My father passed away three years ago. As a kind of prolonged Kaddish for him, I have been gathering the family history — tales that he knew, but I never asked enough about when he was alive. It’s been a labor of love, and of reflection, and I am not yet sure of the overall purpose. But it has connected me to the past in delicate ways. Certainly, ancestor-worship is, for me, a much more solid religious pillar than anything rooted in theology at this point.
Anyway, on this Memorial Day, and in that spirit, I gather the following photographs together:
A forestry major at N.C. State, Murray Lebowitz was my mother’s first cousin. He left college and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps a week after Pearl Harbor. He was killed when his bomber crashed into the sea after take off from Guadalcanal on a flight to bomb Japanese positions on the New Guinea coast in April 1943. His body, and those of his fellow crew members, was not recovered.
My uncle on my mother’s side, Henry Rosen, who flew 22 bombing missions from Italian bases over occupied Europe. After the war, he changed his name to Russell to skirt some of the anti-semitism in the fledgling electronics industry. He spoke very little about his military service.
My father’s first cousins, Dave and Leon Goldfarb. Leon was a radioman on the minelayer U.S.S. Oglala which was capsized by Japanese bombs at Pearl Harbor. He survived the attack, running above deck to abandon ship.
Ben Simonowsky, my father’s first cousin, who joined the fight against fascism in the 1930s, campaigning as a member of the American Communisty Party against America-first isolationism. At New York rallies, he was a reliable and rabble-rousing public speaker against Hitler and Mussolini. When war broke out, he enlisted. After the war, he was, of course, hounded by his own government for his political beliefs.
My mother’s brother, Irving Ligeti, as a U.S. Army Air Corps cadet. He was in flight school in Louisiana when the war ended, although his southern sojourn did result in his meeting a Bastrup, Louisiana girl, a prelude to one of the grandest marriages in our family history.
My father, Bernard Simon, tried to enlist after Pearl Harbor with friends, but was rejected because of his eyesight, only to be drafted in late 1942. He did not serve overseas, but as a U.S. Army master sergeant assigned to the New York Port of Embarkation he distinguished himself in one modest way for which I am proud. During the war, the N.Y. longshoremen — black and white — were militarized and officers and NCOs were asked if they would have a problem working with black stevedores. Many in the ranks were from the South and regardless, integration was only a whisper in 1942. My father readily volunteered to serve with black enlisted personnel.
My father’s first cousin, Shlomo Paretsky, left Slonim, Russia for Palestine in 1935. In the war against fascism, he joined the British Army and served in the Middle Eastern theater throughout the war. Paretsky would lose his father, a sister, a brother-in-law, and an infant nephew — all of whom were still in Slonim with the Nazis marched in — to the Holocaust.
Lastly, I don’t have a photograph for Isadore Lebowitz, another of my mother’s cousins, but I do have the historical paperwork to prove that he, too, was ready to take up arms against totalitarianism. As my mother remembers, Isadore, orphaned in his early twenties, was under the general care of his oldest aunt in 1937 when he left a note on her kitchen table in Brooklyn. The world was afire and so was he. By the time his Aunt Hannah read the note, he was sailing across the Atlantic with the rest of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, another Jewish lefty ready to fix a bayonet and fight Hitler, Mussolini and Franco in Spain. Alas, in an overreach that would make any Jewish mother proud, Aunt Hannah rushed to a local alderman and began a strategic campaign all her own. When Isadore Lebowitz reached Rotterdam along with the rest of his comrades, he was hauled off the ship by Dutch authorities. It seems that there was a warrant in New York for his arrest from a false claim that he had stolen his aunt’s jewelry. Given the casualty rates for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, his aunt probably saved his life, but of course, Isadore never forgave her.
As for my mother, she spent the war years at the Port of New York, in a warehouse on a pier at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, shipping military material in preparation for Operation Overlord and the invasion of France. Privately, she whispered to my father that D-Day would be June 5, 1944. She missed her guess by a day, but only because a storm in the English Channel required the invasion fleet to delay one day, as it turned out.
This was how America went to war once upon a time. It was everyone, all in. And nary an argument about rationing or shared sacrifice, never mind, say, any political imperative to cut taxes with our citizen armies in the field.
I’m not offering this as simply Memorial Day platitude. In fact, I am not entirely sold on the-greatest-generation mantra that accompanies the departure of my father and his contemporaries from the stage of history. World War II was of their moment and they did their part, true, but it was a conflict in which the stakes were apparent, just as the ideological and moral rationales were largely transparent. We were at war and everyone knew why. Such clarity is rare in the history of human warfare. Perhaps only those American generations confronted with the task of creating a republic and, later, restoring the union and ending slavery, have been accorded a similar moment.
My oldest maternal cousin served as an artillery officer in the Vietnam era, just as another cousin, a few years younger, risked his own future and freedom to oppose the war as an active leader in Students for a Democratic Society. And after that, the photographs of men in uniform disappear from my family tree. We are, as you might guess, a left-leaning clan as a general rule, and the post-war history offers no certainty that a young life entrusted to the American military will be risked or expended on wars of necessity and high purpose.
My family is now largely a part of the America that now exists amid two ongoing overseas conflicts and feels little direct personal connection with the men and women who form the nation’s warrior class. An all-volunteer military makes possible American military interventions regardless of national consensus; absent a draft, the national opposition to an unpopular military adventure is marginal and muted. But at the same time, a volunteer military also leaves only a portion of America to experience the reality of war and sacrifice, while the rest of us disconnect.
That schism for me, personally, would be altogether complete but for the handful of U.S. Marines who I had the opportunity to meet and experience as a result of my involvement with Generation Kill. Some of these young men have continued to serve overseas in various capacities, and so, I have learned to read the headlines and watch the television with some measure of consciousness and worry. But I am being dishonest if I regard this as anything but a happenstance that resulted from an unlikely film project. By and large, the reality of wartime America lands hard among only military families. The rest of us are free to opt out.
There is something understandable in this phenomenon, but also something deeply wrong with it. And, along with a fundamental respect for all of those who have served and sacrificed for the American military regardless of the conflict, perhaps this rending in the fabric of our republic is something to consider on this day.