The obituary Saturday in The Morning Call noted that Cantor Samuel Weiss, who had been active in the Jewish community and Congregation Sons of Israel in Allentown for more than four decades, retired to Florida in 1994.
That was a year after I got to know him and wrote a story about his World War II experiences as a partisan fighting the Germans in Yugoslavia. He was 73 when I interviewed him, and he told me then about his plans to move south. He lived in Deerfield Beach, Fla., and died Oct. 1 at age 93. As is the case with so many people I’ve written about, I had lost touch with him.
It hurt to hear that he’s gone. I remembered my story from 19 years ago and thought again about his courage and sacrifice in facing the Nazis.
My story ran on a Sunday in May 1993 in the midst of an unstoppable cycle of violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina. An estimated 150,000 people had been killed and 2 million Bosnians had been forced to flee their homes as Balkan Serbs pressed their campaign to live in ethnically pure communities. The story beside mine at the top of Page 1 was headlined, “Bosnia’s defiant Serbs vow to reject peace plan.”
You can’t find my Samuel Weiss story on the Web, so I’m presenting it here in its entirety, along with a photo of him taken in 1944 in Yugoslavia. Here’s the link to Weiss’ obituary on The Morning Call’s website: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/mcall/obituary.aspx?n=cantor-samuel-weiss&pid=160301357#fbLoggedOut
HE FOUGHT WITH SERBS IN WWII
German army was enemy then; now it’s revenge, says Allentonian
By David Venditta
The Morning Call
May 16, 1993
|The assignment was routine: Blow up a bridge the German army was using to bring munitions and other supplies into Yugoslavia.As dusk closed a summer day in the Serbian countryside, Sam Weiss toiled secretly beneath the bridge, digging a hole for explosives around a pillar. He wielded his pick, mindful of the Nazi SS sentinels pacing the deck high above him.
Weiss grew tired and took a break, edging toward the nearby brush where a Serbian comrade was on the lookout. Then he heard the crack of rifle fire. He bolted. Another shot was fired, and he heard one of the Germans on the bridge shouting the alarm.
Weiss stopped and looked up. He pulled a pistol from inside his jacket, aimed carefully at one of three Germans peering down from the rail, and fired.
Half a century later, Samuel Weiss of Allentown recalls the moment.
“I got him,” he said. “I saw him fall back. I don’t know if I killed him, because I took off.”
He and the other Yugoslav partisan got away. The next week they returned to finish their work, and the bridge came down.
Weiss, a Jew from Czechoslovakia, wanted to dedicate his life to his faith. But for more than three years during World War II, he fought alongside the Serbs to purge their land of the Nazi invaders. He spied on SS officers in saloons, helped ambush German patrols in the mountains and destroyed trains and bridges.
When the German troops retreated, he saw the corpses of hundreds of Jewish slave laborers who had been taken on the march, shot along the road and dumped in craters.
And when the fighting against the Germans in Yugoslavia was over, he went home to find that most of his large family had perished at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland or while laboring elsewhere for the Nazis.
After the war, Weiss studied music and worked in synagogues in Europe for several years, then came to New York. In 1952 he settled in the Lehigh Valley.
At 73, he has been cantor of Congregation Sons of Israel in Allentown for 40 years. When he retires this summer, he and his wife will move to Florida.
But as Weiss nears the end of a career that war wouldn’t let him start, the battleground of his youth is again soaking up the blood of soldiers and innocents.
The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has become the most destructive European conflict since the days when Weiss’ band of saboteurs roamed the Balkan hills.
And it has brought another horror: the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims by Bosnian Serbs, a reminder to Weiss and many others of the “final solution” that slaughtered 6 million Jews during the Third Reich.
Reports of Serbian atrocities leave Weiss anguished and angry. When he was in the Yugoslav underground, the Serbs’ passionate defiance of the Nazis inspired him.
“I was very happy to work with the Serbs,” he said. “They are a proud and tough people. By nature, they are a good people. If they like you, they’ll take their last shirt and give it to you.”
Like the Jews, the Serbs were being tortured and murdered by the Germans, Weiss said, so Jews and Serbs shared a common purpose.
“The reason that I see for what’s happening now is that the Serbs are paying back the Muslims for what they did during this time. The Muslims were collaborating with the Germans, and they were pointing out where the partisans were and giving them over to the hands of the Germans, who murdered them.
