Two More Penguins: H.E. Bates and R.H. Mottram

Can’t say that I had heard of either of these early twentieth century English writers, but I had their orange Penguin paperbacks, and decided to read them.  Worth doing.

First, R. H. Mottram wrote a trilogy of which “The Spanish Farm” was the first volume (I do not have the other two). It’s a World War I novel, but the heroes are not politicians or soldiers, but rather Madeleine, a French country girl, of intelligence and capability who lives with her father and siblings on a farm in northern France which becomes a billeting stop for English officers.  It is part of a larger baronial estate and Madeleine falls in love with the Baron’s son, who is called off into war.  Missing their assignations, she vows to wait for him (does he feel anything for her, a commoner?) until she learns that he has been injured, and then she must search.  First to a military hospital, then to take a job in AMiens, and then Paris.  No trace of her one time lover, but she does run into an English officer she had known from the farm, and they have their own series of rendezvous but her heart belongs to her titled neighbor, now possibly dead.  But he isn’t dead, he appears, he longed for her as much as she for him, but he goes off and this time, he is killed, forcing her to return to the farm and resume her previously life, with everything somewhat changed.  A good, and unusual, story.  I think I would classify it as an example of feminist literature. It was apparently very popular in its time.  And worth reading today.

The other book I read was a book of three long stories (termed novelettes) by H.E. Bates, another prolific English writer.  They contrasted with the stories of Max Beerbohm that I read last week.  The Beerbohm stories were, as they might say in England, wickedly clever, and intellectually written.  The Bates stories were not at all clever (you pretty well knew how they’d turn out), and they were written in simple words, and simple sentences.  But they were ultimately readable, and very enjoyable.  I only read two of them (one, about an unattractive woman with low self esteem and questionable ethics who finally attracts two men, not realizing that one of them would kill the other, and the other about a country gentleman with an unappealing wife who meets a young girl who promises that they can have fun over the summer, although he believes – incorrectly – that the summer would never end).  I didn’t read the third story, the shortest of the three, because it was a sea captain’s story, and I just wasn’t interested.

I recommend both books.

Two More Penguins: Somerset Maugham and Max Beerbohm.

Continuing my exploration of my old English Penguins, I have just read Somerset Maugham’s “Cakes and Ale” and Max Beerbohm’s “Seven Men and Two Others”.

I had read “Of Moon and Sixpence” by Maugham some years ago, and enjoyed it.  It’s the basic story of artist Paul Gaugin and his move to the South Pacific.  I have never read “Of Human Bondage”, probably his best known book.  And I must admit not having known anything about “Cakes and Ale”, the third book with which he is identified.  I found it a pleasant enough read, but nothing to write home about.

It’s a book about two writers (perhaps one is based on Thomas Hardy and one based on Hugh Walpole, they say), of a different generation.  The younger man knew the older when they both lived in the same small town and the older writer taught the teen age youngster how to ride a bike (among other things).  They reconnect in London, some time later, when the younger writer is not so young and a sexual relationship develops between him and the wife of the elder, all of which is kept rather secret (as are her various other assignatons.) Years later, after the wife of the older officer disappears and he gets remarried to a very different type of woman and then dies at a ripe old age, the younger man is asked to write his biography.  And this is whether certain other things all come out.  Not the most essential story, but not totally lacking interest.

Now as to Max Beerbohm, his is a name I first heard long ago, but never read anything by him and don’t think many people today do read his work.  “Seven Men and Two Others” is a book of 6 short stories (all of which, like “Cake and Ale” are about writers) and, although I think that they vary in quality, the best ones are quite good. I especially recommend the first story in the book, “Enoch Soames”, and the fifth, “Felix Argallo and Walter Ledgett”.

Beerbohm himself is a character in both of these stories.  Enoch Soames is a poet who is despondent because no one seems to read or appreciate his work.  Beerbohm suggests that great artists are often not appreciated during their lives and that in a hundred years, everyone may know his work.  His comments are overheard by another gentleman who introduces himself as the Devil and makes a Faustian bargain with Soames.  He will send Soames on a time travel trip to the British Library Reading Room one hundred years into the future (which turned out to be June 3, 1997) and allow Soames to see if anyone is reading his work, in return for Soames dedicating his eternity to Satan.  The deal is made, Soames spends 4 hours at the library and discovers that no one is reading his work and that his work is not found in the library’s catalog.  In fact, the only mention of himself that he can find is in a short story written by Beerbohm.  He returns to 1897 and to Beerbohm and asks Beerbohm if he is planning on writing about this embarrassing escapade (which he obviously knows he will).  Beerbohm promises he won’t, as Soames and the Devil vanish into the air.  The rest is history.

Felix Argallo is a Spanish born writer whose success comes after years of struggle all at once, and an extraordinary success it is.  Walter Ledgett, on the other hand, has no success at all and is convinced he never will have.  Max Beerbohm comes up with a plan to restore Ledgett’s lost confidence.  He goes to the house of the much older Argallo and asks him to write out four letters that Beerbohm will dictate.  Each of the letters is addressed to Beerbohm and speaks ecstatically of the work of Ledgett and of Ledgett’s extraordinary personality.  Shortly after writing the letters, Argallo commits suicide.  As Beerbohm knew would happen, a call goes out from Argallo’s publisher for any letters addressed to or from Argallo, so that they can be included in a book to be published in honor and memory of Argallo.  The four letters appear and, one would think, Ledgett’s career would get a big boost.  But there’s a problem.  The letters refer to incidents involving Argallo and Ledgett together that Ledgett has no memory of – he says that they never occurred.  Only after Ledgett is convinced by Beerbohm that he is suffering from the effects of monoutinasamnesia (forgetting one specific thing only) and enviroactivity (forgetting anything at all connected to the matter being forgotten as a result of the monoutinasamnesia) is he willing to accept that the famous and respected Argallo did think that there was something specially about his own work and worth.

