Title: Gated Grief: The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma
Author: Leila Levinson
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “Leila Levinson’s experience as the daughter of a WWII veteran speaks to a more universal experience–the trauma of war as it wreaks havoc over generations. It is a touching story of search, revelation, and recovery.”
Thoughts: I love German history; it was one of the reasons it was my major in college. The country has had such a unique perspective on its place in the world, to put it mildly, that I have always been intrigued by the thought process behind their actions. I decided a long time ago that if I were to ever have obtained my PhD as an educator, I would have studied WWII and the impact of the concentration camps on the local populations. So, when Tolly at PR By the Book approached me about reading Gated Grief, I jumped at the chance.
Ms. Levinson’s takes the reader on her very personal struggle to understand the trauma experienced by the liberators of the camps. Her desire to get to the bottom of their experiences and how they related to their interactions with family and friends is heartfelt. As the daughter of a liberator, much of her insight is through her own childhood with a father who never discussed what he saw. These personal observations guide her through interactions with other liberators, granting her empathy as each veteran delves into memories that still moves him or her to tears or rendered him speechless in fear.
The novel is divided into chapters, focusing on one particular veteran’s memories, complete with photographs taken either by the veteran or by others at the camp being discussed. Each veteran has his or her own experiences but even sixty years later, the fear and horror each person felt is palpable. Some shut down; others break down into tears. The reader knows without a doubt that while sharing his or her experiences, each veteran is experiencing the visions, smells and sounds of the camps all over again.
Ms. Levinson’s father once stated to her that we are all the Nazis’ victims. Upon first glace, it is a sentiment that is easy to dismiss. Yet, as the reader shares the grief and guilt experienced by the veterans as they tell their stories, one begins to understand that the trauma of the camps did not stop there. In fact, the horrors discovered by the U.S. soldiers came back with them because what occurred in those camps was something that changed every single person who was witness to them. This change went down to their very psyche and had profound impacts on relationships with their spouses, their children and even their grand- and great-grandchildren.
Ms. Levinson’s travels and discussions with veterans lead her to some very interesting conclusions about the legacy of trauma. While her focus is on liberators of the concentration camps, her conclusions can be extrapolated to anyone who experiences senseless killings, including soldiers in today’s conflicts. Her insight into this idea of trauma completely changing a person, with the idea that the soldier comes back as half a person, is profound and forced me to consider my own relationship with my grandfather.
Be warned – Gated Grief is not for the faint of heart. There are images that were completely new to me and that left me profoundly affected. One photo in particular will haunt me forever. I had nightmares if I read the book too close to bedtime and often had to put down the book to get away from the feelings of profound despair and guilt I felt while reading it. Still, either in spite of or because of all that, I absolute loved Gated Grief for the fresh look it gave me on the camps and the U.S.’s handling of them and for what the soldiers experienced. It reminded me anew of the absolute horror that occurred across eastern Europe during World War II and how those horrors have completely changed society for better or for worse. If ever one needs a reminder to be vigilant and never forget what happened, Gated Grief is that reminder.
Thank you to Tolly Moseley at PR By the Book for my review copy!
There is a definite argument that not knowing what was going on and not being able to do anything until it was too late was definitely an issue for the liberators. Also, a common theme was the idea that these were already men, and one woman, who had been hardened by war. They had seen their friends blown apart, done things to fellow humans that they never would have ever dreamed of doing when they were younger. NOTHING compared to what they saw when each soldier stepped inside the gates of a concentration camp, and they were never able to recover from those sites. The guilt they must have lived with…
This was a simply phenomenal book. Unfortunately, as the author found, so many vets do not want to discuss what they saw. I know my grandfathers never did. It is a shame because so much history is lost because they either cannot or do not want to share their experiences. At least the author was able to get a few vets to open up and share. Their stories are amazing.