Seeds of faith

World War II veteran Dan Nadel’s life encompasses nearly a century of American and Israeli history.

Daniel Nadel is a decorated war veteran, innovative agriculture scientist and ardent Zionist, who makes his home in Jerusalem (photo credit: ABIGAIL KLEIN LEICHMAN)
Daniel Nadel is a decorated war veteran, innovative agriculture scientist and ardent Zionist, who makes his home in Jerusalem
Today, United States Independence Day, you can be sure that World War II veteran Daniel Nadel will be reminiscing about the military exploits that won him medals including the Bronze Star for bravery and the French Legion of Honor.
Raised in Brooklyn, New York, where he pressed suits for 10 cents apiece in his father’s tailor shop, Nadel at 94 retains his deep voice and unlined face. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Shirley, whom he met under unusual circumstances.
Fresh out of agricultural school, Nadel was a plant breeder and assistant dairy herdsman in Connecticut.
Wishing to have a personal stake in defeating the Nazis, he enlisted in the army after Pearl Harbor. The 22-year-old private first class was sent to Pompham Beach, Maine, to patrol the coast. Armed with four cannons, a rifle and a flashlight, his unit once sank a German sub.
“Everybody was celebrating and got drunk. I was the only one who didn’t get drunk,” says Nadel. The commander therefore asked him to survey damage done to local houses. He came knocking on the door of Shirley Isaacson’s home and soon got Shirley’s father to let him tend the vegetable garden on Sundays in exchange for a good meal. Who knew there were Jews in Pompham Beach? Shirley, then not yet 16, encouraged him to apply for engineer officer candidate school, where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He initially chose to serve in the 13th Airborne Division as a glider engineer.
“That was a poor choice, because we had an awful lot of casualties,” he says.
Nadel met the legendary General George Patton three times. The first was when Nadel was an engineer officer with the 10th Infantry Regiment that participated in the infamous Battle of the Bulge in the middle of a freezing winter.
“I lost half my platoon,” Nadel recalls. “I and two company commanders heard an 88[mm shell] coming toward us, and we fell to the ground. The other two put their hands around me and the shell landed right alongside us. The two of them were killed and I only got a scratch. But I was shell-shocked and had to be evacuated to a first-aid station in Luxembourg.”
Nadel says he was the first American soldier to enter Frankfurt-am-Main during the final days of World War II. The only two buildings still standing were the Opera House and the IG Farben factory, which had made the poisonous gas that killed so many Jews.
He set up his headquarters in IG Farben, where he and his men blew open the safes and gathered about a million marks. They were instructed to get rid of them because they would be useless after the war.
“So we burned a million marks. Yet after the war the Germans wouldn’t take the occupation money. They wanted marks!” he relates with a hearty laugh.
When the Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945, Nadel had just turned 25.
“We found out what happened to the Jews in the concentration camps. I can’t describe it; it was so horrible.
When Patton came to see it, he vomited.”
Back home, he proposed to Shirley. Her father said the two could get married only after she graduated college in Wisconsin, so they spent the next two years apart. Nadel went back to work at Asgrow Seed Company in Connecticut. Shirley hoped to become a pioneer in Palestine, but her soldier-fiancé was war-weary and persuaded her to opt for a more peaceful life in the United States.
The couple wed in 1947 in Pompham Beach and soon welcomed their first son, Dov, today a holistic healer and samurai swordsman in California. Their other sons, Michael and Barry, were born in Minnesota and Texas, respectively, as their father was transferred to run Asgrow’s research and breeding stations across the country. He developed what became known as the Vidalia onion, along with many other hybrid vegetables.
The family lived in California for 16 years. While there, Shirley was gravely injured in a car accident.
“I said, if God saves her, I’m going to be a shomer shabbos (Shabbat observing) Jew, and from that time on we became quite religious and I never worked again on Shabbat,” says Nadel.
Israeli agriculture experts (including Moshe Dayan, who was agriculture minister until 1964) regularly visited his research stations. In 1968, the Nadels made their first trip to Israel and it resulted in an Asgrow contract with Israeli seed company Hazera to grow onion seed.
Although that scheme didn’t come to fruition, Nadel got permission in 1971 to take a sabbatical year working with agronomists at the Volcani Agricultural Research Organization and the Weizmann Institute.
At the end, he wrote a report recommending that Israel stop producing ordinary seed varieties in favor of sturdy hybrids.
“It was very well received and they implemented all my suggestions,” he says.
Within four years, Israel had boosted its seed exports from $500,000 to $7 million, and today exports $250m. worth of highly prized seeds.
“To have played a part in that really gives me satisfaction,” says Nadel, whose hybrid peppers are still produced by Hazera Seeds.
The Nadels bought an apartment in Rehovot with the idea of retiring to Israel. Meanwhile, his job took him to Florida and then to Vineland, New Jersey.
In 1977, Hazera Seeds lured him to Israel.
“I took full retirement and we came on aliya. People kept asking why, and I said a Jewish company needs Jews, period.”
He worked at Hazera’s Kiryat Gat research station and later produced stock seed for farms from Eilat to the Golan, including 50 Arab farms.
During Nadel’s 13 years at Hazera, he and Shirley bought an apartment in Jerusalem with the help of her brother and sister-in-law. After he retired, he worked in the volunteer police force in Jerusalem until they could no longer insure him at age 80.
His son Barry, living in Kfar Pines, earned a PhD in plant genetics and went into business for a few years with his father and brother Michael in California, specializing in hybrid tomatoes and peppers. Barry Nadel now works on breeding medical marijuana.
Until age 92, Nadel indulged his lifelong love of singing by performing with three choirs, including the Jerusalem Cantors Choir that performed in Europe and North America.
Nadel is a past commander of the Jerusalem post of the American Jewish War Veterans, a member of its board of directors and chairman of the group’s Orde Wingate and Mickey Marcus memorials.
He stopped driving in 1990 and travels via electric scooter to the Mahane Yehuda market twice a week. He is still enamored of the colorful bounty that surrounds him in the shuk.
His new autobiography, Plant Breeder (Mazo Press), contains pictures of his vast collection of Stone Age tools that he discovered while planting stock seed all over Israel.
Nadel still carries with him the high-school graduation photo that Shirley sent him during the war. The couple has eight grandchildren plus eight great-grandchildren and another on the way.
On August 11, the International Young Israel Movement is dedicating a rescued World War II Torah scroll to the IDF in a salute to Daniel Nadel.