The Greatest Generation

Tom Brokaw came up with the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe the people who grew up during the Great Depression. This same generation went on to fight in World War II (if not literally fighting, supporting the war effort at home).

Whenever I read anything about this generation, I automatically think of my maternal grandparents. John Holzman and Irene (Vavra) Holzman embodied many of the values people attribute to this generation. They really were great (although I suppose I’m a little biased).


John and Irene were both children of immigrants. Both grew up on farms in the Scott, Saskatchewan area. Both had fairly tough childhoods (which I’m not inclined to describe in detail), but somehow they both came through those rocky early days.

Neither of my grandparents complained about growing up during the Great Depression. But my grandma did share a few stories.

I know the Vavras had a huge market garden, which the three kids were expected to weed (and from family pics, they kept it pretty clean). I know the train tracks were about a quarter mile from the Vavra house, and so men would hop off the train and show up at the door looking for work (and sometimes for more nefarious reasons, I’m sure).

Grandma used to talk about the farm dogs of her childhood. The Vavras preferred something she called “Klinker collies.” They were some type of border collie that came from the Tramping Lake area (I think).

They were not the friendliest dogs.

One dog treed a hobo in the Vavra’s shelterbelt. He had been wearing two pairs of pants, but the dog ripped both pairs off before he managed to scramble up a tree.

That was a good dog, Grandma said. A mean farm dog was probably an asset during the Depression.

Grandman and Grandpa Holzman continued the tradition of nippy collies. One bit a police officer who knocked on their door. Another, Rex, bit my aunt”s suitor (and future husband) right in the ass.

Grandma seemed like the world’s sweetest woman. But when she talked about the mean dogs she’d owned, she would wrap up each story with a very slow, contented chuckle. She loved those nasty curs.


When World War II began, my grandpa had no desire to go to war. He had a wife, and soon he would have a child. He disdained the recruiting officer — family stories indicate Grandpa thought the guy was mendacious.

But Grandpa hadn’t yet taken over the farm, and so he was eventually drafted into the light infantry. After basic training he was sent to the Aleutian Islands, off the Alaskan coast. Japanese forces were occupying two of the islands, Atu and Kiska.

Grandpa didn’t talk about his service much. I know some of his comrades were killed by land mines. I believe he saw this happen (not sure how accurate my memory is, though). But fills in a few blanks.

Both American and Canadian forces began bombarding the islands from the air and sea. Five Canadian fighter pilots were lost when they flew into a fog-covered mountain in July 1942. In May 1943, the Americans lost 4,000 troops over twenty days retaking Attu island. They outnumbered the Japanese, but the Japanese troops fought to the death.

Next the Allies set their sights on Kiska island. They put together 30,000 American troops and 5,300 Canadians (my Grandpa would have been in this group, I think). By the time they landed, the Japanese had slipped away. But four Canadians and 20 Americans were killed by land mines, booby traps, and friendly fire (for a first-hand account of that debacle, have a look at this letter by Robert Atkins, a member of the 13th Canadian Infrantry Brigade, which landed on Kiska).

Next Grandpa was sent to help liberate/peace keep in Holland. Once again, I know very little about his service there. My impression is that he was in more of a peace keeping role than active combat at this point. The only scrap of a story I have is that he saw lots of hungry children. They would dig through garbage cans looking for bread.


After the war, my grandparents took over the Vavra homestead, and spent the next three decades farming and raising a family.

Growing up during the Depression taught them how to save their money, but they weren’t tight. They travelled, and they were generious with their family. When I was 10, they took their children and grandchildren to Hawaii for Christmas. They’d decided that instead of leaving us an inheritance, they’d rather treat their family and enjoy some time with them.

They were generous with their time, too. When I was little, Grandma used to trace out cartoon characters onto cardboard, cut them out, and play with them. I think she was a little sad when I outgrew that play time.

But she also loved cards, and would happily play cards with the kids and grandkids. Grandma always played to win, and even the smallest grandchild was shown no mercy. This led to a few temper tantrums with at least one grandson (there’s some debate about which one, but I strongly suspect two of them). Grandma was adament, though, that the grandkids would learn how to win on their own steam, and suffer losses with tact, not tantrums.

(Incidentally, both those competitive grandsons grew up to be marketing/commerce smartypants and I imagine the early card games had some influence on that. I don’t think they throw too many tantrums anymore, either.)

I’m not really down on my generation, or my parents’ generation, or the next generation. I think most of us are doing the best we can.

But I do think there is something to be said for the generation that grew up during the Depression. My grandparents suffered, served, and worked to make things better for their children. They had grit, but their hearts were soft.