Nathan Shapiro, 95, served in World War II, was married for 61 years and still drives his own car. “I’m a very lucky guy in many respects,” was the first thing he told the AJP in his apartment at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging.
“If I have years, this young lady helped,” says Shapiro, pointing to a photo of Leah Schwartz before she became his wife. They met as graduate students in education at the City College of New York. When she came into the classroom, he cleaned off a seat and said, “young lady, come and sit next to me.” They started dating but their lives were interrupted by World War II.
Shapiro was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and served as an artillery captain in the Philippines. “I did the best I could,” says Shapiro. “I’m short. I was among tall, husky guys. I made my way.” His company landed in the Lingayen Gulf on the western coast of Luzon, Philippines, which was captured by the Japanese in December 1941 and retaken by American forces in January 1945.
“We won back the Philippines,” Shapiro says proudly, adding, “we didn’t know about the genocide” taking place in Europe. Troops fighting in the Pacific theater didn’t receive news of the European threat.
Growing up in Brooklyn, life was happy. “I was brought up in a Jewish home. I prayed to God. As a kid,” he notes, “I basked in the achievements of a Jewish home.”
During the war, although “the bullet, the shell didn’t find me,” Shapiro wrote to Leah, “I don’t know if I’ll get out of the Philippines in one piece. I’m not too confident of making it. I’m not writing to you anymore.” He cleverly asked to become pen pals with one of Leah’s friends.
Leah asked her friend if she could read the letters Shapiro sent. Leah “was a smart maidel (girl),” he says. “You can bet on it.” After his discharge from the army in 1946, “I loved the fact that no other guy was taking her out. We married that fall.” His other important decision that year was entering the New York City school system. Shapiro taught at various levels in the public schools and graduate education courses at Hunter College.
When he returned home from the war, “I didn’t want to talk about it. That fearful experience stayed with me for about a year,” says Shapiro. “It came back to me at night. It might not have lasted as long if I talked about it.”
Toward the end of World War II, he recalls “going into Japanese harbors where they were ready to defend their country. They even trained civilians to sharpen bamboo to be ready to fight. Dropping bombs was the price of war. There was nothing glamorous about it. We would have lost hundreds of thousands of men” if the United States hadn’t unleashed atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
“I have a great deal of pessimism about what’s going on in the world today,” he says, because of “the way certain countries behave. Wars were fought for democracy but they haven’t really bettered the world” with all the different sects and religions fighting.
Take the recent Boston Marathon bombing in April, with “two young men undertaking this kind of violence. What is it?” he asks, “some kind of instant gratification for something they couldn’t get?”
Returning to a more positive side of his life, Shapiro says, “I’m very aware of my physical development. I go to tai chi. I do yoga, and for my mind I play Scrabble.”
Being 95, “people ask me what my legacy is. Three out of four of my children are healers. Two are podiatrists and one is a hand surgeon. They give back. That puts years onto my life,” he explains, adding that his son does hand surgery pro-bono for immigrants.
And then Shapiro — who was once called “the world’s greatest wonder boy cantor and genius” —walking briskly, politely leads me to my lunch appointment at Handmaker.