Tuesday, February 9, 2010

More Volcano on the radio

Here follows transcript of author interview with Sandy Hausman, Charlottesville Bureau Chief, WVTF Public Radio, Charlottesville, Virginia, on January 6, 2010:
WVTFWhat got you started on this family history and how did you pull it together?
Gatins:  In 1983, when my dad died, we found an old photo that I’d never seen before of a one-armed gentleman holding a baby in the crook of his good arm.  And I said, “Who is this?”  And it turned out the baby was my father and the one-armed man my grandfather who no one in the family had ever really ever talked about.  So, I decided then, even before I retired, to look into the family history a little bit more.  I had the chance beginning in ’96 and spent an awful lot of time accumulating at old letters and convincing my brothers and sisters to provide what they had in their attics and old files.  And we accumulated a great treasure trove of material, multiple old photo albums and letters that were frankly priceless.   My dad was a prisoner of war during World War II and sent 26 postcards and letters to back to my mom before they were married, which she saved, which gave me a road map to where he’d been, which gave me a road map to what the Red Cross in Geneva was doing to inspect those camps – and I managed to get hold of those reports, as well as basically a lot of e-mails back and forth with brothers and sisters to recollect what did they remember about whom.   There were also a variety of standard sources: Microfilm files, computer files, old newspaper files, many of which are now on computer, and those proved useful as well. So, I started the project off as a project just for my family. I was going to write this up for the children, the grandchildren, the nieces and nephews. But as I got into it, there were enough adventures and misadventures that maybe the public might be interested.  And we’re now testing the waters to find out if the public will buy the book.
WVTF: Well, your timing is pretty darn good, I must say.  Tell me about your grandfather – why he was such an interesting character.

GatinsWell, my grandfather was one of the lovely men who populated the family but I really concentrated more of my effort on the remarkable women who put up with the lovely men. My grandfather essentially was the descendant of a really very aggressive financier in Atlanta and New York, who basically lived off his dad’s fortunes and happened to be fortunate enough on the eve of World War I to be partying in Paris in the summer of 1914, where he met my grandmother -- who was also partying in Paris.  Two months later they were quickly engaged, married and came back to Atlanta. The marriage did not work. They were separated within five years.  They had one son, my father.  Mother and son went back to France. And my grandfather died a quiet and unholy death from tuberculosis in 1927. So, I never knew him but I was intrigued by what he had managed to create.  Now, the family is something like 50-strong from that one child.
WVTFSo, I thought the great-grandfather and the grandfather were interesting in terms of all the money they had – they were really the privileged elite of Atlanta, yes?
GatinsWell, here’s what I like to say about that.  Essentially, they bootstrapped themselves out of the Reconstruction era of Atlanta right after the Civil War and did very, very well for themselves financially and in real estate.  But what you also have to remember is that no matter how blue your blood is, it all bleeds red in the end.
WVTFAnd people are learning that lesson right now.

