Excerpts - Part 1: Prologue

Nearly thirty years had passed since I’d seen the box my father brought home from World War II in 1946. While visiting my younger brother, George, in the summer of 2003, I saw it again, on George’s desk, just the way it had sat on Dad’s. I stood next to my brother and ran my fingers over the box’s rough surface.

As I touched it, childhood memories flooded over me—how the box had rested atop the big, yellow oak desk in my father’s den in our 1950s Arlington, Virginia home. In my mind’s eye, I saw him leaning against the desk, with one long leg propped up on the chair. He worked there often, making calls and writing notes for stories. He never referred to himself as a “journalist,” preferring the more modest title of “newspaperman.” I remembered how he balanced the phone between ear and shoulder while dictating a story to his editor at the Washington Evening Star newspaper.

As a child, the box had meant nothing to me—it was just part of the landscape of my father’s daily life. And he didn’t take to children going into things on his desk. Suddenly, at my brother’s house, I wanted to know. What did Dad keep in the box? His poor health made me want to fill in the gaps of what I knew about his life before it was too late. Why had he always guarded his thoughts and feelings so carefully? Did the box hold a key to understanding our father?

“Where did Dad get the box?” I asked, looking up at George. He was so like Dad—tall, quiet, and handsome.

“In the war.” In a voice as deep and rich as Dad’s, George told me a tale I’d never heard: Toward the end of the war, Dad met a prisoner interned at a German-run camp. The American soldiers freed the inmates, and out of gratitude, this man gave Dad an aluminum box he’d made in the camp. George knew only the skeleton of the story—not the name of the camp or anything about the prisoner.

A picture of my father as a young soldier took shape in my mind. William John Elvin, Jr., known as Bill, was a decorated combat veteran of General George S. Patton’s Third Army, 80th Infantry Division. He reached the Normandy beaches sixty days after D-Day as an idealistic twenty-six-year-old first lieutenant who’d left a wife and baby behind to serve his country. He fought and led his platoon bravely, earning not only a Silver Star for Gallantry in Action, but the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and a Purple Heart. Before the war had ended, Dad suffered experiences he would have liked to forget, and he stayed silent about them almost until his death. As children, we thought all fathers had nightmares and jumped at loud noises. Like a cat ready to spring, he was always poised for danger. Only as adults did we recognize the traumatic impact war had had on our father.

I picked up the box. Light in weight, it was the length and width of a letter-sized piece of paper and three inches deep. The crude engraving on it looked as though its maker had used a rudimentary tool to hammer out the design. Perhaps using whatever he could find—a rock, or maybe a nail—he made a rustic sketch of a man and a woman on top of the box, surrounded by flowers and ivy. On one side was written “Braunau 1944.”

After that visit with George, I returned home to Washington, DC, and my husband, Al Bronstein. Our German friend, Ursula Junk (pronounced “Yoonk”), was visiting us. As a college student in the 1960s, she’d worked with my husband in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. After she returned to her home in Germany in the early 1970s, Ursula began a career as a radio journalist, creating mostly documentaries. Because of her familiarity with the United States, she traveled here often to do stories while visiting friends. Ursula was an intense, striking blonde who looked much younger than her sixty-plus years and who tempered her intensity with humor. She always talked to my cats in German, interrogating them as though interviewing for a ­ serious story.

At the time of this visit, Ursula was working on a documentary about the American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald, the notorious Nazi concentration camp in Germany. While my husband prepared dinner, she and I sat in the living room and she told me about her fascinating—and horrifying—research on what the soldiers had encountered at Buchenwald in May 1945. Over a glass of wine, I told her what I’d learned from George about the gift the camp inmate had given Dad, and how Dad had kept it for years without ever revealing its meaning or its origin to anyone. She pressed me to find out which camp the box had come from. Had my father’s Army unit liberated a concentration camp? The question made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

After dinner and more talking, I was anxious to find the answer and I phoned Dad at his home in nearby McLean, Virginia. At eighty-five years old, he still enjoyed writing for the weekly newspaper he’d owned and published for thirty years. He’d sold the paper some years ago, but he was still “McLean’s newspaperman.”

My heart sped up a little when Dad answered the phone. With Ursula’s account of the liberation of Buchenwald fresh in my mind, I just assumed that the “camp” George had referred to was a concentration camp. So I asked, “What was the name of the concentration camp you saw during World War II?”

I heard the intake of breath while he pondered the question. Ebensee, he said, a camp in central Austria. His voice trembled as he added, “It was a death camp.” He described a scene like those we have all seen—and recoiled from—in photographs of Nazi concentration camps. “I remember running into the woods afterwards and I couldn’t see.”

“Couldn’t see?”

He mumbled something about tears in his eyes. The conversation was getting emotional, and Dad had never been comfortable showing feelings. He wanted to end it quickly, and we hung up after saying only a few more words.

