Start of Main Content

Democracy without Equality

By Martin Weiss

Since I moved from New Jersey to the Washington, DC, area and was given the opportunity to visit the United States Capitol Rotunda in observance of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), I can’t help getting in touch with my memories and emotions on many levels.

To start with, I hope to pay tribute to all the fallen individuals who perished during the Holocaust and to remind us that we cannot afford to forget, lest we the people make the same mistake and allow such a catastrophic event to happen again.

Seeing the troops march in with the colors is a most touching experience. Everyone in the rotunda had a feeling of pride and patriotism. Also the singing of “El Maley Rachamim” by a cantor in magnificent voice and hearing the kaddish (a prayer for the dead) said in Hebrew touched your soul. As a Jew, it made me feel very proud that the United States finally reached a level of freedom and democracy that we can celebrate with pride and experience the observance in the Capitol Rotunda. Seeing in attendance senators, congressmen, justices, and many other high government officials symbolizes efforts to be more inclusive than in the country’s checkered past.

Meeting 120 liberators of the concentration camps added extra meaning to the occasion. Listening to their individual experiences of prejudice at that time in the service made me appreciate them even more. These veterans wrapped themselves in the American flag of democracy while many of them were deprived of their civil rights back home on a daily basis.

A Japanese-American mentioned that while he was in the army fighting in Europe against Nazism, his family was interned in camps in the United States. An African-American gentleman told us that while he was in the service, black troops were segregated and worked in menial jobs only. And when he got home he wasn’t even allowed a drink of water at a public fountain and couldn’t get a cup of coffee in a restaurant. German prisoners of war were treated with more respect than many citizens who fought the Nazis.

As I listened to them, it made me think of the time I came to the United States as a 16-year-old in 1946. Needless to say I felt lucky to be here considering what I went through under the Nazis.

Going to night school trying to learn English and hearing about the greatness of American democracy and the “four freedoms,” I was excited and wanted to learn how American democracy worked. It meant a lot to me, after experiencing Nazism and communism.

My teacher was Mrs. Durst, a very nice elderly lady. She encouraged me to read the New York Times so I could improve my vocabulary. Time and time again I read articles about “Jim Crow” and the lynching of blacks in the southern states and also noticed that black Americans were not treated fairly elsewhere. So I asked her to explain how this could happen in a country that advocates freedom to the world. She tried very hard to explain that states had their own rights and the federal government was helpless and couldn’t do anything about it. I retorted that that doesn’t make sense. So I gave her this analogy: If a southern black man asked for a visa to go overseas he would apply to the federal government, not the state; therefore, the government had jurisdiction of this citizen. So, how can you call that freedom or a country of laws, when you practice such selective justice and injustice as well?

One has to draw a conclusion that Congress can pass a law to suit the moment in time and that makes it legal, no matter how unjust the law is (in a sense the Nazis did the same thing). 

To prove my point, eventually that was corrected.

In 1952, during the Korean War, I was drafted into the army and was not anxious to go—after all, my Holocaust experience was still fresh on my mind. However, once I was in uniform I resolved to be a good soldier and carry out my duty to the best of my ability. In a way I was proud, thinking, “Just a few short years ago I was at death’s door in Austria and was liberated by people in the same uniform I was now wearing.”

I reported to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, the induction center for processing. Then I was transferred to Fort Lee, Virginia, where I took my basic training and stayed for two years. 

After finishing basic training I was assigned to food service and went through a cooking class. I discovered that I had some knowledge and understanding about how to prepare food—that is, compared to others in my class. For part of the training, my group of six or eight was assigned to a “WAC” mess hall, which was very nice because we had a chance to meet many women. The sergeant saw that I had an instinct about the preparation of food so he put me in charge of the group most of the time, while he was absent almost every day.

So instead of just putting out food as they did in other companies on the post, I saw to it that we made the food taste good and made a nice presentation. Simply put, we treated the troops with respect. In fact, the major (the highest rank a woman could achieve at the time) came over and asked who was responsible for the best biscuits she ever had. The irony was that I had never eaten biscuits before my time in Virginia.

After we finished basic training most men were shipped off to Korea. I was lucky I stayed stateside. With a stroke of luck I found out from friends in personnel that there was an opening at the officers’ club. I took advantage of that and applied for the position. After a brief interview with a major, I got the job and started at once.

One day when I returned to the barracks I saw this big black fellow from Alabama crying, and I inquired what the problem was. He told me that he got orders to go to Korea.

So, I retorted, “What’s the problem? Almost everybody is bound for Korea.” He replied that he didn’t mind going but that all black troops were destined for Korea because of their skin color.

I thought that was impossible. So I asked some friends who worked in personnel and they said it was so, and explained that most of the officers there hailed from the south. Then, I understood.

There was another incident: A group of us befriended Willie, a black soldier from Passaic, New Jersey. After basic training we were excited to get a pass and go to town to blow off some steam, but Willie said, “No, I’m not going.” Therefore, each one of us tried to convince him to come with us, but he refused no matter how we pressed him to come.

When we got on the bus we noticed that all black soldiers went to the back of the bus—only then did we realize why Willie didn’t want to go with us. I felt badly for not realizing that—it’s how it was in the south at that time. I remember feeling very ashamed and, moreover, somewhat disenchanted with American democracy.

As for me, my assignment as a buyer at the officers’ club was very satisfactory. I even received a bonus every month from the club because they liked my performance. The best thing was that I ate good food, for example lobster and nice pastry. Overall, it was a good experience.

©2013, Martin Weiss. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.