Six Books – Recent Reading ($6.26)

1.  “Unholy Alliance” by Aba Gefen.  About 9 months ago, Aba Gefen celebrated his 90th birthday.  Considering everything he went through, he clearly beat the odds.  Gefen, who became an Israeli diplomat, started out life in a small town in Lithuania, where he had a typical, for the times, upbringing, and where he became a university student.  The invasion of the country first by the Soviets and then the Nazis ended any chance Gefen would have had for a normal life.  Instead, during the years of the Nazi occupation and its aftermath, the young Aba Gefen (then Aba Weinstein) led a life of extraordinary stress, adventure, challenge, cleverness and, of course luck.

In these dangerous years, when being Jewish in Lithuania was a virtual death sentence, Gefen had two things going for him.  First, his appearance.  He was blond and blue eyed, and could easily pass for a Lithuanian or a German.  Second, his father appears to have been an extraordinarily well respected shopkeeper, whose reputation and years of friendship induced many to help protect his son(s) from the Nazis and their supporters.

Escaping into the countryside, Gefen not only spent years hiding in barns and farm houses, but established a network of such safe houses, and food suppliers, for a number of young Jews in hiding. Instinctively knowing whom to trust, and when to move out, his success rate in protecting his friends was extremely high, and the stories of their adventures obviously fascinating.

I have read a lot about these times, and written a fair amount as well, but each time I read something new, I learn something new.  A number of recent books, including the very well regarded “Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder, show the political complexities of eastern Europe during this period of war and competing Nazi and Communist aggression.  They show how Communist occupation of Lithuania, for example, upend the entire society, but treat Jews for the most part no worse than Christians, while German occupation left society pretty much as it was for the Christian Lithuanians while marking the Jews for extermination.  Thus, most Christians were bound to be pro-German, and all Jews, pro-Communist, when these were the only two choices, pitting Christian and Jewish residents of Lithuania on a course inevitably leading to the train wreck that followed.

But Gefen’s experience shows something different.  His shows that those rural Lithuanians who were willing to shelter Jews (either because they were against the policy of Jewish extermination, or because they had been close to the Weinstein family) spanned the political spectrum.  In other words, they included Lithuanians who were very anti-German and, sometimes, pro-Soviet.  But they also included Lithuanians who were very anti-Soviet, and who pro-German (but who disagreed with the antisemitic policies of the Germans) and were politically right wing Lithuanian nationalists.  In other words, the situation was even more complicated than Snyder painted it.

Surviving the war and realizing that a future in a Soviet-occupied Lithuania (remember that Lithuania became one of the Soviet republics) did not offer him much, Gefen decided to go to Palestine.  Easier said than done, of course, not only because Palestine was basically closed to legal Jewish immigration by the British, but because the situation for Jews in post-war Europe was also so complex.  As you might know, displaced person camps were established in Europe for displaced, surviving Jews, some of whom lived in these camps (where conditions were far from ideal) for years.  There was a general agreement amongst the occupying Allies (the United States, Britain, France and the USSR) that refugees could be repatriated to their homelands, but Jews were not welcome in much of Europe, and many Jews had no intentions to return to their home countries or who, having returned, found that life there was intolerable for any number of reasons.

For many of these displaced, stateless Jews, Palestine seemed like the answer and an underground network was established to enable those who had the gumption to do so could get to various ports (mostly, but not all, in Italy) where they could board ships illegally attempting to sneak through the British blockade.

Again, easier said than done.  Not only were there serious financial problems, but travel from country to country was not usually open – refugees could go back to their home countries, but could not decide to travel, or move, to a country other than their home country, even if they were just traveling through, or intending to remain for a short time.  And it was not only a question of country to country travel, but a question of district to district in those places such as Germany and Austria where the Allies had divided the countries into separate zones of influence.

Gefen, using the same strengths that he used in the Lithuanian underground, became a leader of the movement that secretly (although sometimes with the help of occupying forces, generally American) Jews from the occupied lands to the ports of disembarkation, and arranging for their stays in those port cities until they could get on a ship.

“Unholy Alliance” was published in Israel in 1961. The English language edition was published in the United States in 1973.  The book, while fascinating, is not perfect, but only because he intersperses, with his recounting of his experiences, a number of his personal opinions on Jews, Germans etc., which are not particularly helpful or, to my mind, insightful.  But, if you can find the book, I highly recommend it.

