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Stephen Sigmund Mosbacher: A Hero from Nuremberg

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

In the 1920s the town of Nuremberg could claim a proud history. It was dominated by a castle built by the later Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, and could boast nearly six hundred years as a free Imperial city. In the early 16th century it was the center of the German Renaissance, where the painter/printmaker Albrecht Dürer, the wood sculptor Veit Stoss, and the cobbler poet Hans Sachs lived and worked.

This history forged the town’s self-image, when Sigmund was born there on October 14, 1923 to the gynecologist/obstetrician Dr. Emil Mosbacher and his wife Anna Schweizer. Sigmund lost his mother when he was three; when he was about 8 years old his father married Rosa Neumann, and, in 1933, she gave birth to Sigmund’s half-sister Marianne. The family made no distinction about the children’s disparate mothers; Sigmund always called Rosa “mother,” and Marianne would learn about his actual birthmother only after her brother had died.

Sigmund seems to have had a trouble-free youth. He was president of his class, he acted in school plays, was an excellent swimmer, and participated in track and in soccer. He spent summers in Belgium and in England perfecting his French and his English.

Emil, Rosa, and Sigmund Mosbacher in Nuremberg, 1932

Whereas Sigmund enjoyed the prestige of living in Nuremberg during the first ten years of his life, his sister had a very different history. She was born the very year that Adolf Hitler came to power and held his first huge party rally on the city’s old Zeppelin field. There his favorite architect, Albert Speer, reconfigured the field to bear structures whose design was based on the old Turkish Pergamon Altar that was housed in Berlin. By laying political and architectural claim to the heritage of the picturesque old city, the Nazis hoped to display a seamless transition to their new “Aryan” order.

With Nuremberg now the visual embodiment of the new Germany, it was somewhat harder for the Mosbachers to ignore the rising antisemitism creeping into German politics: a boycott of Jewish businesses, the firing of Jewish teachers and government workers. At each of the annual party rallies that took place in Nuremberg, there were massive parades of men and tanks, airplane flyovers, athletic events, speeches, and bonfires, making the events huge national pep rallies for the Nazi cause. Tens of thousands of Germans came to these spectacles, which always featured a long speech by the Führer in which he announced recent triumphs and new initiatives. It was the 1935 rally that most affected the Mosbacher family, since it was here that Hitler introduced the Nuremberg Laws regarding racial purity. Now, for the first time in history, Jews were defined not by culture or religion, but simply by the accident of birth. This transformed all Jews into non-Germans who could be legally persecuted regardless of their religion, past military record, or service to the community.

Adolf Hitler addresses over 100,000 members of his stormtroopers at the 1935 Nazi Rally in Nuremberg, Germany.

Nevertheless, as one of the most prominent doctors for gynecology and obstetrics in Nuremberg, Sigmund’s father had a clientele that included wives of a number of high-ranking Nazi officials, and he was able to continue his practice in medicine until August 1938, when it was declared unlawful for any and all Jewish doctors to treat non-Jewish patients. The family left Germany in October, just a few weeks shy of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. They settled in New York, where Sigmund’s father had to go back to medical school in order to get a license to practice medicine in the United States. The first two years in the country were financially rough for the family, and Sigmund got a job working after school at a grocery store, so that he could be paid in food for the family.

He adjusted well and quickly to his new life in America. He now acquired a new first name — Stephen — and graduated in two years from Newtown High School in Elmhurst, on Long Island. He was a popular student, and his teachers wisely recognized his European experiences by having him coach small groups of students in modern European history. When he graduated in 1940, a friend advised him to enroll at North Dakota State College because of its special 5-year program in Chemical Technology, with emphasis on the protective coating industry. Even though Stephen’s personal inclinations tended more towards economics and foreign languages, he was persuaded that it would be best for him “to acquire some specialized knowledge,” in order to reach a profession with a good earning capacity. Stephen spent a year of study at the university there, followed by by work in the summer at a paint factory, where, he said, “the work did not satisfy myself, nor my employer.” He took an aptitude test, and, although he showed the greatest aptitude for law, he was again advised to pursue part-time studies in combination with practical experience.

