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Milton Kleinberg: Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of his memoir

November 7, 2014 Leave a comment

Holocaust survivor stories come in every conceivable variety, just like the people and lives behind them.  I’ve had the privilege of telling many such stories in the course of profiling survivors who settled in Nebraska after World War II or later.  Each story, each survuvor, is distinguished by elements that make them singular.  I thought I had heard and read it all when it comes to these sagas but then along came Milton Kleinberg’s story.  There may be more dramatic or traumatic tales but I can’t imagine one that covers as much time and distance as his tale.  It is epic in terms of sheer scale yet it’s also achingly intimate.  I don’t pretend to capture more than just the surface of his story in the following Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) article, but it should give you a sense for the aamazing rc of his surivival experience.  For a full appreciation of what he endured, you must read his book Bread or Death.

 

 

 

20141001_bs_4865Milton Kleinberg

Milton Kleinberg

Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of his memoir

Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
November 5, 2014
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As a child in Poland, Milton Kleinberg got caught up in a little known chapter of the Holocaust when he and his family were among Jews exiled to Soviet labor camps. The forced journey took them from occupied Poland to the siege at Stalingrad to the vast wastelands of Siberia. To be uprooted, thousands of miles from home, was awful, but it also meant being beyond the reach of death camps.

The 77-year-old native of Poland and longtime Omaha resident endured many hardships. Forced to travel on foot and by train, he was confined to warehouses, barracks, and institutions. He witnessed starvation, disease, suicides, beatings, executions. He weathered illness, injuries, predators. The epic ordeal spanned thousands of miles and many years. He experienced things no child should face. To defend himself and others he took actions no one should have to take.

His saga continued after the war in displaced person (DP) camps. After reinventing himself in Milwaukee, he went years not saying anything about his odyssey, not even to his wife and children. After moving to Omaha in his middle-years he still kept quiet. Keeping silent is not uncommon among the survivor community, for whom the trauma of loss is difficult to relive.

“When I came to America I made a pledge to myself I was going to put this behind me, that I was not going to dwell on the past, and that I was going to start a new life,” Kleinberg says. “My whole attitude was that the past was the past and I didn’t care to look back.”

Then circumstances conspired to break his silence. His grandchildren visited Holocaust sites and pestered him with questions. In applying for Social Security benefits he discovered his birthdate was different than what he thought it was. A genealogical search turned up two step-sisters, with whom he shared a father. The women posed more questions.

Always alert to anti-Semitism and to events in Israel, which he’s visited several times, he’s grown concerned by the rise of militant, extremist elements around the world. Finally, he decided, he should recount his story. In 2010 he self-published Bread or Death. He gave it to friends and relatives as well as clients of his successful business, Senior Market Sales Inc., which employs more than 170 people.

This past year he expanded the book with the help of professionals, including Institute for Holocaust Education staff who developed a teacher’s guide, a glossary, study questions, and historical background sections. IHE develops Holocaust curriculum for schools state-wide.

Released in August, the new edition is available to schools and youth-serving organizations as an educational tool. IHE executive director Liz Feldstern says Kleinberg’s made a valuable contribution to understanding the Holocaust survivor experience.

Bread or Death adds another important voice to understanding a narrative that affected millions of people in millions of different ways,” Feldstern says. “Anne Frank has become the voice of those who went into hiding. Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi are the voices of Auschwitz. Gerda Weissman Klein is the voice of the death march. Hadassah Rosensaft is the voice of the DP camps. Perhaps Milt Kleinberg will be the voice of those deported to Soviet labor camps.”

The memoir completes an obligation Milt felt to himself and his family.

“I wrote the book as a legacy for my children, grandchildren, and siblings that were born after the war,” he says. “Everyone had bits of information on what happened during the war. I was the only one with all the pieces of information. I could connect all the dots. So, I have written it all down.”

“Milt has fulfilled his responsibility admirably to share his story and break a lifetime of silence so that others can learn from that history…and hopefully not repeat it,” Feldstern says.

Milton M. Kleinberg shortly after arriving in America

Though reticent most of his life about his own experience, he’s never shied from confronting anti-Semitism. While residing in Milwaukee he actively opposed a neo-Nazi group there through the Concerned Jewish Citizens of Wisconsin, a group he helped form.

“We decided we were going to respond to the Nazis rather than stand silent or lay down. Some of us had learned hard, tragic lessons and sacrificed far too much to allow these haters to get a foothold in our city, in our neighborhood.”

It wasn’t the first time he stood up. He and his wife, Marsha, co-hosted a Milwaukee radio program. They bought the air-time for themselves in order to present and comment on Jewish news.

His book is a cautionary tale of what occurred as the world slept. It may help ensure another holocaust doesn’t happen in this new era of hate.

“After what happened to me and my family and to millions of Jews in the war, I simply would not keep silent about things I perceived to be wrong.”

Ultimately, Bread or Death is a testament to how a life well-lived is more powerful than any retribution.

 

 

Milton Kleinberg Omaha Magazine Cover Story

 

 

In His Corner: Midge Minor is Trainer, Friend and Father Figure to Pro Boxing Contender Terence “Bud” Crawford

July 30, 2013 3 comments

As I’ve said before on this blog nearly every writer gets around to writing about boxing at one time or another.  I did my first boxing story in the late 1990s and every now and then I get the craving to do a new one.  I’ve built up quite a collection of boxing pieces this way and you can access them all on the blog.   The following story for the New Horizons in Omaha profiles an up and coming pro lightweight contender, Terence “Bud” Crawford, and the older man in his corner who is trainer, friend, father figure and more to him, Midge Minor.  They are as tight as two people nearly 50 years apart in age can be.  Crawford has been under the wing of Minor from the time he was a little boy and he still relies on his sage advice today as he prepares for an expected world title fight.  The loyal Crawford is an Omaha native and resident who’s never left his hometown or the gym he grew up in, the CW, and he’s not about to leave the man who’s guided him this far.

 

Cover Photo

 

In His Corner: Midge Minor is Trainer, Friend and Father Figure to Pro Boxing Contender Terence “Bud” Crawford 

by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

Nebraska‘s best ever hope for a world professional boxing champion works out of the CW Boxing Gym in north downtown Omaha.

As 25-year-old lightweight contender Terence “Bud” Crawford goes through his paces, he’s watched intently by an older man in a sweatsuit, Midge Minor. Though separated in age by four-plus decades, the two men enjoy a warm, easy relationship marked by teasing banter.

Crawford: “I’ll beat this dude up right now.”

Minor: “You’re scared of me, you know that.”

Crawford: “You be dreaming about me.”

Minor: “You stick that long chin out to the wrong man.”

They’ve been going back and forth like this for decades. At age 7 Crawford got his boxing start under Minor at the CW, 1510 Davenport St., and he still trains there under Minor’s scrutiny all these years later.

The facility is part of the CW Youth Resource Center, whose founder and director, Carl Washington, spotted Crawford when he was a kid and brought him to the gym.

Crawford, an Omaha native and resident, owns a 21-0 pro record and a reputation among some experts as the best fighter in the 135-pound division. The smart money says it’s only a matter of time before he wins a title. That time may come in January when the Top Rank-promoted boxer is expected to get his title shot and the opportunity to earn his first six-figure payday.

 

Midge Minor

Midge Minor

 

 

Since showing well in two recent HBO-telecast fights, he’s riding a wave of fame. He’s the pride of the CW, where the number of fighters is up because he learned to box there, made it big and never left.

“He’s one of the causes of our gym being full now,” says Minor. “They all look up to him. It’s kind of like he put us on the map.”

Crawford doesn’t act the star though.

“I’m the same person, I’m regular, I just want to be able to make it and provide for my family,” he says earnestly.

He engages everyone at the gym and offers instruction to fighters.

“I’m always going to have CW somewhere inside of me because this is where I started from. Never forget where you came from. I’m always going to be a CW fighter. I just feel comfortable here. It does feel like home when I walk through them doors because it’s the only gym I knew when I was coming up. I’ve been coming here and going to the donut shop (the adjacent Pettit’s Pastry) ever since I was 7.”

For a long time he was pressured to leave Omaha, where quality sparring partners are rare and pro boxing cards even rarer. But he’s remained true to his team and his home.

“A lot of people came at me with deals wanting to get me to fight for them, sign with them and move out of town. They kept telling me I can’t make it from Omaha and  need new cornermen – that they took me as far as they could. But I’m loyal and a lot of people respect me for it. My coaches have faith in me and trust me that I’m not going to do nothing to jeopardize our relationship, and I trust them and have faith in them.

“I’ve just stayed with it and continued to have confidence in my team. I just keep pushing forward.”

He keeps a tight circle of confidantes around him and all share his same CW and Omaha lineage.

“We all family,” he says..”Every person I turn to in my corner that’s giving me instructions came up under Midge.”

 

CW Boxing Club is located in the CW Youth Resource Center

 

For his last fight Crawford, who always sports Big Red gear to show his Nebraska pride, wore trunks emblazoned with “Omaha” on them.

As Crawford shadow boxes inside the ring, looking at his reflected image in a bank of mirrors against the near wall, the 73 year-old Minor takes it all in from his spot in the corner, just outside the ropes. Minor has been in Crawford’s corner, both literally and figuratively, since the fighter first got serious about the sport at age 12. They initially met five years before that, when Crawford became argumentative with the trainer. Minor demands obedience. He barks orders in his growl of a voice. He’s known to curse, even with kids. He doesn’t take guff from anyone, especially a brash, back-talking little boy. When Crawford wouldn’t mind him, Minor banned him from the CW.

The trainer hated letting Crawford go, too, because he recognized the kid as something special.

“I saw that he had a lot of heart and that goes a long way in boxing. He never wanted to quit on me.”

The boy’s heart reminded Minor of his own. Back in the day, Minor was a top amateur flyweight, twice winning the Midwest Golden Gloves. But prospect or no prospect, Minor wasn’t going to stand for disrespect. The two eventually reconnected.

“I kicked him out of the gym for five years,” says Minor, a father many times over, “and then I brought him back when he got a little more mature and then we went from there.”

Crawford acquired some rough edges growing up in The Hood. Being physically tested was a rite of passage in his family and neighborhood. It toughened him up. He needed to be tough too because he was small and always getting into scuffles and playing against bigger, older guys in football, basketball, whatever sport was in season. He learned to always stand his ground. The more he held his own, the more courage and confidence he gained.

