Heroism Without Recognition

by Henry Sengelmann

When I first heard of this interview project for my Literature of Witness class, I approached it the same way that I did all school projects: unenthusiastically, but also with a desire to succeed.  To begin my project, I asked both of my parents if they knew any veterans, former refugees, victims of genocide, a victim of any horrible event in general, literally anyone who could possibly fit the description for this project.  The only candidate that either of them could generate was my maternal grandfather, a veteran who served in Korea; however, due to his dementia, interviewing him would be quite impossible. This was not the start to the project that I was hoping for.

A few days later, as time continued to pass, I knew I had to find an interviewee pronto.  My only option was to use one of the resources that Ms. Gonzalez had provided for us to find interview subjects, and I decided to use the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  I called and was quickly connected with a veteran who served in Vietnam, Leo. Leo answered the phone kindly and warmly and was interested in partaking in my interview.  We coordinated a time and date, and the interview was set.

I arrived at his house at 5 pm on Monday, February 26th.  Although I only drove for nine minutes, I was filled with anxiety the entire ride.  I had never truly spoken with a veteran, and the idea of it frightened me to death. So many horrible scenarios began flooding my brain: hat if Leo is an angry man who is irritated with my questions?  What if I ask too many personal questions and trigger a post-traumatic episode? What if instead there isn’t enough to talk about and we sit in awkward silence? I could only imagine the worst possible situations.  

As I approached the door, I passed Leo’s truck out front.  I knew it was his truck because it had three separate bumper stickers all commemorating his service in Vietnam.  This was the first of many clues that Leo took a lot of pride in his service, and it wasn’t the harrowing, hellish experience that I expected it to be.  I then passed the truck and rang the doorbell. Rather than seeing an old man slowly open the door to greet me, a dog ran out and began jumping on me. An older woman came out and retrieved the dog, apologizing for its eccentric behavior.  I learned that the dog’s name was Delilah, and it wasn’t even their dog; they adopted it for the owner while they were out of town. As an animal lover, the situation didn’t bother me, but instead relaxed me because I realized that this man had both a family and a loving dog.  Leo’s home was small; there were only a few rooms in the house, and my head was very close to the ceiling when I stood up. It was also dark, as I was visiting him during winter and there weren’t many lights. However, the atmosphere wasn’t scary or repelling. Instead, I felt safe and comfortable in Leo’s small home.  After I greeted the woman, she retrieved Leo and we sat together in Leo’s living room. I asked him if I could record the interview, and the answer was a definitive yes. This string of events gave me the confidence to commence my interview.

I began the interview with basic questions, knowing that the interview would progress and become more insightful and meaningful.  I first asked him when he served.

Leo answered, “I was in Vietnam in 1966-1967, and then again in 1968-1969.  I had one year of separation, and then I was asked to go back. I had a critical M.O.S., or military occupational specialty.  I was a refrigeration and air conditioning repairman.”

I had never even considered the possibility that someone could’ve served in Vietnam twice.  Although his job seemed pretty menial in his second term of service, I was still surprised that he had the courage to go back to Vietnam after a year of freedom.  I asked how old he was when he initially enrolled in 1966; he replied: 21 years old.

Leo then elaborated on his position at Vietnam.  He said that refrigeration was so vital because the soldiers needed both food, but also a place to store and maintain the corpses.  

As the interview continued, I reached the more impactful questions.  I asked, “What were some of your most memorable moments in your two terms serving in Vietnam?”

I could tell that the answer was clear to him, but he paused for a few moments.  As he gazed off it was obvious that he was positively reminiscing because he had a small grin.  He then responded, “On my second tour in Vietnam, I was running a refrigerated transport outfit.  I liked the first sergeant and we had access to good food.” He paused to let out a laugh, but returned to his story.  “So when we used to go over and load the food trailers up, and we found something good in there, we would take a little bit extra for us.  I would take it back and cook it for the guys…and we ate steak a little bit more often than some guys did…and we ate nice barbecue chicken…so my second tour for me was uneventful.  Like everyone else, we had a few bad times in there, nothing too bad. My first tour of duty was tough.”

I anticipated this story to be completely about bloodshed and violence, and I could not have been more wrong.  Rather than focusing on the brutality of war, Leo chose instead to tell this story. He emphasized the camaraderie that the war built as opposed to the lives it ruined, and I think this is when I began to see why Leo was so proud and open about his military service.  

I decided to then ask whether or not he believed the United States’ cause for fighting in Vietnam was justified.  Once again, Leo did not fail to surprise me.

He replied, “Yes, I did.  And unfortunately, we would’ve definitely won the war, no question about it.  Except, back home, with all of the anti-war sentiment that was going on, they kind of made us lose.  North Vietnam was just about to roll over and surrender to us.”

I would have never suspected that a veteran living in the Bay Area could’ve agreed with the cause, and would’ve advocated for the continuation of the war; the interview that I foresaw was completely the opposite.  Although I didn’t personally agree with Leo’s position, his patriotism and love for this country were inspirational. His passion was infectious.

I later asked about his return to the United States.  He said that his return wasn’t too tough; however, he did avoid certain cities due to ongoing demonstrations.  

