Emily Meg Weinstein | Longreads | December 2017 | 22 minutes (5,522 words)
For Ruth Weisenfeld Diamond (1921-2014) and Samuel Meyer Diamond (1919-2008)
First, it came for my grandfather, then for my grandmother. Death comes for us all, but still Jews toast, l’chaim! To life!
When my mother and her brother cleaned out their dead parents’ apartment, they found their father’s Bronze Star from the war.
“Do you know what was in the box with the Bronze Star?” my mother asked me.
“A Nazi Iron Cross.”
“How did you know that?”
“Grandpa showed it to me a bunch of times.”
“Where did he get it?”
“Off a dead Nazi.”
That makes it sound like my grandfather killed the Nazi, but he didn’t. He never fired his gun, not once in the whole Allied advance.
My uncle convinced himself that my grandfather got the Bronze Star for doing something heroic, but I know otherwise. Bronze Stars were awarded to almost everyone who participated in the invasion of Europe. All you had to do was be there. If you did something special, you got a Silver Star, and if you were wounded, a Purple Heart. There is no gold star medal in the US military, only a gold star mother. A gold star mother is a mother whose son is dead.
My grandfather’s mother, my Great-Grandma Nettie, wasn’t a gold star mother. If she were, I wouldn’t be here, telling this story.
Instead, my grandfather was one of a long line of cowards and draft dodgers — and also, survivors. In the early 20th century, my grandfather’s father persuaded the town butcher of Bychawa, Poland to puncture his eardrum so he could avoid conscription in the Russian Army. My grandfather’s son, my uncle, escaped the Vietnam draft in 1968 with a doctor’s note about his bad knee.
I am grateful for these evasions, for my great-grandfather’s willingness to go deaf in one ear, for the unfair privilege (and fiercely intrusive Jewish mother) that got my uncle his doctor’s note. Heroes die, and then someone else tells their story, but the cowards and draft dodgers live to tell their own.
Still, my grandfather didn’t tell his children much about how he survived the war. He never told them where he got the Nazi Iron Cross he kept with his Bronze Star.
But he told me.
Ruth and Sam, my maternal grandparents, met in a schoolyard in the Bronx in 1935. Ruth was 14. Sam was 16.
“We played basketball. I was always waiting to brush up against Sammy. Just to brush up against him! Such a feeling!” remembered Ruth.
“She was very pretty, even though she didn’t have much of a bosom,” said Sam. Later in life, when he became hard of hearing, he would fall asleep at the table, but snap awake if he heard the word “breasts.”
“Where?” he would say. “Where?”
Ruth and Sam dated until they were sixteen and eighteen. Then my grandfather dumped my grandmother.
“I was young! I had nothing! I couldn’t support her!”
(I think the truth is he wanted to play the field in college.)
My uncle convinced himself that my grandfather got the Bronze Star for doing something heroic, but I know otherwise. Bronze Stars were awarded to almost everyone who participated in the invasion of Europe. All you had to do was be there.
Later, Grandpa Sam said that breaking up with Grandma Ruth had been a big mistake. “For many years, I thought I had lost Grandma forever. I had my misery, Emily.”
My grandmother dated other guys. Then, when she was 18, she thought she had gotten pregnant by one of them.
She didn’t know for sure. There were no tests, just a suspicious month, followed by another. Her mother, Esther, arranged for her to have an illegal abortion.
When I was 10 or 12, my grandmother started telling me the story of this abortion almost every time I saw her. When my younger female cousin reached that age, our grandmother told her, too.
“Did you know I had an a-baw-shun?” she would begin, in her Bronx accent, gripping my arm and already teary. My grandmother’s hands, though arthritic, were huge and strong. Her skin was very soft and smelled like Dove soap. She held my arm above the elbow, so I couldn’t get away.
It was still the last millennium. I knew nothing of transgenerational trauma, or emotional boundaries. At 12, 13, 14, my grandmother told me the details, over and over, until I felt sad and scared and strange. I wanted to hear stories, but I didn’t like how the knowing made me feel. She would tell her sad stories until she sobbed. Captivated by her words, I was captive to her tears. When she was done crying, she would smile a false, bright smile, and conclude, “I think my grandchildren should know something about my life.”
