Metro

Irving Smolens, 90; veteran opposed wars

Irving Smolens was an opponent of the Vietnam War and invasions in Iraq.
Irving Smolens was an opponent of the Vietnam War and invasions in Iraq.

On June 6 last year, during the 70th anniversary observation of D-Day overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, Irving Smolens stepped out of the crowd, took the hand of President Obama, and spoke to him for a few moments.

“I thanked him for keeping us out of war,” Mr. Smolens told a writer for the The Daily Beast.

As a 19-year-old private assigned to the Fourth Infantry Division’s 29th Field Artillery Battalion, Mr. Smolens witnessed the horrors of battle during and after his unit’s landing. He crossed the English Channel separately from the main component of his Company B buddies. Dozens died in their smaller landing craft.

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As a contributing columnist for his hometown Melrose Mirror , and in letters to the Globe editor, Mr. Smolens wrote about his fallen comrades’ sacrifice and he remembered them during visits to the Garden of the Missing in the American Cemetery in Normandy.

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Mr. Smolens, a past president of Temple Beth Shalom in Melrose and a member of the Melrose Democratic City Committee, died of acute myocardial infarction April 11 in Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale. He was 90 and lived in Melrose more than 50 years.

“Over the years, I have pondered that had one of the members of my gun crew gotten sick . . . I very likely would have been on board ... and would not have survived,” Mr. Smolens said in “I Refused to Die,” a book by his friend Susie Davidson that collected stories of those in Greater Boston who survived the Holocaust and liberated concentration camps.

Mr. Smolens, whose unit helped to liberate Paris and Cherbourg, led the 21-gun salutes on Omaha and Utah beaches at the 60th anniversary D-Day observances.

In a 2003 Melrose Mirror column, he recalled that in May 1945, just before the official German surrender, an enemy bomber was shot down in the woods behind his gun position. “There were three young Germans lying dead,” he wrote. “I looked at them and said to myself, ‘what a waste.’ The futility of war was brought home to me once again by their fanatic last acts of trying to kill more Americans despite the fact that for them the war had no chance of ending in victory.”

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A 2006 column detailed a trip to Luxembourg, where he was honored during Luxembourg-American friendship week, and he was struck by the sight of the children. “I suddenly seemed to have an epiphany,” wrote Mr. Smolens, who was made a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. “I started thinking of those youngsters as my legacy. . . . We had enabled those youngsters to be born and raised in the freedom and liberty they were enjoying.”

His daughter, Karen of Brookline, said Mr. Smolens did not visit Normandy until 1985, after his younger daughter, Joanne, died of leukemia.

“He had put the war in a place far away because it was so painful to recall,” Karen said. “Going back to Normandy with my mother and myself and seeing the Wall of the Missing was the beginning of his opening up about his losses.”

On April 14, the day of Mr. Smolens’ funeral, US Representative Katherine Clark, for whom he had campaigned, paid tribute on the House floor. “Irving took his experiences from the darkest moments of our past and advocated for a better, more peaceful world.”

An opponent of the Vietnam War and the invasions of Iraq, Mr. Smolens spoke for many years at assemblies at the Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. He also participated in discussions with students at Melrose High and at Malden Catholic High last fall.

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“I do support the troops, by advocating stopping the wars and bringing them home while they are still alive,” Mr. Smolens said at a 2011 Veterans Day poetry series, cofounded by Davidson, during the Occupy Boston protest in Dewey Square. She called Mr. Smolens “fearless, principled, and true to himself and his convictions.”

Born in Boston and a 1942 graduate of Roxbury Memorial High School, Mr. Smolens received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Boston University in 1949.

A retired merchandiser and buyer in the clothing business, Mr. Smolens served for many years as president of the Boston Center for Adult Education’s retired persons association and was active in the Celtics’ Stay in School program.

He was “an everyman,” Rabbi Arnie Fertig of Temple Beth Shalom said in a eulogy, someone “who found himself in the midst of uncommon circumstances facing monumental challenges.” His life, Fertig added, “was dedicated to working for society to become ever more just, for the end to oppression and inequality and for the dignity of every human being.”

Mr. Smolens met Edith Roud on a blind date. They were engaged a month later and married in 1953. Their many trips included a 25th wedding anniversary celebration in New Orleans, where they listened to music and visited a different gourmet restaurant every night, Karen said.

“They were each other’s champion,” Karen said. “I like to think of my parents as connectors. They always liked bringing people together, inviting them to their home and connecting them with a community of new people.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Smolens leaves his brother, Daniel of Brookline. He was buried in Hebrew Progressive Cemetery in West Roxbury alongside his daughter Joanne.

A loyal Boston sports fan who attended the first Celtics game, Mr. Smolens was moved by art and music, especially jazz. He particularly enjoyed the singing of Billie Holiday, which “hit me like a ton of bricks,” he wrote in a 2001 Melrose Mirror column. “The emotional impact caused me to feel goose bumps.”

In September 1944, he wrote, his unit “liberated” a table radio from a German house, and on the Armed Forces Radio Network “the first song I heard was Billie Holiday singing ‘I’ll Be Seeing You.’ ”

The day before Mr. Smolens died, he and his daughter were waiting in his doctor’s office. “I had my iPad and I said, ‘What do you want to listen to?’ He said, of course, Billie Holiday or Ben Webster,” Karen recalled. “So we listened to his favorite, ‘I’ll Be Seeing You,’ and when the song was over he raised his arm in a gesture of enjoyment and completion.”

Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.