“I was taught to never be scared…to never back down. That was instilled in me at a young age,” Crawford says. “My big cousins pushing me, punching me, slamming me, roughing me up. My dad wrestling me. After going against them it wasn’t nothing to me going against somebody my size, my age.

“I’d fall and get jacked up or get bitten by dogs or get scratched. I’d need stitches here and there, and my mom would be like, ‘You’re all right.’ There was no going home and crying to your parents or nothing like that. No babying me. I don’t know what it feels like to be babied.”

There was something about Crawford, even as a child, that pegged him for greatness.

“Before I even started boxing my dad used to make me punch on his hands, teach me wrestling moves, throw the ball with me. He always said, ‘You’re going to be a million dollar baby.’ Ever since I was little he was like, ‘You can be whatever you want to be, just go out there and do it, don’t let nobody hold you down or hold you back.'”

His father, grandfather and an uncle all boxed and wrestled in their youth. His dad and uncle trained at the CW. His grandfather boxed with Minor. They all had talent.

“It was just in me, it was in the blood line for me. I just took after them. My dad always gave me pointers.”

By the time Crawford came back to the gym, he was less belligerent and more ready to learn. The non-nonsense Minor and the hot-tempered youth bonded. Like father and son.

“When I came back to the gym Midge and I were like instantly close.

Midge was like my dad,” says Crawford.

What was the difference the second time around?

“I don’t know. maybe it’s because I accepted Midge ain’t going to change for nobody. I didn’t really know him like that at the start. so for him to be talking to me crazy I took that as disrespect. I was offended by it. But when i came back I realized that’s just Midge being Midge. Some people get intimidated by him but one thing about Midge is if he likes you he’s going to roll with you. If he don’t like you, he don’t like you and there’s nothing nobody can do to make him like you. And if he’s with you he’s with you to the end.

“When I got to know him more I realized Midge will have my back till the day he dies and I’ll have his back to the day I die, and that’s just how close we are. Midge put a real big hold on me.”

When you ask Crawford if he could have gotten this far without him he says, “Probably not because Midge kept me out of the streets. He taught me a lot. Without Midge, I don’t think so, He taught me a lot of responsibility.”

Crawford came to know he could depend on Minor for anything, which only made him trust him more and made him want to please him more.

“I used to ride my bike to the gym with a big old bag on my back, that’s how dedicated I was. Then Midge started taking me to the gym. Over holidays he’d come to my house to take me to the gym. On school days he’d come get me at school and take me to his house. We’d just sit there together and watch boxing tapes. I would watch any kind of fighter just for the simple fact that you never know when you might see that style. He’d tell me what they’re doing wrong and what I could do to beat ’em.”

Minor also became Crawford’s mentor.

“Anytime I needed anything or needed someone to talk to he was always there,” says Crawford. “He’s a great father figure in my life.

Just an all around good guy. He loves kids.”

All of Minor’s work with Crawford inside and outside the ring had the full support of Bud’s mother.

“It was a little like school to me. Sometimes I’d try to duck him and tell my mom to tell him I wasn’t there and she wasn’t having it. Sometimes my mom would call him and say, ‘Come and get him Midge’ and I’d spend the night at his house, watch tapes, work out. It was like that.”

When he got in trouble at school his mother informed Minor because she knew he’d hold him accountable. When Minor got his hands on him he worked him extra hard. it was all about getting the young man to learn lessons and to pay his dues. Instead of resisting it, Crawford took it all in stride. He says, “It was instilled in me early that what don’t kill you will make you stronger.I looked at it that it was helping me.”

“He appreciated it. He respected me,” says Minor. “We got along real well.”

 

 

The troubled boy no one could reach found a friend and ally to push him and inspire him.

“Midge always instilled in me, ‘Nobody can beat you, especially if you work hard and put your heart into your training.’ He drilled that in my head. He believed in me so much. There were times I kind of doubted myself in my mind and he was just like, ‘Nobody can beat you.’ The fight’s the easy part. Preparing for it, that’s the hard part. I’ve been fighting all my life so to get in there and fight, that’s easy. That’s 30 minutes. Sometimes only three minutes or 30 seconds if I get an early knockout. That’s compared to training for hours and hours a day.”

Minor routinely put him in the ring with much more experienced guys.

“That’s how much confidence he had in me. Seeing him have that much confidence in me made me even more confident,” says Crawford.

“It didn’t make no difference who I fought him with because he was going to fight ’em. I’ve had a lot fighters but they didn’t have the heart that he has.”

The legend of Terence “Bud” Crawford began to grow when as a teen amateur he sparred pros and outfought them. Even today he likes to spar bigger guys.

“I like to try myself.”

Crawford is now on the cusp of boxing royalty and Minor is still the one Bud puts his complete faith in.

“He’s still there for me taking good care of me,” Crawford says. “I’m always going to have his back. You know he looked out for me when I was little and I’m going to look out for him now that he’s older.”

Having Minor in his camp as he preps for the biggest fight of his life is exactly where Crawford wants him. Having him in his corner on fight night is where he needs him.

“It means a lot to have Midge there. Midge is the brain. Everything goes through Midge before it’s all said and done for me to go in there and fight. Without the brain we can’t do nothing, so it’s very important that Midge is there.

“Before every fight I bring him a disc of who I’m fighting and I ask him what he thinks about the guy and he tells me what I should do and we go from there.”

The strategy for any fight, he says, is “a team effort” between his co-managers Brian McIntyre and Cameron Dunkin, trainer Esau Diegez, Minor and himself.

“We all work together and dissect our opponent but Midge is always the one that’s like, ‘Alright, this is what you’re going to do to beat this guy. This is how you’re going to fight ’em.’ And we all go by what Midge sats. He’s great for seeing things I don’t see and making me see it.

“He gives me the instructions to beat ’em, and all I have to do is follow ’em. He’s got the wisdom.”

Minor says Crawford is a great student who picks things up quickly, including a knack for altering his style to counter his opponent’s style.

“He can observe different fighters and he can adapt to their styles. He doesn’t have no problem adjusting to them,” says Minor. “He listens to me and he produces for me.”

“Oh yeah. I see it one time and I do it,” Crawford says. “You gotta practice it to though, you can’t just think you’re going to perfect it by doing it one time. You gotta keep on trying it in the gym. You might not get it the first time, you might not get it the second time, but you gotta keep trying until you get it right.”

Still, when all is said and done, it’s Crawford who’s alone in the ring come fight night.

“You can tell me this, you can tell me that, at the end of the day I’m the one that’s gotta take those punches and get hit upside my head. The difference between me and other people is that I’m willing to go through the fire to see the light.”

 

Midge Minor, left, fighting as an amateur

 

 

 

Crawford’s aware of the strides he’s made in recent years.

“I feel like I’m more relaxed in the ring. I know more about the game.

I know what to do, when to do it, and I’m not just throwing punches just to be throwing them. I’m pinpointing my shots more. Yeah, all around my whole arsenal is just way better.”

“Early in his career he used to just throw punches,” says Minor. “He learned to settle down and adjust.”

Crawford says his overall skill set has developed to the point that he doesn’t have an obvious weakness.

“I can adapt to any style. I’m a boxer, a puncher, I’m elusive, I’m whatever I need to be. I’m always confident and I just come to win.

I’ve got it all – hand speed, power, movement, smarts. I can take a punch.”

He’s always in shape and lives a clean lifestyle, Minor says admiringly. The trainer never has to worry his fighter’s not working hard enough.

Minor’s trained several successful pros, including Grover Wiley and Dickie Ryan, but he says he’s never had anyone as accomplished as Crawford this early in their career.

Neither feels he’s reached his full potential.

“I’ve got a lot of things to work on,” says Crawford. “So I figure once I get those bad habits out of the way then I’ll be better than I am now. Little things like not keeping my hands up, not moving my head.  Sometimes I’ll get in there and I’ll feel like he can’t hurt me, and I just want to walk through him without coming with the jab.”

Minor’s always watching to make sure Crawford doesn’t abandon his fundamentals. The veteran trainer guided Crawford through a highly successful amateur career that saw the fighter compete on the U.S,  Pan American Games team and advance all the way to the national Golden Gloves semi-finals in his hometown of Omaha. Crawford dropped a controversial decision in the semis that left him disillusioned by the politics of amateur scoring and Minor “broken-hearted.”

Minor continues to be the guru Crawford turns to for advice. Perhaps a turning point in their relationship and in the fighter’s development was getting past the anger that seemed to fuel Crawford early on and that threatened to derail his career.

When his temper got the better of him Crawford was suspended from the U.S, national team. He says American amateur boxing officials “put a bad rep out for my name,” adding, “They called me hot-headed and a thug.” He feels the stigma hurt him in his bid to make the U.S. Olympic team.

The fighter acknowledges he had issues. He got expelled from several schools for fighting and arguing. He grew up playing sports and fighting in the streets, parks and playgrounds of northeast Omaha, where his mother mostly raised him and his two older sisters. His father, Terence Sr., served in the U.S, Navy and was separated from his mother, only periodically reappearing in Bud’s life.

No one seemed able to get to the root of Crawford’s rage. Not even himself.

“I really can’t say about my temper. It was just something that was in me. Everybody asked me, ‘Why do you be so mad?’ and I never could pinpoint it or tell them why. I’d be like, ‘I’m not angry.’ But deep down inside I really was. I was ready to fight at any given time and that’s how mainly I got kicked out of all the schools.

“I was in counseling, anger management, all that stuff. None of it ever worked…”

His favorite way of coping with the turmoil was to go fishing at the Fontenelle Park pond.

He knows he could have easily fallen prey to the lures and risks of the inner city. Friends he ran with included gang members. On the eve of his first big nationally televised pro fight he got shot in the head after leaving a heated dice game he had no business being in in the first place. He was told by doctors that if the bullet hadn’t been slowed by the window it passed through in his car it would have likely killed him.

“I was lucky, I was blessed. That just opened my eyes more. I took it as a sign, as a wakeup call.”

Becoming a father – he and his girlfriend Alindra are raising their son and her daughter – also helped him mature.

Through it all Minor was that steadying voice telling him to do the right thing.

Crawford’s temper cooled and his life got more settled.

“It took him a while,” says Minor. “He was hard-headed. I used to make him come over to my house and I’d sit em down to watch boxing tapes and the more he observed other fighters he learned that his temperament had to change to be where he’s at now.”

Crawford also credits two men who took him under their wing at Omaha Bryan High School, then principal Dave Collins and assistant principal Todd Martin.

