By Molly Hayden, U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr Public Affairs
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany (Nov., 2012) — It’s been nearly 70 years since the end of World War II, but for 87-year-old U.S. Army veteran Gilbert Unger, some memories refuse to fade.
“I was so naïve then,” said Unger of his 19-year-old self, admitting that at the time he didn’t realize he was making history. “As a Jewish Soldier I was a needle in a haystack. There were very few of us.”
His legacy, however, comes not from his ethnicity, but for his selfless service dedicated to refugees at the close of the war.
Unger was a machine gunner assigned with the 90th Infantry Division during World War II. First landing on the beach in Normandy shortly after D-Day, Unger and his unit continued to fight during the Battle of the Bulge, moving on to Germany and what was then Czechoslovakia. For more than a year, he was in daily contact with the enemy.
“Some units would disengage, but not us,” said Unger.
As the war ended, he was reassigned to Headquarters Company as a clarinet player in the Army Band and sent to Weiden, a small German town 13 miles east of the Grafenwoehr Training Area. Unger, along with his son, Philip Unger, and daughter, Amy Ramer, visited the training area, Oct. 26, to relive history.
He reminisced fondly about his first arrival to Weiden in 1945.
“I remember it was a really nice, neat little town. It was not damaged, I saw no evidence of bombing,” said Unger. But it was the ladies of the town that influenced his impression the most.
“They were all wearing lipstick,” he said with one eyebrow raised. “It had been awhile since we had seen such a thing.”
Unger was not immune to the destruction of the war. His division liberated the concentration camp at Flossenbuerg, Germany, on April 28, 1945. He received a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in combat when a piece of shrapnel from an anti-personnel bomb lodged into his thigh — although he claims that wasn’t his worst injury; he witnessed death and saw his enemy up close.
It wasn’t until his arrival to Weiden, however, that the residual eventuality of war stared Unger in the face.
“Jewish refugees would pass through searching for family, searching for anyone,” said Unger. “Since there weren’t any particular duties for me to do, I spent the time trying to do what I could for them.”
Weiden acted as a distribution point for refugees from the East trying to find their way west said Unger, adding that most would travel on to Palestine after passing through Weiden.
“We had big signs, kiosks, and on them were lists of names where people could see after their relatives — where they went, what happened to them,” explained Unger. “Most of them did not reconnect with family, but we still posted their information and gathered supplies for their journey. And we did this on our own. It was not part of our duty.”
Unger said he felt a connection with the refugees, becoming quite friendly with many of the passersby, although, he recounted, he never pried into their personal lives.
“I never asked what their background was, if they were ever prisoners of war or in a concentration camp — I never asked and the subject never came up,” said Unger. “I just helped them focus on the recovery.”
A reported 500,000 American Jews fought during World War II, making up roughly three percent of the U.S. Army, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. An obvious minority, Unger said he often felt discrimination, but kept his sights on the freedom and well-being of the persecuted minorities.
“All I can say is I was very, very proud of the way I handled myself in all situations to bring pride to both my outfit and myself. Some things you never forget,” he added.
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