- The Forgotten Generation: American Children and World War II, and: The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe's Families after World War II
In scholarly accounts of war, children are all too often seen but not heard. Displaced, orphaned, or maimed children serve as timeless symbols of war's cruelty and destructiveness. Yet youngsters generally remain peripheral to histories of international conflict and diplomacy. Two new books on children and the Second World War are an exception to this trend. Children do not completely shed their symbolic weight in Lisa L. Ossian's The Forgotten Generation and Tara Zahra's The Lost Children, but Zahra and Ossian successfully demonstrate that young people—along with adults intent on determining their "best interests"—were active participants in shaping both the American home front and the global postwar order. Taken together, Zahra and Ossian's works provide a nuanced picture of children's experiences in the United States and Europe during the Second World War and in its aftermath. They demonstrate how children, and more broadly, conceptions of the family, played a central role in the political and social upheavals of the mid-twentieth century.
The Forgotten Generation opens in 1941, as the sound of Japanese bombers roused children in Hawaii from their sleep. Drawing on memoirs and other remembered accounts, Ossian chronicles the aftermath of the day that would forever alter many American childhoods. After the United States entered the war, leaders worked to mobilize the entire population—including children. [End Page 169] Educators established a Wartime Commission within the Office of Education, and schools revamped curricula to emphasize patriotism and wartime sacrifice. Guided by the motto "Save, Serve, Conserve," children purchased war bonds, planted victory gardens, and collected huge amounts of scrap metal and other salvaged materials. Teenagers flocked to agricultural and defense work, reversing previous declines in child labor. The war also made its way into children's play. Ossian devotes one interesting chapter to children's "war play" and the "defense toys" that rapidly gained popularity among youngsters. Children's war games often reinforced traditional gender roles, Ossian writes, restricting girls to supportive roles such as nurses.
Ossian is sensitive to the ways in which race and geographic location affected children's experiences of war. As families moved to war production centers in search of jobs, children along with their parents frequently suffered due to housing shortages and racial discrimination. The internment camps in which Japanese-Americans were forced to spend the duration of the war housed many young people—more than a quarter of those evacuated were second- or third-generation children under fifteen years of age.
The Lost Generation provides a sweeping and engaging overview of children's experiences on the American home front during the Second World War. But the book's ambition to provide an account of all children's experiences during the war results in a narrative that often favors breadth over depth. Most significantly, the role of age is left largely unexamined. Zoot-suiters in their late teens sit uncomfortably alongside youngsters playing soldier in ersatz army uniforms, with little analysis as to the vastly different experiences of teenagers and young children during the war. Furthermore, the author's laudatory tone—she describes the children of World War II as "a generation too often brave beyond their years" (p. 137)—often obscures the critical edge the book could bring to understanding a generation's formative years.
World War II profoundly affected children on both sides of the Atlantic. Zahra's The Lost Children explores the contested fate of European displaced children in the aftermath of the conflict. The war and Nazi genocide uprooted hundreds of thousands of children, plucking many from their families and countries of origin. Humanitarian workers, government officials, concerned relatives, and children themselves debated the best means of rehabilitating the conflict's youngest victims. In doing so, Zahra...