IN THE VORTEX OF HISTORY
David Fanshel - 722nd Squadron
July 18, 1944
Today's mission has been scrubbed because of foul weather and I am hanging out in the barracks. I am trying to catch up with personal chores, but I feel listless and it is hard for me to concentrate. The other flying officers are playing cards, writing letters or resting leisurely on their cots. I notice that Cosimo, the 35-year old Italian civilian orderly, is staring aimlessly through a window. He irritates me. Perhaps I feel antagonistic to him because it has been rumored that he had been un molto Fascisti until the Americans came. I intrude upon his thoughts with a sarcastic question:
"So Cosimo, how come you put your whole future behind a bum like Mussolini?"
He shrugs his shoulders and looks me straight in the eyes with an expression of contempt on his face. He responds sotovoce. "So goes the stream, so goes Cosimo."
Yeah. So goes the stream.
I become more self-aware as I sense that my jumping upon the poor bastard with a dumb question is a sure sign that I am in a funk. And it doesn't take me long to figure things out. My state of mind is obviously connected to two events taking place this past week. First, I see Colonel Snaith's plane go down several days ago on a mission over one of the big oil refineries in Ploesti. This is only the third mission our crew has flown since coming to Manduria and the grim reality of what lies ahead for us in having to complete a combat tour has sunk in. Second, I get this letter from my father.
Prior to this disaster, Bill Snaith is the Chief of Operations of the 450th Bomb Group. When you see McLain's crew listed for mission assignment on the Squadron bulletin board, it is Snaith who has made the portentous choice. Any mission we are required to fly can be the one that consigns us to history. But we harbor no ill will about being ordered to fly to a formidable target like Ploesti because we have high regard for Snaith as a leader. We know him as a man who puts his own life on the line by taking his full share of tough missions.
Deep in Romania, Ploesti is on the top of the list for strategic bombing because it is a major petroleum producing complex and the Germans desperately need gasoline for their tanks and airplanes. The mission notes of our pilot, Jim McLain, describes the moment of disaster:
Our plane is slightly to the rear and under Snaeth's plane when he takes the hit. I am maintaining our position in formation by concentrating on the tail section and underside of his plane, There are several close, heavy bursts of flak and instantaneously a horrific ball of flame engulfs the lead plane. Our formation continues the run and we rally off the target, It is the first time we have seen a plane shot down in flames.
From my navigator's station in the nose of MYAKIN', I am in close proximity to Snaith's plane. In the moment of catastrophic destruction, his B-24 is transformed before my eyes from a powerful four-engine flying machine to a splash of orange-red paint brushed upon the blue sky. It is like Houdini's sleight of hand: "Now you see it and now you don't." The experience causes a grim realization to take hold: Clearly, there is no time to exit the plane when fuel tanks are penetrated by flak. Bombs and gasoline explode instantaneously and men and aircraft disintegrate together.
My father's letter comes several days later. He writes emotionally about events happening to the Fanshel's in Russia. Terrible news has come his way from who knows where. In an emotionally labile state myself, I read the letter hurriedly and am left uncertain about what is agitating my father. Writing in English does not come easy to Hyman because he has been too busy earning a living for his family to take formal English lessons. But anyway, if he wants to write about "terrible" things, he's picked the wrong time to bring such matters to my attention because I am not in the mood. What can possibly be more disturbing than seeing our lead plane shot down and ten men obliterated. And the same thing might happen to us. I dismissively toss the letter into my footlocker where it is likely to be lost among my scattered belongings.
Later in the day, I calm down and reconsider my disdainful behavior. A second reading of Pop's letter affords greater clarity and I connect with the fact that what he has to tell me is indeed dreadful. I become a more sympathetic son.
* * * * *
To facilitate comprehension of what is going on, I provide background about the Fanshel's:
On both the paternal and maternal sides, my family goes back many generations in Russia. The country of the czars was a great source of Jewish immigration to the United States after World War I. The household in which I grew up was very much flavored by our origins. I literally mean "flavor". The food we ate and the associated cooking odors that might penetrate your nostrils as you approached our apartment door in the Bronx clearly identified us as a Russian-Jewish household. You might know the stuff: borscht, matzo ball soup, knishes, stuffed cabbage and so forth. Go to Sammy's Rumanian Restaurant in New York City and you'll find these and other ethnic dishes well represented on the menu.
