Dog Tags

 

Dog Tags

By Milton Cohen

 

1. The Patrol

 

 

It never failed. Whenever the sergeant was looking for a chumpsomeone for a patrol or KP, someone to help dig a new latrinehe chose Silverman. It didn’t matter that PFC Leon Silverman, with red hair and blue eyes, didn’t look Jewish. Sergeant Fenton knew he wasthere was no mistaking his last nameand that was enough. Fenton had made it clear from the time Silverman had joined the platoon three weeks earlier that he didn’t like Jews and didn’t want him in the platoon. But the platoon was short of menthe Division itself was still being filled outand Fenton had to take what he could get. Still, he wouldn’t make it easy for Silverman.

 

The others in the platoon didn’t seem to care about Silverman’s religion, though they teased him that he must have gotten switched at birth. Actually, he was adopted, and his adoptive parents were non-practicing Jews, so questions about his identity never bothered him growing up. But the army was different. Besides Sergeant Fenton, the company clerk, Borowski, always made him aware of his Jewishness. As he read aloud rosters and work details, he would pause significantly at Silverman’s name, twist his mouth and say in a poor German accent: “Sil-ver-mann. Hmmm. You haf relatives in Shermany, perhaps?”

 

The new lieutenant, a Ninety-Day Wonder, was nervous. Even though this was a quiet frontthe Ardennes was where they sent new units like the 106th to break in gradually (or old ones to recover from the mauling they’d received in the Hürtgen Forest)you couldn’t be too careful. So he wanted regular patrols, but small ones and not too far from the lines, to make sure there would be no surprises. Soldiers had complained of hearing tank treads and truck movements at night, though G-2 had dismissed these reports as inexperience, coming from Nervous Nellies. The lieutenant would strike a reasonable compromise: patrol regularly but not too ambitiously to provoke a firefight. He wasn’t ready for that.

 

So there it was. Another two-man patrol for Silverman, when he had already done several, while others got none at all. What made it worse, much worse, was that the other guy chosen was green as grass. Buddy Miller was too new, too naive, to realize that, in the army, you never volunteer for anything, unless it was to be sent to the rear. No, he had spoken right up when the sergeant asked for a volunteer to accompany Silverman. He seemed like a nice kid, Silverman thought, but having been there only a few days, he was too new to know the score, and much too new to know how to patrol, when one stumble could bring a burst from a Schmeisser. It occurred to Silverman that it was a perfect setup for Fenton: get rid of the Jew and the greenie in one fell swoop and hope for more experienced replacements from the repple-depple. Gentile replacements. Silverman decided on the spot that this patrol would be as short as he could make it without being too obvious.

 

Besides being hit, the one thing Silverman feared above all else was being captured. He had heard, from rumor and recent escapees, that the Germans singled out Jewish prisonerssegregated them and then sent them further East. Where? For what purpose? Silverman didn’t want to find out. Two two-inch rectangles of stamped metal might determine his fate: his dog tags. Everyone had to wear them for identification, and stamped on the right side of Silverman’s was the letter “H” for “Hebrew.” Thoughtful of the Army to make it so easy for the Nazis hunting Jews, he thought bitterly. And throwing away the dog tags, as many Jewish soldiers said they’d do if captured, would do no good. Their absence would only tip off the Krauts. Silverman had even heard (though he couldn’t quite believe it) that determined Nazisprobably S.S.made suspected Jews drop their pants as the Krauts checked to see if they’d been circumcised. At least that wasn’t a problem for Silverman. Though he didn’t know anything else about his birth parents, he knew they were Gentilethey’d never had him circumcised. He smiled wryly to himself as he recalled the startled expression of Jewish girls he’d slept with when they saw him naked. But they got over that in a hurry: perhaps it even made him seem exotic. Now it might be a life-saver. With red hair, blue eyes, and a foreskin, he could easily pass for Gentile in a POW camp. Except for those damn dog tags.

