Even if you can't single-handedly turn the direction of history, you can put some small bricks in the road to a more humane future.
One week before an American anti-Semite killed 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue, we found my grandfather’s yellow armband.
My brother and I, sorting through the belongings of our late father, discovered the stained cotton cloth stamped with a dark-blue Star of David that had labeled my grandfather Vlado Grunbaum as a Jew. He wore it in public by order of the Nazi client state governing his corner of Yugoslavia, which in about two years exterminated some 90 percent of the Jews in his hometown.
To unearth it was a shock. A sharp reminder of an evil and distant time, popping out of a nondescript folder in a Northgate apartment.
Like me, my father’s father was not at all religious. That did not matter in 1941 when the Nazis came. What saved him from being killed but not from being marked, according to the rules of the local ethnic-cleansing campaign, was that he had married a Roman Catholic, and so he was not sent to the Djakovo or Jasenovac concentration camps that were quickly established by the local Croatian fascists and their German masters.
My grandfather wore that yellow-and-blue armband when bringing food to the many Jews — and Serbs, and others — who had been rounded up and corralled at Djakovo. Sometimes, a bribe or a pretext would enable him to come back out with some desperate family’s child; always, it was uncertain whether he himself would be allowed to leave.
Those held in these camps — including my mother’s parents and her older sister, and my father’s aunts — were by late 1942 either killed right there or shipped off to the death camp at Auschwitz. My mother, a child at the time, was saved from the camps only because she was hidden by a courageous non-Jew.
So what does this old piece of cotton mean to me now, in the United States of 2018? I am still figuring that out. Is it merely a potent physical remnant of a horrific era now 70-plus years in the past? Or, if it carries a more immediate meaning for the present, what exactly is that?
My parents, who met as teenagers in their Yugoslav hometown after World War II, preserved the armband as their decimated family emigrated first to Israel and then to the United States. But like the psychic scars of their wartime experience, they packed it away as they built careers and raised a family.
In later years they opened up a bit more about their Holocaust experience. Still, the armband never came up. I saw it for the first time only eight years ago, when moving my parents from their house to a retirement community. When my father passed away in October, preceded in death by my mother, the armband was in a file folder with more mundane family artifacts from the 1940s and ’50s, high on a closet shelf.
My parents were not here to see last month’s Pittsburgh killings, said to be the most deadly attack on Jews in U.S. history. But they did live to see Croatia’s World War II fascist past newly glorified by some in that country. My dad saw last year’s Charlottesville march by white nationalists and swastika-carrying neo-Nazis — and a president who too often exploits such views rather than criticizing them.
The flood-tide of intolerance, suspicion of immigrants and barely disguised hatred of “others” that my parents saw rising in their adopted homeland carried disturbing echoes of their past. I don’t think they feared that a return of the yellow armband is around the corner. But they knew that ultranationalism, xenophobia and fascism come in many colors.
My grandfather’s story does not end at the gates of the Djakovo camp. More than three decades after the war, he was honored for his actions in bringing Jewish children out of that concentration camp. He met some of them, grown men and women who had escaped the Nazi death machine thanks in part to his efforts. They’d survived by being smuggled out to Italy, or, like my mother, were hidden within Yugoslavia.
I will take that armband to be a warning, and the lesson of that chapter in my grandfather’s life to be this: Even if you can’t single-handedly turn the direction of history, you can put some small bricks in the road to a more humane future. Help one child escape intolerance and poverty. Welcome one immigrant family. Work in whatever way you can to hold back the senseless rise of hatred.
I only hope I can find ways to make the kind of difference he did.