Several years ago, a writer/friend invited me to join a monthly writing group in Albuquerque. This writing group has a long history, originating with Tony Hillerman when he was teaching at the University of New Mexico. He gathered a number of newspaper and magazine writers, publishers, and editors who had similar interests in the publishing business and began getting together to discuss their mutual problems, solutions and insights.
Some decades later, the group still has a definite bent towards not the craft of writing but with getting books out and sold. There are people who self-publish paperback and electronic books (with a major emphasis on science fiction), a few writers for magazines, a couple of publishers, an editor or two, a bookstore owner, two translators (including a lady who has been knighted by the King of Denmark), and writers like myself who use traditional publishers.
I am, as one might guess, the novice of the group.
I did once have an opportunity to talk to the group about an initial draft of a book I was working on. My draft didn’t yet have much plot but the story, as I expressed it, would be “interesting” to the reader.
That earned me some criticism, most of which was provided by my friend. His exact words were “interesting means boring” and the sentiment was echoed by others. I felt squished.
After the meeting, as was our custom, my friend and I went to eat at a close-by Japanese restaurant. Talking with my friend over lunch was the real reason that I joined the group; discussing books and writing one-on-one with him was a treasure. He continued his “advice” and I understood what he was saying. Internally, however, I wanted to make an argument that readers wanted “interesting” and that any book that didn’t have something that was intellectually engaging would be missing a large connection to the readership.
A couple of months ago, I found someone who explicitly supports my side of the argument. The following is from The Wave of the Mind, by Ursula K. Le Guin, one the finest writers the world has produced:
“Most best-sellers are written for readers who are willing to be passive consumers. The blurbs on their covers often highlight the coercive, aggressive power of the text--compulsive page-turner, gut-wrenching, jolting, mind-searing, heart-stopping—what is this, electroshock torture?
From commercial writing of this type, and from journalism, come the how-to-write cliches, “Grab your readers with the first paragraph,” “Hit them with shocker scenes,” “Never give them time to breathe,” and so on.
Now, a good many writers, particularly those entangled in academic programs in fiction, get their intellect and ego so involved in what they’re saying and how they’re saying it that they forget that they’re saying it to anyone. If there’s any use in the grab-‘em-and-wrench-their-guts-out school of advice, it’s that it at least reminds the writer that there is a reader out there to be grabbed and gutted.
But just because you realize your work may be seen by somebody other than the professor of creative writing, you don’t have to go into attack mode and release the Rottweilers. There’s another option. You can consider the reader, not as a helpless victim or a passive consumer, but as an active, intelligent, worthy collaborator. A colluder, a co-illusionist.
Writers who choose to try to establish a mutual trust believe it is possible to attract the readers’ attention without verbal assault and battery. Rather than grab, frighten, coerce, or manipulate a consumer, collaborative writers try to interest a reader. To induce or seduce people into moving with the story, participating in it, joining their imagination with it.
Not a rape; a dance.
Consider the story as a dance, the reader and writer as partners. The writer leads, yes, but leading isn’t pushing; it’s setting up a field of mutuality where two people can move in cooperation with grace. It takes two to tango.
Readers who have only been grabbed, bashed, gut-wrenched, and electroshocked may need a little practice in being interested. They may need to learn how to tango. Once they’ve tried it, they’ll never go back among the pit bulls.”
My “interesting” book did make it to the bookstores. I worked on the plot and the scenes and gave the “interesting” aspects more context of how they played in the novel. I did put in a couple of near-death experiences for the hero, but it all worked out fine. It is, indeed, an interesting story that invites the reader to imagine what they would do if they were the characters, and requires them to grapple with moral questions, and it makes their reading experience far more engrossing and memorable.
By 1876, the first centennial of the United States, no one in the world had ever been to the North Pole. For that matter, no one had ever been to the South Pole.
What was there? What happens to your compass when every direction points south? Every modern Arctic expeditionary attempt had found a sea of ice that was impenetrable. Was everything covered in ice or was there something beyond the ice that was more remarkable?
As early as the 1600s, it was generally accepted and heartedly endorsed by the renown scientists of the day that the top of the earth was crowned by an open sea. Several felt that not only was it an open sea, but that the temperature of the water was temperate. If an explorer could make it through the annulus of thick ice that surrounded the North Pole, they would find sailing to be much like in the Caribbean. Some even theorized that a new continent existed there, full of flora and fauna, and it was not such a wild idea that members of the human race would be found flourishing there.
On the outer edge of the theories, in 1820, an American from Ohio, John Cleves Symmes Jr. theorized that the earth consisted of concentric spheres, with large holes at the North and South Poles that connected to networks of inner cavities. It was even likely that the spheres were inhabited.
Perhaps scoffed at by the leaders in science and government, the public became enthralled with the idea that the poles of the earth consisted of veritable wonderlands waiting to be discovered. This made a new theory remarkably believable – that there existed a large hole at the North Pole through which all the water from the oceans poured, traveling through the center of the earth and emerging out a similar hole in the South Pole, where they became the tail ends of the same oceans flowing north.