“They would always talk to me if I got in trouble. They put it in terms like I was in the gym training. They’d say, ‘You cant talk back to the teachers when they’re trying to tell you something you need to know. You don’t talk back to your coach when he’s teaching you how to throw a punch.’ I began to look at it like that and I said, ‘You’re right, i messed up.’ That really got me through my high school years doing what I had to do.”

Now that Crawford’s come so far he’s looking “to give back” to the community through his own boxing gym in the same community he grew up in. He wants his North O-based B & B Boxing Academy, which he recently opened with Brian McIntyre, to be a place that keeps kids off the street and gives them something structured to do.

Bringing a world title belt back to Omaha is his main focus though.

“Oh, it would be great. A lot of people look up to me so for me to bring that belt home to Omaha it would mean a lot, not only to me but to Omaha. Boxing is not real big in Omaha. I used to be and I’m trying to bring it back and I feel I can do that. I could inspire some little guy that later on could be the champion of the world. Who knows?”

He’s not leaving anything to chance in his bid for glory.

“I’ve got my mind made up, I’ve got my goals set, and I’m going to get it. I’m not going to let nothing or nobody keep me from conquering my dreams.”

“That’s that confidence.” Minor says. “I’m so proud of him.”

Crawford knows he wouldn’t be where he is today without Minor. “He’s played a big factor in my life.” He values all that Minor’s meant to him.

“You got to. Nothing lasts forever, so cherish it while it’s here.”

 

Nebraska Medal of Honor Winners: Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

August 11, 2012 Leave a comment

I generally don’t hold with designating individuals as heroes in any field of endeavor, much less honoring the efforts of combat participants, but I have no trouble understanding people’s need to acknowledge, recognize, and commemorate the deeds of the valiant.  This is a short story about some Nebraska Medal of Honor recipients whose lives and valor were the subject of an exhibition a few years ago at El Museo Latino in Omaha.  The institution was a good home for the exhibit because two of the state’s Medal of Honor winners were young Latino men: Edward “Babe” Gomez and Keith Miguel.  A legend is also among their ranks in the person of William F. Cody, better known to some as Buffalo Bill.  A once prominent politician now looking to reenter the political arena, former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, is also among the state’s Medal of Honor men.

 

 

 

 

 

Nebraska Medal of Honor Winners: Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

A new historical exhibition at El Museo Latino pays tribute to Nebraska’s Medal of Honor recipients. Among the honorees are Edward “Babe” Gomez and Miguel Keith and former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator Bob Kerrey.

The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest U.S. military decoration. It is bestowed by Congress to armed forces members who distinguish themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity,” risking life “above and beyond the call of duty” in action.

Nebraska’s accredited with 18 Medal of Honor recipients in conflicts as far back as the Civil War and on through two world wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, received the Medal for his work as a civilian scout with the 3rd Cavalry during Indian campaigns along the Platte River in the early years of Nebraska’s statehood.

Otto Diller Schmidt of Blair received the Medal during peacetime when, while serving on board the U.S.S. Bennington, he displayed “extraordinary heroism” following a 1905 boiler explosion.

Gomez, an Omaha native, attended South High School and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps reserves at 17. He was called to active duty with the 1st Marine Division in Korea. During a fateful 1951 battle he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire as an Easy Company ammunition bearer. When a hostile grenade landed amidst his squad, he sacrificed himself by absorbing the explosion.

Keith, a San Antonio, Texas native, moved to Omaha, where he attended North High. He fought as a Marine Corps machine gunner in Vietnam. During a 1971 attack he was hit multiple times but kept fighting to protect his unit’s command post until mortally wounded.

Kerrey, a Lincoln native, led a Navy SEAL team in Vietnam. During a 1969 mission to capture intelligence assets his team came under fire. Despite massive wounds he directed a successful counterattack. He lost part of a leg as a result of the engagement.

Eight recipients born in Nebraska have their Medal accredited to other states where they resided or enlisted. Among their ranks is the most recent recipient with Nebraska ties, Randall Shughart, a Lincoln native who entered the service in Newell, Pa., where he and his family moved. Shughart fought in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia as part of a Special Ops Army team inserted to rescue the crew of a downed U.S. helicopter. While under siege he applied fire that allowed the crew’s rescue. He sustained fatal wounds.

El Museo Latino director Magdalena Garcia says the exhibit highlights how America honor its military heroes and how Nebraskans contribute to defending freedom. The images and text, including Medal of Honor citations, help provide a timeline and context for the various wars and conflicts America’s fought, she says.

Outside of Bob Kerrey, perhaps the best known native Nebraska recipient is Gomez. One of 13 children, Gomez is recalled as “happy-go-lucky,” an “extrovert” and “a go-getter” by younger brother Modesto Gomez. He says Babe, a scrappy 5-foot-1 former Golden Gloves boxer served a year at the former Kearney reform school before turning his life around. He wore their father down insisting he be allowed to join the Marines.

 

 

William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill

 Image result for edward babe gomez

Edward “Babe” Gomez

 

 

Miguel Keith

 

Bob Kerrey

 

 

A letter from Babe before his final, fateful mission seemed to signal his own foreboding. Eva Sandoval says, “He wrote, ‘Remind the kids of me once in awhile,’” referring to young siblings who had indistinct memories of him before he left for Korea.

Eva and her mother Matiana were at home when a Western Union messenger delivered the telegram announcing his death.

“My mother said I went into hysterics,” says Eva. “It was really a shock to me. He was just a year older than I. He was so young when he died. I couldn’t believe it. In my mind I’d say, Oh, he’s coming back — it was a big mistake. I didn’t want to accept he’s gone for good.”

Babe’s selfless actions reflected his upbringing, says Modesto. “He was prepared to do what he had to do because that’s just the way we were raised. ‘Get in there and get it’ my dad used to say. You just do the right thing.”

The Medal was presented to Babe’s family at an Our Lady of Guadalupe ceremony.

Gomez’s legacy lives on in a mural at the Nebraska State Capitol and in Nebraska Medal of Honor displays at the American GI Forum, Omaha-Douglas Civic Center and Durham Museum. A local school and avenue bear his name.

“All of these things they’ve done in his name have been a tremendous honor,” says Modesto.

Gomez is buried at St. Mary Cemetery in South Omaha.

Hoops Legend Abdul-Jabbar Talks History

August 9, 2012 Leave a comment

 

A few years ago I got the opportunity to interview college and pro basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in advance of his giving a talk in Omaha.  He was every bit the thoughtful man he projects to be.  Before doing this short piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) I vaguely knew he had turned author and amateur historian with an eye towards highlighting African American achievements but I learned that he’s done much more in this area than I ever imagined and I got the sense he’s at least as proud of his work in this arena as he is of what he did on the hardwood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hoops Legend Abdul-Jabbar Talks History

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the man who made the sky hook and goggles signature parts of hoopsiconography, headlines the May 12 B’nai B’rith Charity Sports Banquet at the Qwest Center Omaha. Now an author, he is the rare ex-sports superstar who’s applied a social conscience after balling.

The Naismith and NBA Hall of Famer was a legend before playing his first collegiate basketball game in 1967. His schoolboy dominance at Powers Memorial in New York City made him the most prized recruit since Wilt Chamberlain. He was so unstoppable at UCLA, when still known as Lew Alcindor, that dunking was outlawed after his sophomore season. He led the Bruins to three national championships.

In only his second NBA season his expansion Milwaukee Bucks won the 1971 title. Omaha native Bob Boozer was the team’s 6th man. Abdul-Jabbar competed several times against the Kansas City-Omaha Kings at the Civic Auditorium.

The inscrutable big man added five more titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. Six times he earned the league’s MVP award. Upon retirement he was the NBA’s all-time points scorer and arguably the greatest player ever. He continues as a Lakers special assistant today.

Like the late tennis star Arthur Ashe, he’s transcended athletics to write and talk about black history. The two were student-athletes together for a year at UCLA. In a phone interview Abdul-Jabbar said Ashe asked for his help researching the book, A Hard Road to Glory. Each came out of the civil rights struggle and endured criticism for being aloof. Abdul-Jabbar’s conversion to Islam alienated some. He said his passion for chronicling the stories of African-American achievers can be traced to a high school program he took that cultivated an interest in writing and history and introduced him to unknown facets of his childhood neighborhood, Harlem.

“Very loud echoes of the Harlem Renaissance were still there to be heard. I was just instilled with a lot of pride when I read about what Harlem had meant to Black America. It was just totally inspiring,” he said. “It made me want to share that as a very natural extension for how I felt about what was going on in America and what I wanted to do about it.”

His 2007 book On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance describes Harlem’s legacy as “the capital of Black America and a place where a lot of things happened that made black Americans proud,” he said.

A story from those halcyon days is the subject of a documentary he’s producing, On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Basketball Team You Never Heard Of. Featuring on-camera comments by such hoop and pop culture stars as Charles Barkley and Spike Lee, it profiles the New York Renaissance or Harlem Rens, America’s first all-black pro basketball team. Owner Bob Douglas, often called the Father of Black Basketball, created the team in the early 1920s when segregation still ruled sports and society-at-large. The Rens delivered a powerful message by routinely trouncing all comers, including white squads before white audiences, over the next three decades.

 

 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

 

 

 

Abdul-Jabbar is delighted to have several connections to the Rens. A well-known New York high school hoops official who called some of his games, Dolly King, played for the Rens. Abdul-Jabbar’s legendary UCLA coach John Wooden played a 1930s exhibition against the Rens as a Purdue All-American.

For the 7’2 basketball great, the Rens represent the struggle “for equality that consumed black Americans in all phases of life.” He hopes the film, scheduled for a 2011 release, educates young people that today’s opportunities have been hard-earned and nothing good comes easily.

Meanwhile, he’s coping with a rare form of leukemia that an oral medication treats. He’s not had to curtail his activities.

In Omaha he’ll speak about the World War II all-black 761st tank battalion, the subject of his 2004 book, Brothers in Arms. Some dispute battalion veterans’ claims they helped liberate Dachau concentration camp. There’s no disputing their heroic, unheralded role in the Battle of the Bulge and in the Allies’ final push across France and Germany.

 

Walter Reed: From Out of the Past – Former Hidden Child Survives Holocaust to Fight Nazis as an American GI in World War II

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

 

About nine years ago I was given the opportunity to meet and profile Walter Reed, whose story of escaping the Final Solution as a Hidden Child in his native Belgium and then going on to fight the Nazis as an American GI a few years later would make a good book or movie.  Here is a sampling of his remarkable story now, more or less as it appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  You’ll find many more of my Holocaust survival and rescue stories on this blog.

