When I was writing Teddy’s War, I developed the authenticity of the story by using a slew of books that I had already or bought along the way. My bookcase currently holds about seventy books related to World War II, most of them nonfiction. I’m not sure how many new books I bought during my writing time, but I would guess around thirty. And I’m still buying; I’m just that interested.
I found most of the books by browsing the books listed in Amazon.com. I’d type in the subject and see what came up. There was always something that seemed interesting, but it wasn’t likely that I was finding the “best” books on the subjects. I enjoy looking at Amazon Choice books, recommended books, the “readers who chose this book also looked at these books”, “books similar to what you asked for”, or other marketing devices that Amazon has on their website that give priority to the books they want me to buy.
I have discovered a better way.
A month or so ago, I was contacted by Dan Shepherd. He is the head of a small group of people who launched a new author site in the Spring. Dan asked me to provide him a blurb on Teddy’s War, and then recommend five more books that provided material associated with it. I looked at their webpage, liked it, filled out some templates that he provided, and then gave him my blurb about the book and my list of five associated books. Dan’s group edited my words a little, but basically accepted what I had written. They adjusted everything for their website’s format.
This is the result:
I created the “topic”, chose five books I had used while writing the novel that fit the topic, and then wrote less than 110 words of why the book was significant to me. I had to swear that I’d read them all and was making honest comments.
What you see in my presentation is similar to the presentations throughout the website. It provides selections of books that have been read by and then recommended by authors writing in the field. The website provides several searchable topics that can focus what the reader is looking for. That seems more interesting and infinitely more profitable than randomly browsing Amazon.
At the end of September, I’m heading to Poland and Germany for a tour. I’ll be gone for almost three weeks. It is a tour hosted by Globus and has a World War Two focus. I’m visiting these major cities: Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw, Dresden, Berlin, Weimar, Nuremberg, and Munich. Along the way, I’ll see the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration and termination camps; Oskar Schindler’s factory; Buchenwald concentration camp, the Nuremberg Trials courtroom, the Dachau Memorial Site, and Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. I’m staying an extra couple of days in Munich to research a few nearby sites that might have been seen by my dad. He was in the area during October, 1945.
I’ll take a lot of pictures so you can look forward to being inundated when I get back.
The photo shows a table top that I made for one of my sons. Prefabricated metal legs are coming in the next couple of days. The wood pieces embedded in the resin are from a local Sequoia tree that was struck by lightning several years ago. I salvaged the trunk when it was cut down. A sawmill in Santa Fe cut the trunk into about twenty slabs, and this table uses the very last one.
Once the legs are here, I’ll get them attached and then be off to San Diego to deliver the table, eat out, and walk on the beach. Next on my schedule is a trip to Houston to help another son remodel a laundry room. Finishing that, I’ll be back home to help replace 200 cedar pickets on an aging fence. I also have a new granddaughter due in July, so I’m helping my third son work on his house and yard to improve his homestead while he still has the time.
Once I get done with other people, I’m enclosing my back deck so I can do larger wood projects; building the table top convinced me that I needed more room. The deck already has a roof, so I have only to build walls and put in a door.
The third weekend of May, I’m the featured Children’s Book Author at a local bookstore for a book talk and signing.
I did return to reading the history of Eastern Europe, but decided to scale back my focus. It’s too confusing to read the history of two dozen or so countries over a few thousand years, especially when every kingdom and province in the European world invaded the eastern countries at a pace of every hundred years or so.
When you throw in the big invaders – the Romans, the Greeks, the Persians, the Celts, the Vikings, the Turks, and the Mongols – and then add the religious wars, the Crusades, the Ottomans, and all the family dynasties (like the Habsburgs and Romanovs), it’s really hard to follow.
I gave up and bought another Bill Bryson book - A Short History of Nearly Everything.
It’s already a lot more fun to read (it’s a science book, by the way). Meanwhile, I’m back to thinking about my eleventh Mogi book. That might be a more enjoyable summer project and I’ll read about Poland and Germany the week before I go on my trip.
I think I’m suffering from history overload, so I’ll not be writing blogs for a while. I promised myself when I started blogging that I wouldn’t write blogs when I had nothing to say, so I’m going to use the time off to recharge my interests and rebuild my backlog of people, places and incidents that I think are interesting.
Art Spiegelman is a real-life graphic artist and illustrator who has founded, edited, and drawn avant-garde comics and magazines. He began researching a major project in the 1980s, deciding eventually on an intimate view of what happened to his Jewish parents in wartime Poland. The book he created, MAUS, Volumes I and II, covers his father’s life from a young man; his courtship and marriage to his mother, Anja; their hiding from the Nazis during the invasion of Poland; their capture and subsequent years of imprisonment at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp; and then into their later years.
Art inserts himself into the story as the son of Vladek, and who is a graphics artist looking for fulfilment in creating a graphic novel of WWII. He needs the experience and activities of his father, but Vladek continually gets off track, making it difficult. Slowly but surely, Art draws out his parents’ history, while struggling to deal with his father as Vladek grows older, more self-centered, and more intolerable. What Art wants to do in his own life butts up against his responsibility for providing for his father (the current wife leaves Vladek because of his growing paranoia).
Eventually, the reader experiences both stories: Vladek’s Holocaust experience and Art’s coming to grips with his own life with and without his father.
MAUS is a graphic novel, which means that it has comic-book-type panels of drawings featuring cartoon-type characters in a physical context. Dialogue occurs in word balloons, while narration occurs across the top or bottom of the panel, or between panels. The highly detailed illustrations reveal far more than the dialogue. It is the perfect “showing” of the story rather than the “telling” of the story, and the reader sees far more in the pictures than the words say.
