This is Sarah Greenleaf, Alyssa Parker Geisman, and Alison Tonsmire, interviewing Mrs. Barbara Pontecorvo in H9 at Wayland High School. The date is May 15th 2002.
Q: What was your approximate age in 1941?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: In '41, I turned 8 in January of '41.
Q: And you were in elementary school?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: And I was in elementary school.
Q: What is your place of birth and where were you living during the war?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: I was born and lived most all my life in the Boston area. During the war, I lived mostly in New Jersey, because my father was called into the army. It turns out by mistake, and that's another interesting story. But he did stay in and when he was sent overseas, we had followed him to New Jersey to be near him while he was in this country at different army camps, and then we stayed in New Jersey, because once the war started, you couldn't find an apartment anywhere in the Boston area or in big cities. Housing was at a premium, so we just stayed.
Q: To what extent were you aware of the happenings in Japan, Italy and Germany during the 1930's?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: I was born in '33, and one of my earliest memories is on Sept. 1st 1939, when the Sunday paper came to the outside of our house in Belmont, as it always did. My father went out to get it, and I remember his dashing into the house, running up the stairs to the second floor where the bedrooms were and screaming to my mother, "Hitler has invaded Poland!". And this was a very vivid time for me. All of a sudden, I was put into the adult world, suddenly I knew, you know, I was told what the whole thing meant. We're a Jewish family, and my father is an immigrant who came here as a 5 year old, and my mother's parents were immigrants, and they had a classic immigrant experience in this country- where they came in not knowing the language and not having any money, or education, and growing into citizens and jobs, and a life here, and so forth. But they both had relatives in Europe, and my father particularly, in Russia, and that was one of the reasons, the main reasons he had left--his family had left--was because of the pogroms against Jewish families in Russia. So when Hitler invaded Poland, he knew that was the end of his family there in Europe. He knew what that meant.
Q: How were you informed of these? Was newspaper your only means?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well, that was the beginning, and then after that, we listened to the radio.
Q: Any television?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well it didn't exist, or at least not for ordinary people.
Q: At that time, were there any battles that you heard about that stuck in your mind?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Not in the 30's because the war was going on in Europe at that time. Hitler was invading one country after the other. And Mussolini was joining up with him and in France Petain was joining up with him, and so forth. Then, United States was not involved in a battle until Pearl Harbor which was, as you probably know this, December 7th 1941.
Q: What was your reaction to the war in Europe like the "Blitz" and the war in Poland?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well, I was just as horrified. I took on my parents' attitude. I was simply horrified. War was something so terrible in their minds, and in my mind. Just something so overwhelmingly terrible
Q: Do you recall FDR's fireside chats?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Yes. Because we all listened to them on the radio. And then, later, I had a long playing record called You can hear it now, and there were some famous recordings of famous speeches or things that came over the radio. And so I've heard some of them again, and then you hear them periodically in one way or another on the TV. You know, they're retrospectives.
Q: And what was the impact of those chats?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: My family, like an awful lot of Jewish families, as well as other people, absolutely adored Franklin Roosevelt. He was a savior. He was a great man in their mind because he had come in with the new deal, and he had really begun to pull this country together, and give them some hope to get out of the Depression, although it was really WWII that got us out of the Depression, but in fact, he gave hope that this was going to be happening , and it had started to happen. And because he was in favor of legislation that really helped ordinary people, in contrast to the governments that had gone on before.
Q: I know that this is jumping ahead a bit, but having that image and respect for the president, what did you think when he issued the executive order relocating all the Japanese-Americans... (9066)?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: You know, that, of course we read newspapers too. I was a little young to get my information from the newspapers and really make it a daily thing, although we listened to the radio, and the news on the radio, and we watched all the news in the movies, because they had newsreels before every movie, So that I knew about it. My family did not mention it, or I do not remember there being-somehow it did not come into their consciousness, or, certainly, it wasn't a moral question that they commented on, and so I was more or less unaware of it. And I didn't think about that situation in depth until I was much older.
Q: And the also you said that your father was from Europe, so did he stay on top of the news over in Europe, like what the Prime Minister was doing?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Absolutely. My sister and I were the children in the family. We couldn't talk during the news broadcasts, which we sometimes resented, "Oh the news again..." But yet, we knew it was extraordinarily important to us. And once my father went overseas, it was more important because we knew he was in certain parts there.
