Daniel Rubin: Tales from the Luckiest Generation in Elkins Park

Rudi Lea, left, with wife Ruth. He wrote a book about a dog that adopted him in wartime England. Below, Stanley Meshkov, who survived the war thanks to a bout of airsickness.
Rudi Lea, left, with wife Ruth. He wrote a book about a dog that adopted him in wartime England. Below, Stanley Meshkov, who survived the war thanks to a bout of airsickness. (LAURENCE KESTERSON)
Posted: May 30, 2011

The Greatest Generation? Maybe the Luckiest, if you listened to the men and woman of World War II who gathered the other day to tell their stories.

Stanley Meshkov said his good fortune was to throw up in his helmet. It made the difference between life and death.

He was 20 on March 24, 1945, a South Philly kid in the 101st Airborne Division, flying in a glider headed over the Rhine.

"Halfway over, I got airsick," he said. "The pilot turned around and said, 'Whatsa matter, kid? You think you're gonna throw up? Take off your helmet. Use that."

Meshkov did, and just as they crossed the river, their glider came under fire. The crew prepared to jump. Two of Meshkov's friends stood next to him - Tommy Ryan, who had written "Lucky Irish" on the glider in chalk, and Mike Soffo.

His pals went first, then Meshkov froze. What should he do with his helmet? Take it? Wear it? He thought about it for 10 seconds, 20 seconds, longer.

Below him, his friends were dying one at a time as the Germans shot them out of the sky.

By the time Meshkov made his decision - he tossed the helmet in the back of the glider - the Germans had moved on to other targets. He landed and spent the next few hours hiding under one of his glider's wings.

"For years," he said, "I think I'm the only one alive."

He's 86 now, a retired dentist. He chose this story to tell 50 or so people Thursday in the library of Keneseth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Elkins Park. His 9-month-old great-granddaughter, Harriet, was brought there to witness family history.

Meshkov gave an epilogue: A dozen years ago, he got a call from a man who identified himself as Capt. Lou Brough. "I think I was your glider pilot," the man said.

The dentist was skeptical, but he invited the man to his office the next day for lunch. "I didn't recognize him," Meshkov said. "He looked a little older." The gentleman pulled out a map, showed the flight path, pointed out where they landed. "Don't you remember?" he asked. "I was the guy who told you to throw up in your helmet."

"I started to laugh," Meshkov said. " 'You son of a gun, you saved my life.' "

Rudi Lea called himself lucky, too. Lucky to have a father with enough foresight to know 1934 Berlin was no place for a Jew. Lea, then 11, was in the first group of German Jewish children sent to foster families in America.

Lea was reared in North Philadelphia, graduated from Central, tried to enlist, but was reminded he wasn't a U.S. citizen. So to serve, he volunteered to be drafted.

He wound up a translator, clearing Germans from their homes as the 99th Chemical Mortar Battalion rolled through southern Germany, then witnessing the unspeakable at Landsberg-Kaufering, a subcamp of Dachau.

He did nothing heroic, he said. He survived.

Self-deprecation was another theme to emerge from the stories told by a half-dozen veterans and their families. Bob Polis described himself as the only navigator to get lost in the Panama Canal. Shep Goren described breaking his neck during a collision in a barracks.

Others delivered stories with an understatement that added potency. Aaron Kuptsow told how when he was shot down over Germany on Nov. 26, 1944, he knew to throw away his dog tags because they were marked with an H for Hebrew. A farmer saw him discard his identification and brought the tags over to where he was being taken prisoner. Someone hit Kuptsow so hard his jaw was broken.

He spent five months in a prison camp, segregated with the other Jews. "It got kind of rough with the food and the cold situation," is all the retired physician said about his treatment."

One man spoke for his late father. A widow told her husband's story. Lillian Tekel sat silently, her walker behind her, as her husband told of her years of service in the Pacific as a nurse.

After all the stories, Lea wanted to make sure I understood something. He is 88 and spent his career as an educator, teaching high school history in Cheltenham before returning to Berlin to help run a German American school. He retired from Lower Merion High.

Lea was carrying a book he wrote about the war, Topsy's GI Journey, about the dog that adopted him in England and became the outfit's mascot.

"This Greatest Generation stuff is malarkey," Lea said.

"We were the Luckiest Generation. Lucky to know who we were and who the enemy was, to have such a clear enemy. Don't forget that."


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.

 

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