Veterans’ Day 2019: Remembering All Who Have Served (especially my uncle)

Arthur Feiertag

To all our veterans, wounded warriors, first responders, their families, and others who serve or have served: thank you for your sacrifices and dedication. I can’t pretend to understand what you have given or given up for our country, but you have my gratitude and respect. If any of you care to write about your service, I will read your accounts.

Many years ago, I sent my uncle and aunt a notebook and a pen each. I wanted to know about their lives, to learn the stories they hadn’t told. My uncle had been trained as a medic in World War II (he went on to become a fantastic optometrist), been captured by the Germans almost as soon as he arrived, and like many of his generation, had refused to talk about his experiences. I hoped a notebook might elicit some more of his history.

I didn’t hear back from either my aunt or uncle about the package until I was visiting my parents and my dad called his brother. And here let me mention that my uncle was from New Jersey, and he exemplified almost every stereotype about denizens of the Garden State that are known to humanity. Generally speaking, anything that popped into his head, popped out of his mouth. Once, when he and my aunt were on vacation with my parents, a tour bus pulled up and let out a group of Japanese tourists. In a move that made my father want to sink into the earth, my uncle took one look at the new-comers, marched over to the nearest visitor, held out his camera, and demanded to know if it was a good one. Fortunately, none of the group seemed to understand English — or my uncle’s version of it anyway — or were polite enough to pretend they didn’t. And now you know why my father moved away from “Joisey.”

So that day at my parents’, I got on the phone with my uncle, who lit right in: “LISTEN! WHADDYOU SENT ME THAT NOTEBOOK FOR? Nobody wants to read about my life. Nobody wants to hear about that stuff. Nobody wants to hear about…” and he then spent about an hour telling all the “stuff” nobody would ever want to hear. I was completely unprepared, had no paper, no writing instrument, no way to record all the personal history he rattled off at warp speed. 

The central story of my uncle’s war is that of his capture. It happened within a few days — maybe even the first day — after he was sent over. When he and the other POWs were brought to the prison camp, a British officer was helping process the new arrivals. When my uncle approached the table, the officer asked for his name, rank, serial number, and, as was usual then, his religion. My uncle said, “Jewish.”

“No, you’re not,” the officer told him. My uncle wasn’t stupid, but he was young, and didn’t understand at first. So he replied,

“Yes, I’m Jewish.” The officer looked at him hard and repeated,

No, you’re not. Lose your dog-tags!” That officer saved my uncle, and I suspect a lot of other young men, from dying in a gas chamber.

I wish I knew that officer’s name. I wish I knew what happened to him. I hope he made it home and managed to live well and happily. My uncle did. (Despite his foibles, my uncle was a decent guy. He and my aunt lived a few blocks away from my grandparents, took care of them, raised a daughter, ran a business, and was gregarious and out-going.) He died a little less than a year ago at the age of ninety-six. I wish I had managed to write down his history that day on the phone. 

Anyone wishing to support and honour those who serve or have served might consider writing a letter to one of these folks. An e-mail from Endless Pens reminded me about Operation Gratitude, an organization that collects letters for deployed troops, veterans, new recruits, wounded heroes, caregivers, and first responders. Read the instructions carefully — there are rules — and if you write, maybe you’ll get someone’s history in reply.