 

They moved as quietly as they could through the thick woods, stepping carefully, trying to avoid the dead giveaway of breaking a twig or snapping a branch, and stopping frequently to look around and listen. They saw nothing but trees. Then, just before he turned them around for the trip back, he saw it and simultaneously signaled Miller to stop. A single German soldier, in a tree-shaded trench about thirty yards away, head down, leaning over his rifle. He looked like he was asleep. Silverman looked around for othersno one. The German hadn’t shifted his position, hadn’t even moved, and Silverman began to think he was dead. Slowly, very slowly, they approached him, Silverman taking the lead and keeping five yards ahead. When they were about ten yards away, Silverman whispered to Miller: “I think he’s dead. We’ll go around him. C’mon.”

 

“What do you mean?” Miller whispered. “I want to search him. He may have a Luger on him or a knife.”

 

“No. Bad idea. He may be booby-trapped.”

 

But Miller was having none of it. Here was a golden opportunity to find a souvenir to take home and show his folks and his younger sister that he had indeed been in combat. He moved quickly away from Silverman, who, seeing the futility of stopping this numbskull, backed slowly away, covering him. Miller approached the German cautiously, and, extending his rifle, poked him to fall backwards. Instantly, there was a bright flash, a roar, and smoke as Miller was blown backwards.

 

Silverman cursed under his breath. I told him, he thought. I tried to tell him. The dumb shit wouldn’t listen. And now we’ve alerted every Kraut within a mile. Though he wanted to run, Silverman approached his comrade, now lying on his back. The blast had blown off his helmet and most of his jacket and left his shirt in tatters. He was dead all right, his head at an odd angle to his neck, and Silverman wasn’t about to stay around for a burial service. But then he thought: I need to get his dog tags for the captain. First thing they’ll ask for. With Miller’s head practically severed, the dog tags and chain weren’t hard to remove. The poor, stupid bastard, he thought. Silverman turned and quickly made his way back to the line. But all the time he was thinking.

 

He intentionally bypassed Fenton as he reported the patrol at company HQ. The captain looked up from his paperwork, barely interested. “So this new guyMiller, you saidgot it from a booby-trap?” He held out his hand. “You got his dog tags?”

 

“No,” Silverman said, “I looked for them, but they were gone. Blown off him in the blast, I guess, which hit him right in the face. I looked for them.”

 

“Okay. We’ll report it that way. Happens all the time. Dumb kid. Now we’ll have to send out another patrol to retrieve the body. And guess who’ll be leading it?”

 

Silverman had already expected that and just shrugged.

 

“Okay, that’s all. Dismissed.” The captain went back to his paperwork. Silverman walked back to his platoon. The dog tags that he’d hidden in an inner pocket felt like lead.

 

 

2. The day

 

 

It began in total chaos. Silverman was still asleep when the shouts came: “Krauts! Krauts! Hundreds of them! They’re coming!” Sergeant Fenton was shouting: “C’mon! Everybody up on the line! Quick! Get your weapons!” More orders shouted into the waning darkness that was just becoming dawn. And almost drowning out the orders was the squealing and clanking of tank treads: German tanks, coming their way. The light coming from the East between the trees looked weird: man-made. In his foxhole, Silverman shook uncontrollably and not just from the cold. He’d been scared before, but nothing like this. The widespread panic didn’t help. The new lieutenant looked petrified and gave no orders. One sergeant had disappearedprobably high-tailing it to the rear as fast as his legs would carry him. Only Sergeant Fenton seemed composed as he barked out orders.

 

But it soon became apparent, even to the confused GIs, that something weird was going on: they were being bypassed. The enormous tanks, which could have easily rolled over them, were passing them by, sticking to the path out of the woods. The German soldiers surrounding the tankstheir coal-scuttle helmets obvious in silhouettelikewise stuck to the path as they moved forward double-time. They must have seen Silverman’s platoon, but they didn’t even fire at them, much less take them prisoner. They were in too much of a hurry to get behind them; their objective was further to the rear. Silverman realized that his platoon, and probably several others on the front line, had been left for the troops following to mop up. They had a moment of breathing space. So far as he knew, no one had even fired his weapon, though there was much firinga din of itbehind them, in the rear.

 

This is hopeless, Silverman thought, they’re already past us. They’ll surround us. And then kill us or take us prisoner. Well, not me. They won’t get me.

 

“I’ve got to see the sergeant!” he called to his foxhole mate and was already out, ignoring the cries behind him. In the confusion of his platoon, he slipped easily into the woods, moving further north, hoping to get beyond the perimeter of the German attack, hoping it wasn’t too broad. Safely away from his platoon, which held the end position on the line, he stopped, took off his dog tags and buried them under the snow. Then he reached into his inside pocket, removed Buddy Miller’s dog tags and put them on. He also emptied his wallet of any ID cards. Well, so much for PFC Leon Silverman, he thought. From now on, I’m Private Buddy Miller. Gotta keep moving north and find a unit where nobody knows me.

 

 

He had been stumbling in the deep snow for what seemed hours, though he knew from the sun it was still morning. Amazing how hard it is to walk in this stuff, he thought. Each step, the snow up to his crotch. seemed a monumental effort. Now, if I had skisand knew how to ski. So far, he had encountered no one as he moved north. He passed tank tracks headed west and those of an armored car, but no people. Off to the west, he could hear distant gunfire and artillery, probably German artillery. So it’s a toss-up between whether I hit an American unit on the outskirts or get picked up by the follow-up German troops.

 

Though he was walking cautiously, trying not to make noise, his mind was elsewhere, thinking of random things: the events of this morning (Boy, did they catch us flat-footed!), what he’d tell any Americans he’d meet, or his captors: “Buddy Miller. I’m Buddy Miller.”

 

Several sounds at once froze him in mid-step: voices, not far away. Men talking. Germans, he thought as he crouched low. Fortunately, he had good cover in the trees. Slowly he flattened himself into the snow and studied the men, aiming his rifle in their direction. There were three, sitting down in the snow and talking softly, chuckling sometimes, over cigarettes. One had removed his forage cap and was wiping sweat off his gray hair. The other two also looked old.

 

Who are they? Silverman wondered. Why are they separated from their unit? Are they deserting? I could shoot one, maybe two, but probably not all three. A grenade might get them all, wound them until I could finish them off, but in these trees, getting it on target would be chancy. It’s just as likely to bounce off a tree and get me. And they’re olddefinitely not S.S. What would be the point of killing them? If they’re deserting, they’re of no further harm to our side. I could even try to capture them, but where would I take them? No, that would be ridiculous. Still, they’re the enemy. But if I shoot, I’m giving myself away. Anyone nearby who hears it would easily track me down in this snow. And then I’d be a goner once they saw their dead comrades.

 

He had just about decided to let the three alone, wait where he was until they moved off, when a Schmeisser made that loud ripping sound that terrified him. All three Germans fell over where they sat, and a black-uniformed S.S. soldier came out near them, his Schmeisser lowered. Jesus! Silverman shivered. Stay down! Well, that’s it for themdamn good thing I didn’t shoot at them. S.S. This is bad, bad. If

 

He never finished his thought. Another sounda boot in creaking snow, close upmade him look back quickly. Another S.S. soldier (young, impassive) stood behind him, pointing his rifle at Silverman and gesturing with his free hand: Up! Up! Silverman rose slowly, which wasn’t easy with his hands held high. Well, it’s all over, he thought. I’m a dead man.

 

The line seemed endless as they marched, four abreast, for hours. But eventually they were funneled into a holding camp surrounded by barbed wire. Forming a single-file line, they inched towards a wooden board on sawhorses serving as a desk. Behind it, a German officer was registering them. He spoke excellent English. Finally, Silverman’s turn came.

 

“Name?”

 

“Buddy Miller.”

 

“Rank?”

 

“Private.”

 

“Serial number?”

 

Silverman, caught off-guard, gave his own.

 

“Division?”

 

Silverman hesitated. Then remained silent.

 

“Well, it doesn’t matter. We know it’s the 106th. All of you in this bunch are from that division.”

 

The officer looked up at Silverman. “Take off your helmet. Do you have any form of identification? A wallet?”

 

“Just my dog tags.”

 

“Let’s see them.”

 

The German read them quickly, checking his name and looking for one letter only.

 

“Okay, Miller. You have red hair and blue eyes, I see. Are you Irish?”

 

“My father was.”

 

“Very nice. I like the Irish. Went there once. Next.”

 

 

3. Coming Home

 

 

He wasn’t sure when he should become Leon Silverman again. He had remained Miller all through his internment. But now the camp was being liberated. There would be new identifications, new lists. Someone might notice that there were two Buddy Millers, one KIA and one a POWa prisoner who had Silverman’s serial number on the Germans’ registration. And what of Silverman’s existence? Surely by now, April 1945, he had been listed as “Missing, Presumed Dead.” His parents had received that awful telegram. He needed to contact them as soon as possibleas Leon Silverman.

