When I was very young, my parents rented out rooms on the second floor of our home, the same floor where we children slept. My father was perhaps accustomed to strangers in his corridors, having himself grown up in the Seaton Hotel, a sort of boarding-house that welcomed long-term tenants as well as transients . He said that he had no personal space as a child, taking a vacant room when one was available and sleeping in a cot in a public area if the beds were full.
I remember few of those who passed through our central Sioux City home. I often heard about the polite man, a periodic tenant during my infancy, who said he was a seed salesman until he was arrested in a bank robbery. “Such a well-dressed fellow, too,” my mother mused. I do possess vague memory flashes of the college student who would play Monopoly with my brother and me, forming Realpolitik alliances to defeat the one player and then turning mercilessly on his ally.
There was one, though, of our roomers of whom I retain distinct and powerful memories: a small and slender man with an accent and numbers tattooed on his forearm. During my father’s army service in Europe he had met this young Holocaust survivor, a German Jew named Daniel Sonntag. This unlucky victim had been taken from locksmith school and sent to the camps at the age of sixteen and was somehow still alive at the war’s end six years later. My father said after years of malnutrition he couldn’t hold down his first meal. Sonntag spoke readily, even to us young children, about his ordeal. I remember his saying that he always claimed to know any trade that might be useful to his captors, claiming to be a cobbler, for instance, and then muddling through the tasks assigned him as best he could. He told us little Midwestern Christian boys what it was like to be examined by a physician to determine whether one might live a bit longer or not. As a preschooler the more monstrous horrors doubtless passed my capacity to appreciate. I recall being particularly impressed to hear his description of how the people packed into cattle cars were obliged to excrete as they stood.
I have always thought that being exposed to all of this first-hand information at such a young age gave me a greater understanding of the depths of evil. For all of us who grew up in the shadow of World War II, the Nazis are an unsurpassed archetype of wickedness. It took some years before I began thinking that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had changed the world as much as Auschwitz and Dachau. Indeed, in the World War II story, the Allied forces made a reassuring counterpoint to the fascist threat. (The Nazi villain was perhaps easier to process, especially once defeated, than the specter of nuclear annihilation, quite real in the age of John Foster Dulles’ brinksmanship and “mutually assured destruction.”)
Our roomer, the object of absurd and senseless aggression, a sufferer from the most recent episode in long centuries of exploitation and mistreatment, reminded me what happens when push comes to shove in human affairs. In the end force rules now as much as when the Greeks fought the Persians. Were I altogether enlightened, I suppose I would be a pacifist, but at present I know I would defend myself (perhaps ineffectually) if attacked, and I see no reason why the same imperative should not hold for social groups as well.
It is idle to speculate about what may have happened had the United States not entered the war, but who today would say the decision to fight was wrong-headed? My father’s uniform hung in the storage area under the eaves. When we asked him about his decorations, he would explain, “This I got for brushing my teeth; this was for doing what I was told, this for going to bed on time . . .” His souvenirs were in box nearby: a parachute, a disabled grenade, a Luger, and -- second most marvelous of all – a set of extraordinarily ingenious German mechanical toy cars. Unquestionably most impressive to a small boy were three military blades: a bayonet, an SA dagger inscribed “Alles für Deutschland,” and a Luftwaffe officer’s dress sword so grand and marvelous it looked as though it should belong to some dashing officer on the operetta stage.
But these visible signs all pointed to the great battle between good and evil in which the virtuous forces had come out on top, as Joe Palooka and the Blackhawks did. A Vietnam era war protestor and draft evader, I have generally considered the American soldiers to be victims, largely unaware of their assignment as the bully boys of the American Empire. Yet on this Memorial Day 2014 I can also honor the unquestionable sacrifice of veterans like my father (and his grandfather in the Civil War) who enlisted with a simple desire to do their part, to do the right thing, to combat tyranny. In this current era many parents who consider themselves enlightened seek to shield their children from the knowledge of racism, sexism, war, and exploitation. In my own experience, knowing the depths to which human nature may sink and knowing at the same time an equally human great-hearted reaction, a simple decision to extend a hand in solidarity, has been both enlightening and empowering. While secure in my status as a white middle-class American with healthy college-educated parents and a reasonably functioning family during a time of increasing prosperity, I was aware as well that my comfort was purely my good fortune, and that I was more kindly treated by fate than others, people otherwise like myself, and that exceedingly dark events might unfold in apparently civilized corners of the world at any moment, transforming ordinary people into a pack of rapacious, unstoppable beasts.