The Unspoken Words

By Andrew Cheng

When I was first advised to interview a war veteran as a project for my Literature of Witness class, I thought of my guardian’s elderly neighbor, whom I call Hughes. Hughes was born in Detroit City in Michigan State during the First World War. His father was a World War I war veteran, and just like him, he ended up in the U.S. military. According to my guardian, Hughes is known as being a reserved man and for the longest time being a neighbor and a close family friend to my guardian for more than 10 years. He has never mentioned anything about his experience in the Second World War or his childhood. After my guardian had talked him into agreeing to an interview with me as part of my project, I always knew it was going to be hard to get the responses that I needed from him. Therefore, I read and practiced extensively on my interviewing skills from Ms. Gonzalez’s class. The interview revealed a lot of truths about the war. It was essential to carry on this conversation as it showed a lot of things he had not talked about for over fifty years since the war ended, and this made him feel better after having to cope with PTSD for the longest time. It also gave me information and an insight into the war.

My meeting was introduced by a comment from my guardian who stated, “Hughes doesn’t prefer to discuss his war encounters, yet he would likely do it for you.” My guardian had told me that in the decades that he has known Hughes, he had talked about World War II just once. It was unexpected, totally out of nowhere and brief. I sat down on Hughes’ balcony just outside his home. He was seated right opposite me with only a coffee table between us. As I arranged for the interview with Hughes in regards to his memories and opinions, I could see the sun setting through the window to one side. The little, calm, wood-surrounded room fills in as his office in one way or another. I felt like I was in a Chinese temple and Buddha was sitting across from me. He had a striking, sharp pose that would command respect from whoever looked at him. I was admiring him and expecting to have a meaningful conversation with him. It was the ideal place to converse with Hughes, and I was immediately drawn into the conversation. On the door towards the corridor of his office hung a photo of military soldiers celebrating a victory in Hawaii in 1945, and he is right at the heart of the picture, most notably the only one of the soldiers with a gloomy face. The room has such a significant number of histories and stories that I had not learned yet. Hughes’ history, not found in any of these books, has an irrefutable noteworthiness. It was him, who is one of the general people I look to for inspiration. This interview might also be the last conversation between me and Hughes before he moves back to Michigan.

In the beginning, he cautioned me that his answers might be brief. I had sent him a rundown of inquiries to try to inspire him, but I detected Hughes’ reservations instantly. The conversation began unexpectedly. He opened our interview by saying, “Right, your meeting,” in good English. He initially attempted to answer huge numbers of my inquiries with a yes or a no. Be that as it may, I forced myself to push past that. Notwithstanding how quick and touchy I trusted my inquiries to be, I soon understood that it would require some push to enter Mr. Hughes’ heart and dig for his experiences. I expressed gratitude and thankfulness toward him for his ability to impart his perspectives to me. As my guardian had admonished me that Mr. Hughes did not like recalling or talking about his war encounters, I realized that it would be really hard for him to recall those memories. So I gave up on the more personal questions.

I began by asking, “What did your life resemble before the war?”

He presently couldn’t seem to warm up, and reacted by saying, “I studied medicine.” This is when I began having trouble because I could see the power in his eyes that intimidated me. I could also see the unwillingness to reply that made me feel guilty. After regaining myself, I asked how old he was at the point at which he was picked to go to the war. He disclosed to me we would return to that later in the interview. I could detect reluctance in his reactions. He was prepared to get this over with. He was not letting me efficiently pry into his war recollections. I now understand that when he relates his story, he is compelled to remember it. As a happy man, I think it hurt him that he didn’t trust he would have been ready to shape sentences that would portray his revulsion. As though anybody could.

I asked how the war had changed his life. He added more shading to this reaction, saying that he “was drafted not enthusiastically to take an interest in preparing as artillery,” and “in the wake of preparing he was sent to the Asia Pacific war front in 1941.” I requested more detail on what that implied. The Asia Pacific front evidently had a high convergence of “Americans, English, and French.” He stated, “The war influenced me in particular… I had nothing to do with the people fighting.”

Sitting at his dining table, Hughes sat two seats on my left, and my notebook lay on the table. A glass of cold water was served to us by a young lady, presumably one of his nieces. I didn’t know how to proceed with the discussion except to change to the following inquiry. He didn’t want to add additional detail or to help with the meeting. I was experiencing difficulty, knowing he was being compelled to endure some sad memories. He gave off an impression of being as open now as he could be. I delayed pushing him to expand on the most abhorrent piece of his life. I detected that he was just going to be as open as I could drive him to be, so I chose to get some information about his most clear battle involvement. He shouted, “I was involved in the war with Japan till they surrendered!” He continued, “After they attacked Pearl Harbor, I was recruited to fight for my nation, and being born in Hawaii made me more patriotic to my country.”

