It is hard to imagine a Jew who fought the Nazi war machine and saw its barbarity firsthand would, decades later, go road-tripping with German veterans of the same war. Then again, there are many things the dwindling number of veterans of Elias “Hy” Eliasof’s generation have to teach us about war, and life.
Eliasof is 97 years old and lives in the Fox Hill retirement community in Bethesda, Maryland. During World War II, he spent 300 days of 1944 and 1945 on the front lines in Normandy, northern France, the Rhineland, and Central Europe. He saw almost continuous fighting during his time as an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon sergeant in the 28th infantry regiment of the 8th infantry division.
Eliasof was born in New York City to a northern Greek family of Romaniote Jews, who trace their roots to the Eastern Mediterranean and speak Ladino the way other Jews speak Yiddish.
His Jewish education ended abruptly when his father died at the age of 45. Eliasof describes himself not as an observant Jew, but rather “a very, very loyal Jew.”
After Pearl Harbor, Eliasof wanted to enlist, but as one of five brothers and two sisters whose father was already dead, Eliasof’s mother urged him not to.
“They are going to take you all,” he recalled his mother telling him and his brothers. “Don’t leave me. Stay with me until you are drafted.” And that’s what he did. All five of the boys eventually went on to serve, four in the infantry and one as a navigation bomber.
At first, Eliasof was the only Jew in his platoon. Eventually, two other Jews joined him. He didn’t recall experiencing any anti-Semitism as a soldier. “There were cracks made, but not of a cruel type,” he said; once a soldier earned respect, his ethnic background didn’t matter.
A Shocking Revelation
Eliasof spent his war years patrolling, taking prisoners, and maintaining observation posts. He created maps to show others where the bombs were falling. He heard about German labor camps, he said, but he thought they were just what they sounded like: work camps.
“I am no idiot. I knew how the Germans felt,” he said. Even so, he was completely unaware that civilians — and in particular, his fellow Jews — were being gassed and starved to death.
It wasn’t until the very end of the war, when he first entered a concentration camp for captured Russian and Polish soldiers, that he got a taste of the horrors tucked behind the barbed wire fences of the Nazi regime. “They were starved to death. They were dying of disease,” he recalled. Whenever prisoners there died, they were thrown in a big pit for burial; he saw one such hole filled with people who looked more like skeletons than human beings.
“War is war,” said Eliasof, and his platoon took prisoners as well, but he stressed that they only ever took soldiers, not civilians. “I followed all the rules,” he said.
To step inside a concentration camp filled with Jews would have torn his heart out, he said, and he was glad he never had to do it.
The Hürtgen Forest Connection
Some of the worst fighting Eliasof experienced took place in 1944 in the Hürtgen Forest in Germany, he said. It was a three-month struggle famous for its bloodshed: Nearly 33,000 American and 30,000 German troops were killed or wounded by its end.
In 1997, he received a letter from an officer in a German veterans organization who had fought opposite Eliasof on that field of battle. As a result of their correspondence, in 1999 a dozen U.S. veterans traveled to Germany with 50 family members and friends for a two-week trip. Eventually the group joined up with a dozen German veterans to visit the site of their previous encounter over 50 years earlier.
The German and American veterans shared memories, drinks, and dinners. A very short documentary film, called “On Common Ground,” was made about that reunion. The one-time enemies, in some cases embracing and parting ways as friends, were remarkable to watch.
“There were no hard feelings,” said Eliasof. “Time had healed the wounds.”
Living the American Dream
After the war, Eliasof returned to New York with two Bronze Stars for acts of bravery in battle. He settled in Closter, New Jersey, where he served as mayor, conducting more than 100 weddings and helping to bring a few nonprofits to the town, including one for battered women.
Eliasof worked in the garment industry, starting out by purchasing five sewing machines and setting up in a store in the Bronx. Within a dozen years, Elias Brothers, which made children’s sportswear, had 125 employees.
“We lived the American dream,” he said.
He and his wife, Marion, who passed away in 2006, had two daughters, one of whom had breast cancer and died at age 34. After his wife’s passing, Eliasof moved to Fox Hill to be near his other daughter, who lives in Potomac, Maryland.
Eliasof plays golf with his son-in-law and can still play 18 holes, he proclaimed. It may sound unbelievable from someone three years shy of a century, but then Eliasof remains an energetic walker. His eyesight is not good, but he reads with a magnifying glass (his genre: biographies). He stays socially active by joining committees and attending lectures and concerts, and he also enjoys spending time with his two grandsons and three great-grandsons.
To what does Eliasof attribute his longevity and good health? "Dumb luck," he said.
“I am a very, very happy person, and grateful,” he added. “I am a very grateful person.”
By Suzanne Pollak