RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE by Rebecca Erbelding

Image result for photo of fdr and henry morgenthau jr holocaust(President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.)

One of the most contentious debates pertaining to World War II deals with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in trying to mitigate the horrors of the Holocaust and the role of the American government in general. Many argue that Roosevelt was a political animal who based his position on the plight of world Jewry on political calculation and did little to offset Nazi terror; others argue that FDR did as much as possible based on conditions domestically and abroad.  Some authors reach the conclusion that FDR’s views were consistent throughout the war and according to historian, Richard Breitman he was “politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of the Jews-even given that he had no easy remedies for a specific Jewish tragedy in Europe.”  Many authors argue that “FDR avoided positions that might put at risk his broader goals of mobilizing anti-Nazi opposition and gaining freedom to act in foreign affairs,” for example dealing with the refugee crisis, the issue of Palestine, immigration, and organizing the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Historians stress the fear of domestic anti-Semitism, especially in the State Department; the inability of American Jews to present a united front; the role of the War Department; and presidential politics.  Overall, this is an important issue that dominates the headlines today; what is the “appropriate response of an American president to humanitarian crises abroad and at home?”

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(John Pehle, Head of the War Refugee Board)

The signature effort of the United States in dealing with the Holocaust and trying to mitigate Nazi deportations and saving Jews was the War Refugee Board which was created on January 16, 1944 which according to Rebecca Erbelding, an archivist and curator at the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s eye opening recent book,  RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE finally created an official government policy to rescue Jews.  Erbelding covers a great deal of material that has been mined previously by David Wyman, Richard Breitman, Henry Feingold, Martin Gilbert, Walter Laqueur and many others.  What separates her effort is her focus on American refugee policy from 1944 onward.  She mines over 19,000 documents dealing with the War Rescue Board as she displays the bureaucratic infighting, the ideological shifts, the out and out racism and anti-Semitism that existed in the State Department under the aegis of Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his minions like Breckenridge Long.  A number of heroes emerge from Erbelding’s narrative, the most important of which is John Pehle, the Assistant Secretary to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Roswell MacLelland who ran the War Refugee Board in Switzerland, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.

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(John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War, refused to consider bombing Nazi concentration camps)

The underlying theme of the monograph that has been portrayed by others was the bureaucratic war between the State and Treasury Departments over American immigration policy beginning in the 1930s.  By the summer of 1942 news of the ongoing massacre of European Jewry was known in Washington.  However, helping Jews escape Europe was never a priority for the American government nor its people.  Bigger problems loomed; the Great Depression, war in Europe, war in Asia, all stole the focus of most Americans.  Erbelding provides a nice synthesis dealing with the immigration battles throughout the 1920s and 30s that limited immigration under the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924.  She provides the link between anti-immigration sentiment that emerged during World War I, due in part as Daniel Okrent argues in his new book, THE GUARDED STATE to the role of eugenics, economic fears, and national security among other concerns.  By 1941 public opinion, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclivity to measure which way the political winds were blowing, anti-immigration sentiment in Congress, and out and out anti-Semitism in the State Department had already taken hold.

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(Secretary of State Cordell Hull)

By August 1942, Pehle concluded that it should be the role of the American government to try and save the Jews of Europe, and it was his responsibility as Director of Foreign Funds Control to do his best to achieve this momentous goal.  He was able to gain the cooperation of Morgenthau to liberalize the Treasury Department’s foreign funds policies to implement his strategy.  Erbelding spends a great deal of time narrating and analyzing how Pehle and his allies went about their task.  Pehle’s strategy focused on transferring funds to relief organizations that the State Department had blocked for two years; Gerhardt Riegner’s plan to save Jewish children, funding for the International Red Cross, assistance to the World Jewish Congress, assist underground movements, among many more.  Further, he created the protection of “paper,” issuing as many visas and passports with as much neutral power support as possible.  He instituted a licensing policy to satisfy the Nazis and their allies to consider releasing their captives.  He played a game of “charades” as a strategic approach to negotiations employing bluffs, lies or anything that might bring about the rescue of Hungarian Jews.  In addition, he was responsible for the creation of an Emergency Refugee Shelter in upstate New York, planting articles in newspaper and other publicity about the plight of refugees, and even went so far as trying to get the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to launder money through its Swedish headquarters.

