My Day: Pittsburgh in the ’60s.

Yesterday, we went to the Arena Stage to see August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running”.  Gave it an A+.

August Wilson, son of a German father and African-American mother, dropped out of high school in Pittsburgh in the 10th grade.  He never went back to school, but that didn’t stop him in becoming an award winning poet and playwright (two Pulitzers, for example), raking in a number of honorary degrees and teaching at a university level.  So much for formal education.

Before he died at the young age of 60 from cancer, Wilson wrote a number of plays, including his ten play “Pittsburgh Cycle”, each depicting a view of African American life in Pittsburgh during a different decade of the 20th century.

“Two Trains Running” took place in the 1960s.  We had seen one other play, “Jitney”, an early Wilson play that took place in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, some years ago at Studio.  I remember the play, which focused on a type of shared, informal, unlicensed taxi service, called a jitney service in Pittsburgh, which served the impoverished African American community, and was about to be shut down by the authorities, threatening the community’s mobility.  I remember, growing up in St. Louis, “service cars” (I don’t think anyone called them jitneys, but how was I to know), which served black neighborhoods, ran regular routes (I think), picking up and discharging passengers as they went.  They were large cars, maybe older Cadillacs, limousine-like, and I can’t remember if they had any sort of logo, or of they were unmarked.  I remember they were for blacks and I don’t know if any white person ever rode one (although St. Louis public transportation was not segregated), I don’t know who owned them, or if they were regulated.  I do remember (probably in the 50s) when they disappeared.  You just didn’t see them anymore. (I speak from memory – don’t quote me as being factual)

“Two Trains Running” isn’t about jitneys – it’s about urban renewal, and of course the 60s was the high point decade of urban renewal (as well as the time of great civil rights activity – Malcolm X is a presence in the play). Memphis Lee’s cafe (it used to be a restaurant, but they don’t have much food anymore, usually just beans and coffee, and cupcakes) is being threatened by the city.  It, along with the rest of the block, is to be purchased and demolished.  Big changes are afoot in this black neighborhood – already the 5 and dime has closed and the doctor has moved out.  Memphis knows his days at his cafe are numbered, but he is set on one thing: he won’t accept a price from the city for less than $25,000 for his property.

Memphis has one employee, Risa, an overworked young woman letting life pass her by, subject to alternating signs of respect and disrespect from her boss and his regular customers.  The customers include Wolff, a numbers runner who has his eyes on Risa but gets little response from her, and Sterling, an ambitious young man just released from the penitentiary, who believes he will strike it rich one day (even if he can’t get a job) and move to Vegas with Risa as his wife, and who idolizes Malcolm.  Then there’s Hambone, a mentally disturbed and homeless man, who was promised a ham nine and a half years ago for painting a neighbor’s fence, but only given a chicken; Holloway, a 65 year old philosopher of sorts, who just wishes everyone would calm down and who thinks that Aunt Esther (a 322 year old woman who lives down the street, in the back: “just knock on the RED DOOR”) holds all the answers; and West, the prosperous local undertaker who started out life as a numbers runner, saw his friends getting killed, and realized that someone had to bury them and he might as well be the  one.  West is clearly very successful – he thinks Memphis should sell the cafe to him – he knows how to deal with the city.

The feel of “Two Trains Running” and of “Jitney” are similar.  Fascinating characters, each with their own idiosyncrasies, each someone out of step with the prevailing white society (and they know it).  The plays are filled with both pathos and humor, but they do have a dead end feel, as if everyone is trapped, as if progress (even when spoken of) is clearly illusive.  Are his characters all victims of society, or are they held back because of their own limitations – not perfectly clear what Wilson is saying, perhaps.  But then again, what is perfectly clear?

The play closes today after an extended run.  But keep your eye out for it or any of the plays of the Pittsburgh Cycle.  We are.

 

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My Day: Feet of Klee

I have had an affinity for Paul Klee for a long time, from my freshman or sophomore year in college when my dorm room was decorated with a Picasso print and a Klee print.  The Klee is a print of the painting called Senecio: 

The whimsy of the orange face, the faux-African intimations, and the combination of square and circle – a painting like nothing I had really looked at before.  And Klee was, of all things, Swiss.  How could that be?  To me, the Swiss were the least whimsical of peoples, they were formal and proper, to some extent more German than the Germans.  But here was Paul Klee.

