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.



Count Bernadotte’s Diary “To Jerusalem”, published in 1951 and worth reading in 2015.

Count Folke Bernadotte was a member of the Swedish royal family, a Red Cross official who was coordinator of rescue efforts towards the end of the Second World War, and the man appointed by the United Nations in 1948 to broker a peace between the new State of Israel and the invading Arab armies after the United Nations partitioned the land, and Britain pulled out its mandatory forces.  A hopeless task it even seemed then, but Bernadotte did not think he could turn down the opportunity, no matter how remote the possibility of success.  In September 1948, his role in seeking a stop to the fighting abruptly ended, as he was assassinated in Jerusalem by members of the Stern Gang (led by Yitzhak Shamir, a thug and terrorist who later became Prime Minister following Menachem Begin), a group of Jewish extremists and terrorists.

I did not know it, but Bernadotte kept a diary (which he dictated daily to his secretary) and which he intended to form the basis of a book he would write at the end of his mission.  In 1951, the diary was published, along with an explanatory preface and a detailed narrative of his assassination written by another passenger of Bernadotte’s fateful convoy.  I don’t know the history of the publication, but see that it was never published in the United States and that the 1951 London edition, while not being sold for a high monetary value, is hard to find even in the used book market.

Why was Bernadotte murdered?

In the first place, it didn’t take much to make any non-Jewish foreigner a target of the Stern Gang.  It started as a break off from the Irgun, the terrorist organization led by Begin, in the believe that the Irgun was too mild in its activities.  The goal was to get Britain out of Palestine (the British running the League of Nations Mandate on the former Ottoman territory) by any means necessary, including totally random terrorist attacks on military and non-military installations.  It sought unsuccessfully an alliance with Hitler and the Nazis – joining Hitler to fight the British in return for Hitler allowing Jews under his control to come to Palestine.  It later sought a similar alliance with Stalin.  (How did Shamir ever get to be Prime Minister?  That’s another story.)

In the second place, many Jews believed that Bernadotte was favoring the Arab position in his mediation attempts.  Of course, the Arabs felt that he was favoring the Jews.  And neither side believed that the other side was sincere in its accusations regarding his perceived lack of neutrality.

In the third (and perhaps most important) place, after several months of what today would be called shuttle diplomacy, he proposed a complex arrangement that he wanted to use as a basis for more detailed peace conversations.  His fatal (as it turned out) mistake was to suggest that Jerusalem be part of the Arab sector of Palestine.  Specifically, “inclusion of the City of Jerusalem in Arab territory, with municipal autonomy for the Jewish community and special arrangements for the protection of the Holy Places.”  This would be coupled with “That religious and minority rights be fully protected by each Member of the Union and guaranteed by the United Nations.”  (There were many other recommendations regarding territorial boundaries and the creation of one Palestinian entity with two autonomous members, one Arab, one Jewish.)

It’s hard to say, from reading the diary entries, that Bernadotte was favoring one side over the other.  His goal was to get the fighting to stop – I don’t think he really cared about what the final arrangements were.  He was successful at one point in arranging for a four week ceasefire which the parties more or less complied with, but it didn’t end the fighting after the ceasefire terminated, and it was left to his successor, the American Ralph Bunche, to finish the task.

What is most interesting (and most depressing) is that the main issues then remain the main issues today.  The Arabs were dead set against allowing any autonomous Jewish state to come into existence on what they regarded as Arab territory, and gave no respect to any western or UN action that purported to create and recognize such a state.  They made it clear, well before the end of the British mandate and the self-creation of Israel, that they would attack the Jewish state.  The Jews were obviously committed to the new state, and also to free Jewish immigration to the state.  The Arabs, who believed that Palestine should be under a unified government with majority rule, naturally opposed further Jewish immigration (they pledged to protect the religious rights of the Jews in the territory, as Jews were protected in other Arab countries at the time, and understood that Jewish commercial superiority would lead to great Jewish influence over a joint government even though they would be a numerical minority).  Finally, the Arabs felt that the 250,000 Arabs who had fled (willingly, unwillingly, or because they were frightened) Jewish territory and were living in “temporary” camps in neighboring countries, should be allowed to return to their homes and villages.  The Jews, seeking to secure a Jewish majority in their territory, objected.  Nothing new under the sun.

