Monday, June 4, 2012

The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War by Louise Steinman 2001

"Only when we begin to share our stories, she discovers, can we also begin to approach the humanity we aspire to, and at the same time feel shame at the brutal bestiality of which we are all too capable."
 from a New York Times review by Diane Cole 12/02/01

When Louise Steinman was emptying her parents’ condominium after they had both died in 1990, she found a strong box that included 474 letters her father had written to her mother from the Pacific front where he had been stationed during World War II from August of 1943 until December of 1945. Also in the box was an envelope that contained a small Japanese flag with Japanese characters written on it. Her father Norman Steinman, who had immigrated to New York with his mother and sister when he was five and a half years old from Zhitomir, Ukraine, came home from serving in World War II a changed man, moody and uncommunicative. His wife and four children (the oldest of whom was born nine months after he went off to war) knew never to ask him about the war and to stay away from him if something triggered one of his rages.

Finding this trove of newsy, often emotional letters to her mother, as well as finding the Japanese flag, motivated the writer to investigate her father’s war years in an attempt to know her father as a young soldier. She learned that he had been an infantryman who had been shipped to the Philippines where he participated in one of the most difficult battles in Luzon as the Japanese tried to keep the Americans at bay and away from Japan.

She was also intent on finding out more about the Japanese flag her father had kept along with the letters. She started by having the writing on the flag translated and learned that the young Japanese soldier/owner of the flag, whose name was on the flag, had received it as a good-luck gift from family and friends who had signed their names on it. More investigation revealed that he had been killed in the Philippines shortly after he enlisted.

The author initially had her doubts about whether to search for his family, and whether to return the flag. She reports that her brother Larry asked her a provocative question: If their father had fought in Europe and had come home with a German flag with a swastika on it, would she be trying to find that soldier’s family and return the flag? A provocative question, indeed, one for which she has no ready answer. But she proceeded to visit the Philippines and then Japan where she returned the flag to the soldier’s family.

Steinman discusses the atrocities the Japanese visited on their enemies as well as those that resulted from the Americans dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In researching wartime propaganda, brainwashing and military training, she cites literature that discusses the need to dehumanize the enemy as a way to rationalize torturing and killing them. She finds an obvious example in objectifying the enemy in her father’s easy use of “Japs” and “Nips.”

Like many children of survivors of concentration camps, she grew up with a father who had a traumatizing experience.  Research now informs us that he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome that at that time went unlabeled, undiagnosed and untreated. A by-product of war, it claimed many victims and their families. She realizes that the damage war inflicts lingers through generations.

To read an article about late-onset Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome suffered by those who survived World War II, click here.

Herschel (Harry) Steinman – married Rebecca
    Ruth Steinman - daughter of Herschel and Rebecca
    Norman Steinman – son of Hershel and Rebecaa; married Anne Weiskopf
          Ruth Steinman – daughter of Norman and Anne; married to Matthew Solomon
             Jennifer Solomon – daughter of Ruth and Matthew
         Larry Steinman - son of Norman and Anne
         Louise Steinman – daughter of Norman and Anne; married Lloyd Hamrol; author
         Kenneth Steinman - son of Norman and Anne
Louis Weiskopf – married Sarah
     Anne Weiskopf - daughter of Louis and Sarah; married Norman Steinman (see above)
     Doris Weiskopt - daughter of Louis and Sarah

Friends and Acquaintances
    Sam Wengrow
    Morrie Franklin
    Sylvan Katz

Zhitomir, Ukraine 
Bronx, New York
New York City, NY
Culver City, California
Luzon, The Philippines

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