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To the Glory of God and the Memory of Emil Beer

How a need for classroom furniture uncovered a story of ultimate sacrifice

In the fall of 2022, we needed a new lectern for the classroom I was responsible for furnishing. I quickly learned that all the best lecterns are used; they just don’t make them like they used to. Eventually I found what I was looking for on eBay, and I drove to Kimberton, Pennsylvania, to pick it up from an antique dealer at the Kimberton Fairgrounds. It was then that I noticed a feature I hadn’t seen in the online pictures: a small brass plaque near the top of the pedestal on which the lectern stood:

A plaque on a wooden door

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“In memory of our son… presented by his parents.” These words do not foreshadow a happy story. But it was a story I wanted to learn. Naturally, I asked the seller if he knew anything about Emil Beer; he did not. Did he know what church the lectern had come from? He did not. 

A few hours later, I dropped the lectern off at The Heights, still wondering about Emil Beer. Could I find anything about him on the internet? A few minutes of searching turned up an article I can no longer find, from a newspaper in the vicinity of Gettysburg. It was a 1944 story about an accident involving a delivery truck and a bicycle—uh oh—but Emil Beer wasn’t the boy on the bike, nor was he in the truck. Emil Beer was one of two military servicemen who happened to be passing through on a bus headed to Norfolk. After witnessing the accident, they left the bus to assist the injured boy, and the newspaper recorded their good deed. So: Emil Beer was in the military during World War II and then predeceased his parents. Was he killed in action? It seemed like a solid hypothesis, but on the other hand, the story was from 1944 when the war was nearly over. 

When the boys admired the lectern the next day, I read them the plaque about Emil Beer and they were also curious about him. I told them he might have been killed in action during World War II, but I stressed the uncertainty. Ultimately, though, whoever else Emil Beer was, he was first and foremost a child of God and undoubtedly a beloved son of the parents who had ordered the lectern created in his memory. We said a quick prayer for the soul of Emil Beer and left the rest of his story undiscovered.

A year later, I realized I was still wondering about Emil Beer. Where did he come from? How did he die? What happened to his parents? What happened to the church in which his memorial lectern had silently testified to the glory of God for decades? A few months ago, I dove back down into the internet in search of Emil Beer—this time, more systematically. 

Who was Emil Beer? 

Emil Beer was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on April 18, 1921, the third son of Julius and Rose Beer. Julius and Rose immigrated here from Austria-Hungary shortly before the outbreak of World War I. Rose came in 1911 or 1912, from the German-speaking area that she would describe on the 1930 census form simply as “Austria.” Julius arrived in 1913, from a part of the former empire that he would describe in 1930 as “Hugo-Slavia.” Their older sons, Louis and William, were born in 1917 and 1919 respectively; at least one of them would also go on to fight in World War II. 

Map of Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity in Austria Hungary before World War I. Source

The census of 1930 lists Julius as the manager of a hotel, and contemporary sources make it the Vineyard Hotel at 401 Vineyard Avenue in Bethlehem. The census of 1940 describes Julius not as the manager of a “hotel” but as the proprietor of a “restaurant” at 401 Vineyard Avenue. His son’s application for a marriage license two years later listed Julius neither as a hotelier nor as a restauranteur, but rather as a “tavern keeper.” And that seems to have been the occupational description that a grand jury had selected, with an extreme form of disapproval known as an indictment, way back in 1929, during Prohibition. (The verdict of history later went to Julius in that conflict, and I would like to be counted as entirely pro-Beer in the matter.) We can reasonably infer that Julius was probably a gregarious man, “quick with a joke or to light up your smoke,” as Billy Joel would later sing. 

And young Emil, living at the same address in all our records of his childhood, seems to have had some of his father’s gifts. When Emil graduated from Liberty High School in 1940, his yearbook (the “Cauldron”—this was steel country!) would describe him as a “self-satisfied fellow” who “can take everything in his stride.” But he was also remembered for being good in math with a partiality toward algebra. A colorized version of his yearbook photo appears above. After graduation, Emil got a job as a machinist at Bethlehem Steel Co. but continued to live at the family home—and family business—at 401 Vineyard Avenue. 

On September 6, 1942, Emil married Helen Macsek, another first-generation American of Austro-Hungarian extraction. Helen was the daughter of Mathias and Anna Macsek, both of whom were born in Austria-Hungary and arrived in the United States in 1911, right around the time Emil’s parents had immigrated. But as with Julius and Rose, the “Austro-Hungarian” label masks quite a bit of ethnic and linguistic diversity. While Emil’s family worshipped in the First Hungarian Lutheran Church of Bethlehem, Helen’s family worshipped in the St. John’s Windish Lutheran Church just a few blocks away, suggesting that the Macseks were part of the “Windish” people we would know today as Slovenians. The Beers and the Macseks may well have spoken different languages in the home.

