A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY by Ken Cuthbertson

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(Shirer reports from Nazi Germany)

Today we are exposed to the repetitive 24 hour news cycle on cable television.  It seems that each hour the same information is reprogrammed creating a staleness for the viewer.  Further exacerbating this reporting is the concept of “fake news” and the new reality that it has created in lieu of real journalism.  This being the case it would be useful to think back seventy to eighty years to the type of reportage that existed in the 1930s and 40s.  Instead of dealing with talking heads sitting around a table supposedly providing analysis and context, the public would gather around the family radio listening to reporters from the capitols of Europe and the battlefields of World War II.  At that time a group of reporters worked for CBS news and were known as the “Murrow’s Boys,” men hired by Edward R. Murrow reporting war related events on site.  One of those reporters, William L. Shirer, along with Murrow created the prototype of broadcast news that dominated the airwaves before cable television.  It is through his biography of Shirer, A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY that Ken Cuthbertson traces the development of broadcast journalism through most of the twentieth century.  Cuthbertson, also the author of the remarkable book, THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION: CANADA’S WORST EXPLOSION has written a remarkable study that encompasses Shirer’s life by integrating the main events of the pre- and post-World War II period and the dominant currents of print and non-print journalism at that time.

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(Edward R. Murrow and Shirer)

Shirer originally made a name for himself reporting from Vienna and Berlin throughout the 1930s and through his publication of his BERLIN DIARY in 1936, perhaps providing the most informative insights into Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement up until that time.  He would return to the United States in 1940 as a broadcast journalist for CBS until 1947 as he was fired for his supposed liberal views.  Shirer would be blacklisted from radio and television until 1960 because of the paranoia of the time period, particularly on the part of media executives.  Shirer would climb out of the poverty that his banning had caused and restore his reputation with the publication of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, then a bestseller, and today remains one of the most important examples of narrative history ever written.

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According to the author, Shirer was a very complex individual who lost his father and grandfather at a young age and went through life searching for a meaningful existence which always seemed to be beyond reach.  Shirer’s complexity was in part due to his own self-perceived shortcomings as he often seemed to be at loss in trying to make sense of his own life.  Shirer would grow up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and would possess a certain Midwest naiveté that would be dashed later covering unimaginable events in Europe.  Cuthbertson has written a detailed narrative that does a nice job placing Shirer’s life story in the context of the events occurring around him.  Shirer is drawn to Europe and achieves his first break by hooking up with the conservative Chicago Tribune in 1925 and through his life we experience the “lost generation” that had migrated to Paris in the 1920s meeting Hemingway, Fitzgerald, along with the likes of James Thurber.  His first major story covered Lindbergh’s crossing the Atlantic providing him with the opportunity for making a name for himself.

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For much of Shirer’s career he seems to have been in the shadow of Edwin R. Murrow who hired him in 1934 as CBS was expanding its overseas news outlets in response to events.  The two would become friends, only to suffer a disastrous falling out after World War II.  The biographer must always be careful to avoid placing their subject on a pedestal, but it seems that Cuthbertson is bent on rewriting history with Shirer emerging from Murrow’s shadow.  In his approach Cuthbertson has an engaging writing style and seems to cover all aspects of their friendship, competition, and falling out, integrating the history of radio journalism and the role of CBS, and other participants in the story.  Analysis is clear and concise as it is with other aspects of the book and very thorough.  My only question is sourcing employed.  Cuthbertson relies too much on certain secondary sources, particularly THE MURROW BOYS by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson.  The author does a fine job culling Shirer’s diaries and notes and should try and cite more primary materials as he makes his way through Shirer’s life story.

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Cuthbertson has not written a hagiography of his subject and his description of Shirer’s private life and thoughts are dealt with in full.  His pride which knew no bounds, his inability to know went to “hold his cards” and fight another day, the inability after self-reflection to rectify errors that he admitted he had made, his tenaciousness, his obsessiveness, and his belief in himself to a fault are all on display.  Further, the author delves into Shirer’s private life; his marriages, affairs, socializing, years of travel and the effect on his family, and living beyond his means after his income was drastically reduced to the point he could not repair the furnace in his Connecticut farmhouse are explored in full.

Cuthbertson does an excellent job providing a feel for each city in which Shirer lives, and reports.  Whether it is Paris in the 1920s, Vienna and Berlin in the 1930s, or London or New York, the reader will feel the vibe and seriousness of the events being covered.  Shirer’s views, intellectual and emotional are clear be, it his distaste for England and France as they respond to the Anschluss with Austria, the Munich Crisis, or other events.  Perhaps one of the most interesting sections of the book describes the relationships that Shirer developed with historical figures, especially Mahatmas Gandhi.  In 1931 Shirer is dispatched to India by Colonel Robert McCormack, the owner of the Chicago Tribune and soon will meet and develop a friendship with Gandhi.  The Indian revolutionary would assume the role of teacher and spiritual counselor to Shirer as they read and studied the holy books of the world’s great religions.  This relationship softened Shirer as he learned about Asian culture and the developing world, witnessing the effects of English colonization first hand.

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(David Moyers interviewing Shirer in his later years)

The history of radio journalism permeates the narrative throughout, even as it is threatened by the new medium of television.  Numerous characters emerge, many of which were household names well into the twenty first century.  Shirer’s interaction with the likes of William Paley, Eric Sevareid, Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther, Edward R. Murrow, Frank Stanton and others are fully explored.  For Cuthbertson, in covering the history of radio journalism, Shirer stands out as a dedicated, incisive newsman who strove to relay as much of the truth as he saw it, be it coverage of the Nuremburg Trials, travels to New Delhi and Kabul, or commentary comparing life in Europe and America.  To Cuthbertson’s credit, he pulled no punches when he points out the errors in Shirer’s opinions.

Shirer was a firm believer in the strength of America and its values.  He felt the United States was strong so engagement and dialogue with America’s foes after World War II was preferable to confrontation when countering Soviet expansionism.  Shirer spoke against aid to Greece in 1947 and was critical of Chiang Kai-Shek, opinions that would eventually would bring about his termination at CBS.  Shirer’s firing led to a crisis in his relationship with Murrow and Cuthbertson interestingly conjectures that Murrow’s guilt in not supporting his friend finally pushed him to confront Senator Joseph McCarthy and help bring him down in 1954.

There is so much material and detail that in certain areas Cuthbertson could have been a little more concise, a little less repetitious, but overall his work is important because it is the only full length biography of one of the most significant journalists of the twentieth century.  Shirer, for all of his faults is a shining example of what freedom of the press means to a democracy, an example that the current occupant of the White House should consider as he rambles on with his seemingly daily diatribes about the press being the enemy of the American people.

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(Shirer gaining approval for broadcast from Nazi censor)

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ARCHITECTS OF DEATH: THE FAMILY WHO ENGINEERED THE DEATH CAMPS by Karen Bartlett

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Karen Bartlett’s new Holocaust work, ARCHITECTS OF DEATH: THE FAMILY WHO ENGINEERED THE DEATH CAMPS possesses a powerful narrative as it examines the German manufacturing firm J. A. Topf and Sons and its role during World War II.  The problem for the firm is that a few of its manufacturing products centered on ovens, crematoria, and the parts necessary to build them.  These products made up only 1.85% of Topf and Sons actual products, but these items were linked to Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Dachau, and Mauthausen concentration/extermination camps.