Q: How long was he overseas for?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well, he was assigned to a hospital ship called the USS Milne. And this ship made 3 trips to Europe and three trips to the Pacific and what they would do is go to a port, pick up wounded soldiers bring them back. And on the way back, because he was a dentist, he was part of the medical team that helped right away tackle whatever needed to be done to help the soldiers in their medical needs. So on the way over, it was kind of a vacation. He worked on the crew and the staff if had dental needs. But on the way back, if was very frantic, it was very, very busy in the dental clinic. Hospital ships were loaded very lightly. It was a convention that hospital ships were not to be bombed, and they traveled fully lit [to distinguish them from war ships]. You know, actually, hospital ships were bombed occasionally, so we were very anxious about my father being where he was during the war.
Q: What are your remembrances of the attack on Pearl Harbor?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: You know, it's funny. I should have more remembrance of that. Because I was almost 9 years old, and because it was so important to us, but I can't tell you where I was sitting or what I was doing, and so forth at that time. However, once it happened and so forth, we knew that- I became aware that this was going to change our lives profoundly.
Q: Did you feel directly threatened?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Not directly. Ever. But I have always felt, because I came from an immigrant family, that this could've been me. And this is my larger community - the larger Jewish community out there facing destruction, and so I have always felt very, very involved in the whole war and the whole progress of the war. Of a matter of fact, in our street, where we moved right after the war, in Brookline, was a street of 3-family apartments. And across the street and down a bit, there was a family in the first floor apartment with a gold star in the window. And I knew, because I had been told, that that was because the older brother of a little girl who had lived there had been killed in the war. I could not walk past that house and watch that gold star. I mean, I didn't even know her brother, but the idea that this older brother got killed in the war was so shattering to me.
Q: Did you have any siblings in the war?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: No. No. I only had a younger sister. (Oh. OK)
Q: We were watching a video in class, and there was this man who didn't have any brothers in school. He was so jealous of the boys who did have brothers because they'd come back with war trinkets and everything, so did you feel any of that [jealousy] or feel that way?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Oh no, I always knew how bad war was, and so it was never an attractive thing.
Q: What were your feelings about the American involvement in the war after Pearl Harbor?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: I was a complete patriot. Thoroughly red white and blue. As I said, I took on my family's - all their feelings about the war completely. I just took them over. I was young enough to do that, and we felt that Hitler had to be stopped. This was something we had to do. I was enormously proud. I watched the newsreels, and they were like what we saw in the Vietnam war, only not on nightly television. You would see newsreels of, in black and white of course, of the invasion of Normandy and the soldiers falling dead right there on the beach and so forth. I was just enormously proud of the effort that was made by the allies to get Hitler.
Q: And you thought that the Americans entered the war at the right time, after Pearl Harbor?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well, I didn't have a sense of that.
Q: How can you remember the general mood of the country during wartime?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well you know, it's funny. Because like today, the country is made up of so many regions and groups that it's a temptation to think that everybody in the country felt one way. First of all, I didn't know about, too much about the mood in the country during those days except what I heard about on the radio, and we had rationing. We had butter rationing, gas rationing, meat rationing, clothing rationing, nylons were impossible to get and so forth. They weren't nylons. I'm sure in those days they were something awful or something. My sense was that the country was truly behind Roosevelt and the war effort because we were part of it. We were just caught up in it, and everybody. I was in Plainfield, New Jersey, and everybody did the war effort. We bought war bonds and we saved tin foil that came in cigarette packages. We peeled it off and we made big balls of tin foil. And my mother knit sweaters for soldiers, and I remember the khaki colored sweaters she knit and sent off and so forth. But, in the things I read later, I realized that although basically the country was behind the war effort as a whole, in fact, that it wasn't completely uniform. There were even strikes in factories and so forth, during the war for some of the requirements that were being made on them. And there were people who really, the war passed them by. I was astonished to know that. Much later, when I was an adult, I read a story named the Bookmaker's Daughter by Shirley Abbott, and it's an autobiographical work by a very good writer. And she was about my age, she was a little girl somewhere in like Oklahoma, or Texas in a very rural place. The war didn't affect her. She didn't go home every night and have the whole family around the radio at 6:00 wondering what battle was won or lost today. And she knew, I guess there were a few people in her little town that went off as soldiers, because they were drafted, but it wasn't a thing for them. And they didn't have the feeling for Hitler, and certainly they didn't have any Jews in the whole town, so they didn't have that connection. Also, when one of my kids went off to college, he was watching a TV retrospective of WWII concentration camps at college, in a dorm, with a half of a dozen other kids. And this is a pretty well known ivy league type college where kids should have some kind of background in history and so forth. He was astonished to realize that half of those couple of dozen kids that were gathered there had never heard of the Holocaust (Oh really?). To us, it was our history, and so I had realized that not everyone had had my involvement, and not everybody had my experience.