His family was now living in Toledo, Ohio, and Stephen was homesick. He returned to Toledo, entered the University of Toledo part-time, and began, first, to study liberal arts (Spanish, English, Economics) before reverting back to engineering. At the same time he worked for a year in a plastics factory on molding machines, and then, in search of higher pay and work in the war industry, worked from September 1942 to May 1943 as metallurgical observer for Willys-Overland Motors, which was under contract to the United States Army to manufacture Jeeps. There he adjusted furnace and forging temperatures and made hardness tests on metallurgical parts both during and after heat-treating.

War-time Jeep production at Willys-Overland Motors, Toledo, Ohio

Stephen entered the Army in June 1943. After completing basic training at Fort McClellan, he entered an Army Specialized Training Program where, with the possibility of studying engineering or Russian, he was assigned to the Russian program at the University of Missouri. While learning the language, he also studied Russian history and geography. Then he was sent directly to Camp Ritchie, where he started out in the 19th class training as an interrogator of German prisoners of war, but graduated as a German Documents Examiner on the Detached Enlisted Men’s List (DEML); this meant that, although a member of one command, he could be assigned duties with another unit. During the six weeks that followed completion of his coursework, Stephen played around with the idea of applying to the Army Air Corps, “not because I would enjoy doing that, but it seems much better to me than infantry,” adding that he would “probably be sent back to [the infantry], if and when we go away from here.” He wrote to his parents that he would be sorry to leave Camp Ritchie, since he felt “very comfortable here.” His commander supported him in his application to the air corps, but he was rejected, and applied instead for service as an MP. But his plans to avoid infantry were resolved in late September, 1944, when he shipped out to Scotland on the Queen Mary as part of the prisoner interrogation (IPW) Team 149, and was attached to the 8th Armored Division, Combat Command B.

In two uncensored V-mail letters to his parents Stephen provided a rare view of the makeup of a typical Ritchie interrogation team. There were six men: two commissioned officers, two sergeants, and two technicians, including one driver. Whenever the need arose, this team could be divided in two to carry out different missions. Stephen described the various backgrounds and personality types serving on his interrogation team. The top man on the team was Andrew Louis, a First Lieutenant, “a former college professor of German who taught at Colgate and Texas universities.” Stephen found him to be “a nice, friendly, and helpful man.” Second man on the team was 2nd Lieutenant Nephi Georgi, a Mormon from Salt Lake City, who, although “born in Germany, he left when he was 8 yrs. old and his German is not too great.” Stephen described him as “rather GI army-conscious, but I think I’ll get along with him OK.” Stephen came next in seniority, as a staff sergeant, followed by S/Sgt. Eckhard Bennowitz, a native of Frankfurt, Germany, who came to the States as a child and was living with his family in Cincinnati. Bennowitz had graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a major in public administration; Stephen called him “an intelligent fellow, interested in sports, journalism, and other things,” but somewhat embittered because, by being called into active duty, he had been denied a promotion in Washington. The fifth man on the team, T/Sgt. Kenneth Brodney, an American son of Australian parents, was a 25-year-old married journalist, but he was reassigned and replaced by T/3 Victor Singer. Singer was from Vienna, had been in Stephen’s class at Ritchie, and was “talkative, but all right to have around.” Even though Stephen didn’t consider him particularly smart, he felt that, in the task ahead, “he’ll be OK.” The sixth man on the team, T/5 Norman Fogg, was a college-educated New Englander, a graduate of an Army Specialized Training Program in German, who “drinks quite a bit, talks roughly [and] is […]not particularly nice to have around.” Still, Stephen added, “he is friendly, in his way, and extremely handy, and really can fix up things, repair motors, and is a good mechanic, which is a great asset to the team.”

Stephen’s team was typical of most Ritchie IPW teams, in that it was a mix of American- and European-born soldiers. Despite the fact that the teams were made up of men from different national backgrounds, education levels, personality traits, and values, the teams functioned together as strong units focused on the task at hand. And although each team member had specialized skills and functions, each was trained to take over the duties of another, whenever the need arose.

