Quick Review: “The Critic” and “The Real Inspector Hound” at Shakespeare Theatre.

The Shakespeare Theatre perfectly paired Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Critic” (1779) with Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound” (1968).  Not only are they both focused on the rarefied world of theater critics, but it seems to me that Stoppard was not unfamiliar with Sheridan when he wrote “Inspector Hound”.

I watched the two one-acts at the Shakespeare Theatre today and, although my view was limited by the oversized giant seated in front of me, I enjoyed both.  They are equally clever and are being performed equally well.  Unfortunately, the show closes after tomorrow’s performances.

So what is the role of a theater critic? Two possible roles were depicted two hundred years ago by Sheridan.  There are those critics who go to the theater not for entertainment but to find fault and build there own reputations.  And there are critics who go to praise everything and everyone in order to be accepted by the broader theater community, whether or not they are being paid to make their points.

Presumably neither of these form the majority of the critic community, who look to educate the audience and, at the same time, to promote theater going and theater acceptance.  And this balance is not always easy.  You can find fault with a play, yet want people to see it, to become familiar with the playwright, the cast members, the theater. It’s not an easy task.

Putting this aside – what about “Critic” and “Inspector Hound”?  Both are clever, and Sheridan’s humor works fine today.  Two critics who like to find fault meet with a critic who praises everything and gets well paid for the task.  They learn that the mercenary critic has written his own play, and it is being rehearsed at the Drury Lane Theater, owned of course by one Richard Brindsley Sheridan.  It is not to be performed there, it is just being rehearsed there, and Sheridan has never seen the play.  The author is convinced that Sheridan is going to be at his theater the next day and they invite themselves to see the rehearsal. They go to the theater, and keep advising the playwright as they look at the play to make change after change in a manner that they say will please Mr. Sheridan.  It is very funny, especially when performed by a talented cast, and set in a theater with the resources to create just the right background and scenery.

The “Inspector Hound” is different.  Two critics come to see a play.  The play presumably is akin to the famous “The Mousetrap”.  A murder in a secluded house.  Who was killed and which of the guests did it?  We watch the play (within a play) and listen to the banter of the critics in the audience.  We learn that one of the critics has been seen with the play’s youngest female character.  They begin to communicate directly, and the critic wanders out of his seat down to the stage.  The play within the play does a rewind.  Virtually, the same script is repeated, with the critics playing two of the main characters and the two actors winding up as critics in the audience.  It is very clever.

So, we have two playwrights making fun of critics.  That’s fair.  The rest of the time, it’s the critics making fun of the playwrights.  I enjoyed myself



Down, Down, Down – a Danish Film to Bring Out the Depression in You: “After the Wedding”

I really enjoyed “Mama Mia”, the Broadway musical, the story (as I recall) of an enterprising mother who ran an inn on a Greek island, and whose daughter was about to be married.  She wanted to make sure her daughter’s father came to the wedding, but she really never knew who the father was.  There were three possibilities, living on other sides of the world, who were possibilities.  They were all invited.  They all came.  And everyone had fun.  (How could they not, since everything they did was accompanied by ABBA songs?)

Last night we watched a 2006 Danish film, “After the Wedding”, on the recommendation of a friend.  The fact is that the film was very well reviewed, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007.  While the premise was not quite the same as that of “Mama Mia”, there were similarities.  A wealthy Danish businessman has a fatal illness, which he keeps to himself.  He is married, has two children of his own, and his wife has an older daughter from a previous relationship.  This girl, Anna, does not know who her father was.  But Jorgen, her step father, does.  Jacob, the father, his wife’s ex-flame and also a Dane, runs an orphanage for poor children in a poor community in India.  Jorgen finds out where Jacob is, and invites him to Denmark until the pretense that he is looking for worthwhile causes to donate considerable amounts of money to, and this orphanage has been recommended to him.  Jacob travels to Denmark, meets Jorgen, learns that Jorgen’s daughter is about to be married, is invited to the wedding, discovers that Jorgen’s wife is his old girl friend, and puts two and two together, realizing he is the father of the bride.

So far, OK, not a bad plot line.  But where “Mama Mia” takes uncertain parenthood and turns it into an uplifting farce, “After the Wedding” has its dour and volatile characters embroiled in one or another awful situation, bringing the viewer down, down, down.  At least that was our reaction.

So if a friend ever suggests you see “After the Wedding”, take my advice.  Watch “Mama Mia”.