“The activity in San Francisco and Berkeley — that’s where all the demonstrations were really going on.  People were treating you pretty bad. Here in the Peninsula, you didn’t really talk about it, and nobody asked.  You just stayed away from it.”

I had never known that demonstrators during the Vietnam War were both verbally and physically attacking soldiers.  Leo opened my eyes to a new perspective that isn’t often seen in Silicon Valley, and I appreciated him for it. I also felt disappointment on behalf of the soldiers who were risking their lives on behalf of this country only to be slandered for it.  

Leo then began discussing how he was currently still involved in the military.  Although I found it to be very honorable, I still asked him why now.

He answered, “For the kinship.  A veteran is a brother or a sister.  We are related that way.” He got choked up at the very end, and it reminded me of something: no matter the cause, soldiers are fighting for the lives of each other, and that’s what makes them heroes.  

Before I left Leo’s house, he showed me some of his many books in his collection.  On the cover of one of them was a medal of honor winner, and before I left, Leo told me that a medal of honor winner would never tell you they won the award.  As I left, Delilah tried to come with me, but Leo’s wife was able to control her just until I was gone.

My interview with Leo was both eye-opening and life-changing.  He taught me about courage, and how it is not only about doing dangerous acts but also about doing what one believes is right in the face of adversity.  He also demonstrated to me the camaraderie of service, and how soldiers love and fight mainly for one another as opposed to for their country. Lastly, he revealed what unbelievable heroes soldiers are.  He showed me not only their bravery but also their modesty. Celebrities and superstar athletes are inspirational, but Leo has now given me a far superior role model and hero: a soldier.

 

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Staying Positive

by Luke Adams

The bags are packed, outside darkness engulfs Breslau. The family is all together, everyone is ready to leave. They hug Amanda, my great-great-grandmother; she is an old woman and staying behind because of it. They say their goodbyes and flee into the night. That was the last time they saw Amanda; she was killed by the Nazis.  

That was in 1933. Eighty-four years later I was sitting outside a Starbucks in Palo Alto with my great uncle Robert Adams, or as I call him, Uncle Bob. Amanda was his grandmother.  Bob was smiling and laughing as he was telling the story of his family’s escape as Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the early 30s. His family left Germany in 1933, moving to Italy to avoid a rising Nazi party under the new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Bob was born in 1936 in Italy to a mother, father and two brothers; his older brothers were twins, and the older twin, Gerard, was my grandfather. My great-grandfather, Walter, kept his family in Italy until Mussolini forced all Jews out of Italy in 1938. The then Weissenberg family fled to England, where they stayed for less than a year, living through a number of bombings in shelters. In 1939 their ship arrived in New York. They moved to Saginaw, Michigan, and changed the family name from Weissenberg to Adams to hide their Jewish heritage. Uncle Bob has very few memories of his time in England and none of Italy. Most of the information he shared with me was passed down to him as a story or from his work to edit and publish my great-grandfather’s autobiography.  

It was a sunny, breezy day as we sat in the shade of a few small trees outside of Starbucks. Behind Bob, a traffic light flashed and cars roared by. To my right was a group of middle-aged women wearing workout clothes relaxing and chatting over a cup of coffee. Bob is an elderly, happy man with a white mustache and a big belly. He is the sort of man who would make a great Santa Claus. His constant cheeriness is infectious and he loves to talk. That day, he was wearing a baby blue collared shirt as he leaned back in his chair. Bob had been a professor of economics at UC Santa Cruz for 35 years, where he was a founding member. He had just finished telling me a full history of my family from 1776 to the present day. I learned more about my family from an hour and a half with him than I had in my previous sixteen years. I told him about my literature of witness class and the interview project in a greater detail than I had previously explained over the phone.  

He leaned back in his chair, thinking for a second before he chuckled a bit, and looking up, he said, “I guess I’m a witness in a funny sort of way.” Not yet understanding what he meant by this, I was afraid I would get caught in another one of his famous tangents. The man can talk for hours.  

I pushed forward asking the first question. “So what are some challenges you faced in the process of leaving?”

He seemed to be caught off guard by my first question and asked, “Our family?” I nodded and he thought for a moment before saying, “Challenges?” Another pause. “The challenges anybody faces when they leave in a period of two weeks with no job, and no money, and not familiar with the language. And not knowing where to go; with my father it was nuts, let me tell you, he was irrational.” A faint smile appeared on his face. He continued, smiling, “He decided to go to Italy because he liked the warm weather and the art, he wanted to see the art, he wanted to see Italy.” He thought for a second before giving me a counterexample. He used Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father. Otto and my great-grandfather Walter never knew each other but fled Germany within the same month. Otto went to Amsterdam to family and business contacts, which did not end well for him. Walter, on the other hand, had no business connections. Bob switched back to his family’s story saying that his father went to Italy, “almost on a whim, crazy.” He paused and broke eye contact to look past me as he continued, “But, I often think of what would have happened if my mother had close Jewish friends in Amsterdam. I mean, you know what happened to the Franks.” He believed that given the option, his dad made the right choice. He looked back at me saying, “I’m just telling you sometimes in life you make choices that aren’t particularly rational to other people, but they work. Had [my father] been totally rational, had he had a business contact, he might have taken us the Frank route, which was a disaster.” His words trailed off into silence. After a few seconds he apologized and asked me to continue.  

