the color of stars

My grandfather won three medals in the Second World War — a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star. A few days ago my mother scanned and sent me the citations for the last two. Apparently, according to my father, he didn’t think much of the Purple Heart, saying “anyone who got shot got one.” I’m pretty sure he would have been happier without that one.

My brother told me the story of the Silver Star before I ever saw the paper. I was driving him back to his hotel over the holidays. He recited it nearly word-for-word.

Silver Star Citation

As for me, I wish some times, he had shown a little less disregard for his own personal safety. I can’t help but wonder if all those years putting everyone else’s health and safety before his own stayed with him after the war.

As for the town where they came under attack, Chateau-Salins is in the Moselle department of the Lorraine province of France, which is bordered on its northern edge by Luxembourg, and on its long, north-eastern side by Germany. I will be in France this summer, a mere 4 hours and 10 minutes away from the place my grandfather threw his body over that soldier without regard for his own life. Or rather, as I’d prefer to believe, with great regard for the soldier’s. It seems unlikely I will make it there, without a car, but you never know.

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Pens and Needles

This blog has been quiet for a long time while I have been taking care of every day life. Of moving to a new city, a new home. That, and because sometimes writing is hard. Sometimes there are no words to say what needs to be said. No eyes to see what needs to be done.

Quilt of Valor - Milky WayIn November, my writing teacher assigned us a book about the genocide in Rwanda. That book, stole all my words. There was just no way to process that horror, or the more familiar horror that went before it. And so I put away my pen and picked up a needle and thread in service of Quilts of Valor. Sometimes, when silenced, performing one small task is the best we can do.

I am still sewing, but my words are back now. I have been pouring them into notebooks, writing about the quilt, my grandfather, Rwanda, silence. I am still working and have been enlisting others to help, too. My mother has found her notes on the family history. A distant cousin has contacted me through this blog. Perhaps soon you will hear their voices, too.

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First Contact

My brother, who has done a lot more research into my grandfather’s WWII history, tells me that when my grandfather’s unit arrived at Ohrdruf, the first concentration camp to be liberated, no one had any idea what they had found. They had never seen anything like it and so they sent the medical team in first. My grandfather, the doctor, was one of them. First into the camp. First to see the horror. First to try and stitch up what little was left of the few people that remained. I can’t even begin to understand how that must have felt, but I can imagine.

So there is that — one more small piece to the puzzle. But there is also this — I finally have the book’s title (without which I find it impossible to find the story):

Saint Nick: Memories of My Grandfather

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Keeping Loved Ones Close

This morning my mother sent me a photo of my grandfather standing next to his jeep with his best friend, war buddy Jake Horowitz. In her note, she called attention to the name painted on the side of the jeep. Nickie, Jr. — my dad. Even when the people you love can’t be with you, they can still be with you. That’s an important thing to remember, especially for someone who is currently living two states away from her family, her best friend, and her boyfriend.

Thinking of you all from the desert.

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italian churchMy grandfather used to paint pictures. I had forgotten that until my father posted this photo of a scene my grandfather painted in 1965. A painting that hangs in my grandmother’s apartment, still.

He used to keep his paints and brushes in an old fishing tackle box, burnt metallic orange with a black plastic handle in the shape of a fish. I can see them there, tucked neatly into spaces originally designed for lures and line. I can remember his hands opening the latch, the small, stained and crumpled tubes that seemed full of magic. The brushes. The palette knife.

These days, that box is filled with other treasures – collected pebbles, small pieces of driftwood, a marble – all sitting in my sisters basement with the rest of my things, while here my paints have no home. They sit strewn among fabrics and sketchpads and dark green copper craft wire, and pliers, the brushes rolled loosely in an old towel.

Grandpa’s painted Italian church looks just like my father’s photo. I remember the lines. The texture of the paint. Its colors darker than the sunny spring photo. I can’t remember whether he painted in oils… I believe so. I paint in watercolors. No harsh lines. No textured paper. I love them because there is no illusion of control. No room for error because there is no error at all, simply the flow of color across paper. There is nothing you can do but let go.

I have not painted for years. Nothing but a few quick swirls on a large, blank page, and yet one of the first things I did when I arrived here was buy paints. But I am afraid. I have forgotten the flow of pigment over damp paper. I have forgotten perspective. I make my pictures with a camera now – searching for color and light, rather than pretty scenes. But that orange tackle box waits on its high shelf, longing for use, longing to connect the generations. Its fish-shaped handle remembering smaller fingers that used to trace its curving lines, point out each little fishy eye.

What else have I forgotten? What other pieces to his puzzle lie hidden in my memory or the memories of others? I will cast flashing lures into those pools, let the line sink deep in water and wait patiently for those lost memories, shy as young minnows, to follow that flash to the surface, revealing their damp, shining colors. The shapes of their eyes and tails.