Bernadotte found the negotiations with both sides extremely difficult.  The Jews (his main contact was Moshe Shertok, although Ben Gurion did play a role) were too stubborn.  But, then, so were the Arabs and, to make it worse, the Arabs were divided amongst themselves (Egypt’s king and Transjordan’s king were obviously bitter rivals for control over an Arab Palestinian state), and the Palestinian Arabs themselves took no part in the negotiations, had no leadership, and were not a material factor in the fighting.

And then there was the question of who was winning the war.  The Arabs maintained that they were winning and that their superior numbers would tell the tale.  Of course, they reported victories even in battles where they were badly defeated.  But Bernadotte thought that the Jews would probably win the war, but be subject to continual future wars because of the size of their neighbors’ populations unless a peace treaty could be achieved (he was right there).  During the four week ceasefire, each side thought that the other side would cheat and turn things to its advantage.  Two of the agreed upon ceasefire terms were that no arms would be brought into the country, and that any men of military age coming into the country would be kept in restrictive areas for as long as hostilities continued.  (It was this agreement that led the Israeli government to fire on the Jewish ship Altalena, where the Irgun was trying to off-load men and arms in violation of the treaty terms, resulting in Jewish-Jewish fighting and multiple deaths.)  As it turned out, although there were no serious violations of these terms, it was Bernadotte’s impression that the Israelis were in better position than the Arabs when the four week ceasefire ended.  And he thought that the Israelis recognized this, as they hardened their negotiating position after the ceasefire.  I imagine it was the taste of victory that spurred Shamir and his buddies to target Bernadotte, then seen by them as a stumbling block to their eventual success.

It’s a very sad story.  There was no reason to murder the UN mediator.  He had actually not done anything to harm the Jewish position and was very helpful during the fighting in protecting Jewish convoys bringing food and supplies to Jewish residents of Mount Scopus (The Hebrew University and the Hadassah Hospital), otherwise behind Arab lines, and to Israeli troops in the Negev.  He was actively seeking a way to structure a compromise between the two parties that would give them each sufficient autonomy over their sectors to feel that they were secure in their own societies and cultures, yet to bring them together in an overall union that would foster civic and economic ties for the future.  He probably did make a mistake in assigning Jerusalem to the Arab sector (Jerusalem for a long time has had a Jewish majority), although he thought that Jewish autonomy in the city could be protected, and of course this was all up for further negotiations.

I don’t think that the murder of Bernadotte affected the ultimate outcome of the fighting.  It was just a low point in the Jewish fight for the existence of the state of Israel.

“The Fly Swatter” – Alexander Gerschenkron (37 cents)

Alexander Gerschenkron was a professor of economics at Harvard for decades.  But an unusual one.  He was a teacher of economic history, not a typical economist looking at charts, which he avoided.  He had a mandatory class for graduate students called the Economic History of Europe.  He believed that to know and understand anything, you had to know or understand everything.  He realized that this was impossible but he tried as hard as he could – reading an enormous amount of material….continually.  He was phenomenally bright and able to recall things that he read, and often to quote by memory from books read long ago.  He was also a linguist, and was able to read, work in (and usually speak) almost 20 languages.  He believed that everyone should do what he did – but never found anyone who did it.

To say that he did not suffer fools gladly would be an enormous understatement.  He also abruptly broke with friends over seemingly small matters.  But he was extraordinarily well respected because of his intelligence.  This was not limited to economic history, by the way, but covered any number of subjects including Russian literature, about which he knew as much or more as anyone and concerning which he was once offered a professorship.

He was married to the same woman for his entire adult life.  She was a very depressed person, who from everyone’s perspective was hard to deal with and be around. He defended her completely.  They had two daughters.  He was a fairly absent father.

When he was in his early 50s, he had a heart attack, and his health was never the same.  When he was in his late 60s, he retired from teaching.  He died at age 74, no longer leader of the pack, and never having accomplished his goal to write an important book.

Before coming to Harvard, he was at Stanford.  But his life started in Odessa in 1904, and at age 13, with the coming of the revolution his businessman father and he moved to Austria, near Vienna.  He went to school in Vienna.  And then came the Nazis, and soon he was in England and then the United States.  But Russia never left him.  Nor did the importance of free speech and free scholarship, something he lost twice in Europe.