Q: Did you ever have a victory garden?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Oh yes, yes! We had never had anything but a few little flowers in the house we had rented in Belmont, all our houses, and when we got to Plainfield, New Jersey, and my father was at Camp Kilmer, which is, I think now being dismantled, we lived in a mansion that had been converted into ten three-room apartments. Again, housing was at a premium, and so no new housing, there was no fix-up housing, there was no
nothing. Everything went for the war effort. So this was a war-time measure. And we had three rooms in this very beautiful mansion and it had grounds to it, which, of course, there must have been gardeners galore employed by the people who owned that mansion. And so everyone had a victory garden. And I remember that was the first time I ever had any experience growing anything and certainly that was the first time my mother had had any experience. She was more responsible because my father was away on the hospital ship so we went out and did our victory garden.
Q: How were your basic needs for food and clothing and shelter affected by the war? You said there were rations with butter...
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well, of course the housing. We moved and lived in a small three-roomed apartment that was unfamiliar to us. All our relatives were back in Boston, and here we were in New Jersey. And food, I didn't notice any difference. Yes, the food was rationed and there was something called oleo margarine, now shortened to margarine but in those days shortened to oleo, and the butter lobby made such a fuss about having another yellow spread that, maybe you've heard this, that the oleo people weren't allowed to have their product colored yellow. So you got your margarine in a stick or something, or I don't know what. There wasn't a lot of plastic things in those days, so I don't know what it came in - probably a waxed cardboard. And you got a little capsule that you broke that had yellow color in it and you mixed it in to make it look like you had yellow spread. I mean really, we ate three meals a day. Maybe my mother had to alter her way of doing things, but I didn't notice anything.
Q: Did you hear of any other families or were you aware of anyone being harshly affected by the food rationing?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: No, I wasn't. It didn't enter my consciousness. I knew that we couldn't get in our car and drive. There was definitely gas rationing and nobody had new tires for the whole length of the war and so forth.
Q: Did your social life change in any notable way at this time?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well of course, we had more things that revolved around the army camp when my father was there. And then during the summer we went to Atlantic City, which was actually a joyous thing to happen to two little girls. We had relatives in Atlantic City, which is not the glitzy thing it is today. It had a boardwalk and a couple of piers but the gambling wasn't there. And we had relatives who lived in a very unfashionable place in Atlantic City and had a little Mom and Pop Store. My mother rented a room that had kitchen privileges in another unfashionable part of Atlantic City and we went to the beach every day. So the kitchen privileges were breakfast and we'd make sandwiches and have lunch at the beach. For dinner, which was like our social life in a way, we'd go to the Officer's Club because we were entitled to use it. My own social life were my school friends, that didn't change. Once I made friends in New Jersey I had friends. But, my mother's social life changed because she was away from all her family, it was my father's family in Boston, all the relatives and she made new friends where we lived, and as I'm looking at my father's diaries, I see that there were visits to Atlantic City by some old friends. I recognize some of the names there. So people kept up as best they could, but it wasn't easy, probably more trips by train for one thing.
Q: Did you feel that your family background, being Jewish, affected anything? Were you segregated in any way?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well, I wasn't aware of it but my parents were. For example in Belmont, I don't know why they did this, they did move to a very un-Jewish section of Belmont, and we were the only Jewish family for miles around. And apparently, I don't remember this, but they told me later that kids weren't allowed to bring me home from school. But I do remember in Belmont playing with one friend who was a couple years older than I was, who was from a Jewish family who lived nearby. So, in that sense, I probably was a little segregated without realizing it. After that I can't think of anything that affected that. To piggyback on that, I think my father's career in the army, in terms of promotion was affected by him being a Jewish officer.
