March 17, 1997
My grandfather, Charles Siegel, was born in Pennsylvania in 1918. He moved to Detroit as a young man, and when the U.S. entered World War II, he was living with his wife, his mother-in-law, and his infant son. My mother was born shortly later, in 1942.
Having suffered from Scarlet Fever as a child, my grandfather's heart was damaged and erratic. At 18 the doctors told him that he had only a few years to live.
My grandfather and grandmother currently reside in Tamarac, Florida in a place quite similar to Del Boca Vista on Seinfeld. They spend a lot of time playing canasta and looking for bargains. My grandfather still plays golf many times a week.
Q: The first thing I want to know is if you could paint a picture of your life before the war, before there was any idea that, you know, there was a war coming.
A: Starting from when?
Q: I don't know when it first started affecting you. You know, hearing about the war in Europe. So, whenever, before you knew about the war, just what were you doing?
A: Before I knew about the war?
Q: Yeah. What were you doing?
A: Well, in 1939 was when we were disturbed. . .with all the problems that Hitler was causing throughout all the different countries, before we even thought we'd get into it.
Q: Okay. What were you doing at that time?
A: What was I doing at that time? I was working in a shoe store, minding my own business. I'd been married for a year. . .No children yet. . . And didn't think it was gonna effect us whatsoever, if you know what I mean. Then was December the 7th. That's when we were sitting around, listening to the radio. Your uncle was a month old. We got the news on the radio. No T.V. at that time. . . At least, we didn't have one.
A: And there was a bombing in Pearl Harbor, we still couldn't understand what it was all about. . .because as far as that goes. . .we didn't think we were going to have any trouble with the war with the Japanese.
Q: What did you think about the Japanese before that happened? Was there any animosity toward the Japanese?
A: No, no. In fact, they pulled a fast one on us.
Q: Did you know any people here who were Japanese?
A: Really, not. . . But I think that people who were American citizens, who were Japanese, were treated very unfairly. They were put in camps, you know, until after the war. There's no reason in the world they should have been responsible for what had happened and transpired among the, shall we say, the political theme in Japan.
Q: So Pearl Harbor had . . .
A: We didn't realize how bad it was. Of course, they had it on the radio all day long. You know, we were so shocked, because their representatives were here in America when they were doing the bombing, and who would suspect anything like that?
Q: Sure. So when that happened, what happened in your life?
A: What happened in my life?
A: Well, naturally, Roosevelt, declared war. And of course, what happened in my life, I just did the same thing as I was doing, but all my friends were starting to be---I think the word was---conscripted into the war. They were not actually volunteers. And I was watching them go in, some of them, and, of course, a couple of them I knew were rejected. I said to myself, "I have a child. . ." and I went down to see if they were going to take me into the service or not.
I had a feeling I wasn't going to be taken into the service because of my heart condition. And they put me through the whole examination, the whole thing, and then they told me I wasn't fit for service.
I went back to working where I was, and I said to myself, "You know, I'm in a shoe store selling shoes, and these people are doing some fighting and I can't do that. But I think I'm going to try to see if I can get a job working in some kind of a war-plant." They had no reason to say I had to, because people were selling shoes the whole time, and shoe stores were still open. The only thing is, I thought to myself, number one---it would be the right thing to do, and number two---I knew I'd make more money there than I was by selling shoes.
I went to work at a place on Eight Mile and Van Dyke. Small little place where they were doing some riveting work. You know, it was little pieces, you know. And I was working the midnight shift, which was the first time I had ever done anything like that in my life. And then the boss found out I was Jewish, and I was fired. This had been no more than about two weeks or so. I was the only Jew-boy there, and they said, "Get out of here."
Q: They used the term Jew-boy?
A: No, not Jew-boy. I mean, oh, a couple of fellows at work there called me Jew-boy, naturally, but the owners or management never said, "You're a Jew, you can't work here." But I was just let go.
