TIME Books

Read TIME’s Original Book Review for Anne Frank’s Diary

Anne Frank (1929-1945).
Heritage Images / Getty Images Anne Frank (1929-1945)

The diary was first published in the Netherlands on June 25, 1947

When the diary of Anne Frank was first published in English, as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, a full decade had passed since a young Anne received the fateful journal for her 13th birthday. Five years had passed since the diary had been published in the Netherlands—on this day, June 25, in 1947, as Het Achterhuis—and more than dozen had passed since its author stopped writing down her days.

And yet, despite the passage of time, her story was something new, a different way of understanding the horrors of the Holocaust. “The resulting diary is one of the most moving stories that anyone, anywhere, has managed to tell about World War II,” as TIME’s book reviewer put it, describing the diarist’s experiences:

As the war dragged on and news trickled in of mass deportations of Jews, Anne became desperate. She had terrifying fantasies about the death of Jewish friends. Often she saw “rows of good, innocent people accompanied by crying children [walk] on and on . . . bullied and knocked about until they almost drop.” With appalling prescience she wrote that “there is nothing we can do but wait as calmly as we can till the misery comes to an end. Jews and Christians wait, the whole earth waits; and there are many who wait for death.” When her pen fell into the fire, she wrote that it “has been cremated.”

Though not much interested in politics, Anne tried to understand what was happening to the world. “I don’t believe that the big men, the politicians and the capitalists alone, are guilty of the war,” she wrote. “Oh no, the little man is just as guilty, otherwise the peoples of the world would have risen in revolt long ago! There’s in people simply an urge to destroy, an urge to kill, to murder and rage, and until all mankind, without exception, undergoes a great change, wars will be waged …”

But sometimes she cried out from the heart, as if for all the Jews of Europe: “Who has inflicted this upon us? Who has made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly up to now? It is God that has made us as we are, but it will be God, too, who will raise us up again.”

Many more decades have passed by now—this year marks the 70th anniversary of Anne Frank’s death at Bergen-Belsen—and her father’s decision to execute her wish to have her diary published continues to prove significant. According to the Anne Frank House, it has since been published in 70 languages.

Read the full review, here in the TIME Vault: Lost Child

TIME Poland

2 Teenagers Arrested for Theft of Auschwitz Artifacts

Auschwitz poland robbery
Christopher Furlong—Getty Images The infamous German inscription that reads 'Work Makes Free' at the main gate of the Auschwitz extermination camp on November 15, 2014 in Oswiecim, Poland.

If convicted, the two could face up to 10 years in prison

Two British teenagers were arrested in Poland on Monday for stealing historic artifacts from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest former Nazi death camp, which was converted into a museum at the close of World War II.

The teenagers, who have not yet been named by authorities, could face up to 10 years in prison, local police told the BBC. According to a museum spokesman, they are believed to have stolen items including buttons and pieces of glass.

In 2010, a Swedish man was convicted of plotting to steal the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work sets you free”) sign from the gate of the camp.

More than 1 million people, mostly Jews, as well as gay people and gypsies, were killed at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945. In 1947, the site was converted to a museum and saw more than 1.2 million visitors in 2012.

[BBC]

TIME Education

How the G.I. Bill Changed the Face of Higher Education in America

On the anniversary of the momentous legislation's signing, a look at a group of veterans who benefited from the bill

On June 22, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the G.I. Bill. Fearing the consequences of millions of veterans returning from war to scarce employment and housing opportunities, Roosevelt passed the legislation to offer unemployment compensation, home and business loans and tuition support.

This last benefit—money to put toward a college education—had unprecedented impacts on veterans and the higher education system alike. Recognizing the swiftly changing face of the American college student, LIFE published an extensive cover story in 1947 about student veterans, who had come to make up more than 50% of the college population in a very short time.

LIFE sent photographer Margaret Bourke-White to the State University of Iowa, where 6,000 students—a whopping 60% of the school—had served in World War II. One-third of them married, veterans were put up in cramped trailers. Many of them worked second jobs as taxi drivers or soda jerks and came home to study as toddlers tugged at their textbooks. LIFE described how the situation was changing the learning environment:

Teachers find themselves dealing with a new kind of student, who is having a real and sobering effect on higher education. The veteran student is poor and hard-working. He has been around enough to make subjects like geography tough to teach. He wants a fast, business-like education and is doing his best to see that he gets it. He is getting better grades than the non-veteran and has forced higher standards on everyone else.

