Death of young sergeant in WWII echoes through the generations

In 1999 at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, Bill Blumenthal holds his son, then age 2, while visiting the grave site of Albert Boxerman, who was killed at age 19 in World War II. Boxerman was the cousin of Bill’s father, Harvey Blumenthal.  

By Harvey Blumenthal

There is a poignant scene in the 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan” that begins with our view of Mother Ryan washing dishes in the kitchen of her Iowa farmhouse. We never see her face. But from behind, we watch her pause, and while we look over her shoulder, out the window, we share her sighting of a tan army staff car winding its way up a long farm road approaching the house.  

We sense her fear as she tentatively moves toward the doorway, and we hear the squeak of the screen door opening as she hesitantly steps out onto the front porch on this warm and sunny June day in Iowa. 

Mother Ryan wavers as two military officers exit from the car; then, when a priest steps out, she slowly collapses onto the porch.

In that darkened movie theater, I softly broke into tears, because what happened to Mother Ryan happened to my Aunt Eva. Her only child, Sgt. Albert Boxerman, 19, was killed in combat near the little French village of Bechy on Nov. 11, 1944, Armistice Day. 

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I was 6 years old and have no memory of Albert. But in later years, I became attentive to the lifelong sacrifice and suffering my Aunt Eva and Uncle Sol endured every day for the rest of their lives. When our second son was born in 1964, we named him for Albert – Shia Avrum.  

Thirty years later, I was moved to write a story about Albert, his parents, and how my family was affected by Albert’s death.  It was published in the Nov. 9, 1994issue of the St. Louis Jewish Light, exactly 50 years after Albert was killed.  The story was titled “Armistice Day.” (Armistice Day later became Veterans Day to be more inclusive.)

I received several letters from people who remembered Albert and his parents. The most moving letter described the moment my Aunt Eva answered the front door to face a Western Union messenger boy.  Like Mother Ryan, Aunt Eva collapsed. She wept uncontrollably, and the young boy ran upstairs, seeking help from the upstairs neighbor in the apartment building at 726 Limit Avenue in University City.

The Western Union boy’s frantic knocking was answered by Glenda Gerstein, 24, who was six months pregnant.  Glenda had moved in with her parents when her husband was shipped overseas. 

Upon seeing the Western Union messenger, she was seized with terror that a telegram bearing news of her husband’s death was being served; she screamed and began to cry hysterically. Her mother rushed to Glenda’s side but was calm enough to hear the messenger’s explanation that he was requesting help for Mrs. Boxerman downstairs. 

Fifty years later, Mrs. Gerstein, then 74, wrote me about this frightening incident that remained so vivid but had no occasion to be recalled until she read my story. Her penmanship was steady and beautiful as she added that her husband returned safely after the war, and how much happiness the baby girl she delivered 50 years ago had brought them. 

Mrs. Gerstein wrote about how depressed and withdrawn Eva and Sol became after Albert’s death and how helpless she felt, unsure how to be comforting and supportive. When her husband returned, the young Gerstein family moved into their own home.  Thereafter, when Glenda returned to the apartment to visit her parents, she saw Eva only once ever again. 

This horrific encounter with a Western Union messenger was repeated thousands of times during WWII. And although the heartbreaking news is no longer delivered via Western Union, identical crushing notifications still come to pass onto the families of their own Private Ryans and Sergeant Boxermans.

Albert Boxerman was an only child.  His parents are long deceased.  Our son who bears his name will preserve the few tangible items of Albert’s brief life: his University City High School yearbook, his letters written while in Europe fighting the Nazis, and his Bronze Star and Purple Heart.  

Last, we have a photo of our son holding his own little boy, taken in 1999, at Albert’s grave, next to the graves of Albert’s parents at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, on Hanley Road and Olive Boulevard, in University City.

Harvey Blumenthal of Tulsa, Okla., grew up in University City and trained in neurology at Washington University School of Medicine. He served as a Navy physician during the Vietnam War and since 1972 has practiced medicine and taught at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine in Tulsa. Author photo courtesy of Tulsa People Magazine