That was a long time ago, and Klee has fascinated me ever since.  Now that I am a computer savy adult, something that I could not even conceive of 50+ years ago in college, I look at a lot of art on my smart phone, usually through Tumbler, and then – when I see something I like enough to see again – I put them into one of my private “magazines” on Flipboard.  (Don’t know what these apps are?  Check them out.)

I have a number of magazines devoted to individual artists. For example, I have about 800 Picassos and over 400 Dalis. And I have a catchall magazine called Art where I put pieces that don’t fit under my individual artist magazines. Usually, there would just be one or a few examples of individual artists, but there are two who reappear again and again. One is Jean-Michel Basquiat. The other is Paul Klee. Both masters of whimsy. 

So I was interested when I saw that a special exhibit at the Phillips was to be titled Ten Americans After Paul Klee. It opened in February, but as usual I didn’t get there until closing weekend.

Paul Klee died while World War II was raging. Perhaps because he was Swiss living in neutral Switzerland, he was in no danger and had no need to go anywhere. And of course travel itself woukd have been dangerous. At any rate, Klee apparently never came here.

But that is not to say that he had no influence on American artists and the Phillips exhibit featured ten of them, including Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Kenmeth Noland and Gene Davis.

Often, the influence of one painter on another is hard to spot, requires an expert eye. But not here.  This blog is long enough, i guess, but look at these examples by Kenneth Noland and Adolph Gottlieb to see how influential Klee has been:

My Day: Siberia was bad, but how much better is this?

Stefan Waydenfeld had a long career as a physician in the UK, after having gone to medical school in France and in Ireland.  He is still alive, presumably now retired, in his mid-90s.  But all this tells about his life after his early 20s.  What happened before that is extraordinary.  OK, extraordinary to someone like me, born in the United States and seeing peace at home every day.  Maybe not to the millions of Europeans caught in the hell that was World War II.

Waydenfeld wrote his memoirs (The Ice Road: An Epic Journey from the Stalinist Labor Camps to Freedom) to tell his story.  It was published in 1999 by a firm that I am totally unfamiliar with, Aquila Polonica.  You should read it.

Waydenfeld’s father was a physician and his family was a Polish, middle class family living in a town south of Warsaw.  His mother was a biological researcher.  He was born in 1925, and everything was pretty much fine until the Germans entered Poland in September 1939 and the Polish army capitulated.  Stefan’s father went east to join the Polish army, and fourteen year old Stefan left home with a friend to find his father.  After quite an adventure, he did locate his father, and they found themselves out of reach of the Germans, but in the part of Poland occupied by the Soviet Union.  They were given two choices by the Russians, return home (the Germans were fine with that) or accept Soviet citizenship.  They were ready to return to Warsaw (after all, that’s where Stefan’s mother was), when they were surprised to find Stefan’s mother at the door of their temporary residence in Pinsk.  So, the Soviet Union, it would be.

The Russians were happy to have the Poles, but they certainly weren’t going to give them anything resembling freedom, and they weren’t going to let them stay in what had been Polish territory or any place close to that old border.  Along with thousands of others, they were placed in trains and sent north.

His family lived for a couple of years in the smallest of settlements  in the farthest of north.  At least, it was a settlement where there were barracks-like buildings; the Waydenfelds lived in one room with two other families.  And even though Stefan and others like him were of school age, there were no schools, so he was put to work on a number of jobs, including helping taking down forests and building a winter ice road to transport the tree trunks to the river to float down the stream in the Spring.  The work was harrowing (everything was harrowing), his family situation difficult, food and good health at a premium.  Only the existence of his first love (young teenage love) made the time passable.

