Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Godfather III and the Supreme Court

I’ve tried to stay away from writing about politics, but I increasingly feel like Michael Corleone in Godfather III: “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.”

Wednesday was a great day of victory for LGBT citizens. Nay, for all citizens, at least those who cherish equality. The dual U.S. Supreme Court decisions invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act and California Proposition 8 that withheld the opportunity for same-sex marriage in that state extended the privileges and rights enjoyed by the heterosexual community.

The LGBT community had reason to cheer. Those who opposed their equality did so mainly on a religious premise, that God did not sanction gay unions, according to their reading of the Bible. But the law is supposed to be blind toward religion. In deciding the two cases, a majority of justices rightly saw the issues in legal, not religious, terms.

But in the long run, the Roberts Court proved itself far more reactionary than progressive. Its decision Tuesday to strike down a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was more far-reaching than its Wednesday rulings. It will condemn our country to years if not decades of regressive, repressive, racist legislators and the poison they will infuse into local, state and national legislation. 

Democrats as well as Republicans practice gerrymandering to secure majorities in legislatures. Section 4 of the Act protected minorities from many of the excesses sought, mostly by Republicans. By declaring that section unconstitutional, the Court opened the door to skullduggery, which began almost immediately. Texas said it would implement a previously stalled voter identification law and would alter districts without Federal review. The latter will have the immediate effect of putting Wendy Davis, the Texas state senator who filibustered against a repressive abortion bill Tuesday night, into a district with fewer Democratic voters, an action Federal review did not allow a few years ago. The voter ID law, opponents believe, will dampen turnout by minorities who generally vote Democratic.

To be sure, new laws and redistricting can be challenged in court, but the procedure is costly and time-consuming. The Court invited Congress to amend Section 4 by updating the voting data on which it was passed, on the surface an acceptable remedy. Except when one considers the inability of recent Congresses to reach consensus and the fact that the ruling will send to the House more representatives with extreme views unwilling to compromise. 

It’s common for those who disagree with the reactionary rulings by the Court to blame Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito and Thomas (Kennedy, too, when he hangs around the evil foursome). But let’s not blame them. Let’s put the blame where it truly belongs—on the American people for voting into office Reagan, Bush 1 and Bush 2. Reagan appointed Scalia and Kennedy, Bush 1 appointed Thomas, Bush 2 appointed Roberts and Alito. 

Anyone who doesn’t realize that the choice of a president sets in motion the opportunity to impact our way of life for decades to come doesn’t comprehend the role the Supreme Court plays in our society. Tuesday and Wednesday’s rulings have, to paraphrase Michael Corleone, pulled us back into reality.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Street Scene, Death By Stiletto, Drive Time and Hiding Out in Plain Sight

Sylvia Sidney was my father’s favorite actress. Perhaps that explained part of my mother’s attraction to him. Her name was Sylvia as well. My mother did not reciprocate. Kopel, or Karl, was not among her heartthrob names. Like most women in the 1930s and early 1940s, she was partial to Clark Gable. She also favored Tyrone Power. When she’d see one of Powers’ movies, with his dark, languorous eyes and chiseled veneer, she’d say, “He could park his slippers beside my bed, anytime.” 

But back to Sylvia Sidney. A few years ago I watched Street Scene, a 1931 movie about life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Though not the lead, Sylvia Sidney had a central role as a daughter seeking escape from the tenements to a better life. Much of the movie, adapted by Elmer Rice from his Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, takes place on the stoops outside a walk-up apartment building.

As The NY Times reported last Friday, streets in Park Slope, Brooklyn, hardly resemble “a mean quarter of New York,” as Rice described the venue of his work. But that didn’t stop the Brave New World Repertory Theater from choosing the front of 568-570 Fifth Street from serving as the backdrop for a street theater production of Street Scene this past weekend ( 

Why do I bring this to your attention? Because 568 Fifth Street is where our daughter Ellie and husband Donny live. If you’ve taken the time to open up the link provided, you’d have seen a woman perched in the window to the right. That’s the window of Ellie and Donny’s apartment!

Some who saw Ellie perform as a teenager always thought she would make it to Broadway. She chose not to pursue that line of work. At least her apartment window has made its mark on Broadway, er, Off-Off-Off Broadway. 

Did anyone else find it salaciously ironic that just days before The Times ran a story in its Thursday Styles section entitled, "Going Toe-to Toe in Stilettos", about over-the-top designer shoe sales at Bergdorf Goodman and other fashionable emporiums, a Houston woman was arrested for allegedly killing her boyfriend by piercing his head, repeatedly, with her stiletto heels?

