THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen

(American Embassy, Saigon, South Vietnam, April 30, 1975)

THE SYMPATHIZER is a unique first novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen.  The story is told from the perspective of a narrator who allows the reader to delve into the mind of a Vietnamese person experiencing the end of the Vietnam War in the spring of 1975, and the aftermath of the fighting focusing on a possible counter-revolution, and how Hanoi is integrating the south into its political agenda.  The narrator highlights the duality that is present throughout the novel.  The protagonist’s own lineage is a case study in ethnic diversity as he himself is considered a half-caste or bastard in Vietnamese society.  He is the illegitimate son of a teenage Vietnamese mother, and a French Catholic priest.  The narrator loves his mother and hates his father, and throughout the novel these feelings are portrayed through a number of poignant vignettes.  The book itself is very important because there are few novels about the war that provide a vehicle for the Vietnamese to speak about their experiences and feelings.  Nguyen’s effort fills that gap in an emotionally charged novel that alternates between the light and the dark aspects of war.

The narrator’s character fits the duality theme in the sense that it is divided by at least two component parts.  First, he is obsessed with guilt as he tries to navigate the demands of being a spy for the north and living in the United States.  He is educated in an American university and after the war he is assigned by his handlers to shadow, “the general,” a former commander in the South Vietnamese secret police who has escaped Saigon, and is set up by the CIA in Southern California to organize the retaking of his country.  The narrator, a Captain and interrogator in the secret police is living a much better lifestyle than his compatriots who did not escape the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong when Saigon fell.  He suffers from tremendous “guilt, dread, and anxiety” concerning his worthiness as compared to his countrymen.  Further guilt is evidenced as he repeatedly flashes back to his role in the assassination of the “crapulent major,” who was suspected of spying for the north, and the murder of Sonny, a Vietnamese who began his own newspaper in Southern California that was seen as a threat by the general.  In the second component part of the narrator’s personality, we witness his movement away from his “sympathizer mode” and carries on as a revolutionary consumed with his role as a police interrogator following instructions from Man and his Aunt in Paris, both who are his handlers, to provide information as to events and political patterns that are being shaped in the United States.  Throughout the novel, the narrator’s role confusion is evident as regrets many of his actions committed during and after the war in the name of revolution.  His anguish evolves to the point that he begins to doubt his beliefs and tries to make amends to those he hurt.

S.  Vietnamese in Da Nang struggle to climb aboard ships that will evacuate them to Cam Ranh Ba

(South Vietnamese struggle to board ship in Da Nang to escape North Vietnamese forces, April. 1975)

The texture of the book is evident from the outset as Nguyen describes the horrific scenes that took place in Saigon as the city was about to fall.  The description puts the reader outside the American embassy and Saigon airfields as frightened Vietnamese who worked for, and, cooperated with the United States sought to escape before North Vietnamese troops took the city.  The narrator returns to his childhood when he, Man, and Bon, three friends become blood brothers for life.  As the novel unfolds we follow the relationship between the three that is rather complex since Man becomes a Commissar for the north, Bon is a soldier in the South Vietnamese army, and the narrator suffers from the duality of being a spy for the north and a police interrogator for the south.

Many important themes are developed in the novel.  The conflict between east and west or occidental and the orient are deeply explored in the dialogue between the characters.  The moral dilemma of what is right and wrong in our daily actions hovers over each page, and how a person tries to cope with their own divided heart. The author’s sarcasm is at times humorous, but also very disturbing as the narrator tries to understand the history of his country and the demands it makes upon him.  The history of the war is explored in the context of certain important decisions by the United States, the Hanoi government, and the remnants of the Saigon regime.  Nguyen descriptions are intense and very pointed, i.e., as the narrator explores who invented the concept of the “Eurasian;” he states “that claim belongs to the English in India who found it impossible not to nibble on dark chocolate.  Like pith-helmeted Anglos, the American Expeditionary Forces in the Pacific could not resist the temptations of the locals.  They, too, fabricated a portmanteau word to describe my kind, the Amerasian.  Although a misnomer when applied to me, I could hardly blame Americans for mistaking me as one of their own, since a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI.  This stood for Government Issue, which is also what the Amerasians are.” (19-20)

The Sympathizer 

The author creates a number of interesting and complex characters that carry the storyline nicely.  The right wing Congressman from Orange County, California who wants to fund and train the South Vietnamese counter-revolution, the Hollywood producer who is making his own movie version combining the Green Berets and Apocalypse Now, the northern commandant who tries to purify the revolution through the reeducation of those who have gone astray, and many others.  The narrator’s plight is very important as he tries to integrate his memories of his country in a heartfelt manner throughout the novel.  Whether he discusses Vietnamese geography, culture, or his family and friends, he seems adrift when in America, and then adrift again, when he returns to Vietnam.

The book is a triumph as a first novel, but at times it can be very dark.  I suppose that is acceptable based on the historical background of the war and the story it tells.  It is a unique approach to trying to understand a war that ended over forty years ago, but that had been fought since the late 19th century when the French first imposed their colonial regime.  The history of the war and the scenes that are presented seem authentic and should satisfy those interested in the literature of the war and how people tried to cope and survive the trauma it caused.

