People have many reasons for volunteering to serve their county. A victim of Nazi oppression growing up Jewish in Germany, former longtime Los Altos resident Henry Burger was motivated to enlist at 17 after his family successfully immigrated to the U.S.
Burger’s parents were able to bring their family to New York in 1938, escaping Hitler’s oppression. By the mid-1940s, Burger attempted to join the military to fight those who were persecuting his family and friends who remained in Germany. However, he was rejected because he had not been in the U.S. long enough to apply for citizenship and was therefore categorized an “enemy alien” during much of World War II. Later, Burger was drafted into the U.S. Navy and finalized his citizenship after completing boot camp.
Now, looking back at his time in the military, the 87-year-old resident, who moved to Palo Alto’s Moldaw Residences in 2010, said he is grateful for what he believes was an enlightening and interesting experience.
“I was in the same mindset as countless others – stop Hitlerism any way you could,” Burger said. “Having been a victim of the Nazis, I was anxious to serve in any capacity and glad I had the chance to repay the U.S. for what this country has done for me.”
Burger’s family lived in one of the worst cities under Hitler’s control – Nuremberg, where Hitler addressed the masses. He recalled the different ways he and other Jews living there were oppressed during his childhood.
“In ’34, we couldn’t go to public schools anymore – we were sent to separate Jewish schools – and the next year all non-Jewish teachers were told they could no longer teach us there,” he said. “My parents got us out just 10 days before Kristallnacht, a series of violent attacks and demolitions targeting Jews, so we were very fortunate.”
After finishing boot camp, he went before the court to verify his U.S. citizenship before deployment.
“If I had been captured by the Germans during the war, I would have been killed on the spot as a ‘traitor of the nation,’” he said.
Burger underwent additional training in Fort Lauderdale and Guantanamo Bay, and then was sent to various naval bases. He was also stationed on the USS Oregon City, a newly built heavy cruiser.
“Although I didn’t get the opportunity to engage in combat, I am glad I served,” he said. “It was an interesting experience for sure, and I think everyone learns a lot when serving in the military.”
Burger said being in the military makes one more sensitive toward the needs of others and develops deep relationships. Probably the most important life lesson learned during his time in service, he noted, was how to get along with different kinds of people from all backgrounds and walks of life.
Burger maintains that it’s important to hear the stories of those who have served and be reminded of veterans’ sacrifices.
“America is the greatest country in the world, despite the many problems we may face,” he said. “In my opinion, we need to do more to meet the needs of our nations’ veterans once they return from service.”
When Burger finished his military duty, he enrolled in college and simultaneously finished his high school requirements during night classes. He enjoyed a successful career in public accounting and married his childhood sweetheart, Lottie, who had escaped from Germany with her family at approximately the same time his family did. They have three children and seven grandchildren.