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25 March 2009

War Heroes, Relatively Speaking


My uncle Irving Heymont, retired U.S. Army colonel, WWII hero, and stern patriarch with a sense of humor you needed special genes to locate, passed away last Tuesday evening at the age of 90. I mentioned him when I replied to Mary’s post the other week about her ancestor, Major General Lord Blayney.

Irving Heymont, with my husband Scott and me, at the celebration of Irving's 90th birthday. Taken April 6, 2008 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC

We write about war (and other) heroes and heroines and how character shapes their actions and actions shape their character. What I learned from even the briefest research on my uncle is that this was very much the truth. And yet, sometimes it isn't until someone passes away and the mourners take a trip down Memory Lane and revisit the life and achievements of the deceased, that long-held myths are exploded. As a child I always thought he was “very Jewish”—as in more strictly religious than the rest of the family. And yet, I was wrong in some ways, in that he wasn’t always that way.
Among my uncle's many accomplishments is his stewardship of a Germany postwar displacement camp for Holocaust survivors. Rather than distill events and reminisces from this time in Irving Heymont’s life, I will let the witnesses and survivors speak for themselves.

Even professional Jewish soldiers recognized how powerfully the revelations of the camps influenced their own behavior. Irving Heymont of the Third US Army was placed in charge of the Landsberg displaced persons camp in September 1945. In his first speech before the inmates, the 27-year-old major articulated his identification with the Jews forced to live there. “As I speak to you tonight, I can also be called a sort of DP,” he told his audience. “We know what you suffered in the Nazi concentration camps—and not just through newspaper reports. My Regiment liberated a concentration camp.” Many years later Heymont concluded that “the few months I spent at Landsberg had a greater impact on my outlook on life than any other experience in my career, including infantry combat in both World War II and the Korean War.” Though he was unaware of it at the time, Heymont subsequently reflected that “Landsberg made me a conscious Jew again--not a religious Jew, seeking the ways of the Lord—but an affirmed member of the Jewish people.” [From an article titled: “When Jews Were GIs: World War II and the Remaking of American Jewry.”
At http://www.fathom.com/course/21701756/session4.html.]

Below are excerpts from two condolence letters from Survivors sent to Irving’s daughter, my cousin Laurie:

I could not have been happier than when I was with him and we spoke of Landsberg and the world into which I was born. His letters to your mother, of blessed memory, will have an enduring effect on the history of the Jewish Displaced Persons' camps and that period of Jewish history.

But it was more than the letters, it was your father's sense of justice and the fact that he believed that the Holocaust survivors needed to take their future into their own hands, to reestablish identities that had been taken away from them during the Holocaust years.

His few months in the Landsberg DP camp were, I believe, a turning point in Jewish history. It allowed the survivors in Landsberg, which became the spiritual and intellectual center of the concept of the “Survivng Remnant,” as they called themselves, to develop a philosophy and a vision that has finally been realized, I think, with the impact of the Holocaust on our nation and our world.

But, of course, Dad was not satisfied to sit back and accept such accolades. He then turned his attention to the generation of Germans that inherited the terrible crimes of their parents and grandparents. Dad did not judge, did not condemn, instead he asked the children and grandchildren of Landsberg to accept the responsibility of uncovering the truth of the what had happened in their town during the Holocaust years, and what they could do to make certain that it would not happen again.

Imagine, your father influenced a generation of German teachers and students to say and do “Never Again.” He was a beloved figure in Landsberg and had the respect and admiration of all.

As you know, there is a street in the former Jewish DP camp named for your father. I walked in the camp, now a vibrant apartment community . . . Your dad would not have recognized the place, except for the headquarters building where he had his office. That is still very much the same building and I know his spirit will remain a part of it.

My parents . . . arrived in Landsberg on August 22, 1945. Your dad arrived there a few weeks later. My parents remembered your father well. Because Dad was a “by the book” soldier, he sought to run the camp with a firm but fair hand. One of his beliefs was that it would be difficult to maintain control if the survivors knew he was Jewish. So he never let it be known that he was.

My father remembered your father as the “non-Jewish officer with a Jewish heart.” And it was that Jewish heart that identified your Dad and will forever be a part of his legacy.