 

But he waited. It was simpler, perhaps safer, to remain Buddy Miller. The existence of two Millers wasn’t spotted when he was liberated from the camp and assigned a new unit after being sent to the repple-depple. But there was another hurdle Silverman worried about. His mustering out. Those lists would probably be cross-referenced with company rosters.

 

The mustering out occurred in late August 1945, and Silverman waited nervously in line memorizing Buddy Miller’s serial number. Two harried clerks sat at the table, with long lists, severance papers, and stacks of cash in front of them. They were working vigorously to process the long line of soldiers who were anxious for their severance pay and impatient to get into civvies again. Silverman gambled that there would be no time for detailed cross-referencing. He was right. As he walked out of the building, putting a wad of cash into his pocket, Buddy Miller’s identity vanished.

 

He moved to the next long line, the one for a pay phone. He had a shocking call to make to his parents. Leon Silverman, reported “Missing and Presumed Dead” almost five months ago, had come back to the land of the living.

 

When he arrived in New York two days later, his parents still hadn’t fully recovered from the shock. It seemed like they would never stop hugging him, hanging onto him as if to make sure he was real, laughing and talking over each other. They looked as if they had shrunk somehow, his father’s voice regaining its old vigor only when he spoke on the phone to his suppliers. Silverman told them as little as possible about his time as a POW and afterwards. But he alluded to having had to adopt a different identity to fool the Nazis, and staying with it until he was discharged; hence, no letters or telegrams home. Fortunately, his parents didn’t seem to focus on his past, didn’t ask him many questions. That he was alive and home was what mattered. Silverman learned from them that his girl had married someone else after the final telegram came. That was okayhe’d never really felt that close to her, had made no promises. His old buddies now were getting married, and he spent little time with them. When they asked about the MIA telegram, he could just laugh it off as a typical Army snafu. The main thing at this point was to settle into civilian life. His father’s business was prosperous, and he had known there would always be a place there for him. That would be fine, for now, while he decided what he really wanted to do. Regrettably, he wouldn’t be eligible for the GI Bill since Leon Silverman no longer existed for the government. He would have to carefully build back his official civilian identity. He began by writing for a new Social Security card and opening a bank account. It was easy.

 

As the weeks passed, however, one thing kept nagging at his thoughts, and kept him up at nights: Buddy Miller. Just as he had stolen Miller’s identity, he had pocketed a few hundred severance dollars that rightly belonged to Miller. And he still had Miller’s dog tags. The more he thought about it, the more he knew with certainty that he would have to visit Miller’s family and, without confessing the identity theft, try to comfort them and give them the money and dog tags. Then, perhaps, his abiding sense of guilt might diminish.

 

 

4. The Visit

 

 

It took him a long time to find their street, even though he had phoned ahead for directions. Buddy’s mother sounded startled, but then recovered her voice quickly. The house was on Detroit’s far west side. All the houses looked exactly alike: small frame homes with identical front porches and neat little lawns. The houses differed only in their coverings: some clapboard, others with aluminum siding, some with a kind of composite covering. You could sit on the porch at one end of the street, he thought, and see everyone else on the block who was sitting outside. He parked his rental car carefully and walked up to the house. The gold star had already been taken down from the window.

 

They were expecting him. The mother looked as if she’d been crying and might start again at any moment. “Smiling through the tears,” Silverman thought; where did I get that from? Standing alongside her, Buddy’s father looked stern, almost distrustful. He wore a tie hastily knotted and a worn sport coat. I bet she made him put it on, Silverman thought. Probably works for Ford or G.M. Further back, as if hiding behind her parents, was Buddy’s sister. Pretty, Silverman thought. Maybe eighteen. She was smiling shyly at him. He introduced himself and they brought him into their small, neat living room and motioned him toward the easy chair”the guest of honor” chair, Silverman thought. On the lamp table was a framed picture of Buddy in uniform. Smiling.