Three languages comprised our family's repertoire for routine conversation: Yiddish, Russian and English. My parents talked to their four kids in Yiddish and we responded in English. Back and forth in our separate languages, the generations managed to understand each other. My parents conversed in Russian when they wanted to keep secrets from us. Later in my life, when I was attending Russian movies, such as Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky , I found the sounds of this familiar but not understood language pleasing to my ear. And when my siblings and I spoke in English to each other, our parents were sometimes confused about what was going on. This met a need we had to exercise some control over our lives.
I grew up knowing that the land of Russia had significant meaning for our family. Generations back, the Fanshel's and their counterparts on the maternal side, the Kratchman's, lived in small towns with what struck me as an American-born kid as comical sounding names, something of the order of Zabukridge and Krijopol . These places were near Odessa, the major Black Sea port where Jews had established a significant historical presence. Years after he came to the United States, my father's brother and sister, Levi and Geitel, were still living in the vicinity of Odessa. From the manner in which Hyman spoke about the families left behind, the prolonged separation from his siblings gnawed at him and caused a gaping hole in his psyche.
The family had broken up in 1919, after the Bolshevik revolution. Chaotic social circumstances impelled Hyman and Clara to flee westward through Europe with members of the Kratchman family. Geitel, a thirteen-year old orphan, had to be left - despite her protests - in the care of Levi and his wife. The departing group, including my parents, their two young children, and a maternal uncle and two aunts, spent a year wandering in Belgium and France. Their migratory status ended when my mother's brother and his partner, joint owners of a food market in New York City, sent travel money to enable this assortment of Fanshel's and Kratchman's to come to America. As the lowest paying passengers on an ancient ocean liner, they endured harsh unsanitary living conditions in tight quarters. In this departure for a better life in a new country, Hyman and Clara experienced the death of their youngest child, a female infant, who had become ill with diphtheria in the midst of the ocean voyage. The pain created by their loss was profound and my parents could never talk about the experience with us.
On the completion of their journey, tribulations continued to dog the traveling family. Five-year old Sol, my parents' surviving child, was stricken with scarlet fever. Federal immigration policies dictated that adults and children with serious contagious diseases be detained for deportation. When he was found to be ill by the immigration authorities, my brother was placed in an isolation ward in the detention hospital on Ellis Island. You can imagine the intense fear experienced by this young boy who had lost his little sister and was separated from his parents in strange surroundings where he did not understand the English language. The family found itself in an acute crisis.
My American uncle, Irving Kratchman, and his partner, Sidney Kaplan, later to become my uncle through marriage to my Aunt Sonia, again came to the rescue. They spirited Sol out of a hospital window in the middle of the night. The transfer was accomplished by bribing a guard with fifty dollars. While circumstances motivated this stratagem, I grew up with a feeling that breaking the law was not a high-toned way for a family to become immigrants to America. In my child's view, the story of our entry pretty much stamped us as at the bottom of the heap. It seemed we were essentially outsiders elbowing our way into the land of milk and honey.
Over time a part of me came to redefine our immigration story with less disparagement of my origins. I felt grateful that my uncles had taken risks to make it possible for me to have a "big brother", eight years older than myself. More effective than my parents as teacher, he became the one who interpreted America for his three younger siblings. I came to realize that while we carried no prestigious name emblazoned on a family coat of arms, what we did retain in our history was a reservoir of energy that supported our survival. It surely left identifiable traits as if imprinted upon our genetic code and strong personality markers could easily be identified even into the third generation. Stubbornness? In good measure. Passion? Oh yes indeed, both in loving and hating.
Over the years, Hyman took upon himself a punishing self-condemnation for having abandoned his sister while he and other family members found a haven in the United States. This burden of guilt was reinforced when the German invasion of the Soviet Union took place. The area of the Ukraine where Geitel, her husband Moshe, and their two young children resided came under the brutal domination of local fascists - a mix of Ukrainians and Rumanians - exercising police population control under the supervision of the Germans.
* * * * *
Hyman's letter informs me that Geitel's life has taken on a harrowing course under the scourge of the German occupation of the Ukraine. I wonder how he has learned about his sister's misfortunes since it is rare for letters from Russia to come to our family during the war. My guess about the matter is that immigrants as a class of people have intelligence networks that can almost match in effectiveness the organized military intelligence efforts of powerful governments. They are resourceful in finding out what is going on with their families in their former homelands. I wonder if the person who picked up the information about Geitel was someone involved in the shipments of Lend Lease war materials sent from the United States to Russia.
