It was cold for April in Washington, DC in 1983, but this particular day was a little warmer, with a hint of spring. I had accompanied my then father-in-law to the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. It was a stunning experience being with him there. His wife had passed away the year before and he was determined to go to the conference so he could see many of those he knew from before the war and those he had met since. I was so honored when he asked if I wanted to go with him. There are thousands of words I could write about the experience and I still have audio tapes as well as a short journal to jog my memory. Today though is about a snapshot of a moment, before the Internet and social media, when two lives connected and I was a witness to grace among survivors.
The conference was emotionally draining for both Sam and myself, more so for him. I was a witness to the sharing of experiences that I could have only imagined or read about. On one of the days, a small group of attendees, Sam included, decided to visit the Viet Nam War Memorial. I can’t remember whether this was part of the conference activities, but must have been because I vaguely remember getting on a bus at the convention center. This memorial is about my generation so I was eager to go. The POW bracelet that people wore for the missing were still common. I had friends who came back physically whole, but would never be the same. What was a common experience for the people I went to the memorial with was that post-liberation they had come to the United States instead of Israel. (There’s a whole piece I can write about the culture clash between the Israelis and Americans at this conference that provided some humor, but later for that) and had seen the next generation be ravaged by Viet Nam. It was a lovely day and we all had taken off jackets, rolled up sleeves and enjoyed the sunshine in this solemn place.
We went to the memorial and I sought out names of those I knew who had died along the black granite wall. Some of the survivors and their families did the same since almost everyone in the United States knew someone or of someone who had served and not returned. Off to the side, holding POW/MIA flags were veterans who were a constant presence as a reminder of those still missing. They were all of the biker genre with tattoos; Harleys were lined up on the street nearby. One of the guys came over to us and asked about the group. Sam explained to him who they were and about the conference. The vet asked several questions and then became silent and pulled out his wallet. He searched through it and took out a yellowed, frayed piece of newsprint which he had put into a tiny clear sleeve.
“This was my father”, he said. “I was born while he was away. He never saw me.” He handed Sam the clipping which was his father’s obituary. His father had died while flying behind German lines towards the end of the war. The vet’s eyes filled with tears, as did Sam’s and mine. No one needed to say anything. The numbers were visible on Sam’s arm, as they were on many of the people in the group and the vet knew who he was speaking with as he looked Sam straight in the eyes. Worlds of pain and hope collided.
It was a five minute, eight minutes at the most, interchange that was the story of two families at time when both generations were trying to learn how to heal.