But Emil and Helen were two young Americans, and one way or another they found each other, possibly without much common interest in “the old country.” Helen was living in her parents’ home doing factory sewing when she and Emil applied for their marriage license. After the wedding, Emil left the Vineyard Hotel and moved in with Helen and her parents at 1220 East Third Street. A year later, in October of 1943, she bore their first child—a baby boy. He was to be their only child.

Emil ships out 

Emil Beer entered active military duty on June 15, 1944, when his son was eight months old. That must have been tough, for all kinds of reasons having nothing to do with the dangers of combat. It would be interesting to know whether Emil volunteered or was drafted. The United States began drafting young men into military service in October 1940, before our involvement in World War II officially began—the only peacetime draft in U.S. history. But men below the age of twenty-one were not required even to register for the draft until after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Thereafter, registration was required for all men eighteen and over, and Emil’s draft card shows that he registered at age twenty—so, presumably sometime between December 1941 and April 1942. Married men initially received a deferment from being drafted—a fact that is often credited with inspiring a large number of marriages in 1942!—so Emil would not have been subject to conscription at the time of his son’s birth. But as the war progressed and the need for manpower in multiple overseas theaters increased, deferments gradually became narrower and in many cases disappeared altogether. The deferment for men with dependent wives and children was abolished in December of 1943 when Emil’s son was two months old. Six months later, whether he volunteered or was drafted, Emil was in the Army. (I requested Emil’s military records from the Veterans Administration, but received no response. A 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed approximately 16-18 million military records, and the Army was one of the most seriously affected branches; there appears to be about a 75% chance that Emil’s records no longer exist.) 

Emil remained stateside throughout the second half of 1944, but on December 21, 1944, he began his service overseas. And sadly, he never came home. He was killed in action on March 1, 1945, just two months before the fighting ended in Europe. Army hospital records say only that he died of a battle injury—that is, he had not previously been ill in the hospital. Private Emil Beer is buried at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Liége, Belgium, alongside nearly 8,000 other Americans who gave their lives as Allied forces pushed into Germany in the spring of 1945.

I wanted to know what happened to Emil Beer in Germany, but without military records I was stymied. Fortunately, a high school buddy who graduated from West Point and served in the Army crowdsourced the question for me, and his fellow soldiers filled in some important blanks.

Private Emil Beer served in the 9th Armored Division under Major General John W. Leonard, and the 9th was destined to play a large part in the Allied invasion of Germany. Landing at Normandy in September 1944, the 9th was first assigned to a relatively quiet sector near the German border with Luxembourg, partly because the troops of the 9th were green and needed some relatively light battle experience. But the best-laid schemes gang aft agley, and Hitler had other plans for that particular part of Europe. Germany’s final offensive of the war—the offensive that produced what we know as the Battle of the Bulge (December 16, 1944 – January 25, 1945)—was focused right on the “quiet” sector where the 9th Armored was supposed to be getting its bearings. Just as Emil Beer was arriving, the 9th Armored Division (outnumbered 5-1 by some accounts) was finishing a heroic six-day holdout at Bastogne that made it possible for the 101st Airborne to arrive and shore up the defense of that important crossroads—the crossroads that held the key to the entire German offensive. It was in many ways the decisive defeat for Germany on this front, and it may have been Emil Beer’s first action. 

Beer served in the 60th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 9th Armored Division, and we can read monthly “after action reports” from Beer’s battalion here. The reports do not mention him by name, but they give us a very good sense of what he was probably doing when he died. The 60th spent February back in Belgium, preparing for a major offensive across the Rhine. (West Point maintains a map collection that includes this Rhineland Campaign, so we can see where Private Beer was and where he was heading.) On February 28, they marched to an assembly point in Germany, and in the wee hours of March 1 they set out to capture the town of Wollersheim. However, as the 60th was passing through the town of Berg, the 60th encountered first an artillery barrage and then

a stubborn enemy force…firing from prepared positions S & E of the town. Because of this resistance, [Company B of the 60th] was forced to dismount and continue the attack on foot. The terrain in this sector was rolling and fairly open, affording excellent defensive positions. Utilizing an extensive network of trenches for movement, the enemy gradually withdrew to high ground one & one-half (1½) mi SE of BERG to more prepared positions, while its [artillery] kept up a general harassing fire over our entire route of advance.…  

Due to determined enemy resistance against Co B, Co A [of the 60th] was committed at 1400 in a flanking attack toward what was believed to be the enemy’s right flank.… Co A advanced to the NW edge of WOLLERSHEIM where it was immediately pinned down by heavy [artillery, machine gun, and anti-tank] fire, forcing it to take cover in narrow enemy trenches in that sector. This flanking attack, however, caused the enemy to withdraw from the high ground in front of Co B to prepared positions along the edge of town.…

Having exact locations of the Cos A & B positions, the enemy continued heavy [artillery and machine gun] fire against those positions, making it impossible for either company to advance during the night. Throughout the night, the enemy used white phosphorous and amber flares extensively, which aided them in pinning down patrols sent out by Co A in an effort to locate well camouflaged automatic and direct fire weapons.

