My father was wounded in the war, the First World War. I often saw the small pink, half-moon shaped scar when we went to the beach at Riis Park. It was just slightly to the left of where I believed the heart is located.
He carried the bullet in his left lung all the rest of his life. It had come from a French sniper. My father had served in the German Army, in the same Hessian battalion that Washington had routed at Trenton during the American Revolution. But, that had been in 1914 when he was 18. Things were very different now after we had fled to America, to New York City. Suddenly we were refugees! Everything was turned on its head. The country my father had shed his blood for had become our foulest enemy. The heroic French, his former mortal foe had been overrun by a later generation of Germans. Now these inept but occupied French were our brave allies.
Whenever I asked my father what he had done during that forgotten war, “had he killed anyone?” or, “what did it feel like to shoot someone?” he always ducked the questions. The most he ever said was, “oh, sometimes we played soccer” …or… “I never saw anything because we spent most of the time huddled in trenches.” Or, “I just fired my rifle into the air.”
One day, brother and I found a Dutch Masters cigar box with war medals and some pictures. One of them showed our father, who had been tall and quite elegant in his Hessian Dress uniform. He had a strong black handlebar mustache and he wore a round military cap with a small insignia button.
There was also a sepia group photo, deckle edged and yellowing, that showed him standing in the back row of about a dozen soldiers, some proudly preening bandages, along with three young white uniformed nurses and a very stern looking Army doctor sporting a monocle.
My brother and I couldn’t resist playing with the medals, making up games about how we were soldiers, chasing after each other trying to capture the medals as war prizes. It didn’t take long before the brightly colored striped silk fabric was torn and frayed. The soft gray pot metal arms and points of the Iron Cross 2nd Class were bent, twisted and then broken off. The medals lost their value as playthings and were thrown into a box with other used up toys. If father ever noticed that they were gone, he didn’t mention it.
Years after the end of WWII, when father was recovering from his first heart attack, he finally told us the story of his war wound. He had been shot while on patrol; a bullet he never heard coming had surprised him with a sharp blow to his chest. It slammed into the soft soufflé of tissue that was his left lung, just millimeters from his heart. The triage team at the field hospital, having dealt with many such mortal wounds, placed his stretcher in the “consigned for burial” section out back.
He lay their along with many others waiting to be put into that final trench. There were many, many rows of stretchers filled with broken bodies, partial bodies, or just the body parts of young men. Luckily for my father (and for me as well), the over worked burial details had fallen so far behind in their work that the rows grew faster than they could empty them. My father spent two days and nights, ”floating” on that stretcher, in the bitter gray daylight and under unblinking stars. He couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t even groan. He wasn’t sure if he was dead or alive. Just thirsty beyond belief.
By chance, a friend of his came by looking for his body hoping to find the goodbye letter that every soldier carried with him. His buddy found him and noticed that the gaping hole in his mud and blood crusted chest cavity seemed to be frothy and bubbling. Aware that dead lungs did not froth and bubble he called for a doctor and they began treating him even though there was so little hope. They never bothered to remove the bullet.
After four months in hospitals and convalescent facilities he was finally sent back to his parents. Transformed into a war hero and a medical miracle he returned in glory to the small farm town of Jesberg. Time passed and the scar grew smaller. He married and prospered. All the while, the bullet built a hard shell of calcium around itself. It would remain in his useless shriveled walnut-like left lung for the rest of his life, an enduring puzzle to doctors who hadn’t been forewarned.
I was just three years old in July of 1937 when we were uprooted from the small rural German town where our ancestors had settled at the end of the 16th Century. The very same year that Columbus had set out from Spain across the Atlantic, my ancestors also sought refuge from the Spanish Inquisition which targeted Jews as well as apostates. Now, some 430 years later, no doubt with the same sort of feelings of terror we left our family behind and became refugees again. This time, we had embarked on a voyage to New York, an ocean and a cultural continent far away. Slowly, my parents established a life for themselves my brother and me in an apartment in this hard stone and concrete city. My parents adjusted to life in their new country, learning English at a City funded Night School. For my brother and I the transition was much quicker and almost painless. I did realize, however, that the Wagnerian name that had been bestowed on me, Siegfried, would not fly in this new land. I stubbornly campaigned to have it changed to a shorter, simpler American appellation. My parents relented before my Kindergarten debut and I was never subjected to the indignity of being called “Ziggy.”
We did not leave the horrors of Nazi Germany completely behind. During the next four years most of the family reassembled itself in the New World. Two of my mothers’ sisters wound up in Chile and Brazil, a few cousins got blitzed in London, and another set reached the US via Shanghai. As each arrived, or, sent letters that circulated from hand to hand, we learned the darkening rumors of fascist metastasis throughout Europe.
