What does your mind conjure when someone talks about WW II? Fiction novels, movies or TV shows, or historical texts that bring you back to an unimaginable time in history? World War II novels have dominated the historical fiction section of the bookstore for a very long time now. And with good reason. No other time in our history was so rife with immediate life or death stakes. These stories are not just about the will to live. They are the will for a soul. How will history remember you? Did you stand for what's true and good and right, or did you partake in the worst of humanity to save yourself and your family? WWII taught everyone who they really were.
I was lucky enough to meet many people over the years who lived through the terror of those years. I began practicing physical therapy in 2004. A few years into my career, I settled on home health. I liked the freedom. What I loved were the people I met. They let me into their lives, their fears, their pasts, in a way you only can do in the comfort of your own home. Through these years, I had the privilege of meeting dozens of WWII veterans, and they brought me into their memories, recounting the details of hiding in trenches, marching through deep snow, jumping out of airplanes, and the pride of being a part of saving the world from evil. There weren't many left at the time, reaching their last years with a treasure of stories in them.
There were a few that stand out.
The ninety-year-old who left her parent's home in London at eighteen to work for Winston Churchill. He showed up at her doorstep and demanded that she come to work in his office. He told her, "When your country calls on you, you have a duty to answer." And she did. This demanding, strong, loud woman told her story with authority and pride. She said it was the best time of her entire life. "I might have just been typing and filing papers, but I played a part in history. I helped in my own way."
The ninety-two-year-old gentleman with the sweetest soul you've ever seen who was interviewed for the making of Band of Brothers. When I asked about the painting over his mantle, he casually told me, "That was the Battle of the Bulge. I was there. I also jumped out of a plane and landed on the beach in Normandy." His eyes lit up as he said, "It was a big deal what we did." He teared up talking about his late wife and his sick son, but those war stories he told with a smile.
A retired interpreter for the CIA, whose dementia hadn't lessened his knowledge that very big secrets were buried deep in his mind. He couldn't remember how to tie his shoes, but whatever he saw during the war years was burned in his memory like a branding. He spoke Dutch and French and German and English. I asked if he remembered his time with the CIA. He responded with, "Wouldn't you like to know."
And then there was a woman who lived alone in a tiny apartment. She grew up in the countryside of Germany and still had a thick accent. She was withdrawn, a loner. She didn't make friends easily. When she was a child, her family was poor and hungry, and desperate. "We lived far away from the cities and all we knew was survival. As the war approached, she said things got better. They suddenly had clothes and blankets and food on the table. Her father had a job. Life was wonderful thanks to his new boss, Adolf Hitler. Their new leader was saving the country from poverty. She looked ashamed as she told me. "We didn't have a radio. The papers lied. We didn't know what was happening."
It wasn't until the war had passed and they saw and heard the true horror of what had happened. She was heartbroken. Not just for the atrocities of concentration camps, but for the ease of life that they had. The unknowing support of the evilest of men. That guilt followed her through her life. She fled to the United States, hoping to escape her country's dark past. She was surprised at how unkind and hateful people were. She was German, she was part of the evil they fought against. Deep down, she thought they were right. She did allow it, supported it. Even though she was a child and unaware of the truth.
You see, war has many faces. Many stories. Many sides of evil people thinking they are doing the right thing. Many shades of gray to what is evil or good. So many details that we only know when we try to listen and understand. Then we can hope to make better choices with the knowledge and empathy we've learned.
It was at those kitchen tables that the seeds were planted for becoming a historical fiction writer. Sharing coffee and cake with them, hopeful I would rejoice with them, celebrate, grieve. That I would let them live through their past once again before their time is up. So their stories are not forgotten, washed away with time.
They inspired me. They still inspire me. I want to spend the rest of my life bringing those tales to the page. I often think of them when I write. I remember their words, their facial expressions. Their message. That is what fiction does, after all, it helps us learn about ourselves. Who will we be and how will history remember us?