OHIOVILLE, Pa. — History informs, but can it reform? Ask the ones who wore the uniforms. Hope pulses; possibility persists as the Veterans Breakfast Club of Western Pennsylvania seeks to answer the questions.
Can the ones who endured history, who shaped history, impact the impending?
Holocaust survivor Judah Samet raised his fists triumphantly in the air Wednesday morning at Seven Oaks Country Club and, referencing his grandchildren, nieces and nephews, some in Pittsburgh, some in Israel, shouted, “The bastard (Adolph Hitler) didn’t win … the Samet family is thriving.”
Fred Gregorich of North Fayette Township talked about wearing the dog tag of his brother, Ed, who died during an U.S. Army Air Corps training mission in 1943.
“It is almost as if I’m living his life for him,” Gregorich said.
The past informs, persists. Can it shape tomorrow?
“We still have lots to give,” Manuel Carvalho, a Marine veteran from Farmington, Fayette County, who served in Vietnam, told the gathering of more than 100. “Do not be counted out.”
The breakfast club meets multiple times each month at various locations in western Pennsylvania, including Baldwin, Bridgeville, Penn Hills and Robert Morris University. This was the group’s second meeting in Beaver County.
“(Beaver County’s) response has been great: All branches of the military, all eras,” executive director Todd DePastino said. “This area has some of the most active veterans in western Pennsylvania. They are very involved … they have so many different experiences to share.”
The breakfast club, hoping to return to Beaver County in June, is aligned with the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, an oral history initiative directed by Kevin Fargas of West Mayfield that seeks to videotape veterans sharing their military experiences.
Gregorich was 11 when his brother, 20, died. He remembers his brother as an artist and a bluegrass musician who played fiddle, mandolin and guitar. While Fred Gregorich became an accomplished accordion player, he did not find out until 40 years after his brother’s death that his brother intended to play the accordion after returning from the war.
Fred Gregorich, in the 1990s, visited the site of his brother’s death in Montana and found his brother’s dog tag partially buried in the dirt.
“His legacy lives on,” Fred Gregorich, who has letters and drawings from his brother, said.
As he reads the letters, “I almost hear his voice.”
Carvalho said veterans are finding “peace and purpose in long lives.”
Samet, a native of Hungary who thanked the 30th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, called “Old Hickory,” for his family’s survival, said he remembers the strength of his mother carrying the family through the most grueling times. Not all veterans wore uniforms. Persistence, insistence, has many faces. His mother was a translator and a cook and brought four children through the most unimaginable times, days shaped by dysentery, typhoid and starvation.
Samet remembers a German soldier placing a gun to his mother’s head, “ready to fire,” after she stood up to him. He remembers her demanding more water, and dealing with local farmers, exchanging knitting for food, as the family worked in a labor camp.
“God knows how many would have died (if not for her strength),” he said.
Samet remembers an aunt and family members taken away “never to be seen again.” He remembers a “cold and rainy” day in which the Jewish members of his hometown were boarded onto a train designed for livestock.
As he talked, veterans across the room at Seven Oaks buried their faces in their hands, remembering friends lost, family lost, horrific experiences, not so long ago.
Samet, most clearly, remembers the dead body of a man sheltering him from the cold on a train as it moved toward a death camp, and he remembers his distress when the body was removed from the train.
But as the train moved, in Samet’s memory, toward certain death, he heard rumbling. The train stopped, and the rumbling continued. An American tank appeared from the woods, and an American Jewish officer emerged from the turret, and his life changed. The family thrives.
The rumbling continues, through breakfast, toward possibility.
“I remember the cheering,” Samet said of the arrival of the American forces. “The celebration went on for a long time … there was no other way out.”