A Day That Will Live In Infamy
December 7, 2016 § 2 Comments
I was born on December 7th, 1971.
I was very premature – I was not expected to survive. I somehow managed to, not that I can take credit for it. I was a baby, babies don’t really have much of a say in these things. Doctors and nurses and my parents managed the trick, somehow. But there I was, a squalling little thing.
Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II. I imagine this is the case for a lot of people of my generation. They’re both dead now, and frankly, we’re getting to the point where there are not many survivors of the 1930’s and 40’s left. Someone born in 1931 would be 85 tomorrow, after all.
So maybe the recent surge in hate across the American political landscape has something to do with that – as the 1930’s recede fewer and fewer of us are left who remember the rise of hate groups in the run-up to World War II. And not everyone has read William L. Shirer. So maybe it’s understandable that people can’t or won’t connect demagoguery, hate speech, empty promises of a return to greatness and outright goddamn racism to something truly dangerous in our society.
But my grandfather taught me better.
He wasn’t a kind man, my father’s father. Indeed, he wasn’t a man who displayed much of any emotion. He was the son of an immigrant who’d come to the United States to escape poverty and built a successful life for himself in Rhode Island, working in construction. He sent his son, my grandfather, to medical school, and now there was a Dr. in front of his last name, the first in generations to have a job that didn’t involve getting dirty. Although as my grandfather once said to me My papi never knew that blood is harder to get out of your clothes.
My grandfather spoke both German and Italian. I’m not entirely sure why he spoke German – he never said – but the Italian came from his parents, both fresh off the boat and with a halting grasp of the language. (I met both of my great grandparents, and even in their 80’s they had difficulty with the language.) So when the war finally came, my grandfather ended up first in Italy, and then in Europe, during the push into German-held territory. While my maternal grandfather died before I was born, I managed to hear what happened to my paternal grandfather from his own mouth. What he experience, what he saw, what he did.
My grandfather came back from that war emotionally destroyed. The woman he married before shipping out found herself married to a courteous stranger who rarely showed emotion, and especially not to any of his three sons. They grew up with a phantom, who expected perfection and had nothing – no praise, no comfort when sick or hurt, no time – to give them. Each resented him in their own way, although I am now speaking for people who are dead and a father who never once spoke to me about it. But this much I know – until I was born, my grandfather never smiled nor cried in front of any of his family. I was the first living thing to bring him any sense of joy since 1942.
He would come visit when I was barely five years old. My mother hated him, and he barely deigned to notice her – just another person in a world full of them that he didn’t care about. But he would take me down into the basement of that house and sit on an old chair and hold me in his arms, even when I was too big for it. Have me sit on his lap and he’d start talking. Tell me stories.
Other granfathers do this, of course. But their stories are likely nursery rhymes or fairie tales or exaggerated tales of fishing trips or what have you. My grandfather told me about the War. Told me of trying to save lived in Italy, in the town his mother was from as the Germans fought to keep every inch of the peninsula. Seeing men’s heads explode on D-Day, wounds so grave he could do nothing but watch them die. All that medical training for nothing. “So many boys died in my arms. Not even fuzz on their faces yet. Smooth.” He’d touch my cheek, tears literally pouring down his impassive, motionless face at the memory.
And worse to come, because my grandfather was a doctor who spoke German.
My grandfather saw the camps.
When we talk about the Nazis we are forced to speak of the Holocaust, the ‘Final Solution’ – those words do little to convey the true horror of the industrialization of mass murder. The assembly line of killing, that first worked its victims to death, starved them, tortured them and then killed them. Sometimes used their skin for lampshades. Piled them into mass graves, ran mass crematoriums, herded them into rooms and poisoned them with Zyklon B or even just exhaust fumes from the trucks they’d use to transport the bodies. We talk about these things from a remove. They happened in the past, and with every passing year we lose more and more of those who experienced it firsthand. It is relegated to history.
It was not history for my grandfather. It was in his mind every single day of his life from the day he first saw a starving scarecrow of a man die after eating a piece of bread. They’d never seen malnutrition that bad, you see, never seen anyone so close to death from hunger. (It has happened in American history, of course – but he’d never seen it) So they tried to feed them. And they died from it.
“We had to feel them thin broth. It was all they could take.”
I was seven years old when my grandfather, my Poppy, told me this. I have forgotten a great many things in this life – my mother’s original hair color (it was jet black, I have a wedding picture of her, but the actual memory of it is gone), the actual address of the house I grew up in, my first crush. But I’ve never forgotten that day in the basement as my Poppy told me about the concentration camps, in a voice shaking with things he’d repressed for over thirty years. He’d seen the walking dead – not mere horror movie zombies, no trite Romero scene, actual human beings who should have been dead but somehow fought past it to live. And he’d seen them die from his attempt to help them.
My grandfather saw what Nazism leads to. It stayed with him every day of his life. It destroyed him, left him unable to show emotion. Unable to tell his wife what he’d seen, what he’d done. And there, at the end of his life, after he’d driven everyone else away only a seven year old boy was left to sit in the dark with him and hear what he’d seen.
So I say to you, for him – never forget. Never. Never forget where hate’s ultimate destination is. It’s never satisfied. It never stops. It just keeps moving the goalposts further and further. The final aim is always the destruction of the other, the eradication of those deemed unfit by the ones spreading the message. Nazis never stop. They never feel secure. There is always some new atrocity to justify in the name of whatever ridiculous lies they trot forward, always something worse around the corner.
That’s what my Poppy taught me.
thank you for sharing. I am editing a book my father in law wrote about his father that was shipped off from England to Canada to work on a farm when he was only a few years old. As a young man he fled the farm and made his way to New York. Reading about him, he sounds very much like your grandfather.
My Grandfathers were also in the war but they would not speak about it. However, my Grandmother would make me watch TV Specials about the camps when I was around the same age as you. When I grew up, I took German classes because I was part German on my mother’s side. I was able, in High School, to take a trip over to Germany as part of that class. We visited Dachau. I didn’t see what your Poppy saw, but I have a very imaginative mind. I could almost see it thanks to those shows I had watched as a child. I can still remember screaming at my classmates who were JOKING.. actually joking about showers. I had to go sit in the bus to calm down. You are right to remind people about this… it’s too easy to forget and shove aside.