WWII Vets and City of Thieves

Richard Strausser, former U.S. Army Air Force Staff Sergeant, reading City of Thieves.

Today is World Book Night. Each year on April 23 in honor of Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes (who both died on April 23) tens of thousands of givers go into their communities to each give away twenty copies of a book that they love. Each World Book Night, givers share a total of a half a million books to light and non-readers.

Last year, I gave away copies of Peace Like a River by Leif Enger to homeless teens at a Houston shelter. It was an incredible experience that I knew I wouldn’t be able to replicate, so for WBN2013, I wanted to reach out to a different group. Upon learning that one of my favorite books—City of Thieves by David Benioff—was on the list of WBN titles, I applied again to be a giver and then set up a reading with a group of WWII veterans and other residents at a local retirement community.

City of Thieves is a beautiful, intelligent novel, set in dystopian Leningrad during the 821 day-siege by the German Wehrmacht. It tells the story of Lev, a 17-year-old volunteer firefighter “built for deprivation”, and Kolya, a soldier arrested on desertion charges, and the misadventures, heroics and friendships they experience as they follow an absurd fate: find an impossible-to-find dozen eggs in three days for a colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake—or starve to death without their confiscated ration cards.

Each book we read opens up a different world, and sometimes it can take us back to one we already know. One, for example, where duty, honor, country, and personal responsibility were essential character traits, and where making a living was often second to making a difference. It’s one familiar to the veterans I met today, and one I invited them to visit by reading aloud a few chapters of City of Thieves.

Behind walkers, in wheelchairs, on their own feet, about eighteen seniors met me in the activities room. There was Dominic Calabrese, former U.S. Army Tech Sergeant, who was in the second wave in France, relieving the paratroopers before moving inward. And Robert Barrett, who was a Technician 5th Grade in the U.S. Army. And Manuel Palmer, a Quartermaster 3rd Class in the U.S. Navy. And also Richard Strausser, former U.S. Army Air Force Staff Sergeant, who was a radio gunner on B-17s, who says that now many of his activities during WWII seem routine. “But they were scary then,” he says.

Veterans listening to Lev and Kolya’s adventures.

Maybe that’s why Mr. Strausser especially seemed to identify with Lev. I was reading from chapter one, wherein a dead German paratrooper lands on the street by Lev’s apartment building. I glanced around the room, and noticed Mr. Strausser’s face as he listened to the description of Lev getting caught looting the body and being dragged to jail, fearing for his life. He looked transported, which exactly how I feel when I read an amazing book.

I came to the end of chapter one, and paused. “What do you all think? Shall I continue? Maybe one more chapter?”

“Oh yes, please,” said the woman who’d been a chemicals tester for the U.S. Navy about the same time the fictional Lev and Kolya were hunting eggs in Leningrad.

Then Mr. Strausser stood abruptly up. “Why don’t you have a seat,” he said in his clear baritone. “Take a rest, and I’ll read the next chapter.”

Chivalry, clearly, is very much alive.

So I did, and he did. And it was perfect, because I got to sit back and listen to Mr. Strausser fly his fellow veterans back to another time on the words of Benioff’s wonderful story. I got to watch them close their eyes, and nod and smile and I wondered if they were visiting parts of themselves as they listened. Any of them could be the subjects of such a story, having lived and served as they have.

After Mr. Strausser concluded chapter two and we all clapped, I gave each of them a copy to keep. They thanked me sincerely and politely, exemplars of their generation. I asked if they’d like to discuss the book after they’ve had a chance to read it and their response was a unanimous yes. I’m looking forward to learning what they think of City of Thieves, but I’m also looking forward to learning more about each of them. I wonder if they will, in turn, get to know each other better as a result.

World Book Night is about spreading the love of reading, person to person. What a wonderful feeling to give someone a paperback ticket to anywhere and any time in the world. What a joy it will be to see them again after they return from their literary wanderings and find out what of themselves—and each other—they may have recognized in those unique stories, those universal truths.

“Thank you so much for coming,” Mr. Strausser said as I was leaving.

“I hope you love the book,” I said.

He closed his eyes and smiled. “I already do.”

City of Thieves by David Benioff