The Rhineland Campaign Map – Source

The 60th eventually succeeded in taking Wollersheim and crossing the Rhine, capturing some very strategic points along the way in almost incredibly heroic fashion: men running across bridges that were already prepared for demolition by the Germans, throwing explosive charges into the river with their bare hands, shortening the war by weeks or months—that sort of thing. But Emil Beer would not fight on beyond Wollersheim. Sometime during the events described in the three paragraphs quoted above, Emil Beer was killed in action.

The survivors 

Emil’s widow, Helen Beer, and the son she had borne to Emil only seventeen months earlier, continued to live with Helen’s parents in Bethlehem. But 1945 was a very tough year for Helen and her family; her father Mathias Macsek died just two months after her husband Emil had. Helen died in 2015 at age 95, having never remarried. The son she raised after Emil’s death went on to have three children and (at least) seven grandchildren of his own. He is eighty years old now, and I tried to contact him to get more of his father’s story, but without success.

Julius Beer lived until 1976, and Emil’s mother Rose lived until 1982. Curiously, Rose’s obituary listed her son Louis, who had predeceased her, and her son William, who survived her, but it did not mention Emil. Of course, people do not generally write their own obituaries, but it is still a surprising omission. I would like to think that Emil’s brothers paid special attention to their brother’s widow and to the son Emil left behind, but perhaps it is not so hard to imagine that Helen and her son might have had far less contact with the Beers after Emil’s death.

And what of the surviving lectern? The lectern that Julius and Rose Beer dedicated to the glory of God and to the memory of their son Emil Beer probably stood in the First Hungarian Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. That, at least, is where Rose’s obituary suggested that mourners might send memorial donations in 1982, and it makes sense both geographically and ethnically to think they had been worshipping at the same church since the mid-1940s. First Hungarian Lutheran Church no longer exists; it became Zion Lutheran a few years back, and now Zion Lutheran is also closed. I called the phone number for Zion Lutheran and did reach the former pastor, who remembered the lectern but not the plaque; he did not know anyone by the name of Beer. I initially took that as confirmation that the lectern had been at First Hungarian Lutheran, but after I hung up I began to have my doubts. Was it really possible for a pastor to stand at that lectern every Sunday and not notice the plaque? I decided to call back and ask if I could send a photo just to be sure we were talking about the same lectern. The call was abruptly disconnected. Hoping against reason that the disconnection had been accidental, I called back right away and the ex-pastor answered with “Duffy’s Tavern, and Duffy ain’t here.” Curse you, Caller ID! I asked my question anyway, but the ex-pastor remained silent, the way one does sometimes with telemarketers. Probably he thought I was a nutjob, obsessing over a plaque, and perhaps I am. But at least I no longer find it inconceivable that the ex-pastor of the ex-church might not have noticed the plaque.

Then there are the boys of The Heights, and those of us who teach them. We also are among those who survived Emil, and without knowing him personally we can all appreciate just how very much his fidelity to duty cost him. Many of us feel this as fathers or mothers, as husbands or wives; all of us feel this as sons or daughters. And we find ourselves in possession of what is quite possibly the only tangible memorial to Emil Beer on Earth except for a grave in a foreign land. As I stand at the beautiful lectern dedicated to the glory of God and the memory of Emil Beer, it seems only natural that I should ask the boys to pray for Emil’s soul, and for those he left behind. We should think of him especially every Memorial Day; and maybe, when our students are older and become fathers themselves, they will think to offer a little prayer for Emil Beer on March 1, the anniversary of his passing. It is not only an act of charity toward the dead, but an act of justice toward one who gave his life for his country and ours, and for a future he never saw.

About the Author

Mark Grannis

Philosophy, History

Mark Grannis joined the faculty in 2019 to teach Logic and History, after practicing law for over thirty years and managing the firm he co-founded in 1998. He holds an A.B., cum laude, from Georgetown University, where he majored in Government and Economics. He holds a J.D., cum laude, from the University of Michigan Law School, where he served as an editor of the Michigan Law Review and won several awards for his writing. In 2023, he published The Reasonable Person: Traditional Logic for Modern LifeHe and his wife Sarah have two children, including Will (’21). They live in Chevy Chase with the majestically indifferent Cyrus, King of Purrrrsia.

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