Stanley Marcus admits that he did not know what he was getting into when he enlisted in the army at age 18. A resident of Old Tappan, the 80-year-old former soldier who was awarded the Legion of Honor Medal by the French government this summer in a ceremony in Princeton said he "went to do what had to be done." One of those things was to help liberate Austria’s Mauthausen concentration camp.
French President Jacques Chirac, left, congratulates Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti- Defamation League, after presenting him with the French Legion of Honor at a ceremony at Elysee Palace in Paris on Monday. PHOTO BY DIDIER PLOWY
"I understood to some degree what was going on," Marcus told The Jewish Standard, but, he said, he was not prepared for what he saw at Mauthausen, which he entered in May 1945 on his 19th birthday. "It changed my life," he said.
On seeing the camp, Marcus recalls feeling an "immediate sense of gratitude that my father had chosen to come to the United States." He also remembers being treated as a "celebrity a Jew in a uniform. It was quite an event."
"I found out I was very Jewish," he said, though it has taken him many years to fully come to terms with what he saw. In a subsequent visit it took him 55 years to be able to return there he toured the facility with his wife and several children, pointing out landmarks such as the crematoria and dissection rooms.
Above, a photo of Stanley Marcus when he was a soldier in World War II, and inset, today.
"My family asked me how I remembered it all. I told them I’ve been here 1000 times," he said, noting that images of the camp have never left his mind.
When he left Mauthausen, he said, he could no longer believe that God existed. "He couldn’t," he said. "He wouldn’t have allowed it." But, he said, his first wife, then 18 and Jewishly observant, "reconverted" him, drawing him back into the Jewish fold.
Also, he said, "I started to reach out to people more. I wrote letters for those prisoners at the camp who had some family outside, to tell them they were alive." At a gathering marking the 55th anniversary of the liberation, he said, he was hugged by people who couldn’t possibly have recognized him. "They just wanted someone to thank," he said.
After the war, Marcus took advantage of the GI bill to obtain further education, and attended Rutgers with the intention of becoming a writer. "But everything I produced was so morbid I scared myself," he said. Married now for the second time, Marcus has five children, ranging in age from ” to 47.
An industry consultant with licenses in insurance and real estate, Marcus formerly served as president of Marcus Jewelers, a chain of 1′ stores; chairman of the Jewelers Security Council; and senior counsel to the Gemological Institute of America. He is a past member and chairman of the foundation board at Ramapo College as well as a past board member of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
The Legion of Honor France’s highest civilian and military honor, which has been presented to about 500 people since 180′, when it was created by Napoleon Bonaparte is awarded to those who risked their lives to secure the liberty of France. But "I didn’t go to liberate France," said Marcus, who notes that he was just following orders, going where he was sent. He also said that of the 14 people honored in July at Princeton, he was "the only one who could get up without assistance."
This week, Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, a Bergen County resident who was a hidden child during the Holocaust, also received the Legion of Honor. Accepting the award, presented to him "for working to build bridges of understanding among nations and people," Foxman said that while he can’t answer the question, "Why am I here?" when so many others perished in the Holocaust, "I believe that maybe it is to have the privilege and opportunity every day to stand up in every way possible to hate, bigotry, and anti-Semitism If I did not use that right to build respect and fight hatred," he said, "then my survival would have been meaningless."