Wednesday, December 27, 2006

MEMOIR: Grandma and Mrs. Goldenberg's son

My maternal grandmother, who had been a widow for decades, lived with my parents while I was growing up during the 1930s in the Bronx. She was an extremely religious woman who, when not helping my mother with the housekeeping, spent much of her time at home praying and studying the Bible. Her social life was centered on her synagogue, Tefereth Beth Jacob, a small Orthodox congregation located on 169th Street between the Grand Concourse and Walton Ave. It was around the corner from our apartment on the Concourse.

Grandma was the most religiously learned woman in the congregation and functioned as its unofficial matriarch. Every Saturday afternoon following the services, she would read Bible stories in Yiddish to at least a dozen elderly ladies gathered around her in the synagogue's women's section. Often she would be consulted by them on religious matters if the rabbi was unavailable or if the other women were uncomfortable discussing overly intimate subjects with him.

Grandma had the advantage of a religious education that few Eastern European Jewish women of her generation received. She had been raised on a mill located in what is now Belarus, far removed from Jewish communities. Because of its isolation in a rural region, her father employed live-in tutors to educate his five sons. Grandma was apparently an inquisitive young girl and regularly sat in on her brothers' lessons.

The result was that she knew Biblical Hebrew. When I studied Hebrew as a modern language in high school, Grandma was eager to help me with my home work. She would orally translate my Hebrew texts into Yiddish, and I would convert her translations into English. Unfortunately, her linguistic talents never extended to English. She could understand English but never learned to speak the language very well. This was not a serious handicap because her social and commercial contacts were limited to Yiddish speakers.

Grandma had a host of friends among the ladies of her synagogue. One of her closest friends was a Mrs. Goldenberg, who lived alone in an apartment house around the other corner from ours on Clarke Place. Like Grandma, she was a widow. She was apparently more affluent than my family because she lived in an apartment house which, unlike ours, had an elevator.

Indeed, there was other evidence that Mrs. Goldenberg was a lady of means. Grandma was in awe of her friend's lavishly furnished apartment and was impressed that Mrs. Goldenberg could employ a maid to clean her home. And unlike Grandma, who rarely left our apartment except to shop, attend the synagogue, and walk to her younger daughter's nearby apartment, Mrs. Goldenberg traveled frequently.

Her trips were usually to visit her son in California, who was evidently supporting his mother very generously. The son also had a home on the East Coast, and Mrs. Goldenberg would often visit him there. Mrs. Goldenberg's son was a major topic of her conversation with Grandma. He was obviously a very successful man, but from Grandma's accounts, Mrs. Goldenberg did not really boast about his achievements. For years, it was unclear what was Mrs. Goldenberg's son's occupation.

Finally, we found out that he was an actor. Mrs. Goldenberg was not very knowledgeable about the details of her son's theatrical career. So we were stunned to learn one day that Mrs. Goldenberg's son was the famous Hollywood actor Edward G. Robinson. (The middle initial "G" in his stage name stood for Goldenberg.)

I do not recall how we discovered Mrs. Goldenberg's son's identity. But I believe that some of her neighbors spotted him arriving in a limousine to visit his mother. He was immediately recognized, and word quickly spread around the neighborhood that a famous movie star's mother lived on Clarke Place.

Robinson, who was usually typecast as a tough guy, started his career on the Broadway stage and appeared in more than 90 films during a 50-year career. My grandmother was not impressed to learn that the son of her close friend, Mrs. Goldenberg, was such a celebrity. She had never heard of him except, indirectly, from his mother who never revealed his stage name. I do not believe that Grandma had ever even been in a movie theater, so Hollywood stars did not figure in her realm of knowledge.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Pat Buchanan and me

Pat Buchanan doesn't know me from Adam. But very early in his career our professional paths crossed. Ever since, I have watched with fascination as he became a senior adviser to three Presidents, a Presidential candidate himself, a prominent author, editor and syndicated newspaper columnist, and a ubiquitous TV personality who pontificates on political affairs as a sort of high-brow Rush Limbaugh.