Random Facts No. 1

Here is my first collection of random facts that just one day might come in handy (all from reading the Feb 4 issue of Washington Jewish Week)

  1.  The Virginia House of Delegates passed a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel 91-0.  Sounds good, right?  But apparently there were 9 Democratic members of the House who left the chamber to avoid voting.  What’s that all about?
  2. How many individuals have been proclaimed as Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem?  Apparently, it is 25,600.  Not a small number.
  3. Some of you may have seen the remarkable film made about Sir Nicholas Winton, the British businessman who organized kindertransports from Prague to bring Jewish children to England just before the start of World War II.  How many people alive today are descendants of those young Jewish survivors?  Over 6,000.
  4. Many military families living in the United States suffer from “food insecurity” and rely on food banks to obtain enough food to feed their families.
  5. There’s an active Jewish community of about 8,000 in the majority Muslim Russian city of Kazan.  Its size and its development as a community is due the success and popularity of a Klezmer band founded there in 1987.
  6. When the Washington Post published a chart entitled “A Visual Guide to 75 Years of Major Refugee Crises Around the World” (in December), it omitted any mention of the approximately 800,000 Jewish refugees from Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa, of whom the majority settled in Israel.
  7. A group of 71 British physician members of the World Medical Association suggested that the Association kick the Israel Medical Association out of the organization, making collaboration between Israeli medical institutions and other medical institutions impossible.  After stirring up some controversy, the proposal is apparently going nowhere.  All part of the BDS movement.
  8. In 1942, the Struma, a ship carrying about 800 to Palestine and flailing in the Black Sea was sunk by a Russian torpedo.  Of the 800, there was apparently only one survivor, a Romanian Jew named David Stoliar.  He recently passed away at 91.  He lived in Bend, Oregon, of all places (an area best known today for the Bundy occupation).

“Occupied” [“Okkupert”] – Russia Invades Norway/Norway Responds and Falls Apart

What happens when your wife has knee replacement surgery?  You spend a lot of time at home, especially in the evenings, and you get to watch more television than you normally would.

One of the things we watched was the 10-part Norwegian series, “Occupied”, streamed on Netflix, and recommend it highly to you.  (We have for years watched “Homeland”, and thought this series in many ways as good, and in some ways more sophisticated.)

I am not going to give away the plot lines, but from the premise,  you can see the complexities that can arise.

The time is sort of an alternative now, or maybe not too far in the future.  The world is somewhat different from the one we know, but the setting is contemporary.  And the locale is, of course, Norway.

Norway.  Progressive, prosperous, independent Norway.  The prime minister is a member of a green party, determined to end the world’s dominance on fossil fuels, and to turn the primary source of energy to a fuel based on the element thorium (A real possibility, see http://www.energyfromthorium.com).  To prod the world along, Norway shuts down its oil and natural gas production facilities, much to the dismay of the European Union (In “Occupied”, Norway is not a member of the EU – in the real world, that is also the case.) The EU and Russia try to pressure Norway to reverse its position, but the Norwegian government is on a long term mission to save the world, so it refuses.  The Russians come in on an emergency basis and take over the Norwegian fossil fuel facilities under threat of war.  If there is one thing the Norwegian government wants to avoid (other than fossil fuel production and climate change), it is war and wartime casualties.  The Norwegians sign an agreement with the EU and Russia to permit Russia to operate the facilities until their output is equal to what it was before the takeover, at which time the Russians are to leave.  The United States has become an isolationist country (even pulling out of NATO), so plays no role in the dispute.  Oil and gas production increases…….but the Russians never leave.

I find this a unique and compelling premise, but what is most interesting is what happens to happy Norwegian society when faced with this “occupation”.  There are those who feel the most important thing is to get along with the Russians, presumably so they will leave.  There are those who form the “Free Norway” (“Fritt Norge”) movement to sabotage the Russians and show that Norway, small as it is in population, cannot be pushed around.  There are Russians equally stubborn. There are people playing both sides.  There are those getting rich off the occupation.  There are vicious intra-family disputes.  There is incidence after incidence of unexpected consequences.  Ambiguity is everywhere. The country, prosperous and beautiful as it is, gets torn apart.

This is a story of how quickly society, the best of societies, can unravel, and how difficult it can be to put it back together.  Many lessons to be learned – including the very important lesson that you just never know what is going to happen next.

The first episode was shown in Norway in October 2015, so I assume it ended around Christmas. The show, the product of a joint Swedish-Norwegian production team, has apparently been a big hit in Norway and elsewhere in Europe.  Its reviews are strong.  Only one country seems to find fault with the series – and that of course is Russia.  Russia’s embassy in Oslo called the show “destructive and dangerous”, saying in was creating the specter of a threat where no threat existed, that it was aimed at recreating the Cold War, and that it showed Russia as an aggressive power.