Very clever stories – the result of a very clever mind.

Three Little Penguins Sitting in a Row (three reviews)

You remember those boring orange (and sometimes red, or purple, or blue, or green, or yellow) Penguin paperbacks that they stopped putting out about 50 years ago?  Well, I have something over 400 of them, and every once in a while, I think that I should read them all.  (I have actually read relatively few, and often don’t remember which ones I have read)

Of course, this will never happen.  And some of the Penguins (especially the non-fictions – like several fat volumes on Chinese art, just to give one example) are not ready for prime time (21st century style0 but others are.

So, I decided to read some, and I picked three rather short volumes.  Here they are:

E.M. Forster’s “Howard’s End”, first published in 1910.  The orphaned Schegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, meet the Wilcox family on a vacation, and after Helen’s sudden engagement to young Paul Wilcox ends in equally sudden disaster, cannot conceive that they will become neighbors, that Mrs. Wilcox is sick and about to die, and that Margaret will wind up the new Mrs. Wilcox, or how much of their future lives will revolve on the Wilcox country house, Howard’s End.  Each of these families is eccentric in their own way, as is that lost young, would be intellectual, Leonard Bast and his wife of dubious background, both of whom are key to this saga  But it’s more than a story of families, it’s a tale of social classes, of wealth and poverty, in turn of the century England.  The Wilcox family is business class, the Schlegels can live on money previously earned, Bast is stuck in poverty, and class differences control so much thought.  The book moves right along, the characters are continuously developed, nothing too unexpected happens, the books maintains an even rhythm.  Then, towards the end, tensions rise in unanticipated ways, emotions begin to govern, and every comes together in a beautifully written, if unanticipated and horrific, perfect train wreck, tearing everyone’s world apart, before everything settles down again just where the conversation started, at Howard’s End.  Highly recommended.

From “Howard’s End” and England, I went to France, to read Colette’s “Cheri and The Last of Cheri”, two short novels (one from 1920 and one from 1926, published together by Penguin.  I must say that “Cheri” left me cold – Cheri is a beautiful man/boy of 19 (I always assumed he was a girl) who takes up with Lea, a 493year old friend of his mother, and they stay together in a combination erotic and mother/son-like relationship for six years, breaking up when Cheri is married off to a beautiful young woman Edmee.  But his marriage is problematic, because Cheri cannot put Cheri out of his mind, and he returns to her, only to see that things can never been the same, and that now Cheri is an older woman of 49.  (By the way, when Cheri was published, Colette herself was 49.) I thought the book rather boring and quite uninteresting, although it was a very popular book when first published.

Six years later, “The End of Cheri” is published.  During these years, the world has changed.  World War I has devastated Europe.  Paris is no longer quite what it was, and Cheri is no longer what he was.  Exactly how Cheri spent the war years is not discussed (he was apparently in the military), but when he comes out, he is lost.  Edmee, on the other hand, is thriving.  She volunteers with the Red Cross at a hospital for wounded veterans, clearly doing good work, and working very hard.  Cheri, on the other hand, has no interest in volunteer activities, no interest in work of any sort, and spends his time wandering the city, sitting in bars, wandering the city and sitting in bars.  His relationship with his wife falls apart, although she shows ultimate patience, it is clear that he cannot rekindle a relationship with the now 55 year old Lea, but he develops a non-physical friendship with one of Lea’s friends, whom he calls Pal.  What’s wrong with Cheri, anyway?  PTSD?  Some other underlying psychological problem.  He’s a young man who has everything and he cannot hold anything together.  What’s his future?  I will give you a hint.  The book is short.  While I can’t recommend “Cheri” standing alone, putting it together with the second story creates a poignant story unfortunately not uncommon among veterans of all wars.

OK, time for the third book.  This time, I came back to America and read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last (and unfinished) novel, “The Last Tycoon”.  This one I really liked.  It’s the story of Hollywood in the thirties (Fitzgerald died in 1941), centering on a number of studio executives, each a rather complex character, not the one-sided personalities you might anticipate, and two women, one a college student daughter of one of the studio owners, the other a young woman recently moved to California from England (neither of whom had ambitions in the cinema world). The story was unfolding interestingly when Fitzgerald died – our young English friend turned down the proposal of the (not much older, but recently widowed) producer, Monroe Stahr, as she was engaged to a man due soon from England (her emotions not sufficient to lead to a break up), and our young college student (Bennington College, by the way) was becoming disillusioned by the business she had grown up around (and disillusioned by her father).

Fitzgerald did leave notes  outlining much about how he anticipated the story line to proceed – there is a summary of these notes appended to the Penguin edition.  I will tell you this – it was not going to end happily.  By the way, as Colette was the same age as Lea in Cheri, Fitzgerald was not too much older than Monroe Stahr and both were suffering from a lingering heart condition, anticipating potential death.  Fitzgerald died suddenly, of course, and apparently Stahr was to be killed off by Fitzgerald (although not from his heart disease).  Highly recommend this (incomplete) novel.

Ulysses Grant, Mark Twain and Even a Little About the Jews

Who knew that Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant were buddies?  And that Mark Twain’s publishing company put out Grant’s impressive two volume autobiography?  Certainly not me.

Over the past few days, I read Mark Perry’s “Grant and Twain”, published in 2004 by Random House.  An interesting study of the two men and their relationship with each other, and with other military and literary figures of their day.  Grant was older than Twain – he was born in 1822, Twain in 1835.  And Grant died much sooner – in 1885, Twain in 1910.  And they apparently didn’t know each other until after the end of Grant’s presidency (he left office in 1877) and after Grant hit serious financial problems after the bankruptcy of Grant & Ward, an investment firm started by his son and partner Ferdinand Ward, in which Grant had a 25% interest; both Grants were bamboozled by Ward, an investment whiz kid, whose judgment turned sour and whose problems were hidden from the Grants until the collapse of the firm.

