To be honest, I don’t usually think very much about Memorial Day. It was designated by the federal government as a national holiday to remember Americans killed while in the military service, but most of us, myself included, usually associate the holiday with lighter things: days off, BBQs, warm weather, white shoes.
This year, though, I’m thinking about the holiday a little differently. Last month, I went down to Florida to visit my 99-year-old grandmother, Ruth. Although age has drained her of much of her physical strength, mentally she is still very much herself: she can tell jokes, beat me at board games, and recount in great detail some of the major world events that she lived through. And, since she was born in November 1913, the number of things she’s seen firsthand is a pretty impressive list.
I’d known she lived through World War II, and that my grandfather, Pop Jerry, had fought in the army. But you know what? In the 26 years of my life, I’d never thought to ask her what it was like before. In school we analyze primary source materials over and over, but we so easily forget that our own family members, especially older generations, are often walking primary sources.
So I asked: what did it feel like to live through WWII? And the story I got was not what I expected.
My grandmother was newly married when my grandfather was drafted into the army. They had met at a store in Newark, NJ where he was a manager (“I saw him and said, ‘I’m going to marry him,'” my grandmother explained to me), and had been together for just a short time before he was sent away. At war, he was sent all over the place – though he wrote when he could, my grandmother had a hard time keeping track of where he was and what he was up to, especially as the war went on.
Every wife of a soldier in WWII must have had the same recurring nightmare: the knock on the door, the telegram handed to you by a shaky hand. In early 1945 my grandmother got that telegram: my grandfather, Jerome Ehrlich, had been killed in action at the Battle of the Bulge. She was at her local synagogue when the telegram arrived, and the boy delivering it came there to hand it to her. That was it. It was the thing she feared most, and it had found her, as it had found so many others left behind during the war.
She planned for my grandfather’s funeral. She had family and friends to comfort her, but some of them had received the very same telegram, and most others dreaded the day it might come. They had not found my grandfather’s body, but that was not unusual; 19,000 American troops had died, and it would be a long time until their bodies could be recovered and sent home.
She can’t remember, now, how long she went on that way. Perhaps it was a few weeks, perhaps a month. At the time, it must have felt like a whole lifetime had passed: day after sad day, slowly dripping by. Then she got a letter. It was from Jerome. He was writing from a London Hospital; he was injured, but OK. He had been found, freezing, by a Belgian farmer who brought him in and took care of him, and had somehow ended up in London, in the hospital. He was coming home.
My grandmother told me all this, nonchalantly. So many years have passed that now it’s just a story. “Yes!” she said. “I thought he was dead. I can’t remember for how long.”
After my grandfather returned from the war, my grandparents had three children. One of them was my dad. He had two kids, and one of them is me. One of my dad’s brothers had two kids, too.
It’s crazy to look back along the line of your family’s history and realize that if things had been just a little different, if a bullet had been shot just a little to the left or a little to the right somewhere along the way, you might never have existed. It was so likely that my grandfather would have been one of the 19,000 American troops killed at the Battle of the Bulge that when they couldn’t find him, they assumed he was dead.
Conversely, any of those 19,000 troops could easily have been my grandfather. The bullet could have missed them; they could be the ones today with three children and four grandchildren and however many great-grandchildren. But those lines are gone. And that’s true for every single person killed while in military service, whether it was in WWII or Vietnam or Afghanistan.
Those are the people who Memorial Day honor. And that’s who I’ll be thinking about this weekend.