An African-American nurse experiences racism in two nations driven apart by war.
Elinor Powell earned a nursing degree in 1943 and joined the U.S. Army the following year, determined to do her part for the war effort. She was sent to Arizona to complete her basic training and then posted to a German prisoner-of-war camp in the desert south of Phoenix. There, Elinor met Frederick Albert, an English-speaking German with a learned interest in the jazz music that had been banned by the Hitler regime. Frederick, writes freelance journalist Clark, was a man of many parts, an artist and intellectual who opposed Hitler but joined the army all the same. He claimed to have been a combat soldier captured in Italy, but the paperwork Clark turns up suggests that he was instead a medical corpsman taken prisoner in North Africa. “The most reasonable explanation was that in an attempt to impress his children, Frederick told them that he was an elite paratrooper,” writes the author. Whatever the case, those children resulted from the ardent romance Elinor and Frederick struck up in that Arizona camp and continued after the war, moving a step ahead of Jim Crow laws and finally, after marrying in New York, returning for a time to Germany, where their young children experienced a racism of a different kind and degree from that they would have to endure back home. “Focusing on prejudice could have destroyed their relationship,” writes Clark, “since it seemed that the world was against them.” Yet their relationship prevailed even when it developed that Frederick had a different notion of faithfulness from Elinor’s, and they did what they could to shield their children—one of whom grew up to be a professional jazz trumpeter—from the worst of the bigotry they encountered in two lands.
A footnote in the vast literature of civil rights, but a resonant one.