I learned to touch history before I learned to read it, in the form of an army knapsack that belonged to my Uncle Leonard, my father’s older brother. As a lieutenant with the 30th Infantry Division, my uncle had landed in Normandy shortly after D-Day and fought in the pastures between the hedgerows. Then it was on to Belgium and Holland and an assault against the Siegfried Line, where, on October 3, 1944, he was severely wounded by mortar fire.
As a child, I often asked my uncle about the war. He showed me his three Bronze Stars and his Purple Heart, but only spoke about the medals in a general way. Then one evening—I was in seventh grade—my family was at his house. Dinner wasn’t ready yet, and I was sitting with Uncle Leonard on a couch. I asked him if he’d ever met a German soldier. He said that his company had captured a group of them. By then, the American translator had been killed. My uncle told his captain that he understood Yiddish and could speak a little. The captain told him to give it a try. As soon as the prisoners heard my uncle, several of them spit on him.
“Because you were Jewish,” I said.
He nodded. “They were Waffen-SS. They worshipped Hitler.”
My father had a ferocious temper, and my uncle was no slouch in that department, so figuring I’d hear a good story, I asked, “What’d you do?”
He looked at me.
He put his hand on my head, and ruffled my hair.
I waited. He smiled at me.
“They didn’t tell you anything?” I asked.
He shook his head and gazed toward the dining room.
“Let’s go see what your aunt’s got for dinner,” he said.