Harold Gurwitz returns to Belgium after 70 years for reunion with wartime host family
By Laura Porter
At almost 95, Harold Gurwitz still jams on his clarinet at the Willows at Worcester, the senior living facility where he has lived for the past six years. He even picks up the occasional gig.
Seventy-one years ago, his musical talent saved his life when as a line soldier with the 4th Infantry Division during World War II, he was pulled out to become a member of a regimental marching band.
After D-Day, he and his band were stationed in a town in Belgium and housed with local families. He never forgot the kind people who took him in for six weeks, hosting and feeding him despite tough wartime conditions.
Last month, Harold returned to Belgium for a reunion with his host family during a whirlwind trip that included several ceremonies honoring him for his wartime service and a visit to the house where he stayed when he was stationed there during World War II.
Harold Gurwitz was only 22 and working for his father and uncle at Mercantile Printing in Worcester when he entered the service in 1942. Only seven months married to Ruth, the love of his life, he left his new bride to join the Army.
In the spring of 1944, two months before his division was to go overseas, the call for ten extra musicians for the regimental marching band gave him his temporary reprieve.
“For those two months, life became relatively beautiful,” he recalls. “No more training, no more guard duty, no more work in the kitchen. Rehearse in the morning, rehearse in the afternoon.”
But a consolidation of the regimental bands eventually sent him back to his unit, where he began to prepare to be shipped over.
Then luck stepped in again.
He recalls, “I was turning in my clarinet when the band leader came over to me. ‘Gurwitz,’ he said, ‘I’ve got two openings in the band. You’ve given me the least trouble and shown the most progress. I’m having you transferred.’”
He shakes his head. “The 4th Infantry Division was a D-Day division, including my company,” he says quietly. “Being in the band in wartime – there’s no playing. The duty was to provide guard duty to the rear echelon – the general and all the big boys.”
By the time Harold and his bandmates crossed the English Channel “on D plus 14, 14 days after D-Day,” much of the fighting was over. Their company, though, had been decimated, with only a handful remaining alive or uninjured.
The band, all 56 of them, ended up stationed in Stavelot, in northern Belgium, a small town close to the German border.
“They put us in a very, very old brick building; we found out that it had been used mostly for tanning leather,” he says. “We stayed there one night. The smell was so absolutely horrible that we couldn’t stay there anymore. Twenty-eight Belgian families of Stavelot offered to sleep two members of the band. And fortunately, the Army accepted it.”
Harold, along with Irving Fasman, from Chicago, was billeted with Juliette and Antoine Lemaire. At the time, the Lemaires had two small children, two-year-old Raymond and four-year-old Francine, and they were all living with Juliette’s sister.
“They treated us like we were members of their family,” says Harold. For six weeks, the Americans remained with their host families, welcomed and fed despite wartime privations and close quarters. Juliette, he recalls, had a family connection to a farm, and “we ate steak and French fried potatoes three times a week!”
“When [the Army] pulled us out of there, it was one week before the Battle of the Bulge started,” he remembers. “The Germans came to Stavelot – we were already gone – and they practically destroyed the town.”
The last major offensive undertaken by the German Army against the Allies, the battle erupted near the town of Malmedy on December 16, 1944. Ultimately, the Allied victory marked the turning point in the European campaign against the Nazis.
After he was discharged from the Army and returned to Worcester in 1945, Harold Gurwitz never forgot the kindness of the Lemaires. In addition, he couldn’t shake his concern about how they might have fared during the fighting.
“I didn’t know if they were living or not,” he says. About eight months after his return, he wrote to them; the letter never came back, but it was never answered, either.
In April 2014, however, a letter came to him at the Willows from Serge Lemaire, the 46-year-old son of Raymond, “the two-year-old who had been in the house.”
And with that, an incredible reunion was set in motion.
“Serge had found the letter my father had written to his grandparents after the war and wanted to connect with my father,” says Sharon Gurwitz, Harold’s daughter. “He enclosed a copy of the original letter and pictures of my father as a soldier.”
Over the course of the next few months, she, her father, and their new Belgian friend began a swift correspondence through letter and emails, sending photographs back and forth.
