Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

I live my life with an angel on my shoulder, guided by the light of loved ones lost.

I live my life with an angel on my shoulder, guided by the light of loved ones lost.

He’s a World War II veteran, in his 70’s,
and like many of that era, unfailingly polite.
“Please” for more ice chips,
“Thank you” for the bedpan,
“My apologies” for hitting the call button by mistake.
The lone occupant of a room with two beds,
he takes the one by the window
so he can watch the traffic.
He barely dents the mattress, is thin but not bony,
skin wrinkled but not pale and delicate.
He’s golden brown, a boy of many summers,
the same shade as my grandfather who’s a farmer
and I wonder if this man’s the same.
His hair, what’s left of it, is coarse and white
and his blue eyes are pale yet alert.
But it’s his arms that I study as I check his water pitcher.
They rest atop the sterile white coverlet like
fading portraits on a clean canvas.
Forearms covered in pictures, tattoos whose clear outlines
are muddied, the colors bled from age and the elements.
There are dates and a woman’s name,
a pin-up girl like the nose art of a bomber,
a dragon’s head that now spews a dim spark of its former flame.
While the old man sleeps, I try to picture him
as a strong young man whose eyes are clear,
whose heart pumps steadily, whose bare arms are unadorned.
Yet to travel to those places and see those things
that prompt him to wear his history forever on his skin.

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Just over a year ago, I was fortunate to hear an amazing woman named Eva Mozes Kor recount her experience as a Holocaust survivor. Recently, a young relative of one of my best friends had the opportunity to hear her speak as well and from all accounts, the power of her message has not diminished in the last 12 months. In recognition of today being Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’d like to reintroduce you to this incredible person.

WARNING: Some of the links in this week’s post contain graphic images.

The room was packed, the crowd much larger than expected. People filled the seats, stood along the walls, knelt in the aisles, and crammed into the small balcony and entry way. At the speaker’s request, chairs were brought onstage so everyone who needed a seat (and there were several older attendees who did) could have one.

The speaker walked out wearing a smart blue suit and a brightly colored scarf, carrying a handbag the size of a suitcase. She stopped center stage and stowed it between a leather armchair and a small table holding a vase of yellow tulips. Then she said in heavily accented English, “I would like the lights turned up, please. I want to see everyone who came to see me.” The moderator, surprised, complied. The old woman smiled, sat down and began to talk. She is Eva Mozes Kor, a 78-year-old Romanian-born Jew and a Holocaust survivor. She was 11 when Auschwitz was liberated and she didn’t speak about what happened to her there until 1985. Eva has told her story hundreds of times since then and this week, I was wedged into a space along the crowded back wall of Meier Recital Hall on the campus of Black Hills State University to hear it.

When my husband asked why I was driving 3-1/2 hours to hear Eva Kor speak, I said simply, “Research.” For the last several months, I’ve been working over an idea for a WWII novel about a half-Jewish American broadcaster who ends up in a concentration camp and is forced to do propaganda for the Nazis. This was an opportunity to meet someone who had survived the horror of Auschwitz. But I also had another more selfish reason for going: I’ve been in a writing slump as of late, and I needed to hear a story that would slap me across the face and say, “LISTEN.” I got one.

You won’t find Eva’s whole story here; it’s hers to tell and it’s compelling when she tells it, as you’ll see when you check out the links. She’s sharp and funny, a spitfire at 78, grown from the firecracker she was as a child. Not even Auschwitz could extinguish that spark.

Eva was 10 when she and her parents Alexander and Jaffa, and her three sisters Edit, Aliz and her twin Miriam stepped off the cattle car at Auschwitz. They quickly became separated: Alexander, Edit and Aliz herded one direction, Jaffa, Miriam and Eva another. A Nazi came down the selection platform looking for twins and noticed Eva and Miriam were dressed identically. He asked Jaffa if they were twins. “Is that good?” she asked. He nodded. “They are twins,” she said. The girls were grabbed from Jaffa and led away. The last sight they had of any of their family was their mother screaming and reaching out for them. And Eva and Miriam Mozes became Mengele Twins.

