Tag: Germany

Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany by Marie Jalowicz Simon

February 15th, 2018 — 12:18am

Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany by Marie Jalowicz Simon (translated by Anthea Bell with a foreword and afterword by Hermann Simon)

Hermann Simon knew his mother as a loving parent who was a Professor of Classical Antiquities at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He also knew that his mother survived World War II by staying and hiding most of the time in Berlin. During that period in Berlin, so she would not be discovered as a Jewish girl in her 20s and sent to a concentration camp. She rarely spoke about this experience and her son really didn’t know the details. Shortly before her death in 1998, he put a tape recorded in front of her and she agreed to tell her story.

Not only did Ms. Simon tell the story chronologically in vivid detail, but she also revealed her inner thoughts and feelings. She related how at first she wore the yellow Jewish star as was expected to be worn by all Jews in the city, although periodically she would hide it. She did the required work in a German factory making screws for war weapons. Then when her parents were “deported” and nobody knew exactly what their fate would be, she decided to “go to ground” which meant to go underground living in Germany. She hid her Jewish identity and found temporary lodging with non-Jewish friends. She would spend a few days or a week or two and then have to move on and try to find some other place to live.. At times, the circumstances was such that she had to give sexual favors and even got married for a short time in order to have a place to live. She had trouble getting food and most of the time she was in great hunger. Sometimes she had to sit in a wicker chair for hours at a time or sleep in the makeshift bed in the corner of somebody’s apartment who was risking their own lives by hiding her.

She was “underground” for about three years. She recalled not only the details of each phase of her hiding but painted a clear picture of the people she met and with whom she interacted. But most interesting was her ongoing recounting of her fears and feelings as she walked around the city or read books in an uncomfortable living arrangement with constant hunger. There’s no complicated plot or strongly unforgettable characters (other than Ms. Simon). We could appreciate the kindness of so many people who risked their lives to hide her. Her experience after the Russians liberated Berlin was also quite interesting.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Simon and her son for leaving the legacy of her experience as the young Jewish woman in Berlin during the war who “went to ground.” This book may not achieve the literary acclaim of some of the classic Holocaust books, but I still found it unforgettable. We all should be appreciative that the author and her son made the effort to preserve her story for future generations.

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

June 4th, 2016 — 12:30am

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 3.01.52 PMThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

If there is any book that has greatly contributed to my understanding of the bravery and resilience of victims of Nazi, Germany it was The Diary of Anne Frank. That book was written by a teenage girl who was hiding in Amsterdam for two and half years until she and her family were betrayed and she was killed. There have been many subsequent books about World War II and the Holocaust. Yet none of them has done it better than The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, an American novelist who was a lawyer turned writer. She did not go through any horrendous experiences as did Anne Frank and others in her own life but she obviously is a thorough researcher and a very skilled, sensitive writer who has written many successful novels prior to this number one bestseller.

Ms. Hannah has told the story how she came across the account of a Belgian woman, Andrea DeJoneg who was part of the underground resistance during World War II and guided many downed Allied pilots across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain at the risk of her own life. Based on her research and her insight into the human psyche, Ms. Hannah was able to create the characters of this book. She recounted the acts of tremendous bravery that were shown by her protagonists and she was empathically able to describe their emotional experiences in a very believable manner.

The author focused mainly on women, particularly two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle Mauriac who were not Jewish and lived in Carriveau, a small French village that was occupied by the Nazis during World War II. The reader comes to understand the backstories of these women. Isabelle, the rebellious one, ultimately becomes a very brave woman who shepherds downed British and American pilots across the rugged mountains to safety, risking the severe repercussions which she knew would happen if she were caught.

Her sister Vianne became a heroine in her own right, hiding Jewish children when their parents were taken away by the Nazis. Her actions reawakened questions that we have asked ourselves over the years. Would we have taken in a child (or an adult) to hide or disguise them, when to have been discovered would not only endanger our lives but those of our children? There was another point in question raised by this book when at the end of the war Vianne is faced with the prospect of now having to give up her five- or six-year-old child that she has raised for the past few years when her Jewish friend was taken away to the concentration camps. Now after the war was over, relatives of the deceased Jewish parents want to take this child to America so family there can raise him. But perhaps the most challenging question that the characters in this book face is whether Vianne should tell her husband, who returned home after being a POW held by the Nazis, that the pregnancy with the child that he now feels is his child, but was actually conceived shortly before they reunited, is really the pregnancy of the brutal rape from the German officer who made her house his living quarters before he retreated with the Nazis when the Allies liberated France. Should she have told her husband the truth and should she now more than 40 years after the end of the war tell the truth to the now grownup child who is a successful surgeon and very attentive to his mother.

It is these stories as well as the vivid description of life in occupied France as well in the concentration camps, which are part of this novel that makes this book so unforgettable. It well deserves the acclaim that it is receiving and I’m sure it will be made into an unforgettable movie.

