After he was introduced as Joe Biden's choice for secretary of state last week, Antony Blinken movingly recounted the story of his stepfather's survival in the closing days of World War II.
His stepfather, Samuel Pisar, spent four years in a Nazi concentration camp. Pisar's father had been killed by the Gestapo and his mother and sister died in Auschwitz. Samuel, a teenager, escaped from a "death march," Blinken said
, where German troops, retreating from the advancing Allied forces, made starving inmates, mainly Jews, walk miles from Poland to camps in Austria and other places inside Germany. Those who could not keep up were shot by SS guards. Those who did not die on the journey
generally were killed when they reached their new camps.
After hiding out in the Bavarian woods, Pisar heard the rumbling of a tank.
When he peeked out to see who it was, he was shocked and elated. "Instead of an Iron Cross, he saw a five-pointed White Star," Blinken said. "He ran to the tank. The hatch opened. An African American GI looked down at him. He got down on his knees and said the only three words he knew in English that his mother had taught him: 'God Bless America.'"
Blinken's half-sister Leah Pisar wrote in an op-ed for The Hill in 2018 that the family would later learn
the soldier's name: Sgt. Bill Ellington, who served in the 761st Tank Battalion.
It is, perhaps, one of the great ironies of history that a resourceful Jewish boy fleeing for his life in Poland was carried to freedom by a Black man fighting in a racially segregated army for a country that accorded the soldier little freedom at home. The story of the 761st
, a Black fighting force --- and one of the very few at the time -- is one of
perseverance, skill and bravery in the face of doubt and racism.
The 761st was among the most storied Black units of World War II. It overcame harassment and violence by white GIs and civilians at their training camps in the South and had to deal with the skepticism of military brass who didn't believe Black people could master sophisticated tank doctrine -- or, for that matter, serve in any combat roles.
Still, the 761st spearheaded Gen. George Patton's thrust across the strongly defended Siegfried Line and into Germany; fought at the Battle of the Bulge and was one of the first American units to link up with Soviet forces advancing from the east.