Ambassador to Share Father’s Survivor Story

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Lt. John Withers didn’t have many interactions with Jewish people before two young Dachau survivors approached his African American military unit stationed in Germany and pleaded for help.

Years later, his son would search for the full story of that fateful encounter and the remarkable friendship it forged.

On Nov. 8, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Jewish Community Relations Council will host “Kristallnacht and Veterans Day: A Story from the War with Ambassador John L. Withers II” on Zoom. Withers’ son, who is the former ambassador to Albania and had diplomatic postings in Nigeria, Russia and Ireland, will give a presentation about his book “Balm in Gilead: A Story from the War,” which he wrote about his father and the survivors.


In addition, the winners of this year’s Mordechai Anielewicz Creative Arts Competition, which encourages students in grades 7-12 throughout the Greater Philadelphia area to respond to the Holocaust through creative expression, will present their winning poems.

Bart Hertzbach, chair of the JCRC Holocaust and Education Committee, said “Balm in Gilead” created a natural connection between the lessons of Kristallnacht and the themes of Veterans Day, since it addresses the Holocaust and features members of the armed forces.

“We tied it in with Veterans Day because, obviously, the U.S. Army freed Germany. But it was, beyond that, a way to honor all veterans who served in wartime or peacetime, alive or dead, who guaranteed freedom for many,” he said.

The younger Withers said that before serving in the Army, his father endured the oppression of Jim Crow segregation laws in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Lt. John Withers

“It was a comprehensive system that affected Black Americans in almost every sphere of their life and of their endeavor. It was a system that subjected them to economic hardship, impoverishment, lack of opportunities,” he said. “They could not turn to the legal system, they could not turn to their congressman, they could not turn to the newspapers or anything. They had no recourse.”

The elder Withers was academically gifted enough to attend college and earn his master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin. He dreamed of establishing a life in the non-segregated North, but was drafted into the Army near the end of World War II. He rose through the ranks to become the company’s acting commander.

When his unit was ordered to bring medical supplies to a small German town, they found themselves face to face with the horrors of Dachau concentration camp. Two emaciated young survivors came to their unit and begged for shelter and work. Mieczyslaw Wajgenszperg was 16, and Shlomo Joskowicz was 18 but looked much younger due to malnourishment.

Housing non-military personnel was strictly forbidden, and the company could have faced dishonorable discharge if found to be sheltering the teenagers. This would have disqualified Withers from the educational and economic benefits of the GI Bill, upon which he had staked his hopes for a better life in the United States. His employment prospects would have been greatly reduced, and he would have faced social disgrace upon returning home.

He took them in nonetheless.

“He seemed to assume that anyone in his position or his men’s position would have acted the same,” his son said.

The Black soldiers nicknamed Joskowicz Salomon and Wajgenszperg Pee Wee. Despite the language barrier and cultural differences, the soldiers coaxed them out of their shells and taught them how to drive and play baseball (they preferred soccer.) They worked as cooks and grew close to the elder Withers, plying him with questions about the U.S.

The book, which is available at johnlwithersii.com, was a project 20 years in the making. The younger Withers had only a postcard from Wajgenszperg and an old photo album the boys had presented to his father to use as clues during his intensive research. Eventually, he was able to orchestrate a reunion for his father and Wajgenszperg.

The elder Withers, who died in 2007, was greatly influenced by his friendship with the two survivors. During a 2001 speech, he lauded their courage and endurance. He also marveled at their ability to be kind and gentle after the atrocities they endured.

“How could that be? That was the true wonder. All the hostility, hatred, and evil they encountered without letting it deform them or deflect them from becoming the kind of people they wanted to be,” he said.

spanzer@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729

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