Posts Tagged ‘Second World War’

The Mirror That Is Memoir — a guest post by Dace Mara Zacs-Koury

Woman Looking at Reflection


My father’s death and burial in 1994 in Latvia, and my subsequent discovery of a dark family secret dating back to the Second World War compelled me to write. I knew little of his or Latvia’s past, and so I set about talking to relatives, revisiting overseas, learning Latvian, and digging into historical research, finally turning up Father’s war records. Little did I know when I began that I was embarking on a twenty-year writing journey.

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Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Survival: Daughter and Father Collaborate on Story of His Time as WWII Air Gunner and Prisoner of War


Survival is the story of Albert Wallace’s dramatic experiences during World War II as an air gunner with the RCAF and a prisoner of war in Hitler’s Germany. This work of creative nonfiction was lovingly conceived, researched, and written in the style of a journal by Barbara Trendos, one of Albert’s daughters, in his voice, with his collaboration.

The seeds of inspiration were first sown in Barbara in the 1980s when her father casually shared the contents of an old file folder he had discovered among his mother’s belongings after she passed away. To Barbara, it was a treasure trove: fragile letters that Albert had written home while he was a prisoner of war; official Air Force telegrams and correspondence that variously reported Albert as MISSING, then as a POW, and finally LIBERATED; dog-eared black and white snapshots that begged identification of people, time, and place.

Barbara was hooked, and realizing that she knew only the highlights of Albert’s wartime story, she naively undertook to fill in the gaps — to what end even she didn’t know.

Her extensive research into World War II, 419 squadron and the RCAF, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, Stalag Luft III, prisoners of war, and the Great Escape took on a life of its own.

Barbara says she has always been a writer, even when she was something else. She remembers opening a short story in elementary school with the following sentence: “As he rounded the corner, it was his nose I saw first.” She has no idea what the story was about, who it was about, where it went from there, or why she has never forgotten that line. Perhaps, she says, memory is nature’s way of tethering us to something that matters, as we follow one of life’s many roads.

During one period of her life when Barbara was “something else,” she noticed a sign in a local gardening store about Allyson Latta’s 2010 “Garden of Memories” memoir workshop. Attending the workshop kick-started her writing of Survival, which had been simmering on a back burner for years while she worked in corporate communications. Further spurred on by Allyson’s 2011 Sabino Springs Writers’ Retreat in Tucson, Arizona, Barbara shifted her writing into a higher gear, and Survival finally crossed the finish line in November 2015.

Publishing this book has been an adventure for Barbara and her father. They have signing sessions sitting together at her dining room table — as long as she feeds him lunch, or coffee and cookies, she says. Albert sells books wherever he goes, particularly at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, where he volunteers in the veterans’ wing. They’ve promoted the book at small events, including one this week at The Canadian Forces College in Toronto. And Barbara says that in the spring, now that it looks like the weather can be counted on, they will plan an official launch.

BARBARA TRENDOS is retired and lives with her husband in Markham, Canada.

There’s more about her writing journey in these earlier essays on this website:

Writing in My Father’s Voice: Honouring His Wartime Experience, Part 1 and Part 2.

Survival can be purchased through Barbara’s website at or Amazon.


Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

Facebook for Writers: Connections, community, and meaningful coincidence, guest post by Elinor Florence


Social media is a term that can conjure up images of faceless spam artists, and creepy Big Brother spying on one’s personal life. And it’s confusing too: it seems the virtual world abounds with options, from Twitter to YouTube to Instagram, and others that rise up and disappear again without a ripple.

For writers of memoir, fiction, and nonfiction, however, social media can be a powerful force. I maintain my own website, and I write a weekly blog. I’ve made useful connections on LinkedIn, and I love both Pinterest and Goodreads.

But my favourite research tool, one that has helped me countless ways in my writing career, is Facebook.

First of all, I wouldn’t be here today, writing on Allyson Latta’s blog, if it weren’t for Facebook.

I belong to a Facebook group called the RCAF Association, composed of people who post memories and photographs of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Someone in that group shared a link to a lovely post by Allison Howard called “Vanishing Letters of War: What We Stand to Lose” (one of Allyson’s blog’s best-read posts to date).

That link led me here, where I had the pleasure of learning about Allyson — her editing, writing, and teaching — and delving into the wealth of information on this excellent website. (I particularly enjoy her contributions to the photography series Wordless Wednesday.)

I know not everyone uses Facebook, and many who avoid it do so because of concerns about the following:

1. Privacy

You can get around this, however. You can create a Facebook profile by giving yourself a fake name. Then set your privacy settings on maximum, and avoid posting personal photos. That way you have access to everything on Facebook while revealing very little about yourself.

