My grandfather, H. Leonard Seidman, died yesterday. My family loved him, but beyond that, I thought it would be worth writing about his life, because it intersected with some of the great struggles of the twentieth century.
Pop-pop grew up in Baltimore and attended the University of Maryland before World War II, the first member of his family to attend college. He tried his hand at journalism, mostly sportswriting, but he was drawn toward a moral issue that gripped his attention. The established fraternities at Maryland all excluded Jews, and the Jewish students started their own, but the Gentile fraternities excluded those fraternities from athletics and all the other events. This grated my grandfather, a six-foot-one, muscular jock. He began writing crusading editorials about the discrimination. The university’s president, embarrassed by the negative publicity, called my grandfather into his office to inform him he would be expelled unless he stopped. He instructed my grandfather to ask his father’s advice. The chance to attend college was precious and costly to my grandfather, and he was prepared for his father to tell him to give it up, and to accept that. Instead his father told him, “Let him expel you.” My grandfather passed this on to the president. The president backed down.
That was my grandfather’s way — once he made up his mind that something was right, nothing could budge him. When the war started he decided to enlist in the Marines. Here was his thought process: He wanted to kill as many Germans as he could. If he joined the army, he reasoned, he might end up driving a truck or pushing papers, but every Marine was a fighting man.
When he tried to enlist, the Marines told him he was too heavy. He had to get his weight down 25 pounds, to 165. The demand, upon a man my grandfather’s size, was absurd, nearly impossible. He suspected that the officer who told him this wanted to keep Jews out of the Corps. That’s how it often went back then if you weren’t male or white or Christian. You never knew if the reason furnished for your rejection was the real reason. My other grandfather, shortly before the war, was denied his dream of working for the F.B.I. because he had red-green color blindness. Was color-blindness a bar to working at the agency? He never knew.
Pop-pop decided to take the Marine officer up on his requirement. He feverishly cut weight, and showed up again, rail-thin and 165 pounds. This time the Marine recruiter accepted him.
On Parris Island, his drill sergeant set up a boxing match between my grandfather and a fellow Marine named Lou Werner, an accomplished boxer. The whole point of the setup was to get my grandfather, a tough guy but lacking any boxing experience, beaten to a pulp, to “prove” that Jews were weak. He entered the ring terrified, and Werner pulled him into a clinch and told him, “Make it look good, I won’t hurt you.” They remained lifelong friends.
Naturally, my grandfather was dispatched to the Pacific theater, where he fought in numerous campaigns but, as he later liked to joke, never came within 5,000 miles of a German. He was back home, training for the invasion of Japan, when the war ended. After a wild celebration, my mother was conceived on V-J day.
I visited my grandfather about a week ago in the hospital, where he was rail-thin, dying, and half-delirious. He was trying to tell an old story about himself and his best friend in their college days taking a road trip to Raleigh to watch a Maryland football game. Through the haze of half-comprehensible recollections, he strained his voice to say one thing to my brother and me that he especially wanted us to understand, and he was suddenly not just talking about this one story. “We were always kind to everyone,” he told us.
“Except the Japanese,” I joked. My grandmother, sitting by the bed, told me that when he took his machete out into the jungle, he was mostly looking to kill snakes, not Japanese soldiers. He was afraid of the snakes. I never knew that before. In our family, Pop-pop had been, for many years and for many generations, the definition of what it meant to be a man.