Liberation of Auschwitz

Eva and Miriam Mozes are the two children on the right in this photo taken when Auschwitz was liberated. (from http://www.candlesholocaustmuseum.org/)

During the course of World War II, Dr. Josef Mengele conducted atrocious experiments on approximately 1,500 sets of twins between the ages of 2 and 16. The experiments were a daily occurrence; Eva recounted spending 6-8 hours a day naked, being measured, probed and injected. For others, the experiences were even worse. The experiments finally came to an end shortly before Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets in 1945.

What happened to Eva, Miriam and the other Mengele twins is unthinkable. But what Eva did in 1985 in response to it is even more astounding. She publicly forgave Dr. Mengele and the Nazis for what they did to her and her family. Her controversial act (which drew criticism from Holocaust groups and other survivors) is chronicled in the documentary “Forgiving Dr. Mengele”.

The standing ovation at the end of Eva’s presentation was well-deserved. Her message of forgiveness, whether you agree with it or not, was profound. This should be the part of the post where I say that her speech was an epiphany for me, one that shattered my writer’s block and led me to produce page after page of the best prose I’ve ever written. Didn’t happen. I didn’t go there expecting an epiphany; I expected information which is what I got – specific details about how the gas chambers worked, what the prisoners were fed, what it was like on that winter morning when the Soviets in their white camouflage uniforms stepped out of the snow and gave the starving children chocolate. But I left there with something else I hadn’t expected – a sense of perspective about the power we have over our own survival and that to move past the obstacles in our lives, even those as small as the occasional bout of writer’s block, takes forgiveness, and sometimes that means forgiving ourselves.

To find out more about Eva Mozes Kor, visit: CANDLES Holocaust Museum,  “Surviving the Angel of Death: The True Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz”

Who is an enlightening speaker you’ve heard and what did you take away from the experience?

It’s the day after National Novel Writing Month; do you know where YOUR characters are?

I haven’t seen mine since last night when we celebrated our 2011 NaNoWriMo win. We shared hot wings and margaritas, reminisced, slapped some high fives. Then suddenly, there was this awkward silence, followed by some lame excuses about being tired and wanting some “alone time”.  Next thing I know, my characters just sort of drifted out the door and left me sitting there. Alone. With no one to talk to.

When you spend the better part of the 30 days hath November chasing that elusive 50,000 word goal, you eat, sleep and breathe your characters. You put thoughts in their heads, words in their mouths, make them do things they should or shouldn’t. It’s a huge responsibility, a major commitment, and a serious source of withdrawal when it’s over. After I’ve typed “The End” and put the manuscript away to marinate for a month, I can’t help but wonder – how will those crazy characters get along without me?

I worry most about you, Lorraine. Nineteen-year-old with a newborn, baby daddy in the Pacific for God knows how long, future mother-in-law hovering, watching your every move. And how is your penniless, alcoholic father going to make it back to Nebraska?

Hester, I hope you’re not still pining for Jack because he’s going to be in Leavenworth for a good 20 years and really, do you want to spend half your life waiting for a cheating husband who kills for a hooker? You can do better; I know a good attorney.

Ah, Louise. What a tough time it’s been for you. Family destroyed, stranger in a strange land, and now a boyfriend who may never walk again. I should have written you in a vacation somewhere.

And Muriel, I say this to you with love: Get. Some. Therapy. Please. What kind of woman follows a man to a prison camp because she can’t bear to be alone? A crazy woman, that’s who. You’ll never have a decent relationship until you work out those self-esteem issues.

I miss you, my “Iron Maidens”. Oh, it’s not like I won’t ever see you again. We’ve got that editing/rewrite thing coming up after Christmas and we’ll do plenty of talking then. But in the meantime, if you just want to hang out or grab a coffee or something, call me. I’ll be waiting.

