The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Memory for Memorial Day: Remembering 2nd Lieutenant Louis Kastenbaum

Every year when Memorial Day rolls around, it’s easy to focus more on barbecues and sales than the real meaning of the day. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, because using the day to enjoy our freedom is, in its own way, honoring the legacy of those who gave their lives to preserve it.

I am fortunate in that no one in my close family has died in war. I have uncles like Bob Resnick and Dave Kattleman who bravely fought in WWII and I am blessed that they made it home. But millions of other men (and women) did not. When you think of WWII alone, the numbers can be staggering—whether it’s 100,000 deaths at Hiroshima, 6,000,000 Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust, or nearly 30 million soldiers who died for the Soviet Union alone. But there is almost a certain comfort in the anonymity of these numbers. So I ask your indulgence in taking a moment today to remember one particular individual: 2nd Lieutenant Louis Kastenbaum. He’s one of the many otherwise anonymous victims of war that has only recently become a little less anonymous to me.

Louis was born in Brooklyn on July 30, 1922 to Morris and Celia Kastenbaum. He was the first member of his family to be born in the US after his two older sisters Annie and Clara had been born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from which the family had just emigrated. They came from the town of Solotwina, where my Great Grandpa Hirsch was from—hence Louis and I share an ancestral town (and it’s entirely possible that we are related somewhere in history, too!)

I only know two other things about Louis. One is that he lived at 2322 E. 24th Street in Brooklyn in the 1930s and went to James Madison High School. From their yearbook (Class of 1940, then he was headed to Brooklyn College) I know that he was a member of the Class Day Committee, his favorite song was “A Man and His Dream” by Al Bowlly, and he believed that “Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.” He appears by all measures to have been a handsome and smart young man.
1940 Madison High School Yearbook entry.

The other thing I know is that he enlisted in the army on July 2, 1942 and re-enlisted on October 2, 1944, prepared to risk his life fighting on the very continent his parents had fled, likely to escape anti-Semitic persecution. He went through aviation training in Greensboro NC and was sent to fight in Europe as serial number 02-073-138. He was in the 483th Bomber Group of the 816th Bomb Squad.

On April 1, 1945—a mere 38 days before the war in Europe would end—he was on a B-17 Flying Fortress mission to Maribor, Yugoslavia when enemy fire knocked out some engines, destroyed the auto pilot, and injured several crew members. The uninjured soldiers—Lt. Kastenbaum among them—had a choice: they could either bail out and save themselves, leaving the injured soldiers to certain death in an uncontrolled plane crash, or they could all remain on board and risk their own lives as well by attempting an emergency landing. They chose not to leave their brothers-in-arms behind. A fighter escort arrived to provide them with cover and they jettisoned as much weight as possible. If fact, despite the odds they were tantalizingly close to a successful emergency landing when the plane jerked, a wing struck a hillside, and they crashed and burned about three miles southeast of the town of Bosanska Krupa, Bosnia. 4 crewmembers survived, while the other 7 crewmembers—Louis Kastenbaum among them, just 22 years old—were killed. They were quickly buried near the wreck while the war raged on, their graves marked only by sticks onto which their dog tags were tied.

Although it appears to have taken a few years, Louis’ parents were able to bring his remains home and he was buried at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens around 1950, in a section ("landsmanshaft") reserved for people who came from the town of Solotwina. Along with two other soldiers, he lies at the base of a memorial to the “Murdered Jews of Solotwina”, because any Jews who were still in Solotwina when WWII began were executed by the Nazis (undoubtedly including unknown relatives of both Louis and myself).

On a recent visit to my own family in this section of the cemetery, I happened across Lt. Kastenbaum’s grave. Time and the elements had caused his grave marker to shatter, and since anyone who knew him is likely dead by now as well, he probably has had no visitors to care or notice this sad fact. It seemed wrong to me that the last mark this brave young man had left on this earth was in such a sorry state, so I decided to do a mitzvah and see that he got a new grave marker. Doing so involved a lot of research, which is how I learned all of the information above. And in the end, the US Department of Veteran’s affairs recently provided Louis with a beautiful new grave marker, befitting the ultimate sacrifice he made for us all.

The old and the new.

So today, by all means enjoy the fun and freedom we can all treasure as Americans (at least as long as Donald Trump is not yet our president!). Eat some hot dogs, watch some baseball, and take advantage of some great sales. But also take just a minute to remember the forgotten heroes like Louis Kastenbaum. According to his own yearbook philosophy, he clearly felt that defending his country something worth doing, and he did it well—giving up his own life in an attempt to save the lives of others.

May he rest in peace.
.עליו השלום

Louis' grave in front of the monument to the "martyred kinsmen" of Solotwina


  • My traveling is more limited than yours and my writing skills eloquence far more limited ,but when I read this on Facebook posted by Marsha Sue, I was compelled to share this experience. On a trip to Europe Eric was determined to retrace at least some of his fathers footsteps in Europe during the Second World Wat. It ended in the American Cementary Henri Chapelle. Here a is my journal from the day:

    August 12, 2009

    Eric’s journey continues, onto Henri Chapelle, the American Cemetery located at the point where Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, meet. Eight thousand graves line up in a green valley nestled in the Hillside with an American flag fluttering at the back. It was a beautiful day with the sun shining but not too hot, the grounds tended so well that it is hard to find a pebble to place on the graves with Jewish stars. But I did, and wandered up and down the rows reading the names of men who were contemporaries of my father, men with old Jewish men names, but who never got to grow old. I wondered, were they happy to be in the army? Were they grateful to have unlimited food for the first time in their lives, as my father was? Many were from New York, a few from and Illinois or Massachusetts, but also, I saw Tennessee, Missouri and Maine carved along the triangular sides of the simple headstones, even a captain from Louisiana.

    Eric asked for the location of the grave of the man from his father’s unit.

    “Are you family?”

    The administrators of the cemetery still do escorted tours and present a flag to family members. But he declined, only an interested descendent of a compatriot.

    I tried to get a stone on each Jewish grave, some mental figuring- if Jews were 3 per cent of the population and there were 8,000 graves that was 240 graves. ( I was compulsive enough to check- I counted of a section of ten rows by ten rows and sure enough there were three Stars of Davids among 97 crosses) I apologize for any graves I missed, and I apologize to all the others for not physically acknowledging my gratitude.

    Lori Lustig

    By Blogger Teacherfish, at 7:18 PM  

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