Though we were just in elementary school my brother and I regularly listened to the news on my fathers’ short wave radio. We learned world geography well above our grade level and remained tenuously connected to Europe where a massive war was beginning. My father was acutely interested as the anti-Semitic virus spread and tried to explain to us what these things meant. He would often take us to the Embassy, a movie theatre on Broadway and 72nd Street that showed only newsreels, The March of Time, and documentary films. We watched the jumpy black and white war films of the Spanish Civil War, later the Blitzkrieg propaganda as the Wehrmacht rolled through Poland and Russia, and the inglorious Victory of Dunkirk. We watched the air Battle of London in jittery gun camera snatches. Always, maps, showing the corrosive acid of the awful, evil, Germany eating away at our shrinking Free Allied world.
By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, we already knew all about the English campaign in North Africa. Although we didn’t then know the names of places like Dachau, Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen, we knew about ones like them from people we knew who had been imprisoned and had either escaped or bought their way out.
After the US entered the war we learned the silhouettes of all the war planes just like we would later study automobile design types after the war. We were unofficial junior Air Raid Wardens, patrolling the neighborhood and making sure that every window on our street was totally blacked out at night. No Luftwaffe bombers would find their way to the Westside of Manhattan because some careless neighbor had allowed a wisp of light to guide them to here.
The walls of our bedroom were papered with garish color posters, action paintings of twin tailed Lockheed Lightning’s and the over-bite profiles of Mustang’s engaged in mortal combat with Swastika’d German Fokkers and Messerschmitt’s or red balled Japanese Zeros and Mitsubishi’s. We’d sent away for those free posters to aircraft manufacturers and the Office of War Information.
We knew what we were fighting for because we also had Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedom’s posters tacked to our walls, and on the walls of every schoolroom in every imaginable size. After school we collected scrap metal, tin foil from cigarette packs, and newspapers and magazines for the war effort. We worked as volunteers in storefronts on Broadway addressing envelopes and licking stamps for mailings for the continuous War Bond drives.
We were vigilant, we kept our eyes open for spies and saboteurs, people with foreign accents (other than our parents of course) attracted our attention, we would follow them and take notes on where they lived and worked just in case they turned out to be “fifth columnists.” Our espionage awareness had been honed by the Hollywood/FBI spy film, “The House On 92nd Street” which had really been filmed in a town house on 93rd street, just a block from where we lived.
We were more than just counter-espionage agents, we were fully involved in the war effort. We followed the war’s progress on the radio and traced the movements of Allied and Axis troops on maps with flag pins and crayons carefully marking the battle lines. We rooted for the valiant Russians fighting for their lives at Stalingrad, and for the Allies battling Rommel in North Africa. We cheered at the invasion of Sicily, and the landings on the boot of Italy. We eagerly awaited the final invasion of France that everyone knew was sure to come and that would be the beginning of the end of the Axis..
During the war years at PS 93, we pledged Allegiance each day without mentioning God, took part in air raid drills, and wore little octagonal cream colored plastic ID tags on a chain around our necks. Every so often a refugee student would arrive at our school. There was no formal program to integrate them into our society. Because I was a “pioneer” refugee student, it usually fell to me to show the new arrivals the ropes. It didn’t take long, in a few short weeks they had learned more than enough English to participate in every aspect of elementary school life. Soon they were playing New York/American games like Ring-o-leevio, stoop ball, baseball, roller hockey and stick ball. There was no language problem, PS 93 was an American Public School and everyone learned to read, write and speak English.
All through the war we were exhorted to Buy War Bonds and War Stamps. There were posters and ads everywhere. There were War Bond Rallies and War Bond Drives in endless profusion. The smallest denomination was the $25 Bond, which cost $18.75 redeemable after 10 years for $25. There were songs and jingles on the radio and in the movie theatres before and after every film. There were booths in Times Square, Grand Central and Penn Stations and every place where people gathered.
In the spring of 1944, there was a major War Bond drive in Central Park that lasted several weeks. The Armed Forces had fenced off a huge swath of the Great Lawn, and covered it with what amounted to a patriotic military “circus” devoted to the sale of War Bonds. Whenever he could scrape up an extra $18.75 my father would take us to the park and we’d gape at the “midway” a huge saw dust covered avenue of war displays which featured captured Axis military equipment…Tiger Tanks that we could crawl over… camouflage deuce and half trucks, Mercedes Staff cars, German artillery and even a dreaded 88 mm cannon, that was the standard Wehrmacht anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapon.
