INTO THE FOREST: A HOLOCAUST STORY OF SURVIVAL, TRIUMPH AND LOVE by Rebecca Frankel

Wehrmacht convoy in Minsk, 1941 Stock Photo

(German occupation of Minsk during World War II)

Over the years many books and memoirs have been written describing the imponderable experiences of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust.  The story line that I have found most unbelievable involves those individuals who escaped the Nazi imposed ghettoization of villages, towns, and cities into forests that adjoined their homes.  The latest narrative, INTO THE FOREST: A HOLOCAUST STORY OF SURVIVAL, TRIUMPH AND LOVE by Rebecca Frankel is a poignant description of eight hundred people who escaped the Belorussian village of Zhetel in August 1942 into the Lipiczany forest who by August 1944 was reduced to about two hundred.  The resistance/survival genre of the Holocaust was popularized in the 1980s with the publication of the book DEFIANCE and a film of the same name which told the true story of the Bielski brothers who defied the Nazis, built a village in the forest, and saved about 1200 Jews.  These stories reflect the tenacity and will to live by so many as is shown in Frankel’s description of the plight of the Rabinowitz family as they survived in a primeval forest near their home.

Frankel immediately captures the attention of her readers as describes a 1953 wedding in Brooklyn, New York attended by Philip Lazowski, a Yeshiva student who attended classes at Brooklyn College.  We soon learn that during the war that Philip left his home in Bilitz as the Nazis were massacring Jews and was protected by a woman and her two young daughters as the Nazis had moved on to the village of Zhetel.  While attending the wedding Philip recognized a woman named Miriam Rabinowitz, the same person who had saved his life.  This story and numerous others are recounted by Frankel as she delves into the many horrors that the Holocaust wrought to so many people.  Frankel’s monograph is a story of how people react to certain death and the triumph of the human spirit.

In telling her stories Frankel blends the course of the war and the Holocaust in a concise manner and its impact on the Rabinowitz family, Morris, Miriam, and their two young daughters Rochel and Tania, in addition to other relatives and people that they came in contact with.  Morris had been a businessperson who had acquired an intimate knowledge of forestry which would assist him and his family in their quest for survival.  Miriam had owned a medical shop that sold alternative remedies for injuries and disease, again her knowledge would later come in very handy.

Frankel explores the distinction between Nazi and Soviet approaches in dealing with Jews particularly after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 26, 1939, and the invasions by both countries dividing Poland in half.  Everyone is aware of the Nazi approach to the “Final Solution” of the Jewish people, but the Russians in many instances let their anti-Semitism block any cooperation with Jewish partisans who wanted to fight the Germans.  Once the Rabinowitz’s escaped into the forest the author describes the hardships they faced and how they went about surviving.  They would link up with Chaim Feldman’s family who were able to smuggle a wagon load of supplies into the forest and the two families were able to dig shelters and smuggle food into the forest through their friendships with Christian families forged before the war.

Rebecca Frankel, author of the book “Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph and Love."
(Rebecca Frankel, author)

The book points to a myriad of rules and mores that were broken.  The forest would produce its own socio-economic structure that created friendships but also a degree of hostility as the woods created a society of have and have nots.  Frankel describes in intimate details how human relationships became tools of survival for women.  It was clear to many that the only way a woman might survive was if they had a relationship with a man for protection.  If these relationships happened to produce a pregnancy, abortion and allowing babies to die became the norm as any sound, i.e.; a crying baby could give away a position and result in another Nazi Selektion that would massacre the Jews.  Frankel delves into the fears, the highs and lows of living in the forest with death facing them each moment, the preparations to fight, and the interactions with others with the result that the reader should develop a high degree of empathy for victims of the Nazi genocide.

Many historical events and characters appear.  The Bielski brothers resided in the same forest as the Rabinowitz’s.  SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Oskar Direwanger who had the reputation as “the most evil man in the SS” leads the the killing squads that resulted in the death of over 10,000 in the first months of 1943 appears.  Herz Kaminsky, a man who lost his wife and child took in seventy people and protected them and acquired the nickname of “the father of all children.”  Numerous other personal stories are told each rendering the reader to ponder how they may have fared in this situation.

