MONTVILLE, NJ – Residents gathered to commemorate Veterans Day on Saturday, Nov. 11, and as usual, former VFW Post 5481 commander Frank Warholic hosted a patriotic and moving ceremony.
Police officers Robert Koetzner and Alexander Yang, and VFW members Joe Coll and Dick Gamsby presented the colors, and Father Mark Olenowski of St. Pius gave a blessing during which he stated his father served in World War II.
“These men and women gave their best for our freedoms and safety,” Olenowski said.
Warholic called soldiers “patriots” and dedicated the ceremony to those serving all around the world.
Montville Township Mayor Jim Sandham spoke, stating his own father had served in World War II and he hadn’t even known until his father was on his death bed. Sandham’s father had served in the Pacific with the Merchant Marines, a branch which Warholic often states should receive more appreciation because of the important role they served in bringing troops and supplies to ships.
“The Merchant Marines ships were sitting ducks to enemy submarines and attack aircraft,” Sandham said. “My dad broke his back when one ship was bombed and he was blown from his position to two decks below. He was also on a ship that was torpedoed, sunk, and he spent seven days in a life raft, more afraid of being found by the Japanese than of the danger of sharks.
“And yet, in the 48 years of my life to that point, he had never told me of his war service! He had simply done his duty like so many others. He had lost too many of his friends and it was painful to recall,” Sandham said.
Sandham quoted Adlai Stevenson: “Men who have offered their lives for their country know that patriotism is not the fear of something, it is the love of something.”
Warholic then introduced the principal of Cedar Hill Elementary School, Michael Raj, saying that he has never come across a better principal.
Raj relayed the story of his grandparents’ experiences during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
“I’m the first generation born in the United States,” Raj said. “My grandparents were born in Poland and my mother and uncle were born in Germany.”
Raj showed his grandparents’ photos from when the Nazis invaded and his grandparents were placed in a work camp.
Although Raj’s grandfather was a police officer, he was also a farmer, so the Germans sent him into labor. His grandmother was made assistant to the commander to the camp, Raj said. As Catholics, his grandparents were given crucifixes to wear on their lapels, Raj said.
Raj’s grandmother wrote letters for the commander, read him stories in Polish or German, or read him her poems, Raj said. Although she could see out the window and see the lines of men and women being marched into the gas chambers, the commander was good to her, sometimes giving her a potato or a piece of bread for her husband, he said.
“He would warn her not to let anyone know he was doing this, or he would have to say she stole it,” he said.
This went on for years, but she stayed his assistant because the commander liked her, Raj said. When fighting developed in neighboring towns, the prisoners were all put into a train car.
“It was different this time,” Raj said. “They were all crammed in there, and there was a lot of fighting going on... My grandmother looked at my grandfather and said, ‘this is different. They’re killing everyone now. We’re going to die.’ The train rolled away, with the prisoners packed together and irritable, malnourished and frightened.”
But when the train door opened, American soldiers told them they were safe. They were set up in a camp until they could be further helped. Raj’s grandfather became friendly with one of his American emancipators, and when the soldier returned state-side, he gave Raj’s grandfather his mess kit. From that point on, Raj’s grandfather would eat with no other utensils or dishes for his remaining time at the camp, Raj said.
Raj’s family came to the U.S., landing in Newark. After arriving in the U.S., Raj’s grandfather continued to use the soldier’s utensils at every holiday dinner.
“They never really spoke much about it,” Raj said, “and unfortunately, I was too young to know to ask about it.”
In the Polish tradition, one formal place setting is placed on the table at holidays, but no one sits at it, Raj said.
“When I got older, like eight or nine years old, I would ask why it was there,” Raj said. “My grandfather would say it was for the soldier, in the hope that one day they would be reunited and share a meal together. After my grandfather would eat with the utensils, my grandmother would wash them, and my grandfather would re-set them at the empty place setting.”
Raj said even while watching the Olympic Games, his grandfather would only root for the United States because he was so proud to have become an American citizen.
“That’s my story,” said Raj, “and while I never had the opportunity to serve, I am deeply indebted to those of you who have, and those of you who continue to serve our country, and for that I am forever thankful. I know my grandparents are looking down on me now, telling their story and I hope I did it justice.”
To see video of Raj's story, click: