When the New-York Historical Society set out to create its WWII & NYC exhibit, we knew that personal histories would be an important part of our presentation and our approach to soliciting visitor responses. Many visitors would have served on the home front or war fronts, or experienced the “War Emergency” as children. Others would have heard stories from their parents and grandparents.
The war was a signal event in the lives of so many people, yet the New York angle has rarely been explored. “To capture these memories, we created the Talk to Us booth (it looks and feels like an old-fashioned phone booth) and a printed comment book (the pages resemble V-mail forms) so that visitors would have a choice of writing or telling their stories,” says WWII & NYC curator Marci Reaven.
Many of the stories highlight just how commonplace incorporating war into everyday life became. One man told us, “I was a child of German Jewish refugees so we were very aware of what the war meant. . .I remember blackouts. We had an outsized closet in our apartment–we lived in Washington Heights–and my parents had put a bridge table in the closet, it was that big, it was lit. So when the blackout call came we all simply went into the closet and played cards.” Another, who was in elementary school in Brooklyn at the time, recalls, “I remember the warning that if we ever got an air attack, every child was assigned to a different color spot where an adult would guide us to some safe harbor. I still remember mine was near the fence and the color code was yellow.”
The events that seem to stand out to most are VE and VJ Day, and everyone found a way to celebrate, whether they made it to Times Square or not. One woman remembers getting into the car with her mother and brother on VE Day, where they “rode around honking our horn all through Flatbush.” One man, who was six years old on VJ Day, says “I remember the VJ Day parties, I got drunk for the first time when my grandfather gave me a whole glass of beer–I think he wanted to put me to sleep for the evening.”
So far New-York Historical has cataloged hundreds of responses, and new people are recording their stories with us every day. “We’re getting stories and comments in both formats, but the oral medium seems to be the best for drawing out memories of wartime experiences,” says Marci Reaven. This is not the first time New-York Historical has encouraged visitors to record their thoughts; for the duration of the Slavery in New York visitors were encouraged to leave video responses of their thoughts, and during Remembering 9/11, visitors could share their memories of that day in our guestbook.
We’ll be featuring some selections on our Behind the Scenes blog for the duration of WWII & NYC, on view through May 27, so come share your stories!
Photo: Jews at Nazi Protest Carrying Signs, November 15, 1938 (Courtesy Bettmann/CORBISand the New-York Historical Society).