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Veterans Series: WWII Veterans And The Arts

We’re about to meet two World War II veterans whose work has been published and, in one case, whose art has been exhibited. For the latter, art therapy plays a role. In the next installment in our weeklong series on veterans, WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne explores the two veterans’ crafts, both of which were on display at a recent Veteran Arts Showcase.

(Wenk reads from a passage in his book.)

That’s Ulster County resident Jay Wenk, reading from his memoir published in 2010 entitled “Study War No More: A Jewish Kid From Brooklyn Fights the Nazis.” He was reading the part about Teddy, a DP, or displaced person and doing so as part of a Veteran Arts Showcase held at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park. Wenk, who served in the combat infantry in World War II, traveled and fought his way across Germany to Czechoslovakia, and then endured Occupation duty in Germany.  He talks about why he wrote the book.

“Originally, I did it for my children. I had the insane idea that they would be interested in what I did in the war,” Wenk says. “And, if they didn’t have that idea,  I wanted them to know what I had done and not a matter of combat and so forth but  my evolution as a person, that’s what I wanted them to know about.”

He says he evolved from an introverted kid ashamed of being a Jew into an adult proud of who he is. Wenk, who serves as a Woodstock town councilman, is rewriting and expanding his book, and will include some of his poetry. He says this editing process has him reliving some of his experiences during the war. And he recalls the following.

“We captured a small town in the southeast of Germany where they made, they had a work camp, slave/labor camp, where they had made radios for the German military. Our squad was put into a cottage on the far southeast end of town. That’s where we were going to spend the night before we took off the next day. That evening, our sergeant, who had disappeared, showed up with six or seven German women who were there to sleep with us. And we gave them the big three black market items — chocolate, cigarettes and chewing gum. And it was a horrible experience for me. Early the next… I had never slept with any woman before, or anybody, and that, in itself, was sticky,” Wenk says. “The next morning, the guy on guard saw some German troops up a little hill nearby in the woods there, and so we went running out and grabbed our guns, running up to the hill, blah, blah, blah. When we came back down the hill and as we approached the cottage, there were the women looking out the window at us. They’re watching us. And I felt so ashamed. It was a horrible example of how the war degrades everybody. It was a horrible thing, my projection of what they were feeling, and there we are chasing their brothers, their husbands, their cousins, their whatever, we’re looking to kill them, and they’re watching this.”

(Jay reads from his poem, “Thank You for Your Service.”)

“I think that’s a very powerful piece. And it’s, we’re thanking people for their service who have committed suicide,” says Wenk. “And this society needs to really take it in to themselves that the wars that the society’s supporting are creating situations like that and where 22 veterans are killing themselves every day, 22, a day.”

After Wenk was discharged from the Army in 1946, he attended the Julliard School on the GI bill, to study composition. Wenk also pursued composition of another type, as a cabinet maker and woodworker. He built his own house in Woodstock. Wenk also is co-founder of Veterans for Peace, and believes World War II could have been avoided.

(Jay reads from his poem, “Thank You for Your service.”)

“I’m not thinking of art as healing,” says Wenk. “I’m thinking of art as education.”

“But is there any healing in it for you?” asks Dunne.

“I don’t know. It’s something I never thought of before. That question was never put to me before,” says Wenk. “I imagine there probably is in that I write something, I think it’s good. And I read it, and people enjoy it or get something from it, and that makes me feel good, and that’s healing. Feeling good is very healing.”

Another of Wenk’s poems, “Christmas Eve, 1914” was posted in early December on the Veterans for Peace website.

The all-volunteer Veteran Arts Showcase where Wenk read from his works started four years ago. In addition to readings, performances and workshops, veteran artwork is displayed throughout a large room. George Laws, who had joined the Navy in 1976, chairs the showcase. He says it gives the civilian population a window into the experiences of the military population.

“And I also want to raise awareness within the veteran population about the therapies and the things that are available to them,” Laws says. “This show is more than just an art show. It’s about alternative therapies, expressive therapies that’s able to help people in different ways. Talk, written word, writing, painting, drawing, I do underwater photography. It’s things that be able to give them coping skills. It’s an amazing process.”

Laws, who works in an engineering capacity for the Montrose VA in Westchester County, says he sees the benefits of art therapy firsthand.

“I’m trying to give the artists a venue where they can express themselves creatively, without judgment, where they can be given the respect and dignity that they not only deserve, but they’ve earned,” Laws says.

A cutout of a yellow Labrador Retriever. A beach scene. A loved one. Fishing.

