Why can’t we stop reading/writing about WW2?

I have spent the past six years of my life studying the six years that preceded my life, which means I have been writing and reading about World War Two. A decade ago, with story ideas jelling in my mind, I tried to pull the narrative forward into my lived experience but the war—that war—WW2—would not let me go.

I was conceived in August 1945 in the days between Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the formal surrender of Japan while the staggering horrors in Europe and Asia were being uncovered and documented. Nine months later I was born into my father’s family homestead in Montana, a brown-eyed child in a blue-eyed family. They call my mother a gypsy, though her dark hair and eyes are Sami/Swede. It is spring 1946, and 500 colonies of bees are making Baldwin & Sons Beeline Honey. I am laid out on the greening lawn, baptized by my grandfather, a Methodist parson as well as beekeeper. That autumn I am carried East for my father to start graduate school. We enter the myth that the war is cleanly over. The Marshall Plan has kicked in. The United Nations is chartered. America is the most benevolent “victor” in the history of the world.

In the early 1950s, LIFE magazine published a Pictorial History of World War II. It weighs over five pounds, is fourteen inches along the spine: a coffee table book left on our coffee table. As though reading by brail, my small fingers brush over photographs of death camps, emaciated populations, exhausted soldiers. I study these scenes and the faces of those standing in them. Questions wake in me that accompany me all my days: How did this happen? What in human nature allowed such horrors?

And these very days, while I type in the safety of my island home watching autumn leaves drift off my neighbor’s maple tree, similar horrors are being repeated in Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza, in more African countries than I know to list, and in uncountable pockets of violence. I still ask: How does this happen? What in human nature allows such horrors?

At its essence, story is how we make meaning of life. Story is how we link one human experience to another and weave our narrative threads. Story is how we learn vicariously. Story illuminates human circumstances and allows us to imagine what we would do. Writers and readers know that imagination increases empathy, resilience and capacity to act in real life. Story matters, and what stories we tend to matters.

In the middle of writing my novel, taking place 1941-1943, I asked several friends why they keep reading about this time period. One said, “The nature of good and evil seems so much clearer. These stories inspire me to see how ordinary people can become extraordinary in the cruelest situations.” Another said, “My father died without telling me his story of the war, so I extrapolate it from books. Through reading, I can grieve for him.”

And why did I write about WW2?

Because I believe that they/then have something to teach us/now about the getting through chaotic times. I focused on the Homefront because most of us live away from actual battlefields but are compelled to pay attention to images of suffering and raw story unspooling in real time. In this immediacy, we (or at least I) experience vicarious trauma without story’s meaning-making perspective. In the early 1940s, the US was madly shifting from Depression era isolationism to global leadership and fighting force. The outcome of the war was uncertain.  It was, in the living of it, a far more volatile, strenuous, and tenuous transition than myths have made it. In life, and in my story–

  • People are fighting fascism with the belief it can be eradicated from the world.
  • The community faces real issues of injustice simmering under settlement of the West.
  • The war’s pressures, realities, and suffering intrude on their personal lives.
  • They must decide how to work together despite all differences.
  • They deal with eruptions of violence, evil, murder and secrecy.
  • They are wounded and healing. They make love and babies.
  • They leave their unsung courage like seeds in the ground for us to harvest.

So maybe I read and write about WW2 because the story is so huge, encompassing so much human and inhumane experience that we haven’t been able to make meaning of it. And maybe because “the war” isn’t over but has splintered into the conflicts that surround us today casting its shadow of horror and the light of human spirit.

New York city is home to the largest Jewish community of any city in the world—larger than the combined populations of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Mid-October 2023, my book, The Beekeeper’s Question, is sitting in the inboxes of fifteen NY publishing house editors. I can imagine their paralysis to face everyday work: I feel that paralysis in myself. We are in global crisis. We cannot foretell what happens from one day to the next. We are caught in narratives with no idea of the climax, or how the situation will resolve. Yet, story is a map and the story that gets one person through helps to get the next person through. I hope the tale of the beekeeper’s family may find its publishing home and take up its task to help us map pathways through the immediacy of life in the now.