When Jules Verne published his Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864, a considerable number of people didn’t believe that it was fiction.
One of the largest and most famous voyages sent to find answers was the Franklin expedition of 1845. Captain John Franklin and his crew of 129 set sail from England in the Terror and the Erebus, two well-provisioned ships. Within weeks, they sailed into chunks of flowing ice, and were never heard of again.
That was typical of an Arctic voyage.
Other expeditions had launched, would be gone for a year or two, and then a group of scraggly survivors would be found on an ice flow, barely alive. Their stories described sailing into an ice field, their ships then being surrounded by floating chunks of ice which froze and held them immovable. Ultimately, the ice crushed the ship by pressing against its sides and it sank to an icy grave. The stories always ended with terrible ordeals of starvation, sickness, exposure, and continual suffering.
After the Civil War, however, a growing wave of American national pride demanded that the idea of Manifest Destiny be expanded to include an international facet and by 1876, the call for scientific discovery (and planting the American flag on newly discovered territories) gave birth to the U. S. Arctic Expedition and the USS Jeannette.
It took until July 8th, 1879 to get her launched, but the USS Jeannette was all that an arctic explorer would want. Already a proven ice-breaker in the seas to the far north of England, the Jeannette was 146 feet long, three-masted, with a steam engine that powered a single screw propeller. She carried eight boats, including 3 whaleboats, and required only a crew of thirty.
Bought and fitted, she made the trip from England around the tip of South America, spent several months being rebuilt by an elite team of boat builders in San Francisco, was reinforced for every possible challenge of ice-laden seas, and laid in enough provisions for three years of sailing in the upper reaches of the world. Her crew would consist of experienced Arctic sailors, nautical craftsmen, forty sled dogs, two Inuit hunters, two Chinese cooks, several scientists, a doctor, a reporter from the New York-based Herald newspaper, competent junior commanders, and George Washington De Long, a determined, seasoned, and now nationally famous ship captain who would prove to be the best man on the planet for the job.
The New York Commercial Advertiser declared, “Should success crown the efforts of the gallant commander, it will be one of the most brilliant geographical adventures ever won by man. The solution of the Northern Mystery would be the event of the century.”
Having stopped along the way to replenish his store of coal, De Long and his ship sailed from the shores of Alaska for the North Pole and was seen on September 7th, 1879, by a whaling fleet in the Arctic Ocean north of the Bering Strait, struggling through an ice flow. It was the last reported sighting anyone ever had of the USS Jeannette.
It wouldn’t be until May 5, 1882, that a formal dispatch informed the world that De Long had been found, frozen, in the delta of the Lena River on the northern coast of Siberia. He had been dead since October. A few others of the crew survived and their stories of what happened included spending a full year locked-in by ice before the ship was crushed, and taking an extreme escape route of a thousand miles across hundreds of miles of ice while pulling a few thousand pounds of gear and lifeboats, and the rest across the treacherous Arctic Ocean, striving to get to the Siberian coast. Even when there, it was months before any of them would find another human being.
There was no open sea to the North Pole.
And, once again, I’m going to stop complaining about wearing a mask.
In the Kingdom of Ice, the Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, is a wonderful book to read. Exhaustively researched and cleanly written by Hampton Sides, an editor of Outside magazine who lives an hour away from me, it is only one of several great books that he has written.
In other news, the Roswell Daily Record newspaper agreed to review my historical fiction novel, Teddy’s War. The review should be coming out next Sunday. I’ll post the URL so you can read it.
Wandering through the books on Amazon.com, I came across a history series whose titles began “The Things Our Fathers Saw,” written by Matthew Rozell, a high school history teacher, now retired.
Each book in the series relates interviews with WWII veterans from across the different parts of the military. The first book concerns the war in the Pacific, the next two are about the Air War, the fourth is about the WWII generation, and the fifth addresses WWII in the European theater from D-Day up to the Battle of the Bulge.
For those of you who have read my historical fiction book, Teddy’s War, or have read the first two chapters of it on my website, the story is centered around the experiences of a young man going through three years in the European Theater during World War Two, with a healthy context of his life before and after. I begin and end the book with a question of my own: why didn’t my dad talk about what he did in World War II and why didn’t I ask him? He never said a thing. He had some souvenirs, pictures, European coins and currency, and some other stuff, but he never told me or my brothers what he did, where he went, who his buddies were, or described any of his memories during the war.
I’ve only discovered pieces in the last couple of decades: he trained in England for a year, landed on Omaha Beach, and was at Bastogne when the Bulge started. He served under both Bradley and Patton.
I believe that if he would have said anything, he would have had a lot to tell.
My dad’s silence is pretty much standard for parents of other post-war children like me. Of my friends I’ve asked, none of their parents talked about what they did during the war, whether they were in combat or not, where they were, what they saw, or what kind of experiences they had. I wish I had a couple of hours, or days, to talk with my dad about the war; there are things I passionately want to know.
