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Gated Grief by Leila Levinson

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Gated Grief

The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma


I wish that Levinson could have written this sooner, but I am grateful that I read it now.

After the death of her father, Dr. Reuben Levinson, Leila and her brother found some horrific pictures in their fathers medical office. They were shots from the concentration camp that her father, as Captain Levinson at the time, liberated in the aftermath of WWII.

The pictures haunted her and led her on a quest to try to understand what it meant to be a liberator. Pictures don’t do justice to what her father and other GIs faced. She needed to understand how those pictures changed the men that left hopeful and ready to fight for the freedom of all people. What she found brought her closer to her father, closer to understanding the man that told her never to cry and to just move forward, closer to answers to the questions she always wanted to ask; needed to ask, but never did.

Levinson interviewed many liberators, attended reunions, looked back at past written histories, and finally visited the camp where her father attended victims before having a nervous breakdown in 1945. She wasn’t just searching for how being a liberator changed her father and how it effected other liberators, but what effect that change had on her childhood.

It has been estimated that a minimum of 300,000 GIs witnessed the camps in one way or another. For the most part, none of these (mostly) men were warned or prepared for what they were going to see, they were just told to go there. What they saw, what they smelled, what they felt, is still something that many can’t talk about. Levinson noticed that many of the people she interviewed switched into third person when they were describing it. They were still trying to distance themselves from it decades later.

A phrase that Levinson used stuck with me while I was reading and still runs through my mind at odd moments.

“The liberators became prisoners of the camps they liberated.”

On coming home, the liberators didn’t talk about what they saw, they seldom shared with their families. A part of them had fractured off, never to be seen again. The trauma of what they saw effected them and their children that might not have even been born yet. Most took the attitude of the time that you just have to forget and move forward. The thing is, they couldn’t forget and while they were moving forward, it was as a vastly different human being than the brightly smiling soldier that they had been when they left for the war.

This book touched me in a personal way as well and that is why I wish that it had been written sooner. My grandfather fought in the Pacific and never talked about it. While I was always curious and wanted to ask him about his service, it was sort of an unspoken rule that I shouldn’t. When he passed away, we found pictures tucked away in an ammo box that, while not of concentration camps, were frankly, I am embarrassed to say what they depicted in detail. Why had he saved these pictures of mutilated Japanese soldiers? Why had he never talked about his experiences other than the USO dance where he met my grandmother and the time he spent on the base in New Jersey? It was as if there was this whole other person that fought in the war that we never knew.

I wish that I had had the courage to ask him before his passing. It might have explained a lot about the person that I thought I knew, but obviously, didn’t.

“The liberators became prisoners of the camps they liberated.”

Gated Grief is a study of trauma. Trauma that still affects many of us as the children and grandchildren of the veterans of WWII. The book is deep, but not depressing. It left me strangely hopeful. It means that we have finally acknowledged that veterans, of all wars, are left with scars that we can’t always see and that we need to acknowledge those wounds just as we address the obvious ones.

We have come a long way from the attitude of just putting the horrors of war behind us and moving forward. In the 40’s we weren’t prepared to deal with the psychiatric casualties of war.Then, lobotomies were the norm and around 50,000 veterans underwent the procedure. I can only hope that we are better armed now, but I am still not so sure. Levinson was able to shine a light on her upbringing, but also shined a light on an important subject for all of us.

Gated Grief by Leila Levinson
Hardcover: 266 pages
Publisher: Cable Publishing; 1 edition (January 31, 2011)
ISBN-10: 1934980544
ISBN-13: 978-1934980545

This book was given to my by PR by the Book, but was already on my radar because of my interest in the effects of trauma. The thoughts are my own. I have read a few books on the subject, which I am now realizing that I never reviewed here. (bad Gwen) You can read my short review of Denial: A Memoir of Terror by Jessica Stern at the Sacramento Book Review site.


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  • http://www.readingonarainyday.com/ Athira / Aths

    This book sounds amazing! I’ve been really interested in trauma and how grief incorporates itself in people over time. I will have to look at this.

    • Anonymous

      This book really highlighted how the trauma that her father experienced was then, in different ways, passed down to the author. I found it really eye-opening, please don’t hesitate to pick it up.

      I am always looking for similar books too. If you know of anymore, please advise!

  • http://leafingthroughlife.blogspot.com Megan

    This sounds like an important, powerful book. There are so many concentration camp memoirs that it never dawned on me that there is so little written about the liberators’ experience, despite its considerable significance. This is a book I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for. Thanks for the great review!