 

 Wilmette-Holocaust-Survivor-Reflects-on-The-Fragility-of-Freedom
 Walter Reed

 

 

 

Walter Reed: From Out of the Past – Former Hidden Child Survives Holocaust to Fight Nazis as an American GI in World War II   

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Imagine this: The time is May 1945. The place, Germany. The crushing Allied offensive has broken the Nazi war machine. You’re 21, a naturalized American GI from Bavaria. You’re a Jew fighting “the goddamned Krauts” that drove you from your own homeland. Five years before, amid anti-Jewish fervor erupting into ethnic cleansing, you were sent away by your parents to a boys’ refugee home in Brussels, Belgium. Eventually, you were harbored with 100 other Jewish boys and girls in a series of safe houses. You are among 90 from the group to survive the Holocaust.

Relatives who emigrated to America finagle you a visa and, in 1941, you go live with them in New York. You abandon your heritage and change your name. Within two years you’re drafted into the U.S. Army. At first, you’re a grunt in the field, but then your fluency in German gets you reassigned to military intelligence, attached to Patton’s 95th Division, interrogating German POWs. If this were a movie, you’d be the avenging Jewish angel meeting out justice, but you don’t. “The whole mental attitude was not, Hey, I’m a Jew, I’m going to get you Nazi bastard,” said Walter Reed, whose story this is. “I had no idea of revenging my parents. We were really more concerned about our survival and getting the information we needed.”

By war’s end, you’re in a 7th Army unit rooting out hardcore Nazis from German institutions. You don’t know it yet, but your parents and two younger brothers have not made it out alive. You borrow a jeep to go to your village. Your family and all the other Jews are gone. You demand answers from the cowed Gentiles, some you know to be Nazi sympathizers. You intend no harm, but you want them scared.

“I wasn’t the little Jewish boy anymore,” said Reed. “Now, they saw this American staff sergeant with a steel helmet on and with a carbine over his shoulder. At that point, we were the conquerors and those bastards better knuckle under or else. I asked, What happened to my family and to the other Jewish people? They told me they were sent to the east into a labor camp. That’s about all I could find out.”

It is only later you learn they were rounded-up, hauled away in wagons, and sent to Izbica, a holding camp for the Sobidor and Belzec death camps, one or the other of which your family was killed in, along with scores of friends and neighbors.

Walter Reed, now 79, is among a group of survivors known as the Children of La Hille, a French chateau that gave sanctuary to he and his fellow wartime refugees. A resident of Wilmette, Il., Reed and his story have an Omaha tie. After the war, he graduated from the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism and it was as a fund raising-public relations professional he first came to Omaha in the mid-1950s when he led successful capital drives at Creighton University for a new student center and library. “Part of me is in those buildings,” he said.

More recently, he began corresponding with Omahan Ben Nachman, who brings Shoah stories to light as a board member with the local Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation. A friend of Nachman’s — Swiss scholar and author Theo Tschuy — led him to accounts of La Hille and those contacts led him to Reed. In Reed, Nachman found a man who, after years of burying his past, now embraces his survivor heritage. With Reed’s help, Tschuy, the author of Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz and His Rescue of 62,000 Jews, is researching what will be the first full English language hardcover telling of the children’s odyssey.

On an April 30 through May 2 Hidden Heroes-sponsored visit to Nebraska, Reed shared the story of he and his comrades, about half of whom are still alive, in presentations at Dana College in Blair, Neb. and at Omaha’s Beth El Synagogue and Field Club, where Reed, a Rotary Club member, addressed fellow Rotarians. A dapper man, Reed regales listeners in the dulcet tones of a newsman, which is how he approaches the subject.

“I’m a journalist by training. All I want is the facts,” he said, adding he’s accumulated deportation and arrest records of his family, along with anecdotal accounts of his family’s exile. “I’m simply overwhelmed by the wealth of information that exists and that’s still coming out. In the last 10 years I’ve found out an awful lot of what happened. I don’t have any great details, but I have vignettes. So, my feeling when I find out new things is, Hey, that’s terrific, and not, Oh, I can’t handle it. None of that. Long, long ago I got over all the trauma many survivors feel to their death. I vowed this stuff would never disadvantage me.”

As he’s pieced things together, a compelling story has emerged of how a network of adults did right amid wrong. It’s a story Nachman and Reed are eager for a wider public to know. “It shows how a dedicated group of people, most of whom were not Jewish, coordinated their actions to prevent the Nazis from getting at these Jewish children,” said Nachman, who paved the way for the upcoming publication of a book by a La Hille survivor. “They chose to do so without promise of any reward but out of sheer humanitarian concern. It’s a story tinged in tragedy because the children did lose their families, but one filled with hope because most of the children survived to lead productive lives.”

Walter Reed as a child in Germany, circled at top left

 

 

It was 1939 when Reed made the fateful journey that forever separated him from his parents and brothers. Born Werner Rindsberg in the rural Bavarian village of Mainstockheim, Reed was the oldest son of a second-generation winemaker-wine merchant father and hausfrau mother. His was among a few dozen Jewish families in the village, long a haven for Jews who paid local land barons a special tax in return for protection from the anti-Semitic populace. Reed said Jews enjoyed unbothered lives there until 1931-1932, when Nazism began taking hold.

“I was aware of the growing menace and danger when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I recall constant conversations between my parents and their Jewish peers about Hitler. The Nazis marched up and down our main street with their swastika flags and their torches at night, singing their songs. This was a very close-knit community of about 1,000 inhabitants and you knew which kid had joined the Hitler Youth and whose dad was a son-of-a-bitch Nazi. Pretty soon, the kids began to chase us in the street and throw stones at us and call us dirty names. Then, the first (anti-Jewish) decrees came out about 1934 and increasingly got stricter.”

Pogroms of intimidation began in earnest in the mid-1930s. Reed remembers his next door neighbor, a prominent Jewish entrepreneur, taken away to Dachau by authorities “to scare the hell out of him. It saved his life, too,” he said, “because that hastened his decision to get the hell out of Germany. This stuff was going on in other towns and villages where I had relatives. In those places, including where my mother’s brothers and sisters lived, the local Nazis were more rabid and…they hassled the Jews so much they left, and it saved their lives.”

Things intensified in November 1938 when, in retaliation for the assassination of a German diplomat by an expatriate Polish Jew outraged by the mistreatment of his people, the Nazis unleashed a terror campaign now known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). Roving gangs of brown-shirted thugs attacked and detained Jewish males, vandalizing, looting, burning property in their wake. Reed, then 14, and his father were dragged from their home and thrown into a truck with other captives. As the truck rumbled off, Reed recalls “thinking they were going to take us down to the river and shoot us or beat the hell out of us.” The boys among the prisoners were confined in the jail of a nearby town while the men were taken to Dachau. Reed was freed after three nights and his father after several weeks.

 

 

The barn near Toulouse, France, where Walter Reed
stayed as part of a children’s rescue colony

 

 

In that way time has of bridging differences, Reed’s recent search for answers led him to a group of school kids in Gunzenhausen, a Bavarian town whose Jewish inhabitants met the same fate as those in his birthplace. The kids, whose grandparents presumably sanctioned the genocide as perpetrators or condoned it as silent witnesses, have studied the war and its atrocities. Reed began corresponding with them and then last year he and his wife Jean visited them. He spoke to the class, and to two others in another Bavarian town, and found the students a receptive audience.

“Frankly,” he said, “I find these encounters very worthwhile and uplifting. I was told by the teachers and principals it was quite a moving experience for the students to come face-to-face with history. My visit is now on the web site created by one class. On it, the students say they were especially moved by my stated conviction that the most important lesson of these events is to hold oneself responsible for preventing a repetition anywhere in the world and that each of us must bear that responsibility.”

When his father returned from Dachau, Reed recalls, “He looked awful. Emaciated. He wasn’t the same man. When we asked him what it was like he just said he’s not going to talk about it.” It was in this climate Reed’s parents decided to send him away. He does not recollect discussions about leaving but added, “I recently found a letter my father wrote to somebody saying, ‘I finally persuaded Werner to leave,’ so I must have been reluctant to go.”

A question that’s dogged Reed is why his parents didn’t get out or why they didn’t send his brothers off. It’s only lately he’s discovered, via family letters he inherited, his folks tried.

“Those letters tell a story,” he said. “They tell about their efforts to try and get a visa to America. My dad traveled to the American consulate in Stuttgart and waited with all the other people trying to get out. They gave my parents a very high number on the waiting list, meaning they were way down on the queue. There are anguished letters from my father to relatives referencing their attempts to get my brothers out, but that was long after it was too late. In no way am I castigating my parents for making the wrong decision, but they could have sent my brothers (then 11 and 13) because in that home in Brussels we had boys as young as 5 and 6 whose parents sent them.”

 

Walter Reed, third from right in the front row, at the chateau in La Hille, France,
where a smaller group of children were transferred from the barn near

 

 

Home Speyer, in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht, is where Reed’s journey to freedom began in June 1939. Sponsored by the city and afforded assistance by a Jewish women’s aid society, the home was a designated refugee site in the Kinder transport program that set aside safe havens in England, The Netherlands and Belgium for a quota of displaced German-Austrian children. Where the transport had international backing and like rescue efforts had the tacit approval of German-occupied host countries, others were illegal and operated underground. Reed said the only precautions demanded of the La Hille kids were a ban on speaking German, lest their origins betray them as non-French, and a rule they always be accompanied outside camp grounds by adult staff. Despite living relatively in the open, the children and their rescuers faced constant danger of denouncement.

The boys at Home Speyer, like the girls at a mirror institution whose fates would soon be mingled with theirs, arrived at different times and from different spots but all shared a similar plight: they were homeless orphans-to-be awaiting an uncertain future. Reed doesn’t recall traveling there, except for changing trains in Cologne, but does recall life there. “For a young boy from a small Bavarian farm village,” he said, “Brussels was an exciting city with its large buildings, department stores, parks and museums. We made excursions into the beautiful Belgian countryside. And there was no more anti-Semitic persecution.”

This idyll ended in May 1940 when German forces invaded Belgium. Reed said the director of the girls home informed the boys’ home director she’d secured space on a southbound freight train for both contingents of children.

“We packed what we could carry and took the streetcar to the train station,” he notes. “Late that night two of the freight cars were filled by the 100 boys and girls as the train began its journey to France.”