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THE LAST BOOKANEER by Matthew Pearl

The Last Bookaneer: A Novel

In Matthew Pearl’s latest historical thriller, THE LAST BOOKANEER he raises the question of what is a  “book’a-neer’ (bŏŏk’kå-nēr’), n. a literary pirate; an individual capable of doing all that must be done in the universe of books that publishers, authors, and readers must not have a part in.” Further he states that it is a person who was part of “the mostly invisible chain of actors that links authors to readers.” These definitions provide the basis for Pearl’s continued ability to design and develop plot lines that bibliophiles find endearing and all consuming.  After his successes with THE DANTE CLUB, THE POE SHADOW and THE LAST DICKENS his latest effort finds the reader engrossed in a tale centered in the Samoan Islands in the early 1890s involving a supposed last novel from the pen of Robert Louis Stevenson.  In fact, in 1890 Stevenson did purchase a 400 acre tract of land in Upolu in Samoa where he built his estate in the village of Vailima where he would live until his death in 1894. A major part of the novel is centered on the estate and the surrounding area encompassing its topography and the lives of the Samoan people.  What makes the novel a success is Pearl’s continued ability to place the reader in the 19th century and creating a wonderful literary yarn that reeks of a possible reality.

The story evolves as Edgar Fergins, an English bookseller imparts the history of bookaneers beginning in 1790 and the first American laws that governed copyrights that left out foreign authors, causing foreign countries to withdraw the protection of American authors.  What resulted was the plundering of literature on both sides of the Atlantic.  Publishers resorted to hiring covert agents to scour the world for manuscripts in the hope of publishing important items first.  Employing spying and intimidation these individuals were a focal point of the publishing industry.  Pearl provides a number of bookaneers for the reader to engage with.  Whiskey Bill and Kitten reappear from previous novels, but it is the American, Penrose Davenport, employing Edgar Fergins in his quest to seize Stevenson’s last manuscript, THE SHOVELS OF NEWTON FRENCH that dominate the story along with their arch enemy in the chase, Benjamin Lott, better known as Belial.  As countries moved toward an international agreement on copyright laws in the last quarter of the 19th century, the livelihood of bookaneers was threatened with extinction.  The background for the story is served by Davenport and Belial’s fear that the race for Stevenson’s manuscript would be the last such adventure that they would ever engage in.  This leads to a story that centered on lies and deception, with vengeance and guilt not far from the surface.

Pearl’s love of books emerges through his diverse characters as Fergins remarks, “For readers, books are a universal salve.  When we are hot, we read to feel cooler, when we are cold, we read to warm up; tired, books wake us; anxious, they calm us.” (142)  The keeper of a bookstall has insights that no one else has.  “From the type of cracks in the spine and the edges of pages, I can tell at a glance a book that is well read from a book that has been abused….books are not just words on the page, but the blots and the dog-earned corners, the buttery thumbprints and pipe ash we leave on them.  Books are written over with names, dates, romantic and business propositions, gift dedications, the pages could be pressed onto flowers, keys and notes.  A book can unfold moments or generations.…how odd it must be to go through life believing that a book [is only] a book.” (289)

Previous Upolu island – its jungle interior

Sopo’aga Waterfall, north of Lotofaga along the eastern cross-islands road.

Next
Sopo'aga Falls view

The story is narrated by Fergins in large part as he conveys his experience in Samoa and the literary industry in general to a dining car waiter he has met in New York named Clover.  Later in the novel Clover will take over as the second narrator as the plot takes a most unusual twist.  Through his characters Pearl provides the reader with an exquisite description of the Samoan Islands and its people.  We see the beauty of their customs and the loyalty they express.  At this time the natives are caught in a crossfire between German and English interests on the islands that creates an indigenous civil war that they must contend with.  There are parts of the novel that remind us of Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS which also examined civilized vs. primitive societies.  Through the portrayal of Stevenson’s bohemian lifestyle we witness a somewhat civilized society, while on the other hand we see the savageness of the bookaneer in the characters of Davenport and Belial, while the local Samoans seem to be the epitome of the purity of the human soul.

If you enjoyed Pearl’s previous historical mysteries, his current effort will not disappoint.  The plot continuously shifts and offers numerous surprises.  It calls forth emotions in the characters as well as the reader and Pearl’s style as he describes “Tusitala” (Stevenson’s Samoan name) reign as a chieftain in the Pacific as we witness a contented man who has escaped the industrialized world for the simplicity and freedom that he yearned for.   

Come and visit the Shapiro House at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. You never know who will greet you at the door as you enter!

eShapiro

Shapiro House was the home of Abraham and Sarah Shapiro, Russian Jewish immigrants, and their American-born daughter Mollie, from 1909 to 1928. It is furnished and interpreted to 1919, to show how the Shapiros sought to balance their strong cultural identity with new opportunities in America. While Shapiro House is specifically about the Russian Jewish experience, it also reflects the early 20th-century multi-ethnic community at Puddle Dock, when half of its 600 residents were foreign born. The Shapiro story is a case study of the process of becoming Americans shared by all immigrants. It is a story of struggle and success, tragedy and triumph.

