An examination of the seminal works of World War II, many of which opened eyes to truth by eyewitnesses.
Civilians suffered most during WWII, by the millions, as professional translator Carpenter notes in this somewhat scattershot comparative study, from the first occupied Baltic states under the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, to the Battle of Britain and the bombing of cities, through the horrific stories of POW and concentration camps across Europe and Asia. Indeed, the events of the war “went counter to all previous notions of strategy, self-interest and concepts of human behavior,” leaving victims in shock and disbelief and often unable to convince others what had actually happened. Carpenter moves through the war by picking works of poetry and prose, in a variety of languages, that best illustrate both the “magical thinking” of many writers early on—e.g., the English authors Anthony Powell and Elizabeth Bowen—and the absolute need to bear witness to brutality that nearly lacked the language to tell it—e.g., in Jankiel Wiernik’s A Year in Treblinka. The war’s themes of authoritarian deception and disguise provided the fodder for works by Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler and Varlam Shalamov (“Lend Lease”), to name a few, while other writers employed metaphors and tropes of flight, animals and angels as a way to express the horror. Underscoring all of these bracing accounts is the basic need to leave a trace of oneself behind as life became precarious and death loomed everywhere, as the anonymous author of The Far Side of the Moon described when the iron doors of a train were shut, dislodging tiny pieces of paper: “From the gratings fluttered down showers of white scraps, atoms of paper on which were written names and addresses, last messages begging not to be forgotten, broken sentences and prayers.”
Though erratically presented, this work of literary research should spur further study.