May 8 was the 67th anniversary of V-E Day, when World War II officially ended in Europe, and victory celebrations poured out into the streets of cities and towns across America and England. As the years after World War II pass, it becomes even more important to ensure that the stories of the people who lived through it — and gave their lives for it — are preserved for future generations. It is far too easy for us to forget what was fought for, and what was lost. This month I present to you a collection of superior biographies and memoirs about ordinary people living in extraordinary times, from American servicemen and women flying over enemy territory to a young Jewish Christian girl who fought for her very survival in Nazi Germany.
The war began in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland, where author and artist Art Spiegelman’s mother and father lived. “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” (originally published as two volumes) is the story of his father’s life during the Holocaust, told in the graphic novel format. A graphic novel may look like just a long-form comic book, but this work shows how powerful stories can become when told using expertly drawn scenes and characters. In “Maus,” Spiegelman portrays Jews as anthropomorphized mice, and the Nazis as cats, something that never could have been done using only words. The sense of dread and danger — but also hope and love — is communicated in stark black-and-white, which has rightly made this a classic in both the Holocaust literature and graphic novel realms.
Meanwhile, in Germany, a young Jewish girl’s life was turned upside down, despite the fact that Anita Dittman and her mother had converted to Christianity years before. They still had Jewish blood according to Nazi doctrine, and weren’t fit to be German citizens. Dittman recounts the increasing persecution she endured in public school, her family’s eviction from their apartment to the ghetto, her separation from her mother, and her forced labor at a number of work camps as a teenager. Her ingenuity and ability to make friends easily gave her an advantage, and her faith gave her a sense of hope and strength. Her story is like many other stories of Holocaust survivors, but she tells it with such a sense of immediacy, the reader can’t help but be drawn into the heartache and eventual joy and relief when she is rescued. She immigrated to the United States in 1946, and eventually settled in Crosby, Minnesota. I had the privilege to see Ms. Dittman speak when she came to visit a class studying the Holocaust at Central Lakes College, and hearing her tell her own story is something I will never forget.
For all the non-Jewish Germans who were part of the Nazi party, or stood by while millions died, there are many people who chose to risk their own lives to save others. One famous example is of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who became so much more. In “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich,” biographer Eric Metaxas tells the story of a man who used his intelligence and astonishing bravery to fight against Nazi power in every way possible. When the German churches were commandeered by Hitler, Bonhoeffer resisted, and was imprisoned for the first time. He came to the United States twice, to study and work with other pastors and leading thinkers in theology, but in 1939 he decided to return to a Germany under Hitler’s supreme control, writing in a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr: “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany.” He must have had some sense, at the age of 33, that he may not survive the war, but went anyway. Back in Germany, under intense police scrutiny, he worked intimately with the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office) on several failed attempts on Hitler’s life. For this, he was imprisoned and executed in a concentration camp in 1945, just two weeks before the camp was liberated by American soldiers. His story is thrilling and moving, and ultimately asks us if we would do the same if everything we believed in was at stake.
Bestselling author Erik Larson’s latest book “In the Garden of Beasts” brings to life the true story of William E. Dodd, the United States ambassador to Germany beginning in 1933. Dodd and his family were treated to parties, state dinners and gifts, but he soon became wary of the plans Hitler had for Germany, and the world. As the violence and ruthlessness of the Third Reich began to reveal itself, Dodd’s concerns were dismissed by the state department. His eldest daughter becomes romantically involved with powerful men in the Nazi Party, including a chief in the Gestapo. Dodd knows that anything he might say or relay to his superiors across the ocean may endanger her life, and the lives of every member of his family.
Three highly acclaimed books all center around airmen in trouble far from home, fighting in the war. Laura Hillenbrand, the author of “Seabiscuit,” turns her attention to Louis Zamperini, a son of Italian immigrants, who went from shaking Hitler’s hand as a runner at the Berlin Olympics, to flying a bombardier over the Pacific against Japan five years later. On a flight over the open ocean, his plane crashed and he and his fellow survivors were left to drift for days. When they reached the Marshall Islands, they were captured by the Japanese and taken to a prisoner of war camp and tortured. Hillenbrand took what could have been a dry, difficult read and created a thrilling page-turner that will keep you up at night, wondering what happens next. “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” is a triumph of a book.
“Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II” by Mitchell Zuckoff is the story of 24 servicemen and WACs taking a sightseeing flight who crash in the jungle of Dutch New Guinea. What follows is a harrowing story of survival amidst poisonous insects, threat of Japanese discovery, and natives who had never seen a white person before. They had no choice but await a rescue that might never come.
Of local interest is the new book “The Oranges are Sweet” by Paul Sailer, about Major Don Beerbower who grew up in Hill City, and was a flying ace over France in the war. Sailer tells Beerbower’s gripping battle accounts with help from the brave men who fought alongside him.
I am very excited to announce the library’s new Large Print Book Club in a Bag program! Do you have a book club whose members have difficulty reading standard print books? This is a great solution for you. These kits contain ten large print copies of the same title, as well as an audiobook on CD, in a wheeled bag for your convenience. The debut titles are “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett and “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonson, as well as “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand mentioned above. More to come soon! These kits were purchased with generous grants from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and the Wells Fargo Foundation, with continuing support from the Friends of the Brainerd Public Library.
If any of these titles look appealing to you, but you can’t make it to the library because of lack of transportation, disability, or health issues, we can deliver them right to your door. Please call me at 829-5574 to find out more about our At Home Service. LAUREL M. HALL is the senior outreach coordinator for Kitchigami Regional Library System.