Q: In history class we saw a movie, and I remember seeing tons of scenes where the new thing was going to movies as a part of the whole nationalism and patriotism feel, just going to these films and seeing war movies. Do you remember going to any of these?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: No, we weren't allowed to see a lot of movies. We saw the new, early Disney movies. They were extraordinary, you know, Dumbo and such. But we didn't really see war movies. I was kept from that.
Q: And newspapers, were there pictures in the papers?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Yes there probably were. We read PM, which was a short lived, but very well known, liberal newspaper and I don't think there's a comparable newspaper today exactly like it.
Q: Did you feel that the news in the newspaper was information or more propaganda?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well, I didn't read the newspaper when I 9, 10, 11, and 12. But I did go to see the newsreels because I did go to the movies and before every movie there was a newsreel, and so I did see the war. Probably, there was a great deal of propaganda in the sense that everything had to be patriotic and here is your glorious this and your glorious that. When I was a girl scout in New Jersey and one of the things we did was to go into a movie, it was a very scary movie, that my mother would never had let me see. I remember closing my eyes and not even looking at it, and then in the middle of the movie when they changed reels or something, we had to go down the aisles, the theater was lit up, and we went down the aisles with cans that people dropped in money for whatever we were collecting for, probably the March of Dimes. Polio was big. You saw kids who couldn't walk and you knew there were kids in iron lungs and this was very big. There were lots and lots of kids with Polio.
My father was in the Reserves. He had volunteered or been called up as a very young person in World War One. He was in the Army in WWI, just before it ended and he got out and stayed in the Reserves. He was called up, and so he made plans to go. He had been an officer and he was a dentist, so he was a professional person, and in order to go he had to close up his office, which was not easy. We helped and put his instruments in Vaseline and the person he rented the office from, which was right on the corner of Tremont and Boyleston street, a, in those days, very fashionable place to live at that time. Because of the war effort this man gave him half of his rent fee instead of the total fee, you know it was all patriotism in many respects. But to close up his office and let his patients know he was leaving and refer to other people. He bought his own uniforms. He had them made actually, his shoulders sloped in a certain way and he bought his own dress uniforms and day uniforms. And to report to duty, that was a traumatic thing. That was a huge trauma and a very big trauma for all of us, "Daddy's going to the army" and so forth. Then, when he was in at least two or three months, he got a notice saying he had been called in by mistake, he was over age. And he was given the opportunity to leave along with others who had had the same experience. This is when he was first called up. His diary says, "My mind was in a state of confusion. It was like being shipwrecked. Not knowing where you are or what to do first. There was so much to do and so little time in which to do it." And even before that, in February 1942, "While the call to act of duty was expected, it was still a shock when it came, much like taking a plunge into the ocean. Mae, (his wife), was visibly affected but didn't say much. I had no sooner finished hearing the Western Union Message," you know everything was done in telegram those days, "when poor Barbara, that's me, threw her arms about me and held on for dear life. She cried pathetically that I must not leave her and that there were plenty of others that could be called to duty without needing me. Sandy, the younger one, tried to measure up to the situation by saying, 'I'm going to be brave Daddy and I'll write you at Camp'." Later, after my father had left, I was enormously proud of his being in the army, just enormously proud. In his diary he talks about certain campaigns and says "Oh, the war is going so badly here", or "we have hopes that we may be winning." You know, it was definitely an up and down thing. But his being called by mistake, and basically enlisting, was quite something. He said, in March, he's been in a month, "I haven't said much about my mental attitude since Ive been in the army. Yesterday was a day of mental torture and the night was restless and tearful. No one knows the heartaches and agony of a soldier goes through when he is faced with the reality of being sent overseas to a foreign land with or without an opportunity of seeing his loved ones again, and without knowing if, and when he night see them again. And if the soldier suffers, how much more agony does his family go through at the alter of patriotism?". It was not easy.
Q: Did you know anyone else who went off to war, other than your father?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: No, not that I can recall.
