Battle of the Bulge

Battle of the Bulge

Tikkun for two young soldiers, 70 years later

Julie Mischel, right, stands next to his best friend, Sid Mosner.

Life comes with countless unanticipated twists and turns. When we open ourselves to these unexpected moments, they sometimes lead to incredible opportunities to come closer to others in the most unbelievable ways.

This is one such story. It began when I was growing up in Queens, in the 1960s, spending countless hours in the home of my paternal grandparents. It recently reached its climax in the American military cemetery in Henri-Chapelle, Belgium.

Like most young boys of my generation, I was heavily influenced by my parents’ involvement in World War II. My dad, Julie Mischel, was drafted right out of high school in the spring of 1944, quickly deployed to Belgium and ultimately into Germany. He was part of a large contingent of infantry soldiers sent to beef up U.S. forces following the D-Day invasion. Qualified as a sharpshooter during his training, he became an antitank gunner armed with a bazooka rocket launcher.

Although he didn’t tell us much of what happened to him in Europe, we knew that he had been severely wounded when he hit a trip wire that exploded a land mine in Germany’s Huertgen Forest in December 1944. It took quite some time for him to be evacuated from the battlefield and he had spent months in military hospitals in Europe before being shipped home. What he never discussed but what I knew was that his best friend had been killed in action as their army unit moved deeper into Germany in January 1945.

My father’s friend’s name was Solomon Mosner, but everyone in our family called him Sid. They lived within a few blocks of each other in Queens. My grandparents and uncles would talk about him quietly, but not in front of my dad. I can’t recall my dad saying anything at all about Sid, yet I knew about him from the time I was very young. Looking back, I realize that Sid’s death was something very traumatic for our entire family.

From my dad’s army mementos and other sources, I pieced together a portrait of Sid that reveals an incredibly bright honor student, who graduated from high school more than a year early and completed at least a year of college before heading to the army. He had a very close connection to our family, and seemed to be very fond of my grandmother – his own mother died when he was young.

The single most revealing thing I know about him and his friendship with my dad comes from a military V-gram that Sid wrote to my grandmother shortly before his death. We talked about that letter in my family but my dad never read it; it was too upsetting for him. It sat in a box with other war mementos. My father died in 1969, when he was 43, and no one looked at that box after his death – until May 2010.

My wife Terry and I immigrated to Israel from Teaneck in 2009. Nine months later, Abigail Leichman, who writes for this newspaper, got in touch with us. She wanted to interview us about our transition to our new life, and we were glad to help promote aliyah. Abigail told me to look for the interview on the newspaper’s website around Memorial Day weekend.

You can imagine my shock when instead of finding an article about us, I saw a photograph on the paper’s front page showing the gravestone of my father’s best friend, Sid Mosner!

Marty Siegel, a retired army colonel who lives in Bergen County, had written a short article about American Jewish soldiers’ contributions and sacrifices in World War II. But of all the soldiers who lost their lives in the defense of the nation, what were the odds that the one he chose to use as an example would be my dad’s best friend? I immediately called the Standard to connect to Marty. The article lamented the fact that little was known of this all-but-forgotten 18-year-old, who had died 65 years ago, apparently with no surviving relatives. There was little information about him available.

I desperately wanted to let Marty know that there indeed was someone on this earth who knew the name Sid Mosner, and more importantly, had information about his life and an understanding of who he had been.

I learned that Marty had talked to a young Belgian, Fabrice Dubois, who ran a notice in the Jewish War Veteran magazine looking for information about Sid. Fabrice told Marty that his family had adopted Sid Mosner’s grave, in the U.S. military cemetery in Henri-Chapelle. The cemetery holds the graves of 8,000 U.S. soldiers killed in the Battle of the Bulge.

For reasons not yet understood, Fabrice had joined a Belgian program to adopt and visit the graves of U.S. soldiers and selected Sid’s. He wanted to learn all he could about Sid. When we met recently, I asked him if he really expected to find out anything about Sid, 65 years after the war’s end. He said that he had absolute faith that it would happen – and it did. I emailed Marty and Fabrice several scanned pages from my father’s wartime scrapbook, which showed what a refined and intelligent young man Sid had been. I also sent them the final V-Mail that Sid mailed to my grandmother before he died:

In early 2014 I realized that we were fast approaching the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and Sid’s 70th yahrzeit. Not knowing why, I began to feel a need to go to Belgium. I felt that I wanted to do it for my father.

I posed these questions to my two sons, who both are rabbis. My son Elie sent me this quote from Isaiah (30:21): “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it, when you turn to the right hand and when you turn to the left.'”

He said that Hashem often speaks to us “from behind” – indirectly. It is our job to tune in to the echoes of Hashem’s voice. We may think we’re going someplace, but Hashem has different ideas about where we need to be.

My son Judah had a slightly different take. Speaking in more kabbalistic terms, he got me thinking about the concept of achieving a tikkun – a correction or repair. He explained that wherever your feet might lead you, they are directed from above. I had to be open to the idea that going to Belgium might be achieving a healing or transformation in this world or the next, in ways that I might not ever fully comprehend.

I felt that I had to go on this trip, although I did not know what to expect or what I could accomplish. I told Marty and Fabrice of my plans.

Fabrice immediately volunteered to serve as our guide for the two days we planned to spend in the Ardennes. We hoped to capture a sense of the battlegrounds and to visit the cemetery.

Fabrice was eager for any information I could provide about Sid, but he especially wanted a photo of him. Sadly, although my dad’s files did include a number of photos, none were labeled. I could not be sure that I actually had Sid’s picture. I found a tattered photo of his unit, but couldn’t begin to know which one of the young men pictured was Sid.