While the G.I. Bill was undoubtedly a major contributor to the prosperity of the 1950s, it was not without its flaws. For one thing, its enforcement had the consequence of limiting spots for female college applicants. For another, African-American veterans, though entitled to the same benefits the legislation afforded, met with de facto discrimination that often rendered those benefits less meaningful.

For the students at Iowa and their counterparts across the country who were not excluded from the bill’s provisions, access to higher education meant the chance to build a life after war. Asked by LIFE if they did the right thing going to college, “every one of the students answered, Yes.”

LIFE MagazineFrom the April 21, 1947 issue on student veterans, photos by Margaret Bourke-White.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

TIME conflict

The Gory Way Japanese Generals Ended Their Battle on Okinawa

Landing On Okinawa
J. R. Eyerman—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Soldiers of US 10th Army march inland after securing beachheads following the last amphibious assault landings of WWII as vessels from the Allied fleet patrol the waters off of Okinawa, Japan, April 1945.

'The Generals opened their blouses, unbuckled their belts'

When the World War II battle over the Japanese island of Okinawa officially ended 70 years ago today, on June 22, 1945, it had secured its place as the bloodiest clash in the Central and Western Pacific fronts. TIME’s initial estimate a few days later was that more than 98,000 Japanese people had been killed and nearly 7,000 Americans were dead or missing.

Two men were not among that haunting count. It wasn’t until weeks later, in its July 9 issue, that TIME reported on what happened to Lieut. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima and Lieut. Gen. Isamu Cho, based on the tale told by the soldier who cooked their last meal:

On a narrow ledge overlooking the sea at the southern end of Okinawa the two Generals whispered to each other. They knelt side by side on a patchwork quilt covered by a white sheet (the color of death). Ushijima’s aide stepped forward, bowed, handed each General a gleaming knife. The knives had been half covered with white cloth, so that the aide did not touch the sacred metal.

The Generals opened their blouses, unbuckled their belts. Ushijima leaned forward and with both hands pressed the blade against his belly. One of his adjutants did not wait for the knife to plunge deep. With his razor-sharp saber he lopped off his superior’s head. General Cho leaned forward against his blade. The adjutant swung again. Orderlies took the bodies away.

General Cho had left his own epitaph: “Twenty-second day, sixth month, 20th year of Showa era. I depart without regret, fear, shame or obligation. Age on departure 51 years.”

As for the American forces, the battle closed in a much gentler fashion: to symbolize that the U.S. had conquered the island all the way to its farthest tip, Corporal John C. Corbett of the 8th Marines stood on a cliff and tossed a stone into the ocean.

Read more, from 1945, here in the TIME Vault: End on Okinawa

TIME conflict

The Forgotten Brutality of Female Nazi Concentration Camp Guards

Women Guards Of Bergen-Belsen
AFP/Getty Images Women guards of the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp, including Herta Bothe (right) and Irma Grese (second right) are seen after capture by British troops who liberated the camp, April 1945.

The female guards at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Ravensbrück are less well known than their male counterparts, but they were no less brutal

History Today

 

 

 

This post is in partnership with History Today. The article below was originally published at HistoryToday.com.

‘[They] hit the prisoners, who were almost as thin as skeletons with a thick stick … withholding of food and beatings, [they] also made the prisoners stand for hours’

Scenes like this were inflicted by thousands of SS guards who reigned terror upon millions of prisoners interned in the hundreds of concentration camps throughout the Nazi regime. Names such as Josef Kramer, Rudolf Hoess and Theodor Eicke have become synonymous with such atrocities. Yet, to the female prisoners held in camps such as Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Ravensbrück, the names Irma Grese, Maria Mandl and Dorothea Binz – amongst many others – instilled as much, if not more, panic and fear than those of the SS men. In fact, the scene described above was committed by the Aufseherin (female overseer) Lehmann at Ravensbrück concentration camp, and was far from unusual in the female sections of camps.