Adult counselors from the homes came with them. The escape was timely, as the German army reached Brussels two days later. En route to their unknown destination, Reed said the roads were choked with refugees fleeing the German advance. Unloaded at a station near Toulouse, the children were trucked to the village of Seyre, where a two-story stone barn belonging to the de Capele family quartered them the next several months. It appears, Reed said, the de Capeles had ties to the Red Cross, as the children’s homes did, which may explain why that barn was chosen to house refugees.

“It lacked everything as a place to live or sleep,” he said. “No beds, no mattresses, no running water, no sanitary facilities, no cooking equipment. Food was scarce, Pretty soon we ran out of clothes and shoes. Everything was rationed. A lot of us had boils, sores and lice.”

 

Walter Reed with a close friend who would
perish not long thereafter

 

With 100 kids under tow in primitive, cramped conditions, the small staff struggled. “They were trying to manage this rambunctious group of kids, who played and fought and caused mischief. The older kids, myself included, were deputized to sort of manage things. We taught classes out in the open. We worked on nearby farms in the hilly, rolling countryside, cutting brush…digging potatoes. For compensation we got food to bring back. It was like summer camp, except it was no picnic,” he said. “We all grew up fast. We learned about survival, self-reliance and cooperation for the common good.”

It was not all bad. First amours bloomed and fast friendships formed. Reed struck up a romance with Ruth Schuetz Usrad, whose younger sister Betty was also in camp. He also found a best friend in Walter Strauss.

The barn’s occupants were pushed to their limits by “the harsh winter of 1940,” Reed said. They got some relief when the group’s Belgian director, Alex Frank, got the Swiss Children’s Aid Society, then aligned with the Swiss Red Cross, to put Maurice and Elinor Dubois in charge of the Seyre camp, which they soon supplied with bedding, furniture and Swiss powdered milk and cheese.

With the Nazi noose tightening in the spring of 1941 the Dubois relocated the children to an even more remote site — the abandoned 15th century Chateau La Hille, near Foix in the Ariege Province — where, Reed said, “they were less likely to be detected.” It was here the children remained until either, like Reed, they got papers to leave or, like others, they dispersed and either hid or fled across the border. Some 20 children came to the states with the aid of a Quaker society.

As chronicled in various published stories, Reed said that in 1942, a year after he left, 40 of the children, including his girlfriend Ruth, were arrested by French militia and imprisoned at nearby Le Vernet. Inmates there were routinely transported to the death camps and this would have been the children’s fate if not for the intervention of Roseli Naef, a Swiss Red Cross worker and the then La Hille director, who bicycled to Le Vernet to plead with the commandant for their release. When her entreaties fell on deaf ears, she alerted Maurice Dubois, who bluffed Vichy authorities by threatening the withdrawal of all Swiss aid to French children if the group was not freed.

The officials gave in and the children spared. Reed said he has copies of records documenting Naef’s termination by the Swiss Red Cross for her role as a rescuer of Jews, the kind of punitive disapproval the Swiss were known to employ with other rescuers, such as diplomat Carl Lutz.

In getting out when he did, Reed realizes he “was one of the lucky ones,” adding, “Others had to use more extraordinary means to escape, like my friend Walter Strauss. He tried escaping across the Swiss border with four others. They were caught. He was sent back and was later arrested and killed in Auschwitz.” Ruth left La Hille and led a hidden life in southern France, joining the French Underground. She reportedly had many narrow escapes before fleeing across the Pyrenees into Spain and then Israel, where she helped found a kibbutz and worked as a nurse.

 

Walter Reed during one of his many public speaking apperances

 

 

It was at a 1997 reunion of Seyre-La Hille children in France that Reed saw Ruth and his former companions for the first time in 50-plus years. Keen on not being a “captive” of his past, he’d dropped all links to his childhood, including his Jewish identity and name. Other than his wife, no one in his immediate family or among his friends knew his survivor’s tale, not even his three sons.

For Reed, the reunion came soon after he first revealed his “camouflaged” past for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History project. Then, when his turn came to tell his biography before a Rotary Club audience, he asked himself — “Do I step out of my closet or do I keep hiding from my past?” Opting to “go through with it,” he shared his story and “everything flowed from there.” After attending the ‘97 La Hille reunion, Reed and his wife hosted a gathering for survivors in Chicago and another in France in 2000.

On the whole, the survivors fared well after the war. Two Seyre-La Hille couples married. A pair enjoyed music careers in Europe — one as a teacher and the other as a performer. Nine of the adult camp directors-counselors have been honored for their rescue efforts as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel. Reed has visited many of the sites and principals involved in this conspiracy of hearts. The Chateau La Hill is still a haven, only now instead of harboring refugees as a rustic hideout it shelters tourists as a trendy bed-and-breakfast.

For Reed, taking ownership of his past has brought him full circle.

“Even though our lives have taken many different paths all over the globe, nearly all my surviving companions feel a strong bond with each other. Many have strong ties to the places and persons that gave us refuge during those dangerous and turbulent years of our youth. I think a lot of things happened then that shaped me as a whole. It inculcated in me certain attributes I still have — of taking responsibility and running things.”

Above all, he said, the experience taught him “to resist oppression and discrimination,” something he and his wife do as parents of a child with cerebral palsy. “For me, recrimination and anger are not a suitable response. It’s important we strive for reconciliation and understanding. Then we live the legacy.”

Retired Omaha World-Herald Military Affairs Reporter-Editor Howard Silber: War Veteran, Reporter, Raconteur, Bon Vi Vant, Globe Trotter

October 6, 2011 2 comments

I have done my fair share of stories about journalists by now, and my favorites are generally those profiling venerable figures like the subject of this story, Howard Silber, who epitomized the intrepid spirit of the profession. Howard, though long retired, still has the heart and the head of a newsman. It’s an instinct that never fully leaves one.  His rich career intersected with major events and figures of teh 20th century, as did his life before becoming a reporter. I think you’ll respond as I did to his story in the following profile I wrote about Howard for the New Horizons.

Howard Silber

Retired Omaha World-Herald Military Affairs Reporter-Editor Howard Silber: War Veteran, Reporter, Raconteur, Bon Vi Vant, Globe Trotter

©by Leo Adam Biga

Oriignally published in the New Horizons

It’s hard not viewing retired Omaha World-Herald military affairs editor Howard Silber’s life in romantic terms. Like a dashing fictional adventurer he’s spent the better part of his 90 years gallivanting about the world to feed his wanderlust.

A Band of Brothers World War II U.S. Army veteran, Silber was wounded in combat preceding the Battle of the Bulge. Soon after his convalescence he embarked on a distinguished journalism career.

As a reporter, the Omaha Press Club Hall of Fame inductee covered most everything. He ventured to the South Pole. He went to Vietnam multiple times to report on the war. He interviewed four sitting U.S. Presidents, even more Secretary of States and countless military brass.

He counted as sources Pentagon wonks and Beltway politicos.

Perhaps the biggest scoop of his career was obtaining an interview with Caril Ann Fugate shortly after she and Charles Starkweather were taken into custody following the couple’s 1958 killing spree.

A decade later Silber caught the first wave of Go Big Red fever when he co-wrote a pair of Husker football books.

As Veteran of Foreign Wars publicity chairman he went to China with an American contingent of retired servicemen.

Even when he stopped chasing stories following his 1988 retirement, he kept right on going, taking cruises with his wife Sissy to ports of call around the globe. More than 60 by now they reckon. They’ve even gone on safaris in Kenya and South Africa. Their Fontenelle Hills home is adorned with artifacts from their travels.

In truth, Silber’s been on the move since he was a young man, when this New York City native left the fast-paced, rough and tumble North for the slower rhythms and time-worn traditions of the South. His itch to get out and see new places may have been inherited from his Austro-Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents.

Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Silber learned many survival lessons. HIs earliest years were spent in a well-to-do Jewish enclave. But when the Depression hit and his fur manufacturer father lost his business, the small family — it was just Howard, his younger sister and parents — were forced to move to “a less attractive neighborhood” and one where Jews were scarce.

As the new kid on the block Silber soon found himself tested.

“Fighting became a way of life. It was a case of fighting or running and I decided to fight,” he said. “I had to fight my way to school a few times and had to protect my sister, but after three or four of those fracases why they left me alone.”

Sports became another proving ground for Silber. He excelled in football at Stuyvesant High School, a noted public school whose team captured the city championship during his playing days. An equally good student, he set his sights high when he attempted to enroll at hallowed Columbia University.

“I wanted to go to Columbia as a student, not as an athlete,” he said. “They turned me down. I had all the grades but in those days most of the Ivy League and other prestigious schools had a quota on so many Jews they would admit per year.”

Columbia head football coach Lou Cannon offered Silber a partial football scholarship. The proud young student-athlete “turned it down.” The way Silber saw it, “If they wouldn’t take me as a student I didn’t want to go there as an athlete.'”

He said when the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa recruited several teammates he opted to join them. The school’s gridiron program under then head coach Frank Thomas was already a national power. Silber enrolled there in 1939.

At Alabama his path intersected that of two unknowns who became iconic figures — one famously, the other infamously.

Paul “Bear” Bryant was my freshman football coach. I thought he was a great guy. He did a lot for me,” Silber said of the gravely voiced future coaching legend.

 

Paul Bear Bryant

 

Paul “Bear” Bryant

 

 

The Bear left UA after Silber’s freshman year for Vanderbilt. It was several coaching stops later before Bryant returned to his alma mater to lead the Crimson Tide as head coach, overseeing a dynasty that faced off with Nebraska in three New Year’s bowl games. Bryant’s Alabama teams won six national titles and he earned a place in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Silber makes no bones about his own insignificant place in ‘Bama football annals.

“I was almost a full-time bench warmer,” he said. “The talent level was higher than mine.” He played pulling guard at 170 pounds sopping wet.

His mother wanted him to be a doctor and like a good son he began pre-med studies. He wasn’t far along on that track when the medical school dean redirected Silber elsewhere owing to color blindness. Medicine’s loss was journalism’s gain.

Why did he fix on being a newspaperman?

“I always had an interest in it. My environment had been New York and jobs were hard to get in those days and it just never occurred to me I would try for one. I was more interested in radio as a career. Actually, my degree is partly radio arts. I interned at WAPI in Birmingham and after three weeks I quit and went to work as a summer intern for the old Birmingham Post, a Scripps Howard paper, because it paid four bucks a week more. That’s how I got into print journalism.”

Silber became well acquainted with someone who became the face of the Jim Crow South — George Wallace. When he first met him though Wallace was just another enterprising Alabama native son looking to make his mark.

