In the front hallway of Mom's house are a set of photos, taken on an Air Force base, portraying a dashing man in uniform and the fighter plane behind him.
The family knew the pictures were taken in England, during WWII, nevertheless no other information had been gained until this event.
As children we would spend hours listening to my Grandpa play on the piano before his hands got too clenched from Parkinson's Disease in his mid 60s, and by the age of 75 he needed the care a nursing home could provide. Eventually, dementia became a part of his life, and the family discovered the story behind the photos.
Grandpa was quite young, in his early 20s, and sported a small mustache during WWII. He came from a family that abhorred war, after fleeing Russia and Romania during the pogroms of 1905. Growing up with the history of brutality from Czar Nicholas II's regime, he believed in avoiding conflict through negotiation as much as possible.
Which is why the phone call from the nursing home was so startling.
“Ms. Grant, when you saw your grandfather last, was he agitated?” the nurse asked.
“No, he seemed tired, but nothing unusual for him. We watched the football game together.” Grandpa loved football, usually watching the FL, with us grandchildren underfoot, or playing in the living room while he nimbly picked out any tune we could play on tape for him on the keyboard.
“Well, he's absolutely convinced there are spies here, and has accosted two other residents.”
“P-pardon?” Trying to picture my grandfather getting angry was beyond imagination, never mind the preposterous notion of spies invading his nursing home. A gentleman of infinite patience, he was the gentlest man I ever knew.
As it turned out that my Grandpa did indeed serve in WWII.
Coming from a large Jewish family, letters were common from cousins in Europe. Before the letters had stopped flowing out of Eastern Europe, he became aware of some of the restrictions being placed on Jews there, which he saw as a harbinger of a greater threat to come, as it had in his own parent's time in Russia.
He acted, because he could not sit idly by as innocents were killed, especially after all other means of stopping the Nazi advance had failed, including negotiations.
Voluntarily, he went to his local recruitment office to sign up to serve and, after training, was sent to England to be promoted to Gunnery Sergeant, where his assignment was to teach the young soldiers being sent to the mainland how to shoot and kill other men, in a war that took millions of lives.
On the air base, there was always a worry about spies who were seeking to damage the planes and other necessary equipment, or steal information, and this is what the dementia had brought forward to be my grandfather's current reality.
Grandpa passed away at 85, after dangling his first great-grandchild on his knee, and the search began to gather the information from his military service records, before it was lost to time.
We discovered his regiment by writing to the Department of National Defense with his pertinent details, and received his war records, which were added to the records of the other branches of the family that lived and died. He had several commendations from superior officers.
Later, the family genealogists learned that the family was spread out on all sides of the conflict, including Russian POW camps, Nazi ghetto and concentration camp victims (one was even a collaborator, as recorded in the Hague records, and was himself killed), as well as soldiers in the Russian and English Forces. One distant cousin, the survivor of Auschwitz and a German work camp, was the family's sole survivor in Europe, who testified at the Hague before becoming a refugee in the United States.
My grandfather chose to serve, though a pacifist. My brother, in honor of Grandpa, has served for over 25 years, and I hope he never lives with memories as dark as the ones Grandpa hid for 60 years.
Lest We Forget that every veteran and serving soldier has to make the choice my grandfather and brother made, and every one of them deserves respect for making our world a safer place.