Stephen was well-liked by his teammates and his fellow soldiers. Already at Camp Ritchie fellow soldiers shortened his family name and called him “Moose.” It was common for soldiers to shorten family names to nicknames in this manner, but Stephen reportedly acquired this particular name for another reason: he had a voracious appetite, and was always first in line at chow time in the mess hall.

Stephen Mosbacher , 1945

Stephen’s team accompanied the 8th Armored Division when it landed in Normandy on January 5, 1945, then took part in its 350-mile dash across France, through heavy snow and ice, to join the Third Army in its fight to defend Alsace, and in its drive into the Saarland. The team was split in two, with Stephen working with Lt. Georgi and T/3 Singer. Stephen was the specialist of the team; Singer was the driver/handyman, and Georgi was the liaison to headquarters. Stephen’s job was to enter the prisoner cages, and select the prisoners whom he then interrogated. Despite the frigid winter and lack of any amenities, he felt the importance of his task. After digging his Jeep out of a snowbank, Stephen wrote to his parents: “I am glad that I am here, doing what I am, and I couldn’t think of a place that is more right for me at the present than this.” He moved through Belgium and into the Netherlands, where his Division was granted rest and time for replacing its losses. Stephen was part of the billeting crew sent out ahead to secure housing for the troops. As a result, he acquired especially good housing for himself and his two teammates in a welcoming Dutch home that offered the men comfortable quarters, privacy, hot water, and food. The Vroonen family was large and well off, and included six children and an old grandmother. The grandmother had originally come from Cologne, and she enjoyed teasing Stephen about his German-sounding Dutch. Stephen got along especially well with the woman of the house, whom he called “Mutti” [Mom], and who provided a welcoming respite when he returned to the house each night after full days of interrogation of German prisoners.

He eagerly followed the news of the war and was especially happy to learn of the progress the Russians were making in the East. Indeed, things seemed to be progressing so well that he began to ponder what he should do when the war was over. He was still uncertain as to his direction in life. In a letter to Dr. Reason A. Goodwin, a Russian instructor at the University of Chicago, Stephen wrote to inquire about beginning an advanced Russian correspondence course while still in Europe. He had, he said, a deep interest in politics, and was well-informed in the Soviet Union. He added: “Since I have been in the ETO, I have had repeated contacts with Russians and Jugoslavs, who were freed by our advancing troops, and we got along very well.” He confessed to Goodwin that, in all his previous study, he had not been able to get enthusiastic about either mechanics or engineering, but that he still wanted a college degree. Then, perhaps, he might enter the export-import field, or even work in the American Army of occupation, where his knowledge of the area, and his skills in German, French, and Russian could be put to use.

Even as he wrote this letter the refitted 8th Division was recapturing Dutch towns on its push to the Rhine, then, during the rest of the month, fighting to secure towns in Germany itself, in the area known as Rheinland-Westphalia. And, on April 1st, the Division was ordered to be part of a spearhead for an attack on Paderborn, in the East.

Before leaving on this assignment, Stephen told his Dutch “Mutti” that he doubted that he would be seeing her again. Perhaps he was thinking that his Division was now moving further and further East, making visits difficult or impossible. Perhaps he had a presentiment of his own death. In any case, fate struck on April 2nd.

That night Stephen was part of an advance billeting detachment out in front of the main body of his division. As his officer Major would later report it, in a letter to Stephen’s parents:

We moved out carefully, your son questioning all the slave laborers we met along the road and all of the prisoners we gathered up. We took two towns — Delbrück and Sande — and captured two small outposts. At the third town, Neuhaus, we found a garrison of about eighty men. They didn’t want to fight very badly. We were disarming them and taking the place over, when a SS outfit came into the town from the opposite direction. The resulting fight was rather rough, but we held them until they brought up their tanks. Then, since we had no weapon heavier than a machine gun, we had to go.