The monograph begins with Hartmut Topf, the great grandson of the firm’s founder trying to come to grips with his family’s past.  After the war, Hartmut wanted nothing to do with the family business as his true loves were theater, puppetry, and journalism.  When he was a boy during the war his best friend Hans Laessing, was Jewish and he would disappear into the Nazi abyss.  With questions about his family and his friend, Hartmut set out to learn the truth leading him to learn things he could not believe.  Bartlett’s approach rests on interviews with former workers, American and Russian investigators, and Topf family members.  She also relies on the works of historian Annegret Schule, the author of two books that encompass her topic.  The first, BETWEEN PERSECUTION AND PARTICIPATION: BIOGRAPHY OF A BOOKEEPER AT J.A. TOPF AND SOHNE; the second, INDUSTRIE UND HOLOCAUST.

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(Ernst Wolfgang and Ludwig Topf)

What is clear is that “company directors Ernst Wolfgang and Ludwig Topf, along with their managers, engineers, oven fitters, and ventilation experts, were not ignorant paper pushers or frightened collaborators – instead they willingly engaged with the Nazis, reaping the benefits, taking advantage they could, and pushing their designs for mass murder and body disposal further and further until they could truly be described as the engineers of the Holocaust.”   By the end of the war men like Kurt Prufer, an engineer who pushed his designs and came up with plans that were so outlandish that even the SS had to turn them down.

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Bartlett provides a history of the firm, but the core of the book rests on the growth of Topf and Sons as a manufacturer of numerous products that would enhance the Nazi war effort.  There are numerous character portraits reflected the internecine conflict within the Topf family over control and which products should be made available to the Nazis.  Ludwig and Ernst Wolfgang would take over the company in July, 1933, coinciding with Hitler’s rise to power and they immediately went down the road that would result in a loss of any moral decency or humanity they might have possessed.

In addition to building the ovens the firm employed thousands of slave laborers during the war.  Roughly 40% of their labor force was made up of POWs which contributed to their deal with the devil.  Perhaps the most important person in this process was Kurt Prufer who would distinguish himself as “the true pioneer of annihilation.”  His own experiences during W.W.I. allowed him to develop a low level of concern for human life.  He would take his engineering talents to become an expert on cremation sales and fixtures.  Beginning with manufacturing crematoria for civil use in Erfurt and other towns it was feasible to change nomenclature and develop new incinerators and ventilation to fit the needs of the Final Solution.  They would go so far as changing the name from crematoria in their catalogue to “incineration chamber.” The key innovation was the development in October, 1939 was the three single muffin ovens that would be used to build permanent crematoria at Buchenwald under the sadistic SS Gruppenfuhrer Oswald Pohl as opposed to temporary ovens that were mobile.  As the war progressed after 1942 and the Russians moved west, these ovens could not accommodate the number of bodies the Nazis wanted to cremate leading to mechanical breakdowns and rancid smells surrounding the countryside where the camps were located.

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(Museum and Memorial for those who perished because of the work of J.A. Hopf and Sons)

The author provides a brief history of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, but her most important contribution is going through the documentation that the Russians and Americans uncovered as they liberated the camps and seized the Topf and Sons facilities.  Bartlett takes the reader through interrogations of workers and others, most importantly Prufer and three other important engineers.  There excuse was that they delivered the same products to the Nazis as they had to municipalities in the form of civil crematoria, and if they hadn’t sold the products, the SS had other firms that would provide them.  Ludwig Topf would commit suicide at the end of the war, but his brother Ernst Wolfgang continued to make his case and eventually was able to avoid any punishment for his actions.

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(Kurt Prufer)

The only suggestions I have for the author is that there seems to be too much replication of war crimes documentation in the text.  Perhaps they could have been placed as an appendix at the end of the book.  Secondly, there seems to be an overreliance on certain sources.  Otherwise, Bartlett has done Harmut justice in that she has produced the entire story of his family, a family that he admittedly feels ashamed of.  To his credit, Harmut has spent a great deal of his time and resources on restitution and remembrance that have culminated in the Topf and Sons Memorial in Erfurt for those who have perished.   Hopefully by educating visitors and publicizing its work the Memorial Museum will make another genocidal tragedy less likely to occur in the future.

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SONS AND SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE JEWS WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND RETURNED WITH THE ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER by Bruce Henderson.

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(The burning of a Jewish synagogue during Kristallnacht)

During World War II there was a little known group of men who were trained at Camp Ritchie, Maryland.  Their extensive classwork and field training was designed to prepare them to interrogate German prisoners of war and gather intelligence to be used against Nazi forces.  What became known as the “Ritchie Boys” was formed in mid-1942 and was made up of 1985 German born Jews who had immigrated to the United States in response to Nazi persecution particularly after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933,  Kristallnacht in November, 1938, and the events of 1941.  Most of these German-Jewish boys arrived without parents and siblings and had to adapt to their new homeland on their own.  Part of the reason was due to the racist/anti-sematic attitude on the part of a number of important State Department officials like Breckenridge Long who as Assistant Secretary of State helped set American immigration policy.  The journey of the Ritchie Boys and their impact on the Second World War is aptly told by Bruce Henderson with compassion and insight in his latest book, SONS AND SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE JEWS WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND RETURNED WITH THE ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER.  The story of the Ritchie Boys takes them through their wartime experiences in gathering important intelligence from German POWs, their participation in a number of important battles, including the Normandy invasion, Operation Market Basket, the Battle of the Bulge, liberation of extermination camps, and their efforts after the war to locate family members.

In the first part of the book Henderson focuses on the early plight and immigration of a number of men who would become Ritchie Boys.  They include Martin Selling, who was rounded up after Kristallnacht, separated from his family, imprisoned in Dachau and after his release made it to the United Kingdom due to the work of a Jewish relief agency that eventually provided a visa to enter the United States.  Gunter Stern, who would change his name to Guy grew up in a middle class family in Northern Germany and as the situation for Jews deteriorated in 1937 he was sent by himself to the United States to live with an uncle in St. Louis because the State Department refused to allow the rest of his family to immigrate.  Stephan Lewy was placed in an orphanage after his mother died and the economic fortunes of his father collapsed.  After his father was released from a concentration camp and they experienced Kristallnacht he left Germany for Paris leaving his father and step mother behind.  Werner Angress was not a very good student and he was sent to an agricultural farm in Poland where he found success.  Once things deteriorated in Berlin his father developed a successful plan for the entire family to escape and go to Amsterdam.  In 1939 Angress escaped from Holland and left for America.  Lastly, Victor Brombert, another teenage boy was smuggled out of Germany in 1933 and moved to Paris, however, during the Vichy regime he left France to experience a harrowing voyage to New York and safety in 1941.

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(Guy Stern)

All of the boys experienced the emergence of Hitler, their removal from schools, harassment by Hitler Youth, and the collapse of their families as parents were arrested, businesses confiscated, and the eventual separation.  All witnessed and were affected by the 1935 Nuremberg “Blood” Laws, Kristallnacht, and the difficulty of emigrating in part because the Nazis seized their assets and only allowed them to take a pittance of their wealth out of the country.  Henderson further explores the difficulties as they had to navigate the exclusionary immigration laws of the United States and their enforcement by elements in the State Department.  Jews were required to provide affidavits from American citizens that they would take care of their relatives financially, along with other documentation that took a great deal of time to obtain.  The work of David Wyman provides an inside look into the “old boys club” of the State Department and their arcane views when it came to race and Jews.  Henderson describes the heroic efforts of the families as they realized that only one family member would be allowed to leave and in most cases it was the eldest son with the hope they could reunite later.