After the phone call I sat in silence for a moment, stunned that I’d never known my father had seen a concentration camp firsthand. Ursula and I then looked at a map of Austria. We found Ebensee where Dad had said, deep in the Salzkammergut region, site of the filming of The Sound of Music. The disconnect between the breathtaking scenery and the unspeakable atrocities and sufferings at the camp must have been hard for the American soldiers to absorb, as it was for me. As for Ursula, she was now a reporter on the hunt for a story. She knew that Dad was also a journalist and that his observations would likely be sharper than most witnesses, even fifty-eight years later. She strongly urged me to record an interview with him.

When I was growing up, Dad would tell me the occasional war story. He’d spread out maps on the card table in the living room to demonstrate troop movements. Rolling up his sleeve, he’d show me the scar—a moon-shaped crater on his left forearm—from the wound he received in France on the morning of November 8, 1944. A German sniper aimed his gun and took his shot. Dad felt the heat and the sting, and looking down, saw blood spreading over the front of his jacket. He believed he’d been mortally wounded but discovered to his relief that the wound was on his arm and not in his gut. While recuperating in a hospital in England, he’d close his fist and move it up and down, watching tendons and muscles move, he said, “like railroad tracks,” made visible because the German bullet had removed the skin.

Years later, at age 79, Dad found himself confronted with a much more serious medical problem: pulmonary fibrosis, a debilitating and progressive lung disease. I often drove him to the hospital for tests on his decreasing lung capacity. The idea was to see how much he could do, and the respiratory therapists pushed him to the brink of his physical limits. For each appointment, I maneuvered his wheelchair down the long corridor to the pulmonologist’s office. After one particularly grueling series of tests, a nurse wheeled him into the waiting room in a state of near collapse and I asked him foolishly, “How was it?” Dad gave me a small smile and whispered, “Well, at least they’re not shootin’ at me.”

Dad and I set up a time for me to interview him. After Ursula left Washington to pursue her Buchenwald story, I mailed him a list of questions so he could prepare for the interview. Ursula kept in touch, urging me to research my father’s story. We agreed that his recollections were important because when his generation faded, the story would remain. My purpose for the interview was twofold: I wanted to know more about my father’s experiences during the war, but I also wanted to help preserve his memories for future generations. Before the interview could take place, though, he sent me a short, handwritten account of the one day he’d spent at Ebensee. He was more comfortable writing than sitting with me for an interview face-to-face. “After seeing Ebensee,” he wrote, “soldiers who had become accustomed to the suffering and ghastly wounds of battle were overcome.”

I felt shortchanged. I wanted the freedom to ask my father about what had happened, but now he was controlling the conversation. I picked up the phone and called him. But soon I realized that his voice broke whenever we spoke about Ebensee. He was trying to hold back tears. I had never before heard my father cry.

For years I’d bemoaned Dad’s inaccessible emotions, but now I found myself longing for my old “stiff-upper-lip” Dad. That was the man I was accustomed to, and it was jarring to deal with even this hint of his pain. I’m not sure which of us was more uncomfortable. I couldn’t bear to hear that break in his voice.

Since I wasn’t getting much information from Dad, I took advantage of the access I had to great research institutions. As I studied and learned more, I began to see the camp as he would have on that day of its liberation in May 1945. The Nazi SS, who were the guardians of Ebensee and the torturers of its inhabitants, had fled from the advancing U.S. Army, leaving behind starving, filthy, and ghostlike prisoners, still surrounded by barbed wire.

Meanwhile, I kept going back to the box, puzzling over it and trying to flesh out its mystery. Who was the inmate who gave it to Dad? Why? How was it made? There were so many unanswered questions. The inmates at Ebensee were desperately ill and were worked mercilessly. I could not fathom how anyone there could have kept any belongings. They slept three to a wooden bunk in stark barracks. Eking out the barest existence, they lived from moment to moment. Many succumbed to death, having reached a point long past hope or caring.

Learning that Dad had seen a concentration camp made me shudder. I could hardly bear to look at the photos of the prisoners in the camps, and yet my father had been there—if only for one day—and had fled into the woods in tears. This was not part of the combat lore he’d shared with us.

I remembered that my father had often talked about how wasteful and destructive war was. And yet his military service was part of who he was. He sang rousing Army songs and kept his war souvenirs. As a child, I played with a Nazi flag, a German soldier’s helmet, Dad’s scuffed combat boots, and an unarmed bazooka shell. My brother John (nicknamed “Jay”) and I wanted to play with the German gun—the Luger—most of all, but it was off limits even though Dad had removed the pin. His Army uniform hung in his closet until his death. And like a true infantry soldier, when frustrated, Dad would groan, “Oh, my achin’ GI back.” (I can just hear him saying it when I told him I’d heard that Richard Nixon had selected Spiro Agnew to be his vice presidential running mate.)

When the question finally crystallized in my mind, I asked Dad, “How could a prisoner at Ebensee have made, or even kept possession of, anything at all?” He surprised me by saying that the box was not from a prisoner at the concentration camp in Ebensee, but from a prisoner in Braunau, Austria, the site of a German-run forced labor camp west of Ebensee. The town of Braunau was notorious as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler. Soldiers of the 80th Division, including Dad, liberated the camp near the end of the war before moving on toward Ebensee.

