By Paul Steven GhiringhelliApril 16, 2010
FORT DRUM, N.Y. - "You are all my heroes."
For Fort Drum Soldiers who gathered at the Main Post Chapel last week, these were hardly empty words coming from Irving Schild, a Jewish refugee of the Holocaust who feels indebted to U.S. service members for helping to liberate his people from Nazi Germany.
"I am proud of each and every one of you in this room," he said. "I am honored to tell you my story."
Schild, 78, a retired professor, magazine photographer and veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, was an honored guest at Fort Drum during this year's commemoration of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day - an annual observance in the U.S. and a national holiday in Israel.
The solemn event, titled "Stories of Freedom: What You Do Matters," was hosted by the Division Equal Opportunity office.
It began with a chaplain's invocation followed by the lighting of a seven-stick candelabra. Six of the candles represented six million Jews slaughtered during the Holocaust; the tall center candle symbolized today's Holocaust sympathizers who stand against tyranny and oppression wherever it exists.
A Jewish cantor then led the gathering in a traditional holy prayer that, he said, does not mention the name of God. "It is not a prayer for the Lord to do anything," said Neil Hoffman. "It is a prayer that (only) celebrates the existence of God."
Schild's address recounted the story of his family's escape from Nazi persecution, which began in his native Belgium in 1940, drove his family through France and Italy, and ultimately ended in the U.S. in 1944.
Throughout the frightening odyssey, Schild said his father, who did not have working papers and was repeatedly arrested and nearly deported one time, frantically negotiated with local villagers and farmers in France and Italy to secure safe quarters for his family.
When the Nazi conquest of Europe advanced, however, he said they ran for their lives.
"As the first German soldiers arrived (in France), we left, in the middle of the night, and walked nonstop to an unknown trail," Schild recalled. "The next morning, for as far as the eye can see, there were people walking single file to a narrow trail in the Italian Alps."
Schild said his family and roughly 2,000 Jews who fled France found temporary refuge in northern Italy, until Hitler and Mussolini joined forces, and most of the Jews were chased, captured and shipped to camps while a remnant, including his family, escaped to the mountains.
The Schilds were hiding in churches in Rome when President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced a program in 1944 inviting 1,000 Europeans to board a ship in Naples and travel to a safe haven in New York as guests of the U.S. Of the 3,000 Europeans who applied, Schild said 982 refugees were chosen - more than 90 percent of them Jewish.
Fort Ontario, a former Army camp in Oswego, was selected as their emergency shelter destination, although Schild said what is now Fort Drum also was considered.
Weary refugees with no legal status arrived at the large, fenced-in camp in July 1944. Schild said curious Oswego townspeople came out to look at them.
They remained in exile for 18 months, and in the period after Germany surrendered in May 1945, actively petitioned the government to remain in the U.S.
Schild said in December 1945, President Harry S. Truman decided to allow the refugees to immigrate to the U.S. through Niagara Falls and, under regular immigration laws, have priority status in applying for citizenship.
"What a miracle," Schild said of the U.S. refugee program. "We survived and are able to tell you our stories.
"I am eternally grateful for the brave men and women of the United States Army for liberating the Jewish people 65 years ago," he said. "I would like to express my deep gratitude for having been among the fortunate few who were brought to this country.
"But there were six million other men, women, children and infants who were grossly butchered," he continued, "for no reason other than the fact that they were Jewish."
Schild said thanks to countries such as the U.S., evil was stopped during World War II. But "a hatred for Jews" has re-emerged in modern times, he said, in places such as Asia, the Middle East and again in Europe.
"In the aftermath of the Holocaust, all anti-Semitism became unfashionable. But fashions change," he said. "Tragically, the lessons learned by mankind have not been taught. In fact, they have been disregarded by much of the world."
"To be sure," he added, "some Europeans are shocked by the re-emergence of Jewish hatred on their continent. But the more common reaction has been complacency."
After Schild's remarks, Col. Erik Peterson, 10th Mountain Division (LI) chief of staff, noted the significance of serving in an army that fights for worthy principles.
"I for one believe that, as an Army that strives to do what is just and right, we have a vital role in freeing the oppressed," he said.
Sgt. Jimmy Martinez, 710th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, spent several minutes afterward observing the poster at the front of the chapel that displayed the insignia of each Army unit responsible for liberating Europe.
"This was a . good education," said Martinez, who was attending his first Holocaust Remembrance ceremony. "I've heard stories about Nazi Germany, but I hadn't realized how bad it was."
Schild said his synagogue prays every week for the safety of America's armed forces and for their swift return from theaters of war.
He concluded the observance by asking audience members to stand while he prayed for the military.