Marblehead’s Robert Sanford and his wife of 72 years, Bery, managed to survive the Holocaust and after the war escaped the Communist Regime in Romania by crossing into Hungary, Austria, Germany, and France.
But after they arrived on temporary visas in the United States, Sanford was drafted into the
Army while living on Staten Island.
Sanford, now 92, who was born Isidor Strulovici in 1928 in Botosani, Romania, reported for duty and served in Korea even though he was not a U.S. citizen.
As Memorial Day approaches May 31, Sanford and several others reflected on being a Jewish war veteran.
“My wife and I were privileged to visit the [Normandy] invasion cemetery in France,” Sanford said. That was around 1999. “And there are many Jews among the 10,000 or so [U.S, military] who are buried there. As we walked through the cemetery, it was the solemnity and the quiet and the dignity of the place that made me feel part of something that is far bigger than I am.”
With the help of the GI Bill, Sanford got his first degree from City College of New York. He continued his education at Purdue University, where he earned degrees in chemistry and physics. He worked for the Atomic Energy Commission at Columbia University and then at General Electric, which brought him to Marblehead in 1960.
Recent health scares, including colon cancer and heart surgery, prompted him and his wife to write about their lives.
Sanford grew up in an observant Jewish family, and his father made his living in the liquor business. His father fought in World War I, losing the use of one of his legs in a battle in the Carpathian Mountains.
Sanford’s parents and sister managed to survive the Holocaust and migrated to Israel in 1950. Sanford also was able to bring his brother to the U.S. However, his wife’s grandparents were killed by the Nazis.
Sanford met his wife as a teenager, he was 17 and she was 15, and it was love at first sight, he said. Today, the couple has three adult children, seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Bery’s stepfather, Iancu Zissu, was an important Jewish lawyer who was able to flee Romania and later became a member of the Romanian government in exile in the U.S.
In 1947, his stepfather agreed to let Sanford flee with Bery, her mother, her stepfather’s brother and a family friend. The five of them arrived in Budapest and at the border, they separated to wait for the train. However, Bery’s uncle and his friend stayed on the platform and were overheard speaking Romanian and arrested.
In Budapest, the remaining group came across some people speaking Yiddish and wound up meeting the Jewish underground called the Haganah. They crossed into Austria, where they met up with Bery’s stepfather.
They separated, and Sanford crossed into Germany. He wound up at Bergen-Belsen, the notorious former Nazi POW and concentration camp that had become a displaced persons camp after World War II, run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
It was another three months before Sanford was able to get to Paris, where he married Bery in 1948.
By then, his father-in-law had immigrated to the United States and obtained one-year visas for the couple. They arrived in New York on Dec. 21, 1949, and an organization of Romanian Jews helped resettle them on Staten Island. It was there, living “as an alien visiting the United States,” Sanford was drafted.
“It was an opportunity we couldn’t refuse and it was something that we wanted,” Sanford said.
When he reported to the draft board, he was never asked if he was a U.S. citizen.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army, and because he speaks five languages, he was sent to interpreter school at Fort Meade in Maryland in 1952. But instead of heading to Europe, he was sent to Korea, where he was attached to General Douglas MacArthur’s Eighth Army headquarters.
“I did my service in a very honorable way,” said Sanford, whose medals are displayed in a case on his piano in his living room, along with family photos. Sanford is a member of the Disabled American Veterans because of his hearing loss.
Sanford said he was honorably discharged at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey as an alien without legal residence in the United States. He was allowed to go back to New York, and the couple spent a week in Canada, came back, and three months later they were granted citizenship with help from Herbert Lehman, a Jewish senator from New York.
Harvey Weiner of Newton
Last year, Newton attorney Harvey Weiner served as the national commander of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States. Weiner served as a captain in the Army and as an intelligence adviser to the South Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.
To put Memorial Day into context, he tells the story of a Jewish war hero killed in Vietnam, Dr. Melvin Lederman, a surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital who volunteered to join the Navy as a medic, even after he had served in World War II.
Lederman was killed on Nov. 29, 1969, at age 41 when the Medevac helicopter he was riding in to rescue a wounded Marine was shot down. It was just two days before he was scheduled to be discharged, according to the website dedicated creating a memorial to his memory.
A field on the Esplanade, across from Mass. General, has been named in his honor. However, there are ongoing efforts to raise money to build a monument in his name, said Weiner, the past post commander of the Massachusetts Department of Jewish War Veterans and past commander of the Newton-Brookline Post No. 211.