Thinking about how to get a photo, I began to focus on where Sid went to high school. I wanted to find his high school graduation yearbook. So began a lengthy correspondence with the New York Board of Education and several high schools. The librarian at Stuyvesant High School was primarily responsible for solving the puzzle. She first found two brief obituaries from long-defunct local newspapers. They confirmed that Sid had attended Bryant High School. Unable to find the yearbook at school, she surprised me again with amazing news. She had checked eBay, and discovered that the yearbook I wanted had just gone up for sale online. Of all the graduating classes, of all the high schools in America, for all the years that yearbooks were published, the very one I needed was available! I successfully bid for the yearbook and had it shipped to my son Elie in New Jersey. Within days an email arrived with a photo attached.

We finally had a picture of Sid, and further confirmation of what an outstanding student he had been. I immediately went back to my dad’s photos. After careful comparison, I was able to confirm that in the large army unit photo, of course Sid had been standing right next to his best friend, My father.

The next thing I did was share the photos with Marty and Fabrice. I could see that filling in the blanks of Sid’s life meant a lot to Fabrice. For Marty, I believe this influx of additional information about the anonymous young soldier about whom he had written about four years earlier inspired him to take all of us to the next incredible step in our journey of discovery.

Marty soon found Sid’s father Abraham’s grave. The shocker was that his epitaph included the words “Dear Father and Grandfather.” This meant that Sid’s sister Beatrice, whom we mistakenly believed had not married, had at least one child. Within a very short time, Marty’s persistence on the Internet paid off. He found Sid’s nephew – James Cowen, who lives in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. His middle name was given to him in memory of his uncle Sid.

Just one week before my journey to Belgium, Jim met Marty, Fabrice, and me via a rapid series of emails and phone calls. Jim initially found it hard to believe that complete strangers were working very hard to learn as much as they could about an uncle he had never known. Because his mother, Beatrice, died when he was young, he never really learned much about Sid. He did not have a photo of his uncle.

My wife, Terry, and I flew to Brussels. We headed east by train to Liege and met Fabrice and his wife, Naty, at the station. Fabrice had arranged a two-day tour using notes from my father’s army scrapbook detailing the advance of the 311th. Over the next two days we drove back and forth along the Belgian-German border. We visited Liege, Overrepen, Tongerin, Eupen, Aachen, and Vervier. St. Trond, the town where my dad and Sid had gone on a 12-hour pass before heavy fighting began, and Bickerath, the place in Germany where Sid was killed in battle, were particularly important to me. The Ardennes is an extensive area of dense forest and hilly, rough terrain. It was easy to visualize the difficulty of mounting an armored and infantry assault into this area, particularly when it is covered in deep snow.

Fabrice and Naty invited us to their home during the evening we spent in Stavelot. They are a warm and welcoming couple. Their house, where his grandmother had grown up, was lovely, but the first thing that struck me as we entered through the front door was a large brass Chanukah menorah on the windowsill! I could contain myself no further – I had to understand how Fabrice connected to Sid Mosner and why he had chosen to adopt the grave of one of the very few Jewish soldiers interred at Henri-Chapelle.

Fabrice was very open, and I was grateful for his willingness to talk to me. He said that he had been interested for many years. He has a deep connection to Jewish philosophy and religious outlook and identifies with it very strongly. He told me about a Jewish teacher he’d had, who clearly must have influenced him. I explained to him how amazing it was to me that he kept a Chanukah menorah in his home, given that we live in Modiin, walking distance to an ancient synagogue and village, dating back two thousand years, that many believe is the home of the Maccabees of the Chanukah story.

Fabrice wanted to explain what happened in Stavelot during the war. Several of his grandmother’s family fought in the Resistance, and one of their hiding places was in a space below the house. A collaborator betrayed them to the Germans and seven were machine-gunned standing along the foundation of the house in the backyard. Fabrice pointed out that his grandmother, with whom he had a very close connection growing up, and Sid were the same age. He also noted that dates on Sid’s tombstone corresponded to dates important in his own life. That’s why he decided to adopt Sid’s grave.

But on a deeper level, it was apparent to me that he was expressing the very traditional Jewish value of “hakarat hatov” – showing appreciation for the good that is done for us. Showing gratitude to American soldiers, who had sacrificed so much for the Belgian people, was important to Fabrice and many others we met there.

We headed to Henri-Chapelle the next day. I wasn’t prepared for the intensely sad and somber mood, the silence, the immense feeling of loss and sacrifice. There were thousands of graves – young soldiers who lost their lives in this battle that ultimately led to the Nazis’ fall.

Standing at Sid’s grave, I thought of my dad. I was sure that if he had lived longer, he would have found his way back to his dear friend’s grave, as I did in his stead that day. I recited the traditional mourners’ Kaddish and Kel Maleh Rachamim for the soul of the departed. I also recited a short prayer that I had composed just a few days before arriving in Belgium.

Amazingly, during the half hour we were at Sid’s grave, the sun broke through.

Only Hashem knows what going to Belgium accomplished for my father’s and Sid’s neshamot – their souls. I believe with all my heart the need for this trip came down to me and I have tremendous gratitude to Hashem for having been able to do this on their behalf.

Going to Belgium has firmly connected my father’s story to my own, and the story will continue with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren he never knew.

My mother once told me that when Israel first was established, my parents were recruited to make aliyah. As staunch Zionists, they seriously considered it, but they couldn’t get past the idea of leaving their parents and siblings behind. After my dad died I was determined to get to Israel as soon as possible, and I became the first in our family to go when I volunteered on a kibbutz in 1971. This began almost 40 years of regular visits to the land that has now become our home.

It will always fill me with wonder that it was our aliyah that triggered the interview in the Jewish Standard that further connected me to Sid Mosner, and everything that followed from that connection.

This V-mail, sent to Julie Mischel’s mother, was the last one Sid Mosner sent before he died.
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