 

He recited what he had rehearsed: that he wasn’t exactly friends with Buddy, because Buddy was too new to the platoon to have made friends. But he had liked the boy and, of course, he was the last one to have seen him when they were out on patrol. Buddy’s mother sat closest, her eyes moist, her hands folded in her lap, each one gripping the other spasmodically. God, I hope she doesn’t break down, Silverman thought. Her husband, sitting further away, eyed him suspiciously. Silverman explained, as briefly as he could, Buddy’s death: he had stepped on a land minea mine they hadn’t expected in taking the forest route.

 

“I brought these,” Silverman said, hurrying on and taking out of his pocket Buddy’s dog tags and an envelope containing two hundred and twenty-five dollars. “The money is what Buddy would have received as severance from the army.”

 

“Why didn’t they mail it to us like they did his other things?” the father asked. Then softening the suspiciousness: “It would have saved you a trip.”

 

“They would have,” Silverman replied, “but I told the captain I was going to visit you in person. So he gave me the money (made me sign for it) and Buddy’s dog tags to give to you.” He hoped it sounded plausible.      

 

“It was so thoughtful of you to come here, Mr. Silverman,” the mother said, as they all moved toward the front door. “It means a lot, meeting someone who knew Buddy, if only for a short time.”

 

“Yes,” the father said, clearing his throat.

 

“I’ll walk you out,” Buddy’s sister, Beth, said quickly, moving past her parents.

 

“It really was nice of you to come all the way here just to deliver these things,” she said as they walked the few steps to his car.

 

“Well, I thought it was the least I could do,” Silverman said honestly. If you only knew, he thought. “I guess while I’m here, I might take in a ball game, watch the Tigers. I like baseball.”

 

“So do I,” she said eagerly. “And so did Buddy.” They were standing beside his car now. “He lettered in baseball at Redford, our high school. And he taught me to pitch. I’m not so bad.”

 

Not bad at all, Silverman thoughtand then the impulse struck. “Say, would you like to go with me to the game? It’s today at two, I think. They play the Red Sox.”

 

“I’d love to,” she breathed. “But I’ll have to clear it with my folks. But that shouldn’t be a problem. They’ve met you, after all. And you were a friend of Buddy’s.”

 

She turned and hurried back up the walk while he waited.

 

 

5. The encounter

 

 

“It’s for you,” Beth said, holding out the receiver.

 

“Who is it?” he mimed. She shrugged, a slight frown on her face.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Well, hello, Leon. I’ll bet you can’t guess who this is. It’s Milan Borowski, you know from B company? I was the clerk, remember? ‘You haf relatives in Shermany?’ Ha-ha. Remember? Well, I came across your name somewhere and decided to look you up.”

 

“That’s fine,” Silverman said without enthusiasm. “How are you doing?”

 

“Oh, I’m doing fine. Just fine. How are you doing? I read about your marriage towho was it?Beth Miller in Detroit. Was that, by any chance, Buddy Miller’s sister? You see, as a clerk, I like to keep track of things, of where the guys are and what they’re doing. I might even organize a veterans’ group sometime. So the info would be useful.”

 

“Yes, it wasisBuddy’s sister,” Silverman said, wondering the real reason for the call.

 

“I thought so. I was hoping to see you sometime. Soon.”

 

“Well, I don’t know,” Silverman groped for a way out. “I’ve been pretty busy with work.”

 

“Yes, you work for your father, if I’m correct. I’ll bet you are busy. Well, let me come to the point, since you don’t sound too eager to see me again. I came across some information about you that I think you’ll find very important, Leon. Or should I say, Buddy? And I’d like to meet with you to discuss it.”

 

Silverman’s stomach plunged. So it had finally caught up with him. And Borowski, of all people, should find out. That bastard. Well, I can guess what he wants.

 

Borowski filled in the silence. His voice dropped the facade: “Don’t put me off, Silverman. There are others who would also find this information very interesting. Why don’t we meet today, someplace near you. Say, The Doughnut Hole in an hour?”

 

A pause. “All right. I’ll be there.” Silverman’s voice was a balloon almost deflated. He handed the receiver back to Beth and told her about the old army buddy who wanted to touch base with him.

 

 

It was easy to pick him out at the doughnut shop. He looked even squatter in a cheap civilian suit. Borowski signaled him over to his table with fake joviality. He also called to the waitress as Silverman approached. “A cup of coffee for my friend.” To Silverman: “Coffee’s okay, right? You want a doughnut, too?”

