On Veterans Day, I can’t help but think of my grandfather. Like so many young men in the era of World War II, he joined up and became a Captain and doctor in the Army. After landing on Utah Beach in Normandy on D-Day +15, he eventually was the chief medical officer at Camp Etzel, a displaced persons camp in Poland. To give you an idea of how conditions were in the camp, on his first day there, a German soldier was shot in the head right outside the gates. My grandfather saved his life by performing surgery right on the floor of the main building, removing the bullet from the soldier’s head with his bare hands.
My Papa, on leave to welcome my mom into the world, pictured with my Grandmother
While my Papa was working at the camp, he wrote many letters describing his experience. After he died, my mother found the letters in his study and brought them home. She told me that it was very important for me to read the letters, and after I did, I saw my Papa in a new light. I always knew he was pretty incredible – he was a very respected pediatrician, retiring at 70 when macular degeneration started to claim his eyesight. He was smart as a whip, very witty (and a little naughty when my grandmother wasn’t in earshot) and I loved him to bits.
Reading the letters introduced me to a new side of my Papa. This was a man in a foreign land, practicing medicine in the basest conditions around. An excerpt from one of his letters:
I am at a Polish DP camp. We have started with 4,ooo Poles of all ages and sexes, families, single people, orphans, soldiers and a few people from other countries. They were originally taken when the Germans overran their lands and brought to German farms and factories. These people were all slave laborers for Germany. Those fortunate enough to work on German farms got along fairly well, but those who went to the cities and worked in factories fared very poorly. Some of them have been slaves for six years.
I don’t remember my Papa talking much about the war until I asked him about it when I was in my early 20’s. I had recently watched “Band of Brothers” and was on a military kick. Papa talked a bit about his experiences, but nothing like what I found out in the letters. As I read them, I didn’t see a saint, but instead a frustrated man trying to do his job with little supplies, masses of people, and the knowledge that the people he treated had been the lucky ones. Some of the details are amazing to read in 2012, such as:
Soap is scarce, skin diseases common. I need plumbing supplies. I must spray everyone here with DDT every two weeks, their beds, clothing, etc.
WHOA. Of course, in 1945, no one knew that DDT was not exactly healthy for people to come in contact with, but it was still a culture shock to hear. He also speaks of how a Polish doctor had four bottles of penicillin in the hospital, which was unheard of there, but the doctor didn’t know what it was for. You could practically feel the delight that Papa felt when he realized he had penicillin. Again, generational shock, I guess.
The most common theme in the letters is food and the lack of it. But even the Army rations were a million times better than the displaced persons had been getting:
We do the best we can. It is far better than what they got in the concentration camps. There, 20 people survived on one loaf of bread a day and a bowl of barley soup! If Americans only knew conditions as they are here. Holland and Germany are actually starving to death. And I am not jesting. The Germans actually eat raw potato peelings. They do not wait to cook them for fear that they will lose them before they can eat them. In Northern Holland, (the parts still under the Germans) they do not eat garbage because there is no food to create it. The death rate is appalling and there is not a baby alive under the age of one in Northern Holland.
Yes. I can imagine why he didn’t want to talk about things like this with his granddaughter, whose only understanding of World War II was from movies. I understand completely.
The day after the Germans surrendered, Papa wrote this final entry. As Americans were celebrating in the streets, here’s what it was like in Poland:
Today is like any other day. The sky is full of planes, but they fly lower than usual. Mines still explode. Trucks still roll. Steel helmets are still worn. Loaded guns are still carried. Cruel acts still occur. We are very happy that the war is over, but…
And that’s it. He was on a ship on his way to Japan when they received news the war had ended, and the ship was turned around to head home. Papa passed away on May 7, 2012 at 95 years old, 67 years almost to the day from when he wrote these letters. I’m in the process of transcribing them from the fragile paper they were immaculately typed on to computer files, so they can be preserved for generations to come. I hope Papa would be proud of me that I’m doing my tiny part to preserve his memories.
Dr. M. Edwin Pesnel, October 17, 1916-May 7, 2012
Happy Veterans Day, Papa. I love you.