I nodded and looked down at my paper for the next question. Looking up I said, “So you don’t have many memories of fleeing or your time in London, but how were you treated, what was it like when you first got to America?”

He put down the drink he had just picked up for a sip and quickly began, “Ah well, I was just a kid, I can’t tell you much except that we weren’t treated very well and did not have a lot of money.” He told me about his experience going to a welfare camp in upstate New York with his mother, only to discover it was a scam and the organizers were overcharging and keeping profits. A couple with a baby sat down at the table next to us to my left. The couple’s relaxed manner with their baby made me think about my childhood and how much easier it must have been compared to Bob’s. Bob continued, “I remember always having fights, for quite a while I remember having  to deal with people.” He looked left, pausing as the baby shrieked when his father picked him up. He continued, “I think that was because to people in Saginaw we were from Germany! Not everyone in Saginaw liked Germany in 1941, so we were enemy aliens.” He hesitated for a bit. “I think I had some uncomfortable moments that way, but I would say I never saw them that way. I just grew up in a family that does not have a lot of money,” he let out a small chuckle, “and that was true of a lot of people in Saginaw.” He chuckled a little louder, “So I never felt I was getting any type of special negative treatment, and it was during the war, there was nothing going on anyway.” Looking me in the eyes he continued, “It was not a question of me going to little league. Those options were not there for anyone, for anybody, so it wasn’t like I felt like I was missing something. There was no candy, milk was rationed, you got meat maybe once, twice a week, it was war time. The thing about war is everybody gets treated equally badly.” Here he did not chuckle. Instead, he laughed and soon quieted down as he waited for the next question.

Looking down and reading from my paper I asked, “You mentioned that you were born in Italy. Do you remember much from your early years?”

Taking a bite of his bagel he chewed, swallowed, and responded, “Not really, I was just a kid in Italy, but I do remember a bomb shelter from London.” I asked him to describe what little he remembered. “And all of a sudden the sirens go off, and my brothers grab me. I’m kinda thinking what the hell is going on? Why are we sitting down here, why can’t we sit up there?” I leaned in to hear as the traffic light turned green and traffic roared by. He continued, “I was too small, but I will tell you, these things affect you.” He paused again quickly before continuing, “As a neighbor told my mother in Saginaw, this was a few years later, but every time a plane flew overhead I would run around the house screaming, “The bombers are coming.” He paused for a second and looked up at a passing plane overhead. He said, “I will honestly tell you until I was 20 if I was sitting here and heard a siren, maybe a police siren or something, I would get cold chills. That’s about it, nothing too dramatic.”

He took another bite of his bagel. I tried to move on and said, “So have you ever been back to Italy or London, or even to Germany for the first time?”  

He nodded as he replied, “Oh yes, of course, many times.” I asked how it felt, and putting down his bagel he said, “I have no problem with it, I understand what happened. I understood when I went through [Germany] for the first time in 1959.” He sat back in his chair and continued, “I grew up with the language, I grew up with my parents, my family was German, I absorbed a lot of that, I also moved, but there were a lot of Germans who moved.” He looked at me and kept going, “A lot of people who lived [in Germany] suffered badly because of the war.  They didn’t necessarily have any bad feelings towards Jews or anybody else. But the Nazi takeover was so quick and so ruthless, there were people who lived there, who did nothing out of fear they would be next.” I pushed my phone forward on the table to ensure that it was recording his words. Bob said, “I also understand that there are Germans who are bad, there are people who are anti-Semitic, there are people who contributed to the deaths of millions of people. But I don’t feel any different than I do about Germans than I feel about any country.” He smiled as he kept talking, “Part of this attitude comes from my mother. After the war she wrote the Red Cross and said she wanted to help some German kid who was not from a Nazi family. She did that and I still see them regularly and consider them my extended family.” The smile from his face faded a little, “I understand, yes there are nasty people, but look around! I am not uncomfortable in Germany at all; I think that if you look at the German national anthem, the first stanza talks about freedom and equality. That’s the part of Germany I think that still exists.” I nodded, and not knowing the German national anthem I took his word for it. He thought for a moment before he added, “And they have an Alt Right too, [they] just got into parliament. I mean, that’s always there too.” This reminded me of the rising Alt Right movement and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in America. It was never fully gone, but it has finally been unearthed. Bob’s words are meaningful to both him, the refugee, and others like me because it is the sharing of history that prevents us from repeating it. Especially in today’s political sphere, it is important to remember history. We need to be sure that travel bans here, and “ethnic cleansings” elsewhere, do not mature into a modern day Holocaust or genocide that are anywhere near the scale of past genocides. This is why witness literature is important. The roar of a loud motorcycle passing by dispersed my thoughts so I pressed the interview on.

 I asked Bob, “So I know that your father was baptised as a Christian, but do you still identify as a Jew?”

“No.”

I asked, “Not at all?”

