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A Veterans Day story: 'Why Johnny and not me?'

Jane Chrabaszcz Galat, 79, second from right, and

Jane Chrabaszcz Galat, 79, second from right, and her husband, Ed, left, meet three daughters of Harold Silverberg, from left, Paula Goldberg, Amy Olson and Ann Silverberg, holding her father’s journal. Harold’s story about the 1944 battle in which Jane’s 19-year-old brother John was killed brought the two families together in October in Hadley, Mass. (Oct. 20, 2012) Credit: Handout

This is a Veterans Day story in two parts. It involves my late father, Harold Silverberg, and a deadly battle in Germany he survived during World War II. Like many war veterans, he rarely talked about those times. But 41 years later, at the age of 65, he finally was able to express in writing its lingering impact.

The first part is his 1985 account of an attack by his unit, the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry Regiment of the 8th Infantry Division, on Nov. 27, 1944. Its objective was to capture a vital hill near the Hürtgen Forest from the enemy, despite steep embankments, deep mud, barbed wire, land mines and German artillery fire.

My father's writings, in recent weeks, touched the siblings of 19-year-old Johnny Chrabaszcz, who was killed in that battle, providing them with elusive details of his wartime service and final days.


From the journal of Harold Silverberg

Our unit consisted of one staff sergeant, Al Swerdlow, and six privates first class. Our duties included the manning of observation posts, interrogation of prisoners, examination of captured enemy documents, map work, and, sometimes, advancing with rifle companies to secure information on enemy location and strength. Sgt. Swerdlow, who in civilian life had been an usher at Radio City Music Hall, usually had us work in teams of two.

My partner most often was Johnny Chrabaszcz [KRAB-us], a 19-year-old native of Easthampton, Mass. I was then 24, a Norwich, Conn., native. I had graduated two years earlier from the Wharton School of Business and Finance at the University of Pennsylvania. I stood in awe of Johnny's grasp of anything scientific and his ability to get to the core of any problem. My expertise consisted of a storehouse of knowledge about the American theater, and the music and lyrics to hundreds of songs. This information was about as valuable for a member of an intelligence section as my studies of business and finance.

I told Johnny about the shows I'd seen and sang songs to him while he told me of the latest scientific developments and of his desire to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Worcester Polytechnic Institute after the war. Some of the guys made fun of Johnny and played practical jokes on him because his serious mind was often a million miles away from their earthy conversations.

During severely frigid weather in Germany we survived the cold at night by digging a foxhole big enough for two, lining the hole with a heavy plastic and covering ourselves with our wool blankets. Each team shared a hole, each man providing body heat to the other.

Sometimes when there were one-man specialty tasks to be done, Sgt. Swerdlow would split the teams. Early that morning, I was assigned the job of distributing maps to the companies of our battalion. Johnny was assigned to an observation post from which he could relay vital information about the success or failure of an advance. Long after I had completed the map chore, Al sent me to relieve Johnny on the observation post. I passed the word that he was to rest in the rear for a few hours.

Roughly two hours later, I was surprised to see Al Swerdlow crawling carefully up to my outpost.

"Don't you know it is dangerous up here, Al?," I teased. "You could get hurt."

Al didn't smile at my jest. "I've got some tough news for you," he said softly, "Johnny's dead."

"You bastard," I shouted, "You sent him back up front. He was supposed to be in the rear resting."

Al looked at me squarely in the eyes. "You've got it wrong, Harold. Johnny was in the rear. An artillery shell fell in, a direct hit."

I burst into sobs. Johnny was hardly the first dead soldier I'd learned of, but he was my friend and a dear young innocent who wouldn't deliberately have swatted a fly.

"Al," I wept, "what kind of a God can there be who would allow such a thing to happen? Johnny had so much good to give. Explain it to me. I don't understand."

Al didn't try to answer my questions. He just said, "When this battle is over, go see the chaplain. Maybe he can explain it to you. I can't."

We took the hill and then the towns of Brandenburg and Kleinhau. On Dec. 9, we were relieved by the 311th Infantry Regiment of the 78th Infantry Division. The ferocity of the fighting is indicated by the casualty figures: 78 men of the First Battalion gave their lives, 237 were wounded and 19 were reported missing in that two-week period.

We had a few days off before the Germans counterattacked, and I sought a chaplain. Charles Wadsworth was a Protestant minister who had served a congregation in Michigan. I asked him the questions I had asked Al Swerdlow two weeks earlier. "I'm not of your faith," I added, "but I need help."