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(American soldier and survivors of the Wobbelin concentration camp)

The boys that are the center of the story would become naturalized American citizens before they were sent overseas to fight the Nazis.  Henderson describes their training and dispatch to England to participate in the Normandy landing.  Since native Germans would have knowledge of Nazi/German culture and colloquial language the Ritchie Boys were in high demand to interrogate POWs.  The individual stories Henderson presents reflects the importance of the Ritchie Boys to the allied war effort.  Particularly interesting is Werner Angress who was attached to the 82nd Airborne and with little training parachuted behind German lines.  His later intelligence gathering leading up to and during the Battle of the Bulge was very important.  Another insightful segment deals with Victor Brombert’s participation in the 28th Infantry Division as he experienced combat in Belgium and Northern France and predicted the Battle of the Bulge which was ignored by hire ups.  Perhaps one of the most ingenious of the Ritchie Boys was Guy Stern who after Normandy was made Head of Survey and his reports were distributed to all allied commanders including General Eisenhower.  Along with another Ritchie Boy named Manfred Ehrlich, who changed his name to Fred Howard, he developed a number of unusual schemes in order to extract information from POWs.

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(Werner Angress, his mother and two brothers after the war)

Henderson tells a number of wonderful stories including the visit of Marlene Dietrich as part of the USO, the capture of Hauptmann Kurt Bruns who ordered the death of two captured Ritchie Boys, how the Ritchie Boys had to overcome the skepticism of some officers who accused them of being German spies, and at times the guilt they felt when they had to use unorthodox methods to extract information from POWs.  Perhaps the most poignant part of the book is when the Ritchie Boys confronted the Holocaust when they witnessed the concentration camps.  Stephan Lewy arrived at Buchenwald with the Sixth Armored Division, Guy Stern arrived at Buchenwald three days after its liberation, Werner Angress witnessed the Wobbelin concentration camp, and when Manny Steinfeld arrived there he could not escape the possibility that his sister and mother were murdered there.

Overall, Henderson tells a remarkable story.  It is told clearly integrating numerous interviews with the Ritchie Boys and accompanying research.  My main criticism involves the method of sourcing which is very ineffective and difficult to attribute information.  As a historian I would love to have been able to match materials to citations so I might have pursued certain aspects of the book further.  However, the topic is fascinating and Henderson has done these men a great service by telling their story.

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(The burning of a Jewish synagogue during Kristallnacht)

THE ZOOKEEPERS WIFE: A WAR STORY by Diane Ackerman

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(The Warsaw Zoo used in WWII to hide Jews, Polish resistance fighters, and others)

Recently I went see the film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” and I was taken by the story and the quality of the production.  The film was based on a book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, which was published in 2007.  Ackerman’s narrative history tells the story of Jan and Antonia Zabinski, who married in 1931, and shortly thereafter became the heads of the Warsaw Zoo located in the Praga district of the city.  The Zabinski’s were Christians who were horrified by the rise of Nazism in Germany, particularly the racial theories they expounded as they related to animals and humans.  The book replicated by the film tells the story of how the Zabinskis responded to the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 and their final seizure of the entire country when they invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941.  What makes the book somewhat different from the standard historical narrative is that Ackerman, a prolific nature writer by trade is able to apply her expertise in her field to a story that is horrific as well as heroic.

Jan Zabinski was a member of the Polish Underground (Home Army) and throughout the book he tries to maintain the remnants of the zoo, while Antonia sought to help her animals as best she could, while shielding their son Rys from the carnage that surrounded them.  The Zabinski’s role in rescuing over 300 individuals, Polish resistance activists and Jews during the course of the Nazi occupation is the core of the book as Ackerman explores how this was accomplished and their commitment to saving “humans” as well as animals.  The author’s narrative describes how the couple lived before the war in a world where their lives revolved around the internal clocks of their animals as well as humans.  Their daily routines were never quite the same because of the needs of the animals which made each day a novelty with welcome moments especially when the animals seemed to visit and live inside their dacha.  It appears that Jan and Antonia lived in synchrony with the animals and did their best to view the world and align their senses with how their “animal guests” as they were called, might view and experience their world.  As Jan points out, “its’ by living beside animals that you learn their behavior and psychology.”

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(Antonia and Jan Zabinski)

The story is described through the daily rhythms and scents of the zoo’s resident animals.  The cacophony of sounds reflected animal life and the environment and care they were afforded by Jan and Antonia.  As war approached the matriarchal Antonia worried what would be the fate of her “animal republic,” since the zoo was located in Poland’s most populous city.  Her fears were justified as once the war began the German military slowly pinched off Warsaw from the rest of Poland, and the Nazis indiscriminately, whether through sport or just vengefulness, killed the animals.  Another character that looms large in the narrative is Lutz Heck, Director of the Berlin Zoo and a man obsessed with animal bloodlines whose research was designed to restore certain “pure blooded and extinct species.”  He was a powerful and ardent Nazi who supposedly arrived to borrow some of Jan and Antonia’s best animals and send them to Berlin, to be returned to them after the war.  Hermann Goring was Heck’s patron who also aspired to recasting Germany’s natural world, “cleansing it, polishing it, perfecting it.”

In order to try and save as many animals and people as possible Jan and Antonia came up with a proposal to feed Nazi troops by creating a “pig farm” at the zoo.  Heck approved and this provided Jan access to the Warsaw ghetto to obtain scraps to feed the pigs and fatten them up for slaughter. According to the Jewish Institute in Warsaw, Jan’s access to the ghetto allowed him to “bring out notes, bacon, and butter, and carry messages to friends.” It was an ingenious and dangerous plan, but it allowed Jan to use the zoo as a vehicle for the Polish Underground whose foothold in the Praga District helped protect 6,000 soldiers, the largest pool of saboteurs in the city.  Antonia was in a difficult position because Heck had designs on her apart from animals and she tried her best to play him to her advantage in order to protect her animals and her “human guests.”

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Ackerman’s narrative is historically accurate and insightful.  Her discussion of natural history is enlightening, particularly as she describes the Zabinski’s zoo management as animals were not just housed in cages, but in “habitats meant to recreate their native wetlands, deserts, and woods.”  Once the zoo is destroyed by German bombing Ackerman examines Jan and Antonia’s survival strategies, in addition to saving the lives of as many people as possible.  Her story reflects the empathy and care the Zabinski’s had for their animals and the people that were hidden in closets, rooms, and even animal cages during the Nazi occupation.  Throughout this process, Antonia tried her best to maintain a “normal festive” atmosphere so her “guests” could feel at home despite the ever present threat that at any time the Nazis would bang on their door.  Signals and other strategies were implemented to make people as safe as possible.

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(Cecylia Teodorowicz, the Zabinski housekeeper in the kitchen with an otter)

Jan’s plan was a simple one, hide Jews and ammunition in plain sight in the middle of the zoo.  He created a halfway house for Jews in hiding and in transit, “nomads, not settlers, they stopped briefly to rest and refuel in route to unnamed destinations.”  Like animals, these guests would blend into their surroundings.  Antonia was unaware of some of Jan’s Underground activities until after the war.  She did not know that he hid C13F, a water soluble explosive in a barrel, she was in the dark when it came to Jan as a leader of an Underground cell that specialized in sabotaging German trains by jamming explosives into wheel bearings, she did not know that he infected some pigs with worms, butchered them and slipped them into German soldier’s sandwiches.  These are the types of things along with details of how Jan smuggled people out of the ghetto to safety, and the overall danger he faced that Ackerman brings out in her narrative that is of the utmost importance.

Ackerman has the ability to blend her knowledge of the natural world with the historical tide.  Daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto, Himmler’s determination to destroy the ghetto to provide a birthday present for Hitler, the Polish Army’s rebellion against the Nazis as Stalin waited in the wings for its destruction, and numerous other events receive full consideration.  Integrating her “guests” into these events provides an even greater meaning to their intensity and importance.

