Ken Burns' documentary, which debuts Sunday, could be the springboard you need to get the World War II veteran in your family to open up.
Jill Wolf, 25, learned the basics about World War II in her junior high school history class. But when she craved more details about the Nazis and Anne Frank, about what the war sounded and smelled like, she turned to her grandfather, Bill Veenhof, who drove a truck for the Army's Third Armored Division. She quickly learned what many families of servicemen already knew. He wouldn't talk. "He never opened up about the war," she said.
What a difference a decade makes. When Ken Burns and crew moved into Luverne, Minn., about two years ago to interview World War II vets for his seven-part documentary, "The War," Veenhof, 88, was finally ready. Watching her grandfather at last open up "made the war emotional to me," said Wolf, economic development director for the city of Luverne. "He saw the most horrible things he could ever imagine. He just did what he had to do."
The series, which airs beginning Sunday at 7 p.m. on KTCA Ch. 2, might be just the thing your family needs to encourage the veteran in your life to share war memories. As Burns pointed out during his recent visit to Minnesota, (Luverne was one of four towns featured in the documentary), these men are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day. The time is now.
"I would have been saddened to know that time would go on and we would never have learned this about our dad," said Karen Mensen, 57, whose father Charles Mann, 87, is featured in the documentary. Mensen and her extended family were treated to the world premiere of Burns' project a few weeks ago in Luverne, and she's still emotional talking about it. "This was such an eye-opener for our whole family. He was a very, very brave man."
Those who have already documented war stories agree that getting vets to open up is far less awkward and more rewarding than can be imagined. Inspiration and ideas for how to begin are easy to find. Many historical societies are involved in World War II projects, offering information online for family members. (See sidebar.) Or check yellow-page phone directories and the Internet for audio/video businesses that do oral histories.
Linda Schloff, director of collections, exhibits and publications for the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest, has just completed a two-year project gathering oral histories of 22 Jewish servicemen and women from the Upper Midwest who served during World War II. She hopes that visitors to the exhibit, now showing at the Jewish Community Center of Minneapolis and moving to the JCC of St. Paul in November, will learn more about the nuts and bolts of war, but also about the good humor and grace with which these young people comported themselves in terrifying times.
One of her favorite stories is recounted by Moe Green, born in Minneapolis in 1919, recalling Jewish New Year services when he was stationed east of Cologne, Germany, preparing to cross the Rhine River.
"We dug in behind a forest, and they had a rabbi come from Paris, France, to Germany, and we celebrated about an hour or an hour and a half before we were called back to the front lines," Green recounted. "And during the services, you blow the shofar [ram's horn] 44 times. And we didn't have a shofar, so somebody shot off an M28 44 times -- and that had to do for a shofar. And the rabbi thought that was pretty good."
Sandra Holyoak, director of the oral history archives at Rutgers University in New Jersey, which offers more than 700 oral histories from World War II, shares another story that would have been lost if not for her project. One man sought her out, ready to talk. But, he said, 'You know, I'm going to have nightmares again tonight.' I said, 'I'm so sorry.' He said, 'No, no, no. I've had them for 60 years.' He had been on the Bataan Death March," Holyoak said. "In his dreams, he would be defending himself. He never knew why his wife moved out of his bedroom. It just breaks your heart."
While dredging up such sadness might make family members reluctant to get going, oral historians suggest that you do ask, but with sensitivity and humility. "The hardest part, I think, were these big pauses," said Schloff. "You have to wait for them to pull themselves together. One gentleman wanted to talk about losing his closest friend. That stamped him forever."
Ultimately, though, it's not sorrow that defined their war years. It is intense, unwavering pride. And that is something most men want very much to share before it's too late. Holyoak suggests that families acknowledge that upfront, telling their father or grandfather "how proud I am of you ... that I am so grateful for what you have done, the life you have lived, and I want to hear it and my children and my grandchildren want to hear it."
Wolf is one grandchild who is very glad to have heard it. Her grandfather, she said, "had a passion for his country which I really didn't know about him before. He's real proud of what he did and what they did in the service. When he was my age, he was fighting in a world war. I try to imagine myself having that happen."
Gail Rosenblum 612-673-7350
Gail Rosenblum firstname.lastname@example.org