A few months ago, my mother called and told me that she had found a Nazi war medal in our basement. She had been cleaning out her house preparation for a move to the suburbs of Pittsburgh, away from the city where I had been raised.
“How is that possible?” I asked her from my apartment in Brooklyn. I thought of past residents of our house, of closet-case white supremacists. But the owners before us had been a family of Orthodox Jews.
“I’m pretty sure I’m right,” she replied, “I think it’s an Iron Cross. It has a cross on it.”
I told her I couldn’t imagine how it had ended up in our home, a household of kosher-keepers and synagogue board members. My mother, however, had a notion: “I think your grandfather brought it back from the war.”
What grandfather?, I thought. My only set of grandparents that had been in Europe at that time was from my father’s branch of our family tree. My Holocaust survivor grandparents, I would tell friends and acquaintances, as if it were a title officiated by a monarch in brocaded robes and miniver.
“My father,” she clarified, “from when he was in the army.” I had forgotten: my mother’s father had been in the Air Force in World War II. He had been a supply clerk.
I asked her what she was going to do with the medal. “Sell it, I guess. I know one thing for sure. I don’t want that thing in my house,” she said.
When I think about my family history, I am always pulled toward the stories of my father’s side, the legacies imbued with being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. This habit is a symptom of a larger identity: my father, the son of Holocaust survivors, had instilled within me a mentality that our bleak heritage instilled an inherent otherness within us. I was to remember at all times that this was the case. It is the reason that my father’s mother, my oma, became neurotic and paranoid in her old age from survivor’s guilt; it is why my father’s early work as an academic orbited around genocide, slave labor, and the postwar economic status of Germany; it is why the novel I am writing is waist-deep in Kristallnacht and yellow stars. It is not merely forgetting. It is a dark compulsion.
This legacy overshadows the stories from my mother’s family, who were as American as American Jewry came, with stories of dental practices on Hester Street and shelling companies in Hialeah, of Ellis Island and the American dream. The experience of my mother’s family did not overlap with the experience of my father’s family, two separate, orbiting spheres. But my grandfather — he is the chunk of rock that flies from one gravitational pull to another, crashing onto the surface.
At first, my mother wanted to sell the medal on eBay. It seemed the easiest way to rid herself of it, like casting it into the ocean with a furious throw. But conjuring the kind of person that would want a piece of Nazi memorabilia made her stomach roil. She thought of skinheads lurking in the mired crevices of the internet. No, this was not a good plan at all.
Her next idea was to ask my stepfather to sell it at a pawn shop, rife with wartime keepsakes, things like pearl-inlaid Swiss Army knives and postcard pin-ups. My stepfather politely refused. He didn’t want to touch the medal, he didn’t want to go anywhere near it.
While figuring out what to do, my mother would talk to me on the phone and tell me stories, to turn an ugly space into a something worthwhile.
In May of 1942, my grandfather enlisted as a private in the Air Force at the age of twenty-nine, despite his fear of flying. This, my mother said, was an act of shrewdness rather than cowardice. His fellow cadets had to physically force him to set foot in the cockpit of an airplane. He had a solider for each limb; four men would carry him, throwing him inside the craft, only to have him burst from it seconds later, screaming. This was not the place for him, his superior officers conferred. Instead, he was assigned the position of a supply clerk. Instead of lugging a rifle, he carried a typewriter in a suitcase.
My grandfather’s war stories were not war stories, but after-war stories. (You don’t see much combat from a makeshift desk, my mother probably concluded, excusing him.) That once, he tried to sneak across the Czech border to deliver supplies in a truck to distant relatives in a town he thought was close by; he thought they might be alive, he thought he might know their names. (They weren’t. He didn’t.) Or this: in Munich, he courted a German girl, of all people. When he tried to speak to her in Yiddish, she laughed in his face. “I don’t speak Jewish,” she spat. He promptly left her where she was standing; he never saw her again.
Like my grandfather in the European Theater, these stories were a new country for me. Like him, I wondered how I could connect.
I am in a small conference room in college for a seminar about literature of the Holocaust. There are twelve of us in total, all grouped around a long table. I signed up for the course because I knew it will be an easy grade; indeed, I am correct. I have read all of the texts, the syllabus laced with Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. The class meets once a week for four hours, the first half dedicated to class discussion, the second half taken up by documentary, the footage both deeply and impersonally familiar. I have seen it all before.
During the second or third session, I make the mistake of relaying an anecdote about my father’s father and Kristallnacht; not even the whole story, just the mention of him being in Vienna on that night of broken glass. To the other students, I become more than an authority: I become an oracle. They glance at me for affirmation whenever they speak. More than once, a classmate tells me, “You know, if I were a Pole and you were in the Warsaw Ghetto, I would hide you.” I do not correct these classmates. I do not inform them that my family comes from Austro-Hungarian stock, not Poland, nor that despite their best intentions, I doubt them. They are my friends, I think, they don’t think that they are lying. Worst of all: they think that they are telling the truth.
Sometimes I forget that I’m related to your family, I have wanted to tell my mother. Sometimes, I don’t really feel American, but I don’t feel like anything else, either. Perhaps this is another inheritance from my father, who, like me, was a first generation immigrant; while he was the British son of Holocaust survivors from Western Europe, I am the American daughter of a British father. Among my mother’s family, I am displaced.
But then my mother told me a story that finally clicked the gears in motion. Stories, at their most powerful, are machines that connect us.
My grandfather Willy, the paper-pusher, becomes an accidental liberator when his platoon stumbles onto a concentration camp located in Germany. (When my mother told this story, she never gave a description of the grounds, but the blanks are easy to fill in, as easy as a memorized recipe: the wildflowers, the trees, the snarls of wire, the sweet-charred odor in the air. They march past the gates, eyes abashed. Do I need to go into the rest? The walking corpses? The piles of bodies that are not quite bones?)
So Willy, the Jewish Southern boy from Georgia, the only one among them who knows Yiddish, is duly appointed the unofficial translator. He begins to talk to one of the prisoners, a man with doorknobs for elbows and knees. My mother does not know this man’s story. If my grandfather told her, it was lost to time; more likely, he never told the story to begin with, maybe having never remembered it, blissfully unaware of the haunting mantra, “lest we forget.” Whatever tale the prisoner tells Willy, it leaves him slack-jawed, incredulous, guilty. He wants to hold the prisoner, but with all of his bones, he is afraid to break him.
“I can’t believe it,” says my grandfather, hoping that words — only words — can suffice.
Willy does not take into account that his accent has the affectation of slow-running tar, that it can garble the best intentions. To put it simply: because of his Southern drawl, the prisoner does not hear what my grandfather actually has said; instead, he hears, “I don’t believe you.”
With unconsummated rage and one final store of strength, the prisoner, the survivor — all ninety pounds of him — pitches his fist into the side of my grandfather’s face, knocking him out.
Old World, meet New.
In the end, my mother found out the Nazi medal was not a Nazi medal at all. She had located a World War II memorabilia specialist online and sent him a picture; he promptly e-mailed her back, informing her that the medal was not German in origin, but an American badge of honor awarded to sharp-shooters. That vicious circle of medal and ribbon had transformed into a precious keepsake. “I didn’t even know your grandfather knew how to hold a gun,” she told me.
“Maybe he didn’t,” I replied, “maybe it was someone else’s medal.”
“I wouldn’t know. I don’t know the story,” she said.