The book by Matthew Rozell filled in a lot of what might have come out of that conversation. He was a history teacher in Glens Falls, New York when on the occasion of the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he asked his students to interview family members about their involvement in the war. The students were so interested and enthusiastic about what they found that, on the 50th Anniversary of the end of the war, he expanded the assignment to include people in the community. His students became collectors of stories, and, thirty years later, now internationally known for working with veterans and survivors of the Holocaust, Rozell is currently working on book number six of a ten-book series about what veterans would say if someone asked them to describe what they saw.
In the book that starts with D-Day, he interviews a master mechanic, a paratrooper, a glider pilot, a cryptographer, a combat engineer, a demolition engineer, a tank driver who unloaded his tank on Omaha Beach on D-Day, a Military Policeman, an artillery sergeant, a Navy Signalman, and others. The interviews cover the veteran’s pre-war story, then follows each one through the end of the war and sometimes beyond. He transcribes the actual words of those interviews, surrounds the interview with context, and makes each a compelling story.
The stories present incident-by-incident actions – detailed, gritty, violent, confusing – of what the war was like on a daily basis for the veterans and how those days stretched into years of fighting the German Army in Europe. He also captures how they felt at the time and how it still affects them. It’s the stuff of good men doing hero work, though they typically don’t like being called heroes.
It’s usually heart-wrenching but the authenticity of the experience is unquestioned.
I wish that Matthew Rozell had interviewed an SC-584 Signal Aircraft Warning radar operator, which is what my dad was, but he didn’t. It leaves me still wishing for my own conversation with my dad, but the book gives me some collective information to reconstruct part of what I might hear.
I’d give a set of Rozell’s books to every high school history class in America if I could. How can we expect the coming generations to “never forget” if they don’t know what we’re talking about in the first place?
Matthew Rozell’s website is teachinghistorymatters.com.
Most of us know the story of the Bataan Death March. On April 9, 1942, after three months of holding off the Japanese invasion of the island of Luzan (the island where Manila is located), U. S. General Edward King Jr. surrendered the approximately 75,000 American and Filipino troops on the Bataan Peninsula. The Japanese rounded up their prisoners and promptly marched them to a POW camp at San Fernando, 65 miles up the island.
The exact figures are not known, but thousands of prisoners died because of the brutality of their captors. They were starved, beaten, or bayoneted to death.
I read recently of similar marches made by Allied POWs in Europe, in the winter and spring of 1945, but they were more extensive and involved many more miles. Collectively, these forced marches are referred to as the March, the Black Death March, the Death March, the Bread March, or other names. Most survivors just call it “The March”.
There were 257,000 Allied prisoners held in German military prison-of-war camps throughout Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and other occupied lands. Between January and April, 1945, over 80,000 of these POWs were forced to march from camps in Eastern Europe to camps in the west.
The POWs traveled in groups of 250 to 300 men and not all groups followed the same route. They marched maybe 15 to 25 miles a day – resting at night in factories, churches, barns, or even in the open. Soon, long columns of POWs were wandering over the northern part of Germany with little or nothing in the way of food, clothing, shelter, or medical care. It seems that three major routes were followed, but the longer they marched, the more confusing the situation became. Getting to a destination seemed less important than to just keep marching.
In addition, January and February were among the coldest winter months on record, with blizzards and temperatures as low as minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit. Even the month of March had temperatures consistently below freezing. Most of the POWs lacked the basics of cold weather clothing, and given their poor rations and already poor health, the situation was appalling. The men resorted to stealing food along the way, sometimes eating dogs, cats, rats, or vegetation. There were no bathroom facilities, no water except for snow, streams, ponds, and rivers crossed along the way, if they were allowed close to them, and it was rare that any shelters provided protection against the weather.
After being liberated, one survivor said that his four-month journey zig-zagged across Germany, and even circled back to where they had been, covering an estimated 990 miles! More typical were travels of 500-600 miles.
Because of the unsanitary conditions, near starvation diet, and the exposure to the weather, hundreds of POWs died of diseases like dysentery and typhus, exposure like frostbite, gangrene, and literally freezing to death, plus exhaustion and malnutrition, not to mention that stragglers and poor performers were typically taken into the woods and shot.
I can’t figure this out. I’ve read common explanations: that Hitler was moving them to concentration camps to be killed in retaliation for the intense bombing by the Allies, but the fronts kept shifting, changing their destinations; that Hitler wanted to keep the POWs away from the invading Soviets but he didn’t really know what to do with them; that he was keeping them on the move so the POW camps would not look overcrowded when liberated; that the Nazis were planning on negotiating a peace deal using the POWs as bargaining chips, so it was better if they looked like hostages rather than prisoners; or that the Nazis were hoping most of the men would die from exhaustion, malnutrition, or exposure while on the marches so that their deaths could be counted as a natural deaths, as opposed to having been executed - it would make a difference if someone was accused of war crimes.
