World War Two, the defining feature of my parents’ generation, affected my generation too. Maybe more than we know.
The Sound of Nazis
I was 15 going on 16, a sophomore in high school. It was 1965 and the Sound of Music was opening at the Capitol Theater in downtown Yakima. My mother offered to drive me and three girlfriends to see it.
Did my mother already know the story of Maria Von Trapp? Probably she knew of the post-war memoir or the 1959 Rogers and Hammerstein stage musical (she subscribed to the New Yorker magazine after all.) But whenever she learned of the story she must have wanted to see it. She had worked as a Red Cross “donut girl” in Europe during the war, passing out donuts to the troops on the front lines in Italy, France and Germany. She had lost her fiancé to a German land mine just days before they were to be married. She had witnessed the liberation of Dachau.
My girlfriends and I didn’t know the story. We were just excited to see the movie.
What a treat! We lived on the west side of town, out amidst the orchards and ranches. Our high school sat in the middle of an apple orchard. So getting anywhere required a car, even though in those days the school bus did pick us up and drop us off daily, but only after an hour spent driving around in the sticks.
The town of Yakima, Washington didn’t yet have a mall and so people still got dressed up when they went downtown to go shopping or see a movie at the Capitol Theater. When it was built in 1920 it had been the biggest and most ornate theater in the Northwest with seats for 2000.
By 1965 girls and women were no longer required to wear dresses, hats and gloves downtown. At school we were required to wear skirts, but on Saturdays we could wear play clothes—pedal pushers (zippers on the back or side only) and penny loafers with ankle socks. My mother still wore housedresses, even to clean the house, but she put on a polyester pantsuit to go to the movies.
We were teenagers, no longer children—young women really. Ponytails had metamorphosed into sleek pageboys and flips, which required sleeping on huge hair curlers. I had just converted to the popular flip, like a pageboy but flipped up at the ends instead of under. Beehive hairdos were in. You achieved a fuller look by ratting the hair, then combing over until it looked smooth.
We looked at the Simplicity pattern catalog to see what the new styles would be; Simplicity was remarkably prescient about fashion. Then we would just sew it. A-line dresses were comfortable and exceedingly easy to sew. Paisley was big. Hip hugger bell bottoms were popular and I made myself a pair with bright flowers in pinks and yellows.
Music didn’t move me like it did some others. I didn’t like my mother’s opera records or any of the odd assortment of 78 rpm records in her collection. As for popular music I just went with the flow, collecting 45 rpm records and playing them on a tiny square record player. The Beatles were big and we danced to “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me.” My favorite 45 was “Chains” sung by the Cookies, a three-member group of Black women.
my baby’s got me locked up in chains
and they ain’t the kind that you can see, yeah
I didn’t know then that it was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.
I was a bit of a skeptic even then, irritably literal and unimaginative. My friend Susie had gone to the Beatles concert in San Francisco the year before and told me she couldn’t stop screaming while the group was singing. I asked her why girls do that. She couldn’t explain it; she said you just felt like it. I tried hard to understand but I really didn’t get it. Why would anyone scream while listening to music?
However, we were singers. We had formed a group called The Nonettes in eighth grade (there were nine of us). We sang Hootenanny songs like “500 Miles” and popular songs like “Winter Wonderland.” We hadn’t yet heard the Rodgers and Hammerstein music from the Sound of Music but we would learn it, since we were buying the Hi-Fi 33 rpm album after the show.
I was drawn into the musical immediately. What teenage girl would not identify with Maria—too exuberant to be a nun, too in love with the natural world to be ladylike. Did my girlfriends and I see ourselves as a problem to be solved?
The captain was like everyone’s father—militaristic, distant, full of orders, strict. But it was hard not to like the nuns even if they did kick Maria out of the convent.
We knew that booing at the movies was rude behavior, but we all booed silently when the baron’s lady friend and the children’s stepmother-to-be appeared. She would make a terrible mother to those children! Maria was so much better.
When the Nazis came on screen I heard what sounded like a low murmur coming from my mother. “Krauts,” she growled under her breath.
Then during the scene where the family is hiding from the ersatz boyfriend, she snarled, “Bastard.”
I felt myself flush. Talking in the movie theater was strictly forbidden and everyone sitting near us could hear my mother. They were turning around to shush her. Had my mother set out to embarrass me in front of my girlfriends?
I turned to frown at her. She sat on the edge of her seat with a death grip on the arm rests, her face twisted in anger. It was only then—20 years after the end of the war—that I began to see the depth of trauma my mother and many of our parents had experienced. Joan’s father, a bomber pilot, lost his mind. Rachel’s parents, having survived a concentration camp, could not talk about the war. My father and others viewed parenting as an extension of basic training.
It would take many more years to understand how my girlfriends and I—the next generation—were also deeply affected by the war that ended before we were born. #
“We are all at fault for allowing it to happen“
My mother wasn’t able to talk about the Nazis’ crimes against humanity until the program QB VII came on TV in 1974. Then she wrote this letter to the editor.
When you hear the word antifascist, you might think of the people who try to reason with right-wing paramilitary brawlers in Berkeley. Or it might call to mind the black bloc, hooded with faces covered, on a rampage smashing windows. Probably you don’t think of the US government.
But there was a time when the villains of US foreign policy were fascists. It was after the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, in which the US refused to intervene, letting the fascists win with the help of Hitler, Mussolini and US oilmen (see Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild). It was before the CIA incorporated Nazi war criminals into its organization and focused our wrath on communists and the Soviet Union after WWII (see The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot).
In the aftermath of WWI, European writers sought to alert the world about the fascist threat and Americans—if they were paying attention—would have known about what was happening in Europe. My mother, Florence Wick, was paying attention. Trying to understand why she decided to join the American Red Cross (ARC) and serve in Europe during the war was what impelled me to study this period.
Watch on the Rhine
In the years before television, theater played an influential role in shaping the culture. Visiting New York City in 1941, my mother saw Watch on the Rhine, an antifascist play written by Lillian Hellman. The popular play won the New York Drama Critics prize that year and was still on Broadway when Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. Made into a movie starring Bette Davis in 1943, Watch on the Rhine was representative of a genre of antifascist art popular in the US during the early years of WWII whose purpose was to persuade isolationist Americans to get involved in the European war. It certainly influenced my mother’s decision to join the Red Cross and go to war. I think it may have been one reason she chose to join the ARC, which promised a job in Europe, rather than other slots that opened for women, which may have kept her behind a desk back in the States.
I watched the movie, intrigued by the genre, and several others with similar messages. Some are just naked propaganda with unbelievable characters and dialog. Others, like Hellman’s, seek to educate Americans about the crisis in Europe, about class and about anti-Semitism. Hellman, who had briefly joined the Communist Party, wrote the play in 1940 following the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939. Her call for a united international alliance against Hitler contradicted the Communist position at the time. She was labeled a “premature antifascist” by the Communist Party, ironically later a moniker used by the FBI during the McCarthy purges to target communists. Her lover, Dashiell Hammett, who had also joined the Communist Party, wrote the screenplay.
His introduction reads: In the first week of April 1940 there were few men in the world who could have believed that, in less than three months, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France would fall to the German invaders. But there were some men, ordinary men, not prophets, who knew this mighty tragedy was on the way. They had fought it from the beginning, and they understood it. We are most deeply in their debt. This is the story of one of these men.
The man is Kurt Muller, a German who has devoted his life to the antifascist movement. We learn that he and many of his comrades fought in international brigades along with the Spanish Republicans to defend Spain’s democratically elected government against Francisco Franco’s fascists. They and others have constructed an underground antifascist organization in Europe. Watch on the Rhine shows us that fascists come in many shades; that Americans, naive about world politics, haven’t moved so far from slavery; that Bette Davis (bless her heart) excelled at overacting. The part played by Davis, Muller’s American wife, was expanded for the movie to make use of her star power at the box office.
