by Benjamin Fine
On Easter Sunday 1952 my mother’s first cousin Oscar Seltzer was killed in Korea. During a sneak attack by the Chinese, Oscy, a medic, dragged eight wounded GI’s to safety before being strafed in the stomach with machine gun fire and killed. He was awarded a posthumous Silver Star and there were several ceremonies honoring the great local hero back in his Brooklyn neighborhood. However, being related to a dead hero made his death no easier for the family. He had listed my grandfather, his Uncle George, as next of kin rather than his parents, in the event that something bad happened. When the Army officers came to my grandparent’s door with a flag and the sad news, my grandfather was in his underwear and ran into the street screaming like a wounded animal. Oscy’s parents were never the same and for the forty years until her death, each Easter Sunday, my mother would pull out his newspaper clippings, writing of the great local hero, and weep. The funeral was so intense that sixty-five years later I can still remember it in detail, although I was only five years old.
However, this personal tragedy never caused my mother to waver in her belief in the rightness of America or the good of the military. It was an attitude that I’ve seen often in the World War II generation, especially among Jews, who viewed the US Army as the saviors of Europe and the rescuers of whatever was left of the Holocaust victims.
In 1968 I was in graduate school and about to be drafted. The New York City Police Department was looking for college-educated officers to counteract the Pigs versus Hippies struggles and being a policeman was draft deferred. In the latter part of that year I took the police exam. I thought it would be cool to be a detective, a young Kojak with hair. My mother went ballistic. “It so dangerous. You could get killed on the street,” she cried.
“Mom,” I answered. “I’m probably going to Vietnam and I definitely could get killed there.” Her answer floored me then, but I’ve come to understand it relative to her background as a first generation American. Her firm belief in both the military and in America.
She told me, “The Army is your responsibility if they call. The police department is not.” I subsequently turned down the NYPD, got drafted in 1970 and was sent to Virginia, where I was a mechanic and boxed. I went to Vietnam for the first time as a tourist in 2017.
My cousin Oscy was memorialized by more than the Silver Star. His best friend growing up was the author Herman Raucher. In 1942 three families, the Raucher’s, Oscy’s parents, my aunt and uncle, and another friend went on vacation to an island off of the New England coast. Herman Raucher’s memoir of that summer became the bestseller, Summer of 42. The book is dedicated to Oscy, who is one of the principal characters in the book, the subsequent hit movie, and then the Broadway show.
Oscy’s older brother Mickey also spent over a year in Korea in a MASH hospital as a face surgeon. He had graduated from Tulane University in 1944 and was admitted to their medical school. Tulane suddenly rescinded the admittance. Mickey’s parents claimed it was an anti-Semitic act – too many Jews in the medical school, but who knows? Mickey was set to go to Europe in the final push of World War II, but the Navy offered him a commission and would allow him to go to dental school. He graduated as a dentist in 1948. In 1950 in the midst of fulfilling his obligation to the Navy he was transferred to the Army and sent to Korea. Several weeks before Easter 1952, he was about to be sent home when he spotted a troop marching northward near his hospital. A gut feeling told him that Oscy was in that troop. By that point he was a Captain and had his own Jeep, so he chased the troop and somehow found Oscy. Mickey hugged his brother and told him half in jest “Keep your head down kid.” He shipped home two weeks later and never saw his brother again. He mustered out in 1955 as a major and had eleven years active duty. He would have stayed in the military as a career until he’d earned a pension but didn’t because of his brother’s death.
Flash forward thirty years to the mid-1980s. Mickey became my favorite cousin. He was big and boisterous, always laughing and joking. In 1986 he was visiting his sister-in-law Lucy in California. She was suffering from a debilitating disease like multiple sclerosis. In the hospital room, Mickey was joking as usual, as was his wife Faye, who also was always upbeat. His sister-in-law’s doctor walked into the room. Mickey was introduced just as her brother-in-law and Mickey began to kibbutz and fool around with the doctor. The doctor, who was about the same age as Mickey, looked at him and asked, “What’s your name? You remind me so much of somebody”
“Mickey Selzter,” my cousin answered.
“Any relation to Oscar Seltzer?” the doctor asked.
“He was my brother,” Mickey told him.
The doctor looked astounded. “Oscy saved my life,” he said.