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Robert “Bob” Lichtman

Robert Lichtman was born in 1933 and spent his early years living with his parents and maternal grandmother in a small apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. His father, who was in his 30s, was exempt from military service during World War II as the head of the household. Fortunately, they had no immediate family who were in the war and, even though they were Jewish, they knew of no one who suffered in Europe during the Holocaust.

Bob’s school life in Manhattan was fairly normal, although there was concern of German U-boats being spotted off the East Coast. In spite of that, he had no personal fears about New York being attacked, even though there was talk of blackouts in the city. Bob was very curious about the war and followed it closely in the newspapers, on the radio, and at the Saturday movies in the newsreels. The Germans and Japanese were depicted as evil in all the movies at that time, and he and his friends had mocking rhymes about the Axis leaders. By 1945, his family moved to Chicago, where he heard about V-J Day while walking along Stony Island Avenue. Bob was, and still is, a big sports fan, mainly following baseball and football. He eventually became a lawyer and writer, and now lives in St. Helena, California.

In this interview, Bob recalls first hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor while listening to a football game on the radio. He remembers running to the living room to tell his parents and their friends who were shocked by the news. Bob also discusses the patriotic songs on the radio and movies he watched during World War II, like Casablanca. He shares recollections about war bonds, victory gardens, scrap metal collection, and food and gas rationing. Since President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that professional baseball would continue during the war, Bob remembers seeing a sixteen-year-old short stop who played at the time, and the second baseman who was a violinist and couldn’t hit. Finally, Bob reflects on how the war made him appreciate American democracy more after seeing fascism in Germany.

America Enters World War II

HG: How did you first hear about the war?

I first heard about the war when—if you’re talking about when the United States entered the war [after the attack on Pearl Harbor]. I certainly heard about the war that the Germans conducted against the British and French before the United States entered the war. But I heard about the United States entering the war on December 7th, [1941], which was a Sunday.

I was listening—we had a radio, a small radio in the kitchen. And I was sitting on a stool listening to the radio and it was a professional football game. My recollection was that it was between the football New York Giants and the football Brooklyn Dodgers, who played in Ebbet’s Field. I don’t remember whether this particular game was in the Polo Grounds, where the Giants played, or Ebbet’s Field, where Brooklyn played. But at some point during the broadcast, it was interrupted to say that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. And that’s how I first learned about the United States entering the war.

KG: How old were you at that point?

I was eight.

KG: And what did you do when you heard that?

Well, my parents—my recollection was—were sitting in the living room with some guests. And I walked into the living room and said that there was an announcement on the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

KG: And what was their reaction—your reaction and their reaction? What was the feeling when that happened?

Well, I didn’t—I’m not sure that I knew quite what to make of it all. But it was clearly the United States was gonna be in the war. And as best I can recall, my parents and their guests, everybody, had expressions of shock.

The War through Popular Culture

KG: Getting back to school just for a minute: Anything else going on in school that you remember? Were they talking about the war? Did they educate you about the war?

My recollection [is] not necessarily at school, but on the radio and [in] the culture at the time, that there were patriotic songs. And we would go to the movies on a Saturday afternoon [to watch] patriotic movies, which depicted the Japanese and the Germans in a—you know, as evil. You know, the most famous of all those, which was not that late into the war as I recall, was of course Casablanca.

KG: Did you see Casablanca when it first came out?

I think I did.

HG: Do you remember songs at that time? Anything in particular? Or expressions or things you would say and share with your friends?

Well, I remember that there was a song, which might have come out of a Disney movie: “Whistle While You Work.” And they had put the words to it, “Whistle while you work. Hitler is a jerk. Mussolini is a meanie. Tojo is a squirt.” Something like that. [chuckling]

Jewish Family in Europe

KG: Would you have any memories, or—did you or your parents have knowledge—of the Holocaust and what was going on with the Jews [in Europe]?

I think we did. I think we did. I don’t know if we knew the full extent of it, but we knew that the Jews had been herded into camps—ghettoes and camps. And then, not a lot of people survived out of those camps.