Presumably the show will return for a second season next fall (no details of a second season have been given, although the show’s spokesmen have said it is coming back).  We will see how Russia is treated next year – whether the objections from their neighbor on the northern frontier have any effect in changing the direction of the plot lines.  My vision is that the Russian objections will lead to counter-statements from elements in Norway, which will lead to more words from Russian sources, etc., etc., and that we will find a parallel dispute between the two countries and the two populations – one in “Occupied”, the other in the “real world”.

Ask What You Can Do For Your Country…..or Not

As a run-up to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of John F. Kennedy on May 29, 2017, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has sent out an RFP (here, a Request for Plays) to the general population.  The plays are to be at the most 500 words (about 4 minutes from curtain up to curtain down) and are to reflect the legacy of a particular sentence of JFK, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Of course, I went right into action and scribbled off a first draft of a “tiny play” (my draft was actually a bit under 400 words).   Submissions are due February 19, but I don’t think I am going to actually submit because my play is not celebratory, it is dark.  Dark, dark…..and that’s probably not what they have in mind.

My thought is that Kennedy’s familiar quote must be looked at in context.  Certainly, there are things we want our country to provide for us – one thing we all agree on, for example, is the national defense.  And what about “what you can do for your country”? First, we don’t all want the same things to be done for the country.  If someone wants to work to regulate reproductive rights, to build a wall on the Mexican border, or to round up illegal residents, it is clear that others would strongly object.  So all of this depends on what your vision of your country is – there are some people I would love to see doing something for their country.  But that sure doesn’t go for everyone.

So, I began to think about people whose vision of a country differ from mine.  And how John Kennedy’s words can inspire them, as well as me, to participate in the political world.  With this in mind (and I wonder what you think), here is what I put together yesterday morning:

“Ask What You Can Do For Your Country……”

[A young man (say he’s 24) and a young woman (say she’s 22) sit on a bench, talking.  They are obviously attracted to each other.]

He: Boy, this is really inspiring. I’ve never really looked at this speech before. “Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you”. That about says it all. I’ve been here now for five years. Never concentrated much on American history. But I am beginning to understand it here more and more.

She: Yeah, I guess that’s why JFK is remembered so well. That, and his head of hair. And I guess he tried. But that guy shot him. And killed him. So maybe he didn’t get much of a chance to do anything for his country.

He: Of course he did. He died for his country. Like you tell me that Jesus died for your sins.

She: That’s not quite the same, is it? It was God who decided that Jesus would die for us. But it was just some Communist moron who shot Kennedy. You don’t think that God ordered Kennedy to be killed, do you?

He: Well, sure I do. That’s how history works. We aren’t free agents, are we? Of course, we are being directed from above. Directed, and ordered, to do certain things to bring about the salvation of the world. Don’t you know that?
She: Not really. But you are right that Kennedy’s speech is inspiring. And today’s politicians. God, I wish that they more like him. “Make America great again” doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it? I don’t think “Break up Wall Street” does either. But maybe someone will come along. We should give them a chance, I guess. That’s why I’m excited about going to the rally this afternoon.

He: And I’m glad you decided to come with me. It’s always a big help, you know, to go with a pretty girl. We can get much closer to the front and can see better. Everyone will let you through. They’d just ignore me if I was alone. I wouldn’t be able to see anything.
And I am looking forward to hearing them. In just a few years, I realize that this is quite a country. Freedom that I wouldn’t have elsewhere. Open elections, free speech, the right to join crowds, the Second Amendment.

She: What does the Second Amendment have to do with this?

He: You’ll see.

More Book Quickies

Having just written part of this post and watching it disappear without reason, I am perturbed and unwilling to start from scratch – so I will abbreviate the listing of the books I have read over the past month –

  1.  “117 Days – An Account of Confinement and Interrogation Under the South African Ninety-Day Detention Law” by Ruth First (1963), anti-apartheid activist.  Worth reading.
  2.  “Married to a Bedouin” by Marguerite van Geldermalsen (2006), a New Zealander married to a man from Petra, the book recounting their lives from 1978 to 1985, a time when Petra’s Arab population were still living in the caves looking over the city, before they were relocated to close-by towns.  Very worth while reading.
  3. “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin (2014), a pleasant, harmless novel about a bookseller in a small community on a Massachusetts island, who finds a toddler in his store, with a note from her mother (who later that day commits suicide) and decides to keep her.  Easy reading.
  4. “The Peddler’s Grandson: Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi” by Edward Cohen (1999), the story of a young man’s life  in Jackson MS.  Everyone has a story, and this one is no more interesting than most.  Probably not worth your time.
  5. “The Human Stain” by Philip Roth (2000).  I have decided to read a lot of Roth this year – this is the second after “Letting Go”.  The story of a “Jewish” professor who isn’t really Jewish at a New England college who gets in trouble by making a “racist” remark that really wasn’t racist.  The book is a bit too long, perhaps, but contains a sampling of Roth’s fine writing and has a intriguing story line.  I previously have seen the film made from this book, and can only say that the character Faunia in the book sure didn’t remind me of Nicole Kidman.  Worth reading.
  6. “Everyman” by Philip Roth (2006).  One of his shorter books, the story of a New Jersey jeweler that starts with his funeral and reaches back through the various mistakes of his life.  I really liked this one, although there were a few scenes I could have done without, and especially liked the structure.  I think the structure of a novel is one of Roth’s special gifts.  Definitely worth reading.
  7. “The Ghost Writer” by Philip Roth (1979).  The first of the nine Zuckerman books, this one introducing the young writer/alter ego, who is invited by well known Jewish writer E.I. Lonoff, to spend some time with him and his wife at his secluded home in the Massachusetts Berkshires, finding that idols are not always ideal. Very worth reading.
  8. “The Director” by David Ignatius (2014), a contemporary thriller about the CIA and related American intelligence agencies that turns out not to be too thrilling, in part because it was for me too complicated.  Too many agencies, too many players doing too many things.  And a very complicated rationale for all the havoc which was created.  I’d skip this one, if I were you.  (But maybe you’d feel differently?)

