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The resonance of war stories

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My father, a World War II army veteran, did not talk much about his time spent in Europe during the war. He liked to recall meeting Gertrude Stein in a hospital in Paris when he was recovering from hepatitis. He liked to say how he snuck away one night to go see Stonehenge. But the real, raw and nitty-gritty he would shy away from.

There was one story he liked to tell, however, that I think about often… even more now considering our current cultural and political climate.

“It sounds like fiction,” he would say. This was an expression he used that might really be comparable to today’s phrase, “You can’t make this up.”

The story goes as follows. It seems that while stationed at one army base, my father met a mess hall cook who sorted through all the discarded food to find the edible leftovers that he would save for the local, often starving, people. “Why?’’ my father asked, and the cook told him that he had had a hard childhood and he liked to help people out. When my father’s company moved to the next base, he met another mess hall cook who also saved the leftover food—but he would ruin it by mixing coffee grounds with it, making it inedible. Again my father asked “Why?” Well, this cook said, he had had a tough upbringing, too. But, he told my dad, he didn’t have to make it any easier for anyone else.

It is a story that has always illustrated for me one of those big and age-old unanswerable questions. Why is it that when faced with personal suffering, some people become empathetic and compassionate while others do not? In fact, some people may even become less generous and filled with resentment and hate.

In recent weeks, there have been stories of various human rights groups, as well as churches and synagogues preparing to shelter undocumented immigrants during Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids across the country. The Jewish community has been at the forefront of efforts to help people who are at risk of being rounded up for deportation. Given the Jewish community’s not-so-distant experience during the Holocaust, is it any wonder that they would want to offer refuge to people who are fleeing persecution in their own countries only to be captive in the United States?

On the other hand, there has also been considerable criticism of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent remarks calling the immigrant detention centers in the United States “concentration camps.” Her comments were considered to be disrespectful by many, including some in the Jewish community, who see the analogy as exaggerated. Others see her remarks as detrimental to possible changes in the current detainment policies.

Yes, words matter. Later during the war, my father was part of the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC), learning Japanese, when plans were in the works for an invasion of Japan. Every day, all day, my father said, the teachers and commanders would refer to the Japanese people as “little brown monkeys,” as a classic tactic to dehumanize the enemy.

Yes, words matter. But perhaps we should go back to my father’s mess hall story. Does it matter what these immigrant centers are called if we have not developed the empathy and compassion to help others who are in need, in spite of our own suffering?

WWII, ICE

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