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(Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Refugee Affairs, Breckenridge Long)

Pehle and his allies’ work did not stop with these strategies.  He worked assiduously to purchase and/or lease shipping for Jews, locating safe havens, and considered the most outrageous possibilities to save lives.  Erbelding delves into the Brand Mission which involved a Nazi attempt to ransom the Jews of Hungary.  Brand was a member of the Zionist Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest who was seen as a spy by the British who actually imprisoned him during negotiations with Adolf Eichmann.   The offer of Hungarian dictator Admiral Horthy to release Jews under his auspices, as well as the work of Raoul Wallenberg, Ira Hirschman and others was under Pehle’s purview.  As Erbelding correctly points out, the time and effort in most cases proved fruitless, but the War Rescue Board members at least tried.

Erbelding points to the British as a major roadblock because of its refusal to accept refugees in Palestine.  But London had company in creating obstacles or just plain refusal like Turkey, Spain, Portugal and others in trying to gain passage for Jews to safe havens.  They could all point to Roosevelt’s policies which after constant pressure from Jewish leaders and the State Department finally produced a declaration on March 24, 1944 warning Holocaust perpetrators and their axis allies of the punishment that awaited them once the war ended.  Pehle would employ that warning throughout Europe, but in most cases to no avail.

(Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, War Refugee Board Head, John Pehle)

Erbelding goes along with numerous others in arguing no matter how many Jews the War Rescue Board might have saved had it been created two years earlier the end of the war was the only solution to the Nazi terror.  Despite its late creation the Board did save lives, how many is open to conjecture.  But the work of people like Daly Mayer, Iver Olsen, Peter Bergson, Florence Hodel and many others cannot be discounted as the United States for the first and only time in its history worked to save lives and endeavor to employ humanitarian approach to a worldwide refugee problem.    If there is a lesson to garnered from Erbelding’s work it is that even in the midst of war, governments can achieve humanitarian successes. Perhaps the current administration should shelve its political agenda and consider what the War Refugee Board accomplished at the end of World War II and create a humanitarian approach to the refugee crisis it now confronts at its southern border.

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(President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.)

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America and the Holocaust: Should the United States have done more? (a mini-course)

AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST: SHOULD THE UNITED STATES HAVE DONE MORE?

Steven Z. Freiberger, Ph.D.

szfreiberger@gmail.com

http://www.docs-books.com

One of the most contentious debates pertaining to World War II deals with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in trying to mitigate the horrors of the Holocaust. Many argue that Roosevelt was a political animal who based his position on the plight of world Jewry on political calculation and did little to offset Nazi terror; others argue that FDR did as much as possible based on conditions domestically and abroad.  Some authors reach the conclusion that FDR’s views were consistent throughout the war and he was “politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of the Jews-even given that he had no easy remedies for a specific Jewish tragedy in Europe.”  Many authors argue that “FDR avoided positions that might put at risk his broader goals of mobilizing anti-Nazi opposition and gaining freedom to act in foreign affairs,” for example dealing with the refugee crisis, the issue of Palestine, immigration, and organizing the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Authors often describe the fear of domestic anti-Semitism, especially in the State Department; the inability of American Jews to present a united front; the role of the War Department; and presidential politics.  Overall, this is an important issue that dominates the headlines today; what is the “appropriate response of an American president to humanitarian crises abroad and at home?”