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(The Warsaw Ghetto)

Antonia maintained a diary throughout the war that Ackerman heavily relies upon and integrates into her narrative.  It is an excellent source as Antonia did her best to prevent more Holocaust victims, but also shows that the animal world was not to be romanticized as she felt it was very violent, and that one had to tread carefully when caring for animals.  As far as citations are concerned it appears much of the book is based on a few sources and it would have assisted the reader if detailed footnotes could have been provided, not just a sentence or two.  In addition, I would have liked further information about the postwar experience of the Zabinskis both of whom did extraordinary work during World War II.

As far as a comparison to the film is concerned, the story is segmented and the parts that are produced seem fairly accurate.  In the movie Jan comes across as a softer figure, in the book he has an extreme edge at times in dealing with Antonia.  Lutz Heck’s role in the film is somewhat crucial to the story, but less so in the book.  Events are accurate, but the book relies more on Antonia’s natural world of animals than is presented in the film.  Overall, the book is worth the read, and the film should be viewed.

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(The Warsaw Zoo used in WWII to hide Jews, Polish resistance fighters, and others)

AMONG THE LIVING by Jonathan Rabb

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(Savannah, GA)

Jonathan Rabb’s new novel, AMONG THE LIVING begins as a feel good story.  Holocaust survivor and former Prague journalist, Yitzchak Goldah arrives in Savannah in July, 1947 sponsored by his cousins Abe and Pearl Jesler.  The Jesler’s are very sensitive to Ike, the nickname Pearl creates, and his situation.  They invite him into their home and take care of all of his needs.  Ike has lost his entire family to the Nazi genocide and his mindset grows confused as he tries to adapt to new surroundings at the same time dealing with flashbacks from the camps.  It appears to be the making of a wonderful story, until different layers of the novel unravel.  Abe Jesler owns a shoe store in the Savannah business district and he invites Ike to learn the trade and work for him.  Along with Ike, Abe has a number of “negro” workers that include Calvin and Raymond.  As the story progresses, Abe who grew up in one of Savannah’s poorer sections needs to make a significant amount of money to satisfy his overly neurotic and loving spouse, Pearl.  Unbeknownst to Ike, Abe is involved with smuggling shoes from Italy through a southern organized syndicate, and over time he is drawn deeper and deeper into the mob’s machinations that call for increasing monetary payments and cooperation.  When Abe falls behind in his obligations a message is sent resulting in the brutal beating of Raymond.

The smuggling component is just one storyline.  Ike will met a World War II widow, Eva De La Parra, and against her mother’s wishes they begin a relationship.  Both Ike, the survivor, and Eva, the mother of a five year old boy, whose husband was killed in Germany in 1945 suffer from a deep emotional void and seem meant for each other.  As their relationship progresses a number of fissures emerge in Savannah society.  Then we learn that a person from Ike’s past seems to return from the dead.  Malke Posner, who survived Theresienstadt, the Nazi “model” concentration camp, turns up at the Jesler’s doorstep claiming to be Ike’s fiancée.

What dominates Rabb’s fine novel is social class inequality and prejudice.  At a time when “Jim Crow” dominates the Deep South we find a Jewish community where social circles seem to form around the type of Judaism that religious adherents aspire to.  First, are the somewhat religious conservatives that the Jeslers exemplify.  The second are Eva’s parents, the Weiss’s whose father is the editor of the town newspaper who are seen as “Temple Jews,” or as they are called, reformed.  This “ideological” conflict forms part of the background for a story that takes place at a time when Jews are finally leaving the displaced persons camps in Europe following their liberation from Hitler’s death camps, and in the Middle East Palestine is about to explode into a war between Jews and Arabs.  To highlight this, Rabb creates a scene during the Jewish New Year where both groups of Jews confront each other at the beach as they are about to engage in a Jewish cleansing tradition. Another fissure centers on race relations in the south.  The Jeslers, as do most wealthy members of the Savannah community employ Negro maids, in this case Mary Royal.  Her actions act out the subservient stereotypical maid as does the common language spoken by Raymond and Calvin.  In addition, Raymond confronts Abe Jesler concerning his rightful place in a business that he has worked in for over twenty years.

Rabb develops his plot through these dynamics and integrates well developed characters and a story whose highs and lows provoke many compelling questions.  This is Rabb’s sixth novel, and perhaps his best.

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(Savannah, GA)

HITLER: ASCENT 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich

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The public’s fascination with Adolf Hitler remains strong even sixty years after his suicide in the Fuhrer bunker in April, 1945.  To date over 120,000 books have been written about Hitler and Volker Ullrich’s new biography, HITLER: ASCENT 1889-1939 is a welcome addition to this ever increasing bibliography.  Up until now Ian Kershaw’s two volume work was the recognized standard in this genre replacing earlier volumes by Alan Bullock, and Joachim Fest as the most comprehensive works on Hitler.  Kershaw argued that Hitler was motivated by two obsessions as he pushed Germany toward war; the removal of the Jews, and German expansion to the east.  Overall, Ullrich agrees with Kershaw’s thesis, but what makes his book so important is his ability to synthesize the vast material that has already exists, his access to a great deal of new primary materials, and it has been almost twenty years since Kershaw’s work was published.  Ullrich should be commended for his voluminous research supported by his extensive endnotes.  These endnotes contain a treasure-trove of information for scholars of the Nazi regime, their leaders, and their rise to power.

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(A burned out synagogue during Krystallnacht, November, 1938)

Many wonder what the keys were to Hitler’s success.  Ullrich correctly depicts a man who was able to conceal his real intentions from friends and foes alike as one of the keys to his success.  He had the ability to instantly analyze political situations and exploit them, including his political opposition.  His success rests on his improvisational style of leadership where he created numerous internal conflicts from which he emerged as the indispensable man.  Ullrich breaks the myth that Hitler lacked personal relationships arguing that he was able to separate his political and private spheres which impacted his pursuit of power greatly.  Another key that Ullrich stresses in understanding Hitler is examining the reciprocal nature of his relationship with the German people that contributed to his enormous popularity.  It was not a forgone conclusion that Hitler would come to power, but domestic opposition leaders underestimated his abilities, as would foreign leaders after he consolidated power in 1934.  Ullrich’s aim “is to deconstruct the myth of Hitler, the ‘fascination with monstrosity’ that has greatly influenced historical literature and public discussion of the Fuhrer after 1945.  In a sense, Hitler will he ‘normalised’—although this will not make him seem more ‘normal.’  If anything, he will emerge as even more horrific.”

Ullrich’s study is extremely comprehensive.  He does not spend a great deal of time concerning Hitler’s childhood and upbringing, just enough to explore a few myths associated with Hitler’s childhood which he debunks, i.e.; he did not grow up in poverty as his father Alois had a good pension; he did not blame the Jews for the death of his mother from cancer; and he did not blame the Jews for his inability to be admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts  The biography becomes detailed as the Ullrich explores the effect  Fin-de-Siècle Austria on Hitler and the author does an excellent job reviewing the historiography pertaining to Hitler’s intellectual development.  Hitler is presented as an autodidact who was self-educated which explains how he acquired his anti-Semitic prejudices and German nationalist ideas.  But it is Hitler’s experience in World War I that shaped the man, without which he would have remained “a nobody” with pretensions of being an artist.

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(Adolf Hitler with his second in command, Hermann Goering)

Ullrich’s work successfully shifts the focus of his study on to Hitler the person as is evidenced by an excellent chapter, “Hitler the Human Being.”  It is here that Ullrich delves into Hitler’s behavior and personality and tries to lift the mask that makes it difficult to penetrate Hitler’s shifting persona.  Hitler’s personality is a compilation of dichotomies.* He was a dictator who kept people at a distance, but sought company to avoid being alone with himself.  He could be caring and empathetic at times, but at the same time he could commit or order brutal acts.  Ullrich is correct in pointing out that Hitler was an actor and chameleon who was able to manipulate others who did not see through him as he overcame his personal insecurities and was able to shift many of them on to the German people in order to seize power.

