I sat in on a ZOOM meeting last Thursday night. The meeting was the first of a monthly series hosted by my publisher and features authors of books published by them. My turn is coming in December.
The featured author for the night was a lady whose education includes a PhD in Symbolic Learning. She talked for an hour about her latest book, and took questions from the other members.
I confess that hearing the title of Symbolic Learning had me visualizing Robert Langdon, the Harvard professor in the series of books written by Dan Brown, played wonderfully by Tom Hanks. However, he is a professor of Symbology, not Symbolic Learning, and I don’t even know if that’s a real department at Harvard or whether Dan Brown is just pulling my leg.
Getting past imagining this lady as a puzzle solver traipsing around Europe chasing remarkable criminal masterminds, I admitted that I didn’t know what “symbolic learning” meant. Thankfully, skirting a formal definition, she described herself as a professional storyteller, and it is the symbols (people, creatures, landscapes, structures, and more) contained in stories that describe or teach the aspects of culture. More personally, it is how an individual relates to those symbols that reflects their beliefs in life.
That’s my off-the-cuff definition, but not getting bogged down in the details, I can see how someone can reveal their values, for example, by the stories they tell.
The lady, who was very nice, literate, and open, sees stories - be they fairytales, memories, historical renderings of events, fictional portrayals of people, or family hand-me-downs - as the vehicles for showing who we are, what we’ve learned, how we change, how we relate to each other, or why we value what we value. From individuals to societies to cultures. Her day job is hosting workshops that help participants cope with life by teaching themselves to express their feelings and experiences through storytelling.
I stink as a storyteller, so I think of myself more as a storywriter. It’s a fact that I have trouble telling stories because I can’t remember anything longer than a minute, tend to wander away from the script, and invariably change the story as I tell it. Those characteristics are probably hooked to my personality being somewhat obsessive-compulsive, with not a little of perfectionist tendencies. I think more of my being a poor storyteller as just an internal sense of direction connected to a haywire compass: I can’t see, walk, or talk in a straight line from one point to another. It’s frustrating for some but it makes my days more interesting.
So, I don’t tell stories and I’m happy with that; using my voice is not my talent. But I do claim to be a storywriter. I’m comfortable with presenting stories to readers if I can create a story and then revise it umpteen times until I think it’s a reasonably finished product that has a beginning, an end, and a middle.
I won’t belabor the point because I’ve written about my need for rewriting in other blogs, but I do want to talk about the “learning” part of the author’s degree, because, as I listened to her, I recognized that stories are, perhaps, the way we present difficult, complex, and gray-area concepts and values so that the concepts and values are greatly simplified, understandable, observable, and teachable.
Which is probably why Jesus used parables rather than sermons.
My three-year-old granddaughter cannot read, but it doesn’t prevent her from taking one of her picture books, gathering an audience of stuffed kangaroos, pandas, bears, monkeys, and other toy animals into a corner of the room, and “reading” a book to them. She never misses a page, will talk and point to the different parts of each page, and will perform her best imitation of adult voices, intonations, laughs, facial expressions, and string of emphatic gestures. It’s rather remarkable, but there is no doubt that telling her the stories has taught her the stories, and what the adults emphasized is now what she emphasizes. She has learned not only the story but what’s important about the story.
Storytelling and storywriting are like holding up mirrors to people so they make the connection between the story and themselves: what is happening in the story is relevant to what is happening to them. My characters are easier to create, imagine, and fulfill if they look like my readers, and consequently look like me. I can pick a certain trait out of my experience and create an evil person, a good person, a flawed person, a changing person, a fool, an expert, a lover, a hater, and so on. It sometimes takes a lot of imagination to translate the traits into fiction without using stereotypes but the authenticity still comes through.
My readers can identify with my characters’ personality traits because I use common human traits seen every day. I have to work harder on traits that are extreme, but, even then, I never create characters whose descriptions can’t be found in daily newspapers or tabloid exposes. I also make characters change in ways that they perhaps should have, did or didn’t, but still work to make them commonplace. If I do this consistently enough, and obvious enough, then those characters start to stand for something independent of the plot. They, in fact, become “symbols” that reflect the traits of the readers.