“But two wrongs don’t make a right. What we did 50 years ago was self-defense. I don’t believe what they are doing now is correct. They’re doing the same thing that the Germans did.
“Only God can take revenge.”
Germans and Muslims weren’t alone in killing Serbs and Jews. They had help from the Croats, who had never been complacent in Yugoslavia.
The treaty that ended the First World War had crafted a kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes out of the decimated Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. But Serbs and Croats sniped at each other for a decade, with the Croats believing the Serbs dominated the kingdom. In 1929 King Alexander, a Serb, renamed the land Yugoslavia and ruled like a dictator. The Croats seethed and formed a fascist separatist movement called the Ustase.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Yugoslavia claimed to be neutral, but German political pressure and Italy’s invasion of Greece the next year spurred the Yugoslavs to line up with the Axis powers. Not for long, though. Within two days of the signing of the pact, the Yugoslav military overthrew the government.
“Better war than the pact, better death than slavery,” Serbian demonstrators chanted.
Adolf Hitler was miffed. On April 6, 1941, he sent his Luftwaffe to bomb the capital, Belgrade, and his army across the frontier. Yugoslavia collapsed in 11 days, and Hitler dismembered it, rewarding his fellow fascists, the Ustase, with control of an independent Croatia that included all of Bosnia-Herzegovina and 2 million Serbs.
The Ustase butchered Serbs, and in retaliation, Serbian nationalists butchered Croats.
A CAMP FOR JEWS
Into this whirlwind of hate and confusion stepped Weiss, by his own admission an unlikely soldier.
He was born in 1919 in Lozo-Irshavah, a town of several thousand people in the Carpathian region of eastern Czechoslovakia. He was the fourth oldest of nine children. The family was poor. His father earned a meager livelihood buying animal skins from butchers and selling them to leather makers.
But young Weiss had a chance to improve his lot, because he had a gift: He could sing. And because he aspired to be a cantor, he got a scholarship to attend a yeshiva in the state of Slovakia and earned some money there, working in a wholesale grocery store.
“As I was preparing myself for a career in school, trouble started,” Weiss said. “Suddenly, overnight, the state where I was born was overrun by the Hungarian government.”
Hungary — and Poland, too — had snatched disputed frontiers from Czechoslovakia after Britain, France and Italy agreed in 1938 to let Germany have Czechoslovakia’s western border areas.
Weiss had to leave the yeshiva in Slovakia and go home. Months passed.
“Being that I was the age of military service, the Hungarians naturally started to train us and drafted me into the army. So I was taken to the training camps. I was trained for about six months.”
Weiss found it ironic that he was pressed into combat training in the Hungarian army, because in his own country, the Czechoslovakian military wouldn’t have taken him. At 5 feet 2 inches tall, he was too short.
“They transferred us to a camp where only Jewish people were,” Weiss went on. “The training for combat was stopped, and we were given picks and shovels. They put us into a labor camp — we worked a few months here, a few months there.”
Eventually, Weiss and about 5,000 other Jewish laborers were sent to Bor, in eastern Yugoslavia.
“That city was rich for mining. There was a big mountain where camps were already established. The Hungarian army assigned the people to work, so some were assigned to mines. I was assigned to do odds and ends, janitorial kind of work, cleaning up. It was a big place, at least 10,000 people.”
After a while, Weiss was assigned to work in the city for the German command because he could speak and understand German, which he learned in the public school at home. Besides German and his native Czech, he also knew Ukrainian and the Slavic languages.
At the German command, he worked in a large building with many offices.
“My job was to deliver mail. My superior was a German, a nice old man.
“Then they decided to have other offices in the city,” Weiss said. “They assigned me to go delivering messages from one office to the other. I wore a band around my arm indicating I was serving the Germans, and I had documents always with me.
“This gave me a little bit more freedom in the city, so I would stop in to a saloon and have a drink.”
On one of these visits to the bar, Weiss said, “I saw there was a guy sitting there, and he was looking at me. I didn’t think of it, and I walked out. After that I saw him four or five times.
“One time I came in to eat something, and the guy came over to me and sat down next to me and started to tell me he knew who I was and that I shouldn’t be afraid, but he would like to help me and my friends.