After the abortion, my grandmother’s mother told her, in her Yiddish accent, “Now you vill marry him.”
My grandmother’s own parents’ marriage had been arranged, back in the old country. The exact location of the old country was never clear. It eventually became Czechoslovakia, but at the time they emigrated it was part of — Poland? Russia? Prussia? Or maybe the land didn’t change hands, but the whole town was wandering, on the run from the Cossacks. When you are Jewish, so many bad things happened to your ancestors that you can’t always know who or where, they were running to — or from.
The union of my Grandma Ruth’s parents, Esther Greenhut and Julius Weisenfeld, was not a happy one. Early on, Esther stopped sleeping in the same bed with Julius. Instead, she shared a bed with their four daughters.
Julius was abusive. He yelled. He hit. He may have done even worse, to some or all of his daughters. Maybe Esther slept in her daughters’ bed to get away from Julius. Maybe she did it to protect her daughters from their father. Or maybe he started doing whatever he did to his daughters because his wife wouldn’t do it with him. That part, my grandmother never told.
Julius was very religious and gave what little money they made from their failing button store to the shul, instead of buying enough food for the family. During the Depression, Esther was left to suck the marrow from chicken bones, after her husband and children had eaten the meat.
Maybe Esther figured she’d better get my grandmother married, before she got knocked up out of wedlock again. Maybe Esther wanted to help Ruth, by getting her away from her abusive father. Or maybe Esther just wanted one less mouth in her house to feed, so she could eat more meat, less marrow.
So, my grandmother married The Other Guy. His name was Dave, but he was always referred to as “The Other Guy.”
“I cried all the way to the honeymoon with The Other Guy,” Ruth said. “I still loved Sammy.”
Meanwhile, my grandfather, Sam, was drafted in 1941 and sent to Alabama for basic training. He was on KP duty, washing dishes, when news of the Pearl Harbor attack came over the radio. When Sam heard the news, he dropped a plate. Now, he knew, the U.S. would enter the war, and he would be sent overseas.
Soon after, an army doctor was listening to Sam’s heart. The doctor said, “You know, I might hear something funny in your heart. I might hear a murmur that would make you unfit for combat, and you would have to stay stateside.”
“But it was so hot in Alabama,” my grandfather told me. “Miserable! I didn’t know how long the war would go on. I didn’t want to get stuck there. So I told the doctor, ‘Nah, I don’t think I have a heart murmur.’”
This decision was emblematic of the man my grandfather was. His mottoes were “Stay the course,” and “Muddle through.” He was tenacious — he worked long hours as an accountant and played whole days of tennis, both into his 80s — but also lazy, or maybe just exhausted.
He never learned to cook, and had no hobbies besides playing tennis, watching tennis, and reading voraciously. He disliked extremes of temperature.
Instead, my grandfather was one of a long line of cowards and draft -dodgers — and also, survivors. In the early 20th century, my grandfather’s father persuaded the town butcher of Bychawa, Poland to puncture his eardrum so he could avoid conscription in the Russian Army.
He wasn’t going to Europe to serve his country or get rid of Hitler and save his fellow Jews. He was going to Europe because it was too hot in Alabama.
My grandfather didn’t need a fake heart murmur to get him through the war alive. He had his ace in the hole: accounting. By the time my grandfather was drafted, he had already graduated from City College in Manhattan with an accounting degree. So when he went Over There, he was assigned to the 53rd Finance, a whole unit of accountants, and not the regular infantry.
We — all of us — owe our lives to that accounting degree. It saved his life. It kept him in the rear of the Allied advance, instead of at the front. Without it, my Grandpa Sam might have had to fire his gun, or been hit by a bullet from someone else’s. Instead, he went all the way from Normandy to Berlin, keeping his head down, keeping the books.
My grandmother was already married to The Other Guy when my grandfather came home on leave before he shipped out to Europe.