Between 1880 and 1920, more than 23 million immigrants came to America. Many came from Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe seeking freedom, work, adventure, property, and self-determination, in short, better lives for themselves and their children. The majority stayed in large urban areas – New York, Chicago, Boston – but about 25% chose smaller cities and towns, including Portsmouth, New Hampshire. At the turn of the twentieth century, immigrants from Ireland, England, Canada, Italy, Poland, and Russia lived in and around the Puddle Dock neighborhood, alongside native-born residents. Abraham and Sarah were part of a complex network of international families within the community. Born in Ukraine, Abraham Millhandler and Sarah Tapper emigrated to America as young, single adults to reunite with family members who had come earlier. Abraham changed his name to Shapiro, as had his older brothers, Simon and Samuel. In 1905 he married Sarah, his sister-in-law, reinforcing kinship ties that had been established in Russia, even as they made new lives in America.

Part of a small Russian Jewish community, these families relied on each other for financial assistance, jobs, and emotional strength. With other families they established a Hebrew School for their children, opened kosher shops, and founded the Temple of Israel to serve their traditional cultural and religious needs. They established new businesses, particularly the scrap metal yards which flourished at Puddle Dock into the 1950’s. They became retail clothing merchants and shoe manufacturers. For most of his life, Abraham Shapiro worked in shoe shops and factories, loosely organized by kinship ties, that stretched from Lynn, Haverhill, and Newburyport, Massachusetts to Portsmouth and Epping, New Hampshire. In the late 1910’s he owned a pawnshop that catered to sailors stationed at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. When he could, Abraham also invested in real estate – sometimes in cooperation with his brothers – a privilege denied Jews in Russia. The Shapiro brothers were also active in Temple of Israel affairs from its founding in 1905. In 1912 Abraham was a leader in the negotiations to buy and convert the Methodist Church into a synagogue. Only a block from the Puddle Dock neighborhood, Temple of Israel was the social and religious center of the community. Like many Puddle Dock Jews, Abraham was an enthusiastic Zionist, and was frequently involved in fund raising for local, national and international Jewish causes.

Sarah Shapiro worked at home, taking care of their only child Mollie, maintaining a kosher home, and looking after a series of boarders, many of whom were newly arrived immigrants. Sarah’s daily activity focused on her home, family, friends, and neighbors. Immigrant butchers, bakers, and grocers in and around Puddle Dock provided nearly everything she needed to observe strict kosher dietary laws and to celebrate the Sabbath rituals with her husband and daughter. Mollie Mary Shapiro was born in 1909 into an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins. As as American-born child of immigrant parents she played a critical role in acculturating her parents, exposing them to new ideas and relationships, and developing her own identity as a Jewish-American. Education was an intergral part of the American Dream in the Shapiro household, as it was in many immigrant homes. In 1920, when Mollie was 11 years old, virtually all of the immigrant children at Puddle Dock were attending school. Mollie excelled in public school, completing high school and graduating from the University of New Hampshire. As an only child, she was the focus of all her parents’ hopes and dreams. They hoped she would maintain her religious cultural heritage as she grew up with an American identity. She worked hard in Hebrew School, as her worn-out textbooks attest, and learned to play the piano, a skill considered particularly American by many working class immigrants.

When the Shapiros purchased the house in 1909, it was well over 100 years old, like many neighboring houses. In fact, immigrants were first drawn to Puddle Dock because of these older buildings’ affordable rents. While the Shapiors certainly had the financial support of their families to buy a home, they were not unique. Of the 30 Russian Jewish immigrant households at Puddle Dock in 1920, half were owner occupied. The house was built in 1795 by Dr. John Jackson a physician and apothecary. After Dr. Jackson’s death in 1834, his widow continued to live in their home. By 1890 the house has been divided into a two-family dwelling and was probably a rental property. In 1909 when the Shapiros moved in, surprisingly few changes had been made to the 18th-century building. The original two-over-two room plan was intact, although the original small ell has been expanded twice by the end of the 19th-century to accommodate an updated kitchen. In 1911 a fire destroyed most of the ell, and when the Shapiros rebuilt it, they expanded it to the full width of the original house and added a small bathroom. After 1928, when the Shapiros sold the house, significant changes were made to the building. The 1795 stairway and chimney stack were removed, the parlor expanded, and the second floor plan reconfigured to create a third bedroom and a bath. In 1996 and 1997, Strawbery Banke staff restored the house to its 1919 appearance. The restoration, exhibit and program, Becoming Americans: The Shapiro Story, 1898-1928 was made possible by generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, private foundations, and individual donors.

Strawbery Banke Museum
PortsmouthNH.com

A Memorial to Jewish Small-Town Immigration

It also spilled into cities like Portsmouth, where Abraham and Shiva Shapiro settled in 1905 and reared a daughter alongside the predominantly Yankee descendants of the Colonial period.

