Albert Frumkin has never won the lottery, but he’s always been lucky.
The 89-year-old Silver Spring resident was lucky when his six childhood friends from his Brooklyn neighborhood and his brother had their numbers called in the draft in the early 1940s — and his wasn’t. He was lucky when he traveled 160 miles on foot in 13 days without food, surviving on a diet of only snow.
He was lucky to survive as a Jewish prisoner of war in Germany during World War II.
Frumkin and the rest of the Army’s 106th Infantry Division boarded a ship called the Wakefield in Boston in October 1944, which transferred 8,000 men and their equipment to England in just less than five days. D-Day had already taken place in June when the Americans reached France en route to Belgium, where they arrived a few months later. Activity in the area had stopped, and Frumkin’s unit was sent in as replacements by November.
Then, suddenly, the war intensified. The Germans, instead of attacking Frumkin and his unit head-on, decided they would cut the troops off in their drive to Amsterdam, where U.S. forces kept their supplies. The Germans never made it, but on Dec. 16, 1944, Frumkin’s unit began to “spike” their guns, which rendered them inoperable so as not to be used against them.
On Dec. 19, 1944, Frumkin and his unit were captured in the cold of winter during the Battle of the Bulge, one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
Within days of being captured, Frumkin and 10,000 men embarked on a 13-day march without food for 160 miles toward Germany.
“The front was the best place to be, and that’s what we did,” he said, noting that those who could not keep up with the group were shot and tossed into the back of a truck.
The group made an overnight stop at a group of huts used as a holding place. A German guard waited outside the door, and a sergeant told the prisoners to place their dog tags in a pile in the middle of the room.
“We didn’t know why, when or where, but you don’t ask questions. He said do it, we did it,” Frumkin said.
Frumkin noticed the sergeant seemed “disgusted” at the practice. He called in the German guard and told him, instead, to “pick ’em.”
The dog tags denoted a religious affiliation for each soldier. Frumkin, who is Jewish, was one of three prisoners with an “H” (Hebrew) on his tags.
No one was taken. Frumkin said he had “no idea” about the German extermination program but believes that if not for the quick-thinking sergeant, he could have been among the 6 million Jews murdered in concentration camps.
The group was then put in boxcars for six days, where Frumkin was wounded when the train was attacked by the U.S. Army Air Forces, who believed they had encountered German troops.
Frumkin arrived 85 pounds lighter at Stalag IV-B, one of the largest prisoner camps in Europe. What kept the prisoners alive during their journey, Frumkin said, was snow.
“You can go an inordinate amount of time without food, but you can’t go three or four days without water before you die,” Frumkin said. “God and his wisdom made it snow, so we picked up snow as we walked.”
At the camp, which Frumkin described as “huge and dreary,” he was given one meal each day of “something you couldn’t describe if it took your best English.” Some of it was moving, he said, and some of it was not. When given his first meal, Frumkin could not eat it.
“That was the night that I sat down and had a long talk with myself in the camp,” he said. “I had to make a decision one way or the other: Do I want to leave this camp eventually — because I knew we would win the war — or do I want to die here? And I didn’t want to die there.”
On April 28, 1945, the German guards disappeared, and Russian soldiers arrived at the camp. About a week later, the prisoners were given two options: travel with the Russians nearly 1,500 miles to Moscow or travel 1.5 miles across the Elbe River to the American line. The Russians wanted to send them home for repatriation money, a reward for returning captured soldiers.
Frumkin didn’t want to travel that far to Moscow. He survived his trek to the American line by asking for bread from Russians who were able to share.
“Before he would give us a chance to have the bread, we had to have a shot of vodka,” Frumkin said, adding that the alcohol might have saved his life. “POWs had a lot of stomach problems later. The vodka must’ve killed the bacteria in our gut because I never really had that much of a problem with my gut.”
Once he reached the American troops, he took two 500-mile flights, landing at Camp Lucky Strike in France, a holding area for nearly all POWs heading home. It was at this encampment where he met five-star Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and received an Eisenhower jacket from the future president. The “Ike” jacket was issued in the mid-1940s as a combat field jacket and as part of the Army’s dress uniform.
“A captain came by and he said, ‘General, they are ready to do the program now.’ And he made us feel like a million bucks because [Eisenhower] turned around and he said to the captain: ‘As soon as I finish my conversation here, I’ll be there,’ ” then-Private First Class Frumkin said. “We were important enough that he would talk to us. . . . He was everything, and we were nothing.”
Upon returning stateside, Frumkin met his future wife, Helen, who had grown up in the Washington area. When she asked him about the war, she said he wanted to “forget it all.”
“Their youth was taken away from them. They all went in at 17, 18, 19, 20,” she said. “These guys grew up quickly. They became men overnight.”
Helen Frumkin, 87, said she inspired her husband to write his story. After nearly 10 years, Frumkin, who eventually achieved the rank of corporal, produced a spiral-bound book to pass on to his children and later generations titled “How I Fought World War II Alone.”
The couple has owned their home in Leisure World for 22 years to be closer to their family, including three children, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Frumkin said he volunteered in many capacities for about 80 hours a week for 30 years after retiring.
“I’m not a religious person, but I do believe in God. . . . I volunteer because [God] kept me alive,” Frumkin said. “I should’ve been dead during the fighting.”
Frumkin still has his dog tags, jacket and medals, although he never received a Silver Star or a Purple Heart for the injury he suffered in the boxcar 60 years ago, because he did not have the name of the doctor who treated him.
Frumkin believes the doctor’s logs are in the British archives in England, although he has been unable to retrieve the records despite numerous attempts.