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Memorial Day: Remembering Grandpa’s Service

This picture was taken at a training base in Texas just before my grandfather was shipped overseas. My grandmother and dad were visiting him before he left. My aunt who was just a baby was in Chicago with my grandmother’s sister Mae. According to my grandmother he left on December 12, 1943. He knew he was going to Europe but either didn’t know or couldn’t say exactly where.

According to Wikipedia:

[they] arrived in the United Kingdom in early 1944. After training in England from January to July 1944, the 4th Armored Division landed at Utah Beach 11 July and entered combat 17 July.

I believe that he saw pretty much continuous action until the end of the war, traveling through England, France, Germany, and into Czechoslovakia.

Again from Wikipedia:

…by 6 May the division had crossed into Czechoslovakia, established a bridgehead across the Otava River at Strakonice, with forward elements at Pisek. It was reassigned to the XII Corps on 30 April 1945.

During those years, my grandfather was there when the Americans liberated their first concentration camp at Ohdruf, was injured at least once (a shot to the abdomen, losing his belly button) and earned three medals (a purple heard, a bronze star, and a silver star).

After VE day (May 8, 1945), my grandfather stayed on in Czechoslovakia to help establish a hospital. Somewhere in a box or file at my parents’ house is a letter from that Czech town asking my father to return in my grandfather’s stead to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that hospital. My father couldn’t make it, but I hope some day I will.

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Book Review: Night

I am trying to understand the war. But not just the war, what about the war would make a 30 year old father with one small son and a daughter on the way voluntary choose to leave his family, possibly never to return, and decide to enlist in the United States Army.

Logically I know why. I studied WWII in school. I learned about the Holocaust. But in my happy suburban life I have no context for that kind of horror. I have experienced loss of people I loved, but only one at a time and they died slowly, surrounded by people who loved them, or quickly, in a moment that left a void, but without humiliation, without torture, without the endless fear that were only pieces of that terrible puzzle.

So I have been reading about the war and about what happened over there in plain view of the world. In February, I read a book called The Last Survivor: Legacies of Dachau (which I will review later), but last night I finished reading a first hand account of survival in a terrible series of concentration camps: Eli Wiesel’s Night.

The book itself is thin – only 115 pages, but it is not in any way light. His prose (newly translated by his wife Marion Wiesel) is spare and raw and simple, which makes it all the more cutting. This is a book that can change a life, from a man whose honesty can change the world, a man who won the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. This version of the book includes his acceptance speech which for me was every bit as impactful as the book itself. In his words:

“… the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffereng and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tomentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe…

There is so much to be done, there is so much that can be done. One person – a Raoul Wallenberg, an Albert Schweitzer, a Martin Luther King Jr. – one person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all else is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled, we shall lend them ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”

My Grandfather chose a side at tremendous personal cost, not just to him, but to his family, and their families. I believe he did this, not just because the Army needed doctors, but because the stakes were just so incredibly high, and the cost of staying silent was even higher.

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Military Service Records

Did you know that you can request military service records online for free? That is, as long as you are the actual veteran or next of kin (surviving spouse, sibling or child) for those who are no longer with us. In order to request the records, you will need the following information:

  • The veteran’s complete name used while in service
  • Service number
  • Social security number
  • Branch of service
  • Dates of service
  • Date and place of birth (especially if the service number is not known)
  • If the veteran is deceased you may also need to provide proof of death

If you are not the veteran or next of kin, you can still get some information, but it’s much more limited in order to protect their privacy. I was lucky. Although grand-daughters don’t qualify as next of kin, my dad (grandpa’s eldest son) willingly submitted the paperwork for me.  I am looking forward to its arrival.

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Prayer Card

It’s astonishing what one can find on the Internet these days. Just a day or two ago I was talking to my mom on the phone about how I had not been able to find grandpa’s prayer card in my vast collection of storage boxes before moving two states away. She assured me that it would turn up. And she was right. Today, while searching his name, it did.

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A Place to Start

I could have stayed there forever, me and that bunny, head on my grandfather’s shoulder, just resting quietly next to him. But he didn’t have forever. He only had 59 years, and with him, I didn’t even have five.

For more than 40 years I have held those memories close to my heart, but the older I get, the more I wish he’d lived long enough to tell me his stories, the more I wish I had really known him. Not just what it felt like to sit with him as he read to me, or how it felt to hold his hand as we walked down tree lined streets, but who he was. And because I am a writer, that means not just not just gathering facts and other people’s memories, not just learning his story, but once I’ve found him again, to tell his story as well, so others can understand who he was and what he meant to me.

So here is where I start. Here is where I will ask my questions and record what I learn. Here is where those memories will gather and live until the book is ready to emerge.

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