Even More Brief Book Reviews

Since the last posting, I have read:

  1.  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The House of Seven Gables”, this one a re-read from years ago.  Parts of it seemed a little stiff this time, but the good parts are worth the slow parts.  An evocative picture of a New England town in the 1850s, with flashbacks that go more than 150 years into the past of the Pyncheon family.  Ah, the Pyncheons, down on their luck, their fortune dissipated.  Who remains?  Gloomy old maid Hepzibah, her ailing brother Clifford just released from prison, their young, sprightly and innocent cousin Phoebe, visiting from the country, and cousin Jaffrey, the “Judge” and only successful member of the family.  They suffer from a curse (perhaps), and live out their lives in fear or a repetition of evil doings, and of course their fears come true, but with a surprisingly happy ending.
  2. Celia Sandys’ “Churchill: Wanted Dead or Alive”, the story of Sir Winston’s time in South Africa during the Boer War, including his prison capture and somewhat amazing escape.  Charisma and guts win out.  Sandys, of course, is Churchill’s granddaughter.  Her prose is not the best (also not the worst), but the insight that she obtained talking to the children and grandchildren of so many of those who interacted with Churchill in South Africa adds an extraordinary dimension to the story.
  3. Anita Shreve’s “The Weight of Water”, a novel which takes an historical event (the murder of two women on barren islands off the coast of Maine in the 19th century, and interposes a contemporary story of a photographer with an assignment to photograph the island for an article on the murder.  I have seen the film, which I enjoyed, and found the book to be at least as good, but (to my memory) not quite the same.  The photographer travels with her husband, her husband’s brother, her husband’s brother’s current girl friend, and the photographer’s young teenage daughter.  But in the film…..where was the daughter?  Did I just forget her?  (I don’t think so.)
  4. Philip Roth’s “Letting Go”, his second book after “Goodbye, Columbus” and first full length (and then some) novel.  Not quite a coming of age story (his protagonists are in their late 20s and full members of society), but yet still a coming of age story.  Two college instructors at the University of Chicago, both Jewish, one from the mid-west, married to a young woman who converted to Judaism, and the other, a a New Yorker, unmarried, with a strange relationship to his widowed dentist father, and a series of involvements with strange, strange women.  Doesn’t sound promising?  In fact, I found it very appealing.  To my surprise.
  5. “Egypt: the Elusive Arab Spring” by Wafik Moustafa, an Egyptian-born British doctor who still gets involved in Egyptian politics.  A liberal who has not lost hope, but who provides a very readable and credible explanation of 20th century Egypt, King Farouk, Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, the Moslem Brotherhood, the British, Israel, and all the rest.  The book is hard to find, published by a small British Press (Gilgamesh), not published here.
  6. Richard Cote’s “Theodosia: Theodosia Burr Alston – Portrait of a Prodigy”, supposedly the story of Aaron Burr’s daughter, carefully taught by her father as if “she was a boy”, who married a southern planter, had a child who died young, was ill most of her adult life, and was lost at sea, still in her 30s, off the American coast during a storm.  But the book is as much a biography of Burr himself, the Burr who was Washington’s aide, Jefferson’s vice president and creator of a conspiracy to take the Louisiana Purchase and more out of the United States.  What a strange life was his; was a sad one was hers.
  7.  “An Interesting Career: the Life and Work of Luther Giddings (1823-1884), this one by one of my college roommates, John Eric Fredland, and published privately in Annapolis.  Farmer, lawyer, soldier and more – all before he died at 60.  Very influential in Annapolis.  And as an extra in this short book, Eric gives quite a bit of information as to Maryland politics in the 1850s.  Who knew?

