An Alum Lens on WWII

Danny Stock

Arthur Goldschmidt was seven years old when he arrived at GDS in 1945, the year the school began as the first integrated school in any major U.S. city. Arthur remembers his time at GDS fondly, and is always willing and interested in being part of projects at school. Associate Head of School Kevin Barr recently wrote about Arthur’s early GDS story in a post for the Hopper Effect blog in December. Arthur also joined Kevin and GDS classmate Judith Martin (the writer “Miss Manners”) in January to record some of their reflections for the newly launched GDS Stories 75th anniversary podcast project. Two weeks ago, Arthur joined a virtual 8th grade assembly organized by Middle School history teacher (and alum) Julia Blount ’08 to discuss World War II.

Prior to their meeting with Arthur, the 8th graders had been studying the war through several different, specific lenses, including most recently, gender and art. They analyzed propaganda posters persuading women to join the workforce and noted both the efficacy of the images in encouraging new roles for women as well as the way they may have reinforced gender stereotypes or norms. Eighth grader Hudson noted the emphasis on maintaining gender norms. He said, “The poster (below) is saying that even though women were serving, they still had to live up to the gender norm that women have to look beautiful and portray beauty.”

Many students responded to a poster with the text “The more WOMEN at work, the sooner we WIN!” “This image is encouraging women to work because it is saying the more women we have working, the faster the war will be over,” Ella said. Katherine responded, “I agree with you, Ella. It is showing that taking on these jobs will help empower women and help the United States as a whole.”

The following week, students responded to examples of art created by interned Japanese Americans, Jewish people who were in Ghettos or Concentration Camps, and African Americans who were engaged in the Double V Campaign. They studied textiles (e.g. Senninbari Vest), paintings, poetry, music, sculpture, and more. Students responding to Joseph Beer’s song “Over Yonder in the Sunshine” wrote, “They are trying to convey the horrors and sadness of the time. In some of the lyrics they are talking about how a miracle will come and they will be happy again.” In responding to a Senninbari vest created by the mother of George Matsushita and a thousand other collaborators interned at the Amache camp in Colorado, students wrote, “People were hopeful and stuck together to overcome this time of hardship.” Of particular impact today was the inclusion of Langston Hughes’s poem Beaumont to Detroit: 1943. One student observed, “Although the United States is fighting against injustice in Europe, they aren’t fighting against injustice in the U.S. against black Americans.”

These primary sources yielded rich conversation and a deeper understanding of the impact of the war on a diverse range of communities. Yet, as non-living documents, they felt distant to some, even as primary sources. Arthur Goldschmidt, Professor Emeritus of Middle East History at Penn State University, on the other hand, is a living, lively, and candid primary source. At a recent alumni virtual town hall gathering with Kevin Barr, Arthur spoke about Washington, DC during World War II. Julia, who was also on the alumni call, invited Arthur to share his reflections with students. 

Not long after, Arthur joined students virtually to answer questions about growing up during WWII and about the early days at GDS while he was a student from 1945 to 1951. “When did you first learn about the U.S. entering the War?” students asked. “How did you feel? Did you understand what was going on? Were you scared? Was there anti-German and anti-Japanese sentiment around you? How did people talk about WWII while it was happening?”

“I actually remember Pearl Harbor Day,” Arthur began. He recounted the story of that day, which included a visit from family friends, his 3-and-a-half-year-old temper tantrum, a nap, and then waking up to a house full of grim-faced people talking about a “pearl.” Soon though, he began to understand as people around him began to talk about war. “Every so often, we had something called an air raid drill, and I actually thought we might see enemy planes flying over Washington. I thought perhaps the Germans were about to take out the Washington Monument.” He also recalled planting a victory garden with his family that year (“with radishes, lettuces, and parsley”) as he has done every year since.

“As much as possible the grownups tried to keep us kids from worrying too much about what was happening,” Arthur explained. “My mother explained that the war would end either when all the soldiers on one side were killed or when one side surrendered. So I at least had some mental picture of the idea of surrendering...We sang a lot of patriotic songs, a lot of which I didn’t understand.” As a 5-year-old, for example, he remembers singing the popular tune “God Bless A Marigold,” and while the Marines spoke of “keeping their honor clean” Arthur figured they were looking in the mirror after washing their face and hands to check if their “honor” looked clean, too.

Some students also asked about the kind of uncertainty we are experiencing now and whether Arthur learned any lessons that might help students and families cope better. “Did the uncertainty of WWII resemble the coronavirus pandemic we are facing now?” they asked. “If so, what’s your advice for dealing with it?”

“By the time I was old enough to understand what was going on, it looked as though the allies were going to win the war. I’ve never sensed the uncertainty that the grown-ups must have felt in late 1941 and early 1942. I wouldn't have known about the Japanese internment camps, and I certainly would not have known about the Holocaust in Europe.”

While the legal founding of the school took place while the United States was still at war with Japan, “by the time GDS actually started to function as a school in October, the war was over,” Arthur said. “When I first showed up however, Washington was still very much a war-time city. It was much more crowded perhaps even than it is today. The sidewalks were full of people. The buses and streetcars were usually packed. When we were given time off from classes, what did we play? We couldn't go outside very much so we generally played around in the hallways. The game we boys most commonly played was war. War was a reality that we kids [understood].” 

Today, America remains (again) at war overseas and our 400+-year civil war for racial justice rages here at home as fiercely today as it ever has since the courageous founding of GDS. In this urgent time, GDS 8th graders are learning to call out injustice and take on oppression in all its pernicious forms. Our teachers, as they have always done, are stepping up to equip a generation with the tools to do so.

Thanks to Kevin Barr, Julia Blount, and Director of Alumni Engagement Correy Hudson for bringing Arthur into the conversation. The 8th grade students benefited by learning directly from a living primary source, especially given Arthur’s GDS connection and, above all, his candor. 

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