    • Anonymous

      That is one of the reasons that a liberator gave for never talking about what he experienced, he just helped free them, he wasn’t a camp survivor. The thing is, he really needed to talk about it to help process it, but felt that he would be belittling the actual survivors.

  • http://mycamocoloredlife.blogspot.com mannadonn

    Wow! This book sounds awesome! We have all heard from the people held in the concentration camps but usually not those who helped liberate them. Thanks for sharing!

    • Anonymous

      yeah, I had never thought about the liberators and if I did, it certainly wasn’t from the angle of the horrors that they saw.

      There was one soldier that didn’t know what to do when he saw the survivors. He wasn’t a doctor and knew that he couldn’t give them his C rations because that would make them sick, so he just went up and hugged them all one at a time. Just thinking of the passage now brings tears to my eyes.

      • http://mycamocoloredlife.blogspot.com mannadonn

        Oh my! That’s amazing. Okay…I have GOT to read this book!!

  • http://englishorganizer.com The English Organizer

    What a powerful example of the far-reaching effects of trauma. As you said, how sad that a whole generation (and beyond) felt the only option was just to forget and move on.

  • mary Ann Langan

    This book sounds really interesting, must read.

  • Bumbles

    I have added this to my list. My grandfather, who died almost 10 years ago now, was in the infantry of Patton’s 3rd Army. He suffered some terrible days most especially during the Battle of the Bulge and would really only talk to us of his fond memories playing baseball between marching and fighting. I know that he was involved in the liberation of Buchenwald as well as Ebenese/Mauthausen in Austria. I also know that he never spoke of these atrocities to me. My father got him to speak briefly of what he experienced in war shortly before he died. Over 50 years later he was still “prisoner” of those camps and that war internally.

    • Anonymous

      This will definitely aid in you and your dad understanding what your grandfather went through and how it changed him post-war. The far reaching effects are startling.

      I used to think that the Depression was the cause of a lot of my grandfather’s behavior, after reading this, I’m not so sure. Really wish that I had read this before we lost him and I think that you might feel the same.

    • Lost memories

      My father was a prisoner of several camps including Mauthausen and finally where he was liberated from by the US army at Ebenese, but not once did he talk or mention the atrocities or his life during these times. It has only come to light by researching and emailing organisations. If only we had asked him before he passed away 27 years ago, but like many it was something you didn’t unless it was mentioned and it never was unfortunately.

  • http://www.thecottagechild.blogspot.com Rachael

    I’m getting my nerve up to read this, I’m so intrigued. The older I get, the more the imagery lingers, it seems, so I really have to mentally prepare, but once again, your review makes me want to read it! (I linked to this post today, btw).

    • Anonymous

      The imagery is powerful, but the book is more about their feelings and reactions to it.

      I will hold your hand if you want to read it:)

  • http://www.facebook.com/Chitownchicas Unus Sed Leona

    I don’t know if you read Bending Towards the Sun, but the authoress talks about the same issues, that of trauma and how it is passed on to later generations. She is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and even her own daughter deals. I wish she had touched more on the subject in the book, but it she presented the idea as her own theory of how/why etc.

    • Anonymous

      Going to look for Bending Towards the Sun right now. Gated Grief was, in a way, similar, a non-psychologist wondering and following a trail on her own. That approach works for me as opposed to reading the gobbley gook studies and professional journal articles.

  • Helena

    My own father fought in Europe in WWII, and at one point his squadron bypassed a concentration camp that was being liberated by other soldiers. To this day I’m grateful that he never saw the inside of that camp because I’ve heard — and now this important book confirms — that there were soldiers who never recovered from what they witnessed. And like your grandfather, Gwen, my Dad talked “around” the war more than directly about it. He could talk about the weapons, the foxholes, being on patrol, but it was as if he had to maintain a distanced, objective framework within which he could contain the unspoken madness and chaos and horrors. On rare occasions, however, the darker memories would slip out in front of me, and he would speak briefly of fellow soldiers he saw die. My mother told me that he had nightmares for years and she learned very quickly not too wake him too suddenly because he would come to fighting. It’s been said that we ask our soldiers who fight in wars to pay a terrible psychic price. The truth of this is more profound than we’d all like to think.

    • Anonymous

      Helena, the distance or talking around things and the psychic price is what breaks my heart with every soldier I see, even the current ones about to go for the first time. We can thank them, give them discounts or hugs, etc, but we can never give them back those pieces that they left behind, never to be seen again.

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