Tag Archives: Holocaust

On Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel’s “Holocaust”

Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel called the Capitol protests a "holocaust."

Here we go again.

Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Ben Brancel recently made the following remarks, according to an AP story:

“They [lawmakers] came to town with a lot of ideas and a lot of concepts they could really work on and then they got stuck in the middle of a holocaust and a horror story that was going on in town,” Brancel told the crowd. WKOW-TV first reported about the comments.

In a statement put out by his office later, Brancel said he should have chosen his words more carefully.

“I apologize today for my unfortunate choice of words about the budget controversy,” he said. “I meant to portray the sense of turmoil in the past weeks, but I chose an inappropriate word in the context.”

He stood by his description of the legislative standoff as a “horror story.”

“It is a horror story in the sense that there is not a[n] orderly process of debate to resolve the issues,” he told WKOW-TV.

Continue reading

Holocaust books at Jack Crane’s Request

William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is a useful overview of the Nazi era.

Constant commenter and friend Jack Crane weighed in on the “Is SB 1070 the new initial stages of Nazi Germany?” question and asked for some Holocaust book suggestions.

Here are some of the best I’ve read.  Be forewarned, though, that these are heavy going emotionally and in terms of the sheer number of pages.

William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. This is an enormously detailed account from one of the few journalists who was there from the very beginning of Hitler’s reign.

Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews.  Dawidowicz is an adherent of the largely discredited intentionalist school that asserts that Hitler had a master plan he carried out inexorably starting at the end of World War I, but that should not take away from her book’s value.  The early parts are helpful in understanding the historic antisemitism that waxed and waned in Germany before Hitler’s ascension.

Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust.  The remarkably prolific Gilbert has written on just about every other World War II-related topic, including being Churchill’s biographer and having several books of maps about the Second World War, so it only makes sense that he’d write a thorough and accessible Holocaust history.

Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews.  This multi-volume work is the premier work on the workings of the perpetrators’ bureaucratic structures and machinations.  Hilberg buried himself in archives for years before struggling to find a publisher for this groundbreaking work. He is particularly effective in showing how the Nazis used the process of legislation as the first step toward mass murder.

I know there are many others, and these are some of my top books on the subject.  Other thoughts?  Works?

International Women’s Day, Carl Friedman’s Nightfather.

Carl Friedman's Nightfather is told a Holocaust's survivor's child's perspective.

Happy International Women’s Day!  This is a day to celebrate the economic, social, political and cultural contributions of women past and present from around the globe.

One of these women is Dutch writer Carl Friedman, the author of Nightfather.

This gripping and slender book opens with the sentence, “My father has camp.”

The camp to which she refers is the concentration camp he survived in the Holocaust during the Second World War.

Although her father’s body survived the experience, his soul was deeply damaged by what he had to endure.  And, as opposed to her mother, a survivor who spoke little about her wartime experiences, her father talked relentlessly about what he endured.

The impact at times is painfully comic.

Friedman’s father continually tells his children that they cannot imagine the suffering he went through during the war, so they try to do so.  At one point in the book Friedman puts her feet in the refrigerator to try to simulate the cold her father was exposed to during the brutal winters of wartime.

Nothing is to be enjoyed or trusted, according to her father, who takes whatever seems like it might be cause for joy, quickly assesses it and finds it wanting. 

Nightfather is written from a child’s point of view, and Friedman skillfully depicts what it must have been like during her childhood to be raised by a man so scarred by what he had lived through.

The generational transmission of trauma is a subject that scholars and psychologists have looked at for decades. In some instances, like in the late Dan Bar-On’s memorable work,Legacy of Silence, children who do not hear directly from their parents what happened or what they did find themselves feeling incomplete or somehow empty.

Friedman’s father represents another extreme. 

He is so caught in his past experiences that he is unable to let his children have a childhood that is comprised or more ordinary experiences.  Thus, one of his children’s complaining about a scraped knee receives a lecture about nearly being starved to death.

Although Nightfather is a novel, Friedman does explain that at the end of his life her father was in grips of dementia. Tragically, and not uniquely, his final days consisted largely of thinking he was again in World War II trying to survive the Nazis’ atrocities. 

This sounds like a brutal way to end one’s life, and was a final indignity to what had been a life defined, but not completely broken by, wartime experiences.  Friedman’s slender volume shows how the war did not end with the defeat of the German Army in April 1945, but rather its legacy continues to endure in unanticipated and haunting ways.

