Brenner Family

Mel's reunion final report

Group portrait of the surviving vets of the 87th, including several members of the WACS
Dear All,
Mel and  Leslie at the reunion

The second and final day of the 87th Infantry Division reunion (actually there were three days, but we missed the first) was even more intellectually enriching and emotionally resonant than the first. I missed the business meeting at which it was decided to hold another meeting next year, despite the dwindling number of living vets (they deal with that tough decision every year and every year decide to continue), so next year in Atlanta...

Mel and Kathleen Coleton, daughter of 
Mel's closest war buddy John Coleton, 
who couldn't make the reunion this 
year  because of ill health. 

Leslie Brenner arrived from her home in Portsmouth in time to attend the Memorial Service with Mel and myself...Various prayers, declarations  and color guards marching through a small room...This year when they read George Washington's Prayer for the Nation, the written version contained a reference to his faith in Jesus Christ, but out of respect for the Jewish soliders, they did not mention Jesus Christ when reading the proclamation out loud. (Mel had spoken to the powers that be on that issue last year and they understood the discomfort that caused the Jewish vets). There was plenty of spirituality though, especially when everyone joined wholeheartedly in a moving rendition of Amazing Grace...

Leslie and Kathleen Coleton

Then there was a session of reminiscing about difficult issues from the battlefront...They spoke about having known men who literal shot themselves in the foot so as to be able to get out of the horror of the fighting, with one guy acknowledging that he and others covered for one guy who shot himself in the foot, saying it was an accident, not intentional...One vet, a taciturn type from the South, spoke candidly about his lifelong struggle against anxiety--how he managed to succeed in his career and build a happy marriage and family despite the demons he was constantly fighting, including the shame he felt about his condition. He did electroshock treatments back in the 50s, which helped some, but he didn't really get relief until Zoloft appeared in the 90s. It was moving that he felt safe to share what had been deep dark secrets in front of all those people.

Military couple from Minnesota

One guy talked about the shock of visiting Buchenwald two days after it was liberated, describing vividly in the first person what we have all seen on faded newsreels and in history books; the smell, the piled up bodies and watching a former prisoner beating S.S. prison guards with a riding crop...Mel, whose unit also liberated a much smaller concentration camp, said until that point, there had been virtually no awareness of the reality of the Holocaust  among the U.S. troops, lncluding the Jewish ones. Mel shared one of the most powerful anecdotes---how he talked some of his comrades out of shooting German soldiers they had captured...He argued that it was morally wrong, would dishonor the company, and if word got out,  it would prevent more Germans from surrendering...At one point he summoned all of his will to hold himself back from shooting in the stomach a teenage Hitler Youth member he had captured who had been firing at him from a house...but sometimes there was no choice but to shoot the Hitler Youth who chopped down trees and did other desperate acts of sabotage to slow the American advance in the final weeks because they resisted to the very end...

Leslie works the crowd

Dear Readers, I must acknowledge missing the end of that session as I rushed off for a delicious swim at Naragansett Beach...Later came the closing banquet, which was memorable for me in part for the chance to have some quality time with Leslie, who shared family memories growing up...How her grandfather Lee Klein used to take them to the races at Saratoga and other wonderful memories of her grandparents Lil and Lee, of Uncle Morty, of her relationship growing up with Wendy, Marsha and Robert...It made me realize how much rich family life Dan, Joanne and I missed out on because our parents moved with us away from New York to Pittsburgh and Chicago as kids...There was an amazing entertainment at the Banquet---an acapella group called Boston Accent who performed songs from the 30s to the 70s with gorgeous harmonies, but also with plenty of fun and sass...utterly charming...and we all had plenty to drink, or at least I did...It seemed appropriate to honor the memory of my late grandfather Walter Ruby and Lee Klein, who also went into the liquor business, with several rum and cokes (as most of you know he famously invited the drink, which he labelled Carioca Cooler)...

In any case, it was a magical two days. I saw humanity at its best on so many levels...Maybe there still is hope that this species can build a decent future...Thanks so much to Mel for giving me the chance to experience all of this and to Leslie for sharing it with us...Hugs to you all,
Naragansett beach

Report from Mel's WW2 reunion

Dear Friends,
Just wanted to share a little of the reunion of Mel's 87th Infantry Division Legacy Association with you. There are maybe 150 people here at the Reunion at a large hotel in Warwick, RI --34 surviving veterans of World War II and the rest children and grandchildren and assorted relatives of the vets, including some who have continued to be involved even though their fathers are now deceased. They come from every corner of the U.S., though the majority are from the Northeast, and of course Florida, to which so many have retired. This is really Middle America in all of its permutations, but a really kindly, warm and fuzzy face of Middle America. People are here for each other, a wonderful spirit of voluntarism and everyone looking out for each other.
Battle flag of the 87th Division 

On one level obviously, the whole thing is a tribute to the unfathomable experiences the members of 87th Divison, living and dead (the youngest, like Mel are about to turn 87, the oldest surviving veteran, Walt Clarke, is 95) went through on the frozen battlefields of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and during their triumphant drive across Germany the following spring, ending near the Czechoslovak border on the last day of the way, May 7, 1945. On a deeper level, there is shared connections of the vets and their loved ones and survivors with each other.

