On Tuesday, Sept. 25, World War II veteran Carl Arfa addressed the eighth graders of Western Pines Middle School in The Acreage. He was accompanied by his daughter, Debra Katzman, who often assists her father in such presentations, helping with visual aids.
Arfa is originally from Monticello, N.Y., and is the son of Jewish immigrants. His father jumped ship in Brooklyn during World War I while serving as a crew member aboard a Russian vessel collecting war supplies.
After graduating high school, he enlisted in the United States Army, where he was assigned as a bazooka gunner to the 271st Anti-Tank Regiment of the Fighting 69th Infantry Division.
Arfa landed in Rouen, France, and then moved into Belgium. During the Battle of the Bulge, after two members of his unit were killed by machine gun fire, Arfa returned fire with his bazooka and obliterated a German machine gun nest in a steeple. For this action, he was awarded the Bronze Star.
During the early stages of the battle, overcast conditions prevented aerial supply. Arfa and his men spent three days in a foxhole without food before slaughtering a cow and cooking it using explosives and their helmets.
Arfa and the 69th Infantry Division went on to capture a bridge over the Rhine River leading into Germany. From there, they captured the German city of Leipzig and went on to liberate the Nordhausen concentration camp.
Western Pines eighth graders Austin Gross and Liana Ellis held up a large Nazi flag that Arfa captured from a memorial in Leipzig after forcing out its defenders with the use of flamethrowers.
Now in his 90s, Arfa resides in Boca Raton and has given between 40 and 50 of these lectures at South Florida schools.
Western Pines Principal Bob Hatcher introduced Arfa to the eighth-grade students who assembled in the cafeteria for the presentation.
He stressed the importance of not just what they were about to hear, but the enormity of the situation Arfa found himself in when he was not that much older than them.
“This is a very special event for you all to witness,” Hatcher said. “An incredibly powerful message is going to be delivered to you this morning. One you’ll remember in 20 years.”
West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio was on hand to read a proclamation honoring Arfa that documented his life’s history and heroic service in World War II. After the proclamation was read, Muoio presented him with the key to West Palm Beach.
“I love coming to this school, because this school is good to me,” Arfa said at the beginning of his presentation.
“I was 16 on Dec. 7, 1941,” Arfa recalled. “We could hear [the attack on Pearl Harbor] on the radio. I was very angry. I asked my dad if I could sign up.”
He needed his father’s signature to enlist, but his father wanted him to finish high school first.
“When we graduated, we threw our caps in the air and then boarded a bus to go off to war,” Arfa continued. “I came home three years later. Some of my friends didn’t.”
Those who did come back, were changed forever.
“As soldiers, we sacrificed, and we bled,” Arfa said. “We fought because we needed to fight. We died because we loved our country. Twenty left. Fifteen came back. Five died, six were wounded. I’m talking for the people who can’t talk to you today… I’m here to honor their sacrifices.”
At one point during the presentation, Arfa had to sit down due to pain he is still suffering as a result of a bullet wound he suffered during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.
“I have a bullet in my leg,” Arfa explained. “There’s a piece still in there. They want to take it out, but I won’t let them. I like having it.”
Much of Arfa’s presentation was focused on the subject of anti-bullying.
“You’ve got to protect one another — love each other — take care of each other,” Arfa implored the students.
Arfa called Nazi leader Adolf Hitler the worst bully of all time.
“It started small,” Arfa said of Hitler. “We can’t let it happen again.”
Arfa went on to speak about King Christian X of Denmark who reigned from 1912 to 1947 and whose birthday ceremony he attended.
“When the Nazis occupied Denmark, they ordered every Jew to sew a star on their clothing,” Arfa explained. “King Christian X sewed a Jewish star on his clothing — every Dane had a star. He sent 5,000 Jews to Sweden.”
This, he said, is a lesson for everyone.
“One guy can change the world,” Arfa said. “One guy can stop bullying. One young man can change the school.”
Arfa took time during his presentation to praise current members of the United States military.
“The great promise of the United States is guaranteed by the service men and women,” Arfa said. “We’re in the greatest country in the world today.”
After the presentation, Arfa took questions from several students.
“What was the most pressing hardship during the war?” Evan Vicinio asked.
“Living,” Arfa replied. “Three days with no food. Snow and ice without the proper clothing.”
“What was it like coming home?” Robert Lebrun asked.
“I came home with PTSD,” Arfa revealed. “I cold-cocked my cousin once when he woke me up for dinner. My dad helped me by getting back into normal life with dating and dancing.”
“How did you feel before going to war?” Roselyn Diaz asked.
“I wanted to go,” Arfa said. “I begged my father to go, but he wanted me to finish high school.”
“What were your methods of surviving?” Michael Sarullo asked.
“Move forward with the bravery in your belly,” Arfa said. “Step forward with bravery, and you’ll get the job done.”
Ultimately, Arfa downplayed the notion that he was a hero or that the “greatest generation” possessed unique qualities.
“Anybody who says they’re a hero is full of bologna,” Arfa said. “We were not heroes. We did the job we had to do. There were no other options.”