Home Arts Literature BOOK REVIEW: A Humane Perspective ‘Finding Phil: Lost in War and Silence’

BOOK REVIEW: A Humane Perspective ‘Finding Phil: Lost in War and Silence’

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by Nathan Grutchfield

Editor’s Note: This is a corrected/updated version of a book review The Bridge published in the December 1 issue. Due to an editing error, the wrong version ran. We regret the error.

Paul Levy was only a year old when his uncle Phil was killed, on Jan. 7, 1945, in the European theatre of World War II. The younger Levy was largely oblivious to his uncle’s ideals, the story of his death and how his life had led him to that fateful moment.bookreviewfinding-phil

The cause of this murkiness manifested itself in the shroud of mystery and silent pain that was produced regarding this uncle by those who knew him. “Like many families devastated by the loss of a boy in the war, my family rarely spoke of Phil and my sense of him and his life was embodied in only a few scattered facts,” Levy explains.

And that was how it was for over 40 years. Levy lived a lifetime committed to types of social involvement. A poverty lawyer and community organizer in Vermont and Indiana, as well as the teacher of a leadership master’s degree program in Sweden for many years, were positions in which he most likely developed a deeply humanitarian perspective.

Then, in 1987, the uncle’s story was suddenly brought to Paul’s attention, in the form of two items that arrived in the mail: a Purple Heart war insignia and a journal that Phil had kept during the war, created while he was aboard a British ship that was part of a fleet sailing from Naples, Italy, to the southern coast of France. Phil’s wife, Barbara, had died, and her sister had sent the contents. The journal, in particular, illustrated Phil’s life like nothing Paul had ever seen before, through colorful firsthand accounts that portrayed a star-driven, idealistic young man, snatched away by the war in an extremely tragic manner.

After Levy retired some years later, he tackled an ambitious journey to uncover the entire story of Phil. It took five years to complete the memoir that is “Finding Phil: Lost in War and Silence.” He is transported through research to very interesting places, from the pale of Russia where Phil’s father fled as an oppressed Jew to South Bend, Indiana, where Phil was shaped into an adult. And he explores the passionately hopeful view in which his uncle held the world, and the broader context of this situation; one that involves universal questions relating to war, tolerance and honoring generations past.

Several people have had relatives who have died in war, and still many have held a murky perspective regarding their life and death. Levy himself may have suffered from a kind of emptiness as a consequence of that. Yet he has offered himself, and much of his audience, a kind of vindication in “Finding Phil.” Further understanding this silent and painful way in which people deal with these tragic events, as this book offers us the chance to do, can be helpful in finding ways to overcome its burdens.

In addition, one can learn from the ideals of the uncle, Phil Levy. This is a character that almost every person has been at some point, no matter how cynical certain experiences may have made them, and is a character whose desires and motives portray, in some sense, the best possible world in which one can exist.

Phil as a young man is highly concerned about social justice. “‘It is easy to call upon people to kill the Jap or the German,’” writes Phil Levy in his journal, “People will sacrifice to fight (them), but will they fight ignorance and poverty with equal energy.”

This is a contemplative, intelligent and compassionate point. Phil possesses dreams for a future society to defeat these flaws such as “ignorance and poverty.” This is a message that each person should spend time considering, since these are indeed still flaws in today’s world.

These are the two main points where Paul Levy connects with his reader: the necessity for silence to be broken, and the necessity for humanity to improve in many of the ways that Phil wanted it to. His findings related to these themes are profound and eloquently described. Yet, due to the vastly complex ethical and sociological subject that war is, there are no definite conclusions reached, and one must have their own viewpoint regarding these themes.

A potential shortcoming of “Finding Phil” lies in the fact that much of the story revolves around fairly detailed descriptions of military strategy. But that is made up for by the fact that there are other, more intriguing tones, present in the book, such as what is used for characterization purposes. For instance, you learn that Nathan Levy, Paul’s father and Phil’s brother, was a highly competitive, successful man, once called by his law professor “a born lawyer.” Nathan, as well as Phil, is fascinatingly conveyed through these types of stories, which is important to further our understanding of the events in the story.

Paul Levy’s considerable effort to write “Finding Phil: Lost in War and Silence” was probably borne out of his strong social conscious and eagerness to defeat that early shroud of mystery that had once hidden his uncle. In writing the story, he has used both interests to paint a touching picture appealing to both one’s personal life and the society around them today.

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