Other important chapters include “Month of Destiny: January 1933,” where Ullrich details Hitler’s path to the Chancellorship by taking the reader through the numerous elections, the strategies pursued by Hitler and his cohorts, the approach taken by the opposition, and the political infighting on all sides of the political spectrum.  January 30, 1933 became the turning point in the history of the twentieth century, but at the time Ullrich correctly points out leaders and the German public were not totally aware of its significance because most power brokers believed that the Franz von Papen-Paul von Hindenburg-Alfred Hugenberg alliance would be able to control Hitler.  As is repeatedly pointed out in the narrative it was just another example of people underestimating the new German Chancellor.  When examining if there were opportunities to stop Hitler’s ascent, Ullrich recapitulates the ideas of Karl Dietrich Bracher’s THE GERMAN DICTATORSHIP published in 1972.  Further, no one should have been surprised by Hitler’s actions after he rose to power, because his speeches, other public utterances, and his book MEIN KAMPF carefully delineated what he proposed to do.

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(Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbles)

In the realm of what he did do it is carefully reconstructed in the chapters, “Totalitarian Revolution,” and “Eviscerating Versailles.”  After achieving power on January 30, 1933 over the next year we witness the Nazi consolidation of power through the creation of the first concentration camp at Dachau; the passage of the Enabling Act, or “The Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich,” which was used to create a dictatorship in the hands of the Chancellor as Hitler could now formulate laws without the approval of the Reichstag; and lastly, The Night of the Long Knives which destroyed the SA and the last vestige of political opposition.   As far as Hitler’s foreign policy was concerned the enemy was the Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy and the key to its destruction was the step by step dismantling of the Treaty of Versailles.  Ullrich takes us through this process and the tactic Hitler employed throughout the period was to simultaneously appear as conciliatory and presenting his adversaries with a fait accompli, i.e., German military rearmament and the occupation of the Rhineland in March, 1936.   The response of the west was one of appeasement and Hitler recreated a strategy that worked so effectively domestically – implementing policy that fostered foreign diplomats to underestimate him.   Overall, there is little that is new in this part of the narrative, but Ullrich’s clear analysis and Jefferson Chase’s excellent translation make events and policies easy to understand, particularly the historical implications that would result in World War II.

After reading Ullrich’s narrative I am not certain he has met his goal of “humanizing” Hitler because no matter how the material is presented he remains the historical monster that his actions and belief system support.  To Ullrich’s credit he has written a carefully constructed biography that should be seen as the most comprehensive biography of Hitler to date, and I look forward to the second volume that will carry us through the end of World War II.

*To explore Hitler from a psychological perspective you might consult:

Binion, Rudolph. HITLER AMONG THE GERMANS

Langer, Walter. THE MIND OF ADOLF HITLER

Waite, Robert. HITLER THE PSYCHOPATHIC GOD

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MISCHLING by Affinity Konar

Mischling
Most of us are aware of the horrific policies implemented by the Nazis during the Holocaust, but one area that seems further and further beyond the pale in terms of their barbarity and horror is in the realm of medical experiments.  The name that comes to the fore when thinking of such perverse behavior is that of Dr. Josef Mengele who conducted experiments on about 1500 pairs of twins in his laboratories at Auschwitz, of which maybe 200 survived the war.  Mengele was obsessed with the behavior and genetic makeup of twins which forms the infrastructure of Affinity Konar’s new novel, MISCHLING.  Mischling in German means “mixed blood” or “half breed,” and was the legal term employed by the Nazis to denote people with Jewish or Aryan ancestry.  There were different categories as delineated by the 1935 Nuremberg Blood Laws that the Nazis developed to determine whether a person was a Jew or of mixed blood.  This determination affected Jews on many levels and for far too many led to their ultimate extinction.

Konor develops her story through the eyes of Pearl and Stasha Zagorski, twin girls who at the age of twelve are seized and transported to Auschwitz in the fall of 1944.  Konor alternates her narration between the twins and begins with Stasha as she describes a white coated man walking over to the girls and their mother and grandfather as classical music plays in the background.  The man known as “Uncle” throughout the novel is Dr. Josef Mengele and after examining the girls separates them from their mother and grandfather and sends them to the Zoo, the name for the facility for Mengele to conduct his research.

Konor’s novel draws heavily on CHILDREN OF FLAMES by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, and THE NAZI DOCTORS by psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton.  Despite her reliance on these works Konor is able to create two personalities that are hauntingly real as it is expressed by the continual dialogue between Pearl and Stasha, and their narration upon their separation from each other.  At the outset it appears that the twins are special and have a certain status, but once the experiments begin they are tossed aside just like any other Holocaust victim.  They may live longer, but if one of the twins happens to die, the other will follow almost immediately.  It was uncanny how Pearl and Stasha shared each other’s pain.  Pearl could be undergoing a certain experiment on one part of her body, and unbeknownst to Stasha she would feel pain in the same part of her anatomy.  Pearl would curse herself because her veins stood out and it made it easier for Mengele to inject what germs, viruses or poison he desired.  As awareness of what was occurring to them became evident the twins developed a new maturity and in Pearl’s case she went from being the more outgoing of the sisters before their incarceration, to becoming more methodical, and focused on her memories to survive each day; while Stasha grew feistier and more cunning in trying to cope with the evil that surrounded her.

The girls had been inseparable in their previous life, now found that as they grew apart they were no longer as devoted to each other.  It is heart breaking to visualize Pearl, who believed she was dying from the medical experiments that were conducted, tried to push Stasha away so she would not be so dependent; so when Pearl would eventually die, Stasha could move on.  The pain and anguish is palatable on each page as each of the twins feels less than whole, as each believes in their own way that their better half has been stolen from them, and they are surviving in a vacuum.  The experiments that were conducted were bizarre and the concoction of a demented mind; sewing twins together so they could not see each other, placing one twin in a cage and allowing the other to survive in the laboratory, and on and on.  Konar’s research allows her to reconstruct an alternate reality that was Mengele’s world and can only bring tears to the reader.

The second half of the book is not as focused as the first half and at times comes across as a bit disjointed.  The story revolves around the approach and the final arrival of Russian troops to liberate Auschwitz.  From there we follow the twins on their journey with a number of projections into the future.  Konar drills down into actual events and how the Russians treated the newly freed victims and follows Pearl and Stasha’s different paths.  We witness the Nazi attempt to destroy all evidence of what they had perpetrated.  The emotions and feelings of the newly released seem straight out of Robert Jay Lifton’s work as they suffer from “without self,” “survival guilt,” and other diagnostic terms.  The Soviets make a propaganda film of what they find in the camps and Pearl wonders what is actually taking place.  Stasha and Feliks, another survivor are committed to seeking revenge and travel toward Warsaw in the hope of killing Dr. Mengele.  We also experience the story of Dr. Miri, a Jewish doctor forced to assist Mengele’s work and how she seeks redemption and tries to deal with her guilt.

Overall, MISCHLING is a difficult read.  It is the type of novel that must be taken in small doses.  Though it reveals nothing new in terms of what we know of Mengele’s tortuous work, imagining what has occurred through the eyes of twin sisters and their perceptions separates Konor’s effort from much of the material that has appeared before.  If you choose to tackle Konor’s novel be prepared for the world you about to enter.