None of the articles I saw detailed how long the stiletto heels were. 

There’s an old saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. Gilda and I found this out last Friday on our way north to visit Dan, Allison and our grandchildren. 

We thought we left pre-rush hour, around 2:30 pm. But no sooner did we hit the Connecticut border on the Merritt Parkway that traffic backed up almost to a standstill. We checked our car’s  and our phones’ GPS traffic reports. The highway would be turtle-like for miles on end. So we opted to try to beat the system by taking back roads past the tie-up. 

Mistake. It took us more than an hour to go what normally takes 15 minutes. Wherever we turned, local streets or the Connecticut Turnpike, we got stuck. A three-hour ride to Massachusetts took five hours. Had we just plodded along on the Merritt, I’m sure we could have shaved, oh, maybe 30 minutes off that time. But then, we wouldn’t have seen the back roads of Greenwich and Stamford and wondered about the people who could afford to live in mansion after mansion.

Traffic, or more to the point, inconsiderate drivers, are becoming the bain of Gilda’s daily commute home up the Harlem River Drive. She expects traffic from cars headed toward the George Washington Bridge. They should be in the left and center lanes. But those going to the end of the Drive, as Gilda does before crossing the Harlem River on the Fordham Road Bridge, expect the right lane to be free of GWB commuters. Not. Too many of those New Jersey bound are clogging the right lane, waiting to dart into the center lane at the last possible moment. Trouble is, when the center lane is locked down tight, they wind up jamming the right lane and making it impossible for Gilda and her fellow northern travelers to pass gently on their way home. What is normally a 45 minute ride can turn into a two hour-plus end-of-the-day-hell, as it did last Thursday. Arghh!!!

There’s another old saying, not as common as the previous reference but still appropriate to recent news: “hiding in clear view” or its alternate, “hiding in plain sight”. 

Those descriptions come to mind because of the trial of Boston organized crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger who evaded detection and arrest by the FBI for 16 years. He was nabbed two years ago only after an alert neighbor in Santa Monica, Calif., tipped off authorities. 

Bulger’s case preceded the latest claim that an alleged Ukrainian Nazi war criminal has been hiding in plain sight in Minnesota since 1949. According to an Associated Press investigation, “94-year-old Michael Karkoc entered the U.S. in 1949 by lying to American authorities about his role in the SS-led Ukrainian Self Defense Legion, which is accused of torching villages and killing civilians in Poland.”

 Let’s leave it to the judicial systems of the United States, Germany and Poland to determine the veracity of the claims and denials. But my family can tell you from experience that choosing Minnesota to hide out in plain sight was a smart choice.

In the early 1920s Jack Fursetzer, a cousin of my father, came to New York. Illegally. Within a short time he was alerted to a roundup of illegal aliens planned by immigration authorities. He asked an acquaintance where would be a good place to hide. Minnesota, he was told.

Off he went to the wilds of the upper Midwest, specifically Minneapolis. He changed his name to Brushman; he switched back to Fursetzer after an amnesty was declared and he became a legal citizen. He started a furrier business, married and had six children. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Story Full of Irony

Here’s a story full of irony. But first, I'm indebted to Ken G for turning me on several months to a most interesting and educational web site which delivers a daily recap, from a Jewish perspective, of four important events or people from that day in history. Regrettably, I don't always read the historical notes each day they appear in my email, which explains why I am behind with this blog entry from a missive from last week.

For last Wednesday, June 13, the Jewdayo message revolved around one of the first widely publicized anti-Semitic events in U.S. history. Seems a certain Judge Henry Hilton, in 1877, refused to allow a wealthy and politically influential banker and railroad investor, Joseph Seligman, to stay at the Grand Union Hotel he owned in Saratoga Springs, NY. As Jewdayo explained, “Hilton, a member of the Boss Tweed political machine, had a personal grudge with Seligman, who was a member of an anti-Tweed political faction—but the reason offered to Seligman for being denied a room in the hotel (where he had previously stayed several times) was that business was off because gentile customers did not like sharing the hotel with "Israelites," therefore all Jews were being barred from registering.”

In short order, signs proclaiming “No Jews or Dogs Admitted Here” sprouted up in many hotels across the country.

Here’s irony Number One: Though he shared the same name with Conrad Hilton, who wasn’t born until 1887, Judge Hilton was no relation to the famous hotelier.