Schedule:

September 9, 2019      Introduction and Background for American immigration policy leading up to World War II

September 16, 2019     The Rise of and Implementation of Nazism and its impact on Jews and American immigration policy

September 23, 2019     America and the Holocaust/Role of Franklin D. Roosevelt

October 7, 2019 Film: The American Experience: America and the Holocaust and discussion

Brief bibliography:

Beir, Robert L.; Josepher, Brian, ROOSEVELT AND THE HOLOCAUST

Breitman, Richard; Lichtman, Alan, FDR AND THE JEWS

Erbelding, Rebecca, RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE

Feingold, Henry, THE POLITICS OF RESCUE: THE ROOSEVELT ADMINISTRATION AND THE HOLOCAUST           1938-1945

Feingold, Henry, BEARING WITNESS: HOW AMERICA AND ITS JEWS RESPONDED TO THE HOLOCAUST

Gilbert, Martin, AUSCHWITZ AND THE ALLIES

Laqueur, Walter, THE TERRIBLE SECRET: THE SUPRESSION OF THE TRUTH ABOUT HITLER’S FINAL SOLUTION

Leff, Laurel, BURIED IN THE TIMES: THE HOLOCAUST AND AMERICA’S MOST IMPORTANT NEWSPAPER

Lipstadt, Deborah, BEYOND BELIEF: THE AMERICAN PRESS AND THE COMING OF THE HOLOCAUST 1933-1945

Morse, Arthur, WHILE SIX MILLION DIED

Neufeld, Michael; Berenbaum, Michael, Eds., THE BOMBING OF AUSCHWITZ: SHOULD THE ALLIES HAVE ATTEMPTED IT?

Okrent, Daniel, THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS, AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA

Rolde, Neil, BRECKENRIDGE LONG, AMERICAN EICHMANN??? AN ENQUIRY INTO THE CHARACTER OF THE MAN WHO DENIED VISAS TO THE JEWS

Rosen, Robert N., SAVING THE JEWS: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT AND THE HOLOCAUST

Rubinstein, William D. THE MYTH OF RESCUE: WHY THE DEMOCRACIES COULD NOT HAVE SAVED MORE JEWS FROM THE NAZIS

Shogan, Robert, PRELUDE TO Catastrophe: FDR’S JEWS AND THE MENACE OF NAZISM

Steinhouse, Carl, THE SHAMEFUL REFUSAL OF FDR’S STATE DEPARTMENT TO SAVE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF EUROPEAN JEWS FROM EXTERMINATION

Wallace, Gregory J. AMERICA’S SOUL IN THE BALANCE

Wasserstein, Bernard, BRITAIN AND THE JEWS OF EUROPE, 1949-1945

Wyman, David, THE ADANDONMENT OF THE JEWS: AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST 1941-1945

Wyman, David, PAPER WALLS: AMERICA AND THE REFUGEE CRISIS 1938-1941

THE UNWANTED: AMERICA, AUSCHWITZ, AND A VILLAGE CAUGHT IN BETWEEN by Michael Dobbs

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“A piece of paper with a stamp on it meant the difference between life and death for thousands and thousands of people,” wrote American journalist Dorothy Thompson after Kristallnacht in late 1938.  Truer words were never written.  For Jews trying to escape the Nazi terror as the Final Solution approached the only avenue of escape seemed to be emigration from Germany to the United States.  But as Michael Dobbs describes in his remarkable new book, THE UNWANTED: AMERICA AUSCHWITZ, AND A VILLAGE CAUGHT IN BETWEEN victims of Nazi deportation policies ran into a stone wall in trying to gain entrance into the United States.  Whether it was the stonewalling of the State Department, the leadership, or lack of thereof of Franklin Roosevelt, or plain apathy or anti-Semitism, Washington could have done a great deal more. As Dobbs points out, “the wheels of the U.S. bureaucracy continued to turn, disconnected from the tragic events that had set them in motion.”  It seemed obstacle after obstacle was increasingly instituted to make it more and more difficult for Jewish refugees to gain entrance into America and avoid “transport to the east.”

