Between Silk and Cyanide, A Codemaker’s War

“Put down on a half a sheet of paper what difference silk codes would make to our agents.”
“Half a sheet at most!” echoed Davies.
‘I think it could be done in a phrase, sir!’
‘Oh?’ said Courtauld. ‘We’d be interested to hear it.’
‘It’s between silk and cyanide.’

“This book is not a casual read,” I thought, as I waited for my tire to be repaired. A gargantuan TV, three feet away from me, was blaring the Country Music Awards; I was mouth-breathing, an inefficacious strategy to ignore the overwhelming smell of rubber, and reading three times a paragraph on coded message, attempting to comprehend it. After failed attempts at deciphering acronyms, I made my own code on the inside cover with their meanings.

84-charing-cross-road Knowing the author, Leo Marks, was the son of the owner of the bookshop made famous in Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Roadwas a big draw to this book. There are many references to the bookshop; it would be helpful, but not essential to have read it first. Although Hanff’s story is set after the war, knowing it provides a fun context.

At twenty Marks begins fighting the Fuhrer with his cryptography skills. He trained agents headed for enemy territory to send and receive messages in a code based on a famous poem the agent had memorized. The problem with poem-codes is that the enemy cryptographers could break the code if they figured out which poem was used. If an agent was captured, he or she would swallow cyanide to keep from telling secrets under torture. The enemy would often continue sending and receiving messages, concealing the knowledge of the capture.

Even as an understudy, Marks understands the the system’s vulnerability. He begins writing original poems for use, a few of which have become famous. Over time he threads together a remarkable innovation to use a one-time, disposable code printed on silk, easily burned after use. This book is the story of his failure and success to spin his silk idea to his superiors.

Marks’ agility with language delights.
→ As a boy he studied the mating habits of the alphabet.
→ A superior officer had a knack for switching on silence as if it were air conditioning.
→ He writes about a desk so small, it was like keeping vigil on a splinter.
Could we have a quick word? He was a verbal weight-watcher.

Marks relates the story of his intelligence with self-deprecating jabs.

The need to justify and its sister frailty, the need to boast, were lethal weaknesses in SOE, and the shock discovery that I was prone to both started me worrying about the coders of Grendon.

While his acute concern and the initiatives he made to protect the safety of the agents shows remarkable maturity for a young twenty to twenty-three year man, the bawdiness that occasionally pops up reminds the reader that he was indeed still close to adolescence.

The story of the code-war fascinated me. I enjoyed the book more after I stopped trying to be an agent in training, when I kept going after I read the explanation without understanding. <grin>

On Christmas Eve, 1943, Leo Marks got word that his girlfriend Ruth had been killed in a plane crash in Canada. He wrote this short poem, which he later gave to an agent Violet Szabo. Wikipedia tells me this poem was read at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours.

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is your and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

Loveliness Showing Through the Rubble

The job of the soldiers who served with the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Allied Forces in WWII was to “mitigate combat damage, primarily to structures—churches, museums, and other important monuments.”

Because Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring were obsessed with collecting (read: stealing) fine art, the primary job of the MFAA became rooting out hidden caches of art before the Nazis destroyed them in the event of a Nazi defeat.

I found it difficult to engage with the first third of the book, background stories of a large roster. Because they were all working independently— their stories seldom converged—there was too many bits to sift through. It wasn’t until Paris, and the entry of the great heroine Rose Valland, that I found myself gripped by the narrative. From that point, the book is perfectly paced, and the thrill of the chase raised my pulse. It is a cracking good story!

monuments-men^^ can you imagine? ^^

Tucked into the story was a gem—the only one like it— from Capt Walker Hancock.

The eyes have one continual feast. It is late in the spring. Flowering trees are everywhere and the charm of the romantic little towns and the fairy tale castled countryside is enhanced by all this freshness. And in the midst of it all—thousands of homeless foreigners wandering about in pathetic droves, Germans in uniform …. Children who are friendly, older ones who hate you, crimes continually in the foreground of life. Plenty, misery, recriminations, sympathy. All such an exaggerated picture of the man-made way of life in a God-made world. If it all doesn’t prove the necessity of Heaven, I don’t know what it means. I believe that all this loveliness showing through rubble and wreck are just foreshadowings of the joys we were made for.

For fun, the magnificent George Stout, after receiving a package three months late:

It is amazing how the world can change during the life span of a fruitcake.