“I went over to her house while The Other Guy was at work and she made me some eggs,” my grandfather said. “We were still kind of half-assed friends.”
“We went to the park and rode bikes with my sister,” my grandmother elaborated.
Then, they started having an affair.
“We went to the park and had intercourse.”
“Grandma, ew! Gross!”
“You think we weren’t young once? You think we didn’t do what you do? We did it in the park. Behind a ROCK!
“The rock was maybe this high.” My grandmother held her hand a foot above the table.
“It really was,” chuckled my grandfather.
“Jesus!” I said.
“I think my grandchildren should know something about my life,” said my grandmother.
The affair continued until it was time for my grandfather to ship out.
“So I says to Sammy,” said Ruth, “‘You know what you’re gonna do, Sammy? You’re gonna write to me. I’m gonna get a post office box.’”
This was exactly how she spoke to him for the duration of their sixty-three year marriage: “You know what you’re gonna do, Sammy?”
He didn’t know, but she told him. In later years, this usually involved going to the car and getting a shopping bag. Like most Jewish husbands, he obeyed.
This is what happened to my grandfather Over There:
While he was in England for a year, getting ready to invade Europe, my grandfather had an affair with a married English woman whose husband was away in Africa with the Green Berets. My grandmother knew about this affair.
“The English woman had a bearskin rug,” she would say. “Sammy, tell Emily about what you did on the bearskin rug.”
“Please don’t!” I would say.
“What, you think you invented it? You didn’t invent it. We used to do it — ”
“I know, in the park, behind a rock!”
While I was in college, studying abroad in England, I saw a documentary on the BBC about English women who had affairs with American servicemen during the war. A nice old English lady told her story in her polite and musical British accent.
“Well, the Yanks were everywhere and all of our husbands were away, of course. One day, my friend said that she was going for a walk in the park with an American soldier, and he had a friend. So I joined them. And the Yank was quite charming, you know, and so we had sexual intercourse in the park.”
Now, wait a minute. Did the English lady really say, “sexual intercourse in the park”? My grandmother said “intercourse in the park.” I cringed when she said the word “intercourse.” It was almost as bad as when she said “panties.”
But did the English lady really say this on the BBC, or am I putting my grandmother’s words in the English lady’s mouth? I have a way of conflating my own memories with stories I’ve heard, or movies I’ve seen. After hearing about my grandmother’s abortion so many times when I was young, I started repeating the story to fellow pro-choice, sex-positive virgins at my college Women’s Center.
“The doctor had a dirty knife and a folding table,” I would say, until one day, someone pointed out that those are the exact words of the abortion story in the movie Dirty Dancing. I had confused the story of my grandmother’s abortion in the 1930s with the one that occurred in the 1960s, depicted in the film from the 1980s.
When you are Jewish, so many bad things happened to your ancestors that you can’t always know who or where, they were running to — or from.
My grandmother and the actress who played the main role in Dirty Dancing have curly hair, as do I. When you are Jewish, it’s easy to get confused about which curly-haired woman’s traumatic sexual experience you are describing.
I think the English woman in the BBC documentary really did say “sexual intercourse in the park.” I remember her ladylike chuckle at the memory.
When I got back from England, I told my grandfather about the BBC documentary. He was delighted.
“That was ME!” he exclaimed, “I had an affair with a married English woman during the war!”
“I know, Grandpa. You told me.”
“Right,” he said. “But did I ever tell you how I got my Nazi Iron Cross?”
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After they were married, my grandparents traveled to Europe, to see the beaches at Normandy. My grandmother told that story over and over, too. Her keyword about D-Day was, “hedgerow.”
“When we went and saw those beaches, we saw that the Allies were separated from the Germans by hedgerows, Emily. Hedgerows. The Germans were behind a hedge.”
“Didn’t you land on D-Day plus twelve, Grandpa?”
“D-Day plus fifteen.”
“Were there still Germans on the beaches?”
“No, not on the beaches. They had been pushed further back into Normandy by then.”
“So Grandma, Grandpa was not separated from the Germans by hedgerows.”
