Maisie Dobbs in Gibraltar on the Periphery of the Spanish Civil War

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs murder mysteries are always interesting and enjoyable.   A Dangerous Place is no exception.  Maisie, a recent widow, is working her way through a period of great personal trauma when she stops in Gibraltar on her way home to England after sojourns in Canada and India.  The setting is the sinister, troubled period of the Spanish Civil War, and Gibralter is right on the brink of it, literally.   There is a lot going on, and perspectives keep changing.   In addition to Winspear’s inspired choice of setting and an unexplained murder, she gives us Maisie Dobbs.  Dobbs is a different kind of detective — thoughtful to the extreme about the crime in question and the people around her.  In this novel, Dobbs is also compelled to give a great deal of thought to her own well being.  She is trying to center herself even as she unravels the murder she has discovered.

I really like this series because of Maisie Dobbs and the way she approaches her cases.  This particular novel is especially good because of the horrific yet fascinating political context presented by the Spanish Civil war and the inexorable  approach of fascism.

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.

Thomas Keneally’s Shame and the Captives -A Riveting Novel about Australia During WWII

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Thomas Keneally has written a memorable novel, Shame and the Captives.  Set in Australia, away from the fighting during World War II, this novel focuses on prisoners of war held in a prison camp in Australia, as well as some Australians who have husbands and sons held in Axis prisoner of war camps.  Apparently some Japanese prisoners of war actually did break out of their Australian prison camp during World War II, and this is a fictionalized account of that break out.  As always Keneally focuses on what his characters are feeling and why they are doing what they do, and there are a wealth of personalities in play.  The Japanese prisoners can scarcely believe they have been captured instead of killed, and basically feel their lives are over.  Prisoners from Korea and Italy are more stoic about their present circumstances and ultimately more optimistic that they will have a future.  Alice, the major female character is a young Australian bride whose husband went to war and was soon captured.  She doesn’t know what to feel and is trying to find her way.  The Australian officers running the camp seem uncomfortable with their situation and take an instant dislike to each other.  Their hostility to each other is more intense than any feelings they might have toward their prisoners.

This book presents an odd juxtaposition of characters in an unfamiliar (to me) setting.  People are doing their jobs and are careful to treat the prisoners carefully for a number of reasons:   the prison officials in this book aren’t motivated by cruelty, they are acutely aware of the Red Cross’s requirements and they are particularly motivated to treat their Japanese prisoners well so that their own sons held in captivity won’t face reprisals.   This makes for a very interesting book showing aspects of the “War at Home” that aren’t frequently addressed.

Finally, it is impossible to write about Thomas Keneally and a fictionalized novel based on wartime events without mentioning his epic novel Schindler’s List.  To see the movie Schindler’s List is to focus on the horrors of the Holocaust and to recognize some of the heroic rescuers.  To read the book, is to delve into why Oskar Schindler, of all unlikely people, was moved to take such imaginative and heroic actions.  And then there is the next question, if Schindler did it, why were so few others similarly motivated.  All this is by way of saying that if you haven’t read Schindler’s List, you really need to do that.

 

 

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.

 

The Railwayman’s Wife – A Beautiful Novel about Post War Australia

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Ashley Hay has written a beautiful novel about a young, grieving widow in post-WWII Australia.  The Railwayman’s Wife is short and to the point.  Most of the characters are suffering from loss, and the intersections of these fragile, young people are what makes this book so good.

Ani Lachlan is the young widow.  She has suddenly lost her husband and is numb, but she also has a young daughter and a sudden need to earn a living.  Somewhat randomly, Ani is thrust back into the world as the local librarian.  Although it feels strange to have a job and a schedule in the face of her grief, this is a good move for her.

The Railwayman’s Wife is particularly appealing and satisfying because it is set in the world of books.  Ani’s library literally provides a welcome haven, as well as a point of entry back into the community.   Throughout this lovely story, there are references to choosing books, poetry and reading aloud.  In the face of terrible grief, books and reading provide sustenance.  They also link Ani to her late husband, whose books and love of reading aloud help describe him.

I loved The Railwayman’s Wife for many of the reasons I loved Eddie Joyce’s Small Mercies, which I previously reviewed.  Both books have distinctive and somewhat unusual settings (Joyce’s Staten Island and Hay’s small coastal Australian town), which provide a strong background for their stories.  They also revolve around recent, accidental deaths of young men and the families that survive them.  The numbing shock of loss and uncertainty about how to behave are common to both books, as is the characters’ growing understanding of how they will proceed with their own lives and feel pleasure again.

