One of our dogs had worms when she was a puppy. I still recoil at the memory of the long, white worms mixed in with her excrement—and at having to gather up some for a veterinarian’s analysis.
Arturs, the little boy who is the subject of Vincent and Victoria Benson’s To No Man’s Glory, also had worms. He had to pull them from his rectum with his fingers.
This is just one of many disgraces Arturs Lejnieks, a young Jewish orphan, had to face as he and his group of refugees wandered around Latvia during World War II in an attempt to escape death at the hands of the enemy, whoever that might be at any given moment. Young Arturs later became Vincent Benson, the adopted son of an Iowa farm couple.
To No Man’s Glory takes the reader along with Arturs as he in 1941 leaves an orphanage in Majori with his beloved Auntie and embarks on several years of constant running from those who would wish them dead. The child doesn’t understand his Jewishness, nor does he understand why people would want to kill him because he is a Jew. But he learns there are many who cannot be trusted: Germans, Russians, Latvians. As the bumper sticker says: "Mean people suck."
After he and his Auntie survive several close calls in Latvia, they wind up in Germany as Displaced Persons. From there, Arturs is shipped off to America where he is placed in Iowa with an ungrateful adoptive father but a loving adoptive mother. Only after he converts to Christianity does Arturs, now known as Vincent Benson, find the strength to forgive all those who have hurt or betrayed him in Latvia, in Germany, in America.
This is, obviously, a story of survival. It is not a happy book, even with an ending that sees Vincent Benson finally have some normalcy in his life. It is a matter-of-fact book, with horrid wartime scenes that require little embellishment to paint powerful images. It also is a revealing book: Vincent Benson doesn’t shield himself or the reader from the nastiness of everyday life, even in the relative security of postbellum, midwestern America.
What is especially troubling about the story is that despite being a Jew—and being persecuted for being one—Vincent Benson never really had the chance to be one. German soldiers wanted to kill him for being a Jew before he even knew what being Jewish meant. As a Displaced Person there was precious little time to learn about his heritage. In Iowa, his adoptive father pushed him to forget his past and become a good Lutheran. Taken together, that is perhaps the greatest disgrace experienced by Vincent Benson.
Although it has the markings of a self-published book, To No Man’s Glory is well done. Victoria Benson presents herself as a competent writer who has taken her husband’s story and shaped it into prose.
Illustrations are few, mostly some small snapshots of the Lejnieks family taken during better times in prewar Latvia. But one group of pictures, taken from an assignment book Arturs used while a student in a DP school, deserved to be displayed much larger. These include drawings by the child, depicting war and other scenes that were etched into his memory.
The Bensons obviously researched events beyond simply relying on the decades-old memories of Vincent. In the first part of the book, brief introductions to some chapters provide historical context in terms of Nazi Germany’s plans for the "Final Solution." But what is lacking is a clear understanding of where in Latvia many of the events unfold. Yes, we know where Rīga is, but where are the roads young Arturs and Auntie travelled? Where are the forests in which they hid? Where are the mass graves they saw? Of course, it may be difficult to resurrect geographical context from childhood memories, but even a general fix on where events occurred would be of great benefit to the reader.
To No Man’s Glory joins the still small but growing literature on the Latvian experience during and after World War II (see Aurora and A Woman in Amber for other examples). Call it victim literature, call it refugee literature. Whatever its name, it’s an important story that must be told.
To No Man’s Glory: A Child’s Journey From Holocaust to Healing
Vincent (Arturs Lejnieks) Benson with Victoria Harnish Benson
Medford, Oregon: Silver Dove Publishing, 2000
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