You do need a valid email address, but once again, you can set one up through Hotmail or another free service and use it for nothing else.

(If you need help with this, ask a younger person. My 30-year-old daughter, who writes her own homemaking blog called Miss Tweedle, is my personal “techie” and she is very patient with me.)

2. Time-wastage

My friends post some interesting items on Facebook, but also some pointless fluff, and yes, I do find myself chuckling at jokes and admiring pretty photographs of sunsets when I should be working.

Recently I discovered this solution: I downloaded an app called Anti-Social, which allows me to block any website I don’t want to see, for a period of up to eight hours.

Every morning after I have finished drinking my coffee and answering messages, I tell it to block Facebook for the next eight hours. So far it’s working well. You could, of course, use willpower — something I apparently don’t have.


At its best, though, Facebook helps me — as it can help you — with writing and research.

stereoscopeMy soon-to-be-published novel, Bird’s Eye View, is about a young Canadian who joins the British air force in the Second World War and becomes an interpreter of aerial photographs, spying on the enemy from the sky using a three-dimensional instrument called a stereoscope (see photo at top of post).

Because my focus is the Second World War, and specifically women, I have joined about a dozen Facebook groups ranging from the RCAF group to another more general group called Friends of the Forties, to another called Canadian War Brides, to another called Women of World War Two.

Not only do these groups attract members who are interested in the wartime era, but also they include experts: librarians, historians, and authors. These people point me to books I haven’t read, and websites I haven’t seen, and even other specialized Facebook groups.

Facebook allows you to connect, for free, with hundreds, even thousands, of people who have the same interests. In fact, one billion people are now on Facebook: one-sixth of the world’s population. So through it there is an untapped source of knowledge out there that can be accessed pretty easily. You can ask questions too, either by posting on the group site or by sending another group member a message.

When proofreading my novel, for example, I needed to find out in a hurry whether in conversation the No. 6 Bomber Group in Yorkshire would have been called “Group Six.” I messaged one of my Facebook group contacts, an air force historian, and the answer came back straightaway — “Don’t call it Group Six! Everyone calls it Six Group!” (This may seem a minor point, but thank goodness I checked, as I know from bitter experience that military buffs are my harshest critics).

When researching your family’s history, you can seek out Facebook groups devoted to particular towns, schools, or places of business. I belong to a group called You Know You Grew Up in North Battleford If You Remember . . . People are on there day and night, posting old photographs and reminiscences. I venture to say almost every community in Canada now has such a group.

Maxwell Cassidy

Maxwell Cassidy

A woman from Australia named Janet Mears posted on this group site, asking if anybody remembered her great-uncle Maxwell Cassidy who was killed in an air crash in 1944 while stationed at North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

I was able to contact Janet Mears and tell her that my mother, who is still living, was once Max’s girlfriend! We exchanged emails and photographs — including a picture of my mother that had been in Max’s possession.

This wonderful experience provided material for my blog post called “Memories of Maxwell Cassidy.” Janet was particularly touched to learn that I had immortalized Max in my wartime novel, and even given my character the same name.

Facebook is also a great way to promote your own writing, whether you are published or hoping to be published. After I completed writing my novel last fall, I still had many interesting stories that hadn’t made it into the book. So as a way of sharing them I created a weekly blog called Wartime Wednesdays.

Each Wednesday, I post a link on my Facebook groups, where I receive useful feedback as well as readership. Through a free program called Google Analytics I’m able to see where my Wartime Wednesdays readers are coming from. So far, a whopping 44 percent find my blog through Facebook.

Facebook even led to another small publishing success. When I wrote a blog post called “My Dad’s Best Christmas: 1945,” I posted the link on Facebook, and another writer emailed to ask if he could include it in an upcoming book that he is editing about air force servicemen.

My personal page is for family and friends, but because I want readers to find me, I also have a Facebook Author Page where I post items visible to the public. If you are already a Facebook member, you can “Like” my public page called Elinor Florence – Author to receive updates on my publishing journey. I post there once or twice a week.

You may be thinking: “But Facebook is mostly for young people.” No longer. We baby boomers are taking over. A recent Facebook Demographic Report shows that teenaged users declined by 25 percent over the past three years, while the number of users over 55 exploded, with 80 percent growth. (I suspect that’s why the teens are leaving.)

Finally, much of my moral support on this writing journey comes from Facebook. I live in Invermere, British Columbia. It’s a small mountain resort town without writing groups or courses (although the beauty and the peace make for an ideal writing environment in other ways).

