As a country, we observe Memorial Day by honoring those who have served their country and sacrificed so much. My father was only twenty-two years old as a young soldier in World War II during the Holocaust and on the anniversary of his death a decade ago, I wrote this Memorial Day poem in his honor.
For those who put themselves in harm’s way for their families, friends and country,
For those whose lives were taken in war-torn lands far from home
And for all those who carry the wounds of war proudly and with honor,
Let us say a prayer of thanks and remembrance of courage and of valor.
Memorial Day is not just for honoring, but also for remembering those who served and why. As determined as I am that my father’s courage and valor not be forgotten, I’m equally determined that what he fought for be remembered. Trained as a military intelligence officer at Fort Ritchie in Maryland, Dad was assigned to interrogate Nazi prisoners of war. As a kid, I asked him if he’d killed some bad people in the war. “No,” he said. “But I slapped one once.” At my confused look, he told me that the Nazi had said. “My only regret is that Hitler didn’t kill more Jews.”
Dad never claimed he was a spy, although it says so on his discharge papers. He never claimed to have liberated the Nazi death camp at Nordhausen, saying that an officer in front of him was the one who opened the door to the underground camp. Dad was more comfortable writing than speaking. He wrote about what he saw in letters to my mother. He wrote about Nordhausen and the thousands of dead bodies stacked on top of each other like lumber. He wrote about the smell of rotting flesh, a smell he swore he’d never forget. He wrote about other death camps and how the American soldiers took nearby towns people through the camps so they couldn’t deny their existence or claim ignorance of the devastation that happened there.
Our memories are fading today. At Auschwitz, the almost a million Jews and hundreds of thousands of others were slaughtered. But a survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 66 percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 don’t know anything about Auschwitz. The survey also found that 31 percent of all Americans believe that only 2 million Jews or less were killed during the Holocaust, even though historians put the number closer to 6 million.
Honoring without remembering can be empty, or worse. It has led to half-hearted condemnation of a growing neo-Nazi movement and demands that it’s hate be considered as freedom of speech. We have seen people running for elected office and calling the Holocaust a hoax and fake news. We’ve seen repeats of ancient stereotypes of Jews as running the media, the banks, and the country. There is an audience for this kind of rhetoric, but it should not, cannot, be uncontested. History has shown us the consequences of ignoring the phenomenon and being silent.
As I honor my father this Memorial Day, I complete my poem by remembering, as should we all.
To recall a war whose evil was heard around the globe and changed us forever,
To watch the destruction of civilization and hear the cries of the oppressed,
Is to know that good people cannot remain silent or deny commandments from above.
But must believe that “There, but for the Grace of God,” go you and I, and all we love.
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