Yesterday we formally opened the Boeing Pavilion at the National World War Two Museum in New Orleans. What an amazing space. You simply have to go down and see it in person. All the planes, the USS Tang story, the history and the personal stories rolled into one. Already, companies have booked parties in the evening there and pre-bought tickets to the Tang exhibit online. If you are headed down for the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, or Jazzfest, don’t miss it.
After the dedication, I was honored to be able to take Irwin Stovroff, his wife, and his service dog through an exhibit we have in the Louisiana Pavilion. “Guests of the Third Reich”. Irwin was unfortunately, one of those guests.
To say that bringing him through the exhibit was moving is an understatement.
Irwin was shot down over the Falaise Gap on his 35th mission. He jumped out of his B24 headfirst, pulled his parachute and ditched his dog tags. He was Jewish, and the Nazi’s weren’t really fond of his people. He hit the ground on top of German lines and was captured immediately. “The war is over for you.”, they said. He was taken to a POW camp and interrogated. During the third interrogation, his interrogator said, “I know where you grew up, I know your parents, your sister and know you were the paperboy. I also know about your secret.”. The person interrogating him grew up one block over, and had gone back to Germany. He wound up in the German army. They moved Irwin to Stalag Luft 1.
Some of the exhibits in the exhibition are from Stalag 1. Emotions and memories that Irwin hadn’t felt for some time began coming home. We went from “gee whiz” stuff like, “Here is a Red Cross package”, to anecdotes. He began educating me. “If it wasn’t for those Red Cross packages I might not have made it. They fed us potato and kohlrabi soup. At the end of the war, the stopped giving those packages to us. The Germans blamed it on allied bombing and said they couldn’t transport them. But, after the war we found a warehouse where they were stockpiled.”
Then we saw the violin.
An American POW fashioned a violin out of wood scraps and other materials he salvaged from all over the camp. It looks exactly like a beautiful violin. It was made in Stalag 1. Irwin knew about it, but hadn’t seen it. There it was.
Irwin stopped, and started to recollect. The curator of the exhibit, Kimberly Guise, happened to be there and she was able to ask some questions but, mostly we just listened as Irwin recounted some of the things that happened to him. Colonel Spicer made a heroic stand in the camp to save Jewish American POW’s lives. Not only from the Germans, but from the Russians that liberated the camp. He remarked to me, “You know, I really am a lucky guy.”.
Eventually, I hope to post the video I made of our visit, but need permission from Irwin to do it first.
You should know a little more about him. He runs an organization called Vets Helping Heroes. They provide a professionally trained assistance dog prepared by a qualified instructor to every disabled hero wounded in the global war on terrorism in order to enable them to return to a life with dignity, and self reliance whether they are visually impaired or have other special needs which require an assistance dog. All services are provided at no cost to the veteran. The cost to train a dog can run from $10,000 to $60,000 depending on the level of training required. Every donation is tax deductible.
Things like this happen to me when I begin to interact with veterans of “The Greatest Generation“. We can easily learn the history of the battles, the generals, the lines on a map and strategy behind them. But it’s the personal stories of the war like Irwin’s that give the statistics a human face, and depth. Those machines that flew in the air carried human cargo. Those armored pieces of equipment weren’t drones or some video game. All this stuff really happened, and it’s the mission of the NWW2M to gather, catalogue, and tell their stories so every generation can learn the hard lessons the Greatest Generation taught us. It is exactly why we need everyone’s help in finishing the museum.
Thank you Irwin for letting me into your life. I am learning.