Abraham J. Peck
Director, Academic Council for Post-Holocaust Christian, Jewish and Islamic Studies; University of Southern Maine

And:


. . . Your father . . .played such an important part in of our destiny after our liberation by the US forces at the end of World War Two. We were children of the Holocaust who were told by the Nazis that we were sub human vermin. Our self esteem as Jews was non existant. Then we met your father who was in charge of our camp in Landsberg. He was the first Jewish American officer [it was not until a speech my uncle made to some of the Landsberg camp survivors decades later that he admitted his Judaism] and we thought of him as someone who came down from Olympus. Especially of what the Nazis kept telling us how worthless we are.

Your father's appearance lifted us out from the abyss of Nazi hell and began restoring our lost dignity as human beings and Jews. Besides taking care of our material needs in the camp, he gave us a spiritual lift up that we will remember as long as we live. During the post war years and later in Israel we reestablished contact with him and met several times here in Israel and in Washington DC. He became such a good friend not only because he was such a “Mensch,” but because we always remembered him as the symbol of the Jewish men and women who served in the allied armies to defeat the “fiend-Hitler.”

We remember him at Landsberg tall, impeccably dressed in an American army officer's uniform. He held an emotional address [years later] which brought tears to our eyes. “As I speak to you tonight, I can also be called a sort of DP.,Landsberg made me a conscious Jew again—not a religious Jew, seeking the ways of the Lord—but an affirmed member of the Jewish people,.” he said.

Most of us DP’s left Landsberg for Israel where we fought in the War of Independence restoring not only our dignity but our ancient homeland, and helped building it up from a pauper state to what it is today, a proud strong state. We achieved what no other country ever achieved. From a tiny country without any natural resources, with barely 600,000 inhabitants we managed to absorb millions of penniless Jewish refugees from around the world and build up the country to what it is today and that despite five brutal wars in which the combined Arab armies tried to destroy us. We, Holocaust survivors formed an important part of that restoration and we, our children and grand children are part of the back bone of the country.

It was your father who showed us the way and we thank him for it. We shall never forget him.

Solly Ganor

Uncle Irving would be both shocked and pleased that alibris is selling a copy of his Among the Survivors of the Holocaust, 1945: the Landsberg DP Camp Letters of Major Irving Heymont, for $300! I have to confess that I’ve never read them, but my understanding is that they contain numerous letters to my aunt Joan, Irving’s wife—and in many ways the letters tell a love story between the two of them as much as they illustrate the glimmer of light at the end of one of history’s darkest tunnels.

Who are your personal heroes among your ancestors or nearer relations? Who among them has caused you to look deeper at and/or be prouder of your identity? Whose innate character and/or actions have influenced or catalyzed your own?

16 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Sorry to hear about your uncle. My dad also fought in World War II in both Europe and Asia. He would never talk about with me, being his daughter and all, so it wasn't until after he died that I learned that he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. When I was cleaning out a trunk that he owned, I found all these photos that he took in France during the War, pictures of Paris and the Palais de Pape in Avignon (he was in the invasion of southern France). He was also wounded when he ordered a German soldier to surrender. The guy hit my father in the head with the butt of his gun leaving a dent. My dad was always incredibly modest about what he did during the war. He was a reluctant soldier who was drafted two months before Pearl Harbor and turned down a chance to go to be trained as an officer because he had no plans to make the army his career.

7:59 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Elizabeth, that's so moving! Have you ever thought of writing your father's story, or a fictionalized version of it? Do you wish he would have talked about his war experiences with you?

Thanks so much for your condolences. It means a lot.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I do plan on writing about World War II at some point. The contributions of the African-American soldiers are rarely seen in contemporary war movies apart from A Soldier Story and that Spike Lee movie that no one went to see. Watching Saving Private Ryan gave me the opportunity to see what it was probably like for my father, wading through the water, with his gun over his head, during the invasion of Southern France. My uncle was in the Navy as well during WWII (this was before they stopped taking more than one son in a family), and I still wear his navy peacoat.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

What wonderful stories, Amanda and Elizabeth both. While as for the stories of African-American soldiers, I was profoundly moved a few years ago to learn about the Tuskegee Airmen, first African-American fighters in World War II (we had a program during Black History Month one year at the Federal Reserve Bank where I worked; a longtime co-worker of mine was one of the Airmen and spoke). The men's heroism was astonishing; the racism they suffered at the same time chilling and thought-provoking. Here's a link to the Wikipedia article about them: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuskegee_Airmen

10:03 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I look forward to the day when historical fiction editors will consider the mid-20th century as a viable (i.e. commercial) era. I think they still don't consider it "history," though Hollywood certainly does, and films set during WWII tend to be moneymakers, (although Elizabeth makes a good point about the subject of the African-American experience during the war). Of course everyone in Hollywood is 25 (or is trying to look it)--so they would consider the 1940s "history"!