The more I’ve read the less I can make sense of it all.
I want to make an observation, though.
During this time, there were also attempts to empty the concentration camps on the Eastern Front and move the populations to other camps. Auschwitz, in Poland, had been discovered and liberated by the Russian Army on January 27th, 1945, so the news was getting out about the conditions in the German concentration camps. As the shock and horror was growing, Hitler ordered the evacuation of some of the concentration camps, putting the inmates in railway cars, trucks, or moving by foot. A vast number were murdered along the way (there were several instances where inmates were locked in train cars and left to die on sidings along the way), probably by design.
Secondly, during this time, there were also constant movements by the German Army, typically by train and truck convoy, but increasingly by foot because of the congestion of the railway system and the shrinking geography. Thirdly, because of the expansion of the Soviet front into Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, a huge number of German inhabitants of those countries were trying to escape to the west, trying to reach Germany; the number was maybe in the millions. Fourthly, there were non-German refugees (from liberated German labor camps, for example) that followed the Allied armies as they moved toward the east.
Fifthly, the Allied armies were encountering miles-long lines of surrendering Germany soldiers walking west. The Ninth Army in the north was repeatedly slowed because of having to stop and set up temporary barbed-wire areas to accommodate the flood of soldiers with their hands up. It had become obvious that Hitler was insane, the officers were running away, Germany was losing the war, and the soldiers knew that it was much better to surrender to the Americans or the British than to the Russians.
And let’s not forget all the Allied soldiers that were invading Germany from every direction. By May, there would be a million and a half American soldiers in Germany, not counting the British, the Canadian, the French, and the Soviets.
Yeah, it was crowded. My point?
Every country road, lane, by-way, regular road, highway, railroad track, railyard, every town, village, city center, every place that people could travel was full of people, many of them not speaking the same language. Millions of people, most of them in a state of confusion wandering through a territory that wasn’t that big – it’s only 400 miles from one side of Germany to the other.
Chaos. It must have been utter chaos. And anything to make it even more chaotic would have helped anyone who wanted to disappear into the crowd.
I think that’s what the Nazi commanders wanted. Hitler was going to die; he believed that it was his destiny, so he’s out of the picture. But the other commanders had long been developing escape plans. They needed camouflage to get the hell out of Dodge and hiding themselves in plain sight was the ticket to South America. That meant creating an atmosphere of utter chaos so that individuals could slip out the back door unnoticed.
I’m just making this up, but it doesn’t sound too far-fetched.
The Terezin ghetto and concentration camp were built out of a small city forty miles north of Prague, Czechoslovakia. Contained within the walls of a large fortress built in the late 18th century, the major part of the city was converted in 1941 by the Nazis to be a Jewish ghetto where Jews from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria could live and work comfortably, protected from the vagaries and stresses of war. In a smaller fortress across the river, a prison and a more common concentration camp were built to control those who disturbed the calm of the ghetto.
The ghetto housed Jewish intellectuals, musicians, writers, scientists, philosophers, artists, and civic leaders from the invaded nations. There was large adult choir made up of residents that gave routine concerts; a number of chamber orchestras played at various times; distinguished composers created new works, including a children’s operetta; writers, professors, and actors gave lectures; and there was a library – a hundred thousand books – that had fifteen full-time librarians.
Residents strolling the streets saw freshly painted houses, gardens, and renovated barracks, as well as a bakery full of fresh bread and even a candy shop that provided bon-bons to be eaten in little cafes along the sidewalk.
Some German officials described it as a “spa” for the Jewish elderly.
In late 1943, the King of Denmark wanted to know the condition of the 466 Danish Jews the Nazis had recently deported to Terezin. Of course, the Nazis said. They would be more than happy to show off their model city.
The inspection was held on June 23, 1944 and the inspectors found all those things described above. The Danish delegation, plus representatives of the Red Cross visited freshly painted rooms in the barracks, which held not more than three people at one time; saw large bathrooms with sinks and showers; and noted the bunk beds with mattresses filled with straw. The delegation walked a predetermined path and spoke to Jewish residents along the way. The choir gave a concert. There was no mention of the smaller fortress.
A movie film was shot as the inspectors walked the city. The film’s director was even a famous Jew. That film – a documentary film of Jewish resettlement – was what Hitler planned to show to the rest of the world. It would confirm the Terezin that the Third Reich had been describing to other nations during the last two years. It would help dispel all the vicious rumors concerning the supposed “extermination” camps.
The film would show the glory of “the city that Hitler gave to the Jews.”
The film, however, did not reveal the truth.