Like many Belgians who live in the vicinity of the Bulge, Serge Lemaire is fascinated by World War II. He has a private war museum in the basement of his home, including mannequins dressed in the uniforms of different armies and a wealth of military paraphernalia.
As a result of his interest in the war, his father, Raymond, passed on a box of World War II memorabilia from his own parents that included Harold Gurwitz’s postwar letter and a picture of him and Irving Fasman. The letter had never been answered because of the language difference.
“The mystery is why Serge’s father waited so long to tell him about the box,” says Sharon. “I told him that we have an expression in English, ‘better late than never,’ and he said they have the same expression in French.”
Before long, their correspondence led to an invitation.
“He asked if I wanted to come to visit,” says Harold.
His daughter jumped into action, planning a two-week trip that included an eight-day river cruise along the Albert Canal that would be exciting yet easy traveling for her father.
He was, she says, “the most popular person on the boat,” a combination of his effervescent personality and the magical story of his return to Belgium.
“By the time I left,” he says, “there were half a dozen guys; every time they saw me, they saluted.”
After the cruise, the Gurwitzes traveled by limousine and private driver – one of the best parts of the trip, he says – from Amsterdam to Malmedy, where Serge Lemaire and his wife, Colette, live now.
“We got dropped off at a little hotel, and Colette and Serge came right over,” says Sharon. “Not only were they unbelievably nice – they planned every minute to perfection, not letting us pay for anything or do anything for them. But they were such great people, really interesting and fun.”
“If I were General Eisenhower going back, they couldn’t have treated us any better than they did,” says her father.
Serge, a state policeman, took four days off to host the American visitors, and those days were packed, filled with sightseeing, family meals, and – everywhere – reminders of the war.
Harold received a plaque and other honors in a small ceremony in Bastogne at the Bastogne Barracks, a museum focused on the Battle of the Bulge.
Run by the Belgian military, the former barracks includes rooms created to capture the war years. A special wall displays the photograph of every former soldier who has returned to visit as well as a picture of him when he was a soldier. Harold Gurwitz’s picture will appear here.
In Bastogne, the father and daughter spent time with Serge’s aunt, Francine (74), and his father, Raymond (72), and their spouses. Neither has any recollection of the war years.
A reporter from the Liege newspaper shadowed the group, writing a full-length feature story about Harold and his visit that appeared the next morning.
They also visited the Mardasson Memorial in Bastogne, an enormous columned monument honoring the memory of the almost 77,000 American casualties of the Battle of the Bulge.
The next day brought a more direct experience of the war. The first battle in the Bulge campaign took place in Hasselpath, in the forest. The site has been preserved as a memorial, with dozens of foxholes and bunkers still intact.
Not far away, a memorial at the Baugnez crossroads venerates the Malmedy Massacre, where the Nazis murdered 84 American POWs in defiance of international law.
On their final day in Belgium, the Gurwitzes went to Stavelot, and Harold was able to walk once more through the now unoccupied house where he had stayed in 1944, visiting the upstairs bedroom where he had slept.
In Stavelot, in the mayor’s, or burgomaster’s, office he received a medal commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. He also accepted a certificate thanking “the GIs of the Allied Forces to Have Liberated the Town of Stavelot on September 12, 1944 and Driven Back the Nazi Hordes during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.”
“I went away from there feeling very important,” Harold says with a smile. “Everyone was taking pictures; I was feeling foolish!”
Both father and daughter were struck by the immediacy of World War II in the area, reflected both in the value placed on the tangible remnants of the war as well as an appreciation for the role played by the United States.
“They really value what the Americans did for them,” says Sharon. “And these people had a connection to a particular American – there was tremendous affection and warmth for him.”
In fact, she jokes, throughout the trip it was quite clear that “he was the king and I was the entourage.”
Since his return to Worcester, her father has been mulling over the memories of the trip, looking through pictures and telling the stories of those special four days.
And he’s thinking about what it means.
“When you look back 70 years, it’s like you’re talking about a different person and a different life,” he says. “I realize that everything is such a series of coincidences.”
CAP: Harold Gurwitz with Serge Lemaire