This shook Grant, who had no pension either as a result of his military service or his presidency, and who (not starting with significant assets) had serious concern about how he was going to support his wife and family.  To make matters worse, in early 1884, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer (he was an inveterate cigar smoker) and from that date until his death less than one and a half years later, spent most of his time writing articles for a number of periodicals about his military days, and his memoirs.  Perry’s description of Grant’s writing of his memoirs, which were completely only a few days before he died, during a period of increasing pain and decreasing strength, is the description of will power in action.  Grant was intent on finishing his books, and with the help of two researchers and fact checkers, and a couple of men who read over his drafts (including Twain), he sat in his room, and wrote and wrote and wrote, sometimes well into the night since he often could not sleep because of the pain in any event.  A more than impressive accomplishment.

Meanwhile, Twain had had success with “Tom Sawyer” and less success with his other writings, but was very well known and, unlike Grant, had a very expensive life style (Grant and his wife Julia lived well, but  not extravagantly), which required more money than he was making from his writing and his lecture tours.  He went into a number of business ventures (none successful), promoted several inventions (also without success), and was the owner of an upstart Hartford publishing firm, named for his business manager, Charles L. Webster.  It was the desire of Twain to publish Grant’s memoirs that led to their first meeting, and it was the first meeting that led to their friendship and eventual publishing arrangement.

The format of the book is interesting, because although it focuses on their relationship, it also relates the biography of each of them, often a chapter devoted to one, and then one devoted to the other.  The chapters on Twain are rather straight forward, the way any other biographer would approach his subject (showing Twain as a somewhat cranky and frustrated author), but the Grant chapters only focus on Grant’s post-presidential life, with the exception of some references to various Civil War campaigns and battles, told as flashbacks as Grant rights his memoirs.  Thus, Perry speaks hardly at all of Grant’s presidency, and certainly does not provide anything like a complete history of Grant’s military career.  I say that not as criticism, but just to show Perry’s focus.

Now, as to the Jews (a subject to which I often return), I say this also not in criticism.  To my knowledge, there are no Jewish characters in Perry’s book, and nothing is said of either of their relationships to Jews.  Now, in fact, Jews did figure into their lives.  Grant is fairly well known for the infamous order he issued (soon stricken by President Lincoln) that all Jews be forced to leave the lower Mississippi River territory under Grant’s control during the Civil War.  A book by Jonathan Sarna, “When General Grant Expelled the Jews” has recently been published to strong reviews.  Grant’s action was apparently occasioned by some complaints directed to a few Jewish commercial travelers, and was quickly of great embarrassment to General Grant, something he explained as a quick and wrong decision made in the fog of war.  He more than atoned for his sin during the remainder of his life, becoming rather close to the Jewish community and even participating in the dedication of my synagogue in Washington DC in 1876.  Similarly, Mark Twain (I do know that was not his real name) early in his writing career wrote some rather scathing descriptions of some Jews, but later he too atoned for his sins, becoming notoriously universalist and liberal, and winding up with a Jewish son in law with whom he was rather close (a pianist who became conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra).  Why both of them started out as they did, and ended so similarly in this regard is hard to say. Grant grew up in small town on the Ohio River not far from its confluence with the Mississippi and spent his post-West Point years in St. Louis, and of course Twain is from Hannibal, MO, right on the big river itself.  Perhaps there was something in the air.

In any event, I do recommend “Grant and Twain” because it not only throws light on the two title characters, but brings them together, something that otherwise we would probably never know.

General Patton, His Grandson, George C. Scott, Bill O’Reilly and Richard Cohen – What Does It All Mean?

“Patton”, with George C. Scott playing the general, remains one of my favorite films.  George Patton came across as an extraordinary difficult man, and a military genius.  He undoubtedly was both.  Some of his more embarrassing moments were displayed in the film, such as the time he decided to treat soldier suffering from battlefield fatigue or PTSD by slapping them around, an event that had a very negative effect on his military career.

But the film (as I recall) ignored another negative aspect of Patton – his apparent virulent antisemitism.  Do you know about that?  Perhaps not.

Patton was put in charge of the Displaced Persons Camps after the war.  President Truman engaged Earl Harrison, dean of the University of Pennsylvania law school, to tour the camps. In his diary (Patton was a meticulous diary keeper), Patton wrote “Harrison and his ilk believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to Jews, who are lower than animals.”  He also wrote that if the Jews were not kept under military guard in the DP camps, “they would not stay in the camps, would spread over the country like locusts, and would eventually have to be rounded up after a good number of them had been shot and quite a few Germans murdered and pillaged”.

In addition to evidencing antisemitism, Patton was also accused of being a little to comfortable with Nazis.  He admired Erwin Rommel (the Desert Fox) and wanted to socialize with him after the war, he claimed that most Nazis were not evil, but just bureaucrats, he was given control of the military occupation of Bavaria and was fired by President Eisenhower for putting so many ex-Nazis on the payroll (he claimed they were the only ones who knew what they were doing).  Shortly after he was dismissed, Patton was killed in Germany, in an automobile accident.

The other day, I came across a book written by Gen. Patton’s grandson, Benjamin Patton, called “Growing Up Patton: Reflections on Heroes, History, and Family Wisdom”.  It was the story of Benjamin’s grandfather (whom he never met), father (another General George Patton, who served in Vietnam among other places, and who was in some ways similar to his father, and some ways not), and mother.  It’s an interesting book, mixing family history, the author’s memories, correspondence, and discussions not only of father, mother and grandfather, but a number of others (members of the military, and religious advisers) who influenced the three.  Benjamin is clearly ambiguous about his family members, not failing to point out their shortcomings, including a large section on Patton’s feelings about Rommel and his placing Nazis in the Bavarian administration.  But what did not get mentioned?  The antisemitism, of course.  Verboten territory?  Too embarrassing?  Not important? I don’t know.

