In 1934, my grandfather, Opa Benno, immigrated to Detroit from Alsfeld, Germany, a town once known for its striking synagogue and now known for its restored medieval fortress. Friends tried to persuade Hermann, Benno’s father, to wait. After all – they insisted – Hitler would be gone in six months. Hermann’s prescient reply, as relayed by my grandfather, remained steadfast: “When he’s gone, the children will come back speaking English and with broadened horizons.” Today, no Jews live in Alsfeld.
In Detroit, Benno enrolled in Roosevelt Elementary, learned to speak English, and followed Hank Greenberg’s 1935 Tigers. Greenberg was the crown jewel of the Detroit Jewish community. “When Hank played, even the women were glued to the radio, listening to the ball game.” My grandfather would smile as he remembered, relaying the moment in a pronounced German accent that gave little indication of his 80-plus years in America. “He made us proud to be Jewish.”
Over the ensuing years, as Europe sparked, and then burst, into flames, Benno dreamed of returning to Germany to fight Hitler’s army. Instead, Benno was drafted and shipped off to the Pacific Theater as a soldier in the 77th Infantry Division. When he spoke about the war, which he did quite often, he was careful to include names and numbers that might otherwise go unnoticed. “Company A. Statue of Liberty Division. I was a platoon runner.”
And a Jew. My grandfather made sure to repeat this word slowly and with care, as if discovering it for the first time and subsequently affirming its value. “Mowery was the platoon bully. He called me Levi the little Jew-boy, and told me that he would protect me.” Here, my grandfather would grimace and then laugh. “Boy, did I show him.”
On one of the most difficult days of the war, high on Mt. Tenjo, on the island of Guam, friendly aircraft mistook Benno’s platoon for an enemy patrol and strafed with machine-gun fire. My grandfather – eager to prove his worth as a Jew, he would tell me – quickly ran toward the planes waving a signal panel as the rest of his platoon found cover. Assuming a Japanese soldier waving a flag, the Marine pilots circled again to attack. Quickly, Benno assembled two signal panels in the shape of an arrow and pointed it toward the enemy position. Seeing the signal and realizing their mistake, the pilots dipped their wings in apology and flew off.
Two months later, my grandfather was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action. At the end of the war, he returned to Detroit something of a celebrity, married my grandmother Ruth, and had six children. He never heard from Mowery again.
This summer has been a difficult one. On a global scale, conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq, and China (to some degree) have challenged our modern sensibilities. Ours was meant to be a different world. From the ashes of two world wars and near-nuclear destruction, a new order – governed by international law and a global exchange of information – had supposedly risen. We were no longer interested in land-grabs, cheap and dirty in comparison to the almighty dollar or unifying euro. Our battlefields were digital; our fights, social. We had moved on. But, as this summer has made clear, we have a ways to go.
Closer to home, the war in Gaza and accompanying surge of European anti-Semitism shook the international Jewish community. The line between Zionist and Jew intersected, blurred, and then became one. Calls to send Jews back to the gas chambers – timid at first, and then louder as the war continued – echoed across Paris and Berlin. At a central-London branch of Sainsbury (a major UK supermarket chain), one panicked manager responded to protestors calling for the boycott of Israeli goods by emptying the branch’s kosher section. Opinions on this latest war in Gaza aside, our generation was supposed to be better.
And to speak personally for a moment, the death of my grandfather, Opa Benno, has proven more painful than I had imagined it would be. I look for lessons to be learned from his life – meticulously recorded in a treasure-trove of diary entries and photo albums that span almost a hundred years – and come up empty. I cringe at the thought of reducing Opa to fit this 850-word editorial.
Still, when I close my eyes and try to picture my grandfather, I find him in his youth, on Mt. Tenjo. I watch him – a scrawny German Jew relocated via tumultuous seas and swirling political currents to a war-torn island off the coast of Japan. He crouches, glances up as two friendly planes circle mistakenly overhead, and then sprints for the second signal panel. Out of the corner of my eye Mowery cowers behind a boulder (I can only imagine he hoped the Jew-boy would make it). One plane dives, followed by another. My grandfather grabs both panels and hoists them up, trying to catch sunlight to reflect his desperate message before the warships begin their artillery fire from the bay and the planes empty their load.
And I wonder, would I do the same?