Of the 37,000 SS guards who actively participated in the daily suffering, torture and death of the internees, approximately 10 per cent were female overseers. Some of these overseers, including Irma Grese, were sentenced to death along with their male colleagues for ‘murder’ and ‘crimes and atrocities against the laws of humanity’. Others were sentenced to between one year to life imprisonment. Few were acquitted. Their role in the Third Reich was a far cry from the Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church) propaganda embedded in Nazi philosophy; they too were cogs in the killing machine of the Holocaust that led to the death of at least 1.5 million Jews.

Irma Grese, known as the ‘beautiful beast’ of Belsen, was, according to the charges brought against her at the Belsen Trial in 1945, one of the ‘most sinister and hated figures’ of the camps. Witnesses claimed that she used to beat women until they collapsed.

And she was not the only one. Renee Lacroux, a French prisoner held in Ravensbrück, told of how several female guards ‘killed the weaker ones and threw many of the girls onto the ground and trampled on them’. Just like their male counterparts, the female guards upon entering the camps were trained to become hardened and to punish prisoners severely when necessary. Many became accustomed to beating and kicking prisoners – sometimes to the point of death – with their jackboots, sticks, truncheons and, in the case of Irma Grese, with a whip made of cellophane. Some were involved in administering lethal sterilization experiments and many were present in the selection of those prisoners to be sent to the gas chambers. Some also carried a gun.

Not all guards, however, became equally accustomed to brutality. There were reports by some former prisoners of ‘humane’ guards: one such guard called Krüger is alleged to have shared extra food with her workers in Ravensbrück. And this case cannot have been isolated; an order was sent by the SS Obergruppenführer (senior group leader) to remind female overseers that they were not to have personal dealings with inmates. There was no equivalent order sent to SS men. Equally, murder was not customary for the female guards. They rarely used their guns and none, without exception, administered the fatal Zyklon B gas that killed over 6 million Jews, gypsies and asocials – amongst others – in the gas chambers. Direct killing was viewed solely as a masculine endeavor. This is not to say, however, that female guards did not kill the prisoners indirectly through their ill-treatment and violence – and violence was the norm throughout the camp environment.

So, how did these guards, described as ‘sadists’ and ‘beasts’ by former prisoners, find themselves committing these crimes against humanity? Elisabeth Volkenrath, chief female overseer in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, sentenced to death in 1945, was an unskilled laborer prior to becoming a guard. Ruth Closius, also sentenced to death for her exceptional cruelty, had dreamed of becoming a nurse but, since she left school too early, became a saleswoman in a textiles warehouse. The notorious Irma Grese worked at a dairy farm after leaving home at 15 years of age. Before entering the camps these women were, to all intents and purposes, ordinary women leading ordinary lives.

Many were not even members of the Nazi party. Unlike the overwhelming majority of male SS guards who were ardent believers in Nazi ideological and racial beliefs, less than 5 per cent of female guards were formal members of the Nazi party. For some then, the lure of a stable, well-paid job complete with uniform and accommodation was enough. Female guards earned approximately 185 RM, considerably more than the average wage of women of the same age in an unskilled factory job, 76 RM. Becoming a guard represented upward mobility for many of these under-educated and lower-class women. Even so, the recruitment campaign from 1942 onwards failed to attract the large numbers the SS needed in order to manage the increasing number of female prisoners. Instead, they had to turn to conscription. Even Irma Grese claimed that the labor exchange ‘sent [her] to Ravensbrück’, where all female guards underwent training, and that ‘[she] had no option’.

Whatever the reasons for becoming guards – financial, a thirst for adventure or conscription – Nazi ideology was rife and the ill-treatment of ‘enemies of the state’ was commonplace. As predominantly young, Aryan women aged between 17-45 (as strict entry criteria), these women had grown up in the midst of Nazism; many had been members of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls) and had grown up with Nazi propaganda. Further ideological training, which included propaganda films such as Jüd Süss, was imposed upon new recruits during their orientation period at Ravensbrück and manifested itself as violence within a matter of days. One prisoner noted how it took one guard just four days.

Many of these women were never brought to trial and were able to return to their pre-war, ordinary lives. For those who were brought to trial, however, such as Irma Grese, their ordinary life became a distant prospect to which they were never again able to return. Seventy years after the liberation of the camps, it is important to remember that women were not only victims, mothers or wives; they too were active agents in sustaining the terrors experienced by millions during the Holocaust.