Q: And how was the goodbye like? Was it as accurate as your father described it?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: It was awful. Well, I think I remember protesting with tears and whatever when he was called up to go to the army. When he actually left we were already in New Jersey because he was at Camp Kilmer and we had an apartment in Plainfield and the three rooms in the mansion. We sent him off on a train, and he was going to go somewhere where he would then embark on the ship and then leave, probably New York, but I'm not sure. I don't remember. I remember being at that train, the steam that came out of the wheels of the train, and absolutely sobbing my heart out that my daddy was leaving for the war. Oh yeah, I remember that very well.
Q: And he came back safely?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well he did.
Q: Did he ever send you any letters?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Oh yes, we did a lot of letters. As a matter of fact, I have letters that I wrote to him that my mother must have saved. I found them in her basement after she died. I didn't look them up for this interview but they were very chatty, you know, "I got a new skirt; it's red and green."
Q: Do you know if any of them were censored? The letters?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: I don't remember; I'm not sure that I have some of his. I don't remember if there were any blackouts, but I do remember they were all sent on v-mail- this light blue paper that folded in three. It was very, very thin paper. I would suspect they were no black outs, simply because he was very aware of what he couldn't write.
Q: I've heard from my mother that some nurses had to write letters or were assigned to write letters to the fighters in the front lines, have you heard about this?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: No, I don't know anything about that.
Q: What was your attitude toward the Germans on a personal level.
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Oh I hated the Germans. They were the enemy, and they were all, all bad.
Q: Was it the same with the Japanese?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Oh yes. I really didn't have any differentiation in understanding of some of the other facets of war and fighting until I got older. In those days it was very one-sided.
Q: Did you feel the Italians or Germans should have been locked up like the Japanese in this country?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: I wasn't really involved in thinking about that. First of all, in the West Coast people knew more about that. Here in the East Coast, this wasn't a big item, probably on purpose it was kept relatively quiet. I wasn't really reading newspapers and my family didn't take a position it themselves, and we were more focused on the war in Europe and the battles in the Pacific Ocean itself.
Q: Were you aware that Japanese were in interment camps at all?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: I can't say that I was.
Q: I'm just going back to your hatred toward Germans. Were you aware of Schindler and how he helped?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: No, I wasn't aware of very many people who did help. We knew that Mrs. Roosevelt had intervened with a ship of Jewish children that was going to be turned around and sent back to their death. She had allowed it and made a stand to allow that ship could land. Otherwise it was outside the quota; the quota was already filled. So,Bye, bye; turn around and go back. That was a big thing. It endeared us to the Roosevelt family even more. We knew about that.
Q: After the war did you hear about Schindler?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: I didn't know about Schindler after the war. I knew after the war there had been people who had helped people in trouble - mostly Jews, but as you are probably aware, besides the 6 million Jews there were 5 million others who were killed, and the others were just as badly off as the Jews. They were in concentration camps and they were killed. Little by little we heard; it wasn't so obvious right from the end of the war you know. The soldiers who liberated the concentration camps, and the journalists who were there, this was absolutely shocking and it took awhile for the whole thing to filter. Also filtering gradually were the people who had helped.
Q: Were any of your father's family members harmed?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: He only had letter contact and he never heard from them again. They were not his immediate family. His immediate family had come over in the early 1900's, but they were aunts and uncles and so forth.
Q: Did Americans whom you know ever note the irony of racial segregation at home and in the armed forces while fighting intolerance abroad?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: No, I was too young to be cognizant of that too, but that is something that
certainly came up later in my understanding when I got to be older.
Q: Why don't you think people saw this at the time?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: You know, I don't know, really, because I was a child. But in reading and thinking and talking and so forth, for many people racial segregation was taken as a matter of course, it was a given. It wasn't anything that disturbed the minds of at least the Caucasians who were born. In the case of black people and the West Coast people who were Asian, it wasn't given much thought. It was kind of like 'that's the way it's done...'
