Finding Light in Darkness
(The retelling of one of my dad’s WWII Stories)
by Karen Cover Kwarcinski
My dad was, is, and always will be my hero, and I miss him more every day. He was one of the unsung heroes, but he was a humble man, and he never realized what a treasure he truly was. Everyone who knew him loved him, but because he valued the lives of others more than his own, and because he didn’t see his life as anything special, very few ever knew of what an illustrious and adventurous life he led. He wasn’t an adventure seeker, but mere acts of survival during the Depression, followed closely by the necessities and demands of a nation at war, sent him in directions he hadn’t planned to take. He followed that altered path with dignity, determination, faith, and honor. I spent yesterday missing him and adding to the collection of stories I’ve written about his illustrious life. Because it was Veteran’s Day, my thoughts were focused upon his service to our country during WWII, and out of those musings another memory surfaced and the following story emerged.
Dad was a Surgeon’s Assistant in WWII, but one of the hardest tasks he ever performed involved cleaning out a concentration camp, and then treating the liberated Czechoslovakian Jews in an evacuation hospital on the front lines. He carried pictures of the towering stacks of emaciated, deceased prisoners in his wallet for years, so that he would never forget their lives; he carried inside of himself – in silence – the horrors of witnessing evil personified, so that others wouldn’t have to know the full extent of man’s capacity for depravity. His courageous sacrifice extended far beyond the time of war.
Dad did, however, tell us bits and pieces about that experience. He told us of the healthier liberated prisoners. They were the ones who had fought so hard and so long for survival that they didn’t recognize friendly faces when the soldiers appeared. They were the ones who tried to fight the soldiers to protect themselves and their weaker friends. They were the ones who were able to walk – swaying, staggering, but upright – until they got to the step that led into the hospital. That step proved to be too much for them, however, and, one-by-one, they dropped to their knees to crawl up that single, insurmountable, three-inch step. Their spirits and bodies had been beaten down to a place as low as they could go, but they crawled up with determination when they were given the chance. He told of how the prisoners were so dehydrated that the hospital staff had to cut into their arms to find a vein. The tuberculosis that he helped treat in many of the liberated prisoners was another part of that war that returned to the states with him. After the war, he would return stateside where he and his beloved June would marry, start their lives together, have a set of twins, and anticipate the birth of a third child – me – just a month away – when he would hemorrhage from his diseased lungs, and he would enter the V.A. Hospital with very little hope of ever leaving that place alive. He had survived Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge to face death again; however, during his seventeen months of hospitalization, he never lost hope – never stopped being grateful for his blessings. Seeing the worst of humanity had taught him to look for glimmers of light in the darkest of days.
During the horrors of operating on wounded and dying soldiers, listening to and watching bombs falling, liberating and treating haunted, vacant, barely alive, skin-covered skeletons, Dad and his fellow soldiers experienced one of those blinding flashes of light during the deepest, most oppressive, most claustrophobic, most suffocating, most desperate darkness they had ever faced. On the Evacuation Hospital staff was a doctor of anesthesiology. He was kept very busy with the influx of patients – victims – survivors – from the liberated concentration camp. One day, while going about his duties, the anesthetist began working with a patient who, although emaciated, barely recognizable, barely alive, struck the doctor as vaguely familiar. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he knew the man, and he took the time to ask some questions. After a brief conversation, he was amazed and overcome to discover that the man to whom he was talking was his beloved uncle whom the family had given up for lost. In the midst of such sorrow and pain, a spark of joy was reignited and hope was reborn in all of the exhausted and disheartened soldiers, as well as in many of their hopeless patients. They all grabbed that unexpected spark of light and joy and held it desperately close. They celebrated their tiny victory. They counted their minor blessing and made it a major occasion. They learned to look for hope and light in darkness and despair. It was a brief moment – a mere sliver of light – that warmed them all and helped them survive the devastation; moreover, it gave them the courage to press on in their battle with darkness.
Dad never forgot the beauty of that moment, and he never stopped looking for the light, the bright side, the best in people, the goodness, the positive, and the HOPE in every situation and relationship. Is it any wonder that my dad was, is, and forever more will be my hero and my inspiration? My life has been flooded with light because this precious and humble man, along with so many others, went toe-to-toe with darkness for his country – for me. Thank you, Dad. I love you and I miss you!
Outrageous Faith – Courageous Life – Contagious Joy