From 1963 through 1965, I was a Washington correspondent for the Newhouse newspaper chain, specializing in labor-management affairs and other social issues. One of the Newhouse papers was the now-defunct St.Louis Globe-Democrat. Shortly before I joined the Newhouse Washington Bureau, Pat Buchanan was hired by the Globe-Democrat as an editorial writer. He had just graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and was only 23. He was undoubtedly the nation's youngest editorial writer working for a major daily newspaper.

One of the major issues on my beat at that time was a bill being considered by Congress to amend the 1959 Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act. The law imposed regulations on internal labor union affairs and other rules involving the relationship between unions and employers. The proposed amendment, which was eventually enacted in 1965, restricted union efforts to organize workers and to engage in political fund-raising.

The new Landrum-Griffin bill was highly controversial, and organized labor lobbied aggressively for its defeat. I wrote many articles about the bill. One was published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, one of the more than dozen Newhouse newspapers, where it was obviously "sabotaged" by a union-member Linotype operator. The bill appeared in print as "Landrum-friggen."

Buchanan's paper, which was an arch-conservative publication, was strongly in favor of the proposed legislation. He wrote a string of editorials calling for its enactment. And all the while, he would periodically phone me in Washington, since I was responsible for covering the issue, to inquire about the progress of House and Senate committee hearings on the bill.

Buchanan and I developed a kind of telephone relationship, which I'm sure he has forgotten about. The only reason that I can remember it is because of his amazing career path after he quit the Globe-Democrat to work in the White House. I was highly impressed to watch him become a prominent figure in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations and later a Presidential candidate himself.

Although he never did realize his Presidential aspirations, Buchanan is a hero for those whose political persuasion is to the extreme right. In 2000 he abandoned the Republican Party and ran for the Presidency on the Libertarian Party ticket. I think it is fair to say that he is now far removed from mainstream American conservatism.

Buchanan is now 68 years old. For me it has been interesting to observe how a guy I knew only as a youthful voice on the telephone so many decades ago has achieved enough importance to be a political hero for some people and a celebrated ideological ogre for others.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The myths about Israel

The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group's much-touted report perpetuates the myth that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a major cause of turmoil and instability in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

It calls for direct U.S. involvement in the Israel-Palestine conflict, claiming that this would ease tensions and expedite the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. This is apparently a jab at the Bush Administration's failure to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Arabs.

As part of its formula to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, the report also calls upon the Administration to make diplomatic overtures to Syria, even though arms and guerrilla troops are infiltrating Iraq from there. The absurd assumption is that the Iraq crisis might be fixed if Israel would just return the Golan Heights to Syria.

These views are sheer nonsense and reflect the animus towards Israel that James Baker, who co-chaired the study group, displayed towards Israel as Secretary of State during Bush Sr.'s administration. Baker will always be remembered for his private but much-publicized remark--uttered during a White House discussion of Middle East policy--that "they [the Jews] don't vote for us any way, so fuck 'em."

Settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict will not solve the mess in Iraq, for there is no linkage between that conflict and the Iraqi civil war. Even if Israel did not exist, there would still be plenty of turmoil and instability in the Islamic world.

The Shiites and the Sunnis would still be butchering each other in Iraq. So would Palestine's rival political factions, Fatah and Hamas, who are battling in Gaza and the West Bank. These are the people with whom Baker and company expect Israel to seriously negotiate. The two factions cannot even form a stable, functioning Palestinian government.

Even with Israel absent from the international scene, there would still be tension between Sunnis and Shiites in other Muslim countries. Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states would still be threatened by Iran and their own restive Shiite minorities. Moreover, Lebanon would still be on the brink of civil war, as it has been for generations.