 

“The dark around us, come,

Let us meet together here,

Members one of another,

Here is our holy room.”

Wendell Berry

 

 

 

40 replies
  1. Diana Smith
    Diana Smith says:

    Thoughtful… the context of the 2nd World War, what led to it, and what the powers perpetuated is significant. Can we come together across boundaries, beliefs, and culturally defined filters to create peace? We must try, with love.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      There could be, and probably are, books written about how the rejection of desperate Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany led to the conundrum of the Middle East today.

  2. Anne Stine
    Anne Stine says:

    Please keep writing, dear Christina, your creative dance with words brings me/us into the heart of the focus with which you are dealing. I am reminded that I am left with absolutely no record in any way of my father’s WWII experience. And he drank himself to death, broken and ashamed. You help me make the leap into our current times, and how little we’ve actually learned or been transformed by our own experience. I hold the publishing of your book in my heart, as ‘done’, ‘received’, finally recognized for how essential it is that we hold our copy in our own hands and hearts. Thank you so much…… love, love…. Anne

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Anne, Look up Soldier from the War Returning, The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming from World War Two, by Thomas Childers. I think it will help.

  3. Susan Kistin
    Susan Kistin says:

    TY Christina, a bow to you for this important piece! It gives me ground. I am reading your words just a few hours after having sharp edged, critical anger directed at me for grieving my people recently massacred in Israel. How have we lost our compass? I feel so deeply sad. Tonight I turn to the part of my memoir about growing up Jewish in this country in the 40’s and 50’s, and how, now in my 70’s, I continue working for unity and peace. Up on my feet! My/our story unfolds on the page and gives me courage.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Oh Susan, of course grieve your people. The heart can hold the separation of government policies and the loss of folks living their lives in the circumstances where they are planted. I grieve for the Israeli and Palestinian victims–and do not approve of Hamas or leveling Gaza in response. Keep writing!

  4. Marcia Wiley
    Marcia Wiley says:

    Great questions, Christina. The story IS huge and, for folks of our generation, it was directly lived by our elders- fathers, uncles, cousins, etc. For myself, I have long been drawn to any story of British peoples during WWII… have often wondered/believed that my soul lived and died there. Most everything I read about the British war experience feels eerily familiar. The part of todays story that is so distressing are all of the politicos, terrorists, know nothings in many parts of the world who seem intent on repeating the worst atrocities of Nazis, Fascists, etc. Justice and human decency must prevail!

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      I know what you mean about the familiarity of the war. I didn’t go into it in this piece, but those photos didn’t shock me as I would have expected in a child. It was like, “yes, I know.”

  5. Mark Pearson
    Mark Pearson says:

    Add my voice to the chorus of those who are holding the Circle for you and “The Beekeeper’s Question.”
    Yes to the stories we share – yes to the songs we sing together. Thank you for all you have done to make this world a better, kinder, richer place.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you, Mark, for keeping the campfire lit. And for your resonant voice in our generation.

  6. Pam Burris
    Pam Burris says:

    Wonderful story, Christina. Thank you! I too have spent a bunch of time on WWII. I was born in August of 1944. Only a few years ago did I learn that my biol and stepfather overlapped before my conception. DNA has indicated that the one I thought of as bio, is. However, this brought the large question of my conception. I sent for military records, did research on what was going on where my father trained (NC) and saw there was a leave at just the right time for conception. However, was it planned? Did my mother have sex because he was home? Did she want a baby? (I also learned recently my stepfather had a vasectomy after fathering two sons and that my Burris family was on pins and needles about what coloring I would have.) I too did not hear stories of war or my parent’s divorce when I was 2. My mother took me to movies when I was young and during the ‘newsreel’ and while my father was in Korea, I paid close attention thinking quite surely he would appear on the screen. It was a quiet house and not one where I could ask questions. I do know that my dedication to peace started in those days, growing more mature as time went on. What is going on in the Middle East now is horrific and, as you say, how can this happen? Yet, over and over and over…
    (my mother was a Baldwin)

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Don’t these stories have interesting twists! And I thank you for your dedication to peace, Pam. It is no small thing.

