Lucinda Franks discusses her powerfully moving memoir.
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GUEST: Lucinda Franks
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is a novelist and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
Indeed, over the years Lucinda Franks and I have talked here about both her fiction and her reportage … and today, even as the genre itself has become somewhat suspect, our conversation is about My Father’s Secret War, her powerfully moving memoir that, as Susan Cheever writes, is also “a mystery, a love story, and a vivid slice of World War II history … The real story of The Greatest Generation … [it] should be read by everyone who cares about history … the history of what really happened to the men who lived it “.
To be sure, it is historian Arthur Schlesinger who describes My Father’s Secret War as “a devoted daughter’s search to understand a father broken and drained by the Second World War … as a fascinating combination of sensitivity, suspense and mystery told against the Nazi nightmare”.
And Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel — himself a Holocaust survivor of a different sort — calls Lucinda Frank’s new Miramax Book “a moving suspense story, brilliantly written and suffused with sensitivity and yearning”.
My Father’s Secret War clearly strikes some mystic chord here … and today I would ask my guest to describe quite what she thinks it is.
FRANKS: The mystic chord?
FRANKS: Well I think my father’s generation was indisputably the greatest generation. But it did leave scars. The scars of war on the children of this generation. And, you know, it was a generation that was filled with men who were stoical, silent, emotionally inaccessible in many cases. And my father was such a mystery, such a paradox to me that when I was able to discover that he really wasn’t who he seemed to be, it was an opportunity to chip away at the façade that he had built up during the war years. And to try to find the real person beneath.
HEFFNER: What do you mean by “emotionally inaccessible?”
FRANKS: Well, my father was very kind, a sweet and kind man. But whenever we started to talk … I started to talk about emotional things, about personal things even … he would get a glazed look on his face and start to change the subject to something more global, like politics, you know … or whatever.
And, you know, I once wrote him a letter from England when I was over there at age 21 and it … I was very proud of this letter because it was very nihilistic, and existential and I asked him the purpose of life and what was his purpose, what was my purpose and, you know, how depressed I was about all these questions. And I waited and waited and waited and he never answered the letter.
And this … I, I should have foreseen this because there was something I couldn’t get beyond, you know and he had tremendous fear for the safety of his family. He would look under the car sometimes, you know, to make sure there wasn’t anything attached to the bottom.
He would keep guns hidden all around the house, including under my mattress. I found a Colt 45 one day when I was hiding a little prayer book I had written. And, you know, I didn’t dare broach it with him because he was inaccessible. And I slept on this gun, you know, all of my teenage life … fearing that it would go off and do me in.
HEFFNER: Is it your belief, now, that it was his experience in the war …
HEFFNER: … and the horrors of the war that did this to him?
FRANKS: Absolutely. Because in, in my research, in my discoveries of what he had done, really done in the war, I compared what … who he was before the war and then who he had become after the war. And there was such a radical difference that it, it told me that the horrific experiences that he, he both participated in and witnessed changed him forever.
HEFFNER: You know, I’m so fascinated by the book because we’re living in a time when once again denial … the Holocaust deniers are making themselves heard.
HEFFNER: And it seems to me that everywhere I look now there are increasing number of people who have forgotten or are denying what your father experienced.
FRANKS: Yes. Absolutely true. Absolutely right. And I had my bedroom right next to his little room which he retreated to after my parents had a falling out. And I could hear in the middle of the night these shouts, No, No. Stop. Stop. This can’t be. And I never … I was too scared to tell him about what I had heard or ask him about it, but I now realize in retrospect he was dreaming, reliving his witnessing of the first Holocaust camp uncovered by American soldiers. And his, his … he was one of the first ones there at this small camp called Ohrdruf and he witnessed, you know, all of what you witness at one of … what people witnessed at one of these camps with the piled up bodies like cordwood and, you know, the punishment sheds and the horrible parts of these camps. And he, he never, ever forgot it, but he never, ever would talk about it.
HEFFNER: Why? Too, too horrible?
FRANKS: Well, I think it was too horrible. All he wanted to do was forget it, but there was another reason … ahhh, which was after he came home, or after, after he had left the camp, he was told never to speak about it to anyone. And this was going to be something he was going to take to his grave and never reveal. And, indeed, for … I don’t know how many weeks, or months … but the American government and the Allied Command tried to keep it under wraps … what they had found in the different Holocaust camps.
For what political reasons, you know … I, I guess there ware many, but they didn’t want people to know about it. And even, even when they find out about it … the American people … they didn’t believe it. So there was a, a lot of … there was big gap before the Holocaust camps were, were taken seriously.
HEFFNER: You say Americans found it hard to believe, too. What I was particularly interested in was your description of what some of the Germans were saying: they didn’t know.
FRANKS: Yes. Yes.
HEFFNER: What was in your researches … how did that figure?
