Joyce and George Rosinger
In August of 2009 we moved to be near our daughter and her family. For most of our lives we belonged to Conservative synagogues. Our daughter told us about Temple Judea. After we got settled in our new home, we started to attend services there. On our third visit to Temple Judea we were greeted by their “good will ambassador ” Shirley Lockenbach, who invited us to stay for the kiddush. We decided to join Temple Judea because we found the members to be warm and welcoming.
Rabbi Sack is an outstanding rabbi. We also like the mix of different ages in the membership.Since the inception of the HAZAK 55+ chapter we have many good friends who to share Shabbat with. We find Temple Judea to be a meaningful part of our life in Fort Myers and are confident that we made the right decision to join.
Brian and Mindi Simon, and Sander and Sari
Brian moved to Fort Myers in 2002 due to a new assignment at WINK TV sports. Raised Jewish in Kansas City, Brian met existing member Mindi in the front row of services at Temple Judea, and within a year they were married. Both active temple members, along with their children Sander and Sari.
Robert and Charisse Thomas, and Faye and Ethan
The Thomas family were members of a Reform Temple but found themselves seeking a more traditional Jewish experience. Robert met some Temple Judea members and was encouraged to visit TJ. Robert had always felt somewhat intimidated by Conservative Judaism, but those feelings dissipated at his first visit for Friday night service. Robert now serves as a Temple board member and blows shofar at the High Holidays. ”I felt that we were warmly welcomed here, and were invited to participate in all aspects of Temple life.” As a mixed religion family (wife and daughter are practicing Catholics), the Thomas family feel unconditionally welcome at Judea, as are other mixed couples.
The congregation of Temple Judea has a rich history. Over the years, our membership has included men and women who survived the Holocaust, stormed the beach at Normandy, and built lives for themselves throughout the US before landing in Florida. In an effort to record some of that history, we are interviewing some of our members to share their stories.
Matt Lawrence is a man of many ironies. Spared from a childhood disease and a German machine gun bullet, he’s still going strong into his 90’s. A man we associate with food—leading our efforts to feed the homeless at Sally’s Café, cutting the fruit for Kiddish lunches—was once nearly starved to death. The gentle and kind man we know in shul has seen the worst of the humanity and emerged with a faith that everything works out for the best.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Growing up, Mike Lawrence always wanted to know about his dad’s experience in World War II. But his father always refused.
“That’s not something that needs to be talked about,” he would say.
Mike knew only that his dad had been a prisoner of war. How had he been captured? How did he survive? What did he see? He asked several times. Matt never told.
Many years later, one of Mike’s twin daughters had a high school English assignment. She was supposed to write about heroism. Would Matt—now a grandfather—be willing to share his story? Nearly sixty years after his ordeal, Matt finally began to open up.
“For years after the war my children knew very little about my war experiences,” he writes. “It took many years and I was finally able to talk about my experience. So here goes.”
He writes in short, choppy sentences.
“It was December. Cold and snowy. We were in Alsace-Lorraine, France. On the south flank of the bulge.”
“Our half-track pulled a trailer with about 1000 lbs. of high explosives to blow down trees and blow up bridges, if needed.”
Expecting a German tank attack, Matt’s unit got the order to proceed on New Year’s Eve, 1944.
“We set out in the dark. No lights. No point to warn of danger. We had surveyed the area the day before and we knew what we had to do. We came around a bend in the road, and all hell broke loose. Machine gun bullets were flying, you could see the tracers.”
This was the beginning of Operation Nordwind, the last major German counteroffensive of the war.
“I leaned over the back of the half-track with my rifle pointed to the rear when I felt a sharp sting in the back of my left shoulder. Later on I found a hole in my jacket, a hole in my sweater and a hole in my shirt but none under my shirt.
I knew the Good L—d was there protecting me.”
The driver tried to back away from the enemy fire, but instead flipped the vehicle over an embankment into a 20 foot ravine.
“I must have been unconscious for some time because I was left for dead. When I came to, everyone was gone. I could hear voices up on the road speaking English. It was the men who had been taken prisoner.
Then I heard someone groan. It was my sergeant with his legs pinned under the half-track. I tried to get him out, but the ground was frozen, and the noise attracted a German soldier, and I was taken prisoner with the others.”
Matt Lawrence has one consistent item of faith—that everything happens for the best.
“No one can tell me that the good L—d wasn’t in that half-track with us,” he writes. “That trailer with (a) half ton of explosives primed and ready. Didn’t blow up.”
But his ordeal had just begun. On the advice of his fellow prisoners, Matt ditched his dog tags marked with the telltale “H” for his religion. The prisoners were marched to a tunnel and held in a pitch black room until they were interrogated one-by-one.
“The threats and intimidation were very frightening. I was greatly relieved when it was over.
There was no attempt to give us any food or water.”
The prisoners were marched to a train depot and crammed into a box car intended for half as many men.
“We had to take turns sitting and standing,” Matt writes. “The sliding door was closed and not opened for 5 days.”
No food, no water. The only options for relieving oneself were either through a crack in the door or into one’s helmet. Matt chose to hold his bodily functions for the entire 5 days.
“Not having any food helped.”