The story of his life is recounted in “The Fly Swatter”, written by journalist Nicholas Dawidoff, his grandson.  It’s a very good book and follows his life in significant detail.  Gerschenkron was a difficult man to get to know.  In fact no one really knew him – they only knew his intellect.  He refused to talk about his past at all.  Yet it was there all the time.

The book was loaned to me by a friend.  I recommend it.  It’s a very good character study and of particular interest if you, like I, attended Harvard while Gerschenkron was there.

Winston Churchill’s American Mother (51 cents)

I just finished reading Anne Sebba’s 2007 book, “American Jennie”, a biography of New Yorker Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill and gave birth to two sons, Winston and Jack.  An interesting, and not entirely enviable, life.

I had read another biography of Jennie Jerome a few years ago, so I generally knew the territory.  I am not sure Sebba’s book added much new, although I found it well written and well organized.  There is obviously a lot of material about Jerome (after all, Ralph Martin wrote a massive two volume biography some years ago), and an author must be selective.  Plus, when you have so much material, some of it turns out to be self-contradictory, and you have to decide what to rely on.  I thought there were times when Sebba reached conclusions as to events or thinking, where she had not sufficiently explained why she reached those conclusions.  But the story is here – these few details are not that crucial for the general reader.

Born to one of the wealthiest American businessmen, Jennie and her two sisters decamped for Paris with her mother at an early age, and her contacts with her father (and the United States) were sporadic.  But the family relied on Leonard Jerome’s money for the survival – unfortunately for them, Jerome’s affairs took many turns, and at the end, he only had a shadow of what he once had, as he had made a number of unsuccessful moves and investments.

Jennie’s mother was, if nothing else, socially ambitious, introducing her daughters to the most elite circles not only in France, but in England.  And this is where Jennie, not yet 20, met, fell in love with, and married Randolph Churchill.  Churchill, descended from one of England’s oldest families, was also the scion of family whose financial resources, while significant, were often not significant enough to meet the expenses of their properties and life stiles.  In addition, Churchill was clearly a restless soul, who spent much more time away from home than at home (sometimes engaged in sport, sometime in travel).  He was ambitious and became a member of Parliament, and impressed many with his oratorical skills, but he was also moody and unstable, conditions later attributed to the syphilis from which he died at a young age.

Jennie and Randolph had two very different children.  Winston, moody and hard to deal with, and Jack, the more even tempered and stable son.  Winston was sent off to boarding schools at an early age, hated them, and had a poor relationship with his mother and hardly any with his father.  This reversed after he grew up, and he and his mother grew exceptionally close and dependent upon each other.

Jennie’s financial situation, if you can believe it, also went up and down, mainly down, as did the finances of her two sisters, also married to established Englishmen who could not hold only to their inherited funds.  The Jerome sisters had very expensive tastes, in housing, clothes and travel, and were often in debt.  Jennie married twice after the death of her first husband, each time to someone approximately 20 years younger than she.  She apparently had numerous other affairs (this seems to have been common for people of this class at this time), although the nature of these affairs, and in fact their existence, seems to have been accounted for differently by different biographers, and the definition of affair, for some, did not apparently necessarily include physical relationships, rather than flirting relationships or emotional connections.  This is all unclear, and Sebba seems to take a conservative view, attributing many fewer examples of physical sexual relationships to Jennie than do some of her biographers.

Jennie’s later marriages, like her first, were not happy ones, her finances were always on the edge, her relationships with the British elite (including the royal family) had their ups and downs, but she remained very close with her mother (until her death) and her sisters, and with her two sons.  Jack, who became a stock broker, took control of his mother’s finances, while Jennie spent much time promoting the interests of her more interesting son Winston, helping him get military and journalistic commissions, win elective office, and get his books published.

She died at a relatively early age (61), after injuring her leg in a fall, having it become infected requiring amputation, and having complications after the amputation that led to a quick death.

An interesting book, worth reading, giving you not only insight into Jennie, but into Winston’s early years, and leaving you with one important lesson:  the lives of these people were so different from our lives today, but they sure weren’t happier or more accomplished.  Well, I guess that’s a lesson.

Will “Force Majeure” Win an Oscar?

Les Arcs is a upscale ski resort in the French Alps.  Consisting of several villages scattered on a mountainside, in a beautiful area, it hosts 237 separate ski runs, 171 lifts, and 470 very loud snow-making cannon.  It has numerous types of accommodations, most very nice, and a plethora of restaurants and after-ski venues.