Irony Number Two: Some 45 years after Judge Hilton died in 1899, the Grand Union was bought by a syndicate of Jewish investors, Tikvah Associates, Inc. of New York City. Gilda’s father, Irving Barasch, was president of Tikvah Associates. Irving’s family owned two hotels in Saratoga Springs, the Empire and the Brooklyn. Both served kosher food to their Jewish clientele.  But anti-Semitism still ran strong in the village. Within months, civic pressure forced Irving and his partners to sell the Grand Union. 

Irony Number Three: The Grand Union, at one time the world’s largest hotel, was demolished in 1952-3, replaced by (wait for it) .... a Grand Union supermarket. At one time one of the nation’s largest supermarket chains, Grand Union is now just 21 stores and is part of Tops Markets of Buffalo.

Irony Number Four: Conrad Hilton’s hotel chain eventually came to Saratoga. The Saratoga Hilton is at the north end of Broadway, exactly where the Empire and Brooklyn Hotels stood before they were taken by eminent domain in the early 1970s as part of Saratoga’s redevelopment. 

Irony Number Five: Wikipedia says In 1879 Judge Hilton bought a 1,500-acre estate named "Woodlawn" in Saratoga Springs. Following his death “the property was left to decay, and was auctioned off as eight parcels in 1916. A portion of Woodlawn is now the campus of Skidmore College.” Our daughter Ellie is a graduate of Skidmore College.

Friday, June 14, 2013

My Link to Colorado Springs

The Black Forest north of Colorado Springs is ablaze. I've been to Colorado Springs several times, the first back in 1980s. I went there to scope out a remodeled Montgomery Ward store, part of the chain’s futile effort to make itself relevant in the latter stages of the 20th century.

I drove down from Denver. I arrived at the store hours before it opened on a Sunday. With nothing better to do, I decided to drive to the top of nearby Pikes Peak. One of the tallest mountains in the eastern Rockies, Pikes Peak is known for its challenging switchback route to the top, made all the more exciting—read that, nerve-wracking—by its lack of protective guard rails. Keep in mind that going up the mountain you're usually driving on the outer edge of the road. Woe to the driver who chooses to take in the scenery instead of keeping both eyes on the twisting roadway. As I recall, about halfway up the paved road turned to dirt. Fortunately, it hadn't rained, so there were few ruts or puddles.

When I reached the summit the view indeed was breathtaking. It also was difficult to breathe, as the crest of the mountain is 14,115 feet above sea level.

Going down was no less challenging, with signs advising drivers to put their vehicles into low gear. I made a mental note to tell Gilda this excursion would not be amenable to her as she would be fretting the whole way up and down that we would catapult off the mountainside. She'd have been especially agitated if the kids would have been in the car. I could just hear her saying, “Quiet kids, Daddy has to concentrate on driving.”

Years later, as our family drove an equally dangerous Schnebly Hill Road into Sedona, Arizona, Gilda did not disappoint. She admonished Dan and Ellie not to distract me as I navigated our rented minivan along the twisting, mountainous dirt road with breathtaking views of the red mountains surrounding Sedona.

My next trip to Colorado Springs came in 1998. My magazine helped one of our key technology advertisers host a three-day users conference at the Broadmoor Hotel, to be followed by a multi-page special report on the proceedings. We would receive $100,000 for our work, about three times our average account billing.

All went well. At the close of the last session the retailers in attendance were invited to play a round of golf in a tournament. I am by no means a golfer, so I diplomatically deferred.

The next year we again worked with the account to host its user conference, this time in Lake Geneva, Wis., at the former Playboy Club resort. Another resounding success, but this time the account’s national sales manager insisted I join his foursome for the golf tournament. He assured me he would tolerate my incompetence on the links.

To his credit he said nothing during our round. But we never received another piece of business from that account for the next 10 years, until he left the company. No one can convince me otherwise that I lost that business no later than the third hole of that fateful and dreadful round of golf.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

News of the Day: Rupert, Interns, Scammers

Now that Rupert Murdoch has decided to divorce Wendi Deng Murdoch, his wife of 14 years and mother of their two young daughters, do you think she regrets shielding him in July 2011 from the pie-throwing protester during the British parliamentary subcommittee hearing on the phone hacking committed by Rupert’s editorial staffers? 

