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 (http://m.apnews.com/ap/db_289563/contentdetail.htm?contentguid=ueMPa6OF).

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 (http://nyti.ms/18zNEUY). 

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: http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/holocaust/about/07/jewish_soldiers.asp.