For nearly 40 years, the Purple Heart medal sat locked in a box, left behind in a West Hollywood apartment building’s laundry room.
Until very recently, Hyla Merin never knew about the box or its contents, which tell the heroic story of her father, Hyman Markel, who was killed protecting his unit against a German ambush in Italy during the waning days of World War II.
In a Feb. 17 ceremony that drew national attention at Merin’s Westlake Village home, Markel was posthumously honored and, for the first time, his daughter saw a collection of items that include a Silver Star and siddur (prayer book) that help paint a picture of a father who was killed just months before she was born.
For Merin, the moment was bittersweet. Her mother passed away on Feb. 1, shortly before the event, which involved a handful of close friends, relatives, and Zachariah Fike, a 31-year-old captain of the Vermont Army National Guard and founder of a group called Purple Hearts Reunited.
“The ceremony was emotional for many reasons, including the passing of my mother,” Merin wrote to the Jewish Journal in an e-mail. “[She] played both the role of mother and father during my growing years.”
Her actual father was born in Poland in 1913, moved to Buffalo, N.Y., in 1915 and was killed in Italy in 1945. At the time of his death, his wife, Celia Markel, was seven months pregnant with Merin.
Hyman Markel — a second lieutenant Army officer — was raised in an Orthodox home, and his father, Nissan Markel, eventually became the rabbi of the Bris Sholom Congregation in Buffalo after the family immigrated. Merin said that, according to relatives, her grandfather had Parkinson’s disease, so her father would always be up on the bimah with him to hold him upright during prayer services.
It was at Bris Sholom that Celia Markel noticed her future husband. She was sitting next to a friend in the women’s section, which was elevated above the men’s section and the bimah. When she saw Hyman Markel standing next to the rabbi, she asked her friend, “Who’s the guy next to the rabbi who’s helping him?”
At that time, she was in nursing school and Hyman Markel was a social worker. They married in 1941 in Savannah, Ga., where he was sent after enlisting in the Army.
Celia Markel rarely spoke about her husband with their daughter, who is an only child. But details gleaned from relatives and Army records give a rough account of his life — and death, according to Fike.
On May 3, 1945, one day after Nazi forces in Italy surrendered, Hyman Markel was patrolling the Po Valley with the 88th Division of the 351st Infantry Regiment when his unit was ambushed by a machine gunner.
He charged the machine gunner and took him out but lost his life in the process. For that he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Silver Star, the third-highest military decoration that a solder can receive.
These, along with other personal items, were given to Celia Markel, who gave birth to Merin in Rochester, N.Y., in July 1945. They moved to New York City and soon thereafter relocated to Los Angeles.
“Like every Jewish family, we had to move to the Fairfax area,” Merin joked.
Merin and her mother eventually moved to an apartment complex on Sweetzer Avenue in West Hollywood, where the latter stayed until 1975. Merin later moved to Westwood to attend UCLA and became a public school teacher.
Celia Markel never told her daughter that she had a box with her father’s prestigious military awards and sentimental personal items, so when the former moved out of the apartment in 1975, Merin didn’t know what might be left behind.
Other relatives continued to live in the building, and at one point, Merin and her cousins decided to search the storage lockers in the laundry room for any personal items that might remain. They didn’t know where to look, but they opened all the lockers for which they had keys. Still, they didn’t have a key to the locker with her father’s box, so it sat in the apartment laundry room for several more years.
Then, last October, the apartment’s manager, Rocco Di Nobile, decided to clean out the lockers. After discovering a putrid bottle of laundry detergent from the 1960s, Di Nobile opened another locker and immediately noticed a gold medal with a dark purple lapel button.
“The Purple Heart was the first thing sitting right in front of you,” Di Nobile said.
“Hyman Markel” was engraved on the back of the medal, and Di Nobile decided to try and return the medal to Markel’s family. Di Nobile contacted the Army, who referred him to Fike.
In 2009, Fike founded Purple Hearts Reunited, which reconnects stray Purple Hearts with the families of soldiers who were killed in service. When Fike received the call from Di Nobile, he began working on what would be his 22nd Purple Heart reunification. In the process, he eventually tracked down six other medals that weren’t in the box but were awarded to Markel, including a Silver Star.
After Di Nobile sent the box to Fike, the apartment manager spoke with a neighbor in the apartment complex who knew Celia Markel and one of Merin’s aunts who lived there more recently. That connection eventually led Di Nobile to Bernice Schultz, Merin’s cousin.
Merin said that she was in “total shock” when Schultz called her with news of a box with her father’s Purple Heart, pictures, letters, siddur and other personal items. She was able to view all of them at the ceremony honoring her father.
For Merin, the entire experience and the ceremony itself raised the unanswerable question: What if Hyman Markel hadn’t been killed while patrolling the Italian countryside on that spring day in 1945?
“I cannot look back to how my life might have been different had he lived.”