In 1941, the Soviets gave a blanket amnesty to all Poles being held in Siberia and elsewhere.  (You may know that this is when Menachem Begin was freed by the Soviets, as well.) So here they all were, high up in the frozen north, told they were on their own. What to do?  Easy – get the settlement together, make rafts that are strong enough to hold you and all of your possessions and head down the river several hundred miles until you get to the nearest town with a railway station.  Then, since the Soviets told you that you could go anywhere you want, pick a place, get train tickets and be on your way.

Not so fast.  Miraculously, they made the rafts and most of them worked. They found the train station, but had no choice where to go – the trains only went to a limited number of places.  The next period of several months was as difficult as the time in Siberia – in some ways, worse.  In Siberia, at least you had your community and you developed a routine and some expectations. On the road, you had neither.  Luckily, his father did have some money that he had secreted on him which enabled them to find places to stay here and there (not always, sometimes they had to spend nights sleeping in fields or parks with hundreds or thousands of others), as they headed south.

In a few instances, his father did get a “job” as a doctor, both in Siberia and in the south of the USSR, but there wasn’t adequate equipment or medications, and the jobs themselves were unstable.  Eventually, they did get out of the USSR and wound up in Iran, at a British base, which is how they got to England, where they went before Stefan was able to get into a school (not in England, but first in France and then in Ireland).

The family’s life in Siberia and their journey south feels like an adventure that could only be created in fiction. Stefan’s capacity and resourcefulness as a young teenager is equally hard to grasp.  To learn about the adaptability of ordinary humans, the effect of the war on gentile middle class Poles, and life in the USSR, both in the Siberian work camps (I am not sure this settlement would be part of the “gulag” as they were not prisoners, but considered settlers) and equally as they moved as far from Siberia as they could, read this book.  Your understanding of the 20th century and of the country now called Russia will enlighten you.

 

My Day: Closed Circuit

So, today I was accompanied by two films on Netflix as I completed some of my other tasks.  The second was “Closed Circuit”, a film released five years ago to very mediocre reviews.  But one that I would recommend as both well done and having an interesting plot line.

It’s 2013, and there is a terrorist bombing at Borough Market in London (interesting, because this is where, four years later, there was an actual terrorist attack with a vehicle), killing 120.  An immigrant of Turkish descent, Farroukh Erdogan,  is arrested and charged with being the mastermind of the attack.

Two lawyers are given the responsibility of building a defense for the accused, but only one of them is given the authority to examine confidential information.  Therefore, conversation between the attorneys is prohibited for the most part, which is complicated because of a former romantic relationship between the two.

Farroukh has a wife and a fourteen year old son.  The son is a computer geek, has hacked his father’s computer and has discovered (STOP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW MORE AND THINK YOU WILL EVER SEE THIS FILM) that his father was working with MI5, the British intelligence service.  We learn that he had been captured as a member of a terrorist group in a foreign country and had agreed to work with MI5 in return for freedom.

The British had used Farroukh to infiltrate a terrorist cell which was planning the Borough Market attack.  Their plan to forestall the attack obviously didn’t work.  But is this because Farroukh was playing both sides, or was it because of some intelligence failure on the part of MI5?  I don’t think we ever find out.

But what is clear is that the British intelligence services never intend for any of this to be made public, and to avoid it, they are prepared to sacrifice Farroukh at any cost.  In fact, when a previous defense counsel also suspected Farroukh’s connection with MI5, the intelligence service murdered him, disguising it as a suicide.

The defense attorneys violate their pact not to communicate and share any confidential information and doggedly try to save their client.  The prosecution and the intelligence services are relentless in assuring they are unsuccessful.  The defense lawyers recognize the danger they are in (one of them is actually attacked in her apartment but escapes), but vow to continue although they believe themselves helpless in the long run.

They get to the point where the son is able to testify in a closed hearing.  It appears the judge, an elderly weary type who seems to be honest and not party to his government’s shenanigans, will be required to excoriate his government and free the defendant, but while the hearing is underway, something strange happens in Farroukh’s cell, and the entire trial comes to a halt, with the British attorney general proclaiming that once again, British justice has prevailed.

I thought it quite well acted, filled with sufficient twists and turns, and of continuing interest.  Why Rotten Tomatoes and the rest of them gave it such mediocre reviews, I am not sure.