10:55 AM  
Blogger Christine Trent said...

Amanda,
It is always moving to me to read about what Jews have experienced, not just since the 1930's, but for their entire existence. It seems the world does not appreciate that the Jews are the *only* people group EVER to be dispersed into a population, maintain their identity, then regroup inside their homeland...thousands of years later.

If you ever get to D.C., the Holocaust Museum is well worth a visit. Did your uncle ever visit it?

Thanks for sharing about him.

Christine

11:07 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks for your comments, Christine. And a very interesting observation about the Jewish People. I'm sure that Uncle Irving visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C. many times; he lived in Alexandria and Ft. Belvoir, so he was within spitting distance, so to speak. I have yet to visit the museum, but I know it will be a very difficult experience for me. My former in-laws were Holocaust survivors and I heard stories from them that would curl your hair and curdle your milk.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What wonderful stories! Amanda, your uncle sounds like a fascinating man. My condolences to you and your on his loss. It's so difficult to lose someone one has been close to, but it's wonderful that you learned so much from him. Thinking about your questions, I think the family members who are my personal heroes are my parents, both social scientists, whose work with prison inmates, drug abusers, troubled youth and other groups frequently written off by society inspired me with a strong sense of social justice (which I try to bring to my writing).

A close family friend was one of the Tuskegee Airman and his wife, who is Jewish, left Austria with her parents in the 1930s, just in time to get out safely.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, your parents' legacy and life lessons definitely show in your writing! And in this era where rampant greed and corruption have covered the surface of our society with ugly boils, it's reassuring to remember that there are people out there who care about the marginalized, forgotten, or written-off.

And the story about the Tuskegee Airman and his Jewish wife is just begging to be written! Quick, before they turn it into a movie starring Will Smith and Natalie Portman!

4:22 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I had forgotten that film about the Tuskegee Airmen. I remember watching that soon after my father passed away. I think part of the reason my father didn't talk about his time in the service was because of the racism he faced doing basic training down south. Although he left the army as a staff sergeant, he kept getting his stripes removed for various offences, and then having to earn them back.

Great story Tracy about the Tuskegee airman and his jewish wife. I agree with Amanda, someone should write that story and then sell it to the movies! What a story that would be, imagine the racism and prejudice they must have faced to be together.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

And in some states, their marriage was probably illegal, because of the miscegenation laws!

Elizabeth, that tidbit about your father losing his stripes for some petty (and I'm assuming trumped-up) offense, and then having to earn them back, gives me goose bumps. I keep imagining a cat playing cruel games with a mouse -- just because he can.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

This is so moving I cried. At work.

What a wonderful family history.

8:19 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks, Kalen. I wish all those Holocaust deniers (are you listening, Mel Gibson?) would bother to read these eyewitness accounts of survivors, whose stories not only attest to the atrocity itself, but to the struggles and hardships to rebuild their lives and to resurrect their dignity in the wake of the Nazis' defeat. That in itself is a story, as my uncle Irving's life experiences attest.

4:39 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I loved your imagery Amanda about the cat and mouse, although I have a feeling that my father deserved at least one of those stripes removed. My mother used to joke that he went AWOL to hang out with the frauleins and mademoiselles.

There is a special rung in hell for all the holocaust deniers and those who deny the genocide in Bosnia and Armenia.

1:29 PM  
OpenID MizWaller said...

Amanda, my father was in your uncles division and I think he may have been involved with the liberation of that camp. He often said that his being part of the rescue of a death camp gave his own service in the war meaning. I found pictures of a camp when I was going through his wartime photos. When I ask him why he kept them,he said he kept them so his children, grandchildren and others would never be allowed to forget what horrible things we humans can do to each other.

5:32 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

MizWaller, that's amazing! I'm not sure which camp my uncle helped liberate, but the one that he ran was after the war, the Landsberg, Germany displacement camp (DP camp) for those survivors who had been liberated from the camps and had no where to go and needed to get back on their feet.. Do you know what camp your father was invoved with?

Elizabeth, I hope your father picked up a bit of French and German for all his sneaking off base! :)

3:39 PM  

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