They met randomly the day after the day that would live in infamy — kindling a connection that would span 70 years, including nine dreadful early months when the Jewish bombardier was shot down over Germany.

Lorraine Blumenfeld and Marcus Hertz were strangers when they filed into Northrop auditorium on Dec. 8, 1941, joining thousands of fellow University of Minnesota students who came to hear President Franklin Roosevelt address Congress about Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

"That's the first we heard about the war," Lorraine, now 96, said from the Sholom Home in St. Paul.

She recalled bumping into an old friend that day nearly 78 years ago at Northrop whom she'd met at a Jewish girls' camp. That friend, sitting one row back, came to the speech with Hertz — her friend from St. Paul Central High School. Introductions were made.

Lorraine, 18, the daughter of a South St. Paul clothing store family, was studying dietetics. Hertz, 19, the son of a Latvian émigré who worked in the meatpacking business, was learning about animal husbandry.

Hertz enlisted in the Army Air Corps two months later and they were married March 6, 1944, in Florida before he shipped out to Europe with an "H" for Hebrew on his dog tags.

Hertz had no interest in serving in the Pacific. Word of how Nazis were treating Jews in Europe had started to trickle back to his synagogue in St. Paul and he wanted to get there to help.

People told him "are you crazy, you're Jewish, you're going to go to Germany in combat? They'll cut you in slices." But, he said in a 90-minute oral history recorded in 2005, "If anybody was going to get their picture on the front page of the St. Paul paper it would be a St. Paulite who was successful in hitting the target … at someplace that was strategic."

The couple's early years are documented in dozens of letters, bound in pink ribbons, their son and grandson unearthed cleaning out the family home in St. Paul last fall. "Life is so wonderful and I'm the luckiest person of all," Lorraine wrote in 1943, six months before their marriage. "Subtract you and everything I did have would be nothing."

In a letter he wrote her three months after their wedding, he said: "If I tell you where I am that would be divulging military information … But if I say I love you — well! Nothing military about that."

A month later, on his 13th bombing raid, Hertz's B-17 was shot down by German planes — forcing him to parachute out a shattered window. He slept in trees for five days, traveling at night before German villagers locked him in a basement and soldiers then took him to prisoner of war camps.

As a Jewish prisoner, he never considered escaping — even as others bolted on forced marches near the war's end. Nazi guards told him "you'll never make it out of here, there's no such thing as stray Jews in Germany."

"They were being slaughtered by the trainload," he said.

Despite the squalid conditions, he knew sticking it out as a prisoner of war was his best chance to get home. (His oral history, recorded by Concordia University in St. Paul, is online at tinyurl.com/HertzOralHistory.)

When Bob Hertz, the oldest of their three children, found the 100 letters last year, he wondered why the cardboard box contained letters written by both parents.

"What happened is they assumed he was dead after he was shot down," Lorraine said. "The guys at his base in England cleaned out his locker and sent me all his stuff."

The family records include government telegrams after Marcus became a prisoner, including one from a Jewish chaplain who said Hertz faithfully attended Jewish services at the base and once led them as a lay rabbi.

"Your husband, when last seen, was engaged in a task of building a world where men may worship in freedom and live in peace," Albert Goldstein wrote to Lorraine on Aug. 18, 1944. "The loss of Marcus Hertz, while it grieves our hearts, will quicken our hands and steel our determination …"

Although the military cleaned out Hertz's locker and wrote about grief and loss, Lorraine never doubted he'd return. She remembers going out to lunch with a friend on her first wedding anniversary. At the time, Hertz was being marched across Germany, shrinking to 60 pounds and eating stolen chicken to survive.

"I never even thought for a minute he wouldn't come back," Lorraine said.

When Gen. George Patton's forces liberated Hertz's prison camp in April 1945, Hertz and his fellow prisoners "climbed on that tank just like bugs," he said. "Happiest day of my life."

His feet had frozen during his captivity so he couldn't work outside in the cattle business when he returned to St. Paul. So Hertz went to work for the Cardozo Furniture Co., and eventually owned several related businesses. Lorraine taught preschool and earned advanced degrees in education and nutrition.

Marcus Hertz died at 88 in 2011 — on their 67th wedding anniversary.

Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com.