The quotes referenced above come from Richard Cohen’s column in the Washington Post on September 29, 2014, where he discusses Bill O’Reilly’s book “Killing Patton”.  Cohen, like me, wonders why, with all of the criticism of Patton, O’Reilly too left out references to his antisemitism.

Perhaps it is coincidental that both Benjamin Patton and Bill O’Reilly both omitted references to Patton’s feelings about Jews.  But perhaps it is not coincidental.  Perhaps it says something profound about non-Jewish America today.  I think it does.  But what?

Nemtsov, Stalinist Show Trials and the Jews.

The murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov is extremely troubling and one’s first instinct is to put the blame directly on Vladimir Putin.  Having come into a democratizing Russia, he has slowly but surely turned the country into a dictatorial police state.  Not even thinking about his dangerous foreign escapades and the havoc that has caused to Russia’s economy and standing in much of the world, I am thinking about his media clampdown, the restrictions placed on NGOs operating in the country, the pervasive corruption, the miscarriages of justice evidenced by the death of Sergei Magnitsky, and now the murder of former Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov.

Yes, history does repeat itself, and while Putin is not (yet) Stalin, some parallels exist, particularly if opposition to the leader is viewed to be the first step to death.  And there is something more.  Much of Stalin’s viciousness (at least in his later years) was directed towards Jews in the Soviet Union – he could not help but think of all of them as universalists, nationalists, Zionists, out to separate the Jews from the motherland, and therefore dangerous and treasonous.  Is it really a surprise, therefore, that both Magnitsky and Nemtsov were (at least according to Jewish religious law) Jewish, although I do not know that either of them were practicing Jews?

I have spent part of this quiet, cold (but, yes, sunny) Saturday, reading the lengthy introduction that Joshua Rubenstein wrote to “Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: the Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee” and I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the past may in fact be prologue.

The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was set up during World War II after the German attack on the USSR to gain support for the Russian fight against Nazism by winning over Jewish sympathies world wide, as well as inspiring Jews within the Soviet Union.  Its leaders included many well known Jewish intellectuals – scientists, literary figures, theater artists.  After the tide of the fighting began to turn with the German defeat at Stalingrad, the Russian leader did not see much further use of the Committee, and instead saw any Jewish communal organization, particularly one focused outside of the Soviet Union, as dangerous.  The Jews wanted their own homeland (that they may have wanted it inside the USSR was not relevant), they did not want to assimilate, they continued to write in and speak Yiddish, they had relatives and contacts throughout the western world (and particularly in the archenemy, America). They could not be trusted.

First, the director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, Solomon Mikhoels, was gunned down on a street in Minsk (the official word was that he was hit by a car – we knew then and know now this is not true), and then about 20 activists with the Committee were arrested and charged with a number of crimes.  They were imprisoned, interrogated, beaten and tortured for two years, as the case against them was built – largely on the basis of coerced confessions.  Everything that they did, with government support, as members of the Anti-Fascist Committee, was now held against them of proof of Zionist and nationalist and treasonous crimes.  With one exception, all of those arrested (and except for those who died in prison) were convicted and executed, and their families exiled to Siberia.  And shortly thereafter, Stalin continued by arresting Jewish doctors (the famous “Doctors Plot”) including his own personal physicians on similar charges.  Those arrested under the Doctors Plot were freed – freed because Stalin died and his successors did not have the heart to continue the trials.

The most interesting thing about the trials of the Anti-Fascist Committee members is that, although it was held in secret, everyone involved had a chance to testify (even though the ultimate judges paid no attention to any of them) and, most significantly, there was a complete transcript made.  Now, in “Stalin’s Secret Program”, you can read all of the testimony, finally opened to the public and translated.

The introduction is 65 pages long, and quite detailed.  I have not yet read the hundreds of pages of testimony which follows, and I assume I will dip into it, but not read it all. But it gives us a very rare opportunity – to get a complete picture of a Stalinist show trial.

So back to Putin.  Who will he go after next, and will there be trials, or like Nemtsov, will everyone simply be murdered in cold blood?  And is Putin an anti-Semite?  Perhaps, but perhaps not.  In fact, he has always had Jewish supporters (as did Stalin) and has so far been supportive of the Jewish community and its institutions.  But if those who oppose his rule turn out to include a lot of Jews, which will probably be the case, who knows? Things can turn sour very fast.

Afghanistan and the Soviets, Israel and the Collaborators and 109 Year old Irving Kahn

Irving Kahn, Wall Street investment banker, died this week at age 109.  His son said that if longevity was a combination of luck, DNA and right living, in his father’s case, it must have been luck and DNA, because his father didn’t pay a lot of attention to right living (OK, I am paraphrasing a bit).  The same can be said, I think, for all of us whose DNA is (at least for some period of time) American, and who have had the luck to live in a country and at a time when we never had to face the devastation of war personally.

Looking at the headlines in today’s New York Times about the fate of Assyrian Christians in Syria after murderous attacks by Islamic State forces, and other articles throughout the paper, it is clear that everyone today does not share our geographic DNA, nor our luck.  The world is a mess, and it seems increasingly so.

But are the times unusual?  Perhaps not as much as it appears.  The other day, we visited the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin TX, where we slowly walked along the time line paralleling the life of President Johnson (1908-1973).  The world was a mess then, too, with new crises arising every day, whether in Vietnam and surrounding South East Asian countries, or Cuba, or the Soviet Union, or Eastern Europe, or yet to be recognized Communist China.

Sometimes I obsess about world calamities.  Other times, I try to ignore them and just go on with my business.  What the better path is, I don’t know, but about two weeks ago, I realized that I was overloading on obsession.  I was then in the middle of three books – John Keegan’s highly detailed “The First World War” (1998), Tuvia Friling’s thought provoking “A Jewish Kapo in Auschwitz” (English translation 2014), and Fazel Rahman Fazel’s depressing but instructive “Shadow Over Afghanistan” (1989).  I am still (slowly, and somewhat methodically) reading the Keegan book, but I have finished the other two, and it’s time to take stock.