That enhances the connection between the story and the reader, and makes the stories more meaningful, relevant, and interesting.
There’s a quaint bookstore in Santa Fe named Beastly Books. It’s next door to the Jean Cocteau Cinema, a small, boutique-level film theater that seats around a hundred people and is devoted to showing small-run films. Both of these, plus the upper floor offices in the multi-storied building, are owned by George R. R. Martin. George is the author of the Game of Thrones book series; he lives in Santa Fe.
If you’re ever in Santa Fe, you should visit Beastly Books. It has two rooms showcasing the books associated with Game of Thrones (including autographed editions), books associated with George (collections, as editor, etc.), popular games and gadgets associated with Game of Thrones and various off-shoots of the series, plus collectible items such as figurines, sculptures, and posters.
It also offers coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, should you want to sip on something while you browse.
Two additional rooms have shelves full of other fiction books, all personally selected by George or his entourage. Most of them are autographed by the authors. There is one rack of books that features local and Southwest authors and that’s what interests me: I’ve asked that Teddy’s War and The King of Trash be carried by the bookstore.
Fat chance. Being offered by the bookstore is a reviewed process. I sent in autographed copies of each book, they are being read and discussed by the bookstore manager and friends (probably not by George) and then a decision will be made. If selected, I will provide autographed copies on an as-needed basis, advertising materials, be available for author signings, and will provide a book trailer.
Book trailer? I didn’t even know what a “book trailer” was, though I assumed it was comparable to a movie trailer. I’d seen short video ads on TV and Facebook, and figured that that was what was being asked for. I have since learned that a book trailer is typically a short (around one minute) video that advertises a book. It can be as simple as a person holding up a book and telling about it (or reading an excerpt), or as complex as a Tom Cruise-type action sequence indicating that the book’s story is a thrilling escapade of adventure, danger, world-ranging daring, and impending death-for-the-hero events. Or it can be mysterious and noir, and have no narration. Similarly, it can be done as cheaply as zero cost, all the way to thousands of dollars per death-defying event or spooky subtones. It can have music, it can have special effects, it can have Morgan Freeman narrating, or it can be as boring as a video of a (literal) page turner that tells the title, publisher, cost, and source for purchasing.
No matter the presentation, the idea is to get the viewer to be aware of the book, or even to buy it.
I decided to experiment and make a book trailer for Teddy’s War, and it turned out to be a ton of fun.
First, I bought a video editor. You can buy one for a one-time cost, or a monthly or yearly fee. I prefer to pay up front rather than have a continuing deduction, so I bought Wondershare Filmora 9 for about $129. I chose it because I googled “video editors”, it had good enough reviews, and was cheap enough. I had seen a video editor being used by a friend, so I had a concept about the features it should provide. In retrospect, I might put more effort into researching for a better editor or getting a recommendation, but I was in the heat of the moment.
A video editor is just a piece of software that you buy, install (it does it for you), and run like a word processor, photograph sorter, or other application. In my case, I double-click on the icon; the video editor begins; uses the full screen of the monitor for a viewing window in the upper righthand corner that displays, at any time, the video that I’m creating; a window in the upper lefthand corner that gives me a choice of what I want to do (add a video, a photo, add text, use special effects…); and, across the bottom half of the screen, has a graphic showing the different video, audio, or text tracks that I’ve added. Displaying all of the tracks at any time shows what my video looks like at that time.
I’m trying to make it sound simple because it basically is. Throw in watching a few how-to videos from YouTube, and it only took three or four hours to build a short video in which I combined a personal video of Omaha Beach that I had taken last year with my SLR digital camera, a personal video that I had made using props on my kitchen table (with the same camera), a sound track that I recorded off the TV using my iPhone, a still photo, and several words of text that I overlayed in certain frames. I could also have used video and audio tracks from free-to-use libraries that came with the editor.
