Teacher’s Note – Ben Heintz
We have a story this week that’s partly about an ugly exchange in our community, in which one community member called another a Nazi. That moment was controversial, but of course we’re all guilty of being too casual, throwing around words like “Nazi” and “Hitler.” Obama was “like Hitler” for some on the right; now Trump is “a Nazi” for some on the left. It’s easy shorthand, drawing from the one piece of history almost everyone feels like they know.
Over the years, through my students’ family history research in U.S. History classes, I’ve heard dozens of stories about families in this community and their experiences during World War II. One student’s great grandmother was the only survivor from a Jewish village in Belarus. Another student’s great grandfather hid under the floorboards while Nazis searched his apartment in Rotterdam during the Hunger Winter. Many students’ ancestors had harrowing combat experiences, fighting Nazis in Europe.
This post collects a handful of such stories, from families with students currently in our school. Two were written and generously published by recent graduates whose younger siblings are still here.
Shaped By War – Aine Kennedy
My step-grandmother, Kathrin Perutz, was 5 years-old at the end of WW2. Despite being so young, Kathrin was greatly influenced by the time period. Much of what she knows about WW2, stems from stories told by her mother, Dolly Hellman Perutz. Surrounded by loss and tragedy, Kathrin relied on her mother for strength, protection, and care during the war. From Kathrin’s perspective, she says, “I was shaped by the war, watching my mother, long before I ever heard anyone mention it.”
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When Hitler took over Austria in March 1938 (“Anschluss,” meaning the annexation of Austria to Germany), Kathrin’s mother and father, Dolly and Tino Perutz, were skiing in the Austrian Alps, in the town of Zürs.
They skied down, eventually got a train, and traveled back to Prague, where they’d been living. As soon as they had arrived, Tino went back to Germany to try and bring back his mother, sister, and whomever else he could. Dolly stayed in Prague and her younger brother, Max Hellmann, came over on a student visa. Her older brother, Fritz Hellmann, stayed with her in Prague. Fritz was eventually taken from Prague and sent to Terezin, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
After enduring so much tragedy, Dolly decided to move to the United States, in order to provide a stable environment for a child, if she were to start a family. A few years later, Kathrin was born.
Although Kathrin was not born on the frontlines of the war, Kathrin was able to see the pain Dolly brought over from Prague, and it really shaped the first few years of her life. When speaking with my step-grandmother, a significant moment she can remember is when Dolly received news that her mother, Therese Jerusalem Hellmann, had been sent to Auschwitz in a boxcar and exterminated.
Kathrin can recall the very moment her mother received the news: “I crawled over to my mother’s room one day when I was 3 and saw her sitting at her desk, her shoulders going up and down in a way I’d never seen and that frightened me greatly. Nobody knew they’d make it out alive.”
Dolly told her stories of her family and how they died. Despite the fact that Kathrin was not alive for most of the war, she was able to live it, through the eyes of her mother.
After both her mother and father passed, Kathrin went on to become a writer. She wrote about WW2 and how it affected her. To this day, Kathrin still talks about how “my mother was my greatest influence, and I wouldn’t be the same without her.”
Stories from a Flight Nurse – Aven Williams
Cordelia Durkee likes to think of herself growing up as a tomboy. The fourth daughter in her family, nicknamed Billie, for the boy her parents had expected, she never fit the characteristics of a sweet, quiet, pretty girl growing up in the 1920s.
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By her late teens, she was already following her sister through Nurse’s Training School up until her graduation from Highsmith Hospital in North Carolina in September of 1942.
From there she took her own path.
The United States was well into World War II when a call went out for qualified volunteers to report to the Army Air Force School of Air Evacuation. In January of 1944, Billie responded.
In March, Billie sailed to Europe with the 818th, the first squadron of American flight nurses in Europe: “I don’t remember fear or anything like that,” she recalls, “I think we all thought we were [prepared] … but I’m not sure we were.”
For the next couple of months, Billie flew missions across the English Channel, transporting patients to English hospitals. “I got used to a plane that was called the Randy Lou.” The plane was named after the pilot’s little daughter.
They flew in C-47’s equipped with a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, technician, and one nurse. Patients were brought in ambulances from makeshift field hospitals to be loaded onto the plane.
Air Evac made it possible for nurses to fly injured men from the front lines to hospitals. Because their planes also carried military supplies, flight nurses risked their lives flying in planes not marked with the red cross to signify medical aid. 1,176,048 patients were evacuated by flight nurses during the war.
One of the hardest parts of Billie’s job was to never express any fear or grief. “You had to be very, very professional. You were concentrating on them. Our weakness was our tears, but we couldn’t do that.”
By June 6, 1944, Billie had been flying missions in Europe for two months.
That morning, “a lot of our planes started taking off early… very unusual, it’s still kind of bewildering […] to all of a sudden see so many planes taking off, one right after the other… And then we found out what it was, it was D-Day5.”
It would be days before they could fly into the beaches to evacuate the wounded.
There is no value you can put to the comfort and aid that Billie and the nurses of Air Evac gave to the men fighting in the war. They were essential to the war effort and pioneered a new form of nursing. These unsung heroes are due the credit they deserve for their bravery, expertise, and hope that they gave these young men and our country.
Behind Enemy Lines – Jacob Bradley
On a freezing cold night in December 1944, 20-year-old Malcolm McLane of Manchester, New Hampshire walked into a Nazi-occupied village on the border of Luxembourg and Germany. His eyes were swollen almost shut and his eyebrows and eyelashes were completely burned off. He was escorted by a German soldier on patrol duty who discovered him wandering the forest of “the bulge”, searching for a river crossing. Malcolm was turned over to the officer in charge of the village garrison, who questioned him briefly then had him “locked and barred in a farmhouse room with a blanket and some straw on the floor.”