The Pleasure of Reading Interesting Memoirs

I have been lucky in stumbling (and I do mean stumbling) on a number of memoirs over the past few years, each of which has been written by a talented writer who has lived an interesting life.  The most recent is Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk’s “Life on Sandpaper”, which I recommend very highly.

This is not a well known book.  It was published in Hebrew in 2003, and then in English translation in 2011, as a soft cover book (not issued in English in hard cover) but apparently not widely circulated. And I am not sure why.

Kaniuk was born in Palestine in 1930 and died in Israel in 2013.  He has been widely read in Israel.  He fought as a 17 year old in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, where he was injured.  He then went to Paris to study art (he started his professional life as a painter), but soon left Paris and came to the United States, where he lived for about a decade, mostly in New York.  During this time, he gave up painting, and decided he was going to be a writer.  From looking on-line at some of his paintings, I think he probably made a good choice.

There are two things about this book.  One is that it is written with extraordinary style and humor (does this mean that some of what he says has been changed to create a better story – perhaps, but who cares?).  The other is that Kaniuk was one of those Zelig-like figures who, without really trying, seemed to know and befriend (and be befriended by) everyone (and I mean every one).

“Life on Sandpaper” covers his time in the United States, basically (although he does not give a lot of specific dates) from 1949-1960, or to put it another way, primarily during the 1950s.  Through virtually all of this time, he lived in New York, and when in New York he lived in or around Greenwich Village.  This was Greenwich Village before it became an upscale neighborhood, when it was the home of New York’s large bohemian, literary, musical, and artistic community.

And Kaniuk became a part of the inner circle of both New York City artists and New York City musicians, mainly jazz musicians.  He became a very close friend of Charlie Parker, for example, and Billie Holiday.  And all the others.  And he was with them in good times and in bad times.  So, if you are interested in the New York jazz scene of the 50s, this is your book.  Similarly, he was a part of the inner circle of every well known painter working in New York in the 1950s, and retells incident after incident involving them.

Then, of course, there were his impoverished Israeli friends, all in their 20s and trying to figure things out, including those with whom he opened Greenwich Village’s first basement falafel shop with a loan from a man who turned out to be a Chicago gangster.  (“We invited Pete Seeger from the Weavers who played and sang.  Harry Belafonte sang.  Hordes of Israelis hungry for hummus, tahini and falafel came, they brought the Tel Aviv Falafel King, who was visiting America and they waited to to hear what he’d say and he pronounced it good.”)

After going through a large number of young women in New York City, it was at the falafel shop that he met Miranda Baker, a Christian women ten years younger than he (which meant at the time she was 17), tall, thin and elegant, and the daughter of a family which held a place in the most ethereal rungs of American society.  And how he convinced her family that it was OK that their daughter was marrying a failed Israeli painter/future writer/current falafel shop owner/ Jewish atheist even though she was only 17 (or 18 when the date of the wedding was set).  Now you know that such a marriage wouldn’t last right?  Well, it did – it lasted until Kaniuk’s death in 2013, and it lasted not in New York, but in Israel, where the young couple at the first daughter (they had two) moved in 1960.  (After their first daughter was born, Kaniuk and his in-laws went out for a drink:  “Then Miranda’s father, the new grandfather, asked me what we were going to call her.  I said Chamoutal.  Her mother asked if I’d consulted my wife.  I said I told her.  She asked me to repeat the name and I did: Chamoutal.  They had another couple of J&Bs without water or ice and began to try to pronounce their first granddaughter’s name.  The new grandfather said, Jamoutal?  And his wife said, no, Bobby, not Jamoutal, Camoutal.  And he, Gamoutal? She tried very hard, Amoutal? I tried again Cha-mou-tal. They said it was a lovely name, Jamoutach, and said it again, Jamoutal, they tried, their mouths open, their lips searching for the correct angle.  I looked at them in despair and said, Aya.”)

The difference between living in New York and Tel Aviv struck Kaniuk after he, Miranda and Aya went back to Israel. (“In the evening a friend who had visited us in New York took us to Cafe California on Frishman Street.  There were all kinds of artists and poets there, it was noisy, there was cigarette smoke, shouting, a huge table to the right, and there were people there who remembered and shouted Shalom, and a man I didn’t know got up, smiled at me and saidhe was Yossl Bergner. I knew the name, he was a goo painter and he asked if I was Yoram Kaniuk and I said yes, and he said in Yiddish accented English: I’ve read your book.  In English.  A very bad book.  I looked at him for a long moment and understood that I had come home.”)  So the book ends.

Find it and read it.

