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When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, finding someone of the WWII generation was as easy as calling my grandmother. Veterans of either the European or the Pacific wars regularly marched in county parades, and it wasn’t too uncommon for one of them to come and speak to our class. I recall one gentlemen in particular who flew bombing missions over Germany, and who told us about the time they came under attack by the Luftwaffe. It isn’t surprising that there were so many veterans around, 50 years after the war: More than 15 million Americans served in and survived the Second World War, and they had an outward influence on the country for decades.
But now, some 71 years after the end of the war, those people are mostly gone, and those who remain probably won’t be with us much longer. In 2013, CNN estimated that there were about 1.7 million WWII veterans left. That number is significantly smaller today. Some actuarial estimates suggest that the world might still have a couple of WWII veterans kicking around into the late 2030s, but I doubt many of them will be marching in parades or speaking to students. To the children of my generation, those folks will be as knowable as veterans of the First World War were mine: technically possible, but only just.
But while the sun is setting on the WWII generation, the light isn’t quite gone, yet, as a number of recent items reminded me. First, a friend forwarded me this spectacular feature from The New York Times about Justus Rosenberg, a 95-year-old professor at Bard College, who helped smuggle thousands of people out of occupied France. Rosenberg, is, amazingly, still teaching and has been talking more about his war experiences of late. For God’s sake, read it; you’ll feel a little better about this world.
Second, at my parents’ insistence, we watched My Italian Secret, a 2014 documentary about Italians who saved Jews from the SS. It followed some of the Jewish survivors who returned to the villages they left 70 years ago. It’s not a perfect documentary — the title would have been more appropriate for a date-night romantic comedy, and the framing narrative disappeared without a trace for about 40 minutes — but it’s an arresting one that I highly recommend.
First, it sheds some light on Italy’s bifurcation during the latter years of the war, when the Americans and the British invaded the South while the Nazis invaded from the North. I knew of the Allied invasion — though I didn’t (and don’t) know much about about it — but I was almost wholly ignorant of the Italian Civil War prior to this.
Second, and more importantly, it underscores just how precious and vital (literally) personal integrity and courage are. What really got to me wasn’t just people risking their own lives to save their friends, neighbors, and fellow men — something we can only hope that we would do if called to — but the way they risked the lives of their own families and charges. That’s a much harder, much scarier proposition, and the fact that there are so relatively few heroes in any conflict likely stems from this. There didn’t seem to be much else connecting the people the documentary covered (a professional cyclist, a hospital administrator, an abbess, a noblewoman, neighbors, a few priests), but I suppose that’s not surprising or necessary: Courage and conscience are rare and beautiful enough in combination that no more comment is needed.
But as wonderful as it is to give this much attention to the heroes and the good among us — they cannot get enough — I couldn’t help but think of the wickedness and evil of those who joined the SS and committed a methodical, paperwork-heavy genocide unique in human history. Amazingly, even now, some of the last of these murderers to have thus far escaped justice, like Reinhold Hanning. He is being prosecuted on tens of thousands of counts of murder.
It’s easy to see the temptation of wondering what’s to be gained from prosecuting and incarcerating a man of 95 years for crimes committed so long ago, and often after an otherwise fruitful life of many decades. At one level, it is absurd, truly. But, to me, My Italian Secret makes an implicit case that if it’s worth praising the memories of the heroes — regardless whether they’re still with us or long-passed — it’s equally important to bring what little justice we can to the villains.
Even if Herr Hanning is convicted, he’ll still likely end his days in a bed surrounded by doctors trying to extend his life when, what he deserves at a minimum, is a noose around his neck.