Recently I posted on my Facebook Author Page that I had completed the final proofread of my novel, and that I was terrified about having missed some egregious error. (Remember all those military historians, just waiting to hold my feet to the fire.)

I received heartwarming messages from many people congratulating me on passing this important milestone and sharing their own related experiences.

And that was awfully reassuring.

♦     ♦     ♦

Elinor Florence

Elinor Florence

ELINOR FLORENCE grew up on a Saskatchewan grain farm, a former Second World War training airfield. Her journalism career took her from Carleton University in Ottawa, to writing for her hometown newspaper in North Battleford, then the Western Producer in Saskatoon, the Red Deer Advocate, the Winnipeg Sun and the Vancouver Province.

Weary of city life, Elinor and her husband moved their young family to the mountain resort of Invermere, British Columbia. For the next eight years, she worked from home as a regular contributor to Reader’s Digest where she specialized in the “heart” stories. But she returned to her newspaper roots when she purchased her own weekly paper, the Columbia Valley Pioneer, and turned it into an award-winning community staple. Four years ago, she sold her newspaper to fulfill her long-held dream of writing fiction. Married with three grown daughters, Elinor loves village life, historical research, old houses, and flea markets. Her first historical novel Bird’s Eye View will be published by Dundurn Press in October 2014. It is available for pre-order from

Read more about Elinor and check out her blog, Wartime Wednesdays, by visiting her website: Elinor Florence.

Or send her a message on Facebook!



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Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

Vanishing Letters of War: What We Stand to Lose, an essay by Allison Howard

So what of now, in this age of abbreviated e-mails and text messages? I pondered this question when I shared my father’s letters with my son . . .


Collage by Allison Howard



My father chose these words from the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son to signal to my mother that he was homebound from England after serving as a pilot during the Second World War. She was no doubt joyous to receive that brief message, having said goodbye to Dad almost a year earlier and after only three weeks of marriage. She’d waited out his absence with his rigid Presbyterian parents who, though kind people, would abide no social life or frivolity under their roof.

Dad served as a flight instructor in Canada as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Program during his entire tour of duty, but was the victim of a military bureaucracy that, ironically, scheduled him to sail for England the day after peace was declared. The impossibility of reversing paperwork combined with the nervousness that prevailed over the definitiveness of war’s end meant that many ships continued crossing to Europe with troops aboard in the weeks after Armistice.

The “first over, first back” policy was undoubtedly fair but meant a delay for my father’s return. This was compounded by the fact that he was struck by appendicitis around the time he was scheduled to return, resulting in a long hospital stay in England.

So it was February 7th, 1946, almost ten months after the end of the war, when my father sent the telegram.

In the meantime, my mother had kept busy working in a science lab and comforting herself with Dad’s frequent, entertaining, and sometimes poignant letters, including this one written a few days into his rather luxurious crossing on the Queen Mary:

On board we have a number of civilian internees. (I don’t know why they’re aboard.) Last evening two of them produced musical instruments, a guitar and a mandolin and in a corner on deck, sheltered from the wind a little impromptu concert and singsong took place. The music played, tended toward sad, dreamy gypsy songs … It was rather picturesque there on deck with the wind blowing and everyone clustered around two nondescript characters playing sentimental gypsy songs. I sang too and thought of you and enjoyed the singing but wished I were with you. I miss you an awful lot wifey. I hope it won’t be long.

My father’s war experience was infinitely different from that of so many of the soldiers who’d gone abroad. For him the war was an adventure served with the cockiness and derring-do of one who never saw combat and was experiencing his first freedom from a religiously repressive household. But the only way we can know this is through his letters. In the absence of a journal, letters can serve as a kind of abbreviated memoir of the writer’s life — albeit focusing on just a slice of time. Often truncated, letters oblige the reader to search for meaning, context, and consequence. And in this search, family histories are constructed.

§     §     §

I came across Dad’s letter and a small clutch of others recently while helping my mother move to a retirement home. Mostly written to my father and saved in an old brown envelope, they gave me a rare and personal glimpse of life in the war years. Some from buddies overseas or stationed in Canada, some from family and friends updating him on home life, they describe training, postings, convalescence, domestic life, love interests, and more.

I was often struck by the eloquence of the letters. It is hard to imagine a young man today writing of his convalescence from war wounds as did this good friend of my father’s:

I am beginning at last to feel at ease in a conv. hosp. Our new div. is not as elaborate as Divadale(?), but is more homelike and pleasant. It is smaller and the spirit here is grand. I have never experienced such companionship amongst everyone, staff and patients. The home is lovely, the surroundings beautiful. There are many small rambling green hills with patches of wild flowers, daffodils, narcissi, violets, lilacs and many other flowers. Looking out on it I think we have found Utopia. I have never seen so many different types of birds. Some of the lads caught 4 red foxes, they are pretty little animals.