I didn't know where to go. The next day, I had no job, so I went to a place called Murray Wright Corporation. It's not too far from the boulevard and Russell. . .walked in there, and they gave me a test of intelligence. I didn't pass it. (laughs) And then they made me go to a school there for a week. They paid me for it, though. And I passed the course.
Truthfully, another fellow and I---they could see where the ones that didn't drink---so we became what they called, "group leaders." We weren't allowed to do anything except do the pick up work after everybody else made a mistake.
. . .I remember something that was really funny. . . Every so often we had these efficiency experts come around---to see if anybody was goofing off and wasn't doing their jobs properly. One day, the chief steward called the other group leader and I together, told us to do some work for them so they can check us. . . of course they picked the most efficient people there to test. . . to represent everybody. . .and while they were timing us, we were going along very methodically and very easily and naturally, and all at once---he and I had already set this up---we stopped right in the middle of the job. They stopped the stopwatch. They said, "What are you doing?" I said, "We have to go to the bathroom." They said, "You can't go to the bathroom while you're being checked." I said, "Well, if it's going to put the timing down, somebody has to go to the bathroom every once in a while, so we have to go to the bathroom." So the effieciency guy looked at the chief steward, and he says, "Go ahead." The chief steward actually almost ran the whole thing there, believe it or not, because everybody had to worry about the union.
At four o'clock in the afternoon, I'd go to work, and at nine o'clock at night, I'd look out there at night time, having my carry-lunch, getting sick about the idea, here I'm working at night, and I've never done that in my life.
. . . So, I spent some money on the chief steward, took him out for beer until he put me on days all the time. I didn't drink, of course, I just paid for him a couple times. He put me on days, and in a way, I guess it's not fair that I got to go to work in the daytime.
Me and this other fellow, we would fix the planes when somebody made a mistake. We were working on P-47s and B-17s. Well, the Polish from Hamtramck who worked there were drinkers. . . Mondays and Fridays were the worst. They would take their rivet guns and push them through the wings of the planes. These were heavy tools. I would have to patch it with a metal plate. These planes were depending on little pieces of metal. . .about these pieces we put on. . .I should have said on the inside of that little piece of wing, "I'm sorry." Poor guys. I wonder how many wings fell apart.
Q: What was it like being at home when all those people, friends and family, were gone?
A: My brother, skinny, five foot seven or maybe or so like that, weighed 100 pounds, he went into the Navy, and he weathered the second deck of the poop deck up there. Luckily, he never got blown off of there. He was so thin. The little kid was always scared of heights and everything, but nobody ever thought about that.
. . .But as far as we were concerned, we had another child in '42. Of course, you know, Rochelle. (my mother) And things were tough for everybody monetarily, because your great grandmother lived with us. . .and Uncle Maury, before he went to service. . . we drove over to some place about eight, nine miles away, and we sold my car for 100 dollars and ran home, instead of taking the bus or anything. It was ice cold that night. We ran home with my 100 dollars, because that how things were. I never had a car. . . For all the time that the war was on, we never had a car. But that was a little thing compared to what other people suffered in the service, you know.
Q: Well, let me ask you this. Things were tough. But what did you do with your free time when you weren't working? I mean, on weekends, how did you spend your free time? I mean, how did you spend your free time?
A: Well, not doing any servicing for anybody. I'll say that. That's why I'm saying, you may not be happy, too happy with us. We lived in a flat with two small children, and we'd just sit around the house, because we didn't have any transportation or anything. But, where would we go? Oh, we'd go for a walk or something, but there was nothing else you could do. I can honestly say to you, there weren't too many people that actually did much as far as war work as far as that goes, except the Rosie the Riveter. You know what I mean?
Q: Yeah, sure.
A: And Charles the Riveter. Really. I mean, as far as that goes, at least I know that five days a week, I used to put my time in to the plant. In fact, to be honest with you, a lot of times I worked six days a week also. Because at night time, after four o'clock, when I'd get out of work, I used to take a street car to go down town to the Detroit Times. It was a very enterprising newspaper owned by Hearst in those days. And I used to work in the mailing room until one o'clock in the morning. I didn't notice it that much, really. . . I was 23 years old.
