Pull Ourselves Together



The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. 
If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb,
let that bomb, when it comes,
find us doing sensible and human things–
listening to music,
bathing the children,
playing tennis,
chatting to our friends over a pint
and a game of darts–
not huddled together
like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.

~ C.S. Lewis, written during World War II

Insert swine flu [or any crisis of the week] for atomic bomb. 
Lewis’ words are especially potent.
How will huddling and worrying add a day to your life?

I don’t want to discount the potential harm from swine flu.
Neither do I want to inflate the threat.

If the swine flu attacks me today–and I doubt it will–,
it will find me making a birthday dinner,
taking a walk, reconciling a bank
statement (one of my favorite tasks),
cleaning floors, answering the phone,
and reading a book.

What sensible and human things are you doing?


How to Cook a Wolf


“Nothing seems particularly grim
if your head is clear
and your teeth are clean
and your bowels function properly.”

The problem is how to characterize How to Cook a Wolf.   

~  It is a cookbook, but one with only 75 recipes added like seasoning to the prose.  Along the way you will learn how to cook fish, eggs, fritattas, polenta, gravy, bread and War Cake.

~  It is a book on frugality.

~  It is a survival book including a basic recipe for a gruel/sludge that will keep you alive.

~  It is sort of a social history, illuminating life at home during the second world war.

~  It is a dialog between the author and herself.  She wrote the book in 1942 and revised it in 1954.  The original is kept intact and revisions added in [brackets].  This is one of the most entertaining features.  As any writer knows, reading your work at a later date can make you alternately wince or nod your head.  Fisher, an opinionated writer, tends to argue with herself, retract a statement or two; but she admits at the end of one chapter that she is pleased with what she wrote. 

~   It is a book worth reading for its delightful prose.  W. H. Auden wrote about M.F.K. Fisher “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.”  Here’s what I want you to do: click on the link above, click on the picture of the book “Click to Look Inside” and read the table of contents.  I don’t know any other book with better chapter titles. 

If you are curious about the wolf in the title, it comes from the ditty by C.P.S. Gilman: There’s a whining at the threshold.  There’s a scratching at the floor.  To work! To work! In Heaven’s name! The wolf is at the door! 

Here’s some morsels of Fisher’s writing to further tempt you:

As for butter and other shortening,
I have always felt that I should prefer
too little of the best
to plenty of the inferior kind.  p. 18

[As an older and wiser frittata cook
I almost always, these richer days,
add a scant cup of good dry Parmesan cheese
to the eggs when I mix them.
Often I add rich cream too.
How easy it is to stray from austerity!]  p.61

I believe more firmly than ever in fresh raw milk,
freshly ground whole grains of cereal,
and vegetables grown in organically cultured soil.
If I must eat meats I want them carved from beasts
nurtured on the plants from that same kind of soil.  p. 71

The doubtful triumphs of science over human hunger
are perhaps less dreadful to the English than to us,
for in spite of our national appetite for pink gelatine puddings,
we have never been as thoroughly under the yoke
of Bird’s Custard Sauce as our allies.  p.152

In the old days, before Stuka and blitz became part of
even childish chitchat, every practical guide to cookery
urged you to keep a well-filled emergency shelf
in your kitchen or pantry.
Emergency is another word
that has changed its inner shape;
when Marion Harland and Fanny Farmer used it
they meant unexpected guests.
You may, too, in an ironical way,
but you hope to God
they are the kind who will never come.  p.187

All But My Life & The Hours After


All But My Life begins at 9:10 a.m. on September 3, 1939, when the Nazis invaded the Weissmann’s home town of Bielitz, Poland.  Immediately her family lost any sense of safety and security.  About the beginning of October there was a timid knock at the door.  It was not the ominous thump of the Gestapo, but a hesitant, tired signal.  It is strange how many feelings a knock can express, if you listen carefully. The book chronicles the progressive losses which accumulate one after another after another through the days after the end of the war.  It is staggering.  Layer by layer, everything Gerda treasures is stripped away. 

