I was born in Yugoslavia (in the Romanian province of Banat) six years after World War II was finished, but I grew up hearing stories of that time. My father served in World War II and so did many of my uncles on my both sides of my family. We were occupied by the Germans and freed by the partisans. During long winter nights and family gatherings, we kids heard many stories of heroism. In school we were told about the great heroism of the people who were now in the government, who fought for what we had. At the same time we memorized the names of many people that fell in battle.
We also had the heroes of World War I. Their stories were bloodier and the impact of gases used in those battles scarred many of them. While they were happy to be alive, some of them were affected in many negatives ways. As young boys we were fascinated by Gavrilo Princip, the young Serbian man who assassinated the Archduke of Austria and thus became the lynchpin for starting the war.
I grew up with these stories, studied history in college and even now I watch a good dose of war movies. I have even convinced my daughters that they should watch some of these movies because through them they can learn some of the most important realities of life.
Yet I remember when I read the war stories in the Bible as a child and I came across some verses that did not make sense to me. One of the stories was a meeting between Joab and Abner that is recorded in 2 Samuel 2: 14-16: “Then Abner said to Joab, ‘Let’s have some of the young men get up and fight hand to hand in front of us.’ ‘All right, let them do it,’ Joab said. So they stood up and were counted off – twelve men for Benjamin and Ish-Boseth son of Saul, and twelve for David. Then each man grabbed his opponent by the head and thrust his dagger into his opponent’s side, and they fell down together. So that place in Gibeon was called Helkath Hazzurim.” Later on, I read another story in 2 Samuel 11:1 that starts with the words “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war.”
This past week, I was in Richmond, Virginia. During the Revolutionary War, Virginia produced many of the founding fathers, as well as many young men who fought against the British. During the Civil War, the state of Virginia joined the Confederacy and Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy. One travels through Richmond and see the monuments that have been raised for both causes. Brave men fought in both wars because they believed that their cause was right.
Ethnically, I am Romanian. Our country fought on both sides of World War II. In the beginning because we had a fascist leaning government, we fought against the Russians and I heard stories about the Battle of Stalingrad from gunnery soldiers. Because we were on the Axis side, the Americans bombed the gasoline fields of Ploiesti. The Germans lost that battle and the Romanian government decided to side with the Allied forces. Once our enemies, the Russians then became our friends and we fought with them against the Germans. It was interesting to listen to the women tell stories about our village being occupied by both German and Russians soldiers, knowing that at one time, both parties were considered our allies.
At Central Baptist Church we have a wall in our vestibule remembering all those who fought in many wars. We have a picture of the 29th Regiment of New Jersey that came to Central Baptist Church for a reunion on September 6, 1896, and posed on our Third Avenue steps together. On that wall, we also have plaques listing those who fought in World War I and World War II. We have pictures of our members who fought in World War II and the Korean War. Among our members, we have men who served in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War, as well as relatives of our members who are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some soldiers have fought because they have agreed with the cause of the war. Some have fought because whenever their country called them they responded. Some have fought and never returned. Some have returned and have told us that at all costs we should avoid war. Some through their death and their stories continue to tell us that there are things in this life which are worth dying for. To the living and to the dead we should listen, but more than simply listen, we should make sure to honor them.