Al-Qaeda, which added the Israel-Palestine issue to its agenda long after 9/11, would still be in the terrorist business in Afghanistan and would be inspiring the creation of radical Islamic terrorists in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. Its basic grievance has been corruption in Saudi Arabia and the presence of U.S. troops on its soil. Even without Israel around, Iran would still be developing nuclear weapons and trying to spread its influence in the Middle East, as it has already done successfully in Iraq.

And if Israel did not exist, pro-American but authoritarian governments in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria would still be under pressure from radical Islamists. Despite vast oil wealth in some Middle East countries, much of the Muslim world would still be suffering from deep-rooted poverty, economic backwardness, repressive government, and medieval social traditions.

In Afghanistan, for example, the Taliban, which has made a comeback since the ill-fated U.S. invasion of Iraq, is executing teachers regarded as dangerous because they spread "infidel" values. In Somalia, Islamist extremists are taking control, and in at least one region are beheading people who fail pray five times daily as required by the Koran.

In short, the fundamental problem in the Arab world is not the Palestinians' misfortune and Israel's creation six decades ago. To be sure, the Israelis some times behave in a manner that offends European sensibilities. But they live in a tough neighborhood. Like anybody surrounded and outnumbered by neighbors dedicated to their destruction, they have been forced to take their security concerns very seriously.

Former President Jimmy Carter has perpetuated other myths about Israel in his scurrilous new book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," which demonizes the Jewish state. The book's title is deliberately provocative, but as Carter himself confesses in the book, Israel's racial policies are not comparable with the former apartheid South Africa's. Despite his book's insulting title, he writes that there is "no semblance of anything relating to apartheid with the nation of Israel." His cynical use of the word is clearly meant to smear the Jewish state.

The book is riddled with so many factual errors and biases that it is unworthy of the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize for arranging the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979. For example, Carter is factually wrong when he states that U.N. Resolution 242 requires Israel to withdraw to the 1949 armistice line. In fact, the resolution says that negotiations will resolve the location of boundaries between Israel and a Palestinian state.

Carter persistently overlooks Israel's offer to withdraw from territory acquired during the 1967 war from Egypt and Jordan and to recognize an independent Palestinian state on that land. He seems to be unaware that the Arabs refused that offer and rejected the idea of negotiating and recognizing the legitimacy of Israel's statehood.

Carter also fails to note that the constitution of the Palestine Liberation Organization, organized before the 1967 war when the West Bank and Gaza were still in Arab hands and not occupied by Israel, calls for "liberation" of Israel itself. Nor does he acknowledge the PLO's continual terrorist attacks on Israel aimed at its civilian population.

Instead of acknowledging Yasser Arafat's regular calls for violent "jihad," Carter writes admiringly about the deceased PLO leader and almost always presents Israeli leaders in a negative light trying to impede the peace process. The vicious Arab incitement against Israel and Jews is treated as a trivial complaint and not as the fuel that keeps alive the flame of bigotry and violence.

Ironically, Carter argues that critics of Israel are intimidated by the alleged political and financial power of a "Jewish lobby," and that he himself is a victim of a vast Jewish conspiracy. His defamatory, one-sided book and the widespread attention it is receiving demonstrate the absurdity of his argument. Indeed, his own stature as a former U.S. President enables him to disseminate a twisted view of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Carter distorts what happened at the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks sponsored in year 2000 by the Clinton Administration at Camp David. He charges that Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak rejected Clinton's proposal of land for peace. According to U.S. officials who attended the meeting, however, Israel accepted the proposal, agreeing to a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and 97% of he West Bank. Barak even supported allocating $10 billion to compensate Palestinian refugees.

Arafat turned down the offer because it did not allow the return of millions of Arab refugees and their descendants to what is now the state of Israel. This would have been, of course, suicidal for the Israelis. Usually forgotten in the refugee argument is that just about the same number of Jews had to flee from Egypt, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Morocco, Libya, and other Muslim nations as there were Palestinian refugees. The difference is that Israel absorbed these Jewish refugees while the Arab countries have kept virtually all the Palestinians in refugee camps, using them as political tools against Israel.