When she is liberated the only valuable thing she owns are the ski boots her father insisted she wear on the June day three years ago when Gerda was transferred out of the ghetto to a labor camp.  Her love and admiration of her older brother Artur, made his loss one of the heaviest of all. 

At our final parting, when I was fifteen and my brother nineteen, he asked me to be brave and take care of our parents.  My promise to him was my most sacred vow.  And during the years that followed, I did the best I could–always, I suppose, in the hope that he would praise me when we next met.  How could I have imagined that on a snowy winter’s night many decades later, in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel would express the fulfillment of part of that irrational hope when he took me into his arms and said, “I have waited so long to meet Arthur’s little sister.” As I wept, he stroked my hair and said, “You have been very brave.”  He had never met my brother but had read what I wrote about him, and with uncanny sensitivity he had identified with us; thus he gave me the praise I had hoped to hear from my brother.

Gerda’s story continues with The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing in War’s Aftermath.   The first American soldier to see Gerda on Liberation Day was Kurt Klein.  In spite of her filthy, broken down, ematiated figure, there was a spark in Gerda which immediately attracted Kurt.  A Lieutenant in the Army, Klein was also  Jewish, born and raised in Germany before he emigrated to America.  Two months after meeting her and the evening before he was shipped to another location, Kurt asked Gerda, alone in the world, to marry him.  Their letters during their year of separation before they could marry form the framework of this book. 

This book grew on me, the second half more absorbing than the first.  Gerda’s daily letters offer a mosaic of life in Munich immediately after the war.  How can she reconcile the kindness of her landlords with the fact that they were Nazi party members since 1933?  Her plight underscored the difficulty displaced persons had in proving who they were, getting visas, with so little documentation available.  Gerda worked for a while with the Bavarian Aid Society.  Her descriptions of the people seeking help are either full of sorrow or ironic humor. 

Because Kurt and Gerda are both so articulate, their letters, which they translated for the book, are rich reading. They cover daily life, problem solving, hope for their future, acknowledgment of painful realities, yearning for the miraculous appearance of a family member, and, at their core, a deep love for one another.   

Thanks to my friend Frankie (who lived in London during the war) for turning me on to Gerda Weissmann Klein’s books.  

Hitler’s Struggle, Mein Kampf

Why did you want to read Mein Kampf (My Struggle)? 

•  Initially I wanted to see how transparent Hitler was.  How clear were his statements?  Abraham Foxman writes in the Introduction:  “Mein Kampf’s existence denies the free world the excuse of ignorance.”
•  Hitler’s opening words.  “To an ever-increasing extent world history became for me an inexhaustible source of understanding for the historical events of the present; in other words, for politics.  I do not want to ‘learn’ it, I want it to instruct me.  (p.16)  Reading this book is one of the steps in answering the question ‘How could the Holocaust happen?’
•  History fascinates me.  It is so interconnected: one really cannot understand WW2 without a knowledge of WW1; the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 is an important context of WW1, Napolean etc. etc.  A mentor long ago convinced me of the value of primary source documents. 

What was your overall impression?

I agree with Mussolini who called it ‘Hitler’s boring book‘.  Hitler considered himself a gifted orator.  He was no writer.  It was hard to follow his circular logic.  Much of his rhetoric was vitriol and vituperation.  Frankly, it was agony to read.  My husband could not understand my compulsion to make it through to the end. 

Was there anything to like?

Surprisingly, yes. 
•  Describing the poverty of his youth: “Hunger was then my faithful bodyguard.” (p.21). 
•  “The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. ”  (p.180)
•  This phrase tickled me: “a sneak and a spineless lickspittle”
•   He advocated strong sports and physical fitness programs for boys. 
•   Hitler’s commentary on (generic) committee members: “…who were in a kind of continuous pregnancy with excellent plans, ideas, projects, methods.”  He said that the best means of making them harmless was to assign them to some real work.

So.  How did he really feel about the Jews?

•  Gradually, I began to hate them [Jews].  p.63
•  I had ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan and became an anti-Semite. p. 64
•  All who are not of good race in this world are chaff.  p. 296
•  personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew  p.324
•  The Jew is the great master in lying.