Because one curious door opens many others, I’m now interested in reading:

Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed


The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder;
wind, rain, yes.
And Le Chambon was the rainbow.
— Jewish mother whose children’s lives were saved at Le Chambon


Let me digress: One habit served me well and introduced me to the story of Le Chambon. I read books with a soft lead pencil in hand. When a word, phrase, sentence or paragraph nudges me, I mark a line in the margin, | .  When I read an unfamiliar word or one I can’t confidently define, I put a √ in the margin. And when I see a reference to a song, a painting, a book title, an event that I’d like to know more about I also use the √. I usually don’t stop reading to look further at the subject. But when I comb through the book a second time, writing down compelling quotes, etc. I will follow up on the check marks.

How did I find Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed?  I had decided to cull out Barbara Tuchman’s sparkling book of essays, Practicing History, from my library, a decision that still gnaws. Before I let it go, I transferred notes to my journal. In an essay entitled Mankind’s Better Moments Tuchman notes some astonishing accomplishments:

the enclosure of the Zuider Zee in the Netherlands adding half a million acres to the country;
the marvel of Gothic cathedrals;
Viking seamanship;
the perseverance of La Salle, who mastered eight languages before he set off exploring;
William Wilberforce’s work to abolish slave trade;
Le Chambon, a Huguenot village in Southern France devoted to rescuing Jews. √ 

Le Chambon? I had heard of Huguenots—French Protestants—but not Le Chambon.

Intrigued, I found this clip on YouTube:



And I found Philip P. Hallie’s book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. The book is essentially a biography of the Reformed pastor, André Trocmé and his wife, Magda. Trocmé’s belief in God was at the living center of the rescue efforts of the village xxi. Le Chambon was a remote mountain village, predominantly Protestant (Reformed and Plymouth Brethren) in a predominantly Catholic country. The Trocmés were unshakably committed to obeying the Sermon on the Mount 28.

In practice this means that the village rescued between 3,000 and 5,000 Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. They kept many Jewish children at a private school; some family groups stayed until they could seek refuge in Switzerland. All the villagers took great risks, but they considered harboring others more important than their own safety.


“Look hard for ways to make little moves against destructiveness.”  — André Trocmé

Trocmé attended Union Theological Seminary in 1925 (five years before Dietrich Bonhoeffer was there) and found the Social Gospel too secular, too rational, lacking piety. Like Bonhoeffer, Trocmé lived intimately with those he shepherded.

For the rest of his life he sought another union [an organization he belonged to as a child during WWI], another intimate community of people praying together and finding in their love for one another and for God the passion and the will to extinguish indifference and solitude. From the union he learned that only in such an intimate community, in a home or in a village, could the Protestant idea of a “priesthood of all believers” work. Only in intimacy could people save each other. 57

A recurring motif in the book is that André Trocmé gave himself. He gave himself to his people, visiting them in their homes regularly. He gave himself to his community by his involvement in their lives. When he came home his children rushed him, enveloping him in hugs because he brought himself to them.  Hallie expatiates on this theme in one of the most profound passages in the book:

When you give somebody a thing without giving yourself, you degrade both parties by making the receiver utterly passive and by making yourself a benefactor standing there to receive thanks—and even sometimes obedience—as repayment. But when you give yourself, nobody is degraded—in fact, both parties are elevated by a shared joy. When you give yourself, the things you are giving become to use Trocmé’s word, féconde (fertile, fruitful). What you give creates new, vigorous life, instead of arrogance on the one hand and passivity on the other. 72

At one time, Trocmé is asked whether another group struggling in WWII should practice non-violent resistance. His response was that a foundation first has to be laid before such a tactic can be efficacious. Trocmé, along with Pastor Edouard Theis and schoolteacher Roger Darcissac had poured their lives into resisting evil and teaching their neighbors before such visible means of resisting became necessary.

I tend to look for perfect heroes and tidy endings. I was sad to read that a personal tragedy reduced Pastor Trocmé’s faith and that Mme Trocmé seemed to hold faith at arm’s length even as she worked indefatigably.

Writing about this book brings threads of recent events together: Today, April 9th, is the anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death. There are striking similarities and certain differences between André Trocmé and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As I look at the photo of the Trocmés above, Magda Trocmé reminds me of Edith Shaeffer, a different kind of rescuer, who died on April 6th. And finally, the news of Rick Warren’s son’s suicide on April 5th coincides with a Trocmé family tragedy.

Ever curious, I wondered where the surviving children were. I discovered that Nelly Trocmé Hewett, 85, was giving talks last October and is scheduled to speak tomorrow at Macalester College in the Twin Cities. How immensely would I love to be in that audience.