Criticizing Israel's controversial security fence and border checkpoints, Carter misrepresents their purpose. Israel does not seek to "imprison Palestinians," as the former President suggests, but to keep terrorists out. Carter shows little patience for such nuances.

In short, Carter is blind to the fact that Israel has consistently offered to surrender occupied territories in exchange for the suspension of Palestinian terrorism and a recognition of its right to exist as a majority Jewish state.

To protest Carter's book, Kenneth Stein, an Emory University professor who was the first director of the school's Carter Center, established by the former President, has resigned from the institution. Stein said the book is "replete with factual errors...glaring omissions, and simply invented segments." Carter even gets it wrong in referring to Yemen's capital as "Tirana." That, of course, is the capital of Albania.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

What I was doing while history was being made

The 65th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor got me to thinking about what I was doing and where I was when that and other historic landmark events occurred.

December 7, 1941 was a Sunday, and I was at home that afternoon doing what I always told my children not to do. I was a high school student doing my home work and listening to the radio at the same time. I was listening to a broadcast of a New York Giants football game being played at Yankee Stadium. I think their opponents were the Washington Redskins.

When they were doing their homework, my children listened to the kind of music that had yet to be written when I was a boy. But no matter the difference in the programs drawing our attention, I'm sure that both my concentration and my childrens' were adversely affected by the distractions. Looking back 65 years, I don't remember why I even had home work to do for school, because I was scheduled to graduate the following month. The outbreak of war, of course, was to alter the direction of my life over the next several years.

The next historic landmark event that I remember was VE Day, May 8, 1945, when Germany surrended to the Allies, and the war in Europe was over. I was then in the Army serving in India, and our war against Japan was not finished. So our celebration was muted as my buddies and I went about our normal activities.

As my outfit's company clerk, I was handling conventional military office duties. I was also preparing for an expected visitor from the Army's Inspector-General's office who periodically came to check on the efficiency of our operations. But while the war was being fought around the world, the inspectors usually seemed to have an absurd concern about whether I was properly filing Army Regulations and amendments in a loose-leaf binder. The Army often functioned in weird ways.

A far more pressing matter for the men in my outfit, the 903rd Signal Co., developed quickly after VE Day. With the war in Europe now over, the Army planned a stronger focus on the fight against the Japanese in our part of the world, southeast Asia. Japan occupied territory stretching from eastern and southern Burma down the Malay peninsula to Singapore.

There were very few American infantry troops based in India and Burma. To ship combat troops no longer needed in Europe and reinforcements from the U.S. would obviously take time. A plan was therefore drafted to quickly train outfits like ours, which had never been in combat, for an invasion of the western coast of the Malay peninsula. Specifically, we were told that we were to be converted into an amphibious landing force.

Before our training began, however, another historic landmark event occurred. The atomic bomb was dropped, and on August 15, 1945, Japan surrended. There was no longer a need for the 903rd Signal Co. to invade the western coast of the Malay peninsula.

Our reaction to VJ Day was considerably more boisterous than it had been to VE Day. Some one sneaked a bottle of whiskey into our barracks. For the first and only time in my life I became so drunk that I passed out. I do not remember anything about that day.

But when I was finally sober, I was pleasantly startled to discover that, in my role as company clerk, I had prepared the daily morning report that all military units are required to submit each day to higher headquarters. The report discloses the number of men on active duty, sick call, detached duty elsewhere, and other personnel information.

The report is prepared in duplicate. The morning report for the day that I had been too drunk to remember had been properly prepared and submitted. I did not recall having written the report, and there was no one else who was qualified or authorized to prepare it. So I had evidently done my job while in a drunken stupor. I never did celebrate a happy event in that condition again.

