Today is a good day for this post — happy Veterans’ Day to all who served or currently serve our country in the military.
This is a special holiday to me because both of my grandfathers served in different branches of the military and their legacy is an important part of my identity. My father’s father, Lt. Col. Anthony Giannangeli, served in the United States’ Air Force 30th Air Division. It was his career and he reported for duty in Thailand in the 1970s. In April of 1972, a missile hit his plane — Bat 21 — and it crashed. For many years, his status was MIA; eventually, my family learned he was killed in action in the crash. There is a marvelous book by Stephen Talty called Saving Bravo that details the crash and the rescue mission of the captain, Gene Hambleton. Talty interviewed my father and my uncle for his book and provides a wonderful sense of what it was like for my grandmother and her six children to learn about the sacrifices my grandfather made for his country and family.
My mother’s father, Robert Persinger, served as a staff sergeant in the Army’s 3rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Regiment during World War II. He passed away last November at age 95. He is my main connection to the Holocaust, because in May 1945, he led a mission into Ebensee Concentration Camp in Austria and liberated the camp. My grandfather never spoke about what he saw there for many years. The first time I remember hearing his story, I was in middle school, fresh from a field trip to the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois. From then on, my grandfather spoke publicly about his experience; he felt it was especially important to speak at schools to help young people learn and realize the lessons of the Holocaust. The Harlem Vet’s Project interviewed him several times and you can hear his story here.
It was my grandfather’s legacy as a concentration camp liberator that brought me back to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center once again this past August. When my grandfather died, donations went to this museum and they commemorated my grandfather by including his name on their “Tree of Life.” My mom, sister, aunt, and I all went to see it for the first time this summer.
I already wrote about one of the books I purchased from their shop, The Legacy of Anne Frank by Gillian Walnes Perry two weeks ago.
The next book from my haul is Why?: Explaining the Holocaust by Peter Hayes. This book caught my eye because of the title. I think, when it comes to the Holocaust, many of us endlessly contemplate the “why.”
Perhaps the adjectives most frequently invoked in connection with the Holocaust are ‘unfathomable,’ ‘incomprehensible,’ and ‘inexplicable.’ These words attest to a distancing reflex, an almost instinctive recoiling in self-defense. To say that one can explain the occurrence of the Holocaust seems tantamount to normalizing it, but professing that one cannot grasp it is an assertion of the speaker’s innocence — of his or her incapacity not only to conceive of such a horror but to enact anything like itHayes xiii
I agree with Hayes when he says that this is a natural response but that if we don’t dig into the “why” of the Holocaust “that stance blocks the possibility of learning from the subject” (xiii).
Despite the somberness that I feel anytime I approach the Holocaust, I dug in. It wasn’t pretty — I knew it wouldn’t be. I made me feel sick . . . as it should. But, I’m glad I did. After finishing this book, I realized that understanding something horrible helps take away its oppressive power over us, and what’s left is feeling empowered to talk about it in a way that will help heal and better promote peace in our always-tense world.
The Holocaust is seemingly an insurmountable topic, but Hayes excels at breaking down the Holocaust into eight essential questions:
- Targets: Why the Jews?
- Attackers: Why the Germans?
- Escalation: Why Murder?
- Annihilation: Why This Swift and Sweeping?
- Victims: Why Didn’t More Jews Fight Back More Often?
- Homelands: Why Did Survival Rates Diverge?
- Onlookers: Why Such Limited Help from Outside?
- Aftermath: What Legacies, What Lessons?
Hayes’s response to Question 5 (Why Didn’t More Jews Fight Back More Often?) struck me as extremely eloquent. In this section he eviscerates the stance that the Jews could have done more to protect their own people — an abominable stance that re-victimizes survivors and dishonors those who lost their lives. He notes that the belief that Jewish people deserve some of the blame for what happened to their people
Underestimate[s] the forms of resistance that Jews participated in, and . . . overestimate[s] the possibilities of armed resistance or even noncooperation that were available to Jews, either upon initial contact with the Nazis or later178
Hayes explains that,
Whether they [Jewish people] lived or died depended on two things alone: the actions of the Nazi regime and the progress of the Allied armies.195
Hayes rightfully concludes that the responsibility belongs to the perpetrators and bystanders, not the victims. I felt empowered to continue teaching this lesson to students after reading the evidence Hayes thoroughly researched and provides in his book.
Another feature of Hayes’s book that I found empowering are the central conclusions and lessons he lays out in the eight chapter, Aftermath.
First, he outlines eight major myths about the Holocaust that, throughout the course of the book, he debunks:
- “that antisemitism played a primary part or decisive role in bringing Hitler to power; it did not” (327)
- “that Hitler planned to murder the Jews from the day he took office, if not before; as far as historians can tell, he did not” (327)
- “that the Allies could have done much to impede the killing once it began” (328)
- “that greater passive or active resistance by Jews could have reduced the death toll considerably; not realistically speaking” (328)
- “that popular attitudes toward Jews, rather than political structures and interests, were the principal determinants of survival; not in the aggregate” (328)
- “that the Holocaust diverted resources from the German war effort and weakened it in significant ways” (328)
- “that the slave labor system was driven principally by greed” (329)
- “most of the leading perpetrators of the Holocaust escaped punishment after World War II” (329).
Through the rest of the chapter, Hayes works on debunking two more myths:
that the Holocaust was a product of modernity and a demonstration of its dangers329
the claim that it never happened .330
I wanted to give Hayes a round of applause after he systematically tackles this last myth. My grandfather visited my very first class of freshmen to tell them about what he experienced. He ended by encouraging them to speak out against Holocaust deniers because they witnessed first hand a former Army sergeant who told them the truth. Part of my grandfather’s legacy to my family and I is that we continue telling his story to silence those deniers and to stand up against those who may imitate and subscribe to Nazi ideals and beliefs. Hayes’s dismantling of this myth helped me feel strong enough to keep at this project my grandfather left us.
Hayes pulls together the evidence presented throughout the book into a two sets of lessons the evidence collected implies. The first set is for “minorities in the United States in general and for Jews in particular”:
- “Be alert but not afraid” (336)
- “Be self-reliant but not isolationist” (339)
The second set is for “all citizens” (339):
- “the Holocaust highlights the primacy of avoiding situational causes” (340)
- “the Holocaust illustrates the fundamental importance and difficulty of individual courage and imagination” (341)
- “the Holocaust testifies to the need to preserve the essential distinction between means and ends” (341).
I love the organization at the end of this book. Hayes took something dark, painful, chaotic, and overwhelming and gives back order, reason, and power to tackle hatred.
The last line of the book packs a punch. It’s the English translation of a German proverb:
Wehret den Anfängen.
Beware the beginnings342-43
Every Veterans’ Day, I take time to reflect on the sacrifices of my grandfathers. Papa G. ultimately sacrificed his life in combat, flying over Vietnam. Grandpa didn’t sacrifice his life, but he put his mental health at risk when he trekked up the mountain to investigate a camp the villagers told him about in suspicious whispers. He sacrificed his innocence when he broke his gun over the archway to the camp and took his first step into the muddy roll call yard. He sacrificed living a life without the stench of death in his nostrils and the sight of dead and living skeletons either clawing at him in celebration or stacked against the wall in an endless sleep.
I don’t think he did this because he saw himself as a soldier. I don’t think he did this because he was an American. I know he put his well-being at risk and helped liberate that camp because he knew it was the right thing to do to stand up for human life in the face of injustice.
Veterans’ Day is an annual reminder for me that you don’t have to be in the military to do the right thing. We can all do something right now to help others. It’s my reminder that I am forever in debt to my grandfather’s and their fellow soldiers for the privileges I have and that I can do small things each day to honor their sacrifices by being kind to others, lending a hand where needed, and standing up to injustice wherever I may find it.
Happy Veterans’ Day to all who serve and currently serve. We are forever grateful to you.
Trigger Warning: antisemitism, graphic injury, death, eugenics, genocide (the Holocaust), slavery, starvation, violence, war