Philip and Ruth Lazowski, Holocaust survivors and residents of West Hartford, on June 24, 1954, the day Philip graduated from Yeshiva University.

(Philip and Ruth Lazowski, Holocaust survivors and residents of West Hartford, on June 24, 1954, the day Philip graduated from Yeshiva University) (Courtesy Lazowski Family)

By the start of 1944, the 150,000 Russian partisans had taken control of the forests and the Soviet army began its march toward Berlin.  The Jews who lived in the forest had to navigate being caught between the surging Russian forces and the retreating Germans.  By September of 1944, the Rabinowitz’s and others were told by the Christian farmers that the Germans were gone, and they soon walked for weeks to return to the village of Zhetel which they found was occupied by the Soviet army and their homes and possessions gone.

The 1953 wedding is evidence of the randomness of survival and reconnection that followed European Jewry after the war.  Frankel’s extensive research based on interviews of survivors and their descendants tells a story of struggle and resilience and it will captivate the reader and in many instances bring forth thoughts of how people treat each other in desperate situations and what they will do to overcome and save themselves and their families.  This is a gripping story with a satisfying ending, which I recommend to all.

Belarus

THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR by Craig Whitlock

(Former President Bush flashes a thumbs-up after declaring the end of major combat in Iraq aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier in 2003. He now says declaring mission accomplished was a mistake.)

In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision, that the U.S. government had not met “the heavy burden of showing justification for the enforcement” of prior restraint. The Court ordered the immediate end of the injunctions against publication which led to the dissemination of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times.  The Pentagon Papers, officially titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force is a Defense Department history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Though Washington Post national security reporter Craig Whitlock’s new book, THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR does not rise to the level of the Pentagon Papers according to the author it is based on “interviews with more than a 1,000 people who played a direct part in the war.  The Lessons Learned Interviews, oral histories and 59,000 Rumsfeld snowflakes comprise more than 10,000 pages of documents.  Unedited and unfiltered, they reveal the voices of people – from those who made policy in Washington to those who fought in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan – who knew the official version of the war being fed to the American people was untrue, or aggressively sanitized at best.” (xx)

The publication of Whitlock’s monograph coincides with the disjointed American withdrawal from Afghanistan the last few weeks.  The partisan debate that President Biden’s abrupt exit sparked creates the need for a more nuanced and objective analysis of the past 20 years since 9/11 and its is our good fortune as the war for America seems to have concluded a series of new historical monographs have emerged.  Apart from Whitlock’s book readers can choose from Carter Malkasian’s  THE AMERICAN WAR IN AFGHANISTAN: A HISTORY; David Loyn’s THE LONG WAR; Peter Bergen’s THE RISE AND FALL OF OSAMA BIN-LADIN; and Spencer Ackerman’s REIGN OF TERROR.  There are also a number of works that have been written over the last decade that one might consult.  The works of Steve Coll come to mind, GHOST WARS  and DIRECTORATE S; also important are Dexter Filkins’ THE FOREVER WAR; Anand Gopal’s NO GOOD MEN AMONG THE LIVING; and Lawrence Wright’s THE LOOMING TOWER.

A great deal of Whitlock’s commentary is similar to the observations of previous authors.  However, what separates Whitlock’s narrative, analysis, and insights is that they are based on documentation and interviews of key commanders, soldiers on the ground, government officials, and even important foreign players who had significant roles in the war.  Whitlock’s monograph is written in a concise and clear manner and his conclusions point to the disaster the war had become after removing the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2002.  Whitlock astutely points out that military strategists are always taught to never start a war without having a plan to end it.  From the outset, the Bush administration never articulated how the war would be ended.  For years, the American people were told the war would be difficult but on an incremental basis we were always winning.  The happy talk of the Bush, Obama, and lastly the Trump administrations never measured up to events on the ground.

(Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and American troops in Afghanistan)

Most historians and journalists agree the swift early American success in 2002 turned out to be a curse as it gave the Bush administration the confidence to change policy from hunting terrorists to nation building.  Despite the arrogance of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the war turned against the Americans with this change in strategy, a dominant theme that Whitlock develops as it seemed periodically Washington would change strategies and commanders on a regular basis.  One of the major problems American troops faced was that they could not distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys.  For American troops Taliban and al-Qaeda were the same, a gross error in that the Taliban followed an extremist ideology and were Afghans, while al-Qaeda was made up of Arabs with a global presence who wanted to overthrow Middle Eastern autocrats allied with the United States.  By 2002 the United States was fighting an enemy that had nothing to do with 9/11 which was the stated purpose of the war.

The early success would deteriorate as the Bush administration shifted its focus to Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power.  Troops, supplies, and funding dissipated quickly as Whitlock quotes numerous individuals whose frustration with Rumsfeld and company for their lack of interest and refusal to provide the necessary equipment, troops, and funding to bolster the American effort in Afghanistan only providing the minimum level of support to keep the war going.

Whitlock organizes his narrative around American errors, the corruption of the Afghan government, and the refusal of American leadership to face the facts on the battlefield. Similar to the overall war strategy the nation-building campaign suffered from an obvious lack of goals and benchmarks.  The idea of imposing an American style democracy on a country with no foundation or history of the elements of that type of governmental system was idiotic from the outset and no matter what fantasy the Bush administration could cobble together preordained its failure.

Whitlock presents a number of important chapters chief among them is “Raising an Army from the Ashes” in which he describes the issues in constructing an army from scratch.  The entire episode portended the results witnessed a few weeks ago when a 300,000 man army collapsed and faded away when confronted by the Taliban.  Other chapters point to the basic complaint by officers and troops of the lack of preparation in understanding Afghan culture which led to many disastrous decisions.  Another key issue was the role of Pakistan which had its own agenda visa vie the Taliban and indirectly its fears of India.  By creating a sanctuary for the insurgency, it made the American task very difficult.  Whitlock’s insightful analysis mirrors that of Steve Coll’s DIRECTORATE S as it explains ISI duplicity and the fact that the Islamabad government knew how to play both ends against the middle to gain American financial and military support in return for very little.

afghanistan map explainer

American errors are numerous as recounted by Whitlock.  Flooding the country with money for projects that were not needed or absorbable was very detrimental to the American mission.  Support for Hamid Karzai and his corrupt regime, along with alliances with murderous warlords was self-defeating.  Trying to eradicate the opium trade was high minded, but with no alternate source of income Afghan farmers and warlords learned to manipulate the American strategy to reduce the drug trade was very problematical.

Whitlock introduces the major players in the war from Rumsfeld, Cheney, McChrystal, Petraeus,  Obama, and Trump with all of the flaws exhibited by their thinking that led to failure.  Whether implementing counterinsurgency, huge infrastructure projects, building inside enemy territory, and Petraeus’ strategy of being “hellbent at throwing money at problems” was doomed to failure.  The bottom line as Army Lt-General Douglas Lute, a Director of Operations for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon states is that “we were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan-we didn’t know what we were doing…What are we doing here?  We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking…There is a fundamental gap of understanding on the front end, overstated objectives, an overreliance on the military, and a lack of understanding of the resources necessary.” (110)

The Trump administration would run into the same roadblocks in trying to ameliorate the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.  Trump’s tough talk about “winning,” increased bombing that resulted in higher death counts for civilians, and more happy talk did not accomplish much.  It was clear once Trump’s promises “to deliver ‘clear cut victory’ had failed he ordered the state Department and Pentagon to engage in formal, face to face negotiations with the Taliban to find a way to extricate U.S. troops from Afghanistan without making it seem like a humiliating defeat.” (264) 

