Robert Capa’s Slightly out of Focus: A Captivating Photographer’s Memoir of World War II

Robert Capa’s Slightly Out of Focus is absolutely one of the best war memoirs I’ve ever read. Capa, was born in Hungary in 1913 and then killed by stepping on a mine in Vietnam in 1954. In between, he made a career as a war photographer. Slightly Out of Focus covers Capa’s experiences before and during World War II. As an Hungarian Jew, he was basically stateless, but nonetheless managed to get to the United States and then got an American magazine to send him to London to photograph the war. Capa was in North Africa and Italy, and then landed with the first troops in Normandy on D Day. His book has astonishing photographs, but it also recounts his adventures. Capa makes cutting through all the American and British red tape to get to the war zones sound almost as daunting as the War itself. As if his own story weren’t amazing enough, Capa’s tales include cameos by Ernest Hemingway, and Ernie Pyle, among others. Robert Capa is an amazing raconteur who writes with tremendous brio, but he also zeroes in on the terrors of the war and demonstrates a profound understanding of the horror and waste. You really need to read this book.

Incidentally Robert Capa was one of the people featured in Katie Marton’s 2006, The Great Escape — Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World, which is another great book.

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Nikita Khrushchev, One of the Most Interesting Characters of the Cold War Era

William Taubman’s 2003 biography, Khrushchev — The Man and His Era won a Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly so. Taubman is a political science professor at Amherst and has written extensively on the Soviet Union. His biography of Khrushchev is very long at 651 pages, but it provides crucial insight into one of the most unusual personalities of the Soviet era. If you want to understand Nikita Khrushchev and his place in history, this is an excellent place to start.

Khrushchev was born in 1894 and died in 1971, so he was there for the rise of Communism in Russia. Largely uneducated and often crude, Khrushchev managed to rise through the ranks and then survive the Stalinist era. No political survivor of that period could emerge with clean hands, but Khrushchev managed to avoid the worst of the blame for that period.

Taubman, in great detail, shows how Khrushchev became a Bolshevik and was chosen by Stalin to be one of his principal lieutenants. How Khrushchev managed to out-maneuver his rivals and become top dog remains something of a mystery, but Taubman offers a lot of information to consider. As a leader, Khrushchev presented a bizarre combination of bumbling peasant, lucky political tactician and good-hearted realist. At the end, he became increasingly impulsive and oblivious to the opposition to his rule. He didn’t see. it coming.

Although Khrushchev wasn’t exactly surrounded by rocket scientists, he was always insecure about his lack of education. At times he trumpeted it and claimed that he had particular insight into how collective farms and factories need to be run. To Khrushchev’s discredit, he was stained by Stalin’s purges, but to his credit, he disavowed Stalinism as he came to power. Crucially, Khrushchev was often impulsive and frequently put world peace at risk as he lurched through the Cold War period with ill-considered pronouncements and initiatives.

He risked nuclear war with some of his “antics. Fortunately, Eisenhower and Kennedy, although highly frustrated by Khrushchev’s pronouncements and behavior, generally did their homework and responded with appropriate restraints and quieter displays of force.

This book is rich because Khrushchev talked a lot about what he had done and what he was thinking. He even wrote a memoir. He may have started as a Zelig, but he became the leader of the Communist world during a particularly dangerous part of history. Because he survived, he was able to write about Stalinism and its excesses, even as he went back and forth about how much personal responsibility he was prepared to assume.

All in all this is a very good book. It is a necessary, scholarly book. It did cause me to wish at times that a more abridged version were available, a shorter book that did not describe so many meetings and so much of Khrushchev’s daily activities in such great detail. Maybe that is biography-light, but the sheer length of this book renders it somewhat inaccessible for non-scholars who could really benefit form its core content.

My recommendation is to read this book if you want to better understanding of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

Queen Victoria, the Matchmaking Grandmother

For royalty buffs and people who like to view history through personalities and relationships, Deborah Cadbury’s Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking — The Royal Marriages that Shaped Europe is highly entertaining and informative. There is a soap opera quality to Victoria’s avid, prying interest into the marital prospects of her numerous royal grandchildren. Much as Victoria tries to identify potential highly suitable mates and head off dangerous ones, sometimes her grandchildren just didn’t listen. These are great stories, wrapped up in 19th century Euro politics. There is the drama of the highly unsuitable Kaiser Wilhelm’s nasty development and then there is the awful foreboding of the Nicholas and Alexandra courtship. Victoria desperately tried to head off what she saw as a horrifically dangerous match in a Russia headed for catastrophe, but love prevailed over Victoria’s clear-headed analysis. That is just one of the these highly personal stories — again, a bit of a soap opera on a global scale, and well worth reading. You will be informed and entertained — the perfect combination.