The book is 400+ pages long, but has no chapters; it is one narrative, and sometimes the paragraphs stretch over pages and pages.  Normally, this would make something difficult and frustrating to read, but not here.  It flows, and flows and flows.

An example:



“Black Earth” by Timothy Snyder – a Brilliant Book

A year or so ago, I read Yale Professor Timothy Snyder’s masterful history of World War II in Central Europe, primarily land that belonged to the Russian empire prior to the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I, and then which was divided into newly created republics, either independent such as Poland or Soviet Socialist Republics, such as Belarus and Lithuania.  Much of this land was occupied first by Germans, then by the Soviets, then again by the Germans, and finally (directly or indirectly) again by the Soviets.  And through these twists and turns during the course of a vicious war, millions were murdered, especially Jews, not only in concentration camps but in the villages and cities in which they lived, and the nearly farms, forests and fields.

Would I classify “Bloodlands” as creating a new history of these tragic years.  Perhaps not, but it certainly provided a widened view of what the residents of this region faced during the six years of the war.

Now, I have just finished Snyder’s newest book, “Black Earth”, subtitled “The Holocaust as History and Warning”.  It’s a brilliant book.

I have read a number of reviews, and the reviewers don’t seem to know what to make of it.  They can’t decide if Snyder has presented a careful analysis of World War II and the Holocaust, or if he has described a real event in unreal terms.  This is because, of all of the thousands of Holocaust books which have been published, this one might be the best example of thinking “outside the box” about what happened.

Frankly, I don’t know if Snyder’s analysis is spot on, if it is pretty close to the truth, or if it is not sufficiently centered.  In fact, I don’t really care.  He brings up so many issues, and caused me to think about so many things that I have never thought about regarding these tragic years, that whether or not his conclusions are or are not accurate become, for me, secondary.

When people have asked me to tell them what Snyder says, I have demurred. I tell them they have to read the book themselves.  There is so much there that any summary I would attempt to give would be inaccurate.  This is both because it would necessarily be incomplete, and because my own accuracy would be compromised in the retelling.

But let’s see if I can give you some ideas of what this book is all about.

First, there is the concept of what is a “state”.  Poland between the wars is, to Snyder, a state – a state within certain boundaries whose majority might be ethnic Poles, but which also included Jews and Germans and Ukrainians, all of whom were considered to be citizens of the Polish republic.  Nazi Germany, on the other hand, was not a state – its boundaries were subject to shifts and expansions (with plans to expand even further), and its non-German citizens were second class citizens at best, and eventually non-citizens.

This is because Hitler, he says, did not believe in the concept of the “state” as we think about it; he believed in the concept of “race”, and he looked at human history as the story of the conflict between races – the Germanic, the Slavic, the Anglo-Saxon, and so forth.  His belief in the superiority of the German race led him to have no problem in waging war against, for example, the Slavs, whose lands he thought would eventually serve as the breadbasket for the Germans (an expanding German population would be unable to feed itself locally), and whose people would be subservient.

And, as to all of these competing races, the worst were the Jews.  Why?  Not because of any theological position, to be sure, but because the Jews were not conquerable as were the Slavs, for example.  You want to beat the Slavic race, you invade the Slavic countries.  But the Jews were everywhere.  You could not engage the Jews in battle, because they were abnormal; they had no army, no state structure.  Worse than that, the Jews were believers in everything cosmopolitan – Jews and Germans should live together, Jews and Slavs, Jews and Frenchmen.  The Jews believed in political states of various kinds, and each of these states would include not one race, but multiple races, always including the Jews themselves.  And as teachers and philosophers, the Jews created the concept of the cosmopolitan political state, as opposed to the primacy of the race.  And, because of their education and cosmopolitan thinking, the Jews over-influenced the culture of each place where they lived.

OK, now let’s go on.  Hitler’s German race was going to conquer the Slavic race, and to do this, it had to get rid of the Jews.  Hitler also had to trick the Slavs to make victory over them easier.  Hence, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which allowed the Germans to take over the western part of eastern Europe and the Soviets to move into the eastern part.  But, from Hitler’s perspective, there was a distinction.  The German invasion was to be permanent while the Soviet occupation was to be temporary – very temporary.  Thus, in places like Poland, Lithuania and so forth, where the Soviets moved in, the Germans a year or so later kicked them out, only to be kicked out in a few more years by the victorious Soviets moving west.  Snyder calls these areas “double-occupied” – he has harsh thinks to say about both occupying powers (see “Bloodlands”, where he came under some criticism for seeming to equate in some respects German and Soviet occupation), but he also talks about how it literally drove the residents crazy.  Take Lithuania. For the non-Jew, the Soviet occupation was worse – it turned society upside down, and they looked with relief at the reoccupation by the Nazis.  But during the brief Soviet period, a number of things happened.  Jews were treated well by the Soviets (except of course those who, along with non-Jews, had been involved in capitalist activities) and some of the Soviet occupying authorities were themselves Jewish.  And many Lithuanians, Jewish and not, collaborated with the Soviets, for what else could you do?