Lauren Willmott works at the National Archives, London.

TIME World War II

The Surprising History Behind National Doughnut Day

The annual holiday is about more than flour in a vat of hot oil

It’s hard not to be cynical about many national food days. They tend to be the brainchildren of people who benefit financially from the success of the food in question, not of those who simply love to eat it. National Pie Day, for example, was founded by the National Pie Council. National Peanut Butter Day, similarly, was the brainchild of the National Peanut Board.

But here’s one that even the most jaded celebrant can get behind: National Doughnut Day. Its origins go back much further — to 1938, to be exact — and the day is as much about the people behind the food as it is about the ring of fried dough itself.

During World War I, women volunteering for the Salvation Army made doughnuts for soldiers serving overseas as a way to boost morale. National Doughnut Day was launched in 1938 by the Chicago branch of the Salvation Army, in part as a way to raise funds for, and awareness of, the organization’s work in the community. But the spirit behind the day was the recognition of these women’s contribution to the war effort.

The tradition begun by the Salvation Army’s dough girls or dough lassies, as they were sometimes called, was picked up again by the Red Cross during World War II, when LIFE dispatched a photographer to capture the women in action. The women Bob Landry photographed were posted in England, one of 72 similar outfits across the country. And the morale boost they brought was not only a result of the treats they offered. As LIFE wrote of the volunteers, “They are hand-picked for looks, education, personality and experience in recreational fields. They are hardy physically and have a sociable, friendly manner.”

The soldiers featured in LIFE, stationed in England in 1944, would greet the women with “howls of delight,” their spirits successfully lifted to the point that the slogan “doughnuts will win the war!” became popular among them. Victory would come at a higher cost, of course, but doughnut lovers will be pleased to know that their favorite treat once served a nobler purpose.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

Read next: 8 Ways to Get Free Donuts on Friday

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TIME Books

This Is Himmler’s Copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf

Ransom Center - Mein Kampf
Harry Ransom Center Himmler’s Copy of Hitler’s 'Mein Kampf'

How the book with an evil past made its way to Texas

This post is in partnership with the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. A version of the article below was originally published on the Ransom Center’s Cultural Compass blog.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. I grew up in Holland where the fifth of May is celebrated as “Bevrijdingsdag,” named for the liberation from German occupation that my father, who was 14 years old in 1945 when he stood by the side of the road and cheered a stream of Allied tanks and trucks into The Hague, still vividly recalls.

The Ransom Center holds one unique war trophy “liberated” by an American G.I. that weighs in at 23 pounds of evil: a giant vellum-bound copy in heavy boards of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Emblazoned on the front with a golden eagle atop a swastika, this large-format edition of Hitler’s manifesto is likely one of fewer than a hundred such lavish presentation copies specially produced in München for Nazi leaders during the war.

The book is now kept in a large box, along with two typed letters from the Red Cross nurse-turned-army-wife, Carmel White Eitt, who donated it in 1988. She writes of its being “liberated by a lad named Willie, a cook in the headquarters company of the 143 regiment” (she could not recall the spelling of his Polish surname), during the search of Heinrich Himmler’s residence in Tegernsee, Bavaria, by the 36th division after the signing that ended the war. Once Stateside, this G.I. showed up at her doorstep to give her his war trophy as a thank-you. I get chills every time I read her letter; even now the hairs on my arms tingle a bit.

A rare wartime survivor, the book has physical features and injuries that tell tales. The battered copy suffers from a slightly “cocked spine,” which makes it want to open to the pages where in 1945 it was stepped on and bayonetted by members of the 36th. Those pages still bear the imprints left by muddy army boots and the ragged cuts and punctures made by bayonets. There is something visceral about the damage left behind—a muddy snapshot of a violent history more compelling than the braggadocio of Hitler’s lavishly printed pages.

This particular copy of this particular book is a powerful object that brings up important questions about why a library or archive painstakingly preserves even the ugly aspects of history. When I show this book to my students, the cover alone is usually enough to solicit disgust from them. Yet in 1988 the former Red Cross nurse wrapped this copy of Mein Kampf in “swadling clothes” [sic.] to protect it on its journey to the Ransom Center. Using language more suitable for a fragile and treasured infant rather than Hitler’s 23-pound screed, this army wife who had witnessed the horrors of war first-hand wanted to preserve her enemy’s book because, as she says, she held a “very deep and abiding affection for the 36th Division and those men who fought so long and so well.” Himmler’s copy of Hitler’s ideas had, over time, become a testament to something else entirely.