The play is set in the Washington DC mansion of the wife’s family, whose dead patriarch had been a respected US Supreme Court justice. The family matriarch, Mama Fanny, runs it like a plantation, overseeing black servants with strict control. When Joseph, the male servant, is summoned, he answers “Yasum.”
But Joseph gets some good lines. When Mama Fanny orders, “That silver has lasted 200 years. Now clean that silver,” Joseph says, “Not the way you take care of it Miss Fanny. I see you at the table and I say to myself, ‘There’s Miss Fanny doing it to that knife again.’ ”
Hellman uses the three Muller children, sophisticated, language rich and worldly, to teach Americans about the outside world. “Grandma has not seen much of the world,” says the oldest, Joshua. “She does not understand that a great many work most hard to get something to eat.”
We learn that the antifascist movement is nonviolent. The youngest kid, Bodo, says, “We must not be angry. Anger is protest and should only be used for the good of one’s fellow man.”
I was so impressed with this movie, I watched it twice, taking notes the second time. It’s both a critique of American culture and an attempt to school Americans about developments in Europe. Hellman did deep research for her script, and I thank her for helping me to understand this historical period and the forces that shaped it. Like most films from this era, it’s not available on Netflix, but I was able to check it out from the San Francisco Public Library.
The Moon Is Down
During Hitler’s rise, Nazis were winning the propaganda war. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, was and still is much admired. Alarmed artists approached the US government with proposals for antifascist plays, movies and books, among them the famous writer John Steinbeck. The result of his effort, the novella, The Moon is Down, was published in March 1942. The next month it played on Broadway and a year later premiered as a movie. Its purpose was to motivate the resistance movements in occupied countries. The sinister title comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
I accidentally discovered the thin book in a friend’s library and read it with great interest. Perhaps there are many books like this one, which describes life in a town that has been invaded, but I have never encountered another.
There is bloodshed. Orders are followed. People resist, are arrested and executed. People flee. Some people collaborate. Others form an underground to communicate with those on the outside. At the end of the book, the war is still going. But the invaders have been surrounded and we are very aware that the invaders have become the harassed. In a way, the occupiers have become the occupied.
Steinbeck acknowledges the humanity of the enemy. We learn as much about the motivations and humanness of the invaders as the invaded. For that reason the book was criticized mercilessly in the US and Steinbeck’s patriotism questioned. But Europeans loved it. It was translated into many languages and became the most popular piece of Allied propaganda in WWII. This year the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California is celebrating the book’s 75th anniversary.
Five Came Back
Things weren’t looking good for the Allies as the US joined the war effort after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Germany and Japan were conquering Europe and the Pacific. The US had only just started to gear up its factories to make war materiel and Europe feared we wouldn’t get it there in time to stop the Nazi advance. It was during this time that the US antifascist propaganda machine went into high gear.
From 1942 to 1945, Frank Capra directed a series of seven antifascist propaganda films, narrated by the actor Walter Huston. The series, called Why We Fight, was produced by the War Department to make the case for US involvement in WWII. These films can now be accessed online. I also saw Five Came Back, a three-part Netflix series about five American film directors, including Capra, who produced propaganda for the US government during the war. The others were John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens.
Making movies of the war changed the filmmakers as well as audiences. We learn that they were haunted by what they saw. Wyler was shocked by racism against black soldiers and refused to make a film meant to recruit blacks. Stevens, at Dachau, realized he should be there to film evidence of crimes against humanity, not propaganda. Ford turned to drink after witnessing the bloodbath on D-Day. Huston took on PTSD only to have his film suppressed by the government. Racism was present in these films. While Germans were depicted as humans, Japanese were often seen as subhuman caricatures. The government worried, rightly, that violence against Japanese Americans would result. Then, in 1942, it incarcerated them until the end of the war.