KG: So, people were aware of that during the war?

I think so. It was a lot of rumor and so on. But the Jewish population in New York, which was large, were certainly aware of, you know, something like a Holocaust going on.

KG: Are you aware of any relatives in Europe that might have been directly affected?

Well, my father was born in this country. My paternal grandparents were born in Central Europe—Austria-Hungary, I think. And but everybody in my mother’s family was born in Tsarist Russia. It became Poland, then it became the Soviet Union, and now it’s Belarus, I think, where my mother was born. But she came over with my grandmother, I think, just prior to World War I.

My father’s family, I think, came over before that. And my father was born in Brooklyn around 1906, I think. And so, on both sides, I remember before the war there were attempts to communicate or bring people over, to try to get people out of Europe. But I don’t remember—. You know, undoubtedly, I had cousins and distant relatives in Europe probably. Just about everybody was wiped out in the Holocaust. But I didn’t know those people.

Following News of the War

KG: So, what impact, do you feel, that the war had on your life?

Well, it turned out to be the last uncomplicated war of good guys against bad guys. And, you know, I was riveted to the war while it was going on. I remember my parents used to get a newspaper that the department store magnate, Marshall Field, started in New York. It was called PM. It was sort of left-wing in its politics, or liberal in its politics.

But they used to have maps of the battle lines with arrows showing who was attacking where, and with different shadings on the maps to show who would occupy what territory, since when. And that was particularly in the European war. I remember I would look at those maps very closely and with great interest.

KG: So you followed the war with great detail?

Oh, I followed the war closely, yeah.

KG: Mostly through the newspaper?

Mostly through the newspapers or the radio.

KG: How on the radio? Would your family get together every night and listen?

Well, there were these guys who were commentators. Often they had different political viewpoints, but they would have fifteen-minute programs where some commentator would talk about the war and express a point of view and so on. I remember listening to those. And they were just straight, more objective kind of news programs that I would listen to.

HG: And, of course, on Saturdays you would watch the newsreels at the movie theaters?

That’s true. On Saturdays when you went to the movies, they were generally preceded by newsreels. It was always the same voice; I can almost hear the voice—you know, a guy with a deep, authoritative kind of voice and manner. And the newsreels, I think, were not entirely objective. But we would see those.

Wartime Baseball

KG: Is there anything else that we haven’t touched on that you would like to share—any memory of any kind?

Well, I remember that I was a great baseball fan, as I have been all my life. And I was a great Brooklyn Dodgers fan, living in Brooklyn. And [President] Franklin Roosevelt declared that baseball would continue during the war. And the Brooklyn Dodgers had guys in their forties and they had a sixteen-year-old shortstop. [chuckling] They had some awful teams during the war.

KG: And why was that?

Because they couldn’t get good players. They had a second baseman who had been a violinist in the Buffalo Symphony. [chuckling] And he was kind of a skinny guy who couldn’t hit at all. But he was briefly there. And then, there were some handful of ball players, who—I guess they got 4-F physical deferments and they continued to play. And then, a lot of guys who had retired—a lot of baseball players who had retired; not a lot of them, but some of them who had retired—were brought back.

There was, I don’t know if you want this level of detail, but there was a famous retired Brooklyn Dodger named Babe Herman, who had been a great hitter. And they brought him back as a pinch hitter for the Brooklyn Dodgers. And he was this sort of fifty-ish—certainly in his forties—guy with a beer belly. And I saw him pinch hit in a game. And here this middle-aged man with a beer belly comes up, and my recollection was the first pitch he hammered it into center field for a hit. [laughs] Babe Herman could still hit.

KG: And all the other good players, obviously, were enlisted?

[They] were in the war. And they would play baseball in the war on these teams: service teams. So, the best baseball being played during World War II was probably being played by these service teams. People like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

Most of the players, I think, lost ’42 to ’45. They lost several years ahead of their career. Late in ‘45, some of them began to come back. I remember Hank Greenberg—Detroit won the American League in 1945. And Hank Greenberg had come back and played for them at the tail end of the season.