 

THE RIGHT WRONG MAN: JOHN DEMJANJUK AND THE LAST GREAT NAZI WAR CRIMES TRIAL

(Sobibor Death Camp)

As Lawrence Douglas, an Amherst College law professor describes in his new book, THE RIGHT WRONG MAN: JOHN DEMJANJUK AND THE LAST GREAT NAZI WAR CRIMES TRIAL, the former Ford Motor employee was “little more than a peon at the bottom of the Nazis exterminatory hierarchy.”  However, what makes him important is the legal odyssey he navigated from 1975 to his death in 2012.  Demjanjuk survived a number of major trials; denaturalization hearings in the United States, prosecution in Israel, and his final legal confrontation in Germany.  Throughout the process Demjanjuk lied, acted, obfuscated, as he tried to avoid conviction.  The end result was finally being found guilty of “crimes against humanity” in 2011, after having previous convictions overturned because of prosecution errors and the failure of memory on the part of Holocaust survivors.

Demjanjuk’s biography is quite amazing.  During the outset of the war Demjanjuk was a soldier in the Red Army.  After being captured by the Germans he volunteered to be a guard at the Sobibor death camp.  Once the war ended, he was able to immigrate to the United States by lying on his application associated with the Truman administrations 1948 Displaced Persons Act.  He settled in Cleveland and became a machinist at a Ford Motor plant, and was able to hide his Holocaust related activities for years, until 1975 when American officials first learned of his possible wartime activities.

(Demjanjuk’s wartime pass placing him in Nazi occupied Poland; discovered in 2002 by the United States)

Douglas provides intricate detail and analysis of Demjanjuk’s legal journey.  He dissects the strategies pursued by defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges as they try to convict Demjanjuk of being Ivan Grozny, “Ivan the Terrible” for his sadistic acts at Treblinka.  Further, Douglas explores the gaps in the legal systems that tried to bring him to justice and how previous trials, Nuremberg, and Eichmann in particular impacted legal strategies.  The problem that emerges is that Demjanjuk was misidentified and was not Ivan Grozny, but a man who served at Sobibor and contributed to the death of thousands of Jews for which he was finally convicted.  Demjanjuk’s legal battles began in 1975 and continued until later in the decade when he would be identified as the former Treblinka guard, “Ivan the Terrible.”  Demjanjuk was stripped of his citizenship and extradited to Israel.  In 1988 he was convicted and sentenced to death by an Israeli court.  After numerous appeals and the emergence of new evidence, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the government had the wrong Ivan.  He was returned to the United States and his citizenship was restored.

Demjanjuk may not have been at Treblinka, but earlier testimony seemed to place him at Sobibor, another Nazi death camp.  In 2001 he lost his US citizenship for a second time and in 2009 he was dispatched to Germany for trial.  On May 12, 2011 he was found guilty by a German court for assisting in the murder of 28,060 Jews.  Before his death sentence could be carried out he died, ending one of the last prosecutions of perpetrators of the Holocaust.  Douglas’ book is an important contribution to the legal issues that have surrounded the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.  Douglas raises many important subjects including; the justice of trying old men for superannuated crimes, the nature of individual responsibility in the orchestration of state-sponsored crimes, the nature and causes, and possible justifications of collaboration in the perpetuation of atrocities, and how three different legal systems went about creating legal alloys to master the challenges posed by the Nazi genocide.

(Demjanjuk stated he was too ill to sit up at his trial in Munich)

Douglas points out that Nazi crimes were so great that retributive justice based on didactic exercises organized around survivor testimony was not enough.  What was needed was to use trials as a means of historical education, present history through the eyes of survivor memory as what done at the Eichmann trial.  However, even this noble ideal was fraught with holes as was seen in the prosecution of Demjanjuk.  What was needed according to Douglas was to develop the role of historians to assist in the preparation and prosecution of Nazi crimes.  One of the major drawbacks in the prosecutorial process was the lack of historical context that only historians could provide.  This gap was overcome in Demjanjuk’s Munich case as historians came into play in every aspect of the case from drafting of the indictment to the core of the court’s judgement.  For the first time a new type of Holocaust trial emerged: the Holocaust as History.

These developments overcame many of the obstacles that were evident in earlier prosecutions. In the United States turf battles between the Justice Department and other agencies, difficulties handling atrocity cases with routine prosecutory tools, the lack of linguistic skills on the part of lawyers, and little or no training in historical research all hindered the development of sound cases against war criminals.  Douglas traces the evolution of new techniques and approaches to these types of cases beginning with the Nuremberg Trials, the Eichmann Trial, and the prosecution of the real Ivan Grozny, Fedor Fedorenko that culminated in the final conviction of Demjanjuk.

(At his trial in Munich, Demjanjuk claimed that file #1627 in the Russian archives would prove his innocence)

Douglas asks the important question as to the benefits to mankind that emerged from the Demjanjuk case.  “First, it yielded a modified theory of culpability, directly ‘connected to the exterminatory process.’  This disposed once and for all of the defense ‘I was no more than a cog in the machine…I was obeying orders.’  A machine cannot run without its small constituent parts.”  As a result it was now enough to prove that a defendant worked in a death factory to obtain a conviction because without the numbers of these types of defendants the Holocaust could not have reached the magnitude that it did.  Further, this allowed for the further prosecution of lower-level war criminals and permitted three separate judicial systems to learn from past errors and instill confidence in this type of judicial process.  (New York Times, February 26, 2016)

Douglas astute dissection of the Demjanjuk case and the application of his analysis to the overall problem of culpability for war crimes is a major contribution to this type of literature.  Though at times it is written in legalese, overall it should be easily understood by the layman resulting a satisfying reading experience.

(October 14, 1943, Sobibor Death Camp following a failed revolt)

THE CRIME AND THE SILENCE: CONFRONTING THE MASSACRE OF JEWS IN WARTIME JEDWABNE by Anna Bikont

(Following the release of the film “Aftermath” in Poland in September, 2011, Polish deniers of the Jedwabne massacre of Jews during World War II strike once again)

My father was born a short distance from Krakow in 1913 when Poland was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and fortunately was able to immigrate to the United States in the mid-1930s, though many of our extended family would eventually perish in Auschwitz.  Growing up my father would tell me stories about what it was like to live among Polish Catholics in his village and the abuse that he endured.  Years later I read the book NEIGHBOR: THE DESTRUCTION OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN JEDWABNE, POLAND by Jan Tomasz Gross in 2002 that described the pogrom committed by Polish Catholics against the Jews of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941 and was shocked, but not surprised.  The outcry against the book when it was published in Poland arguing that it was the Gestapo or other components of the German army that was responsible was to be expected.   With the publication of Anna Bikont’s haunting history, THE CRIME AND THE SILENCE: CONFRONTING THE MASSACRE OF JEWS IN WARTIME JEDWABNE in 2004, recently translated into English by Alissa Valles, the Polish people once again must face the historical reality of the actions of many of their co-religionists and not resort to the standard denials shifting blame to the Nazis.

Bikont a journalist for the Gazeta Wyborcza has written a book that is part history and part memoir as she assiduously gathered oral histories of events that took place in Poland during the war.  The narrative adds to Gross’ work and the reader learns immediately that Jedwabne was not the only pogrom that Polish Catholics engaged in.  In fact three days before the massacre at Jedwabne, in a village close by, the entire Jewish population of Radzilow was rounded up and burned, with no Germans present.  As we read on there are numerous examples of the liquidation of Jews with the assistance of the Poles, or were conducted solely by the Poles.

