The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
A horrifying statistic pierced through printing presses, cyberspace, and the broadcast airwaves last week: 22 percent of millennials don’t know about the Holocaust. This and other results from a survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany underscores the rapid erosion of historical memory in the United States. A meditation on this reality is as good a pretext as any to dive into Lee Sandlin’s 30,000-word Reader essay on World War II published in 1997.
“Losing the War” starts out as a sentimental reflection on a Korean war memento brought home by Sandlin’s father—a porcelain tiger that occupied a permanent place in his boyhood home, was eventually accidentally shattered, stored in a cardboard box in some dusty corner, rediscovered many years later, glued back together, and finally re-installed in Sandlin’s study. But the story quickly turns into a meticulously researched digest of the entirety of the Second World War, including thorough sections on the cultural history surrounding some of the most important people and events. For the depth and breadth of information Sandlin had to cover, 30,000 words might as well be a paragraph. The point seemed to be both to remind readers of the topography of a war Americans were actively forgetting and to underscore how, regardless of the size of the cataclysm, its impact on a society living in peace is doomed to diminish precipitously.
Sandlin is careful to point out that America’s amnesia about World War II (and other wars it has fought since then) has a lot to do with the fact that these wars aren’t fought on its soil. American soldiers who experience the horrors of war come back to a home radically changed in some ways and unchanged in others, but ultimately still there. Safe. They don’t come back to bombed-out towns and civilian populations grappling with trauma. Their loved ones have been insulated from the chaos. And so American veterans are often left to silently suffer through isolation and PTSD. Sandlin describes the nightmares of one WWII veteran that persisted through the decades, then reflects:
How many such visions troubled the peace of the new American suburbs? Nobody has ever inventoried them, but a lot of veterans have described similar dreams. In the decades after the war ended there probably wasn’t a single night in which thousands of men across America didn’t wake up sweating in terror—the patrol was about to set out again, the first alarms were arriving from the sentinels, the barrage was about to resume. The war was still being fought in a thousand glimpses of torment, in a million flickers of horror. There was always an interval of dread before the truth that the war was over settled in again.
But what happens to the memory of war in places where entire families were racked by nightmares through the years: returned soldiers, their wives, their kids, their parents, all jerking awake to overwhelming fears of an impending firebombing?
My mother and I arrived from Russia five months after the Reader published the first part of Sandlin’s essay. Our first home here was a central Pennsylvania college town. Early on, my mom and other recent immigrants we met would talk about how trusting and earnest Americans were—how eager to help, how friendly. These cultural particularities were ascribed to the fact that the United States had never suffered through a “real war,” a violent invasion by foreigners who rained down chaos and destruction indiscriminately. That kind of thing is bound to to make you distrustful and somber, the immigrants concluded. (This analysis, of course, completely ignored the origins of this country in the violent genocide of Native Americans and the construction of its wealth and the white comfort we were now able to also enjoy on the enslavement and discrimination of black people. But it was the best Russian immigrants in a white Pennsylvania town could come up with at the time.)
For Russian people, at least for all the Russian people I knew in Saint Petersburg, World War II was always within easy reach in the cupboard of memory. It wasn’t something from the fuzzy past to be periodically brought into focus by a stray memento. It lived with us, always flickering on the peripheries of conversation. The word blokada made frequent appearances in our speech. Even before I knew what it was, the word, with its cutting contours and dark, viscous interior was seared into my consciousness by people who spent years nearly starving to death during the German siege of Leningrad. Its meaning was imparted through stockpiles of dry goods in my grandparents’ pantry and their anxiety when we came close to running out of bread.
“To this day, most Russians think World War II was something that happened primarily in their country and the battles everywhere else in the world were a sideshow,” Sandlin notes. It’s true. Upon discovering at some point in middle school that Americans thought they had won World War II, I was indignant. Not only that, but my peers were often clueless that Russia had even participated in the war. Having been raised by people who had barely survived the cataclysm and had lost countless relatives on the eastern front, I found their ignorance offensive. After moving to a new school in tenth grade I quickly made some enemies when, within the first few days of class, I dressed down a popular girl who dared say “If it wasn’t for America everyone would be speaking German in Europe” in front of me.
