War Stories of Our Jewish Fathers
My husband has a thing for Nazi movies, old black and white ones especially. He doesn’t have to search them out when he’s channel surfing. They find him, and into the DVR list they go. If I’m in bed with him and he stumbles on Casablanca, the surfing stops. Any scene we land in is a lure, no matter how far into the film. That’s how much we both love the movie — even if, as I recently learned, he thinks it misses the mark as a true Nazi film.
I asked why over dinner one night. “Only one Nazi dies,” he said.
The wine I’d just taken a sip of almost had me choking with laughter. “You mean a good Nazi film requires more dead Nazis?” He nodded. “If not dead, at least captured.” The more we talked about it, the sharper his definition became. There’s got to be intrigue, suspense, Nazi spies — movies like The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, All Through the Night.
My husband is far from bloodthirsty and the movies he points to are straight out of the Hollywood playbook, early 1940s, when propaganda found its way into wartime entertainment. It’s no secret that the U.S. Office of Wartime Information (OWI) had a unit devoted to Hollywood, reviewing scripts before they could be released. War movies had to show the U.S. as good, Nazis as bad.
These days we get to see wars unfold in real time and what we take away is as much a product of the source we’re watching or listening to. (Not that the propaganda machines aren’t still working hard as ever to bend our will.) Even then, it’s the individual stories of courage and survival that grip us, and I can’t help seeing my husband’s fervor for getting the Nazi bastards (in film as much as in real life) as a product of the stories he grew up hearing from his father — stories of the beatings his own father endured on Easter when Jews were rounded up and brought to the town square in the village in Poland where he lived. Christmas Eve was devoted to studying with other Jewish men. In the modern Orthodox tradition, my in-laws kept a kosher home. My father-in-law went to services every Shabbat, met weekly with a Talmud study group.
All of which instilled in my husband a very strong Jewish identity which has little to do with the whys and wherefores of an all-knowing God. He leaves the spirituality seeking, not to mention Rosh Hashanah meals and Passover seders with friends and family, to me.
Add to that his father’s war stories. As an Air Force navigator he flew twenty-four missions over Germany. His brother’s death in the war, as per armed forces protocol, prevented him from going on another mission. Only recently did we learn via a cousin who had a treasure trove of letters between his father and my father-in-law that his mother refused the $10,000 the government offered as compensation for her son’s death.
On his last mission, my father-in-law’s plane was hit but the legendary B-17 bomber made it to Poland, where the crew bailed out. Two men died and my father-in-law, an attorney, ended up as assistant defense in a Court Martial trial of Lt. Myron King, a pilot caught by Russians in Ukraine with a stowaway aboard his plane. The trial, more of a kangaroo court, took place in Moscow to appease the Russians.
Putting aside his role in a war intrigue episode that may (or may not) have involved espionage, my father-in-law was more disturbed about the two men from his crew killed in action, their bodies never found. He spent a good part of his post-war years trying to recover the missing bodies — letters to the Polish government got him nowhere. He was put in touch with someone who helped people find missing bodies. His efforts turned up nothing.
For years after the war, there were annual reunions with his flight crew and their wives.
In July of 1998, my father-in-law took a road trip, told no one where he was going. Sudden disappearances tend to set off alarm. My husband and sister-in-law, who was in for a visit from California, thought my mother-in-law should come and stay with us. They didn’t like the idea of her being home alone while waiting it out.
On July 12th, my father-in-law, back from wherever he’d been, went into his garage and turned on the engine.
A postcard from the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, GA, arrived a few days later.
Dear folks. Said good-bye to my boys today, Figure to see them soon. Will swing Northwest tomorrow and go till I run out of gas.
Suicide is complicated — the trigger not really the underlying cause. Speculation only gets you so far in trying to diagnose a person who has taken his life. A very strong-willed and opinionated man, my father-in-law had dark moods over the years, days when he wanted nothing to do with anyone. And, with what we now know about PTSD in WWII veterans, who knows what a toll it took on my father-in-law to make a personal mission of retrieving the bodies of war buddies.
His navigation log, in which he records details of every mission — the targeted city, how many planes were flying, and the flak and flames he witnessed — is straightforward. Once in while there’s personal commentary.
In the entry for January 14, 1945, target Magdeburg, he writes:
Reports say biggest fighter attacks for some time. Over 207 Jerries down. Boys are still talking about it. I am just beginning to shake with fear. Guess it was a rough first mission.
And he ends his February 21, 1945, target Nurnberg, entry with these lines:
According to the papers, the 8th has decided on a full effort to crush the Germans by breaking morale. We are really dropping bombs on them.
For all the war movies — Nazi and otherwise — I’ve watched, I cannot fully fathom what it takes to be on the front lines or in the air defending a cause or a country. It doesn’t take much, though, to sense in my father-in-law’s words a particular satisfaction at the part he’s playing in getting those Nazi bastards.