Whom, besides the Jews, did Hitler hate?

•  Pacifists
•  Marxists (particularly that Jew, Karl Marx)
•  Parlimentarianism
•  Western democracy
•  Mixed races (particularly in Slavs)
•  Signers of The Treaty of Versailles
•  Bastards, physically degenerate, mentally sick
•  France (inexorable mortal enemy of the German people)

Were there any foreshadowings of Hitler’s invasions?

•  Hitler describes correct foreign policy as “a strengthening of our continental power by gaining new soil in Europe.” (p.612)
•  These circles never even began to realize that Germanization can only be applied to soil and never to people.  (p.388)

Final thoughts?

Mein Kampf is a witness against Hitler and his followers.  He clearly articulated the philosophy of Nazism.  While the horror of ‘The Final Solution’ wasn’t revealed, the open hatred of Jews is never hidden.  

I Have Never Forgotten You

He didn’t mask his disappointment.  It’s a documentary?  Exhausted from a long work week, my husband anticipated a light comedy … something … easy.  Three minutes into the movie we were fully engaged, and flat out in love with Simon Wiesenthal.  When the credits rolled, we wept in silence, wrapped in a shawl of sorrow. 

Why was this movie so appealing?  It taps into our sense of justice.  N.T. Wright writes, “…we all share not just a sense that there is such a thing as justice, but a passion for it, a deep longing that things should be put to rights, a sense of out-of-jointness that goes on nagging and gnawing and sometimes screaming at us…”

I Have Never Forgotten You tells Wiesenthal’s story with a montage of archived interviews, televised speaking engagements, and biographical narrative.  Blessed with a steel-trap memory, this Shoah survivor weighing 99 pounds was able to sit down and write ninety names of Nazi war criminals soon after he was liberated.  With his role in finding Adolf Eichmann, Simon Wiesenthal’s fame as a Nazi hunter grew to international proportions.      

This was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.  Sorrow was not only a daily companion, but an essential part of the man he became.  He made room for it in his life; he didn’t try to deny its existence or keep it locked up in the cellar of his soul.  His eyes welled up often.  He was a grief-carrier, and the grace with which he carried his grief is truly a thing of beauty.  He was warm and jovial, a joke maker and a story teller.  And his smile…his smile melted my heart.

I knew the name, had heard some stories.  I expected a man of intense, slow-burning anger, a vigilante bent on revenge.  But there is a vast difference between revenge and justice.  Solid in the face of opposition, Wiesenthal worked tirelessly; courageous when attacked, he methodically organized the avalanche of information, determined in his duty, persistent to the end.  Ben Kingsley said that he was an instrument of healing for thousands of people.
This is the best movie we’ve seen in 2009.  I highly recommend it with the caution that there are Holocaust images and content. 

Criticizing Churchill

In Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War” Pat Buchanan argues that both World Wars could have been avoided.  He places a huge amount of culpability on Winston Churchill for both wars.  If you follow the link, under product description are six bullet points that list major Churchillian blunders.

I don’t have patience with all the “might have”s posited, as in if Churchill had ignored this, Hitler might have… Anyone can argue from the might haves, but Buchanan really works at backing up his conjectures with facts.   Buchanan firmly believes the both the Kaiser and Hitler had no interest in England, that they would have stopped at France in their appetite for land. 

The criticism of Churchill that sticks to him – in my mind – is his alliance with Joseph Stalin.  Buchanan compares this with Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement with Hitler.  Many people are not aware that Stalin was responsible for more considerably more deaths than Hitler was.  (Joseph Stalin, Pure Evil – not for squeamish shows videos of labor camps coupled with a gorgeous choral rendition of the Lord’s Prayer).  How both the USA and Great Britain could ally themselves to Stalin baffles me.  (My husband suggests that Hitler was a greater threat and that we needed Stalin to fight against Hitler.  Nothing is clean and tidy in war.)