Bikont’s approach is to alternate chapters detailing her investigation through research in the Bialystok region, Canada, the United States, Israel, Argentina, and Europe or wherever her research took her, as she conducted interviews of individuals who lived in the area during the massacre with chapters dealing with the overall history of the area in the 1930s and 1940s.  The author does a good job chronicling the deterioration of the plight of the Jews in the 1930s, a period that began with Jews trying to be good Polish citizens despite the increasing level of anti-Semitism that would continue to manifest itself throughout the decade.  The arrival of Hitler in power in Germany in 1933, in part provided an opportunity for “the Camp for Greater Poland,” the National Party, and Catholic prelates to egg on the peasant population to perpetrate a pogrom in Radzilow in March of that year.  Marching to the slogan “We raise our plea before your alter/Lord, rid Poland of the Jews,” the peasant population that was suffering from the depression could focus its hostility on the Jews.  Throughout the 1930s the Catholic press did its best to instigate and heighten Polish hatred of Jews and encouraged acts of violence that by the summer of 1937, 65-70 acts of violence against Jews were reported monthly to the Interior Ministry.  This on top of parliamentary action against Jewish religious practices and education made Jews very wary of remaining in Poland.  As the Zionist movement expanded many families hoped to at the very least send some of their children to Palestine.  By September 1, 1939 with the Nazi invasion of Poland that avenue of escape was severed.

(Jedwabne, Poland synagogue, circa, 1913)

Bikont makes extensive use of archival material that support her thesis as to the role of the Poles in making the lives of Jews one of misery and death, during the prewar period and during the war itself.  Her use of the Jewish Historical  Institute and Jewish Historical Commission archives produces microfiche of Holocaust survivor testimony reflecting that not only were their pogroms in Radzilow on July 7, Jedwabne on July 10, but also in Wasosz on July 5.  For Szymon Datner, a renowned historian what happened at Wasosz rivaled the slaughter that took place in Kishinev in 1903 Czarist Russia.  Datner also documents the murder of Jews in 1945 as they came out of hiding by Polish peasants.  Bikont’s journal entries for the first six months of 2001 are especially important as the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne murders approaches.  She is confronted with outright denial or refusal to speak with her by individuals who were present in 1941.  Further, even Jews who survived are apprehensive to speak with her because they have either hidden the fact that they are Jewish, even from family members, or are just afraid of the repercussions.  One of the dominant excuses that is offered is that once the Soviet Union invaded Poland the Jews collaborated with the NKVD and turned Polish citizen’s names over to Russian authorities causing them to be sent into exile in Siberia.  Another argument is that it is being raised now, if it actually happened, so the Jews could collect billions in reparations from the Polish government.  This line of thought is seen as justification for burning 1600 human beings in a barn, and shooting another 42 in the market place area.

One of the more interesting chapters concentrates on the three Laudanski brothers, two of which were convicted of murder for the events of July 7, 1941 and their rationale that they too suffered under Soviet and German occupation. The third Laudanski brother, Kazimierz claims to have not been in Jedwabne on the day of the massacre and arrived three days later, though there is some evidence he was actually present.  Of the ten men convicted in the 1949 trial for the murders in Jedwabne, Zygmunt and Jerzy Laudanski, as of the publication of Bikont’s book in 2004, were still alive.  From all accounts and by their own admission they forced hundreds of Jews into the market place and then led them to the barn were they were burned alive.  There is also testimony that they beat and killed Jews while coercing them to reach the market place.  For their crimes Zygmunt Laudanski was sentenced to twelve years in prison of which he served six, and his brother Jerzy was sentenced to fifteen years, and served eight. From her interviews with the brothers, Bikont points out that they blamed the deportation of the Poles, including their family members under Soviet occupation on Jewish communists.  Among their comments   Zygmunt Laudanski states, “there was nothing as horrible as all that.  People are making it up now in revenge.”  Kazimierz Laudanksi comments, “Like all of the Polish people, we suffered under the Soviets, under the Germans, and under People’s Poland…Our people organized the roundup of the Jews, but didn’t take part in the burning, they behaved as peaceful people.” The Poles kept saying, “It’s God’s punishment.  It was a diabolical stunt organized by the Germans.  The Germans directed it, and used the Poles like actors in the theater.  But Poles wanting to burn Jews, there was nothing like that.” (119)

(as per Jewish tradition, Rabbis place stones on top of the monument denoting the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne, Poland massacre)

The remembrance monument for the massacre is another controversial issue for the people of Jedwabne.  The monument that commemorates the events of July 10, 1941 states, “Place of Execution of Jewish Population.  Gestapo and Hitler’s Police Buried 1600 People Alive July 10, 1941.”  Which of course is not accurate.  Bikont’s journal entries from 2001 reflect the animosity as the inscription is about to be changed as the 60th anniversary of the massacre approaches.  Jedwabne residents are upset that their town cannot escape the stigma of the massacre and resent journalists revisiting what they see as “ancient” history and the calls for a more accurate inscription.  These feelings are manifested by certain political and religious figures statements denigrating the monument and the impact it has on their lives.  One of the most distressing aspects of the book is Bikont’s exploration of the debate in the Jedwabne town council over the plans for the ceremony at the monument commemorating the massacre.  A majority of the council members refused to approve funding for the road that provided access to the Jewish cemetery for the ceremony.  What remains quite clear that Polish anti-Semitism remains very pervasive as of Bikont’s writing and many sections of the Polish population cannot overcome their hatred and view of history no matter what evidence is presented i.e., the creation of the “Committee to Defend the Good Name of Jedwabne,” dominated by the families of those convicted, and those who have taken over the homes of Jews in the town, or have seized Jewish property.  As Mayor Krzysztof Godlewski, later forced to resign because of his support of the new inscription and his assistance to Bikont during her research, tries to bring the council together he is met with repeated denial and virulent anti-Semitism.

The most important question that needs to be asked is why did the massacre take place?  For Bikont the immediate fuse that set off the events on July 10 was the Soviet occupation, which led to the charge of Jewish collaboration.  The Soviet occupation was equally difficult for Jews and Poles alike.  The Jewish social fabric and community life was destroyed by the Soviets, but the Jews did greet the Russians in a better frame of mind than the Poles.  The reason is obvious, the Poles with their virulent anti-Semitism and violence against Jews were now blocked by the occupation.  For the Poles it must have been humiliating to lose control of their own country and government and witness Jews having an element of freedom.  With the deportations of Poles as well as Jews it is much more convenient “to replace reality with a stereotype like ‘the Jews collaborated,’ all the more so if you know those who might have corrected this misconception had perished.” The new situation in which “the ‘kikes’ were given relative equality in civil law must have been a provocation to those neighbors raised on prewar anti-Semitism.” (179)  As far as the charge that Jews were involved in selecting who was to be deported, it is another Polish fantasy.  Bikont’s research points to three great deportations.  The first on February 9-10, 1940 resulted in taking away members of the Polish military, foresters, and other specific occupations.  The second wave in April, 1940 targeted families of those previously arrested: police officers, senior officials, political leaders and the local intelligentsia.  The third wave in June, 1940 involved “refugees” who fled the General Government, 80% of which were Jews.  The fourth wave that came in June, 1941 targeting the Polish underground partisan movement.  Since Jews were not generally accepted as partisans, to blame them is beyond the scope of reality.  Bikont, and Gross before her, clearly debunk the myth of Jewish denunciations as the cause of Polish deportation no matter how often Catholic prelates and Polish politicians repeat the charge. Once the Germans invaded the remainder of Poland on June 22, 1941 and continued on into the Soviet Union, the Poles responded with numerous pogroms against the remaining Jews, one of which was Jedwabne.

Bikont spends a great deal of time exploring the role of the Catholic Church in creating the environment for the massacre to take place, but also facilitating the pogroms that resulted.  She provides numerous examples of the statements and actions of Catholic prelates who disregarded the statements of the Vatican, particularly after the war.  The prelates continue the rationalization that the Jews deserved what they got because they denounced the Poles.  Bikont believed that the Church had reached a turning point in 1945 as it became the bastion against Sovietization of Polish society.  However those anti-Semitic feelings did not remain in the background for long as the deaconry in Jedwabne headed by Father Antoni Roszkowski continued spewing his hatred of the Jews.  Since 1988, Father Edward Orlowski held sway in Jedwabne and he carried on as if nothing had changed as far as Jewish guilt was concerned.  It is interesting to note that once the ceremony took place on July 10, 2001 no high level church representatives attended, though to their credit three priests do make an appearance.  For Jews, the fear of retribution was so high that only Awigdor Korchaw, the only Jewish witness who was in the market square the day of the massacre, had the courage to attend.

