Posts tagged ‘trauma’

March 11th, 2011

Gated Grief by Leila Levinson

by Gwen

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.