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Before Their Time: A Memoir Paperback – June 15, 1999
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In the summer of 1943, Robert Kotlowitz, an indifferent premed student at Johns Hopkins University, was drafted into the army. "I told myself," he writes in his affecting memoir of World War II, "that it was better than being blatantly tossed out of college." In any event, he continues, "part of me, at eighteen, was eager to suffer the hazards and humiliations of war."
Hazards and humiliations he found in abundance. He was assigned to a company led by an inept captain and put to work in a Browning Automatic Rifle unit. In combat school at Fort Benning he learned that, in battle, such units had a life expectancy of eleven seconds. "That is not hyperbole," he adds wryly. "It is scientific fact." But Kotlowitz lived through the war, fueled by his hatred, as a Jew, for the German enemy, and burning with the patriotic fervor of a young man. Both his hatred and his fervor diminished as he endured battle, living close to the bone and watching as his comrades fell.
Kotlowitz writes with skill and mordant humor of the infantryman's life, of the incredible instinct to survive, of "the sounds ... never before heard, swelling over the noise of small-arms and machine-gun fire, of men's voices calling for help or screaming in pain or terror--our own men's voices, unrecognizable at first, weird in pitch and timbre." His fine memoir belongs on readers' shelves alongside such books as Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers and Paul Fussell's Doing Battle, primary documents of a terrible time. --Gregory McNamee
From Kirkus Reviews
Novelist Kotlowitz acts as his fallen buddies' unofficial company historian of their combat duty in WW II, from army basic training to a precipitous, disastrous encounter with the enemy. More than 50 years after WW II, with over half its veterans now dead, Kotlowitz (His Master's Voice, 1992, etc.) recounts his own experiences, in part to find ``a definitive end to the accumulated weight of sadness and nostalgia.'' With this simple goal, his straightforward prose captures both the mundane and the horrific features of a soldier's life, as well as his own teenager's navet. After getting bucked out of a training program in order to supply his division with live bodies after D-day, Kotlowitz is thrown into an eclectic mix of soldiers in the so-called ``Yankee Division.'' His commanding officer is a textbook-trained OCS graduate and former university football tackle from Ohio, his squad leader a generally reliable soldier with a tendency to go AWOL under pressure, and his buddies a melting-pot mix of draftees. Infantry life quickly sorts them into a soldiers' hierarchy, right down to the squad's sad sack, but Kotlowitz gives each man his balanced due. After an uneventful delay awaiting deployment orders in France, he and his buddies find themselves on the front, dug in a few hundred yards from the well-prepared Germans, in the fall of 1944. When they are finally sent forward, the assault is so disastrous that he survives only by ``playing the living corpse'' among his platoon, one of just three survivors. After subjecting him to grilling by the division's historian and its psychiatrist, the army, ironically, sends him behind lines to recuperate by guarding a warehouse of duffel bags, some of which belonged to his fallen buddies. An unsentimental, honest testament to the individual experience of war--the kind that history overlooks. -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Robert Kotlowitz served as an infantryman in France. His book treads the well worn path: the circle of friends in the unit, the quirks of the officers and NCOs, the blunders of basic training, the journey overseas, the initial boredom, the final shock of battle, the many who did not live to write their memoirs. The intrinsic pathos of war redeems this story as it does most others like it, and there are some memorable passages of descriptive writing. One concludes, however, that "Before Their Time" remains part of the herd.
Very highly recommended.
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York, 1997.
In 1943, Robert Kotlowitz was in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) at the University of Maine when mounting casualties in the European Theater of Operation (ETO) required fresh men for the war. General George Marshall ordered the termination of ASTP program so as to release some 175,000 young soldiers to the battlefields of Europe. So, this young man from Baltimore found himself on the liner, "Argentina", at the city of Cherbourg, "...the old Norman city" in France. The soldiers of the 26th division, the old Yankee Division, had to climb down rope ladders, hanging on the hull of the ship, into Higgins boats below. The details of this relatively unimportant event... i.e. disembarkation, fill many pages in this small book of memories written many years after the war. In this small section, the recounts how his contemporaries reacted to the requirement of climbing down rope cargo nets into the boats below, and by so writing, analyzes those young men of the Yankee Division.
The author not only analyzes the men but also the 26th Division.
On page 8, he writes ...
"By 1944 there were no longer many true Yankees in the Yankee division. (O)ther ethnic and national groups had begun to infiltrate the roster:,, Italians, ... Armenians, Greeks" ... and so on. Then, Kotlowitz notes that there was "... a substantial cluster of despised WASPs, who didn't yet know that they were a symptom of the future, as well as a handful of isolated Jews, who were also despised; but the unlike the WASPs, the Jews were quite used to it".
The writing continues in this analytical tone until the day when his regiment, the 104th, was ordered to advance against the German lines. Almost everyone was killed or wounded. Kotlowitz was one of the few physically unharmed survivors; he spent the entire day under the sights of the Germans. He did not move and played dead. This affected his outlook on the war and on the army and on his future life. After this single day of terrible combat, where so many casualties were caused by incompetence, Private Kotlowitz was assigned to rear-echelon job. Safe for the duration. So, unlike many World War II memoirs, this book is not a bang-bang, shoot `em story. Rather, it is a sensitive and subtle analysis of the experiences of one American soldier.
This is an excellent memoir of war, even if it really doesn't get into the horrors of battle. It is, rather, a tale of disparate young men coming together and, through training and just living together, becoming a unit ready for battle. The personal scenes are impressive, and quite moving at times.
These brave men and women often don't wish to tell their stories, because even after 60 years the memories are too raw. We should, therefore, be grateful for the ones who could get down on paper what they experienced.
We who haven't lived through those times can really not appreciate what happened. One thing is that they have never forgotten the past. I remember coming out of the theater after seeing "Saving Private Ryan" and, in the back of the theater were two elderly gentlemen in wheelchairs, obviously veterans, with tears streaming down their faces. That is the essence of those men and women, and we should be grateful to them every day for the freedom we experience.
Most recent customer reviews
I thought this book was going to be similar to Paul Fussell's books on World War II ... witty and cynical ... I was wrong.Read more