Sunday, May 27, 2001

My father told a lot of funny war stories. He could spin a good tale, filling an afternoon with a place and time unimaginable to me.

His war was World War II. And he was a Jew, so for him the war in Europe was not only fought against an enemy of his country but also against a madman who was killing Jews.

The stories he preferred were madcap adventures. One of his favorites had to do with fooling his training officer, an anti-Semite who gave him a hard time. My father knew the officer read the mail of his recruits, so he started writing letters home filled with praise for this man he despised. Soon he was off latrine duty.

Then there was the time his platoon kidnapped him from a field hospital in France, where he was recovering from a head injury. The doctors weren’t ready to discharge him. But his platoon was moving on and didn’t want to leave him behind.

He loved the story too about the poker game he won on the ship home to New York. He was tough enough to survive D-Day, but not tough enough to protect his $10,000 in winnings. So he split his winnings with a soldier from Philadelphia who was bigger and tougher than he was and spent the rest of the trip sitting on my father’s duffel bag, guarding their money.

In the invasion

These stories became the refrain of my childhood, so familiar that eventually I stopped listening, so familiar that now I can’t recall the stuff that matters.

I know the basics. I know he landed on Omaha Beach on the first day of the invasion. I cannot imagine him enduring that horror.

I know he fought his way through the French countryside, trading chocolate bars for fresh eggs from farmers.

And I know that he liberated a concentration camp called Dora-Mittelbau in eastern Germany.

This too he made a part of his series of madcap adventures: How he confiscated every bicycle in a nearby town for the few camp prisoners who were strong enough to ride. It gave them power and a sense of freedom, he would say. And then, in the name of justice, he escorted the cyclists back to town and let them take whatever they wanted from the homes of those who had been their guards. They stole two things, down pillows and comforters.

I’ve thought about the emaciated prisoners stealing comforters hundreds of times. But until I checked last week I knew very little about Camp Dora. In the stark language of the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, I found the facts my father must have known but never told.

Prison labor camp

Camp Dora was built as a weapons factory by prisoners who lived in tunnels for weeks at a time, without toilets. Thousands of Jews were sent there to make weapons for the German army. When they were too exhausted to work, they were sent to Auschwitz and killed.

My father, I learned, was too late to save most of the camp’s prisoners. A week before American forces liberated the camp April 9, 1945, the Nazis evacuated most of the 34,500 prisoners. “At one point, near the village of Gardelegen, several thousand prisoners – mostly Jews – were crowded into a barn that was set afire, burning them all to death,” the encyclopedia said.

There is so much more I don’t know, because I didn’t listen, and I lacked the courage to ask.

My father died 51 years after the war ended. He was nearly 86. It’s hard for me to imagine him in combat. He didn’t hunt or camp. He never learned to drive. I can’t see him scrambling ashore at Omaha Beach or firing a gun. But I can hear his voice. It sounds of courage. So on this Memorial Day I will remember my father – M.B. Zerwick, soldier.