Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes — A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikey Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies is a significant contribution to women’s history and to the history of code-breaking. Elizebeth Friedman (1892-1980) carved out an amazing career for herself. She was raised in a small town in the Midwest. She only went to college because she insisted upon it. Ironically, Swarthmore rejected here. Upon graduation from a relatively obscure college, Friedman insisted upon looking for a job befitting her talents and interests. She had studied poetry and philosophy in college, so non-teaching jobs did not readily present themselves. Undeterred, Friedman kept looking. Code breaking wasn’t exactly on her radar screen, but through luck and perseverance she started working for a rich eccentric with an interest in code breaking as it related to Shakespeare. Ultimately she broke from the eccentric’s private colony and moved on to crack bootlegging codes and then to breaking Nazi codes during the Second World War. Very few people came close to being able to do what she and her similarly talented husband William Friedman were able to do, but their story — particularly her story is little known. Happily J Edgar Hoover and his FBI come out looking vainglorious and feeble, as the the Coast Guard and Elizebeth Friedman shine.
The book is well written and extensively researched and provides a fascinating story about a woman most people have never encountered and whose tracks were pretty well covered by confidentiality agreements and the likes of J Edgar Hoover. Friedman herself contributed to her undervalued obscurity by generally avoiding attention and insisting that her husband was more worthy of notice. Coming on the recent movie about Alan Turing, this is yet another important contribution to understanding how World War II espionage worked, on both sides. This important biography also shines some light on what it was like to live and work in Washington during and the 1930’s and the war period.
Every time I run across a biography of a highly consequential women who worked in obscurity, I wonder how many more are out there. Thank you, Mr. Fagone for bringing Elizebeth Friedman the attention she deserves.
People really need to read this book! William L. Shirer, the famous author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – A History of Nazi Germany, kept a diary while he was stationed in Berlin from 1934 to 1941. Shirer began as a print journalist but was converted to a radio journalist in Berlin the 1930’s and though 1940. I recently read his diary from that period, Berlin Diary – The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941. Shirer’s writing is clear and absorbing. His diary is a primary source, and it makes for harrowing reading.
Shirer was a foreign correspondent for various American outlets when he found himself in Germany in the 1930’s and through the pivotal year 1940. His own experiences of struggling with censors and putting out his broadcasts in the midst of heavy bombing are justification enough for his book. His visits to the countries Germany has defeated are fascinating and ominous all at the same time. Many of his colleagues were kicked out by the Germans. Shirer tries to stay on the grounds that his witness is important, but he knows the Germans are using him or at least think they are. It is a fascinating game. Shirer’s narrative bounces from visits to battlefields, to encounters with Nazi leaders, to every day life in Berlin, to worries about his own safety and self-respect. He tries to figure out exactly what is happening and get the word out without getting kicked out of Germany.
The transcending importance of this book is that Shirer’s personal experiences occur within the malevolent atmosphere of Nazi Germany and the countries it defeated. I found it impossible to read about the unrelenting cruelty and domination of the Nazi’s and not think about what is happening in the United States today. Whereas here we have attempted censorship of the press and ham-handed efforts to exclude reporters, in Nazi Germany this is what actually happened as a matter of course. Germans had long been denied accurate internal reporting of hardships and loss, so they became inured to it and stopped believing anything they read. Now we find ourselves in an era of “fake news,” where our leaders feel no compunction to tell the truth or keep their promises. Bullying has become an accepted political tactic. Are Americans getting to cynical and complacent to resist? Similarities with Nazi Germany are growing, and we should fear what might come next in our own country.
Shirer’s diary underscores the point that the truth ceased to matter in Nazi Germany and that the Nazi leaders felt emboldened to create an endless, self-agrandizing narrative to dress up and justify their criminal actions. So, too, were they emboldened to villify Jews and other handy scapegoats because they felt they could. This is a terrifying blueprint.
Although Shirer’s book feels particularly prescient at this time and he openly states his opinions, he has not written a polemic. This is the diary of someone trying to be a journalist in the midst of Nazi Germany. Shirer’s own American perspective is very much in place and enhances the value of his diary, which he obviously kept hidden while in Germany.