The trip ended at Stalag 4B, the largest POW camp in Germany.
Matt’s wife Bunny tell you that neither she nor Matt can stand the thought of people not having food. That’s why they’re so involved with Temple Judea’s outreach to Sally’s Café, the Salvation Army soup kitchen which feeds the homeless of Ft. Myers.
Matt knows from hunger.
After nearly a week without food or water, Matt and his fellow POW’s arrived at an overcrowded prison near the end of the war that Germany was losing. Food was scarce.
“In the morning we got a cup of coffee. After noon we got a cup of rutabaga soup. That’s low-grade turnips that were usually fed to the hogs.
“Sometimes we got a piece of bread or a boiled potato. These we ate at night so you didn’t see the bad spots.”
They ate out of tin cans scavenged from the garbage. Matt suffered from dysentery until he traded 4 cigarettes for an enamel pot. He said the pot was easier to keep clean than the tin can.
“My weight went from 180 lbs. after basic training to less than 90 lbs when we were liberated.”
The prisoners woke up on the morning of April 23, 1945, to find the German guards had deserted the camp. The Russian Red Army liberated the camp and brought food.
“The next day the soup had meat in it and a nice slice of bread. I ate like a pig then went outside and threw up.”
The following day, soldiers and prisoners went into the nearby city of Muhlburg, Germany.
“The Russians went through the houses looking for valuables and we went looking for food.”
Matt found a sack full of sugar in the basement of one home. He cut the bag open and ate the sugar by the handful.
ON DEATH’S DOOR
Matt describes his childhood as “wonderful.” He grew up in the Bronx. His Russian-born father Morris had two jobs, as a teacher and a chiropodist (what we now call a podiatrist). Matt’s mother Ada was born in the US, and was a wonderful cook.
“Very seldom did we have Sunday dinner with less than 8 or 9 people,” Matt says. “They had to stay for dinner.”
The back windows of their home faced the courtyard of an Orthodox synagogue. Matt says his mom knew when to expect the men home after Yom Kippur Neilah service because she could hear the shofar blast.
Asked whether his family was religious, Matt says he had a different kind of faith. And he tells this story:
“When I was 10 years old, I got an infection. I was on my death bed. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t eat.”
It was an oral surgeon who finally found the infection and saved his life. But that’s not the reason for his faith. See, Ada used to come to the hospital and cry to God why her little boy had to be so sick. He was always nice. He didn’t deserve to die.
“When I was recuperating, I turned the radio on in the morning. The news report said there was a tsunami that washed over Virginia Beach. So many people had been killed, drowned. Cars swept into the ocean,” he remembers. “My mother came to the hospital, and I told her, ‘Mom, this is why I got sick.’”
Morris and Ada were supposed to be in Virginia Beach that week with another couple. They had cancelled the trip because of Matt’s illness.
“Everything happens for the best,” he believes. “That kind of set my thinking. I know something good is going to be the result, even though I may not see it. I feel it’s there someplace.”
The final irony of Matt Lawrence is that he expresses his Judaism the same way he dealt with anti-Semitism, by volunteering and giving fully of himself. Matt grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. When he joined the 125th Combat Engineers at Ft. Campbell, KY, he entered a very different world. Most of his fellow soldiers were from the South and unfamiliar with Jews. Some were outright bigots.
“The first sergeant was an anti-Semite,” he remembers. “I pulled KP and guard duty almost every other weekend.” Matt wasn’t one to start problems. He had guard duty on Yom Kippur and “walked the beat without eating all day.”
Matt responded by volunteering for everything. He washed windows. He cleaned floors. He sewed clothes when needed.
“I never made a stink about those things. I just did what he asked.”
Finally, one of his fellow soldiers reported the sergeant to the higher-ups. They looked at the logs and discovered the abuse. The sergeant got busted. Matt became one of the guys.
After the war, Matt was sent home for a three-month rehab furlough to recover from his ordeal. He got a job at the Central Jewish Institute, a camp in Port Jervis, NY, where his brother Bernard worked. While at the camp, Matt met a nurse named Gwen. They were married soon after. The couple raised three children—Phyllis, Michael and David. Matt went to work as an engineer for an air conditioning company. His first job was on site at an executive office building for Bethlehem Steel.
Many years later, Matt married Bunny. Ironically, she was also a nurse at the time. They moved to New Mexico in 1996, and then to Ft. Myers in 2008.
It didn’t take long for Matt and Bunny to become integrated into Temple Judea. Just as Matt did in the army, the couple volunteers for everything. They attend services. They’re members of Hazak.
“We’ve always been involved,” Bunny says.
They live in a condo in South Ft. Myers with a ring-necked dove named Coo. Matt has 3 grown children, 8 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren.
It took a lot of work for Matt to be able to open up about his experiences. In New York, he started meeting with fellow POW’s. When he moved to New Mexico, he attended what he calls a “PTSD class” (post-traumatic stress disorder). Sarah Lawrence’s English assignment was the catalyst to get him to talk.
“Someone had to ask me,” he says. “I wasn’t ready to just tell everybody.”
Matt Lawrence has always given of himself. There was a part of him he was hiding from the world—the story of his war experience. Ultimately, he would be willing to share that too. He just needed some time.