“He said, `I know how many people there are in the camp. I know a lot of these things. It’s our job to know. What I’d like you to do is try to round up a few of your friends, and we will make arrangements to help you escape from there.’
“Of course I was suspicious, but I figured, `Well, we’ll see. I’ll let you know.’
“We met again, then I started to talk to my friends in the camp. Some of them said, `I don’t want to take a chance.’ It was very difficult for them to escape, but I was able to convince about a dozen of the younger fellows. The older ones were always afraid.”
The deal was simple: The contact in the saloon would arrange to help the Jewish slave laborers flee the camp, and in return the escapees would join the Yugoslav underground.
Names and pictures of the Jews were passed to the underground, new passports were forged and Weiss’ friends got out without incident.
Then it was Weiss’ turn.
“One day they got me the documents, passports, everything. They provided me with clothing.”
He went to the saloon and met his contact.
“Right from the place where I was talking to him, I made my escape. He already had a truck there, and I changed my clothing and left.”
A German patrol stopped them outside the city, checked their papers and let them pass.
Weiss was taken to a huge cave in one of Serbia’s rugged mountains, where he joined about 20 partisans and learned the saboteur’s trade.
He went willingly, eager to do his part to stop the Germans.
JUST LIKE A SOLDIER
Yugoslav resistance to the Nazi occupation had been swift. After Yugoslavia surrendered, an army colonel and Serbian patriot named Draza Mihajlovic organized bands of guerrillas called Chetniks.
The Chetniks’ work — acts of sabotage and outright military opposition — led to brutal German reprisals. Because he didn’t want to provoke the Germans to massacre more Serbs, Mihajlovic softened his strategy, opting to hold back and strengthen his forces to assist the Allies when they landed on the Adriatic coast.
After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, a second resistance movement emerged under the direction of a Croatian Communist, Josip Broz, known as Tito. He ran the operations of irregular units called partisans, whose slogan was “Death to fascism, liberty to the people.”
More aggressive than the Chetniks, the partisans welcomed all foes of the Nazis into their ranks — regardless of nationality or social status.
Weiss was now among them.
The other partisans in Weiss’ unit of about 20 were all Serbs. Four were Jews, including Weiss, who used a Yugoslav name — Rigodah — and spoke to his cohorts in Slavic.
He referred to his fellow saboteurs, none of whom was more than 25 years old, as “the boys.” They traveled in pairs from village to village so that the Germans wouldn’t be suspicious.
“We were always broken up,” Weiss said. “We were never in large groups. One or two people are hard to spot.”
Weiss and his partner, Yanovitch — “a very fine, educated boy” — stayed with fellow partisans and sympathizers who fed and cared for them.
“They knew what our work was, and they were helping us. It didn’t cost us money.”
At times, for the sake of appearance, they worked in the fields.
“There was a life going on, even though it was miserable. But we had to cover up. On the farms, we’d help to collect the bundles of hay, but it was always as a cover-up.”
Once a week, a truck driven by a superior would come to the home where Weiss and Yanovitch were staying. The superior would pick them up and drive them to the mountains, where they would meet in a cave with the others who had been brought there to plan the unit’s next move.
“Sometimes changes came up and we had to be prepared. We were never allowed to take off and go away on our own. There was a strictness in it. We had to be always ready, just like a soldier.
“We had these assignments. We had to blow up railroads, knock off the bridges. And we had to do it not where it’s close to the community,” Weiss said, not only to ensure the safety of Serbs living in the area who would be close to an “action,” but to discourage reprisals against them.
“If our boys would go to a German camp and kill a few soldiers, the Germans would then come into the closest city, and they would make an issue of this, and they would take the mayor out into the public square and hang him right away.
“So naturally we tried to restrain our work. Our superiors would say, `If you get to a camp, don’t kill the Germans. Get them naked and tie them up, but don’t kill them.'”
But there were exceptions to the rule.
“I was on guard on top of a mountain,” Weiss said, recalling one encounter with the enemy, “and the boys were all gathering in the forest, in the trees, and they were expecting a brigade of Germans to come through. It was like an ambush.”
From his vantage point, Weiss saw five small Nazi tanks rumbling along on a curvy mountain road.
“There was always a gap between the troops and the tanks,” he noted.