“George Wallace and I shared an apartment over a garage one summer school session,” recalled Silber. “I had known him a little bit before then. We became pretty good friends. There was no sign of bigotry at that time, and in fact I’m convinced to this day that his bigotry was put on for political purposes.

“He (Wallace) ran at one point for the (Alabama state) judiciary and his opponent was Jim Folsom, who later became governor, and he lost, and he made the comment, ‘I’m never going to be out-niggered again.'”

George Wallace

Years before Wallace uttered that comment Silber witnessed another side of him.

“We had our laundry done by black women in town. Their sons would come around the campus, even the athletic dorms, to pick up laundry. Tony, a big lineman from West Virginia, was always hazing them and finally George, who was on the boxing team, wouldn’t take it anymore and he went up to Tony ready to fight him, saying, ‘We don’t treat our people down here that way.’ I wouldn’t have wanted to get into a fight with him. He was a tough little baby.”

In 1968 the one-time roommates’ paths crossed again. By then Silber was a veteran Herald reporter and Wallace a lightening rod Alabama governor and divisive American Independent Party presidential candidate on a campaign speaking tour stop in Omaha. Wallace’s abrasive style and segregationist stands made him a polarizing figure.

“Wallace’s advance man Bill Jones was a mutual friend and because of Bill I was invited into Wallace’s plane as it was sitting on the ground and George answered some local questions. He seemed familiar with local politics and the local situation and he was interested in agriculture. We talked for a good 15 or 20 minutes.”

That evening at the Omaha Civic Auditorium Wallace’s inflammatory speech excited supporters and agitated opponents. A melee inside the arena spilled out onto the streets and in the ensuing confrontations between police and citizens a young woman, Vivian Strong, was shot and killed by an officer, setting off a civil disturbance that caused serious property damage and looting in Northeast Omaha.

In some ways Northeast Omaha has never recovered from those and other disturbances that burned out or drove away business. It’s just the kind of story Silber liked to sink his teeth into. Before ever working as a professional journalist Silber found himself, likes millions of others, caught up in momentous events that forever altered the course of things.

He was an undergraduate when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The call to arms meant a call to duty for Silber and so many of the Greatest Generation. Boys and men interrupted their lives, leaving behind home-family-career for uncertain fates in a worldwide conflict with no guarantee of Allied victory.

“The day after Pearl Harbor hundreds of students went to the recruiting offices in Tuscaloosa, the university town. The lines were terrible and finally several days later I got in. I wanted to become a Navy pilot but I was rejected because I was partly color blind. So I just entered the Army.”

He was 21. He went off to war in 1942, his studies delayed button forgotten.

“The university had a program where if you finished the spring semester and had so many hours you could enter the armed services and finish your degree by correspondence,” said Silber, who did just that.

His military odyssey began at Fortress Monroe, Va. with the Sea Coast Artillery. “We had big guns to intercept (enemy) ships,” he explained. “Because I had some college I was put in the master gunner section where with slide rules we calculated the azimuth and range of the cannon to zero in on the enemy ships that might approach. The Sea Coast Artillery was deemed obsolete by the emergence of the U.S. Air Force as a reliable deterrent force.

“I was transferred to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, an anti-aircraft training center (and a part of the country’s coastal defense network). “I loved it down in El Paso. It was a good post.”

From there, he said, “I went into a glider unit and once in action we were supposed to glide in behind enemy lines to set up for anti-aircraft. Well, the glider unit was broken up. So I had some choices and I just transferred to the infantry. I went to Camp Howze (Texas), a temporary Army post, and became a member of company A, 411th Infantry Regiment, 103rd division. We did some pretty heavy training there,” said Silber.

“We went by train to Camp Shanks, New York — a port of embarkation. One morning with very little notice we were put aboard trains and transferred to a ferry stop in New Jersey and ferried across New York harbor to the Brooklyn Army Base,” he recounted. “There we boarded a ship that, believe it or not, was called the Santa Maria. We sailed to Southern France. It took about two weeks in a convoy strung out for quite a distance.”

Silber, whose descriptions of his wartime experiences retain the precision and color of his journalistic training, continued:

“We landed in Southern France (post-D-Day, 1944). We were equipped to go into combat but we were diverted to the Port of Marseilles. The French stevedores, who were supposed to be unloading ships of ammunition and such, went on strike. So we spent about two weeks unloading ammunition from ships to go up to the front.

“We were encamped on a plateau above Marseille. It was a happy situation. We’d be able to go in the city and enjoy ourselves.”

The idyll of Marseille was welcome but, as Silber said, “it ended soon enough. Part of the division went by truck and my regiment went by freight train with straw on the floor to a town called Epinal in Eastern France. From there we went into combat. The first day of combat eight members of my platoon were killed. A baptism by fire.”

That initial action, he said, “was in, oddly enough, a churchyard in which most of the graves were occupied by World War I German soldiers. I didn’t learn that until later.” Many years after the war Silber and his old comrades paid for a monument to be erected to the eight GIs lost there. He and Sissy have visited the site of that deadly encounter to pay their respects.

“It’s become kind of a shrine to guys from my old outfit,” he said.

The next phases of his combat duty exposed him to even more harrowing action.

Although wars historically shut down in winter or prove the undoing of armies ill-equipped to deal with the conditions, the record winter of ’44 in Europe ultimately did little to slow down either side. In the case of the advancing American and Allied forces, the treacherous mix of snow and cold only added to the miseries. When Silber and his fellow soldiers were ordered to cross a mountain range, the dangers of altitude, deadly passes and avalanches were added to the challenge.

“We fought our way through the Vosges Mountains in Alsace,” he said, adding cryptically, “We had a couple of situations…

“We were the first sizable military unit to cross the Vosges in winter. We had snow for which we were not equipped really. It turned out to be the worst in the history of that part of Europe. We didn’t have any white camouflage gear or anything like that that the Germans had. We met some pretty heavy combat in the mountains for a time. It was an SS outfit, but we managed to fight our way through.”

If any soldier is honest he admits he fears engaging in hand-to-hand combat because he doesn’t know how he’ll perform in that life or death struggle. In the Vosges campaign Silber confronted the ultimate test in battle when he came face to face with a German.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” is how Silber begins relating the incident. “We went out on patrol at night trying to contact the enemy and pick up a couple prisoners for intelligence purposes. By that time I had become a second lieutenant, courtesy a battlefield commission. I didn’t really want to become too attractive a target for the Germans, so I pretended I was still an enlisted man in dress and in emblem, and I carried around an M-1 rifle instead of a carbine.

“What often happened was the Germans might send out a patrol at the same time just by coincidence and we would kind of startle each other at the same moment and ignore each other purposely. That happened a lot and we thought it was going to happen this time, but they opened fire on us.”

In the close quarters chaos of the fire fight, he said, “I jumped into a roadside ditch with my M-1 and it was knocked out of my hand by the guy I killed. Had to. I had a trench knife in my boot and I attacked him with that and fortunately I beat him, or he would have beaten me.” Only one man was coming out alive and Silber lived to tell the tale. He does so without boast or pleasure but a it-was-him-or-me soberness.

A desperate Germany was sending almost anyone it could find to the front, including boys. The SS troop Silber dispatched was an adult, therefore, he said, “I didn’t have that to worry about on my conscience.”

“After that most of the units we encountered were made up either of young conscripts, and I mean below the age of 18, or middle aged men, as almost a last gasp. I saw German soldiers who couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 years old. I also saw men in their 40s and 50s.”

This last gasp “was a hopeful sign” Germany was through, but he added, “We didn’t feel very comfortable fighting against 14 year olds. I mean, if we had to do it, we did it because they were trying to kill us. We lived with it, that’s all.”

Finally breaking out of the mountains onto the Rhine Plain was a great relief. For the first time since the start of the campaign, he said, “we got to sleep in an intact house. We proceeded around Strausberg. We were in the U.S. 7th Army and integrated into our army corps was the French 1st Army and they were made up mostly of North Africans. Most of them were Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians, I guess. They had come across the Mediterranean with de Gaulle. We saw them from time to time. They had a reputation of being good fighters.

“We headed north paralleling the Rhine River and we were approaching the Maginot Line (the elaborate French fortification system Germany outflanked during its blitz into France). On December 14, 1944 we had orders to break through it. The Germans had artillery, some troops and some tanks zeroed in and ready to go.”

All hell then broke loose.

“We woke up one morning to the sound of artillery high above us, exploding in the trees,” recalled Silber. “We were on the side of a ravine through which a road had been cut and on that road was a tank destroyer outfit — using World War I leftover anti-tank guns. They were a platoon of African-Americans. The bravery those guys exhibited was unbelievable. When I think of it I become emotional because they were shot up to hell and kept fighting.”

His second close brush with death then occurred.

“The artillery action slowed down and we began to advance into the Maginot Line,” he said. “The Germans had some tanks positioned between fixed fortresses. We encountered off in the distance a tank — 400 or 500 yards away. It was very slowly approaching us. The tank destroyer outfit had been so decimated they were pretty much out of action, so we had bazookas. Our bazooka team in my platoon was knocked out. By that time I was the platoon leader. I picked up the bazooka, knelt and loaded it, fired once and missed. It was quite a distance still.

“The last thing I can remember is that tank lowering its beastly 88 millimeter cannon in my direction…I woke up the next day in an Army field hospital. Apparently the shell was a dud but its impact half buried me in my foxhole. Our platoon medic dug me out of the collapsed foxhole and got me out of the way. I was unconscious. Both my arms were broken and my left rib cage was pretty well beat up. I woke up December 16 and that was the day the Battle of the Bulge erupted about a hundred kilometers north of us.”

Silber spent the remainder of the war healing.

“The next day the field hospital was emptied out of patients and it moved north to take care of casualties from the Bulge,” he said. “I was shipped along with other patients by ambulance to the U.S. 23rd General Hospital at Vittel, France, a spa town. It had been a resort. It had a racetrack and a casino. We wound up in the grand hotel.

“Even though my arms were in casts by then I enjoyed being there, believe me.”

Ending up sidelined from the action, banged up but without any life threatening injury, reminded him of something he and his buddies often joked about to help pass the time.

“Especially when I was an enlisted man we used to sit and talk in our foxholes, usually at night when things were quiet, smoking a cigarette under a tarpaulin or something, about the ‘million dollar wound.’ We’d speculate on what it would take to get us back to the States without getting really hurt.

“Well, maybe I should be ashamed of this, but that was one of the things I thought of in the hospital — that I had kind of one of those (wounds). Except I was hurt a little more than I would have chosen.”

Back home, he continued mending at Rhodes General Hospital in Utica, New York. A restless Silber completed his college studies by correspondence and volunteered in the public relations office. He penned the script for a weekly radio show written, produced and acted by patients, mostly on war experiences, that the hospital sponsored. Silber shared in a George Foster Peabody Award for public service a show segment won. “It wasn’t my brilliant writing or anything,” he said, “but I was part of the process.”

He was still hospitalized when VJ Day sparked celebrations over the war’s end.

One of his PR tasks was delivering copy to the local Utica Daily Press, where he secured a job upon his discharge. “I took my swearing out ceremony as we called it at 10 o’clock in the morning and by two o’clock I was down there working for a salary, not much of a salary — $38 a week. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Utica. I actually was stationed in a bureau in Rome, New York 15 miles away.”

From there he returned to his old stomping grounds in the Big Apple, where he worked for the New York Sun. A plum early assignment put him in the company of Harry Truman, “the VIP who really impressed me most,” said Silber. “I rode his (1948) campaign train. I was pretty raw material then, a real cub reporter, but I got the assignment and I ran with it. I even got to kibbutz his (Truman’s) poker game.”

Silber recalls Truman as “very kind, although he’d pick on guys for fun,” adding, “He was just a pretty decent man but he had shall we say a frothy tongue.”

When the Sun folded in 1950 Silber got on with “a blue ribbon” PR firm, but as he once put it, “I just had the romance of daily journalism in my blood.” Thus he began searching for a newspaper job. His choice came down to a Kansas City paper and the Omaha World-Herald, and $5 more a week brought him here in 1955.

He started out on the rewrite desk.

The Herald had a team of reporters out covering the Charles Starkweather story but Silber was familiar with the mounting murders and resulting manhunt around the upper Midwest from rewriting field reports. Then, as things often happen in a newsroom, Silber found himself enlisted to cover a major development.

“When the Starkweather case broke, our chief photographer Larry Robinson, who was versed in aviation and friendly to some of the operators out at the air base, chartered a good airplane on standby. So when we got the word in the newsroom about Starkweather being captured in Douglas, Wyo., city editor Lou Gerdes pointed to me and said, ‘Go!,’ and I went with Robby and John Savage.”

“We got there ahead of anybody else outside the immediate area and because of that we were able to have a lot of informality that wouldn’t exist today. We got friendly with the sheriff, Earl Heflin, and his wife, the jail matron. We got some good stories.”

Charles Starkweather in custody

Minus a wire to transmit photos, Robinson flew back with the negatives, while Silber and Savage stayed behind to cultivate more stories.

That night, a keyed up Silber, unable to sleep, walked from the hotel to the courthouse where the captured fugitives were held.

“The sheriff was answering telephone calls from all over the world with his wife’s help, and he was dead tired, so I said, ‘Why don’t you get some sleep while I sit in for you?’ He took advantage of that, and I took advantage of it, too.”

The story was a sensation everywhere it headlined.

“There weren’t that many serial murders in those days for one thing,” said Silber, “and it seemed to have all the elements — a teen with his girlfriend going around shooting people, not at random but for one reason or another, and it just caught on. Besides that, we were feeding a lot of stuff to the Associated Press and United Press. I was a stringer for Reuters and they were getting plenty of it. I was also stringing for the New York Daily News and at that time it was the largest circulation newspaper in the country.

“It just captured the imagination of readers.”

Caril Ann Fugate

So Silber wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to further play the story when one presented itself. Having relieved the sheriff, Silber then convinced Heflin’s wife to let him interview Caril Ann Fugate when Mrs. Heflin went to check on her. He ended up doing interviews with Fugate and Starkweather, separately, while Savage snapped photos — getting exclusive stories and pictures in the process.

Regarding Fugate, Silber said, “I had mixed feelings about her at the time, and then over a period of several weeks when more and more reports were coming in about her I became convinced she was not innocent. She was goading him to shoot people.” He said Starkweather struck him as “the upper end of juvenile delinquency, because he was 17 when he was captured. He was inarticulate. He couldn’t give a straight answer.”

Silber’s most far-flung assignment took him to the South Pole in 1962 as part of the press pool on a military junket with dignitaries Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, radio-newsreel commentator Lowell Thomas and Notre Dame president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. “We staged out of Christchurch, New Zealand,” he said. “It’s a long ride down there in a prop plane.” En route, everyone geared up with layers of thermal clothing.

U.S. South Pole station

“We landed at (Amundsen-Scott) Pole Station — the actual landing strip they carved out of the ice about a mile or so from the pole. When we got there the temperature was 60 something below zero. They made heated track vehicles available, but Gen. Doolittle, Lowell Thomas and Fr. Hesburgh said no, They walked. So as a result we in the press pool had to walk, too (much to their curse-laden dismay).

“The actual stay on the ice as we called it was 2 1/2 weeks. We took day trips to scientific-research stations and historical places where early explorers had froze or starved to death.”

Flying to the pole station in a C-130 a tired Silber clambered atop crates lashed in the aisle and when he awoke a fellow member of the Fifth Estate said, “You know where you’ve been sleeping?” A clueless Silber shrugged, no. “On cases of dynamite,” his colleague gleefully informed him.

Among the most unforgettable characters Silber knew was bombastic Gen. Curtis LeMay, the first commander of the Strategic Air Command. “He was tough but he was a patriot through and through,” he said. “I admired him but it was tough to get along with him.” An enduring LeMay anecdote Silber attests is true found the general lighting a cigar near a refueling plane. When an aide mentioned the danger of the plane blowing up, LeMay blustered, “It wouldn’t dare to.”

 

lemay

Gen. Curtis LeMay

Silber and Sissy attended many a lavish black-tie officers’ party at Offutt.

There wasn’t much posh about reporting in Vietnam, where Silber covered the war as early as 1964. On a later visit there he ran into Omaha television reporter John Hlavacek, a former print foreign correspondent for whom Silber has high regard.

In 1970 Silber and other press accompanied Ross Perot on a chartered trip the billionaire organized ostensibly to deliver supplies to U.S airmen held as prisoners of war in North Vietnam. The hopskotch trip, which Henry Kissinger was behind, failed to deliver any supplies but did raise awareness of the POWs’ plight.

Upon reflection, Silber said his military reporting, which earned him numerous awards, “was satisfying — very much so. It was a high point.”

Back home, Silber claims credit for thinking of the Husker football books he and colleagues Jim Denney and Hollis Limprecht collaborated on, the second of which was a biography of Bob Devaney. Silber thought highly of Devaney.

“I loved the man. He was just a hell-raiser. A down-to-earth guy. A man’s-man.”

Over the years Silber wrote pieces for Readers Digest, Esquire and other national publications. He was a Reuters stringer for 20 years.

“I could never be satisfied with just working 8 hours a day. I had to be doing other things, too. I had a little office set up at home and I would do what I could.”

He means to resume his memoirs — for his grandkids — now that he’s cancer free for the first time in years. Long ago divorced from his first wife and the mother of his two daughters, Silber and Sissy have been partners 36 years now. Her warm, bigger-than-life personality complements his own hail-fellow-well-met charm.

Each retired comfortably from divergent careers. While he never became rich as a reporter he did well as a World-Herald stock holder. When Sissy’s father left behind his Katelman’s hardware supply store she and her mother took it over and ran it till 1981, when the Kanesville Highway went in.

Howard and Sissy met as a result of, what else?, a story Silber was working on. They’ve been inseparable since marrying in 1975.

Summing up his eventful life and career, Silber said, “There’s not too many things I’d change.”

From the Archives: Cowboy-turned Scholar Discovers Kinship with 19th Century Expedition Explorer

September 17, 2011 3 comments

 

 

NOTE: My apologies to those who read this post when I first put it up, as it was filled with typos. I failed to proof the copy and it made for a very rough read. It won’t happen again.

With this post I am starting a periodic series featuring favorite stories of mine from deep in my archives. The story below is from 1990 and profiles a charming man, Paul Schach, who has since passed. I got to know Schach just a bit when I worked as public relations director at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. My friend, then Joslyn western history curator Joseph Porter introduced me to Schach, who was engrossed in a multi-year translation project of a vast set of journals or diaries that German explorer Prince Maximilian of Wied kept of a historic expedition he made of North America. The 1832-34 expedition also had a fine artist along, Karl Bodmer, who made sketches and watercolor paintings of the vanishing West. The Maximilain diary and the Bodmer artworks are in the Joslyn’s permanent collections and I was struck both by how uniquely suited Schach was for the project and by how deeply connected he felt to Maximilian.

Also on this blog is a story I did a few years later about an artist who drew inspiration from the life and work of Karl Bodmer. That piece is titled, “Naturalist-Artist John Lokke – In Pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and in the Footsteps of Karl Bodmer.”


From the Archives: Cowboy-turned Scholar Discovers Kinship with 19th Century Expedition Explorer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Orignally published in Omaha Metro Update (now Metro Magazine)

In his 52 years as a language scholar retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Paul Schach has seldom strayed far from his German heritage and rough-and-tumble roots. It’s only fitting that Schach, who loves a good yarn, has lived a storybook life – from cowboying along the Arkansas River to doing top-secret intelligence work during World War II to forging a distinguished academic career.

Until his 1986 returement Schach held the Charles J. Mach professorship of Germanic languages at UNL, where he taught 35 years. The noted philogist has traveled widely to record and study ethnic languages and literary traditions native to Northern Europe. He’s published his work in scores of articles and eight books.

Schach’s work has taken hiim to Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Germany. A companion on some of his overseas trips was his late wife, Ruth, who was also a colleague. She typed and proofed all his work during their 48-year marriage. In 1956-57 the couple and their three daughters lived in Germany, where the children attended public school while Schach taught and worked on a book.

“Ruth typed the manuscript of the first book I ever published, during the winter of 1956 in Germany,” Schach said. “That was a cold winter and buildings were only heated two hours out of 24 because of fuel shortages. I would come back home at noon for lunch and she’d be at a little red Remington portable typewriter.

“She had a sweater, overcoat, woolen cap and scarf on. She’d type for awhile, stop, blow on her hands, put on gloves, blow on her hands a bit and then type a few more sentences. And that’s how that first book came to be typed. I’m just beginning to realize now she did about half my work for me. I got the credit for it – she did the work.”