Growing up, I didn’t know very much about Afghanistan (no surprise, there), except its stamps were hard to find for my collection.  Shortly after I moved to Washington in the late 1960s, I met a man (he was probably about ten years older than I was), who was from Kabul.  In my naive way, I was shocked.  He was tall and thin, he was clean shaven with a close cropped haircut, he was impeccably dressed in a light tan suit, white shirt and tie, he spoke (as they say) “the King’s English” very well, and if you had to describe him in one word upon first meeting him, that word would be “civilized”.  He could not have been more different from what I would have thought my first Afghan would be like.  Years later, I was speaking with a friend, who told me that, after he college graduation, she had served in Kabul in the Peace Corps.  I asked her what it was like, and she described an attractive, comfortable city, friendly and modernizing.  She had also been there in the mid-1960s.

Fazel Rahman Fazel was a young resident of Kabul at about this same time.  His father was an importer/exporter, and the family was very well off, living a comfortable wife.  His father sent young Fazel to Germany to work in his business, and Fazel became acquainted with European life, attracting first an American girl friend, and then a German girl friend.  His German girl friend traveled to Kabul and (very unusual for the time, to be sure) became the wife of Fazel, now a young law school graduate.  After a number of years, Fazel’s wife returned to Germany, having failed to have a child, telling her husband that he should find another wife, so that he could have a family.  He was very unhappy at her decision, and equally unhappy when his father told him that he had arranged for Fazel to take a second wife, this time a young woman he had not met, the daughter of a wealthy business associate of his father’s.  The wedding was held and, to Fazel’s surprise, he and his new wife hit it off, and had three children, while Fazel became a prominent government prosecutor.

This story made for interesting reading, to be sure, but then came the 1970s, when the Afghan government began to move closer to the Soviet Union and there was increasing divisiveness in the country’s politics.  In 1978, there was a Communist coup, and local Marxists took control of the country.  To stabilize the situation, the Russians  moved in and, faced with local resistance, launched a full scale invasion in1979 and took control of the country.  Chaos reigned in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan as the Soviets bombed and terrorized their way, focusing their attention on those elements of society and individuals most likely to be in opposition.  This of course included the wealthy business class (Fazel’s parents were both shot and killed in the courtyard of their home), and two other classes to which Fazel belonged – former government officials, and educated intellectuals.  As the country disintegrated into irrationality, those opposed to the Soviets (and in particular the religious classes) created an underground movement, and fled to the rural areas, especially the rugged mountains marking the country’s border with Pakistan.  The Mujahedin movement was started.

Told he had to flee Afghanistan, Fazel’s trip to Pakistan was eventful to say the least – a month with Afghan guides in the mountains, escaping (barely at times) Russian patrols and bombers, people dying all around him, Fazel eventually made it to Pakistan (there were approximately 4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, says the book, mostly living in UN sponsored tent cities near the border.  Getting to Pakistan without any money, and with no knowledge of where his wife and children were (they had gone into hiding before he was told he had to escape), the remainder of his story was equally compelling.  His first wife came from Germany to look for him, being told he had been escorted across the border, and found him in Peshawar.  With her, he found his second wife and his children in a refugee tent camp, and was able to take them to Germany.  Not able to find work in Germany, he contacted his old American girl friend and her husband, living now in Texas, and they were able to sponsor the family’s move to the United States.

Quite a story.  But when we left it in 1989, no one knew what was going to happen to Afghanistan.  The Afghan Mujahedin movement had strengthened to the point that the Soviets knew that they could not remain in the country – the strain and the expense and the loss of life was too much to bear, particularly under the regime of reformist Mikhail Gorbachev.   But the last two paragraphs of the book are perhaps the most poignant.

“One last point. As the possibility of a free Afghanistan approaches, the western press has reported a host of gloomy predictions:  there will be a bloodbath as the Mujahedin take control, indiscriminately killing all those accused of being communist collaborators; the Mujahedin factions, released from the unifying effect of a common enemy, will become embroiled in an unending quarrel over power; Islamic fundamentalists will turn the country into another Iran, restricting individual freedom in the name of religion, persecuting moderates, denying rights to women, and turning the country back to the dark ages.

“I don’t think any of these extremes will come to pass.  I know my countrymen well and they are reasonable people for the most part……..”

Clearly, Fazel was a better memoirist than prophet or social observer.

From watching the shadows cover Afghanistan, I went to Friling’s book “A Jewish Kapo in Auschwitz”.  For those of you not familiar with the term, a Kapo was a concentration camp prisoner chosen to be a “block chief” at a concentration camp barracks, whose main job was to keep the other prisoners in line.  Following World War II, many who served as Kapos were sought out and, when located, tried, imprisoned and/or executed as Nazi collaborators.

Among the many problems this created is that it was usually impossible to know whether in fact (a) someone was a Kapo, and (b) whether they actually were collaborating with the Nazis (a problem which disappears if you conclude that any Kapo, by virtue of the position, was a collaborator, irrespective of how he fulfilled the job).  The book is about one such individual, Eliezer Gruenbaum, who was rounded up by the Nazis in Paris in 1941 and spent virtually the entire remainder of the war years in Auschwitz, where he quickly became a block chief.

But this is no run of the mill Kapo story.  This is an extraordinary story that is both thought provoking and fascinating, for Gruenbaum was no ordinary prisoner.  First, he was the son of Yitzhak Gruenbaum, one of the highest ranking Zionist leaders in Warsaw during the inter-war years.  But while he was Yitzhak Gruenbaum’s son, he was not a Zionist.  In fact, he was a communist, a believer in the equality and brotherhood of all men, and against all forms of nationalism, certainly including Zionism.  He had left Warsaw, gone to Spain to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and was living in Paris where he was active in Communist Circles.