Looking for a unique venue to convey the tragedy of the individuals, Spiegelman uses humans with mouse heads to portray Polish Jews, with pig heads for Polish non-Jews, with cat heads for Germans, and with dog heads for American soldiers. Don’t think this is a childish indulgence; his framework becomes surprisingly important and comfortable, while it enhances the identities of the different groups.
Spiegelman’s artwork is superb and is amazingly effective in keeping the reader in the context of what’s going on, and what’s happening to who. I didn’t know that animal faces could convey such drama and emotion.
MAUS is no comic book. There’s not a single KA-POW, SHAZAM, or Super Hero to be found. It has sections and chapters; it uses present time as well as flashbacks to tell the past; it allows the reader to hear the author’s thoughts; there’s a wide number of characters that give depth, understanding, and personality to the themes; the book covers a number of years, in a number of locales; and the story-line, though complex, is easy to grasp and pulls the reader along.
The book is very novel-ish with regard to having themes that weave in and out as they resolve: the story of Art’s father and mother’s experiences of being Jews in war-time Poland, the present-day predicament of the author regarding his father, the overall portrayal of inmates living in Nazi death camp environments, and the elements of an enduring love story.
It is also a personal book, the author absorbing his father’s past life while dealing honestly with the impact of his father’s present life on his own. Art is very open about his feelings.
Congruent with what I’ve read, MAUS is as authentic to its wartime subject matter as you can get. I couldn’t verify the novel’s stories being the actual history of Art Spiegelman’s family, but I can tell you that it is spot-on with its description of the horrors of Nazi Poland.
It is not a children’s book. Young readers will not be irreparably harmed by it, but it is raw when it comes to portraying institutional hate, incredible cruelty, disrespected and marginalized humanity, unimaginable circumstances, and other descriptors typically reserved for the Holocaust, the Nazis, and wholesale genocide.
Kids can read it, but I hope they don’t. At the same time, I hope that young adults and adults read it and believe every word. It is an incredible combination of history and literature.
There is a time and place for growing up and accepting reality, and I appreciate parental concerns with wanting to control that time and place. It’s a shame that “banning” a book serves as the only way to exert influence and control on public school literature, but it is a greater shame that there are those who are willing to sacrifice the innocence of childhood to propagate their own agendas.
Not reading the book is a lost opportunity to see a real-time, personal episode of history and then to see the consequences of that history on the future of those involved. MAUS, the Holocaust, the unbelievable cruelty of war, and the cost of totalitarianism is now more pertinent to our perception of the world than ever before.
A friend sent me to YouTube to watch a past episode of 60 Minutes. Aired on April 5, 2020, it presented the use of technology to create the sensation of “interviewing” dead people.
A survivor of the Holocaust was the first person to be “interviewed” in front of twenty high-speed video cameras, under 6000 or so LED lights, over about a week. Every day, sitting in the same chair and wearing the same clothes, he answered about 2,000 questions that the developers had created.
Using those videos, a special artificial intelligence-based program stored, researched, edited, sorted, formatted, and then presented, in real time, the responses of the man as if he had been asked questions by a single “interviewer”, who, in this instance, happened to be Leslie Stahl.
What she saw in front of her was a man sitting in a chair with a black background, looking at her, and, when asked a question, seemed to respond to her as if he were really there. By this time the episode was filmed, however, the man had died; he now “lived” only in a world of recorded responses. Leslie Stahl proceeded to “interview” him, while the man responded to her as if she was sitting across from him in real time.
You can see this episode at https://youtu.be/D9tZnC4NGNg?t=1
[put your pointer over the underlined URL, hold down the Ctrl key, and click your mouse button]
It is well worth watching. It is, in fact, truly amazing. At the time of the episode, a total of twenty people had sat for hundreds of hours of videos, voice responses, and relationship creation. Needless to say, it can be anyone, not just those related to the holocaust, but the subjects do have to be alive at the time they are interviewed.
Remember the story about the sisters, Renee and Gerta, who were imprisoned at the Bergen-Belson concentration camp in 1944? Gerta was deaf and survived the camp by Renee continually watching over her during the year of their captivity. After liberation and moving to America, Renee married a Yale professor and the two of them were responsible for creating the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University.
It was with the same desire for preservation of witness testimony that the current project was begun and the technology developed. The 60 Minutes episode demonstrates a quantum leap in preserving Holocaust memories.
* * *
In January, I introduced a book titled A Train in Winter, by Caroline Moorehead. It is the detailed story of 230 women who were arrested and imprisoned in France for participating in Nazi resistance activities. After being initially held in an old castle outside of Paris, the 230 women were loaded into cattle cars and taken to Auschwitz.
The book follows these women, as a group and individually where possible, for the next year and 3 months, and then describes some of their lives afterwards. Only 47 of the 230 survived to return to France. At the time of her research, only 7 remained.
Like The Girl Who Escaped from Auschwitz, The Train in Winter is an impressive putting-it-all-together description of what it was like to be an inmate at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration/extermination camp. It is definitely not a fictionalized account, however. The book resists my saying that I “enjoyed” it, or was “amazed” by it, or even “disturbed” by it. I had to steel myself to accept the vicious evil that it portrayed and to keep on reading in spite of the inordinate suffering of the women. Skipping paragraphs seemed a sacrilege.
Everything is described without restraint and is yet well-told. All the daily-ness of the brutal and inhumane treatments, the starvation, the sicknesses and diseases, the violent punishments, the wanton killings, the immense suffering, plus the witnessing of the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children herded off the trains to be immediately gassed and their bodies burned. One of the French women was forced to work with Dr. Mengele as he experimented on his human guinea pigs, while some of the women worked to protect newly-arrived children who were twins and would have been destined for “research”.
This is not a bedtime book and it will not suffer readers who want to gloss over the details. But it does become engrossing and the sense of scale is mind-blowing.
The last chapters are important as Moorehead relates what happened to the women after they were liberated and returned to France.