RIP, Miep Gies.

Anne Frank's diary would not have been published without being found by the late, brave Miep Gies.

UPDATE:  Fellow Massachusetts transplant Jack Crane offered the following comment:

Thanks for the Miep Gies remembrance Jeff. Are you familiar with Corrie ten Boom’s book, The Hiding Place, another extraordinary story of a devout Christian Dutch family that risked their lives to hide their Jewish neighbors. Corrie survived Ravensbruck, her sister Betsy died there. One of my fondest parts of the story was Corrie’s Dad (who owned a watch shop) going off to Amsterdam to meet with the Jewish watch wholesaler. They would talk business for a few minutes and then go in the back room, pull out their respective bibles, and open their hearts to to the “real” business of God’s mysterious presence in our lives. Mr. ten Boom would eventually put a yellow star on his jacket in solidarity with his Jewish friends. He died in the Scheveningen prison. Another amazing story you are probably familiar with is the village of Le Chambon in southern France, particularly the leadership of the local pastor, Andre Trocme. Phillip Hallie, originally very skeptical of the story, wrote a good book (Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed) about how this village of a 1000 or so Christians, saved a 1000 or so Jews. There is also an excellent documentary by Pierre Sauvage (a French-Canadian Jew), who went back to Le Chambon as an adult to visit the villagers who had rescued his parents and him when he was a baby. I have a copy of the film if you want to borrow it – it may be out of production.

Peace, Jack

Miep Gies, the brave office secretary who defied the Nazis to hide Anne Frank and her family for two years, died today at age 100.

Gies found the diary by Anne Frank that her father Otto edited and that for decades was many people’s introduction to the Holocaust.  Told through the eyes of a maturing young woman, the story of the German Jewish family’s ultimately doomed efforts to survive the war has touched millions since its initial publication more than a half-century ago.

Gies appears in a film, Remembering Anne Frank, which extends beyond the diary’s end to her family’s being deported after having been turned in by a neighbor.  She died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen death camp after suffering greatly.  Venerated literary scholar Lawrence Langer wondered if she would have repeated her oft-quoted sentiment shortly before her death about people being essentially good at heart.

Frank was a classmate of artist, survivor and general inspiration Netty Vanderpol, whose husband Ries, also a survivor, I worked with while I was at Facing History and Ourselves.

Gies’ heroic actions and Frank’s diary have led to the false impression that Holland was a supportive nation for Jews during World War II.  In fact, about 75 percent of Dutch Jews were murdered, the second highest percentage in Europe after Poland.  Westerbork was the site where many of the Dutch Jews were killed.

These facts only make Gies’ choices that much more courageous, and also makes judgment more possible of those who sat by or participated in the destruction.

We honor Gies for her honorable life.

Two Eichmann Books.

The image of Adolf Eichmann behind glass while on trial in Jerusalem haunts us still. Neal Bascomb's new book provides a new vision of Eichmann and the compelling story of his capture.

The image of Adolf Eichmann behind glass while on trial in Jerusalem haunts us still. Neal Bascomb's new book provides a new vision of Eichmann and the compelling story of his capture.













 It was one of the starkest of its, or any other, time.

Adolf Eichmann, to his families’ victims one of the masterminds of the Holocaust but by his own description an ordinary, Jewish-loving functionary following orders, sitting behind the glass while being put on trial in Israeli on behalf of the Jewish people will continue to haunt us for years to come.

In her classic work, Eichmann in Jerusualem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,  philosopher, writer and former lover of Martin Heidegger Hannah Arendt focused on Eichmann’s lack of hostility toward Jews, his ordinariness. 

In addition to arousing widespread enmity among people who felt that she accused the Judenrat as being complicit in their community’s destruction, Arendt and her interpretation have become widely used, if not universally accepted.

A new book by Neal Bascomb challenges Arendt’s vision. 

In Hunting Eichmann, Bascomb tells the story of Eichmann’s capture in Argentina by Israelis and reveals a man who actively knew and relished the mass murder he designed and helped carry out.

Many thanks to dear friend Ava Kadishshon Schieber for lending me the book.

Bascomb’s work is a gripping account of a daring mission carried out at great risk and for which the stakes could not be higher.  Each person involved in stalking, apprehending and flying Eichmann back to Israel knew that he or she was participating in a higher cause-to bring some vengeance and justice to the world.

It was a delicate operation that took more than 15 years to realize.