An exhibit at the Strawbery Banke Museum’s Shapiro House, which opened today, focuses on Jewish small-town immigrants and has given their descendants a new understanding. ”It explodes the myth that all of these old New England locations were then populated only by descendants of the Mayflower,” said Sharon Kotok, coordinator of the exhibit.

Gov. Jeanne Shaheen spoke at ceremonies marking the opening of the exhibit, and Judge Joseph A. DiClerico Jr. of the Federal District Court in New Hampshire naturalized 20 more immigrants of diverse background. The Shapiro House, part of the museum’s 10-acre property on historic Strawbery Banke, has been restored to the way it appeared in 1919.

Abraham Shapiro immigrated here from Annopol, near Kiev, Ukraine, in 1903, when that country was part of czarist Russia. Shiva, who also was from Ukraine, immigrated in 1905 and married Abraham the same year.

At the time, Portsmouth was a city of 10,600 people, full of shoe shops and breweries and economically tied to the Navy shipyard across the Piscataqua River in Kittery, Me.

When Abraham arrived here, he had $12 in his pocket, said his grandson, Dr. Bert Wolf of Portland, Me., a dentist. Deeds and records show that Abraham, a pawnbroker, bought the house for $400 and paid it off in seven years. The Shapiros had only one child, Mollie, and she was ”the apple of their eye,” Ms. Kotok said. Mollie married and had a son, but she died at the age of 24.

The Shapiros were part of the more than 23 million immigrants who spilled into the United States at the turn of the century, fleeing discrimination and poverty.

”Nearly half the people in the U.S. can trace their relatives to immigrants who came here during this era,” said Susan Montgomery, curator of the Strawbery Banke Museum.

While most of the Russian Jews went directly to New York, Chicago, Boston and other large urban centers, ”fully one quarter of them selected homes in smaller communities,” Ms. Montgomery said.

Elaine Krasker, 70, a former New Hampshire State Senator who was born in Portsmouth and is a granddaughter of Abraham’s older brother, Shepsel, said that before the restoration project she had only a slight knowledge of the family’s past.

”The most exciting thing is that we’re bringing the family to life,” Mrs. Krasker said. ”I had only the bare outlines of their lives in Russia.”

Her grandfather Shepsel arrived in 1898 and started a scrap metal business. Simon Shapiro, another brother, arrived four years later.

Simon’s grandson, Sumner Shapiro, 71, of McLean, Va., is a retired rear admiral and a former director of naval intelligence. He, too, is fascinated by the family’s past.

”I heard about the neighborhood and house as a kid,” Admiral Shapiro said. ”My grandfather lived in a house around the corner. What makes this important is that many people think the Jews settled only in large urban areas. Not so.”

Speaking of the Shapiro House, Ms. Kotok said: ”It’s not glamorous. When you walk in this house, it will rattle some bones and shake some cages about who really lived in these old New England towns back then.”

ONE OF US: THE STORY OF ANDERS BREIVIK AND THE MASSACRE IN NORWAY by Asne Seierstad

Anders Behring Breivik

(Anders Behring Breivik the right wing extremist convicted of killing 77 people and wounding 244 in Oslo and Vtoya, Norway on July 22, 2011)

On May 15, 2015 the jury in the Boston bombing case voted the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for his role in the massacre at the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon.  Tsarnaev acted out of an ideology that was the antithesis of Anders Behring Breivik, the self-proclaimed commander of the Norwegian anti-communist resistance movement who in July, 2011 sought to rid Europe of what he perceived to be its Islamization and, secondly to make a statement about what cultural diversity, and the feminist movement were doing to Norwegian society.  By blowing up the Norwegian Parliament building resulting in 8 deaths, and massacring 69 teenagers and wounding 244 more at a Labour Party youth gathering at its Vtoya camp retreat, Breivik hoped to rally Europe to his demented cause.

The use of hindsight as a lens to dissect human tragedy is very common.  Twenty-twenty hindsight exposes errors in judgement and outright mistakes.  What took place in Norway probably could have been avoided or at least the casualties could have been markedly reduced.  The warning signals seemed to be in plain sight and were overlooked, resulting in a disaster that could have been mitigated and was not in the case of Anders Breivik’s horrific actions on July 22, 2011 in Oslo and Vtoya.  The planning and execution of this atrocity and the life stories of the perpetrator and many of his victims have been extensively researched and chronicled in Asne Seierstad’s 2013 book, recently translated into English, ONE OF US: THE STORY OF ANDERS BREIVIK AND THE MASSACRE IN NORWAY. The book is a powerful story of how the development of hatred in one person can expose an entire society to his violent agenda.   Seierstad’s book begins with Breivik having already killed 22 people, coming upon 11 other teenagers, and how he proceeded to shoot them one by one.  Every few seconds a gun blast was heard, and as Breivik moved on to complete his task he said, “you will die today Marxists.”  Later, Breivik would explain that he wanted “to kill the party leadership of tomorrow.”*

Norway Terror

(The bomb blast at the Norwegian government building site on July 22, 2011)

