Monday, December 3, 2018

Joe and Al

Joe and Al are both patients of mine.

They don't know each other.

They were born in the same year, a few thousand mild miles apart, speaking different languages.

To most who meet them they come across as polite older gentlemen, each with a good sense of humor. They may notice Joe's tremor or Al's speech difficulties, but neither is a major part of who they are.

But to me, they mean a lot after 20 years in practice.

Joe was born in Poland. His father was a tailor, and Joe worked in the store growing up. Because they were Jews, the family business was closed by the government so they had no way to support themselves. He saw his father beaten to death for trying to keep the family together while boarding a train. His mother was put in a different train car and never seen again. His sister was forced to work in a brothel for German officers and was never seen outside that building again. He and his brother were together until they got to the camp sorting area. His brother, who had a bad cough that week, was sent to a gas chamber. Joe was sent to do slave labor, and was still alive when the camp was liberated by allied forces. Joe, at 5'10" weighed 94 pounds by that point, and was hard to distinguish from the dead bodies he'd been forced to carry outside.

After recovering in a military hospital, Joe decided to leave Europe forever. He immigrated to America, settling in Omaha. He went to school, married, raised a family, and spent most of his life in a quiet, unassuming, desk job. Today he's nearly blind and needs a walker to get around. His wife is still at his side, and sometimes one of his kids.

Al was born in Los Angeles. He worked in a grocery store and went to high school until he turned 18, when he was drafted into the Marines.

On the morning of February 19, 1945, he was roughly 6,000 miles from L.A., in landing crafts with 60,000 other Marines, approaching the peaceful-appearing sands of Iwo Jima in the south Pacific. As they clambered ashore and gradually moved inland it was surprisingly quiet, with none of the resistance they'd encountered on previous islands.

About an hour after coming ashore, that all changed. The well-hidden Japanese forces opened up on the beach with machine guns and heavy artillery, creating a hell-on-earth. There was nowhere to hide. Al saw guys he'd had steak & eggs with a few hours earlier (the standard U.S. Marine breakfast for landing forces) collapse around him, dead. Some were wounded, and he and others tried to get them to whatever safety they could find. Then he was hit himself, but worked to help others until he blacked-out from blood loss. He woke up on a hospital ship.

After the war he returned home, finished school, and managed grocery stores until he retired. He and his wife raised a boy and 2 girls. They recently celebrated their 60th anniversary. Today he uses a walker and oxygen tank, and is nearly deaf, but still has a hearty laugh.

At this point both are in their 90's. The horrors they experienced aren't forgotten, but hidden behind a lifetime of mundanity (which, lets face it, mundanity describes most of us, and it isn't a bad thing).

In my mind they're bound together by being (most likely) the last of their kind I'll meet.

I've seen my share of Holocaust survivors, but as the years go by they've decreased, and I doubt I'll meet another after Joe.

Similarly, in 20 years I've cared for plenty of WW2 veterans, but see them grow fewer, and the odds are I won't meet another who fought at Iwo Jima.

Like many of their generation, neither wants to talk about what they went through. The memories are painful, and both men would rather be defined but what came afterwards: their families.

But they, and what they went through, shouldn't be forgotten.

Ever.

20 comments:

jimbo26 said...

I`m not a religious man , but I`ll say " Amen " to that . ( Can`t seem to find my handkerchief ) .

Suzan said...

Amen

Nurse Lilly said...

It's so easy for those of us who've never known REAL fear or want to take for granted those that did.

bobbie said...

A truly beautiful post ~ thanks so much for sharing their stories. Last members of the greatest generation ~

danielle said...

Neither of my parents talked to me much about their experiences in WWII (my mom was an Army nurse in the European Theater), or in my dad's case, even of the Korean War. My dad talked more to my husband (I am an only) than he ever did to me. I wish they had both talked more so that their stories could live on, but totally understand it was not something they wanted to talk much about, and especially not to a child.

Jon Porter said...

Doc, you need to set up simultaneous appointments for the two of them.
..

Jeff Gregor said...

Working in EMS doesn't usually allow me the time to get these kinds of stories from my patients, but occasionally with long transports or repeat customers I learn some interesting things. A few come to mind:

A very elderly gentleman who was born in Poland told me how he was 15 when the Nazis invaded. His father was in the Polish Army and was killed during the invasion, and his baby brother and mother were taken and he never saw them again. He managed to escape into the forest where he became one of the Leśni ("Forest People" -- armed partisan groups that operated in occupied Poland). He spent the next couple of years fighting guerrilla warfare against the Nazis, before being captured and sent to a POW camp near the end of the war. After his camp was liberated by the Soviets, he emigrated to the US.