Q: How did you react to the news of FDR's death?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: I reacted very strongly. I'd been living in Wayland for 45 years and two years ago I moved, and I threw out at the time what I had complied on FDR's death. It was this whole scrap book-newspaper clippings I'd cut and life magazine clippings and I pasted them all in. This was like a day of tragedy, like loosing a personal member of the family for me. This was something that definitely affected me, truly affected me; just the way Kennedy's death may have affected young people. As I was going through this [fathers journal] very briefly, I did notice on April fourteenth 1945 my father's diary said, "80 years ago today, Lincoln was assassinated, and today President Roosevelt's funeral was being held in the East Room of the White House. Then his body will be taken to his ancestral home for burial in High Park." He doesn't make a comment on it. He does later say, "The entire country was in mourning and special services were held in churches and synagogues throughout the land." He just talks about where the ship is in relation to Bermuda. So the fact that he noted it in his diary was very important.
Q: So then, Truman took over the presidency. How did you feel, or the country feel about that?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Truman wasn't considered much of a heavyweight and part of it was that he was a relatively modest man and part was that Roosevelt had really not clued him in at all. He didn't keep him informed about what was going on at all, which was appalling. I mean Roosevelt was full of warts, and at least I didn't know about that until I got older and read some biographical material. Truman was partly unknown and partly considered, "Hmmm, well, certainly not Roosevelt." He turned out as the expression goes "smelling like a rose." He turned out to be solid, substantial, thoroughly versed in history, which makes a big difference in how you can get foreign policy. All in all, a very satisfactory leader in many, many respects.
Q: What was your reaction to Truman's issue to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well I'm trying to think of how old I must have been then. Well, I must have been 12. I think, probably, and I don't really remember, we were so grateful for the end of the war that we thought the end justified the means. Later, again I had much more complex thinking about that. But at that time, a 12 year old in my family, I mean I know we regretted the human damage but I think the end of the war was unbelievable. it was a long war for us, and even longer for the people in Europe. A lot of lives had been lost and a lot of young people had died. It was just over.
Q: At the time, you knew dropping the A-bomb would just end it?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Yeah it did. It was just one day...and then the next day...
Q: Did you participate in any welcoming home ceremonies after the war ended?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: No not that I know of. Except when my father came home. We were great for making signs and stuff like that. But no, there might have been demonstrations and things but I'm not sure there were, not as much as there were in the 60's and 70's and later.
Q: With all the deaths from the war were there any memorials nights? I know that with the 9/11 attack, there were candle ceremonies.
Mrs. Pontecorvo: No it wasn't like that.
Q: Were there street parades and was it like, "Wow the war is over"?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: I think there were probably were services in churches and synagogues all over the country. I have no doubt, I mean I don't know that for a fact by remembering it, but I have no doubt that people just flocked, basically to give thanks.
Q: What were your reactions to the end of the war? Were you just glad it was over?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Yeah, I was overjoyed.
Q: How did you view the veterans upon their return home?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: As heroes. I know they weren't uniformly treated that way but,in fact, I looked upon them as heroes.
Q: Did you anticipate any future wars?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: No that was it. Hitler was vanquished. That was it. I truly had no clue that the history of the world was going to go on and have more wars. Of course, this was my first war and I didn't know much about history. I didn't know that for thousands of years there had been wars and in fact in my life time there would be many more.
Q: Was your life again changed by the end of the war?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well there was lot more prosperity. People got new cars and all the houses were built. Suburbia happened. A lot more roads were built.
Q: At the end of WWII what did you think the lessons of the war were?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: My perception of that war revolved around Hitler, and his invading one country after the other, and the Holocaust, and airplane bombings, and the damage that happened when airplanes left their bombs. There was a movie called "Mrs. Miniver." I don't know if your ever seen it, but it took place in England during the war, of course they got very badly bombed. In this movie which we did see, the message was war is terrible. Someone in the family whom we grew to love in the movie did get killed. All the bombing, I thought in terms of people. I didn't quite think in terms of buildings and cities as much, although later we saw pictures of cities like Cologne was completely destroyed, a very large city in Germany. Later I new lots about other damage and what happens when food isn't grown- a lot of the collateral fallout for war. For me at that age and in my family it was: the evil Hitler has been vanquished and life will be good again.
Q: Do you have any advice for the youth of today from the lessons learned in WWII?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: I think that a sense of history is a very crucial thing to have. Many of the people who are making decisions for us right now in the government don't have it. They are not well read and they don't know what's gone on in history. It's really crucial to know not only about war, but also about people's culture and about the causes of war and how we see them today. In order to try to live our lives so that some of the things we do can relate to the causes of war, like misunderstanding and want of more power, and want of more territory. To try and eliminate war, which in my mind is like heaven to certainly work toward, decreasing the way people behave so brutality toward each other in order to further the development of this world so people can grow up in a productive, fruitful, and safe way.
