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My Father Helped Liberate Dachau. After He Saw The Worst In Humanity, He Refused To Remain Silent

The author's father in the U.S. Army in about 1944. (Courtesy)
The author's father in the U.S. Army in about 1944. (Courtesy)

Seventy-five years ago, my father — a Jewish man from Boston — fought in World War II. He was a mortarman in the U.S. Army "Rainbow" Division and helped liberate Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp near Munich that gassed Jews and others Hitler deemed unfit.

“We thought we had seen everything,” my father told me, “but nothing prepared us for what we saw when we walked through those gates.” He went on to describe his horror and disbelief at seeing piles and piles of skeletal bodies — many hundreds stacked like wood in abandoned train cars.

As a child, I didn’t know how to process my father’s story. I only knew that he had fought something that nearly destroyed the world. I also knew that he was a complicated person.

Any given day of the week, he had outbursts of rage. Anything could trigger him — a misplaced comb in the bathroom or messy kitchen countertop. My older sister and younger brother’s sassy backtalk guaranteed a physically punishing response. I did my best to elude him when he lost his temper by hiding in my room behind a book, in my closet, or avoiding him altogether by playing outside. I was terrified of his fiery burning eyes and stomping feet.

I couldn’t see how his unfiltered, combative way of being had shaped me. He had seen the worst in humanity and refused to remain silent.

My father also had a deeply tender and creative side. Anyone who came to our house admired the artistry of his backyard sanctuary of plants, bushes, flowers and trees. Neighbors flocked to him for advice on how to improve their lawns.

It took me a long time — well into my 30s — to mediate these two extremes: the flawed human being who acted destructively toward others, who wrote scathing letters to neighbors and fractured friendships, who hit my two siblings and slapped me; and the intellectually gifted, gentle soul who loved art and poetry, spent his finest hours cultivating his garden for all to enjoy, invited me on long walks around the neighborhood to discuss the attributes or lack of design in other people’s gardens, and encouraged me to write.

In high school, when I shared my first poems and short stories with him, he somehow knew to tread lightly, tenderly questioning a word choice and admiring my metaphors. Until his death, he enthusiastically championed all my writing efforts.

The author's father in his garden in 2000. (Courtesy)
The author's father in his garden in 2000. (Courtesy)

For a long time, I couldn’t see how his unfiltered, combative way of being had shaped me. He had seen the worst in humanity and refused to remain silent. “Speak up, speak up, I can’t hear you,” he often said. He had hearing loss from the war, but more importantly, he wanted people to engage with him and say what they really thought.

When my father walked into a room of people, he agitated the air, hunting for a way to provoke an enlivened conversation. He expressed his views about current events, troublesome neighbors, history and ways to fix America’s broken systems.

What would he say about our country’s cold-blooded murder of an unarmed Black man by a white police officer? He’d be mailing letters to government officials and newspaper editors decrying our collective, shameful, hideous inability to act — then bulleting steps the country would have to take to eradicate police brutality.

He’d had his own run-in with a police officer once, after he had failed to stop for three seconds at a stop sign. The police officer was in an unmarked car so when the siren went off, it took my father by surprise. The white officer dressed in civilian clothes sauntered over to the car and flashed his badge. Instead of cowering or yessing him, my father started shouting, then insisted on taking a picture of the officer. The two white men ego-glared at each. I was a teenager, in the back of the car, wishing my father would just shut up — for once. My father got ticketed and drove home. Today, I look back on that moment and understand that no Black man would get away with that behavior toward a white police officer — not then, in the 70s, and tragically, not today, in 2020.

He ... taught me that daring to stand up for one’s beliefs, saying things that made people uncomfortable, were daily acts of courage.

My father’s letter-writing and outbursts were a call to arms. He lived the life of a misfit, pushing others out of their comfort zone and, in the process, taught me that daring to stand up for one’s beliefs, saying things that made people uncomfortable, were acts of courage. My father woke people up.

With age, his temper softened and so did my feelings toward him. In my 40s, I told my father I thought he was a hero for the role he played in the war. But he vehemently disagreed and refused to take on that moniker. “I wasn’t a hero,” he said, flinching with anger. “I was doing my duty.”

He felt ashamed of humanity and what we had done, murdering millions because of their religion, race or political beliefs. The last time I asked him to talk about that time, he was in his 80s. I wanted to preserve his memory of that devastating experience and carry it forth after he was gone.

“Have the memories faded?”

We were standing in his beloved garden on Cape Cod on a warm sunny day. He looked at the sky and tried to talk, but as his mind flooded with ghastly images, his face twisted and he broke down in tears. "No. They’ve gotten worse.”

He has been gone 10 years now. But he is still alive and vivid in my heart. I can feel him urging me to go forth to help liberate our country from engaging further in unspeakable acts. It's my duty as an American — no more or less than that.

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Jessica Keener Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Jessica Keener’s latest novel, "Strangers In Budapest," was an Indie Next pick, a Southern Independent bestseller and an Entertainment Weekly “Best New Books” choice.

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