“These are shadowboxes. They’re memory boxes in the community living center at the Montrose VA. Outside of the door of these men and women’s rooms are these boxes,” Laws says. “And, as you can see, there’s the rank, it says their branch of service, and things they did in their life.  These are little windows into their lives. These are what these people, this is their lives in a 10”x10” box. These are outside of the rooms they live in. They’re created with the help of an art therapy department at the campus.”

The art therapy department at the Montrose VA has an outpatient component, and Westchester resident Jay Albrecht participates. His abstract art includes mobiles, wall sculptures and collages, which inhabit his apartment.

“Many of these were made in the VA workshop, which is up in the Montrose facility. They believe in art therapy very strongly there,” says Albrecht. “And there’s a bunch of guys, I’m by far the oldest one there, but they’re from the Vietnam and from the Korean War and so on. I was an ensign on a minesweeper in 1943,” says Albrecht. “We all get together very well because we’re all seeking karma through our work.”

“What’s your favorite?” Dunne asks.

“Of everything you see around? That one, which is called ‘Wild West’,” Albrecht replies.

“Why is it your favorite,” asks Dunne.

“Because it’s flinging things in all directions. There’s freedom in that,” says Albrecht.

“Is therapy ever over?” asks Dunne.

“Nope. Life has a way of giving you knocks and you have to find ways to meet it, and this is how I meet it,” says Albrecht.

A few pieces of Albrecht’s art were on display at the Veteran Arts Showcase. He says the art workshop at the VA is considerably worthwhile and does much to alleviate bad memories.

“It’s given me a greater peace of mind as I am able to do these things,” Albrecht says. “And thank heavens I am adept in both word and form.”

Albrecht, now of Tarrytown, grew up in Monsey, in Rockland County. With his mechanical engineering degree from Yale, he worked for six years for Curtiss-Wright, where he designed rockets. Subsequent professions included advertising agency copywriter and psychologist. Albrecht says at the outpatient art therapy program, veterans rarely discuss war.

“We very rarely talk about anything like battle and so on because what we’re trying to do is to express ourselves in a way which is therapeutic,” Albrecht says. “We do, because it is in the doing of the art, at least for me, that the therapy comes.”

Albrecht also writes poetry. He has been doing so since age 15. He demonstrates the intersection of his poetry and art with the following poem about a friend in his art therapy workshop.

“Ed is a man who works on his art next to where I work.  ‘Ed and I At Artistry'.

There's whimsey in your workings -

your fruited, bridged resolve,

bright as any Paris view

or Pablo's kid's-eye wonder...

Chagall's floating lovers.

I float whirling verses just for fun,

geometrics dancing on black plaques,

wire whorls laced to show my song,

Our friendship, now, colorful, appreciative.”

While there is whimsy in some of his poetry there is much that is intensely personal and, after the war, his poetry becomes about relationships, yearnings. His books of poetry are Angelic Asides and Ways of Flying, published in 2011 and 2015.  In this poem, Jay is Jamie.

“And this is, ‘To Jamie.’

A space in Spring for you, Jamie,

soft child inside me.  Remembering

sun-glowed dogwoods

mornings of knotting white-and-pink inaglios.

Your memories still limp back

to nightmares with staring faces,

stilled dreams, shivers.

It took three-score years to hand

each fright, each shame to Him...

each blocked rebellion, black

worry, blamed error, tamed joy.

Jamie, take your joyhood back.

Your Spring awaits you.”

“What emotion is coming through when you’re reading that and why?” asks Dunne.

“Regret that it took so long for me to become a man,” Albrecht says.

“Does the war have anything to do with that?” Dunne asks.

“A great deal, yes,” says Albrecht.

“How?” asks Dunne.

“I was afraid of mankind because I was always a loner as a kid and taunted a lot for being a loner but, in the Navy, I was forming friendships and working closely with other men to do a job because on a ship, you see, every man depends on another man for his safety. They must work together or they’ll die together. And it showed me that it was possible to form friendships and to form trust, and it enabled me to grow up a great deal. And I carried on that process after the Navy by going back to school and learning something about human nature. I’m glad I did, of course.”

That learning about human nature involved earning a master’s in counseling and Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Meanwhile, Albrecht continues writing poetry, adding to his 300 or so already on paper. And for his next art adventure, he plans to dabble in clay.

“Who do you want to see your work and listen to your work?” asks Dunne.

“Everybody,” Albrecht exclaims. (laughs)

In fact, both profess that ego has something to do with it.

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