My dad ended up on the beach in Utah, not part of the first wave, thank goodness, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be here, but later to clean up. He was a soldier in the 94th Infantry Division that fought in the Battle of the Bulge and liberated a concentration camp. In Nennig, Germany, the Germans nicknamed his division “Roosevelt’s Butchers” because they piled the dead in houses and along streets and refused prisoners, lacking the means to guard and transport them. Like so many others, he has come forward, a tough street kid from the Bronx, the child of immigrants from Poland and Ukraine. During boot camp, he was court-martialed for hitting an officer who called him a dirty kike. Although he was acquitted, he was soon deported without completing his education.
I don’t know much about his ministry, not because he was particularly reticent, but because he died suddenly at 50, before I was mature enough to imagine my parents having a life worth learning about. How I regret never having asked him about those years. Anyone who has tried to get military records from World War II knows that a fire destroyed many of them. So I only have the things he was carrying: his dog tags, a French-English dictionary, a guide to Europe and, oddly enough, a copy of Don Quixote in Spanish. A few years ago I collected these memorabilia and, along with some photographs, asked Star Black, the brilliant poet, photographer and collage artist, to make something of them. A few weeks later she presented me with three collages, one of which is shown here. That’s my dad in the middle, he’s handsome and so young! Above left is a page from his travel guide in which he wrote a list of the places he had struggled through, ending with “and a burial in a godforsaken place”.
One of the most moving accounts of life as an infantryman during World War II comes in Raymond Gantter’s Roll Me Over. Ganttner was a teacher who decided to turn down his third deferral. He was unfit for officer status, so he joined the infantry as a private. His ministry was almost identical to my father’s. Here is a passage:
It’s the slow accumulation of fear that’s so unbearable. Fear moves quickly in battle, hitting hard with every grenade, every new threat, and until something happens, you don’t have time to fear. But this is a slow fear, heavy and stomach-filling. Slowly slowly . . All your movements are careful and slow, and pain is slow, and fear is slow, and your heartbeat is the only fast rhythm of the night. . . a murmuring drum that could easily be punctured and silenced.
After leaving service and returning to the United States, my father had difficulty finding work. Recently, among my mother’s belongings, I discovered a cache of the letters he wrote to prospective employers along with a pile of rejection letters. As time went by, my father’s letters became more and more imaginative (some might say desperate). Around the same time, he and his brothers agreed to change their names from Horowitz to Harwood, the surname of a minor British royal family. It was the name I grew up with and that allowed me to witness the anti-Semitism of those who had no idea I was Jewish. I considered myself a covert Jew.
Vermeer at the Met (on his birthday)