Three Books: Sicily, DP Camps and France in the 50s

1. In 1909, American professor and travel writer W.S. Monroe published a book called simply “Sicily”. I happened to have a copy, and picked it up one day to look through it (and look at the photos) when I realized that it was a very readable and well written book, worth reading. I figured that I was the first person to read “Sicily” since, say, 1910, but looking on the Internet, I see that the book has been downloaded on Google books, and made available on a print-on-demand basis, so perhaps I am not the only one who has discovered it.

Monroe starts by giving an overview of Sicilian history from the beginning of recorded history until the 1909-present. Originally, inhabited by various native groups, one of which the Sikans presumably gave Sicily its name, saw lengthy periods of time when it was ruled by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Goths, Vandals, Muslims, Normans, Germans (House of Hohenstaufen) French (House of Anjou), Spanish (House of Bourbon), and finally the Italians. It is surprising to realize that Sicily has been ruled by Italians only for about the past 150 years (when Monroe wrote his book, less than 50 years). This would explain why (this is something I did not know, and certainly don’t know if it is still the case) that the Sicilian version of Italian is very different from main line Italian and, in the opinion of many, a separate language.

Having run through the history of the island, both the good and the bad years (the Anjou years perhaps the worst, and the Norman years in Monroe’s opinion, the best), he then focuses chapters on individual aspects of contemporary Sicily – geography (with a separate chapter on Mount Etna), types of inhabitants, social conditions, travelers accommodations, religion and saints, the Mafia, education, agriculture and commerce, literature, music, and art. He ends with descriptions of major Sicilian towns – Palermo, Syracuse, Messina (which had just suffered a major earthquake which destroyed much of the city) and others, as well as ruins of Roman and other ancient settlements. While the descriptions of particular churches may be a bit much to read through, the overall descriptions of the towns are fascinating, particularly perhaps that of Syracuse which is today but a shadow of itself and was at one time one of Europe’s largest and most prosperous places.

Strange as it seems, I would recommend reading this 1909 travel book without reservation and, if I were going to Sicily, I think it would be a great help.

2. From Sicily, I wanted something entirely different, and I picked up a short book called “From Doom to Dawn”, published in 1967, and written by an American rabbi, George Vida, who was an Army chaplain during the years following the end of World War II, and who spent time working with American troops in Europe and with Jews in Displaced Persons camps. Vida himself was a refugee in having been born in Czechoslovakia and left with his family following Kristallnacht. Much of the book is in the form of letters Vida wrote home to his wife.

He meets a number of Jewish survivors and tells their stories, he talks about the conditions in the DP camps, about setting up the facilities of Jewish holidays and services on army bases, and about his job when he was a German translator for the joint Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry on Palestine in 1946. He went back to Germany six years later, still as a chaplain, headquartered in Munich, working with the Joint, HIAS, and other international aid organizations dealing with the end days of the DP camps, with Jews who had gone to Palestine and become disillusioned and with those who were struggling to rebuild lives in Germany, where the government was supportive, but anti-Semitism an obvious reality. Following leaving the military, he became a congregational rabbi in a number of cities in the United States.

Vida brings a unique perspective to some of the things he saw and was able to accomplish, and the book, not a difficult read, is worthwhile looking through.

3. From central Europe in the 1940s, I went to Paris in the 1950’s, reading journalist Stanley Karnow’s memoir, “Paris in the Fifties”, most of which dealt with his years as a Time Magazine correspondent. Karnow, who has also written about the Philippines and Vietnam, went to Paris right out of college, got married, got divorced, got a job, and had the opportunity to meet everyone and see everyone. He explores Parisian neighborhoods, and Parisians, night clubs and strip tease, cafes, food, wine, scandal and crime, the guillotine, Devil’s Island, Ho Chi Minh, politics, North African colonization, fashion, intellectuals, auto racing, etc. A very nice survey, and a good companion to Art Buchwald’s book on the same subject, which I read years ago.

2 thoughts on “Three Books: Sicily, DP Camps and France in the 50s

  1. Riffing off your notes on “Sicily”, I have found the WPA Writers Project series on the individual States to be generally well-written. Besides keeping some starving artists (more specifically, writers) alive, this series had the happy effect of capturing the individual States “in situ” in the 1930s. Thanks, Arthur.

  2. Glad to see that you enjoyed my grandfather’s (George Vida) book — he had worried that he had described himself and his family in an over-idealized fashion, and that this might have been a problem for many readers. I’m not sure how many people would have appreciated a brutally honest memoir as he was a man of very strong feelings and it took both experience and time to give him a more objective view of the world.

    I still miss him deeply, and it has made my day to come across someone who has read his memoirs.

    Thanks, Ken.

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