Today would have been a moving and important one for my grandfather. A proud veteran he served his country for six years during the Second World War and its aftermath. He made lifelong friends and gathered a treasure trove of stories that would entertain and inspire his seven grandchildren for hours on end.
For Jews, however, today is more than Veterans Day. It is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. On this date in 1938 police offers, civilians and Nazi officials in Germany and Austria attacked Jewish homes and stores, murdering 91 people, burning down 1000 synagogues, and damaging or destroying 7000 stores. 30000 Jews were also arrested and placed in forced labor camps. Many historians see this date is the beginning of what would become the Holocaust.
A Deeper Connection
The convergence of these two days made me look deeper at their interconnection. On a personal level, one gives meaning to the other. In other words, Kristallnacht helps explain why the Second World War mattered so deeply to my grandfather.
First, serving gave him a way to express gratitude to this country of freedom. His grandfather had fled anti-Jewish hatred in Poland for the New World of America. He came here penniless and ended up becoming a fruit salesman and raising his family in comfort and freedom.
My grandfather was 26 when the war broke out. As a young doctor he could have received a deferral to attend to the home front. Yet, he eagerly volunteered and spent two years overseas. He told me he simply could not do everything he could do defeat Hitler. America was special. The new world of freedom, and Hitler represented all of the hatred he had fled.
To Help Those Left Behind
While my grandfather’s parents and grandparents had made it to America, other members of his family did not. They had remained in Europe, and probably lost their lives during the war. Enlisting in the Army was the closest he could get to rescuing them. It was not only his family that was threatened. The entire Jewish people felt the destructive hatred of Nazi Germany. By the end of the war about one third of the world Jewish population had been murdered. His service was an expression, in part, of his commitment to the survival of the Jewish people.
The Greatest Generation
It also expressed a commitment to building a better world. The group of Americans who served during the Second World War is known as the “Greatest Generation.” They helped defeat Nazism and came home to build the strongest and most prosperous country the world has ever known.
In speaking at my grandfather’s funeral, I noticed his sense of pride in belonging to this group. Yet he said its true heroes were those who died in its service. Let us remember them today, and honor the living legends who continue to lead and inspire us.