Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae, May 1915


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Some (I would hope many) of us have seen this poem, written in 1915 by a Canadian soldier in the First World War.  It appears in many newspapers on Memorial Day, along with the ads for all the store sales.  Today people wish one another a Happy Memorial Day.  Happy?  We were a richer country when Memorial Day was Decoration Day, a solemn day of reflection on the high cost of our freedom as Americans, and not an excuse for a shopping spree and the “unofficial start of summer.”  When this was written the United States had not yet entered the war.  We were Johnny-Come-Latelies in both world wars, which would almost certainly have ended sooner and been less costly in blood and treasure if we had entered together with the British and Canadians.  My parents were not yet born, and their parents were still in Eastern Europe.  “Between the crosses, row on row”?  It wasn’t only crosses.  Jewish blood was spilled on every American battlefield since the Revolution, but until very recently America was overwhelmingly Christian.  There were relatively few Jews in America, and fewer still in Canada.  In those days before refrigeration, fallen soldiers were buried near where they fell, but Jewish ones would almost certainly have been buried in Jewish cemeteries.  Hence the crosses, row on row.
Truth be told, both my grandfathers fought in the Austro-Hungarian army, i.e. on the wrong side.  The same was true of the grandfathers of many if not most of my generation of American Jews.  My mother’s father was brought here as a prisoner of war, and my father’s parents came here fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s.  Our grandfathers’ having borne arms against America was not something we talked about much, even in the safety of yeshiva.  We were not proud of it.  For those who attended public school, talking about it would have certainly landed Jewish kids in a few fistfights.  But time, they say, heals all wounds and from nearly a century’s distance we can see a reflection of both the tragedy of galut (exile) and the greatness of America.  Up to and including the First World War, Jewish soldiers fought on both sides.  There is an account from either the First World War or the Franco-Prussian War of a Jewish soldier stabbing an enemy soldier with a bayonet (a lot of the killing was still up close and personal) and hearing him cry out “Shema Yisrael.”  The Jew who did the stabbing is said to have spent the rest of his life in a mental institution.  But here in America something happened that could not possibly happen anywhere else.  When my maternal grandfather refused repatriation to Hungary after the war and took the oath of citizenship, and when my paternal grandfather took his oath, they were accepted as Americans in every sense.  They started businesses, rebuilt their lives, married and, on my mother’s side, had American born children who looked and acted American and spoke English without a trace of an accent.  For this country was founded not on blood and iron but on an idea, rooted in our Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament), that all men are equal, before God and before the law.  People can come here and leave the Old World’s broils behind.  In my first year of teaching I had a Greek student whose best friend was a Turk.  A Turk!  Greeks and Turks were mortal enemies at each other’s throats for centuries.  My student laughed when she told me this.  Only in America!  And one of my best students ever was an Arab from Ramallah.  This great American idea was radical when America was founded; every dollar bill carries the Great Seal on which is inscribed “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” a new order of the world.  Every coin carries the inscription “E Pluribus Unum,” from many, one.  But our new order is still not universally adored. In every generation people rise against us to eradicate us, not only to kill us physically but to exterminate the idea on which we stake the very existence of this country.  Early in the past century it was the Nazis, then the Communists.  Now the enemy is Islamism.  Islamofascists don’t hate tall buildings, or they would have destroyed the world’s tallest building in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  They don’t hate marathons; there are plenty of those in their own benighted lands.  Islamofascists hate America.  For as long as America remains a beacon of hope and freedom for the world, they will never be able to march the world back to the seventh century.
And so we must once again take up our forebears’ quarrel with the foe, grab from their hands the torch of freedom and hold it high.  We dare not break faith with the heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice, and who now sleep in Flanders Fields.




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