FRANKS: Well, I went back into the Archives that are kept in the Museum of American … the Holocaust Museum down in Battery Park City … the Museum of Jewish Heritage. And I found memos written by members of the Mayor’s staff in the little town that Ohrdruf … the camp … was in. And they said, “You know, Americans are here, overrunning our town, making noise, you know, having parades and we did nothing, and of course, we didn’t know anything about this”. The townspeople, when they were interviewed, all of them said, “You know, we, we knew there was something out there, but we thought it was a prison camp like any other prison camp. We never dreamed that there was anything like that happening.”
And then the American soldiers, when they went in to some of these villagers homes they found artifacts of, you know, Jewish menorah and some of the, the old antiques from Jewish families that had been taken from the Jews in these camps. Had been given to them by the guards. So that was a, a big lie.
HEFFNER: In your researches, partially, of course, largely your concern was your father and finding out more of who he was and what he had experienced?
Did you have any revelations as a, as a journalist? Were you shocked at what you found out about the war and how it was conducted and what the camps were like?
FRANKS: Indeed, I mean, you know, I’ve … as, as everybody certainly should have …I’ve read about the camps, I’ve seen documentaries about the camps, but nothing was more horrible than hearing my father, who I finally got to testify at the Museum of Jewish Heritage about his experiences there in, in, in what he saw, in how he felt about what he saw and I think one of the, one of the soldiers that I interviewed was in the high command, he was a … very close to Eisenhower and he went to Eisenhower and urged him to come and see Ohrdruf. Eisenhower said, “you know I know this is (his name was Weinstein) … I know this is very important to you, Lt. Weinstein, but it is, it is … I have other things that are of greater priority. And Weinstein went back to Ohrdruf and, and was so shocked, yet again, the second time he saw it, he went back to Eisenhower and pleaded with him to make time to go to and inspect the camp and Eisenhower said, “Now git … we’re, we’re trying to run the war here, you know.” We’d almost overrun Germany but not, not quite, there was a little more work to do. So, some of these little vignettes were, were very shocking to me.
HEFFNER: Of course, Eisenhower did go.
FRANKS: He did. A week later he went. And he was so stricken by what he saw, he apparently turned pale, pale, deathly white … Patton … our tough General went behind a shed and, and vomited. And Eisenhower made it a dictum that every American unit in the area come to visit the camp. And said some very strong words about the Germans and about what had been done.
HEFFNER: Lest we forget … yet, we are forgetting
HEFFNER: Is that a concern of yours … not as a novelist, not as a memoirist, but as a journalist?
FRANKS: Oh, absolutely. But I think that’s why Steven Spielberg’s foundation, the Museum of Jewish Heritage has been taking testimony from Holocaust survivors and not only from Holocaust survivors, but from people like my father who were Christians, who had no stake, you know, no ethnic or religious stake in saying something happened that didn’t happen. And this testimony is videotaped, it’s archived and it can be brought out at any time to, you know, to bolster the reality of what, what did happen.
HEFFNER: Lucinda, in, in your writing, My Father’s Secret War it’s so fascinating to me that as you research, as you come to understand what he had experienced and then tried to retrace his war career, you run up against documents that are not accessible to you.
HEFFNER: So long after the time …
HEFFNER: How do you explain that?
FRANKS: You know I think there is a, an innocent explanation and there is a more nefarious explanation. And the innocent explanation is that the filing system …
FRANKS: … back in 1944, 45, 46 was not what it is today. And there were no computers. And things are buried in, in files and in personal files all over the place. So that when I was trying to find out about the spy unit that my father was in, you know, I couldn’t find that out because the, the unit he was in … the Bureau of Ordinance, you know, had its files all scattered hither and yon … and I couldn’t track it down. Now, it could be buried in, in some file under recipes for chicken soup, you know. Things were just put willy-nilly in, in different places.
But I also think that even though the government has claimed that, for instance, the OSS, which was the predecessor of the CIA … OSS files have been declassified, when I went through the OSS files at the National Archives in Washington there were, you know, I would be reading a letter and the second page would be gone. Or there would be a big action report and you know half of it would be taken out. Sometimes there would be a piece of paper that said, “Excision made.” So these files have been sanitized and vetted. And it’s significant …
HEFFNER: To what end?
FRANKS: You know, I think partly the reason is that embarrassment that things were done by the intelligence services, you know, that were pretty unconventional and, you know, pretty improper according to what the standards were in the 1950s and the 1960s. I think part of it is, you know, we don’t want out secrets to be known so that we can’t use them again.
You know our, our ways of gathering information and our tricks of the trade that are being used, the OSS … their methods are being used today, you know, in Iraq and Afghanistan and, I think that there’s just a, a, a lot of secrecy that, that is in government.
HEFFNER: Now, Lucinda, as a good journalist and you are … I’m not going to let you use euphemisms … you’re talking about the things that bothered you so much, that you were afraid of as you looked into your father’s, your own father’s background. What we did … we murdered …
HEFFNER: … we killed and at one point in this wonderful book you’re either speaking out loud to your father, or you’re thinking it to yourself … what he did made a hero of him. Not a murderer …
HEFFNER: … but a hero of him.
HEFFNER: … and he should be receiving medals …
HEFFNER: … not be so guilt ridden …
HEFFNER: … but that’s what you’re talking about, the steps we did take.
