Milford and Orange residents form bond after discovering they were in the same place just after D-Day
Bob Swirsky’s and Hedwige Kuepper’s intersecting lives are part of the narrative of the horror of combat, the joy of liberation and the importance of remembering the events of World War II.
Swirsky, who grew up in Bridgeport, was 23 when he landed at Omaha Beach in France, just after D-Day, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was among those who discovered the concentration camp at Nordhausen and freed numerous towns across Europe from the Nazis.
Kuepper, now 87, was a young teenager among the crowds in Paris when Swirsky came through with the 84th U.S. Infantry of the 3rd Armored Division as part of that liberating force in August 1944.
They never met in Europe but for the past four years, their families have become close when their connections became clearer, living only one town apart in Connecticut as they raised their children and established careers here.
In France, the pair knew the same countryside — for one, it was home — the other, a battlefield.
For Swirsky, the concentration camp was an unfathomable horror, in addition to the slaugther he witnessed in his 298 days in combat.
Kuepper, as a child, recalled her parents sending her on her bicycle to deliver food to help Jewish families who were in hiding nearby their home in Seaux, France, just outside Paris.
She said her father gave money to several families to help them get passage out of France.
Kuepper said as a child she learned the importance of keeping a secret. “As a child you learned responsibility,” she said.
The two spoke at a board meeting of the officers at the West Haven Veterans Museum Saturday.
Swirsky, 98, recounted his training in Scotland and his days as a communication sergeant with the 486th Anti Aircraft Artillery Self Propelled Battalion, attached to the 3rd Armored Division, First Army.
The author of three books on his life, which he began writing in his 80s, Swirsky started his talk by remembering his fellow Armed Forces comrades who died defending America.
His eyes welling up with tears, Swirsky said he had a larger message for the group.
“I’m not just here for Bob Swirsky. I’m here for everybody who is lying over there in the ground, in the cemeteries. ... They were part of me. The soldiers I saw lying on the roads in my uniform. They are still with me. So I am not alone. I represent everybody ... I am just a little tiny peeble on Omaha Beach,” Swirsky said.
As apart of his duties, Swirsky said he operated three radios in combat, one of which was Morse code, the other two — voice radios.
“I would rather have been on a machine gun because the responsibility was so great. You don’t make mistakes on your radio. You have lives at stake,” Swirsky recalled.
Kuepper, at 9 years of age, remembers when Germany bombed Poland. She said her mother, younger sister and herself, were on the last train out of that country on their way back to France just before it occured.
In Poland for the summer visiting her grandparents, they dropped everything after her father sent a telegram warning them to leave, based on new reports of a likely invasion.
As a 13-year-old, Kuepper was in the crowd, as memorialized in newsreels, waving to the soldiers, as the American liberators came through Paris four years after the Nazi incursion into the capital in 1940.
Swirsky said he was upset that all the Allied troops were held back to allow the French Army to be the first to enter Paris when the fighting to drive out the Germans was led by the Americans.
“That was a tradition that they did. By the time the (3rd Division came through), they (the troops) were really rolling and rolling, so I didn’t get any of that chewing gum that you saw in the newsreels,” Kuepper said of the films of soldiers throwing candy to the crowds.
Her direct encounter with Swirsky didn’t happen until 2014.
She said she and her sister were visiting Belgium in 2014 when they happened upon an American tank and a memorial to the liberation of that town — La Roche — by the American 3rd Armored Division — after the Battle of the Bulge.
“I was very moved,” she said of the tribute to that liberation in January 1945.
Back in Milford on Memorial Day, Kuepper went to the senior center where they were honoring World War II veterans. Among the speakers was Swirsky, who was wearing a cap with the “Spearhead” insignia of his company.
The symbol referenced the role of the division in leading many of the attacks in freeing France. It was the same insignia that she saw at the memorial in Belgium.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Kuepper said.
She said they discovered that they had raised their families in Stratford, where Swirsky lived for 46 years, and actually resided close to each other at one time.
Kuepper said her oldest daughter was friends in high school with Swirsky’s youngest son. They also ran into each other in the same doctor’s office.
“There were so many similarities, it was unbelievable,” Kuepper said. “So we became friends ever since.”
Swirsky now lives in Orange with his daughter, while Kuepper lives in Milford.
Swirsky, after his time in the Army, became a commercial artist for 13 years, before making a living as a clothing salesman for many stores.
These included Nyden’s Department Store in Bridgeport, Fairfield Department Store, Filenes, as well as Dobby’s Men’s Shop and Al Bugge’s Tailor Shop, both in Stratford.
For awhile, he owned his own store, Bob’s Prep Shop. The former soldier worked as a clothing salesman until the age of 86.
Kuepper was a longtime language teacher in the Stratford schools, as well as an adjunct professor at Fairfield University. In addition to degrees she earned in France, she has a degree at Southern Connecticut State University and Fairfield University.
She met her husband, a German, whose mother was an American, after the war, while they both worked at the American Quartermaster headquarters in Germany.
He same to Bridgeport in 1952 to be with his mother and she joined him there in 1955 to get married, passing up a promised job at the United Nations because of her language skills, to start a family.
“To me, the family is the most important part,” Kuepper said.
At the age of 85, she switched careers and now teaches Qigong, a Chinese system of physical exercises and breathing control, that predates Tai Chi.
Her next trip: To Italy as part of a singing group that features European folk songs and then to Poland for a wedding.