Another man, on seeing my paramedic patch, told me "You know, I was a medic too... only we were called corpsmen in the Marines." When I asked where he served, he told me was was on Guadalcanal and Saipan, where he was wounded. He then very proudly told me that for the entirety of his military service, "I never took a life... but I did save an awful lot of them." I'll admit that one got me a bit misty-eyed....

One other gentleman was in the military in the early 50's and was stationed at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. He's the only person I've ever met who has seen a nuclear explosion in person--a half dozen of them, actually. He's told me fascinating stories about seeing the bones in his hand even through welding goggles from the brightness of the flash...

Last one -- very early in my EMS career I was transporting a a woman who was over 100. Her date of birth was sometime in the early 1890's. Anyway, we're sitting in the back of the ambulance chatting (she was still sharp as a tack) and she tells me that it's really amazing that she was riding around in such a vehicle.... why, she remembered when she was a young woman and the first cars started showing up on the road, and how they used to scare the horses... It was fascinating to talk to someone about how much the world had changed (and it changed a log) between the 1890's and the 1990's...

A. Marie said...

Thanks for another fine story from the Grumpy History Channel. You're the best--and so are Joe and Al. Hats off and hands on hearts for two wonderful gentlemen.

gloriap said...

Thank you for sharing these stories. They remind me of a slogan from my college days when the war in Vietnam was heating up. "War is not safe for humans or other living things."

Anonymous said...

All 4 of my grandparents first survived the tyranny of Stalin, then the horrors of Hitler when they were taken from their homes in Eastern Europe, by force, by the Germans and put into labor camps in Germany.

People today, in this country, have absolutely no clue what real suffering, hardship and sacrifice is. I grew up hearing the stories from my grandparents, and I understand that I cannot even begin to appreciate the pure hell that they endured for the first third of their lives.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this piece.

Anonymous said...

This makes me think about how this works generation after generation. My great grandmother's parents had first-hand stories of civil war battles fought near their farm and my grandmother (she died last summer at 97) heard their stories herself as a child. For Grandma, the civil war had a place in her head like many of my generation see both world wars. It happened, but it's not as personal to us now.

As for World War II, I've had the honor of working with a woman who was first a nursing student in Nurenberg, then a German draftee (they wanted nurses), then a prisoner of war (held by Americans). When the war ended, she got priority for her education after which she came to the US. I also had clients who were Holocost survivors and veterans of the US and Italian armies during that war. So many years later, those of them who told me about their stories all said that their lives had a "before" and an "after" the war, but it was still just one part of what made them who they are now.

I understand their thinking, but as a result, we end up losing the personal perspectives of what happened. I find that sad.

Packer said...

I could not agree more ,

http://springtimedog.blogspot.com/2018/11/wally-died-other-day.html

Ms. Donna said...

Thank you, Dr.

I want to hope that our greatest days are NOT behind us, but these fellows are a tough act to follow.

Deb said...

Thanks for sharing Dr. G. My 98-year-old brother-in-law served in WWII, and I've never heard a single word about the war from him. But my niece said when she pressed him for details he admitted that one of his duties was being part of the unit that guarded Gen George Patton.

My dear friend Midge was an Army nurse who worked in front-line hospitals. She was with the 1st wave of Americans into Paris 29 August 1945, the U.S. Army's 28th Infantry Division. As she recalled riding on the front of a tank she said they were pelted with roses and carnations, and people hopped up to kiss the Americans, crying with joy. She died from ALS in 1991, and would be 97 if she were still with us.

God help us that we will never see another war like that again, and those which are destroying lives around the world now be brought to an end.

Anonymous said...

The enormity of the experience these patients endured is all the more made real, with available information from records, and the insights provided in details you elicit from the person standing in front of you, as living treasure, perhaps.

Anonymous said...

what a wonderful tribute.

Flo said...

Thank you for your post! It was a necessary reminder of what will be missing from history soon. I looked at my newspaper on Dec. 7 and saw that the political cartoon said "REMEMBER" and I actually had to think of what it was that I should remember on Dec. 7. It is frightening that at age 73 I am starting to forget these things that the next generation will likely not remember at all.

PharmJam said...

10 years later, some of my fondest patient memories are WW2 vets I cared for while working at the VA

Anonymous said...

Thank you Grumpy for another wonderful piece. Hats off to you sir.

 
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