 

 

I’ve been a student of World War II since junior high school. Strategy, armament, location, cause, aftermath – there’s a lot to learn and much to remember. At one time I could identify all the aircraft used by any country in World War II by sight alone. But all of those things, while essential to history, can’t compare to the true lessons of war – the ones you learn from the soldiers themselves.

I am a huge “Band of Brothers” fan. If you’re shrugging your shoulders and shaking your head right now, you obviously are not. Let me help you out. In 1992, Stephen Ambrose wrote “Band of Brothers”, a book that recounted the World War II experiences of the men of Easy Company, paratroopers with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. Ambrose researched his book by interviewing Easy Company veterans who gave him a personal view of their war, not just the fighting but the friendships, the heroism and the hardship, the insanity and the normalcy. The story of soldiers.

In 2001, thanks to Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks (and honestly, if you want to get something produced, they would be the ones to do it), HBO aired a 10 part miniseries based on Ambrose’s book. Though I’d read “Band of Brothers” not long after it was published and loved it, I didn’t see the miniseries for the simplest of reasons – we didn’t have HBO. I was working part-time in a video store when the DVDs finally came out and I brought them home, the whole set, one rainy Sunday afternoon and spent until early Monday morning watching the entire miniseries from start to finish. Eventually, I had to take them back (one missing DVD is not unusual but a wandering box set is a little tough to ignore) but now that I own the set, I still watch it, frequently.

Now that you have some grasp of what I’m talking about, you should know that “BoB” fans are a serious bunch. They know things, and I mean really KNOW things, like all the veterans’ names, who’s passed away and when, the locations for all the battles, what actor played who in the miniseries and what those actors are doing now, 10 years after the program first aired. Which brings me to the real point of this post.

This Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011, in celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the miniseries, nearly a dozen of the show’s actors will be parachuting out of a plane over Devon, England to raise funds for the Richard D. Winters Leadership Project. Those monies will go toward the building of a monument in Normandy to recognize the leadership of officers like the late Major Winters who led the way on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The event, called “Jumping for Heroes”, was organized by Scottish actor/writer Ross Owen and has already drawn donations from all over the world. But it can always use more. Whether you’re a “BoB” fan or not, recognize the cause for what it is…a worthy one. To find out more, visit http://jumpingforheroes.blogspot.com/ or look for Jumping for Heroes on Facebook and Twitter.

To the actors and others who are jumping this weekend, good luck and Godspeed. And to the men of Easy Company who inspired them, thank you for your service. None can be forgotten if there are those who will remember.

If you’re looking for more great soldiers’ stories, here are a couple to grab: “The Good War“ by Louis “Studs“ Terkel, “Nam” by Mark Baker, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, and “The Long Road Home” by Martha Raddatz

 

 On August 1, 2007, the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota collapsed during the evening rush hour, sending vehicles and their occupants plummeting toward the Mississippi River. Thirteen people died, 145 more were injured. It was a Wednesday; for some reason I remember that clearly. The news footage that night and for days after was filled with images of mangled steel bridge supports, the crushed shells of vehicles, rescue crews pulling victims, living and dead, out of the water and off of the crumbled sections of the bridge. I remember calling my friend Lynnette, who lives near the Cities, to make sure neither she nor anyone in her family had been crossing the bridge on the way home that night. The odds that they would be were astronomical, I’m sure, but calls like that are something we do when people who are important to us are in the proximity of tragic events.

On August 1, 2011, a memorial to the 35W bridge collapse was unveiled. It’s called the I-35W Remembrance Garden and it sits along West River Parkway about a quarter-mile upstream from where the tragedy occurred. The memorial contains a granite wall with a message in stainless steel letters that reads:

“Our lives are not only defined by what happens, but by how we act in the face of it, not only by what life brings us, but by what we bring to life. Selfless actions and compassion create enduring community out of tragic events.”

Two days after the unveiling, the memorial wall was vandalized and that message was reduced to a cryptic jumble of words because some disrespectful idiot pried 22 of the letters off the wall. Stupid, pointless, inexcusable. No reason could justify such action. The remaining letters have since been removed because the incomplete message was confusing to visitors. The builder of the memorial hopes to have new letters made and the memorial repaired later this month.

I have a thing for memorials and monuments. I am proud to have worked on the dedication events for South Dakota’s World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War Veterans Memorials. When I travel, I visit memorial sites when I have the opportunity. And several times a year, I make random donations to small communities who are raising funds for local memorials whether they be for veterans, founders, or in celebration of a community surviving 100 years of existence on the Midwestern prairie.

Memorials are erected in honor of the famous and the nameless, in recognition of victories and losses, to celebrate histories and inspire futures. But they all have the same purpose: to make us remember. So to the I-35W Memorial vandal, when they catch you (and they will), how will you be remembered? As the jerk who defaced a memorial to the dead and a tribute to the living.

Have a memorial or monument that has special meaning to you? I’d love to hear about it!

Some of the best stories I’ve ever read were less than 500 words long and appeared in a place people seldom read unless they have to: the obituary page.

I didn’t randomly decide to start reading the life stories of the deceased. It began the usual way; someone I knew died and I read their obituary to find out when the funeral service was. He was a man I had known for quite some time and thought I knew pretty well until I saw his obit.

I had some knowledge that he’d served in World War II but never known that he’d been awarded two Purple Hearts. I was friends with his only son but had no clue that there had been another son before him who died as an infant. I had complimented him often on his beautifully landscaped yard but didn’t realize that those skills were the result of a degree in horticulture. It’s amazing the things you don’t know about the people you know until you read the whole story.

That’s what obituaries are – a person’s whole story. Where they grew up, their family life, their military service, education, hobbies, who they married, who they divorced, the children they had, the children they lost, what they believed in, what they stood up for, who they leave behind.

As a writer, I’ve found obituaries to be a source of inspiration as well as information. They provide insight on periods in history (“After graduation, she, like many other women at that time, did her part to support the war effort by working in a factory”); reveal the hardships people overcome (“His parents died when he and his siblings were very young. The children were divided up to live with uncles and aunts”); and celebrate the things that make each of us unique (“He loved baseball, stamp collecting, jigsaw puzzles and a good joke”). Actually, something I read in an obituary is the inspiration for the World War II novel I’ll be writing this November for National Novel Writing Month.

Scores of biographies are commercially published, make the bestseller list, are even made into movies. But consider this: we all have our biographies published. Most of the time, we’re just not still here to see them in print.

I wrote my first and only book of poetry when I was 8. Self-published (stapled it together myself). Small run (one copy).  Original artwork by the author (magic markers on construction paper). It was titled “A Book of Poams for my Mother”.  Ambitious poet?  Certainly. Champion speller? Not so much. Each poem had two defining characteristics: they all related to my mother in some way and they all rhymed. 

These days I’m a poet of necessity; I write poetry when I have to. Case in point: some years ago I needed a short piece for a commemorative booklet I was writing for the South Dakota World War II Memorial Dedication.  Despite an intensive search, I couldn’t find a poem that felt right. At the last minute, I dusted off my poetry skills and wrote: “In trenches dark, on beaches wide, in fiery skies, on rolling sea. With fearless hearts and selfless pride, you bravely fought to keep us free.”

The piece was approved, the project was printed, and I was officially a published poet. And I was still rhyming.

Today I read an amazing poem by writer Rita Weatherbee. We both belong to a Starving Artists Club that promotes and celebrates the different forms of artistic expression. Her poem was insightful, emotional and well-written. And it didn’t even rhyme.

So here’s to writers who spin their tales in forms both fixed and free, creating works to be enjoyed by the likes of you and me. Yeah, old habits do die hard, don’t they?