It is also the filming site for the Swedish film “Force Majeure”, which we saw yesterday.

We went to see “Force Majeure” for a number of reasons.  Very good reviews.  A 7.8 rating on IMDb, and a 93% positive rating from the critics according to Rotten Tomatoes.

In spite of all of this, I thought this a really dumb, quite boring movie.  The only reason I kept my eyes open throughout the entire two hours was that the film is in Swedish and I didn’t want to miss the subtitles for fear that I would be lost forever.

The basic story line (SPOILER, I guess):  A Swedish couple and their two young children travel to Les Arcs for a much needed winter vacation – the husband has been working much too hard.  It starts out fairly idyllic but one lunch time at the outside cafe on the restaurant nearest the mountain top, a controlled avalanche (created by the artificial snow machines to even out the snow on the runs) appears out of control and heading right for the diners, results in a panic among the diners.  The wife hunkers down protecting the two children, while the husband grabs his cell phone and runs inside by himself.

It turns out that the avalanche was not really out of control, but that the fog from the snow enveloped the cafe, scaring everyone.  When it dissipates a few minutes later, everyone goes back to their tables.  Their food is still there untouched.

But the world has changed.  The father turns out to be a coward, leading to several days of conflict and denial between the pair, disruption of their usual good humor, disturbance of the psyches of their children.  The addition of friends from home, also vacationing at Les Arcs, only increases the confusion, and sows discomfort in their friends’ relationship as well.  To watch it all is very uncomfortable.

Perhaps things get sorted out on their last day on the slopes, a very foggy day, where they have all pledged to stay in sight of each other so that no one gets lost, with the father in front and the mother at the rear.  But it doesn’t quite work, as the father and children realize that the mother is not behind them.  From afar we hear her call for help.  The father backtracks and comes carrying her in his arms.  What has happened?  Has she fallen?  Broken her leg or ankle?  No, none of the above.  It turns out she has been faking, testing her husband’s hopefully new found mettle.  And, lo and behold, he passes with flying colors.

So all will be well from now on?  So it seems.  Until…..

On the way down from the resort at the end of their holiday, the bus takes the hairpin turns with too much back and forth, and starting and stopping, going backward and forward.  Can this driver drive?  How dangerous is this descent?  The mother is convinced that the bus won’t make it one piece, so what does she do?  Demand that the bus driver stop and let HER off.  She has turned into her husband.

A pretty weak story line, you say?  I’d agree.  And the slow pace of the film, the sparse dialogue of the actors, and the occasional mumbling (I guess it doesn’t matter with subtitles) weaken it, for me, further.

But I must be missing something, right.  Favored for an Oscar, such high ratings on the usually reliable websites.

But, no, I think I didn’t miss a thing.  Not recommended (except for the beautiful mountains scenery).

Austria before the 1938 Anschluss into Germany, as described by its Chancellor (“Austrian Requiem” by Kurt von Schuschnigg)

Kurt von Schuschnigg was a Viennese lawyer and the pseudo-fascist (but anti-Nazi) Chancellor of Austria from 1934 to 1938, his position being terminated in March 1938 when the German Nazis moved in and announced the Anchluss (the absorption of Austria into the German Reich).  He was then arrested, and spent the war years in prison in Vienna and then Munich, followed by being held in special sections of several concentration camps (including Dachau) reserved for high level political prisoners.  He was freed after the end of the war, when he came to the United States and (believe it or not) taught political science at St. Louis University for almost 20 years before returning to Austria where he passed away.

He wrote a number of books, the first being “Austrian Requiem”, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1946, not long after his release from prison.  Divided into three parts, the book discusses his years as Chancellor, his view on European and Austrian politics and economics following World War I and up through the Hitler pre-war years, and his five years as a prisoner.  Not surprisingly, this is a very interesting book.

