How does one combine memoir, ethnography, self-discovery, and history, while contributing to two important bodies of literature—Holocaust and psychotherapy—in an eminently readable book? Do what Leila Levinson has done in Gated Grief: The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma (Cable Publishing, 2011). The breadth of her project is evident even in the awards it has won—one for women’s memoir and the other for military writing. But its reach is greater than that. Anyone interested in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trans-generational trauma, especially as it affects veterans and their families, should find this book valuable. I gave my copy to my cousin whose father, like Levinson’s, was among the troops that liberated Hitler’s death camps.
Levinson begins her story with the discovery, after her father’s death, of photographs he took at the liberation of Nordhausen—an experience he never told his children about. The photos of stacked corpses, latrine-type graves, and walking-dead prisoners were kept in a cardboard box in a trunk in the office of the formidable father’s medical practice, guarded by a Nazi helmet he had taken as a souvenir. One photo is blurred by the photographer’s hands, shaking from the shock of the horror before him.
The discovery of photos leads Levinson on a journey to find the father behind the camera—how he and their family were all affected by his traumatic witnessing. She interviews a dozen elderly subjects, living in different parts of the U.S., who were also camp liberators, asking how they responded, what they did with those memories, and what they told their spouses and children. Many had remained silent throughout the years, yet had spoken up to renounce Holocaust deniers. Many cried in recollecting what they had seen. Many repeated the same thoughts and themes about feeling overwhelmed, burdened, and angry. Levinson gathers up and repeats these themes, for the benefit of the reader and herself, as she awaits a revelation.
Revelation comes to Levinson, which I will not disclose here. Her story is graciously focused on her subjects and their travails more than on herself. Still the message is clear: trauma will be passed from one generation to the next unless we explore our hurts honestly with the intention to bridge the chasms that human suffering creates. This book is Levinson’s personal exploration of those hurts; it offers a fine example of how to reconcile with and understand parents who have failed us. It also offers a fine example of writing memoir and ethnography.
Indeed, there is “me-search” in Levinson’s research, but her skills as a writer keep the personal and the universal in proper balance. A teacher of English and Holocaust Literature at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Levinson has studied good writing and learned her lessons well. She knows how to bring a scene to life with rich detail, both visual and emotional. She knows just how much information to reveal and when, so that her discovery of trauma’s legacy becomes the reader’s. This is a memoir with plot and pace. I can’t help but marvel at her craft, evident even in the title—Gated Grief—which captures both the iconic images of concentration camp gates and the notion of pent-up grief, summarized poetically with alliteration.
Gated Grief is Leila Levinson’s only book. She is the founder of www.veteranschildren.com, a website that invites veterans and children to share their stories. I thank Ms. Levinson for sharing her story so selflessly and effectively. I also thank her interviewees for digging down deep to places where, understandably, no one would want to go.