Please indulge a diversion from the concussion crisis in football and the sexual abuse scandals in USA Swimming. This is the 70th anniversary of the death of my uncle and namesake, Irvin Bernard Figus, at the Battle of Remagen Bridge, an offshoot of the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, which hastened the end of World War II.
Most of the details here about my Uncle Irv were very recently discovered, with credit to my sister, Barbara Summers, a much more diligent family historian. A few years ago Barb found Irv’s gravesite online. It is at the Henri-Chappelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Liège. One of the incredible related facts we learned then is that the date of his death, March 18, 1945, at 22, was also the 27th birthday of the other man his sister Esther adored, though she had not yet met him: Simon Muchnick. Esther, my mother, and Simon, my father, would be married for 55 years. Simon died in 2004; Esther followed him six months later.
Today, on the anniversary, Barb’s son (and my nephew), Joe Summers, made an even more amazing find: a photo of Uncle Irv. We’d had none, though Esther had described him as resembling the actor John Garfield.
Without further ado, here’s the link to the gravesite: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=56281090. Here’s the photo: http://www.fieldsofhonor-database.com/index.php/american-war-cemetery-henri-chapelle-f/55947-figus-irvin-b. Here’s info on the Battle of Remagen: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Remagen.
And here is some of the rest of the story.
Esther, my mother, was the youngest of three daughters, and the third of six children, of Polish-Ukrainian immigrants Daniel and Fanny Figus. They were a classic Old World matriarchal family, with the matriarchy intensified by Fanny’s having come to America at a younger age than Dan and being more adept at English.
The Figus girls, especially, grew up desperately poor near the riverfront on the North Side of St. Louis. When the Depression lifted and the family was able to move more to the west, during the three boys’ formative years, circumstances were a little better.
By all accounts, siblings three and four, Esther and Irv, were the closest. Irv was a dazzling student and a talented singer and painter. Esther was a frustrated intellectual.
At age 15, her somewhat tyrannical mother pulled her from school and made her go to work as a secretary. If I have the numbers right, Esther made $15 a week, taking home a little more than $10 after trolley fare and lunch. Fanny literally stuffed the money under a mattress. A quarter-century later, she distributed the proceeds, which had garnered no interest, to Esther and her two sisters.
After the war broke out, Irv was drafted into the military. In an act of adventure and defiance, Esther enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps. There she got to travel and she met several of her most important lifelong friends. Esther was pretty, with dark features that made her look as Italian as Jewish. I got the impression the WACs was the peak experience of her life.
When Irv was killed, the family at first tried to shield the news from Esther, in that misguided way people sometimes do. Perhaps already psychologically fragile, she never really recovered from that trauma of war. Though a New Deal Democrat, she never forgave FDR (or General George Patton) for flinging so many of the best and the brightest, including her beloved brother, following inadequate training, into the arbitrary end game of the campaign to bring down Hitler.
Irv Figus was remembered – canonized, actually – with what might have been overwrought sentimentality. I was named after him, of course, and so was one of Esther’s brothers’ sons.
As I said, no photos survived. There were just anecdotes of his handsome features, prodigious intellect, kind heart. In the 1950s and 60s, Mom became a little shut down socially. She and Dad went out every Saturday night, but what really lit her up (besides her two kids and Cardinals baseball, and later her grandchildren) were things like family visits to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to see her WAC friend Mary Cavanaugh.
Don’t get me wrong – Esther and Simon were a fiercely devoted, almost dysfunctionally co-enabling couple. Here’s where I should drop in a few more words about Dad. He, too, was a child of immigrants: his parents (and his oldest brother, Sam Muchnick, who would become a famous pro wrestling promoter) were from a part of the Ukraine closer to the border of contemporary Russia. Simon became a successful small businessman and the greatest baseball dad ever. Esther, an early, unrealized feminist, worked side-by-side in his insurance office every day. In suburban West St. Louis County, Barb and I were, for those days, uncommon latchkey kids.
Among other things, Esther said, Irv Figus was a brilliant writer. For the first five decades of my life, I had no evidence of this. But in 2003, while clearing out my parents’ things in preparation for a move into a nursing home, I came upon a document that ranks right up there with Barb’s discovery of Irv’s grave and Joe’s discovery of Irv’s photo. It was a long, handwritten letter from Irv, in the Army, to Esther, in the WACs.
The context wasn’t entirely clear, but Irv was obviously cheering Esther up. He was also commenting wryly on the hurry-up-and-wait ethos of the military. The brother-sister bond was palpable. In only one other piece of literature have I ever read such a powerful testament to sibling dialogue. That was the J.D. Salinger story Franny and Zooey.