Having been raised to adore Churchill, it was jarring to hear him so blatantly criticized.   To be sure, Churchill made mistakes (who would argue that he didn’t?) but I don’t believe you can pin both wars on him.  This book is hands down the best written book and most documented one I’ve read this year.  Whatever he is, Buchanan is a wordsmith, par excellence.  I listened to an audio version of this book and could follow the complex but cogent arguments without any problem.  Hearing the book, my husband inevitable stopped and listened instead of walking away. I only recommend it for those with a working knowledge of both wars.            

My Lucky Star


When a teen-aged Czech girl living outside of Prague heard Fred Astaire singing “You Are My Lucky Star” she was captivated.

I sang it as I heard it, phonetically, with no idea of the meaning.  To my ears the opening words sounded like some imaginary Czech words, Jú ár majlakista

Zdenka Fantlová decided on a whim that she ought to learn to speak English.  When the race laws expelled her from her final year of school in 1940, she attended the English Institute in Prague and learned the language under teachers from England.  When it came to the darkest, blackest hour of her life, when she was hours from death, that knowledge of English saved her life.

Her fathers final words to her, words spoken while he was being arrested by the Gestapo, sustained her through her long journey: Just keep calm.  Remember, calmness is strength.  My Lucky Star is a remarkably calm narrative of a survivor of Terezín, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kurzbach, and Bergen-Belsen. 

Somewhere inside each of us is a survival kit.  We never know where it is, or what is in it, until it opens at the critical moment.  It contains no drugs or bandages, just firm instructions about what to do – and the necessary strength to do it.   

After reading Fantlová’s memoir, I wanted to know more. 

I watched Fred Astaire singing You Are My Lucky Star.

Terezín (also called Theresienstadt) was presented as a model Jewish settlement with a flourishing arts culture, but in reality was a transit camp to Auschwitz.  Fantlová participated in theater productions; there were jazz bands, string quartets, choirs and symphony orchestras. Prisoner of Paradise (follow link to see archival photos) tells the story of Kurt Gerron, an actor and director who was forced to make a Nazi propoganda film. Terezin Chamber Music Foundation has a wealth of information.

Anne Sofie von Otter recorded Terezín/Theresienstadt, songs composed by inmates.  Listen to the samples and weep at the depth of soulful expression.  They are not all mournful melodies; some are sprightly, full of zest.


Finally I wanted to know more about Fantlova herself.  I found these photos (the left taken in 1946 and the second current) along with an interview at Radio Prague.

I recommend this book on several levels.  Most holocaust literature I’ve read has come from Polish, French, German or Dutch perspectives.  This is the first Czech author I’ve read.  It’s shorter length (201 pages) and level voice makes it, perhaps, a good entry book into the often traumatizing genre of holocaust literature.  While there is pain, hunger, loss, death in her journey, Zdenka’s calm writing  makes it all bearable to read.

Band of Brothers and Beyond


Stephen Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers : E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest brings World War II down to a personal level.  Limiting the scope of the story to one company from their training at Camp Toccoa and their preparation for D-Day in England to several fierce battles to Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s mountain resort, provides a panorama of the war experience for a small group of citizen soldiers.  The parachute infantry was a new concept in soldiering.  Many men chose the Airborne because of the extra $50 pay per month; some craved the physical challenge; others wanted the respect and status that came with their reputation for daring exploits.  Since the HBO mini-series, this story has become famous.  Reading this book makes me want to read more all of Ambrose’s WWII books.

There is a limit to how long a man can function effectively in this topsy-turvy world.  For some, mental breakdown comes early; Army psychiatrists found that in Normandy 10 and 20 percent of the men in rifle companies suffered some form of mental disorder during the first week, and either fled or had to be taken out of the line.  For others, visible breakdown never occurs, but nevertheless effectiveness breaks down.  The experiences of men in combat produces emotions stronger than civilians can know, emotions of terror, panic, anger, sorrow, bewilderment, helplessness, uselessness, and each of these feelings drained energy and mental stability.  p.203

One man stands out as an incredible leader: Major Dick Winters.  His courage, leadership, humility, wisdom, and spunk are remarkable.  Two words, Winter says, encapsulate a good leader:  Follow me.  After reading Band of Brothers I wanted to know more about the Major.  In 2006 he wrote his memoirs, Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters.  I was bewildered by the overlap between the two books (a few paragraphs are almost identical) until I realized that Ambrose got much of his material from Winters himself.  Winters limits the scope of his book to the memoirs of the war time and follow-up of soldiers in the company.  He treasures his privacy and doesn’t reveal personal details.  At 91, Winters is the only officer still alive from the Easy Company.       

