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.
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.