Tamar, a Novel


As with any good mystery, I immediately wanted to re-read Tamar to look for clues and to see the significance which I missed in the first reading.  The 1944-1945 story of two spies for the Dutch resistance, code named Tamar and Dart, is interwoven with the life of a young woman—named Tamar—in 1995 London, attempting to learn her Grandad’s and Gran’s shrouded personal history.

Grandad defends his silence: I happen to think there are certain things that are best left buried, that we should take to our graves with us. Terrible things that we have witnessed. I’m sure you disagree. You belong to a liberated generation; you believe in freedom of information.  Gulp.  This took me back to a moment around a table when I waltzed into our aunt’s memories of growing up in WWII Austria. “What was it like?” I probed, with no clue what my question cost. Aunt Anita was quiet, looked down, gathered herself, and then replied, “Oh, we really don’t want to get into that now.” 

It is hard to write about the narrative without a spoiler. The espionage parts are intense; my muscles tensed while reading them. The nighttime ambush of Nazi SS Lieutenant General Rauter and retaliatory executions is true.   

Some quotes:

It was so damned hard to know what the old man was feeling. He was like one of those office blocks with tinted windows; you could only see in it you happened to look from a certain angle when the light was right. 5

The fear was on him suddenly, like a thin covering of ice over his entire skin. 65

Dart had become so unused to good feelings that he’d acquired the habit of examining them like a careful shopkeeper who’d been paid with a big banknote. 173

The teenaged Tamar finally connects with Grandad through algebra and crossword puzzles.

Grandad taught me that the alien signs and symbols of algebraic equations were not just marks on the paper. They were not flat. They were three-dimensional, and you could approach them from different directions, look at them from different angles, stand them on their heads. You could take them apart, and put them together in a variety of shapes, like Lego. I stopped being afraid of them.

I discovered that Grandad’s world was full of mirages and mazes, of mirrors and misleading signs. He was fascinated by riddles and codes and conundrums and labyrinths, by the origin of place names, by grammar, by slang, by jokes—although he never laughed at them—by anything that might mean something else.

He taught me that language was rubbery, plastic. It wasn’t, as I’d thought, something you just use, but something you can play with. Words were made up of little bits that could be shuffled, turned back to front, remixed. They could be tucked and folded into other words to produce unexpected things. It was like cookery, like alchemy. Language hid more than it revealed.

I’m not an expert in Young Adult fiction, but I question that slot for this book. It tilts strongly adult and not so much young. I have some other quibbles, but to bring them up here would spoil things.

Reading this fiction made me want to read Leo Mark’s non-fiction Between Silk and Cyanide, a book waiting patiently on my TBR shelf. I was delighted the Mal Peet acknowledged this title as very helpful in his research.

I wanted to read this book after reading Sherry’s review at Semicolon. Her Saturday Review of Books is a primary source of good reading!





Even though I knew that Louis Zamperini survived insupportable agonies (this can’t be considered a spoiler: the word survival is in the subtitle), Laura Hillenbrand’s taut pacing of the narrative created and sustained tension as I read along. When I came to the point where—after having been officially declared dead then later confirmed alive, the war having been concluded, his fragile health jacked up above survival levels—Zamperini is escorted home by his brother Pete, the dam of my emotions gave way; spasms of sobs shook my frame.

Over Long Beach, they sank back into the rain and landed. There, bursting from army cars, were their father and mother, and Sylvia and Virginia. The moment the plane stopped, Louie jumped down, ran to his sobbing mother, and folded himself into her. “Cara mamma mia,” he whispered. It was a long time before they let go.

Unbroken is the story of a series of rescues in Louie Zamperini’s life: how running rescued him from a mutinous youth careening with crime, the rescue from 47 days on a raft, how he was rescued from sadistic focus of a brutal war criminal, and the ultimate rescue of a tortured post-war veteran. 

Zamperini’s story is worthy of an epic poem of Homerian proportions. Hillenbrand’s prose, however, is magnificent. Here are a few of her phrases which delighted my ear:

a festival of rapid-fire diarrhea

(prisoners) gathered in drifts against the buildings

this warren of captive men

men’s bodies slowly winnowed

the sea began to arch its back under the raft

a laughing equanimity

Resilience is hard to detect in a body well nourished, well rested, and well kept. Resilience needs adversity, agony, and misery to have something to rebound from. Zamperini’s story is replete with deprivation, danger and destruction. Sharks, both human and piscine, seek to devour him. He offers bodily resistance as long as he is able. His indomitable spirit resists when his body is incapable.  