2.  “Subsurface” by Michael Daimond.  This book was given to me, and I read it last week in Florida and on the trip back.  It’s not the type of book I normally read (it’s an espionage novel), and the writing is not always the best, but the book was intriguing and I am glad I read it.

The book, written and centered in Israel, was not published by a major press, and I am not sure it was even circulated in the United States.   Nonetheless, I am not going to give away much of the plot, just in case…….

It is a few years in the future, and the American president (actually vice-president, but that’s another story) has managed to tie down all of the elements of an Israel-Palestine peace treaty.  Only one more items (compensation in lieu of the right of return) is yet to be negotiated, and a signing ceremony has been agreed upon and set at Camp David.

There are, however, strong elements on both the Israeli and Palestinian side, opposed to the treaty.  These elements are vehemently opposed to each other, of course, but believe that the entire land should either by Israel, or Palestine, and they mean to disrupt the signing ceremony.

What better way than to report that a considerable amount of oil lay under the West Bank town of Jenin.  How could the Israelis sign that away.

Well, this is the general outline of the political plot.  At the same time, there is the personal plot, largely involving a professor at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, his wife, his best friend who also teaches at the school, and his best friend’s wife – who is the professor’s assistant and who, at one point, decides that she does not love her husband any more, but is madly in love with the professor, her husband’s best friend.

If the prose is not perfect, the twists and turns are well managed, including a few final twists which, to me at least, were unexpected.  Nice light airplane or beach reading.

3. Former Illinois Democratic Senator Paul Simon wrote a surprising number of books, most of which deal with political questions.  But one, which does not, he wrote early in his adulthood, and then edited and put out a second edition in 1994.  Titled “Freedom’s Champion: Elijah Lovejoy”, it is the story of a young newspaperman who published a popular newspaper, first in St. Louis and then in Alton, Illinois, across the Mississippi, which advocated the eventual abolition of slavery.

Originally from Maine, Lovejoy moved to Missouri for the opportunities it seems to have offered, in 1827.  A product of a religious, Protestant family, he was not the most tolerant person – he hated Roman Catholicism and riled against it, and he believed that slavery was immoral.  The anti-Catholicism of his publications was tolerated in what was then a very anti-Catholic country, but his anti-slavery position (he favored a gradual end to slavery) was too much to bear for large numbers of the public in slave state Missouri.  So, he decided to move his press across the river to the free state of Illinois and the growing city of Alton which, according to Simon, was at the time projected to outdistance St. Louis in population and financial strength in the future.

It turned out that the “free” state of Illinois (at least the southern portion of Illinois) was not any more favorably disposed towards the concept of freeing the slaves in the 1830s than was the slave state of Missouri.  Lovejoy was far from the most popular guy in town, and he and his family received numerous threats, and his press and other equipment was repeatedly destroyed.  In November 1837, things went from bad to worse.  A mob formed, the warehouse where a new press was being stored was attacked, and Lovejoy was killed.  He was buried on his 35th birthday.

This is a story I had heard nothing about, even though I grew up in St. Louis. (In fact, I learned little about the Civil War, and nothing about the Civil War in Missouri; I think that Missouri’s status as a slave-holding border state, deeply divided, was too confusing for the school systems to figure out how to teach – perhaps it is different now.)  According to Simon’s well written book, the incident caused outrage throughout much of the nation’s northern states, and Alton’s reputation hit bottom, as a town filled with bigotry and lacking sufficient law enforcement.  He says that it was this incident,  more than anything else, that stunted Alton’s growth and enabled St. Louis to prosper.


4.  Mark Roseman’s “The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution”.  Even a basic history of the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis before and during World War I will teach you that, until a meeting of high Nazi officials was convened at a mansion in the Wannsee area of Berlin in January 1942, there was no decision made to physically liquidate the Jews, to implement a “final solution”.  Roseman, a professor at England’s University of Southampton, sets up to validate, or to disprove, this thesis.  His detailed analysis perhaps comes as close to answering this question as it could have, but in the end is inconclusive.