I strongly recommend The Railwayman’s Wife,  as well as Small Mercies.  These are serious, appealing books that provide intelligent comfort and understanding in the face of traumatic loss.

Still More English Princesses

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I can’t quite kick the habit of reading royal biographies, but at least I’m coming to terms with the fact that English princess led boring lives, largely devoid of intellectual challenge.  The bored looks on the cover photos of Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, and Queen Elizabeth II as a girl pretty much make the case that there lives were neither interesting nor fun.  As depicted in their respective biographies, Queen Victoria’s Mysterious Daughter – a Biography of Princess Louise, by Lucinda Hawksley, and Young Elizabeth, the Making of the Queen, by Kate Williams, both Princesses Louise and Elizabeth had some intelligence and potential, but their parents pretty much squeezed it out of them.

Queen Victoria couldn’t see beyond her own excessively demanding personal needs and generally regarded her children as her slaves throughout their lives.  Princess Louise apparently had some artistic talent and was provided with some opportunities to sculpt, but her personal life and interests were consistently disregarded by her mother.  Queen Victoria never got over thinking that her daughter Louise was difficult and needed to be watched.  Lucinda Hawksley, the author of Louise’s biography, takes some imaginative  leaps and provides Louise with a scandalous love story.  If true, it makes her story all the sadder, given her subsequent marriage.

Queen Victoria at least had the excuse of being a widow and having nine children, although it’s card to imagine her being a loving and caring mother under any circumstances.  Queen Elizabeth’s parents, George VI and his Consort Queen Elizabeth, should have had it a bit easier.  They were a loving couple, and they only had two children.  There seems to have been a decent amount of love and affection to go around.  It is true they were traumatized by George’s sudden ascent to the throne after his brother Edward VIII abdicated to “marry the woman he loved.”  Still, Elizabeth’s parents spent time with her.  Unfortunately they completely short-changed her when it came to education.  They were so determined that their daughters have a carefree life, that they didn’t bother to give them an education.  They seemed to think that education was a loathsome thing to be avoided.  Trivial pursuits and playtime pretty much ruled the day.  One will never know if Elizabeth could have become an intellectual, but it certainly seems possible that she might have expanded her interests between horses and dogs had she been given a broader education.  The one lesson Elizabeth seems to have learned very well was to fulfill her responsibilities as a monarch.  That she has done.  She has also picked up a certain amount of political acumen and appreciation for other cultures along the way.  Her life hasn’t been a tragedy, but so much of it has seemed boring and useless waste.

Both of these women suffered from being born into impossible and ridiculous lives of privilege, but their parents certainly made things worse.  Victoria crushed and disdained her Louise, as she did her other children.  Elizabeth’s parents just abdicated their responsibility to educate her.  In a way, that seems the saddest deficit of all.  If nothing else, these books made me think quite a lot about what it means to be a good parent and what we really owe our children.

 

A Mighty Fortress — A New History of the German People

Steven Ozment has written a sweeping history of the German people since the time of the Romans in a mere 325 pages  —  A Mighty Fortress – A New History of the German People.  I just read this book, which was written in 2004, before the Angela Merkel era, so an update might  be in order.  Nonetheless this is a useful book.   I was put initially put off by the language, which seemed unnecessarily dense at the beginning.  Clearer language and a few timely references for some of the more obscure figures would have been helpful in the dense narrative.

However, the story of all the different regions coming together was impressive  —  if only it hadn’t ended up with the machinations of Bismarck, the awful comedy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the utter horror of the Third Reich.  The discussions of Hitler’s coming to power, the Third Reich and the Holocaust were particularly interesting.

Today, it is beyond terrifying to see the parallels between Hitler’s appeal and the current state of American politics.  After the thumping defeat in World War I, many Germans were scared, humiliated and looking for anyone who claimed to be strong.  They seem to have decided that they were in such a state of crisis, that extreme action (and extreme rhetoric) were absolutely necessary.  And, of course, they were susceptible to a candidate targeting scapegoats.

In Hitler’s case, this led to unprecedented tragedy.  The people in a position to oppose him didn’t take him seriously until it was too late.  It is hard not to hold the Germans who voted for him to account, because Hitler pretty much did what he said he was going to do.   With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, there was nothing inevitable about Hitler, but he was nonetheless voted into power.  Fortunately for the world, Hitler considered himself a military genius (despite his paltry military record), and made a number of fatal strategic mistakes that brought the war to an end.  Unfortunately this defeat came only after the deaths of millions upon millions.