Bascomb opens the book just before Eichmann’s capture, pivots back to the war and the survival of Zeev Sapir, who later would be one of the survivors who testified against Eichmann.

He then moves through Eichmann’s escape and refuge in Argentina, where he lived among a veritable collection of World War II-era fascists of all stripes.  

The chase for Eichmann was fitful, starting and then stopping for years at a time.   Bascomb picks up the action in the period when he was identified.

I will not give too many details, but will simply say that the planning was enormously intricate and fraught with danger.  One wrong move and he could be gone, forever.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Bascomb’s description of the mixed emotions his captors feel toward the high level Nazi.   At different points nearly everyone involved with the mission must restrain himself or herself from attacking and killing Eichmann because of the heinous actions he took. 

But boredom at the long wait once he was captured and before the El Al plane arrived set in, too.  So did bewilderment that this harmless, compliant and even pathetic man could have been responsible for so much murder, including some of the families of the people involved in the mission.

The trial, which is the focus of Arendt’s work, feels more like a coda to the dizzying action Bascomb has skillfully laid out in cinematic and page-turing form in the preceding 300 pages. 

He ends the book with a poignant moment between one of Eichmann’s captors and his dieing mother, with whom he shares his role in snaring the notorious Nazi, who was responsible for his sister’s death. 

The tender connection in which a devoted son gifts his mother peace of mind before she passes is a fitting moment to wind up this fast-paced and emotionally rich work that adds to our understanding of one of the most notorious Nazis and keeps us turning the pages as fast as we can along the way.

Dave Cullen’s authoritative work on the Columbine shootings.


Dave Cullen has written the most comprehensive account of the Columbine shootings.

Dave Cullen has written the most comprehensive account of the Columbine shootings.

Ten years later, images from the Columbine shootings remained seared in our collective memory. 

The bloodied library floor.  

The crying high school students holding each other in utter shock.  

Then-President Clinton yet again denouncing the senseless violence of another school shooting-this one, the most violent and bloody in American history. 

Reporter Dave Cullen was there from the beginning.

He has followed the story with remarkable stamina, persistence, insight and commitment to the truth during the ensuing decade.  His book, Columbine, published around the shootings’ tenth anniversary, provides the most comprehensive and authoritative look available at killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, at the build up to the shootings and their ruinous aftermath, and at the elusive question of why.  

For those interested in this gruesome topic, in short, his book is necessary reading. 

Just to be transparent, Cullen and I are both Dart Center Ochberg Fellows. Named for Dr. Frank Ochberg, whose research led to the coining of the phrase, “Stockholm syndrome,” and who is a strong presence in the book, the fellowships provide a space to help journalists who cover trauma and violence deal successfully with those issues in their stories and with themselves.  Cullen and I are also both serving as judges in a journalism competition. 

Columbine is drenched in irony from the opening pages, which start not with the shootings, but the weekend before, when Principal Frank DeAngelis is urging the students to come back safely after the prom the following weekend. 

Cullen swings the storytelling pendulum back and forth throughout the work, which has two major narrative strands. The first tells about the boys’ childhoods, histories, personalities and eventual decision to carry out their gruesome plan, which also included undetonated pipe bombs, while the second details the shootings’ and their multifold and devastating consequences.   

Cullen had a difficult task as a writer.  

On the one hand, he was writing about an event that was covered, as he notes, less than half an hour after the shootings started.  Columbine has been the subject of endless analysis, speculation, books, movies and even legislation.   This made it  extremely difficult to bring new information into the conversation about the shootings.

At the same time, Cullen also confronted a number of myths that sprung up quickly about the shootings.  These ranged from the idea that the killers were seeking revenge against jocks who bullied them mercilessly to the assertion that one of the victims, Cassie Bernall, told one of the boys she believed in G-d in the instant before she was killed. 

To his credit, Cullen pulls off both masterfully.  In part, this is because he sifted through tens of thousands of documents, among them files from law enforcement and the killers’ diaries.  He also immersed himself in several branches of psychology and conducted hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews with people affected by the shootings.  
One of his major findings: far from being bullied and cowed victims members of the Trenchcoat Mafia who killed in a spontaneous moment, Eric Harris was a psychopath, while Klebold was his depressive, suicidal follower.  The pair wrote and talked about their plans, which were hatched more than a year in advance of the actual event.  Their goals were far larger than the biggest school shooting in history; they wanted to blow up the entire building, and tried repeatedly to do so while shooting their fellow students. 

