From Hitler’s Childhood Home to Gratz College
Martin Bachman came of age on the cusp of WWII.
Born in Philadelphia in 1922, Bachman graduated from high school with the class of 1939. In November 1942, at age 20, he was drafted and eventually came face-to-face with Nazi Germany.
The events of the next three years would define Bachman as an adult, an American and a Jew. Now 96, Bachman looks back at his life in segments: an idyllic childhood, his military service, post-WWII America and his later years, which included Adult Jewish Learning courses at Gratz and service on Gratz’s Board of Governors.
Recently, Bachman sat down with Gratz Today to reminisce about his life, which began with a childhood in Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood during the Great Depression. His mother’s parents had immigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1890, and his mother was born in Philadelphia in 1898.
Bachman enjoyed a carefree life in a row house among a 95-percent Jewish population.
“I had a wonderful childhood,” he said. “Everyone struggled. Everyone’s parents had second jobs. But for children, it was a Tom Sawyer adventure. We grew up in the river fishing and playing made-up games in the streets.”
Bachman played baseball in high school and only gave it up the fall after graduation when his mother got him a clerical job at a local furniture store. He earned $15 per week.
By 1940, things were “heating up,” Bachman said. He took a civilian job with the Department of War that paid $28 per week, and stayed there until he was drafted.
Bachman was assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program, which trained soldiers with technical skills at American universities. He attended William & Mary, where he studied engineering.
“Then D-Day came, and along with it the casualties,” he said. “The Army closed the doors of the training program overnight and went looking for replacements for the combat soldiers.”
Bachman was assigned to the 215th Airborne Field Artillery, but because he was a “college boy,” he was offered a desk job at headquarters.
“I said ‘No, thanks, put me out in the field,’” he said. “Even though I knew the airborne artillery meant flying coffins, I didn’t want to be in the position of being labeled the Jewish college boy.”
Bachman trained as a cannoneer and wireman. He arrived in Europe just in time for the Battle of the Bulge.
After the war ended in April 1945, Bachman’s battalion took on police duties in German and Austrian towns. One such town was Braunau, Austria—the hometown of Adolf Hitler.
“The first night we were there, I slept in the house where Hitler was born,” Bachman said. “It had been converted to a library and there were bedrolls spread out on the main floor. It was surreal being there.”
From September through December 1945, Bachman was in Berlin, serving in the Reparations and Restitution Division. He was tasked with locating all the assets Nazis has looted and returning them to their rightful owners.
“No one knew how to do this,” Bachman said. “There were no records of ownership, so we had to start from scratch.”
One day, Bachman walked into a meeting to distribute notepads and pencils, and came face to face with General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been the Supreme Allied Commander during the war. Eisenhower was meeting with Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov, who was the commander-in-chief of the Soviet Red Army.
Bachman recalls an exchange between the two generals.
“Eisenhower, through an interpreter, asked Zhukov to report that he was protesting the Russian Army’s seizure of German plants,” Bachman said. “Zhukov didn’t bat an eye and told Eisenhower, through an interpreter, that communication with Moscow goes one way.”
Bachman also remembers observing Yom Kippur in Berlin in September 1945. The U.S. Army hosted a service and invited soldiers from nearby armies.
“The service was conducted by a Russian officer,” Bachman said. “The room was full of Jewish guys from all over the world.”
At the conclusion of the service, officers and soldiers enjoyed a break-the-fast meal, served on metal Army trays. As men finished their meal, they dumped remaining food into huge garbage cans behind the kitchen.
“And there, waiting in line, were German civilians desperate for scraps,” Bachman said. “This was a moment in time when Germans were starving and waiting for scraps from Jews.”
Bachman returned to Philadelphia in December 1945 and enrolled in courses at the Wharton School of Business. He graduated in 1949, at age 27, and went on to enjoy a 50-year career with Strick Trailers, a manufacturer of aluminum sheet and post trailers.
Bachman’s wife, Lois, was studying Hebrew since the early 60’s and was enrolled in Gratz’s Samuel Netzky Adult Institute of Jewish Studies from 1973-79. It was her ongoing connection to Gratz that sparked Bachman’s initial interest. He signed up for a history class.
“I went to the class once a week, and I loved it,” Bachman said. “That was the beginning. I kept taking classes after that.”
Once he retired in the mid-1990s, Bachman took a more rigorous approach to Adult Jewish Learning. He took courses in Hebrew language, culture and history, and found that he was filling gaps in his identity.
“Other than studying for my bar mitzvah, I hadn’t had much Hebrew,” he said. “I missed out on a Jewish education as a child, so as an older adult I was trying to catch up.”
Bachman served on the Gratz Board of Governors, he said. In that capacity, he gained an even deeper appreciation for the role of Jewish colleges in today’s world.
“The future of Judaism is in education,” he said. “Gratz is unique, it has a good reputation and it deserves all the support it can get.” ■