Once There Was a War – John Steinbeck

The Nobel Award winning author, John Steinbeck often created themes of domestic economic struggle with such titles as East of Eden, Cannery Row, and Grapes of Wrath, but in the very center of his career, he took his pen to the European Theater of World War II as a war correspondent.  Later in his life, Steinbeck looked back at his time during the war and compiled several of the newspaper pieces he wrote into a book called Once There Was a War.

Steinbeck’s introduction started as nearly a paradox by saying the most famous war was mostly forgotten by the men who fought it.  He explains that the trauma, the urgency, the peril was experienced and acted on with instincts of war, and a fighter might not remember exactly how many barrels of the enemy were trained at them as they ran across fields, but perhaps, they also might forget at times, due to the fear that grips them as each step the soldier took was escaping death, while many of the comrades were not so lucky.

Steinbeck also adds that during times of war, many of the media are censored.  Partly because the soldier’s missions are treated as top-secret, any news the enemy might receive of an upcoming attack, or position of the allies could put many men in danger.  With somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Steinbeck adds that any news of less successful missions might reflect on commanding officers, so to protect their egos (and the correspondents), the failures, and the officers names were often struck from the record by censorship.  With America’s values of freedom of speech, someone today might think that the censorship then was unfair, but the correspondents did their best to follow the rules- nobody wanted to lose a shot a nice job in journalism after the war, and least of all, none of them wanted to be blamed for losing the war.

Steinbeck joined the war in 1943 and spent about a year in the action.  Through the book, the reader gets a first hand account of sailing from the US to England on a troopship, life at a bomber squadron in England, life in Tunisia, and missions to Italy.  The correspondent’s accounts give the reader, the ups and downs, the little-known pieces of war life, not known to someone living 75 years after the event.

My favorite pieces in the book were about a private named Big Train Mulligan.  Big Train was a driver in the army, he was a smart man and the soldier life suited him. He would do anything that was asked of him, but he also decided he loved his position as  driver in England better than any other option.  He loved it enough that he seemed to always mess up details when he was in line for a promotion, but not quite enough to lose the job.  That was the kind of guy he was.  He could have gone far in the army, he could have been an officer and led many men, but Big Train wasn’t interested in being responsible for other men, he just wanted to do his job.  He drove officers to and from appointments, and waited for them at the car until they required a ride to the next place.  Big Train somehow always attracted women as he waited at the cars, and he kept a big address book where he wrote each woman’s information into it.  When he drove the officers to a cramped house with tattered sheets and stiff beds, Big Train always had a woman from his book nearby where he would stay in a soft and comfortable bed and have a home cooked meal.  The women would stop at the car and talk to Big Train and he would reach into the officer’s belongings and pull a pack of cigarettes out for the girl, sometimes chocolate. The ladies loved the guy for this.  When the officers returned from the meeting to find their personal cigarettes or chocolates gone, Big Train would just explain that the woman was there and it seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do to offer her whatever he could find, and the officer agreed completely and no feelings were hurt.

Whether you’re a fan of WWII, Steinbeck, or just want a good book to read, this one fits the bill.  There was a nice range of emotion- fear, disgust, sadness, joy- this has it all. As we lose many WWII veterans to time, it is nice that we have these accounts Steinbeck has left us. Stories like these and from the veterans I’ve spoken to always send a chill down my spine and remind me of the enormous amount of respect these men and women earn.
Twitter- @blookworm

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A Lucky Child – Thomas Buergenthal

I’m always intrigued by first-hand accounts of the Holocaust.  Thomas Buergenthal’s memoir, A Lucky Child, is no exception.  This is a unique story, others of this kind are not known to me.  He was ten years old when he was finally liberated from Sachsenhausen in 1944.  He survived over two years in the harsh conditions of these labor (concentration) camps as a child.  Most children in those camps were collected upon arrival and killed in the gas chambers.  He considers it nothing but luck that he and his father were witty enough to get around the fate that fell upon so many others of Thomas’ age.  At the first camp, Thomas’ father was seen as a factory manager and stated that his son was useful.  Thomas mustered the courage to let the commander of the camp know that he could work!  In Birkenau, Thomas had several close calls as the infamous Dr. Mengele sought out children or special cases to perform ‘scientific experiments’. Thomas’ father taught him to line up for morning counts near the doors to the barracks and then sneak back in as soon as counts concluded, to avoid selection if possible.  Thomas also spent time in Auschwitz before moving to his final camp in Sachsenhausen.  During that final march, the cold took two of Thomas’ toes with frostbite.  He spent a few weeks in the infirmary, scared to death as that is the most likely place for SS guards to round up people to exterminate. As he was nearly healed, bombs dropped in nearby Berlin and the camp was liberated.