It is also disturbing.  First, he confirms what some of the “holocaust deniers” say:  that there is no evidence connecting Adolf Hitler with the “final decision”, the decision to murder the Jews of Europe through deportation to death camps, and the use of poisonous gas to end their lives.  Hitler, he said, consciously made sure his name was not connected with this decision, although the decision could not have been made without his consent, or better could not have been made if he had disapproved it.  Furthermore, Hitler was not at Wannsee, and his name not directly connected with that meeting.

The Wannsee meeting was convened by Reinhard Heydrich (who would be assassinated the next year), who worked under Himmler.  The invites included representatives of most of Germany’s ministries, occupation governments and security agencies.  They included a relative newcomer to the higher circles of Nazidom – one Adolf Eichmann.  Before Wannsee, there seem to have been two contradictory tracks followed regarding the treatment of the Jews:  one, to transfer Jews out of Germany and German controlled territories, to the east, or to someplace like Madagascar – this was official German stated policy.  Second, the cold blooded shooting of Jews by German and allied troops (led by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen)  throughout the Baltic countries, Poland, Romania and the western Soviet Union. Roseman can also not trace these killings directly back to Hitler, going to far as to suggest that they may at times have been the result of local military decision making, at a time when one’s reputation was thought to be in direct ratio to how nasty you could be to the Jews.

Finally, although there were no minutes kept of the Wannsee proceedings, there was a “protocol” , the Wannsee Protocol, which is quite vague as to how the Jewish problem is to be finally resolved.  It talks about removing the Jews to the east, sending older Jews (older than 65) to Teriesenstadt, creating work teams, determining how to handle people whose parentage is mixed Jewish/Gentile, all in preparation for the Final Solution.  But it does not define the Final Solution.

Roseman is clearly sympathetic to the Jews.  He is trying to be objective and his objectivity, from what I have seen, is respected and appreciated by a wide range of scholars.  The fact is, unfortunately, that he simply did not find the smoking gun – he came up with nothing that would specifically outline the Final Solution itself, or connect it directly to Hitler.  His lack of ability to do this, I found to be disturbing, and I believe he found it to be confusing, as he was forced to make assumptions throughout the book on how to connect various dots.  Apparently many of the Wannsee notes were destroyed  long ago, so this might be as close as we are going to get.  But it’s not quite close enough.

Still, I recommend this book in spite of what I find to be its shortcomings, because the details that he is able to lay out are interesting and certainly are important pieces of this most confusing and difficult historical period.

5.  I have been very interested in the history of Jews in the Caribbean since our trip last year to Jamaica, and have read a few books and a few articles on the subject over the past several months.  Recently, I read Harry A. Ezratty’s “500 Years in the Jewish Caribbean”, an imperfect book that nevertheless provides succinct accounts of Jewish life on various of the islands.  Most interesting, I thought, were the Dutch colonies of Curacao, where the community has existed for over 300 years, and St. Eustatius, where it no longer exists, as well as in the mainland colony of Surinam (Dutch Guiana).

Last summer, we picked up a book on the Caribbean Jews when we were in Savannah, written by a native of that city.  I don’t remember the name of that book as I sit here, but my memory is that it paints a more complete picture (as does the sloppily written book, “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean”, that I looked at earlier, before our trip) than does Ezratty’s book. But I say this as someone who has read quite a bit and has a feel for the history.  The fact that I thought his description of Dutch colonies was the best may simply be a sign that I was less familiar with the Jewish history of those colonies.  This would mean that, if you are new to the subject, you should pay no attention to my editorializing and look at the book yourself.

6.  “Hot Countries” by Alec Waugh, published in 1930.  Waugh, a prolific writer, was the brother of Evelyn Waugh of “Brideshead Revisited” fame.  Written when he was in his 30s, this travel book follows the author’s wanderlust, as he goes to such places as Tahiti, Martinique, Siam, Ceylon and Haiti.  It is well written, and certainly the descriptions of these lands (which have changed so much over the past 80 years) is fascinating, as it was in the other two travel books of the same vintage which I have reported on (Richard Halliburton’s “The Flying Carpet” and Elinor Mordaunt’s “The Venture Book”).  But even more so than Halliburton, Waugh’s opinion of blacks is so offensive that, even though he is long gone, I don’t think anyone should pick up this book.  (This is for those who think that I recommend everything I read)






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