Gen. William McAuliffe said
"Nuts" to the Nazis
To say that death was everywhere around them during those months is an understatement; for example, of the 42 men in Mel's unit at the beginning of the fighting in the fall of 1944, only 7 were still alive at the end of the war. Who died and who survived was completely about grotesque games of chance. One guy spoke about watching his entire unit get decimated while he escaped unharmed a few yards away; Mel was blown into the air by an exploding shell, but came down unharmed. Wiliam Foster of northern  New York State, who remembers Mel from the fighting as "a damn good soldier", remembers diving for cover into a foxhole during a German artillery barrage and finding himself on top of a dead German soldier. He jumped out and ran for another hole, hich he now remembers as a foolish thing to have done. Every night they would dig holes to lie down in their sleeping bags in the tundra like snowy terain; inability to get warm was a constant torture during the Bulge; in the morning they would slither out of the slepping bags to find them frozen to the ground and would have to cut the bags loose with knives...

Mel in conversation at the reumion
The vets speak of returning from that hell to normal lives back home--Mel who was then all of 19 and 20, said he "went back to being a kid." Somehow the miracles of the human brain made it possible to put the war experiences behind them ad lead amazingly normal lives; only many decades later did they feel the need to begin to process the experience together and realize in many cases that they had experienced traumatic stress disorders that had impacted their subsequent lives in ways they still often cant put their fingers on or articulate. But the overwhelming impression is of genial, balanced and good humored men of whom Mel is an Exhibit A (everyone here appreciates his warm and intelligent sense of humor and his wonderful eccenticites like the canes he whittles filled with  birds and whimsical human faces).
Faces in the crowd at the mixer

Last night's 'mixer' was a feast that ended in a sing-along of sons of the era (White Cliffs of Dover, We'll Meet Again and the previous generations (Bicycle Built for Two, This is the Army Mr. Jones)...One veteran got up and sang a less reverential send up of the army life, filled with words like 'shit' and 'asshole' at which all laughed uproriously. People reminsced and socialized and looked at photos and maps and documents chronicling the searing experience of the 87th with a sense of wonderment, sometime reverential and sometimes  irreverant. One is reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's famous throwaway line about the bombing of Dresden and all the other horrors of the era all of these folks lived through. "So It Goes," he wrote.

Walt Clarke, 95. is the oldest
survivor of the 87th. He was
a surgeon during the fighting
So it went and so it still goes in Syria right now and on  other assored battlefields around the world; so it has gone for our own Israeli cousins for all of these decades...and how fortunate most of us have been to have escaped having our own lives seared by these horrors. Without getting too pompous and teary eyed, our luck is due in large part to the sacrifice these guys made on the battlefields of Normandy, the Ardennes and so many other fronts; and the tenacity of our valiant Russian allies; who smashed the Nazi blitzkrieg in the snows of Moscow and Stalingrad and saved all of us not only from having to fight but of complete incineration at the hands of a system that tried to murder every Jew in the world.

To paraphrase the Who, I dig my own generation--we had a vision of a new non-exploitive and egalitarian society and did our best to create it against heavy odds..maybe it was "only the fitful dreanms of some greater awakening" to quote Jackson Browne, but I immensely proud of it and feel honored to have lived it. That said, I'm ready to cede the 'Greatest Generation' moniker to Mel and his comrades. Did they ever earn it!!

Leslie will arrive here shortly anbd more events for the rest of the day. I'll report again tomorrow...Here are a few pix...sorry on the quality...more pix to come with next report

Family attends Twyla's Barnard graduation

Also late, but congratulations are in order for the latest member of the family to pass through the gates of academe and step into the so-called real world. Twyla completed her undergraduate degree from Barnard College at Columbia University, the same institution (Columbia) where her grandfather Stanley was an undergrad and graduate student.

We had a big turnout of Rubys and Eilertsens to celebrate the occasion in New York City. Among Ruby kin, Danny, Joanne, Walter and Tanya, Gene, Janis Brenner and her husband Mitchell Bogart, and Sandy Brenner were on hand for some or all of the festivities. On the Eilertsen side, Kate and Allen, Ed, Judy, and Susie went all out to make the experience special, including at the several special celebratory meals. I was so sad that Stan and Helga could not be there that I broke up trying to say that in a toast at the first celebration dinner.

The graduation ceremony was plenty interesting, with featured speeches by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, David Remnick, Anna Quindlen, Judith Shapiro, and others. Billie Jean King was among those who received the Barnard Medal. Twyla walked with the Anthropology department as she was recognized for her double major in Anthropology and English.

At a couple of departmental receptions, Kate and I had the opportunity to meet two of the professors who advised Twyla's senior project—Ross Hamilton of the English department and Brian Larkin, the chairman of the Anthropology department. Both had lovely things to say about our graduate. Her thesis, "Made Visible: Scientific Constructivism Through the Lens of Hooke's Micrographia, received a 'A' grade from the two professors.

Graduation morning, there was a screwup because I failed to get word to Sandy on where we would meet. She came anyway—solo on the train with Mel in the hospital recovering from a knee operation—but we never managed to find each other. Janis was getting ready to leave for Asia that morning, and the last thing she needed was my frantic call looking for her mother. She ended up missing her flight while Mitchell worked the phones trying to track her down.

Turns out Sandy was there for the graduation ceremony and post reception. Then, not finding any of us, she sensibly went home, where she discovered everyone had been looking for her. My apologies for my part in the screwup. Thankfully, everything worked out okay and Joanne took the next day to visit with Sandy and help get Mel home from the hospital.

last pix from Brenners


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