In the midst of despair in an inflated raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there is a day so exquisitely described which completely changed my idea about the doldrums.

It was an experience of transcendence. Phil watched the sky, whispering that it looked like a pearl. The water looked so solid that it seemed they could walk across it. When a fish broke the surface far away, the sound carried to the men with absolute clarity. They watched as pristine ringlets of water circled outward around the place where the fish had passed, then faded to stillness.

For a while they spoke, sharing their wonder. Then they fell into reverent silence. Their suffering was suspended. They weren’t hungry or thirsty. There were unaware of the approach of death.

As he watched this beautiful, still world, Louie played with a thought that had come to him before. He had thought it as he had watched hunting seabirds, marveling at their ability to adjust their dives to compensate for the refraction of light in water. He had thought it as he had considered the pleasing geometry of the sharks, their gradation in color, their slide through the sea…Such beauty, he thought, was too perfect to have come about by mere chance. That day in the center of the Pacific was, to him, a gift crafted deliberately, compassionately, for him and Phil.

Joyful and grateful in the midst of slow dying, the two men bathed in that day until sunset brought it, and their time in the doldrums, to an end.

Louis Zamperini’s story continues to the present (he is still alive and recently spoke at my friend’s church). It’s easier to end a book when the subject has died; there is a clearly defined finish. When the main character is still alive it takes more skill to bring the story to a conclusion. Laura Hillenbrand wraps this remarkable man’s story with one final scene. The significance of it escaped me at first. I went back and reread a paragraph. Oh!  Again, emotions pressed down hard to the overflowing point. The beauty, the profound and glorious beauty of this scene was the satin ribbon that tied this story together into a perfect bow. The final sentence undid me.





I am midway through a journey begun in 2008 to understand the 20th century.  The Great War took a year (of my time!); WWII about 15 months. Life circumstances slowed me down, but I’m cheerfully working through the post-war period and the Korean War.  One approach to history that I appreciate is studying the lives of key people. Voila, la bibliographie! [That is a private joke that only I understand: the first sentence I ever learned in French was “Chttt! Voila, la biblioteque!” translated: Be QUIET! There is the librarian! It was on a filmstrip (with accompanying vinyl album that had a bell signal to go to the next slide) we watched in French I.]

I wanted to know Eisenhower better. Stephen Ambrose admires his subject.  He begins, “Dwight Eisenhower was a great and a good man. He was one of the outstanding leaders of the Western World in this century.”  This is the first volume of a two-volume biography of Eisenhower. Anyone interested in leadership would benefit from reading Ike’s story.

Everyone brings a personal “grid” to their reading.  I was very interested in Eisenhower’s religious background. Much has been made of the fact that one of the world’s greatest generals was raised in a pacifist home. David and Ida Eisenhower were devout members of Brethren in Christ.  David’s nighttime reading was the Bible in Greek; Ida memorized 1325 Bible verses. And yet…

Nightly Bible reads, Milton said, were “a good way to get us to read the Bible mechanically.” They never discussed what they had read, never asked “Why?,” never explored the deep subtlety or rich symbolism of the Bible. It was the word of God, sufficient unto itself. The duty of mortals was not to explore it, investigate it, question it, think about it, but rather to accept it. 24

Two traits, ever helpful in his life, were manifest in young Ike’s life: intense curiosity and a remarkable ability to concentrate.  As an adult he had another remarkable ability: to shake a depression. Ambrose writes about his vitality:

That quality showed in his speech, in his mannerisms, his physical movements, most of all in his eyes. They were astonishingly expressive. As he listened to his deputies discuss future operations, his eyes moved quickly and inquisitively from face to face. His concentration was intense, almost a physical embrace. His eyes always showed his mood—they were icy blue when he was angry, warmly blue what he was pleased, sharp and demanding when he was concerned, glazed when he was bored. 272

As a general, Ike comprehended the sacrifice that both the soldiers and their families made.

Eisenhower wanted to let as many men as possible see him. He made certain that every soldier who was to go ashore on D-Day had the opportunity to at least look at the man who was sending him into battle. 294

He was the man who had to total up all the casualties. 293

…only Eisenhower had such a keen sense of family, of the way in which each casualty meant a grieving family back home. Eisenhower’s concern was of such depth and so genuine that it never left him. 293

It wasn’t until he was in his fifties, that Eisenhower received acclaim and notoriety, primarily as the Supreme Commander of Operation Overlord.  Eisenhower was also the NATO commander, president of Columbia University and president of the United States.  This volume ends with Eisenhower as President-Elect of the United States.