The World Continues to Exist Only by the Virtue of a Few Righteous People

Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life recounts his experiences as a child survivor of the Holocaust and then examines his adult reflections upon the experience and upon the family he lost. This is a beautiful book that slowly examines how the author recalls his experiences and what memory has come to mean to him.

Appelfeld’s Holocaust began at the age of 7 when he and his parents entered the ghetto in Czernowitz, Romania. His mother was murdered, and then he and his father embarked upon a long, forced march to a camp. Ultimately, Appelfeld lost his father and escaped front he camp. He somehow survived the war, made his way to Italy and then arrived in Israel, on his own at the age of 14. He stayed in Israel where he had a very successful writing career until he died earlier this year (January 14, 2018).

The Story of a Life is not Appelfeld’s first book about the Holocaust and his experiences. Post war, he was criticized for not simply laying down the facts. His somewhat mystical approach apparently drew considerable criticism. I found Appelfeld’s personal approach very moving and understandable on an emotional level. Truly there is a place for an unlimited number of approaches to the Holocaust. The Story of a Life enhances our understanding and provides a framework for how a survivor might live with the loss and how he might choose to remember it and think about it. At some level, what has happened has to encompass more than unspeakable, horrible facts and cruelties.

Several things stand out in this memoir. Appelfeld profound losses included the loss o of education. He was on his own and had no education from the time he was 7 until he landed in Israel at 14. His experiences in the early days of Israel were a mixed bag. His time in the youth village and tending to fruit trees seemed to have helped with his healing process. He also benefited form the kindness and attention of at least one established Israeli writer and a nurturing tutelage of a professor of Yiddish. On the other hand, he was alone and found the new Israelis often abrupt and uncaring.

There is little bitterness in this book. Appelfeld has moved on to where he recognizes and treasures the kindnesses, big and small, he has received in his life. According to his own survey and reckoning, “every person I knew who was saved during the war was saved solely by the grace of someone who, at a time of great danger, extended a hand to him.” Ultimately, Appelfeld feels immense gratitude for how he has been able to recover “the world I had left behind.”

Remarkably, Appelfeld and his father were reunited in Israel after the war, long after Appelfeld had thought his father was dead. Appelfeld never felt able to write about that wonderful experience, and it seems fitting for him to treasure it and hold it dear.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It is short, but deserves a slow, careful read.

In this book, Appelfeld writes about his bewilderment at the absence of his parents and the difficulties and cruelties he suffered while avoiding capture. One of his losses was that of education. His stopped at First Grade, and he got no other education until he reached Israel after the war. His struggles to learn Hebrew and write in that language

A Lucky Child — A Moving Holocaust Memoir from the Point of View of a Child Survivor

This is a particularly compelling Holocaust memoir because the author has written it as he perceived it as a child. While the author acknowledges that his memory is imperfect and that it is too late to consult the adults witnesses to his story, this book does a remarkable job of showing what it meant to somehow make it through the Holocaust as a young boy.

Thomas Buergenthal has had a significant career as the American judge on the International Court of Justice and as a professor of international law. In many ways those accomplishments pale in comparison to the remarkable story of his surviving the Holocaust as a child. In A Lucky Child — A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, Buergenthal recounts the remarkable story of how he made it through the Holocaust. Since he experienced the Holocaust as a child who was frequently on his own, Buergenthal didn’t have a sophisticated idea of what was happening or why. He just encountered events as they happened and somehow managed to survive. He went from being a likely spoiled only child in very comfortable circumstances to being hunted and ultimately separated from his parents. Fortunately he picked up just enough street smarts and made some lucky choices at the right time. And, he had some courageous adults who stepped up the plate and looked out for him at opportune times.

All in all, it is an amazing and staggering story that makes you ache for the author and his family and for all the children who weren’t so lucky.

