Some time ago I had the privilege of meeting a World War II veteran with a fascinating story to share: Born in Germany, his parents saw the writing on the wall and he was sent to boarding school in England. Eventually, his family got out, and he wound up a young Jewish immigrant with a German accent in America.
Victor (not his real name) enrolled in a prestigious university. He was drafted into the U.S. Army, but as a college student assumed he would not see the front lines — but D-Day and the beaches of Normandy changed all of that. With over 100,000 dead on the beaches, the army desperately needed fresh troops to keep the war machine moving toward Berlin, and Victor was sent to the infantry. After a couple of months of training stateside, he found himself, in December 1944, manning a foxhole in an infantry battalion along the front lines in Belgium.
He had very large feet, and when he arrived at the Belgian front, supplies being what they were in the army in 1944, the only pair of size-12 army boots available had been given to a battalion commander, and Victor was forced to shove his feet into boots that were two sizes too small and leave them unlaced. It didn’t take long for him to develop first blisters from the boots, and then frostbite on his feet from wearing open boots in the bitter cold Belgian winter.
His company’s area along the front lines was very quiet with little going on, which may have been why the company commander agreed one evening to let Victor leave the foxhole and transport back to company headquarters to have his feet examined. A medic took one look at Victor’s feet and decided he had frostbite that needed treatment and marked him down for transfer to the battalion infirmary. A couple of hours later, he joined a truckload of soldiers, mostly wounded on the front, enroute to the battalion infirmary. Once there he was tagged as having frostbite, and told to await the arrival of the battalion doctor who could only look at his feet when there was a break in the more seriously wounded men from the front lines.
That night, frostbite victims were being sent to the brigade infirmary, further back from the front lines, and he was put onto another truck and transported to brigade headquarters. There, he was again tagged as a frostbite victim and was transported further to the rear, to the field hospital at division headquarters.
By this time, Victor realized he had been swallowed up by the system, and tried to get released back to his unit, but no one was listening. It is no small thing to be stationed with men with whom you have trained, and buddies who can listen and keep your mood up, and Victor started wondering whether he would ever succeed in getting back to his unit. With the front in constant flux as the American army pushed toward Berlin, he was afraid that by the time his feet healed, he would be sent elsewhere and would lose touch with his buddies for the duration of the war. Soon Victor found himself on a troop transport train which took him all the way back to a hospital in … Paris!
Frustrated at having been separated from his unit, and depressed over his injuries, Victor lay in a hospital bed in Paris and wondering what on earth he was doing so far away, with what seemed to him a few blisters on his feet, and all because the army was short one pair of of size-12 boots.
It would take a few days for him to discover that the night he left the front for a quick visit to the company infirmary was a night that would be engraved into the history books forever. Dec. 16, 1944, turned out to be the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes offensive, which lasted until Jan. 28, 1945, and very nearly changed the outcome of World War II.
On that night, the Germans launched a surprise offensive, which would become the largest land battle of World War II in which the United States participated. More than a million men fought in this battle including 600,000 Germans, 500,000 Americans, and 55,000 British. Nearly 20,000 American soldiers would die, with over 80,000 casualties. The narrow three mile wide strip of land over which the German offensive poured into the Ardennes ran right across young Victor’s foxhole. Victor’s unit was completely wiped out and its men were killed, captured or disappeared. He spent years trying to find out what had happened to his comrades but to no avail, eventually assuming they had all eventually been killed.
Thirty years later, upon reading an article in a local paper about attempts to posthumously grant one of these men the Congressional Medal of Honor, was he reunited with the survivors. The commander who had sent him back for treatment had himself been killed, the men did not realize he had not been there that night; all of his friends had assumed he was killed in battle.
Only after the war did Victor realize what his fate would have been were it not for a missing pair of size-12 boots. A young circumcised Jewish soldier in an American Army uniform would most probably have been killed by the Germans upon capture or at least sent to the camps. And if he had somehow evaded the Germans and made it back to U.S. lines, how long might a boy with a strong German accent, in an American uniform and with almost no knowledge of Americana like baseball, have survived when challenged by any American troops he came across.
There were special Nazi units disguised as Americans, in stolen uniforms, wreaking havoc behind the lines, as a result of which American units spotting a lone soldier in the field would often quiz him at gunpoint about obscure facts like the lineup of the New York Yankees; young Victor, having only spent a few years in the States, had little knowledge of baseball and apple pie.
Sometimes the missing pair of boots you wish someone could give you are actually the miracle you have already been given. Indeed, so much of life is about perspective.
This week’s parsha, Vayechi gives us a good example of this. At the beginning of the parsha, Yaakov takes ill and realizes his death is near. This is the first instance in the Torah of a person actually becoming ill; until this point, the midrash suggests, people reached the end of their days and simply died. One might have expected Ya’acov to be upset, even struggle with G-d for causing him to suffer.
Yet, Yaakov seems to understand that he is being given an opportunity to say goodbye. In the time he is preoccupied almost exclusively with blessing his children. In a situation where a person might feel cursed, Ya’acov chooses to fill his final hours with blessing; he blesses all of his children, one by one.
As we begin a new secular year, we might take note of what size-12 boots we think we are missing in our lives, and what blessings might lie hidden in what we seem to have been given in their place.
We are given the life that we have; our only choice is our perspective on the life we have.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.
A version of this column was published in 2012.