A Tale of
by Denny Meyer
darkest days of Nazi tyranny during World War II
in Europe, Jews across the continent desperately
struggled to survive. This is the story of
two boys, me and my friend Diek*, born at
the close of WWII to two Jewish families that had
managed to live through the perils and horror in
Europe and immigrated to America as refugees.
One of us grew up to volunteer during the
Vietnam War and served honorably for ten years
in two services. The other fled to Canada to avoid the draft, where he remains to this
day. The proud American Veteran, I am and
always have been gay; the proud Canadian, my
former friend, is straight.
when we were 13, playing gym class volleyball on
opposite sides in junior high school in an outer
suburban northeastern town. We each
immediately saw a fellow nerd who was totally
awkward at any kind of athletic activity.
That was how I spotted Diek, and thought, "Oh my God, he's as pathetic
as I am at this." So, seeking a
friend, I said hello to him after the game.
He told me his name was Diek. "What kind
of name is that?" I asked. "It's Dutch."
he told me. "Oh, are you Jewish?" I asked.
"Why? Is that a problem for you?" He snarled.
Ouch! "Um, n-no, I'm Jewish too and my
parents were Holocaust refugees, and...."
"OH!" Having been born in a postwar DP camp in
Europe, that was all he needed to hear.
His hostility gone, we were instant friends.
Anyone listening to us after that would have
been mystified because we switched to speaking a
mix of Dutch, German, and English with each other, hardly even
aware that we had.
Nazi war machine occupied Holland in May of
1940, Diek's father, mother, and grandmother
went into hiding in Amsterdam, much as Ann Frank
and her family had, their lives changed forever. Diek's grandmother had been a famed Dutch Blues
singer in the 1920's, her daughter, his mother,
married his father, a house
painter. Now, instead of their active
assimilated lives in the vibrant Dutch capitol, they
were confined together day and night in a tiny
two room attic, requiring absolute silence
nearly all the time. Over the nearly five
years that they were in hiding, Diek's mother
went nearly insane with worry that at any moment
jackbooted Gestapo in black leather trench coats
could suddenly kick in the hidden door, their
dogs barking viciously, aiming their machine
guns at the terrified family.
chilly spring day in 1945, with tears in their
eyes, the little family was able to emerge from
their attic for the first time in five years and
breath fresh air; the Nazis were gone, the City
was free, Allied tanks rolled thru the streets
as millions cheered. They celebrated in
the most natural way possible. Diek was
born in a Dutch Displaced People's camp while
his parents awaited their turn for the Jewish
Agency to facilitate their move to America.
was somewhat luckier. In the dark late
autumn of 1938 a young Jewish woman fled the heart
of Germany for America. She'd known that it
was time to get out following Kristalnacht (the
night of broken glass) when the Nazi
government sanctioned the sacking of Jewish
property throughout Germany. The windows of
Jewish-owned stores were smashed by gleeful
looting crowds, synagogues were set on fire,
bibles and prayer books were burned to ash, and Jews of all
ages were assaulted on the streets in unspeakable
My mother arrived in America as a
refugee, essentially illegal, and was interned on
Ellis Island, in New York's harbor, within sight
of the Statue of Liberty holding its torch aloft
as a beacon to those seeking freedom. After
much fussing with paperwork and a bond posted by a
distant cousin, she was admitted into this land of
unlimited promise. Like many immigrants, she
first cleaned toilets to survive.
At about the same time a
young Jewish lawyer fled Berlin, heading west
through relations in London and after a long
journey landing in New York. He worked in
the chaotic wartime offices of The Jewish Agency,
which was frantically trying to relocate Jews out of Europe
to wherever they would be taken in. My
mother came to those offices in New York
desperately hoping for help in getting the rest of
her family out of Germany (alas, at the height of
World War II, in 1941, it was too late).
There they met and married. I was born, just
after the close of the war, to these Holocaust
refugees and reared on the Upper West Side of New
York City. Every conversation there was
multi-lingual, as was every child growing up there
in those heady bustling days of postwar revival.
In those days, in the late 1940s, the refugee
community there was a hotbed of activist advocacy
where every spare moment was spent raising funds
for Jewish refugee rescue and relief; Diek and his
family were likely among the thousands brought
to America through those efforts.