“That doesn’t mean that everything that happens isn’t WRITTEN DOWN IN THE BOOK!” cried my grandmother.
My grandmother was always saying that everything in life was “written down in the book.” I don’t know if she meant The Book of Life, the Judeo-Christian concept of the book in which God writes the names of those who are destined to go to Heaven or just the book of her life. To her, there may have been no difference.
What my grandmother really meant about our lives being written down in The Book was that everything that happens is pre-ordained, destined, meant to be. The Yiddish word for this is bashert. To hear my Grandma Ruth tell it, the sole purpose of the Allied Advance was to return Sam, the Army Accountant safely to Ruth, the Bronx Bookkeeper.
My grandfather described the amphibious crafts, the crossing of the English Channel, the seasick soldiers vomiting in their helmets, the spikes in the sand. He never mentioned the hedgerows, or The Book. He didn’t believe in anything but the numbers in the books he kept.
The only time during the war when it sounded like my grandfather’s life was truly in peril was the time he got surrounded.
“Emily,” he would ask. “Did I ever tell you about the time I got surrounded?”
He did, many times, though I now forget where exactly in the Allied advance this occurred — presumably somewhere between Normandy and Berlin. I always asked him to tell it again.
“We were billeted for the night. This one guy was ironing my pants.”
“Why was the guy ironing your pants?”
“I was a master sergeant by that time. Did you know that? That’s the highest rank you can get as a non-commissioned officer.”
“What was the guy who was ironing your pants?”
“A corporal or something.”
“Weren’t you embarrassed to ask someone else to iron your pants?”
“I didn’t ask him, I ordered him. I told you, I was a master sergeant.”
Coddled by his mother, my grandfather had no practical skills besides accounting. I am not surprised that when he attained the rank of master sergeant, he used this power to order his subordinates to iron his pants. This was the man I knew.
“So while the one guy was ironing my pants, I sent another guy out to get toilet paper.”
Was that what my uncle had in mind when he imagined his father’s heroic secret missions? The man earned a Bronze Star by successfully delegating pants-ironing and toilet paper-retrieval across the span of the European continent. Well, semi-successfully.
“The second guy comes back way too fast. So I says, ‘You didn’t go all the way to Supply!’”
“We’re surrounded!” said the Corporal With No Toilet Paper.
“Shit!” said my grandfather.
“What did you do, Grandpa? Did you fight them?”
“Fight them? Those were Nazis, Emily. Why the hell would I go out in the night looking for Nazis? They were trying to kill us! No, I didn’t fight them. I went to sleep.”
I was never prouder of my grandfather as a soldier or more grateful to him as an ancestor than I was when he told me this story. What if he had decided to be a hero? What if he had told the corporal to stop ironing his pants, and ordered his men to pick up their guns and go find a Nazi to shoot? What if a Nazi had shot him?
My grandmother was always saying that everything in life was “written down in the book.” I don’t know if she meant The Book of Life, the Judeo-Christian concept of the book in which God writes the names of those who are destined to go to Heaven, or just the book of her life.
I don’t believe what my grandmother believed. I don’t think it’s all written down in a book. There is no book, no plan. It only looks like there was a plan later, once what happens, happens. Then we can write it down in a book. But it’s not the book that makes our lives, it’s our lives that make the book. (Or at least that’s what I learned in the existentialism classes I took at the fancy college my grandparents and all that accounting helped pay for.)
Winter, 1944-1945. Somewhere in France, Belgium, or Germany, a master sergeant with creaseless pants and no toilet paper is surrounded by Nazis and does — nothing. Just goes to sleep, and hopes to wake up. That moment of — prudence? cowardice? sleepiness? — saved my grandfather’s life and made possible my own.
The night my grandfather decided not to go shoot Nazis was exactly thirty-five years before I was born. I wrote this essay thirty-five years later. I wasn’t born until 1979, but in another way, my mother, and her brother, and me, and my brother, and my cousin, and her brother — we were all born that night, in the dark European forest, while my grandfather slept, and didn’t die.