He nodded saying, “No, I was raised as a Christian. I recognize my ancestry, I have no problem with that, I mean Gia (his daughter-in-law) calls me up, says come down for Shabbat, I go, ‘Shabbat?!’” He cracked up and continued, “But no one said anything about Judaism to me, there were practically no Jews in the Midwest anyways. I grew up in a Congregational church, know more about pilgrims than I do Jews.” He let out a full sounding laugh, and I joined in.  

After a moment I pushed further asking, “But growing up, did you know about your Jewish background?”

He nodded saying, “Vaguely, I mean my father was trying to get away from it and my mother was not interested in it. It wasn’t of any concern to her, and they went to church together every Sunday.” He put the bagel down without taking a bite and wiped a small bite of cream cheese off his fingers with a napkin. Looking at his hands, he continued, “All the years I knew him he was a very go to church on Sunday guy, and I think my father had some spiritual conversion with all this. For most of my life it has been a nice thing, I don’t hide my identity, I have many Jewish friends who are kind and accepting of me.” A smile appeared as he kept talking, “My attitude is you can choose to see me however you want, but I know who I am, so it doesn’t matter.” He took a bite of the bagel, getting a small bit of cream cheese in his beard. I nodded, agreeing with his point and taking a sip of my drink.  

Next I asked him, “Has your experience changed your outlook on life that much?”

This response was not as quick as the others; he sat back, deep in thought. After around 45 seconds, still looking down he said, “Yes, fundamentally.” He looked up at me and said, “I am profoundly impacted by the fact that individual acts of human kindness can have an impact way beyond anything you ever dream when you do them.” He paused to think, “So it’s not just a question of helping by putting money in the Salvation Army red pot.” He quickly added, “It helps, it helped me.” So as to not take away from the importance of donating, he continued and said, “But it is just individual people, who, out of kindness, just because they wanted to be helpful were helpful to my family, just on the day to day stuff. And I realized that,” another pause, “you are a little pebble, but when you drop in the water,” he paused for another second, “you know, you can have a big impact,” he said as he leaned back in his chair. “It certainly has affected me that way. You would be amazed in how you can change the world by just the little things you do, that’s one thing that impacted me.”He paused as again the child shrieked. He smiled, looking at the child before saying, “I think the other thing that impacted me is understanding just how precarious society is.” The smile faded a bit from his face. “You and I can sit here comfortably, but I understand there are forces of evil in this world, and that there will always be.  Anti-Semitism isn’t going away, it is here and it is in the United States.” He moved his chair forward and said, “Racial attitudes and all that kind of stuff is here, and if you let that virulent attitude wild, we can have our own disasters. And, you know, occasionally we have done it, we rounded up the Japanese in 1941 put them in internment camps.” He seemed to shudder at the thought. He adjusted his posture and looked at me, then he said, “My message always is: Yeah, it happened in Germany, it was terrible, don’t think that was a one of a kind occasion, and don’t think it is only the Germans that can be the meanest guy in the valley. We have that potential too.” Slowly he continued, “I look with a great deal of concern at what is happening in our country right now. That goes back to my history experience, you know, it doesn’t take much for evil people to do wrong stuff.” I nodded in agreement and he said, “And it is easy to ignore, you know, it is easy to go back to Cupertino, say it’s alright.” He chuckled lightly and ended abruptly as he leaned back in his chair before saying, “I can’t guarantee you that I’m a nice guy and that I’m always doing nice things, but I do know that occasionally I have an opportunity to help an individual person, that doesn’t necessarily mean with money or with anything else, that was part of what I enjoyed about being a professor, and when those occasions occur, sometimes you don’t even know you are doing it, it’s just a form of giving back.” I looked up from my notebook to see the large smile on his face, a contagious one that quickly spread to mine. Smiling, I thanked him and switched off the recording on my phone.

My interview with my Uncle Bob helped me bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust and its personal impact on my family. It is important to make these personal connections so that I can understand the refugee crisis happening today. It helps me identify with the boat people from Syria who are drowning in the Mediterranean. Seeing photos of dead immigrants every morning in the newspaper who drown trying to flee with their lives, it makes me think, this could have been my family, my grandfather. Curiously, Bob’s testimony bears witness to the incredible power of the human spirit and small acts of kindness from strangers. While Bob never truly witnessed the horrors of the war, he is still a witness. For all the horrible things that happened to Bob while escaping from Nazi Germany, his overriding life philosophy is to be happy and enjoy life and the people around you. There’s no anger . . . there’s no resentment, just a feeling of let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again.   

 

Las Nacionalistas, Los Republicanos, y Abu

by Andy Cacho

My grandmother lives in the Philippines. She does not come to the United States often, so I never got to hear some of the great stories all of my cousins and my mom talk about. So when I asked my mom if she knew any witnesses to a war or genocide, I was surprised to hear that my grandma had gone through such an atrocity. She was a teenager during the war. My mom told me, “She has told me this story before. If I remember correctly, the food she had to eat was so rotten, there were maggots crawling inside of it. You will have to ask her when we call her.”

