Summer vacations are winding down. Summer vacation storytelling? It’s peak season. I heard a couple of dandies last week from two legislative veterans, each of whom traveled in memory as well as miles to gain perspectives worth sharing about 20th-century events that touched many Minnesotans.
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Former state Sen. Paul Overgaard spent a portion of July in South Korea and witnessed ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean conflict’s armistice, signed on July 27, 1953.
It was a return trip for Overgaard, 83, and a first visit for his wife Janet. The retired investment adviser, a legislator for eight years in the 1960s and ’70s, was back in the country where he spent the morning of his 21st birthday in a firefight so intense he wondered whether he’d live to see another. It was where he parachuted twice, led a company of soldiers in battle after his commander and fellow platoon leaders fell, and sustained a gunshot wound in his thigh forceful enough to send shrapnel into his ankle and heel.
He scored a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and an article and photo in the Minneapolis Tribune on June 11, 1951, announcing the return of First Lt. Overgaard to his Albert Lea home, then stateside service in Ft. Bragg, N.C. He was only 21 that summer. His first bid for the Minnesota House was 11 years away. Still, the big-city notice didn’t do a budding Republican politician any harm.
Why an unnamed 1951 Tribune editor singled out his return for coverage isn’t clear. But, for America, the year-old Korean conflict had been a roller-coaster of failure and success. The initial wave of allied troops were poorly trained and equipped. Overgaard helped win the battle that erupted at 3 a.m. on his birthday in part by calling off friendly fire that would have produced a tragic result had it continued unchecked.
Those kind of mistakes were too common in a bloody first year that produced a majority of the war’s 37,000 U.S. fatalities. That context created news interest in a decorated Minnesota battle hero coming home in one piece.
By the time Overgaard left Korea 62 years ago, a stalemate at around the 38th parallel had developed that would become the boundary between North and South Korea. That still-tense border may be the only thing in South Korea that has remained static since then. The backward agricultural region he remembers is now an economic powerhouse, populated by well-educated, prosperous people who express “undying gratitude for the American forces.”
The South Korean government hosts regular tours for up to 50 members of the Korean War Veterans Association, subsidizing a portion of their travel costs and providing generous hospitality. Luck landed the Overgaards in the July trip and gave them a ringside seat at the armistice anniversary celebration.
The former legislator returned from his second Korean journey assured that the first one had been worthwhile.
“We really made a difference,” he said. “An important part of the Korean War is that we stopped the onslaught of communism … and allowed some of those people to be free and to develop a true democracy.
“Freedom is the key. Freedom to do what they want, to be educated. With their freedom, they’ve developed progressively more viable free enterprise. They seem to be making so much of who they are now. It was really gratifying to see.”
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State Rep. Frank Hornstein’s July trip was also gratifying. He and his wife, Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel, and their three children visited childhood homes and sites of significance to Hornstein’s late parents, Stephen and Lucia Hornstein — both Holocaust survivors.
The six-term Minneapolis DFLer is researching for a book about their experiences evading and resisting the Nazis, Stephen’s in Hungary and Lucia’s in Poland, first in her hometown Lviv (now in Ukraine) and later in Warsaw.
The Hornsteins were touched by the welcome they received in places where entire Jewish populations were wiped out 70 years ago. None of the 2,000 Jews from the small town in Hungary where Stephen Hornstein grew up ever came back. Most of them, including Stephen’s mother, died in Auschwitz. Lviv, which was Lvov when Lucia was a girl, once was home to 110,000 Jews. Today about 2,000 resettled Soviet Jews live there. The city’s Polish Jewish population was erased.
Teenaged Lucia Schwarzwald hid in Warsaw, Anne Frank style, for a time after using phony papers to escape the fate of other members of her family in the death camps. Her hiding place is gone, but in July, Frank Hornstein stood on the street where it stood.
Lucia eventually connected with other youths, most of them non-Jewish, who were plotting what today is called the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis. Though unsuccessful, the attempted revolt on Aug. 1, 1944, buoyed Polish spirits, and today is commemorated with annual observances.
As a son of one of the partisans, Hornstein was invited to attend. “I had such a sense of solidarity, that we were one large family,” he said.
That sense was stronger still as he connected with Poles of his own generation who are working to eradicate anti-Semitism in today’s Poland and preserve Jewish history in the country that was the epicenter of Judaism before the war.
“I feel a connection to the country of Poland that I never felt before,” Hornstein said. “It wasn’t a place that my mom had fond memories of. Horrible things happened there.
“But there’s a present as well. There are people there who recognize that reconciliation [with exiled Polish Jews] is in their interest. I found that very encouraging. Seventy years later, we need to move forward together to build a better world.”
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.