Americans like to think that such tragedy couldn’t happen here, but the current election seems to be testing the theory.   Today, a substantial number of American voters seem untroubled by candidates’ lack of foreign relations and military experience.  It is enough for candidates to declare that American will regain its power and be strong, and then to trumpet the candidates’ lack of experience, common sense and humanity as virtues.  Being a boor has somehow become an asset.  Similarly the blanket targeting of Muslims, the bullying of opponents and a determined disregard for factual accuracy all hark back to tactics prevalent in Hitler’s rise to power.

The German people’s response to the Nazi genocide is inevitably unsatisfying.  Even where guilt is acknowledged and reparations are paid, I’m left with the feeling that so many Germans, past and present, really don’t understand or accept that horrific crimes were committed in the name of the German people.  There is  a distancing and a lack of accountability.  Hitler wasn’t just some curse Germany had to endure  —  he was elected and then supported for a very long time.  As with many accounts of this period, this section of the book left me disappointed and unconvinced.  My qualms aside, Germany has taken important steps to quash Anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi revivals.

The reunification of Germany at the end of the Cold War brought the book to a close.  The conclusion felt anticlimactic, and certainly didn’t anticipate Angela Merkel or Germany’s current role as one of the more humanitarian countries in Europe.  I can’t help thinking how furious Hitler would be about all the immigrants flocking to Germany, and of course he would be even more furious about the welcome they have received.  The scenario calls for a Mel Brooks treatment.

I did think A New History of the German  People was an interesting book, and it probably deserves a second look.   A lot of important material was set out in remarkably concise fashion.

 

 

Ravensbruck — An In Depth History of Germany’s Concentration Camp for Women

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Sarah Helm has written an exhaustive and exhausting history: Ravensbruck – Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women.  This detailed recounting of the horrific crimes committed at Ravensbruck, the only women-only concentration camp, is mind-numbing in detail.  I wasn’t always able to follow the thread of all the individual women’s experiences at Ravensbruck, but Helm’s excellent writing nonetheless paints a consistently grim  picture of unmitigated evil.

Ravensbruck wasn’t set up as strictly an extermination camp, although selections and mass murders were routinely conducted.  In addition to executions, beatings and starvation, Ravensbruck was also the scene of grisly medical experiments, most of which were conducted on Polish prisoners.  Even though many of them died, these Polish prisoners managed to communicate with the outside world about their ongoing plight.  Those who survived the crippling and often fatal medical “experiments” were consistently threatened with selections designed to eradicate the evidence of what had been done to them.

Women were sent to Ravensbruck from all over Europe and for all sorts of reasons.  Prisoners included Jehovah’s Witnesses, resistance workers, communists, prostitutes, intelligentsia from conquered lands and an assortment of “ordinary” German women who expressed disillusionment with the Nazi regime.  There were some Jewish prisoners, but they were in the minority.  There wasn’t much resistance at the camp, but the refusal of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and many of the Russian prisoners to manufacture war materiel was impressive.

Heinrich Himmler’s direct oversight of the construction and operation of Ravensbruck would be remarkable except for the fact that his mistress lived just down the road, so it was convenient for him to stop by.  Himmler was keenly interested in the selection for execution process, as well as the grotesque medical experimentation.  Toward the end of the war, he played an interesting game of trying to trade some prisoners with the Allies in a delusional effort to save his own skin.  This  was in sharp contrast to Hitler’s orders to kill all the prisoners and to prevent them from falling into allied hands.

The saga of the end of the War was a blur of last-minute executions, beatings, forced marches, starvation and dashed hopes.  Unfortunately many of the Ravensbruck prisoners fell into the hands of Russian “rescuers,” who raped prisoners and non-prisoners alike.  Back home, the Russian prisoners in particular were punished for the sin of having been imprisoned.  Other prisoners often kept their stories to themselves.

Fortunately, some of the Ravensbruck prisoners did keep a record and some of them very much recalled what happened at the camp.  Sarah Helm’s interviews with survivors are very moving.  In addition to direct interviews with some of the survivors, Helm relies upon various diaries, public records and the evidence given at the war crimes trials of Ravensbruck’s administrators, doctors and guards.  The matter-of-fact testimony given by some of the doctors and guards about the atrocities they committed was absolutely chilling.

This isn’t an easy read, but the women imprisoned at Ravensbruck deserve to be remembered, and this book honors them.  Helm has done a magnificent job of gathering the evidence of what happened and presenting an organized history of a terrible place.