So how did he act in Auschwitz?  It is impossible to tell, as most of those with whom he was in contact failed to survive the war.  There were a few survivors who have personal memories of him, but most who testified at the two trials of Eliezer were testifying on the basis of hearsay – “a friend who had a friend who had a friend told me that…….”  The first trial was a non-official internal trial conducted by the Communists in Paris.  They were mainly concerned about adherence to communist principals, and on this they determined that Eliezer failed (mainly based on testimony of other communist prisoners in the camps, and their establishment of underground sabotage operations which they claim Eliezer, the block chief, failed to support sufficiently).  He was expelled from the Communist Party.

Then came an official French trial, where he was being accused of war crimes and collaboration and where a very large number of witnesses testified (some pro, most against) and where Eliezer himself gave very credible sounding testimony:  paraphrasing – “Yes, I did beat prisoners – but it was only when they refused to behave and put the entire block of danger of immediate death” or “Yes, I did refuse to let sick prisoners go to sick bay and forced them to work, because I knew that there was no sick bay, and that they would be immediately marched to the gas chambers”, and “My block actually had more survivors than other blocks and there were times when I was beaten because the guards thought I was not being tough enough”.  How did this trial turn out?  It didn’t.  It was dismissed on a technicality since Gruenbaum was not a French citizens and none of the crimes of which he was being accused occurred on French soil.  Lack of jurisdiction.

But it was enough for the French government to revoke Eliezer’s residence permit.  He wanted then to go home to Poland, but – even though he was in theory a Polish citizen – he learned he would not be permitted to enter the now-Communist country because he had been kicked out of the Communist Party by the French communists.  Truly a man without a country.

Luckily, his father (and old antagonist) had moved to Palestine in the late 1930s, and was able to pull some strings and get his son into Palestine in 1946, where Eliezer began to build a sort of life and even found a girl friend, also a camp survivor.  In 1948, after Israel declared independence and its Arab neighbors all attacked, he wanted to join the young Israel Defense Force, only to find himself rejected because of the accusation that he was a collaborator.  Again, his father came to the rescue, contacting David Ben-Gurion personally, who issued an order that the younger Gruenbaum be permitted to join the IDF.  Later that year, battling Egyptian troops, Eliezer was killed in action.  The day after his death was reported to his family, his girl friend committed suicide.

So, this is the story?  What is so fascinating about it?  The reactions of the various groups involved.   The communists disowned him, not caring whether or not he was brutal apparently, but on assumed ideological grounds.  The Zionists (in Europe and in Palestine/Israel) rejected him because he was not a Zionist.  The religious parties, from moderates to fundamentalists, rejected him because he was not religious.  Secular Israelis rejected him because he was a presumed collaborator.  All countries outside of Israel rejected him, each for their own reasons.  And not only did he come under fire, but his poor father, who fought and fought to get positive testimony at his trials, to get his son permanent papers to reside in Europe (at his son’s request), who got him into Palestine and into the military, all at great loss to his own career and reputation – his own father came under continual attack.  “Yes, he’s your son, but he’s a Nazi collaborator and you still support him.”  “If you raised him better, he never would have collaborated as he did – you are as much a criminal as he is.”  And so on.

Eliezer Gruenwald said that he never wanted to become a block chief.  But he was a natural leader with connections both to the communist and the Zionist world and his blockmates nominated him for the task – a task he decided not to refuse.  Was he brutal?  Too brutal?  Just brutal enough to save his own skin?  Was he involved in determining who would live and who would die? Did he extend the life of those under his watch?  Would things have been worse without him?  What should he have done in that situation?

After the war, and after things settled down a bit, the mood in Israel was to track down collaborators and deal with them.  Special legislation was passed by the Knesset, setting the death penalty (otherwise unknown in the country) for collaborators.  And who were these collaborators?  Largely, members of two groups.  First, Kapos like Eliezer Gruenbaum.  Second, those who had been members of the Judenrate, the governing boards set up in the ghettos by the Nazis, again to keep the Jews in line and to help with the deportation selection process.  Everyone in either of these positions was obviously in a no-win situation. What should they have done?  The head of the Warsaw ghetto committed suicide rather than help in the selection process.  The head of the Lodz ghetto worked with the Nazis to select out those unable to work on his theory that the workers were too important for the Nazis ever to kill and that they would most likely survive the war.  Was the first a hero, and the second a collaborator?  The same dichotomy can possibly be applied to concentration camp Kapos – except that the evidence one way or another was typically impossible to come by.

A traumatized people, dealing with a unique situation.  What would you have done, either as a Kapo, or as a survivor?  Friling’s book poses the questions as fully as anything else I have read.

So, let’s go back to 109 year old Mr. Kahn – DNA, living right and luck.  And how lucky we are.

The Story of Degania Alef, the first Israeli Kibbutz – an interesting story

Joseph Baratz wrote “A Village by the Jordan: the Story of Degania” in the mid-1950s; I have two copies – one published in 1957 and one in 1960.  I do not think there have been any editions since then.

Degania was the first kibbutz established in what was then Palestine – in 1910.  Baratz, who died in 1968, was one of the founders.  His story is very interesting.  Born in the Ukraine, his family moved to Kishinev, and he decided he wanted to go to Palestine.  He went with a family friend when he was only 16, left the friend when they got to the port of Jaffa, and set off on his own.  He toured the country (no easy trick in 1906), did all sorts of physical work, and with a number of his friends decided that (1) it was possible to restore land to agricultural use, (2) Jews coming to Palestine should not be colonizers of Arab workers, but should do their own manual labor, and (3) this would be a noble and meaningful way to live.  They were able to locate a large parcel of land south of the Sea of Galilee and east of the River Jordan which they were permitted to work, and they started working.

It was a two day trip to Tel Aviv, and they had no doctor or health care – they started out with only twelve members (of whom two were young women).  They made a lot of mistakes in trying to establish a cooperative village – where to plant, where to build homes, should they have cows or chickens, should they plant vegetables as well as grains?  What about relations with their Arab neighbors, and with the nomadic Bedouins?  How do they organize themselves?  What the appropriate jobs for the women?  What about marriage, or children?  How would money be handled?