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“Malc”, as he was called by friends and family, grew up in Concord and Manchester, New Hampshire. He was strong and athletic. He excelled at skiing at Dartmouth College but left to be sworn into the U.S. Air Force on October 3rd, his 18th birthday.
Perhaps it was his amazing endurance that allowed Malcolm to survive the first few months of 1945, in the hands of Nazis.
At 8:30, on December 23rd, he flew out of his airfield near Reims, France with 11 other U.S. fighter planes. Their mission was an armed reconnaissance of a heavily contested area. They came under intense fire from ground anti-aircraft guns, as well as an ambush of at least 20 German fighter planes. Soon, all formation was lost and a ferocious dogfight ensued.
Malc’s men were outnumbered and weren’t expecting the attack. A German plane, easily identified by the black crosses under its wings, passed directly over Malc and dropped a shell, hitting his fuel tank and turning the plane’s cockpit into a fiery ball. Malc ejected and he began floating down towards the forest below him, however, he was not yet out of danger as German planes were known to strafe parachuters. Luckily, he made it to the ground.
Malc was alone in the woods of the bulge, 15 miles behind enemy lines, on a bitterly cold evening. He was badly burned in some places, around his eyes especially, as he hadn’t had his goggles on when his plane exploded. He started to head west, searching for a river crossing but a German soldier hailed him and he surrendered himself.
Malcolm was driven to Wittlich for a few days for questioning, then eventually brought to Stalag Luft I near Barth, Germany, a prison camp primarily for captured allied airmen. Stalag Luft consisted of 4 compounds, 10 barracks to a compound, 10 rooms to a barracks and 24 men to a room, surrounded by barbed wire and armed men in watchtowers.
Treatment of prisoners was not cruel, but food supplies, which had started off “sufficient to carry a man along comfortably,” suddenly stopped. “For six weeks we lived solely on the German ration of a bowl of soup a day and a loaf of bread a piece each week.”
By March, the Germans were nearing defeat and Malcolm and the other prisoners could hear the guns of the red army in the distance signaling liberation was near. On April 29th, the German commander took his soldiers and fled south, leaving Stalag Luft to be liberated by the Soviets.
Malcolm was transported to England, where he waited for several weeks. As he grew tired of waiting he wrote, “Still waiting shipment, of sightseeing I’m quite full.” The next week, he boarded the “Queen Elizabeth,” and finally returned home to Manchester on July 2, 1945.
“Suck it up and Be Quiet” – Andrew Crompton
One snowy November night, in the mid-1950s, Eleanor Edman picked up the phone to hear her uncle, Gustave Axel Anderson. “He never called us,” she said, “and I didn’t like the way he sounded. He was telling me how much he loved my dad and I thought to myself, ‘gosh he’s drunk.’” Since Gus returned from World War II, he was always drinking. His alcoholism greatly affected his life, to the dismay of his family. He told Eleanor that he was in trouble at work again. Gus seemingly could not land on his feet. The war was taking its toll.
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Unlike many soldiers, Gus often spoke about his war experiences. “He would smoke, drink coffee, and talk all night about war stories,” recalled Eleanor. She remembered one particularly chilling story about “a tank explosion and the men in the tank coming out burning.”
Telling stories did not help Gus. He suffered from PTSD and coped by drinking. World War II forever changed him, claiming his life in a different way.
Gus was born in 1909, on his family’s farm in Plainville, Connecticut, the sixth of seven children. They later moved to Flushing, New York, a neighborhood in Queens. Gus became a mechanic working for a big Chevrolet dealership in Flushing. “Gus was very skilled,” said Eleanor. “He could take a junker and make it look like new.”
Gus posing with his chevy outside his family’s apartment in Flushing – Courtesy of Nancy Hicks.
When the U.S. entered World War II, Gus grew anxious about the draft. He did not want to be randomly assigned, so he volunteered on March 13, 1942, enlisting in the 7th Armored Division. The “Lucky 7th” entered combat on August 11, 1944, and campaigned through France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and finally pushed into Germany, in early 1945. During the winter of 1944, the 7th A.D. bore the brunt of the fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, under the command of General George S. Patton. The 7th A.D. was tasked with the defense of Vielsalm, Belgium.
The 7th A.D. held off the Germans but paid a heavy cost. Over the course of the war, the 7th A.D. suffered 887 casualties and over 4,000 more were wounded.
When he returned, there were immediate signs that told his family something was wrong. “Gus was always in his room with a bottle of whiskey,” said another of Gus’s nieces, Judy Anderson. “It may have started before the war,” said Eleanor, “but it worsened after.”
One night, Gus was “driving erratically” and crashed into the side of a bridge. Luckily, he did not hurt anyone else, but he was rushed to the hospital for several broken ribs. At the hospital, the doctors also discovered that he had kidney cancer.
World War II put Gus face to face with the grim reality of combat, and it eventually consumed him.
The breaking point came when Gus’s unit was clearing houses of German troops in the Rhineland as they pushed into Germany. Gus told this story years later to his sisters and Eleanor while sitting at their white kitchen table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. “There was a cottage there,” said Eleanor, “and the people who owned the cottage had to come out so his company could look around and investigate. I assume that they were looking for munitions, or bombs, or Germans that were hiding, but they were just a farm family… and he teared up when he talked about this. The old woman who came outside looked just like Grandma (Gus’s Mom).” Gus did not share what happened next. It was too painful.