Dobbs’ focus is on the small village of Kippenheim in Baden in western Germany with a population of 144 Jews out of a total population of 1800.  The author follows the plight of a number of families who lived through the events of Kristallnacht in November of 1938 and realized that they must try and leave Germany.  The families, the Valfers, Wertheimers, and Wachenheimers, among a number that Dobbs concentrates had varied experiences.  All are subject to Nazi violence and torture in some measure.  All are torn from their homes and deported to camps in France, all make valiant attempts to leave Germany by dealing with the US immigration system, first with the consulate in Stuttgart, and the result is many will escape through Marseilles or other avenues and cross the Atlantic, go to Palestine, while others will perish in Auschwitz.  The book focuses on the period of late 1938 to the fall of 1942 when the Final Solution is in full motion.  The narrative is poignant and elicits a great deal of anger on the part of this reader as the story of the US State Department’s immigration policy under the aegis of Breckenridge Long the Assistant Secretary of State for immigration becomes crystal clear, and the lack of action and empathy on the part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt whose excuses for not acting in any meaningful way is fully described.

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(Wachenheimer family photo, circa 1938)

One of the most important questions remaining pertaining to the Holocaust is whether the United States could have done more to save lives be it bombing Auschwitz or allowing increased immigration.  In the recent past historian Richard Breitman focused on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s impact and David Wyman zeroed in on the US Department of State.  In both instances the president and the bureaucracy were found wanting.  In the case of Roosevelt political concerns about Neutrality legislation, fears of anti-Semitic backlash, enforcement of immigration law and isolationist elements in Congress along with his own inherent biases made it difficult for the President to come out in public and act.  As far as the State Department is concerned, they would enforce the restrictionist 1924 Johnson Act quotas that legally called for 27,370 Germans to immigrate to the US each year.  It is clear that in 1940-41 only 62.1% of the quota was filled, and the 1941-42 only 7.2% was filled – the period of greatest need for victims of the Baden deportations from 1938.  According to the historical record, officials in the State Department purposely created roadblocks to deny Jewish refugees admission to the United States, even women and children.

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(Breckenridge Long)

Dobbs empathetically describes in detail the damage, arrests, and fear in Kippenheim during Kristallnacht and uses the residents of the village as a microcosm of the overall crisis that Jews faced as the true intention of the Nazi regime came to the fore.  Dobbs explores the violence against the residents of Kippenheim and the attempts by families to try and emigrate to the US and the roadblocks they faced.  He delves into the State Department bureaucracy and how certain people created roadblocks to entry into America.  At times it seemed that some of these impediments could be overcome, but officials following orders from Washington created even more hoops to go through in order to obtain the necessary visas, or “more stamps” on further documentation which may not have been called for months before.  The consulate interview begins the process, but so many Jews wanted to emigrate there was a three year wait to begin the process.  The tragedy for many, like the Laflers is that when their numbers finally came up and the process for approval was gain, Freya and Hugo were already victims of the crematoria in Auschwitz.

Dobbs takes the reader through the transport of refugees from Baden to the internment camp of Gurs, through Marseilles and its poor living conditions, the bureaucratic run-a-around, and their final fate.  Vichy governmental collaboration with the Nazis led by Prime Minister Pierre Laval and French police is ever present.  The trauma of family members is plain as day as they deal with the daily attempts at survival and the highs and lows of believing they have the necessary paperwork to leave, and then have their hopes dashed by bureaucratic stalling, events like Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Russia.  Dobbs follows the families in detail based on assiduous research and interviews with survivors like Hedy Wachenheimer who at the age of fourteen became part of the Kindertransport program and left her parents to live with families in London, while eventually her parents would perish.

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(Kippenheim, Germany synagoge)

Perhaps the most poignant narrative describes Hedy’s visit to Germany and Kippenheim in particular after the war working for the US military and wearing a uniform, she must face people who harassed and demeaned her as a child.  Dobbs goes on to relate how people, both Jewish and non-Jewish worked to rebuild the synagogue in the village as a memorial to what occurred.  The process was long and difficult, but because of survivors like Kurt Maier and Mayor Willi Mathis the building was restored to its role as a true house of worship in 2003.