Beyond insight into the killers’ psychological makeup, Cullen does a meticulous job of showing the failings of adults along the way to recognize and take corrective action to thwart Harris and Klebold’s deadly plan as well as, in the case of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office, attempting to cover up their misdeeds.  

In some ways, these are the most painful sections of the book to read.  

The mother of a boy who was threatened by Harris repeatedly contacted law enforcement to share her concerns.  An English teacher, after reading a particularly disturbing essay by Klebold, spoke with the boy, called his parents and notified his guidance counselor.

Nothing was done. 

Cullen blends dispassion and compassion in his description of Tom and Sue Klebold, Dylan’s parents, who have been far more publicly forthcoming than the Harrises, who have never agreed to be interviewed.  Cullen brings these same qualities to characters like Patrick Ireland, who was shot, but not killed, during the rampage, DeAngelis, who loses his marriage and much of the faculty’s backing, and the pastor whose spiritual support of the Klebolds contributed heavily to his leaving his position a year later. 

Cullen’s attention to detail is another praiseworthy aspect of the book. 

Chilling and poignant details abound on Columbine’s pages.

These include the recounting of the final words Sue Klebold exchanged with her son-he had enjoyed the steak he had at Outback Steakhouse, Harris’ favorite restaurant-to the last of the Basement Tapes the boys recorded before heading off on their fateful mission.  The book also contains a minute-by-minute recreation of the shootings, including their suicides, a description of the achingly slow rehabilitation process Ireland goes through, and Sue Klebold’s conclusion that Dylan’s actions were contrary to how she and her husband had raised him. 

These details are testament to Cullen’s intimate knowledge of his material and his considerable skill as a writer. 

Columbine is not without minor imperfections. 

While generally and cumulatively effective, the alternating narrative threads can be a bit jarring at the beginning as one is getting oriented to the work.  Cullen’s background as a daily reporter shows through in patches of jaunty prose that do not work quite as well as others. 

And the reader, at the end of the book, is left still not fully understanding why the boys took their murderous actions. 

The last point is not a criticism of Cullen’s work, but rather a reminder that understanding pure evil-whether in the form of the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, or South Africa’s apartheid regime-remains elusive.  That Cullen, after a decade of hard-spent work, is not able to arrive at a compelling and convincing answer is not an indictment of his work, but a reminder of how difficult that quest can be.

Cullen ends the book with the unveiling of the memorial close to eight years after the shootings and the release of hundreds of doves into the air.  The coming to order in the air of these birds traditionally associated with peace is a reminder that, after all, life does go on, and that a moment of tragedy, as Patrick Ireland says at one point in the book, does not define an individual, a community, or a nation’s entire life.  

That Harris and Klebold were able to carry out their horrific plans should continue to challenge us to seek to understand, to meet our children’s needs and to prevent further similar atrocities.  

The fruit of 10 years of Cullen’s life, Columbine is an authoritative account and resource to help us do that necessary work.

Social Studies Methods Class: Elie Wiesel’s Night

Madoff victim Elie Wiesel recounts his survival of the Holocaust in Night.

Madoff victim Elie Wiesel recounts his survival of the Holocaust in Night.

Disgraced and now imprisoned financier Bernard Madoff has captured plenty of headlines recently. 

The tentacles of his multi-billion dollar Ponzi Scheme have reached throughout the country and have wreaked financial havoc on thousands of families and non-profit organizations.  In many ways, the consequences of his decption have yet to be fully felt, since they came at a time when the economy was already seriously battered.

Madoff’s actions have caused particular anguish in the Jewish community. He is Jewish and used his membership in the community to exploit his religious brothers and sisters.  Some have expressed concerns that his actions will play into long-held stereotypes about Jews as financiers and lead to a rise in antisemitism, while others have struggled to understand the extent and cause of his duplicity.

Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel is one of Madoff’s many victims.  He has called Madoff’s crimes unforgivable. 

Themes of memory, forgiveness, belief and humanity also run throughout Night, Wiesel’s slender and classic memoir that provides an authoritative account of Holocaust survival.

Night opens in Sighet, Transylvania in 1941.  A 12-year-old  Kaballah student, Wiesel and other residents of the community are warned of their impending doom by Moshe the Beadle.  However, the townspeople find Moshe’s predictions incredible, instead concluding that he has lost his mind.

A couple of years later, his predictions turn out to be true.