A more recent historic landmark event was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. When the news was revealed, I was having lunch at the National Press Club at 14th and F Streets in Washington, D.C. About an hour earlier, I had flown into town from New York City, where I had covered the annual convention of the AFL-CIO as a reporter for the Newhouse newspaper chain. A day or two before, President Kennedy had been the featured speaker at the labor federation's convention.

As soon as I heard the news of his assassination, I rushed to the Newhouse News Bureau office, a few blocks north on 14th Street, carrying my luggage with me. When I arrived, the bureau's White House correspondent, who was covering the President's visit in Dallas, was phoning in details of what he had learned so far about the killing. I was quickly assigned to write an article about previous Presidential assassinations. I don't recall whether I did very much with my reporting about the President's speech at the AFL-CIO convention.

The Al-Qaeda attack on New York's World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001 occurred as I was just awakening from a night's sleep. By now I was retired, and sleeping late in the morning had become a feature of my retirement routine. My wife had awakened earlier and was watching television in our bedroom. Still groggy, I could not believe what I was seeing on the TV. I assumed that the plane crashing into the first of the towers was accidental. Within minutes it became clear that there had been no accident and that a new era--a war on terrorism--was about to begin.

Friday, December 01, 2006

MEMOIR: Tales of the 903rd Signal Co. (with photo)

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MEMOIR: Tales of the 903rd Signal Co.

I have belonged to or been associated over the years with all sorts of organizations--a college fraternity, professional societies, alumni associations, a religious congregation, social groups, and the corporations for which I worked.

More than half a century ago, I was part of a very special organization for nearly two years during one of the most important periods of my life. It was the military unit with which I served during World War II in India, the 903rd Signal Co. Depot (Aviation).

Even after all these decades, I can still remember names, faces and experiences associated with the 903rd Signal Co. more vividly than I can with organizations with which I have had more recent and much longer connections.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Ben Bradlee, the retired executive editor of the Washington Post, wrote about his World War II combat experiences on a Navy destroyer in the South Pacific: "It may sound trite to modern ears, but those really were years when you could get involved in something beyond yourself--something that connected you to your times in ways that no longer seem so natural, or expected."

My military experiences were nowhere near as dramatic and violent as Bradlee's, for the 903rd Signal Co. was never in combat. Far more eloquently than I can, however, he expressed my own sentiments about the intimate emotional link I developed with my Army outfit that remains with me today.

The 903rd Signal Co. was composed of 175 men. This is a photo [see posting above] of the company's headquarters personnel. It was taken in the summer of 1945 outside our "orderly room" (Army jargon for company headquarters) at an Army base near the village of Titagarh in Bengal province, about 60 miles north of Calcutta. (The base had formerly been a giant jute mill known as Kharda Mills.)

I am the soldier second from the left in the upper row. I was 20 years old, a staff sergeant and the company clerk. To my right is "Moon" Mullins, who was my assistant and the company's mail clerk. He came from a small town in upstate New York.

To my left is Owen Crenshaw, the outfit's first sergeant and highest-ranking NCO. Crenshaw, a Texan who was at least a decade older than me, joined the 903rd with me in early 1944 after our arrival in India. The man on his left is named Evers. I remember only that he came from Cincinnati; I cannot recall his first name or what his job was.

Kneeling in the front row on the left is Steve Cancro, the motor sergeant, who was in charge of our small fleet of trucks, jeeps and weapons carriers. The supply sergeant, Kryn Oudendyk, is on Cancro's left. To confirm my recollection that Oudendyk hailed from a Michigan town that was really named Holland, I entered the town's name in Google.

I came up with a web site confirming that there was indeed such a town. The site was published by Holland's chamber of commerce, extolling the town's tourist attractions. There was a "contact" box on the site, and I e-mailed a message inquiring whether a Kryn Oudendyk still resided in Holland.