 

“All right, get to the point, Borowski. I didn’t come here for doughnuts.”

 

“I thought not. Well, it’s like this, Leon. Or should I say Buddy? No, I guess it’s Leon, judging from the wedding notice and how your wife responded on the phone. You know I was company clerkpromoted to sergeant, by the way. Well, one of my jobs was to prepare the mustering out lists for the company. You know, track down all the people who were ever in the company, you wouldn’t believe how many there were, what with all the casualties, replacements, transfers, and so forth. I had to determine what their mustering out pay would be. It was a big job and took a lot of checking. Cross-referencing lists of KIA, MIA, POWs, transfers, and so forth. But that’s the kind of thing I enjoy doingyou know, keeping track of people. Well, when I compared my list with a copy of the list of POWS from the 106th division at Stalag 47, I found some strange things. Namely, that Buddy Miller, killed in action a few days before the Battle of the Bulge began, was on the list as a POW. Then I checked his POW serial number, and guess what? It just happened to coincide with a soldier’s who had gone missing since the first day of the Bulge: one Leon Silverman. Missing, ha! Deserted is more like it. You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out what happened. Silverman, who was the last person seen with Miller on that two-man patrol, had become Miller once he was captured.”

 

He looked hard at Silverman. “So what’d you do, Leon? Take his dog tags? Were you afraid of what the Germans would do to you if they found out you were a Jew? Your only slip-up was in using your own serial number. If you had used Miller’s, I couldn’t have known who was impersonating him.”

 

“So what do you want, Borowski?” Silverman asked, already knowing the answer. And knowing it was no use to deny what he’d discovered.

 

“Not want I want, Leon. What the Army might want in proving a case of impersonationwhich, as I understand it, is a crime punishable by years in an army stockade. Not a pleasant place, I’ve heard. But we don’t need to let the army know, do we, Silverman? You may have noticed when you mustered out that no one spotted the two Buddy Millers. That’s because I didn’t tell them what I’d discovered. What good would it do me if you went to jail? I thought it would be more useful to confront you directlylater, when you were out in the civilian world making money. And you Jews are always making money, aren’t you? By the way, I don’t think your wife would like to know that you stole her brother’s identity for, what was it, eight months?”

 

Silverman fought the urge to bring his fist down hard on the squarish head. “So you want money, right? This is a shakedown, right?”

 

“Such ugly language, Silverman! Let’s just say a little help, regular help, to supplement my income. I’m not a greedy man, Silverman, I just need a small amount, delivered regularly, to keep me going. You can afford that, can’t you? Your father’s business is doing wellI’ve researched that, tooand you must be earning a fair salary as second-in-command. So you won’t miss a small amount. Shall we say thirty dollars a week, delivered in cash to me, right here at The Doughnut Hole? And that’s the 'Hole' deal. Ha-ha.”

 

“Well, you called at a bad time. I can’t spare thirty dollars right now. Give me till next Saturday, after pay day.”

 

Borowski frowned. “What can you give me now, in advance?”

 

“Fifteen dollars.”

 

Borowski held out his hand. “That’ll do for now. I’ll even deduct if from the thirty dollars you’ll owe me next Saturday. Be glad I don’t charge interest. But that’s something only Jews and banks do.” He got up abruptly. “See you next Saturday at ten. Right here. Don’t forget, because I won’t. And, oh yes, pay the bill, would you, Silverman-Miller? That’s a good boy.”

 

 

6. Confession

 

 

Army Records in Washington was housed in a surprisingly shabby building. Surrounded by block-long government bureaus and departments, it was wooden and looked temporary. Inside, Silverman was surprised to find many empty desks among the file cabinets; the army was shrinking rapidly in 1946. He was even more surprised by where he was sent: not to a bored clerk who, after half-listening to Silverman’s story, would pass him along to another bored clerk, and so on, but to an actual office with a door marked “Special Cases.” The man behind the desk was middle-aged, with deep creases in his forehead, and graying hair. He wore two bars on his collar.

 

Silverman told his story as briefly as he could, including the blackmail demand from Borowski. The captain listened intently. Then he spoke:

 

“So you’ve come here to make a clean breast of it.”