He told me the time and place of a nondenominational service he would conduct in memory of all those killed during the recent battles. A large group was present when Chaplain Wadsworth began the service:

"Most of you have come with similar doubts and I wish that I could give you easy answers to your questions. However the answers will have to come from within each of you.

"For myself, I choose to believe that there is a Divine Power who created all things and creatures, and who is a loving God. Each day I awake and observe the Earth's wonders, I believe in that Supreme Being who is the Master Designer of it all. Yes, He is a loving God, but many of us on Earth have fouled up God's wishes. It will be up to those who remain to make things right again. I believe it can happen. I hope you can believe it, too. Let us now pray, each in his own way, for the eternal rest of our departed brothers."

Did I agree with Chaplain Wadsworth? Was there a loving God? I didn't know and I am still not certain 40 years later. I have thought of Johnny Chrabaszcz often during those years. I have wondered what he might have accomplished, the truths he might have discovered.

I have wondered too if the time will ever come when there will be war no more; and I have wondered why I survived and Johnny didn't.


Part Two

Nearly 68 years after that battle, my father's recollections helped to "make things right" for Johnny's sister, Jane Chrabaszcz Galat, now 79, who lives in Winchendon, Mass. near the New Hampshire border. She was 11 when a teacher at the Maple Street school in Easthampton, a small city near Amherst, summoned her midday and said, "Jane, go home." She ran a mile to Harrison Avenue and found her mother in the kitchen, distraught at the news that her oldest child had been killed in the war. Medals -- the Silver Star, the Croix de Guerre and the Purple Heart -- arrived later but with precious few details of Johnny's sacrifice.

This past summer, those missing details were revealed to her when my brother-in-law Kevin Olson created a play using my father's story about Johnny's death. Hoping to locate Johnny's relatives to find a picture of him, Kevin went online and found an Easthampton listing for Joseph Chrabaszcz. "If you or others are related [to Johnny], I would like to chat about the project," Kevin wrote in a letter in August.

Joseph Chrabaszcz was Johnny's father. He died in 1981, but the listed home on Harrison Avenue still belongs to the family. A relative checking the mailbox there found Kevin's letter and passed it along to Johnny's sister.

"I couldn't talk. I couldn't breathe," Jane says of receiving the letter and the subsequent email exchanges with Kevin and my sister Amy Olson, who live in Cranston, R.I. Amy sent Jane my father's story and mentions of Johnny in letters my father had written to his parents during the war. "Somebody knew Johnny," his sister said. "I was elated. I waited 68 years for news like that."

Jane Galat and her husband, Ed, took a copy of my father's story to the family plot in Easthampton, where her parents and brother are buried. "Mama, Tata, Johnny," she told them, "we found people who knew Johnny."

The opportunity for the Chrabaszcz and Silverberg families to meet came three weeks ago. Jane had sent Kevin small photographs of Johnny, but that afternoon, she provided a fuller picture of her "very, very gentle" older brother. She remembered Christmas Eves when, though the family of five children was too poor to have a tree, they shared the Polish Catholic tradition of breaking the Christmas wafer and wishing each other health, happiness and good fortune.

Johnny built model airplanes from balsa wood, Jane recalled. He was fascinated by planes, but his poor eyesight kept him from being a pilot in the war. His eyeglasses came back with his body, she said. The wake, with closed casket, was held at home.

My sisters and I felt an easy rapport with Jane and Ed as we shared my father's meticulously penned journal and family photographs. "You're like family now," Jane said. "I lost my faith, but I found my faith in you people."

We accompanied Jane to the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Mass., a nursing home for veterans, where Michael, her brother, now 86, lives. Johnny left high school to enlist, but Michael, a year younger, had been drafted and was serving in Italy when Johnny was killed. Because of his brother's death, Michael was taken off the front lines.

"In a way," Jane said, "Johnny saved Michael's life."

At 65, my father wrote in his journal, " . . . I have wondered why I survived and Johnny didn't." I don't know that an answer exists, but during Harold Silverberg's long and full life, he was happily married for 59 years, supported his five children as a salesman, rejoiced over his seven grandchildren and never lost his passion for musical theater. He died in 2006 at age 86.

There's a Jewish tradition of placing a stone on the grave marker when visiting a cemetery. One of many explanations for this is that memory is lasting and, unlike flowers, stones do not die. When my sisters and I visited our father's grave at the Norwich Hebrew Benevolent Cemetery last month, I placed a stone on his marker and said, "Dad, this one's for Johnny."

Three weeks later, on a glorious fall day, I went to St. Stanislaus Cemetery, where Johnny had been laid to rest nearly 68 years ago. I found a stone among the fallen leaves for my father's friend and placed it on his marker.

"Johnny," I said, "this one's for Harold."

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