My uncle, Bernard Kampler, a kind young man who was much loved by his family, a high school swim star, newly married, died 60 years ago this week in the Battle of the Bulge. He died under unimaginably harsh and terrifying conditions. In my family, the repercussions of his death are still flowing outward, like rings from a stone dropped into a deathly still pool of water.
My very first childhood memory is of my uncle. We were on the streets of Brooklyn, my mother and I, when her brother came walking toward us. He was tall and handsome in his uniform. I ran to him. He picked me up and held me above his head. We were both laughing. I was three years old.
The war in Europe was almost over when Germany made a last attack through the Ardennes forests of Belgium and Luxembourg. On the night of December 16, 1944, the Sixth Panzer Army came pouring through the American lines. This attack of about 200,000 German troops created a backward "bulge" in the line, hence the name.
"The weather was frightful - bitterly cold and snowing, with a high wind howling through the dark," wrote Gardner Botsford in his 2003 memoir, "A Life of Privilege, Mostly." "To make matters worse, the panzer troops were using a number of captured Sherman tanks still bearing their American markings. You could be shot dead by your own tanks. And there was more. To create even greater chaos, hundreds of German parachutists - English-speaking parachutists, wearing American uniforms - were being dropped in."
The slaughter was horrific. As men were killed, replacements were rushed to the front lines. These were often inexperienced, poorly-trained recruits who were unwelcome to the hardened riflemen of the front because of their inexperience, and resented because they were alive while the person they were replacing - a buddy - was dead.
My uncle was one of the inexperienced ones.
"He had a terrific job in the Coast Guard in Puerto Rico," my mother told me. "He swam every day and picked the bananas from the trees. But he felt guilty that he wasn't doing enough for the war effort, so he asked to be transferred to the Air Force. He went to Arkansas to train as a pilot. He did not make pilot, but he made navigator. While he was in training, the Germans were squeezing the Allied troops in the forests of Belgium. All the trainees were shipped out immediately, to train as privates in England. They trained there a short time and were shipped to the front. My brother and his whole platoon were killed in their first engagement."
My grandparents - Ben and Flora - were celebrating New Year's Eve with some of Flora's family when the telegram came. Mother, who was pregnant with her second child, had stayed home.
"We were all there for dinner," my great-uncle, Jack Goodman, told me. "They came to the door and rang the bell and gave Flora the telegram that Bernard was shot dead. One thing made me angry - why New Year's Eve? Everyone is sitting around peacefully eating and bang, your boy is dead. Why didn't they wait until the next day? When they brought the bodies back, there was a big ceremony in Central Park, and then Bernard was buried in Long Island. It was very sad, very heartbreaking. Flora and Ben were stunned. We all were."
No one told my mother that her beloved brother was dead. For the good of her unborn child, the doctor advised the Kamplers to keep the death a secret. So they sat shiva without her, and when they visited her, they wore awful, strained expressions. My mother thought they were anxious because there had been no news.
My brother was born on January 10, 1945. Mother was ready to name him Ira Paul.
When my mother finally came home from the hospital, Ben and Flora sat on her bed and told her the news. She screamed so loudly that the neighbors heard her. She named the new baby Bernard.
Uncle Bernard's death affected us all. My grandmother never recovered from the loss of her son. She started keeping a diary addressed to him - it breaks your heart when you read it. She became bitter and clung to my mother. My grandfather's spirit was broken. My mother has mourned her brother's death ever since. The new family Mom was creating - the one with me, my poor brother now saddled with my uncle's name, and my father - well, we never felt we were as important to her as the family the war had destroyed.
This feeling of unimportance affected our choices - what we did with our lives or didn't do, whom we married or did not marry, whether or not we had children. And our choices, in turn, are now affecting my brother's children's choices. The circles in the pond grow ever wider.
Since World War II, America has fought many wars. We have fought serious wars in Korea and Vietnam, and presidential ego-stroke wars in Panama and Granada. Now we are fighting a needless presidential ego-stroke war in Iraq.
Because every soldier's death in some way destroys generations of a family, war must be considered at the same time the most criminal, the most serious, and the most sacred of actions.
Because I can so easily imagine the confusion, terror and loneliness that my poor, gentle Uncle Bernard felt at the front during the Battle of the Bulge, unless my country is attacked, I will never support a war.<
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel@yahoo-com), is a free-lance journalist who lives in Vermont and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.