Hyman has learned that as the German troops descended upon Odessa, the government shipped Geitel's husband, Moshe, without his family to a safe haven in Tashkent in the Asian area of the Soviet Union. He was given special protection in order to retain the use of his engineering skills defined as an asset in the national war effort. While there, he fell in love with another woman, took up residence with her, and in a relatively short time word came back to Geitel that she was abandoned by Moshe, the father of her children.
My sense of the surrealistic nature of the situation is stimulated by my knowledge that Moshe is the brother of Levi's wife, Charnye. Siblings are married to siblings. The dynamics of intra-family relationships for those left at home caused by the behavior of the Wandering Jew could be inspiration for an imaginative writer. Isaac Bashevis Singer, a writer in Yiddish who years later was awarded the Nobel Prize, often wrote about exotic things going on in Jewish families and could easily conjure with such wartime circumstances.
My father writes that the disintegration of the marriage was followed by an even greater calamity. Geitel's two young children were snared by Romanian fascists in a local round-up of Jewish youngsters and they were slaughtered with masses of other assembled Jews under gruesome circumstances. Hyman has been informed that his sister's grief is profound. She is inconsolable and on the verge of mental illness. In common with most parents who have suffered such losses, Geitel is unsparing in defining her own culpability in the events that have made victims of her children. She feels she left them unprotected, not fulfilling her basic maternal responsibility by doing whatever was required to prevent her children from being picked up by the Fascist predators.
When I come to understand my father's letter it shakes me up. In the mixture of his improvised Yiddish-English writing, he is able to convey an intense anguish. He specifically addresses my status as an active participant in the air war against Germany and defines my purpose in being in Italy. Not having the foggiest notion of my duties as a B-24 navigator on combat missions, he nevertheless wants me to do everything I can to wreak havoc on the enemy. He wants me to kill all the Germans I can. Personally! It is as if he imagines me somehow throwing our 500-pound bombs from our plane.
Being the recipient of such a passionate letter and struggling to comprehend what my father is going through, I am handicapped by not being accustomed to having correspondence with him. Writing letters to a parent in our family culture makes it seem as though we are communicating as equals. This is unexplored territory for me because we have not been intimates in a true sense. My father's authoritarian predilections have always been a problem for his children, especially his three sons.
Back home, the verbal interactions between us reflected an underlying tyrannical imbalance in the relationship. What I would say to my father was most often influenced by the feedback I was getting. Further, the subject matter of his letter was getting into charged territory. Hyman's complicated feelings about having abandoned his sister was a topic never really shared with me. I only knew that my parents often quarreled before the war about my father's spending more than our family could afford to send packages of clothing to his relatives in the Soviet Union who were communicating to us about the harshness of their personal circumstances. My mother felt he was guilty about his sister and that she was working him over emotionally in an area in which he was inappropriately vulnerable. She felt that his relatives did not realize that we ourselves were living in hard times, particularly after my father's heart attack.
* * * * *
As I walk around the air base in Manduria trying to lift my mood, I recognize that my father has an aura in my ruminations that reflects the underlying wariness accumulated about him in the course of my growing up in the Fanshel household. When angry, he would become enraged and fly off the handle in dramatic and scary ways.
In the middle of the Depression, and with the family's economic circumstances a constant source of worry, my father was often in a foul mood. When we violated his instructions, he sometimes seemed on the verge of becoming physically assaultive. I was conscious of him as a man of strong physique and the intensity of his gaze when he was angry intimidated me.
My unease with my father is reflected in an incident that took place when I was a five year old being taken to Temple Emanuel in Manhattan. It was then, and remains, the most prestigious synagogue in New York City attracting a wealthy congregation. We were going to hear a guest cantor of world renown and we were late. Hyman was rushing us along, and while I badly had to go to the bathroom, I was reluctant to face his wrath in being delayed. I finally had a most inappropriate accident for a five year old. When he saw the tell-tale signs that I had urinated in my trousers, he was utterly disgusted and we had to return home. From his point of view, I had ruined what was supposed to have been a beautiful day together. Experiences with him of this kind considerably reduced my self-confidence.
