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World War I Shaped My Life, But I’ll Never Know How

The author’s family in Romania, with great-grandfather Leib Nemes in the back row, furthest right

Everyone thought he was dead. No one had seen Leib Nemes, my great-grandfather, for years — not since he was swept up into the bloody tornado of the First World War. The war was long over, but still he had not returned.

Only Rosalia, Leib’s sweetheart before the war, insisted he was alive. Like Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, she refused to marry a different man. Neighbors and family members shook their heads: Rosalia wasn’t getting any younger.

Then one day Odysseus appeared at her door, back from the underworld, carrying an army sack, a five-foot rifle and stories of distant capitals. The two were married faster than you could cock a gun.

Where had he been? How long was he missing? Was he a prisoner of war?

I’ll never know.

I can’t ask Leib, who died in the Holocaust, or my grandfather, who died a decade ago. My father doesn’t know any details, and my great-uncle, whom I called up recently, said he had never heard the story.

This is the great challenge of remembering World War I, which began 100 years ago this week. The so-called Lost Generation is actually lost; the last veteran of the war died two years ago. There is no one left to ask who remembers.

Because of this, World War I is a half-remembered mystery to my generation. Our grandparents could vividly describe storming Omaha Beach or arriving at Dachau, but they couldn’t tell us about the smell of mustard gas or the horror of the Cossack pogroms. They remembered Pearl Harbor, but not the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

But our great-grandparents knew all about it. You’d be hard-pressed to find an Ashkenazi Jew (and, to a certain extent, a Sephardi Jew) who has no familial connection to World War I. Our great-grandparents served in the trenches and lived along the battlefronts, especially in Russia’s Pale of Settlement.

Five of my great-grandparents directly experienced World War I — and even fought in opposing armies. But I know only small snippets of stories about these four years that upended their lives.

I don’t know what really happened, for example, when Cossacks swept into my great-grandmother’s Ukrainian village and killed her beloved sister. My great-grandmother always maintained that her sister “died of fright,” but another relative suggested that she was gang-raped, which was terrifyingly common during the war. The event definitely left its mark on my family, but it will forever have a question mark hanging over it.

There’s also the story of another great-grandfather, Harry, who lost track of time and reality amidst endless artillery barrages and gas attacks. Without a calendar, he didn’t know when to say Kaddish, the memorial prayer, for his dead parents.

That is, until his mother came to him in a hazy dream one night in the trenches and revealed that the day of her Yahrzeit (the anniversary of her death) had arrived. “Hershel,” she said, “are you going to say Kaddish for me?”

At risk of being shot for desertion, he slipped out of the trenches and found a synagogue in a nearby town. Sure enough, the Yahrzeit had arrived, and he said Kaddish.

It’s this benign, miraculous story that he passed along to his children, while the rest of his stories — the real horror stories — were left behind on the fields of Poland.

When I asked my grandfather about his own family’s experience during World War I, he told me he “didn’t talk much about those days” with his family members, who endured the war long before his birth. “It brought back bad memories for all of them,” he said.

Maybe that’s why it’s mostly the happier memories of the war that have survived — and even those are hard to pin down.

There’s an astonishing story, or maybe just a legend, that Leib served as a military attendant to none other than Franz Josef, emperor of Austro-Hungary. Leib even showed my great-uncle a photo of himself with the long-serving autocrat. But my great-uncle was just a child at the time, and the photo was lost in the fires of the Shoah.

That leaves only one remaining photo of Leib. I’ve studied it many times: a sepia-toned portrait of him and his family, taken beside their Romanian home in the mid-1930s. The photo was taken at midday, and it’s overexposed. Leib’s face is hidden in impenetrable shadow, and the rest of his body appears to melt into the blurry sunlight at the edge of the frame.

Frustrated, I’ve tinkered with the photo using a computer graphics program — to no avail. I’ve digitally enhanced his face, trying desperately to make out the features of the man who gave me my last name, who survived a world war, who would vanish into the black hole of Auschwitz only a few years later.

But, much like the war in which he came of age, Leib remains blurry, an Odysseus shrouded in myth. I can’t sharpen his stories or any of the stories passed down to me about World War I. They hover at the periphery of my mind, like a dream I can’t quite remember after I’ve opened my eyes in the morning.


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