Dodd is to be commended for his effort in bringing to life the fate of the Kippenheim Jews, but more so at a time when immigration is such a hot controversial issue, perhaps politicians should review US immigration policy during WWII and contemplate whether at times history should force us as a people to open up our hearts, and let political partisanship recede into the background, at least for a short time.   At the outset of Dobbs ’narrative Hedy Wachenheimer rode from her home on her bicycle to school.  Upon arrival and seated in class for her lessons the usually gentle principal pointed at her and yelled, “Get out, you dirty Jew.”  This sounds like current political rallies and comments that tell “brown” people who are hear on legal visas and those legally seeking asylum to “get out and go home,” or ”send her home.”  Is this who we are as a people?

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(Boycott of Jewish Shops, Germany 1930s)

THE VOLUNTEER: ONE MAN, AN UNDERGROUND ARMY, AND THE SECRET MISSION TO DESTROY AUSCHWITZ by Jack Fairweather

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(Witold Pilecki, inmate at Auschwitz)

In 2003 my wife and I visited Krakow, Poland as part of a trip to locate where my father’s family lived before immigrating to the United States in the 1930s to escape the dark clouds that were descending upon Europe.  During our visit I hired a driver and spent hours visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau the resting place for many relatives that I never was fortunate enough to meet.  Seventy-five years after the conclusion of World War II, numerous questions abound concerning the then then “crown jewel” of Hitler’s extermination machine.  Books continue to proliferate, but what sets Jack Fairweather’s new book, THE VOLUNTEER: ONE MAN, AN UNDERGROUND ARMY, AND THE SECRET MISSION TO DESTROY AUSCHWITZ apart is his discovery of the role of Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz in order to organize  an underground resistance that would be part of a major revolt against the Germans.

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(Pilecki and his wife, Maria, and their son)

Pilecki has become a national hero in Poland and his story remained unknown in the west until it was uncovered by historians in the 1960s and 70s.  Much of his writings were sealed by the Soviet Union after the war because as a Polish nationalist, Pilecki was deemed a threat to the state, placed on trial and executed by the Stalinist regime.  It wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the opening of the state archives in Warsaw that the academic Adam Cyra and Pilecki’s 60 year old son, Andrzej had access to his father’s writings and reports smuggled out of Auschwitz in order to alert the allies as to what was occurring in the crematoria and gas chambers, and argue for the west to bomb the camps.

Fairweather asks a number of important questions from the outset that impinge upon the role of England and the United States as it learned of the extermination camps.  He carefully develops a number of important themes that reverberate throughout the narrative.  First, despite Pilecki’s earnest efforts, that included being tortured, beaten, starved, suffering from typhus, he was able to employ the Polish underground network to smuggle out the truth as to what was occurring in Auschwitz to underground leaders in Warsaw who were able to convey part of his reports to the Polish government in exile, and hence to the Churchill government in 1942.  Much of this information was also communicated to the Roosevelt administration in Washington who was much more of a political animal in deferring any decisions to assist the Jews be it immigration by confronting State Department policies that was openly anti-Semitic under the auspices of Breckinridge Long, or approving bombing of the camp.

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(Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hoss)

Second, was the mind set of British politicians in high circles who suffered from an “in-bred” anti-Semitism and saw Pilecki’s information as a distraction from the main war effort.  They would allow the dissemination of some information but would not endorse it.  As Richard Breitman and David Wyman have pointed out the British were obsessed by the Palestinian issue and they feared an Arab reaction if they approved further immigration because of their dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the Suez Canal.

Lastly, Fairweather’s narrative focuses on Pilecki’s attempt to educate the allies and get them to acknowledge the importance of what was occurring at Auschwitz.  On another level he concentrates on the allied response and the reasons for their “deafness” when it came to the extermination of European Jewry.   As he concludes, “the allied failure to Understand Auschwitz’s role as the epicenter of the Holocaust allowing officials to continue to characterize the German assault on the Jews ASA a diffuse phenomenon that could only be stopped by defeating Germany.”  Downplaying genocide could only inhibit further investigation.  Much of what Fairweather argues has been put forth by numerous historians, but the key is the personal story of Witold Pilecki that unfolds.