There are a number of chapters in Seierstad’s narrative that stand out.  The discussion of Breivik’s upbringing and the dysfunctional nature of family life greatly contributed to his lack of self-confidence and loner lifestyle.  His mother, Wenche suffered from mental illness and abrupt mood swings, and when Anders was four she yelled at him that she “wished he were dead.”  As a little boy Anders tortured pet rats and little girls were afraid of him.  His inability to gain acceptance as a teenager, young adult, and adulthood was manifested in trying to make a reputation for himself as a “graffiti artist,” the inability to gain support for a position with the right wing Progress Party, the failure of his e commerce business, rejection for a city council seat nomination in his home town, and inability to become a Freemason all reflect a pattern of failure.  He spent a great deal of his time playing hardcore computer games like “World of Warcraft” and “Call to Duty: Modern Warfare,” in which his violent nature was refined.  The author integrates the political changes in Norway, the rise of the Labour Party and its left wing social agenda and how it provided a scapegoat for Breivik who develops a strong resentment for the number of “brown” refugees that are accepted by the Norwegian government.  As Breivik’s ideological views evolve he becomes convinced that the problem for Norway and Europe is the infiltration of Islam and his belief that what stood in the way of their deportation was in large part the Labour Party and its “feminist leadership” under former Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland. Seierstadt’s chapter “Patriots and Tyrants,” delineates Breivik’s ideas in a 1,518 page written manifesto, much the same way as did Hitler in Mein Kampf, and in retrospect it is a scary document.

Seierstadt’s chapters dealing with the families is both endearing and poignant.  The Rashid family emigrated from Iraq to escape the mounting sectarian violence after the American invasion.  Their story and how they tried to integrate into Norwegian society is important and sad as in the end their children found themselves in a situation that could only mirror their experiences in Kurdistan.  The Saebo family were native Norwegians whose children continued their parent’s liberal beliefs and their son Simon became a leader in the AUF movement (the youth wing of the Labour Party).  The family typifies the liberal sector of Norwegian society and how they worked with refugees and the poor.  Other personal biographies are presented and when the reader is confronted with the massacre on Vtoya Island they feel as if they know the victims of the terror.

Norway Terror

(The carnage at Vtoya Island, Norway on July 22, 2011)

What is most disturbing about the book is the discussion of what can only be described as police incompetence in many instances as the terror situation began to unfold.  The lack of equipment, poor communication, and overall weak preparation for a disaster of this kind probably substantially increased the death and wounded totals.  I realize it is easy to connect the dots after the fact, but in this case misplaced messages or ignoring important information are directly responsible for a great deal of what occurred after the Parliament building bombing.  The fact that only one helicopter was available at the time and the lack of water transport was appalling.  In reading the author’s description one wonders how safe Norwegian citizens were in 2011.  The Norwegian police response in the immediate aftermath of the Parliament building bombing looked as if the “keystone kops” were in control.  For those who were in charge of keeping Oslo safe, the events of July 22nd are scandalous, as a “2012 official investigation found that the police and security forces’ response during the attack was seriously flawed.”*

In addition to the personality portraits and defense strategies, Seierstadt provides a unique opportunity into the mind of Anders Beirik, especially in her discussion of his trial and sentencing.  Beirik believed in a three step plan, the bombing, the massacre at the island, and a trial that would serve as his platform for his ideas. He repeatedly stated that he expected to be caught, and tried to surrender a number of times during the massacre (another blot on police procedure) so he would not be killed, thus preserving his opportunity to educate the public about Islamization.  He achieved his goals as the Norwegian legal system worked to his advantage.  First, his message was broadcast nationwide.  Second, the court had to determine if he was sane or a political terrorist.  Third, no matter the verdict, he could only be sentenced to twenty one years in prison, and possibly more if he was still deemed a threat to society after his sentence was served.  Two teams of psychiatrists examined Beirik, one found him to be insane and suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and the other found that he suffered from a “dissocial personality disorder with narcissistic traits….with a grandiose perception of his own importance…. possessing a vast appetite for praise, success and power….totally lacking in emotional apathy, remorse or affective expression.”  At trial he was deemed to be sane, something that Beirik desperately wanted so his “movement” would gain legitimacy in his own mind.

Norway Terror

(The arrival of Norwegian swat teams at Vtoya Island….too late)

The author’s exploration of Beirik’s motives, preparation, implementation, and post-massacre thought processes is reported to the last detail and provides insights into the most horrific domestic event in Norwegian history.  The book reads like a novel, but it is not.  The translation by Sarah Death is flawless, and after reading the narrative the reader will gain tremendous knowledge and insights into the events of July 22, 2011, and how most or at least part of what took place may have been avoided.

Norway Terror

(What hatred in one man’s mind can lead to)

*”Norway: Two Faces of Extremism” by Hugh Eakin, New York Review of Books, March 5, 2015, 55-57.