My Day: In Search of Fellini

“In Search of Fellini” is a pleasant to watch, fairy tale like, coming of age film about a young girl from a very constrained background who falls in love with the films of Frederico Fellini and leaves her dying mother (she does not know her mother is dying) and goes off by herself to Italy to search him down. The film intersperses clips of several Fellini films with the plot line, particularly clips from “La Strada”.  The star of “In Search of Fellini” is made to look like a 21st century version of Giulietta Masina, the focal character in “La Strada”, who plays opposite Anthony Quinn.

I didn’t sit here and concentrate on film.  As I often do, I used it as background music while I did other things, including writing the blog post that immediately preceded this one, about the Russian opposition.

Now for those of you who do not believe in miracles, or who believe that coincidences are only coincidences, try this one on for size:

  1.  My previous blog post, about the Russian opposition, included a discussion about losing Russian 2018 presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak.
  2. The star of the film is a young actress named Ksenia Solo.

What do you think?

My Day: The Russian Opposition

It was a fascinating 90 minutes at the Wilson Center yesterday afternoon, where the topic was the Russian political opposition, and in particular how it is to run a political campaign where the winner is predetermined, and your candidate is not the one.

The two presenters were Leonid Volkov, who is the “chief of staff” for Alexei Navalny, and Vitali Shkliarov, who ran the presidential campaign of Ksenia Sobchak.  Their comments were very similar, and extraordinarily different.

Alexei Navalny has received a fair amount of press in the United States.  A lawyer and opponent of President Putin, who came in second in the Moscow mayoral contest of 2013, he has been convicted (presumably falsely) of economic crimes and, on this basis, was not allowed to run for the Russian presidency this year.  Volkov, active in Navalny’s campaign in 2013, became his chief of staff and led his campaign to be permitted to be on the ballot – an unsuccessful attempt.

When asked why he led this unsuccessful attempt to get on the ballot, knowing that it would be unsuccessful, he responded that it had not really been unsuccessful.  He talked about the corruption in today’s Russia, how Russia really isn’t a state at all, how one day things will change, and how no longer is revolution an alternative.  Therefore, people must learn how to get involved in politics, they must be educated.  And, in his attempt to be allowed to get on the ballot, they have taken an organization active only in Moscow and St. Petersburg and expanded it to over 50 cities (I think that’s the number he used), including mid-sized cities all over the country.  And they learned a lot about the Russian people and what they want.

The story of Ksenia Sobchak is, of course, quite different.  The daughter of a former mayor of St. Petersburg who was also a professor and teacher of Putin, and a former reality TV star and TV news anchor, Sobchak also decided to run for president.  She was allowed on the ballot, and Putin spoke highly of her and her father (now in exile because of accusations of financial improprieties – this is Russia), and said that anyone should have the opportunity to run for President (anybody, except apparently Navalny).  Vitali Shkliarov became the manager of her presidential campaign, also spoke about the need for building the political education of Russians for the future.  After an expensive campaign, Sobchak received about 2 percent of the vote.

Shkliarov’s background is very different from Volkov’s.  For one thing, he lives in Washington, not Russia, and he is from Belarus, not Russia.  His American wife is in the American foreign service, and he has worked on the campaigns of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders.  He was asked to help Sobchak because of his experience in the United States.

These two men obviously know each other and may (or may not) have a good personal relationship.  But the differences between their candidates became even more apparent when Volkov attacked Sobchak and “presumed” that Shkliarov was in reality ashamed to have been involved with her.  He simply accused Sobchak of being a false candidate, someone put up to run by Putin, to demonstrate to the world that there was more than one candidate, and that Russia’s elections were really elections.

Now, neither Volkov nor Shkliarov defended Russia’s elections or Russia’s democracy as real or fair.  But Shkliarov spoke as an incrementalist, who believes you take small steps and eventually your time may come.  Volkov believes that this simply plays into the hands of Putin, and that you have to attack everything more completely.

When asked, since the election was predetermined no matter what, why Putin did not permit Navalny on the ballot to show the strength of Russian democracy, why he only allowed Sobchak, Volkov said that he has asked himself that question many times without an answer.