We know much about the battles, the strategies, the geography, and the politics of the world wars through the glut of meticulously researched books about them. But only through letters from those in the trenches, on the battlegrounds and in hospitals, in the liberated towns and elsewhere affected by the aftermath, do we know of the personal experiences: the suffering, crushed spirits, and anger; but also the determination, camaraderie, and hope.

§     §     §

So what of now, in this age of abbreviated e-mails and text messages? I pondered this question when I shared my father’s letters with my son — particularly meaningful as my son is a military pilot who has twice served in Afghanistan. He said, “You know, Mom, those letters were how we really knew about the wars and we’re not going to know about current and future wars in that personal way because no one writes real letters anymore.”

We discussed how brief e-mails sent home do not capture the essence of the grit and fear and triumph that letters once did. Yes, we are able to communicate more frequently and instantaneously, and occasional Skype calls are a luxury the families of bygone soldiers couldn’t even dream of. But so much of what we receive are only brief descriptions written in haste and with wariness of security concerns.

Probably because of the rare occurrence of actual letters, I do so treasure the description my son wrote to me shortly after his arrival on his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2005:

I’ve seen many sides of the local population. There is quite the desire to rebuild in many parts as you see new buildings going up and billboards for cell phones and the like; but, across the street you see women in Burkas and a 4-year-old kid watching a herd of goats. The people generally seem indifferent to us here as the average local is more concerned about their daily survival; however, on the other side, some have a look that they do not want foreigners on their soil. These are generally the ones who profit from the instability such as drug trafficking, which is a huge problem, and source of much of the money that funds much of the violence and pays many of the war’s bills.

The weather is hot to say the least, it’s well over 40 degrees every day and as yet there was one day with clouds. The terrain is spectacular, as mountains swell over 20,000 feet and some remain snow-capped year round. The mountains are steep and very unforgiving and a constant challenge. It really is a beautiful country.

Having recently completed a degree in Military History, my son is acutely aware of the void that will exist for future historians when they come to try to understand the personal experiences of today’s (and tomorrow’s) soldiers. This void is not unique to the experiences of war, of course — it will exist for many aspects of our everyday lives.

For while we still write, we write in a different way — e-mails, frequent and numerous, are not generally kept for permanent record; blogs detail the minute details of people’s lives, but too often lack the unselfconsciousness of those earlier letters, which weren’t written for a broad audience. Those letters weren’t spell-checked and grammar-checked and proofread; they were the honest, spontaneous thoughts and observations of the writer for the eyes of one reader, or one family — an uncensored view into a world we might otherwise never have known.

Without those letters, so many details, perhaps seemingly trivial at the time, will be forever lost to future students of history, genealogists, memoir writers, and family historians.

Dad passed away on September 11, 2002, exactly one year to the day after a traumatic event that’s part of another kind of war. That date is one on which the world acknowledges a collective pain and the importance of remembering, but for me it is also a personal time of reflection. I am grateful to have even a little of my father’s story, as told in his war letters home.

♦     ♦     ♦

Allison Howard, beside her Little Free Library. For more about this initiative, see

Allison Howard, beside her Little Free Library. For more about this initiative, see

ALLISON HOWARD is a former social worker living in Penticton, British Columbia. Besides enjoying the many outdoor activities that the beautiful Okanagan Valley provides, Allison is an avid photographer who shows her work at galleries and other venues. She is also co-editor of A Memoir of Friendship: Letters Between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard and has published personal essays in Canadian Woman Studies and elsewhere. Allison sees a link between the creative worlds of writing and photography, and the simplicity and charm of life in British Columbia’s southern interior encourages these twin passions. Visit Allison Howard Photography.


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Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Tokens of War: A Seven Treasures post, by Pat Irwin Lycett (#22)

Pat Irwin Lycett is a former creative writing student of mine. In fact, she participated in one of my first memoir writing workshop series for North York Central Library, seven years ago, and has followed my website and kept in touch. Her beautiful Seven Treasures post below ventures a little beyond the series’ usual form — but you’ll see why I want share it with you.

♦     ♦     ♦


This morning I hung my father’s Second World War army blanket on the line to air. During the winter it sits on the veranda in an old trunk filled with grandkids’ toys. A few days from now, for our outdoor family party, it will be attached to a tree with clothes pegs, enclosing a See-Your-Future booth, courtesy granddaughters Cassie, Emma, and Keara.