Q: Okay. Another question for you. Do you remember seeing movies during that time?
A: Oh, yes.
Q: What kind of movies did you see?
A: Well, to tell you truthfully, what we saw mostly was, when we went there, you saw this thing, called Movie-tone. And Pathé. And these would show whatever they could show of the problems that we were having in Europe and Japan. You know, the news.
But as far as movies, there were just regular movies. After all, a good movie you'd now see on AMC.
Q: Were the films that you saw war movies, or were they comedies and musicals?
A: You said it.
Q: So every type. . .
A: That's right.
Q: Okay. Now, let me ask you about, during the war, what was your perception of the people we were fighting?
A: What was our perception of the people we were fighting against?
Q: Yeah. The, the Germans, the Italians, the Japanese.
A: I'll tell you truthfully, we knew that we hated them, as far as that goes.
We thought that the Japanese were using more atrocities than the Germans. But you know, it's a funny thing. We never really, I never really gave it a thought too much of the Holocaust that we did have. Oh, we were told that were people being taken in. She didn't know at the time, but your great grandmother knew all the family was killed after. But as far as that goes, the tremendous feeling of six million Jews being killed never was told to us. We were told that they were put in trains and things like that, but they never told you about the terrible things that actually happened until after the war, when they uncovered all of this. And Roosevelt was, he was very mum about these things. He didn't allow too much to be spoken--
Q: You say you felt at the time that the Japanese were more guilty, or believed at the time they were guilty of worse atrocities than the Germans were.
A: At the time.
Q: I understand. But I want to ask, what would have added to that perception? Was that from radio reports or from magazines?
A: Yeah. They were talking more about Wake Island, Guam and things like that, the Philippines and all that. They didn't talk too much. The most terrible things that we were seeing, were the American soldiers being attacked, and not knowing where these people were, who must have been used to the jungle, who would come right out and tear them apart.
As far as that goes, at that time, I thought the Japanese were far worse than the Germans, but I didn't know too much about the Holocaust.
Q: You talked about the fact that you were discriminated against in keeping that job. Now, was that kind of racism here real common at the time?
A: Yes it was. . .Yeah. Because I even could tell you this. When my friends that were in the service talked, they'd always bring up that they got along with all the people who weren't Jewish. It's the first thing they always bring up. You know? They all said that. . . "Well, one of my better friends was a gentile fella from South Carolina." Something like that, you know? Because they knew that they were treading on, shall we say, nails. And as far as that goes, the black people in those days were still tough, because they were really separated. At the plant, I worked one day, and I know there was a riot in Detroit.
Q: At a different plant?
A: A riot outside, not inside. We didn't know anything about it. After all, we were working all day and were going to get out about four o'clock from work. We used to work from seven to four. Nine hours a day. And we were ready to go out at four o'clock, and somebody said to us, "Don't go out. There's a riot out there." Somebody got killed or something in Detroit, you know. And one fellow said, "Uh, don't worry about that." He said, "I'm going to get in my car, because I'm going home."
About five minutes later, he came back with his whole mouth and jaw broken. Somebody had used a 2 by 4 and smacked him right across the face. It was a terrible riot. There was a man who drove me every day, back and forth, and I used to pay him, because I didn't have a car, you know. I said to him, "We'll wait here. We aren't going no place." We waited until everything subsided later in the evening. And that was white against black.
Q: But, okay. So, there were, were there blacks working at your plant?
A: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. But there were a lot of Polish people. Oh, God. Every other one had an s-k-i at the end of his name.
Q: Did you have friends who were Polish?
A: No. They knew I was Jewish in the second plant. Everybody knew it. And they were a little bit, shall we say, they stayed away from me. I stayed away from them, too. I didn't want to bother with them, you know. Because these guys would go out for lunch. They could go outside for lunch for a half hour. And whenever they had lunch, they would drink their lunch, so I didn't have too much to do with them.
Q: Okay, so your friends primarily were Jewish?