But then the Germans came in and pushed the Soviets out.  Everyone knew the German position regarding Jews – including (as could now be corroborated to some extent by some limited experience) that the Jews were in cahoots with the Bolsheviks, and the concept of Judeobolshevism was born.  In Lithuania, the Soviets were the enemy and, by this theory, so were the Jews.  And if you were a non-Jewish Lithuanian who had abided, or perhaps even cooperated with, the Soviet occupation, how can you prove to the incoming Germans that you are an anti-Soviet patriot?  You go after, and kill, the Jews – what better proof could you give the Germans.  And this in a Lithuania which had no history of pogroms, and which was even a center of Jewish immigration between the wars.

The same dynamics more or less are followed in all of the countries which Germany occupied.  But only more or less.  Poland was another example – the Polish republic too, between the wars, was tolerant of its large Jewish population.  During the Pilsudski years, antisemitism was frowned upon, and after Pilsudski’s death, although antisemitism grew, there was no movement to ghettoize or destroy Jewish communities.  What there was, in fact, was a feeling that Poland would be better off if some (most? all?) of its Jewish population moved elsewhere.  After some thinking that Madagascar would be a good “elsewhere”, the Polish authorities began to think that only Palestine would be an appropriate place.  In this of course, they had strong allies – the large Polish Zionist movement.  And Snyder talks a lot about the relationship between Jabotinsky and the other right wing Zionist leaders, and Polish officials.  The government supported the Zionist efforts through official activities not only in Poland but in Palestine, and supported financially the various training facilities for the Betar movement in Poland (which trained young Zionists).  But of course, none of this outlasted the German/Russian invasions (and in the east of Poland, the Russian/German/Russian invasions).

The key to much of this, in Snyder’s view, was the German destruction of the “state” – destruction of the governments of many of the places it invaded and occupied.  For example, when the Germans invaded Poland, they didn’t invade the Polish republic.  For them, the republic (which of course was set up after World War I) was never legitimate.  The minute the Germans invaded Poland, the only government (to the extent it was a government) was that which was set up by German invaders.  Poland itself never existed.  (And Snyder reports that the invading Germans did not at first specially target the Jews; they targeted the Polish opposition – the Jews came later.  Similarly, when it was time for the Russians to move into Poland, they first murdered tens of thousands of Poles living in Russian borderlands, so that they would not oppose the movement of Soviet troops.  The Poles did not have it easy, either.)

The story was similar in the Balkans – and of course in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, taking over by the Germans early in 1939.  (The Sudetenland, by the way, was to Snyder a pure German construct – it was not a geographic location earlier and the concept that it was in effect occupied German territory was a myth.  The Sudetenland was filled with non-Germans.  What it did have was a significant amount of heavy industry and a defensible frontier – all important to the spread of the German race.)

Where the state withered (not only to the east, but to the west as in France), the Jews became stateless – they had no defenders.  Where states continued to exist, the Jews fared much better (that does not mean they fared well, but better).

Snyder also focuses on economic issues.  For instance, food was scarce both in Germany and occupied territories throughout the war.  Why share it with these Judeobolsheviks?  Housing became scarcer as the war continued – he says that part of the reasons that Jews were moved to ghettos was to open up their housing and their possessions to the non-Jews.  Certainly, once this was done, the non-Jews were not looking forward to a period of time when the war would be over and the Jews could return to their homes. Yes, says Snyder, a lot of what took place regarding the Jews in eastern Europe involved scarcity….and thievery.

Snyder also speaks about Germany itself – how most of the German Jews left the country and how in some respects the remaining Jews were treated better than in neighboring Poland, for instance.  There were no death camps in Germany – when German Jews were finally sent to death camps, they were moved out of the country, and into places where the “state” had ceased to exist.  There were no ghettos in Germany.  And, although rights were lost as well as jobs and educational possibilities, it was not until the destruction of another state – this time the Austrian republic – with the 1938 Anschluss and the immediate unbridled actions of gentile Austrians against Austrian (largely Viennese) Jews, that the Nazis realized that Germans would stand for more violent actions.  This is what led to Kristallnacht, which Snyder says got so out of control in Germany itself that the Nazi leadership viewed the action as a mistake.