There was even a full sized German Field Kitchen that had been captured in North Africa and which included a complete working bakery It produced a coarse dark brown sour thinly sliced bread called “kumisbrot.” My father, in a rare moment of reminiscence, told us “this is same bread that we ate in the trenches when I was a (German) soldier at the front during the First World War.” I suppose this coarse bread was meant to show the Wonder Bread eating American public how primitive our enemy was. The plan misfired because everyone seemed to like it and they all asked the corporal who was serving it for more.
My father bought a War Bond that entitled us to a real jeep ride. Jeeps were a war time legend: everyone knew about them, but they were never seen on New York City streets. To actually ride in one was an incredible coup, an elementary school “show and tell” show stopper. Something we could talk about for weeks. The Army had made it even more exciting by building a small obstacle course with thick mud and standing water, a board covered road, cobblestones and rough rocks that the Jeep bounced over. My brother and I urged the driver to go faster as we nearly flew out of the open vehicle at every bump. It was even more exhilarating than the Coney Island Cyclone Rollercoaster.
My father scraped up some more money and we went back a few days later. He was just as exited as were. We also went to the Military theatre. The Army engineers had built a grandstand and an enclosed arena that featured a small occupied “enemy” village at one end. The audience sat in a steep grandstand and watched as the village, full of enemy troops, was attacked by the brave American GI’s. Several Sherman tanks clanked up and began thumping shells into the buildings. The noise was deafening. Then they began rattling their machine guns whenever an enemy trooper raised his head. Great gouts of earth leapt into the air as more shells struck the earth and land mines kicked sprays of dirt and mud into the air. Finally, they laid down an acrid white chemical smokescreen to cover the advancing infantry men who suddenly appeared from behind the tanks. They fired their carbines and threw grenades at the enemy as they began fighting from house to house, some with fixed bayonets and whooshing flame throwers. We jumped as the grenades went off with sudden loud thuds. Medics, with Red Cross arm bands, rushed out to minister to the wounded and carry them off on litters. Some one set off a bright yellow signal smoke grenade, and the battle was over. The remaining enemy were ignominiously marched off with their hands folded on their heads as the sulfurous stench of high-explosives peppered the evening air. As the remaining wisps of smoke blew away in the light evening breeze, the audience, eyes gleaming with patriotic fervor, slowly filed out, buying more War Bonds as they went.
One hot August day just after the end of that war, we stood on Fifth Avenue across from Central Park watching all the triumphant US Military Branches as they paraded victoriously down the center of Manhattan Island. The parade, worthy of a triumphant Caesar returning to Rome, was led by President, Harry S Truman, waving his Panama Hat to the jubilant crowd from the back seat of an open Lincoln Cabriolet. The asphalt had softened from the heat and now bore the tread marks of clanking Sherman Tanks, diesel engines roaring, coughing, spitting smoke that followed him. The corduroy impressions were visible for years.
Then, the wide avenue was filled, curb to curb, with marching men, file after file of be-medaled soldiers, sailors and marines, led by military bands with bleating brass and throbbing drums, playing the entire Sousa repertoire. It was a glorious, chest beating victorious procession. In the midst of all of this frantic patriotic fervor, under his breath, I heard Dad mutter, in German, “yes, yes, very nice, thank God we won the war, but the Hessians marched so much better!”
Just recently, I heard about an almost unknown series of events that took place during WWI. Miles of Allied trenches in France, stood only a few hundred yards away from miles of mirroring German trenches. Futile stand-still battles washed the no-man’s land between them with barrels of fresh human blood. Back and forth between these muddy ditches, thousands of young men went forth, only to be felled by bullets and shrapnel or to be blinded by creeping ground fogs of gas. But nothing really changed very much. It was a ghastly standoff.
On Christmas Eve, 1914, spontaneously, along a many miles of this front, both sides, Allies and Germans, for a few brief hours, spontaneously, put away their weapons and met each other in that sterile no-man’s land. Some brought “füssballs” and these enemies played friendly games of soccer. They shared cakes and rations, drank brandy, traded souvenirs and sang Christmas Carols. After midnight, it ended as spontaneously as it had begun and they all returned to their own long deep muddy slots.
But now there was a problem. That next morning men on both sides refused to fire at each other. When ordered, even under threat of severe discipline to start killing again, these men, German, French, and English, raised their rifles and machine guns and fired them into the air. Not until they had all been separated and sent to different parts of the front did they resume killing each other.
I only learned about this remarkable moment when it was too late to ask my father about it. He died 20 years ago. But I still remember his answers, when we asked him what he had done during the war and he’d inevitably give us his one of his stock answers: “We spent most of the time huddled in our trenches so I didn't see anything. I just fired my gun into the air.”