Wiesel, his family and the rest of the community are forcibly removed from their homes and taken by train to the Auschwitz death camp.  His words about that first night have often been quoted, but bear repetition for their stark power:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

The repetition and insistence of permanence and memory, the allusions to the Ten Commandments, the combination of images and their consequences all give this excerpt its considerable impact.

Night has many such moments.  He talks about how eight words uttered at the camp’s selection-men to the left, women to the right-means that he and his father are separated from his mother and sisters. 

He never sees them again. 

This is only the beginning for Wiesel and his father, though. 

Night details the appells, or hours long roll calls, which begin early in the morning, the paltry rations which slowly starve and reduce the men’s existence to animal instincts of survival, the collective punishment visited on those who try to rebel and other aspects of unspeakable cruelty they endured.

Wiesel’s father does not handle the physical strain well.  Shortly before the book ends, he dies, but not before Wiesel has come to resent and even have feelings of hatred toward him for his inability to weather the abuse.  Other sons respond similarly, with some even abandoning their fathers on the death march. 

The book ends with Wiesel’s liberation at the Buchenwald camp in 1945.  He looks in a mirror for the first time since before his ordeal and ends the book with the following:

I wanted to see myself in the mirror … I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me.
The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.

Wiesel describes himself in both first and third person, showing again the permanent impact of his experiences, their lethal and dehumanizing consequences, and his struggle to understand his personhood and meaning in the face of the atrocity he has endured.

Night is part of a trilogy-the other two books are Dawn and Day-and is probably the most well known of Wiesel’s many books. 

Originally written in French, the work was pared down extensively from its original version of more than 800 pages.  Facing History and Ourselves has created a study guide and a video, Challenge of Memory, that has clips that accompany specific scenes in the book, which has sparked ongoing discussion about whether it is a memoir or a novel.

In addition to being a prolific writer, speaker and thinker, Wiesel also created The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.  The foundation had  $15.2 million under management by Madoff’s investment firm, and has lost nearly everything.  His life savings have also been wiped out.

And so, now 80, Wiesel faces another challenge. 

While, of course, the financial hardship and betrayal he is grappling with is in no way comparable to his survival more than 60 years ago, what is clear is that Wiesel will meet its with his customary steely resolve and frankness.  He spoken recently about the outpouring of donations from people who learned about the foundation’s plight.  

For those people looking to understand the unspeakable horror Wiesel  and many others endured during World War II, Night is a powerful choice.

Cook County Murders, Kevin Davis’ Defending The Damned

Kevin Davis's book shows the gruesome murders people commit in Cook County and the men and women assigned to their defense.

Kevin Davis's book shows the gruesome murders people commit in Cook County and the men and women assigned to their defense.

The nation’s second largest county, Cook County has been the site of many gruesome murders.

Babies raped and murdered.  Bodies dismembered and discarded.  Policemen shot in cold blood in the line of duty.

Despite the victims’ families’ and some part of the public’s understandable thirst for vigilante justice, the alleged and real perpretrators are entitled to criminal defense under the law.  In many of the cases, the accused cannot afford private counsel, so they are assigned a  lawyer or lawyers from the Cook County Public Defender’s Office.

Journalist Kevin Davis spent a year following members of the office’s Murder Task Force.  Defending the Damned: Inside Cook County Public Defender’s Office, a clearly written, well-paced and often gripping work, is the result.

Marijane Placek, one of the longest serving attorneys, is at the book’s center. 

Much of the book is devoted to describing Placek-a Chicago native with a flashy wardrode, penchants for steak and throwing herself holiday and birthday parties at the dog track, and a relentless commitment to her work-as she defends Alyosius Oliver, who is on trial for murdering Chicago Police Officer Eric Lee.

Davis effectively recreates the incident that led to Oliver’s trial and paints vivid portraits of Placek-he deserves credit for picking a remarkably colorful protagonist-the opposing attorneys, the victim’s widow and parents, and the judge who presides over the case.

Beyond the individual characters, Davis skillfully shows the Chicago in which many of the victims and perpetrators live, and the environment on 26th and California where justice is administered.   Oliver’s shooting of Lee, an act he disputes until the book’s conclusion but a crime for which the jury holds him accountable, is the vehicle to examine wrenching issues of murder, vengeance, judgment, forgiveness, redemption, race, and the impact of one’s background one later choices.  

Both Lee and Oliver came from the same Englewood neighborhood, yet took dramatically different paths that converged on a tragic night earlier this decade.