At this point, Stephen left his jeep to stay behind with Elting and his driver in order to cover the retreat of the rest of detachment. The withdrawal appeared to be successful, but then Elting noticed that one of his men had been left behind, and was being pursued by several SS men. Elting left the jeep to fire his gun and cover the man’s flight. But, as Elting reported to Stephen’s parents:

Smith [the driver] and your son, however, turned the jeep around and went right down into the advancing Germans to pick the man up, firing as they went; I could hear [Stephen’s] laughter above all the shooting and shouting. Have a split-second memory of how the running soldier’s face lit up with happiness as Stephen caught his hand and pulled him into the jeep.

Elting jumped onto the radiator of the jeep as it drove back to safety: But, as we went back out of the town, [we] saw one of our light trucks wrecked alongside the road. A shot from the German tank which was firing down the road had wrecked its front wheels. A wounded man was beside it. We pulled up to try to save him too. It was then that the tank hit us. […] It was a glare of white light and a screaming crash. Then we were in the ditch. Smith and I were wounded, Stephen and the rescued soldier were dead. Stephen was still smiling and still had a firm grip on his submachine gun. Stephen was 21 years old.

For this action, he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. The award noted, in particular, that, on his first rescue foray, he had “advanced to within ten yards of enemy infantry elements,” “in the face of direct fire from artillery, mortars and small arms,” and that, in his attempt to rescue the second soldier, he had done so “directly in the path of an enemy tank.”

Stephen was buried in the only American cemetery in the Netherlands, at the edge of Margraten, the very town in which he had been billeted. And he was not forgotten; the Vroonen family, with whom he had lived that winter, took over care of the grave and hosted Stephen’s family members several times when they came to visit it; this task was then taken over by one of the children, and then by grandchildren.

Stephen’s grave in Margraten

Nor has Stephen been completely forgotten in Nuremberg. The Testimon Press began a move in 2015 to rename the street that ran in front of the grandstand at the old Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg “Stephen Mosbacher-Strasse” on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the town’s liberation from the Nazis. The fact that Stephen had been a hero and silver star recipient made him a worthy example of all the German Jews whose fates had been sealed at that very spot by the introduction of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935. In its petition to the city mayor, Testimon pointed out that there were 96 known Jewish citizens from Nuremberg who had actively fought as Allied soldiers in the war, and that six of these had died. Because the “dramatic circumstances of Stephen’s death in trying to rescue his comrades” were so “well documented,” the petitioners felt that, in honoring his individual deeds, the street’s name would help preserve the memory of all of them. Although this move had the strong support among the surviving Nuremberg war veterans and among Jews in Germany and America, the mayor ignored proper protocol, which dictated that the petition should come before the town’s municipal council. Instead, after nine months’ delay, he rejected it with the argument that it was not right to recognize the sufferings and achievements of a single individual over those of many.

The newspaper memorial tribute to Stephen Mosbacher and his German Jewish comrades as it appeared in 2018.

The petitioners have not given up. Every April 2nd they publish a memorial announcement in the North Bavarian newspapers calling on people to remember not only Stephen, but also “all the exiles who became Allied soldiers in the Second World War” as well as “the Americans, who freed Nuremberg from Nazi tyranny.” They would prefer, they say, to use their money to erect a more permanent street sign with his name and with a plaque in front of the Zeppelin grandstand, but that “is politically not desired.”

Still, every year they recognize the day of Nuremberg’s liberation — April 20 — with a program on the old Zeppelin grounds honoring all those named in their newspaper memorial. Part of the day’s activities has featured an actor, dressed in an American army uniform, reading from Stephen’s letters.

Beverley Driver Eddy

August 2022

1.) Letter to Prof. Renson A. Goodwin, from Stephen S. Mosbacher, 27 Feb. 1945. Most of the biographical material in this essay is taken from the Emil Mosbacher Family Collection, AR 25516, Series II, that is housed in the Leo Baeck Institute.

2.) Letter from Stephen to his parents, “Thursday,” [1944] written in German. EMFC.

3.) Letter from Stephen to his parents, 30 Nov. 1944. Written in English. EMFC.

4.) Letter from Stephen to Prof. Renson A. Goodwin, 27 Feb. 1945. EMFC.

5.) “Fields of Honor — Database. Mosbacher, Stephen S. Accessed 7 August 2022.

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