I have a huge family. We have stayed close with 3rd, 4th, and 5th cousins. We also have gaping holes in our family tree. The 11 siblings, their spouses, and their children who were murdered in the Holocaust. My great-grandmother, who never saw her sons grow past the ages of 11 and 13. Names and faces I never knew.
Growing up, I collected stories from family members. I hungered for details of these lives lived before me. Who were they? What did they do, how did they meet, and who did they love? When I found my father’s bar mitzvah album, it was like finding my own Holy Grail. It was 1961, and the entire family from both sides had gathered to celebrate. As we talked about the people in the pictures, he pointed out the family who had come over after the war–in an Ashkenazi Jewish family, “after the war” means only one thing. In the room were loved ones bearing the tattoos of Auschwitz, smiling next to cousins who had served in the United States Armed Forces.
My great-grandparents Sara (Fried) and Ignatz Weiss had four children. When they came to Pennsylvania from Humina, Hungary in 1903, they could not have dreamed that one day three sons of theirs would head back to Europe to defend the world. Of their four children, only aunt Hilda remained in the US during World War II.
Jack, a doctor, was sent to Europe. My father believes he was stationed in Belgium.
Leonard, my grandfather, was cargo-master in Greenland for the Army Air Forces. Greenland was where planes would be loaded for the longer flight into Europe, and Grandpa and his crew had to quickly and efficiently load the weapons and supplies. Grandpa’s job was to ensure that the weight distribution was even so the planes wouldn’t tip, and he did it without the benefit of today’s technology, just relying on his sharp mind and quick crew.
Uncle Harry was in the infantry. Harry’s war experience took a very different path than his older brothers’. Like our family tree, our knowledge of what Harry went through has both vivid details and gaping holes. I know that Harry ended up a staff sergeant.
And I know that Harry ended up behind enemy lines.
The danger for an American soldier behind enemy lines in Europe could only be topped by one thing: the danger of being a Jewish American soldier trapped behind enemy lines. If he’d have been caught, he would have been lucky to end up in a regular POW camp. But this was not to be his fate. Whether resourceful or just lucky, Harry made his way to a farm, where the farmer’s family took pity on him. I can’t tell you what country they were in or what language they spoke, but this brave family hid my great-uncle under their front porch for an entire year. If they’d been caught, it would have meant death for them all.
I first heard this story when uncle Harry died. Somehow, in my collection of family lore, no one ever talked about the war–not what happened in Europe, not what it was like here in the US, not what those who had served had seen. I’ll never know if his parents were told he was missing in action, or if his brothers heard. I don’t know when or how he made it back. But he did make it back, thanks to the kindness of this unknown farmer’s family.
As his brothers and sister married and started families, Harry remained a bachelor, living with his parents. My father recalls going to visit, and his favorite uncle was always there, ready to go out to toss a ball with him. With these few details, I created an explanation in my head: that uncle Harry remained unmarried for so long because he had been far younger than his siblings. It explained why Harry married aunt Shirley about a decade after my grandparents themselves were married.
But the true reason Harry stayed single for so long wasn’t his age. It was his heart. He had come home in love with the farmer’s daughter. The girl who had hidden him. The girl who had kept him alive.
Still, he came home because he knew this was where he belonged.
I think of how lucky they were: three brothers enlisted, three brothers came home. I can’t imagine what it was like for Harry, seeing everyone move on. He had put so much on the line, survived what he did, and then came home carrying a different, invisible kind of loss.
And yet, if Harry had not made that sacrifice, he never would have found his true future with aunt Shirley.
That photo album of my father’s bar mitzvah–those pictures, those smiling faces, they tell a story. They stand for everything our veterans make possible. In that room, you had survivors, veterans, heroes. You had people building and rebuilding, raising families, with faith in what the future would bring. Harry had rebuilt by then, too, marrying aunt Shirley and becoming a father.
So, on this Veteran’s Day, I remember the three Weiss brothers who served so bravely, who all fought to come home, and who all established good lives here. And I hope that we can ensure that all of our vets get what Grandpa, Jack, and Harry got–a bright future. Thank you to all those who served.