Several news items of late reminded me of my experiences with interns. I was thrilled to see a Federal District Court judge has ruled interns must be paid in all but the most limited of circumstances ( For many years my magazine sponsored an intern. We paid them $350 a week for 10 weeks. Not only did we pay them but we assigned them real tasks. They weren’t “go-fers.” Indeed, aside from writing stories and representing the magazine at trade events, they worked on our list of the Top 100 retailers, the most important data we compiled each year. It has always galled me that companies take advantage of young talent by impressing them into unpaid internships. 

We hired interns from across the country. One of them, a comely junior from Louisiana, is tied into another article that ran this week, namely, the surprise that awaits many visitors to New York who try to ship their legal handguns aboard the plane they will take back to their home state. All too often, the tourists are shown a part of the Big Apple few willingly want to see—the inside of a jail cell (

Our intern from Louisiana came to New York back in the days when the city had become synonymous with random shootings. That didn’t deter her parents from permitting her to spend three months up north. But when her mother—a parole officer—came to visit, she packed more than just a change of underwear. She brought along her trusted revolver, nestled within easy reach inside her pocketbook. Fortunately, she never had to use it, and, to may knowledge, she escaped from New York without incident at the airport.

While we’re on the subject of escaping without incident, one of the press releases in my in-box came from Mayflower, the moving company. It warned consumers to beware unscrupulous trucking companies that “offer low initial estimates, but then hold a victim's possessions hostage until they receive thousands of dollars in additional payments.”

Sound advice, one that recalled a slightly different experience of parents of a friend who were moving to Florida. They had just sold their house. Rather than take their furniture with them to the Sunshine State, they called in a furniture dealer who gave them a price for their belongings. Sounds legit, but when Gilda heard about it she cautioned against a scam based on the advice her brother Carl, a furniture dealer himself at the time, related. 

Gilda told our friend some dealers often are interested in just one or two items among all the furnishings they bought. They really have no interest in carting away what they consider to be junk. She explained the scam thusly— the morning the furniture would be taken the dealer would show up with too small a truck to carry all of it away. He’d promise to come back for a second load, packing just the good stuff in the first truck. Naturally, he would never return, leaving his victims with the need to pay another trucker to take the rest of their belongings away so they could leave their sold home “broom clean.” 

Alerted to this ruse, our friend’s parents told the dealer the deal was off. He got angry, screaming they’d never find another company willing to service them on such short notice. They held their ground, secure in the knowledge that Carl had provided them the name of an honest dealer who was waiting in the wings should a problem arise. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Wanted: Honest Customers

Whose customers are more honest, Wal-Mart’s or REI’s? Based on recent announcements from the companies, one might conclude shoppers at the discount store giant are more trustworthy than those of the outdoor gear retailer.

Already the nation’s largest seller of fresh fruit and vegetables, Wal-Mart wants more market share, so it has initiated new sourcing, quality control and employee training strategies for its produce section. The lynchpin of the program is a 100% money-back guarantee. What’s more, customers do not have to bring the offending produce back to the store to claim a refund. Their word will be their bond, or as Wal-Mart explained in its release, “If customers are not completely satisfied with Walmart's produce, they can bring back their receipt for a full refund. No questions asked and no need to bring back the produce.” 

No doubt Wal-Mart will keep tabs on customers to make sure the same ones are not abusing the privilege. Easy enough to do if the customer paid with a credit card. But many of the retailer’s patrons pay in cash, so it might be hard to track all who make returns, especially if there are multiple Wal-Marts in the local market. Still, it’s nice to see corporate America extending trust to the average citizen.

Seattle-based REI, on the other hand, has shelved its long-standing policy of accepting returns till the end of time. Because of a few bad apples taking advantage of the never-ending return policy, REI has put a one year limit on the practice, unless products prove to be defective. Outlet merchandise bought on will be returnable for just 30 days. 

In explaining the policy change to The Seattle Times, Senior Vice President of Retail Tim Spangler said, “What we found is that (a) small group of folks who are probably extending the policy beyond its intent, is getting bigger. And It’s not a sustainable thing long-term if we want to maintain this fantastic policy.” 

The Times also reported, “To reduce dubious returns, REI also has stopped accepting returns without question and is more insistent that there be proof of purchase. Some REI stores had been known to give store credit, if not money-back refunds, to customers without a receipt.” 

The newspaper noted that REI, which officially stands for Recreational Equipment Inc., had earned two dubious nicknames for its liberal return policy: “Rental Equipment Inc” and “Return Everything Inc.”

