A few brief (but powerful) reminiscences about World War II
Wednesday, December 7th, 2016 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II. Although the war was well before my time, and although none of my immediate family was ever involved in the Pacific theater, I do still have my own personal memories surrounding the Second World War.
- My father’s family fled then-Nazi Germany just under the wire — only a few months before the orgy of thuggery and vandalism that came to be known as Kristallnacht. Half of my grandmother’s family wasn’t so fortunate. They didn’t get out in time.
- In the mid-1960s, a few years after my grandfather passed away, my grandmother relocated to Miami Beach. My folks stored some of the things she couldn’t take with her at the time in the basement of their home. These included two very old suitcases, ones which she and her family had used when they fled Germany. On the top of each one, near the handle, appeared a hastily-painted-on Star of David. In yellow. That was the Nazi insignia for “Jew”.
- In 1968, my high school held War Day, a day-long function consisting of seminars, discussion panels and movies, all on the subject of war. One of the films shown that day was a French documentary called Night and Fog. The director had pieced it together from actual footage the Nazis themselves had shot in their own death camps, presumably to monitor the effectiveness of their methods. Before starting the film, the teacher assigned to that classroom warned us that what we were about to see was extremely graphic, and that no one would have to ask for permission to leave if they so desired. I sat through the whole thing. Subjects that were only briefly touched upon in my history classes were shown in unsparing detail. I was both stunned and transfixed. I couldn’t even get out of my seat to use the bathroom, although my bladder felt like it was about to burst.
- Ten years later I took a cinema course at a local university. My instructor was engaging, intelligent and knowledgeable. So why, when he wanted to show us an example of a documentary, did he choose Night and Fog out of all the ones in circulation at the time? I loved that class and I know my instructor wasn’t acting maliciously. But just the same, I had to cut that class. Night and Fog is a fine film, probably one of the most historically-accurate films about the Holocaust ever made. But even a decade after seeing it for the first time there was no way I could sit through it again. If you decide to check it out, don’t watch it on a full stomach.
- In 1977, I went to visit family in Virginia. On the way back home I stopped off in Washington DC, strictly as a tourist. I stayed at a youth hostel. I met fellow tourists from Canada, Australia and saw quite a few from Germany, most of whom were of university age. I was staying in a communal room with several bunk beds in it. One evening I picked an upper bunk. There was no one on the bunk below me. When I awoke the following morning, I was greeted by the sight of a fiftyish man with a noticeable German accent who had arrived in the lower bunk the previous evening while I was asleep. He pretty much just politely said hello as he got dressed and went on his way. I didn’t say anything to him or anyone else about it but I couldn’t help but wonder, was this man in Hitler’s army during the war? Could he have been involved in the deportation of Jews, or the operation of the death camps? I’d never felt so creeped-out in my entire life.
- My father would never buy anything that was made in Germany until the mid-1980’s. He figured that by that time anyone who’d been involved with the war would either be retired or dead.