A: In those years, yes. I worked with a fella who was a gentile fellow. . . from the South. But he was all right. He was no problem. But other than that, I didn't make any friends, there, really. . . We had nothing in common.
A: Oh, and then, one thing, too. When you went to work at a plant, you were never really allowed to quit your job. Not allowed to. If you were at a war job, you were not allowed to quit. During the war effort, there was no such thing as going from job to job.
Q: So you worked there until the end of the war?
A: Well, not really. . .until about '44, I guess. Then I told them I was going to take a trip with your grandmother, and we were going to travel north. And then I went to work at the newspaper. How they ever got me in there without getting me a release from the other place, I don't know. During the war, I worked for the Detroit Times in the mailing room. And then I worked there almost until the end of the war. Not quite. I went back to the shoe store at a better position.
Q: Did you feel confident that we were going to win the war?
A: Not necessarily until towards the end with Europe with D-Day. Not until the end, because we weren't doing that great. In fact, I heard about a few people I knew who were killed in service. And your grandmother's cousin (who had lived in my grandfather's house) was killed in the Battle of the Bulge or something in Italy or wherever it was. And, no, I wasn't too confident. And of course, the surprise was the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.
Q: What did you think about that?
A: I felt bad. I mean, because after all, if they had bombed out all the soldiers that were doing all the killing from all the trees and everything, I'd say great. But they picked an innocent city, like Detroit, and blew up an atomic bomb. These poor people didn't know what the hell was happening. I mean, they got maimed and killed and burned and all that. Nobody was proud of what Truman did, but thankful that it ended the War.
Q: Did it make you feel bad, that your heart kept you from fighting?
Q: Did people look down on you because of your status?
A: Some said, "Boy, you're lucky ?" you know. I felt . . . hell if all these guys are going. . . Of course, there's only one thing different between us and all our friends. We were the only ones to have a child at that time, because we got married younger than anybody else. None of them had any children. But a lot of them were married at that time and left their wives at home. But nobody had any children. Some of the wives followed the husbands as they were going into places for basic training. They'd go into the same city and get a job there waiting, you know, and have them come home at night while they were in the United States. Some people had very good jobs when they were in the Service. Milt Zimmerman was in the Recreation Department in Hawaii.
Q: Okay. So, what happened when people started coming home. What kind of stories were you hearing?
A: Well, you know, I would say that sixty percent of the young fellas that came home, and women, didn't talk about it. . . never talked about their experiences. Some said that when they went to these different concentration camps they were very, very disturbed because of what the prisoners looked like, you know. But most of the fellows did not talk too much about what they did in the service.
Q: When did the picture of the Holocaust become clearer to you?
A: The Holocaust, when it became a clear picture in my mind. Well, of course we saw it in 1945. You understand, when they showed all the pictures of these people being released.
Q: Sure, sure.
A: When did we actually think about how serious it was? . . .Around 1944, or '45 was when we really realized what was happening.
Q: That's because the newsreels were showing the prisoners?
A: Yeah. Of course, we didn't see anything before. You know that.
A: Holocaust. . .the word, we never knew what the hell it was. We, never could we dream that there was going to be that kind of, shall we say, heinous murders.
Q: How was the period financially?
A: There's an old saying, Bob. It takes money to make money. It did not help me monetarily one bit.
Q: But there were profiteers who were. . .
A: Well, sure, because as far as that goes, we had gasoline stamps and meat stamps, you know. And some people would, some people would accumulate them by paying somebody for them. And they were worth a lot of money.
. . .And a friend of mine who was a gambler when he was in service kept sending his brother home all the money he was winning, and within ten years after he got out of the service, he was already a multi-millionaire. You have to have money to make money.
Q: So you're saying during the war, it was pretty tough for people.
A: Nobody had money.
A: Here's an example. When we bought that house. We had to borrow money from everybody, because we didn't have enough money to live on from week to week.
Q: How quickly did things pick up after the war ended?
