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The World Wars and Family Links to History

October 19, 2008

Sarah and I did a unit on the 1930’s and 1940’s, focusing on the U.S. and Europe.

Around Christmas, we delved into World War I a bit. We read an excellent historical novel titled After the Dancing Days by Margaret Rostkowski and read a bit about World War I in Story of the World, Volume 4 by Susan Wise Bauer. This inspired me to dig out a photo of my great uncle, Clare, who was killed in France in “The Great War.”

I also found a story my grandmother wrote about him, along with his letters from France. In her story, she shared her deep devotion to her much older brother and what she knew about his life. She talked about the time Clare had fallen in love, but his parents had prevented the marriage. The young lady was Spanish and – horror of horrors — a Catholic. “…it does seem so sad that he was to be denied a wife and children because of the dogmatic views of his parents.” Grandma also wrote about her family’s sadness when he enlisted in the Marines, went overseas and died.

One evening in June my father and mother were at the supper table. I had hurried through the meal and was playing in the living room with my best friend, Lucille Uber. Someone knocked at the front door, and I raced to open it. A boy stood there holding out a telegram. That was such an unusual occurence in our home that with much excitement I raced back to the dining room and handed the telegram to my father.

In great anticipation I watched him open and read the message. He broke down and sobbed, “Clare is dead!” My mother hurrried around the table and put her arms around him. I did not wait to hear any more but rushed back to the living room, grabbed up two paper dolls which represented a little boy and girl from Germany. I savagely tore them into pieces screaming, “I hate them! I hate them! They killed my brother!”

Grandma was a very special part of my life, and I read this story when I was quite young. Though I probably forgot everything I learned about the First World War in high school, I never forgot her account of the moment the telegram arrived and of her ripping up her paper dolls, screaming. I liked sharing this with Sarah. To me, this is the kind of thing that connects us to history in a very real way. Through the threads that run through our family trees, these “textbook” events are very much a part of us. Literature does this, too. There were many parallels between Clare’s story and After the Dancing Days, including a young man’s tragic death on a French battlefield, a family’s grief, and the bigotry against Catholics that was so well accepted at that time.

Now we’re into the the 30’s and 40’s (we kind of skipped the twenties). We read about The Great Depression in The History of US — Book 9: War, Peace, and All That Jazz 1918-1945 by Joy Hakim. We also watched The Grapes of Wrath.

We visited The United States Holocaust Museum in November, 2006, because of Sarah’s interest in this subject. That is an experience I will not even try to describe. It was painful, but I highly recommend it. We are also reading about The Holocaust in the Joy Hakim book. I really like Hakim’s approach. She does a good job of providing enough background information — in a very simple and concise way — to understand the issues you’re exploring. She manages to give the reader a sense of anti-semitism’s deep roots. This is something I have always tried to convey to my kids. Something like the Third Reich does not come out of a vacuum. It rose out of centuries of Jews being expelled from various European countries, pogroms, and other events too numerous to discuss here. Prejudice had deep roots everywhere, including in the U.S. Some of the countries fighting the Axis powers in World War II had Jewish ghettos of their own. The United States even had its own internment camp, in New York, for Jewish refugees from Europe. It is tempting to believe that history — even war – can be clear cut, with good and evil clearly defined. But unfortunately it’s not so. As a mom and an educator, I figure the sooner we cut through that, the better.

Joy Hakim is pretty direct about the world’s failure to respond to the situation in Nazi Germany. She is also honest about the fact that the disease that flourished there existed in the rest of the world, though in a less virulent form. In fact one of the earliest eugenics programs implemented by the Third Reich — forced sterilization of “defective” people — was based on Virginia law. (See the case of Carrie Buck). Hakim also writes eloquently about the positive ideals our country is based upon. Her perspective is not negative, just honest. She does not write objectively; her opinions are quite clear. But she challenges you to think, and I like that.

One of the topics Hakim explored was the rise of racist hatred in the United States during the Great Depression. In suffering, people tend to find scapegoats. This was happening here, though in a less dramatic way that in fascist Europe. American Nazi organizations and the Klu Klux Klan were particularly active. I ordered Places in the Heart from Netflix, which explores racism and KKK activity in the Southern U.S. during the Depression. This will be a good tie-in, I think.

In History of US, we read about Father Coughlin, a person I’d never heard of before. Sarah did a little research on him. He was a Catholic priest who spewed his message of anti-Semitism on a radio program heard by millions. Though the Church disapproved of his actions, he was not removed from the priesthood. He was not taken off the airwaves either, and he spread his propaganda to millions of American listeners for a decade. According to Wikipedia, At a rally in the Bronx in 1938, he gave a Nazi salute and said, “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.”

After reading about this, and thinking about the issues I discussed in this post, I started feeling royally depressed. I think we need some balance here. We need to read about people who did good during this time, including many priests and other people of faith. Good people far outweigh the bad, I think. But somehow those on the dark side get the most airtime.

Here is another idea I’m pondering. Sarah enjoys memoirs and seems to be deeply interested in human psychology and sociology. And she has always loved stories. For a long time, I have been trying to spark more interest in history. When we read part of Night, I talked to Sarah about the difference between primary and secondary sources, and about the kinds of primary sources available — such as journals, memoirs, letters, and oral histories, as well as historical documents. I am thinking of finding a way for us to interview some older people about their memories of the Depression and World War II. I may write to a retirement home and to the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. There must be many people who lived through this period in history with stories to tell.

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