In standing up to Hyman, as she often did, my mother seemed to be recklessly throwing fuel on the volcanic fire being stoked within him. A middle-sized heavyish woman, Mom would plant her feet on the ground, legs spread apart, and look him squarely in the eyes. She would then hurl colorfully phrased denunciations at him replete with the most sarcastic Yiddish words in her repertoire. This was the biting Kratchman style coming to the fore. She mocked him for the self-pity he indulged in because he had to get up at four o'clock every morning to deliver produce to about a dozen stores in New York City. "This is your job as the father of four children. Stop crying about it! Do you want me to drive your truck for you?" I later came to understand that, for all her bravado, my mother was also scared, deep down, but she took courage in hand and told Hyman off in no uncertain terms.
* * * * *
I have not mentioned my father's letter to any members of my crew. I reason that we are all honorable and have our own individual motives for flying combat missions in Italy. I do not feel comfortable in seeking to define for my crewmates the nature of their motivations for risking their lives. For some men of the 450th Bomb Group it is a macho thing: "It is manly to engage in combat and fight for one's country. Combat is not for sissies."…"The guys at school signed up and so did I." For many others, enlisting in the military is an expression of patriotism: "My country was at risk, and as a good citizen I had to participate in its defense." Some men present a more self-serving stance: " I was going to be drafted anyway so I chose air combat because something about it was more preferable to fighting in the infantry. It seemed to offer a cleaner life."
Hyman's letter is disturbing to me in ways I do not fully fathom. I sense that a paradox is operating within my psyche. Here I am in Italy participating in the death and destruction associated with the Allied bombings taking place over German-occupied Europe. Dozens of flying comrades in the 450th have been killed in the course of a few weeks after our arrival as a replacement crew. And having seen Colonel Snaith's plane receive a direct hit with the apparent loss of all aboard, I ask myself: Why should the news of the death of two children I have never met create such an intense emotional reaction?
For days after receiving my father's letter I have weird dreams about direct encounters with him. Like Hebrew prophets of biblical times he shouts his cry of despair in the language he normally uses with me. In Yiddish, the words enter my inner being in more penetrating fashion than if delivered in his broken English. Meer muz harginin de Deitcher. Zey zennen merderers fun kinder. Zol zey farbrendt verren in gehenen!
Self-conscious and unsure of myself, I do not think I can successfully convey to my crewmates an understanding of the hodge-podge of circumstances, foreign to their experience, that are background to what has taken place in our family. They are more securely rooted in the native soil of our country than I am. In this context, I recognize that the men I am fighting with are not in Italy to save the Jews of Europe. I do not see this as an expression of anti-Semitism but rather as a reflection of the irrelevance of the subject in their lives.
For all my fitting in with my crewmates - we really do get along with one another quite well - there seems to be a lack of self-confidence that I can convey the history of the Fanshel's in a comprehensible form. I sense that the exotic nature of the events experienced by my family would have an aura for them of life taking place on another planet: A family wandering in Europe for a year after the Russian Revolution; a young female child dying on the boat coming across the Atlantic; a brother confined for deportation on Ellis Island and whisked out of a window by the bribery of a guard; an aunt left in Russia whose two children are murdered by the fascists; and Hyman as the conveyor of this information.
My complicated relationship with my father reverberates within me as I go through the war experience. In my ruminations about my family, Hyman clearly gets defined as the bad guy. And yet I feel there is more to our relationship than my earlier rejection of his letter would indicate and something within me argues for his receiving a better hearing. I realize that I do not understand his thinking very well. I sense that in his growing up in Russia he was exposed to the kind of pain we Fanshel children were spared in America.
I feel somewhat encouraged that our relationship will become closer by the realization that my encounter with my father around his letter may have created a spark of understanding within me about the intensity of his feelings about the history of the Jews as an oppressed people. Feelings about this subject burn with enormous intensity within him and help explain much of the disagreeable behavior that makes it difficult for me to feel affection for him.
My reticence to talk with my crewmates about what has been churning within me strikes me as a personal failure and it is not easy for me to examine my reactions objectively. It is rooted in a childhood conditioned by powerful forces that are beyond my grasp to fathom. They seem to have conspired to make me a stranger in the larger American scene in which I am now immersed because of the war.
Yes, Cosimo, so goes the stream. But the tide carries in its rush the tell-tale debris of the historical eruptions we have lived through. The flow of time exposes the ravished bodies of children and the charred remains of downed aircraft and their crews.
Flying Officers of MYAKIN - (left to right)
Mike Heryla - Bombardier
Jim Dunwoody - Co-Pilot
Jim McLain - Pilot
Dave Fanshel - Navigator