  7. Jana Jopson
    Jana Jopson says:

    Woven in these words, I sense an epic journey unfolded (and continues) while this book was being written. It will most certainly find its perfect home. And one day, I will be sitting down and opening the cover … embarking on my own reader’s journey. Who will the story touch and how will they be touched … and how will it circle back around … the mystery of storytelling. Look forward to hearing the lucky publisher’s name.

  8. Jennifer Getsinger
    Jennifer Getsinger says:

    Dear Christina,
    So good to read this, and looking forward to your book. I have been, by complete serendipity (a long story) reading a book by Margaret Mead written in 1942 called “And Keep Your Powder Dry” — all about the American character, and what it would take to win WWII, and so many insights. It includes also comments from 1965 on some of the ideas and ideology as things unfolded. Even though I majored in Anthropology in 1970-74 (before going to geology grad school), no one ever mentioned this book by Margaret Mead. Parts of it would be considered kind of non-pc these days, but she says things about Americans that no one else would say. My children’s generation also want to know, What happened? To our parents’ generation (the WWII young adults) and to ours (the feminists, hippies, etc). My son is editing a magazine about what they call “governance futurism” — thinking of ideas about making the world better (also maybe not totally “pc” but I’m not really sure what their political bent is; it’s more philosophical); it’s called Palladium magazine. Journalism of ideas and what is going on in the world. I was thinking about you the other day and concepts of “incremental quest”, thinking about my own journals. Planning to donate 1970-74 to Schlesinger Library, but must get organized around that first. I am sorry I have never been organized like you or able to contribute much to the public discourse, not being able to get it together. Have been following Mary Alice Arthur with Story DoJo since pandemic. Interesting, my grandfather was also a brown-eyed person in a blue-eyed family.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Oh Jennifer, this is such rich commentary, thank you. I will look up Mead’s book and add it to my growing collection–a whole bookcase devoted to research and wonderment over these things.

  9. Gretchen Staebler
    Gretchen Staebler says:

    I just finished watching the premier of World on Fire, season 2. Your question makes me wonder why I am so fascinated with WWII. Yes, in part because my parents lived it, and never talked about it. Because it got personal to me reading my family’s letters about those years. Or maybe it’s because the world seemed so focused then on eradicating a (seemingly) single evil. These days evil is scattered in so many directions one doesn’t know where to look. I can’t wait for The Beekeepers Question to find a publishing home. I want to read it in its final form. It is so, so good. Thank you, always, for your commitment to and belief in the power of story, my friend.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      I love that we have this WW2 thing in common Gretchen, and am so grateful for all the research help you have been during my writing process. love and more writing!

  10. Judy Reeves
    Judy Reeves says:

    Dear Christina,
    Thank you for writing this story. I wish you all good things as it awaits the publisher who will bring it to the world. It is a story we need, perhaps now more than ever.

    with love,Judy

  11. Judy Todd
    Judy Todd says:

    May your book find the readers’ minds and hearts soon, and be a balm to pain and paralysis as we find a peaceful path forward.

    I happened to watch Margarethe von Trotta’s film, HANNAH ARENDT, this week. It was available through my local library’s lending program and had been in my queue for months. Somehow this week it called my name:
    “German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt’s reporting on the 1961 trial of ex-Nazi Adolf Eichmann in The New Yorker—controversial both for her portrayal of Eichmann and the Jewish councils—introduced her now-famous concept of the ‘Banality of Evil.’ ”

    (The Nuremberg Trials following WWII began in 1945, twenty five all together, ended in 1949. One of the US Supreme Court Justices called them a “high-grade lynching party.” Adolf Eichmann’s trial, however, occurred in 1961. He died in 1962. Are they over yet? Are the politics of the day, and the leaders of those politics, still after blood, an eye for an eye? )

    Watching this film and doing some further research into the history I too was born into, in 1947, gave me much pause and a context to re-think our current political realities in the USA, and to apply those ideas far beyond our borders to other warring places in the world.