I asked Mr. Hughes how he felt concerning his general experience, seeking after a reflection on the war. He chose to respond with superficial answers. He stated, “I liked my accomplishment of life.” He proceeded with, “I raised two young men I was glad for, three great-grandchildren.” I am pleased with my neighbor’s commitment. He was not a soldier. He was a kid who was forced to go into World War II for the sake of his nationalism. Notwithstanding, his want for flexibility after getting away from the war and his hard-working attitude empowered him to carry on with a full life. Mr. Hughes didn’t center on his prosperity, climbing from nothing. He talked about what he is genuinely glad for: his children and his grandchildren. My conviction that I expected to lead this meeting was vindicated. Mr. Hughes never discussed the details of the war. However, I saw the responsibility that Hughes carried, and I am thankful to have had a challenging but meaningful conversation with him.


Shameful Pride


When I was first told to interview a refugee or war veteran, I thought of my paternal grandfather, whom I call Opa. I paused. My grandfather, born and raised in Germany, fought for his native country in World War II.  When people think of German soldiers during that era, neither respect nor compassion come immediately to mind. I am proud of my grandfather; I am proud of his life, his legacy, and how hard he toiled to get to where he did. He has worked hard consistently trying improve life for himself and his family. He never let what he was forced to go through hold him back. He dreamed of success, and he refused to let his dreams be pushed aside by Hitler’s regime. When people talk about what their grandparents endured, I often remain quiet. Most people are not sympathetic towards someone whom they assume was a Nazi. Believing that all German soldiers were Nazis is at best uninformed, and at worst an insulting stereotype. As much as I questioned, even worried, whether I should interview Opa for my report, I developed a conviction. I knew that I had to interview him. My grandfather was not a Nazi. He was a boy, forced against his will to fight for a cause he did not believe in. It was a cause that he had no desire to be a part of, fought by people he believed he “had nothing to do with.”

My interview was prefaced by a remark from my dad. He said, “Opa doesn’t like to talk about his war experiences, but he would likely be willing to do it for you.” My mom informed me that in the decades that she has known my grandfather, he had spoken about World War II just once. It was “unprompted, completely out of the blue.”

I sat down at my father’s desk. As I began to prepare for the discussion with my grandfather regarding his recollections and views, I could see the sun setting through the window to my left. The small, quiet, wood framed library that serves as my father’s den somehow has always satisfied my need for privacy and thought. It was really the perfect place to talk to his dad and was symbolically apt. On the wall next to the windows is a sketch of an old man on a ladder reaching for a book, or as my dad has said, reaching for knowledge. The room has so many histories that I have yet to learn. Opa’s history, not found in any of these books, has an undeniable significance. It shaped my grandfather, who is one of the people I look to for motivation. Many of the characteristics I admire in my father, and aspire to for myself, come from Opa. I had of course managed to print out my questions with space for answers in time to place the call. I could not help but think of the contrast between my modern computer and printer and what his home must have looked like before he went off to fight. I prepared myself to dial, remembering how Opa has such a powerful presence. For a man who is almost 90 years old, he walks athletically and speaks directly, without hesitation. We joke that Opa’s genes will keep us alive forever.

I called my grandfather with a list of deep and powerful questions. Though now significantly hard of hearing, and never a man who cared for formalities, we got right to the point. I sensed Opa’s reservations immediately. The phone call started more abruptly than it usually did. He opened our call by saying “Right, your interview,” in broken English. German is clearly his first language. He first tried to answer many of my questions with a yes or a no. However, I brought myself to push and probe beyond that. Regardless of how insightful and sensitive I believed my questions to be, I soon realized that it was going to take some effort to penetrate my grandfather’s protective shield. I had sent him a list of questions so he could prepare the thoughts that he wished to share. At the outset, he warned me that his answers might be brief. I thanked him for his willingness to share his views with me. As my father had forewarned me that Opa did not enjoy recollecting his war experiences, I understood it would require persistence if I wished to have him relinquish the more personal details. Caught between being grateful for the fact that he was even on the phone with me, and wanting all the intimate details, I asked my first question.

I started by asking what his life was like before the war. He had yet to warm up, and responded by saying, “I studied engineering.” I asked how old he was when he was drafted. He told me we would get back to that. I could sense hesitancy and haste in his responses. He was ready to get this over with. He was not letting me easily pry into his war memories. I now realize that when he recounts his story, he is forced to relive it. At this point he told me I was going to have to fix his grammar when I wrote. As a proud man, I think it hurt him that he did not believe he was going to be able to perfectly shape sentences that would describe the horrors he witnessed. As if anyone could.

I asked how the war had changed his life. He added more color to this response, saying that he “was drafted not willingly to participate in training as an artillery soldier,” and “after training [he] was sent to Western Front in 1944.” I asked for more detail on what that meant. The Western Front apparently had a high concentration of “Americans, English and French.” He said, “The war affected me very much… I had nothing to do with the [people fighting].”

