Evading Hitler and Winning the Silver Star: A Jewish Veteran’s Day Story
Bronx native Harry Zeller was headed to medical school in Vienna in 1933, because he couldn’t get into one in America. Being Jewish was an obvious disadvantage at the time. Despite his excellent grades at City College of New York, medical school quotas made it extremely difficult for Jews to get in.
On the ship to Vienna, Harry — who was my uncle — got a telegram from his mother. Adolf Hitler had just become chancellor of Germany. It wasn’t a particularly good time to be Jewish in neighboring Austria.
His mother’s telegram said that he needed to get off the boat. Harry disembarked when the ship reached England, and planned to figure out his next move.
He somehow obtained a seat at a medical school in Scotland, and upon graduation, he wore a full Scottish nobleman’s outfit, complete with kilt and tall fur hat. Then he traveled back to the US and enlisted in the army before Pearl Harbor.
In October 1943, Captain Zeller was sent overseas to England as a medical corpsman and field surgeon, as part of the preparation for the invasion of France. Harry wrote letters to his family at least once a week — sometimes more when conditions permitted.
Unknown to me until recently, Harry’s family kept all his letters from the war. Once I found out about them, I read through them all.
Captain Zeller sent a letter home from France on November 23, 1944, where he commented on German morale: “Their faith in Hitler is comparable to a religion, and they don’t know when they’re licked.”
On November 30, Harry wrote that he had been awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest military decoration.
On the night of August 30, after Paris had been liberated, Captain Zeller was stationed in a building near Saint Denis. His Silver Star citation reads:
When an explosion occurred in a room on the ground floor, which was being used by an infantry unit, Captain Zeller, Battalion Surgeon, 955th Artillery Battalion, responded immediately to a call for medical aid. He treated a seriously wounded infantryman who had managed to get outside the building before collapsing.
Upon learning from the man, when he [was] revived, that there were two other men in the room where the explosion occurred, Captain Zeller, though warned that the room was mined and booby-trapped, disregarded his personal safety as he hastened into the dark room with only a flashlight for illumination.
There he was able to save the life of one of the men who had already become unconscious from the loss of blood. The other had succumbed when Captain Zeller reached him. The gallant and quick work of Captain Zeller, who acted against all warnings, reflects great credit upon himself and is in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army.
By late April 1945, the Americans were in pursuit of the remnants of the German army in Czechoslovakia. Major Zeller sarcastically called them, “Hitler’s super army.”
They came upon a concentration camp there. Harry wrote to his family: “The atrocities you speak of are much worse than anyone can imagine, with its crematoria, gas chambers. … Human ashes were sold for five marks a box to German civilians.”
That was one of the few horrific details that Harry wrote about. Information about soldiers maimed and killed, German war crimes, and the war’s overall devastation was generally censored by the Army.
Thanks to his letters, we have some memories of his experiences.
Harry Zeller — rejected by American medical schools because he was Jewish — had shown valor in combat, risked his life to aid injured men in a building mined with explosives, and helped save the lives of countless American soldiers attacked by the Nazi army.
Despite the bitterness he must have felt about American antisemitism, Harry patriotically enlisted in the Army and helped our armed forces win the war in Europe.
My cousin still has Harry’s Silver Star, pinned under glass, in a wood frame on a wall in his house.
Michael Gold has had articles published in the New York Daily News, the Albany Times-Union, the Virginian-Pilot, and other newspapers.