Last residence: Getzville
War zone: Germany
Dates of service: 1943-45
Prominent honors: Bronze Star, Prisoner of War Medal
By Michelle Kearns
News Staff Reporter
The honor came too late for Norman Blatner, who no doubt would have been embarrassed by the attention.
But for his family, perhaps more important than his war medals, was the public telling of the story of how he may have been spared from death in a prison camp because of a German soldier’s connection to the Blatner family grocery on Greenfield Street in Buffalo.
Last week, about 30 family and friends were present for the posthumous awarding of his war medals at the North Tonawanda Council chambers. Congressman Brian Higgins helped arrange for the ceremony.
Norm Blatner, the youngest of his three sons, remembered how his father, a man with a booming voice and a knack for making people laugh, was reluctant to talk about the war or receive recognition.
The elder Blatner would threaten to walk out if someone in the family tried to get a news reporter to talk to him.
“He was not one for fanfare,” the son said. “We tried to do this when he was alive.”
Norman Blatner died a little more than a year ago, at the age of 97.
But his family, with the help of Higgins, shared his story.
Blatner was a young father and gas station worker when he was drafted into the Army on Dec. 20, 1943.
The next year, he was captured during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.
As a prisoner, Blatner spent some of the winter at Stalag 2a that held 25,000 prisoners in northern Germany. Captives worked every day, and food was hard to come by.
But for Blatner, things changed after a guard asked if he was related to the Buffalo Blatners who ran a grocery on Greenfield Street.
They were his aunt and uncle, he replied. They were also German-Americans and friends with the German guard’s Buffalo aunt and uncle.
The German soldier had visited them in Buffalo before the war.
“The two never spoke again,” Brian Higgins said of Blatner and the guard.
But Blatner was soon transferred to a prison farm where meals of potato skin soup and grass sustained him until the war ended.
“God bless that guy for doing what he did,” Blatner’s nephew Bob Gugino, 82, said of the prison guard.
In June 1945, Blatner returned home to his wife, Theresa. They were married for 71 years. She died in June.
About two years after the war, Blatner opened one of the city’s larger Texaco stations at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Best Street, where he employed family, including Gugino.
“He never liked to talk too much about it. You had to catch him off guard,” Gugino said of his uncle and World War II.
Last week’s recognition was cathartic.
“You have a sad feeling in your heart,” he said. “I’m happy to be bringing it out.”
Norman Blatner didn’t say much to his granddaughter Maria Blatner either, but his story inspired her.
Her grandfather, who did not graduate from high school, told his grandchildren to go to college and avoid military service that could lead to war.
“He didn’t really want us to join,” said Blatner, 21, now studying medical anthropology at SUNY Geneseo. “I always knew it was by chance that he got out … I was so proud.”
Her father, Norm, the son born after the war, said he plans to put the nine medals, including Bronze Star, and badges in a shadow box for people in the family to take turns keeping at their houses.
At the end of the ceremony, Norm Blatner felt humbled. This commemoration of his father, he said, was the best kind of Christmas present.
“It adds more meaning to his life than we ever thought,” he said.