My father is a WWII veteran. What he hasn’t told me I’ve been able to glue together by reading books, watching documentaries, and listening to scholars.
A reaction I had to modern products from nations we once battled in WWII was aimed squarely at Japan. The 1970’s, my ‘teen’ years, witnessed an expansion of Japanese presence in our (US) economy. Small, fuel efficient cars, motorcycles, and ‘cheap’ toys all bore the “Made in Japan” moniker- a badge of poor quality for a generation of Americans. I took a vow never to buy any Japanese product.
Of course, that effort became increasingly fruitless as corporations expanded and merged to create the conglomerates (multinationals) we’re familiar with today. I entered the military after college and remained true to my vow, but automobile manufacturers with names like Chrysler and Ford, were increasingly have parts or autos built elsewhere, like Japan. Japan had inexpensive labor and could produce goods at lower cost. Sound familiar?
I kept fooling myself into thinking that my crusade was still effective up to my late-40’s. Then, the effort came to it’s end when I bought my first “foreign”-made vehicle, a Toyota Prius. After 30 years, I had to admit that enough-is-enough. It’s time to place that era in it’s proper place- in History. It should not influence my life as if my father and nation are still waging that war.
We can forgive, but we should never forget.
A Son of the Holocaust Buys German
I bought an Audi this year and with that, World War II finally ended for me.
My father and mother never spoke about what happened to them during the war, which had ended 11 years before I was born. The whole thing was a 6-year black hole in my family history. We discussed it openly just once, when my parents asked that I honor their refusal to buy anything made in Germany while they were alive. Yet the war was always in our home, like some enormous beast, hunched in the corner of every room, still and quiet, except for the breathing.
I waited until I was 6 to ask about the blue numbers tattooed on the arms of some of the other refugees, and was angry when I was told to wait until I was older. When later came, I knew not to ask again. It was all connected to the things that made my mother wake up screaming some nights. I became a little soldier protecting my parents from those things that hurt them, like the time when I was 10, and found my mother watching “The Pawnbroker,” where Rod Steiger plays a Holocaust survivor haunted by flashbacks of concentration camp atrocities. I stood in front of the TV blocking her view until she walked out.
The only stories they did tell were from their happy pre-war lives, or the rare funny war-time incident. One was about the time my mother received a goose as thanks for secretly and illegally teaching local children during the Nazi occupation in Poland, and after great anticipation for this special meal, discovered she had overcooked it to an inedible cinder.
In the battle between my need to fill the holes in my family story and my duty to keep the silence, duty usually prevailed. One exception was on my first trip to Europe, when I was 20, and went to visit the French city Nancy, in Lorraine. In the summer of 1939, when my father was 19, he had arrived there from his town in Poland. He planned to enroll in the engineering school. Then the war started and he was cut off from family and funds. He traveled to Paris and when the Nazis were about to occupy that city, he somehow acquired the papers and uniform of a French Army private and his unit was evacuated, eventually to French Morocco. He liked to joke that he was in Casablanca at the same time as Rick and Sam and Ilsa. On a scorching summer day 37 years later, I stood in front of the same engineering school and unsuccessfully tried to picture myself doing anything like what he had done.
On that trip I had my first test: a young German picked me up as I was hitch-hiking outside Lincoln, England. Listening to his accent and seeing his blond hair and blue eyes, my first thoughts were about what his father might have done during the war. Was Nazism genetic? As we drove through the countryside and talked, we got on so well that we roomed together at a farmhouse on the way to York.
That was where things were left, present but unspoken, except for the pledge I made. Then my own children became old enough to ask, “Why don’t you know what happened to your uncles and aunts?” and “Why can’t we talk about the war with Grandpa and Grandmom?”
At first, all they were concerned about was finishing the second-grade family trees. As they grew older and smarter, it became more difficult to know how to answer their questions. Finally, reluctantly, I agreed to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington when my older daughter was 14.
I almost threw up in the room filled with piles of shoes and broke down in hushed sobs watching survivors tell their stories, but I hid these reactions from my daughter. The museum was surprisingly crowded though the silence reminded me of what I grew up with.
We went to a nearby restaurant for lunch and my daughter was uncharacteristically quiet, so I started to explain what I hoped she had seen. Yes, it was personal and it happened to our family, but it was also universal. Genocide is a human stain. People are capable of doing evil things to one another, sometimes from ignorance but sometimes in the name of revenge. We can choose to perpetuate the cycle of hater and victim and hater, or to break it by building museums, or sometimes, by not talking about it.
My daughter came around and gave me a hug. “I know,” she whispered. “I saw you crying. It’s O.K.”
My father died in 2003 and my mother in 2010. This year, at age 57, when I needed a new car, I could finally buy a German one.
Henry Rozycki is a physician at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University and a writer.
Previous My Story essays can be found here.
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