Heroes Close to Home …

I’ve been thinking about D-Day a lot recently. And with 75th anniversary commemoration programs flooding our screens, newspapers, and social media, it’s pretty clear I’m not alone in my thoughts.

As I watched and listened to some of that programming — seeing 20-year old heroes in 90-year old bodies; being amazed as some of them described their incredible deeds in “shucks, we just did what had to be done” tones; hearing our president, for the first time in my memory, speak as the leader of the entire American people and not just as the head of his base (to which latter style he unfortunately but not surprisingly quickly reverted); observing the leaders of the Allied and Axis nations gather once more on those blood-stained shores, though this time as friends in peace and remembrance and not as enemies in war and death — I was deeply moved by the ideals of service and honor and courage and self-sacrifice that permeated the proceedings.

My thoughts then slowly turned from the heroes and pageantry I could see to those champions who weren’t on the stage or in the audience, to those brave men who never made it off the beaches or never even made it on to them, to the more than 9,000 Americans lying beneath the rows of gleaming white marble crosses and Stars of David and the 1,557 missing in action who, unable to be buried, had their names inscribed on the cemetery’s Walls of the Missing.

And then my thoughts turned once more, this time to one particular name on those walls: Murray A. Gross, Seaman Second Class, U.S. Navy, who was lost at sea off the Normandy coast on June 12, 1944. My Uncle Moshe.

I never knew my mother’s brother, who died just a bit less than three years before I was born. My main memory of him is of a corner in the living rooms of my maternal grandparents’ apartments, first in the Bronx and then in Far Rockaway. Both rooms had a table with a framed picture of a handsome sailor, beneath which lay his Purple Heart medal and certificate. I was told that like my grandfather, Uncle Moshe had a wonderful voice and often would serve in liturgical choirs, including my grandfather’s when he officiated at High Holiday services. But I know little more of that dashing young man with a fashionable Clark Gable moustache. How little I knew.

I do know more about my father’s brother, Abraham Kaplan, who also served overseas in the European Theater of Operations in World War II, then returned home safely, married, had a family, was a pharmacist, and lived a long, good, moral life until he left us at age 87. And I knew a little something about his service in the ETO only because I once found a picture in my parents’ house of a soldier in a forest. When I asked my mother, she said it was Uncle Chaim, and it was taken while he was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. Battle of the Bulge? My sweet Uncle Chaim was in one of the fiercest battles in a fierce war? How little I knew.

It turned out, though, that I knew even less than I thought. When I paid a shiva call on my Aunt Lillian and my cousins after Uncle Chaim died, I saw a small case sitting on a window sill. Looking inside, I found a Bronze Star awarded to Abraham H. Kaplan. I asked my cousins if they knew any of the details behind that medal but they were as perplexed as I; Uncle Chaim had never said a word about it to any of them.

And here’s the lawyer in me coming out. As stated in 32 CFR §578.16(a), a Bronze Star Medal is awarded to a person who “distinguished himself or herself by heroic or meritorious achievement or service . . . in connection with military operations against an armed enemy.” Quiet, modest, shy, dear Uncle Chaim? How little I knew.

And how little I still know. I spent a few hours doing some online research to see if I could find out any details relating to his medal, all to no avail. (If any readers know how I can find additional information — I have his Army serial number if that’s any help — please leave a comment on my Times of Israel blog or Facebook pages.)

The people who did know — my grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles — are no longer with us (with the exception of one aunt, may she live a long life) for me to ask. And when they were here, I was too engrossed with what I foolishly thought were more important things to ask about these heroes in my family. And so, in this age of too much information about so much unimportant nonsense, I have too little information about what’s truly important.

I was emailing with my siblings as I was thinking about this column, seeking some data on family history, and ended that email as follows: “But, again, I stupidly never asked. Were either of you smarter than me?” My brilliant professor brother began his response (with a smile I’m sure): “Dear Fellow Stupid Sibling.” You can imagine the rest. How little we know.

My Uncle Moshe is memorialized on the Walls of the Missing in Normandy, on my grandfather’s matzevah (headstone) in Har HaMenuchot in Jerusalem, and in the name of Yeshiva Zichron Moshe, formerly of the Bronx and now of South Fallsburg, which my grandparents and Rav Yeruchem Gorelick founded in his memory. And my Uncle Chaim is memorialized by his wonderful children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, who do his memory proud.

But we don’t have their stories. The tales of their youth, the heroism they demonstrated, the valor by which they lived and fought and died, are not part of our family lore, are not etched in our collective memories. And they should be. So if you’re lucky enough to still have someone to ask, do so without delay.

Understand, though, as my therapist daughter pointed out to me, people who’ve gone through such experiences might not want to burden those who haven’t, and thus might not want to talk about it. But you won’t know unless you ask. And, as I pointed out to my daughter, as time passes, some of those who didn’t want to talk change their minds. And you won’t know that unless you ask again, as appropriate.

“Remember the days of old. Consider the years of ages past. Ask your father, he will inform you. Your elders, they will tell you.” (Deuteronomy 32:7). It’s good advice. Follow it and ask.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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