Davis also shows the complicated and varied attitudes the defenders have toward their clients.  While one of the lawyers fits relatively easily into the portrait of a dewy-eyed liberal, many do not. 

Placek also eschews easy cliches about everyone deserving representation under the lawyer, and often consciously does not get to know her clients on a personal level for to do so would compromise her ability to fight as vigorously as possible for their defense.   In many cases, she in many cases calls her clients “assholes” or “a piece of shit.”

A combination of taking on seemingly impossible challenges, a love of the battle-Davis shows Placek quoting Henry V at several points in the book-and a sincere desire to hold government accountable motivate Placek.  In the book’s final chapter, she recounts being taken by her father as a girl to see a film about the Holocaust.  While the eight-year-old initially recoiled from the movie’s graphic images, she realized later that her father had taught her important lessons about not blindly trusting people in authority and taking action when one becomes aware of the possibility of injustice.

Defending the Damned is accessibly written and the action moves briskly along.  While much of the work foucses on Placek, Oliver and Lee, Davis also includes profiles of many of the other defenders, the history of the unit and the toll the work almost inevitably takes on defenders’ personal lives. 

Davis opens the book opens during the governorship of George Ryan, so the possibility of murderers’ being sentenced to death after being convicted is a very real one and serves as the backdrop for much of the post-verdict maneuvering.  The section where Placek and other members of her team seek to have Oliver’s life spared is some of the work’s most powerful.  By the end of the book, the reader understands better how saving someone from being lethally injected can be counted as a victory. 

Although he clearly feels affection for the defenders, Davis does not let his sympathies get in the way of showing other people involved in the legal drama in an unappealing light.  His description of murdered officer Lee’s widow Shawn, parents and partners are all detailed and respectful. 

The work could have done a bit more about the city in which the unit operates so the reader could get a deeper feel for neighborhoods in the city besides Englewood.  Similarly, the distrust many, many residents in communities of color in Chicago and throughout the country feel toward the police is given relatively short shrift until the book’s end.  More infomation in these aspects could have made the book even richer and more complex.

These criticisms are mild one.  Defending the Damned is a vivid and informative book about the horrible things people do to each other, and the men and women who are assigned to their defense.

The Story Behind Defiance

Nechama Tec's book was a major source for Edward Zwicks' new movie about the Bielski partisans.

Nechama Tec's book was a major source for Edward Zwicks' new movie about the Bielski partisans.

The new year has a slew of intriguing movies.

Eleven years after Titanicwon a record-tieing 11 Oscars, became the highest-grossing movie in history up to that point, and made director James Cameron the self-proclaimed “king of the world,” Leonardo DiCaprio and double-Golden Globe winner Kate Winslet  reunite onscreen in Revolutionary Road, a film about a suburban couple’s failing marriage directed by Sam Mendes, my former eighth grade classmate.  

Mickey Rourke gives a bravura performance as a down-and-out professional wrestler trying to make a comeback in The Wrestler.  And Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire,  a film about an orphan in Mumbai, India, just netted four Golden Globes.

One of the most gripping choices is Defiance, the tale of the Bielski partisans’ resistance to the Nazis.  Starring Daniel Craig, the latest in the long line of actors to play James Bond, the film tells the story of the Bielski brothers’ four-year saga to shelter what eventually became a total of more than 1,200 Jews in the woods, making deals with Russian soldiers and fighting against their would-be Nazi killers along the way. 

The film, which director Edward Zwick said took about a dozen years to make, is based on Nechama Tec’s bookby the same name.  Herself a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor, Tec is a retired sociologist who has also written about non-Jewish rescuers in When Light Pierced Darkness and a memoir about her experience as a hidden child, Dry Tears:  The Story of a Lost Childhood.

Tec explains in the preface that she wrote Defiance as a corrective to a commonly held misperception about  Jews during the Holocaust:

“My research about the Nazi annihilation of European Jews alerted me to a serious omission and an equally serious distortion.  The omission is the conspicuous silence about Jews who, while themselves  threatened by death, were saving others.  The distortion is the common description of European Jews who went passively to their death.

“Assuming the dual role of rebels and rescuers, this group grew into a forest community of more than 1200 that distinguished itself as the most massive rescue operation of Jews by Jews.” 

It is a gripping tale.

Tec vividly describes how the Jews, starting with little but their will and determination, the Jews and led by Tuvia Bielski, eventually created an entire world, complete with workshops, barbers and shoe repairs.  Word spread about the safe haven provided for Jews there, and the people kept coming, many from nearby Polish ghettoes that were being liquidated.

Of course, the world was far from idyllic. 

Tec talks frankly about the dangers and subordinate roles women experienced, about the lice that infested clothes-a grim joke talked about  how coats left alone would start walking-and the occasional descent into barbarism that the movie shows when the Jewish partisans take revenge on three Nazi soldiers.

There are moments of tenderness and connection.  While there were ‘forest marriages’ that sprung up during those years, and while women sometimes did exchange sex for protection, a number of the marriages, including Tuvia’s marriage to Lilka, lasted for 40 years.

Tec also describes the delicate relationships the partisans struck with Russian soldiers, whose support they needed yet on whom they did not want to depend.

Tuvia Bielski is at the story’s center. 

The head of the Bielski otriad, he maintained a certain reserve from many of the others in the camp, but almost always welcomed newcomers, including many people who could not fight, over his brother Zus’ objections.

At the same time, Tec does not shy away from showing Bielski’s less savory sides.  Despite his efforts at fairness, Bielski was susceptible to flattery and did at times play favorites.  He also could be brutal when necessary, seemingly killing a man who disobeyed his authority and turning away as the camp members attacked the three German soldiers.

Tec also shows how, like Oscar Schindler, Bielski was a bit lost after his turn as a hero during the Second World War.  Near the book’s conclusion, she talks about people’s dismay at seeing their stalwart leader driving a taxi and notes that he died feeling slightly disillusioned and unappreciated.

Based on many interviews with survivors from the woods, Defiance is an accessible read that largely follows chronological order and reads far more like a story than an academic tract. At the same time, Tec’s inclusion of a map of the village and discussion of issues like the role and experience of women reveal her sociologist’s training to the readers’ benefit. 

Zwick’s version of Defiance does have some Hollywood-style scenes which some may say detracts from its power.  For those looking to go deeper into this remarkable and previously little-known episode of Jewish heroism and resistance, Tec’s book is an excellent place to start.

Ava Kadishson Schieber’s Soundless Roar

Ava Kadishshon Schieber tells her story of World War II survival in poems, drawings and stories.

Ava Kadishshon Schieber tells her story of World War II survival in poems, drawings and stories.

April 1941 was a dire time for Ava Hegedish.

She and her family had moved from Novi Sad, a small city about 50 miles north of Belgrade, to the Yugoslavian capital to escape the Nazi regime that had waltzed through her homeland in a week.

Her father Leo, a gifted amateur violinist, saw through the Nazi assurances of safekeeping for his and other Jewish families.  Leo told his family the only way they could survive was to split up.

And so, having just turned 15 years old, Ava was sent to live in a farming village with relatives of her older sister Susanna’s fiance. 

Her home was a small wooden structure between the family’s pigsty and chicken coop.

Her possessions: art supplies that she managed to stretch and make last for 18 months and a 17-volume, leather bound German language encyclopedias.

Because she was educated, Ava had to pretend that she could neither hear nor speak. 

To speak would reveal her accent, her education, her outsider status and her Jewishness. 

To speak would mean death for her and her hosts.

So she pretended she was deaf and mute for four years.

After the war, Ava discovered that her father and sister had been killed and that her mother, who had survived, had been shattered by her experience and the loss of her husband and daughter. 

After the war, too, Ava realized that she would never belong in Communist-era Yugoslavia. In 1949 she abandoned a career in art, broke off a two-year relationship with a lover, signed over whatever the deeds to the two houses she owned and moved with her mother to Israel.

Ava tells the story of her family, her survival and her depature to Israel in Soundless Roar: Stories, Poems and Drawings, a fascinating and gripping book that haunts, challenges and inspires.

Full disclosure: Ava is a cherished family friend.

As the title suggests, the Soundless Roar is replete with contradictions.  During World War II and after, the comfortable existence she had known in the years before the Nazi takeover was utterly uprooted and torn asunder.

Ava roughly tells her story in chronological order through the stories, which tell of her being her Grandfather’s “bundle of morning joy,” taking the reader through her years in hiding and ending with her 1949 departure for Israel. 

But Soundless Roar is much more of a multi-layered and interconnected set of expressions than a simple recouting of her wartime experience, as valuable as those accounts are from any genocide survivor. 

The stories are filled with intimacy formed of alienation, with animals being better and closer companions than humans, with the aching longings of an unlived adolescence and with the haunting memories that Ava has continued to grapple with in the more than 60 years since the war ended. 

At the end of the story “Trapped” for instance, Ava writes about the combination of fragmentary memory and moments of insight that has been her condition since the war:

“One feels as though one is hanging in the air, while elements around us in turmoil.  At those times I would identify with bats, who try to survive in the invisible existence of darkness, hiding and silent.  The Nazi era killed 6 million people.  It maimed us survivors for life.”

Many stories in the book are drenched in pain and longing for the knowledge that will permit closure.  In the story Spirits, Ava describes how she and her mother desires to find out conclusively that Susanna would never return.  Her mother chooses always to hope, but Ava comes eventually to accept the reality of her sister’s death.

She closes the piece with the following:

“I would have loved to have possessed the firm Buddhist faith and conviction to trust messages from the mountaintops that would be carried by the winds for my sister.

I still would.”

The short sentences, the invoking of another faith tradition, the connection with nature and the admission of enduring uncertainty and long contained in those two sentences give Soundless Roar much of its power and resonance.

Another aspect that the stories explore is how wartime memories can be activated many years later by seemingly mundane experiences.  In Ride Into The City,  a cab ride from an airport terminal in a nameless city brings Ava back to the war so vividly that she is drawn back to the war.  In this case, the driver’s head reminds her of a young man’s head as he was pushed into a deadly black car and toward his certain death.

She ends the story:

“He did not turn toward.  I remained safe. That whole event probably took seconds; it hounded me for years.”

Again, in the conclusion, one sees how tenuous the hold Ava has on the current world, how quickly she can be plunged back into her wartime condition, her awareness but uncertainty about the precise duration of the incident and the continual nature not only of her original experience, but also of the cab ride that triggered the potent memories.

It is important to be clear, though, that Soundless Roar is not the work of a broken woman, nor are the stories the only element in the book. 

Indeed, in many cases, loss is matched by memory, death by survival, absence by presence, and destruction is met with creativity and resilience.

Ava’s sketches merit attention, too. 

Drawn in shadowy lines, the one before the story Diary shows a young child holding a limp toy in its right hand and the hand of an adult figure-possibly a parent?-in the left.  The child’s face evokes a Picasso-like head, with the facial features uneven and turned into each other.  The child’s face appears to have two mouths that turn toward each other.  There, as in the stories, themes of connection, disconnection and loneliness course through the image. 

The child’s hand is reaching out and met by the larger figure, but warmth is absent from the holding.  Similarly, the toy, possibly a doll, which should be a source of pleasure, dangles loosely and in a parallel relationship between the child and the adult.

The poems, which also precede each story, have their own potency.

The title poem, for instance, captures the inadequacy of language, the disorientation caused by the apocalyptic event, the fragmentary nature of life and memory and the necessity for each person to decide for themselves life’s meaning:

soundless roar the title says

construct your own meaning from the image

of mute din

where a vague maze of lines

limited by size and form

just indicates the space it evolved from

no place to fit a key

mind must break open closed entry

and cross the threshold

stare into obscurity of revealed insight

face glare of unfeigned depths

and then the way back to innocence

has lost all road signs

hence time is nameless too

and word’s abundant treasure inadequate

even with novel terms

Other survivor accounts have mined the themes that Ava explores in her work.  The lack of periods and possibly circular structure of the poetry evokes Dan Pagis’  Written in Pencil in a Sealed Boxcar. Ava’s pictures of children in a shattered world and the impossibility of its reconstruction are also dominant themes in much of Samuel Bak’s work. And Elie Wiesel’s Night tells a harrowing story of child survival in Auschwitz-Ava makes it clear that she was in the antechamber of hell, but not in hell itself.

But few books of any genre or period bring each of these elements together in a single work, and with such thought provoking intensity, insight and wisdom.  If Ava’s survival cannot be easily packed into a narrative of hope, neither can Soundless Roar be described as a cathartic exercise by a destroyed woman.

Wounded yet intact, Ava demonstrates remarkable resilience through her survival, and her efforts, however admittedly imperfect, to render her experience with the range of tools at her disposal.  While neither a comforting nor a straightforward work, Soundless Roar is unflinchingly honest in its recounting of her life before, during and after World War II.  The work sounds a clarion call to the reader not to live by ultimately empty slogans like “Never Again,” but to continually forge one’s own meaning in a chaotic, contradictory and often dangerous world.

We are the richer for Ava’s survival and her work.