And who perpetrated all of these atrocities?  Everyone – some gladly, some out of legitimate fear that failing to follow extermination orders would lead to their own deaths (and that someone else would kill the Jews anyway) or that of their families.  And who were the rescuers – those that saved or hid Jews.  Again, Snyder shows them to be a mixed bunch – hard to generalize.  There were those who liked Jews or had connections with them.  There were those who didn’t believe in killing.  There were antisemites among them whose antisemitism had its limits.  There were those who didn’t know why they acted as they did.  And the rescuers were certainly not all “angels” – like so many people, there were many who could do both great and terrible things at the same time.

As I said above, my description of this brilliant books incomplete and undoubtedly not accurate – but it gives you an idea of what you are in for when you read it.  And a final word must be said about the concluding chapter – where Snyder wraps up and summarizes much of what he has been writing about, but then goes somewhat off topic, to suggest what could happen in the future, as a result of shortages brought about by a changing climate.  And how, if today’s nations are not careful, once again one race could be pitted against another, leading to another Holocaust.  Is this last chapter brilliant?  I am not sure about that – perhaps it is in the wrong book, perhaps it deserves more than summary treatment, perhaps it is not Snyder’s forte.



What I’ve Been Reading

I haven’t been posting, so I guess I must have been reading.  Here is what I’ve read over the past month or two:

  1.  “Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War” by the late Anthony Shadid (American journalist who later died leaving Syria). Published in 2005, it is the story of America’s attack on Iraq in 2003, with a little on the history of Iraq and the city of Baghdad thrown in for good measure.  Observations and reports of conversations with several families – Sunni, Shiite, rich, poor.  How the invasion was understood in Iraq, how America was understood, and how and why the Sunni revolt and the Shiite militias developed.  Well worth reading – very well written.  You will gain insight.
  2. “The Book of Intimate Grammar” by Israeli novelist David Grossman, published in English in 1994.  One of Grossman’s early novels, it is a coming of age story of a young teenager in Jerusalem.  Written in a unique, almost stream of consciousness style, it can be hard to follow for the reader (I often wondered exactly what was going on).  But it was also hard to live through for the unfortunate and sympathetic young protagonist.
  3. “Akiva: Life, Legend Legacy” by Rabbi Reuven Hammer, hot off the press.  The first biography of the second century rabbi in over 60 years, a number of points are made.  Some of the most popular stories about Akiva are legends and most likely unhistorical – that he abandoned his wife to study, that the Romans tortured and executed him. But the more important points are the biblical interpretative work of Akiva, using analogy and not literalness, and his mystical perspectives, and Akiva’s role in organizing the oral law which forms the basis of the Mishnah.  Worth reading if you are interested.  And you may be without even knowing it.
  4. “Captive in Korea” by Philip Deane, published in England only in 1953.  A British journalist during the Korean War, he was taken prisoner by the North Koreans and held for 3 years with other non-combatant prisoners.  Horrific (obviously) but worth reading if you want to know what was going on in Korea during that war.
  5. “Haunting Legacy” by Marvin Kalb and his daughter Deborah (2011).  The tragedy of Vietnam, and the continual fear that the country would enter, or be drawn into, another Vietnam has haunted American presidencies for more than 40 years.  This book looks at the presidents from Nixon to Obama and analyzes how the legacy of Vietnam affected presidential decision making.  Worth reading.
  6. “Let There Be Water” by Seth Siegel (2015).  Siegel tells the story of Israel’s relationship with water, how a society which started in a part of the earth without sufficient water turned into a society where water is so carefully managed and cultivated that it has turned into a country with a water surplus, able to serve some of its neighbors and enabling it to consult with governments across the world as to how to best use and conserve water resources.  Goes through the history of Israel’s innovative water management, agricultural usage, and water conservation.  Think this is boring?  Wrong.
  7. “Under the Banner of Heaven: a Story of Violent Faith” by John Krakauer.  Published in 2003, Krakauer uses the story of a double murder in small town Utah in 1984 to discuss not only the crime, but the history of Mormonism and in particular fundamentalist Mormonism.  Fascinating reading.
  8. “88 Days to Kandahar: a CIA Diary” by Robert Grenier, who headed the CIA’s station in Pakistan (which also served Afghanistan) detailing the difficulties in the initial attempts to find Osama bin Laden and convincing the Afghan warlords to be our allies, and the Pakistani government from allowing radicals to hide out within the territory of the country.  Grenier, whom I heard at Politics and Prose, also deals with some of the American personalities involved and the difficulties in coordinating not only the various American governmental agencies involved but also coordinating the CIA guys at Langley with those out in the field. Published in 2015.
  9. “Washington Irving: an American Original” by Brian Jay Jones (2008), fascinating biography of the American author, diplomat and man about town.  I have been interested in Irving since I visited his house in the Hudson Valley, and read his “Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York” and “Astoria”.  Read the book if only to learn how the Knickerbocker book was written and publicized.  Jones describes a very human Washington Irving and thus humanizes much of what happened during his eventful life.