That explained the inscription, “Braunau 1944,” on the side of the box. I had seen those words at George’s but they hadn’t registered because I’d been so focused on Ebensee. In a way, I was disappointed that the box had not come from Ebensee. I liked a tidy story as much as anyone. But I would find that everything was more complicated than I’d thought—the camps, the war, and its consequences for my father and my family. I felt on the verge of discovery about a man I thought I knew. Now I was no longer sure how well I knew him, but I yearned to learn more.

I could tell by Dad’s reference to running into the woods in tears, by the tremor in his voice, and by his reluctance to talk about Ebensee that these were powerful memories. When he shut down the painful thoughts and images of his life as a soldier, had he also shut down other, more positive emotions? Sometimes I felt the war had stolen his exuberance and his innocence from him, and from us. Part of him had ­ remained on those bloody fields and in those haunted mountains.

I clearly imagined my father, tall in his crisp uniform, full of idealism and ready to do his duty for his country. The horrors of war lay ahead, and I knew the future he could not see. I saw him not so much as a father but as the way I would see a son. After all, he was only slightly older then than my own son is now. Through this lens, our lives were inverted—I’m wise and knowing, and he’s young and vulnerable. This straight-backed young man was trying so hard to do what was right and was so afraid of disappointing the people in his life. It enlightened me in the same way that giving birth and raising a child gave me an understanding of my mother that I couldn’t have gotten otherwise. I forgave my mother for many things in the early years of my own motherhood; now, after learning more about my father, my empathy for him deepened. I began to understand the roots of his emotional penny-pinching, and I began to forgive.

•  •  •

While researching this book, time and again I heard the same refrain from people my age: “My father never talked about it either. He never wanted to.” Soon it will be too late to ask the World War II veterans to call up their memories. Estimates of the number of World War II soldiers who die each day range from 1,000 to 1,500. Time is short. If we want to know about their experiences, we need to ask while we still can.

Asked to evaluate the effect of the war, Dad said:

I wouldn’t be surprised if a hundred years from now historians and other analysts will say that World War II, like World War I, was just a terrible cruel waste, a terrible infliction of suffering on millions and millions of people that never needed to happen...if people had been wiser, more unselfish, more tolerant, and had a broader view of what was needed.

It isn’t just the veterans who are hesitant to speak of war in personal terms. Some vets have told me, “My children have never asked me about the war. I’d tell them if they asked.” One eighty-one-year-old Army ­ veteran, pretending to make a joke of it, said, “I’m an object of ridicule in my family when I talk about the war.” Could the reluctance to open up the war experiences for real discussion be mutual? To venture down the path of a father’s past is not easily done, but in my case, it was healing; it can be for others as well. I wish I had become curious sooner. Dad might have disclosed more had there been time.

But I did succeed in finding out quite a bit. Just before he died, he showed me the remarkable journal he kept that describes his first three months of combat in 1944. I’ve read it many times, and it’s helped me understand why the war left him so unsettled for the remainder of his life. The excerpts I’ve included in this book make compelling reading for the story they tell of life at the battlefront. And eight months after he passed away, I attended the sixtieth anniversary commemoration of the liberation of the concentration camp at Ebensee by the Americans. There, I became friends with some of the liberating soldiers and survivors of the camp. Exactly one year after Dad’s death, I attended a reunion of the 80th Infantry Division and met some of the men who had fought with him. Through my research, I learned that combat veterans have a string of traits in common—anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, sensitivity to loud noises, inability to maintain close relationships, nightmares, and hypervigilance—some of which last only a short while, some a lifetime. In addition, many casualties of war fail to appear in the statistics—casualties that should be listed—such as the soldiers’ children. The children of America’s “Greatest Generation” have shared an inheritance of silence and hidden wounds for sixty years.

Of course, it doesn’t end with the offspring of World War II veterans. The children of Vietnam vets are now adults. Soldiers have come back from the Gulf War and return daily from Afghanistan and Iraq. These families, like mine, struggle to deal with the aftermath of the battlefield and the scars it has ­ inflicted.

Like most veterans of battle, my father talked about his bodily injuries but never his emotional ones—the terror of combat, the deeply felt loss of friends, the shock of the atrocities he witnessed. These invisible wounds went far deeper than the physical ones.

I asked Dad why the prisoner in Braunau had given him the box. He paused, looking off into the distance as if trying to recapture the moment, and said, “He wanted to show us how grateful he was to be free.” That one gesture, representing a captive’s yearning for freedom, symbolized what my father and his fellow soldiers were fighting for. It validated their sacrifices and perhaps mitigated his conflicting emotions about the war. Yet the same box that he treasured also held the painful memories that we, his family, knew haunted him by day and certainly by night. When he was finally able to share the memories and secrets of the box, his old wounds—and our family’s—could be cared for and healed.


Excerpted from The Box from Braunau by Jan Elvin. 2009, AMA. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York , NY . Used with permission. All right reserved. http://www.amacombooks.org  

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