' It's not real to them - Paul Greenberg

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It's not real to them

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published August 14, 2015

   It's not real to them

The day began with an email that sounded suspiciously like one of those Nigerian scams: "Dear Mr. Greenberg, I wonder if I could ask for your help in the following matter. On behalf of a lawyer who specializes in restitution of Holocaust era assets...."

But then familiar names began popping up: "I am looking for heirs to the estate of Mendel Kaplan (born 17 September 1894 in Minsk and before WWII a shoe factory owner in Paris). ... Research done so far indicates that in the 1950s and 1960s Mendel Kaplan was married with Chawa Kaplan nee Gottlib and kept living in Paris. I shall be most grateful to you for any additional information you may have on him and his family."

The letter was signed "Yoram Mayorek, Jewish Genealogical Research, Jerusalem."

Goodness. I hadn't heard the name Mendel Kaplan in years, but I certainly hadn't forgotten him -- or the saga of his survival in Paris, where I'd stopped over in 1954 as part of a Zionist youth group headed for the still new state of Israel. And took the opportunity to look up the French branch of the family, or what was left of it.

Having no French, and with my cousins having no English, we conversed in what remained of our childhood Yiddish, and they even showed me Mendel's dusty shoe factory, where he'd hidden out in the war years a la Anne Frank, and somehow survived. Most of the family hadn't.

Two of my mother's sisters were rounded up, along with thousands of other French Jews, by the gendarmes and handed over to the German occupiers for Resettlement in the East -- a euphemism for the death camps. They were never seen again. One of them was my mother's favorite, my Aunt Temya, who had looked after her back in Poland when they were growing up amid the chaos of the First World War.

I had grown up hearing stories about Temya; she was very real to me. When my big sister was cleaning out her apartment in Shreveport, she kept urging me to take some of the paintings she'd picked up over the years. But I told her I was reaching the age when I needed to free myself of possessions, not acquire more of them.

Yet there was one picture -- a small photograph in an art nouveau frame of my Aunt Temya that must have been taken in the 1920s or '30s. It's now on my kitchen safe, where I can see it every morning. And remember.

So when Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and current presidential candidate, warned that this president's nuclear deal with Iran was marching the Israelis "to the door of the oven," I didn't hear just a political metaphor, for my Aunt Temya remains very real to me. So does her fate.

But I understood why others would criticize the former governor. And accuse him of exploiting the Holocaust just to score some points in his presidential campaign. How would they have known about Temya? She's not real to them, she's not family.

The same applies to those who, this August, discussed the 50th anniversary of Harry Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in terms of military costs and benefits, weighing the real suffering of Japanese civilians there against the theoretical American and allied casualties that an invasion of the Japanese home islands would have meant. Weren't Iwo Jima and Okinawa bloody enough? And the number of Japanese deaths an invasion would have cost must also be taken into consideration....

But to those of us who were around in the heady days of early August 1945, our ears glued to the radio for the next news bulletin, the discussion is more than abstract. It's personal. President Truman's decision meant my sister's new husband, George, wouldn't be shipped off to the Pacific. It meant cousin Sammy would come home from the Philippines safe and sound.

What a relief, what unalloyed joy! The car horns blared as folks drove 'round and 'round the Caddo Parish courthouse in Shreveport celebrating. The streets downtown were crowded with revelers -- sights and sounds an 8-year-old boy would never forget.

Neither would the historian and sociologist Paul Fussell, who was a 21-year-old second lieutenant at the time. He'd just fought his way across Europe -- and was on his way to the Pacific Theater when the news of the Bomb broke:

"When we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live."

But how blame those who didn't live through those days for not remembering them? They weren't there. They can weigh the suffering of the Japanese against the joy experienced by American families at the war's end only impersonally. As an abstract, debatable issue. Something for the history books to record in a fair and balanced way. The pain, the joy, it's not real to them. Any more than my Aunt Temya is.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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