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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Karyn Saemann Reviews Military Memoir

Title: Mollie's War
Authors: Mollie Weinstein Schaffer and Cyndee Schaffer
Publisher: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers
Genre:  Nonfiction, WWII, memoir, women's issues
ISBN: 978-0-7864-4791-6
Reviewed by  Karyn Saemann for Midwest Book Review
Synposis of book:
Why did an average American woman become a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) during World War II and place herself in peril?
Authors Cyndee Schaffer and Mollie Weinstein Schaffer, answer this question and more in the book, Mollie’s War, a story weaved around the collection of letters that Mollie wrote home to her family during WWII along with historical commentary concurrent with the letters. Published by McFarland Publishers in August 2010, Mollie’s War documents the human side of life during the war – a life that alternates between fear and romance, exhaustion and leisure.
It took many letters home, sharing everything from daily challenges to exciting experiences (when the censors allowed) for her story, Mollie’s War, to emerge. What was it like to be in England while the country was under constant bombardment by unmanned German missiles? Imagine being among the first WACs to enter Normandy after the D-Day invasion. Consider using your foreign language skills from high school, as Mollie did in Normandy, and when she was transferred to Paris serving as informal interpreter in both work and social situations. Envision a young Jewish woman in Frankfurt, Germany, on Rosh Hashanah, 1945, and walking with other soldiers and officers to the rededication of the only standing synagogue.
The collection and story vividly depict Mollie’s experiences from her first train trip to Daytona Beach, Florida, for basic training in October, 1943, to the dramatic image of her seeing the illuminated figure of the Statue of Liberty in the midst of darkness as her ship approached the U.S. shores when she returned in November, 1945. This book may be the first collection of letters published by a Jewish American WAC.


Excellent editing, including a painstaking inclusion of explanatory text, elevates a collection of old letters into a warmly human, accessible account of a young Jewish woman's service in World War II Europe. From 1943 to 1945, while in the Women's Army Corps (WAC), Mollie Weinstein Schaffer saw England, France and Germany. Ultimately, her sister saved 350 pieces of correspondence penned by Schaffer, friends and family. About 200 make it into "Mollie's War," as do some brief diary entries. In her editing, Schaffer's daughter Cyndee judiciously excluded portions of longer letters, a wise decision that keeps things from bogging down, contributing to a wonderful novel-like flow. And she injects beaucoup explanatory notes, with just about every letter set up by a few lines. They flesh out details such as where Schaffer is geographically when she can't divulge that, significant battles and other events that have just or are about to occur, happenings and attitudes at home and weighty topics such as the role of female soldiers, whose participation wasn't always supported. And they reflect on the generally upbeat tone of the letters not being due to a lack of difficulties, but rather to the fact that Schaffer couldn't talk about her work with the Army's Medical Intelligence Division (whose duties ultimately included analyzing records left behind by Nazis of horrific experiments done on prisoners) and didn't want to worry her parents with news of hardship. Social activities were often all that was left to recount. Many of the letters are breezy accounts of dates, which female soldiers were asked out on constantly as they were far outnumbered by men. Others talk about living accommodations, food, sightseeing and nightlife in Paris. Sometimes they get intensely personal, particularly those detailing the simultaneous relationships Schaffer had with two men, both of whom she considered marrying. There are religious references, as Schaffer revels in gifts of her mother's Jewish pastries and marks holidays. And there is the reality of war, including stretches without heat or hot water, uncertainty over where the Army was sending her next and moments such as when she and her roommate woke to bombs overhead. "You can bet your boots we both felt to see if we were wearing our dog tags," she writes. Throughout, Schaffer's wit endears. "You should have seen me get ready to go out on my date last night," she writes to her sister from a muddy tent encampment in northern France two months after the June 1944 Normandy invasion. "You would have really laughed. " After a cold shower she fixes her hair with a mirror wedged in a tree limb, dons combat gear and then puts on "a few dashes of cologne to make me feel like I wasn't a soldier." Later from Paris, writing on letterhead left behind by the Nazis, she quips "Can you imagine - ME - with the "handle" that I've got (that is, her Jewish name) using Hitler's stationary?" Ultimately, that she found friends, love and time for laughter in the depths of war is a testament to Schaffer's personal strength. And her story is a historically vital representation of the role played by the 20,000 WACs sent overseas in World War II.

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