I know that the candidacy of Sobchak has been controversial.  She is an accomplished and attractive person, but has always been, through her family, close to Putin, although her platform is not what you would call pro-Putin and she is controversial of much of what he says and does. She has never been a politician. Is she a Putin stooge, or is she someone with independent ambition?  Or, perhaps, both?

The next Russian presidential election is in 2024, six years from now.  Under Russian law (unless it is changed), Putin will again not be able to run (no more than two consecutive terms).  Unless the law changes, Navaly as a convicted felon will not be eligible to run (as I understand it), but Sobchak will.  Is this part of someone’s plan – Sobchak’s….Putin’s?

Time will tell.

 

My Day: I Still Have Questions about Mr. Lincoln

I know, I know.  Abraham Lincoln is the best president the United States ever had.  I am the only one who doesn’t see it.  Before he took office, states began to secede, and during his four years in office, 600,000 Americans lost their lives.  Yes, the war was won, the slaves were freed and the 13th Amendment added to the Constitution.  I get that.  But did all of the death, injury, dislocation and destruction have to occur?

I just read Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson (2008).  I thought this would help me reach the conclusion that everyone else seems to reach.  It didn’t.

McPherson pictures a depressed president, whose main goal was restoration (or conservation) of the union, and not freeing the slaves (although he himself was quite anti-slavery). He opts for war when he decides to resupply Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, and war it is.  The North has an oversupply of manpower, but the South has the best military leadership, and they make the campaign a long one.

Lincoln had no military experience; his initial thought was that he needs to rely on his generals, but often they fail him.  General Winfield Scott was simply over the hill. General McClellan, who ran the Army of the Potomac throughout much of the war, was especially problematic, as he was always willing to move ahead, but needed to wait until he got more supplies, or more men.  This happened again and again and again, resulting in Southern advances and no Northern movement.  And this pattern repeated itself with other generals; Lincoln was normally resistant to replacing them. It looked like the generals were afraid to take on the South – why was that?  McPherson doesn’t really ay.

He was pressured to remove Grant after some problems in the West, but he didn’t, and eventually brought him East, which turned out to be the right thing to do. There were arguments about what directions should the North take – should they go after Richmond, or pursue Lee’s army first?  Why didn’t they pursue the Southern troops after Gettysburg?  And so on, choice and question after choice and question.  And Lincoln was usually, it seemed, on the losing side of these debates, and gave into his commanders.

As time went on, the South piled on victory after victory and the North was dispirited.  As this happened, freeing the slaves began to become a more important goal of the war, and black units began to fight for the North.  Lincoln was always caught in the middle – the northern abolitionists against the Democratic states-rights, or pro-slavery leadership of the border states.

It was tough times, the union was saved, the slaves were freed, Lincoln was assassinated.  It seems to be Grant’s leadership (perhaps somewhat surprising) that won the war. But was Lincoln our best president?  I am still not convinced.

My Day: A Day With Elizabeth Warren

I woke up yesterday with a sore throat, and felt generally crummy.  I canceled any plans for the day, and decided that I should stay home.  But what should I do with my time?  Looking across the room, I saw a copy of Elizabeth Warren’s A Fighting Chance and a copy of a biography of I.F. Stone.  I put both on a table next to me.  I decided to start with Warren, but – to tell you the truth – I doubted that I would read the book all the way through, and I was ready to turn to the Stone book at any time.

I never got to Stone.  I found A Fighting Chance turned out to be a very readable and informative book and read it through, cover to cover.  And I wound up thinking more of Elizabeth Warren than I did before I read the book (and I thought highly of her then). I don’t read a lot of political memoirs, I guess.  Maybe I should read more.  The last one I read was a memoir of Harry Reid, The Good Fight.  Also fascinating.  But I wound up after reading that book thinking that Harry Reid was pretty much a bully, and that is the last thing that I found Elizabeth Warren to be.

It’s interesting that both books have the word “fight” in the title.  Perhaps this is because we are talking about political reality and the difficulty in getting anything done in Congress.  But it also may be because both of these authors had to fight their way up from poverty and deprivation, and these “fights” are worth learning about and respecting.

