A foot-long, red-rimmed flag hung from one of the Krasner’s store windows announcing to anyone passing by on Ridge Road that Eva Krasner’s sons were in service. The flag would have had three blue stars. One for Milton, one for Harry, and one for Herman—all born in America and in the American military. Eva, too, was an American. Her citizenship papers from 1928 proved it.
The flag, though small, was magic enough to send her boys off to war in all directions with the promise of returning them home safely. She could not have known when America entered the war in December 1941 that her new homeland and the flag would serve as the welcome mat for her first cousin, Moishe (Murray) Adler and her baby brother, Chaim Leib (Leo) Zuckerkandel. Europe was no longer their home. Only Bernie, Murray’s younger brother, who had been taken to England via a Kindertransport from Vienna, remained “over there.” By the time her boys shipped overseas, all other siblings and cousins had perished by bullets or Belzec.
If Eva had to tell the truth about war, she was scared. Her brothers Naftali Hersh and Srul had gone off to war once, conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. They were not harmed—then—but she knew war separated families. Her aunt’s family, the Adlers, moved to Vienna to escape the shelling in Zborow near her Galician shtetl of Kozlow. Now, in America, Eva had three sons at risk, two of whom the doctors told her not to have after Milton’s birth in 1919. She ignored medical advice and gave birth to Harry and Herman at home. Now, she didn’t want her boys to leave home, but she knew she had to let them. After all, she’d left home at twenty-one by herself to come to America. The draft gave her and them no choice anyway.
Milton likely learned his sense of purpose from his mother. Like Eva, he was the eldest and that meant taking responsibility. Milton, my father, was determined to join the war effort. His 1937 North Arlington High School epithet said, “He’ll find a way or make one.” He registered for the draft on July 1, 1941 at age twenty-one, before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He wanted to attend Cadet School and become a navigator. To get his weight down to meet the requirement, he walked around town for hours. He needed letters of recommendation. They’re all dated January 27, 1942. His employer at Pollak Manufacturing Company, where he had worked as a milling machine operator since September 1941, attested to his “fine character, honest and faithful to his work” qualities. He enlisted into the Air Corps on March 17, 1942 as a private. He immediately set off for the Army Air Forces Pre-flight School (Navigation-Bombardier) in Monroe, Louisiana. There was just one problem: My father had no innate capability for navigation. Years later, it was a family joke that he could never find his way out of Washington, DC. He shipped to Europe in July 1944 for an eighteen-month tour of duty, headquartered in Nuthampstead, Hertfordshire, England, a village northeast of London. Milton served as Tech Sergeant in charge of supplies for the 398th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force, supervising thirty-five men in Station Quartermaster. The group flew B-17 Flying Fortress planes in bombing campaigns over Germany. By the end of the war, Milton had been involved in the Battle of Normandy in some way. He also received the American Theater Ribbon, the European-Africa-Middle Eastern Ribbon, the Good Conduct Medal, and the Victory Medal. Milton received his Honorable Discharge on December 21, 1945. A commendation says my father served as chief clerk Bombardment Group and specifically noted his “sterling qualities of devotion to duty and admirable efficiency.” This is so characteristic of my father. Loyalty, devotion, and industry were his trademarks, demonstrated by his manta, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”
Harry, nearly four years younger, filled out his draft card at eighteen on June 30, 1942. He enlisted as a private into the Signal Corps on December 8, 1942. He attended radio school in Omaha, Nebraska. There he spent some time at the Servicemen’s Club of the local Jewish Community Center. He made records, produced by B’nai B’rith Lodge 1445, to send back to “the folks” as letters. He sang “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag.” He kvetched a little about Milton achieving Corporal. He eagerly awaited his paycheck and promised to call home more often. Harry rose to Staff Sergeant and served with the Ninth Air Force. Harry, too, was stationed in England. As he left Omaha to ship overseas, he said, “The most important thing is to get the message through,” an apt statement from a telegraph operator. He took his responsibility seriously; he did not want to let anyone down. Again, he must have learned his lessons about responsibility from Eva. He was the first of the boys to return home in October 1945.
Their brother, Herman, two years younger than Harry, registered for the draft on his eighteenth birthday, July 23, 1943. At 5’8”, he weighed 129 pounds. He enlisted into the Navy late in the war, assigned as a radio technician on the USS Griggs, which allegedly saw some action during combat operations near Okinawa. The only story he told his kids was that he threw supplies overboard to balance the inventory. A fuzzy photo shows Herman in sailor uniform in front of palm trees, no date or location given. Another photo shows him and Milton in Chicago in 1944 in their military uniforms.
Official military portraits likely hung on the walls of the apartment behind the store. Large, ornate portraits with maroon tassels may have reminded Eva of the plush photo album the boys bought her once from Woolworth’s as a present. She must have prayed for their safety when she lit the Shabbos candles on Friday nights.
She kvelled with pride when she received photos of the boys, alone, and with their comrades. The photos from the canteens and servicemen clubs with girls? That she didn’t care so much for. There’d be time enough for that when they came home. She wanted a say in their choices.
