Saturday night, Motzei Shabbat and Chag.
Friday, yesterday, we were at each other’s throats. Article after article warning us of the pending fall of the Third Temple. That we are destined to our very own two state nightmare, a theocratic dystopian State of Judaea in Jerusalem and a proletarian dystopian State of Israel in Tel Aviv. Tomorrow, Sunday, I don’t expect to find any articles about Mechitza Minyans in Dizengoff Square or BLTs in Jerusalem. We will never forget what happened during this Shabbat and Chag between Friday and Sunday. Today was our generation’s Pearl Harbor.
HBO’s Band of Brothers is royalty amongst WWII movies and series. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are masterful with the Stephen Ambrose book that the series is based on. The story follows the men of E “Easy” Company, of the US Army’s 101st, from the rebirth of the division in August 1942 through D-Day in June 1944 and until the end of the war in Europe in May 1945. In Israel we also have books written by soldiers on their experiences in battle, one stands out. Avigdor Kahalani’s “Heights of Courage” is Israel’s own “Band of Brothers.”
I have a fleeting connection to the story. Pop shared with me that his own US Army service intersected in combat in the forests of Bastogne, Belgium at the same time as Easy Company. In December 1944 the German Army had launched a surprise offensive that caught the US Army unprepared. This became known as the Battle of the Bulge, the Ardennes Offensive. The battle in Bastogne, December 20-26, between the US and German forces was arguably the most brutal and well documented battle of the European theater in WWII.
Episode nine of ten in the series is called “Why We Fight.” Easy Company is bivouacked in Landsberg, Germany as the war, is winding down. E Company commanders send a team out on a routine patrol in the forest outside of the town. After the team leader finds the concentration camp he returns urgently to town to inform the company commander what they found. The next scene we see is Easy Company and its officers breaking the chains on the front gate of the camp.
Breaking those chains has so many meanings. When the American soldiers finally open that gate they find an unimaginable horror that is worse than the carnage on the battlefields they lived through. The company commander asks for someone who is fluent in German so they can communicate with the prisoners. One soldier is called forward, Liebgott, who happens to be the only Jew in their unit.
The following is the dialogue:
Officer: What kind of camp is this?
Survivor: A work camp for “Unterwunsch” (non-Aryan people, the unwanted)
Survivor: No. Doctors, musicians, tailors, clerks, farmers, intellectuals, normal people
Survivor: (breaking down in tears) Yuden….Yuden…..Yuden…..
Grandpa fled eastern Europe from a rural region known for poverty and intolerance only to settle in Appalachia, a rural region in the eastern US known for it’s poverty and intolerance. My Pop grew up in the same rural region known for poverty and intolerance. I was also born and raised in this same rural region and by the time I grew up the poverty and intolerance hadn’t changed much. If anyone was prepared to deal with antisemitism, I think my family had a leg up more than most.
Pop rarely spoke of the depths of the war he lived through. Pop never spoke of what he saw when his unit liberated the camp outside of Eggins, a camp that was very similar to the one that Easy company had liberated.
Maybe enough time had passed from the trauma of what he saw at Eggins, maybe it was that I was older, had a family or my own IDF service. I spoke at Pop’s funeral, I told stories that he had not shared with anyone else including his lifelong soulmate, his wife and my mother.
Pop was born, lived and died his entire life in Appalachia, save the two years he spent in the US Army. Pop eventually did share the horrors of what he saw with me, not so much in words, mostly his eyes and his body language. Thirty years later I get the chills when I think of the one and only conversation that we had on this. There was a code the men in his generation grew up with: a man didn’t talk; he did what he had to do.
The barbarity of the attack by Hamas on Israel today is why we fight. What happened should make it clear to us all. When it is appropriate, we will have plenty of time for more protests and more arguments over a Mechitza in Dizengoff Square. When it is appropriate, we will have plenty of time to argue about Chareidim serving in the military. When it is appropriate, we will have plenty of time to argue about Bibi. Right now we have something far more important, our lives depend on this. Today, tomorrow and until I take my last beath if necessary, we must stand together, shoulder to shoulder.
If Pop were here, the only thing he’d say is “We must fight.”