Wednesday, June 26, 2013

One Hundred Philistine Foreskins

As in her previous novel, My Holocaust, One Hundred Philistine Foreskins is yet another Tova Reich venture into high satire.  This is her genre, and she fearless in her use of its tools.  Nothing escapes her caustic scrutiny.  Everything is fair game.

My Holocaust exposed the dreadful commercialization of the Shoah, while Foreskins offers a look at a wider topic, the place of women in the orthodox Jewish world.   Reich has a great deal to say on this topic, and brings a large amount of background knowledge and information as she lays out her plot.

Reich is an intractably Jewish writer, and it helps the reader to have a rich knowledge of Judaism to appreciate this book.   She throws everything into this novel but the Jewish kitchen sink. The narrator does explain some of the more abstruse references and allusions, but sometimes this does not go too far.  Large parts of this novel are an inside joke.

In the end, Foreskins hovers in a netherworld between humor and rage, offering a glimmer of hope in a world without hope for women.   
It is as if Reich, despite all her satirical gifts, which are a thin mask covering her rank misanthropy, cannot give up on humanity and its particular manifestation, the Jewish people.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

All Out War - Hitler's Army

Omar Bartov’s ground breaking book Hitler’s Army did a great deal to demolish the myth that the regular German army, the Wehrmacht, did not participate in atrocities during World War II.  Before his work, there was the widespread idea both in academia and Germany, that the regular armydid not participate in the expulsion or destruction of the Jews, the abuse of civilians or POWs, or in any way deviate from “the rules of war.”

Bartov uses primary documents, first-hand accounts, and Soviet and Allied reports to chronicle the widespread abuses of the German army, particularly in the Soviet Union.  There, an all-out war against Russians and Jews was committed by German troops indoctrinated in the Nazi taxonomy of Slavs as untermenschen, sub-humans.  As such, they could be mistreated to a far greater extent than the other enemies of the Reich.

Hitler’s Army is a key piece in the puzzle of understanding the Third Reich, both the internal mechanisms of its ideology, and how it was carried out on such a large and horrifying scale.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Pain is Pain: the expulsion of ethnic Germans after WWII

Starting in 1945, about 12 million ethnic Germans were expelled from countries outside the traditional boundaries of Germany, as well of the eastern portions of the German Reich in what are today portions of Poland.

Before the Second World War, Germans lived in a European diaspora sometimes far away from either Germany or Austria.  Countries like Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Poland and Russia had signification German minority populations.

Because of the brutal invasion of Russia by Germany in Operation Barbarossa, which saw widespread murder and destruction, deportation of civilians and POWs as slave labor; and in general, a suspension of all the rules of war, the stag was set for the expulsion of the Germans if Germany should fail to win the war.  

After the war, all countries with sizable German minorities set about expelling them.  This was done both as revenge for Nazi atrocities, and to prevent further German claims to lands outside the redrawn post-war map.

These expulsions are the subject of Afred-Maurice de Zaya’s book A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of Eastern European Germans.  The author explores each German group by turn, showing us how and why the expulsions of Germans occurred through first hand testimony, government documents, and archival material.

De Zaya’s rightly illustrates the harshness and unjustness of these expulsions. They were done barbarously and brutally, with as many as 2 of the 12 million Germans expelled dead by their conclusion.  All Germans were expelled, babies, old men and women, anti-Nazis; guilt or innocence was not a standard, nor was any affiliation with National Socialism.

This book is informative and important, shedding light on a little known chapter in the annals of human misery and cruelty.  

However the author quotes from memoirs at great length, often three to four pages, interrupting the flow of the narrative.
The organization of the book is inexplicable in some parts, adding to confusion.  The book should have had more clear narrative and less of a patchwork of sources and large quotes. 

This would have made an important book a well-written book.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Light on Our Darker Side

One of the most prominent features of the twentieth century was genocide and ethnic cleansing. Why this happened, and continued to happen, is the basis of the book by Norman M. Naimark, Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe.

Naimark certainly has no lack of subject matter to choose from; so he focuses on Europe, and certain key events of genocide and ethnic cleansing which work as watershed moments in this type of activity. He handles the Armenians and Greek of Anatolia, the Nazi attacks on the Jews, the Soviet deportation of the Chechen-Ingush and Crimean Tartars, the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Poland during and following the Second World War, and the various acts of ethnic cleansing that occurred during the Wars of Yugoslav Success in the 1990s.

This covers most of the twentieth century. Naimark draws important distinctions between genocide and ethnic cleansing, and how they often overlap. He shows how the rise of virulent nationalism fostered the surge of both acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the twentieth century. The rise of mass transportation and technology aided in killing, but he shows how sadly easy it is to kill large numbers of people by deporting them, depriving them of food, shelter, and medicine.

All in all, this important book sheds a light on a very dark part of the human psyche.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine

Omer Bartov is a scholar of the Holocaust, best known for his book Hitler's Army, which illustrates how complicit "regular" German troops were in the extermination of the Jews, Russian civilians and POWs.

In Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine, Bartov goes out into the field, to find the disappearing vestiges of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

Of course, what he finds are sad remnants. Synagogues barely standing, or used for other purposes; shops where Yiddish signs are still visible beneath faded paint. Houses with the imprint of long gone mezuzot. And worse: mass graves poorly tended, or not tended at all, cemeteries desecrated or abandoned. All in all, a lost world, whose faint imprint is quickly fading.

Bartov seeks to prove again and again how modern Ukrainians, and their government, have failed to reckon with the destruction of their Jews. In the tumultuous years since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian nationalism has reached new heights, and many of the heroes of that nationalism were anti-Semites, often collaborating with the Nazi occupiers for their extinction.