The Lady from Zagreb (Bernie Gunther Series #10)

THE LADY FROM ZAGREB is the tenth book in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series.  Gunther a former homicide detective before the rise of Nazism, an ideology that he finds abhorrent, is a character in absorbing historical thrillers that are set in Germany in the 1930s, World War II, and the Cold War.  Gunther is a very self-effacing and likeable individual who is one-quarter Jewish and has a propensity to offer humorous wisecracks that cut to the core of a German history between 1933 and 1945, a time frame that has destroyed the lives of millions of people.  In Kerr’s current effort we find Gunther in the French Riviera circa, 1956 reminiscing about World War II, and his relationship with a beautiful German actress, Dalia Dresner.  The novel binds together a number of plot lines.  We find Dr. Joseph Goebbles, the head of the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda and National Enlightenment with his own policy and sexual agenda; a series of murders, one happening to have been a client of Gunther; the intrigue of wartime Switzerland with spies ranging from the head of the Office of Strategic Services, Allen W. Dulles to SS Brigadefuhrer Walter Schellenberg who would become the head of Nazi foreign intelligence; a Hitlerite plan to invade Switzerland, and a plot to prevent such an invasion in the name of bringing about negotiations to end the war; the barbarity and cruelty of the Balkans that fifty years later would explode in Yugoslavia; and of course the machinations of Detective Gunther with his constant cynicism and sarcasm.

Kerr is a talented writer who weaves important historical characters and events throughout his story.  The narrative involves numerous historical figures that include Dr. Goebbles; Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop; SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, in charge of the Nazi genocide of the Jews; SS Obergruppenfuhrer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office; SS Brigadefuhrer Schellenberg; SS Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust and Chief of the Reich Main Security Office before his assassination; SS Gruppenfuhrer Arthur Nebbe, Gunther’s boss and a mass murderer in Bialystok during the war; Allen W. Dulles; Anten Pavelic, Croatian leader of the murderous Ustase; Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Nazi ally; and many other important figures.  Historical events are also not neglected as the Russian genocide of Polish officers at the Katyn Forest; the destruction of the Czech village of Lidice as punishment for the assassination of Heydrich; the allied bombings of Dresden and Hamburg; the slaughter in the Balkans; and Nazi war plans are all integrated into the novel.

(Joseph Goebbles Nazi Propaganda Minister)

Gunther’s personality, wit, cynicism and charm remain the same in Kerr’s latest effort.  His pointed historical commentary are as irreverent as always.  Finding himself in Croatia and a witness to the slaughter between Croats, Serbs and Muslims as he searches for Dalia Dresner’s father, who supposedly is living in a monastery, brings about the question as to “how does a Franciscan monk get to be an Ustase Colonel?” The answer offered is “by being an efficient killer of Serbs.” In describing Goebbles, Gunther said that while he was wearing a white summer suit, he looked “exactly like a male nurse in an insane asylum, which was perhaps not so very far from the truth.”    In addition, upon meeting the Grand Mufti’s guards, Gunther wondered why Hitler hated Jews and not Arabs.  “After all, some Jews are just Muslims with better tailors.”  In thinking about his own experiences on the eastern front and now facing the realities of the Holocaust, Gunther explores the competition inside the Nazi bureaucracy between the SS and SD, the Gestapo and the SD, Goebbles and Goering, Kalternbrunner and Himmler, the SS and the Nazi Party, the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht, and the role of German businesses.  In particular, Gunther is confronted by the use of slave labor by Siemens and Daimler-Benz during the war and he hopes that in the future historians will research what they have done and inform the public.  Recently in the case of Siemens his request was answered by Sarah Helm’s new book RAVENSBRUK, and in the case of Daimler-Benz, Neil Gregor and Bernard Bellon have exposed their crimes, though neither corporation has ever admitted their guilt or paid the appropriate compensation to their victims.  Further, as he is confronted by death seemingly at every turn, Gunther ponders whether German crimes are the worst in history.  Referencing the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, the British in India, Belgians in the Congo, Spain in the New World, and Russia under Stalin in the 1930s, the detective surmises that Germany is in good company when it comes to historical atrocities.

(Swiss-German border)

Gunther is an excellent detective that seems to find trouble no matter the situation.  At the outset Gunther, who has been transferred to the Third Reich War Crimes Department (Kerr really has a sense of the absurd), is forced to make a speech at a police convention.  From that point on the story begins to evolve.  Gunther begins to investigate the murder of a former client at the same time as Goebbles assigns him to find Dalia’s father.  On this mission Gunther becomes entangled with the Swiss police and other spies.  In addition, Gunther learns that there is an effort to try and bring about negotiations to end the war and that certain SS officials are buying barracks from the Swiss to use in concentration camps.  All of these situations come together, while at the same time Gunther tries to follow his conscience and accomplish his goals while working within the Nazi system.  As Kerr has written he does not like heroes who behave heroically, and in Bernie Gunther he has created just such a protagonist. The dialogue between the characters is very entertaining and Kerr manages to repeatedly raise the issue of morality in the context of Gunther’s actions, a very difficult task.

Without going into any further detail of the story, Kerr has once again created a successful mystery that will keep the reader fascinated and entertained as they are taken to another time and place.  If you enjoyed the previous offerings in the Bernie Gunther novels, THE LADY FROM ZAGREB will not disappoint.  As far as Bernie Gunther’s future is concerned in a recent interview Kerr said he was already planning for the eleventh book in the series.

