort); however, it became a blessing for me. Over the years, I have unraveled the events of the Liberation of Ohrdruf –analyzing the experience as if I were there — and always putting myself in the shoes of my dad. A young man whose youth was filled with the smell of Italian cooking and the sounds of boys – Catholics, Jews, Irish, and Poles playing on the Brooklyn streets. My father was traumatized and he told me so during a year of conversations we had when I was Eighteen- years old.
I am honoring my father this Veteran’s Day, and all Veterans, who have had their lives de-stabilized due to war trauma. I am grateful that my father took the trauma and tried to reconcile his experience by marrying the most beautiful Jewish woman on Vernon Avenue, Brooklyn, my mother.
Thank you, American Veterans, and thank you to the 89th Infantry for saving the lives of those who survived and for humanely burying the deceased while taking photos and chronicling the event as General Eisenhower asked of you.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide. We cannot stop recalling the history of the Holocaust survivors and liberators, or it will repeat itself. It is up to those who are still alive to bear witness …and to those of us who are the children of Holocaust survivors and liberators to educate the horrors of tyranny and genocide — the mission of my charity, The Queen Esther Project.
Dad’s words are more clear to me today than ever before:
Cara Mia, It Will Happen Again….
My deepest appreciation to Mark Kitchell and Raymond Kitchell (of blessed memory) who painstakingly coordinated the history and the Liberation of Ohrdruf on a website www.89infdivww2.org.
Lisa Pandone Benson