From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Most Beautiful Man in the World

Private Joe Cohen was in the third bus that drew up before the entrance to Halloran General Hospital in Staten Island. Joe Cohen wasn’t his name, but it will do. There were other Joe Cohens in the bus, of different names, religions, national origins. Some leaned on crutches, preparing to get out. Some clung to their seats, conserving every ounce of strength to the last minute. They were hollow-eyed, hollow-cheeked men, some with fresh bandages over old wounds. Private Joe Cohen’s face was fearfully burned.

A chaplain in uniform, Aaron Blumenthal climbed in as the bus came to a stop. He welcomed the men “back to the United States and to the hospital.” A band played military marches and Chaplain Blumenthal said he knew they had been through much suffering, as prisoners in Germany, but now that was behind them.

Now they were back in their own country, among relatives and friends, “and if there’s anything any of us can do for you, we shall consider it a high privilege to be helpful.” He said that many relatives waited for them here in the hospital and they would be able to see them soon.

In the tense silence that followed, crowding in with a sort of physical weight you could feel, Joe Cohen said—as if to himself—“Gee, that’s bad.”

In the receiving ward later the chaplain made a point of shaking hands with the boy of the flaming red face, repeating the welcome he had already given to the returning “repatriates.” The boy interrupted him impulsively.

“Look, chaplain,” he said, “how can I find out whether my folks are here. And if they are, do I have to see them?”

“You don’t have to,” said the chaplain. “But—why not?”

The boy shrugged thin shoulders and said, “Look at me.” Then he said, “It’s all right. The way I feel about it, I’m lucky to be alive. I’m not worrying about myself. But I don’t know. How’s the family going to take this? How would, well, anybody take it? They told us about plastic surgery and later on, I guess, I’ll be all right. But now . . .”

Gently the chaplain told him the miracle of plastic surgery was not performed in hours or days. It would take many months. Could he keep his family away that long? The boy—he seemed so young when you didn’t look directly into his malformed face—said it wasn’t only the family, but he didn’t explain. He asked if the chaplain would speak to his dad . . . before his father saw him.

In a hospital corridor the elder Cohen asked, “Did you see my boy, chaplain? How bad is he?”

How do you answer a question like that, the chaplain asked himself. What words do you use? What intonation of voice? How do you go about telling the truth he must know, but without that shock that must go with the truth? Suddenly, the chaplain decided to hold back nothing.

“Your son,” he said, “is very badly burned. Very. Otherwise the Nazis would not have permitted him to return. His face—”

He continued, describing the brutal details.

The father, his own face in his hands, moaned only, “God, God, God!”

“Yet all that,” said the chaplain, “doesn’t worry him. He knows about plastic surgery. He knows he’ll be restored, almost to normal. He says, ‘Thank God I’m alive,’ but he doesn’t know about you and his mother. He doesn’t know how you two will take it.”

“Can I see him?” asked the father. He promised, “I’ll be all right. The boy’s mother, she’d be all right, too. But there was a girl. If she breaks down, if she takes it wrong—that’s what’s worrying my boy—it will break his heart.”

Father and son met that evening in the merciful shadows outside the hospital. “Thank God you’re home, Son!” said the father. As they threw their arms about each other, the chaplain quietly closed a door and walked away. What more was said between them nobody else heard.

Private Cohen was pleased about the meeting with his father. “The old man’s a great guy,” he said. “I knew he could take it.”

He knew, he said, that Mother would be all right, too. He had spoken to her by telephone. He had also spoken to the girl, told her she must not try to see him—ordered her to stay home until he was ready to pay her a call. He was obviously uneasy about that. Despite all his arguments, she hadn’t promised to stay home and wait.

The next morning, there was a special ceremony in the hospital auditorium. In the presence of four hundred men, they presented awards to eleven of the repatriates. These were awards for outstanding heroism before they were made prisoners.

An officer on the platform called out the names one after another and read the citations. Sitting up in a front row, Joe Cohen glanced nervously now and then, over his shoulder. But there was too much of a crowd. Whether his parents—or the girl—were there, he couldn’t see. The colonel’s voice droned on. At last he called “Private Joe Cohen.” Joe Cohen took his place beside the others, at a strict attention. The voice on the platform read on: “For extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy . . . ,” “With complete disregard of his own safety . . . ,” “Distinguished himself through his display of personal courage, dauntlessness and devotion to duty . . . ,” “Reflects great credit on himself and the Armed Forces. . . .” The award: the Distinguished Service Cross.

The chaplain watched as the medal was pinned to Joe Cohen’s jacket and Joe returned the colonel’s salute. More names were called and more awards given. Standing at rigid attention, Joe Cohen wondered—he couldn’t drive the thought from his mind—how he looked in his fresh uniform from the rear of the auditorium.

The ceremonies ended. The chaplain came up to shake hands with the boy, to tell him, “We’re all proud of you.” But Private Cohen hardly heard him. His eyes roved restlessly, searching, trying to pierce the auditorium full of soldiers and others, most of them now on their feet.

“Did you see my dad?” he asked.

At that moment a group of three broke through the crowd, and young Cohen saw them: father, mother—and the girl. For a fleeting moment the chaplain noted that she was slim and smiling with head held high, and in holiday dress, as if for a special occasion. An instant later, Joe Cohen had broken away from him and was racing down the aisle, while the girl was making her way swiftly, between the rows of chairs, toward Joe.

They met in the middle of the auditorium. Four hundred pairs of eyes were on them but they didn’t care. The girl held him very close, never flinched as she looked into his poor, mutilated face and said over and over again, “Joe! Joe! Joe! You’re the most beautiful man in the world!”

I. Kaufman
Condensed from American Jews in World War II

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