Today, the 74-year-old is still busy writing and researching, only now his daughter Joan is his proofreader. Schach hopes to finish three books yet. But one project in particular has occupied much of his attention the past three years. It’s the translation of the diary kept by German explorer-naturalist-ethnologist, Maximilian Furst zu Wied of his 1832-34 expedition to North America with Swiss artist Karl Bodmer.

Maximilian’s chronicles, along with Bodmer’s paintings and sketches, document their historic journey along the Missouri River. The diary, artwork and related articles are housed at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Center for Western Studies, where Schach commutes from his Lincoln, Neb. home to work with the original manuscript. Scholars regard the collection as an unparalleled record of the early American West.

 

 

Prince Maximilian

 

 

Translating the epic, 4,000 -page diary is painstaking work which Schach is uniquely qualified to do. He grew up speaking and reading a dialect very similar to Maximilian’s – one few are fluent in today. As a boy Schach reveled in stories told in German by his extended immigrant family.

Schach’s work is made more difficult by Maximilian’s tiny script, which can be read only with the aid of a magnifying glass. The diary will be published in four volumes by Joslyn and the University of Nebraska Press. Schach has only a final reading to do before volume one is published within a year. Work on volume two is nearing completion and by July Schach said the translation project should reach its halfway point.

His careful reading and meticulous translation of Maximilian’s observations have put him on intimate terms with the man, whom he feels a close kinship with by virtue of their shared dialect, heritage and interests. Strengthening the bond is the fact Maximilian spent a summer in Pennsylvania, where Schach was born and raised.

“I’m seeing parts of that state much more clearly now through his descriptions. So many of the things he describes are things I have experiencd in my life,” said Schach.

Just as Maximilian spemnt a lifetime as both a rugged outdoorsman and rigorous scholar, so too has Schach. During his long career Schach has remaimed true to bedrock values learned as a boy gorwing up “mainly in mining camps and cow towns” during the Great Depression.

Despite harships, he enjoyed an arcadian youth in the fertile back country of eastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal mining region, where he developed a lifelong love for the great outdoors.

“Until I was about 20 I lived outdoors whenever I could – hunting, fishing and trapping. My father was a coal miner. Some days he’d strike it rich, and then for weeks he wouldn’t have any money at all. We spent quite a bit of our free time fishing and hunting for food. Yes, times were hard, but people in those times were hard, always shared things. Everybody helped everybody else. I was always being farmed out to work on different farms when someone got hurt or sick.”

Schach learned a healthy respect for nature and the land from his maternal grandfather, nicknamed the “Old Black Hessian” for both his dark features and horse-trading skills.

“When people came and wanted to buy soome wood on his farm, he refused to sell. They said, ‘We’ll pay you more money for those trees than you’ll get for the rest of your farm.’ ‘It belongs to the farm,’ he replied. ‘Well, the farm belongs to you, doesn’t it?’ He wasn’t quite sure,” Schach said, “because it would go to his son or daughter. It was his farm, but it was there for people to use and the idea was to make it a better farm then when he got it from his father.”

Schach laments, “There’s not so much of that (philosophy) “left anymore – people are mining the soil and destorying the forests.”

 

 

A Karl Bodmer watercolor from the expedition

 

 

He said Maximilian espoused the same Old World wisdom and was “shocked, even at that time, at the way Americans were destrorying their forests and their soil. In Europe, if you cut down a tree you have to plant two to replace that one.”

According to Schach, Maximilian’s enlightened environmental concerns were typical of a man who was ahead of his time. “There were so many ways in which he was so very modern, such as the idea of conserving the soil and forests. There’s so much to learn from a man like this.”

Far from a rural idyll, however, life for the Schachs was full of severe trials, just as Maximilan weathered blizzards, epidemics and other miseries on his trek.

Then there were the man-made problems the Schachs and their neighbors confronted.

“There was a lot of trouble in the coal mines,” Schach said. “The owners would shut down the mines so the miners wouldn’t ask for more wages. You couldn’t even buy coal in the coal regions – you had to go out to slag dumps at night, where we were shot at frequently. My father wanted to get out…there was just no future there because he didn’t own any land.”

The family pulled up stakes and headed west. They settled in Colorado, where Schach’s father hoped to dig for gold but was disillusioned to find “the gold mines had petered out just as coal had in Pennsylvania.” He opted for running a grocery store instead.

Schach helped support the family of eight by working as a hired hand on a cattle ranch along the Arkansas River, riding horseback in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. The full-fledged cowboy broke wild horses, drove cattle and lived a Western life most young men only dreamed about.

“I enjoyed working on the farm and especially on that ranch. Coming from the East to the West, I suppose, made it more romantic.

“We used to move the cattle up in the spring to a higher pasture in the mountains and then, in the fall, bring them down. When you brought them down they were just as wild as buffalo. you could handle them on horseback, but on foot they’d either run away from you or they’d come right at you,  in which case you ran for the closest fence,” he recalled, laughing heartily.

“I liked working with horses, but I guess I was never too good at it because I’ve been banged up pretty badly several times.”

The last time he tried taming a horse was just 10 years ago. The result: three broken ribs. Years later he still feels the effects and carries the scars of his horse spills. He joked that it’s open to question whether he broke horses or they broke him. “But I still love them,” he said.

Schach passed on what little horse sense had to two of his daughters, who are “very good with horses.” He sometimes goes riding with them at a local stable. But to his daughters’ amusement a bronco buster’s old habits die hard. He’s been bucked, bitten and kicked enough times that he mounts any horse, even a tame one, as warily as if it were a time bomb.

“I set up close to the shoulder, facing the back, so he can’t get me with his foreleg. I pull his head away from me so he can’t bite me. And I watch his hind leg and am conscious to get my left foot in the stirrup and to swing into the saddle. Then I wait to see what’s going to happen. Of course, with these horses around here, nothing happens. He just sits there,” said Schach, who delights in telling the story.

 

 

A Karl Bodmer watercolor from the expedition

 

 

He exchanged a saddle for a school desk in the mid-’30s, when he enrolled at Albright College in Reading, Pa. Although he was a roughrider, Schach always found time for books and writing. He had as his models two older sisters who taught school.

“I always read a lot. I read German and English from the time I was 5. I used to keep notebooks with lists of all the words I could find in German and English of colors, for example. Or synonyms of all kinds.”

He was immersed in his people’s rich reservoir of culture and language. “The Old Black Hessian was a marvelous storyteller. I remember one story had two different endings. When I was about 10 I got up enough courage to ask him which of the two stories was the true one. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Paulos, the one is as true as the other,’ which was a marvelous answer.”

Schach, who’s recorded German immigrant dialects from Canada to Texas, has collected Russian-German folktales handed down through generations. He cherishes both the grassroots education he got at home and his formal training in high school. He feels today’s students are shortchanged.

“If you intended to go to college you had to have a thorough knowledge of French, German and Latin. You took science and math courses straight through, including trigonmetry and geometry. I would say graduates of my high school in 1935 or so had a much more solid education than the average college graduate today.

“We’ve lost touch. I read European newspapers all the time…people all over the world are talking about what’s happened to the United States, how we’ve fallen behind in science and can’t make anything that meet their standards. The neglect of languages has been a terrible handicap to our country and we have suffered greatly from it, too.”

He believes language studies are vital “not only for what they tell us about language” but for what they reveal about culture, history and ourselves. As an ethnologist, Maximilian studied the cultures and languages of Native Americans from a humanist perspective rare for expolorers of the period. His progressive learnings helped him empathize with the Indians while his scientific training lent his descriptions great objectivity. He approached the study of Indians not as something strange, not as the savages we’re used to reading about in cowboy and Indian stories, but as human beings. He didn’t idealize them. He didn’t denigrate them. They were people – good, bad, indifferent – and he just portrayed them as they were,” Schach explained, adding that Maximilian’s accounts are treasured for their wealth of detail and accuracy.

 

 

Statue of Karl Bodmer and Prince Maximilian at the Castle of Neuweid in Germany

 

 

Maximilian, whom Schach described as “a very well-educated man,” had both a priviliged and liberal upbringing. A nobleman by birth, Maximilian’s inherited title was Prince of Wied. His grandfather had established the city of Newied, on the banks of the Rhine, as a refuge for victims of religious persecution. The family castle was located there.

“Early on, Maximilian was in contact with peoples of all nationalities, religions and so on,” said Schach. “I think this was a big help to him when he studied the Indians.”

Schach’s own educational pursuits have been diverse. After graduatiing from Albright in 1938 he began work on his master’s degree at the University of Pennyslvania. Before finishing his thesis, World War II erupted and Schach soon found himself putting his language skills to use in the U.S. Navy. He was the only U.S.-born member of a translation project team assigned the top-secret duty of translatiing captured documents on Germany’s jet propulsion and rocketry programs.

“As soon as they developed something, we knew about it,” said Schach. “The material was easy to read and understand, but we had no (compatible) terminology in English. We hadn’t done anything  in those areas yet. We literally had no words to translate into English. That was a strange and a frightening situation.”

It was all the more frightening, he said, because “we knew the V-2 was designed for an atomic warhead. We also knew there were German engineers who could construct an atomic bomb.”

The stateside team based in Philadelphia did hands-on work as well – once reconstructing a Messerschmitt 262 from parts of three of the German jet planes that had crashed. It flew, too. “I guess that the first jet plane to every fly on this country,” he said.

After the war Schach taught at Penn, where he also earned a doctorate. He taught several years at Albright and at North Central Collge in Chicago. He joined the UNL staff in 1951, lured by the opportunity to study the area’s many varieties of German, Czech and Scandinavian dialects. Another factor was Lincoln’s close proximity to Colorado, where the Schachs often vacationed summers, roughing it in the outback.

“We never had much money. The salaries were miserable then. One summer we had $75 – I took the tent, a gun and my fishing pole and we all headed west in the car.” En route to Colorado their meager funds were cut by a third when a flat tire needed replacing. To conserve money that summer the family ate whatever Schach hooked or shot. “We ended up eating mostly fish that summer. At one point the children just sort of sat and looked down their noses at the fish, and Ruth said, ‘You better go to town and buy some hamburgers.'”

Until recently Schach still hunted regulalry, favoring the Nebraska Sand Hills for ducks and the Pine Ridge area for deer. He ventured as far north as Ontario, Canada for bigger game, including a bear he bagged with one shot.

Translating Maximilian’s diary leaves precious little time for the outdoors these days. “I’ve become perhaps too much interested in the man. This is one of only several major projects I’ve been working on. But it’s like reading a good book – you read it four times and you see things you didn’t see the first time. Maximilian was a very remarkable person.

Some would say Schach is no slouch himself.

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