“What all the women found almost hardest was how to find the words to describe what they had been through. Having imagined telling their families exactly what it had been like, they now fell silent. Often, as it turned out, the families did not really want to hear: the stories were too unbearable to listen to. ‘It wasn’t food that we wanted,’ Cecile would say. ‘It was talk. But no one wanted to listen.’ …..Strangers asked questions, then quickly changed the subject and began to recount the hardships of their own war…’It can’t be true. [one person said]. If it was, you wouldn’t have survived.’ She cried for three days; then she stopped talking. It was Helene who later told the others that she had met a woman who, seeing the numbers tattooed on her arm, said: ‘Oh, is that where you write your phone numbers? Or is it the new fashion?’”
The women returned, were reunited or not with family, perhaps married or remarried, found their children or perhaps had more. Marie-Claude Vailliant-Couturier gave evidence against the defendants at the Nuremburg Trials, while Adelaide Hautval, a French doctor required to work in the hospitals of Auschwitz, testified against Dr. Dering, a Polish prisoner gynecologist who performed thousands of sterilizations on prisoners without anesthetic.
They all suffered in one or more ways. Parents, husbands, brothers, sisters, and friends had died or disappeared; sons and daughters had moved on; houses, apartments, or farms sometimes no longer existed. Life, they found, did not have the same quality or meaning that they had grown to value. Time went on, but some memories remained.
In later years, when the French women gathered together, they would talk about why they survived. In the end, they always came back to the same two reasons: they had lived because each of them had been incredibly lucky, and because of the friendship between them. That friendship had protected them and made it easier to withstand the barbarity.
They had learned, they would say, the full meaning of friendship, a commitment to each other that went far deeper than individual liking or disliking; and they now felt wiser, in some indefinable way, because they had understood the depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise.
* * *
I am moving on from Holocaust stories and from researching the concentration and extermination camps of the Third Reich. I’m still betting that my trip to Poland and Germany in September will happen and I want to learn more of the general history of Eastern Europe.
I still have one more book to go, however. I read comic books throughout my childhood, but have not read what is now referred to as a graphic novel: a novel told through a comic book format. I want to read Maus, a story of a father and son experiencing the Holocaust, written and drawn by Art Spiegelman. This was one of the books at the center of attention last year when it was banned in some school literature classes and libraries.
The speed with which it happened was shocking. In 1940, Panzers roared into Luxembourg on May 10, the Dutch forces were annihilated, the Meuse was crossed on May 13, and the French army and air force proved to be obsolete, ill-equipped, badly led, and fossilized by tradition. Then there was Dunkirk, and, finally, the bombing of Paris on June 3. France was quickly reduced to a vassal of the German war machine.
Wanting to protect the incredible amount of art, architecture, and culture, France, now led by Marshall Petain, agreed to an armistice that divided France roughly in half. The north part, plus all of France’s shoreline, was declared as the “occupied” part of France, while the south part was called “Vichy France”. On paper, at least, it was not a German puppet but a legal, sovereign state with diplomatic relations.
Led by Petain and his Catholic, conservative, authoritarian, and often anti-semitic followers, it was envisioned that the Vichy country would be purged and purified, returned to a mythical golden age before the French revolution introduced perilous ideas about equality. The new French were to respect their superiors and the values of discipline, hard work and sacrifice, and they were to shun the decadent individualism that had, together with Jews, Freemason, trade unionists, immigrants, gypsies and communists, contributed to the military defeat of the country.
Meanwhile, in the north, things didn’t seem to be so bad. As Parisians watched the German soldiers take over their city in the early hours of June 14, 1940, they were surprised at how youthful and healthy they looked. Tall, fair, clean shaven, the young men wore uniforms of good cloth and gleaming boots of real leather. The coats of the horses pulling the cannons glowed. It seemed not an invasion but a spectacle.
Even their behavior was reassuring. All property was to be respected, provided people were obedient to the German demands for law and order. The telephone exchange had been put under German control, but the utilities remained in French hands. General von Brauchtisch, commander-in-chief of German troops, ordered his men to behave with “perfect correctness”; German soldiers were scrupulous about paying for whatever they bought. When no revolt was forthcoming, even the forty-eight-hour curfew was lifted. The French citizens did have to hand in their weapons, as instructed, and had to register their much-loved carrier pigeons.
The Germans, for their part, were astonished by the French passivity.
Over the next days and weeks, those who had fled south in a river of cars, bicycles, hay wagons, furniture vans, ice-cream carts, hearses, and horse-drawn carriages, returned, amazed by how civilized the conquerors seemed to be.
It would not last.
Long before they reached Paris, the Germans had been preparing for the occupation of France. There would be no central political governor, but a strict military rule. Everything from the censorship of the press to the running of the postal services were placed under German control. A thousand railway officials arrived to supervise the running of the trains. Even the country’s clocks were reset to be on the same time as Berlin.
Hitler had agreed to no SS security police in France. Unfortunately, Heinrich Himmler, Chief of the German Police, didn’t like being excluded, so he sent the Gestapo. A 30-year-old journalist with a doctorate in philosophy, Helmut Knochen, was a specialist in Jewish repression and was not about to be left out. He sent his own team of experts in anti-terrorism and Jewish affairs.
There was also a counter-terrorism unit of the German army, and, not to be denied, the Einsatzstab Rosenberg, the henchmen of Hermann Goring, moved in to look for Masonic lodges, secret societies, and art collections. Von Ribbentrop, the Minister for Foreign Affairs in Berlin, received special permission to send Otto Abetz, with ambiguous instructions to be “responsible for political questions in both occupied and unoccupied France.”
Paris eventually became a little Berlin, with all the rivalries and clans and divisions of the Fatherland, the difference being that they shared a common goal: that of dominating, ruling, exploiting, and spying on the country they were occupying.
