“My father never spoke about the war.”

As I researched the World War II background for Daughters of Riga, I heard this statement several times: from the daughter of one of the U.S. soldiers who liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; from an English friend whose father had been a POW in Burma; and from one of my own family members—more of that later.

Jan Zwartendijk’s daughter Edith explained her father’s reluctance to speak about his efforts to save Jewish refugees in Lithuania in two ways. First, his issuance of visas to Dutch colonies in the Caribbean was unauthorized and he feared he had acted illegally. Second, right up to his death in 1976 he believed he had failed, and that almost every visa-holder had died in the Holocaust. Jan’s long-unrecognized courage inspired me to write my novel.

Taking the time to listen

I’ve been thinking a lot about untold stories, especially those of the generation now passing away, the young people who survived the war and grew to adulthood in its shadow. The cause of my interest might be my own approaching mortality. I am only a little younger than that wartime generation after all. For most of us an interest in our parents’ and grandparents’ history only comes in middle age or later. Before then, we are too busy pursuing a career and raising a family to spend much time examining the background and meaning of familiar family anecdotes, let alone digging for the untold stories.

By the time I retired from the practice of law and devoted myself to writing, my parents had been dead for a decade—too late to ask the questions that might have fleshed out the scraps of information I could remember or easily verify. And so I recycled the fragments into fiction. A comment that my maternal grandfather had once planned to emigrate to Canada became my Titanic story, Left on the Shore, published in the 2018 anthology So Much Depends Upon…. I spun a story about the spoons my father brought back from Germany in 1945 into a submission on the theme of Legacy in Whatcom Reads’ 2023 anthology of that name. In The Elgin Letters, I based a romance set in Victorian Yorkshire on an 1861 letter notifying my Great-Great-Aunt Kate of the death of her fiancé in India.

Prompting the memory

Since meeting some residents in assisted living at a book event last year, I’ve been on a mission: getting seniors to tell their stories. The aim is not to write an autobiography or obituary, but to tell the story of an afternoon, a first meeting, a place. Using a physical prompt—usually an old photograph—we identify the setting, describe the context, and explain the significance of the event conjured by the prompt. I find the stories handed down by the narrator’s parents especially interesting. In the U.S. these often reveal the hardships of a generation that survived the Depression. For the children of immigrants, they are sometimes stories of war, exile and displacement.

Jack Exall’s story

I believe that history is best understood, not through battles and dates, but through the individual stories of everyday people whose courage and resilience in the face of catastrophe informed their future lives. My father-in-law was a quiet man who, except for five years as a prisoner of war during World War II, lived his whole life in a small town in the Midlands of England, and in the same small house from 1947 until his death in 2008. In his last years, Graham and I took turns traveling from Atlanta every few months to make sure he was getting the in-home care he needed. I remember on perhaps my last visit picking up his keys and noticing an odd piece of metal hanging on the keyring: two fingers separated by a row of perforations, and each finger inscribed with the same six-digit number.

“What’s this, Jack?”

“That’s the tag I wore in the POW camp.” He went on to explain that if a prisoner died, the tag was broken in two, one piece was buried with him, and the other given to the Red Cross to be forwarded to his family.

“Do you remember the number?” I asked.

Jack reeled off, in perfect German, the six-digit number. As he did so, his shoulders instinctively straightened. He had been required to shout this number every morning at roll call held outside in all weathers. If a prisoner stumbled over it, the process had to begin again.

Jack had never spoken about his imprisonment before. All I knew, gleaned from my mother-in-law, was that after liberation he’d spent six weeks in hospital in Belgium before coming home. Over six feet tall, he weighed less than a hundred pounds when he returned to England.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana wrote this in 1905. I think we have much to learn from untold stories from the past, if we only take the time to hear them.

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