Some background about the Spanish Civil war: The two main groups who were fighting were the Republicans and the Nationalists. The Republicans were composed of left leaning, moderate capitalist people to anarchists who hated the other left leaning people, but fought against the other group anyway. The Nationalists were Fascists. The fighting went on with minimal support for the Republicans, but lots of support from countries like Germany for the Nationalists. In fact, many countries like the US and Great Britain signed treaties that stopped them from intervening. In the end, due to more resources and help, the Fascists won, putting in place one of the most oppressive governments ever. It was so bad that if a soldier heard someone speaking in Catalan (the other main language of Spain), that person would be enslaved or killed. The new government wanted complete unity and order in the country, and did anything they could to achieve this.

My grandmother speaks English, but my mom and I felt that it would be better to have her talk in Spanish because she could get her ideas across more clearly. My mom translated what she said to me so I could type it up. My mom was there the whole time helping me with this. My grandmother and I usually have phone conversations every couple weeks or so, so after we were done chatting like usual, I asked her if I could interview her. I was in my parents’ bedroom with my mom, my brother, and my dog. During the whole interview, my brother and my dog were playing around on the bed. My mom had to “Shhh!” them a couple of times so we could understand my grandma. My grandma was excited and told her story in great detail. I call her Abu which is short for Abuela (grandmother in Spanish).

I first asked her, “Abu, can you describe your day to day routine during the Civil War?”

She paused for a moment and explained, “So there was a shortage of food so we had to go to distribution centers where you had to form lines and stand for hours on end.”

In the background, I could hear her sister, Quina, yelling at my grandma about more information to tell me. After listening to her sister, Abu said, “Ah, yes, Quina. Sometimes, after waiting so long, food would run out right before your turn came up, and we would have to rush to another food line and start the wait all over again. The people in line would usually patiently wait until someone would inevitably try to cut it and fights would ensue. We did this day after day. You have to realize that in 1936 at the start of the war, I was only fourteen years old, and your Aunt was thirteen.” I thought it was crazy about how young they were going through such a horrible situation. I couldn’t imagine having to go through this when I am 30 let alone 14.

Compared to what she had to do when she was fourteen, I am thankful that I only had to worry about my little league baseball the next day.

She continued, “We were so malnourished your Aunt Quina developed a terrible condition in her mouth that gave her painful sores, and she was issued a certificate to get two litres of milk to help alleviate her problem. Our diet consisted of potato and vegetable skins and garbanzo beans infested with larvae that would turn the beans black. If you tried to remove the bugs, the garbanzos would fall apart, so we would have to eat them as is. It was awful.” I shuddered when I heard her say that. I looked at my mom who was next to me and her eyes said it all. I could tell that her skin was crawling, and even though she had heard this story before, she was absolutely disgusted.

Abu explained, “There was no hot water, only cold water.  We would have to bathe and brush our teeth with laundry soap. We had ulcers in our legs from the cold as we had no heat or warm winter clothes. Our father would take our coats and exchange them in the villages for rice, oil, and beans. He had a wife and two daughters to take care of, so he did what he could to get necessities.”

“Did you have to relocate?” I asked.

“Yes, we did. There was no shooting in the streets, but certain areas would be targeted by the Nationalists. Eventually we had to be evacuated from our home at a certain point as the fighting got worse and moved to a safe zone where bombing was not allowed. My family moved in with another family upon the recommendation of family friends we had in common,” she told me.

“What did you take with you?” I inquired.

“We had to leave our house quickly. We were only able to take the clothes on our back and not much else. From our apartment, we were able to save our mattresses, dining set and an armoire, which were stored in a separate place. Our home was eventually hit by a rocket and destroyed. Everything was gone,” she said. I could hear the emotion in her voice when she was recounting the story to me, how one day they’re living in their house, the next day it gets hit by a rocket, everything is gone. I can’t imagine that pain of losing everything, but also the relief they felt that they were not in the house.

I next asked, “What do you remember most from your experience?”

“The most vivid thing I remember: the pit in my stomach from being hungry all the time and the cold, the terrible cold we had to endure in the winter. There was also an element of fear. Neighbors would turn you in for no reason and accuse people of being rebels. Men would literally be taken away at night to a place known as ‘La Checa del Cine Europa’ never to return.” She paused for a moment because I could hear her becoming emotional. She continued, “One day my father was captured and taken to that place. As luck would have it, a man of influence must have recognized my father from the neighborhood grocery store that he owned and knew he did not belong there, whisked him away from the line, effectively saving his life.  Don’t know how we would have survived without our father. We thank God every day for that man and what he did. He must have been an angel, as we never could figure out who he was to this day.” I couldn’t imagine the thought of possibly losing my father forever, especially if he is the one keeping me alive. In her situation, if her father got taken away forever, her family would have no way of getting the essentials they needed.

My follow up question was, “How did what you witnessed affect or change you?”

She took a minute to ponder and told me, “We did what we had to do to survive. We were young and hopeful and made the best of a bad situation. We had many friends our age and made a game out of running from one line to another. We were out of school for three years, and we had nothing except each other, so we made do and kept ourselves busy surviving. We may have lost everything, but we were alive and full of hope. Perhaps being young was an asset as we were oblivious to many things happening around us and were just happy to be alive.

“It scarred us physically and psychologically. Being hungry was so tough. When you are starving anything tastes better than nothing and could spell the difference between life and death. My sister and I find it hard to leave food on our plate to this day. We polish our food and never leave a morsel. We serve ourselves a little at a time and prefer to go back for seconds rather than have leftovers. It is not in us to waste as we know what it feels like to be hungry.