Lastly I should note that whereas liberals like myself may read this book and draw ominous analogies with current American politics, even if your politics are far to the right of mine, this book has profound historical significance and is an excellent read. I recommend it.
Jonathan Rabb has written a warm and thoughtful novel about a Holocaust survivor who immigrates to Savannah, Georgia, after the war. Yitzhak Goldah, the protagonist of Among the Living, is 31 years old when he joins a distant cousin’s family in Savannah. His cousin and his wife warmly welcome Goldah, even as they expect him to join in their way of life automatically and enthusiastically. These folks like their world and are eager to share it with Goldah. But Goldah, a journalist before the war, is not particularly observant and doesn’t care to conform to his cousins’ expectations. Just as he is getting used to his own freedom, Goldah is both bewildered and bemused by the competing Jewish congregations in Savannah and declines to choose sides. He didn’t survive the Holocaust so that he could be prevented from seeing the people he chooses to see. Conflicts ensue. There are romantic issues, social issues and sinister business problems. Additional conflict is provided by the irony of dealing with Savannah’s stifling Jim Crow environment.
Yitzgak is a sensitively drawn character who doesn’t fit any pattern of a helpless, grateful refugee. He is damaged, but he wants to get his life back. The book’s other characters also prove interesting because of their world views and the unusual and often unexpected problems they face. Flawed as they are, these characters compel sympathy. They may not see things the same way and they may try to bend others to their points of view, but that isn’t the whole story. The ability to see things differently and the willingness to bend the rules to help others makes this a powerful, complex story. After the horrific violence and cruelty of the Holocaust, these characters’ goodwill and gentle efforts to control events provide a welcome contrast. That said, there is the overarching reality of Jim Crow, which reminds us that all is far from well in Savannah.
I recommend this book. Jonathan Rabb has provided provocative, sympathetic characters facing unusual challenges in a fascinating setting.
Underground in Berlin – A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in Nazi Germany represents a fascinating and important contribution to Holocaust literature. The author Marie Jalowicz Simon was a young Jewish woman who survived World War II by hiding in Berlin, often in plain sight. She survived to complete her education and become a professor in Berlin. Prior to 1997 Simon generally refrained from telling her story and angrily rejected requests for interviews. But finally, in 1997 during the last year of her life, she dictated her story onto 77 tapes (900 pages of transcript). Although she didn’t keep a written diary during her years of hiding, Simon had maintained a remarkable diary in her head. Marie Simon died in 1998, and approximately fifteen years later, after substantial research and editing, her son published this important book.
Every survivor’s story is unique, but Simon’s is really unusual, mostly because of her attitude. Simon was an educated woman in her twenties in Berlin. Her parents had died and she had no one depending on her. This gave her some freedom and mobility, but it also meant she had only herself to rely upon.
To survive in and of itself was noble, and Simon insisted on surviving. Apart from an unsuccessful effort to marry and relocate to Bulgaria, she stayed in Berlin and its environs. She kept her health and had tremendous ingenuity and nerve. Perhaps more importantly, she had just enough contacts to keep finding a series of short term places to stay. Simon was furious at her situation and furious at the German people, so she wasn’t particularly grateful to those who helped her. She never betrayed anyone, but neither did she waste much time mourning those who didn’t make it. Simon comes across as a difficult person who probably wasn’t the easiest houseguest or the nicest person to have around. But then, to hear her tell it, many of the people who took her in frequently weren’t very nice either. They seemed to have jumbled motives and were frequently unpleasant.
Not to digress, but an interesting study on what it takes to be a rescuer might be conducted just from looking at the lives of the people who stepped up to help Marie Simon. They were a very diverse group of odd personalities from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. Unpleasant they may have been, but undoubtedly they stuck their necks out when they sheltered Simon. In the end, we see her rescuers only through Simon’s eyes, and she doesn’t dwell on how scared many of them must have been.
This book is particularly striking because of Simon’s strong voice. Simon absolutely rejects the fate the Naxi regime is determined to impose. At some level she holds all Germans accountable for the crimes implicated upon Jews and thinks that those helping her are only doing what they were supposed to do. Her rage is impressive and constant, even as she is always on her guard and looking for her next place to hide. The bottom line is that Simon was courageous and bold, and she succeeded in surviving for three years in Berlin during the last years of World War II. It is a great story.