Q: With the attacks on the world trade center, how do these feelings compare about the violence of during the war? What was your initial response to this with all that you've been through before?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well of course, my initial response was not my later response. Like so many of us, we were just so shook and so horrified and so surprised. It was complete shock. It was a wake-up call to me to think a lot harder about what divides people and why hatred exists and work harder at the things we can do to mitigate the existence of hatred and misunderstanding among people. For example, I made appointments with the people in the Islamic Center of Boston, which is, as you know, located in Wayland, and I have worked on programs with them and the Wayland diversity network. This was a new collaboration that probably wouldn't have happened without that. It should have; we should be working together.
Q: And the patriotism of the war, can you compare that to the patriotism of the 9/11 attack?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: You know, that's a very hard question. In WWII, there was a much clearer
enemy. Hitler was a very clear enemy and so was Japan, which had clearly attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. 9/11 was, and will always remain, a very complex event that has so many ramifications that need understanding. It's too convenient to say that a group of terrorists are the evil ones and they got on planes and attacked us. This isn't really the substance of what happened. As we're seeing now, trying to do a combination of diplomacy and warfare and intelligence in regions we have not paid much attention to before,it's very complex.
Q: My teacher was telling us about this other WWII veteran. He came in and
told Mr. Delaney that in WWII when Pearl Harbor was attacked the whole drafting department was over flooded with men who wanted to be drafted. Today although 9/11 happened a lot of people went to the draft offices but the actual draft number of men didn't increase. I wouldn't want to say it was fake patriotism, but...
Mrs. Pontecorvo: The word patriotism is tremendously complicated because in a country that is a democracy, a patriot can criticize his or her country, government or people in power. Patriotism isn't a clear cut - my country is right or wrong- concept. Another thing about WWII and now is that in WWII I was a child and I really took over my parents' thinking. Although I must admit that even today I feel that Hitler had to be stopped. I hate to say that WWII needed to happen but I just can't imagine what would have happened if Hitler had overrun Europe and if the Japanese had overrun China and then India and all of Asia and so forth. 9/11 is a part of a very much larger fabric. Did you know there are at least 40 or 50 wars on going in the world right now?
Q: Then there are these wars on terrorism, but what is terrorism? And the war on drugs, well there are drugs and that's such a broad word to use.
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well for me, it really has to come down to individual efforts, local efforts
and collaborative efforts. It's doing one's part to see that you can change something in this world for the better. I do hope that there are leaders who
have more stamina and charisma then I do and could mobilize more people. The
planet itself needs to be saved and that means the people in the planet and the ecology of the planet and that's what we really need to focus on and see where can we make that contribution.
Q: Could we just go back to the attack on Pearl Harbor for a moment? I've come up with a simile. You know how in Germany it was a war on two fronts? They had
Russia on one, and France on the other. With Pearl Harbor, suddenly the US was forced into a position where they had a war on the Japanese and a war on Europe.
Mrs. Pontecorvo: I was very aware of that. It was a tremendous new effort. Yes I was aware of how difficult that was. I came from a family who didn't subscribe to national geographic and our schools weren't exactly geography literate. Communication wasn't what it is today. My idea of the world was very limited. I must say, the place names that came up during WWII were all new to me. I never heard of Tobruk, Anzio, and Guadalcanal and Bataan, much less be aware of where India was. It expanded my world enormously. That was beginning, for me, of realizing that we're part of a world. Right before WWII Wendell Wilkie ran for presidency against Roosevelt and lost. One of his platforms were that we are living in one world. He actually wrote a book called "One World." That was a real eye-opener to me. That and the war made me realize that we have an obligation to a very large sphere.
Q: So before the war you focused more on you and your town?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: It was my own little family, and my own little house, and my own little dinner.
Q: Were you aware of the conflicts before the war started?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Not until that day in September 1939 when my father told me that Hitler had attacked Poland when I realized that something terrible was happening somewhere else.
