“Fear festers,” pop told him all through childhood. “Step in, step through, but don’t be hindered by fear. Yet always respect it.”
At twelve, he took this lesson to sports, overcoming his fear of playing rugby. A year later came diving into a pool and, a few months after, into a lake. He did what scared him.
The latter part of pop’s fear lesson was harder to understand. “Respect your fear,” played in the young boy’s mind.
“Pop. How do you respect fear?” he finally asked, when around sixteen and old enough to feel a need for more wisdom.
Pop took a moment to gather his thoughts. He looked at his son, admiring how the boy was turning into a man. In look, he stood tall, nearly six feet now, his features more defined with muscles forming and a small dark mustache decorating his youthful face. “Fear is good; fear informs you. You have to understand what you fear and why. Then you can act. People who don’t think about fears are foolish and careless.”
At twenty, he put this lesson into practice. Times at home in Germany were changing. Adolf Hitler was now Chancellor, the Nazi party was in power. People hoped life in Germany wouldn’t follow Hitler’s vile rhetoric about Jewish people and other groups. Yet, he sensed that life was going to change. Policies would follow the rhetoric.
That summer of 1933, he packed his and his parents’ belongings, and they sailed for America, where a small New Jersey suburb became home. He married, he and his wife had triplets in 1936, and in 1938 graduated from law school and joined a law firm in New York City. People said he was going to be the next Louis Brandeis.
Yet while his U.S. life flourished, Jewish life in Germany was becoming perilous. Policies had indeed changed. And now rumors were spreading of concentration camps forming and Jewish people being sent there. “The rumors can’t be true,” some said. To which he’d reply, “why not? Look at how life is already different.”
Around this time, he stopped spending money on anything but essentials, sending every spare dollar to aid Jewish families in Europe. And when President Roosevelt announced America’s intention to enter the war, he told his wife that he would register for the Army. She didn’t argue, but they both cried. “You’ll be so handsome in uniform,” she said, offering a gentle smile.
After joining and receiving his gear, he looked at his dog tag – “Chaim Gold.” Chaim had kept his first name when coming to the U.S. But Gold became an American identity and a marker of a new life. Now, he was going back to where life started.
The horrors of war became part of his life. Wars don’t have reasons, he understood, harboring the pains. But his place in this war did have a purpose. Pop’s wisdom helped much. “Pop. Thank you. I don’t know what will come of me here. Yet I know this is where I need to be. This is a fear to step into, step through,” he wrote his father.
As war years passed, the Allies began winning. The time came for Allied forces to liberate concentration camps. Rumors of atrocities in the camps had grown over the years. The soldiers heard stories. Yet no rumor could prepare any of them for seeing the camps in person.
Chaim and his battalion came to Dachau to liberate the prisoners. The horrors were everywhere. Dead bodies and graves and gas chambers brought tears to his eyes. As guards surrendered and prisoners were freed, he watched former prisoners beat their former guards. Like some of the other soldiers, he just looked away.
Upon returning home, Chaim earned medals and honors for his actions as a soldier. But all he could think of was the many who died in concentration camps. When he arrived back in the U.S., he hugged his wife, children, and parents. They went home that night and had a festive dinner. The next day, Chaim opened a new law firm to help refugees.
Note: “That day in Dachau” is a historical fiction story about a Jewish immigrant who enlists in the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. While based on real events, the story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.