I found Ambrose’s book engaging and helpful. At no time did my interest lag. I was inspired by Eisenhower’s discipline, organizational skills and perception.

A fun coda: I have a habit of immersing myself in books on (relatively) obscure topics. I find myself wanting to discuss the ideas and events I have read about, but coming up short on conversation partners. Honestly, what would dampen a dinner party faster than, “I know, let’s talk about Truman and Eisenhower!”?  I discovered recently that among my acquaintances are a couple who were friends with Ike and Mamie Eisenhower during their retirement years in Gettysburg.  They were full of stories about the Eisenhowers. I lent them this book; Ray read it through in three days.  I’m looking forward to some great discussions.  An unexpected gift!


German Boy

I had already read stacks of Holocaust memoirs and was suffering “misery fatigue” when I bought German Boy. What compelled me to buy and read this book? Simply because it is written from the point of view of a German boy; other than Hitler’s Mein Kampf and All Quiet on the Western Front, I had not read a German narrative. Apparently, misery does not recognize boundaries. Once again I am astonished at the suffering a human being can survive.

Wolfgang Samuel’s story covers the time between his tenth birthday, January 1945, in Eastern Germany to January 1951 when Samuel, his mother and her new American husband leave Germany for America.  As the narrative begins, Wolfgang, his sister Ingrid and their Mutti  (German for “mom”) leave in the middle of the night to flee Russian troops entering their city. This is the first of many three-suitcase trips. The family of three lives with Mutti’s parents until they again travel west.  The formal end of hostilities did not bring an end of deprivation, an end of hunger, or an end of violence.  

An uncomfortable aspect of this story is the extent Mutti went to provide for her hungry family.  It is a sad story, delicately told, of a desperate woman who exchanges sex for soup. Mutti was a beautiful woman, estranged from her husband, who was used to flirting for favors.  In the flurry of packing up and leaving, Mutti dons a silk blouse, silk stockings, a black velvet jacket and makeup.  When her mother disapproves, she replies:

Mother, our only chance of escape is to be picked up by an army
truck heading west to the American lines. Do you think anyone is going
to stop and pick up a frumpy-looking woman with two children and an
old woman by her side? No. They’ll stop for a pretty, well-dressed woman,
if they stop at all. I am trying to look my very best. If we are lucky,
someone will have a heart and will take a look at me–and stop for us.

Amongst the multiple migrations searching for a safe place, the family takes a small room near the train station.  After months of dwindling food supply and no way to feed her family, Mutti does the unthinkable.  A Russian man starts to visit at night; in the morning a steaming two-liter can of soup sits on the windowsill.  Even so, Wolfgang protests: Mutti, you shouldn’t be doing what you are doing. Only Dad should sleep with you. It is a raw story, a poignant story. Almost every woman Wolfgang was associated with at this point in his life was raped by soldiers. 

Carnage caresses his life.  Besides daily bombings, Wolfgang lives through a strafing attack on a long column of refugees where people five feet from him were killed. He witnesses a school fellow’s drowning.  His father shows up and leads them in a night crossing, dodging Russian patrols, through a blizzard to the American zone. And yet, in the way a child focuses on the immediate things, he also remembers the loneliness of being ostracized by other German boys, the boredom of bad schools, the shame of ill-fitting clothes and the petty corruptions of life in a refugee barracks.  

Living next to RAF Fassberg, Wolfgang witnessed firsthand the continual air traffic of the Berlin airlift. When the Americans arrived, Sergeant Leo Ferguson made his entrance.  He fell in love and married the now-divorced Hedy (Mutti’s name); he was the means for Wolfgang and his Mutti to move to Colorado.  Wolfgang’s sister Ingrid remained with her father.  Enamored with pilots and airplanes, Wolfgang served in the U.S. Air Force for thirty years, retiring as a colonel.  In June 1998, Wolfgang Samuel was a speaker at a conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Berlin airlift. His story arrested the attention of Stephen Ambrose, who encouraged Samuel to publish his book.

I cannot conceive of circumstances leading to the choices Hedy made.  I shuddered and recoiled as I read.  I have a relative who lived through post-war Austria.  In the past, when I have asked for this person’s story, the answer was always a silent shaking of the head, a polite refusal to revisit that period.  I still have no idea what that story would be, but after having read this book, I am inclined to never again ask that question.