Janet Kelly’s email took me by surprise. Kelly is a middle school teacher who coached a three-student team through an impressive History Day project, using my book as the foundation. Of the 26 women featured in Women Heroes of WWII, Ms. Kelly's students decided to focus on Josephine Baker, Irene Gut, Nancy Wake, and Sophie Scholl. “They have cut out four women's silhouettes out of wood, and put them together like a jigsaw puzzle” Kelly told me. “The pieces stand up when they are put together, but fall down if they are apart. They wanted to demonstrate that these women, and all the others like them, had accomplished much as individuals, yet the real power is what they did together as a collective whole.” She went on to explain that the kids knew nothing about WWII before beginning the project. “One of them told me that WWII was fought so girls could wear Levis to school” Kelly said. The following questions they sent to me via their teacher proved that they’d learned something during the project:
“How important were the resistance groups to the war effort?”
“Why would the Nazis have treated Sophie so badly?”
“What do you think would have happened if the Nazis would have won the war?”
“Do you think we are on the right track with how the exhibit is put together?”
“Were there reforms in Europe that happened because of the Allies winning the war?”
“Do you think the artifacts are a good idea?”
I won't take up space here with my answers because because the point of this post is to exhibit the impressive amount of thinking that was stirred in these students. I’ve had many inspiring moments since I commenced the writing of Women Heroes but I’d say that my correspondence with Janet Kellly will always be very close to the top. Here are her final comments: “You have had a major impact on these kids. I think your book is beyond inspiring...what a legacy to leave future generations. I think the way it is written and illustrated make the information easily accessible and memorable. I plan to keep it in my library, and will eventually donate it to the school library. Thanks again for your willingness to help us.”
There was a spot for "artifacts": food representing Irene Gut . . .
A suitcase representing Sophie Scholl . . .
And tap shoes representing Josephine Baker.
I had to include this -- I've never been quoted in a school project before. :)
Marlene Dietrich behind enemy lines.
Courtesy of Marlene, Inc., from the Marlene Dietrich Collection, Berlin.
Marlene was frequently in serious personal danger. Gunfire and the sound of exploding bombs often provided the backdrop to her songs. More than once, her shows had to be stopped either because the soldiers received orders to "move out" or enemy fire had come too close to the stage. But Marlene didn't care; she was a tireles and determined entertainer. She would often urge her fellow USO entertainers to drive as close as possible to the front lines of battle, do a short show for the servicemen there -- just a few songs and jokes -- and then drive back as quickly as possible.
The most dangerous event that Marlene experienced during the war occurred when she was traveling with a division of U.S. soldiers into the Ardennes Forest and entered a crucial battle of World War II: the Battle of the Bulge . . .
Magda Trocmé, the wife of the Protestant pastor André Trocmé, lived with her family in the small French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. She was cooking dinner one evening when she heard a knock at the door. Who could it be at that time of day? When she opened the door, she saw a woman covered with snow, shivering with fear and cold. The woman asked if she could come in. Magda guessed that the woman must be a Jew. She also knew that it was illegal to hide Jews.
Courtesy of Muriel P. Engelman, WWII U.S. Army Nurse, retired R.N.
Muriel, who eventually nursed men wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, has this to say about the different uniforms they were issued:
"When we first were commissioned, we wore navy blue dress uniforms and the navy cape but then sometime in '43, they changed to olive drab before we went overseas and the summer dress uniform was beige--but I was overseas for about 9 months before that arrived. In the winter months we wore the olive drab combat pants but come Easter Sunday we were allowed to wear the brown and white seersucker wrap around uniforms that looked like maternity dresses but the effect on the G.I.'s , both in England and in Belgium on those Easter Sundays was the same. The patients hooted and whistled and yelled, "They've got legs!" So, it was good for their morale and our egos."
"We did not wear our white army uniforms once we went overseas but wore drab fatigues or coveralls, that we called "zoot suits." Then just before we went to France we were issued our "combat pants" with liners that provided more warmth than the fatigues, and wore long underwear under the liners once winter set in for good in Belgium. And our helmet liners were the head gear we wore all the time, replacing the nurses' caps. During periods of bombings, then we wore the three pound steel helmets over the helmet liners, when we'd try to worm as much of ourselves as possible into those helemets."
Muriel Phillips during the Battle of the Bulge. Photo courtesy of Muriel P. Engeelman
When Muriel Phillips heard the news, on December 7, 1941, that the United States Navy had been bombed by the Empire of Japan, she was in her final year of nurse's training at Cambridge Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The following day, all the nurses on her floor gathered around the radio in the doctor's office to hear President Roosevelt give his "Date of Infamy" speech, which informed the American people that the United States had declared war on Japan.
There was no question in Muriel's mind what she would do: right after she finished her nuse's training, she would enlist in the armed services as an army nurse.
Irene's portrait is second from the left on the book's cover.
The hotel was right next to Radom's Jewish ghetto, and one day Irene witnessed a horrible sight. Jews in the ghetto -- including pregnant women and children -- were screaming, trying to run from SS officers who were chasing them down, trying to kill them. Then Irene saw one officer catch a mother holding an infant. With one movement of his hand, he pulled the baby away from its mother and threw it to the ground on its head.
Irene was horrified. She had been raised in a very sheltered, religious home and couldn't understand how God could allow such terrible things to occur. She wanted to turn her back on God, to leave her faith. But then she realized something; God gives everyone a free will, to choose either good or evil. The Nazis had obviously chosen evil. What would her choice be?
Irene already knew the punishment for helping Jews. She had seen and heard the warning many times, on posters and loudspeakers broadcasting in the street: "Whoever helps a Jew shall be punished by death." Irene made a decision. She told God that if she had an opportunity to help the Jews, she would, although it meant risking her own life . . .