You know someone has led a remarkable life when the fact that he celebrated his 94th birthday by becoming a bar mitzvah barely makes his personal Top 10 list.
That’s the life of Irving Feinberg, photographer, family man, World War II vet, Cohen Home resident and, for less than two months, a bar mitzvah (aside from the “every boy becomes a bar mitzvah when he turns 13” technicality).
Feinberg took the plunge 81 years after his 13th birthday at Temple Kehillat Chaim. But before that special day with his family, he welcomed the AJT into his apartment for a conversation about his war service.
He was drafted into the Army at age 20, and like all recruits, he had to take an IQ test. It went well.
“They told me I scored 150,” giving him his choice of Army branches. He already was a semiprofessional photographer, so he asked for photography.
That meant the Signal Corps, but, in typical military fashion, he had missed the start of a required class. So he was placed in a motor messenger unit. “I was to go out and find the safe route and draw up the map, with descriptions of landmarks.”
That 150 IQ kicked in, and he requested a camera to take photos of those landmarks instead of just describing them. That got him a camera, and that set him up to be pulled into the Army Pictorial Service when U.S. troops moved from England to France.
He wound up being based in Paris for 2½ of his 3½ years in the Army, Feinberg said. The one catch was that he and his company had to fight their way from Le Havre to the French capital.
As an afterthought, without elaboration, he mentioned that he won a Bronze Star during that fighting, then earned a second Bronze Star during the Battle of the Bulge, “which I never really bothered to get. … I was more interested in getting home.”
Feinberg said he had lots of interesting assignments during the war. He chased Bob Hope around Paris when the entertainer flew in to entertain the troops. “That was fun. That was fun.”
It was also a far cry from his time back in England when his unit was living on a sheep farm. To escape the boredom, he would get passes to London whenever possible, and he always stayed in the same place.
One night there, a V2 exploded and toppled him and other GIs stacked in double-decker bunks. None of them was badly hurt.
“I didn’t get any decoration for that. I wound up going back to bed,” Feinberg said. The scare was enough to make London less appealing, but he still went. “A sheep farm can get pretty monotonous.”
R&R also brought some adventures after he was in France.
The troops went to Switzerland for a break from the war, and they were required to take condoms with them whenever they left camp. Someone told Feinberg he could get a quarter apiece for condoms in Switzerland, so he and a friend grabbed an entire box of 144 condoms as they headed out for leave so they could cash in and buy Swiss watches.
The customs man at the Swiss border saw the box and said, “You’re only going to be in the country for a week.”
It didn’t matter: The story about the condom demand was a trick, Feinberg said. “We wound up selling the whole gross for a drink.”
Fortunately, he also had a raincoat with him. He hadn’t planned to sell it, but someone made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. So he got his Swiss watch after all.
There was no such happy ending late in the war when he flew to Frankfurt, then rode by truck to a camp called Buchenwald. “When we got there, everybody was dead. The guards knew we were around the corner, and they shot everybody in the place, then slipped away.”
He and his fellow soldiers knew they were going to a concentration camp, but they weren’t prepared for the reality, which was “sheer horror, just sheer horror.”
His responsibility was to photograph piles of corpses and how they were buried. He also got a shot of a German woman — part of group trucked into the camp on Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s orders to show them what had happened there — stealing clothes off a corpse for a souvenir.
“The pictures that I took, I came home with I guess a couple hundred 8-by-10s of my experiences,” but they were lost years later when a friend in Philadelphia died after borrowing them.
Feinberg had another brush with history when he photographed the signing of the German surrender in Rheims, France. He remembers that Eisenhower wouldn’t sit in the same room with the Nazi officers, led by Adm. Alfred Jodl, and instead sat alone at a desk with a pack of Chesterfield cigarettes on it.
Feinberg sees the photo in magazines and other places from time to time, but it has a white spot on the desk. Someone whited-out the smokes.
Feinberg said being Jewish wasn’t an issue in the military.
“I never experienced anti-Semitism from my Army friends or the officers, never, except for once,” from a company commander in Kansas who was determined that “Feinberg” wouldn’t be moving on to Officer Candidate School before going to Europe, no matter how high his IQ.
The officer kept repeating the name, and Feinberg got the message. “After about the third time, I told him where he could shove those papers. He could have sent me to prison for it, but he didn’t.”
When he finally got home from Europe in January 1946, he called the woman who had been his girlfriend for eight years. She asked whether he still loved her enough to marry her. He said yes, and 20 days later they were married in a synagogue.
They went back to France 20 years later, and they sought out a deli he had visited, against Army regulations, in 1944: Goldenberg’s. Back then, Goldenberg had fed him and a Jewish friend corned-beef sandwiches in the kitchen to avoid being spotted by MPs and had refused to take payment.
When Feinberg walked back into the deli, Goldenberg remembered. “He came out with a bottle of champagne, and we all had a drink. It’s typical of what I found in France.”