The final video I produced (exported from the video editor into a standard format so I can play it anywhere) is a good, first-try, 90-second, amateur video that shows a picture of my book, gives an idea of what it’s about, indicates that it has drama, intrigue, history, a WWII setting, and an emotional crisis for my character.
Not bad for a first try, and my second try was much better.
I’d post the URL so you can see it, but the music is not mine. I used a recording as a proof of concept so it’s no good to offer the video for public viewing.
Will George accept my book into his bookstore? If he does, then I have a couple of professional film maker friends who will help me turn my amateur version into a professional product that will become my official book trailer (and uses free music). If George doesn’t, then I may invest a little more effort to make it better and use it as part of my marketing efforts for Teddy’s War.
I’ll let you know what happens.
In my last blog, I used an excerpt from Ursula Le Guin about writers accepting their readers as collaborators and including them as partners in the story, “to include or seduce people into moving with the story, participating in it, joining their imagination with it.”
A few pages later in The Wave of the Mind, she adds: “Story is a collaborative art. The writer’s imagination works in league with the reader’s imagination, calls on the reader to collaborate, to fill in, to flesh out, to bring their own experience to the work. Fiction is not a camera, and not a mirror. It’s much more like a Chinese painting—a few lines, a few blobs, a whole lot of blank space. From which we make the travellers, in the mist, climbing the mountain towards the inn under the pines.”
Let’s talk Sherlock Holmes. Or not, because I could go on all day long about how I fell in love with 1890s England—the fog, the horse-drawn cabs, the heaviness and oppression of the moors (…a gigantic hound…), the cramped upstairs apartment filled with pipe smoke, even the emotions of Holmes and Watson as they waited in silence for the viper (…the speckled band…)—and so much more. I occasionally pull my dusty book of Complete Stories from my bookshelf and enjoy a few of Dr. Watson’s tales, finding that I still fill in a lot of the space between the words; the words are 2D, while the images that fill my brain are 3D.
A more recent experience is a novel from a few years ago: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. It’s the story about an ordinary, shy, reclusive man who receives a card from a woman he had known thirty years before. She told him that she was dying from cancer and wanted him to know how much she appreciated his kindness when they worked together at a brewery.
Harold remembers her and writes a short thank you note. When he leaves his house to walk to the post office box to mail it, however, he hesitates, and then keeps walking. There grows within him the need to express the value of her friendship with more than only a card. As the story unfolds, he writes her a note to say that he is coming to see her and that she should not die until he gets there. He continues to walk, not going back home, not returning to tell his wife where he is going (he calls her every night), completely unprepared, not expecting to do what he’s doing, not planning to do what he’s doing, not even understanding why he’s doing it, but devoutly accepts his goal of walking 500 miles: he lives in the south of England, the woman is in a nursing home in the north of England.
As I listen to him think as he walks (it’s a real walk, with real towns, real flowers, real calluses and blisters, real heat and real cold and real wet), it’s not long until I’m walking beside him. His memories of life mirror some of my own memories; what he notices, I notice; his fears, his worries, his embarrassments, his growing courage, his son, his wife, his work at the brewery as an accountant, all ring familiar; and I suddenly fall into pace with his footsteps, one after the other, as he’s plodding along the quaint backcountry English roads.
By mid-book, I have become Harold, at a distance, and I am as interested in what’s going to happen to him and the woman as I have been with any book. It’s a quiet story, a deep story, and reveals a pilgrimage that I didn’t know I wanted to go on.
That’s one aspect of what Ursula Le Guin was talking about. It isn’t just identity with a character; that’s not unusual and readers do it all the time. It’s the involvement that I was drawn into, and the weight that began to feel heavy on my own heart. Rachel Joyce drew me in and made me think that it was not Harold’s journey but my own, and what he was discovering was somehow related to me. When I found myself walking beside him, my imagination transfigured Harold’s adventure into something crafted to fit my own space, growing into a greater picture than what Joyce had written.
I was seduced and that’s a whole lot more fun than just entertainment.
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.
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.