Read the rest of this article and see more photos of the book here at the Harry Ransom Center blog

TIME Philippines

Philippine President Slams Beijing for Acting like Nazis in the South China Sea

JAPAN-PHILIPPINES-DIPLOMACY
Kazuhiro Nogi — AFP/Getty Images Philippine President Benigno Aquino delivers a speech in the Japanese parliament during his visit to Tokyo on June 3, 2015.

This isn't the first time he’s compared the Chinese leadership to the Third Reich

Philippine President Benigno Aquino refused to pull his punches in Tokyo on Wednesday when he compared Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea to Nazi Germany’s demands for Czech territory in the 1930s.

During a speech to business leaders in the Japanese capital, Aquino blasted the Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing claim to a majority of the potentially resource-rich waters of the South China Sea.

“I’m an amateur student of history and I’m reminded of… how Germany was testing the waters and what the response was by various other European powers,” said Aquino, in an apparent reference to the Nazis’ territorial conquests in Europe during the run up to World War II, according to Agence France-Presse.

Aquino’s remarks echo similar sentiments made during an interview with the New York Times last year when he also made comparisons between Beijing’s maritime maneuvers now with Nazi Germany’s actions in the late 1930s.

At the time, Chinese state media outlets lambasted the comparison and said the president was an “amateurish politician who was ignorant both of history and reality.”

TIME language

This Is the Speech That Made Winston Churchill’s Career

Winston Churchill
Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives the speech on the BBC that he just delivered at the House of Commons : "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat..."

"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat," he said

A full 75 years after the “Blood, Toil, Tears, Sweat” speech was delivered by Winston Churchill — on May 13, 1940 — it remains one of the most famous of his prolific career. Which is only appropriate, as it was the speech that set the course for his historic leadership of Britain during World War II.

Here’s what happened: Until mere days before the speech was delivered, Churchill wasn’t Prime Minister. He was First Lord of the Admiralty and, in fact, a “longtime political enemy” of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, per TIME’s account in 1940.

The previous month, British forces had responded to a Nazi incursion in Norway with all confidence of success. “Instead, all the pushing—and a lot of punching, hammering, rushing and blasting—had been done by the Germans. It was the British who went out backwards, faster than they had come in,” TIME reported two weeks later. Chamberlain, called to account for the failure, merely reassured his country that, though the military operation had been a total failure, at least the retreat had been successful. His statements that it hadn’t been a total disaster were met with derision; many called for him to resign if he could not promise stronger action.

Though Chamberlain begged his parliamentary colleagues to remain unified in the face of the enemy, his case had little heft in light of recent events. When Churchill spoke, he also asked for unity—but he admitted that Norway was a failure, and galvanized support with his candor and confidence. The Labour party refused to join a national coalition government unless Churchill was in charge of it.

Churchill took office as Prime Minister on May 10, 1940. On the 13th, he delivered that famous speech, as TIME reported:

As soon as he had made up his Cabinet he appeared before the House and, mincing no words, told it what was in store for Britain: “If you ask what is our policy, it is to wage war by sea, land and air with all our might,” said Winston Churchill. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” The House gave him a 381-to-0 vote of confidence and Neville Chamberlain smiled a tight-lipped smile.

His words established a new British attitude toward the growing conflict—and a reputation that would keep him in the Prime Minister’s office through the end of the war in Europe.

Indeed, the speech was so effective that, in 2003, TIME named included it on a list of 80 days that changed the world. “The opposition Labour Party would serve in a government of national unity only if it were led by Churchill, and on the evening of May 10, as German troops massed against France, he accepted office from King George VI,” wrote TIME’s Michael Elliott. “Three days later, Churchill promised Britain only ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ What he gave his country, above all, was leadership.”

Read the full 1940 story here, in the TIME Vault: Warlord for Peacemaker

TIME movies

The True Story That Inspired One of the Biggest Films of the 1940s

Family Feud
RKO Pictures / Getty Images American actors Myrna Loy (left) and Teresa Wright with Fredric March in a still from the film, 'The Best Years of Our Lives,' directed by William Wyler.