REI has reason to be more cautious. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the National Retail Federation “noted a newer trend of stolen goods being returned to stores without receipts for store credit in the form of a gift card. That gift card is then sold online or elsewhere for cash. The NRF's (ninth annual organized retail crime) survey reported that 77.8% of respondents had experienced some form of this gift card scheme.”

Accepting returns without making customers feel like criminals is a delicate balancing act. Reputations are burnished or tarnished at the customer service desk. Stories, some no doubt apocryphal, abound about retailers taking back suspect goods including some they didn’t even sell. Nordstrom has always been held up as the gold standard. It reputedly took back a set of four tires even though it never sold tires. Another of its legendary returns was of a wedding dress said by the mother of the bride never to have been worn by her jilted-at-the-altar daughter. Yet when the store staff took the dress out of the box after the customer left grains of rice came out as well. And then there was the story of the widow who returned a suit bought by her recently deceased husband. Store staff noticed the suit had an unusual odor. Turned out to be from embalming fluid. 

One of my favorite retailers is Costco because of its liberal return policy. But even Costco had to make accommodations because some customers were taking advantage. They would return consumer electronics items when newer models came out. So Costco, as did many other retailers, imposed a 90-day window for returns of electronics. Some, like Best Buy, even put a restocking fee in place.

One of my favorite examples of a rigid return policy gone wrong happened before my very eyes in a Child World toy store some 30 years ago. A distraught father was trying to return a plastic kiddy pool, only to be repeatedly told the store did not carry that brand. The customer screamed and screamed, insisting he bought the pool there, that he’d never shop there again if he didn’t get satisfaction. The store manager stuck to his guns. It was embarrassing to all who witnessed the extended exchange. 

No doubt the customer had conflated Child World with the Toys “R” Us barely a mile away. When I related the incident to Charles Lazarus, the founder and CEO of Toys “R” Us, he said his company’s policy was to take back any toy, even if it was not stocked by his chain. The overall customer experience was most important. The value of a customer telling his or her friends and relatives about a good experience, even one where they snookered the retailer, provided more long-term positive results than the negative publicity that same customer would generate if he or she went away angry. 

A few years later, Child World, the second largest toy store retail chain, closed down. Toys “R” Us is still in business.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Towing the Line

I see where New York City is planning to reduce its dependency on towing illegally parked cars in favor of booting them, forcing scofflaws to pay up on the spot to release their cars from incarceration (

Did you ever have your car towed? I did. In the spring of 1977 Gilda and I were living in New Haven, Conn. I had recently joined Nation’s Restaurant News as a field editor in the New York office. Based on the success of “A Taste of Chicago” the previous year, New York restaurateurs decided to support “A Taste of the Big Apple” on May 22 in Central Park. Chefs would show off their culinary talents to the hungry masses who would be inspired, they hoped, to reserve tables for complete meals at some future date at the respective fine-dining establishments. I wasn't assigned to cover the extravaganza but couldn't resist a chance to frolic in the park and nosh on some gourmet delights.

We drove down in our 1973 Chevy Vega hatchback, arriving at West 66 Street and Central Park West around noon. I couldn't believe our good fortune. A parking space. I read the posted signs and determined the spot was legal. We crossed into the park.  It was a spectacular spring day, full of sunshine and the aroma of delicious food. Around 4 pm we decided it was time to head home. 

As this is a story of being towed there's little reason to make our discovery of no-car-where-we-parked any more suspenseful than a Mister Rogers episode. I quickly discovered the “tow-away zone, no parking Saturday” sign I had missed in my earlier reconnaissance. All we could do was flag down a passing policeman to find out where the redemption pound was. 

Over near Chelsea Piers along the Hudson. In other words, a cab ride over. We had to pay a $75 towing fee and the illegal parking ticket before they'd release our car. By now it was close to 6 pm. Normally it took almost two hours to drive back to New Haven. But the towers had done something terrible to the Vega. I couldn't get the car to drive faster than 40 miles per hour the entire ride home. We crawled along the Connecticut Turnpike with our flashers blinking away, arriving home close to 10 pm, uncomfortable in the knowledge that the next morning I'd be chug-chugging along to my mechanic in Seymour to fix the Vega. 

He did a good job. I kept that Vega until 1986, reluctantly replacing it only after a teenager mistook his gas pedal for the brake and slammed into the rear of my car with such force the bumper collapsed into the back tires. All in all, the “Taste of the Big Apple” took a big bite out of our finances.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Present and Past Stories of Tragedy and War

The present has a way of intruding into my past. 

