Volume 8 | Spring 2018
by Irving A. Greenfield
Sy (Simon) and his wife, Sylvia, lived in the ground floor apartment opposite the building’s superintendent, Mister Ward. Sy was a big man: tall, broad-shouldered and somewhat portly. When he was younger, he’d been a linebacker on the Penn. State Football team. But that was before World War II, and before he left college to join the Army and become a Ranger. It was also before he’d met Sylvia.
Sy was a quiet man, a sports enthusiast, especially football. He worked for his father, who owned a curtain and drapery manufacturing business in the garment district of Manhattan. He knew everyone in the building, nodded or said “Hello” to those who passed him in the hallway. But only one, Ira Grantz, who with his wife, Anna and two sons, Martin and Donald, lived in the apartment above his, did he have a relationship with; and it was a strange one.
Ira, like Sy, was a veteran, a Marine who had fought in Korea in the opening years of the war when the Marines and a few thousand soldiers managed to break out of the Chinese encirclement and “lived to fight another day.”
The two men had a common ground. Both were survivors of unimaginable ferocities, and this link took, as such links frequently do, an odd twist to it that over the years they lived in the same building became a ritual.
They had little to do with each for most of the year, but on every June 6th that changed. Then, something unique happened, and Ira became something like Sy’s confessor, or shrink would be a much more accurate way of describing his role. It wasn’t that Ira was without his ghosts, his nightmares that woke him wet with sweat and shaking as if he were battling a high fever. But without any verbal agreement between them June 6th belonged to Sy, After all, he was there; he earned it.
Sy came prepared, carrying a bottle of Jameson scotch and coffee cake ring from Ebinger’s Bakery. The Scotch was for him and Ira, the coffee was “a gift for the house,” as he put it, meaning mainly for Ira’s wife, Anna and his two sons.
Ira brought down two shot glasses from the cupboard, knowing it would be a long afternoon.
Sy poured, never spoke when he did and stopped when the whiskey glass was slightly more than three-quarters full. Neither of them bolted down the drink. They drank slowly. The first time they met with a bottle Jameson between them, Sy said very little. Mostly short phrases like, “You’ll understand” or “You’ve been there,” and sometimes only words: blood, fear, and confusion. But the look on his face was twisted with grief and his brown eyes watery from whatever memory stirred inside of him.
As the years passed and the ritual took hold, Ira learned that Sy was with the group of Rangers who stormed the cliffs that rose above beach Juno to take out a very large railroad gun that posed a menace to naval ships offshore on D-Day, June 6th. “The Krauts had every advantage. They could shoot down at us at will. We took a lot of casualties before we made to the top and discovered the gun was a fake. The real one was twelve miles behind the lines.” He paused. “See,” he said, “all of those guys who bought the farm died for nothing, a piece of wood.”
The more Ira listened to Sy, the more he realized that part of the man’s emotional makeup was mired in the war years. He’d been wounded twice, once in the right thigh and a second time in his head. And then, during one of their yearly meetings, Sy told him an amazing story. “It was a night drop about twelve miles behind the German lines. Our objective was to stop and destroy a train loaded with people bound for a concentration camp, probably Auschwitz in Poland which was one the Nazi death camps. The information came from the Free French Forces operating in the vicinity of our drop zone. All of us were volunteers for the mission. Most of us were Jews, like me whose relatives had been killed by the Germans. I was in command of the platoon size unit. We made the drop without any trouble. The first part of our mission was to destroy two hundred feet of railroad tracks. This was easily done. Then we waited a half hour for the train to come. When it did, one of the men flagged it down before it reached the destroyed tracks. There were guards on the train and flat car with a machine gun mounted on it. We had to work fast, and we did, killing every guard, the engineer, and fireman. Then we opened the doors of the cattle cars. There were sixteen of them. Men, women, and children were packed into them. As soon as we opened the doors, they jumped out and ran. But there were those that couldn’t run, the dead and the dying. There was nothing we could do for them.”
He paused to take a large swallow of whiskey. “See, what happened when I opened the door of one of the cattle cars I looked up and saw a young man. Maybe eighteen or twenty years old. He could have been younger. He saw me and his face was full of fear. ‘Go,’ I shouted. ‘Go.’ He couldn’t move. I reached up and pulled him down, pointed into the darkness and said in Yiddish, ‘Mach Schnell.’ He nodded and ran.
“It took us three days to make it back to our lines. We had to fight our way back. Seven of us never made it. We had fourteen wounded. I was one of them.”
He drank again, this time it was more of a sip. “I spent a couple of months in a hospital and then was returned to my unit. In a few months the war was over, and by September of 1945 I was home. When I opened the door to my folk’s apartment all of my uncles, aunts, cousins – it was a party to welcome me back. Then, suddenly I saw him, the young man I pulled off the train.
“We looked at each other, and soon I realized everyone there had stopped talking and was looking at the two of us. I don’t know how it happened. But we came together and held on to each other for what seemed to be a long time. He was the last surviving member of my mother’s family. His name like mine was Simon.”
Sy stopped speaking, buried his face in his hands and quietly wept. In all the years that they had gotten together on the anniversary of D-Day, he had never done that. Ira started to reach out and touch him, if for no other reason than to let Simon know he understood. Realizing he understood nothing, he changed his mind.
Sy had been a hero, only World War II was quickly followed by Korea in 1950. Heroes had lost their golden luster, and like the bird in the Humphry Bogart Movie, The Maltese Falcon, turned out to be lead, especially in the early sixties when the United States was entering another war in Vietnam.
On June the sixth 1968, Simon used his old service .45 caliber automatic to blow the top of his head off. He’d suffered from depression for many years until it finally overwhelmed him. He left a grieving wife and young daughter, neither of whom could understand his reason for doing what he had done. But of course, they couldn’t. Neither of them had ever felt the rush of adrenaline and the simultaneous grip of fear that he knew so well, and years of selling curtains draperies and watching Sunday football games were poor rewards for what he had lived through.