We assimilated and moved
to suburbia in the late 1950s. There, on a
chilly spring day in 1960, two boys met, bearing
in their souls similar legacies of the hell
their parents had experienced. We became
inseparable, forming our own adventures.
We rode our bikes together to a nearby town to
participate in one of the early Civil Rights
demonstrations in the northeast, nearly getting
killed by rock throwing angry bigots. We'd
been reared to believe that there was nothing
more precious than American freedom.
Together, we founded a civil rights organization
in our school in our all white suburb. We
were already suspect as Jews in a nearly all
Christian town, now we were subversives who were
watched closely by the school principal. Diek's father, a factory worker, was a robust
man who made up for his wife's worries with
existential ebullience, forever indulgent in
driving us boys around in his minivan, cursing
like a sailor, much to the giggling delight of
two young teenaged boys. It was from him
that I learned how to curse fluently in Dutch.
Our mother's simply fed dinner to us together at
whichever home we ended up at in the evening.
We were a part of each other's families.
The best adventure of our
generation was the 1964 World's Fair when we
were 15. Our little gang of boys had found
a hole in the fair's fence and went there by train
nearly every day that summer. One balmy
August evening, when it was time to catch the
train in time to be home for dinner, Charlie
Frost and I announced that we'd decided to stay
and experience the fair in the evening breeze
and see the nightly fireworks. Diek and
the others told us we were nuts and left.
Charlie, a Lutheran lad with a Midwest
background, began a long monologue about himself
as we strolled through the dusk at the fair.
An hour later I began to get an idea of what he
was leading up to and it terrified me. He
was coming out to me, and I had barely begun to
come out to myself at that time. Finally,
as the fireworks went off overhead, he
told me that he was gay, and my throat went dry
with anxiety. After a very long pause, I
told him, "Charlie, you're not the only one."
It was the first time I'd ever admitted, even to
myself, who I was.
From that day on, Charlie and
I remained close friends for decades, until the
day he died of AIDS in 1990. But, in that
summer of 1964, Diek and I were still "best
friends," or so I thought; and I had to tell my
best friend the most important thing I'd ever
discovered about myself. It didn't go very
well at all. He was disgusted and rejected
me and told everyone in school that I was a
queer. We didn't speak again for nearly 50 years.
Just four years later, at
the height of the war in Vietnam in 1968, I was
inspired to leave college and join America's
armed forces when I saw fellow students burn the
American flag in protest against the war.
"It's time to pay my country back for my
family's freedom," I thought. President
John F. Kennedy's inaugural words rang in my
ears; "Ask not what your country can do for you;
ask what you can do for your country."
Well, I was young and idealistic, but I don't
regret a day of the ten proud years that I
served. The fact that I was gay, and had
to serve in silence, didn't stop me.
Diek, meanwhile, having
been born rather closer to the thundering boots
and bombs and horrors of war, fled to Canada to
avoid the draft, horrified at the idea of ever
having to hold a gun against a fellow human
being. I'd heard from mutual friends what
he'd done, and since then I had always thought
it somewhat ironic that the gay boy of our
friendship had volunteered to go off to war,
while the straight one had fled to avoid it.
Almost half a century later, as a
disabled old vet, I had the time to wonder
whatever became of Diek. Through the
wonders of the internet, I was able to find him living quietly in Ottawa.
After the initial troubled times of his having
been a fugitive; he'd settled in and become a
proud Canadian citizen, married, raised
children, and had a respectable career driving
streetcars and buses. When I phoned him
out of the blue after a lifetime, he was
already semi retired. He was astounded to
hear from me. To his credit, after he
searched his memory to figure out who the hell I
was, the first words out of his mouth over the
phone were to apologize for the way he had
rejected me so long ago. I hadn't expected
that. But, he wasn't particularly
interested in resuming a friendship or a
dialogue after a lifetime. He hadn't
expected to hear that I was a proud veteran of
ten years of military service. We were too
different now. He'd spent his life as an
anti war activist, after all; and I'd had a
military career. Whatever compatibility
there had been when we were boys was long gone.
Still, speaking with him after so long, and
hearing his apology, closed a a very long hurt.
-Denny Meyer, Gay Veteran
story is true, though I've changed some names
and details to protect people's privacy).