 

Silverman nodded. “Well, I figured it’s better to take the punishment for impersonation than to keep paying blackmail to some grifter.”

 

The captain shifted in his seat. “You were right to come. That bastard would have bled you dry if you’d let him, and you’d have still ended up here anyway. Either that or killed him.”

 

“I thought about that,” Silverman admitted, eliciting a chuckle.

 

“Well, it might surprise you, but what you did as a POW happened all the timeor at least it was attempted all the time. A lot of Jewish POWs tried to pass themselves off as Gentiles. Usually, it didn’t work; the Krauts were good at sniffing out Jews. They were under orders to do so. Sometimes whole groups of GIs protected their Jewish buddies. I heard that an air force colonel of a POW unit had all his men step forward when the commandant asked who was Jewish. But that was rare.”

 

Silverman said nothing but felt his breath come a little easier.

 

“You were also right to fear being singled out. Have you ever heard of Berga?”

 

“No.”

 

“It was a labor camp near the Czech border. Coal mining country. The Nazis sent Jewish POWs there, as well as anyone who even looked Jewish. Some Italians got caught up, poor bastards. They worked in coal mines for twelve hours a day, or until they dropped. Supposedly they were digging tunnels for an underground munitions factory, but the real purpose was to work the Jews to death, and they largely succeeded. Something like fifty percent of the GIs sent there died. Because they were GIs, you see, they couldn’t just be shoved into a gas chamber. But it was a pretty bad death nonetheless. T.B. usually, or black lung disease.”

 

Silverman said nothing.

 

“So no one blames you for assuming someone else’s identity. As I said, a lot of POWs tried, but you were more prepared.” He stared at Silverman with a half-smile. “Your red hair didn’t hurt you either. Actually, if you are guilty of anythingand I’m not saying you areit’s desertion from your unit on December 16. But there was so much chaos that day. A lot of soldiers got separated from their units, especially if they knew it was going to surrender. Some showed up weeks later after wandering around, or hiding, or fighting with other groups.” He looked at Silverman. “And some never reappeared.”

 

Silverman felt he had to speak up. “My purpose wasn’t to desert. It was to avoid being captured. To hook up with a unit that didn’t know me so I could keep fighting until I could become Leon Silverman again. But it didn’t work. I was captured the same day.”

 

“As were about six thousand others of the 106th. You had lots of company. So, no, you won’t be charged with desertion. Or with anything else, so far as I’m concernedand as far as the Army is concernedexcept for maybe a guilty conscience. We’ll have to cancel the firing squad.”

 

Silverman ignored the joke. “Well, I worried when I mustered out that they would discover that there were two Buddy Millers. But there were so few clerks and so many GIs anxious to get their pay and get out that the coincidence was never spotted. Not until Borowski called me last week. By the way, you might want to know that I paid a visit to Miller’s family in Detroit and gave them my severance pay. It was really theirs, anyway, since I was Miller when I earned most of it. I also gave them Miller’s dog tags.”

 

The captain nodded. “That was decent of you.”

 

“I also ended up marrying his younger sister.”

 

The captain laughed aloud. “Well, that sort of rounds things out, doesn’t it?”

 

“Not quite. What about Borowski?”

 

The captain frowned. “Oh, him. I’ll check his file and police record. I bet he does have a record.” He reached into his desk and gave Silverman a card. “Just give him this when you see him again. Tell him I’d be very interested to hear his charges. And that there are laws against blackmail. I suspect neither of us will see him after that.”

 

Silverman finally expelled a pent-up breath. “You can’t know, Captain, how much this means to me, your understanding.”

 

“Forget it and get on with your life. I’m just glad you didn’t kill him before you came here.”

 

Silverman rose, snapped a salute, turned and left the office. He could hardly wait to see Borowski again.         

 

Copyright © Milton Cohen 2022

Milton Cohen is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Dallas. He has published scholarly books on E. E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, modernist groups, and three books relating literature to political themes of the 1930s and 1940s. Cohen has also published the e-book American Glimpses, comprising three plays about the 1930s and 1940s. “Dog Tags” is the concluding story of a book-in-progress, Silverman, the Soldier. Cohen is presently living in Richardson, Texas.

 



 

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