    I recommend exploring Arendt’s ideas of ‘humanity’, ‘individual persons’, and ‘thinking’. There seem to be many lessons very relevant today and I, for one, want to learn them. My prayer is that by thinking more deeply about what it means to be human, and about how I might be a more involved and useful global citizen, I can turn away from being triggered and traumatized into fear, or inaction, by hate or hopelessness, by the horrific, non-stop onslaught of extreme news, the horrifying, blood-soaked images of death and destruction, of hatred and hyperbole. This kind of witnessing seems not to produce thinking, compassion, or forgiveness at all readily.

    I think the ‘banality of evil’ Arendt named and wrote extensively about has a place in our shared world today. May it forward useful, merciful and vital conversations, actions and deep forgiveness for all. May the hearts and minds of those ‘in power’ be given by such qualities rather than leaping to punish and destroy. You’ve offered me an invitation for further, deeper thought and I am grateful.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you, Judy, for these thoughts. We may be “oldering” through our 70s, but we are still thinking! And as elders, I believe it is our part of the wheel of life to foster “useful, merciful, and vital conversations, actions, and deep forgiveness for all.” May we be about that work in the dailyness–noticing opportunities to interrupt the trauma stream with thoughtfulness, compassion, presence.

  12. David Rozell
    David Rozell says:

    Christina, I was born August 10, 1945, 4 days after Hiroshima. The family joke was that I was 2 months premature because I wanted to see what all the noise was about. I have had a fascination w WW2 all my life and serving in the Navy myself and being born in to a Navy family those stories are some of the most precious family memories. Thank you for your story.

    David

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      It is strange to have some kind of deep affinity for what preceded us. The “storyfield” was so full, even of the unspoken, that we picked it up and carry it on. Good, always, to hear from you, David.

  13. Bonnie Rae
    Bonnie Rae says:

    Baptized by a beekeeper. Could there be anything more wonderful? I can hardly wait to read the story that you gave yourself to so completely. I’m going to visualize it being picked up by someone unable to put it down. Especially in these heartbreaking, bewildering times we need the stories and the storytellers. Thank you for you. 

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you,, Bonnie Rae. I am touched that you and so many people who respond to this blog trust I have written a story worth reading, created (accompanied) people that will live in your minds and hearts as they live in mine. I hold that trust deeply. Thank you. Baptized by a beekeeper as a baby, and baptized by bees as a writer.

  14. Ann Darling
    Ann Darling says:

    Thank you, again, Christina. I wonder if you or your readers know of, have read the excellent Vera Brittain trilogy Testament of Youth, Testament of Friendship, Testament of Experience. Yes it’s beginning is WW1, set in Great Britain and Europe, but it’s a (never could find the perfect descriptor … so I stick with “great read”) very, very worthwhile set of books to learn from – about a time …. a century ago … from which the echoes continue.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      I read these books long ago and am grateful to have you bring the titles forward into our thinking again. One of the things I relish in this comment stream is the diversity of thoughtful responses and respectful community.

  15. Diane Tilstra
    Diane Tilstra says:

    Dear Christina,
    I join the chorus of welcoming your novel into published reality! As always I appreciate your thoughtful comments about the act of war and the severe impact it has on so many lives and generations. I see War Memorials, rituals like a gun salute at gravesides of Veterans, a national holiday to remember the ravages of war and our Veterans who bravely fought for an ideal of saving people, countries and Democracies. What have we learned? A Buddhist Monk said it so well, “War is obsolete.” Let us pray into existence a Department of Peace that is funded at the healthy level of 65 cents on every tax dollar and watch change happen. As humans we are poised to evolve to a level of comprehension about the futility of war as we embrace a more human centric challenge: to keep humanity thriving on this planet. We will have to lay down the weapons and help each other! Thanks for your writings and leading journeys out on the land! Those changed my life! Love, D

  16. Roberta Sherwood
    Roberta Sherwood says:

    Dear Christina. Keep us posted when your book comes to print. It sounds so pertinent to our times, as well as history/herstory. I am also excited about Rachel Maddow’s newest book “Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism.”
    I was born into WWII but on the other side of the globe, in China: 1944. My parents could see Chinese/Japanese soldiers fighting hand-to-hand in the valley below our village, and often had to rush to bomb shelters with two small children. I also think of my German ancestors and who and how they may have played a part in WWII, and on which side. I don’t know that part of my herstory. I also ask, “How could this EVER have happened, and how could it maybe happen AGAIN, and right here?” “War is not healthy for children and other living things,”
    Thank you for your Life Work, and continuing to share your wisdom with us in this world, at this time. Wishing you many Bright Blessings!