As more Germans arrived to administrate the country, they commandeered houses, hotels, schools, even entire streets. They requisitioned furniture, cars, tires, sheets, glasses, and gasoline, closed some restaurants and cinemas to all but German personnel, and reserved whole sections of hospitals for German patients. They helped themselves to pigs, sheep, and cattle.
What they had no immediate use for, they sent back to Germany. Packed goods wagons were soon leaving, laden with looted goods, along with raw materials and anything that might be useful to Germany’s war efforts. Hermann Goring personally looted one of the Rothchild’s chateaux, making off with six Matisses, five Renoirs, twenty Braques, two Delacroix, and twenty-one Picassos.
Dressmakers in Paris closed because there was no cloth; shoemakers went out of business because there was no leather; safety deposit boxes and bank accounts were looted; cat fur became popular for insulating garments, as coal had disappeared and houses remained unheated.
Ration books were issued, limiting restaurant items to one main dish, one vegetable, and one piece of cheese. Coupons were needed for bread, soap, school supplies, and meat. French factories were soon making planes, spare parts, ammunitions, cars, tractors and radios for Germany.
Editors of newspapers were issued a long list of words and topics to avoid, from “Anglo-Americans” to Alsace-Lorraine, while the words Austria, Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were never to be used at all, since they no longer existed as countries. There were also lists of banned books that included anything written by a Jew, a communist, an Anglo-Saxon writer, or a Freemason, all the better to create a “healthier attitude.”
It was not only the Jews who suffered. France had been proud of being a haven for refugees fleeing civil wars, political repression, or acute poverty. There was a large contingent of Poles, inflated by the thousands of men coming to replace the immense French losses from WWI. German “refugees” arrived in response to every Nazi crackdown, 35,000 of them in 1933 alone. Austrian, Czechs, Italians, all came to France.
Then there were the Spanish republicans fleeing Franco at the end of the civil war, some 100,000. Those who had been welcomed now found themselves described as “pathogenic, political, social and moral microbes.”
By late September, many of the refugees were on their way to internment camps, branded “enemies” by the very French who had welcomed them.
Occupation, for the French, was turning out to be a miserable affair.
This information was taken from A Train in Winter, by Caroline Moorehead.
The Girl Who Escaped from Auschwitz, by Ellie Midwood, published by Bookouture in 2021, is a remarkable story. It takes place in the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration/extermination camp in southern Poland, in 1943 and 1944, and is, of all things, a love story.
It is also a true story.
Mala Zimetbaum is a young Jewish woman from Antwerp, Belgium. She is an assimilated Jew and grew up under the desire of her father that she be independent, educated, and self-sufficient. She became all of those while also embracing the youth groups that sponsored military-like training, becoming a skilled fighter by the time she’s in her twenties. When the Nazis invade Belgium after swallowing up the other European countries, Mala finds herself relying on those skills as she is swept up, taken to a holding camp in Malines, shoved onto a cattle train, and then spilled out onto the arrival ramp at Auschwitz. They tattoo the number 19880 into her skin.
Fortunately, the SS doctors sorting the prisoners are looking for people with a good knowledge of languages and Mala fluently speaks six. She is declared to be an essential inmate, meaning that she got a regular shower rather than one with gas. A year and a half later, she has established herself as a valued office assistant and a camp “runner”, someone who takes information, messages, orders, and requests to administrators and officials throughout the Auschwitz/Birkenau complex.
Edek Galinski is a young man from Poland, the son of a plumber. He is not Jewish at all, but was taken prisoner by Hitler because he was young, healthy, and would have made a good Polish soldier. To keep him from becoming one, in June of 1940, Edek is snatched from a maritime training academy, labeled a political prisoner, and sentenced to hard labor at Auschwitz; it was for containing the Poles that the camp was originally built. His tattooed number was one of the earliest – 531. By 1943, he and his friend, Wieslaw Kielar, have spent the three and a half years at Auschwitz.
It is by chance that Mala and Edek meet. Edek and Wieslaw have developed an escape plan, foreseeing that everyone in the camp will be killed if the Nazis think that the Russians will overrun the complex. Mala becomes a key figure in helping procure a permission paper that is required to fool the camp guards. It is while working together that they fall in love, which, to Edek, means that Mala must escape with them.
I like reading history books but also love historical fiction. This story and the detailed descriptions of the activities, personalities, and surroundings put together a lot of the information that I’ve learned about the Nazi camps. It treated me to a third dimension – the dimension of first-person descriptions of actual experiences – to my backlog of facts.
At the end of the book, the author notes the many firsthand accounts of Holocaust survivors and witnesses she used to build the story.
For example, Wieslaw Kielar, who never got to attempt the escape, survived Auschwitz and became a filmmaker and author. He wrote detailed information about Edek and Mala and their escape in his book Anus Mundi. If you visit Auschwitz, there are two locks of hair from Mala and Edek that Kielar donated to the museum.
Similarly, many of the characters in Midwood’s story have real counterparts in H. Langbein’s study People in Auschwitz. She stayed obsessively true to the people, their roles, and their contexts.
I appreciate Midwood characterizing sympathetic German soldiers. Members of the Third Reich are typically lumped together as evil incarnate, but many Nazi officers and soldiers did not like Hitler, could not understand the murdering of hundreds of thousands of prisoners, and were horrified at how prisoners were brutally treated. One key SS officer in the story subverts his Nazi principles, helps ease the horror of living at Auschwitz for prisoners, and puts himself in great danger by helping Edek. He didn’t earn a lot of sympathy from me, but it was interesting to see him struggle with his guilt.
It was good to find a sense of scale of the operations: the prisoner population alone could have made up a fair-sized city. More than a million prisoners were murdered there, but there were tens of thousands of prisoners living daily in the two camps. Trains with thousands of new captives arrived every day; up to five thousand prisoners a day were gassed, burned, or buried on a routine basis, with the camp prisoners operating the gas chambers, taking out the bodies, operating the crematoriums and burial pits, sorting the clothes, and even taking out any gold teeth and fillings. Everyday living involved carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters, tilers, builders, bricklayers, cooks, clerks, interpreters, janitors, and all sorts of crafts people, some of whom were not prisoners, but were from nearby towns.
