World War II Treasures Discovered in a Shoebox

At the Passover Seder, we recite the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. For Marc Shatzman and his family, there is also another Passover story to tell — how Shatzman’s maternal grandfather, Bruno Elkan, celebrated Passover as a Jewish American soldier in Europe in 1945:

While I was in Belgium I attended a Seder given by the seven Jewish families left in town. … The stories they told me are hard to believe but I know they are true. How they managed to survive the Hitler regime is hard to comprehend. They were lovely people & I felt quite at home.

These words were written by Elkan to his future wife, Adele Berkowitz, in a letter dated March 30, 1945. In a subsequent letter, he mentions a young girl at the Seder, who told him things that “no human being can understand.”

Bruno Elkan during World War II.

Through his letters to Berkowitz, Elkan created a first-hand account of the life of an American soldier in Europe during World War II. Until recently, his prolific wartime correspondence dwelled in a shoebox in Marc Shatzman’s closet. Although Shatzman never met his grandfather — who survived the war, but died from an allergic reaction at an early age — he feels connected to him, in part because of their physical resemblance.

Shatzman moved his grandfather’s letters from his childhood home to his current residence, and read them closely for the first time last summer, when he and his wife, Allison, a math teacher at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, began arranging the letters in binders.

“Most of the letters were mushy declarations of love by a young solider to a woman he hoped would return the feeling,” said Allison during a presentation at Barrack. “But when my husband looked deeper into the box, he found these treasures. Authentic experiences Bruno had on Nazi soil.”

In 1936, at the age of 11, Bruno Elkan emigrated from Germany to the United States, with his parents and his older brother. Seven years later, as a senior in high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, deciding to fight in Europe, rather than in the Pacific. This decision put him in a particularly precarious position because he was going off to fight the Nazis as a German Jew. In fact, during the first seven months of his service, he was technically still a German citizen because he had not yet applied for American citizenship, a situation he rectified during the war.

Bruno Elkan in France during the war.

Elkan’s letters offer a frank and personal account of his wartime experiences, including combat in Italy during the Battle of Monte Cassino, the liberation of southern France, reconnaissance missions in enemy territory and life in a camp for German POWs. For example, in this excerpt from a letter to Berkowitz, he describes the fighting in Italy:

‘Cassino’ ask any man in the 36, 45, or 3d Division about it and they’ll tell you it was hell broke loose. … My buddy, Earl, and I slept in the back end of a truck an[sic] the seats because our holes were full of water and we had no other place to stay. We never took our clothes off and never saw anythign [sic] but C rations and mud, death and more mud. Poor guy is now just a cross also. One of the best boys that ever lived. … I was scared then and prayed hard and often but if that was fright I don’t know what to call what was to come.

In another letter, Elkan even mustered up some humor when he described his work in managing a German POW camp: “Perhaps its [sic] ironic justice to have a Jewish boy telling them what to do.”

The students from Barrack’s Holocaust Education and Reflection (HEAR) Club had the opportunity to experience the war through Elkan’s eyes during a presentation by Allison Shatzman. Shatzman displayed one of the binders that she and her husband had painstakingly organized, containing some of Elkan’s letters, postcards and photos. She even shared Elkan’s prayer books, printed for Jewish American soldiers, that he carried during the war.

Susan Schwartz, faculty adviser for the HEAR Club, says that she is familiar with a number of instances where treasures, like Elkan’s letters, have been discovered. She explains that “many children and grandchildren of WWII veterans and survivors are finding records in their parents’ and grandparents’ estates.” While cleaning out his mother’s home, one of Schwartz’s own friends discovered a box containing notebooks of poetry and prose, written by his mother during the war while she was in hiding in a sewer in Poland. Such discoveries have prompted Schwartz and others in her field to refer to this as “the golden age of Holocaust education.” In the case of Bruno Elkan, this “golden age” proved eye-opening for students in the HEAR Club at Barrack.

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