The position of Austria during the 1930s is presented from a very different perspective than I remember seeing before.  The economic problems caused by the Nazi takeover of Germany and the consequent loss of Austria’s biggest external trade market.  The growth of a Nazi movement in Austria, which because it was outlawed, was an underground movement whose members infiltrated all branches of the Austrian governments, including (as it turned out to Schuschnigg’s surprise) the offices closest to the Chancellor.  The increasing inability of Austrians of differing political viewpoints to communicate with each other (sound familiar?), with the liberals and socialists on one side, and the fascists and Nazis (he makes it clear that these were not necessarily the same people) on the other, virtually paralyzing the national government.  The strength (at the beginning of the decade) of the relationship between Mussolini’s Italy and Austria, but how this changed when Italy allied itself with Germany and was forced to put economic pressure on Austria. The increasing differences between Austria and Nazi Germany, happening at the same time that virtually all Austrians felt that Austrians were Germans and should not ally themselves with the enemies of Germany.  How many Austrians would have supported an Anschluss with Germany if Germany was not Nazi-led.  How Austrian nationalists, including Schuschnigg, who believed in the importance of an independent Austria, were becoming a minority, but a stubborn one.

He also speaks of Austria’s relationship with its other neighbors, including Hungary (its former partner-in-empire) and the new country of Czechoslovakia (which he believes was condemned from the beginning because, like the old Austrian empire, it was composed of too many ethnic groups who could never reach permanent accommodation with each other).

There is also emphasis on the imbalance of power between Germany and Austria, and how Austria was never in a position to fight Germany without sure defeat, plus loss of life and property.  His one visit with Hitler in Berchtesgaden is reported in detail, giving a sense of Hitler’s negotiating (if you can call it that) style, also very interesting.

But, wait……. something is missing.  The Jews.  At the time of the Anschluss, about 10% of Vienna was Jewish – that is close to 200,000 people.  Many were able to immigrate after the Nazis came in, and before war was declared against Poland 18 months later.  And the vast majority of the remainder were killed during the war.  Schuschnigg doesn’t mention them.  He does talk about the arrest of a Rothschild who was in the prison cell next to him, and he says that many of the pre-1938 immigrants to Vienna from Czechoslovakia were Jewish (without editorializing), and that Hitler had anti-Semitic policies.  But the fate of Vienna’s important Jewish population during the period before the Anschluss (when illegal Nazi activity was pervasive) and after is left unreported.

What does this mean?  What was Schuschnigg’s position towards Jews, during his Chancellorship, during the war, and during his stay in the United States?  I don’t know.  And a quick look on the internet for anything written by him on the subject after the war turns up nothing.

I wonder.

Washington DC Apparently Not Going to Pot……..

On November 4, 2014, 70% of the voters of the District of Columbia agreed to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and its use.  Congressional leaders have now agreed to void that legislation (at least for the coming fiscal year) as a provision in the 1600 page bill funding the government for the remainder of FY 2015 (other than Homeland Security).  A throw-away piece of legislative language having nothing to do with the funding of the government, which is after all the purpose of the bill.

On one level, I guess I don’t care.  I don’t use marijuana, and am sure I never will.  I don’t care if others have the right to smoke pot or not.  But there are two things I do care about.  First, I value the vote of the people, and believe it should not be disregarded except for constitutional reasons.  Second, analyses of arrests in DC show how many are for non-violent crimes involving the use of marijuana, and that these arrests affect our population unnecessarily negatively, and leads to extraordinary costs for the taxpayer.

I also object to Congressional override of DC legislation (perhaps in situations other than where the functioning of the federal government would be adversely affected).  Just like I object to the inability of the 500,000+ voting residents of DC having no vote for members of Congress, either the House or the Senate.

I understand this latter problem as a constitutional problem, a fault of our basic constitution, written at a time when there were no residents in DC (there was no DC then), and I believe it to be a constitutional problem that needs to be resolved.

The fact that any member of Congress believes that we DC residents don’t deserve a voice in our legislature is astounding, and against all of our stated principles of democratic and republican government.  We would never suggest that any other country disenfranchise a portion of their adult population.  This is, after all, one of the reasons the colonies determined to leave the British empire.

Giving the Congress the right to override local DC legislation adds salt to the wound.  Particularly where, as in this case, the decision to override was pressed by one particular Congressman, and presumably would otherwise have not have been suggested.

I can’t say that the marijuana decision was a partisan decision – I don’t know, and we never will. But the decision to keep DC from having legislative representation is clearly a partisan decision – Republicans do not want more Democratic representation from the highly Democratic district.  I believe making this decision on this basis is shameful.

I am of course not the first to say all of this.  But no one seems to care.  This is partisanship at its worst.  Period.