There have been so many books published about WWII, you would think there’s nothing more to be said about that global conflict. Kathryn Atwood, music teacher at the Steckman Studio in Oak Park and a Forest Park resident, has found an engrossing new angle— 26 women heroes of the conflict.
In WWII, just as is happening today in Iraq and Afghanistan, women played a large but often ignored role in the war. They were nurses, support staff, spies, Resistance fighters, partisans, and rescuers. Some of them were famous, such as Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker. Most of them were ordinary women who decided that they would not be part of the Nazi takeover of Europe.
Women Heroes of World War II was released by Chicago Review Press in March 2011 as a young adult book on the war. I like to think I am well informed about women’s roles in contemporary life, but I had no idea of the scope of activities that women were part of in that conflict. These were dangerous times. If caught, these women faced torture and death. Nevertheless, they tried to do what they thought was right and risked (and often lost) their lives in the process.
These are women of all social strata and ages, such as the German Countess Maria von Maltzan, the middle aged Corrie ten Boom and the teen-ager, Irene Gut. They are from Germany, France, the U.S. and the Netherlands. In reading their about their exploits I was astonished at their bravery and selflessness. They are wonderful role models for women of today.
I had an opportunity to speak over the phone to Atwood and asked her how she came to write this particular book. She said that she and her husband have always been interested in history. They perform as History Singers and present information about historical eras through a lecture format and the music of that time. One of the programs listed on their website is about women composers.
Atwood said that both she and her husband’s fathers fought in the war, which made the whole project that much more personal. She had written an article for an historical magazine about Marlene Dietrich’s activities during the war, but it had not been published. However, Chicago Review Press was interested in a series of profiles and thus the book was born.
Each woman has her own personal challenges, yet there are some similarities among them. There are the young mothers, Magda Trocme, in France and Johtje Vos in the Netherlands, who hide Jews but worry about the well-being of their small children. There is the American nurse, Muriel Phillips, who is also a Jew but who goes to Europe anyway, knowing that she will die if the Germans capture her. And there are the very young girls, Stefania Podgorska, who manages to hide thirteen people in Poland for most of the war, and Ebba Lund who steals fishing boats to take Jews from Denmark to Sweden to avoid transport to the camps. These women were creative and cunning.
The Holocaust is so profoundly disturbing as an historical event that it can make students despairing of the potential for individual actions to effect change. The might of the Third Reich must have made these women wonder whether their sacrifices would mean anything. But they made those sacrifices anyway.
What I liked about these profiles was that it was clear that each woman had made a conscious decision to follow what she believed was the righteous path and in doing so, changed the course of history for good. These stories provide an antidote to the horror of the Final Solution and demonstrate to us all that it is the courage of individuals that defeats evil.
I enjoyed reading each portrait, but as a teacher, I also appreciated the sidebar material that makes the era more accessible for the reader. Atwood includes additional material about each woman for further information and research. There is a glossary of terms that will be useful to anyone not familiar with WWII.
Women Heroes of World War II is available at The Book Table. Kathryn Atwood can be reached at www.historysingers.com.
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