It’s made of harsh, sturdy fabric, iron-grey with black stitching. I send a silent word of thanks to our Canadian Government for providing this amenity, hoping it gave some warmth to my poor father, in France or Holland, in those days of long ago. One wonders where they bedded down, young and old (my dad well over 40), so far from home. In the movies, fortunate soldiers found a barn, breathed in the warmth of living animals, or sliced into a vein to suck out mineral-rich blood, hoping the animal was healthy.

“This is Lowell Thomas with the news at six,” blared the radio, as I climbed onto my grandfather’s knee to be updated on the latest atrocities of the war, dimly aware that my father was over there, somewhere, keeping those bombs from our house. We sat together in Grampa’s old wicker rocker (now a fixture in our home, eyed by my son Matt and his son, Alex), heads wreathed in smoke from his pipe, a shared and comforting experience for a four-year-old. Grampa struck a match on the right rocker, the worn spot visible to this day, and I got to blow it out.

Other tokens come to mind. Still in my mother’s jewellery box, packed in a bottom drawer, are small buttons from his uniform, and the pin from his breastpocket with attached tiny cap, a replica of the one tucked into his epaulette. In the last picture taken before he left for overseas, he’s in full uniform, cap in place.

I recently unearthed a small khaki sewing kit, about a foot long and three to four inches wide. Made of strong cotton, it’s divided into three pockets that fold up and tie with the attached heavy string — a small flat bundle assigned to soldiers, part of their army gear. We used to call it “kharki” when I was a kid — don’t know where the r came from, but I remember it clearly.

The kit contains one very large needle, and one much smaller for reattaching buttons, still threaded with dark grey. The needles are woven into white patches of flannel, folded over. A strand of thicker thread lies across. A large circle stamped on the closing flap has lost its print over time, but still holds the word Ottawa, and the date — 1940 — the year I turned three. On the outside, the number B28976, issued to him when he joined up, remains very clear.

I’d seen this little kit before, somewhere in my past, and it surfaced again lodged beneath Mother’s recently discovered family history. I’d never checked beyond the needles, thought the three pouches were empty, until I had a better look this morning. Searching through the pockets — strange that I hadn’t done this before — I find a small advertisement, showing purple diagrams on a buff-coloured background. It purports to interest the reader in solder repair, inviting him to “Write Today for Free Sample and the Method.”

I can imagine my mother, concerned for his return to civilian life and about the availability of jobs, offering suggestions by mail. Sitting at Gramma’s little oak desk (mother and I still living with her parents), she may have written, Jim, perhaps you could get interested in car repairs as a line of work. More and more people will be buying one. And his possible reply — negative and disgruntled, beaten down by life and the war — I don’t think so. Anyway, not many people will be able to afford cars.

On his return in 1946 he became a postman, a job open to many vets. I don’t remember his ever looking really happy. I do remember his stifled tears on the death of our little dog. My father had spent many formative years in a Catholic orphanage, and I realize now that Brownie was likely the only dog he was ever allowed to own.

In the early ′50s Mother asked him to leave, concerned about his losing his job and worried that his gambling debts would cut into her hard-earned nursing income. We never really saw him again. We learned in the mid-′60s that he died in an institution, thirty miles from our home.

Life buried my father way before his time. Who knows, had things been different he might have lucked into a thriving business, “repairing cracked cylinder heads,” right there in our hometown.

I fold the little buff-coloured paper and put it back in his sturdy sewing kit, which now sits, intact, near my desk.

♦     ♦     ♦

PAT IRWIN LYCETT is a retired nurse, real estate broker, nutritionist, iridologist, tai chi teacher, and owner of a book and crystal store. She has 7 children and 20 (and counting) grandchildren. She is author of the blog, and is writing a loose collection of family memories from 1892 to the present.



Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Writing in My Father’s Voice: Honouring His Wartime Experience (Part 2 of 2)

Guest Post by Barbara Trendos

My idea of writing a mock journal turned out to be not so far beyond the realm of possibility. The Canadian YMCA had distributed log books, like the one Johnny kept, to help Canadian PoWs fill time, cope, and record the day-to-day routine of an utterly un-routine life experience. Dad surprised me when he told me that he too had kept a log book; however, he’d left it behind when the men were marched from the camp on foot in January 1945. For Dad, practical then as he is now, it was a matter of squeezing the most out of the precious space in his backpack: it was the log book, or chocolate and smokes. There was no contest.

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Saturday, May 28th, 2011