Eventually, I realized my battle against Americans’ obliviousness to what the war meant to Russians was futile. Sandlin’s essay crystallizes why. To my peers, World War II was bound to be a story told through disparate objects. Maybe they had a grandfather who fought and reluctantly recounted stories of the horrors and heroism he saw “over there.” But whatever insecurities he may have brought home were unlikely to shape his family’s life for generations. In Russia, the mementos of the war have been passed down along with the trauma. In a country that lost 27 million, people often say there’s no such thing as a family untouched by the war. Within Russian historical consciousness, victory is often measured by the greatness of losses.
The feelings of scarcity and hunger, the memories of random cruelty and betrayal that become common among people in primal survival mode don’t just fade when a war ends. And in a society already as haunted by terror and instability as Stalin’s USSR was before the war, the trauma just compounded, wormed its way through our baby-boomer generation, and through their kids too. Pride in the victory over Hitler was of existential importance, a sort of central organizing factor for Russians’ sense of themselves—especially as the country they had fought to defend collapsed less than 50 years later.
Sandlin’s piece is as much an undertaking to read as it must have been to write. In a few thousand words we’re transported from a porcelain tiger roaring on a bookshelf to the epic themes of Wagner’s operas as staged during the heyday of the Third Reich. At turns, the essay becomes a master class in news analysis, like when Sandlin examines the way American reporters frequently used the word “weird” to describe the sights and sounds of World War II. Periodically Sandlin describes pivotal moments in the war in gruesome detail, filling in the vague space between the names of famous battles and invasions with piles of rotting bodies, human excrement, hopelessness, and insanity.
Sandlin doesn’t talk very much about Russia (why would he?). But he does note this, toward the end: “When the three-year siege of Leningrad was at last broken, it was learned that more than a million people had died of starvation; they’d killed their house pets for food, and before the end there were pervasive rumors of cannibalism.”
Two weeks ago, when I had to pay an unexpected visit to Saint Petersburg due to a death in the family, my 80-year-old grandmother showed me a picture of her great-uncle, who was eaten during the siege. It was a small photograph of a bald, mustachioed man sitting in a white shirt and suspenders in the sun. Before I could redirect her, my grandmother launched into a typical story about wartime hardship. She was just four when the siege of Leningrad began. She and her mother were not initially evacuated because her father had been purged in 1937 and the government considered her family enemies of the people. Her older sister, however, had made it out of the city with her school. Years later my grandmother discovered loving letters her mother sent to the older child in exile, confessing a desire for her younger daughter, my grandmother, to die so that she wouldn’t have to suffer another day from the gnawing hunger. They didn’t have to resort to eating any dead bodies because they discovered the dried backbone from a shark skeleton—a souvenir from some relative’s pre-revolutionary travels abroad—which they boiled into a nutrient-rich broth. It kept them going until their eventual evacuation. My grandmother’s earliest memories were of bombing and death and hunger and the desperation of her mother. Though she’s lived a long and healthy life, in many ways she never recovered from the war. Even if she’d wanted to forget it, she spent decades surrounded by others in the same mental trench, whether they’d been on the front lines or not.
At the end of his essay, Sandlin pointedly compares the way that wars turn into fading memories for Americans while persisting as intergenerational traumas for almost everyone else. He points out that Americans have even forgotten to be thankful for soldiers’ sacrifices:
Elsewhere in the world gratitude for what the Allied soldiers did is easy to feel because the war is still a dominating presence in people’s lives. Children still play on beaches strewn with rotting barbed wire, gardeners still unearth snake’s nests of rusted bullets, and construction crews now and then dig into unexploded bombs. The immense earthworks the war left in Europe and Asia will endure long after the official monuments have been carted off to make room for new subdivisions. But here in America the war was ephemeral. Its vast bureaucracies were disassembled, its armies were for the most part demobilized, and its profusion of factories were promptly converted to civilian use. It’s not uncommon for books on popular culture of the 40s to treat the war as a quaint fad Americans went in for, a whim of fashion like swing dancing or zoot suits.