Weiss watched as the tanks approached the spot where the partisans were waiting.
“The boys dropped themselves down from the trees and on top of the tanks,” he said. “They stabbed the guy who was in the tank, threw him out and took over the tank.”
Quickly, all five tanks were occupied by the partisans, who then turned them around and lined them up to face the approaching Germans.
“The troops were coming in trucks, some were on motorcycles. They were coming and they saw the tanks were stopped and were turned around. They couldn’t understand what happened.”
Before the Germans could react, the partisans sprayed them with bullets from the tanks’ machine guns. The Germans fell, were scattered and fled, and the partisans drove off in the tanks, which they kept to use another day.
A GERMAN-SPEAKING SPY
Weiss’ knowledge of German made him an especially valuable partisan.
“My superior would send an associate of his with me, and we would go where there was a big concentration of German soldiers.”
At saloons in those places, the Germans would gather to drink and get drunk — and talk too much.
“My job was to listen to what they were talking about.”
Once while a fellow partisan waited outside, Weiss went into a bar and hit pay dirt. He overheard one SS officer tell another, “We’re expecting a big shipment of munitions.” Details followed, and Weiss heard them.
“I told my superior what I overheard. He called his superior on the phone and gave him the message in code.”
The pieces of information that Weiss had received were matched with information provided by other spies in the underground. As expected, the train transport was made, but the partisans were ready for it.
“There were about 18 wagons full of munitions. They were exploding for weeks.”
The hazards of these operations were clear to Weiss and his comrades, and high on the list of fears was the possibility of dynamite blowing up prematurely.
“I was afraid mostly when we did sabotage work that we shouldn’t blast away and get killed with it too,” Weiss said. “That was the only time I really had big fear.”
Ambushes from German patrols were a concern, but the partisans, when they neared a site they planned to work at, would first send a few men ahead to determine if there were any signs of the enemy or booby traps.
Weiss said his group lost only one man during the time he served with it.
“One time a guy went out to do something, and he was ambushed by a German patrol — killed on the spot. He wanted to shoot them first, but he wasn’t fast enough.”
Of all the hazards, the most insidious threat came from within. It was the Yugoslavs themselves, the ones who joined the SS, or Schutzstaffel, the elite military unit of the Nazi Party.
“A lot of the SS were from the Yugoslavian people. Some who joined the SS movement were even worse than the Germans themselves. We had to be very careful of them. They could speak our language. We were told: `Watch out for them. They’re very, very dangerous.’ They were the ones who got most of our boys.”
In 1944, the Germans were in deep trouble.
“They had been beaten all over,” Weiss said, “and that’s when we were able to push harder.
“But those miserable Germans, they killed these people who were slaves to them. As they were retreating, they took the people along. Then they killed them off.
“They took them along with them. I’ve never understood why.”
Weiss said he and others in his unit saw the bodies of 400 to 500 people — mostly Jews from the work camps — lying in craters along the route of the German retreat. They had all been shot.
Soon, the fighting against the Germans in Yugoslavia stopped.
“Our superiors called us all together in Belgrade and told us that the war in our section was over. I stayed for a while, just relaxed and took it easy.”
When Weiss returned home to Czechoslovakia, no one was living in his family’s ransacked home. A cousin who had survived Auschwitz told him that his parents and younger siblings had died there. The others had died in Nazi work camps. Of nine children, only Samuel and two brothers were still alive.
The brothers eventually moved to Israel, where they live today.
Weiss pursued his dream, receiving operatic and cantor training at the Vienna Conservatory, and had jobs with several synagogues before he came to the United States in 1948. Two years later in New York, he married Bertha Rosnar, who was also from Czechoslovakia. They have two children, a son in Israel and a daughter in Chester County.
`GIVE HIM BACK WITH LOVE’
The SS trooper on the bridge was the only person Weiss ever shot — and it was only to keep the Germans at bay and buy time for his escape.
“I never was proud of this stuff,” he said. “We Jewish scholars, learned people, we follow the Bible, the Talmud, and we do not look to harm somebody. As soldiers, we have to protect ourselves, but we are always told before we hit somebody or do some harm that we think of him as a human being.
“In fact, the Talmud speaks about it that if somebody is doing harm to you, give him back with love and joy, never revenge, never revenge.”