“Everyone has stories of the small coincidence by which their parents met or their grandmother was saved from fire or their grandfather from the grenade,” writes Rebecca Solnit in The Faraway Nearby. My grandfather saved himself, from the bullet, the bomb, the grenade, and the friendly fire, and wrote our lives into The Book. Not exactly by coincidence. By doing nothing. By getting a good night’s sleep.
He was a good sleeper and a good eater. That was how he survived.
“You know,” my grandmother would say, lifting the curtain once more on the dramatic events of their lives, “Sammy witnessed an atrocity.”
He did. During the chaos of their retreat, at the very end of the war, the Nazis locked hundreds of Jews in a barn and burned them alive. My grandfather’s unit was tasked with their burial. He never said anything about what it was like, or how he felt, or how it looked, or how it smelled. All he ever said about it was, “Only one guy in the outfit ate lunch that day — me.”
Lest he sound callow, let it be said that my grandfather had an extremely fast metabolism, and was constantly eating bananas. He was also emotionally detached, from his trauma, from himself, from his family — from the war. This is why neither of his children knew how he got a Bronze Star and an Iron Cross. It is probably why all he ever said about the atrocity was that he was the only guy who ate lunch.
The last time I saw my Grandma Ruth alive, she was 93 years old. She had been bedridden for three years, but her mind was intact. I asked her how she had lived so long.
“Well,” she said, “You have to eat. You have to exercise. And you have to find a man to have sex with. That’s very important.”
Those were her last words to me, besides “I love you.” Her dying advice on how to live. Eat. Exercise. Have sex; that’s very important. It is good advice for life. L’chaim, Grandma! To life!
My grandfather dispensed the same advice throughout his life. “Stay the course.” “Muddle through.” Keep moving. Keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t skip meals.
L’chaim, Grandpa. To life.
Toward the end of his life, my grandfather would say to me, “Emily, this morning I had a great shock. I woke up, and I was still alive!”
He often seemed surprised to be alive. He had fought for his own life by not fighting, and remained shell-shocked by that fact. When he came out from behind his newspaper, his eyebrows were quizzical. How did I get to America, to this armchair, to this planet, to this life, to this woman with her demands and commands?
My grandfather had to make it to America twice. Once, when he was a little boy, only 3 years old, and he and his mother emigrated from Poland to the United States, via Paris. And again, when he went Over There, marched all the way through Europe, and made it back to the Bronx a second time, alive. Both times, he went through Paris.
When my mother found the Bronze Star, she also found my grandfather’s parents’ marriage certificate from Bychawa, Poland, where they were wed in 1918. It said that Checha Mandelbaum had married Jankiel Djament. Who the hell were Checha and Jankiel? We knew them as Nettie and Jack. Their name wasn’t changed to Diamond until they came to America.
Just after my grandfather was born in Bychawa, Poland, in 1919, his father, Jankiel, came to the United States. His mother, Nettie, went to Paris, to work as a servant, bringing my infant grandfather with her. Nettie had family in Paris — her siblings and their children, Sam’s first cousins.
When my grandfather was 3, Jankiel, who was now called Jack, sent for them. My great-grandmother, Nettie Djament, née Checha Mandelbaum, brought my Grandpa Sam to America. This was a good move. The rest of the Mandelbaum family stayed in Paris. This was a bad move.
The day Paris was liberated, in August 1944, my grandfather kissed a woman in the street, in the mayhem. Then she asked him, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?”
“Do you know what that means, Emily?”
“It means, ‘Do you want to go to bed with me tonight?’”
“BRILLIANT!” my grandmother exalted.
Sam said no to the French woman.
So the French woman said “Fuck you,” to him, in French.
The night my grandfather decided not to go shoot Nazis was exactly thirty-five years before I was born. I wasn’t born until 1979, but in another way, my mother, and her brother, and me, and my brother, and my cousin, and her brother — we were all born that night, in the dark European forest, while my grandfather slept, and didn’t die.
“She said, ‘Fuck you!’” my grandfather chuckled. “Do you believe that?”
“‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,’” I said.
