Remembering Pearl Harbor

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Every generation has specific dates that are indelibly etched into the memories of the people who lived them. For my generation of baby boomers, the day that President Kennedy was assassinated is one, followed by the days on which Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed.  Most of us can remember vividly where we were and what we were doing as events unfolded on those historic dates.

This past Sunday we marked another important date in our nation's history - Pearl Harbor Day. Sixty-seven years ago on a Sunday afternoon, people across the country huddled in stunned silence around their radios, listening to news of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The following day, declaring December 7th as a "date that will live in infamy," President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war, thus precipitating America's entry into World War II. 

As I have gotten older, and perhaps a little wiser, I've come to realize that although succeeding generations may know intellectually which days are resonant for their parents and grandparents' generations, they often don't have a "feeling sense" of what it was like. For me, as for many of us who did not live through this period, Pearl Harbor Day was usually a date to be noted only in passing.

But not this year.  

This year, the Jewish Women's Archive has been gathering women's stories of the World War II period - through oral histories and memoirs, letters and diary entries, photos and other documents. And it was the voices of these women that echoed in my mind as I went about my day. Here are three:

Just last week, we received a story by Edie Yokell, sent to us by her husband Stan, describing "three days that shook the world." The first was Pearl Harbor Day. A senior at Smith College at the time, Edie described listening to the radio with her roommate in their cozy dorm room. Away from home and in shock from the day's news, both young women immediately realized that their lives would change drastically. Her roommate, Adele, quickly changed her wedding plans and married over Christmas vacation. When her new husband was immediately drafted, Adele took a leave of absence from college to follow him across the country. When her turn came, Edie did the same, following her husband to all the bases where the Navy sent him in the US, and then living through the time he was overseas. It was a time, as Edie wrote, when people lived with their hearts in their mouths. Although both of their husbands did safely return at the end of the war, the war years indelibly marked their early experiences of marriage: "Adele and I were typical of the young women who married early, and then followed their husbands, usually in crowded trains. We all knew the time was short, and the prospect of being a young widow was always in our minds."

Another of our narrators, Claire Isaac of San Francisco, was just eight years old at the time. In an interview with Noeleen McManus, she described the palpable sense of fear that engulfed her. That morning, her mother picked her up from Sunday school and drove her home. "My father was sitting in his big favorite chair," she recalled, "and his face was white as a sheet. He looked terribly upset. His hands were shaking and he started to get up and he said: ‘The Japs have bombed Hawaii.'" That first night Claire remembers a ‘black-out', with everyone turning off lights and pulling down shades. Neighbors from an upstairs apartment - a mother and daughter - came to join the Isaacs, and the two little girls played cards under the dining room table, which was covered with a big blanket. Still, Claire could see out the big bay window from their third floor apartment to the neon signs of businesses in the city, with no staff to turn them off on a Sunday night. 

"We were really sure that they were going to come straight over from Hawaii. If they'd come 3,000 miles to Hawaii, why wouldn't they also come over to San Francisco?! It just seemed absolutely like it was going to happen."

Finally, you can hear a podcast of our interview with Shoshana Cardin, who recalled being in a Sunday school classroom at Baltimore Hebrew College when someone came in and said, "We're at war, we're at war." 

Do you or someone in your family have a story to share about Pearl Harbor Day, or some other experience during World War II? You can join us by sharing your own memories, or helping a family member or friend share theirs at Jewish American Women and WW II. Not only will you be helping to create an historic collection, but I suspect you'll be building your own bridge of empathy and understanding between the generations.

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