Q: Did you feel engulfed or surrounded to have a war on two fronts?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: No I felt very safe. We had blackouts, being on the Atlantic Coast, in NJ and especially Atlantic City, but also Boston, at night we pulled the shades down so not light was showing. I never felt un-safe. I never felt that the war threatened me personally.
Q: Could you describe your school life during the war? Were there any blackouts or sessions for class discussions about what was happening?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: No not that I remember. I was in third grade when the war started and when I came back after the war ended in 1945 I was in seventh grade. I was in the Brookline schools which were regarded as being very good schools but it wasn't fashionable in those days to connect your school life with so called real life. Now that you ask me that I am absolutely astonished the war was not discussed in schools. (yeah that seems very surprising)
Q: Were you mad at the schools?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: We did what were told! We marched in lines, we sat down, this was even public school, we were quiet and we listed to our teachers. We also handed in our homework, most of which was not terribly inspiring.
Q: And there weren't any times when your teacher may have just stepped in and announced something just like Pearl harbor was just attacked?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Yes, there was one time. I had a Latin class in Brookline High School, and so this must've been 1st or second year Latin, so I entered High school in '46, so this is like '47 or '48. The teacher was a man named Mr. Woodman, who had been in the Battle of the Bulge. I thought he was very old, but he couldn't have been. And he taught Latin because there was nobody to teach Latin. All the men had disappeared, and there was one woman Latin teacher. He had had some Latin in college, so they had said to him, 'Brookline High school, You just teach Latin', and he could teach to us. He was one assignment ahead of us every night. In that rather large class, there was a Holocaust victim that came to this country, and was given a home in the home of the rabbi who was the rabbi of Temple Israel, which is a big temple in Brookline. She was a little older in years, but she also was infinitely older in what she gone through. So we were reading about Caesar, and Caesar is about wars. At one point, some wag made some funny comment about something that had to do with the wars we were reading about. Something that really wasn't funny, but he thought it was, and Mr. Woodman got very, very serious, and he said that War is not funny, and this girl knows that I'm talking about, and we all were very sobered. And that was the only reference to war that I can think of, which is appalling. Its just appalling. That's the way it was.
Q: The girl that came from the concentration camp or any veterans, were the children interested in hearing their stories?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Not at that time, there was no conduit for doing it. No official setup for it. She was not anyone I knew at all well. I think people who went to Temple Israel might have known her better. I didn't know her at all, really. I had one class with her, and then I never saw her. Now that really wasn't popular. First of all, I think the impact of the trauma was so great, it took decades for people to start telling their stories. It was just too fresh.
Q: During the war, did people grasp how many people were affected by the bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Holocaust or any of the multiple battles?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Only gradually. Only gradually.
Q: Is there anything else you want to tell us about?
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Well, no. I guess I've made my views on the war. You know, I think of myself as a pacifist, and yet here I am saying that WWII was necessary, and I find that very hard to say in two sentences, one right after the other. I will never reconcile it. But I truly believe, more than ever, that war is absolutely not the solution to people's problems, and from what I see in history, war is promoted by leaders, but there is a great following for it. Somebody who helped develop the atomic bomb, and I don't remember which of these people it was, said when the atomic bomb was developed that the scourge of this world was not going to be from the atomic bomb. It is going to be nationalism, and fanaticism. And how right he was. It was 1945, this is now over 50 years later, and we see that that is absolutely true. (Because an A-bomb is just an object that someone who was not a fanatic came up with). Well, that people who have atomic bombs in the world, are not going around dropping them. That is not killing the world off. What is doing us is nationalism and fanaticism. (yea) Look at Ireland. Look at the Middle East. Look at Indonesia. Just look at anywhere. Look at Ethiopia. Look at anywhere where there are wars. And those are the overwhelming factors that are operating. I think you're wonderful to do this oral history, and I hope you grow up to share your views and your thoughts with younger people when youre older, because I really believe in the continuity of this. Not knowing what went before is a terrible ignorance. So, it's important to know something about what went before.
Q: Well thank you very much.
Mrs. Pontecorvo: Thank you. This has been fun, among other things.
Mrs. Pontecorvo in her parents' arms
Dr. Nesson's diary page
Dr. Nesson's diary
Mrs. Pontecorvo's family
Dr. Nesson's diaries