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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Refugee in Iconic WWII Photo Dies at Age 92

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On the afternoon of August 14, 1945, George Mendonsa was sitting in a movie theater with his date in New York City. Home from the Pacific Theater, where he served in the navy, Mr. Mendonsa was expecting to return to war and to the long-anticipated (and dreaded) invasion of Japan. Suddenly, the movie stopped, the lights came on, and someone announced that the war was over.
This is how it looks when a war ends (from the days when wars actually ended).

The theater goers spilled out into the street. Mr. Mendonsa and his date Rita Petri went to a bar where they imbibed maybe a bit too much. They then returned to the celebration in Times Square.


The 20-year old Mendonsa had witnessed some horrible sights during his time in the navy. Most recently, he saw two Kamikaze planes destroy an American ship. Over 300 servicemen were killed. Many others were horribly wounded. Mr. Mendonsa assisted at the scene, and witnessed the American nurses tending to the injured.


As he walked through the square, Mr. Mendonsa caught sight of a woman in a nurse's uniform. In an instant, he grabbed her, swooped her down, and kissed her. The moment was captured by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt and his photo came to symbolize the relief and exuberance that our country felt at the end of World War II (though the continued glorification of Mr. Mendonsa's non-consensual kiss is a bit creepy).


Although the photo itself became famous, for many years, the people in the photo were unknown. A number of men and women came forward, claiming that they were the ones in the picture. Only in recent years has the mystery been solved (probably).


It turns out that the woman in the photo (the kissee, if you will) was not a nurse; she was a 21-year old dental assistant from Queens named Greta Zimmer. Ms. Zimmer was also a refugee from Nazi-controlled Austria.


Margarete "Greta" Zimmer was born on June 5, 1924 in eastern Austria. Her parents, Max and Ida, and her two sisters were Jewish. In the years leading up to World War II, Austria drifted into the orbit of Nazi Germany, and conditions for Jews deteriorated. Then, in March 1938, Austrian Nazis took control of the government. In the same month, German troops occupied the country. Despite the overt anti-Semitism and the increasing danger, the Zimmer family tried to remain in their homeland.


By 1939, the family's thinking had changed. The danger was mounting and opportunities to leave were disappearing. Max and Ida decided to send their daughters out of Austria, even if they had not secured passage for themselves. One daughter was sent to Palestine. Greta, then 15 years old, and her sister Jo came to the United States (lucky for them, given the strict quota laws in place at the time). The girls hoped that the separation from their parents would be only temporary.


Relatives in New York welcomed Greta and Jo to the United States. Greta volunteered as an air-raid warden during the war. She took classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology.


On the day of the photo, Greta Zimmer was working in a dental office near Times Square. All morning, they had been hearing rumors that the war had ended, and after lunch, she went over to Times Square, where she saw a lighted billboard declaring "V-J Day!" As for the kiss, Ms. Zimmer remembered it in a 2005 interview--

Suddenly, I was grabbed by a sailor. It wasn't that much of a kiss. It was more of a jubilant act that he didn't have to go back. I found out later he was so happy that he didn't have to go back to the Pacific where [he] had already been through the war. The reason he grabbed somebody dressed like a nurse [was because] he felt so very grateful to the nurses who took care of the wounded.

I'm not sure about the kiss... it was just somebody celebrating. It wasn't a romantic event. It was just an event of "Thank God the war is over."

After the war, Ms. Zimmer married Dr. Mischa Friedman and had two children. She studied and later worked at Hood College in Maryland. It wasn't until years later that Ms. Zimmer saw the photo and recognized herself in it. She also eventually met George Mendonsa, who by then had married Rita Petri, his date on V-J Day.


Ms. Zimmer never saw her parents again. They died in Auschwitz. She also lost many other family members during the Holocaust. In all, of 181,000 Jews in Austria in 1938, approximately 65,000 were murdered by the Nazis. Most of the remainder fled the country. Only a few thousand Jews remained in Austria by the end of the war.


Greta Zimmer Friedman died on September 8, 2016. She was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, next to her late husband, who was a military veteran. She was 92. May her memory be a blessing.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

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