RAVENSBRUCK: LIFE AND DEATH IN HITLER’S CONCENTRATION CAMP FOR WOMEN by Sarah Helm

(The barracks at Ravensbruck)

It has been seventy years since the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II. One would think that there would be very little to learn about what occurred during the Nazi genocide of European Jews and persecution of other minorities and groups during the war, but that is not the case. In Sarah Helm’s new work, RAVENSBRUCK: LIFE AND DEATH IN HITLER’S CONCENTRATION CAMP FOR WOMEN, the author reconstructs the history of the camp whose documentation was mostly hidden from the west during the Cold War. Once the “iron curtain” was lifted in 1989 more and more documents and other materials have been released from East German and Soviet archives. This allowed the author to provide the inmates of long ago a voice from “the special camp” created by Heinrich Himmler for women, a place ethnologist and survivor Germaine Tillion describes as “a place of slow extermination.” The camp, located fifty miles north of Berlin opened in May, 1939 and was liberated by the Russians six years later. The camp was not designated exclusively for Jews who made up about 10% of its inmates, but Jewish prisoners represented roughly 20% of those who perished. According to Helm’s, at its peak the site housed 45,000 prisoners and by the end of the war roughly 130,000 women passed through its gates to “be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed, and gassed.” Because of the paucity of records the final death toll is estimated at between 30,000 and 90,000, but we will never be sure. Wholesale destruction of records has kept the story somewhat obscure, but due to Helm’s relentless and assiduous research we have the most accurate and complete history of what took place there.

Ravensbruck, as most concentration camps was not built at the start as an extermination center, it evolved. It began as a place to house women arrested for various crimes, including statements that were deemed as offensive to Adolf Hitler, working for the resistance of foreign countries, espionage, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the outset prisoners were categorized as political, asocial, Jews, and Jehovah’s Witnesses and the camp was broken down into blocks to separate these groups. Himmler’s plan was to make the camp self-sufficient and have the prisoners police themselves as much as possible. The Nazi SS chose individuals to be Kapos to supervise slave labor and carry out administrative tasks to minimize the cost of running the camps and freeing up SS personnel. The Kapos were appointed as barracks heads and many were worse than the SS guards themselves. The narrative parallels the course of World War II and as it does we can see how the mission of the camp changes from a prison, to a sterilization and medical experiment facility, a training ground for female guards and personnel to administer other camps that came on line like Auschwitz, a source for slave labor in munitions factories that created sub camps for German corporations like Siemens, Heinkel, and Daimler-Benz, and finally an extermination camp.

(Work team at Ravensbruck)

As Helms weaves the war narrative she explores the daily lives of those imprisoned at Ravensbruck. She provides a detailed description of the day to day struggle that inmates had to endure. By including the life story of many individuals, whether communists, resistance fighters, prostitutes, physicians, nurses, or average people the reader gains insights into how individuals were treated and the coping mechanisms they developed as they confronted slave labor, deportations, beatings, medical experiments, and torture that resulted in so many deaths. One of the most interesting chapters describes the plight of women seized in Lublin, a Polish city which was overrun by the Germans during the summer of 1941. Helms follows the lives of these women as they traveled by train to Germany, and at each stop more prisoners are seized. Women named Wanda, Krysia, Grazyna, Pola and Maria are followed as they finally arrive at Ravensbruck were they first encounter the Chief female guard, described as “the Giantess and her hounds.” One of their most poignant observations was that the people they saw “don’t seem to have faces,” and years later all they could remember was the “din of the constant screaming of the giantess.” (165) As they adapted to their surroundings they became part of the camp social hierarchy and they developed ingenious ways to create normalcy in order to survive. Another group that Helms describes in detail were Red Army doctors and nurses that were captured. Under the leadership of one of the nurses, Yevgenia Lazarevna Klemm, whose survival strategy was to stress that her group were POWS, not typical inmates, and had rights under the Geneva Convention. She constantly reinforced the concept to the woman that loyalty to each other was paramount, and that they should not “break the [their] circle” in their dealings with the SS and Kapos. This was successful to a point, and when they were forced to engage in slave labor at a sub-camp for Siemens she instructed her people to sabotage the munitions they were forced to work on. This approach allowed a number of these women to survive, and to this day they praise the leadership of Yevgenia Klemm.

Sadist: Dorothea Binz, who became chief of Ravensbruck, enjoyed handing out beatings and torturing the inmates

Throughout the book we meet the likes of Dr. Walter Sonntag, a brutal individual who was charged by Himmler to conduct sterilization experiments and research on inmates to determine how to wipe out the sub-humans who were deemed a threat to the Aryan race as purported by Hitler and his henchman. Dr. Friedrich Mennecke a Nazi psychiatrist was brought in to determine how to choose candidates for euthanasia as these people were not worthy of life in the Nazi world view. Himmler was obsessed with “useless mouths” who did not carry their own weight and they were to be given “special treatment” as designed by Nazi doctors like Herta Oberheuser, an expert in “lethal injections.” Other doctors conducted experiments on “rabbits,” specially chosen women, to determine the best way to counter bacteria by injecting it into the bodies of inmates or removing body parts to see how people would respond. The narrative does not focus totally on Nazi medical practices and hygiene, but it is important that Helms presents this material to offset any belief that Ravensbruck was just for the incarceration of its women.

