As someone who is deeply interested in family histories and legacy preservation, I’ve recently made it a priority to seek out and interview Baltimoreans with direct involvement in World War II. The timing just felt right.
Nov. 9-10th was the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, and today, Nov. 11th is Veterans Day. This coming Dec. 7th marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the United States’ entry into WWII.
However, what started as a personal initiative to gather timely oral histories has turned into an unexpected form of personal civic therapy during this very weird moment in our nation’s “evolution.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Born in 1972, I grew up thinking that WWII was ancient history. Despite having a grandfather who served in the Pacific Asian Theatre, and frequent conversations about the Holocaust’s impact on my family, I just could not conceive that such a horrific and sweeping event was in the temporal vicinity of my existence. It was unrelatable.
Of course, that has changed with age and perspective. I was born a mere 27 years after WWII ended. For my 6-year-old son, born in 2010, 27 years is the amount of time that has elapsed since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was released.
For every event in this world, large or small, there is that moment when the last person to bear witness passes away. And in that moment, we can no longer access firsthand, interactive accounts of what it was like to be there. In those moments, events truly move into the realm of history.
We are fast approaching that moment with WWII and the Holocaust. A WWII veteran who served at the young age of 18, even in the waning days of the war, would today be 90 years old. Child survivors of concentration camps or war-torn regions are in their 80s. And these populations are diminishing.
Earlier this week, I spoke with Hereford resident Vernon Foster, who is about to turn 98.
Mr. Foster was a tank commander with the famed 12th Armored Division “Hellcats.” We spoke for hours as he shared vivid accounts of tragedy and grace on the battlefront. He talked about his near-death experiences, the Battle of the Bulge, military politics, meeting President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and liberating a prisoner camp in the Landsberg region of Germany near Dachau.
I spoke with Brien Haigley, an 80-year-old Cockeysville Resident who lived near Pearl Harbor at 5 years of age. His father was an Army doctor, and his family lived in the Schofield Barracks near Wheeler Airfield. Etched in his head is the roar of the Japanese planes as they flew directly over his house during the first wave of attacks on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
I’ve had recent conversations with individuals who escaped Europe as the Third Reich was systematically making its way across the continent. Each conversation has been eye opening and emotional, putting a human face on what once was just a history lesson for me.
But coming back to where I began this post, something unexpected happened as well.
In these days of post-election uncertainty and widespread malcontent for our governmental machine, many people are feeling apathetic and fearful. I have felt this way.
Yet, as I spoke with people who witnessed vile atrocities, performed acts of heroism, and persisted through years of hardship, I was reminded of three important things: 1) It could be much, much worse right now; 2) We have a responsibility to remember and honor the sacrifices made by our forbearers; and 3) This moment too shall pass.
Rich Polt helps families celebrate, preserve, and share their legacies. After a 25-year public relations career, Rich launched Acknowledge Media (http://www.acknowledgemedia.com), which produces documentary-style life story films, built upon recorded conversations with loved ones.
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