To Bikont’s credit as she tells the stories of the few Jewish survivors, she integrates their horrific accounts with those Poles who helped by hiding them or facilitating their escape.  Bikont follows her subjects around the globe in her quest to learn the truth and find out what happened to these people once the war ended.  Her description of the lives of Szmul Wasersztejn, the most important witness to events; Chaja Finkelsztejn, whose unpublished memoir of survival provides a window into the inhumanity of the people who committed the atrocities; Antonina Wyrzykowska, who hid seven Jews; and the author’s constant interaction with Radoslaw Ignatiew, the prosecutor of the Institute of National Remembrance leads one to accept Gross’s earlier finding that, the Poles were the instigators of the massacre and carried out the atrocities associated with it.  Her journal continues until July 10, 2004 and her final chapter has the fitting title, “Strictly speaking, Poles did it.”  One of the most heart rendering phrases in the book points to the post-war Polish generation when Bikont states, “the blood on the father’s hands burn the children,” which may explain why so many Poles today still have difficulty coming to terms with what happened almost 75 years ago in a country whose 2003 census listed 1100 Jews, out of a pre-World War II census of around 3.3 million.

(a man cleans the memorial to the Jews massacred in Jedwabne, Poland on July 10, 1941 defaced by Polish anti-Semites)

1944: FDR AND THE YEAR THAT CHANGED HISTORY by Jay Winik

(The liberation of Dachau, April 29, 1945)

According to Jay Winik, the author of two bestselling works of history, APRIL, 1865 and THE GREAT UPHEAVAL, during World War II every three seconds someone died.  This should not be surprising based on the myriad of books that have been written about the war that fostered mass killing on a scale that had never been seen before.  The Nazis perpetuated the industrialization of death almost until they ran out of victims.  In the skies the combatants laid waste to civilian areas fostering terror and destruction unknown to mankind before the war.  It is with this backdrop that Winik tells the story of World War II focusing on the role of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision making and his inability or refusal to lift a finger to assist the victims of Hitler’s Final Solution until it was too late.  The book is entitled 1944: FDR AND THE YEAR THAT CHANGED HISTORY, but the title is misleading, because instead of focusing on the watershed year of 1944, the book seems to be a comprehensive synthesis of the wartime events that the author chooses to concentrate on.  Winik opens his narrative by describing the Teheran Conference of November, 1943 which most historians argue was the most important wartime conference as the major outline of post war decision making took place.  Here we meet Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, before Winik switches to the massive allied bombardment of Berlin that would shatter the faith of the German people in their government, as it could no longer protect them from the developing superiority of allied might.

(President Franklin D. Roosevelt who refused to pressure the State Department when he knew that they were blocking Jews from immigrating to the United States during WWII)

The author offers very little if anything that is new dealing with the war.  Its strength lies in its synthesis of the massive secondary literature that the war has produced.  Winik has mined a voluminous amount of material, but very little of it is primary and one must ask the question; what purpose does the book have if it adds little that is not already familiar for bibliophiles of the war?  I believe the author’s goal is to produce a general history of the conflict that allows the reader inside some of the most important decisions related to the war.  Winik writes in an engrossing manner that creates a narrative that is accurate with sound analysis of the major characters and events discussed.  The monograph is not presented in chronological order as the author organizes the book by concentrating on the period that surrounds the Teheran Conference of November, 1943 through D-Day and its immediate aftermath for the first 40% of the narrative, and then he shifts his focus on to the Final Solution that by D-Day was almost complete.  Most of the decisions involving major battles are discussed in depth ranging from D-Day, the invasions of North Africa and Sicily, to biographies of lesser known characters like, Rabbi Stephen Wise, a leader of the American Jewish community, but also a friend of FDR; Rudolph Vrba and Eduard Schulte who smuggled out evidence of the Holocaust as early as November 1942 and made their mission in life to notify the west what was transpiring in the concentration camps with the hope that it would prod the allies to take action to stop it, or at least, lessen its impact.

(Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long who did all he could to prevent Jews from immigrating to the United States during WWII)

Much of the narrative deals with the history of Auschwitz and its devastating impact on European Jewry, and Roosevelt’s refusal to take any concrete action to mitigate what was occurring, despite the evidence that he was presented.  Winik delves deep into the policies of the State Department, which carried an air of anti-Semitism throughout the war.  The attitude of the likes of Breckenridge Long are discussed and how they openly sought to prevent any Jewish immigration to the United States.  When the issue of possibly bombing Auschwitz is raised we meet John J. McCloy who at first was in charge of rounding up Japanese-Americans and routing them to “relocation centers” in the United States, and is in charge of American strategic bombing in Europe who refuses to consider any air missions over Auschwitz arguing it was not feasible, when in fact allied planes were bombing in the region and had accidentally hit the camp in late 1944.  Roosevelt was a political animal and refused to use any of his political capital, no matter how much pressure to assist the Jews.  FDR was fully aware of what was taking place in the camps and did create some window dressing toward the end of the war with the creation of the War Refugees Board that did save lives, but had it been implemented two years earlier might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Much of Winik’s descriptions and analysis has been written before and he has the habit of discussing a particular topic with an overreliance on a particular secondary source.  A number of these works appear repeatedly, i.e.; Martin Gilbert’s Auschwitz and the Allies, David Wyman’s THE ABANDONMENT OF THE JEWS, Richard Breitman and Alan J. Lichtman’s FDR AND THE JEWS, James MacGregor Burns’ SOLDIER OF FREEDOM, and Ian Kershaw’s two volume biography of Hitler.  There are a number of areas where Winik’s sources have been replaced by more recent monographs of which he should be familiar, i.e., when discussing Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June, 1941 the main source seems to be Kershaw, but David Murphy’s WHAT STALIN KNEW, Andrew Roberts’ STALIN’S WARS, and Evan Mawdsley’s THUNDER IN THE EAST would have enhanced the discussion.  In addition, there are many instances when endnotes were not available, leaving the reader to wonder what they have just read is based on.

(John J. McCloy, in charge of strategic bombing in Europe at the end of the war who refused to allow American planes to bomb Auschwitz)

To Winik’s credit his integration of the state of FDR’s health throughout the book is very important.  We see a Roosevelt who is clearly dying at a time when many momentous decisions must be made, but the president feels that he was in office when the war began, and he must complete his task.  The effect of FDR’s health on decision making and the carrying out of policy has tremendous implications for the history of the time period.  One of the more interesting aspects of Winik’s approach to his subject matter is how he repeatedly assimilates the plight of the Jews with other facets of the war.  It seems that no matter the situation the author finds a way to link the Holocaust to other unfolding decisions and events, particularly during 1944 and after.  The author also does a superb job describing the human element in his narrative.  The plight and fears of deportees to Auschwitz, the anxiety of soldiers as they prepare for Operation Overlord, the chain smoking General Eisenhower as he awaits news of battles, and the fears and hopes of FDR on the eve of D-Day are enlightening and provide the reader tremendous insights into historical moments.

To sum up, if Winik’s goal was to write a general history of the Second World War, centering on the role of Franklin Roosevelt he is very successful as the book is readable and in many areas captivating for the reader.  If his goal was to add an important new interpretation of the wartime decision making centering on FDR and 1944 as the turning point in the war, I believe he has failed.  Overall, this is an excellent book for the general reader, but for those who are quite knowledgeable about World War II you might be disappointed.