“Did you write that, Emily?” asked my grandmother. “Such a MIND!”
“No, Grandma. I think that’s Shakespeare.” (It isn’t.)
In Paris, after the liberation, Sam went to find his mother’s family — all of his aunts, uncles, and cousins. He knocked on the door of their last known address.
The gentile who lived there now gave him two silver candlesticks wrapped in a napkin. That was all that was left of the Mandelbaums in Paris.
This is what my grandmother did while my grandfather was overseas, not getting killed:
She left The Other Guy.
“One day, I just walked out. I left everything. I went home to my mother’s house. My sister Hilda said, ‘You left the iron I gave you for your wedding?’ So I went back. I got the iron. I went back to my mother’s house and I put it on the table and I says to Hilda, ‘Here’s the iron.’”
The Other Guy tried to get her back. “He came to my mother’s house with a fox-fur coat. Can you imagine? A fox-fur coat. But I loved Sammy. So I told The Other Guy, ‘I wasn’t born just to die.’”
Like many other Jews of her generation, my grandmother had a tendency to frame everything in terms of life and death. Science now tells us it might be imprinted on our Jewish genes to do so. She didn’t say, “I don’t want to be married to you anymore,” or “This isn’t working out.” She said, “I wasn’t born just to die.”
My grandmother’s words, and the way she repeated them, trained my ear. She taught me to use language, to tell stories, to turn a phrase. She had catchphrases before they existed. She would have excelled in the era of the hashtag. #wasntbornjustodie.
The marriage to The Other Guy was annulled. “That’s not like divorced. That’s like it never happened.”
“Did you wait for Grandpa, while he was in the war?”
“Wait for him! Are you crazy? He was gone two years! He could have been killed! No, I didn’t wait for him. I had boyfriends. There was this guy, Matt, who was nuts about me. And I played a lot of tennis. A LOT of tennis.” (#youhavetoexercise) (#findamantohavesexwith #thatsveryimportant)
Ruth and Sam wrote to each other while my grandfather was in England, then after he landed in France on D-Day plus fifteen and marched on through Europe. They kept their letters in an old red shoebox. I would read them when I visited, after my grandfather showed me his Bronze Star and the Nazi Iron Cross.
My grandmother’s letters are long ruminations on romance and existential themes and what is destined and her love for Sammy. (No mention of Matt.) My grandfather’s V-mail is almost entirely blacked out by censors, because he all he does is give away their position.
“Dear Ruth, We are in REDACTED. We came from REDACTED. Tomorrow we are going to REDACTED. There is heavy fighting at the front in RECACTED. But here in REDACTED, it is not so bad. I don’t know when this will be over. Soon, I hope. Love, Sam.”
The letters stopped sometime during the winter of 1944-1945. My grandfather marched, or rode in a jeep. He got surrounded. He buried the dead, and still ate lunch. He said “no” to the French woman and she said, “Fuck you.” He found out his family in France was all gone.
The day he first showed me the Bronze Star and the Iron Cross, he told me the Bronze Star was from the U.S. Army, and the Iron Cross was from a Nazi.
“Where did you get this, Grandpa?” I asked. “Did a Nazi give it to you when the war was over? Did you kill one?”
“No,” said my grandfather. “We didn’t talk to the Nazis, because they were the enemy. At the end, everybody was still killing each other. We were marching one day, and we saw a bunch of dead Nazis. Everyone was taking stuff. So I took it, from a body.”
The Nazis had taken all of his aunts, uncles, and cousins — all the Mandelbaums in Paris. They at least owed him a souvenir.
Meanwhile, my grandmother played tennis. She worked as a bookkeeper and was sexually harassed by her employers before there was a name for it. She pretended she wasn’t Jewish, to get a bookkeeping job. But then one day she stood up and said, “My name is Ruth Weisenfeld and I am a Jew!” and walked out of there.
She taught me how to quit — jobs, relationships, subpar lunches. “Why should you suffer?” she would say. “Why be miserable? Sometimes you just have to say, ‘Fuck it.’”