“When school once again resumed, we poured ourselves into our books and were eager to learn after so many years of disruption to our education.  We are both into our nineties, but we never stop learning and we still read a lot. I guess we are still making up for lost time.”

I was amazed at her positive outlook to such a horrible situation. Even up until now, she remembers the good things that happened during the war.  Usually, the good things blur away and only the painful ones stay behind.

My last question was, “What do you hope people learn from your story?”

“People should learn to be grateful for what they have and learn to appreciate life and all it has to offer, i.e. family, health, friends, freedom. When what you have is taken away, be adaptable and learn to live with less. We did it. We are stronger, resilient, and are truly survivors….Look, I’m still alive at 93!” she said, laughing.

I am very happy I got to interview my grandma about this tough topic. There were many scars left over from the war, but she found a way to make it somewhat positive. This story is so important to tell because there are not many people left in this world who went through the Spanish Civil War. It happened almost 80 years ago. Even though she didn’t see any actual combat, there were still hardships that she had to face ,especially being a bystander to such a gruesome war. People don’t realize that the lives of the civilians in nations that are going through war feel it as much as the soldiers do. My grandmother learned things that she will never give up, and this experience that she went through changed her life forever.

Passing on the Story

 

by Rachael Miller

“The most important part for those who also survived, is to try to teach what happened and teach people to remember. It’s the only way to avoid it.”

I had been thinking about this interview all week. The room I was in was quite small. All it consisted of was a desk, chair, and bookcase. I prepared my questions on my computer and waited to call while I examined the lamp on the table next to me. It was a small lamp with a translucent green shade.

My father had set me up with his business partner George to interview.  I had done my research on the man; I knew he was born in Hungary, lived through the Holocaust, had been part of the Hungarian revolution, and migrated from Hungary to America. He is now a very wealthy man and donates a lot of his money to various charities. In the pictures I had seen, he was an elderly man, probably in his eighties, with gray hair on the sides of his head. His appearance, however, seemed to have a youthful glow. My dad spoke very highly of him. I was very interested in learning about him, but I couldn’t get over the fact that I was about to ask extremely personal questions to a stranger.

This interview was very meaningful for me. I consider being educated on world events, especially the harrowing ones, to be essential to any education. Without education such as this, those of us fortunate enough to be distanced from tragedy will do nothing to stop it or prevent it in the future. Additionally, it is important for people to continuously try to understand the truths of these events, keeping in mind that they will never be able to completely comprehend what the witnesses had to go through. 

I watched my computer clock turn to 4:30 and my stomach fluttered. My dad came into the room on the phone with George and handed the phone to me. I sat there holding the phone to my ear for a second, not sure how to start. I heard him on the other end of the phone waiting for me to pick up.

“Hello,” I awkwardly greeted.

“Hi, how old are you Rachael?” he replied, not wasting any time.

“I’m sixteen.”

We spent a minute speaking of his grandchildren and my father until I finally mustered up the courage to begin the interview that we were here for. The first thing I noticed when he greeted me was his Hungarian accent. It was reminiscent of the Benedictine monks at my school who also migrated from Hungary. This along with his small talk eased my nerves.

I finally directed the conversation back to the interview. We briefly spoke of his childhood in anti-Semitic Hungary and how Judaism had played a role in his everyday life. So far the discussion was very casual, and I wondered how he would continue to speak in this way when we got to the more personal questions. I knew he had been interviewed a couple of times before; maybe he eventually got desensitized to his own story.

“How did the Holocaust affect you and your family?” I asked.

“Well, it was very terrible,” he said, “most of my family was killed.” Then there was a long pause. This was the point that I started to hear a hint or pain coming through the phone. From then on his voice slowed and he paused more frequently between sentences, seemingly contemplating and choosing his words more carefully than he had in our small talk. He finally continued, “They were taken to Auschwitz, and I was actually supposed to be on the same train, but a very brave Christian friend of our family rescued me. It was a very scary time. I remember most of the time being sacred. I wasn’t sure what I was scared of. And only a few of us survived the Holocaust, so after the war, it was a very different world and even then what I remember most is fear. It was only my mother, my sister, and I who survived, and I think it was 17 members of my family that were killed.”

George provided me with not just facts and data, but also a window into what his life was like seventy years ago, thus revealing a truth that I could never have experienced otherwise. The books and documentaries I had watched prior to the interview did not come close to providing the same amount of complexity.

“How do you want the Holocaust and World War II to be remembered in history books today?” I asked.

Again he took a long pause.

After about fifteen seconds he finally said, “Well, I think that the most important part is to remember. You know I am involved in teaching Holocaust in high schools. I know for example, eighty percent of American high school students have never even heard of the Holocaust.”

“Wow, really?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty shocking.”

I was very surprised by this and honestly, questioned its validity. However, credible or not, as long as I could remember, I had known about the Holocaust. Maybe it was because of my family’s relationship to it, but I still believed it to be common knowledge. It’s strange to think that there are students out there who haven’t even heard of it. Thinking of this made me more grateful for people like George dedicating his time to such an important cause. By teaching kids such as myself of his story, George is doing us a great service. This interview has value because others who read it are able to catch a small glimpse of truth from his story, and hopefully just enough of it to stick with them and drive them to take action to prevent it in the future.