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(The gate as you enter Auschwitz)

Fairweather has written a deeply personal portrait of a man whose moral and ethical principles stood out in a deeply troubled period.  The narrative is based on assiduous research that included interviews with fellow inmates who the author had access, that provide insights into his character, his decision making, and the impact of his actions.  Fairweather traces Pilecki’s journey from his quiet family life who survived the Nazi onslaught on his country in September, 1939, experiences in Auschwitz, his methodology in organizing his underground network, strategies for smuggling out information, and how he tried to convince his superiors of the importance of destroying Auschwitz as it was a vehicle to exterminate millions of Jews as well as thousands of Polish Catholics.

Many of Pilecki’s compatriots like Dr. Wladyslaw Dering, a Warsaw gynecologist who faced the dilemma of how much he should cooperate with the Nazis as he tried to save as many inmates as possible, a Polish spy known as Napoleon, and Stefan Rowecki, the leader of the Polish underground in Warsaw are introduced as are the kapos, like Alois Staller who tortured the inmates, the SS Commander, Rudolf Hoss, who ran the camp, among many, and of course the victims who suffered unbearably.  Fairweather presents the unfathomable and grisly details that go along with any discussion of the Holocaust that have appeared in historical accounts since the end of World War II, but he delivers them in a concise manner, with much sensitivity and at the same time is able to convey to the reader the importance of Pilecki’s mission to expose what the Nazis were doing in Auschwitz, particularly once the decision for the Final Solution is made in January, 1942 at the Wannsee Conference.

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If there is a criticism that can be offered is that at times Fairweather is somewhat cavalier about his information, i.e. his description the Battle of the Bulge as a minor hinderance to the allied drive to end the war.  Further, he should be careful with his statistics stating that there were 2,000,000 Jews under Nazi control in Poland, the 3,300,000 would be more accurate.

Overall, Fairweather has written an important book because he uncovers the role of an important figure who did his best to alarm the world as to what was the end goal of Hitler’s racial war.  The fact that Witold Pilecki was kept hidden for so long is the result of another type of extermination, Stalin’s effort to eradicate any Pole who might have been given any credit for liberating their country.  Kudos to Fairweather for bringing Pilecki’s story to the fore.

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THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ by Antonio Iturbe; translated by Lilit Zekulin Thwaites

 

Image result for photo of the gate of auschwitz(The approach to Auschwitz)

The horrors of the Holocaust are well known and the figure of 6,000,000 is imbedded in our memory.  However, another figure that emerges that is just as repugnant to human consciousness is 1.5-1.6 million.  This is the figure associated with the number of children who perished in the Holocaust.  The Nazis had no compunction about killing children be it for ideological reasons that made them a danger to the 1000-year Reich or the fact they were unwanted.  Some were killed in retaliation for partisan attacks or others were part of the Action T4, the eradication of children with disabilities.  No matter the cause of death; Joseph Mengele’s medical experiments, clearing ghettos, the Nazis deemed that children needed to be eliminated.  Of the 6,000,000 that perished over 1,000,000 lost their lives at Auschwitz-Birkenau, of that figure it is hard to determine exactly how many were children.  Whatever the figure their existence at Auschwitz left them vulnerable to medical experiments, hard labor, and the constant fear of death.  To survive, any activity that seemed to be a hint of normalcy was important.  In Auschwitz a small school with a tiny library was allowed for children which becomes the focal point of Antonio Iturbe’s wonderous book, THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ. Translated by Lilit Thwaites.

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(Dita Polachova [Kraus])

The book is reminiscent of Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF for the tone that it sets.  The book is based on the experience of Dita Kraus who along with her parents was deported to Terezin in 1942, later in December of 1943 they were sent to Auschwitz where Dita was separated from her parents.  She would serve as the librarian in the block set up for children in Birkenau, with only a handful of books. Fredy Hirsch, a sports instructor from Prague ran the children’s block, and he along with a handful of teachers filled the children’s time with educational and cultural activities. One of these young educators was Otto (Ota) Kraus, Dita’s future husband.