By the summer of 1945, my grandmother hadn’t heard from my grandfather in six months. She didn’t know if he was alive or dead or captured or what. Finally, in August, she got a telegram. It said: In Italy STOP Coming home STOP Love, Sam STOP
One day in October when Ruth got home from work, her mother told her, “Sammy vas here.”
He came back that same night, wearing his uniform because he had gotten too skinny for his old clothes. They went for a walk.
“Do you want to live around here?” asked Sam. Ruth said yes.
Toward the end of his life, my grandfather would say to me, “Emily, this morning I had a great shock. I woke up, and I was still alive!” He often seemed surprised to be alive. He had fought for his own life by not fighting, and remained shell-shocked by that fact.
They were married three weeks later on November 4, 1945. Sam’s mother, Nettie, wore black to the wedding.
“She didn’t like that I had been married before,” my grandmother said. “I think she wanted Sammy to marry a virgin. Little did she know it was Sammy who de-virginized me, all those years ago, before The Other Guy. In the park — ”
“I know, Grandma. Behind a rock.”
“Even though it was my second marriage, I had a beautiful dress, wool. I had a very nice figure. Then, we went to the Catskills.”
“I almost got a hernia, lifting the valises,” said my grandfather. “I don’t know what she put in those valises.”
My grandfather was no hero during the war. He kept his pants ironed and wrote checks to the guys in harm’s way. When the Nazis came, he took a nap. But he saved, if not six million Jews, at least six — his progeny, us, a boy and a girl who each had a boy and a girl of their own, the eldest of whom is me.
The brave thing my grandfather did was to play it fast and loose with the IRS as an accountant. He never bragged about this, or even spoke of it. He took his true act of heroism to the grave.
After we buried him, at the shivah, I tried to make funereal whisky a family tradition. Pouring the Jack Daniels, mostly for myself, I said, “Grandpa loved his whisky,” though in truth, I had never seen either of my grandparents drink more than a single Heineken.
A story came out anyway. It came from my father. His own father had died when he was 20. My dad ended up in the accounting business with my Grandpa Sam, his father-in-law.
“Over the years, I probably spent more time with Sam than I had with my own father,” my father remarked. “Maybe more time than he spent with his own children. He was kind of a weird guy. He was one hell of an accountant. Sam cut it as close as anyone could cut it,” continued my father. “He did things I would never do. He took deductions I would never take. He had no fear.”
He had no fear.
I was shocked by this remembrance. My father had never said a word about Grandpa Sam’s habits as an accountant. They both just went to the office and made money and provided. They complained about difficult clients, worked Saturdays from February until April 15th, threw down their gold cards at Sunday family dinners after checking the math on the check, and built the next generation’s college funds, one 1040 form at a time. When I visited the office and Xeroxed my hand on the copy machine, they filed the copies in a special folder.
But, suddenly, I remembered how when I first started my own business, when I was 22, Grandpa Sam had said, “Emily, you should let me take a look at your tax return.”
“That’s okay, Grandpa.” I said. “My dad does it.”
“Your father,” said my grandfather, “is a very scrupulous and law-abiding man.”
And he said again, “If you really want to save some money, you should let me take a look at your tax return.”
I understand now that my grandfather was telling me he would do things my father would never do. He would take deductions my father would never take. He would account without fear.
Cowardly during the war, he was brave with taxes. He gave the Nazis a wide berth, but on the 1040 form, he cut it as close as anyone could. He took no chances on the march, but fearlessly gambled against the IRS — and won — for sixty years after that.
“Stay the course,” he told me, over and over. “Muddle through.” The other thing he sometimes said was, “Courage!”
The heroic thing he did in the war was not to kill or die, but to survive. He didn’t go out in the night looking for Nazis. He went to sleep, and woke up alive. He stayed the course and muddled through. He looted small. He took the Iron Cross off a dead Nazi someone else killed. He got the Bronze Star just for being Over There. And we are here, because he came back.
I don’t need my grandfather’s Bronze Star or his Iron Cross to know that he was equal parts hero and coward. All of us are.
* * *
Editor: Sari Botton