Obituary: WWII prisoner Lionel Greenberg didn't hide from his heritage

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 5, 2013 - 6:19 PM

Lionel Greenberg at a POW reunion in April in Washington, D.C.

Photo: FRANK MULLANEY,

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Having survived a harrowing midair collision over Nazi Germany, navigator Lionel Greenberg parachuted behind enemy lines and was quickly captured.

“They knew I was Jewish,” Greenberg said in an interview 61 years later. “I never changed my dog tags [with the] ‘H’ for Hebrew.”

Despite a repeated and stubborn unwillingness to conceal his faith, Greenberg survived captivity long enough to be liberated by Russian forces nearly a year later. He returned home, embarked on a long legal career and raised a family in Mendota Heights.

Greenberg, born and raised in the only Jewish family in Grafton, N.D., died Nov. 27 after suffering from heart and lung ailments. The recent transplant to Santa Rosa, Calif., was 92.

In 2005, Greenberg sat for an extensive audio interview for the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest. In vivid detail, he revealed his first of many confrontations with war’s dangers: June, 13, 1944, at 22,000 feet as a B-24 aviation navigator over Germany.

“Suddenly, I heard a terrifying scream followed by the sound of ripping metal,” he recalled. “As I was thrown to the floor, I caught a glimpse of another [B-24] directly under us. A midair collision.”

The next thing he knew, “I felt a rush of cool air, and I regained consciousness enough to realize I was making a free fall through space.”

He landed safely and soon had a German soldier’s rifle trained at his back, the two marching to a group of 12 men in civilian garb.

Their leader approached and dropped Greenberg with a fist to the jaw. “His wife and daughter were killed in an American bombing raid,” Greenberg said.

He was soon moved to a prison camp. A German soldier there said, “I notice you’re Hebrew. What should I put down?”

Greenberg pointed to the “H” on his dog tags.

“But you know we don’t like Jews,” was the German’s response. “You might suffer if I put down ‘Hebrew.’ ”

Greenberg told the History Center questioner, “I didn’t take the bait. I said … ‘What you put down is your business.’ He put down ‘other.’ ”

Greenberg and other prisoners were later sent on a day-and-night three-day march in the snow to another camp.

While Stan Greenberg saw it as “somewhat remarkable” for his father to compound what was already a perilous situation by letting his Jewish heritage be known, “To me it was kind of consistent with his personality.

“Here it is, and here are the facts,” said the son, imagining how his father would address his captors. “Do with them what you will.”

Stan Greenberg said his father’s war experience also verified that “he was a survivor. He survived that war experience. He survived his tent getting hit by lightning in the Boundary Waters in the late ’70s on an island.”

When Lionel Greenberg was a child, his father rolled the family car on a wet road in North Dakota. The car landed squarely on Greenberg.

“The ground was soft,” Stan Greenberg said, “so he sunk into the ground, rather than having the car crush him. He was in the hospital for a few days.”

Greenberg returned to the University of Minnesota after the war and worked for many years with the Internal Revenue Service and then started his own firm handling taxes and estate planning. On a part-time basis, he was a justice of the peace in Dakota County and handled minor offenses as a municipal judge.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Myra Silberg Greenberg, and a son, Jon Greenberg. Along with son Stan, he is survived by sister Saralee Sloven, brother Charles Greenberg, son Neil and daughter Renni Gallagher. Services have been held.

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