Local veteran recalls his World War II service

 

World War II veteran George Braunstein loves to dance at Jewish Pavilion programs at Kinneret.

George Braunstein is a member of a storied group whose numbers dwindle as each Memorial Day passes: Jewish American veterans of World War II. As he approaches his 95th birthday, the Kinneret resident is proud to have been one of the interview subjects of the recent documentary "G.I. Jews," which aired on PBS in April. Although his interview was not included in the final documentary, it was used as a promotional teaser and can be found on YouTube. A frequent and lively participant in Jewish Pavilion programs at Kinneret, Braunstein is known for putting aside his walker to dance when there's music and for surrounding himself with his "lady friends."

Braunstein entered the U.S. Army in August 1943 when he was 19, after deferring for a year to help his family as its sole support. Throughout his service, Braunstein continued to send most of his Army paycheck home, keeping only $5 a month, the minimum the Army would allow. PFC Braunstein was shipped off to Marseilles, France, in October 1944 as a member of the 103rd Infantry Division, led by the famous Maj. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe. As infantry, he was transferred straight to the front lines. "We had to replace soldiers who'd been up there," Braunstein said. "And when they came and passed us, as we're going down and they're going up, they looked so haggard and dirty and tired." After a short time on the front lines himself, he said, "I looked in the mirror and I looked dirty and tired, just like they did!"


He was wounded in a battle in Alsace, France, just short of the German border, when he was hit in the neck by shrapnel flying from a bombed church steeple. When he recovered, he was sent to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, a fierce and high-casualty battle in Belgium that was the German army's last major offensive on the Western front, in December 1944 and January 1945. In the spring, he was among the troops that made the final move into Germany and forced their surrender. His unit crossed the Rhine and moved into Bavaria, part of the forces that liberated the Dachau concentration camp in late April 1945. Just before the end of the war in Europe, Braunstein's unit crossed into Austria on tanks, encountering Austrian country folk who had been largely untouched by the ravages of the war. "All we saw was white sheets. They all surrendered," he said.

As he did in his interview for "G.I. Jews," Braunstein recently remarked on the anti-Semitism he encountered in the Army: "I had to deal with people who never knew a Jewish boy, and they had different ideas about them." His easy, bantering style, honed in the melting pot of New York's Lower East Side, won most of them over. "I was always having a good time with them," he said.


Braunstein is proud to be a Jewish WWII vet. "There are very few of us that are still around," he said. "We're American first, but also we have allegiance to Israel, because Israel stands as a nation of Jewish people, which we didn't have before World War II." He recalls being moved as he said the Pledge of Allegiance in school as a boy, and he remains very patriotic to this day.

The Jewish Pavilion entertains and brings Jewish culture to seniors like Braunstein in facilities throughout Central Florida. Its staff and volunteers celebrate and enrich the lives of members of The Greatest Generation-on Memorial Day and throughout the year. For information on donating or volunteering, go to JewishPavilion.org or call 407-678-9363.

 

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