The hit movie was inspired by a story in TIME

On the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, the thought of the end of World War II in Europe is likely to bring up images of packed public squares, celebrating soldiers and spontaneous kisses. But for thousands of soldiers returning from the battlefields of World War II, the reality was much different. Victory in combat was followed by lingering questions about how to adjust to a home front that was literally and figuratively miles away from the realities of war. In 1946, producer Samuel Goldwyn, Sr. took inspiration from a true story to create a blockbuster film on the topic. The movie is still surprisingly relevant today and, in fact, was inspired by an article in TIME.

Though Goldwyn is best known as the G in MGM, he had nothing to do with the company—it resulted from the acquisition of his production company, Goldwyn Pictures, in 1924. Rather, he was an independent producer on the make, transforming himself from Szmuel Gelbfisz, a Polish immigrant with an explosive temper, into one of Hollywood’s most influential producers. He is credited with 139 films, including Stella Dallas, Wuthering Heights and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. During his lifetime, he was immensely successful: Part of his legendary art collection, including pieces by Picasso and Matisse, will be sold at Sotheby’s this year.

And the movie inspired by a real-life group of soldiers was one of his biggest successes of all. In 1946, he was best known for The Best Years of Our Lives, a film that was the biggest of its day—and that explored the decidedly modern issue of how veterans readjust to life after war.

Goldwyn struck on the idea for the film when he read an Aug. 7, 1944, TIME feature called “The Way Home.” The piece followed a group of Marines packed onto a train they called the “Home Again Special,” which was tasked with returning them to their hometowns after 27 months of bloody battle at places like Guadalcanal. The train’s riders wonder what will greet them as they return home—ticker-tape parades? Tearful reunions? But the reality is something much different:

The men were up early, shining their shoes, polishing their buttons. As the train pulled into Baltimore at 6:30 a.m. there was a shout: “Bring on the brass band.” There was no band nor any people, and the homecoming marines got off and walked through the silent station.

Home. The final run began…

At Philadelphia, there was just a string of taxicabs, at Jersey City, just the ferry to Manhattan. The marines silently looked at the New York skyline. Lieut. Camille Tamucci, the tough guy in charge, who had been dreaming of mounds of spaghetti, began brooding about his stomach. “It’s all tied in knots,” he said…

One marine shouted: “See you in the next war.” There was no answer. The marines shouldered their sea bags and walked away.

Goldwyn had a son in the Army when the piece appeared. Moved by the piece and its portrayal of the uncertainties that would face soldiers returning from the war, his wife Frances urged her husband to consider making a movie about how veterans readjust to post-war life. “Every family in America is part of this story,” he mused, commissioning a writer to turn the idea from article into film. He eventually spent an estimated $2.1 million (about $19 million in today’s dollars) to make the film, enlisting the likes of Myrna Loy and Hoagie Carmichael for a moving story of trauma and triumph.

The movie offers a surprisingly nuanced take on the challenges faced by returning vets. Its director, William Wyler, had combat experience of his own. He convinced Goldwyn to take a chance on Harold Russell, an untested actor whom Wyler spotted in an Army film about veterans who lost limbs in combat. In real life, Russell was equipped with two metal hooks he used in place of both hands, which were blown up in an explosives accident. On film, he can be seen using the hooks to play piano, embrace his girlfriend and perform everyday tasks. When Russell’s character returns from war, the battle has only just begun—he must struggle to accept life with a physical handicap and his misgivings about the woman who loves him anyway.

“He is no actor and no one pretends that he is, but his performance is more affecting than any professional’s could be,” TIME wrote in its review of the film. “Unlike most sure-fire movies, it was put together with good taste, honesty, wit—and even a strong suggestion of guts.”

Goldwyn saved some of the triumph for himself—The Best Years of Our Lives was a box-office hit. The film sold an estimated 55 million tickets in the United States and another 20 million in the United Kingdom, making it the most successful box office draw since Gone With the Wind. It also took home eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.

But Russell, who came to represent the complicated toll that combat can take on veterans, was the real winner that night. He took home not one, but two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor and a special award “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.” He is one of only two non-professional actors ever to bring home an Oscar.

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