I asked what his age was. He was 17. We both paused. I was not sure what to say. I could not help thinking that I would turn 17 in just a few months. I ultimately said, “That is young.”

He said, “Yes.”

I did not know how to continue the conversation without switching to the next question. He did not feel any need to add further detail or to help with the interview. I was having trouble, knowing he was being forced to suffer through all the memories again. He appeared to be as open now as he could be. I paused to appreciate that he was willing to elaborate on the most gruesome part of his life. My mom had informed me prior that she “had never seen him eat a potato with peel on it, because that is all he had to eat during the war.” He obviously relives the war enough without my questions. I sensed that he was only going to be as open as I could force him to be, so I decided to ask about his most vivid combat experience. He said, “I was involved in the Battle of Bulge,” a deadly attack where three German armies that contained more than 750,000 troops were neutralized when they attempted to attack the Allied armies. With haste, Opa added that he “was wounded there.” I knew he has always had shrapnel in his back. I never knew why. Before I could learn more about how he became injured, he asked that we move on to the next question. I obliged. He has spent his whole life fighting to move beyond these memories, and I began to realize how truly traumatic this part of his life had been. I had assumed that Opa had been able to handle almost anything. He always appears strong. He can still beat my dad in an arm wrestle. This only bolstered my appreciation of what he overcame.

It appears to be a common assumption that the German soldiers were fighting of their own will, motivated by their hatred for minorities such as Jews. It is clear that my grandfather had no control over where his life had gone at that point. I wanted to ask about his possible prejudices. I asked if he developed biases during the war, and if so, how they affected his life. At first he avoided the question, reiterating, “It affected me very much. I could not finish my engineering studies.” I brought up Jews. Opa said, “I grew up with Jewish people.” He said he had “lots of friends of them.” He then reminded me that my mom is Jewish. He explained that other Germans’ hatred had “no effect [for him] against Jews.” He did not care that others hated Jews. He had no biases. He continued, saying, “or else your Dad wouldn’t have married your mom.” For me his comment represents a different generation’s attitude towards love; however, it persuaded me to believe that he truly is not prejudiced.

I decided to shift towards the question of how he managed to escape his forced service. He said, “In April of ’45 I became prisoner of war to Americans till war ended in ‘45.” I noticed how he had no trouble recalling the dates of events that he rarely speaks of. I was not surprised that the days must be permanently etched in his mind. He said that after he was released at the end of the war, he was finally a “free man.” He must have thought that when he was conscripted, it was going to be the last time he could call himself that. I asked him what came next. He said, “After release of camp I went to Hanover and started apprenticeship as fur dresser,” but in “1953 decided to emigrate to Canada and work as fur dresser.” He still lives in Canada, so I asked him what was so appealing about the place. Opa said, “Because Canada is free country.” I realized that he had felt such a lack of freedom in Germany that he needed to be somewhere that he could feel truly free. He said in Germany “nothing worked, it was bad… Canada appealed to me very much.” He kept reiterating the fact that Canada was free. And in Canada, he was free. Opa was genuinely attached to the idea of a country where he could truly be a free man. He was just as much a captive of Hitler as many others in the war. However, it was not Germany directly trying to end his life; it was Germany forcing him to be in a position where his life could have easily been ended, fighting for a cause he was ardently against. I wanted to know what his first impression of Canada was. He simply said he needed “to decide what trade to go into.” I respect the courage that he showed in being able to move beyond his horrible experiences, and even though he made it to Canada with nothing, he worked his way to personal and financial success. He does not care to boast, but he started as night watchman for a factory owned by a Jewish family. He worked with his hands at a tannery. He dreamed of eventually being the manager of his own firm. He did not share this in his interview, but I recall how impactful some stories my dad has shared with me have been. My grandfather, after working at the tannery all day, would come home and work through the night in his basement, as my father studied. For years he would do this. He eventually built, by hand, all the machinery necessary to run his own tannery. From there he created the largest tanning company in Canada, having immigrated with nothing but a desire for freedom.

I asked my Opa how he felt regarding his overall experience, hoping for a reflection on the war. He decided to look more broadly. He said, “I felt good about my achievement of life.” He continued, “I raised two boys I proud of, three wonderful grandchildren.” I am proud of my grandfather’s dedication. He was not a Nazi. He was a boy who became a captive of Hitler’s horror. However, his desire for freedom after escaping the war and his work ethic enabled him to live a full life. He did not focus on his personal success, ascending from nothing. He spoke of what he is truly proud of: his sons and his grandchildren. Opa deserves empathy when he speaks of what he suffered and not spite. My conviction that I needed to conduct this interview was vindicated. My grandfather never speaks of the war. Let this be a record for me and my sister, and future generations.