It is a brutal and polluted legacy, according to Bartov, and it is expressed in the neglect of Ukraine's Jewish legacy. And it will only get worse.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

War Made New: Max Boot

Max Boot is an historian who is very skilled at taking a wide ranging topic, selecting a few examples, and then examining them with encyclopedic knowledge and scope.

This is certain the case with his War Made New: Technology, Warefare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today. Boot's premise is simple. New technologies create new opportunities for those who wage war. But more advanced and destructive weapons of war do not insure victory. Again and again he shows how far inferior forces have won against larger powers by deploying new strategies and tactics.

This book is about technology and how it changes war, but it is also very much about how tactical and strategic decisions still govern the conduct of war, and ultimately lead to victory or defeat.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The King of the Franks, part 12, END

The next year I was walking across the Ille St. Louis in Paris.  Along the main boulevard, at a crowded café, the tables were lined with dark faces.  
 I recalled from a conversation with a colleague that an émigré population had sprouted here on this idyllic island in the middle of the Seine.  Here, in an oasis in the middle of an urban river, away from the bustle of Paris, a bit of that country had reconstituted itself.   
I walked by the tables.  All the faces bore the blase indifference of the native French.  They had learned this from school, and it had sprung forth, again, like a missing limb regenerating itself in their exile.  They leaned conspiratorially together, in constant talk of politics and coups and resistance, among the serene cafes and brasseries and demure country markets  dappled with fresh spring light.  I had walked just beyond the last émigré table when I heard my name called.
When I turned around, I was not surprised.  It was Charles in exile, in the land of his eponymous ancestor, the king of the Franks.  He rushed toward me and kissed both my cheeks.  Tears rolled down his face and he appeared momentarily unable to speak.   
The old Charles was gone.  Exile had whittled away the polished reserve of the government official, of the leader’s handpicked man and successor.  There were only baleful tears and the sodden expression of a man who had once gorged himself on power, and was faced with the bitter irony of having to live with the unsatisfying surfeit of exile. 
“I thought you were dead!” he finally said, and then: “and then I heard you had made it out through the north.  By the passes.   What a great miracle.  Even people from that region would not dare to make such a journey!  Seeing you here, it brings it all back.” 
He motioned for me to sit at his table, and silently I joined him.  I then noticed a man, a compatriot of Charles,  already seated at a table of empty wine bottles and empty and stacked dirty dishes, and full ash trays.   
The man exchanged a glance with Charles laced with the sullen intimacy of the jealous lover.  Did he think me a new love or an old flame?  I had no desire to remain long enough to satisfy his claim.  So, was this truly Charles?  Perhaps this was just another manifestation of the man.  The tribal man, the Christian convert, the man of the government, the secret Muslim of the north, kneeling with marabouts and qadis, facing Mecca and now here, in Paris, the lover of men.
“I barely got out myself,” he continued as I sat down.  He offered me a drink, but I declined.  “Of course I felt responsible for you.  Of course I did.  I sent you upland on that fool’s errand.  I needed to show you the depth of our country.  Its great promise. You see, you did not understand us.  I could not see how a man of your sensibilities could not see  how we are!  I meant to educate you.  And here, I thought I killed you.  There were reports of a body…” and here the chocked on the words.  I quickly stopped him, exonerating him of responsibility.  I had professional reasons for going north.  It was my responsibility.  But he was no longer listening to me.
“Its all gone now.  All the marabouts, everything…” and he recounted the reports buried within the newspaper, if anyone cared to read them, of religious courts, of public executions, of sharia and gang violence.  
 Right in the middle of the long list of crimes, of grievances, I stood up.  He was in the midst of denouncing everything, as forcefully and unswervingly as he had supported everything from the government podium.  Even Islam, which was once his great standard of moral rectitude; he was, indeed, a new man.   
Charles had remade himself , but I had no desire to see it’s every shade and angle, its depths and shallows.  I excused myself from the table and both man instinctively rose.  I walked away and toward the end of the island.  Charles did not follow.  I walked through the market, and through a narrow alley to the embankment and the shore of the river.
Unlike that equatorial nation, where it is day and then suddenly night, the sun sets in Paris degree by colorful degree; I stood and watched the yellow turn to red, and then, startlingly, like a shade suddenly drawn over a great window and illuminated from behind, a deep,  maritime blue.  
 Over in the west, Venus rose above a bank of dusky clouds.  All along the street, the lamps were lit.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The King of the Franks part 11

         Later, and after a steep climb, the truck stopped at what I imagined was the border.  The driver was known to the guards.  There was much laughing on both sides.  The marabout had picked the right man for this job.  
         In less than a minute the truck was moving again.  When we stopped, the driver opened the back and gestured that I could exit.  We were in a small wadi lined with date palms.  All around was the flat expanse of desert, tan and piercingly bright in the sun.  My driver began to unload the feed.  Another man, from the people who dwell near the border, approached, and after a few words together, I was passed on to yet another truck, taking me north.  Everywhere I went, the word of the marabout was enough to pass me along, from one lorry to the next, all the way to Morocco.   
        The final conveyance brought me to a street in the capital city, in the section where the embassies and consulates bask in the temperate glow of the sea, beneath stately palms.
 My arrival was a surprise.  Accounts of my death had been in circulation for weeks.  Even a body had been seen and photographed  – a westerner – who matched my description – naked riddled with stab wounds.   
But that was my poor substitute. A stand in for the day of my real death, which today had passed me by;  I immediately asked for a telephone.