Probably “cooking up a storm” isn’t the most captivating way to introduce a war story, especially not one dedicated to veterans labeled “The Greatest Generation” for their patriotic commitment to the United States during World War II.
But Jack Martin Tauf, my father, and Gertrude Lowenstein, nee Tauf, my aunt certainly knew their way around the kitchen. Jack, the youngest of three siblings, Gertrude the middle child and Shirley Schachter, nee Levin, the eldest had a knack for creating mouth-watering meals.
They learned to cook at a young age. Jack was a toddler of 3 when he and his sisters lost their mother, and their father Joseph — an immigrant from Mogilev, Belarus — never remarried.
What seemed like a natural talent served Jack well. He enlisted in the U.S. Army on June 14, 1941, at age 21, entering the military directly after spending a few years working with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a venture that brought him from his Chicago home to sunny Southern California and also to Green River, Wyo.
Gertrude, who had moved from the Windy City to work in the nation’s capital, enlisted on Oct. 7, 1942, in the Women’s Army Corps. The terms of her enlistment were “for the duration of the war or other emergency, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President or otherwise according to law,” as stated on her registration document.
My Aunt Shirley was the only one of the siblings who did not enlist, but with good reason. She married her husband George Schachter in October 1937. Their daughter Annette was born in February 1939 — seven months before Nazi Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, the attack that marked the official start of the Second World War.
Although Shirley was truly patriotic, eventually becoming a staunch Nixon supporter, she would never leave her infant to go off to war. Joseph (Tauf) Levin inspired a profound sense of loyalty toward this nation among his three children, a loyalty born from the appreciation common among throngs of Eastern European Jews who fled their homeland in the early 1900s to avoid the mass carnage of pogroms.
For a while in the army Jack had kitchen duty and his comrades-in-arms appreciated his culinary skills. Eventually he became a warrant officer. He never explained the duties involved in that position. In fact, he almost never talked about the war — at least not with the family.
The one story he did recount, and I only heard it twice, was when he was among the troops that marched into Germany for the liberation. I know it left an image that he could never erase from his mind.
As the troops made their way from town to town they stumbled across a quaint rural area, a small town. He never mentioned the name. It’s possible that he didn’t know the town’s name. Soldiers heard screams coming from a distance on the outskirts of that German village. They questioned area residents who told them it was a state asylum that housed mental patients and “crazy people scream.”
The village people trusted what authority figures told them.
But, by that point in the war, American troops had heard horror stories about the encampments and torture tactics conducted at the death camps. They headed toward the screams. As they approached the so-called psychiatric hospital, they noticed some freshly churned ground.
Soldiers began to dig. They unearthed a mass grave. Among the dead bodies they found some that were skin and bone, but still moving, just barely alive. Because the concentration camp guards knew American soldiers were near, they futilely tried to hide all evidence of war crimes.
Their ability to absolutely destroy another human being and not even flinch seemed unreal to the American troops that encountered the mass grave. I know that the vision haunted my father.
Nonetheless, he was proud to have served, proud to have done his duty for the country he called home, proud to wear the uniform and proud when he saluted Old Glory.
After the war, my father signed up for the Army reserves for a couple of years. But then he got married and he was not the boss. He watched war movies on TV with such intensity, that he seemed to be in his own zone. And, he remained active with his war veterans post, where he became the commander.
My father and his sisters are deceased. I’m glad that they don’t have to see people who disrespectfully kneel when the colors are posted. They did believe in everyone’s First Amendment rights to free speech. But kneeling before the flag isn’t speaking, it’s not complaining about a particular issue or two or three. It’s an action that shows distain for this country because that’s what the flag represents. It symbolizes America.
Is the United States perfect? Of course not. Perfection anywhere is impossible. Why? Because people have different perspectives about what perfect looks like, sounds like and feels like. If every single individual was like-minded, there would be no debates regarding gun control or any other issue that divides citizens.
If everyone was like-minded, there would be no need for political parties at all. My parents, my aunts and uncles were first generation Americans. My grandparents entered at Ellis Island. My grandparents wanted to kiss the ground of this new land, a place that’s not perfect, but a place where they enjoyed free speech and freedom of religion and the right to vote for the candidate that most represented their ideals.
My family was by no means wealthy. As a kid, I had few material possessions. For a birthday or at Christmas I received a sweater, a blouse or a skirt. Many of my clothes were hand-me-downs.
I never needed a $5,000 designer purse to feel worthy or important. I never needed a Rolex watch for that same reason. I never needed a luxury car, although I would say “thank you” if someone gave me a Maserati. I’m human after all.
The most precious gift of all was the sense of patriotism that my family instilled in me. It didn’t cost a cent. But it’s a belief that guides me through life.