I read Where the Birds Never Sing for several reasons. First off, Jack Sacco’s urge to record his father Joe Sacco’s experiences during World War II coincides with my own efforts to do something similar. Perhaps it’s an aging baby-boomer obsession -- to try and understand the events that shaped our parents’ perspective and influenced world politics for the last six decades. Secondly, I spent a day touring the Dachau Memorial not too long ago. Although I’m not yet ready to write about Dachau myself, I feel compelled to read everything I can find about it.
A tragedy like Dachau defies explanation. The Nazis imprisoned their own people there for a myriad of reasons, most of them political. In the heart of Germany, Germans tortured and killed fellow Germans with little fear of being held responsible for these crimes. Sacco does not philosophize. He reports. His first-person narrative brings home the emotions experienced by the young soldiers involved in the liberation of the camp. That is quite enough.
Characterizing this book as a story about the liberation of Dachau is an overstatement, though. Written in the first person, the book begins with the day that changed the course of Joe Sacco’s life. An Italian-American farm boy living with his large extended family in Alabama, he was unprepared to receive his draft notice in October 1942. However, there was no way that a child of immigrants would say no when his country needed him.
As Joe embarks on this mission, we get a peek at his relationship with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. His grandfather gives him a cross to protect him from harm and then dies while Joe is in basic training. Joe carries the religious artifact with him throughout the war. Although Joe desperately wants to go home, he tries to be a good soldier -- one who will make his family proud. Never having experienced homesickness myself, the intensity of Joe’s longing touched me, as did the loving support he received from his relatives, his town, his state and his country.
Sacco follows Joe through several military training programs in the first months of his service. One by one, Joe meets the young men fated to accompany him to war. If this were fiction, the cast of characters would be a cliché. Representing all walks of American life with names like Chicago, Chandler, Silverman, Spotted Bear and Tex, many of the recruits are also away from home for the first time.
As in war movies from The Sands of Iwo Jima to The Dirty Dozen, regional differences and racial bias create conflict among the soldiers. Then, a growing sense of purpose and fellowship pulls them together into a functioning unit responsible for stringing telephone wire and maintaining army communications. Overseas, the boys participate in the invasion of Europe -- from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge to the occupation of Germany.
I wanted to snort that this is a tale that I’ve heard before -- a thousand times over. But as the child of a combat marine who made it home from Iwo Jima when many did not, I find the eternal story of which boys survived to become fathers fascinating. Often, fate is the answer -- being in the right place at the right time, reaching down to scratch an ankle at the very moment a bullet would have slammed into the skull of a man standing upright. In the long run, there is no rational explanation for why Joe Sacco lived and his friends Silverman and Chandler did not.
Joe Sacco’s son Jack is an excellent writer. He has a good story to tell and he doesn’t clutter it up with extraneous description. The language is simple and easy to read; he lets the young men speak for themselves through their dialogue and their behavior. We see their respect and affection for General Patton. We see them teasing each other and rescuing each other and caring about each other. We see their fear and confusion when they first encounter the bodies of fellow soldiers. We see their sorrow and frustration when they begin to die themselves.
In April 1945, these young men approach the village of Dachau a few miles from Munich. The prison compound is on the outskirts of town -- a stone’s-throw away from the train station and the market area. What they find in Hitler’s first concentration camp is the stuff of nightmare.
Photographs supplement Joe’s perceptions of the camp. There are railcars filled with corpses just outside the compound. Rows and rows of barracks filled with starving scarecrows appear in another picture. Joe remembers the overflowing crematory, the buildings where Nazi doctors conducted grotesque medical experiments on inmates, American soldiers executing German guards. He remembers the strange ambivalence he felt while witnessing newly liberated prisoners beating a young Nazi to death. Understanding, hatred, anger, shock, horror and shame flash through his mind in quick succession.
Where the Birds Never Sing is well worth the read. Like The Pianist, the story breaks the reader’s heart with its simple profundity. History means more when you see it through the eyes of those who experienced it. Sacco leaves it at that -- he doesn’t preach or interpret. Here’s what Joe did, here’s what Joe saw and here’s what Joe felt.
I recommend this book for high school and college students who may not know what their grandparents went through in the 1940s. It’s especially pertinent now as American families welcome home another generation of soldiers who did their best under difficult circumstances, experienced human suffering and hatred on a massive scale and, thankfully, lived to tell their own sad stories.