by Jerome Massey (Fairfax , VA)
Interviewed by Rick Black (Alexandria, VA)
(Rick Black and Jerome Massey met through Olam Tikvah, their shul in Fairfax, Virginia. This is the second part of a two-part interview.)
RB: You were in a couple of different army units and then in the 1204th engineers, a firefighting unit, and fought your way up through Italy to Germany. Did you know about the camps while you were in the service?
JM: No, didn’t have the slightest idea. Hell, you didn’t know where you were half the time. They tell you to go up the road about 25 miles or 15 miles or something. But they would tell you what road to go on – and the German roads were wonderful, better than anywhere else. And you could go along the roads and some of them have dead bodies, broken equipment, all sorts of stuff like that. It was a mess. The Germans were using horses to pull some of their equipment and we got there just after they’d been strafed by our forces. It was a mess.
You can remember all those things and you keep on going and stop and spend a night here and spend a night there. Eventually you’d fight a fire here and there. We were assigned to take care of a German airport, a military airport to be used as auxiliary landing spots for our people. We didn’t do anything. We found an old BMW motorcycle and we used to run up and down the runway with it at 100 miles an hour. Crazy. But no airplanes tried to land at the airfield. So then we went further southeast into Germany to different places.
I forget the name of the town we were in when the war was finally over. All I can remember is the celebration. At night everybody was firing their weapons up into the sky; it was something. It was like the 4th of July at the Washington memorial or the Lincoln memorial. All the skies lit up with shells going off, things like that – not fireworks, but shells blowin’. Right next to us there was a little compound of Polish DPs. It was a barbed wire compound and they had gotten a hold of some alcohol. It wasn’t grain alcohol. So they drank it that night and three or four died in the middle of the night, they poisoned themselves, and the next morning they buried them right there in the ground, right next to us.
Funny thing happened that night, we got hold of sparkling wine or what have you, so we were a little shiker, just a little bit shiker, and we were shooting each other with the tops of the champagne and you could imagine a bunch of GIs lined up on the floor shooting each other with champagne. But that’s the truth. The Germans still had a group of diehards there – you had to be very careful. There were all kinds of ditches and stuff . . . booby traps, etc.
RB: Just cause the war’s over doesn’t mean you can’t get killed . . .
JM: Yes. Some of the Nazis were really terrible. So we keep on goin’ and then the CO, a lieutenant, gets word from army headquarters that we had to send a couple people of the unit to this camp. We thought it was a displaced persons camp. So the lieutenant picked me. I don’t know why he picked me to go along with him, but he drove the jeep. He wasn’t supposed to be driving the jeep. So, it wasn’t but about 10 miles, I guess, or 5 miles – horrible odor. Horrible odor. And we get there and it’s impossible to describe what you saw. You know, corpses stacked up like firewood – hundreds of people starved to death, half-starved to death, skin and bones. And the crematoriums and the ashes – horrible, really horrible, keeps you awake at night still when you think about it.
RB: Hard to believe what people would do to people . . .
JM: That’s right – it was horrible. There’s no word to cover it.
RB: It had been liberated already, right?
JM: It was the second day – I got there to Dachau the second day. The Germans took right off when they saw that we were coming. All the armies just disappeared. The Russians were coming from the other side and they took off.
RB: Still wearing the stars on their . . .
JM: Yes, of course . . . I can’t even describe it. I don’t want to describe it.
RB: After the war, did it ever cross your mind to go fight in Palestine?
JM: Like I said, I was pretty shot when I got out and I was thinking about it but I wasn’t capable of doing it . . . I picked up amoebic dysentery in North Africa and a couple of other things. I was very afraid of the dark, too. I couldn’t go anyplace dark. I carried a weapon with me wherever I went. I still have it today. I was very nervous. The slightest noise could get me very, very upset. It’s typical of anybody who was over there. You’re all tensed up; your body and mind never relax. It took several years to recuperate – I was a mess.
Anyhow, my stepfather, Joseph Hecht, and Dave Friedman, a close friend of the family, were both ardent Zionists and did all they could for years for the Zionist movement. In Norfolk, the Jews did all kinds of things for the Zionist movement – and that ship that sailed, that they made into the Exodus, originally sailed from Norfolk. It used to go between Norfolk and Baltimore. When it was ready, it sailed out into the Atlantic and hit a storm and had to come back. You see, it was a bay ship, not an ocean ship.
So, it had to be refitted and several of the crew stayed at my stepfather’s house in Norfolk. They stayed there while the ship was refitted and they raised the money to do it. It was all hush-hush. After the ship was refitted, it left Norfolk and went to Europe to pick up the refugees.
Lt. Col. U.S. Army (Ret.) Jerome L. Massey won numerous commendations in his service during World War II and in subsequent years. He will be 93-years-old in July.
Rick Black is a prize-winning poet and former journalist for The New York Times who owns a poetry and fine art press in Arlington, VA. You can see his work at http://www.turtlelightpress.com