FRANKS: MmmHmm. This is true. This is true. But the reason that I feel that my father and people like him that were never allowed to get medals, that were spies and, and undercover agents, were heroes is because they were forced to do what they did. They were told to do, they were ordered to do … to assassinate, to, you know, to manipulate … to crack a safe, to break in headquarters, whatever. They were ordered to do things that they would never ordinarily do. And this is what haunted them, this is what haunted my father, I think, for his, his whole life.
HEFFNER: You, you talking about reaching, searching out wherever you could others who had been with him.
HEFFNER: and you write so wonderfully well and feelingly of the despair when you got to a place just too late …
HEFFNER: … but the people you did find had very much the same experience of feelings …
HEFFNER: … didn’t they?
FRANKS: Absolutely. Absolutely. I, I … the only person that I could really track down that was my father’s … he was my father’s closest spy partner. And I was able … everybody else I couldn’t find or they had …they were deceased, I found a fellow named Jack Steele … or at least I thought I had found him. I got there about six months too late, he had died. But his children described him and he was, to a T, like my father. I mean he could have been a doppelganger for my father. You know he’d become an alcoholic. He had … he was obsessed with the Jews and the crimes that had been committed against the Jews … obsessed with the Holocaust. Refused to talk about the way. Everything … everything about him seemed to have been molded by the war, and when I discovered a cache of letters that my father had written to my mother during the war, I discovered a person that was so different from the person I knew who was a kind of a happy, open, you know, complaining when his feet were sore from, from walking on the hard ground and running on the hard ground, up hills, down hills … and very much in love with life and in love with my mother … and just a … so different from the stoical, you know, blank faced …
FRANKS: Unavailable man that, that I knew. So it had to have been what he was ordered to do and what he saw and how he emerged from this a, a different person.
HEFFNER: Well, as I read my friend Lucinda’s memoirs, or the memoir of your father. I wonder will journalist … the journalist in you lead you to look into what is happening to your father’s counterparts today? Young men and women, too, I would imagine …
HEFFNER: … who are experiencing some of the same brutalizing …
HEFFNER: … events. Does that …
HEFFNER: … can we expect … another volume?
FRANKS: I have … actually … an idea which is not quite that, but, but another idea … which I won’t discuss … but I think that, you know, you, you go back to the first war with Iraq and Agent Orange victims and, you know, the people that bear the scars of the modern wars and I would imagine they were, were … they became different people, also.
I don’t know if, if their experience was as cataclysmic as the experience of people in World War II. I think if you were a soldier in World War II you were, you were stationed for a long time, you know, in one place and, you know, there was the … the whole world was involved and, and there was no, no chance of saying, “I don’t believe in this.” Or becoming a Vietnam Vet against the war. You know, I think they’re … there are not many options for somebody … a soldier in Iraq or in Afghanistan, or, you know, previously in Vietnam. A choice of thought pattern, I think, is different.
HEFFNER: Let me go back in the few minutes we have remaining to this question of, of the denial of what it is that your father experienced. What he saw. What Eisenhower and Patton saw …
HEFFNER: … when they went to the death camp. Do you think we’re going to permit, as it seems is happening, this destruction of memory? This anti-history movement …
HEFFNER: … to deny what happened in the thirties and the forties? You have the sense we’re making any inroads on that denial?
FRANKS: You know, I think we are … in this country. I think that there’s a big problem in Europe, particularly France, but … ah, you know maybe I’m just dreaming of the urban world and the rest of America is, is in denial.
But you know, there are so many documentaries and re-examinations on the History Channel, on … you know, people like yourself asking these questions, bringing up the fact that this happened. You know I think there’s a great deal … what, what’s happening in the museums to record, to record the history of World War II and to keep writing about it and keep writing about the Holocaust. When I was going to school there was two lines in my history book about … in the chapter on, on World War II … about the Jews, that there were many Jews put in camps and they were mistreated. And that was it.
And anything that I read about the Holocaust was kept under the bed of my best friend who showed it to me and I cried for two weeks when I saw it. I think that was a time of denial. But I think in a way we’re moving … there’s a certain wave that is moving in the other direction, you know, into knowledge.
HEFFNER: Of course as we, as we talk today I think of a documentary I saw last night, just before we taped this, that relates so positively/negatively to the hatred against the Jews that we’re talking about now. So, what you see as attention being paid in a kind of Arthur Miller sense, I see as a struggle against the growing forgetfulness.
HEFFNER: You talk about France … you say “particularly in France” …
HEFFNER: Do you … have you seen this yourself … have experienced it?
FRANKS: I’ve just … I’ve read, you know, and we were in France this summer and we experienced a little bit of it. But maybe I’ve just been submerged in, in the Holocaust through what my father experienced. But, you know, I, I think that there are forces … you know there are positive forces against what you so eloquently say is, is the mass forgetfulness and I think that element of our society that is fighting against that probably will .. in the end, prevail.
HEFFNER: From your lips to God’s ear. Lucinda Franks, thank you so much for joining me on The Open Mind.
FRANKS: Thank you so much.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.