“The purpose is so his name is not forgotten,” Weiner said. “We may have a Gronk playground,” Weiner said of the Charlesbank Playground to be named for the former New England Patriots tight end, “but we may also have a Lederman Field.”
Weiner knows the importance of remembering veterans. “There is in Judaism a saying that everybody dies twice. First, when your body dies and secondly when your name doesn’t get spoken anymore,” said Weiner, who was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam.
“As a Jew, as a veteran, I believe in that saying. Once someone’s name isn’t spoken, it’s as if we died a second time.”
It’s part of the reason why, when Jewish War Veterans hold a memorial service at the Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries in West Roxbury in June, the names of Jewish war veterans who died within the last year are called out in a roll call of the absent.
Jake Auchincloss of Newton
Congressman Jake Auchincloss is also a Jewish war veteran who served in the Marine Corps on active duty from 2010 to 2015, including as an infantry platoon commander in Afghanistan.
“Memorial Day is a chance for us to reflect on those who live on in our collective memory, who live on in our nation’s history, but who are not at our kitchen tables,” Auchincloss said.
“My service was shaped by a lot of factors,” he said. “It was shaped by growing up in a family that valued public service in any form, whether it was science or government or the military. It was shaped by my desire to challenge myself in ways that I had not been challenged in school,” said Auchincloss, who is 33, and a graduate of Harvard.
His desire to serve was also shaped by the legacy of his grandfather, Melvin Glimcher, on his mother’s side.
“As a poor, skinny Jewish kid with few prospects,” Auchincloss said, his grandfather enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942.
“At a time when Jews were being persecuted throughout the world, at a time when the Marine Corps was losing the struggle in the South Pacific, the Marine Corps sent my grandfather … to Purdue to study biomedical engineering because they thought he was smart. It changed his life.”
Two generations removed from fleeing the pogroms in Ukraine, Glimcher went on to become a famous scientist and a pioneer in the development of artificial limbs. He died in 2014. His daughter and Auchincloss’s mother, Dr. Laurie Glimcher, is also a renowned researcher and CEO of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
“Joining the Marine Corps for me was a way to bring that full cycle,” said Auchincloss. In addition to Afghanistan, he served in Panama at the head of a joint Special Operations mission. Auchincloss said he is thankful his platoon did not lose anyone.
“Sadly, almost everyone in my platoon knew somebody who did not make it home,” Auchincloss said.
Lester R. Perlman of Mattapan
Retired surgeon Dr. Donald Perlman of Swampscott, 90, lost his brother, Private First Class Lester R. Perlman, on Aug. 5, 1943, during fighting in Sicily in World War II. Donald was just 13 when his brother died.
Perlman, whose family is from Mattapan, recalled his brother, a recipient of the Purple Heart and Silver Star, was born in 1917. He had a twin brother, Wilfred, but Lester was big and strong and much taller than his twin.
Perlman recalled his brother was not interested in academics or the family business. In 1938, he joined the Army with Wilfred, and they served in the Philippines.
Perlman recalled his brother was not one to suffer insults over being Jewish. He recalled Lester had a scrape with a corporal who “called him a dirty Jew.” Lester broke the corporal’s jaw, landing him in the stockade for six months.
“The war came and he wanted to be in it,” Perlman said. “He got assigned to the Big Red One,” which is the name of the famous 1st Infantry Division.
Private Perlman fought in battles in North Africa and was part of the invasion of Sicily, which saw both heavy fighting and casualties. Perlman said his brother died a hero.
Lester Perlman’s citation for his posthumous award of the Silver Star reads: “When the enemy viciously counterattacked his organization, Private Perlman proceeded to an exposed position from which he could fire most effectively. When his ammunition became depleted, he seized an enemy weapon and continued firing. Later, while fighting off another enemy attack, he was mortally wounded. His gallant actions, the cost of his life, exemplified his strong devotion to duty.”
“It killed my mother, I tell you that,” Perlman said of her reaction to her son’s death. She became a proud Gold Star mother. His father became religious after his son died.
“What does Judaism mean to me?” said Donald Perlman, a veteran who served as a captain in the Army stationed in New York and Fort Devens from 1960 to 1962.
“I’m very proud. I’m extremely proud of my brother, so that having encountered plenty of antisemitism in my 90 years, he was a hero, and I’m so proud of him.”