These two quotes interested me enough to transcribe them from the audio book.  Doesn’t physical exhaustion leading to combat fatigue have applications in everyday life?

Physical exhaustion leads to mental exhaustion which in turn causes men to lose discipline.  Loss of self-discipline then produces combat fatigue.  Self-discipline keeps a soldier doing his job.  Without it, he loses his pride and he loses the importance of self-respect in the eyes of his fellow soldiers.  It is pride that keeps a soldier going and keeps him in the fight.

This quote about combat fatigue is poignant in light of the opening theme in the HBO mini-series based on the book Band of Brothers which shows a helmut fall to the ground and a man dazed.  I have seen this messing up of hair, pressing hands against the temples, hands-on-the-head behavior in people who are stressed out.   Shoot, I’m sure I do this myself.

When you see a man break, he usually slams his helmut down and messes up his hair.  I don’t know if it is conscious or unconscious.  But a soldier massages his head, shakes it, and then he is gone.  You can talk to him all you want but he cannot hear you.

These books are part of the War Through the Generations Reading Challenge.

Pimples Gathered in Peer Groups

Pimples were gathered
in peer groups on his face.

(description of a 15 year old boy)

Her teeth elbowed each other
for room in her mouth…

(a shopkeeper)

~  Markus Zusak in The Book Thief

I’m only a third of the way through listening to this novel narrated by Death about a girl named Liesel Meminger living in Nazi Germany.  Death as the narrator sounds very creepy, but in fact it is incredibly clever. When I review it, qualifiers (caveats) will rain down like paratroopers on D Day.   

But this much I can say: 

I haven’t read writing so crisp and crackly since William Griffin’s translation of The Imitation of Christ or Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.

Dr. Seuss Goes to War

File this one under It Pays to Browse the Stacks.

Before I checked out my public library’s section on WWII, I had no idea that Theodor Seuss Geisel had a short career drawing political cartoons for the New York newspaper PM

On the back cover:

“this cat is not in the hat.”   Studs Terkel

“…lets us know what happens when Horton hears a heil.”  Art Spiegelman

Dr. Seuss was born into a German-American family which (before prohibition) owned the Springfield brewery  Kalmbach and Geisel, commonly called “come back and guzzle.” 

He was raised Evangelical Lutheran, was against American isolation and neutrality, against Charles Lindbergh, against America First.   He was an interventionist and wanted to show the connections between the isolationists and the Nazis.  He was against racisim and against anti-Semitism, but was stridently racist towards the Japanese.

I learned from this book that Dr. Seuss wrote Yertle the Turtle  about Adolf Hitler.  Of course, I had to go back to the library and check it out.

“Turtles! More turtles!” he bellowed and brayed.
And the turtles way down in the pond were afraid.
They trembled.  They shook.  But they came. They obeyed.
From all over the pond, they came swimming by dozens.
Whole families of turtles, with uncles and cousins.
And all of them stepped on the head of poor Mack.
One after another, they climbed up the stack.

More from Yertle, because it is too rich when you know that it is Hitler.

“You hush up your mouth!” howled the mighty King Yertle.
“You’ve no right to talk to the world’s highest turtle.
I rule from the clouds! Over land! Over sea!
There’s nothing, no, NOTHING, that’s higher than me!”

A Catalog of Political Cartoons by Dr. Seuss has all 400 of the cartoons reproduced, including 200 not included in the book.  Click on the cartoons to enlarge them.  They are engaging on many levels.

I’m part of the War Through the Generations Reading Challenge.