Immigrant Nation

Fleeing Pogroms to Fight Nazis: My Family's Secret Refugee Past

A descendent of Ukrainian refugees and World War II camp liberators sees in his family's history an answer to rising anti-immigrant sentiment.

My grandfather was born in 1914 on the outskirts of Stanislau, Galicia, a town and country that no longer exist (it is the current site of Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine). His family, one of the few Jewish ones in the midst of a devout Catholic community, ran a small grocery store, behind which was a two-room home with no electricity and only a bread oven for heat. In 1913, some locals raided the store, leaving my great-grandparents utterly destitute. My great-grandfather decided to leave for America, where he hoped to make some money, then return and rebuild. He was only supposed to be gone for a few months, but unfortunately, fate intervened: While he was away, World War I erupted, rendering him unable to return to his wife Rifka, who had six young children and yet another (my grandfather) on the way.

By the time my grandfather was an infant, World War I was unfolding on his doorstep. The family dog was felled by a soldier’s pistol; other bullets struck my great-grandmother’s home and narrowly missed killing her in the street. During the day, soldiers would come looking for food and supplies, taking whatever they could, sometimes at gunpoint. Once, a Cossack strode into the house, speared a loaf of bread off the table with his sword, and left with promises to return soon for more, leaving the family alive, though shaken and hungry. At night, Rifka and her seven children slept huddled on the hard-packed dirt floor, worrying that bullets or worse would come through the blacked-out windows and barricaded doors.

Without either goods in the store or money from my great-grandfather (or, indeed, any word from him), my great-grandmother was left to fend for her family in any way she could. Mostly, this meant smuggling. The German soldiers to the west of the line had material goods but little food; the Russians on the other side had food but no cloth to mend their ragged clothes. So Rifka would wrap her entire body with bolts of cloth and yarn, then don her clothes, and walk across the front line from west to east. Once she was there, she would exchange the smuggled textiles for food (mostly potatoes), stow it away, and walk back across the line, where she would sell or exchange it to the German soldiers.

This went on for months. Every day, my great-grandmother was in danger for her life, and not just from the bombs and bullets of warfare. The penalty for smuggling was execution on the spot, so if she was caught even once with her contraband, it would spell the end for her, and most likely, for her children as well.

One night, Rifka did get caught. Some soldiers patrolling the west side of the line captured her as she was returning from the east with her smuggled vegetables. They brought her to their commanding officer, a German lieutenant. My great-grandmother fell to the floor, prostrating herself before the officer and begging for mercy — not for her own sake, but for the children’s, who would be left alone in the middle of a war zone if she were executed. Luckily, the German lieutenant took pity on Rifka and spared her life and, by extension, those of her children.

Not long after this incident, the whole family became refugees, relocating to Romania for two years. Eventually, when the war ended, they returned briefly to what was left of Stanislau, and then all eight of them emigrated to America to rejoin my great-grandfather, sailing from Amsterdam to Philadelphia, and settling in Hartford, Connecticut. My grandfather Simon was six when he met his father for the first time, safely reunited on American soil.

Simon loved America, and never stopped being grateful for the opportunities this country gave him — not only to live, but to thrive. He was accepted to Harvard University (very rare for a Jew at the time, though his older brother had gone there), yet he opted instead to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, and to pursue a career as a U.S. Army officer.

By 1945, my grandfather was a Lieutenant Colonel, stationed in Germany. One day, he and his men liberated a Nazi work camp, filled with corpses and the barely living. The abject brutality of the scene was overwhelming; it was a memory Simon would carry to his grave. Some of the enlisted men captured a German officer, and pushed him up against the wall of a barracks, planning to execute him on the spot for his war crimes. At this point, my grandfather did something extraordinary — something I’m not sure I’d have the strength to do. He intervened, saving the Nazi officer’s life. To him, it was a simple moral calculus: to kill a Nazi summarily, without a fair trial, when he posed no immediate threat, was itself an act of evil, on par with the crimes of the Nazis themselves. To kill them was to become them.

I’ve known this story for decades; my grandfather told it to me when I was a teenager, during the last years of his life. But when I asked my father about it a few days ago, I was shocked to discover he’d never heard it. My grandfather never talked about the war, he says; it was too horrible. I called my aunt for corroboration. No dice. I called my father’s cousin. Same thing. None of them knew about this remarkable act of mercy, either. Apparently, Simon never told anyone else this story, only me.

When I’ve thought about Simon’s act of mercy over the years, I always considered it to be a parable about morality, and about the value of keeping a cool head and an open heart in the face of overwhelming fear and anger. It certainly is that, but it’s also more than that.

I only learned about Rifka’s struggles, her World War I smuggling operation, and her brush with summary execution a few months ago, when I read a memoir by one of her older sons, my great uncle Joe. As soon as I learned this new piece of family history, Simon’s story suddenly clicked into place. It wasn’t merely an act of moral rectitude, or adherence to some abstract higher principles. Simon himself must have been well aware of the act of mercy by which that German officer had saved his own life a generation earlier — and his intervention to save the Nazi’s life can therefore only be understood as a cosmic act of payback. A chance to keep the karmic wheel in spin, to “pay it forward,” in the parlance of our times.

Why did Simon choose to tell me this story, when he apparently kept it secret from his own siblings and children? I can’t be sure, but I think he just wanted it stowed away somewhere in safe keeping, so that it could be told when the time was right. That time, sadly, is now. When the entire world seems to be succumbing to the same kind of insanity that brought us those two World Wars, when the horrors of the Holocaust seem increasingly likely to be revisited, and augmented, by today’s heirs apparents to the Nazi legacy. When a sociopathic charlatan like Donald Trump can plunge our democracy — our sanctuary — into chaos in a matter of days.

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I’m angry as hell. I cry every day now, and not because I’m a fragile “snowflake,” but because I can barely contain the murderous rage that seethes through every vein in my body when I see the desecration of Simon’s memory and the scale of cruelty and injustice being perpetrated on the vulnerable of the world in my own name. Nearly everyone I know feels the same. I can no longer imagine a path forward for us as a nation, or as a species, that doesn’t involve hideous bloodshed, and the splintering of every peaceful bastion of civil society. I am, sadly, prepared to fight — to kill, to die, to play my assigned role in this farce, because what else can I do?

Yet, I am also committed to doing more than just that. Because of the unlikely mercy of a nameless German officer a century ago, my children and I are free to live, and to love. We owe every second of our lives to that man. And, because my grandfather repaid that karmic debt a generation later, saving the life of his bitterest enemy, who knows how many German children have been born, lived, and loved in the years since then?

So, yes, I’m prepared to fight, to protect the lives of those I love, and even to protect the institutions and abstract principles of the democracy that gave my family a home when we needed one so many years ago. But, if we’re ever going to emerge from the other side of this impending shitstorm with a shred of our humanity intact, it’s not going to be as a result of how many bullets we’ve fired, or had fired at us. It’s going to be because of the times we chose not to fight and kill, the moments we were able to transcend our rage and fear, and to see one another, just for a moment, as the delicate and precious links in the improbable story of the survival of human species that each of us truly represents. If we do ultimately survive this madness, we will do so one small act of mercy at a time.