It should also not go unnoticed how much was involved in maintaining records, files, job assignments, and daily reports, the work again being done by prisoners. Imagine no copiers, no fax machines, no electronic messaging, no means of easy communication, no public transportation. It was all peoplepower, involving thousands, all working in the clouds of ashes belched out of the chimneys of the crematorium.
Midwood gives a realistic portrayal of the movement of illegal or forbidden items through the prison population, like food and medicine, as well as the miserable lives the German soldiers must have led. There were organized resistance groups within the population that gathered, smuggled, built, and hid weapons in anticipation of making a revolt against the soldiers and guards.
Prisoners who worked at higher levels in the organized administration of the camp, like Mala, could influence the quality of life for individual prisoners, regardless of whether they were Jews, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, German political prisoners, or even the more than 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war. Because of it, she probably saved thousands.
The preparations for the escape, as well as the description of the escape itself, are based on testimonies. It shows the courage, fear, and passionate longing for individual freedom of those who refused to abandon hope. Mala and Edek emerge as heroes of Auschwitz and what they did provided impetus for the internal rebellion that soon followed.
It’s a remarkable story and worth reading.
There are two cellars at the Great House in the Ukraine: one reached by an inside door in the big kitchen, while the other is outside, close to the house. They are both large, keeping cool the many jarred fruits and vegetables of the farm, bottles of homemade wine, and other stored foods. Nonna’s father digs a connecting tunnel between the two, hiding each end behind cupboards, producing a space in which his family can hide from the surging force. He wants to peaceably surrender after the violence of the advancing front has passed by. Speaking fluent German, he expects to be listened to.
In the fall of 1941, as the Russians are fleeing before the German onslaught, the few people choosing to remain are destitute. There is no electricity, no men to chop firewood in the forest, and few sources of food. As the temperatures drop, the invading soldiers ransack farms, villas, villages, and towns for shelter, winter clothing, and anything to eat and drink.
Nonna, who is fourteen, and Anna, her mother, who is thirty-eight, move from the Great House into an abandoned home in the nearby village, finding it easier to barter crafts, trade family possessions, and swap trinkets for food and supplies. Her father stays behind, hidden in his bunker between the cellars.
However, he catches a cold while working in the damp underground, and when he cannot contain his coughing, drunken German soldiers enjoying the cellar’s wine discover his hiding place. They beat him unmercifully, and gouge out his eyes. A neighbor helps the grandmother bring him to Nonna’s house in town. He lingers in great pain and then mercifully dies. The grandmother returns to the Great House, leaving Nonna and Anna on their own.
Remember the stories of the Russian winter of 1941-42? How brutally cold it was and how inadequately prepared the German army was? That it was the reason for their defeat? It’s the same winter that Nonna and her mother now experience. They are much farther south, but she tells of having a constant three feet of snow with temperatures of 47 degrees below zero. Cows fall dead in their pens, horses freeze to death while pulling sleighs, birds drop from the sky; hardly a living thing survives out in the open. Thirty percent of German artillery is still being pulled by teams of horses and they die by the hundreds. Tank and truck engines cannot be turned off because the oil would freeze, wasting even more of their limited fuel supplies.
Remember the startling scene in Dr. Zhivago of the ornate country house covered in ice? Nonna and Anna live in a house with a thick layer of ice on the inside of the walls. They tear apart furniture to burn in the kitchen stove and sleep under the mattress at night for more insulation. There is no water except for what they can melt.
But they endure. In the Spring, they move back to the Great House to be with the grandmother, but then return to town in the summer to be closer to the church, which meets secretly. They both sing to keep their hearts alive.
Even as they are withdrawing from Russia territory, the Germans seek out Ukrainian and Russian workers, promising food and shelter in exchange for working in Poland and Germany. The Russian army, now on the offense, has been ordered to consider those who did not flee the Germans the year before to be traitors. They are to be executed or sent to Siberia. Nonna and Anna feel that they have no choice but to volunteer for the German work camps.
In the fall of 1942, Nonna and her mother are crammed into cattle cars and taken across the country by various trains. The first work camp provides workers to a carton factory in Kassel, Germany. Six months later, they work in a textile factory in Lichtenau, then in a porcelain factory in Buchenwald.
The work camps are little better than concentration camps, with barracks segregated by sex and nationality, with three-tier mattressless bunks that hold as many as can be squeezed into them. There is little heat, a single blanket for each person, with cabbage soup and a three-by-three-inch piece of bread provided daily to eat, but there are fewer brutalities because the workers are needed.
The two of them are returned to Kassel, where they are selected to work in a Catholic hospital at Marienkrankenhaus. By this time, Anna has been recognized for her musical abilities and her handywork: she serves the Kommandant by playing the piano and singing, and also paints portraits of his family.
Nonna uses her father-taught skills to serve as an interpreter: she speaks fluent Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Yiddish, and German. At the hospital, built for treating prisoners-of-war and work camp prisoners, she is in constant demand in the admittance office to help with communications between patients and nurses.
It is a good life compared to what they had. They are soon favorites of the hospital staff and are treated as family members by the priests and nuns.
On September 22, 1944, Anna is told to report to the local Gestapo authorities; no reason is given. She does not come back and Nonna never sees her again. She will hear later that Anna was taken to a concentration camp called Ravensbruck, then was moved to a camp at Flossenberg. It is known as being one of the worst. By the end of the war, 73,000 prisoners will have died there of malnutrition, lack of medical care, and brutality.