I received a response informing me that he lived in nearby Grand Rapids, Mich. and that he was 89 years old. His address and phone number were shown. When I called, Kryn's wife answered and sadly informed me that he had died two years ago. She was excited to hear from me. During their 53 years of marriage, she said, he had constantly reminisced about India and the 903rd Signal Co. I have sent her a copy of the photo, which she said her daughter and grandchild would cherish.

Mrs. Oudendyk told me that was actually Kryn's second wife. He was married before he was inducted into the Army, a fact that I had forgotten. Upon his return home, he learned that his wife had been unfaithful during his absence. They were soon divorced.

Like me, Steve Cancro, the motor sergeant, hailed from the Bronx, a factor that I guess created a special relationship between us. Virtually everyone else in the outfit came from small towns. Prior to my induction into the Army, I did not know how to drive, nor had I ever even known anyone who owned a car. Steve was determined to teach me how to drive.

Early one evening, he took me out for a driving lesson on a weapons carrier, which was a small truck. The lesson took place on a narrow jungle road outside our base. The lesson went very well until a water buffalo, hauling a peasant sitting on a cart, suddenly crossed a path in front of us. I panicked and hit the accelerator rather than the brake, smashing into the water buffalo. Fortunately, the animal was not seriously injured. But our base commander made a modest payment to the peasant, and I was never allowed to take driving lessons again while I was a member of the 903rd Signal Co.

I also had a problem with another type of vehicle. Our table of organization and equipment authorized me, as the company clerk, to have a bicycle. Sadly, I was as incapable of riding a bike as I was driving a motor vehicle. The Bronx street on which I played as a boy was a very steep hill. Because of the hill, bike riding did not figure in our playing habits and none of my friends owned bicycles.

Only Oudendyk, the supply sergeant, was aware that there was a bicycle on the premises. It was hidden in the company's store room. I made several attempts late at night when everyone else was asleep trying to master bike-riding. I was as unsuccessful as I was with Steve Cancro's weapons carrier. The result was that Oudendyk appropriated the bike for his own use. Perhaps that's why I also had a special relationship with him.

The 903rd Signal Co. was composed of four platoons:

* The operations platoon, manned by radio and Teletype operators and cryptographers, ran a military message center for the region.

* The engineering platoon repaired airborne electronics equipment--radios, radar apparatus and other aircraft instruments--for the 10th Air Force based in eastern India and Burma, the 14th Air Force in China, and the Air Transport Command which flew cargo planes over "the Hump" (the Himalaya Mountains) to supply the Chinese army.

* The construction platoon built and maintained telephone lines, including a portion of line being installed from Calcutta to China via the famed Burma-Ledo Road.

* The supply platoon operated a huge warehouse from which airborne electronics supplies were shipped throughout the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations.

Compared to how so many others in the U.S. armed forces were serving on World War II battlefields, the activities of the 903rd Signal Co. appear mundane. But in addition to being radio operators, telephone linesmen, truck drivers, mechanics, and clerks, we were also soldiers who had been trained to fight.

I and a few others were equipped with Thompson sub-machine guns, and most of the other men had carbines. The weapons were usually kept in the company's armory. Periodically they were taken out so that each man could maintain his gun and refresh his familiarity with the weapon.

I actually needed my Tommy gun while on duty a couple of times. Before my promotion to sergeant and appointment as company clerk, I was occasionally assigned as an armed guard on shipments of supplies to U.S. air bases in Assam and Burma. On one occasion, I also flew over the Hump to Kunming and Chengtu in China. My mission was to guard the plane on the ground until the supplies were unloaded.

The 903rd Signal Co.'s non-combatant service was not unusual. The vast majority of those in the armed forces during World War II were support troops who never saw combat. (In Iraq, unfortunately, support troops are being exposed to combat and are suffering heavy casualties because we are engaged in what is essentially a guerrilla war.)

Our wartime roles were determined by fate. But I know that the men of the 903rd Signal Co., only a handful of whom are probably still alive, loyally performed what they were called upon to do. I like to think that we contributed significantly to the American victory during World War II.

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