Just a few days ago, I was shaken to learn about the passing of a unique individual who, in my mind, should be revered and missed by all. Sergeant Curtis Whiteway, a 96-year-old American veteran, died and left behind his loving family.
I was first introduced to Mr. Whiteway by my rebbe, Rav Chait, the rosh ha’yeshivah of Yeshiva B’nei Torah, and his wife Rebbetzin Chait who happened to meet him in New England. Curt (as he liked to be called) enlisted in the army at the age of 18 and became an elite Army Ranger. He was sent to the front lines of battle in Europe, risking his life and inspiring the men under his command to fight the Nazi enemy regardless of the challenges. He recounts his army experiences in a book entitled Brave Men Don’t Cry.
A life-changing event for Curt happened when he and his troops broke down the gates of Dachau and other concentration camps. He and his troops witnessed firsthand the Nazi atrocities that had taken place. He also told me about his experience liberating the notorious camp of Flossenburg. My father a”h was interned there, and the Jews were sent on a death march when the Nazis realized the ally troops were closing in. Curt and his men were present and saw “hundreds of prisoners in uniforms being forcibly marched by Nazi soldiers. We motioned to the prisoners that they should duck down, and we promptly shot all of the Germans who were guarding them.” My father, who was visiting Curt with me in Craftsbury, Vermont, gave him an emotional embrace and, with tears in his eyes, said, “You saved my life.”
After the war, Curt dedicated his life to Holocaust education. He lectured in many colleges and high schools and shared all the horrors that he had seen. He confronted many Holocaust deniers and challenged them to refute what he had witnessed so vividly and horrifically before his eyes.
He was honored by many Jewish groups and received a special honor from First Lady Laura Bush when he was named a Righteous Gentile at the United States Holocaust Museum.
Wanting members of our community to hear his message and share their appreciation for everything that he did, we arranged for Curt to come to New York. He refused any remuneration but did agree to share his story and perspectives at Yeshiva B’nei Torah, Darchei Torah, and Rambam.
At the community-wide Yom HaShoah program that year, he was introduced and received a standing ovation from hundreds of people. Despite the well-deserved acclaim he was due, Curt was never comfortable with any type of public thanks. Upon his passing, he refused any type of ceremony, preferring to be buried in a veterans’ cemetery and asked that donations be made to the United States Holocaust Museum.
A humble hero indeed.