The Associated Press ran a story Monday about the discovery in the Everglades of a piece of jewelry thought to be from a passenger on one of two planes that crashed in the swampy muck. The crashes occurred 17 and 40 years ago. All 109 people aboard ValuJet Flight 592 perished in the 1996 crash; 99 of 176 aboard Eastern Airlines Flight 401 died (

I’m not sure what attracted me to read the article as the headline gave no clue to the tragedies. The headline: “Man hunting for pythons finds mysterious jewelry.” But as I read the story it struck a chord. My first year as a reporter for The New Haven Register, in Seymour, Conn., I interviewed a man who survived Eastern Airlines Flight 401 from New York to Miami when it went down in the Everglades December 29, 1972. I didn’t remember his name but I did recall he was a big man, that his legs were broken and deeply lacerated, the latter injury causing lingering pain for months as the guck from the Everglades infected his body. 

This being the age of the Internet, I trolled the Web deep into the night looking for a report on the crash. Here’s what I found, an excerpt from Crash by Rob and Sarah Elder:

“Quietly, during the flight, Edward Ulrich proposed to Sandra Burt; she accepted. He was forty-four, fair haired and balding, a big man who used to play college football. She was thirty-two and as slight as he was large. They both lived in Seymour, Connecticut, where he was a salesman for a copper company and she was a secretary in a bank. ‘I thought you'd like to see this,’ he said reaching into his pocket and producing a diamond ring. She looked at the ring, smiled and said ‘Thank you.’ They laughed and drank a champagne cocktail. It was ironic that the flight had more than five dozen empty seats, for when they booked, they were told the only seats available were in first class. Burt bought the tickets anyway. He and Sandra boarded the plane early and sat near the front in seats 4A and 4B. Directly ahead of them were a row of seats and the first class lounge, where there were several additional empty seats and a buffet of cheese and crackers. To their right were more empty seats. And behind them, an airplane carrying 176 people. Yet, Ed and Sandra were very much alone.”

I interviewed Ulrich several weeks after the crash in his home in Seymour. I can’t tell you if he and Sandra married, though I believe they did. Several months later I was transferred to another beat. I haven’t thought about that crash or my interview with Ulrich for decades, even though one of the retail industry leaders I covered, the head of Target, Robert Ulrich, shared the same last name. Why I chose to read the story about a python hunt is beyond my ken. Just another example of my life intersecting with events beyond my sphere of daily influence.

On the other hand, I do know why I was attracted to the following article about Jewish veterans of the Red Army in World War II ( 

My Uncle Willy’s wartime experience had all the suspense and plot twists of a Hollywood movie. Unlike my father who moved from Ottynia, a shtetl in Galicia, the southeastern part of Poland, to Danzig, and from there to New York, in January 1939, his brother Willy returned from Danzig to their small town where he married and had a son. At the outbreak of World War II, the Soviet Union took control of the area as part of the Polish Partition agreement it secretly negotiated with Nazi Germany. 

In June 1941 Germany invaded Russian territory, quickly occupying the Galicia region. Mass executions of Jews began. Willy survived the first mass killings because he happened to be away from the village that day. He would sneak back into town to see his mother until it was no longer possible to do so before she too was murdered with the rest of the known Jewish residents in October. For the next two years he hid out in barns and fields as German soldiers and their Ukrainian sympathizers searched for the few who had managed to escape. His existence depended on an ability to stay one step ahead of the Nazis and to find Polish peasants willing to risk their lives to shield Jews. Moving from one hiding place to another. Staying stone silent inside a hidden chamber of a potato bin as a soldier banged his rifle butt on the side listening for a hollow sound. Jumping into an open cesspool when German troops came to the barn he was hiding in. Finally, joining up with partisans to fight, eventually being liberated by the advancing Russian army which conscripted him and sent him to Siberia for basic training where he ate grass to survive for lack of food. 

When it was time to go to the front Willy was saved by a peculiar Russian military custom. When his unit was ready to be sent to the Western Front to fight the Germans, they mustered at the base. The commandant asked if any soldier had reason not to be sent to the battle lines. Willy and several other Jewish soldiers stepped forward. They told the officer they did not fear the Germans. What they feared was getting shot in the back by their fellow soldiers, many of whom were anti-Semitic Ukraines. The commandant kept them in Siberia. Willy always suspected he was sympathetic because secretly he might have been Jewish.

Could be. Some 500,000 Jews served in the Red Army during the war. Here’s a link from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, that details the participation of Jews in the armed forces of the Allies who fought Nazi Germany: