Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for September, 2015

I brought copies of my recently published book with me to the inaugural Sandy Hill Farmers’ Market on a beautiful autumn Sunday, not knowing what I was in for.

I was wiped out and overwhelmed.

I wound up talking to hundreds of people.  Some I did not know, but most I could place from somewhere in my life in being a part of this amazing community. I introduced myself to people that I should know, but who for some reason, I never crossed paths with. And to think the Market was orchestrated by former students who I remember very well, Joelle Timms and Jenny Demers. I am proud of them and their commitment to moving the town forward-and it’s just so comforting to know that the kids you had in class are now the leaders in making the future.

Matt Rozell at the Sandy Hill Farmers' Market. 9-26-2015. Portrait by Kendall McKernon.

Matt Rozell at the Sandy Hill Farmers’ Market. 9-27-2015. Grading papers before the rush. Portrait by Kendall McKernon.

I finally got to connect with Kendall McKernon, who has been trumpeting my work and is a major force himself in promoting the revitalization of this town. Be sure to pick up some of his amazing work in the following weeks as the Market continues every Sunday until November.

Some of my former students are now veterans themselves, Army, Marines, Air Force, and Navy, and came out to reconnect again and express their appreciation—and some parents whose kids could not make it because they are somewhere in the field today, stopped by to get a book for them. World War II veterans I did not know before came out to chat with me and Pacific veteran Alvin Peachman, especially Phil Battiste, who wanted to tell me he read my book THREE times and knew just about everyone featured in the book! I asked him if I got it right—he told me I was on top of my game. Phil told me he knew my late father very well and could place him and his family in the childhood house they lived in near him on the corner, during the Great Depression.

My best hometown friend’s mom came out to get a book and reminded me that I escorted her down the aisle at his wedding to his bride 32 Septembers ago- and Dolores was just was beaming with pride. Later, the still lovely bride stood in line patiently to get a book and reminded me that we need to see each other soon! My preschool teacher from 50 years ago came out to say hi, and I joked with a woman whose face I could just about place, and when she said that she was one of my former teachers, I immediately recited her first, last, and married name. I knew this because she was one of my first crushes and she married the year she had me in her elementary class. I told her she was still beautiful. She picked up two books.

My cousin, whom I have not seen in years, stopped by, picking up books for the family. She filled me in on her genealogy research and sent her son to get coffee for me, and restocked the books that Alvin and I signed, and helped keep us organized as a line began to form. My wife stopped in after Mass, and ran to the truck to get more books. My parents’ friends were there. Mom and Dad passed on ten and fifteen years ago, and seeing people I remember fondly from my own days of being raised right here brings my folks right back to the forefront of memory with a warm bath of affection and love that today was impossible to overlook.

Then, there was the girl (woman! mother!) who told me she is in her 7th year teaching at a nearby school, with her own sister teaching in an adjoining classroom! I remembered S. as being very happy and fun in class, and congratulated her on becoming a teacher, because I even in high school I could sense that she would  make the world a better place just by the sheer force of her ‘good will to others’ presence. I wish I paid a little more attention to the little one who was with her, but she kind of struck me when she volunteered that I was the reason she was a teacher. We had never had that kind of conversation in the classroom—but that is the way it works, and I am lucky enough to hear this later in life, rather than eavesdropping at my wake! Just a few weeks ago, a young man from my first year of trying to survive as a teacher came out to my first book talk and raised his hand when I called for a show of hands of former students in the room. I could not place him right at that moment, but later, when he told me his first name, I could spell ‘Ehren’ correctly as if it was 28 years ago. He teaches history in Albany, and told me I was the reason for that…

But of all the wonderful blasts from the past, tugging at my subconscious was the presence of the young woman who was standing back and watching me sign a book for her friend (one of my former students, now a combat Marine veteran of the Iraq war, with whom I was chatting away and really enjoying getting to know again). She was quiet, in the background, but smiling as T. and I talked, and just kind of gazing at me in a special way. I knew that I knew her, but just couldn’t place it—so I finally asked her. And it all came flooding back, when she spoke her first name. Half a lifetime away, at an immensely difficult time in her life, I had reached out to her and taken her under my wing while she struggled through and worked to regain some balance as a sixteen year old. We did not speak of it, but before she left she stepped forward because she said she had to give me a hug.

When I see my brother, who lives in Alaska, once a year, when it is time to part, he puts his arms around me and squeezes me hard, in silence. So it is. I did a lot of hugs today, but she got the hardest squeeze, in silence. Bless you, C. So it seems that ‘Repairing the World’ has turned out to be a theme in my life’s work, and in most teachers I know, but in truth, it starts at home, and it works both ways. Bless everyone who has played a part of and enriched my life in so many different ways.

I write about the feeling I have for my hometown in the introduction of the book. I have been moved and shaped in so many ways by the veterans, by the people who came out today, and the hometown folks who could not make it. I hope the book is but a small token of my appreciation, and if you read the book, you will see it is my attempt to give back, but also pay it forward for the younger crowd who step up and make the vision real.

Mr. Peachman had a great day, and was on the receiving end of many hugs himself. He knew just about everyone who saw him, and held his own court in the temple of the Hudson Falls Farmers’ Market. Thank you Joelle for asking me, and Jenny, who did so much, and all the others with a vision for this small town on the Hudson that we all call home, no matter how far we have wandered. So I remember the words:

I cannot forget where it is that I come from.

A small town.

Matt Rozell and Alvin Peachman at the Sandy Hill Farmers' Market. 9-27--2015. Portrait by Kendall McKernon.

Matthew Rozell and veteran Alvin Peachman, 9-27–2015. Photo by Kendall McKernon.

Read Full Post »

It was six years ago this evening, we shared a meal on the eve of Shabbat, after watching ourselves on a national broadcast that reached millions. Why does it seem, so long ago?

Maybe because it all seems so unbelievable- that out of the darkness of the past, on a day when the sun dawned clearly and was warming the Earth in its mid-April morning ascent, a low rumble was heard by  hushed and huddled groupings of tormented humanity as they strained to hope for friends amidst their lurking murderers. As the metallic clanking grew louder, over the horizon broke the earthly angels, two Sherman light tanks and an American Jeep with the emblem of the white star. A cry broke out. They realized they were saved, and the American major snapped a photograph at the exact moment the overjoyed survivors realized it.

And out of the past on a warm September day, we brought them all together again. Who would have believed that 62 years later, a high school in a quiet, rural part of the world would  bring the soldier-liberators and the rescued survivors together from the US, Canada, Israel and elsewhere? All because I couldn’t let go of a good narrative history, and pursued the story behind the photographs that proved it really happened?

And think about the risk you run, inviting hundreds of octogenarians to come to a high school for half a week to mingle with thousands of high school and middle schoolers? Talk about sweating bullets. What if they are uncomfortable? Cranky? Complaining? What if the kids I can’t control are rude? And what if one of these “old” folks, who I don’t even know, dies on our watch? I would lie awake at night wondering if I was out of my mind.

But the miracle came to be-for the two dozen or so elders who could come, tears flowed, wine spilled, and our “new grandparents” danced with young teenagers who adored them, but only after the risk was accepted, with the enthusiastic help of Mary Murray, Tara Winchell-Sano, and Lisa Hogan, Rene Roberge and others. Have a look at the videos, and feel the love. We created ripples, and tripped the wires of the cosmos, and the reverberations are still echoing. To date, with Varda Weisskopf’s and Frank Towers’ help, the list is at 275 survivors whom we have found. And how many generations has it effected?

This is the subject of my second book, due out this next summer. In the meantime, I am working on a shorter work of what I have learned in teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. So take a look at the videos, and remember the words of the liberator:

“Here we are! We have arrived!”

Read Full Post »

Our misunderstanding of the Holocaust?

History’s True Warning

How our misunderstanding of the Holocaust offers moral cover for the geopolitical disasters of our time.

This article appears originally in Slate. Timothy Snyder is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University. His most recent book is Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.  It provides a look at what the author perceives to be the “mis-uses” of history and the dangers of simple or standard interpretations of the historical narrative. While I would agree that “the Holocaust was largely over by the time Americans soldiers landed on Normandy”, tell that to the half million Hungarian Jews who were being murdered during the summer of 1944. The war ended the Holocaust. Nor am I sure about the analogies. I think one has to read the book to assess this following argument, and I am currently doing so.

 

Kiev, June 23, 1941. Grushki district. Kiev, Ukraine. Photo by RIA Novosti archive via Wikimedia Commons

By Timothy Snyder

The cantor is a vivid presence in any Jewish congregation, responsible for song, often a man with an outgoing personality and a sense of social engagement. Such a cantor was Eleazar Bernstein, who lived with his wife Martha and their three children in the southwestern German city of Zweibrücken in the 1930s. Among other good deeds, Bernstein would visit Jews in the local prison to lift their spirits. There he befriended a guard, a police captain named Kurt Trimborn, with whom he would play chess.

On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, Germans destroyed hundreds of synagogues, including Bernstein’s. On the day after this national pogrom, the infamous Kristallnacht, Bernstein was arrested, along with thousands of other Jewish men throughout Germany, all bound for concentration camps. His neighbors looted his apartment, broke his windows, and stole his furniture. Bernstein’s two sons were too small to understand. Coming home to find a wreck, they amused themselves by throwing things through the gaping window frames. Martha made her way across the rioting city to find her husband’s police captain friend and ask for help. Trimborn told Martha to pack, released Eleazar, and escorted the family across the French border. The car was so full of suitcases that the children had to lie flat on top of them in the back seat.

Four decades later, from America, Bernstein sent Trimborn a letter. The two little boys had grown up to become engineers. His daughter was a teacher. There were grandchildren. All of this thanks to Trimborn.

The letter was written after Trimborn’s conviction for mass murder.

Since destroying states was one cause of the Holocaust, the Holocaust should not be used as a reason to destroy states.
Not long after helping the Bernstein family, Trimborn joined the German security police. He was trained for a special task force, an Einsatzgruppe, which was sent behind the invading German army to the Soviet Union. When Trimborn joined his Einsatzgruppe in occupied Soviet Ukraine in October 1941, its men were already murdering entire communities of Jews. That December, as the Red Army halted the German advance and the Americans joined the war after Pearl Harbor, Hitler proclaimed that the Jews were responsible for Germany’s predicament. In 1942, Trimborn personally ordered that hundreds of Jews be murdered, and carried out neck shots himself. One day he herded 214 children from an orphanage into a gas van—a truck refitted so that its exhaust fumes were pumped into the hold rather than into the atmosphere. The children screamed and pounded the walls as they were asphyxiated.

One lesson we have learned from the Holocaust is to emulate the rescuers. It is right and good to work against the current, as did Trimborn in 1938, to resist the oppression of groups by helping individuals. But this was not enough to stop a Holocaust in 1941; it was not even enough to stop Trimborn from participating in that Holocaust. We have further lessons to learn. We know that we should resist anti-Semitism. But we overlook that the program of eradicating Jews required sending men such as Trimborn to destroy neighboring states. The SS was not a special state institution but a racial one, grounded in a biological understanding of the world. Its task was to destroy states so that a racial struggle could unfold.

When Trimborn saved the Bernstein family, Germany was just beginning to undo European states. When Germany absorbed Austria in 1938, Jews were humiliated. When Germany dismantled Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939, Jews were depatriated. After Germany allied with the Soviet Union in 1939, each power invaded Poland with the aim of annihilating the Polish political nation; the Soviet Union also destroyed the three Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, separating Jews from their property and traditional legal protections.

Already in 1939, during the invasion of Poland, Germany sent Einsatzgruppen behind its army, to kill Polish political elites. In June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Nazis identified the Soviet political class (quite falsely) as the Jews. Einsatzgruppen commanders blamed Jews for the evils of Soviet rule, inviting local people to clear themselves of their own past collaboration with the Soviets by turning on their Jewish neighbors. Germans and locals joined together in the anti-Semitic lie that Jews were responsible for communism. In a war with no rules, German troops blamed Jews for the partisan response they feared and killed them. In a land without laws, German policemen were willing to shoot Jews, thousands at a time, people who were accused of no crime.

When Trimborn arrived in Ukraine, just three years after he had saved the Bernstein family, German leaders had learned how statelessness enabled the dark politics of mass murder. Far from Zweibrücken and quiet nights of playing chess, Trimborn would kill, again and again. And so the Holocaust began. Jews who lived before the war in places that became stateless had about a 1-in-20 chance of surviving. Elsewhere in places under German control, even in Germany itself, the probability was more like 1-in-2. The entirety of the killing would take place in a zone of Eastern Europe where the Germans brought anarchy.

Seeing the Holocaust as an encounter of general anti-Semitism and local statelessness helps us to make sense of the two great geopolitical disasters of our century: the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. In part because Americans misunderstood the Holocaust as the oppression of a minority by an authoritarian state within its own boundaries, they could believe in 2003 that regime change by force of arms in Iraq would automatically bring positive consequences. By the early 21st century, we had convinced ourselves that the Holocaust was caused by an authoritarian regime acting against a minority within its own borders, which in the main it wasn’t, and that we acted to stop it, which with a few minor exceptions we didn’t. The Holocaust was the mass murder of Jews beyond the borders of prewar Germany, in a zone from which conventional political institutions had been removed, and the Holocaust was largely over by the time Americans soldiers landed on Normandy. American troops liberated none of the major killing sites of the Holocaust, and saw none of the thousands of death pits in the East. The American trials at concentration camps reattributed prewar citizenship to the Jewish victims, helping us overlook that the eliminations of citizenship—usually by the destruction of states of which Jews had been citizens—were what permitted mass murder. A large body of scholarship on ethnic cleansing and genocide concludes that mass killing generally takes place during civil wars or regime changes. Nazi Germany deliberately destroyed states and then steered the consequences toward Jews. Destroying states without such malign intentions creates the space for the kind of disaster that continues to unfold in the Middle East: in its civil wars, religious totalitarianism, and refugee crisis.

There are many differences between the American invasion of Iraq and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also one clear similarity: In both cases, the Holocaust was used as moral cover. Russians quite rightly remember that the Red Army bore the brunt of the German attack in 1941 and did liberate the Nazi killing zones. But they prefer not to recall that the Soviet Union helped Nazi Germany begin the war in 1939, jointly destroying four East European states and bringing the European order to an end. When Germany betrayed its Soviet ally and attacked the USSR in 1941, spreading anarchy, Soviet citizens joined the Germans as collaborators, tens of thousands of them taking direct part in the shooting. Unnervingly, Russia justified its March 2014 attack on Ukraine by claiming that its neighbor wasn’t a real state, its president invoking the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact of 1939 as normal diplomacy. Since Russia chose to send its troops to Ukraine, claiming absurdly that it meant to combat fascists and save Jews, its war has killed at least 8,000 people and almost certainly far more, driven 2 million people from their homes, and called into question the European legal order. The deliberate creation of a lawless zone in the Donbas has predictably led to kidnappings, executions of prisoners, and other abuses of human rights. The last time a European country invaded another and annexed its territory was the Second World War. European integration was meant to strengthen European states, and thus prevent the political collapse of the 1930s from happening again. The collapse of the European project could mean a return to the bad old days of old-fashioned power politics.

We cannot know the exact scenario that might follow if the trend of state destruction proceeds. What we can say is this: Since destroying states was one cause of the Holocaust, the Holocaust should not be used as a reason to destroy states. When institutions are broken, few of us would behave better than the Europeans of Hitler’s era. Hitler seduced Germans by the vision of a world with no rules, where states would crumble and all was permitted. In 1938, while playing chess, Trimborn was a friend. In 1942, in a zone of anarchy, he was a murderer. One of Bernstein’s children lives today in California in a house full of chess sets. Trimborn’s children, until they met Bernstein’s children, were unaware that their father had once known the rules.

Timothy Snyder is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University. His most recent book is Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. This article originally appears in Slate at this link: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2015/09/holocaust_history_misunderstood_it_has_provided_moral_cover_for_the_wars.single.html

Read Full Post »

Veterans book

History teacher and author Matt Rozell, right, talks with World War II veteran and former history teacher Alvin Peachman at a book signing Sept. 11 on LaBarge Street in Hudson Falls. Peachman is one of several veterans featured in ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw.’ Ashleigh Abreu photo.

YOU CAN ORDER THE BOOK HERE

September 22, 2015 7:00 am •  by RHONDA TRILLER

HUDSON FALLS | Matt Rozell remembers the moment he realized his life’s work.

It was 1984, and as the nation marked the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, President Ronald Reagan spoke at Normandy.

“Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for,” he said of the Americans who fought in World War II, during an iconic speech.

That year, “The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two” by Studs Terkel was published. In it, Terkel looked at the war from a historical perspective, told through some 120 interviews with the men who fought, as well as nurses, entertainers and bureaucrats. Terkel was awarded the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for the work.

“It was the first historical piece on World War II entirely told by regular people,” Rozell said, recalling the 600-page book was “this thick,” holding his thumb and index finger inches apart.

The book raised an interesting question about war, Rozell said.

“The war was put on a pedestal — it should be, especially now that so few of the men are left — but is any war good?” he said. “It was a fascinating book.”

“That’s when I woke up and that’s when my teaching career began,” Rozell said. “I think that’s when it finally dawned on me how important World War II was in history and in the fabric of our own country here, let alone the world.”

Rozell did, in fact, become a teacher — history, of course — at his alma mater, Hudson Falls High School.

But as important, he has devoted his life since to telling the stories of World War II veterans.

This summer, Rozell independently published “The Things Our Fathers Saw: The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation from Hometown USA.”

“I’ve thought about it for 20 years,” he said. “I was at that point, I had to get it out of me.”

The book recounts the war in the Pacific Theater, told from interviews and, in some cases, journal entries, of men from the Glens Falls area.

“The Things Our Fathers Saw” works through the war, beginning with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, following some of the men from enlistment, through battles and being taken prisoners of war. He includes lectures from veterans visiting his classroom, photographs and maps.

“It’s a war that, outside of Pearl Harbor and the dropping of atomic bombs, very few people have an understanding of what happened in the Pacific Theater,” Rozell said.

At a recent book signing, Rozell sat next to Alvin Peachman, 93, one of the veterans featured in the book.

Peachman is a longtime Hudson Falls resident and retired history teacher, who had Rozell as a student.

His classes were much different than Rozell’s, though.

“I don’t remember any teachers talking about their own experiences,” Peachman said, adding that he didn’t talk much about his service until years later. “Everybody wanted to learn about Adolf Hitler.”

Rozell studied history at SUNY Geneseo, but didn’t realize how much of a gap in knowledge the American public suffered until he started interviewing veterans and chronicling their stories.

“My interest was what Al Peachman was talking about when I was in school — Adolf Hitler this and Adolf Hitler that,” Rozell said.

“When you call for World War II stories and these people are talking about things you don’t know a thing about, you realize you have so much more to learn,” he said. “It’s the experience of a lot of Americans, I think.”

Rozell now teaches a separate course at Hudson Falls High School focused on World War II. The class is so popular, some students can’t get in.

Vinny Murphy, a senior, is among the lucky ones this semester. He wanted to take the class after attending a Rozell-organized assembly as a middle-schooler.
“For him to be a teacher and have an interest and want to share that with the students is very refreshing,” Murphy said. “He wants to teach us and remember this stuff and really take it to heart and make sure stuff like this never happens again.”

Until Rozell, Peachman said, the men who served in the Pacific got little recognition.

“We always fell second to Europe, although we did almost all the fighting in the Pacific,” he said.

As World War II veterans age — two of the men featured in Rozell’s book died in the past few weeks — Rozell is feeling a sense of urgency.

“I really wanted to get it out while some of the guys are still alive,” he said.

The book is a culmination of efforts that began years ago, when Rozell started inviting World War II veterans into his classroom in the early 1990s.

“It was really a two-fold thing: I need to make history alive for my kids; it’s their grandparents, their aunts, their uncles, in some cases, their actual parents who were involved in the war; and take that person’s story and find out more how this person fits into the big picture of the war, the big overall standard history, but at the same time realize that you as the interviewer, or the person talking to the adult, you are actually creating a new piece of history, which is really exciting,” Rozell said.

Students’ interest grew even more when, in 2001, Rozell initiated a living history project, A Train Near Madgeburg, in which he and his students reunited Holocaust survivors and the American soldiers who liberated them from a death train in April 1945.

“I think for most teachers … that’s why you teach, to bring history alive and, boy, did that ever do it for them,” Rozell said.

Rozell and his students were named People of the Week in September 2009 by Diane Sawyer on “ABC World News” for their work on the project.

The liberation is the subject of Rozell’s next book, which is tentatively scheduled for release in the summer of 2016.

“My story is to make it known,” Rozell said. “It’s their story; it’s in their words.

“I need to do it before everybody is gone.”

http://poststar.com/news/local/rozell-recounts-war-through-veterans-eyes/article_2ce81fd2-6d9c-55f2-8087-74e85834f741.html

History teacher and author Matthew Rozell has several speaking engagements lined up throughout the area, including:

Sunday: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sandy Hill Farmers Market, Juckett Park, Hudson Falls

Oct. 16: 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., 39th annual Civics & Law-Related Education Conference, Saratoga Springs Holiday Inn

Oct. 21: 7 p.m., book signing/reading, Chapman Historical Museum, 348 Glen St., Glens Falls

Nov. 8: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., The Chronicle Autumn Leaves Book Fair, Queensbury Hotel, 88 Ridge St., Glens Falls

Nov. 15: 2 p.m., book signing and talk, The Hyde Collection, 161 Warren St., Glens Falls

Read Full Post »

Danny.

Dan Lawler in my classroom, 2011. Portrait by Robert H. Miller.

Daniel Lawler in my classroom, 2011. Portrait by Robert H. Miller.

I’m staring down a stack of papers I have to grade, and the pile keeps growing higher. I’m too busy teaching and planning lessons at school, so like most teachers I know, I bring them home. I’ve gone through a ‘first look’ once, and that’s  a start. But I can’t get into the rhythm until I write about my friend Dan Lawler, who passed away almost a week ago at the age of 90.

I’m ashamed to say I missed his wake today, and tomorrow I will miss his funeral. But I think he knows that I will be doing my best in school and elsewhere to keep the memory alive.

Dan Lawler was a Marine’s Marine, World War II edition. He was wounded at Peleliu, and then miraculously made it all the way through the Battle for Okinawa. Later he served in China to protect against communist insurgents; he had many stories to tell and I detailed many of them in my book. But what struck me the most about Danny was his devotion to his friend, Jimmy Butterfield, and Jim’s wife Mary.

They would come to my classroom and entertain and enthrall the kids, but it was always tempered with the realities of what they truly experienced. You see, Jimmy was blinded for life at Okinawa. But Danny always got him to come in to school, and together they told the stories that only brothers can share. They would rib each other, fun stuff to reel the kids in. And then the stories would flow. It was never an act. It was brothers being brothers and letting us in on the most intimate stories that would bubble forth, sharing with the teenagers in my room, who fell in love with them, and for the moment, becoming the teenagers who they once were themselves.

People I don’t really even know, who have read my book where both are profiled, have reached out to me to express their condolences at my loss. Of course, that is one of the downsides of getting close to the folks who fought and sacrificed in World War II. Eventually their time is up, and they have to leave us.

And of course, my sorrow is nothing compared to that of his family, but remember this- Danny, and all the survivors of World War II who managed to make it back, had stories to share. I thank God that I knew Daniel Lawler, and Jim Butterfield, who passed 2 years before him. But it’s not just a loss for those who had the honor of getting to know him- it’s the loss for humanity. I just hope, Danny,  I did my part in keeping your memory alive.

Rest easy, Marine.

Read Full Post »

A Review of Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth, released last week. I think the review made some great points, which I highlight in italics. I just ordered it. Here is one place to get the book. Like the reviewer,  I’m not sure I can agree with the final thesis, but I will read it…

The Frying Pan and the Fire

Why did 99% of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Denmark survive while 99% of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Estonia were murdered?

By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Sept. 4, 2015 5:42 p.m. ET

BLACK EARTH

By Timothy Snyder
Tim Duggan, 462 pages, $30
Once, the Holocaust had an almost sacral quality: It was approached with fear and trembling as a cataclysm beyond comparison. Now the tendency is to think of it not as something distinctive but as something representative. What, after all, made these killings any more horrific than the tens of millions of others during World War II—on battlefields and in prison camps, in forests and over ditches, in bombed cities and wasted fields? How is the Holocaust different from other genocides? Was Hitler’s murder of six million Jews so different in kind from Stalin’s deliberate terror-famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33 that left three million dead?

Such questions lie in the background of the Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s remarkable “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” a book that extends his gripping, somber “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” (2010). In that volume’s account of purges, massacres, shootings, starvations, executions and incinerations in Germany, the Soviet Union and the contested lands in between, the Holocaust is but a subset of 14 million gratuitous yet calculated murders. In “Black Earth,” the Holocaust is the focus of attention, but we are never allowed to forget the surrounding charnel house. Mr. Snyder said that in “Bloodlands” he wanted to write a “transnational” history, taking a broad look at events from without rather than from within the world of a particular nation. “Black Earth” takes a similarly broad approach: He does not see the Holocaust as a “war against the Jews”—as the historian Lucy Dawidowicz called it—for which Hitler was prepared to sacrifice ordinary military strategy, but as an extreme example of Hitler’s wide-ranging racial obsessions.

 

One consequence of this approach is that the evil of the Holocaust comes to seem more organically connected to the excruciating barbarity of the bloodlands. It also alters—without eliminating—the nature of its singularity. These issues made some readers of “Bloodlands” uneasy because of a long tradition of Holocaust interpretation that, in its most vulgar form, denies either its extremity or its Jewish particularity. In the postwar Soviet Union, for example, no group, particularly not the Jews, merited special Soviet commemoration—not even at Babi Yar, the ravine outside Kiev where some 34,000 Jews had been lined up and shot by SS troops in 1941. The Soviets treated the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943 as a rebellion by Communists rather than by imprisoned Jews, and they associated the Nazi death camps with the epic martyrdom of Soviets and Poles. And there were plenty of examples: a million residents of Leningrad starved to death during the Nazi siege, 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war were shot or deliberately starved to death by the invading Germans.

A similar resistance to particularity took root in the West as the Holocaust made its way into school curricula, museum exhibitions and popular consciousness. The subject is now usually treated as a prelude to a general discussion of genocide. Broadly prescriptive lessons and homilies are proposed that will, supposedly, make another Holocaust unlikely, urging tolerance or more empathetic attitudes toward minorities. The more Holocaust education there has been, it seems, the more often the Holocaust is casually invoked in trite or meretricious comparisons.

Mr. Snyder avoids such pitfalls, and “Black Earth” is mesmerizing. It is not a conventional history. As he surveys what took place, Mr. Snyder highlights lesser known events in order to discover anomalies, phenomena that need exploration or explanation. He begins with a disturbingly vivid foray into Hitler’s mental world. He looks at the prewar attitudes toward Jews, including the eccentric approach of Poland, which was thinking, in the 1920s, of sending Jews to Madagascar and, in the 1930s, actively trained and supported Revisionist Zionist groups in the hope that they would lure Jews to a national home in Palestine. Then the Nazis took over, murdering some three million Polish Jews. In describing the era of these killings, Mr. Snyder is sometimes mordant, often shocked, always probing.

Why has Auschwitz become the archetypal symbol for the Holocaust when it was not even, like Treblinka, a dedicated death camp and when its technique of mass killing was the third one developed by the Nazis and the third in significance? (The most important, which killed the most Jews and showed the feasibility of the Final Solution, was shootings over pits.) Why did 99% of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Denmark survive while 99% of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Estonia were murdered? And why were the death camps, shootings and gassings located in Eastern Europe?

Mr. Snyder’s account ends up shifting the Holocaust’s center of gravity to Eastern Europe and the countries that then lay between Germany and the Soviet Union: Poland, the Baltic republics, Belarus and the Ukraine. This region is his specialty; he has a knowledge of at least 10 languages and consulted sources in German, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Yiddish, Czech, Slovak, French and English. This is something no other chronicler of the Holocaust has done. In fact, Mr. Snyder writes, the founding scholars of Holocaust studies did not even use Eastern European languages in their work: Raul Hilberg’s parents spoke Polish; he didn’t. Saul Friedländer comes from Prague, yet doesn’t employ Czech sources. “No major historian of the Holocaust,” Mr. Snyder notes, “learned an east European language after 1989.” Yet this is where the Holocaust began, with the systematic killing of Jewish men, women and children in Ponary Forest, avidly assisted by local Lithuanians. This is where, in Mr. Snyder’s telling, the Holocaust itself took place.

What was it about Poland or Belarus that made them so hospitable to participatory mass murder? The usual explanation is anti-Semitism—“a historically predictable outburst of the barbarity of east Europeans,” Mr. Snyder writes. But “the level of antisemitism, insofar as this can be ascertained, does not seem to correlate with Jewish death rates.” Lithuania, where the Final Solution was eagerly pursued by locals, had a right-wing dictatorship before the war, but it was not an anti-Semitic one; in fact, its leader declared his opposition to Hitler’s “zoological nationalism and racism.” Lithuania even had a reputation as a refuge; in 1938-39, some 23,000 Jews fled from the Soviet Union and Germany into Lithuania, which welcomed them as no Western nation would. None of this mitigated the virulence of what followed.

Hitler had, from the very start, imagined the German empire expanding across Eastern Europe into the Soviet Union. But in 1939, buying time and territory, he made a pact with Stalin, the two dividing the intervening lands between them. Germany took chunks of Poland; the Soviets swept through the rest, along with Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and other territories.

Just before the war, during Stalin’s Great Terror, supposedly nefarious Polish agents were hunted throughout the Soviet Union, leading to the shooting of more than 100,000 Soviet citizens with a Polish background—the largest “peacetime ethnic shooting campaign in history,” Mr. Snyder notes. So the Soviet Union was hardly going to be hesitant when it took over Polish territory. Within months of the invasion, almost half a million Polish citizens were deported to the Gulag and 21,892 were summarily shot in the Katyn Forest and at other sites. Lithuania and Latvia were demolished as nations, dissolved into the Soviet Union.

The Germans were even more ruthless when they set up shop. Hitler called for a “massive extermination of the Polish intelligentsia,” suggesting that a “resolution of the Polish problem” would be reached with murder. Polish children were deliberately taught a pidgin German so they “would be distinguishable as racial inferiors but capable of taking orders.” By 1941, most Polish Jews in Western Poland were behind ghetto walls. Within another year, most were dead.

In June 1941 came Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union. No sooner had the Communist purges taken place throughout Soviet-run Eastern Europe than the Nazi ones began. The Soviets had destroyed the state apparatus in each territory. Now it was upended again. But often the same local leaders were involved in managing both upheavals. Anybody with authority in the Soviet regime had to quickly dissociate himself from the past and demonstrate a new allegiance. The killing of Jews was a solution. The massacres were, Mr. Snyder suggests, a kind of “political scenography” in which the local population proved itself to its new masters, shedding its Soviet past. This expiation was often made explicit: Nazi ideology identified Judaism with Bolshevism, so the murder of Jews was a form of revenge against the onetime occupiers.

That these were “consecutively occupied lands,” Mr. Snyder argues, is the crucial fact. Whether locals would eagerly participate in the murders and how thoroughly the Final Solution would be pursued were matters determined not by the extent of local anti-Semitism but by the condition of each nation-state. The entire Holocaust took place on lands touched by Soviet power and then again by German power. It was the strategy of the Nazis to begin with “state destruction” wherever they conquered. But Germans only killed Jews, in Mr. Snyder’s interpretation, if the local state had been destroyed even before they arrived. Even Jews in relatively tolerant urban settings like Minsk, Lodz or Riga would then be readily massacred, in expiation and demonstration. Bureaucracy, Mr. Snyder argues, didn’t allow the Holocaust; the lack of bureaucracy did.

This is a startling interpretation, and it will take some time for Mr. Snyder’s account to be scrutinized by scholars. But I am not entirely convinced by his conclusion that state power is the crux. It clearly matters what kind of state is coming into power and what kind of state is losing it. Germany, after all, demonstrated that state power can be harnessed for organizing mass murder. Today, ISIS has proved that a well-run organization with a system of law can institutionalize atrocity. There is also a hint of circularity in Mr. Snyder’s formula: If state power is the creator of social order, then of course the lack of state power would mean the end of social order. The destruction of authority results in a lack of authority.

But the wartime massacres didn’t take place solely because there was no state structure; they happened because the lack of authority accompanied fervent anti-Semitic convictions. Anti-Semitism should not just be thought of as a form of racism or prejudice. It is a deeply held belief, religious in its power, through which the world’s events are interpreted. Expressions of furious hatred are not merely choreographed passions staged for new masters.

Mr. Snyder makes the character of Hitler’s anti-Semitism clear in his opening chapter. For Hitler, all of history was an amoral battle of disparate races struggling for space, land and power. But, in Hitler’s cosmology, the Jews were not another competing race. They were “a spiritual pestilence” that corrupted the entire species, disrupting the forces of nature. The Jew was the embodiment of original sin, the “destroyer of Eden.” Hitler believed that the Jew might convince all the races that they were equal and, more dangerously, that they should value “universalism” over the particular. How could anyone have believed this vulgar Nietzscheanism—as Hitler surely did—and not have pursued a Final Solution? Similar ideas provided the fertile ground in Eastern Europe when the Nazis arrived. In leaving this issue relatively unexplored, Mr. Snyder takes transnationalism too far.

This is important. The Holocaust, like no other act or example of human evil, has inspired legions of lessons and “warnings,” as if they were required to justify the attention. The enshrinement of “tolerance” is only the most egregious example, but the Holocaust didn’t take place because of intolerance, and it would not have been prevented by tolerance. Why the compulsion to make comparisons with other atrocities? It would be like concluding a history of World War II by emphasizing that there were other deadly wars too, and we should all learn to be peaceful creatures. Somehow, in the case of the Holocaust, this approach has become conventional. Why the persistent straining at homily? Is there an element of shame involved? And why is the Holocaust so relentlessly invoked in irrelevant situations? Is that, too, some form of self-exoneration or alibi?

I wondered about some of this when encountering Mr. Snyder’s last chapter, “Our World.” He writes: “The planet is changing in ways that might make Hitlerian descriptions of life, space and time more plausible.” He suggests that now, as then, there is a sense of imminent apocalypse. Just as the Jew disrupted the global ecology for Hitler, something has now “diverted nature from its proper course.” And it may well cause a similar series of events. What is the contemporary threat? Climate change. And the irony, Mr. Snyder suggests, is that it could again place Jews in a precarious position. Mr. Snyder points out that the Holocaust proved the need for a strong nation-states, and Israel’s existence is essential for Jewish survival. But, he argues, “the continuing desertification of the Middle East might generate both regional conflict and the demand for scapegoats” (the Jews of Israel, of course). And the irony is that “some of Israel’s American political allies”—the Christian Right, if I understand correctly—“tend to deny the reality of climate change,” which, along with many other peculiarities, makes apocalypse more likely.

After reading this chapter and seeing its ritualistic homilies and sweeping comparisons, I became concerned that somehow I had been wrong about the intelligence, vision and insight that had characterized the rest of the book. But no, I am not wrong. Just skip the warning.

—Mr. Rothstein is the Journal’s critic
at large.

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-frying-pan-and-the-fire-1441402937

Read Full Post »

Dorothy Schechter probably saw Mr. Cole in his practice runs. The only female on the base in the Carolinas, she describes, in my new book, the experience of watching and wondering what the future Doolittle Raiders were up to.

 

cover

At 100, a Doolittle Raider recalls WWII suicide mission

Nathan Hunsinger/Staff Photographer, The Dallas Morning News

James Megellas (left), the 82nd Airborne’s most decorated officer, and Richard Cole, co-pilot to Jimmy Doolittle on his famous 1942 Tokyo raid, celebrated Cole’s birthday Monday by toasting during a reception for Doolittle raid survivors at the Frontiers of Flight Museum.

They took off knowing they wouldn’t be able to land.

When a Japanese fishing boat spotted the American aircraft carrier April 18, 1942, the Doolittle Raiders had to start their flight early. They had to strike back against Japanese assaults in the Pacific, even though they wouldn’t have enough fuel to reach landing strips in China.

On his 100th birthday Monday, sitting under a Frontiers of Flight Museum replica of the B-25 bomber he flew that day, Lt. Col. Dick Cole remembered everything.

“I was scared the entire time,” Cole said, noting that he knew he might die but “you’d hope you wouldn’t.”

Despite his apprehension, he was in awe serving as a co-pilot next to Jimmy Doolittle, “the greatest pilot in the world.”

As a kid, Cole would ride his bicycle to a levee above Ohio’s McCook Airfield, where he sometimes caught a glimpse of the famous pilot.

The eastern coast of Japan was peaceful the morning of the raid that changed the course of World War II, Cole recalled.

Japanese citizens waved, mistaking the plane for one of their own. Over Tokyo, Cole and Doolittle dropped incendiaries to light fires so the 15 planes behind them could see what to bomb.

Back over the water, sea spray and fog made it impossible to navigate. Doolittle guessed a direction toward China, and they flew until they ran out of fuel and bailed out.

2 still living

Most of the 80 airmen survived the raid, but Cole is one of only two who are still alive.

Cole, saying simply that it was his job, volunteered for the raid after seeing a listing saying “Wanted for dangerous mission.”

His centennial birthday celebration Monday at the museum included a screening of the new documentary Doolittle’s Raiders: A Final Toast.

About 600 people turned out to sing “Happy Birthday” to Cole.

“This is history that we’ve all known about in our lives, and we get to see it firsthand,” Navy veteran John Hansen said.

Jim Roberts, president of the American Veterans Center, said the story of the Doolittle Raiders resonates with young people more than many others from World War II.

“I think it’s because of the sheer audacity of the raid,” he said. “It was seen by many at the time as a suicide mission because it was a one-way trip.”

It was the first U.S. success in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, heartening Americans and shaking Japan. It led the Japanese to attack Midway Island, where they suffered a defeat that marked the war’s turning point.

On the ground

After bailing out over China, Cole hiked for a day before he found Chinese soldiers who reunited him with Doolittle and smuggled them out of danger. The Japanese killed an estimated 100,000 Chinese in retaliation for the raid.

For more than a year, Cole stayed in Asia, setting up a link between India and China, and flying over the Himalayas.

Cole and his wife moved to Alamo in the Rio Grande Valley to grow oranges and grapefruit. They raised five children.

The Raiders had reunions every year until 2013, a tradition Cole said began after Doolittle kept his promise to throw “the biggest party you ever had” in Miami when the war ended. Doolittle died in 1993 at 96.

“Why did I get to be one of the last people? I didn’t do anything special,” said Cole, who now lives in Comfort.

Source: http://www.dallasnews.com/news/community-news/park-cities/headlines/20150907-at-100-a-doolittle-raider-recalls-wwii-suicide-mission.ece?hootPostID=efcab07f925d65315d623f5988358d4e

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »