Last week I had lunch with 98-year-old Kurt R. at his home. I brought my mother along as she has fond memories of visits with him over the years and Kurt’s daughter joined us as well. Who is Kurt R. you might ask?
Mr. R worked in the same firm as my grandfather. They first worked together in the early 30’s in Cologne Germany. Mr. R. was able to get out of Germany early and was hired by the same firm in NY in the late 30’s. In 1936 my grandfather moved to Amsterdam, and then after the war, he worked for the same firm in Amsterdam, Rio de Janeiro, New York and finally Amsterdam again. These two men worked together for over 30 years.
We had a lovely lunch, and I was able to ask Mr. R. many questions about my grandfather. I was hoping to get some information about my grandfather’s dealings with scrap metal during the war, but unfortunately, Mr. R. did not know anything about it.
It seemed strange to me that these two men worked closely together for over 30 years and yet, they never spoke about the war years. These men had all sorts of adventures together that included world travel, wine, and women. There was a fist-fight with an uncooperative businessman. There were family gatherings and office parties and a deep friendship. They helped each other advance within the company. They looked out for each other financially. They invited each other to their homes. And, according to my mother, my grandfather had his eye on Mr. R’s son as a suitable husband for me! Yet they didn’t share stories about the war years.
Why is it that those years were just not discussed? PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) wasn’t understood in the late 40’s. I am sure many survivors had/have it. Reminders of the years in the camps or in hiding would be avoided. So many second-generation survivors are in pain because their parents never told them what they went through during the war. Some kept quiet to save their children from the horrors. For others, I am sure, it was just too upsetting to recall and tell. Other 2G’s are tormented by having been told too much at too young an age. They were named after a murdered relative or reminded over and over of the horrors that their parents went through.
I feel blessed that my mother has been able to share her story with me and to do so in a way that has not scarred me. When I was young her stories were funny or matter-of-fact. No hyperbole. No guilt trips. No comparing me to lost souls or pressuring me to make up for the pain of the past. Just information that was appropriate to my age when I asked. The stories are important, but so is the way they are told. How do we keep the stories alive without causing more pain? It is a difficult task.
3 thoughts on “A Storyteller’s Plight”
One of my mother’s lessons from camp: if you get one liter water, use half of it to keep yourself clean. It was a french camp by the way.
Another of her lessons: never lose your sense of humor.
My grandfather, Ray, fought in World War I. After graduating from high school, he was anxious to get into the war, even before the US entered the war. So, he joined the French ambulance corps, as part of the American Field Service. When the Americans entered the war a few months later, Ray signed up with the Army Air Corps. But airplanes were not arriving.
Col. George Patton was challenged with recruiting drivers for his first tank corp, so he recruited the aviators who were sitting around waiting for airplanes to arrive. Patton reportedly told the aviators, “If you want to get in the war before it’s over, you better come join my tank Corps.”
After the war, Ray and the other veterans came home, got married, started a family, built a house, and worked his way into a career. Whenever we grandchildren asked him to tell us stories about his experiences in the war. He would tell us funny stories, but NEVER talked about horrific experiences. It wasn’t until I saw the movie about the last few days of the war, “Lost Battalion,” with Ricky Schroder, that I discovered how horrific some of the battles he was in had been. He mentioned fighting in the Argonne Forest in France, but never mentioned how awful and fierce the war battles had been (see http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0287535/)
He told us about coming home via ship across the Atlantic and all the soldiers shedding tears when they entered the New York Harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty. But, that was the extent of any emotions he ever shared).
I am intrigued at how the soldiers of World War I and World War II came home and put the war behind them by stuffing experiences down and getting on with their lives. We periodically heard the term “battle fatigue,” which is probably close to today’s description of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). However, I am intrigued how many modern soldiers today come home with a diagnosis of PTSD. I am also greatly concerned about how many veterans are being diagnosed and placed on permanent disability status with a PTSD diagnosis, and how how many are committing suicide! The dramatic upswing in PTSD diagnoses, compared to former wars, leads me to ask whether wars and battles of today are so much more gruesome and damaging to the psyche than past wars, or whether modern millennial’s are less prepared for the trauma of war than former generations.
Dr. Stephen Neynaber
Very nicely put….
Sincerely, Peter Fishman Sent via iPhone