When Maurice “Chic” Paper enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942, there was no way he could know that he would be playing a crucial role in one of the defining events of the 20th century.
Paper, 96, who originally hails from Northwest Baltimore, currently resides with his wife of 75 years, Cis, 95, at North Oaks, a retirement community in Pikesville. His war stories recently came back into the spotlight with the release of “G.I. Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II,” a new documentary that premiered on Maryland Public Television on April 11.
The documentary, which began production five years ago, features various stories from Jewish veterans who took part in the war. Alongside Paper, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Henry Kissinger are among those interviewed for the film.
In Paper’s case, the veteran refused for years to speak about what he saw overseas, but little by little his story came out. Paper eventually wrote a memoir about his time overseas in his book “My War,” which captured the attention of producers working on “G.I. Jews.”
“We knew we had found one of the stars of the film,” said Amanda Bonavita, a producer with Turquoise Films, which made the documentary, in an email. “From hearing about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, to becoming a commissioned officer (which was rare for Jews), and serving as a combat engineer from North Africa through Italy into Germany, where he was sent to the Dachau concentration camp to translate for the survivors after they were liberated.”
While the documentary doesn’t share Paper’s entire story, the veteran was more than happy to oblige when the JT visited him at his North Oaks apartment.
Paper first joined the armed forces in 1942 shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After a stint with the Maryland State Guard, he soon joined the U.S. Army.
“It wasn’t hard to get into, I had that mentality already,” Paper said. “They gave us tests every day for a week to see where you would fit because you were a 19-year-old nothing out of high school.”
Growing up, English was not Paper’s first language; he was fluent in Yiddish, which held him back in American schooling. After scoring high on the Army’s IQ test, the young soldier was placed into Officer’s School, and by age 20, he was a second lieutenant. Just before his graduation, he and Cis decided to get married. However, shortly after, Paper found out that he was to be shipped overseas to Casablanca, Morocco.
Once Paper landed there, he was relocated to Algiers where he met three-star general (and future president) Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“Since I was a linguist, I could speak some French,” Paper recalled. “I was assigned to the British North African Forces. While I was in Africa, I was with a native labor company. We were loading and unloading ships, planes and trains with all kinds of goods. The British were in charge of this kind of detail, but it was American money being used to pay the laborers. I was to see that the American money was properly spent and I was the one who on pay day received the money.”
Paper was reassigned by Eisenhower to a new outfit that moved into Naples, Italy in February 1943. It was during this time that his Yiddish and engineering skills would be imperative to the success of the overall mission.
While in Italy, Paper was chosen to be the commander of F Company 344th Engineers. Paper’s platoon made their way up through the country and into France where the war was raging, but by this point, Germany was on the defensive.
By early 1944, Paper was in the French Riviera and set to meet a member of the French Maquis, or guerilla resistance fighters, during his mission to demolish a bridge which would make travel difficult for the Germans.
“Here comes a guy with a black beard flying in the breeze,” Paper said of the Maquis fighter coming toward him. “With a sword in his belt, holding a gun. We come close to each other, and he says to me in French, ‘you’re the engineering officer?’ He said he was the Maquis, and I asked to see I.D. He pulls out his wallet, and I saw that his name was Leon Rubenstein. I asked if he could speak Yiddish. He said, ‘you mean to tell me you’re Jewish?’ He gets tears in his eyes and he grabs me in a bear hug. He said, ‘we’ll meet afterwards, but let’s do our job.’”
And sure enough, they did their job. Two bridges were destroyed, resulting in Paper receiving a Bronze Star medal for his efforts.
The year 1945 brought perhaps Paper’s most trying experience during the war. Eisenhower, who was now a five-star general, ordered the young soldier and a couple of his companions to go 10 miles north of Munich, Germany, to a camp that may or not have been liberated yet. The camp was Dachau, a place where a reported 31,951 people were killed during the course of World War II.
Arriving at the camp, Paper was shocked and appalled at what he saw.
“I thought I was going to see prisoners. I got up there and saw skeletons crawling on the ground,” Paper said. “Stacked up in the street. The smell was so bad, we had to pull our handkerchiefs out to breathe. One of our sergeants walked over to a railroad car, pulled open the door and bodies came out. Babies, women tumbled out, dead.”
Paper’s Yiddish skills were again a necessity, this time more than ever. “I told them ‘within 24 hours, you’ll have nurses, doctors, rabbis. Whatever you need, will be here within 24 hours,’” Paper remembered. “A guy told me in Yiddish, ‘I’ve never heard of a Jewish officer.’ I said, ‘why don’t you test me?’ He asked me, ‘how are you called up to the Torah in shul?’ I told him and he said, ‘only a Jew would know that.’”
Paper spent the rest of the war in Bavaria, and his answer was simple when asked what he did after America was victorious.
“My girl was waiting for me back home,” he said.
But despite his triumphs, Paper found it hard for years to talk about the ordeals and what he saw.
“I didn’t want to recall it,” he said. I had a hard time getting started after the war. I don’t know how Cis put up with me.”
On the “G.I. Jews” film, a proud Paper called it “the best documentary I’ve seen on the subject since I was home from the war.”