Commentary: In praise of the ‘Greatest Generation’

We are not the “Greatest Generation.”

Yes, it has not been easy for us in the 21st century, but it is not the same. We have learned to accommodate existential threats, hit and run terrorism, corporate greed and government corruption. We have struggled against these challenges, but a clear cut victory against any of them is probably beyond our reach.

The greatest generation, on the other hand, confronted the pure evil of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, engaged the pair simultaneously in battle — and uprooted and utterly destroyed them both. They also lived through and overcame the “Great Depression,” and contained Russian communism, until that murderous evil eventually withered and died.

No, we are decidedly not “The Greatest Generation,” — but we live in awe of them, and in the shadow of their accomplishments.

That generation sadly is almost gone, and they were our parents. Others will know the “greatest generation” from history books, but we retirees are their sons and daughters, and we are the ones who knew them best. I knew my Uncle Abe, who served in the military police in France, my cousin Arthur, who fought in Belgium, and my Uncle Simon, who survived Auschwitz, and others. All of them now are gone. Women were also members of the greatest generation, and this is about my mother, Rose.

My family lived Brooklyn, New York. Both of my mother’s brothers dropped out of school at age 14 during the Great Depression to work at my grandfather’s shop. Grandpa Alex had served as a blacksmith to the czar’s cavalry, and now, with the advent of the automobile, made wrought iron fences and other special items. My mother was the youngest of the three, and the only one of the family to graduate high school.

My mother remembered her childhood friends on Floyd Street in old Brooklyn; of parents supervising their children from upper story windows, street peddlers with pushcarts, 2 cents plain (seltzer) and open fire hydrants on hot days. During and after World War II, she worked as a translator for the Army on Ellis Island, interrogating the few refugees who were able to escape the hell and hellfire that engulfed the world. She also remembers the anguish her family felt when their relatives in Europe were murdered by the children of Satan — God’s adversary.

Married to my Dad at 17, Rose had children when she was still herself a child. When my father had his heart attack, she supported the family at a series of factory and office jobs. Often she was at work before I got up, and returned home after I got to sleep, and I would see her on weekends. I learned to make my own breakfast and lunch for school, and she paid a local diner to provide suppers, but her love was all encompassing and I never felt neglected. That was just how life was.

Rose went from job to job, as she had to do, always looking for higher pay. When an employer accused her of being a “job hopper,” she told him she knew what she was worth, and they would also know it too if they hired her. They did.

Though I as a kid didn’t know it, we were poor. Yes, I know it is hard to believe now, but I weighed 49 pounds when I was 9 years old. When a neighborhood group brought us a care basket at Christmas, Rose indignantly sent them away. My mother was proud — she gave to charity, but never accepted anything from anyone.

Eventually she worked for the NYPD. One day a woman called the station and said that her husband was in distress, and my mother dispatched a unit. The squad car called in and argued that no one answered when they rang, and that it must have been a false alarm. My mother told the police to go back and break down the door. She would take on the responsibility. My mother knew it was no hoax, because my father had died with the same symptoms. The husband was saved, and my mother received a NYPD commendation.

It was difficult to get that generation to talk about the past. Through persistence, I learned about the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) my father worked for, or the fighting in Europe, or the day the concentration camp was liberated. All of these relatives would look quizzically at me when I would suggest that they were courageous, or that their stories moved me, “I wasn’t brave,” they would tell me, “It was tough times. I had no choice.” That was my mother’s answer too.

Their “modesty,” of course, was the whole point. The bravado of “the daring do”— of colorful, skilled adventurers was defined as “courageous” by that era’s mythology, glorified both in the cinema and popular culture.

The greatest generation, on the other hand, was made up of masses of reluctant and unskilled common people, who successfully acted in tandem in the face of extraordinary challenges. They did not see their efforts as especially “heroic;” they simply, in their eyes, did what they had to do.

Rose Koch Cohen died on Mother’s Day, 2019, at 95. I know you all have your own stories of your parents, our parents. Our blessing is that we knew that generation first hand. We retirees are their children, inspired by their deeds and in awe of their accomplishments, and in our eyes they will always be with us.

Good bye, Ma. I love you. Take care of my daughter.

Larry Koch. EdD is a retired educator who lives in Magnolia.

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