In the beginning, God created the heavy machine gun.
The last two weeks of the war were the deadliest. Our so it seemed to Sergeant Paul Cohen. The battle for the Bohemian city of Eger was fierce. Most of the Thousand Year Reich was defeated and in ruins. But the last German fanatics who refused to give up were most dangerous. Apocalypse possessed their being, their eyes, and their rifles. Snipers found their mark: they shot to death the American platoon lieutenant. The fighting was from house to house. The battle was for each city block. Slowly but surely, the American 97th Infantry Division defeated the Nazis. The capture was complete on April 25, 1945. The American Army fought in Bohemia to the last days of the war. The German resistance continued till surrender two weeks later. The 97th Infantry Division fired the last shot of the war.
Sergeant Cohen never wanted to fight. His service at the Bartow Army Air Field in Central Florida was devoid of drama or death. The worst injury he sustained in 1944 was a severe sunburn: he fell asleep too long in the Florida sun. His great joy at Bartow was his participation in Jewish life in nearby Lakeland—singing in the synagogue chorus, meeting Jewish girls whom he dated, performing at Chanukah parties. The administrative work at the air base was boring. But the only danger was from a paper cut. At 20, he was finally on his own and enjoying the independence from his parents back in Astoria, Queens. He forged friendships at Bartow that transcended religion and ethnicity.
But now he was a leader of a heavy machine gun squad. Florida was just a memory, a dream. No more dancing to jazz great Tommy Dorsey. Army K and C rations—not real food. It could have been so easy—to sit in Jacob’s tent, not to face death, not to struggle with the reality that the Nazis were intent on destroying every Jew in Europe. No refuge in Jacob’s tent. None of the security of Bartow. He had to wrestle with demons and the resulting wound remained as a scar that would not disappear. Sergeant Cohen wrote home to his parents that he had not yet heard from his best friend Gabe. He did not know till later that the boy he sang with in the shul choir was torn apart by German aircraft gunfire strafing an American military convoy.
Eger was a test of grace under fire. But the pain and anger of the Jewish G.I. set him apart from every other American soldier. This was not victory but defeat—and the yearning for vengeance. Cohen recounted one incident in a letter to his parents written on the day of Allied victory: “We were quartered in a house, and while I was standing guard outside, I noticed a building with all the windows broken, roof torn down and, generally, in a deplorable state. I knew it couldn’t have been from bombing because the surrounding homes where we were quartered were in good shape despite the war.”
He continued: “I noticed two words on the outside painted over with white paint. I could just barely make out the words “Israelite Gotthaus” and I knew immediately that it must have been a synagogue. My best friend in the company, George Skolnik from New Haven, Connecticut and myself went about investigating.
“The Germans told us it was a temple, and when we inquired about the whereabouts of the Jews of the town, they said that only six Jews remained and they died of old age. The door of the temple was locked, but we got they key and upon entering the door, a sight greeted our eyes that enraged us more than anything before.”
The Jewish sergeants stood in the sanctuary. They did not say a word. But they were thinking an identical thought as if they were one man: Kill the Krauts.
Cohen wrote home to his parents: “The Nazis had used it as the city dump! The bastards had thrown every type of filth and decay in there, but more than that, after a bit of rummaging about, we came upon bones, carcasses we could not identify. We found half-burnt siddurim and the S.S. troopers had really left their mark on the temple. Our anger was beyond words, and if it had been in our hands, we would have riddled the town with our heavy machine guns.”
But it was not in their hands. The army was on the move. Sergeant Cohen’s request for German prisoners to clean the synagogue was rejected. The shul—probably defiled years earlier during Kristallnacht—would not be revived. It was all pointless anyway—there were no Jews left alive to pray to God. All that Cohen and Skolnik could do was tell Germans that they were Jews and they carried a rifle. They led machine gun squads that ended the war.
In the beginning, God created the heavy machine gun. The Nazis and their collaborators defiled the weapon by machine gunning Jews into the ravines of Babi Yar, Ponary and the Ninth Fort. But for Sergeant Cohen and Sergeant Skolnik—two Jews thrust into battle, surviving combat, and yearning to avenge the dead—the gun was good. It crushed evil. It was the tool of survival. It instilled pride. It was holy.