Four months after the war in Europe ends, Nonna receives a letter written in Polish and Yiddish. The unidentified author tells that her mother had routinely played the piano at receptions held by the Flossenberg camp Kommandant. Weak and malnourished, she injures her arm and refuses to play. The Kommandant has both her arms and all of her fingers broken in retaliation. Anna does not recover from her injuries and becomes delirious. Considering her as good as dead, the Kommandant orders her thrown into the incinerator.
Anna dies only days before she would have been set free. The Second U. S. Cavalry liberates the Flossenberg camp on April 23, 1945.
Life without her mother is more difficult for Nonna and she suffers from rheumatic fever and angina. She becomes a patient in the hospital. The priests and nuns declare to the authorities that she is Catholic and draft her into the cloister to protect her from being taken away. She is, at one point, given last rites, but she defies them all, and survives. In the two-year period of 1945-1947, she is cared for, slowly recovers, and gradually returns to work.
Through it all, she keeps writing in her diary.
Nonna eventually qualifies to be a nurse and asks to be transferred to a new Allied hospital in Merxhausen. It treats refugees from the concentration camps and Nonna hopes that the letter was wrong and that her mother survived. She attends a nursing school in Bad Hersfeld, graduating with honors in only a few months, then finishes the coursework at a pre-med school in Heidelberg.
But she wants a new life. She wants out of Germany and she wants out of Europe. She wants to go to America.
Nonna accepts the position of personal secretary to the woman in charge of the International Refugee Organization in Germany. Mrs. Hawksley helps her do the paperwork for a visa, but it takes two years to finally be granted. The German government wants her to stay and go to medical school, even threatening her if she were to leave. Germany does need doctors, but there’s also a covert desire not to let her go; she knows too much about what happened.
Eventually, though, there is a ship steaming across the ocean, there is New Orleans, there is Henry, and then, fifty years later, there is her story.
A story that everyone should hear and that no one should forget.
Henry Bannister dearly loved his wife, but he didn’t understand some of the things that she did.
They were married soon after she got off the ship in the New Orleans harbor, on June 6, 1950, brought there under the sponsorship of the Napoleon Avenue Baptist Church of New Orleans. Her maiden name was Nonna Lisowskaja and she was from Germany, having been born in Frankfurt. She served as a nurse in different German hospitals and had come to the United States because her deceased parents would have been proud. She said nothing beyond that, telling Henry that she only wanted to focus on their future happiness.
She began, however, to make frequent trips up to their Tennessee home’s attic, where she spent hours, alone. There were also distracted moments when she was full of sadness and despair. And then there was the pillow case; there was always the pillow case.
It was a small now-empty pillow made of black-and-white ticking, with an added strap, as if the pillow was to be carried over the shoulder. Every night, for all the nights that he knew her, Nonna held it as she went to sleep. She could not sleep without it, requiring it even in hospital stays.
It was all okay with Henry; he never demanded an explanation of the pillowcase, and faithfully respected her private moments in the attic. He never opened her trunk.
Then, one day, almost fifty years after they had married, she came to him, took him by the time, and said, “It’s time.” She led him to the attic, unlocked a trunk, and took out a locked box. From it, she removed a number of ancient photographs, letters, documents, postcards, and then carefully placed into his hands a fragile, hand-sewn diary, filled with words in languages he did not recognize. Knowing that he could not decipher her writing, Nonna gave him a thick stack of legal pads, each page filled with the hand-penned English translation of what she had written.
Reading page after page, Henry finally discovered why Nonna desperately clung to that pillowcase.
Carefully concealed around her waist, it had been her secret repository for all that she considered precious. She had not been born in Frankfurt, but in the very southern tip of Russia. She had kept the pillowcase hidden from Russian soldiers fleeing the German soldiers as they invaded southern Russia; from German soldiers who ransacked her grandmother’s Great House in the Ukraine and murdered her father; from the shelling of her town by the returning, westward-going Russian army; and from the people crammed into the cattle cars that took her and her mother to work camps in Poland.
She had secreted the small pillowcase in different German concentration camps, in the German hospital where she served as an interpreter for patients and as a patient herself, and even wore it on the ship to America.
It contained her memories of a family that stretched from the Tsars of Russia, to Anton Chekov, to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to wonderful days at a Great House in the Ukraine, to the unwarranted deaths of her family members, and it even held an anonymous letter that told of her mother being burned alive in a crematorium.
Henry could hardly take it all in, but he read every word. Afterwards, having revealed her past to him, Nonna shared it with her family, then her church, and then spoke to anyone who would listen.
She had a story that everyone should hear and that no one should forget.
Nonna’s maternal grandfather was Yakov Ljaschov, a Cossack in the Imperial Cossack Army. He served as the personal protection for Nicholas II, the Tsar of Russia, and was killed by the Bolsheviks during the Russian revolution at the end of WWI. He and his wife, Feodosija Nikolayevna Ljaschova, were wealthy landowners in the Ukraine and southern Russia, owning seven grain mills, with associated houses and villages, plus other lands.
The traditional family home was called the Great House and was close to the village of Konstantinowka, Ukraine, in the same general area as Taganrog but across the border from Russia. It had thirty-seven rooms and four kitchens, plus a complex of stables, barns, caretaker cottages, and large pastures and orchards. This is where her grandmother lived during Nonna’s childhood, and where Anna Yakovlevna Ljaschova, Nonna’s mother, had grown up.
Nonna’s father was named Yevgeny Ivanovich Lisowsky. He came from Warsaw, Poland. His parents were wealthy and owned considerable land around Warsaw and in the Ukraine.
Stick with me here. I won’t use the proper names again, but can’t help but love the way they look and sound.
It is important that Nonna’s father grew up wealthy and learned to speak several languages, and it is important that her mother grew up wealthy and became a gifted musician and performer (voice, piano, violin). Together, they were a power couple, and they settled in Rostov-On-Don, a Russian town near Taganrog that had a local university. It is also important that they were not Jewish; the family, friends, and neighbors were dominantly Eastern Orthodox. This makes Nonna’s tale a non-typical Holocaust story.