All these questions and more were addressed by the original members as they worked the fields, and battled disease.  And, slowly but surely, their settlement grew.  Pretty soon, they thought it had grown too big, so they started a second kibbutz, calling the first Degania Alef, and the second Degania Bet.  And kibbutzim spread across the land, and inter-kibbutz organizations were established.

It was not easy.  Work was very hard.  Disease and death hovered over everything. Growth in settlers meant widespread differences of opinion.  But progress was constant, roads were improved, electricity and technology arrived.  As the British mandate was ending, the boundaries of the proposed Jewish state needed to be determined.  Degania lay east of the Jordan River, and the river was the most obvious border line.  But an exception was made, the boundary moved to the east, and Degania became part of Israel.  Of course, its location near the Jordanian border meant that it was in a very dangerous place during the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, and Degania was invaded (unsuccessfully as it turned out) and pretty much destroyed by invading Syrian troops.  This story is also an interesting one, the Syrians had tanks, while the kibbutz members had rifles, but the Syrians did retreat after the death of their commander, and they didn’t come back.  But Degania had to be rebuilt pretty much from scratch…and it was.

Baratz had married a young woman who also wound up at Degania, and they eventually raised seven children, most of whom stayed on the kibbutz.  And Baratz was not only a leader at home (as was his wife, who became an expert at dairy farming), but became an emissary for the kibbutz movement, traveling to Europe and to America to participate in conferences, to raise funds.  He also became involved in various social welfare activities in Israel – he comes across as a modest, but extraordinarily effective and right-minded individual.

This is not a book of high drama.  But it is a very realistic story of twentieth century agricultural and social development in Israel, when the kibbutz movement was at its strongest.  It’s a short book, and it’s very readable.  And it will increase your understanding and appreciation of this facet of Israeli development.

I Just Read a Biography of Madame Tussaud (and here’s what i think you might like to know) (21 cents)

In the first place, Madame Tussaud was a real person, born in France in 1761.  Her mother was unmarried and went to work as a housekeeper for a showman and wax sculptor named Philippe Curtius, who may, or may not, have been Marie’s father.  At any rate, he treated her not only as a daughter, but as a protege, teaching her all he knew about both wax modeling and business, and eventually, they went to work together, opening a wax studio and museum in Paris.  Eventually, Curtius died and left everything to Marie, Marie married a man named Tussaud, but after a few years and two children never appears to have seen him again, and, after the French revolution sort of settled down, she and one of her sons moved to England temporarily to take her show on the road.  And she never returned to France.

That’s the quick outline.  The details are interesting, but apparently quite hard to pin down.  This is in part because Marie wrote her memoirs, retelling her extraordinary experiences in France prior to and during the French revolution.  But they seem clearly to have been fictionalized.  The question is whether they were completely fictionalized or simply exaggerated.  Corroboration is difficult to find.  In England, where for most of her career, her displays traveled from place to place, can be tracked as to where she was when, but there is little to fill in the personal blanks.  At least, this is what I conclude from reading Kate Berridge’s book “Madame Tussaud, a Life in Wax”, published in 2006.

So what do I think of the book?  I am mixed.  It is very readable, it told me things about Tussaud that I certainly had not known before, but it left me unsatisfied as to her French years because of lack of reliability and her English years because of lack of color.

But there are things I did learn.  Marie Tussaud was an expert artist in her field.  She was a good and adventurous business woman at a time when there weren’t many of those.  She worked extremely hard, first trying to keep up a public gallery in Paris and then, originally as an employee of a more experienced traveling showman and then on her own in England. I learned that she did not open her own museum in London until she was about 75 years old, and by then I think most of the operations were controlled by her sons, and maybe her grandchildren.  I learned that family members remained in the business until surprisingly recently.

I learned a lot about life in Paris before the revolution – and not only Paris but Versailles, because in her memoir Marie claimed to have been in the employ of Elizabeth, the sister of the king and a member of the court.  Was she?  There is no other evidence that she was.  And I learned that she and Curtius were able to transform themselves from favorites of the royal family to favorites of the Jacobins, of the people, of all the revolutionaries.  This seems somewhat clear from the fact that not only were they able to continue to make images of people who could fall from favor in a nanosecond, and display them, but that they were given access to model the images.  Now, Marie claims that some of the her imagines were modeled from guillotined heads (including King Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette, and even Elizabeth, her old employer), as well as revolutionaries like Marat.  Is this true?  Berridge doesn’t know – so I don’t.  Berridge’s description of life in Paris during the revolution is very extensive, and frightening to the max.  The Islamic State has nothing on the representatives of the French people.

When it no longer was profitable to keep the gallery open (the original gallery was in the Palais Royale, whose transformation from a family home to what might have been a precursor of a shopping mall is a story in itself), she embarked with 30 wax statues to England, and for thirty years or so traveled the British Isles setting up and taking town her models (and the number grew and grew) and the supporting paraphernalia (which also became more elaborate and eventually included historic relics as well as props) until finally they settled on Baker Street in London.  And, as they say, the rest is history.

Of course, there is a Madame Tussaud here in Washington.  I have never been in, and never wanted to go in.  But my appreciation of the art and the history has been expanded, and maybe one day, surprising myself, I will.

I did enjoy the book – and I can appreciate the difficulty of writing a biography of someone whose history is partially falsified and partially missing.  I am not sure that Berridge could have done much better and her annotations of the society (societies) in which Tussaud prospered certainly added to the book.

 

“A Covert Affair” – about Julia Child, yes, but Much More

Jennet Conant’s fascinating 2011 book, “A Covert Affair” is subtitled “Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS”, and in fact Julia and Paul are central characters in the book.  But they are not the only central characters, so the subtitle was obviously written in an attempt to attract sales and readers, but not to comprehensively reflect the contents of the book.

