As a child, I was always fascinated by my father’s war wounds – deep gouges in his arm and leg left by a spray of German bullets early in 1945.
As I grew older, I learned a bit more. Barely two months before the end of the war, my father, Eugene Elsner, was caught in an ambush. He was then an artillery captain in a Polish brigade attached to the Red Army operating inside German territory. My father was in a vehicle that took a wrong turn and strayed across enemy lines. Of the 26 soldiers in the truck, 21 were killed and the rest all seriously wounded. My father was officially reported dead.
Ironically, I was born on exact same date nine years later. Every Feb. 7, he congratulates me on my birthday and I congratulate him on his survival. This year marked the 70th anniversary of that ambush.
My dad was picked up by the Germans, who for some reason, took him to a hospital even though they must have seen he was Jewish. He lay in awful, pain without any drugs for days, hovering between life and death – but he refused to die. Eventually, he was liberated by the British, who sent him to England where he spent a year in the hospital undergoing a series of operations.
For a long time, the circumstances that brought him to that time and place were foggy to me. My father rarely spoke about his experiences. He did not want to burden his children with bitter memories. Much later, I learned that he suffered years of flashbacks and nightmares – what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He struggled through in silence without any help.
Eventually, when I was already nearly 40 and an established journalist, I resolved to get the whole story out of him and write it down. I recorded around 25 cassette tapes of interviews with him and my uncle, who was with him throughout the war. We took a trip together to Poland and Russia, retracing his footsteps, and I turned the narrative into a book, Guarded By Angels, which was published by Yad Vashem. Now, with his memory fading, that book and those tapes are a priceless testimony of grit, courage and survival for future generations.
My father and his younger brother, Mark, survived 18 months in three brutal Gulag camps in the Soviet Union 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, almost starving to death. They were saved by the German invasion of the Soviet Union when Polish prisoners were released from the camps. After wandering from place to place all the way to Tashkent, they eventually wound up living under false identities in a Cossack village in the Caucasus. When the region was occupied by the Nazis, my father was forced to work as a translator for the German Army which was converting the railroads to the German gauge using slave labor. He had to guard his Jewish identity, living on a knife’s edge while also passing information to the resistance. At one point, he was denounced to the Gestapo but managed to convince his interrogators of his innocence.
After the defeat at Stalingrad, the Germans retreated and my father and uncle were drafted to join a new Polish brigade formed by the Red Army. They both became officers and took part in the Soviet advance through Eastern Europe, fighting their way into Germany. And then came that ambush.
In some ways, it was hard growing up the son of such a formidable father. My dad had high expectations of me which were not always met. I dreaded bringing home my report card. Anything less than perfect grades was not acceptable. Many years later, when I was on a speaking tour of Poland, at the invitation of the U.S. ambassador, I was taken to my father’s high school and presented with a copy of his final report card, miraculously preserved in the school archives from 1935. I was amused to see that his grades were not much better than mine.
But the pluses of having such a father far, far outweighed any minuses. My father survived by never, ever thinking about quitting no matter how dire the circumstances. Even now, when I am doing something hard I hear his voice in my head telling me, “You must not quit.” When I trained for a marathon at age 60, slogging through 20-mile training runs in Washington’s heat and humidity, his voice was there pushing me on. My father was tough and uncompromising and unfailingly honest and principled. If I am half the man he was and half the father, I will be content.
I guess every son thinks his dad is a hero – but mine truly is.
Alan Elsner is vice president for communications at J Street.