Unfortunately, the region in which Nonna’s family lived and the ancestral farm was located was directly in the path of the German army going east when Germany betrayed the Soviet Union and invaded Russia, and then directly in the path of the Russian army going west when the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad, and the Soviet Union went on the offensive.
Nonna tells her story in a book titled The Secret Holocaust Diaries, The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister, published by Tyndale House in 2009. She spends the first half of the book extolling her ancestry and the delightful dominance of her maternal grandmother. It is an idyllic life that centered around the Great House. Lots of aunts, uncles, cousins, food, homemade cherry wine, animals, and sleigh rides in the winter. The Christmas of 1932 is everything that we wish for when we see a Thomas Kinkade Christmas scene.
Meanwhile, growing up in Rostov-On-Don, Nonna and her mother developed a friendship with Mrs. Taissia Shcherbak Solzhenitsyna. Her husband had also died being a Cossack for Tsar Nicholas, so they had common stories. They also met her son, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a budding mathematician whose future book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, would win him the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In 1933, Hitler comes to power in Germany, Stalin’s Communism is on the rise in Russia, and everything changes. Most farms in the Soviet Union become government “collective farms” and in 1934-35, Nonna’s extended family members, including her grandmother, lose most of their wealth and property. The grandmother is no longer considered a private owner, and is forced to pay heavy taxes on the land, house, stables, and orchards. The horses are “donated” to the collective, and she no longer has “hired help”, as it becomes unlawful to have employees.
People are told how many “living things” (goats, hogs, chickens, etc.) they can own, while any excess is given to the collective farms. The family mills become the property of the government and are operated to benefit the collective. Religion is forbidden, the churches are locked and boarded up, the local priest suddenly disappears, while bibles and icons, if found, are burned and people arrested.
The grandmother’s religious icons, jewelry, beautiful clothes, gold, silver, and other valuables are packed into metal trunks and buried in the ground in the cellar. The Great House is divided up into living spaces with private entrances. To preserve their ancestors’ homestead, several family members move back to the house, including Nonna, her brother, Anatoli, her mother, and her father.
As an aside, it’s remarkable how Stalin’s Communism resembles the Borg in Star Trek. The individual has no value, while the collective is everything. Perhaps they were striving for equity.
In 1939, Hitler signs a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, and promptly invades Poland. Once his army completes the occupation, Hitler then breaks the pact and invades Russia in 1941. By the time he gets to the east side of the Ukraine, the Russian soldiers are fleeing back to the homeland, using a scorched earth policy as they leave so the Germans will find no food or supplies. Villagers and homeowners are told to board trains to escape into Russia’s interior, but some stay.
Along with a few villagers, Nonna’s grandmother refuses to leave the Great House. Nonna’s father, who had been wanting to escape the Communism of Russia for some time, convinces himself that if his family stays and surrenders to German soldiers, they will allow he and his family to flee to Germany.
I’ll tell you how that worked out in Part Two.
On March 15, 1944, the SS Gripsholm steamed into the harbor of New York under the guiding light of the Statue of Liberty. It was a Swedish passenger ship leased by to the United States for exchanging American citizens kept in German prison camps for German POWs captured by the Allied forces in Europe.
Standing along the railing were the Wallenbergs. A wealthy Jewish family living in Poland before WWII, Lena Wallenberg was an American citizen who had met and married Shya Wallenberg, a Polish citizen, painter, and antique dealer, several years before when he had traveled to New York City to buy art. She returned with him to the city of Lodz, fifty miles southwest of Warsaw, where he managed an art gallery. She became a fashion designer, and they soon had a daughter named Mary, who was nineteen when she stared up at the Statue of Liberty.
A large crowd waited on the dock in New York City to welcome the refugees. Among them was a Yiddish journalist, S. L. Shneiderman, who was interviewing people as they got off the ship. He began a conversation with Mary, asking her to describe her life under Hitler. Mary reached into her suitcase and pulled out twelve small spiral-bound notebooks—her diary, written in a self-devised code and kept hidden through the four years of their captivity.
The journalist would later help her translate her diary into, first, a serialized series of articles for a Jewish journal in 1944, and then, on February, 1945, a book entitled Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary, by Mary Berg.
The book would shock America; never had the atrocities committed under the Third Reich been even imagined.
Mary and her family had been enjoying a six-week vacation at a resort in Poland when the German Army invaded on September 1, 1939, when Mary was fifteen. Racing back to their home in Lodz, already being shelled by German artillery, they gathered what they could and rode three bicycles into the throngs of people escaping to Warsaw. Over the next four years, the Nazi Gestapo and their relentless persecution of Jews decimated their lives, not in concentration camps, but by confining them inside the Warsaw ghetto, established in November, 1940.
In July, 1942, negotiations between Germany and the Allied nations proposed exchanging non-European families for German POWs. In preparation, Mary, her family and seven hundred other ghetto residents who held foreign passports were moved into the Pawiak Prison, a compound near the center of the ghetto. Twenty-one were U.S. citizens, while most of the others had South American passports: Paraguay, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Mexico.
In January, 1943, they were moved to an internment camp at Vittel, in the mountains of France. Vittel was a former resort that housed the new prisoners in former hotels and hostels, while providing them access to the parks, shops, and entertainment venues of the resort. The purpose of placing them in Vittel was to show to the world that the Third Reich treated their “captured citizens” with great care and concern.
Mary’s diary revealed the truth.
As her diary was prepared for publication, Mary used the last name Berg as protection for her family, friends, and relatives in Poland. She was not the only witness to the Nazi atrocities before the war in Europe ended, but her diary was the first account in English to describe the ghetto from its initial establishment in 1940 through the deportations that took place in the late summer of 1942. It was also one of the first personal accounts to describe gas being used to kill prisoners at the death camps.
