The other scarlet letter – ‘H’

The other scarlet letter – ‘H’

A former GI recalls harrowing days as a Jewish POW

Left, Robert Levine framed these three pieces together; the young Levine, left, the German doctor Edgar Woll, right, flank the handwritten explanation of Woll’s lifesaving work.

He remembers all the time, at odd times, but he remembers most vividly in July.

Sixty-nine years ago this month, Robert Levine, now of Teaneck but then of the Bronx, awoke on a haystack in a barn in France, one of his legs gone, along with the dogtag with the letter H emblazoned on it.

How he got there is a story; so is what he did afterward.

Levine, who was born in 1925, turned 18 in 1943; he was drafted on his birthday, June 4, and inducted in September. A smart man, he was put into something the Army called ASTP – the Army Specialized Training Program. After basic training, participants were slated to go to college – in his case, the University of Georgia, which itself would have been a culture shock – but instead the Allies undertook the invasion of Normandy. “Suddenly, the whole program changed, and instead of going to college we were shipped overseas,” Levine said. “I became a replacement for the invasion.”

He had no idea where he was going – “they didn’t confide their plans in us” – but he found himself in a ship, part of a convoy crossing the Atlantic to England. “We had additional training, and suddenly there we were on boats, going across the channel.”

Levine landed on Utah Beach, part of the 90th Infantry Division, as a mortar gunner. “On July 10, we were in a very heavy battle on Hill 122 in Normandy. We were surrounded by the Germans. I was wounded” – he was shot in the leg – “and taken prisoner by them.

“There were quite a few of us in the company who all surrendered. They marched us back behind the lines, and we spent the night with them,” he said. It was terrifying, he added.

His wife, Edith, added to the story. “He says that the Germans were standing over him, and the boy next to him panicked and ran away, and they killed him. And then Bob put his hand up” in surrender.

When he was captured, Levine knew that the dogtags around his neck put him in even more danger than what his comrades faced. “When you joined the service, you were issued an ID dogtag,” he said. “One of the things on the dogtag was your religion, so everybody had a C or a P – or an H,” for Hebrew.

“To this day, I wonder why the government would send a Jewish soldier marked that way. It caused a lot of problems.”

Although neither he nor his family and friends knew the extent of Nazi anti-Semitism – it was a time when too few outside Jewish leadership circles knew – “in the Bronx, we had been involved with a lot of refugees,” he said. “We weren’t aware of the camps, but we knew that there was a major Jewish problem in Germany, and that people were escaping from Germany.”

He also knows, he added, that the official answer to the question of the dogtags is that the clergy who tended to sick or dying soldiers wanted to know how to treat them, and if necessary what last rites or funerals to give them, but he finds that answer unsatisfactory, at least when Jewish soldiers were facing Nazis. “A lot of my friends ended up with serious problems because of it,” he said.

The next morning, the Germans marched their prisoners farther behind their lines. “It was a dirt road, and when we walked on it that raised a lot of smoke and dust, so the artillery from my division thought that the Germans were moving. So they shelled us.”

“I was in the front – I was the walking wounded – with my foxhole buddy, Mike Holly,” Levine continued. This part of his story still upsets him, despite all the years that have passed and all the times he has told it.

“He was walking alongside of me, on my right side” – it was his right leg that had been injured – “helping me walk, and the shell hit just in front of us, and both of us went flying, and poor Mike didn’t survive it.

“To this day, I feel that I was shielded because of Mike.”

After the shelling stopped, “and everybody was lying all over the place, I was picked up and taken to a farmhouse nearby,” he said.

“They” – the Germans – “brought me to the kitchen, which was the operating room. The leg that had been wounded was hit again, very badly. They put me on the table, and a German doctor came over to me, and he took the dogtag, and he looks at me, and he says, ‘Vas ist das H?’

“Can you imagine that feeling?” (The answer to that rhetorical question, of course, is no. Some things cannot be imagined.)

“At that moment, I said to myself, ‘There goes my 20th birthday,’ and I closed my eyes.

“The good news is that I woke up. The bad news is that he had taken my leg off.”

Levine was given anesthesia and his leg was amputated professionally.

“I woke up in the barn, absolutely astonished to wake up. That was wonderful. Great! And then I look down and I see the leg is gone.

“I check everything else. It’s all there.

“And then I reach into my pocket, and something else is gone. The dogtags.

“Instead, I feel this card. The card was written in German, so of course I couldn’t read it, but it was a record of what he had done, and why.” It was the information Levine’s next doctor would need.

That was July 11, 1944. Levine knows that date, not because he had any idea of time then, but because the card is neatly dated.

The Germans shipped Levine off as a prisoner of war to a hospital in Rennes, a French city that was the capital of Normandy.

“The POW hospital was all English, French, and American soldiers who had been wounded,” he said. It was a reconditioned schoolhouse. “It was where I was 69 years ago today,” he added.

“The hospital was staffed by our own personnel, captured doctors, Americans, and the nurses, who were French, were students at the University of Rennes.”

The hospital, called Stalag 221, was a terrible place, but it was infinitely better than Berga, the POW/concentration camp to which captured Jewish soldiers were sent.

“Every day the war was getting closer and closer,” Levine said. “We knew it. We could hear it. There was a major railroad center, and every afternoon the American dive bombers bombed it. One day one came close; shrapnel came through the window and hit right above my bed. I said to myself that I’d never get out of here alive.

“Finally they got so close that the Germans picked up and retreated, and the 8th Division of the American army came in and liberated us.”

Levine was shipped to England, and then back home. His leg required two more amputations. He went to Bethany College in West Virginia; married Edith Altman, who had grown up around the corner from him but whom he had not met until after the war; had two daughters (and now has three grandchildren); moved to River Edge, and generally flourished.

He also never forgot his war experiences, and decided to learn more about what had happened to him. He wanted to know who had saved him, and why.

In the early 1980s, the Levines went to Paris – Edith Levine’s brother, Harold, was a well known, highly accomplished printmaker who made that city his home – and decided to take a trip to Utah Beach.

There was a book that visiting members of the landing party were asked to sign. Jeanette Lot, who worked there, knew who Levine was. “She changed our lives,” Edith Levine said. She had been giving a talk to an audience, “and she said, ‘We are fortunate to have an American here,’ and they all stood up and clapped.”

“I was so surprised,” her husband continued the story. “When I left France after the war, I was very unhappy with the French, because they didn’t come out and greet us,” the liberators. “We didn’t realize that they were petrified, because they didn’t know what would happen.

“And when this group stood up and clapped, I felt so much better.”

Through the connections the Levines made through Lot, eventually they found the widow of the doctor who had saved his leg and his life. His name was Edgar Woll; his family and the Levines have become extraordinarily close in the three decades since they discovered each other.

Years later, Woll’s granddaughter, who is German, her good friend, who is Japanese, and her boyfriend, who is Italian, came for dinner. “We had the three of them over, and I sat there at the table and thought about the Axis powers,” Robert Levine said. “I thought – these were our enemies, and I saw these beautiful kids.

“That is what the world is all about.”

In 2010, Levine was appointed a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor at the French consulate on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The medal, a lovely piece of gold and enamel, hangs on the wall in his Teaneck apartment, along with prints and posters made by his brother-in-law and his own prizewinning photographs.

“My favorite word is perspective,” Levine said. “It is the best word in the world.”

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