Destruction of the soul: My father’s life as a teen-age soldier

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

He rarely talked about the war. Maybe he should have, because it affected almost everything about him.
He let my mother raise me. He kept his distance. We became separated when I was 10 years old, by politics between the East and the West and by my parents’ rocky relationship.

I remember those few times we talked about his life during WWII. I was 10 years old when my mother and I fled Soviet-occupied Hungary. My father stayed behind. The plan was that he would join us later after we settled down. That never happened.

Both of my parents survived WWII and struggled during the early post-war years in Budapest, which was heavily bombed by the western allies as they tried to push the Nazis out of the city.

My mother’s main task was survival during the war. My father’s was survival while also serving in the country’s military as a teen-age soldier.

The horrors he saw remained with him. At the end of the war, he was a battle-worn veteran and still a teen-ager. The war was over, but his battle continued.

When I was old enough to start asking questions about the big war, there were few answers. It was something the survivors, at least my parents, kept in a closet, not to be opened much during their lifetime. They coped with it, pretending that what they saw didn’t bother them. But it did.

“Who did you fight during the war,” I asked my father one day when we spent some time together, which was rare.

There was no answer for a while. He was thinking of how much of reality to reveal to a kid who was still learning basic math.

“When the Russians occupied us, we had to fight on their side. When the Nazis did, we had to fight for them. But we really fought not to get killed,” he said, putting it as mildly as possible.

Dad lost a lot of friends and hardened emotionally. He tried to drink away the memories, but that didn’t work. It just made things worse. Often, he said, surviving was a matter of luck.

When they were told by one side to ski down a slope to draw enemy fire so that whichever side they were on could shoot back, falling meant being shot and killed. The choices were getting shot on top of the hill or having a chance at living a little longer by making it to the bottom.

“I had never skied before, but I learned really fast,” he told me once. “Those around me who fell all died.”

He said it without emotion. He gave no more details. He wanted to move on to the present. He was not a very good conversationalist when it came to the past.

Another one of the few stories he shared: Dad invited a friend to go home with him on leave. They were sitting on the porch of his mother’s house. His father, my grandfather, disappeared right after the war started. A lot of people disappeared.

They were sitting side by side when a large mortar or bomb exploded nearby. A piece of shrapnel flew into the porch and embedded in his friend’s neck, instantly killing him. Had my father sat there, he would have died.

As it turned out, he almost did, anyway. Another piece of shrapnel embedded in his right shoulder, which became infected. There were no antibiotics. There were no doctors. My grandmother used a homemade ointment to nurse him back to health.

The infection finally subsided, and some of the shrapnel exited the shoulder. He could not raise his right hand above his shoulder, but he got used to that. He had no choice. I never heard him complain. There was no reconstructive surgery or rehab.

There was only survival.

The physical scars remained. The emotional scars were not visible, but they remained also. The war destroyed his teenage years, and it wound up destroying his family. He carried the shrapnel and his burdens to the grave at the young age of 60. Few people knew what he went through. I knew a little. He knew a lot.

Those of us who have never been to war can’t imagine what it’s like, and really would not wan to.
We’re fortunate to live in a country where most of us will never see what it’s like, thanks to those who have or will. Those of you who have served in the military, thank you for your service. Those of you who have served in a warzone, thank you for fighting for our freedoms.

A thank you is not enough, but that’s all we have.