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We Are 1

A Family of the ...

 A Blog on the Parallels Between Refugees Now

and During World War II
 

WeAre1: On the Wisdom of Sixteen-year-olds  

The activist sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg is doing everything she can to stop the climate crisis. Her passion has inspired children and teens worldwide, who she says have been asking themselves, 'Why study for a future that's being taken away from us?' Thunberg, who has been calling out politicians who belittle climate change, also knows how to appreciate the positive. Having been diagnosed with Asberger's, she says she is "neurodiverse" and credits the syndrome with enabling her to think outside the box and not care about social codes; she says what she thinks. She also has faith that people can be reached by rational argument: "The most important thing to do right now is to understand the crisis, to grasp the problem," she recently told hosts of CBS This Morning. "Once you fully understand ecological emergencies then you know what you can do as well."


Or course, Thunberg is now being demonized by the Right. One extremist suggested on Twitter that Thunberg is a pawn of the Left: "Children—notably Nordic white girls with braids and red cheeks—were often used in Nazi propaganda. An old Goebbels technique! Looks like today's progressive Left is still learning its game from an earlier Left in the 1930s."


The Left? The Nazis were the Far Right. How dare you distort history?


Now for the reality a Jewish teenager faced during World War II. In the fall of 1941, my sixteen-year-old mother was living with her parents in German-occupied Lwów. They had zigzagged across Galicia since fleeing Kraków in September 1939. Now they faced the formation of the Lwów ghetto. My mother ran into a former classmate from Kraków, who said his parents had just paid $500 ($8,300 in today's dollars) for passports to the Dominican Republic. They were planning to leave in a day or two.


My mother told her parents her friend's plan and begged them to do the same. Her father said they did not have the money and refused to ask wealthy relatives in New York to loan it. My mother argued desperately for him to change his mind. This was the second confrontation in a series of arguments, which in her testimony for the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies she explained this way:


"I couldn't convince him. It was irrational. He said, 'What's the matter with you? Your uncle just came to America. You think that money grows on trees? $500 is a lot of money.' But in the back of my mind, however, I knew that we had very wealthy relatives there."


Later, when my mother and grandfather argued about buying false papers so that they could pose as Catholic Poles, she prevailed, but commented:

 

"I told my father. I told him that we must have false papers and he was convinced he raised a snake. He really thought that there was something terribly wrong with me. My parents did not have the sense of danger I had….I believe that Hannah Arendt mentioned that children not burdened by experience and education had sort of an open slate and saw the reality easier, some of us did, than our elders. Because I already then in Lwów told my father there is not a chance [that they would survive the war as Jews]."


Thus, my teenage mother recognized and reacted to the catastrophe of her day in much the same desperate and outraged manner Greta Thunberg has to ours.


Remember these words of wisdom from another bygone era? "Teach your parents well. Teach your parents well, their children's hell will slowly go by. And feed them on your dreams, the one they picks, the one you'll know by." –Graham Nash, 1969.


Happy Rosh Hashanah.
 
 

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WeAre1: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité et Rosh Hashanah 1944

In late August 1944, Company C of the Medical Gas Treatment Batallion and the 8th Field Hospital of the United States Army were in Northern France. The fighting had diminished in Brittany and the frontline began to move east. While awaiting their orders, some Company C medical officers took a few days off and visited newly-liberated Mont Saint Michel. My father was among them.


The strange, sometimes inaccessible little island, which had been a strategic fortification for hundreds of years, owed its safety to extreme tides. At low tide, pilgrims had walked 600 meters out from the coast amid the constant danger of quicksand. High tide could drown or strand assailants. For 1,200 years, the island successfully resisted threats of occupation. Until the Nazis besieged it.


As the American officers explored the island's ramparts, the French Second Armored Division was battling the Nazis for Paris. On August 25, the French liberated the City of Light.


Company C was ordered to join the Headquarters Detachment of the Batallion at Le Bourget Airport just north of Paris, 322 kilometers away. Cheering Frenchmen welcomed Company C when it arrived. Despite enemy robot bombs and fields thick with mud, Company C set up a tent hospital. It was ready to receive patients on September 5. The 8thField Hospital staff arrived on September 7.


The wounds soldiers endured were more severe than in Normandy and required a great deal of surgery, so more surgical teams were called in. Soon the casualties became too numerous for Company C to handle, so the Batallion's four other companies joined it. Doctors in two tented operating rooms performed surgeries around the clock. The units evacuated 2,424 wounded to the United Kingdom, 1,303 wounded to General Hospitals in the immediate zone, and 550 patients to General Hospitals in and around Paris.


By mid-September, the Companies needed rest and everyone got passes to Paris even though the city was still off-limits to most G.I.s. My father was twice blessed; the Army offered every Jewish officer and G.I. a three-day furlough so that they could attend Rosh Hashanah services on Sunday, September 17. It was the first Rosh Hashanah to be openly celebrated after four years of the German occupation.


My father probably attended services at the Grand Synagogue, also known as the Rothschild Synagogue and the largest Jewish house of worship in France. About 100 Jews of all ages gathered outside as trucks of Jewish soldiers arrived from all over France. The congregants cheered wildly and greeted the men with tears, hugs, and kisses. An elderly woman grabbed the hand of a G.I. while reaching with her other hand into her jacket pocket. She withdrew a yellow star, ripped it up, and said in Yiddish, "Das iz vos ir hot getan far aundz! (This is what you have done for us!)" Tears ran down the G.I.'s face. No doubt my father's eyes would have welled up, too, and he would have thought of his parents and brother, who he had last seen five years ago when he left Lwów.


Fatigued from living in tents and tending the wounded for months, my father spent the next two days in Paris relaxing in cafés, meeting women, and going to the opera. What jubilation to be in this city again, not as the fugitive he had been in March, 1939, but as an American.
 

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WeAre1: A Family of the Overrun on the Run

The attic window of my grandfather's house in Lwów, where he and 11 other men hid. It was so crowded that they alternated standing and sleeping, like today's detained children in facilties near our southern border.
My mother at age 13 in 1938. She is standing in front of a fountain in Kraków's Planty, a park that rings the Old Town.

Eighty years ago today the Germans invaded Poland. My mother, Irena Goldberger, was a teenager in Kraków. Here is her recollection of that moment, recorded in 1987 when she was 63, by the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University:
 
"I was in my bed in Kraków and suddenly there were the sounds of bombs. That was at dawn.
 
My father was a military man during the WW I and a hero and while the radio said those were maneuvers, he said, 'Oh no, those are German planes and the war is––it's outbreak of war.' We had mobilization few days before. And around the 20th of August, my mother came back from the mountains and did not allow me to go visit my friend to her estate in Silesia, which is further west from Kraków, because she said, 'On the boundary there are German soldiers with swastikas all over. The war is impending.'
 
I remember out of the corner of my eye to see a plane diving in and I heard the shots. At the time, the biggest fear was that of the poisonous gas, which in retrospect seems absolutely ludicrous.
 
We left Kraków three days later, with my parents, his two sisters and my uncles. My mother's sister and another aunt left few days before that to the center of Poland, which they thought would be safer.
 
We had knapsacks. We closed the doors. My father said, 'We will take the silver.' So we took the silver. I had a sense of adventure. I was 14-and-a-half years old…"


 
I do not know how my father remembered that day. He was in Mexico, unable to communicate with his parents and younger brother, who were in Lwów, Poland.

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