Harry Reid grew up in Spotlight, Nevada, a town smaller than small and poorer than poor, getting a break when someone volunteered to pay his university tuition.  Elizabeth Warren grew up in small town Oklahoma, her talented father never being able to establish a career or a steady income.  She got a full scholarship to George Washington University, although her parents hesitated in letting her go, and she dropped out of GW when she met the man who became her first husband.

She had two children and worked her way through law school, something that surprised even her, but led to a different view of the future from that of her husband, and to a divorce.  Keeping her married name of Warren for the sake of the children, she began teaching law part time, met law professor Bruce Mann to whom she has now been married for almost 40 years. You follow the careers of Mann and Warren, teaching at a number of places, some times having a commuter marriage, before they both wound up at Harvard, where Mann still teaches.

Bankruptcy became the focus of Warren’s teaching and research interests, and she became fixated on the identities of those who went into bankruptcy, discovering that they were not, for the most part, people who were always part of the American financial underclass, but in fact were more representative of the American middle class in general.  People who had business reverses, people who were faced with various emergencies, including most importantly health problems.  And the she began to focus on how the American financial system worked against these families and in favor of big business interests – focusing on predatory lending practices, on the concentration on home equity loans mortgaging people’s largest asset, on uncontrolled interest rates on credit cards.

With the passage of TARP after the 2008 financial collapse, Warren was asked by Harry Reid to be part of the policing function, the office which would look at how the $700 billion TARP fund would be spent.  This gave her her first look at Washington politics, and she learned how, even in that position, it was impossible to learn from Treasury how the funds were being spent.  That was a fight.  Then, she was the person who first got the idea of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, working with Barney Frank, her Massachusetts congressman, and Ted Kennedy.  Another fight.  And then she learned not only that Congress would never approve her to lead that agency (Barack Obama wanted her), but that the Republicans said that they would not approve anybody in that position – even though the agency had been established through passage of a law by the same Congress.

When Ted Kennedy passed away, Massachusetts elected Scott Brown, a Republican, as his replacement.  Pressure began to build for Warren to run for the office against Brown.  She was hesitant but eventually agreed and defeated Brown decisively.  She has been in office ever since.

When listening to Warren in her public appearances or on television, she speaks very fast and seems rather cold.  This is not at all the impression you get in the book.  There you get the impression of a somewhat insecure woman who marvels how she has traveled to her current post.  You learn about her relationships to her parents and siblings, to her husbands, children and grandchildren. And to her dogs.  She becomes much more human.

She does talk about her Native American heritage – or at least the heritage that she believes she shares – and how some deny her heritage and say that she has made it up to get an advantage in being accepted either for schooling or jobs.  Which she denies completely.  I must admit that I don’t know why this is still an issue (or why it ever has been), but couldn’t it simply be resolved with a DNA swab?

Finally, Elizabeth Warren is an extraordinary advocate for the American middle class, which has, by all accounts, had it tough the last several decades.  Yet, that same middle class (or at least the white members of that middle class) support the Republicans, the advocates for big business.  This is a mystery, and is part of the reason, why we have so many problems that are not being solved.

My Day: Hemophilia and AIDS

“Roz and Ray”, playing at Theater J through the coming weekend, tells the tragic story of the thousands of children with hemophilia who died during the AIDS epidemic because they were treated with contaminated blood. The playwright’s father was a doctor at San Diego Children’s Hospital and lost most of the patients he treated and cared for.

This is a one-act, two person play: the pediatric hematologist Roz, and the single father of the hemophiliac twins, Ray. Ray and his sons rely heavily on the skills of Roz, and Roz is very attached to Ray and his sons.  Ray and Roz develop a close relationship; the question of boundaries between physicians and patients (or parents of patients) is one of the issues treated by the play.

But the biggest issue relates to the AIDS epidemic and the time it took to identify the causes and the ways of transmission, and how even after the methods of transmission were discovered, the medical world was trapped – the alternative methods of treatment were not satisfactory and had led to hemophiliacs dying in their twenties.  So, an alternative form of treatment, which had not yet been tested and which also depended on donated blood, was adopted – it apparently was successful in treating the condition, but not in avoiding the scourge of AIDS.

