The Greatest Generation
A Dexter teen preserves memories of WWII
"It was freshman year in U.S. history that I got really interested in World War II," says Dexter High sophomore Andrew Kapanowski. "I thought, 'Wow!' ... some of these guys are still alive! Why read textbooks when I can talk to them?
"My grandma knew a World War II vet living in a nursing home nearby, Ed Dabrowski. He was in the Polish air force. When Germany invaded, he was taken prisoner and escaped, then fought in Warsaw and was captured again and was only released at the end of the war. He was still a tough guy. I talked to him in March 2011." Since then, he's interviewed forty WWII vets--pretty remarkable for a teenager who's still too young to drive.
Some of the most harrowing stories came from a Holocaust survivor, Zygie Allweiss. "He was in a death march with his family ... holding hands with his uncle, and he heard a big boom. One of the SS guards had blown his uncle's head off for no reason. And [Allweiss] got up and kept walking."
A neighbor's father, George Wiertella, "fought in Europe against the Germans. He saw lots of combat ... but he also liberated Dachau. He was one of the first Americans in the camp, and he saw bodies stacked up and the conveyor belts and the ovens. He took pictures and gave [the negatives] to a German in town to develop. But the German threw them out. He didn't want anyone to know."
The teen has also interviewed a couple of German vets. One was "Wolfgang Kloth, a Panzer tank commander. He fought the Russians in the battle of Kursk, the biggest tank battle of all time. He was a prisoner of war from '45 through '48 ... He came here in the early fifties because, he said, he wanted to live in a country that won wars."
After he's written up the interviews, Kapanowski uses his own photos plus the vet's service photos to create
an eight-by-ten framed collage mounted on wood. "I go back and give the collages to every guy as a gift," he says. "All these guys are amazing ... They were the greatest generation, and I like them a lot better than my generation. We get things too easy and take them for granted."
Kapanowski intends to keep interviewing vets "until they're all gone or until I can't find them anymore." His life goal, though, is not to be a historian. "I want to be an astronaut when I grow up," he says with a shy smile. "First I'll join the air force and become a test pilot, and then I'll become an aeronautics engineer. History is important to understand when I'm young, but I want to make it when I'm older."
[Originally published in July, 2012.]
On July 20, 2012, Mary Lou Barnwell wrote:
I was thrilled and amazed to learn a young man cared about the men who fought for us in WW2. It showed me that we have many fine young men today. My husband flew B26 bombers, demolishing the German war factories in the Ruhr Valley.