Veterans: 'Life is a miracle'

Veterans Life is a mir

ivan goldstein (photo credit: )
ivan goldstein
(photo credit: )
In the early morning before the Battle of the Bulge, young US soldier Ivan Goldstein remembered something. Before shipping out, his mother Ida had told him to take his tefillin with him. In the snow-covered forest, Goldstein pulled the tefillin out of his Sherman tank and put them on, praying that somehow he be spared. His prayers were short, but they were answered through his long World War II service. His tank was hit the next day, and he was captured. But despite numerous brushes with death, which saw him reduced from a strapping 93-kg. assistant tank driver to just under 45 kg. when he was finally released from Stalag 12A in 1945, he persevered. His amazing escapes and the inspiration he received from his grandfather - who came here after his wife died in the late 1920s - eventually keyed his own aliya with wife June in October 1984. Today, Goldstein has a view of the Knesset, a strong belief that Israel "is the place Jews should be" and is certain his battle against the Nazis is still relevant. GROWING UP Goldstein's father died when he was five, leaving Ida pregnant in the midst of the Depression. "So she took a partner in - God. She pledged that if He gave her the wherewithal to raise them, whatever she had left she'd give to charity. We always had food on the table," Goldstein says. His maternal great-grandparents came to Denver in a covered wagon before it was even a state, and he was proud to be a seventh-generation Colorado man. He and his two brothers, aided by their family, managed to get by, but then came Pearl Harbor. "You wait till they draft you," said Ida. So he entered university, but soon got drafted and was off to a California training camp. A Jewish chaplain whose services he attended got him into another college program, the day they were to ship out for the Pacific theater, at the University of Oregon. "I figured in 18 months, the war would be over," Goldstein recalls. History had other ideas. D-Day was coming, and his college program closed. After brief training in tanks - including a run-in with an anti-Semitic officer who destroyed the matza his mother sent him - Goldstein was in New Jersey on Yom Kippur eve, headed for Europe. "We were confined to barracks, but I found out there was a chapel 100 yards away. So I left and told my Jewish friend: 'I'm going to Yom Kippur services, and if they come looking, come and get me.' I spent the day praying that I should come out of it all right." After brief training in England, he found himself standing in that forest, wrapped in tefillin. BATTLE Their tank unit sailed through farm towns and villages, en route to Bastogne. But their captain's tank got hit, and minutes later theirs, too, ending up in a snow-covered lake. "I jumped into the water... trying to swim away, fearing the ammunition would blow up," he recalls. When he surfaced, "there were Germans with their guns pointed at me." Set out in the snow in a pigsty with wounded comrades and two captured paratroopers, Goldstein, in shock from the cold and a wounded leg, was interrogated by a German officer who'd lived in Forest Hills and spoke English. "I hadn't taken my dog tags off, so they found out I was Jewish," Goldstein recalls. They also found a note from Ida asking if he'd gotten her Hanukka package. "Take the Jew out... and shoot him in the morning," the officer declared. After planning a possible escape, "all of a sudden some shells and artillery started coming in." The Americans had attacked, and the Germans evacuated, Goldstein's death sentence forgotten. "Put the pack on the Jew's back and don't let anybody help him," came the order, and Goldstein's arduous life as a Nazi slave laborer and prisoner began. STAYING A MENSCH After having his boots taken from him by a German soldier, Goldstein wrapped his blackening feet in rags as he repaired bombed railroad tracks or buildings. "Each morning when you woke up, there'd be two or three guys who had died," he recalls. It was 20º-30º below zero, and on New Year's Day 1945, the Americans strafed the tracks, wounding Goldstein in the leg. "I could see that people were like animals, fighting over food," he recalls. "So I took my tank driver and the two paratroopers and told them we had to live for one another. To keep from freezing, we held each other's bodies. We shared every piece of food." Spiritual sustenance also helped. Stuck into a box car with 80 prisoners, "people were losing their minds... And I just immersed myself in prayer. I said: 'Don't let me lose my mind, my sanity. Let me get out of this.'" When the Germans moved during daytime, the Americans blew up the train. "And it was like a real miracle, because the guy on one side's head was cut open, and another near me cut