My uncle, Oscar Shansky, died 22 years ago. He grew up in Milwaukee, one of four children of Frank and Ida Shansky, both from Cohanim parents, who emigrated from Belarus, Russia, in the early 1900s.
Oscar, like his parents, was a lifelong member of Congregation Anshai Lebowitz. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, never married and lived with his mother and sister’s family on Sherman Boulevard across the street from Sherman Park, until he was in his fifties. He then lived in a small apartment in Shorewood near Capitol Drive for the rest of his life. He managed apartments for most of his adult life until his death.
He was a kind, smart, friendly and humble man who loved his family, although my mother and I were the only close family members left in Milwaukee for the last few decades of his life. His two older brothers, my father Louis and his brother Aaron, died way too early and his sister Anne lived in Florida during that time.
My wife and I invited Uncle Oscar somewhat regularly to our house for dinner. We all enjoyed the time we spent together and Oscar was always interested in what our two sons, Joe and Dan, were up to. I was his guest at Bucks games and went fishing with him and his buddies on Lake Michigan occasionally. But I didn’t spend nearly enough time with him as I should have and as he would have liked.
When one day I took him to St. Luke’s Hospital for an appointment, I didn’t know then that he would never leave the hospital. He died peacefully at age 83, with many family members by his side, having flown in from different parts of the country. Seeing his sister, nieces, nephews and friends at his bedside was some solace in his last days.
But that was 22 years ago, so why am I writing this now? After Oscar died, I had, in retrospect, the enviable task of cleaning out his apartment. He must have had 50 sweaters, the result, I’m sure, of gifts from friends and family, including several my wife and I gave him.
Within his apartment, in a bottom dresser drawer, under many clothes, was a fancy box that contained his Bronze Star for heroism in World War II (more on that later). I recall knowing that he belonged to a medical detachment, but never knew any details.
The real find, though, was not in his apartment, but contained within a storage locker in the basement of the apartment building. It was a total mess, but within that mess were several boxes, which contained what turned out to be more than 1,000 letters, postcards, photos and memorabilia from his time in the Army.
I actually didn’t know then the depth of his letters, as I merely took the boxes and transferred them from his basement to my attic. Fast forward 20 years; my wife and I downsized from a home to a small apartment and the letters and memorabilia were transferred to another storage locker. It wasn’t until the last year that I started reading the letters and going through everything.
And what a story it told. From his entry into the army in April 1942 in Illinois to stints in Little Rock, Denver, Seattle, Moscow Idaho, Northfield Minnesota, Oklahoma, Virginia and eventually overseas in the closing days of the war, Uncle Oscar wrote daily letters to his parents and family members, sometimes more than one a day. And on his return, his parents gave him the letters they had saved. And there they stayed for almost three quarters of a century.
It would be too difficult to summarize all that I found through the letters about Uncle Oscar and about the family I came from. But here are a few things:
I knew that Oscar loved his family, but the depths of his connection to his parents (my grandparents) was beyond my comprehension. In letter after letter, he begs his parents to write more letters to him, when it is usually the other way around. He could not get enough information about his newly born niece and nephew and longed to be home.
His ties to his Jewish religion and culture are evident in a lot of his writing. During his time serving in the states, he details every date he went on and his search for meeting Jewish girls. He wasn’t always successful. He also made sure to celebrate the Jewish holidays the best he could with other Jewish servicemen.
Oscar was a liberal minded man politically and his letters, although usually apolitical, referenced his leanings. He wrote about FDR’s re-election in 1944 and wondered how anyone wouldn’t vote for him. He also was thrilled to go to a concert in Seattle to see Paul Robeson, a man he admired.
His heartbreaking letter the day he found out about the death of his good friend and relative, Arthur Post, who was shot down over the Pacific in August 1944 and received the Distinguished Service Cross for valor, is very moving. His tears and grief are palpable when reading his thoughts.
A few letters in the collection are ones he received from friends and family. Through reading them, I was able to learn that my grandfather (Oscar’s father) had a brother and sister who I didn’t know about (my grandfather died before I was born and I am named after him). Through these letters I was able to make contact with their grandchildren and learn more about my family.
But the letters from overseas are the most moving and enlightening. Despite mentioning that his letters were censored by the Army, he was able to tell a lot. He was able to send a four-page letter detailing the day for which he was later awarded the Bronze star. Of course, his own details of the events were more humble than they are described in the actual declaration of the award.
The declaration states:
“The Bronze Star Medal is awarded to Oscar A. Shansky, Medical Detachment, 222nd Infantry Regiment, for heroic achievement in action on April 19, 1945 at Furth, Germany. Although painfully wounded while accompanying the lead platoon in a forced crossing of the Regnitz River, Sergeant Shansky refused medical treatment and upon reaching the opposite bank of the river, set up a temporary medical station to care for the wounded. Disregarding the heavy machine gun and panzerfaust fire covering the area of the bridgehead, he worked continuously throughout the raging firefight, treating his wounded comrades until he was ordered to the rear for evacuation. Through his indomitable courage and heroic devotion to duty, Sergeant Shansky was an inspiration to the infantrymen fighting around him.”
Oscar was sent to an Army hospital after being wounded and nine days later, without him, his regiment marched in and liberated the Dachau concentration camp. I am grateful he didn’t see what his fellow soldiers saw, but his letters do reflect what they told him.
Shortly after, he rejoined his comrades and liberated towns along the way and detailed his medical treatment of Nazis after his fellow soldiers took their wrath out on them.
A few weeks later, VE Day was declared, in no small part due to the famed Rainbow Division of which Oscar was a member.
I am donating Oscar’s letters to the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison in hopes that for future generations his letters will bring to life the daily thoughts of a young man preparing and entering one of the greatest battles for freedom the world has ever endured. I wish he was still here, so I could finally thank him for what he did and who he was.
Frank Shansky of St. Francis is Oscar Shansky’s nephew. Frank was born and raised in the Sherman Park area in Milwaukee. Frank’s grandfather, Abe Cohen, was a leader for many years at Congregation Anshai Lebowitz, where Oscar was also a member. Frank is a retired union organizer, having been a leader for the United Auto Workers and American Federation of Teachers. Oscar’s friends are welcome to contact Frank at email@example.com.