Being a parent is a unique and extraordinary experience, one that at its roots is about caring for another. Yet parents are not the only people who feel this impulse or take this conscious action.
This Father’s Day, I honor all of those who care for others and especially the family whose actions made an indelible imprint on the man my father became.
The Gavroye family in Regne, Belgium rescued, hid and nursed my father after his jeep was attacked by a German tank on December 24, 1944. My father was the sole survivor of the attack and his right leg was shattered. He splinted the leg with a fence board he found on the farm road and packed snow around it. He then crawled on his back until he reached a stand of trees that provided some shelter against the enemy and the bitter cold. After 36 hours and knowing that the Germans had already overrun the U.S. Army positions at the crossroads at Baraque de Fraiture, he decided to start back across the field to find help. Luckily, he came across the Gavroye family who provided that help.
I did not know my father as Pfc. Justus T. Schreiber, Troop “D”, 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized), 7th Armored Division. I knew him as a gentle hair brusher and teeth puller, a bread baker and fixer of all things mechanical. He made clothing, including my oldest sister’s wedding dress and LLBean-style parkas for my twin bother and me. He loved hummingbirds and laughed a full belly laugh at the comics in the daily newspaper. He was a pack rat and article-clipper. He was a man of deep faith and a strong sense of fairness. He was a champion of all of his children, and I can still hear his cheers from the soccer field sidelines, “Do your best, Catherine!”
Some 63 years after the attack in Belgium, my oldest brother Peter was able to track down the Gavroye family. His guidance came from an essay that our father wrote in college in 1948, a small black and white photo of five of the Gavroye sisters, and the local historians in Belgium, who printed the photo in a local paper with the question, “Does anyone know these girls?” Pete’s research uncovered a pivotal time in our father’s life that he never talked about and re-forged a connection to a family who risked their lives to save a 20-year-old American GI.
This Father’s Day, I think of my dad and I remember the amazing man he was. But I also reflect on the Gavroyes. I think a lot of my faith in people stems from the Gavroye’s courage and kindness. In the face of great danger, they protected and cared for the man who would become my father. They had no reason to do so except their conviction that it was the right thing to do. They acted with great generosity toward a stranger, and in so doing demonstrated that empathy and care transcend bloodlines, language and nation of origin.