In February 1943 my father came home for a visit. One by one, he posed with family members—his mother, his father, Herman, and his sister, Doris. In their photo, Eva clasps her hands. Her eyebrows furrow and her eyes narrow. My father leans into her, mouth open as if to say something. He must have been treated like the prodigal son come home. Eva likely made his favorite dishes and he may have tooled around town to visit friends, if they, too, were home. But, of course, he had to return from furlough. No matter how many days her boys came home, it was never enough, and she’d have to say goodbye all over again, holding their mannish hands in her aging ones.
Through the service, the “boys” got to travel and experience the world beyond their provincial north Jersey boro. But Eva knew the world. And she probably wrung her hands many times about her boys out there, especially Milton and Harry, out there as Jews fighting in their own way against the Nazis. While the small flag hung outside her window, she became the flag herself. She became the unflappable bridge between the Old and New Worlds and the road home to safety.
She made sure she wrote the boys often, even if it was just chit-chat like the kind she’d exchange with neighborhood women by the radiator in the front of the store. Like the radiator, her words would bring warmth to the boys wherever they were. She bought that special Victory Mail stationery from the post office on the next block. Each letter her boys received would tell them “the folks” were thinking of them. She relished seeing the envelopes—not telegrams—marked War & Navy Departments V-Mail Service. Letters had to be short. No one could say much. The censors were at work. Still, Eva adhered to the message on the posters at the post office: Be cheerful. She, Max, and teenaged Doris still in high school, would make sure to play Harry’s recordings at “victory speed.”
When the mothers gathered at the radiator, Eva likely told herself to hold her tongue. Nobody liked a yenta and nobody needed to know her business. The flag communicated all she wanted to publicly share. She would let others brag about their sons. She would listen and agree. She’d save the stories of her own sons for her Aunt Jenny and her Zuckerkandel cousins.
What would she say to Sandy Kahn’s mother? In his official military photograph, Sandy posed with a big toothy, hopeful smile. He wrote his parents in February 1944, “Don’t worry about me. I still have a long time before I hit combat. For all I know, I may miss it.” But he didn’t. Six months later, his parents received a telegram that Sandy was missing in action. What color star would Mrs. Kahn have to stitch onto her flag now? Later his parents learned a German sniper’s bullet instantly killed him in northern France in July 1944.
Eva might have encouraged her children to earn gold stars in school, but now she was perfectly satisfied with blue ones. She could breathe a sigh of relief that neither Milton nor Harry were stationed at the front, but was England all that safe from Nazi bombing raids? Was anyone safe?
Eva offered her American flag to connect with her cousins. Likely at her instigation to “look up” her cousin, Milton met up with Bernhard (Bernie) Adler, in London in January 1945. My father’s get-together with Bernie, who may have served in the British military, must have given Eva some sense of connection to bring her two worlds together. She had never met Bernie; he was two years younger than my father. To see a photo of the Austrian and American sides standing together at Trafalgar Square must have given her hope for the future. Bernie posed in an overcoat, suit, and tie and my father in American military dress.
Milton wrote Victory mail (V mail) to his parents:
May 17, 1945
Nothing new today…Things are quiet and I think I’ll get to see Bernie in a few days…
This he writes ten days after Germany’s surrender. It was more important for him to talk about seeing his mother’s cousin. Good to his word, my father met up with Bernie, along the Thames, on May 31, 1945. Bernie continued to wear an overcoat, suit, and tie and my father in military dress.
Knowing both Milton and Harry were in England, were they able to see each other? Did Harry also see Bernie? There’s no way to know now.
The war years meant a lot to my father. He kept folders of aerial and portrait photographs, issues of Stars & Stripes, and other documentation in his basement office desk as if this “military Milton” was a secret part of him and his band of brothers. He never talked about the war; he was a quiet man in general. He was a member of the Jewish War Veterans, Sanford L. Kahn Post #538. Every Memorial Day we traipsed to the shul and ate kosher hot dogs my father supplied from his Shop-Rite. We wore crepe-paper poppies. The JWV post conducted a salute at my father’s funeral, a tribal demonstration of Kearny and North Arlington home boys respecting the passing of one of their own. I have my father’s blue and gold JWV cap that he wore with such pride and ownership.
My cousin emailed me photos of his father, Harry’s, wartime insignia. That email made me look in my front hall closet where I’d kept my father’s army jacket. Alas, I didn’t have the jacket after all. I had his olive-hued Army shirt. I ran my fingers along its scratchy surface, looking for indications of any handstitched emblems. Nothing. Not even a manufacturer’s label. Only some stains near the right breast pocket, just where in years to come he’d drip just about any gravy or sauce.
The three blue stars of Eva’s flag remained a constant constellation. They received vital management training in the service that proved useful when they set up Krasner Brothers as a supermarket business under the Shop-rite banner in 1953. They were brothers before the war, during the war, and after the war. The brothers would pick up where my grandparents left off with their general store. It’s no surprise that when Harry died in 1996, my father cut out the newspaper obituary and laminated it.
But the war years took their toll on Eva. She pulled Doris into the business to take the place of her sons, dragging her to the wholesale markets in Newark and New York City when she knew Doris would rather be out with her friends. Eva’s health began to suffer, and she succumbed to cancer and diabetes in August 1951. Even though the foot-long flag no longer waved from the store window, she had done her part as an American mother.
Barbara Krasner teaches Family History at William Paterson University and is Director, Mercer Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Education Center in New Jersey. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a doctoral candidate in Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Gratz College.