Committed to the coming inspection, the Germans immediately launched a beautification program for the ghetto – “Operation Embellishment.” The day before the inspection, many of the inmates of Terezin were sent to other camps to decrease the perceived population. Terezin normally housed 5,000 people but at the height of the war, 55,000 people were crowded inside the fortress. Those barrack rooms with no more than three people typically held hundreds; full barracks typically held thousands. Those large bathrooms with sinks and showers were never connected to water; the straw in the mattresses were home to blood-sucking insects. The questions asked by the inspectors had been written and handed out beforehand to the residents, along with the answers. Anyone answering an unofficial question or giving a non-approved answer were deported. The choir’s director was deported to Auschwitz two months afterwards and gassed the following day. Those bakeries, shops, and cafes were fake: props to give the impression of comfort. Those loaves of fresh bread were never seen again.
At the time, though, the inspection was a success. The Danish delegation and the Red Cross were duly satisfied that the Jews were being treated well enough.
They should have looked closer. Terezin wasn’t a typical concentration camp; it was a redistribution camp whose appearance had been managed as Nazi propaganda. Beginning in 1942, Jews were sent to the Terezin ghetto and then deported to other ghettos, concentration camps, and killing centers in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe. Once at their destination, the Jews were either immediately murdered or deported to other camps. Terezin had direct rails to Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka.
Between October 16, 1941, and when it was liberated on May 8, 1945, more than 155,000 Jews passed through Terezin. Eighty percent of them died after being deported, or died in the ghetto itself from starvation or disease. There were more than 16,000 still imprisoned when it was liberated. There was no crematorium in Terezin, but the local death rate grew so high that one was built south of the ghetto, capable of handling almost 200 bodies a day.
There were 15,000 children sent to Terezin. Only 132 children were known to have survived. But, while they were there, children found paper and drew what they saw. They also wrote poems or descriptions of what they saw, thought, or dreamed. They hid the papers in cracks in the walls around town. Many thousands of these honest depictions of life in Terezin have been found and are now on display as part of the museum and memorial.
What Hitler wanted was a charade that he could display to the world so that the world would look away from the reality of what the Third Reich was doing. In today’s parlance, it was the control of the media for the purpose of fooling the masses, and it worked remarkably well for a long time. Unfortunately, the film was never released. The production was halted as soon as it was obvious that Germany was losing the war. Snippets of the film would be shown at the Nuremburg trials.
If you make it to the Prague area, there are many guided tours available or you can visit Terezin on your own. There are several websites that give more information.
Ever listen to a discussion about how long we’ll be wearing masks in public, doing social distancing, or obeying periods of quarantine? We are certainly a pitiful people to have to suffer such trials and tribulations.
In July of 1942, Hitler double-crossed Stalin and launched his invasion of Russia with a three-prong attack. The top line of offense went north toward Leningrad, the middle line was pointed east towards Moscow, and the bottom line of offense headed for Stalingrad and the Crimea.
Hitler’s armies had previously stormed across the border with Poland, crashing through Slovakia, Romania, and the Ukraine. With a policy of focused racial hatred, Jews all over Eastern Europe were divested of their property, stripped of their rights, and driven into exile from towns where their families had lived for hundreds of years.
Now, with the goal of invading and occupying Russia, the rush of the Germany Army was accompanied by even more brutal persecution of Jews and other nationalities by the Gestapo. Jewish settlements were devastated, whole populations of towns were captured and carried off to concentration camps or extermination camps, and many people were slaughtered where they lived.
A town near the Ukraine/Romania border, named Korolowka, was in the path of Hitler’s war machine and the Jews living there fled into larger cities or into hiding places scattered around the countryside. In the fall of 1942, a number of families committed to remain together and sought out a nearby underground cave system, a well-known location named Verteba, where they would crawl deep into the caves and hide for the winter when Verteba was closed to the public. In the spring, they would search for another hiding place.
With members of the families periodically stealing out to bring back sacks of potatoes, grain, flour, kerosene, matches, candles, water, and whatever else they could pilfer or buy on the black market, it was a constant state of survival for the thirty or so Jews.
They hid in the darkness of the cave system for about 150 days.
In the spring of 1943, a few members were discovered and captured by the Gestapo. Those remaining in the cave escaped by way of a secret outlet they had dug during their confinement. Temporarily hiding in the attic of their old houses, in barns, or in other refuges in town, they were eventually led by a hunter to a sinkhole that formed the entrance to another cave system, locally called The Priest’s Grotto because it lay in the field of a local priest. It was not a publicly known or used cave system; later it would be determined to be the ninth largest cave system in the world.
But it was not spacious and roomy like a Carlsbad Caverns. It was a labyrinth of narrow passageways wandering throughout a hollowed-out layer of limestone. However, the Jews discovered small sinks of water formed by internal springs, as well as circulating air currents that allowed small fires to be lit for cooking. It was quite an improvement over Verteba.
Again expecting members of the families to periodically sneak out to find food, firewood, blankets, and other necessities, Esther and Zeida Stermer, their six children, four relatives, and twenty-six other Jews, on May 5, 1943, fled to the Priest’s Grotto to escape the certainty of the horrors of the Gestapo, the Russians, and the Ukranian police.