He later told me, “I actually wrote an autobiography, and I might decide to publish it. I wrote it primarily for my children and grandchildren so that they can have the true story because that is one way to try to get them to remember the story. It’s a very important story.”

George helped me understand the importance of witness literature for the readers and society as a whole. It forces us to not only acknowledge the harrowing past and plan for the future, but it also helps us to recognize the people suffering in silence around us right now.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said, “but you helped in an armed rebellion against the Soviets in Hungary?”

“Yes,” he replied, “I was a part of the Hungarian Revolution, the first time there was an armed uprising against the communist regime.”

“Why did you initially decide to risk your life to fight the Soviets in the revolution?” I followed up, trying to get him to elaborate more on the experience.

“Well, you know there was no such decision,” he explained. “I was at a university that had some unhappy people because we didn’t have our own student association; we all had to belong to the communists.” He explained that they had a march to the parliament building, demanded that they accepted their new association, were shot at by secret police, were given access to the armories by the Hungarian government, shot back at the Soviets to take back control of Hungary. “The decision was made for us. It was not that we made the decision,” George explained.

The way George told the story made the scene, that was so unlike anything I had ever experienced, make sense. Even from the dated redwood desk in my mother’s office, I understood how the abruptness of the events caused him and many others to do things they would not normally do because they had no time to think.

“Is that what caused you to leave Hungary?” I asked.

“I left because we lost. We took control of the country for about 12 days, but then the Russian tanks came in, and I remember the huge tanks coming across the Danube, and I looked at my machine gun and it was very clear that that wasn’t going to hurt the tanks and I had to run, and I did.” Later those who took part in the revolution were caught by the Soviets and punished. This was the point that George and his family decided to leave Hungary in hopes of a better life in America.

“There were minefields at the border so that nobody could escape. We found a local peasant who seemed to know where to go, and he helped us cross,” he said. I was astonished. I remember similar stories about the monks at Priory, but it was different hearing the experience straight from George.

I was surprised by the ease of the transition that George explained once they arrived in America. In most stories I had heard, migrants seemed to have a lot of troubles when they reached America whether it be lingual, economic, or stemmed from xenophobia; however, his story was one of welcoming and more or less a smooth transition. The way he spoke of his new life in America was so grateful and joyful it reminded me how I take my life in America for granted on a daily basis.

After coming back from my thought train, I asked, “Have you been back home to Hungary since then?”

“I’ve been back, in fact, I was back in August,” he replied and paused.“I wouldn’t call it home. When people ask me here ‘where were you born,’ my joke is, I was born in America only in the wrong place.”

We both laughed. I could tell he had thought about that a lot. It made me think about what made someone American or not. Of course, there are citizens and noncitizens, but when he came to America, he felt at home for the first time in his life, and that is what makes him American.

As if he had read my mind he added, “Hungary was never my home because they hated us. My family lived in the same village for 200 years, yet we were still considered strangers there was such strong anti-Semitism. And it still continues today.”

“Yeah, it is very important,” I said and then asked, “Over time do you think you have forgotten parts of your experiences?”

“I think so. I try to.” I hadn’t thought about this before. He has done so many interviews and dedicated so much of his time teaching children about his life yet still wishes he could forget it. His pain did not end the day he arrived in America; in fact, he still feels the pain of his childhood today, yet he doesn’t let that stop him from educating the next generations. “You know the whole conflict carries with it terrible cries, and most of us survivors have some mental and emotional problems, and I recognize that I had some of that and I unfortunately see it in my daughters too, and it’s sad, but unavoidable, and now most of our philanthropic work is to try to help people who have problems,” he said.

My interest in the subject caused me to stray from my original questions. “Oh yeah, speaking of that, my father told me you’ve invested a lot of money helping people who have had similar experiences. What are some of the things you have done to help them?” I asked.

“Well, we’ve done a lot,” he said. And he was right. He is part of the International Refugee Committee, and helps refugees from 31 countries find new homes, and invest in medical research to aid emotional trauma, and provide free cataract surgeries, and provide medical aid to people in Tibet and Nepal. It was very inspiring to see someone so affluent, ambitious, and acclaimed, using his fortune to help others.

This led me to my last question, “If you had the option to change your past, would you?”

“Well, it was terrible,” George explained, “but I have to tell you that some good came out of it. I think I became a more sensitive and caring person because of the Holocaust experience and probably more compassionate for the caring of others,” he replied. It is amazing that he looks at the positives in situations like this. He realizes that if he had gone through so much, he probably would not be as good of a person as he is today, would not be contributing so much philanthropic work, and would not be helping people all around the globe.