Helms describes in detail how the camp administrative hierarchy carried out Himmler’s orders and its impact on the daily lives of the inmates. The inmates are the key to the narrative as Helms was able to track down numerous survivors of the camps and interview them. Many in their late eighties and nineties remember amazing details of their experiences that enhances our understanding of what they went through. Helm’s “combed through the transcripts of postwar trials of camp officials and guards and found archival material that were opened after the fall of Communism…… During the past 15 years a few other books about Ravensbruck have been published, but none as focused on as many prisoner groups as Helm’s.” (New York Times, April 7, 2015, ‘’RAVENSBRUCK” by Walter Reich) Helms’ is to be commended for her tenacity in uncovering documents that previous historians have been unaware existed. In so doing she includes excerpts of letters inmates were able to smuggle out and even mail home. In addition there are transcripts from underground radio broadcasts that provided evidence for the inmates that there messages were reaching beyond the barbed wire and watch towers that controlled their lives.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book were the chapters dealing with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Berlin and Geneva (ICRC). Headed by art historian, Jacob Burkhardt, they were fully aware of what went on in the concentration, labor, and extermination camps. Many letters and other documents were provided to them by resistance groups and governments, but they always had excuses not to take action. They refused to give out Red Cross parcels, make broadcasts, help with visas and transportation for individuals to escape, work behind the scenes, and try and influence certain Nazis that were wavering as the war went against Germany. The lack of action of the ICRC was appalling and their ever present excuse that the camps were “not subject to the rules of the Geneva Convention of 1929,” and they had to maintain their neutrality to be effective was not acceptable. In addition the perpetrator of the atrocities at Ravensbruck, Karl Gebhardt, “was a close associate of Ernst Grawitz, president of the German Red Cross, the most powerful medical figure in the Third Reich.” (333) When inquiries were made to the ICRC in Geneva they “gave the same stock answer: the Committee had no access to the camps and couldn’t intervene.” (436) We all recognize that the Red Cross was in a compromising position, but any effort on their part would have been appreciated by the inmates. Finally in April, 1945 with Sweden taking the lead in rescue measures, Burkhardt, concerned with his legacy arranged a prisoner swap of 299 French women held at Ravensbruck for 450 Germans held in France.

Evil: Ravensbruck concentration camp guards Helene Massar, Marga Löwenberg and one other out rowing on the Schwedtsee lake

(Ravensbruck concentration camp guards Helene Massar, Marga Löwenberg and one other out rowing on the Schwedtsee lake)

As the war turned against the Nazis more and more prisoners were seized and sent to Ravensbruck. By fall, 1944 as the Russians advanced across Poland, Hitler was forced to shut down Auschwitz, Majdanek, and other camps moving camp inmates westward. Further, with the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto more and more people arrived from the east at Ravensbruck. With the allied landing at Normandy, the fall of Paris saw prisoners sent eastward furthering the health and logistical nightmare at Ravensbruck. To make matters even worse Hitler’s decree to empty Hungary of its Jews and exterminate them furthered the spread of typhus throughout the camp. If squalor and disease was not bad enough, late 1944 saw the arrival of Rudolph Hoss, the former Commandant of Auschwitz, Otto Moll, Auschwitz’s “gassing expert,” Carl Clauberg, the mastermind of Himmler’s sterilization program, and other unemployed Nazi murderers at Ravensbruck. Helms states further that “it is no coincidence that just before these men arrived, Himmler issued a new directive requiring an immediate, massive increase in the rate of killing and construction of a gas chamber to carry it out.” Himmler’s order read: “In your camp, with retrospective effect for six months, 2000 people monthly have to die…” (469) Himmler’s reasons for issuing the order are clear, Ravensbruck was out of control with typhus and other diseases spreading and an influx of women from Auschwitz and other areas increasing. For the first time, Ravensbruck would have its own extermination facility, “becoming the scene of the last major extermination by gas carried out in the Nazi camps before the end of the war.”(654) By winter, 1945 it was decided that the camp was to be liquidated and all evidence of its existence to be destroyed. Since the building of crematorium and its components could not keep up with the demands of eradicating all inmates thousands of prisoners were sent to Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Dachau and Flossenburg to be gassed, while others were force marched to their deaths as Hitler ordered that no prisoners were to be left alive when the Russians arrived. The evidence exists that killings at Ravensbruck would continue until late, April, 1945.

Women's concentration camp victims, rescued.
(Liberated prisoners at Ravensbruck)

Helm’s has prepared the definitive biography of Ravensbruck and has done a remarkable job in compiling the stories of the women who perished and those who survived. There are a few things the author could have addressed more, i.e.; providing better documentation for the quotations that she cites, improved referencing of her sources and interviews, and trying to create a tighter narrative so the story of the camp is easier to follow. To read Helm’s book is to find oneself in a place that cannot be imagined or understood, but thanks to the author the evidence of its existence is there for all to witness. What is most important is that Helm’s narrative has allowed the victims of the Nazi horrors a means to communicate from the grave.