She also told:
On March 5, 1944, as the SS Gripsholm pulled away from the French coast and began its trip across the Atlantic, Mary Berg wrote:
“I went out on deck and breathed the endless blueness. The blood-drenched earth of Europe was far behind me. The feeling of freedom almost took my breath away. In the last four years I have not known this feeling. [I have only known] four years of the black swastika, of barbed wire, ghetto walls, executions, and, above all, terror—terror by day and terror by night.”
The 75th edition of Mary’s diary is titled The Diary of Mary Berg, Growing up in the Warsaw Ghetto. It is a OneWorld Publication, 2018.
Every time I watch a video of WWII-era German soldiers marching in goosestep, my hips hurt. I can’t imagine why anyone would march that way. On the other hand, I do feel its intended effect—a display of relentless, threatening, and dominating force. It’s not just the visual: a thousand hobnailed boots slapping against a cobblestone street made a thunderous noise.
In the spring of 1939, to a ten-year-old girl named Renee, that thunderous noise meant impending terror. She was the ears of her family: her mother, father, and eight-year-old sister, Herta, were all deaf. When Renee heard any approach of Nazi soldiers, she ran to warn her family using sign language. She did so because they were Jews.
Renee’s family lived in the city of Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, right after it had been declared a “protectorate” of the Third Reich. A city with 15,000 Jews out of a population of 120,000, Jewish citizens had already been restricted to a specific part of the city, been forbidden to assemble or worship, and were required to wear yellow stars on their clothes.
Renee’s father moved the family to Brno, a town seventy miles to the west that had a larger community of Jews, but it wasn’t long before Hitler showed up in a parade. The family moved back to Bratislava and continued to live in the Jewish ghetto. In 1943, her father paid for his daughters to live on a distant gentile farm. Renee had blonde, curly hair (she looked remarkably like Shirley Temple), so the girls removed their yellow stars and lived as gentiles. Everything worked well, except for when it came to eating pork sausage.
While they were away, their father and mother were taken to Auschwitz.
Several months later, in 1944, because the payments had stopped, the farmer took Renee and Herta back to Bratislava and left them on a street. The Jewish area where they had lived was empty. Not only were their parents missing, but everyone else had been forced to leave. Living on the streets for a few months, begging for food, sleeping in abandoned apartments, and taking advantage of a few non-Jewish friends, Renee finally asked the German guards to help them join their parents.
They were shoved into a cattle car of a train to Auschwitz. After problems with railroad tracks being destroyed by Allied aircraft, the train was rerouted from Poland to the Bergen-Belson concentration camp in the north of Germany. Even though it was not an official death camp like Auschwitz/Birkenau, it would eventually bring death to 50,000 prisoners.
Renee and Herta lived for a year at Bergen-Belson, working as prisoner-slaves. Every day they walked in front of a death house where bodies were stacked inside until they overflowed onto the sidewalks. Herta was repeatedly asked to go the “hospital” because the doctors wanted to experiment on a deaf child. When she refused, the doctors left her alone and did not tell the guards; perhaps she would change her mind. Herta’s hair was shaved off because of typhus-carrying lice (lice routinely covered the inside walls of their barracks). Renee contracted typhoid and suffered greatly, but refused to die because Herta would be left alone. When the crisis had passed, Renee was an eleven-year-old with the weight of a three-year-old. During this time, Herta became mute.
Whether living at the farm, wandering the city alone, riding on trains, or being prisoners, Renee held Herta’s hand. Were Herta to wander off, were Herta to be taken or separated, Renee knew that her sister could not survive. No one else could sign to her, no one else could speak for her. The Nazis considered deaf people to not be deserving of life, so if she was discovered to be deaf, Herta would be shot.
The sisters managed to fade into the camouflage of thousands of other children. It was 1944 and the guards were distracted by the Russians on one side and the Allies on the other.
On April 15, 1945, the two sisters watched a truck with strange markings come into the compound, followed by men in strange uniforms. It was the British Army and the concentration camp was being liberated. Working their way through the camp, the British found 60,000 starved and sick prisoners, and 13,000 corpses. Another 14,000 inmates died in the weeks following liberation.
The International Red Cross placed the sisters with a coastal family in Sweden. It was there that they learned their parents were dead.
Later on, Herta attended a school for the deaf in Stockholm while Renee stayed to go to the local school. Renee had had only one year of education, but it helped that she could speak five languages. During the summers, Herta returned and the two were together again.
The sisters remained in Sweden for three years. Only by chance did distant relatives in New York City hear their names called out in an American Red Cross broadcast of abandoned war children. In 1948, Renee and Herta found themselves riding in their first plane and were soon stepping onto a sidewalk in New York City. Renee was fifteen, Herta was thirteen.
They still held hands wherever they went.
Herta would go on to marry Harold Rothenberger and have three children, each of whom was deaf. He died young, however, and she married Richard Myers, who died four months after their wedding. How does that feel when there is only silence? Herta raised her children alone, and now lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Renee married a Yale professor and, between the two of them, established the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University. It is a video compilation of more than 4,000 witnesses to the atrocities and oppressions of the Third Reich. It is from her and Herta’s interviews in 1979 that their journey found its way into a book.
Renee’s husband died in 2016; she still lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Renee and Herta returned to Bratislava in the late 2000s and then, in 2009, returned to what is left of the Bergen-Belson concentration camp. They remembered their year there, and found photos in the museum of children they recognized, but could not find nor could they provide any explanation—religious, philosophical, ideological, or otherwise—for why they and all the others had suffered so brutally.
For more details of their journey, see the book, Signs of Survival, A Memoir of the Holocaust, by Renee Hartman with Joshua M. Greene, printed by Scholastic Press, 2021.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.