Michele Heller is communications manager of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
This post has been updated.
Seventy-five years ago, my Czech-born father was one of 73,000 U.S. troops who landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
It was four years after he had escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and eventually found safety in the United States. It was two years after he and his brother enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight, as many immigrants still do, for their adopted country. It was at the same time his family members who had not gotten out of Europe were being killed in concentration camps.
My dad never talked about fleeing the Nazis as a teenager. He never mentioned his Jewish heritage. He only rarely and reluctantly talked about serving in World War II. He never wore his medals of valor on his sleeve, literally or figuratively.
After he died 15 years ago at the age of 82, I discovered tucked away at the back of his sock drawer the three Bronze Stars he had earned for bravery and a Purple Heart. Then I started digging into his history and discovered that he had also hidden the pain and tragedies of his youth.
I found a birth certificate showing that the father I knew as John Heller had been born Hanus Heller and, like many immigrants, later anglicized his name in an effort to assimilate. I discovered that he had Jewish ancestry and was baptized Catholic in an unsuccessful bid to evade the Nazi racial laws. I pieced together the remarkable story of how he, his mother, brother and a cousin managed to get out of occupied Czechoslovakia. My husband found records of how the rest of their immediate relatives had been killed in concentration camps — except for twins who were kept alive as subjects of the medical experiments led by Josef Mengele. I’m certain my dad had no idea that those two cousins had survived.
My dad was lucky. He was a statistical anomaly, having escaped the Nazis and then surviving one of the earliest waves of D-Day landings followed by fighting on the front lines in Normandy, the liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. By early 1945, he was one of the very few left of those in his regiment who had come ashore on D-Day. The rest were dead or wounded and evacuated.
At that point, he had accumulated enough time on the front lines to go back to the United States. He studied electrical engineering at UCLA with the aid of the GI Bill, settled in Southern California and eventually married.
His tale of fleeing repression, immigrating to the United States and establishing himself here is certainly not unique. Nor is his service as a foreign-born U.S. soldier. In the 1840s, half of all U.S. military recruits were immigrants. Today, 40 percent of active-duty personnel are racial or ethnic minorities, and 13 percent of U.S. veterans are foreign-born or children of immigrants.
Why am I telling the story my dad had buried so deeply? Because relaying his experience is a way to illustrate the personal ramifications of anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, racist sentiment. Nationalist fervor, economic crisis and other factors resulted in the Nazis’ ascendance, their anti-Jewish laws and eventually the war that upended my dad’s youth and took the lives of many of his compatriots, friends and family, both on the battlefields and in the concentration camps.
He experienced what can happen when leaders spawn hatred rather than condemn it. He also experienced having a great leader when it really matters. In 2002, 58 years after my dad landed on Utah Beach, we persuaded him to return to Normandy for a memorial ceremony at the American cemetery there. He walked by himself among the gravestones of his compatriots from the 4th Infantry Division, and eventually stopped and stood for a long time at the marker of one of his commanders, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr.
Later we asked my dad why he spent the most time at Roosevelt’s grave, rather than at the resting places of his fellow infantrymen. He said Roosevelt was a great leader who lived by the regiment’s motto of “Deeds, not words.” In one of the few times my dad ever talked about combat, he showed us where he had landed on Utah Beach and described seeing the general standing calmly amid the indescribable chaos of battle and firmly directing the troops ashore. He said Roosevelt’s selfless, honorable leadership heartened him and, he presumed, thousands of other terrified young soldiers on that day.
They all were war heroes — the captured, the killed, the wounded, the mentally maimed, the lucky survivors such as my dad — because of circumstance, not desire. They went to war because of what happened when xenophobia and demagoguery supplanted real leadership.