GatinsThat’s true.
WVTFI couldn’t help thinking how this relates to what’s going on in our time and wondering if you were intrigued by the parallels – the ups and downs of the market, so to speak.
GatinsWell, I’ve learned not to worry too much about the market, because you can’t control it.  It’s way beyond any individual’s ability to control, I think.  Most of what’s going on right now is done as computer trades – more and more of it.  You’re at the mercy of machines, when it comes to making money on the stock market.
WVTFNow, the title of the book is We Were Dancing on a Volcano.  Where does that come from?
GatinsThat comes directly from a 20-page memoir that my grandmother left for us.  And if you won’t mind my reading it … it reads as follows: She is describing the scene in Paris, France, on the eve of World War II in 1939.   “Paris was very festive.  Everyone was dancing on a volcano, but we were all dancing a lot.  I recall a fancy dress ball at the Polish embassy – in that magnificent private home on rue de Talleyrand.  That night, I had the an extraordinary feeling that something was coming to an end – that our world, as we knew it, was fleeing and that we’d never see it again.”  And so I used that, because it was also a very apt metaphor for the ups and downs of this particular family.
WVTF: Really, I hate to say it, but I feel it’s like the ups and downs of any given family at some time and likewise any given culture.  I mean, doesn’t it feel like we were dancing on a volcano there in the 80s and early 90s?
GatinsWell, yes.  What I’d like to tell people when I talk about this book is that I would encourage everyone who is listening to this interview to basically talk to your parents, talk to your grandparents, collect all the papers and photos you can possibly collect and even if you don’t write a book, pull it together in one file for your children and your grandchildren and their children and grandchildren will know where you came from and know some of the stories.  The stories in every family are often intriguing, fascinating and when it comes to families, often very personal.
WVTFIt sounds like this grandmother of yours, this French grandmother was quite a character in her own right.
GatinsShe was a very strong woman.  Basically, a good Catholic girl from France left her husband, leaving a divorce file behind her – she never talked about it that I know of – raised a child on her own with her own parents back in France.  And then during World War II, she had some signal opportunities to help the cause of the [French] Resistance.  She was head of a POW care package program for prisoners and managed through that to take care for about 4,000 of them from her little section of Paris by collecting and sending care packages for all of them – and in doing so, saved my father from probably near-certain demise.
WVTF: Tell me about your dad.  What exactly happened to him?
Gatins:  As son of a French mother and an American father, he opted to do his military service in France, was mobilized in 1939, captured in 1940 and for the next three and a half years was essentially a prisoner of war behind the lines in Germany and Poland and the Ukraine.  He tried to escape numerous times – the 5th time worked.  But in the meantime, every time you are captured and recaptured, you get sent to solitary for two weeks and then transferred to a harsher prison camp further away from Paris, further away from home.  So, he managed to survive those with his wits and sometimes by taking some extreme measures.  At one point, he was afraid of being transferred to an island that would have been hard to escape from, so he had a fellow prisoner break his right arm with a cudgel so he would get sent to the infirmary instead of being transferred. He also survived what’s now called – and not that many people know about it – POW punishment camps.  These became more prevalent toward the end of the war, 1944 and 1945, but he was pushed into one of these on the Polish-Ukrainian border, right in the middle of the Holocaust extermination camps, in 1942.  Essentially these camps were aimed at breaking the will of those who were not hewing to the Nazi line, with 10-hour-per-day work, six or seven days per week, with very harsh measures for discipline.   The discipline was tiered.  In the first case, if you were out of line as prisoner, the guards would strike you with their rifle butts.  As a second tier of discipline, they would jab you with their bayonets.  And if you weren’t behaving as they saw it in the third tier, you’d get shot.   So, people died fairly quickly in that camp, from either from starvation or discipline.
WVTFAs you were learning about this, you must have asked yourself if you had the mettle to survive a situation like that – it really sounds quite terrifying.
GatinsWell, uh, I was in the Army, I was in Vietnam, but I did not meet anything like this anywhere along the line.  I think what happens when men are at war – and now women are at war – that individuals are tested beyond their comprehension when they first join the army.  And some people make it and some do not.  And you have to rely on instinct and moxie and luck and a grandmother’s prayers and grandmother’s care packages – which is how he survived, because she was sneaking cash to him in these tins of honey in these care packages.  So, you have to have a lot of luck to survive harsh war – I don’t know if I could have done it.
