Private First Class Leon Goldberg crouched in the snow and prayed for bullets. The first gunner was a heavy weapons specialist trained to use a 30-caliber, water-cooled machine gun. If his team had more ammunition, they’d have kept firing at the Germany Army advancing toward them through the Ardennes Forest.
Goldberg and the men of the 106th Infantry Division had plenty of fight left in them, as this was the first action they’d seen. Just two and a half weeks earlier, they’d landed in Le Harve, France, then marched into Belgium to relieve the Second Division in the Ardennes. But the Germans attacked, inflicting heavy casualties and cutting them off from reinforcements or even retreat. It was Dec. 16, 1944, the bloody beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, and the 106th was out of food, out of ammunition and out of options.
But they did have what all soldiers never leave behind: dog tags. Goldberg’s put him in a dangerous situation: On them was an “H” for Hebrew. He was a Jew about to be taken prisoner by Adolf Hitler’s army.
This is not how Goldberg tells the story. Sitting at the kitchen table in the Bala Cynwyd home that he shares with his wife, Elaine, the 92-year old Goldberg says he wasn’t worried about being sent to a concentration camp—because he didn’t know they existed. “We knew the Nazis had passed laws against Jews and that the Gestapo rounded up Jews, but we didn’t know what was done with them,” he says. “We hadn’t heard anything about concentration camps or gas chambers.”
What he did know was enough to make him want to fight the Nazis and do his patriotic duty as an American. His older brother, Martin, shared that sentiment. Raised in Upper Darby, the Goldberg boys were studying at the University of Pennsylvania as part of the reserve corps when they were ordered into basic training, and later into the Army Specialized Training Program to learn engineering skills. Goldberg’s ASTP course would be cut short when he was ordered to join the 106th Infantry and shipped to Europe. Martin would be stationed in New York and, as he revealed many years later, did statistical analysis for the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan.
While one brother helped work on the most powerful weapon created by man, the other was in the middle of a forest, powerless and surrounded by the German army. With their useless weapons lying in the snow, the men of Goldberg’s unit were herded into a group and ordered to march. They did so for eight days, from sun-up to sundown. They slept in the snow, or in a clearing if one was near. They were were given a piece of bread once a day and a few tablespoons of molasses.
The second phase of their journey was the most wretched. At a train depot, the men were loaded onto windowless boxcars. “We were made to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in rows,” Goldberg explains. “It was so tight that, if you picked your feet up from the ground, the pressure from the other guys’ bodies would hold you up. The worst was that Allied planes overhead shot at our train believing the boxcars were transporting goods for the Germans. It was our own guys shooting at us. The bullets came right through the boxcars and made this whizzing, zipping sound. Guys in my boxcar got hit. There was nothing we could do for them. Many of those guys died in the boxcar or were left by the side of the road when the train stopped. This went on for five days.”
On Dec. 31, they arrived at Stalag IVB, a prisoner of war camp near the middle of Germany. This would be the first time the soldiers were ordered to show their ID tags. None of the Germans commented on the “H” on Goldberg’s tags. He was assigned to one of the barracks with the rest of the Americans.
Years later, when photographs surfaced of concentration camps, Leon Goldberg would realize that Stalag IVB had the same design. The barracks consisted of wood bunks crammed edge to edge and piled four high to the ceiling. Showering was done in concrete rooms with spigots near the top of the ceiling. POWs were allowed to shower once a week with 30 seconds of hot water and 30 seconds of cold water.
There was no heat, no blankets, no change of clothes. The soldiers wore the clothes on their backs and were allowed to rinse them just once a week. A meal was bread, watery soup and sometimes a potato. This and other vital information was imparted to the newly arrived Americans by British soldiers who’d been in the POW camp the longest. “The most important thing they told me was to keep moving,” Goldberg remembers. “We were given time to exercise outdoors, and the British said, ‘Keep your body moving or you’ll die.’”
The POWs did have a radio. “It was kept in pieces in different barracks so the Germans wouldn’t find it during inspections,” says Goldberg. “But it worked very well, and we could get the BBC on it, so we knew what was going on with the war.”
In fact, the POWs already knew about the battle in the Ardennes when Goldberg arrived at Stalag IVB. They also knew that the Russians were closing in from the northeast while the Americans made progress from the southwest. The best news of all: There were other Jews in Stalag IVB. “As I got to know the other fellows, I told them that I was Jewish and asked if they thought I’d be mistreated,” he says. “They said, ‘No. In fact, there are other Jews here.’”
Goldberg sought them out, finding Jewish soldiers from England, Australia and the Middle East who’d been captured in various campaigns. They had been at Stalag IVB for a long time—years, in most cases—without being singled out for harm.
But why? Jews who fought in the German army during World War I were sent to concentration camps, as were Jews from the Soviet army held in POW camps. Stalag IVB’s Jewish POWs could’ve been loaded into boxcars and trained to nearby Buchenwald, which wasn’t liberated until April 1945.
Goldberg believes that officers in charge of Stalag IVB were different from those elsewhere in the German military. He insists that they saw him as a soldier first and a Jew second, if at all. Because he has no other answer, Goldberg accepts that as truth.
In mid-May 1945, five months after Goldberg arrived, the POWs awoke to find the Germans had abandoned Stalag IVB. Soon, Russians arrived and eventually escorted the POWs through the German countryside. Goldberg and a group of eight other Americans headed out on their own to find the American lines.
After walking for three days, his group met a convoy of U.S. Army soldiers. From there, they were put on a plane and flown to Paris, where they contacted their families. Goldberg was kept at an Army hospital for over a month, suffering from hepatitis and severe hypothermia in his feet, which caused nerve damage that is still causes him pain.
Finally, Goldberg was cleared to leave. On July 4, 1945, he arrived at LaGuardia Airport in New York. He would be confined to an Army hospital in Atlantic City, N.J., until December, then discharged.
After that, Goldberg picked up his life where he left it. He resumed his studies at Penn, graduating in 1947. He and his first wife, Esther, started a family; he and his brother started an accounting firm.
Both Goldberg siblings moved to Lower Merion Township and become active in the community. Martin died at the age of 75. He never recorded his thoughts about the work he did on the Manhattan Project.
Leon, meanwhile, served as president of the Kaiserman JCC branch and White Manor Country Club. In 2010, at the age of 90, he volunteered for the Lower Merion Community Watch, patrolling his neighborhood once a week.
When asked what he learned from his wartime experience, Goldberg looks confused. “You don’t learn anything from war,” he says.
He gestures toward a photo album filled with pictures of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, then to his wife Elaine, who bustles into the kitchen. “I learn from them,” he says. “They teach me what’s important in life.”
Veterans Day is Nov. 11.