Feeling their way down in the darkness, the families lowered themselves through the narrow opening to the chambers below. It would be the last time for many of them to see the sky for nearly a year.
In fact, the majority of that community would live in hiding for 344 days.
Seventy feet below the surface, in total darkness, at a constant temperature of fifty degrees, these thirty-eight individuals lived in a state of near hibernation. They could not tell day from night and their bodies adjusted until they slept eighteen to twenty-two hours at a time, lying on wooden planks scavenged from above, and stayed awake only to perform the very basic needs of survival – cooking, eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, and trying to make their situation more tolerable.
The youngest girl was three; several women were elderly.
Close to a year after they had descended, a message dropped in a bottle down the entrance shaft by a friend, the thirty-eight survivors learned that the Germans had left for good, and, on April 12, 1944, each of them made the arduous climb out the entrance – jaundiced, weak, their skin covered in mud, about two-thirds of their entry weight, blinded by the sun.
They were no longer interested in returning to their town. They made their way through temporary refugee camps in Germany, then fled to the United States. Some of them and their children now live in New York City, Florida, and Canada. To hear more of the details of their story and to read the reasons that they gave for their ability to have survived such a remarkable situation, read The Secret of Priest’s Grotto, by Peter Lane Taylor with Christos Nicola.
Perhaps instead of talking about our extraordinary troubles, we should talk about our opportunities to show extraordinary courage.
My question is not “what” we remember of historical events and people, but “how” we remember them.
There is a sculpture made by Marie Uchytilova that overlooks where a small village in Czechoslovakia used to be. The sculpture is comprised of 82 bronze statues of children (42 girls and 40 boys) aged 1 to 16 who were gassed to death in the Chelmo extermination camp in 1942. The sculpture was created so people would remember.
The village of Lidice was exterminated in reprisal for the attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi General who was the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia (the area known as Czechoslovakia before Hitler invaded in 1939). Heydrich later died of wounds suffered in the attempt (he might have survived, but he refused to be operated on by non-Germans). The two men involved in the assassination attempt escaped. They had been trained in England and had parachuted into the area as part of an Allied undercover operation.
In retaliation for the act, the village of Lidice was chosen as an example of Nazi ferocity and as a demonstration of the loyalty that the Third Reich required, as well as the punishment for disobedience. The whole population of the village (192 men, 60 women, and 88 children) were killed: the men by being stood up against a wall of mattresses (to prevent ricochets) and shooting them; the women by dying in concentration camps where they were forced to work in leather processing, road building, textile and ammunition factories; and the children by a few being given to German families to be “Germanized” while the rest were gassed inside poison gas vans.
The village was set on fire and the remains of buildings destroyed by explosives. All the animals in the village – pets and farm animals – were slaughtered. Even people buried in the cemetery were dug up, looted for gold fillings and jewelry, and destroyed. A 100-strong German work party removed all visible remains of the village, re-routed the stream running through it, and blocked the roads in and out. The area was then covered with topsoil and planted with crops.
You can read more of the appalling details of the massacre on-line, but my focus is that the extermination of Lidice was used as propaganda by the Third Reich. In short, they bragged about it. They had demonstrated that not only did they have the power to punish a specific group of people, but that they could, in fact, erase the memory of those people – who they were, how they had lived, where they had lived, and even the children who were to inherit those memories.
They could “cancel” their existence.
I’d like to visit the sculpture. I would like to look into the faces of those children and imagine what happened when someone with power decided to remove a village from history. The Nazis wanted to show dominance and jurisdiction and purpose and irrefutable control. They wanted to show that they, as divinely ordained rulers, could choose to erase people.
I’d like to think that Americans have instituted multiple ways (the “how”) of remembering our history. Books, mainly, but with those in hand, our public education system. That is, we have a funded system to tell our children stories about America, formally and informally, and thus convey the values of our nation. We have films and documentaries and pictures and all sorts of media. We have libraries, museums, battlefields, national parks, and other commemorative places where we keep and retell stories of ourselves as a people and as a nation. We have people who are sanctioned to pass our history on: it should be parents but there’s a lack of opportunity, lack of ability, lack of knowledge, lack of tools, and lack of breadth; we make up for it by having teachers at the various levels of our education, but there is little control of the context of how and what history is presented; we have docents and lecturers and guides and other people that give time and effort to repeat our stories; and then there are people who assume more casual roles of passers-of-history, like family.
But somebody has to be interested in passing on our history and that’s probably where we are the most vulnerable. We have to be interested in history to make history interesting so that people will remember it, and we have to be informed enough about our history to get it right.
In our current political and cultural climate, our society is paying the price for letting go our history lessons. Too many people are out of balance because they don’t know the facts of our nation’s history and certainly not the context of that history in the rest of the world. Readily searching for pieces of history that can be judged as irrelevant or non-applicable, they seek to redesign our history to suit their own needs. They want to create a context that makes themselves seem right and righteous at the same time.
