Who Do I Remember?

May 28, 2010 9:11 p.m.

David opened the question: who are you remembering this Memorial Day Weekend? I’m remembering Larry Rosenberg, or to cite his full birth name, Lawrence Isidore Rosenberg. He was a Navy electrician aboard the destroyer escort USS Fechteler when it was torpedoed by German submarine U-967 northeast of Oran, Algeria on May 5th, 1944.

Of course, I never met him. And even my father, his nephew, only had a small child’s memories of his Uncle Larry. But I remember him and feel I know him because of the echoes of grief that his death shook down through the decades until I was born and well into my adulthood.

Of the 215 on board the Fechteler 186 were rescued by the USS Laning, another destroyer escort in the same convoy. He was one of the 29 who died, probably doomed by the fact that at the time of the attack he was in the engine room where the torpedo struck the ship.In my hand now is the telegram received by his parents, dated May 10 1944, 2:20 PM.

“The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your son Lawrence Isadore Rosenberg Electricians Mate Second Class USNR is missing following action in the performance of his duty and in the service of his country. The Department appreciates your great anxiety but details not now available and delay in receipt thereof must necessarily be expected. To prevent possible aid to our enemies please do not divulge the name of his ship or station.”

Though he was soon declared killed in action, the lack of a body left my Great Grandmother, Sadie Rosenberg, not only with a crippling grief but splintered or tortured (or perhaps occasionally consoled) by half-believed fantasies that he might not have died but rather been shipwrecked on some island where he might one day be found.

Where I saw and felt it most closely was in my Grandmother Sophy. I remember her, say, forty years later talking about him, showing me artifacts of his life and clenching up with a pain and almost agony that was so raw and immediate that it made me wince, made me uncomfortable. I don’t think I remember a time when she mentioned him that wasn’t followed or preceded by a tight groan and saying his name two or three times. Another memory is her showing me the bottle of wine or some spirits he’d sent home from a port of call in Scandinavia with the promise that they’d share it when he came home. She could not help mentioning that her older sister and her sister’s husband, who’d also received one of the bottles, eventually decided to drink it after it was clear he was gone. Probably the wiser decision but another thing she could not let go.

We want to imagine that even the most harrowing loses eventually become woven into the fabric of a person’s past. Facts. Sad facts. But facts, things that become building blocks of who we are and no longer have the power to shock or inspire visceral grief. In many ways, though I’m shaped and damaged by it, something like this has happened with my memory of my own mother, who died suddenly and violently when I was a boy. But for that family, perhaps especially for Larry’s mother and Sophy, it never happened.

I have hazy childhood memories of my father and his mother reminiscing about how as she grew older Sadie would at this point and that lose herself all over again in her grief over her lost son. I think again and perhaps more deeply, less prepared, as she entered the final years of her life.

In those moments with Sophy I could see that for her, already well into her 70s, going on half a century after Larry’s death, she was still the older sister and he was just a boy. Not a boy in the sense that most soldiers and sailors are really just kids at 19 or 21 but a boy, a child, perhaps as he’d been in the late 1920s, when she would have been a teenager.

They simply never recovered.

Now Larry’s mother is long dead. And Sophy is dead, as is her older sister, who decided it was time to drink the wine. And so is my father. I think very few people who had any living memory of him are still alive. (He died just over 66 years ago.) And some of his effects, medals, his Purple Heart, newspaper clippings and letters home to his parents during the war sit in a box over my desk at home.

I remember once hearing Jimmy Stewart, whose adopted son was killed in Vietnam, say that while the loss was a terrible grief he could never call it a ‘tragedy’ because that would be a death without meaning or purpose. I think what he meant was probably that to call it a tragedy would mean that his death was the product of a mistake, which was something he did not believe.

World War II was a righteous war. And Larry was the child of Jewish immigrant parents, a mother from Lithuania and a father from what is now Belarus, both of which were occupied by the Nazis from the time he enlisted to the day he died. No doubt many of his relatives were dying in the gas chambers while he served in the armed forces that would eventually topple the Third Reich. So there is a powerful poetic symmetry to his life. But I remember him this weekend because through this man who I know but never knew I can see how each of these deaths we inevitably see as names are more like the point of a spear, each or most with a shattered family behind them, with grief sometimes never recovered from echoing years and even generations into the future.

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