Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Disputed End and a Happy Beginning

“I don’t remember when the war ended,” says my mother. She’s not acknowledging (like most of us) that she forget what she learned in high school history class. For her, the day the Nazis surrendered marks one of many heightened emotions from a traumatic and tortured early childhood. It’s what immediately followed that matters.

But even those who make a career out of documenting such events are at odds over the date.

Nearly seven decades later, historians still dispute precisely when World War II ended in Europe, a tender topic that remains tricky turf for The Associated Press, the breaking news military of journalism where I spent nearly a decade as an editor in the ‘90s and noughts.

Some claim the war ended at the armistice of Aug.14, 1945; others contend it ceased with the formal surrender of Japan on Sept. 2, 1945.

Brooklyn-born Edward Kennedy cut his teeth at newspapers for seven years before he was hired by the AP to work in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., and then assigned overseas. He was in Valencia and Madrid to cover the Spanish Civil War, then in Rome to report on Mussolini’s Italy. His storied career includes dispatches from France, Hungary, (what was then known as) Rumania, (the former) Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Algiers.

It wasn’t until May 7, 1945, that he became a historical figure himself when he witnessed the surrender of Nazi Germany in Reims, France. The announcement was embargoed by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, but Kennedy couldn’t get a response from the censors and decided himself to act as the newsman that he was and release the news.

Kennedy’s dedication to his job got him fired, even though he exonerated his reputation by proving that the U.S. military had permitted the Germans to release news of the surrender while maintaining the embargo on the media.

But it wasn’t until last year that the AP apologized to Kennedy, who had been dead for nearly half a century.

“It was a terrible day for the AP. It was handled in the worst possible way,” said AP president and CEO Tom Curley. Kennedy, he said, “did everything just right.”

Churchill and Truman had secretly agreed to keep mum until the following day, when the Soviet Union would accept the capitulation of German forces in Berlin. The Big Three wanted to stick it to Stalin and announce the end of the war together on May 8, or "Victory in Europe Day.”

The New York Times ran Kennedy’s byline on the May 8 front page, announcing that THE WAR IN EUROPE IS ENDED!

Thankfully there still were newspapers in the 20th century and Kennedy went on to work as managing editor of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) News-Press, and then as associate editor and publisher of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula Herald (now the Monterey County Herald) until his death in November 1963.

For my mother, the exact date bears little significance, but the action is life changing – or life beginning.

“After the war ended, we were free to go anywhere,” said my mother. “During the war there was nothing. We didn’t have anything.”

My mother’s story trails back to life before the farm and then she circles back to her journey and arrival at Lyssenko Displaced Persons Camp in Hanover or Hannover, Germany. Alexandra Tesluk Gibson, who was born at Lyssenko and is the author of memoir The Ashes of Innocence, has been back to the former camp. My mother, who hasn’t left the U.S, save for short trips to Canada, since 1950, immediately remembered exactly where she lived when I showed her the photos of the barracks that Alexandra had posted. My mother vividly recalled that she and her parents used the second door from the left of the giant building and that a close friend and her family used the first door, which connected from the inside to hers. There were four resident entrances, and the two to the right also connected inside, says my mother.

Even before seeing the photos of the building’s modern day exterior, my mother said: “these were very, very large barracks. In each room -- they were big -- we had four families and each one of us had like a corner. And by that time we were given foods. Certain foods. Rationed foods. And we were also given packages of clothes afterwards, they were sent from America and from England.”

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, my mother shared with me dozens of photos, mostly from Lyssenko.

The authentic laughter re-emerges when my mother recalls “I remember this one package that was sent, and it said it was for a child my age, and I wanted that one even though I think it was a little bit too small for me. (giggles) But it was a beautiful coat, so I wanted the biggest one in the package. (giggles) I still remember that coat. It had some kind of checkered pattern on it and it was red or maroon. But it was quite small on me. I guess I later traded it with someone, but I wore it a couple times.” (giggles)

The photos from Hanover reveal the first signs of living for my mother.

“We had a good time, you know, we were allowed to go to school and we were in a British zone and we were in a Ukrainian camp, but we were not allowed to speak Russian. We had to speak Ukrainian. And that's why now my Ukrainian, Russian and Byelorussian sort of sometimes blends together.”

“The life there was very good. I had friends, I went to school and I even went to a carnival, and went to movies.”


  1. It's a beautiful image, children still alive, still just wanting pretty coats. Things that war can't take away.

    Also a great reminder that "war" is continuum whose official terminology doesn't matter much to the people being brutalized by it.

    1. It is incredible how my mother lights up when she recalls that coat. How very important it was to a young girl who could only remember being dressed in prison garb. My babushka (her mother) was an excellent seamstress, and when they lived at the farm she could finally barter with Germans for thread and rags, but it wasn't until the dp camp that they had what were really clothes for children. Thanks so much, William, for reading and for your thoughtful comments. It means a great deal to have your support and encouragement.