Harry Feinberg’s life has been so full, his talents so varied, and his memories so vivid, that his wife, Edith, says she doesn’t know which Harry she’ll wake up with in the morning. “I don’t know if he’ll be the veteran or the musician,” she said.
But whichever Harry is on hand, he’ll have powerful stories to share about his military life — under the command of Gen. George S. Patton — life on the road with the Harmonica Rascals, and, now 97, his many years as a veteran.
As we approach Memorial Day, we have to pay tribute to men such as Feinberg, said Edward Rosenblatt, commander of Fair Lawn’s Jewish War Veterans-Lt. James Platt Post 651 and this year’s Grand Marshal of the town’s annual holiday parade.
As he “stands up in a convertible car and waves,” Mr. Rosenblatt said, he will remember that he is among the few Jews to have been given this honor over the last decade. There are 1,300 veterans in Fair Lawn, he noted, and about 7 percent of them are Jewish.
Mr. Rosenblatt is proud of the post he heads. In addition to providing services for its members, “We work with Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts,” he said. “We attend the ceremony for Eagle Scouts and give them certificates and medals from JWV.”
Some veterans, like Harry Feinberg, have that rare ability to bring history to life. This is not the first time he is being highlighted.
“I’ve been written up in four books and in newspaper articles,” including the Jewish Standard, said the nonagenarian, whose nearly four-year stint in the army included fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and participating in the liberation of two concentration camps.
Still sharp as a tack, and clearly still smitten by his wife of 70 years — he met her on a blind date, while he was still recovering from a “Dear John” letter he received at war’s end — the World War II veteran paid tribute to the leaders he served.
“I was in the army — one of Gen. Patton’s tankers,” he said. “He was a colorful bandito. He wore two guns with ivory handles. I would love to have one.”
What kind of commander was he? “He was the best that America had. He and another guy, Creighton W. Abrams. They were special because they were leaders. They didn’t sit in the background. They stayed up front and led us into the Battle of the Bulge. Patton was a four-star general. Abrams wound up the same,” although he was still a lieutenant colonel when Mr. Feinberg served under him.
“He came into the Fourth Armored Division as a captain, a West Pointer,” Mr. Feinberg said. “Before you knew it, he was a major, then a lieutenant colonel,” added the veteran, who called the Battle of the Bulge “the biggest battle we lived through.” He has two Purple Hearts hanging on his wall.
“I can still think about it and picture it,” he said. “I remember Patton as a real tough boychik, about 6 l/2 feet tall.” Feinberg recalled that the general “always got into the middle of everything,” telling the soldiers where to go and what to do.
Sometimes, he said, his wife has to wake him, when too-real dreams cause him to shout out at night. No doubt, they were sparked by his experiences not only in battle but in liberating the survivors of the Ohrdruf and Buchenwald concentration camps.
“We didn’t know anything about the camps,” he said. Coming face to face with the horror they found there, Feinberg said the American soldiers asked one another how anyone could perpetrate such evil. He did, however, help save one life, he said. Noting that one of the survivors — lying on the ground among many dead bodies — seemed to be moving, he knelt beside him to comfort him and then called a medic, who called an ambulance. He doesn’t know what happened after that.
His recurring nightmares, it would seem, are understandable. At Buchenwald, not only did they see the ovens, but they saw two boxes of baby shoes beneath it. Generals Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley were equally devastated — they demanded that all the townspeople who lived close to the site march up to the camp to see what had been done there. One German woman “went hysterical,” he said.
Several years ago, Ms. Feinberg said, on a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the couple saw a photo of the three generals at Ohrdruf. “That’s where it was,” exclaimed the veteran, going on to recount the events there. Soon, his wife said, they were surrounded by a crowd, listening to his recollections.
She noted also that her husband is a past president of the national organization of the Fourth Armored Division and has remained involved with veterans’ affairs as secretary/treasurer of the New York chapter of that association, and he is a past president of the Garden State Harmonica Club.
A visit with Mr. Feinberg yields not only wartime memories but music as well. While we were speaking, he pulled out his three-octave chromatic harmonica and reeled off not only his audition piece for the Borrah Minevitch Harmonica Rascals — “who made the harmonica a legitimate instrument, accepted by the musician’s union,” he said — but selections from “Fiddler on the Roof.” His daughter, sitting nearby, pointed out that he has neither practiced nor played in years. “All he needs is an audience,” she joked.
Mr. Feinberg, who learned the instrument as a child, after he mastered the trumpet, noted proudly that the group played at Broadway’s Paramount Theater as well as in several movies, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mae West and Misha Auer. Wherever they played, he said, “we were always the headline act.”
Today, the former harmonica pro — born in Minsk and raised in Passaic by parents Joseph and Celia Feinberg — lives in Elmwood Park, in a home filled with harmonicas, medals, and memories. One memory, of a supposedly inept army trainee (“he even messed up kitchen duty”) who went AWOL just before shipping out, is particularly noteworthy. The bumbler turned out to be an FBI agent on the lookout for German spies.
Harry and Edith Feinberg have three children — daughter Diana and sons David and Richard (married to Denise). With three grandchildren (a trauma surgeon, neurosurgeon, and executive chef) and one great-grandchild, it would seem more than likely that the veteran’s store of memories will continue to increase.