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      I had a cousin in China in WW2, a small child interned with her parents–my aunt and her husband, a Chinese diplomat’s son who carried a British passport and so was scooped into a camp for international families and held for the duration-but at least not executed. This four-year old girl arrived to Montana after the war speaking French, Russian, Chinese, and English. She has led an interesting life with these formative experiences… I hope you have written some of your story. Thanks for checking in.

  17. Cynthia
    Cynthia says:

    Having spent all of 1971 in Israel at a Kibbutz near Hedera in the middle of the country, I am filled with grief that both the Israelis and Hamas are vowing to obliterate one another.
    Arriving after participating in the antiwar movement in the US through my college years, it was a shock to see everyone my age, both men and women carrying rifles everywhere.
    The purpose of my journey to a Kibbutz was to observe how communalism worked on the small scale of a kibbutz. It worked extremely well at this kibbutz. I was able to rotate through many positions in the time I was there. Leadership rotated every two years.
    One of the most important events I was invited to attend was a conference of both Arab and Israeli Journalists. The general sentiment expressed on both sides was cautious optimism that there was a strong possibility of peaceful coexistance in the near future.
    Our kibbutz was located near a small Arab village. The nurse and a teacher from the kibbutz offered their services to the village and there was an exchange of other services.
    The Kibbutz was founded by eastern European Jews and was not religious and did not follow the most of the basic practices around food except at high holly days when a rabbi would drop in to do blessings and all the separate dishes came out of storage.
    I was there for a wedding which was fairly basic until the rabbi finished his part of the ceremony
    and took off for his next ceremony. Then a signal went out and Arab villagers rode in on their beautiful horses and the party really began.

    Each time there has been a peace plan developed, generally without including the Palestinians
    which ,of course, doesn’t work, I feel deep grief and sorrow because I had witnessed something that did work.
    When I came back to the states, the Vietnam war was still going on.

    And there are still so many innocent people dying all around this world.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Ah Cynthia, we were in Israel and Gaza at about the same time. It is such a different thing to watch this tragedy play out when we have stood on the ground where it is happening. I had similar experiences–places where the communities blended, and places where not. And we have the faces of people that still live in our minds and hearts. Part of our job, I believe, is to exhale peace and beauty into the wider world, praying it reaches where such a whiff of restoration is most needed. Blessings of the day.

  18. Sharon Hope Fabriz
    Sharon Hope Fabriz says:

    Christina,
    The Beekeeper’s Question. The title alone fuels my attention. You remind us that “[s]tory is how we link one human experience to another and weave our narrative threads” and the reader in me has a deep trust that the right publishing house will raise this story up for eyes to see, hearts to feel, and communities to heal. May it be so! Thank you for your indomitable spirit that allows the compassionate creative to flow through you in beauty and into the waiting world.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you, Sharon. As a sister author, I know you know this journey…. If you’re willing, I’ll be coming to you some month soon to hold my hand into the Medium sphere. Love your entries there, and thank you for your indomitable spirit as well.

  19. Carol Secord
    Carol Secord says:

    I love your story line, title and your grounding question. Your story, this story —- is so important that it is crucial. As we learn to stand in compassionate presence to human suffering that is human caused in our modern era we have a new opportunity to see that we are the creators of conflict and also the creators that find pathways through. My question’s are – what is mine to do at this moment? How can I be my consciousness of – we are one in the midst of multitudes of We and They? I am sure your story will bring me into sense making and support me in bringing my presence into my moments of relating.

    Thank you.
    Carol

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you for your leadership, your steady presence, your dedication to circle, and for your life and work in Edmonton.

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