Here is my father Lance, shortly before he was drafted. He spent three years stationed Stateside while his brother fought in Europe, and on his first day of basic training, he discovered that his religion didn’t endear him to all of his countrymen.
My father had grown up in Newark, NJ, which was—as Philip Roth depicts in his novels—a Jewish American Eden. Except my father was ten years older than Roth and the child of immigrants. He went to work at the age of nine—it was during the Depression and many of his friends also worked—and they were rougher boys than the intellectual desperadoes who populate Roth’s fiction.
So on that first night of basic, after the fellow in the next bunk asked him if he was Jewish and my father said he was, and the fellow replied, “I ain’t sleeping next to no Jew,” my father tried to change his mind by punching him in the face. This didn’t work. It did get my father dressed down by a colonel. In fact, he would become acquainted with a variety of commanding officers who expressed their displeasure with his habit of hitting people who disliked his co-religionists.
His touchiness had several causes: his worry about his brother overseas; the stories he heard from his immigrant parents about the pogroms in eastern Europe and their fear for the family they had left behind as the newspapers reported about the Nazis’ brutality toward Jews.
My father spent his adult life running a business and never showed a bit of discomfort around non-Jews. Yet his response to any sign of antisemitism was usually severe. When I was in junior high, I remember him getting out of the car in Newark and going after a teenager who had accosted an orthodox Jewish child. The teenager ran away, a blessing for him, and my father, who I was sure would wind up in jail. There were other incidents, some physical, most of them verbal. As I researched Nothing Is Forgotten and debated with myself whether I could stand visiting Germany, I thought about my father. He rarely mentioned the Germans, but he never forgave them for the camps. He didn’t even try.