World War II ended 70 years ago. Over the past year, we have celebrated the 70th anniversary of many final milestones of World War II. We know it shaped our parents’ or grandparents’ generations. The challenges they faced and the hardships they endured made the survivors into what we now call, “The Greatest Generation”. And, of course, many of them did not survive the war.
How did their wartime experiences transform our families?
This week the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On January 27, 1945 the Soviet Army liberated the infamous Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in present day Poland. The families of Holocaust survivors are keenly aware of how the war shaped and decimated their families. But World War II also reshaped the destiny of countless other families around the world. Have you considered how World War II affected your family?
Living Relatives Memories
If you are lucky enough to have relatives who lived during the war, make time to talk to them about their wartime experiences. How did the war affect them and their family? Many of them saw the war through a child’s eyes. Their memories of the world and of their parents’ dilemmas and choices can help make sense of how and where your family emerged from the war.
Your Family’s World War II Story
Each of our families has its own World War II stories. World War II redrew the borders of Europe and Asia. It changed governments and the international balance of power. Some families both at home and abroad lost their homes, possessions, and livelihoods. Others emerged from the war with new confidence and experience that inspired them to rebuild, move to a new city or country, or become the first in their family to attend college. Some lost families, and others brought home war brides. Some rebuilt their homelands, and others emigrated to the western hemisphere or to Israel.
For most, the results of the war included a messy combination of grief, friendship, family, and confidence building.
Many were optimistic, planning to rebuild the post-war world. Across the world, WWII sparked civil rights changes. In colonial nations it began or strengthened independence movements that would transform nations over the next fifty years.
But some were less optimistic. Some wartime experiences crushed the spirit and drove families apart. Fears of another Hitler or another Axis Powers led us into the Cold War, the McCarthy era, and conflicts in Cuba, Korea, Vietnam and central America throughout the 20th century.
Some of our ancestors’ stories are inspiring. Some are tragic. And others are more subtle. You probably already know the big stories for your family. But take time to explore some of the more subtle experiences that shaped people’s attitudes, trust, and dreams.
These include the stories of how witnessing and participating in wartime events and activities change a person. Consider how a family chooses in a moment whether to stay together, send children to safety, or flee. Consider what they kept and what they left behind. Ask who they trusted, and who they feared. Try to understand how they dealt with their wartime experiences. These stories can hold the keys to understanding post war family relationships and even personal habits or quirks.
Consider the stories of men and women who volunteered, or were drafted or detained. Learn the stories of where and how those men and women trained, fought, and were captured, killed, or finally survived. Your family’s stories include stories about family, their community, their friends, and their enemies.
Learn the stories of how families on the “home front” coped with absent fathers and wartime shortages. Mothers went to work in factories and dock facilities. Children practiced bomb drills in school and collected metal for the war effort. Most people grew victory gardens and to supplement the food limited by ration coupons. Grandparents served as blackout and air raid wardens. Everyone did without.
Ask Questions – And Listen Closely to Answers
As our wartime survivors age. They may finally be willing to tell some of the stories that they didn’t tell us before. They didn’t share them before, because they were too messy or painful, because we were too young, or they thought we couldn’t understand. And some of them discount their own experience, comparing it to the grave suffering of others and finding it not worthy of being told.
If you think your wartime survivors are ready to tell some of those stories. Then take this opportunity to listen. Let them know that you want to hear their stories. Let them know that you are listening. Now.
For Additional Information . . .
For help documenting WWII service, immigration, or wartime events in the US, Canada, England, Europe, or the Pacific, contact me using the form below.
Text Copyright: © Anna Hopkins-Arnold 2016 – CC-BY-SA-4.0 – share alike with attribution
Photo Credit: Public Domain photo by