 

The Unspoken Words

By Andrew Cheng

When I was first advised to interview a war veteran as a project for my Literature of Witness class, I thought of my guardian’s elderly neighbor, whom I call Hughes. Hughes was born in Detroit City in Michigan State during the First World War. His father was a World War I war veteran, and just like him, he ended up in the U.S. military. According to my guardian, Hughes is known as being a reserved man and for the longest time being a neighbor and a close family friend to my guardian for more than 10 years. He has never mentioned anything about his experience in the Second World War or his childhood. After my guardian had talked him into agreeing to an interview with me as part of my project, I always knew it was going to be hard to get the responses that I needed from him. Therefore, I read and practiced extensively on my interviewing skills from Ms. Gonzalez’s class. The interview revealed a lot of truths about the war. It was essential to carry on this conversation as it showed a lot of things he had not talked about for over fifty years since the war ended, and this made him feel better after having to cope with PTSD for the longest time. It also gave me information and an insight into the war.

My meeting was introduced by a comment from my guardian who stated, “Hughes doesn’t prefer to discuss his war encounters, yet he would likely do it for you.” My guardian had told me that in the decades that he has known Hughes, he had talked about World War II just once. It was unexpected, totally out of nowhere and brief. I sat down on Hughes’ balcony just outside his home. He was seated right opposite me with only a coffee table between us. As I arranged for the interview with Hughes in regards to his memories and opinions, I could see the sun setting through the window to one side. The little, calm, wood-surrounded room fills in as his office in one way or another. I felt like I was in a Chinese temple and Buddha was sitting across from me. He had a striking, sharp pose that would command respect from whoever looked at him. I was admiring him and expecting to have a meaningful conversation with him. It was the ideal place to converse with Hughes, and I was immediately drawn into the conversation. On the door towards the corridor of his office hung a photo of military soldiers celebrating a victory in Hawaii in 1945, and he is right at the heart of the picture, most notably the only one of the soldiers with a gloomy face. The room has such a significant number of histories and stories that I had not learned yet. Hughes’ history, not found in any of these books, has an irrefutable noteworthiness. It was him, who is one of the general people I look to for inspiration. This interview might also be the last conversation between me and Hughes before he moves back to Michigan.

In the beginning, he cautioned me that his answers might be brief. I had sent him a rundown of inquiries to try to inspire him, but I detected Hughes’ reservations instantly. The conversation began unexpectedly. He opened our interview by saying, “Right, your meeting,” in good English. He initially attempted to answer huge numbers of my inquiries with a yes or a no. Be that as it may, I forced myself to push past that. Notwithstanding how quick and touchy I trusted my inquiries to be, I soon understood that it would require some push to enter Mr. Hughes’ heart and dig for his experiences. I expressed gratitude and thankfulness toward him for his ability to impart his perspectives to me. As my guardian had admonished me that Mr. Hughes did not like recalling or talking about his war encounters, I realized that it would be really hard for him to recall those memories. So I gave up on the more personal questions.

I began by asking, “What did your life resemble before the war?”

He presently couldn’t seem to warm up, and reacted by saying, “I studied medicine.” This is when I began having trouble because I could see the power in his eyes that intimidated me. I could also see the unwillingness to reply that made me feel guilty. After regaining myself, I asked how old he was at the point at which he was picked to go to the war. He disclosed to me we would return to that later in the interview. I could detect reluctance in his reactions. He was prepared to get this over with. He was not letting me efficiently pry into his war recollections. I now understand that when he relates his story, he is compelled to remember it. As a happy man, I think it hurt him that he didn’t trust he would have been ready to shape sentences that would portray his revulsion. As though anybody could.

I asked how the war had changed his life. He added more shading to this reaction, saying that he “was drafted not enthusiastically to take an interest in preparing as artillery,” and “in the wake of preparing he was sent to the Asia Pacific war front in 1941.” I requested more detail on what that implied. The Asia Pacific front evidently had a high convergence of “Americans, English, and French.” He stated, “The war influenced me in particular… I had nothing to do with the people fighting.”

Sitting at his dining table, Hughes sat two seats on my left, and my notebook lay on the table. A glass of cold water was served to us by a young lady, presumably one of his nieces. I didn’t know how to proceed with the discussion except to change to the following inquiry. He didn’t want to add additional detail or to help with the meeting. I was experiencing difficulty, knowing he was being compelled to endure some sad memories. He gave off an impression of being as open now as he could be. I delayed pushing him to expand on the most abhorrent piece of his life. I detected that he was just going to be as open as I could drive him to be, so I chose to get some information about his most clear battle involvement. He shouted, “I was involved in the war with Japan till they surrendered!” He continued, “After they attacked Pearl Harbor, I was recruited to fight for my nation, and being born in Hawaii made me more patriotic to my country.”

I asked Mr. Hughes how he felt concerning his general experience, seeking after a reflection on the war. He chose to respond with superficial answers. He stated, “I liked my accomplishment of life.” He proceeded with, “I raised two young men I was glad for, three great-grandchildren.” I am pleased with my neighbor’s commitment. He was not a soldier. He was a kid who was forced to go into World War II for the sake of his nationalism. Notwithstanding, his want for flexibility after getting away from the war and his hard-working attitude empowered him to carry on with a full life. Mr. Hughes didn’t center on his prosperity, climbing from nothing. He talked about what he is genuinely glad for: his children and his grandchildren. My conviction that I expected to lead this meeting was vindicated. Mr. Hughes never discussed the details of the war. However, I saw the responsibility that Hughes carried, and I am thankful to have had a challenging but meaningful conversation with him.