Leila Levinson is the first place winner of the 2011 Sarton Memoir Award for her book Gated Grief: The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma (Cable Publishing, 2011). Levinson’s memoir describes the trauma experienced by World War II veterans who worked to liberate concentration camp survivors. It also reveals the author’s personal struggle to better understand her father. Most importantly, her work reveals how unspoken memories and unshared stories can imprison and haunt us. It speaks to the power of story to honor and heal the wounds of the past.
Congratulations, Leila, on receiving the first ever Story Circle Sarton Memoir Award. What did this honor mean to you?
The May Sarton Memoir Award has already made an invaluable difference to my sharing the astoundingly unknown stories of the liberators of the Nazi concentration camps. In the month since I received the award, sales of Gated Grief have markedly increased, and several people have said they learned of my book because of the award. The stories in my book are not only a critical piece of the history of WWII and the Holocaust, but they reveal a phenomenon of immense importance today: how, through trauma, the war comes home with the veterans. I am thrilled that Story Circle believes these stories to be important.
On a personal note, I am deeply honored to receive an award named for May Sarton, whose writing encouraged my dreams of becoming a writer. When I discovered Journal of a Solitude some thirty years ago, it revealed that: 1) I was not alone; 2) my experience was significant; 3) I could and should write about my experience; and 4) I could call myself a writer. This award reminds me that May Sarton has been accompanying me ever since.
You began your research by interviewing WWII concentration camp liberators after your father’s death, when you discovered some startling photos taken by him when his unit came upon a Nazi slave labor camp. How many veterans did you interview and how long did you spend on the process?
Over a period of two years, I interviewed ninety-seven veterans.
When interviewing these veterans, how did you establish the trust factor needed to get the most honest responses?
I first approached many of those veterans with a letter explaining that I was the daughter of a GI liberator as well as a professor of Holocaust literature, and that I wanted to understand what significance witnessing a concentration camp might have had for them. I think my status as the daughter of a fellow veteran and a teacher of the Holocaust gained me credibility and that a letter gave them time to consider my request. However, many veterans did not respond.
Once I entered the living rooms of those who agreed to meet with me, I presented myself in a low key, soft-spoken manner, focusing completely on them. I needed to leave outside the door any agenda of my own, as I felt it was imperative to manifest my genuine interest in them. I was there to witness their truths, their grief, their triumphs.
I think that those who did agree to meet with me intuited that I offered a way to break their silence. Changing a lifelong dynamic within their families seemed overwhelming to them. But I offered a way they could share their stories with their children, even if indirectly. So I became a bridge between the veterans and their children. In presenting these stories, my manuscript opened up new dynamics within many families. Daughters and sons now feel compassion and understanding rather than resentment and puzzlement.
What inspired your end-of-interview essential questions: “How did the experience affect you upon your return to civilian life? Did you discuss what happened with your children—with anyone?” Were these questions effective tools for revealing the “rest of the story”?
I credit my students for those questions, which evolved from the course I created and taught at St. Edward’s University on literature of the Holocaust. We read memoirs by survivors and by the children of survivors and learned how, due to the cruel way trauma works on the psyche, parents unwittingly transmit their trauma to their children. My subconscious led me to include oral histories of GI liberators in the curriculum. When my students read words such as: “The shock was complete and total,” or “The smell followed me all the way back to the New York harbor,” they asked, “Did the trauma of the liberators affect their children like the trauma of the survivors affected theirs?”
My students parted the curtain for me. This question had stared me in the face for the twelve years that had passed since I found my father’s photographs taken by him at Nordhausen Concentration Camp. But my own trauma had prevented me from seeing it. Trauma pulls a veil down before our eyes, making it difficult to recognize clues around us.
These questions proved critical in getting a veteran to talk about his or her silence—why they had chosen silence, how and why the memory of witnessing the camp terrified them—still, sixty years later! They fervently sought to protect their families from what they had witnessed, and silence appeared the only possible means.
You’ve noted that many of the veterans interviewed became extremely emotional as they shared their stories, often for the first time. How did you handle such a situation with an individual?
With all the empathy I could summon. Rather than my being there as some kind of voyeur, I wanted them to understand that I was there as an involved fellow human being and as a witness who wanted to receive their truths and contain their grief. I recently heard a Buddhist teacher say that grief needs witnesses. I realized how I have been a witness to the witnesses of the Holocaust. Grief, as the title of my book expresses, is the primary emotion that the liberators—and all veterans of war—most powerfully repress. It is the emotion society has the greatest difficulty acknowledging in them.
What does empathy look like? I held the veterans with my eyes, from which tears often flowed. I did not mask my emotions, because I needed to be authentic. I respected their hesitations and pauses; I relied on my intuition to guide me as to when to pull back and when to press forward. As I left each veteran, I held his hand, looked into his eyes, and thanked him. I hugged them all long and hard. And I wrote them the next week and the week after asking how they were doing. I told them I cared.
How did you decide which stories to share in your book? Did you uncover any stories you could not tell?
Different emotional consequences, different aspects of silence began to emerge like pieces of a puzzle, and I chose stories that expressed the pieces most clearly. Yes, I excluded some stories when the veterans asked me not to include them. Some called me a week or a month later asking me not to. Those were painful moments, when I saw the depth and width of a veteran’s guilt and shame for the reaction of his eighteen-year-old self upon walking into the unforeseen nightmare of the camps. A few were repulsed by the prisoners. A few killed the first Nazi they could find. These men still suffer.
How did you know when you were ready to begin writing?
There was no one moment of beginning. Gated Grief contains writing I did in my twenties and thirties, though I had no idea then what I was writing about.
I fiercely believe in free writing. The evening after every interview, I free-wrote. When I traveled through Germany, I free-wrote every day. All that became part of the manuscript. My greatest challenge was figuring out the book’s structure, how to arrange these myriad pieces. I completely rewrote the rough draft because only after I finished it did I see how intertwining my story into those of the veterans allowed me to express a core discovery: that my father’s trauma and my own were one and the same.
Did you find the writing of this book to be a personal healing process as you came to better understand what your father must have experienced during the war?
More than I could have anticipated. I learned that healing is circular. Helping others to tell their stories healed me, and in my own healing, I became more able to help others heal.
Tell us please how you went about finding a publisher for your book? I see it’s available in both paperback and hardback. Is it also available in e-book format?
I wasted two years with two different agents who acted as if they were representing me only to tell me after a year that they were not. When I decided to go with a small press, a friend introduced me to an author of WWII nonfiction who praised his publisher. Upon my contacting her, that publisher invited me to submit my manuscript and later decided to publish it.
Gated Grief is available in e-book format, though the format suffered when we removed half the photographs (Amazon would not allow us to lower the e-book price unless we reduced the number of photographs). I encourage people to wait a couple of months before buying the e-book, at which time we will have resolved the formatting issue.
What’s next for your writing?
Every time I give a talk about Gated Grief, someone in the audience asks, “What happened to your mother?”
Many friends are encouraging me to write a memoir about her—the mother I lost at age five to alcoholism and mental illness, whom my family and community all but erased. For most of the last year, well, actually, for most of my life, I haven’t been able to consider writing a book about her. But in the last few weeks, maybe since receiving this award, I am finding the desire and courage to learn what I can of her story. I want to honor the person she was before silence claimed her.
The daughter of a Nazi concentration camp liberator, Leila Levinson founded Veterans Children, a website where veterans and their children share their stories. She also teaches writing workshops for veterans and their families. While Gated Grief is her first book, her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Austin American Statesman, The Texas Observer, WWII Quarterly, CrossCurrents, and War, Literature, and Art. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two sons.