For over a  decade American policy makers and commanders  knew that a lasting military defeat of the Taliban was not in the cards as they were a Pashtun-led mass movement that represented a sizable portion of the population and continued to gain strength.  However, the Bush and Obama administrations made only half-hearted attempts to engage the Taliban, deferring to the Afghan government in the diplomatic process which they would paralyze.  The U.S. would squander attempts at a negotiated settlement in 2001 by excluding the Taliban from the Bonn Conference, three years later they did not take advantage of the democratic election of Hamid Karzai as president to implement the diplomatic process.  By 2009 the Obama administration took a hardline approach with its “reconciliation” requirements dooming any hope for talks to begin and progress as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other important policy makers believed that the Taliban would never desert al-Qaeda.

People arriving from Afghanistan make their way at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman [Abdul Khaliq Achakzai/Reuters]

(People arriving from Afghanistan make their way at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman)

The Trump administration finally negotiated a deal whereby all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021.  Like his predecessors Trump failed to make good on his promise to prevail in Afghanistan or bring what he mocked as “the forever war” to completion.  Instead, he left an inheritance to Joe Biden who chose not to renege on Trump’s settlement with the Taliban to avoid further warfare.  This provoked a firestorm among conservative Republicans and veteran’s groups, many of which had argued against continuing the war for a number of years. Many have chosen to blame Biden for an abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan and a Taliban victory, however that result was because of two decades of obfuscation and a war strategy that was doomed to failure once we turned our attention to Iraq and took our foot off the pedal that drove the war in Afghanistan..

No matter what successes were repeatedly announced publicly by the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations spokespersons, in private they knew that Afghan security forces showed little progress in safeguarding the country, the Taliban retained safe havens in Pakistan, and corruption pervaded Afghan governments alienating and angering people.  If there is one theme that dominates Whitlock’s analysis is that “U.S. leaders knew their war strategy was dysfunctional and privately doubted they could attain their objectives.  Yet they confidently told the public year after year that they were making progress and that victory—winning was over the horizon.” (277)  Whitlock makes it clear that “it was impossible to square negative trends with the optimistic public messaging about progress, so US officials kept the complete datasets confidential.” (205) 

After reading Whitlock’s book it is clear that the US mission in Afghanistan was doomed to failure once we turned to nation building.  Whitlock the first important synthesis of the most basic and essential elements that led to the American withdrawal.  For those who need a quick primer or a thoughtful approach to the conduct of the war, Whitlock’s monograph is critical for our understanding as to what went wrong.

On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a giant 'Mission Accomplished' banner+4

The infamous phrase was echoed by Trump (pictured at the White House on April 13)+

 (On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a giant ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner, (left) a phrase echoed by Donald Trump (pictured at the White House on April 13, 2018)

ARCHANGEL by Robert Harris

The eBay seller of this “perfect condition” Stalin statue says it was auctioned off by the Czech town of Litomerice “many years ago.”
(Stalin Statue)

It is obvious that Robert Harris is one of the best purveyors of historical fiction who can be found on the shelves of any bookstore.  Whether exploring the Munich Conference, the German missile campaign during World War II, a trilogy that explores the struggle for power in ancient Rome, the machinations of a Papal conclave, or the Dreyfus Affair are among his fourteen bestselling novels.  The depth and varied subjects of his writing reflect the breadth of historical knowledge and his commitment to producing historical fiction that is readable and interesting for everyone while creating stories that are made up of actual events and characters among those that he develops as his plots evolve.

I decided to return to one of Harris’ earlier books, ARCHANGEL a story that centers on the possibility that Joseph Stalin may have prepared a notebook with a number of fascinating commentaries.  The story begins with the death of Stalin early in the morning of March 3, 1953, and the gathering of the Soviet leadership who are trying to decide what to do about his death and succession.  Immediately, Harris shifts his focus to a conversation between Papu Gerasimoch Rapava, a guard in the compound where Stalin died who had access to his body and the “notebook,” and Fluke Kelso a former Oxford professor who gave up his academic position to move to New York and concentrate on his writing.  The conversation takes place four decades after Stalin’s death with Kelso plying Rapava with alcohol as he tried to gain access and knowledge of the missing notebook.

