Excerpts > Spring 2003

Gaynell Gavin
Review of
The Medic: Life and Death in the Last Days of WWII by Leo Litwak andThe Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War by Louise Steinman.

Despite the plethora of writing about World War II, the two books I discuss here illustrate that there is still much of value to tell of this era. In his memoir, The Medic, written more than fifty years after the events which he relates, novelist Leo Litwak has brought a fiction writer's sense of craft to a compelling, well-paced narrative of his own wartime experiences as a medic. Although writing nonfiction, Litwak discusses forthrightly in his book's prologue the inherent difficulty in distinguishing "events as they were and as they have become in memory" while disclosing his invention of names and "composites of people, places, and units." Thus, early on, he gives readers a context for the interrelated roles of narrative, memory, and imagination in constructing memoir, especially when recalling individuals, places, and events half a century after they occurred.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants--whose survival of virulent anti-Semitism, civil disturbances, and World War I in Europe was remarkable--young Litwak was disappointed initially at his assignment to a medical detachment. "Medics carried no weapons. They operated under the rules of the Geneva Convention and had the status of noncombatants. . . . I had imagined myself an armed, vengeful warrior." Yet before the war's end he found that he had "followed [his] heart and was glad [he] was a medic without a gun. . . ." The journey which led to that conclusion predictably included treating U. S. soldiers (including close friends) and enemy troops in instances ranging from minor injuries to loss of limbs and loss of lives.

While Litwak's narrative voice is direct, there are complex issues threading the tapestry of this wartime story, and none is more important than the issue of race which Litwak describes as "woven into the fabric of American life. Pull on it and everything would come apart." With understated irony, he illustrates repeatedly the fascism and racism prevalent among U.S. soldiers sent forth to defeat fascism in Europe. While the most intense feelings of fascist racial subordination were reserved for African Americans, as a Jew, Litwak occupied a peculiarly intermediate spot on the U.S. racial spectrum, illustrated many times in many ways but never more clearly than by the buck sergeant who inquired, "Is it true, Leo, a Jew is just a nigger turned inside out?" As the son of a Detroit labor organizer and union president among troops where union members trying to obtain "a living wage and safe working conditions" for coal miners were widely condemned as unpatriotic, class issues complicated the racializiation of Litwak's experience.

Finally, this memoir expresses remarkable concern for the effects of war on women. Sustained in part throughout the war by strong parental love, Litwak was especially close to his mother of whom he said, "She would always be with me." Perhaps it was this strong connection to a female presence which helped him later to reexamine the supposed "choices" made by rural German women who traded sex for food or commodities. "It was convenient to believe that these were farm girls , familiar with animal nature. . . . The truth is few of us examined our beliefs. We took what war offered us." Further, in an important contribution to historical accuracy, Litwak disabuses history of the conventional notion that Nazi troops avoided sex with Jewish women by relating in detail and with compassion, the liberation of a group of Hungarian Jewish women who "had been used as prostitutes for German troops." Yet paradoxically and conversely, he acknowledges frankly that he was "the master" and his German mistress, "the occupied," in a relationship based on "the eroticism of that inequality." Nonetheless, Leo Litwack's memoir, with nuanced introspective facets connected to the great public national and international concerns of our time--race, class, gender, genocide, and war--make me glad as a reader, that Litwak, the young medic, "followed [his] heart" and survived to tell this story.

Louise Steinman's book, The Souvenir, is an intriguing mix of memoir, biography, literature review, and history. Although raised in California rather than the midwest, Steinman, like Leo Litwak, was the descendant of Jewish immigrants and born to parents who loved their children deeply. Despite Norman Steinman's success in business as a pharmacist and paternal affection for his children, Louise Steinman learned in early childhood that her father's "anger--infrequent but explosive" had not existed before the war, was related to it, and that "[w]hatever happened to him. . .in the war was off-limits. . . ."

After her parents' deaths, while cleaning out their condo in 1991, Steinman found "a metal ammo box" containing "hundreds of letters my father wrote home to my mother from the Pacific War. In one of those envelopes was a Japanese flag with handwritten characters inked across its fragile face." Thus began the journey which made the daughter, in part, her father's biographer while deepening her historical and psychological understanding of the Pacific theater. Further, she recalls her almost idyllic California upbringing through the lens of memoir. Her journey deepened Steinman's understanding of the love which permeated her childhood, supported by a father who "worked long hours so that my siblings and I could attend summer camp, so that my brilliant older brother could take special math and science classes. . ." and who had fought to make his children's world safe from fascism. Never uncertain of her parents' love, Steinman comes to recognize their sacrifice of "personal pleasure to ensure the well-being of their children. Our well-being was their pleasure."

Although reading each letter had the effect of "detonating a landmine of longing for [her] father," over many months Steinman did read his letters which covered the mundane, the heroic, and the immeasurably tender. In October, 1944, from New Caledonia, Norman Steinman wrote to his young wife:

The boys had caught [a doe] and were taking it for a mascot. Then some dumb bastard shot it and. . .left it to die.
Our boys found it the next day down the creek, and the medics brought it in on a litter and tried to save its life. They fed it condensed milk with an eyedropper, but the doe finally died. . . .
I guess I'm not descriptive enough to relate how the medics worked over the animal and how our whole company was interested in its welfare. . . .

Four months later, after surviving a particularly severe battle at Umingan in the Philippines without injury, he again wrote his wife, "You. . .were my inspiration always--whenever I was too tired to go on--and whenever I was too tired to dig a hole--I always thought of how much I have to come back to--and I'd go on."

Eventually, Louise Steinman found someone to translate the Japanese flag's inscription "To Yoshio Shimizu. . . ." After reading in her father's letters of his regret over taking the flag, Steinman began another fascinating journey--her search to locate the family of Yoshio Shimizu and return the flag to that family. Incorporated into this search is Steinman's correlative search for understanding of her father's war which led her to extensive research: intensively interviewing veterans of the Pacific theater and reading a wide variety of sources such as army colonel/psychologist Dave Grossman's On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society and John Dower's War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. These sources are only two of many as Steinman's discussion of such literature and impressive bibliography demonstrate. Race is a prevalent theme in Steinman's book as in Litwak's. Specifically, she examines racial dehumanization, demonization, and hatred among nearly all World War II participants.

It may be impossible to do justice to Steinman's complex achievement in a review of this interdisciplinary, interwoven text including biography, history, psychology, and memoir. Although a very different narrative, as with Litwak, Steinman's search for understanding deepens her readers' comprehension of the far-reaching effects of war on the soldiers who fight it, their descendants, and other members of their families. Both narratives leave us with the "irreconcilable desires" of war's aftermath which Steinman articulates:

When he returned home from the war, my father wanted to "bury" his memories. But when he stood in front of [a friend's] grave, as an expression of respect, he vowed to keep that visit "always with him. . . ." He wanted to never forget and he needed to never remember.

About PS   What's New   Curr Iss   Subscriptions  Submissions   Archives  E-mail   PS Home   UNL Home