Women in WWII: 13 short films featuring America’s Secret Weapon
Most of these are US military propaganda films whose purpose was to convince women to join the WACS or other service, and also to persuade men that women could do the work. Some were written by Eleanor Roosevelt and narrated by famous actors like Katherine Hepburn. The American Red Cross, in which my mother served, wasn’t mentioned, but there was a picture of an ARC club in North Africa.
I wish the government had made films like this for women in the trades. In one scene a couple of men are talking on their front porch about how one’s sister wants to join the WACS and they think she’s crazy. It’s a man’s war, they say. Then the film counters their sexism and shows competent women doing all sorts of jobs. However, these films also endeavored to persuade women that they were taking men’s jobs and they needed to go back home after the war and relinquish their war jobs to returning soldiers. It was made clear that the jobs belonged to men.
I don’t know if my mother saw any of these films, but it was this sort of government propaganda that propelled her and her generation into World War II. When the enemy was fascism, she was “as patriotic as they come,” according to her sister. Only after the war did she begin to question the government-constructed enemies of the state.
Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust
Released in 2004, this film makes the case that the story of the Holocaust has been told to the world by films made in Hollywood, starting with Warner Bros. Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, then MGM’s The Mortal Storm in 1940. Neither of these films used the word Jew. The Jewish studio heads wanted to stay in the closet and just be known as Americans. Also, the movie industry made a lot of money from selling its films to Germany during the early years of Hitler’s takeover. Some historians now view studio directors as Nazi collaborators.
Finally in 1940 Charlie Chaplin used the word Jew in The Great Dictator, which he made with his own money. Imagining that an antifascist film can also be hysterically funny might be difficult until you see The Great Dictator. Chaplin slays as Adenoid Hynkel, a thinly disguised Hitler. Jack Oakie’s spoof of Mussolini inspires hilarity. I confess I had never seen the film. Now, having watched it, I understand why Chaplin is praised as a comic genius. In the globe scene, Chaplin/Hynkel performs a ballet dance with a balloon earth, achieving perfect domination. Chaplin impersonates Hitler to great comic effect. He watched Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will to learn Hitler’s speech patterns and body movements. Chaplin later said that if he had known the extent of Nazi atrocities, he wouldn’t have made the film.
My mother told us kids stories about her time in Europe during the war, but she never talked about the Holocaust and we were not taught about this historical period in school. So I didn’t learn until 1970 that she had been present at the liberation of Dachau. What finally got her talking was an American TV mini-series, QB VII, about a British court case involving concentration camp crimes. It exemplifies how American media jogged the memories and imaginations of war survivors even 25 years after the war.
Night Will Fall
In 1945 a team of British filmmakers overseen by Alfred Hitchcock went to Germany to document the Nazi death camps. Their documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, was suppressed and then lost for seven decades. Night Will Fall, a 2014 documentary directed by Andre Singer, chronicles the making of the 1945 film and includes original footage. These images are hard to watch, but I think we need to see them, to witness the consequences of fascism.
The death camp films were suppressed partly because they were thought too graphic for British and American tastes. And American tastes had changed almost as fast as superstate enemies revolved in Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. The Germans, our most recent deadly enemy, had become our friends. The Soviet Union, our recent ally, and communism, was now our mortal enemy.
It is massive, about the size of a small suitcase, with a dark blue padded leather cover now, 70 years later, quite beat up. It weighs 25 pounds. Throughout our childhoods my brothers and I pulled it out, looked through it, listened to our mother’s war stories. The scrapbook is filled with photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, travel paraphernalia and it tells the story of Mom’s two years as an American Red Cross (ARC) “donut girl” in Europe during World War II. With a crew of three other women she drove a clubmobile, a truck retrofitted with a kitchen, near the front lines, making and serving coffee and donuts to soldiers of the Third Infantry Division in Italy, France, Germany and Austria.