“A Covert Affair” (by the way, there was nothing covert about Paul and Julia’s relationship) tells the story of the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, created by Franklin Roosevelt during World War II to obtain intelligence overseas and to spread disinformation behind embassy lines in an attempt to turn the people against the occupying powers.  Specifically, “A Covert Affair” follows OSS activities in Asia (China, India, Ceylon, Burma), through the eyes of several young women (including Julia McWilliams, who was not yet Julia Child) recruited to help our newly established intelligence efforts.

In fact, the trail of Julia Child is, in some ways, less interesting than that of some of the others.  Child, from a wealthy California family and a recent graduate of Smith College, was never involved in dangerous espionage activity, but was basically a file clerk, although a very diligent, hard working file clerk.  While there is a lot in this book about the social lives of many of the young OSS women, Julia McWilliams, tall and awkward, was not a very socially active individual.  She did develop a crush on Paul Child, over ten years her senior, an artist and graphic designer in the OSS, and somewhat of a ladies man, who was beginning to believe that the girl of his dreams would not choose him as her beau.  He and Julia developed a close friendship, which it seems remained very platonic, and spent a lot of time together.  He was much shorter than she, from a different generation, balding and not particularly attractive to the ladies.  He was also interested in a lot of subjects, and they turned out to be subjects that McWilliams found fascinating as well.  And she became a good sounding block for his frustration, as she held in her feelings for him.

Jane Foster and Betty MacDonald were much more interesting.  They were given assignments that had a little more glamor.  They were given free reign to develop their own disinformation programs (most of which, of course, accomplished nothing), and they also had a good time with their fellow spies – male and female.

MacDonald (who may still be alive – she was alive a few years ago at 97) married Dick Heppner, who was a civilian law partner of William Donovan, the OSS boss, and lived, after a war, a fairly normal (and very prosperous life) after the war until Heppner died of a heart attack at 49.  MacDonald remarried and lived in Leesburg VA (she may still be there, for all I can tell).

Foster was the most fascinating figure.  Like Julia McWilliams, she was the daughter of wealthy conservative Californians.  She was an attractive and lively young woman, in her mid-twenties and already married to and divorced from a Dutch diplomat with whom she had spent several years in the Dutch East Indies, she was an artist, and she was looking for adventure and some good times.  She found them.

The OSS story of course has been told in many books, but this one presents a very human face, not only on the women who are the central characters, but through many of the people with whom they come in contact.  Wild Bill Donovan, to be sure, and Dick Heppner, but also S. Dillon Ripley (later of Smithsonian fame) and Lord Mountbatten.  This is certainly a welcome addition to writings on this interesting period in American military history.

But equal to the description of OSS activities, are the book’s chapters on the aftermath, on what happened to the young cadre of OSS officials after the war ended and the OSS dismembered.  We pretty much know what happened to Julia and Paul – they kept up their correspondence after they got back to the United States, eventually got together and traveled across the country together, decided that they were a couple, married and went back to Europe (Paul joined the United States Information Service – they lived in Paris, Marseilles and Bonn) and Julia got interested in food.  They stayed in Europe for about 15 years, moved back to the US, decided on Boston, and the rest is history.

Jane Foster’s story is very different.  After her return from the East Indies in the late 1930s, she married a Russian-Jewish leftist and herself became involved in the American Communist Party (although she did not like the Communist Party discipline and was clearly not a doctrinaire Communist).  Nevertheless, she was able to get a position with the OSS (she was estranged from her husband) and by all accounts performed well and became a leader of her colleagues.  As the war ended, she realized that Asian society had changed.  It seemed to her that the western powers expected things to revert to what they were before the war, that the European colonial powers would return to Asia.  But throughout Asia, and especially in the Indonesia where she had been recently assigned and where she had lived with her first husband before the war, there were growing revolutionary movements.  Sukarno in Indonesia, Ho Chi Minh in Indochina.  She believed that the revolutionary movements should be supported by the United States, but this was not to be.  The immediate position of all of the winning powers was anti-Communist and the feeling was that all of these native movements were Communist inspired.  She was frustrated, and when she came back to the United States, she reunited with her husband, and became involved in leftist activities.

She was no longer a member of the Communist Party (in fact, it is unclear if she ever was officially a party member), but this was time of McCarthy and the HUAC, and it became clear that she was being watched.  In fact, it turned out that many OSS officials were leftist oriented, and the McCarthy campaign focused on many of them, including so many “China hands” – Teddy White, Owen Lattimore, Edward Snow,  others.  Foster and her husband George Zlatovski moved to France, but she returned to the United States to care for her ill father and found that her passport was cancelled.  It took quite a bit of legal action (her lawyer was Leonard Boudin) to get her passport back.  She was able to get to France, and afraid to return to the United States.  Her husband also was afraid to come back.

So Jane Foster and Julia Child were both living in Paris, and eventually they did reconnect on a social basis.  In 1955, Child was brought back to the United States.  He hoped it would mean that he was going to get a promotion, but in fact he was to be grilled about possible left wing activity.  He was cleared of suspicion and allowed to return to his job.  And he did not know why he had been recalled.  But,in 1957, Foster and Zlatovski were indicted for espionage in the United States.  The Childs began to put two and two together.  They no longer associated with Jane and George.

The indictment never resulted in a trial, largely because France refused to extradite the Zlatowskis.  So, some facts are still quite unclear.  The United States maintained that George and Jane were part of a larger group of spies, led by Jack and Myra Soble, and uncovered by double agent Boris Morros.  The Zlatowskis did have a lot of connections with the Sobles and Morros (and with Martha Dodd and her husband Alfred K. Stern (remember “In the Garden of Beasts”, which detailed Dodd, the daughter of the American Ambassador to Nazi Germany, and her connections, first with Nazis and then with Bolsheviks), but whether she was an active participant in espionage, a naive, or a dupe, is not clear.

A fascinating book, well written, and worth reading.