WVTFNow, how did you learn about the French side of the family?  You always knew that your grandmother was French and you must have traveled back and forth?
GatinsWe did.  When we were children, we went back and forth fairly often.  I have a feeling that my parents even though they had decided to move to the states and move to Atlanta in particular weren’t sure if that’s where they wanted to end up.  So, between 1946 and ‘49, we were in the states.  Between 1949 and ‘52, we were living in France. And then from ’52 on, in Atlanta.  But it took a while for all that to gel. And we did spend some summers back when we were kids back in France.  We ended up speaking French and home, American at school, and still bilingual today.
WVTFThis is not a bad thing.
GatinsMais, oui!
WVTF So, how did writing this book change you?  What did it mean to you, and what do you think it’s meant to your family.  You said that you wrote this for the kids – have they gotten anything out of it?
GatinsThere are now five brothers and sisters left and all their children, and it took a while for all this to sink in. Early on, about halfway through this 12-year project, we had a two-to-two tie as to whether we really were going to turn this into a book and I was going to have to break the tie.  By the time it came closer to being in book form, with all the photos, everybody was on board because they realized – and this is how I feel about it today – how liberating it was.  This is the good, the bad and the indifferent all together – it’s as honest and true as I knew to make it.  And there’s an old saw:  Truth will set you free.  We now know where we came from, who our parents were, who our grandparents were, what they did, good and bad, or indifferent, and liberating is about the best word that I can use to describe how I feel it.
WVTFWhen you say liberating, what were you liberated from – the ignorance of your family’s history?
GatinsNot knowing what the details were, and also you know, you get the feeling that half of this was deep, dark secret.  Nobody talked about the one-armed grandfather.  Nobody talked about the great-grandfather’s suicide ‘til you found out about it.  Nobody talked about the divorce filing, which was interesting to me.  I mean, they never talked about it.  So, you flesh out details of events that they were trying to keep secret, and that was part of what I used to do when I was a reporter and I’m glad I did it to myself right here.
WVTFNow listeners are wondering:  How did your grandfather lose his arm?
GatinsAge 16, he tumbled on a set of stairs and had to put the arm in a cast, from what I can find out. The problem was that a couple of weeks prior to that he had had a smallpox vaccination.  The vaccination spot got infected underneath the case and grew so septic that they had to amputate his right arm.
WVTFWhat would you say was the biggest surprise for you as you researched the book?  Because there were many?  Was there anything where you said, “ah-ha,” or, “oh, my God?”
Gatins:   “Oh, my God” is about the right way to put it.  This was in black-and-white in the early letters from my father to my mother, before they were married and before World War II erupted.  It was plain that as a good Catholic boy in France, he had been infected by the tenor of the times as far as anti-Semitism was concerned.  And it was brutal and honest and unmistakable in his letters that, in his words, he “was practicing anti-Semitism” on fellow soldiers who happened to be Jewish.  And that was shocking to me, because it is not something that came up when we were children, but it was obvious it was part of him when he was growing up.  That was the most shocking.
WVTFWe’re all products of our time and out culture for better or worse I think.
GatinsThat’s a good way to put it. 
WVTFWhat else would you like to say that I haven’t asked you about?
GatinsLet’s tell the listeners that they all ought to try this.  They may not succeed, but they all ought to try to write down what they remember, or talk to their parents and grandparents before they die and get this written down for their families.
WVTFI think some people may worry that they won’t be able to get this published because they are a first-time writer and what would you say to them?
GatinsWell, it depends on whether you want to try to sell it or not.  You can go to Kinko’s or FedEx-Kinko’s … and print it yourself on 8.5” X 11” sheets of paper and basically bind it one way or the other.  Or, you can do what I did, which was to get it designed as a file and then self-publish by any number of print-on-demand companies that are now in existence.
WVTF:  And how does that work – then you just take it to local bookstores and ask them to stock it?
GatinsExactly, that’s why I’m here in Charlottesville today.  We had a great gathering at the New Dominion Bookshop.  I was in Richmond yesterday at the Library of Virginia and we had a great event there  -- 70 people showed up, and a good number of books got sold.  So, what I tell people – it’s like the Johnny Cash song – you’ve got to sell ‘em one book at a time. 
WVTFNo problem with that though – it was a good product to sell.   Thank you very much.  It was a joy talking to you.
GatinsSandy, thank you very much for your time.  It was my pleasure.

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