July 15, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Life of Herzl Melcer AKA Lt. Iwan Siemienowicz Pidlowskij

Letter received from the American Embassy in 1979.

Original death announcement received from a family friend, Rabbi Pollak. Origin unknown.

Herzl had been wounded during a battle on March 26, 1945, and died the following day, March 27. He had been a second lieutenant in charge of a rifle platoon and had received the medallion of the Red Star for heroism in action. In order to be accepted into the army he had made himself two years older, and since his name was so Jewish he took on the name of Iwan Siemienovicz Pidlowskij. He was buried by the Russian army in Neumühlen, southwest of Küstrin, in what was then East Germany, in grave No. 6.

And so, just a few months before the end of the war, Herzl’s life ended. He had been responsible for saving the lives of his entire family.

Herzl was born Herzl Melcer, son of Boruch and Miriam (Berkowitz) Meltzer, grandson of Yaakov and Beylka Meltzer. Yaakov was a cousin of the famous Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer. Herzl was the baby brother of Fanya and Ida, and older brother to Sima Melcer. Ida was the mother of my wife, Dorothy Strauss.

All survived the war except Beylka, Herzl’s grandmother. Before the war Beylka had been taking care of two elderly deaf-mute sisters, bringing them food daily and making sure they had enough wood for the stove and checking their clothing and shoes to see whether they needed repairs. Although originally Beylka agreed to flee with the family, she then changed her mind and returned home by herself, saying: “Who is going to take care of the sisters when I am gone?” Beylke, as well as the two sisters, were shot by the Germans and buried in a mass grave outside her beloved town Kletsk.

As the first part of this presentation ends, everything that was known about Herzl then is written above. The second part of this series will describe our activities, after 2013, in the attempt to find the burial place of Herzl. The information, mentioned above, as to his place of burial was outdated and had been based on pre-end-war information from a source that could or would not disclose its origin.

I made it my goal to find and identify the actual burial place and to have a permanent gravestone (as I thought then) placed there to give closure to the family, particularly to the two still-living sisters of Herzl, Fanya and Sima, who are both advanced in age.

All statements made in the first part of this presentation were extracted by me from Ida Melcer’s family history, as compiled and edited by my wife, Dorothy, in 2014.

Searching for Herzl 1913-1916

When Dorothy and I got married in 2013, I obviously knew nothing about Herzl, although it is possible that she briefly had given me a summary during our engagement.

At one point, Dorothy showed me the document that stated when Herzl had died and where he was buried. This document had been received from a family friend, Rabbi Pollak. A subsequent inquiry with Rabbi Pollak was not helpful in finding out from where he had received that information.

Dorothy’s sister had a letter from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin dated June 22, 1979, addressed to their mother, Ida, in response to a letter from Ida requesting guidance on how to bring the remains of Herzl from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to Israel. The response refers Ida to a semi-governmental organization in Berlin responsible for funeral and related matters involving aliens in the GDR. The action would further require the permission from the cemetery administration and stated the total costs that would be involved. Nothing further is known about what happened thereafter.

I decided to spend some time on this matter to see what I could find out about it. I felt deeply that this young man, who gave his life to his adopted country, deserves recognition, as well as closure to the family. The younger sister and one of the older sisters are still alive as I write this in August 2017.

During my trip to Frankfurt, at the invitation by the City of Frankfurt, at one of the stops I met a young rabbi who officiated at the local old age home. I contacted him in March 2013, just two months after Dorothy and I had been married, and asked for his help in bringing Herzl’s remains to Israel. The rabbi responded by telling us that his mother had been a nurse in the Russian army and that she served in the same area at the same time as Herzl. He speculated that possibly even his mother had nursed Herzl before his death. He spoke to a Rabbi Robinson (U.S. Navy Rear Admiral ret.) of the Jewish Welfare Board, who promised to get him a contact in Israel that helps veterans, both dead and alive. I also discussed the possibility of someone going to the grave and taking a picture, but the costs were prohibitive. Unfortunately, after several months of seemingly pleasant exchange of emails, it ended for reasons that I could never establish. When I was planning a trip to Frankfurt I contacted the rabbi again but received no reply. Thinking that he might not be well, I asked a friend living in Frankfurt to contact him in person. She was rebuffed by the rabbi in a very ungentlemanly, and un-rabbi-like insulting way.

In order to learn more about Jews in the Red Army, I contacted the Blavatnik Archives Foundation in New York and purchased a book, “Lives of the Great Patriotic War.” Great Patriotic War is what the USSR called World War II. It showed that there even were Jewish generals in the Russian army and many highly decorated soldiers and nurses.

In May 2013 I also wrote a letter to an East German contact that I had until 2009, and with whom I had exchanged postage stamps for our collections. I never received a reply.

I also contacted Rabbi J.J. Schacter as well as my grandsons Rabbi Ari Perl and Rabbi Dr. Gil Perl for assistance in finding an organization or individuals able to help in this matter. Gil had a contact with the chief rabbi in Moscow, but he received no response to his inquiry.

In May 2013 I contacted the Russian embassy in Washington by email after trying unsuccessfully for days to get someone on the phone. I actually received an email reply on May 24 stating that they had found a record of Herzl in the Central Archives of the Ministry of Defense under the name of Ivan Semenovich Pidlovskiy [their spelling], which is the name Herzl took on when he joined the army. They further confirmed the fact that Herzl had died of a head wound on March 27, 1945, and that he is buried in a mass grave in Neumühlen. That he was buried in a mass grave was news to us. We needed to find out how that came about since it meant that the body could never be exhumed.

(To be continued next week.)

By Norbert Strauss

 

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