“In March 1944, half of the children living at the children’s block were murdered, and their beloved Fredy Hirsch also died. In May, Dita and her mother were sent to Hamburg, Germany, where they were put to back-breaking labor. From Hamburg, the two women were transported to labor camps, and then in March 1945 to Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated several weeks later by the British Army.” (www.yadvashem.org/remembrance/archive/2014/torchlighters/kraus.html)

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(Dr. Josef Mengele and his experiments)

Kraus describes Iturbe’s work as being based on extensive conversations with her, along with other research and sources.  “It is a story born both from my own experiences and the rich imagination of the author.”  Though the narrative mirrors what Kraus experienced it stands on its own as literary witness to what she, her family, and so many others had to cope with each day, and the final toll it took on its victims.

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(Dita Kraus)

For the children who attend Alfred Hirsch’s school in Block 31 the question that dominates their world is why they should study when there’s little chance they will leave Auschwitz alive?  Hirsch’s rationalization is that Block 31 should be an oasis for children as they had little hope each day.  The reality is that 521 children received somewhat of an education in Block 31, but they live in constant fear of becoming a specimen in one of Dr. Josef Mengele’s morbid experiments.  For the children, the location of Block 31 is on the path of deportees walking from their transport to the showers and their death reinforced their plight.  For the teachers, how do you teach children when they can hear the noise attendant to victims who will shortly be gassed?

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(Dita and Raja Engländerová-Žádníková, Hagibor 1941)

Iturbe presents many characters who either suffer from tortured relationships or they torture themselves through anxiety and fear of what the future holds.  The author has a nose for detail and the sensibilities of his characters. Each character has their own way of coping.  For Dita, the protagonist it is being a librarian for the inmates and the danger that is part of her existence.  Dita treats her library which consists of eight paper books and six living books as if she is a doctor, perhaps a surgeon as each time a book needs repair, she stitches them back to life. For Rudi Rosenberg, who is the camp registrar, exposing him to the numbers associated with death he begins a relationship with Alice Munk, a young desperate Jewess.  Then there is Victor Pestek, a member of the SS, who develops a friendship with Renee Neumann.  For Fredy Hirsch it is to allow the children to focus on something other than their situation, for him when a child smiles it was an act of defiance.  For Ota Kelle, it was to teach children about Palestine and the future.  For Liesl Adler, Dita’s mother she must deal with the void that the the death of her husband has caused, and poor Professor Morgenstern, it was to act like a fool. As Iturbe develops these characters he integrates a historically accurate picture of what transpired in Terezin and Auschwitz, and brings along important historical figures like Mengele, Adolph Eichmann, Johann Schwarzhuber, Elisabeth Volkenrath, and Rudolf Hoss.  The language and behavior of the Kapos and SS, the description of the clothing and work of the inmates, the Wagnerian music in the background are all true to history.

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(Ota B. Kraus)

For Dita to survive, Iturbe describes her relationship with books that she treats as if they were sacred texts. She immerses herself into H.G. Wells’ A SHORT HISTORY OF THE WORLD, Thomas Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, Alexandre Dumas’ THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, and Jaroslav Hasek’s THE ADVENTURES OF GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK in order to understand the world in which she lives, and as a means of surviving each day.  As Dita communes with the book’s characters she questions many things including who she can trust in a world where rumors and lies dominate.  One of the survival  tools that Dita develops is creating a photo album in her head, something the Nazis could not take away from her as they worked to deprive children of their childhoods.

Aside from telling Dita’s story Iturbe engages in several philosophical aspects of life and survival, particularly in a concentration camp.  The human capacity and spirit for overcoming all obstacles emerges as does the importance of books in our everyday lives.  The book’s audience should be wide, and I encourage all to invest the time to experience it.

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(The gate to Auschwitz)

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)

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)