Royal Renegades — The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars

Linda Porter’s Royal Renegades — The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars tells the saga of Charles I, his wife Henrietta Maria, and their many children, including future kings Charles II and James II. Nearly 400 years later, it is difficult to fathom how this close family functioned at all once the Revolution hit. Family members were spread across Britain and the Continent. Communication was difficult, both because of distance and military restrictions. The parents and their children were often compelled to act on their own initiative and frequently under straightened financial circumstances. The children were young — the two eldest sons were in their early teens — when the king’s conflicts started, and the battling lasted for years. Two of the younger children were held captive in England for years, and of course the Charles I also was ultimately captured and executed. Looking back it seems bizarre that the King seemed never to have fully assessed his peril or what the consequences might be if he failed on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. Yet he was cursed with his own implacable sense of his own prerogative and seemingly had no one to provide him with realistic political advice. The Queen had managed to escape to France, her homeland, and spent her time trying to find allies and funding for the her husband. Together, she and the King might have been able to reach a less gruesome conclusion, but then again her Catholicism was one of the major reasons for the family’s unpopularity.

What happened was a tragedy for this family that somehow remained close in an era when royal parents and their children had little ordinary contact or apparent affection for one another. On the eve of his execution the King was allowed time with two of his youngest children, and the tenderness of those meetings is heartbreaking, all these years later. Those two children died, but four of their siblings lived to adulthood, with much of their time spent in France and the Netherlands before the two older brother returned to England after the Restoration. It was an oddly international family, searching for allies and coming together and then separating because of circumstances time and again. For the most part, their strategically arranged marriages afforded the children little happiness, although Charles I and Henrietta Maria, ultimately seemed to have loved each other.

This book’s strength is its portrayals of Charles I and his family, coupled with a useful history of the English Revolution and a healthy injection of the power politics of that era

Berlin Diary – The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 – A Terrifying Read for Our Own Era

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.

Underground in Berlin – A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany


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.

A Family’s Holocaust Memoir – Agata Tuszyska’s Family History of Fear

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Agata Tuszynska has written a remarkable family memoir, Family History of Fear, A Memoir.   Tuszynska is a Polish poet and writer who tries to find out what happened to her family, both before and after the Holocaust.   As the daughter of a survivor, she has some family assistance with her search, but in the end there is a lot she cannot know.  The author’s efforts to uncover the past are founded on one basic story.  Her grandmother nearly survived, but died just when she had reason to feel she might be safe.  Despite her own death, the grandmother managed save to her daughter, the author’s mother.

For Polish Jews,  it wasn’t enough to to survive the Holocaust.  Pogroms survived World War II, and then Poland had its own anti-Semitic purge in the late 60’s.  A surprising number of the author’s relatives survived and elected to remain in Poland to work with the new Communist regime.  The decision to stay despite having lost so many family members and barely escaping death themselves during the war years is bewildering.  Poland may have been their home, but it never felt really safe.   

This isn’t a book where the author’s story is neatly sewn up.  There are stray ends and elderly relatives who either don’t know much or have chosen to forget.  It isn’t all the surprising that Tusznska’s family history is difficult to pin down, because so much was lost during the war, and this was not a cohesive family unit.  Episodic poverty and the near-constant threats to their security, combined with a series of deaths, divorces, second marriages and various alliances depict a family under considerable stress.  At times I found it difficult to keep all the aunts and cousins straight, but that didn’t detract from the author’s story.   To the contrary, this somewhat messy family history where not all relatives are forthcoming about the past and where everyone didn’t always behave all that well rings very true.  At some level the people who survived are very ordinary.  They seem to go about their lives without a lot of reflection about their extraordinary experiences.

In addition to being a wonderful family saga, Family History of Fear also adds to what we know about the Holocause and how some people managed to survive, as a result of bravery and luck, was well as the kindness of those who chose to help.   

 

 

Hubris – The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century

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Alistair Horne’s Hubris – The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century focuses on the dangers of over-confidence in the military arena.  He begins with a brilliant quote from the German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck:  “A generation that deals out a thrashing is usually followed by one that receives it.”

While focusing on the fateful decisions made by various admirals and generals, Horne provides a useful history of warfare in the Twentieth Century.  This is no history of the Korean War or of the Russo-Japanese War, but I learned a lot about both from this very readable book.  Again and again Horne shows how prior victories gave outstanding tacticians unfounded confidence in their ability to keep winning.  At some point, they stopped reflecting and accounting for worst case scenarios and just got carried away by feelings of invincibilty.

Horne’s study of why wars unfolded as they did is well told.  Plainly there are a myriad of factors, but I’d much rather focus on individuals and their fateful decisions.  There were plenty of fundamentally evil players on the battlefields of the Twentieth Century, but Horne also shows how more thoughtful and nuanced individuals also got carried away and just kept pushing until they seized defeat from the jaws of victory, as one of my colleagues used to say.

I recommend this book for its focus on the folly of hubris and also because it provides a lucid tour of warfare in the Twentieth Century.