While in the infirmary, a man known as Odd Nansen visited often.  He shared candy and bits of food with Thomas, even bringing him some books to try to get him started with education as the war had taken that opportunity away.  Later, during the reconstruction, Thomas was reunited with his mother after a year in a Polish orphanage (his father died with unknown circumstances in the camps).  While he was with his mother, they told each other their many stories, reconnecting from all the time spent apart.  Thomas mentioned in fondness of the kind man who had helped him in the infirmary and soon they came upon a news article about Odd Nansen from Norway.  Thomas wrote Odd Nansen and reconnected with him, visited him in Norway, and was proud to learn that Odd Nansen had published his personal diaries from the camps, dedicated them to young Thomas.  Thomas had become somewhat of a celebrity!

Buergenthal spoke of many friends and family he lost during the war.  Many times in the book, he sadly stated that ‘I never saw or heard from him/her again.’

As he was reconnected with his mother, he wrote ‘I could be a child again.’  He spent years of his childhood thinking and surviving as an adult.  He had no chance to play or let others take care of him.  It was quite a relief to know that his mother was responsible for him again.  A tutor was hired to help Thomas catch up with his peers and the man realized that academically Thomas was far behind, but in maturity, the camps had made him think and act much more like an adult.  They had many adult conversations and discussions about the war, the strategies, the losses. At first, Thomas wished to have a mounted machine gun to shoot all the Germans he saw walking the streets, but after further reflection, he realized that would not accomplish anything.  Like many other survivors, he found that a dedication to the improvement of human rights was a paramount cause as he had seen first-hand how low humans could go without help from others.  As he wrote in the book “I began to think that it was important that individuals like Nansen and the rest of us who had been subjected to terrible suffering at the hands of the Germans treat them with humanity, not because we sought their gratitude or to show how generous in spirit we were, but simply because our experience should have taught us to empathize with human beings in need, regardless of who they were. At the same time, of course, I was convinced that those Germans who ordered or committed the crimes the Nazis were responsible for should be punished.”

Thomas Buergenthal left West Germany in 1951 to study law in the US.  He became focused in human rights law and served as a judge on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, worked at the Claims Resolution Tribunal for Dormant Accounts in Switzerland, and eventually served a ten year tenure as the American judge on the International Court of Justice in The Hague, he is currently a professor of international law and human rights at the George Washington University Law School.

Number the Stars – Lois Lowry

“…and I want you all to remember – that you must not dream yourselves back to the times before the war, but the dream for you all, young and old, must be to create an ideal of human decency, and not a narrow-minded and prejudiced one.  That is the great gift our country hungers for, something every little peasant boy can look forward to, and with pleasure feel he is a part of – something he can work and fight for.”

-Kim Malthe-Bruun

This excerpt was from a real letter written by a young man who was part of the Denmark resistance of Nazi occupied forces, from his prison cell just before he was executed.  While Lowry’s story was fictional, she explained in the Afterword that stories like this were true and provided this sample to illustrate how the people of Denmark worked together to save the lives of thousands of Jewish citizens.

In her fictional story, Number the Stars, Lowry introduced the readers to the Johansen family.  The main character, Annemarie, her younger sister, Kristi, and her parents.  Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen was a Jewish girl living in the same apartments and the two were nearly inseparable.  During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, the time came when the German soldiers attempted to relocate the Jewish citizens.  The bravery of the Johansen family was told as they risked their lives to save their friends from the unknown dangers of the relocations.

Annemarie discovered a secret language of codes used by her family. At first she thought it was strange and was angry that her family would lie to her, but she discovered it made it easier for one to be brave if they don’t know the entire truth.  She found her uncle and father talking of delivering a carton of cigarettes to be strange, but the carton turned out to be the code for her friend, Ellen, who was to be taken to a safe place.  Good weather for fishing came to mean, a good time to take the Jewish friends to a safe place as well.

While the story was fictional, the reader experiences with the characters what it means to be brave and overcome life and death challenges.  I enjoy reading stories of the brave persevering during tough times, who doesn’t?  Lowry is an exceptional writer with other works like The Giver, if you haven’t read any of her work, you are missing out!

Rating: *********9/10