Stars and Stripes helped Holocaust survivor learn to read and write
In an age when the practice of writing letters to the editor is a dying art, writers and editors are still encouraged to hear from readers with personal stories as to how their newspaper has proved a positive influence in one’s life.
As thoughts were focused on the end of World War II in Europe and the Coronavirus-dampened celebrations marking its milestone 75 anniversary, an unusual letter from the son of a survivor of that war reached our desk. Alex Kor’s note was one of thanks to Stars and Stripes for having helped teach his father how to read and write in English. Alex’s father Mickey’s story in turn is an homage to the U.S. forces who took him in and a testament as to how the support of a single individual holds the power to change a life.
Mickey Kor currently lives in an assisted-care facility in Terre Haute, Indiana. At the age of 94, he has good days and some not-so-good ones. At times, the memories of his early years come back to him with startling clarity. When they don’t, a treasure trove of hand-written letters, essays, official documents and newspaper clippings helps to fill in most of the gaps.
Mickey was born into a Jewish family in Riga, Latvia in 1925. In Aug. 1941, the occupying German forces rounded up the city’s Jewish population, forced them into a ghetto and sealed it off with barbed wire. In November of that same year, the Germans announced they would settle many ghetto inhabitants further to the east. They were divided into two groups: women, children, elderly and those in poor health, and the second of able-bodied men. Mickey’s mom, quickly assessing the situation, pushed Mickey away from her side, telling him it was time to join the big guys. This was the last he was ever to see of her.
Mickey was interred in a military barracks of the German army and sent to labor at the nearby Kaiserwald concentration camp. This was followed by a transfer to the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, then to a slave labor camp in Magdeburg, Germany, where he was forced to make shell casings for the German war effort. The Magdeburg facility made up part of the vast Buchenwald concentration camp network. The intervening years brought him news of the murders of both his parents and an older brother.
By the spring of 1945, the tides of war had turned, and his German captors, sensing their defeat, led the camp’s inmates on a death march as they desperately tried to cover all traces of their unfathomable killing machine. Under heavy guard, the captives were led from camp on foot toward an unknown fate. When a young man tried to escape, a guard noticed him and shot him dead on the spot. As the column passed through a bombed-out street lined with destroyed buildings, Mickey sensed his moment, ran off and hid himself amongst the ruins. Within a few hours, he heard the sound of skirmishes being fought in town, which signaled to him the arrival of Allied forces.
An essay Mickey penned about his liberation just one year after events unfolded paints a picture of his first encounter with the 250th Engineer Combat Battalion:
The next day after the town was completely occupied and saved from any rests of German forces, things were more or less settled. I went down to the city park, where I saw a group of American soldiers lying in the grass and enjoying the nice spring sun. As I walked by, they called me over. They started to talk to me, but I didn’t understand a word they said. I tried to explain I was just liberated from the Germans. They understood that.
The troops’ support to this bedraggled, lice-infested youth was immediate and complete. They gave Mickey a clean soldier’s uniform and his first taste of Coca-Cola. Sensing Mickey’s knowledge of German and Russian would be an asset to the unit, they took him in, and he accompanied the unit as their bridge-building activities took them around Magdeburg, and following the war, on to Kassel and Frankfurt, Germany. Although Mickey had spoken no English at the time of his first encounter with the U.S. troops, he picked up the language astonishingly fast. In an award-winning essay he wrote in 1947, he credited his ability to read and write to having read the newspaper Stars and Stripes.
Through the support and friendship of the 250th Engineer Combat Battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew J. Nehf, Mickey’s desire to start life afresh in the U.S.A. began to take shape. Nehf’s letters in support of Mickey’s emigration and help in finding a family to sponsor him in his home town of Terre Haute, Indiana helped to secure Mickey a berth on a ship by the name of SS Marine Flasher when it departed from Bremerhaven, Germany on May 11, 1946 as part of the first contingent of displaced persons given priority to emigrate to the U.S. under a directive issued by President Harry S. Truman.
Mickey’s post-war life in the U.S. was a success story. Following in the footsteps of the family that took him in, he studied at Purdue University and pursued a career as a pharmacist. He served in the U.S. Army in Japan during the Korean War. He met and married fellow Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes and together the pair raised a son and a daughter. He helped bring to fruition his wife’s vision, a museum shedding light on the stories of the victims of the Holocaust, the Mengele twins, and a message of forgiveness. Along life’s path, he taught himself to play the piano and supported his alma mater’s sports teams the Boilermakers with a passion. For decades, he wrote letters to the editors of his local papers, expressing his opinion on matters from sports teams to the latest political developments. And even today, the friendship between Mickey’s family and the Nehfs remains strong.
The date of May 20 is a significant one in Mickey’s biography, as it marks the date the SS Marine Flasher discharged him, along with 866 other individuals, into a port in New York city in pursuit of a new life in the U.S.A.
As the number of individuals able to give us a first-hand account of the events surrounding World War II dwindles with each passing day, we take this opportunity to thank Mickey for having the foresight to put down what he saw and went through into lasting words that help us to remember that even in the darkest times of human history, never, ever to give up hope.
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