The dilemma of the competent physician, especially one who has a hunch that there is a problem with the recognized treatment, but was too junior to confront her hospital’s procedures.  The drug companies, which kept selling tainted sera overseas, are another target of the play. As, of course, are the emotions of the grief stricken father and the physician, who knew she should have done some things differently.

The play does a strong job in bringing these issues to the forefront and making you care about each of them and feel for the characters’ dilemmas in dealing with them.  It was a little less successful, I thought, in portraying the relationship between Roz and Ray, but – in the big scheme of things – that was not crucial to the impact of the play and the performances.

There were many empty seats this evening – more than we have ever seen at Theater J.  Not sure why because the play has received strong reviews, but it probably means that there will be plenty of room to see it this weekend, if you can.

My Day: Berlin in 1961

I took my first trip to Europe in 1962, when I was 19.  I was with three college friends, and we had a car and two pup tents.  I remember when we got on the Autobahn to drive to Berlin, entering East Germany (we had to stop for passport checks; the East Germans made the logistics as difficult as possible – you had to work in three separate lines, and they set up the facility so that the lines ran into each other guaranteeing confusion among the travelers) and driving through to Berlin (we did not have visas which allowed us to get off anywhere else, although we did talk about doing it).

One of the more interesting things about Berlin was, of course, the Wall.  The city had been divided between West and East since 1945, but the Wall had been up for only about a year.  Before the Wall was built, there was free travel between the various parts of the city by car, bus, and subway.  Thousands of East Berliners worked in West Berlin and commuted every day.  You could also commute to shop and to visit friends and family.

Once the Wall was up, all communication stopped.  For tourists, entry into the East Berlin was still possible.  None of my friends were interested in going, so I went in alone one afternoon and spent several hours wandering around.  You entered and exited through Checkpoint Charlie (the only way to enter).  The three or four days we were in Berlin were fascinating on so many levels.

For this reason, I was anxious to read Frederick Kempe’s book Berlin 1961, published in 2011.  It’s a chronological study of everything that happened in Berlin that year – the relationship between East and West Germany, the USSR and East Germany, and the United States and all of the above.

There were many things I did not realize.  For one thing, it didn’t occur to me in 1962 or later how focused President Kennedy was on Berlin, how it seemed that there might be a nuclear war arising out of differences with the Soviet Union.  Kennedy had already had a fiasco with the Bay of Pigs (the nuclear crisis over Cuba did not occur until 1962) and didn’t want a repeat.  For this reason, among others, he took no action when the Wall was built – simply allowed the East Germans and Soviets to build it (presumably to stop the number of East Germans fleeing the country and moving West) irrespective of the effect it would have on life for so many in Berlin.  I also didn’t realize that the building of the Wall was a clear violation of the agreements reached after World War II regarding the division of the city into four occupied areas (French, British, American and Russian), with free movement between the four sectors a basic premise of that agreement.

Khrushchev was certain that the young Kennedy was inexperienced and generally weak – this was confirmed to him when the two met in Vienna, and Kennedy himself felt unprepared and outclassed.  Kennedy left that meeting believing that one false move on his part could lead to World War III and a nuclear exchange and Khrushchev tried to press his advantage through strong remarks made to the Americans about the importance of resolving the Berlin situation if peace could be guaranteed.  Khrushchev, who had a large advantage over the West in the number of ground troops ready for battle, was concerned that the U.S. might want to increase its troop strength in Europe, something the Russians would not allow. In the meantime, Khrushchev was having his own problems with Walter Ulbricht of the GDR who believed he was getting insufficient support from the USSR, and Konrad Adenauer of West Germany was having difficulties with the West Berlin mayor (and future chancellor) Willy Brandt.

I found the book, although very detailed, to be very helpful in understanding what was going on with regard to Berlin in 1961.  I don’t think many people today knows or remembers this story.  How relevant it is today, I am not sure, but it certainly is interesting.