Map of Russia and Arkhangelsk

Harris has firm control of historical events and offers keen insights into the motivation and actions of key personalities.  A case in point is his treatment of KGB head Lavrenty Beria who was convinced he was next in line to replace Stalin as leader of the Soviet state.  In actuality he had rubbed Malenkov, Zhukov, Khrushchev, and company the wrong way and was dead within three months of Stalin’s passing.  Soon Rapava becomes a KGB target as he is suspected of possessing the “notebook,” and Harris details his torture, imprisonment in the Gulag for fifteen years, and his survival.  It is interesting how Harris portrays the “new” Russia of the 1990s through Rapava’s eyes once he is released from prison.  His shock at the changes that have taken place in Moscow where remnants of Stalin have been removed along with other observations of his country as it becomes an oligarchy of wealth under Boris Yeltsin and later  Vladimir Putin.

Kelso finds himself in Russia at a historical conference at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism which was attended by Rapava.  Kelso will meet the Russian and try to uncover truths about Stalin.  Frank Adelman another historian believes that Rapava is setting Kelso up to gain money and that his fellow historian is too bent on journalism and publicity as opposed to meaningful  history.

Harris paints a damning portrait of Moscow in the late 1990s with dust and soot in the air, frozen puddles, sullen people, among many negative characteristics. .  Harris is able to integrate historical treatises to his plot reflecting his knowledge of Russian historiography and a wonderful description of the Lenin Library and the Central Library of the Russian Federation.

Kelso is  described by Adelman as “a fattening and hungover middle aged historian in a black corduroy suit,”a damning appraisal of the former Oxford historian.  Kelso’s circle of acquaintances includes Vladimir Mamantov, a former KGB operative who remains a true Stalinist and wants to protect Stalin’s memory and wants to find the “notebook,” and use it as a means of returning Stalinism to power in Russia. Through Mamantov Harris portrays the remaining Stalinist enclave in Russian society who still admire Stalin, and the fact that the former KGB agent was arrested in 1991 in the plot to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev tells a great deal.  It seems Rapava has a daughter, Zinaida who gives the “notebook” to Kelso and a Satellite News reporter named O’Brian.  Further it appears Stalin may have had are relationship with Zinaida’s mother Anna Safanova, a house cleaner who may have produced a son, an heir to Stalin.

Arkhangelsk, Russia from above, photo 1

(Cathedral of the Archangel Michael)

As Harris weaves his web the novel centers on the quest for the notebook that involves a Russian SVR agent, Feliks Suvorin who tracks Kelso and O’Brian to the north country and a run in with “Stalin’s possible heir,” that may not end well. The northern city is Archangel which remains a hotbed of Stalinism and produces a perilous adventure for all concerned as the SVR and Spetsnaz soldiers may have met their match with the son of Stalin. 

As Harris continues his web he makes a number of important historical observations the most important of which focuses on Russian workers and peasants, who under the Tsar had nothing while the nobility owned the country.  Later the workers and peasants owned nothing, and the Party owned the country.  Later, the workers and peasants still owned nothing, and the country’s is owned as usual, “by whoever has the biggest fists.”  Today it is the oligarchs and Putin.

Harris’ plot line is farfetched, but it does lend itself to an interesting story leading the reader on to learn what the truth is and if the “notebook” actually is meaningful and what makes so many people willing to kill to acquire it.  A dominant theme that Harris develops is the memory of Stalin among the Russian people.  He remains quite popular as historically Russia has always had a father/Tsarist type leader who was tolerated as  all knowing.  Then came Lenin, Stalin, the Brezhnev types, and now Putin, all with similar autocratic tendencies. 

Though I would not call Archangel one of Harris’ best novels it is worth the read because of its subject matter and the author’s commentary on what Russia has become or still remains.

(Stalin Statue)