in half, and I wasn't even touched," he says. The surviving prisoners, however, ended up at Stalag 12A in Limburg in mid-1945, many dying of dysentery or other diseases. When Goldstein suddenly developed symptoms of diphtheria, he was moved in with Russian prisoners treated even worse. He was so sick he remembers little of liberation. "I was delirious... near death. I remember one of the Americans standing near the window saying: 'The Americans are here, the Americans are here." He was later told at a field hospital "that in another hour or two I would've been dead." He eventually made it back to Denver and Ida, "who didn't know I was alive the whole time. It aged her tremendously." PRE-ALIYA Initially Goldstein - awarded two Purple Hearts - hardly talked about the war. "The kids knew I was a prisoner but I never spoke about it." But a cousin had joined a group called Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. A Belgian historian said they'd taken a US tank out of a local lake and made it a memorial, a testament in Bastogne to the American victory. Goldstein reluctantly contacted him, and was asked to come authenticate what turned out to be his tank, the Barracuda. While initially Goldstein refused, his grandson Natan said: "Zayde, you gotta go back." As part of the boy's bar mitzva celebration, he, Ivan and June revisited the area, even finding the pigsty where he'd been held prisoner. He and June had met at university in Denver and were married 61 years ago. He opened a sign and silk-screen printing business, and the couple visited Israel for the first time in 1972, gradually becoming increasingly observant. "I always felt like this is where Jews belong, and everything in my life worked out that we were able to do it," he says, echoing the words of his grandfather, Abraham, who came here in 1924 on a first visit with his wife and moved here after she died. "It's the place to come. It takes some sacrifices, but this is where Jews belong," he says. ARRIVAL After a few rentals, the Goldsteins moved into their current Jerusalem apartment surrounded by his own artwork, on Jewish themes, created in his Denver silk-screening office, which he ran for 30 years before following son David - one of his four children, 21 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren - to Israel. At first the folks back home thought the couple was crazy. "They couldn't understand it," he says, but they settled in easily, although Ivan admits he still struggles with Hebrew. "It really wasn't hard; it was like we were home. I think it was one of the best decisions we ever made." Once here, he also drew Nate's Deli, which he syndicated in Jewish weeklies abroad, a cartoon strip about a typical US Jewish deli, which the late Jerusalem Post editor David Bar-Illan commissioned for a while until Goldstein gave it up. Now he delights in "just being part of and seeing the growth of Israel every day." Meanwhile, spurred on by family and others, he wrote about his exploits, self-publishing the initial book, Hard to Forget, Harder to Remember: A Soldier's Tale of Faith and Survival. It will be published in the spring by US publisher Zenith under the title Surviving the Reich: A World War II Saga of a Jewish American GI. He remembers finishing it up on Holocaust Remembrance Day, "and I stood up and saw people standing by their cars in silence, and I started thinking how the development of Israel came out of the ashes of the Holocaust." Today Israel faces other enemies, and he says: "There's always Amaleks... Hitler was Amalek, and the Iranians are Amaleks - and that's what we face constantly. We can never let these things happen again." In the preface, he writes that he hopes his book will offer readers "a demonstration of the strength of our human spirit and the resilience of faith." Hobbies In his spare time, when he's not busy enjoying his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Goldstein, 85, pursues Jewish studies, and works on his art projects. He also heads the local Veterans of Foreign Wars and is an avid golfer. He and June remain inseparable. "His survival wasn't only great for him, but great for me, too, and my family," she says. "Day after day I think about it, how lucky he was to survive. I've read the book about four times, and I cry every time. I really think God was looking after him." ADVICE After all he's been through, "I think you have a grateful feeling and a feeling of humility... the blessings of surviving and 61 wonderful years of marriage and a wonderful family. I think that anything you experience that becomes tough and hard, if you can endure these things, they make you stronger and that's how we grow. Life is a miracle, and I've experienced many of them, and as Jews, we experience many of them as well - I look outside my window and see one every day."