Tag Archives: World War II

A Different Sort of War Story

Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War IILast Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Never having lived in a war zone, I was hardly prepared for these vignettes. I had to pause often as I read this collection of memories of those who were children during WWII. Amazingly, the style of each is poetic, so I wondered to what extent Alexievich had edited them. (Of course what I read was a translation, but I am assuming the translator retained the style of the original.) That I even asked that question may have been a way to gain distance.

Alexievich, the bio says, has spent most of her life in Belarus, and most of the vignettes referenced Minsk, though one was of the siege of Leningrad. The age range of the children at the start of the war ranges from 0-13–a few had not been born at the beginning of the war.

I did not see a pattern to the arrangement other than alternating between the very young and 10-13 year olds. Although all were deeply moving, some were more horrible than others–those were spread out, and the last several seemed to have more detail about the victory.

What amazed me most was children having to see their parents shot, then having to make decisions about what to do. Others had been left at home and had to decide between waiting for mother to return or evacuate when other neighbors were leaving. Some had an older sibling, but others (6-8 year olds) were the older sibling. Some hunted Mama. Some started out with a parent, but got separated.

Hunger was ever present: the siege of Leningrad, 900 days; hiding in the forests; orphanages making do with what they had.

Many of the 12-13 year olds wanted to help fight; some did though the official age for joining was 16. One told of shooting a man.

All telling events no child should have to experience.

And all the while, as I read, I couldn’t help think that there are children having these experiences now, caused not by Germans but by us, directly in Iraq and Afghanistan, indirectly in Yemen and Syria. This is a book all leaders should read before the choice is made to go to war. This is a book people like me who have not experienced war first hand need to read.

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Vanport Mosaic: Memory Activism

The short version: During World War II there was an urgent need for ships; Kaiser Shipyards needed workers to supply that need, and they came from all over the country.  Kaiser, working with the federal government, built homes on a flood plain that became Vanport (between Vancouver, WA (Van) and Portland, OR (Port)), homes meant to be temporary. Although the need for ships dwindled after the war, about 4000 people remained. Vanport was Oregon’s largest city and the nation’s largest public housing, a thriving community until May 30, 1948 when the flooding Columbia River demolished it in 45 minutes.  For the long version, see this OPB hour long program.

In 2014, recognizing that the place and the flood were fading from the collective memory, Laura Lo Forti began interviewing and videotaping Vanport residents still alive. In 2016 Co-Directors Laura Lo Forti and Damaris Webb (with the help of many) presented the first Vanport Mosaic Festival.  I attended that first one and learned the history, missed the second, then attended the greatly expanded version this year.

The bus tour took us around today’s golf course and race track to show us where buildings had been. The guide for the tour I traveled with had lived in Vanport as a 6-10 year old; he had many stories to tell.

The only tangible remnant of Vanport is the foundation of the theatre.

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Besides the tour guide, there was another passenger who had been a resident. They searched a school photo to find themselves.

a Vanport residents

The tour started from the Expo Center; inside were impressive exhibits created by middle school students. First the Vanport sequence.

a overviewa WWII ship 2a Vanport women 2

Several students pointed out that the school was integrated, but the living assignments were segregated.

Two  other middle school projects concerned the Japanese incarceration during WWII. This is related to Vanport in that some Japanese people returning –whose homes had been either destroyed or occupied by others–moved into Vanport homes vacated by ship workers whose work was over. And so they were dispossessed twice: by the internment and by the flood.

One project dealt with peoples’ experiences, each student summarizing, illustrating, and reflecting on one person. Here is one sample, Jack’s history:

a Jack's experience 2

And the student reflection:

a Jack student reflection 2

Another told of a Japanese-Peruvian man, an aspect new to me. For a fee (I think it was 2 million dollars) U. S, housed Japanese-Peruvians in the centers. At the war’s end, U. S didn’t want them, Peru didn’t want them back, so they were sent “back” to a Japan they had not known.

The other project explored the various concentration camps.

It included a description of the temporary holding center, here at Expo Center, where people were held until the internment centers could be constructed.

a relocation text 2

At the Expo Center there is a permanent memorial, several torii with metal tags for each person imprisoned here and on the poles, embossed replicas of various news articles related to their forced leaving.

a Torii at Expo Center 2

Memory Activism: Remembering in order to honor and to act differently.

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