May 28, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Part Two

(continued from last week)

The second occurrence I referred to happened a few months later, in early 1946, on board the troopship en route from San Francisco to Korea. Yes, I was being sent to Korea instead of to Germany, despite my ability to read, write and speak German. Also, I did not become a Ritchie boy, both no doubt due to the fact that since the war in Europe was over there was no need for their expertise anymore.

But back to my story. The first Friday night on board the ship there was an announcement that any soldiers interested in “religious services” that evening should report to a certain cabin at 7 p.m. Well, I went with my siddur in my pocket and met maybe another 20 others in the designated cabin. We all stood around for a while until a lieutenant (probably not Jewish) came in and announced that they would have services now and asked for a volunteer to lead the service. He repeated the question several times, but when nobody responded, he said then there would be no service and we should all return to our bunks. That was the first and last attempt at a Jewish service for the entire voyage.

After the first announcement I was thinking to myself maybe I should volunteer. I had never led a service, but since nobody else volunteered, there probably was no one there who could do it any better or who would correct any mistakes that I would make. I was still mulling it over in my mind when the announcement was repeated. Between the indoctrination in the Army to never volunteer for anything ever and my being too timid to raise my hand, I let the third announcement go by as well, without any action on my part.

What if…?

What would have changed in my life if I had raised my hand? I let my imagination run wild with this one. Maybe I would then also have been asked to lead the Sabbath morning service, or maybe organize a weekday service as well. After landing in Korea, having come to the attention of officers by volunteering on board the ship, maybe I would have been asked to become a “chaplain’s assistant” once we were settled wherever we would be stationed. The problem was that there was no Jewish chaplain in Korea during all the time I was there. So how could I be a “chaplain’s assistant” without a chaplain. But what if…?

Had it happened, as I imagined then it could, maybe I would have been able to go to a yeshiva after my discharge and become a teacher or otherwise work in the religious field.

Considering last week’s and this week’s example, if either one would have occurred, what would have changed in my life? Obviously, my life would have taken a different direction in either case.

How so?

I did not go to West Point and I did not become a chaplain’s assistant. I did get to Korea as an 18-year-old boy in the infantry, standing guard duty—not a very pleasant or educational occupation, even if it was only for a limited time.

But coincidences do happen, or call it “bashert.” My dear mother’s neighbor in shul at Breuer’s in Washington Heights was a lady by the name of Kissinger. As mothers do, they compared notes about where their children were and what they were doing (I hope, and assume, it was not during davening). It turned out that her younger son, Walter (younger brother of Henry Kissinger), was in Korea working as a civilian executive employee of the US Army after having been discharged from the Army. When Mrs. K. found out from my mother what my occupation was, she said that I should contact Walter and he would get me out of the infantry.

To make a long story short, and it is a long story because it took a while to accomplish my goal, and anyhow I have written about it in detail a few years ago, I did get into the Department of Commerce of the US/Korean joint government (USAMGIK) and worked in the area in which Mr. K. was the boss. The details of what followed I have written about previously as well. During the 13 months that I was there, I was promoted twice, almost three times, but missed the third promotion by a hair since my papers had already been returned to the US in preparation for my eventual discharge. So, when I left the department I was a buck sergeant, but my departmental title was both chief clerk of the department, meaning in charge of the non-military personnel, and at the same time sergeant major (position, not military rank) of the military personnel of the department.

Now what does all that mean? When I entered the Army, I had been an engineering student in college. My office work in Korea changed my mind about my interests and when I returned to college after discharge in 1947, I was a business major. That change enabled me to obtain a job in the traffic department at Philipp Brothers, where I worked for 36 years, taking early retirement in 1985 as general traffic manager responsible at one time for over 160 employees and with the corporate title of group vice president.

What if…?

I let the reader draw his/her own conclusion of how the two related “what ifs” would have differently impacted my life had they happened.


Norbert Strauss is a Teaneck resident and Englewood Hospital volunteer. He frequently speaks to groups to relay his family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1941.

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