Americans need to be strong and confident enough to confront ourselves with honesty, to understand who we are and who we were, good and bad and usually both, and to stop looking for facts that we don’t want. If we can see who we were, we can work at becoming who we need to be.
I learned a lot of history in the writing of Teddy’s War, and I was continually surprised by real facts. I’m trying harder to learn more and shout less.
If you want to see some of what I learned, go to DonaldWillerton.com and order the book.
I bought a copy of my new book, Teddy’s War, from an on-line bookstore! The book exists, it looks good, and anybody can buy it with a credit card. I’ve been working towards this a long time and feel the victory of the moment.
Getting to this point was a little bumpy. The first printing of the book had a publisher’s error in it: a spurious blank page showed up two-thirds of the way through the book. All the words were there so the story was not affected, but following a paragraph at the bottom of one page, the next page had nothing but the header at the top and the page number at the bottom. The text continued on the following page as if nothing had happened.
I won’t offer a book for sale with an error like that.
It took another couple of weeks, but a second printing corrected the error. The publisher was very kind, never questioned that it was his mistake, and immediately ordered a new printing. Woohoo!
I negotiated several copies to be offered through the Los Alamos Historical Museum Book Shop, which is a few minutes from my house, and they placed it with their other books on display and then added it to their on-line store. The Amazon price will be a typical $21.95, but the Museum, as it is a small operation, bumped it to $25.00. After adding tax and mailing it Priority Mail through the Post Office, it costs a little more than $40. That’s more than I expected or wanted, but it is not inappropriate. Using Priority Mail is the big increase, but it is the only option the Shop currently offers.
I am not one to gripe; I am a fortunate author. The Museum Shop is offering my new book right now and that’s a big thing in the age of COVID-19. National distributors, booksellers and publishers are all having a terrible time adjusting to the current book business climate and it has resulted in bookstores suffering greatly. I’m extremely thankful to have a local outlet with an on-line operation. If the cost is too high for an individual, maybe people can buy one together and share the cost. For people who can walk into the museum, the cost is cheaper, but, as one might guess, the museum and book shop are closed because of the virus. It may open by the end of August, but don’t hold your breath, even if you have a mask on.
I see that the date of Amazon offering my book has changed to December 1, so I’m feeling even better.
Meanwhile, I have a number of people reading my author copies and I’ll report back on any reviews or comments that I receive. If anyone wants a preview of Teddy’s War, go to DonaldWillerton.com and go to the book section. You’ll find the first two chapters.
In the past, I’ve asked readers to consider writing a review on the Amazon page. I’m changing my strategy and am now asking people who like the book to show it, reference it, or talk about it on any social media, like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and then mention my website, DonaldWillerton.com. Book reviews are good and I use them all the time, but it means that the shopper is already looking at the book site. I need to get people to the book site first, then have them read the reviews. If told to go to my website, they’ll find a button to order the book from the Museum Shop, as well as a button for Amazon, if they want to pre-order. I’ll make sure that the website always has the latest information.
To help with that strategy, I created bookmarks with all of my website offerings, plus the web address, and included it with each book.
My website also offers the first two chapters of my other published books. I want to introduce readers to the other books I have written. By the way, the book that has created the most notice from readers and buyers is Smoke Dreams, my first novel. If you’re interested in Comanches, Charlie Goodnight, Texas history, or restoring old houses, this is an extraordinary way of reading about them.
That’s my status for the moment. It’s taken four months to go from the final edit to having a publicly-bought copy of Teddy’s War in my hands. I missed the anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, but I’m now up and running for the anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific.
I once told my editor that “I could not not write.” The implication was that I was a driven contributor of words to society, a dedicated writer of truth, and that churning out words was an inseparable part of my life.
I probably said that to him because I had heard someone else say it and saying it sounded noble: a true writer is one who writes to live and lives to write! Constantly at their craft, never straying from trying to achieve the ultimate novel or short story or poem, always with the nose to grindstone. I’ve read several stories about writers and the standard by which all writers are compared is the writer who is at the mercy of their pen, their typewriter, their keyboard, or their muse. They spend their lives constantly scribbling tiny words on scraps of paper throughout the day. They rise early to pour out their thoughts while others still sleep. They have words bursting from their inner spirits, they see visions that must be written down, they hear voices that must be obeyed.
Uh-oh. For the last several months, in the era of COVID-19, all I’ve heard was my Lazy-Boy recliner calling me.
I’m not lazy, nor undisciplined. I usually produce a book a year and I’m about to receive a box of the first 50 copies of my twelfth novel, which took a year of focus to write. My writing has always been prompted more by creativity than by goals, routine, or guilt, and if my creativity is not in production mode, neither are my fingers.
I thought it would be different with the forced isolation associated with the pandemic. I thought that having more than my usual amount of uninterrupted time would be an opportunity that would cause my diligence to come forth, my passion to rise, a clarion call to be heard, and I would sit for hours as my fingers flew across the keys.
It didn’t happen. In fact, it’s been the opposite, and I don’t quite understand why.