A: How quickly? Oh, it didn't actually turn around too much, I don't think, until about 1948 or something like that. Of course, you know, then they went into building cars. And at first, when the war was on, you couldn't buy a new car. You couldn't buy a car. And then in 1946, we bought a 45. It was like a year behind in making, brand new, but we had to get it, because we had a number on a list, that meant we were qualified to get it.
Q: Like a lottery or something?
A: Well, not like a lottery. You put your name in. You'd be 6,420. And another person put his name in two months later, he could be 9,240, and the only thing, if you couldn't come up with the money, then 6,240 would drop off the line, and 9,240 would get closer to when his number was called.
. . .We got the car by borrowing the money from your Uncle Maury. It cost us $1,600.
Q: Wow. How old was your car when you sold it for $100?
A: A hundred dollars, my car was three years old.
A: I had paid $350 for it. When I bought it, it was a year old.
Q: And already, the price of cars had gone up by 45 or 46 to $1,600.
A: Sixteen hundred dollars. But also, you've got to realize, a lot of these fellows came home with money in their pocket. . . these service boys. They were paid, and they had the money sent home.
Q: Well, sure, but all of the people at home who were struggling, how could they pay those prices? The people that didn't profit off the war?
A: It wasn't easy for me, but there were a lot people that were in wholesale meat business. Hey, you know, they had their way. . .you understand?
A: People needed meat, and gas and things like that. You couldn't buy gas unless you had a ration, a ration stamp it was called. You couldn't buy gas unless you had it. To me it didn't make any difference, because I didn't even bother asking for it, because I had no car. How many people didn't have a car like me, and got ration stamps, and sold some of them, right? I wasn't a big enough thief, and I wasn't as smart as some.
Q: During the war, was there ever much discussion of Communism, you know, as a threat or not a threat?
A: Communism before the war. . . Before the war, your grandmother worked with a, a lady, who was a real, live Communist. The Communists were around in America. Quite a bit more active than they've been before or after. And then youe grandmother worked with that lady. She didn't share her beliefs, though. But at the same time you work with somebody, you've got to let them tell you what they think. But there was a lot of Communism at that time in the country.
Q: Sure. So, at the time of the war, Communism was something that you encountered here. So was it really a negative, then that Russia was Communist? Or at the time, it wasn't a real big problem?
A: No, at that time, because Russia was our ally.
Q: What, then, triggered the idea that Communism was evil, within a few years after the war?
A: Because they didn't keep their promise.
A: The promise that they were going to, to share with American governing of the countries. But they weren't going to. . . you know. . .Communists, they were very bad. . .you know. . .after the war, Russia.
They wanted more than they were supposed to get. And you know, Americans are really, shall we say, easy going. Let's put it that way. That whatever countries we did control after, we controlled with a---Even Japan, we taught them so much that they ended up knowing by more than we did. They became powerful, and we became secondary.
Q: I understand.
A: That was the answer. That's the same thing with Communism. We expected to sweet and normal with them, and take over Germany. And Berlin. . . they took East Berlin, and West Berlin, and . . . And the people used to jump off the sides of the building into the water or in the marshes or whatever it was over there to get to the other side.
A: Gunned down. I mean, after all . . .a lot of animosity after the war.
A: And prices were so inexpensive in those days. . .A stamp was 3 cents at the time and streetcar fare was about six or seven cents---six cents. You know what I mean?
So we didn't have to make as much. And naturally, after that, because all of these manufacturers became so wealthy. Again, it's the same thing in a war. During the war and after the war, if you had money, you made money. A guy like me, who was a legitimate, just a worker person . . .never could become wealthy, because he didn't have any way of actually took a chance. . . You know, like those who went into building houses and things like that.
And after all, I was too frightened to worry about my family and I had to have a regular, full-time job. These guys, most of them were, still weren't married. So this guy who worked with me went to become a builder. He didn't know about building any more than I knew about building. . . working in a shoe store. He ended putting on new roofs for everybody. So, what did he know about roofs? Nothing. He hired the people to do it. He was a single man, he had money. . .he made money.