Mom was a scrapbook maker and for that I am now grateful as I try to piece together the events of her life. Perhaps she had the idea for the album even before she sailed to Europe on a hospital ship in May 1944. I do know that the act of putting it together when she returned home after the war in 1946 salved her sadness at the deaths of so many and helped her readjust to life stateside where it seemed compatriots had moved on and no longer thought about the war.
When my mother, Flo, died in 1983 at the age of 70, I claimed the album and it’s been stored in garages and closets ever since, occasionally brought out for perusal by relatives or friends with an interest in World War II. For a time it lived in the mold-infected storage room and so it was infected along with other archives. I’ve exposed each page to sunlight in an effort to reduce the mold and that’s helped, but when I really want to examine the book I don a respirator to avoid breathing in clouds of invisible mold spores.
In trying to understand the World War II era, my ongoing research includes reading about this historical period and the books I know Flo was reading during the 30s and 40s. Her saved scrapbooks from the 1930s give many clues to what she was thinking and reading, setting the stage for the advent of the 1940s and the war. I’ve found useful artifacts in boxes saved by my brother Don and my cousin Gail. Don dug out a box of Flo’s essays and letters-to-the-editor from the 1960s to the 1980s that I had thought were lost. We have precious few of her personal letters, but my cousin recently found two letters written to her mother, Flo’s sister Ruth, from Europe in 1944! Don, the family historian, has helped me track down information about Flo’s clubmobile comrades. They are now all dead, but I’m in touch with one of their daughters, who is providing another perspective on the “donut girls.” I’ve read accounts of their experiences, although I haven’t found one that mirrors Flo’s particular journey. And I’ve read the stories of men who served in the Third Infantry Division, to which Flo’s clubmobile was attached.
I’ve dreamed of traveling to Europe to trace Flo’s route through towns and battlegrounds. Someday I may do that but I’m thankful that now I can take a virtual trip right here on my computer.
At Dachau at war’s end my mother photographed stacks of corpses left by the fleeing Nazis. She was focusing on the bottom layer when she caught the movement of a human hand through the camera’s viewfinder. Her screams brought others, but of course, nothing could be done to save these victims of the Nazi holocaust. She later wrote: “…I wondered how many potential Mendelssohns and Einsteins there were among those wretched skeletons, and if, perhaps, the great Goethe might be turning in his grave about this modern and depraved Mephistopheles, Adolf Hitler, and what he had done to Goethe’s Germany.”
The question has haunted both my mother’s generation and my own post-war generation: How could a culture that produced such artistic and intellectual genius fall to such depths of depravity? And how do we keep it from happening to our own culture?
I know. Heavy, right? But I can’t help it. This is what I can’t stop thinking about in the emerging Trump era as I examine my mother’s scrapbook from her time in Europe during World War II. How did ordinary Germans ease Hitler’s rise to power? Why do people vote for demagogues?
My mother never found the answers to these questions, but she never stopped searching for them. I believe she would say that we must keep imagining a better world and remain active and involved citizens. In that regard she was a good role model who believed that knowledge of history can help us navigate our present. Although she was constantly disappointed that history was so seldom consulted by our leaders and policy makers.
I want to learn how the war affected my mother’s thinking. I’m also interested in what influenced her to become the person she was, a liberal thinker in the sea of conservative backwardness of Eastern Washington. I aspired to become my mother’s daughter. But what made her that way? Who was she, really?
I know she didn’t always tell me, her only daughter, everything. What secrets did my mother take to her grave? How did her experiences in the war shape her life and the lives of her generation and how did that history shape me and my generation? These are some of the questions I hope to explore as I attempt to tell about her two years in Europe during the war working as a Red Cross “donut girl.”
Mostly I’m just interested in my mom’s story. It’s a good one.