The first month was okay. I dredged up an ill-written novel from my virtual desk drawer, rewrote it, made it better, and was happy in my achievement. The second month was good: I identified a possible sequel to my new novel, found some good history books describing the time period I was interested in, and spend hours thinking of possible plots and characters. It was time well-spent.
The third month was a gentle slide into a lot of sitting and thinking of all that I wasn’t doing, and by the fourth month I had settled into watching old movies (You’ve Got Mail – best movie ever). Now I’m spending my time working on the plumbing under my house and making sure the birdfeeder is full. I don’t have the faintest urge to write.
For having a record of enjoying my writing, I don’t understand why I’m suddenly literarily inert. Maybe I’m experiencing depression, or that I’ve finally had too much time alone, or that I’m feeling fat because of irresistible snacks. Maybe I’m suffering from mask fatigue. I may be feeling adrift because of the lack of socialization (I truly hated surrendering my routine of having lunch with friends), or maybe the cause is a general lack of goals, measures, structures, communities, and other things that I usually manage on a day-to-day basis.
It could be that isolation took away all the people that I usually blame for being unproductive and I’ve been left standing naked in the snow. Maybe I’m just tired of waiting, waiting, waiting.
I’ve also considered that I’m experiencing latent anger that’s keeping me distracted and uneasy. I haven’t ruled that one out, yet. There’s a lot to be angry about these days and a lot of it concerns my “values”, which really ticks me off. There’s nothing like anger to squash creativity.
I’m working to understand my feelings and am finding myself getting more interested in using words to express my situation. Our culture assumes that each of us (at least at my age) understand what we feel and why we feel it. That’s baloney. I think we’re surprised all the time by our feelings.
Not understanding my innards and being surprised, as well, has given my situation a tinge of intrigue, and that’s kicking my creativity back into play. My fingers may not be typing away, but my ears are listening, my eyes are watching, my heart is looking for resonance, and my brain is slowly accumulating patterns of behavior that reveal me to be different from who I think I am. I’m also listening and watching the people around me and they’re getting more interesting, too. Being solitary is not easy, even for introverts, so people developing coping skills is fun to watch.
I know of at least two writers’ groups that have responded to the isolation and no-meetings restrictions by moving to electronic formats. Groups sign onto ZOOM and talk about their writing, making it look like everybody is excited and productive; electronic newsletters are substituting for face-to-face conversations; someone else is hosting online writing challenges to prompt people to keep typing. It seems like people are afraid that if they stop writing, they’ll never go back. It may be more the fear that if they stop contact with others, they’ll be forgotten.
I think I’ll wait for real meetings to begin again. It seems like listening, watching, and storing up is my role for the moment.
I am announcing that my website, DonaldWillerton.com, now has a feature that allows reading the first two chapters of each book that I’ve written and published, including Teddy’s War, which won’t be available for some weeks.
I developed this feature to encourage people to read my books. Think of it as a test drive. For the Mogi Franklin mysteries, you can see the historical drama created in the first chapter, then typically see how it impacts the modern-day situation of young Mogi and his sister, Jennifer, in the second chapter. For the adult books, Teddy’s War, Smoke Dreams, and The King of Trash, you can be swept up in the horrors and heroism of WWII, experience the thoughts of an ancient spirit-infused Victorian mansion, and discover a plausible way to clean up the plastic in the oceans. Each will introduce you to a story line that I believe you’ll want to continue.
With the feature of previewing the books, you can direct members of the middle-grade crowd to the mystery books to judge their interest without having to risk buying a book they won’t read. For readers who have already read one or more, they can see the story lines of the other tales.
Let me also recommend that you direct older people to the Mogi books. Being sixty-nine next month, I’m in a perfect position to say that the middle grade mysteries can be vastly entertaining to the sixty and older crowd, especially if they have lived in the Southwest or have traveled in the Southwest. Each book’s mystery takes place in a real location in the Southwest, and the descriptions of the history, geography, and cultures are authentic. When a lot of your time is spent in memories, a little adventure in the past is a good thing.
For transparency, I have to mention that The Captain’s Chest is not located in the Southwest. It takes place on the island of St. John’s in the Caribbean, with Mogi and Jennifer on a semi-vacation. This story was the result of my talking to a group of third graders in Houston who wanted nothing to do with an author who had not written about pirates. The Southwest has a lot of interesting characters, but there aren’t a lot of pirates. Thus this book was created, dealing with Blackbeard, himself, as he plunders a Dutch sailing ship that leads to the Dutch Captain hiding his chest, which, of course, becomes a central theme for my enthusiastic teenagers.
My website is still undergoing changes, but developing the feature to preview the first two chapters of every book is a good thing. Check it out. You might be surprised how wide ranging the topics are and how interesting I’ve made them. Also, if you have comments or suggestions about how the website can be improved, send me a response through this blog.
And, as always, if you like what you see, if you like what you read, tell other people to check out the website, as well.
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.