To obtain a copy of this book from Amazon, please click here 

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The Guns At Last Light – The War In Western Europe by Rick Atkinson

August 25th, 2013 — 3:19pm

The Guns at Last LightThe Guns At Last Light – The War In Western Europe by Rick Atkinson – This is the final book of a trilogy about the war in Western Europe. It begins with the plans for the Normandy invasion and concludes with the German surrender and the death of Hitler.  For those of us who grew up in the post WWII years and have a certain attraction to the many great books that have detailed this war, this series stands to be the most comprehensive, complete and I would imagine the most accurate of the great books written  on this subject .While I have not read the first two of this series, I base my opinion on the fact that Atkinson draws upon all the previous works as well as extensive quotes from the diaries and writings of the participants from Churchill, Eisenhower, Montgomery, De Gaulle  etc., their aides, their wives, their letters as well as the reporters of the times such Severid, Murrow, Hemmingway, Pyle etc. He also includes the writings from the diaries and letters of the GIs who fought the war including many heart wrenching letters from soldiers who were subsequently killed in action. Needless to say he draws insights from both sides of the conflict. The book covers the big picture as well as the human view from the foxhole. You could easily say that the book was over detailed but on the other hand it didn’t seem to miss anything. Each chapter has a small map of where things stood at a particular time but it was really difficult to read and appreciate. On the other hand being able to follow the narrative clearly would require a large wall map in color on your wall that would change with every few pages. (In the future electronic books, i pads and computer readers should have a tab which one could go back and forth and see a full screen map with flashing or moving graphics.) The book captures the drama and the tension of planning and executing the crossing of the British Channel. Although we may have previously read about it or seen films about this subject, it is still almost impossible to fully appreciate the logistical miracle of carrying it out as well as the terrible loss of life, injury and emotional trauma that these hundreds of thousands of soldiers experienced. It is equally difficult to realize that the survivors and hundreds of thousands of new soldiers were to go through the horrific experience of the Battle of the Bulge and the painful march through Germany, crossing the Rhine and ultimate destruction of the German military. Imagine landing crafts filled with soldiers being destroyed before they reached the shore, gliders laden with troops being shot out of the sky or crashing into the ground.  There are all sorts of horrendous descriptions of Sherman Tanks or German Panzer Tanks either bringing about tremendous destruction or being blown up themselves with their occupants going up in flames. The narrative while seemingly tracing every painful kilometer across France and Germany switches back and forth from the battle line to various command centers behind the lines where Eisenhower, Montgomery, Patten and lesser but well known names are interacting in person or through messages sent back and forth. We get insight into the personalities, of our leaders as well as conflicts with each other. We can appreciate their   brilliance as well as their mistakes. Every decision that they would make, when to advance, when to pull back, which side to move, who would cover which flank, when to bomb etc. would invariably cost hundreds if not thousands of casualties or fatalities of their troops. Sometimes there would be “fratricide” where errors were made of bombarding our own troops. There is even material showing what was going on in the German headquarters with some insight into their personalities. Although no new ground was broken in understanding the mindset that brought about the concentration camps, the discovery of them, the horror that was seen and the allied reaction to it is all there. The epilogue which sums up the massive cost of this war in a wide range of parameters from the 56 million hand grenades used, to battlefield causalities of the Americans since D-Day which exceeded ¾ million of whom at least 165,000 were dead, plus 62,000 air casualties – half of them dead. British, Canadian, Polish and ancillary forces tallied combat losses of 194,000 including 42,000 killed. Of all German boys born between 1915 and 1924 1/3 were dead or missing.  Some 14 percent of the Soviet population of 190 million perished during the war. After the war, the digging up of American bodies from German soil so no soldier was left behind is another story which is briefly chronicled and will pull on the emotions of the reader along with so many other episodes in this piece of world history. Throughout the 878 pages (one quarter of which is notes and references) I would periodically ask myself why I was so drawn to still another account of this Great War, however well written and complete it might be? For some it might be to fully appreciate the war of their fathers, grandparents or great grandparents, which is certainly part of the reason for me (although only my uncles were in this great war). However, I have come to understand for me and perhaps for others young and old, this book allows me to identify with these brave people as I try to answer the an unanswerable question. How would I have dealt with being a soldier and participating in the “Guns of Last Light?”

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The Spinoza Problem: A Novel by Irvin D. Yalom

March 31st, 2012 — 11:12am

The Spinoza Problem: A Novel: by Irvin D. Yalom–  Irvin Yalom is a prominent psychiatrist who is now Professor Emeritus at Stanford Medical School He is a well published author who is known for his outstanding books on group therapy. He also has written books about case histories and relationships, which have been very well received by the public including Love’s Executioner and Staring At the Sun, which addresses death and dying. In addition he has authored a few novels including When Nietzsche Wept and this latest book published in February 2012, The Spinoza Problem.

This very readable novel will be particularly engrossing to those who have some acquaintance with the philosophy of Spinoza or have chosen to put aside any literal understanding of the bible and question the traditional belief in God. It also will have great appeal to readers who are always drawn to trying to get further insight into how anti-Semitism and Hitler were able to flourish in post World War I Germany leading to the rise of Nazism and World War II.

Yalom acknowledges that he always had been fascinated with Spinoza but could never find a way to write about him since very little was known about his personal and inner life. In the foreword of this book he describes a circumstance, which stimulated an idea, which then allowed him to imagine this novel.

The story starts off by introducing the reader to Baruch Spinoza (nicknamed Benito), a brilliant Talmudic student in Holland and Alfred Rosenberg a student in Germany who runs for President of his College class by making an anti-Semitic speech which gets him called on the carpet by two of the faculty, one of whom is Jewish. Each chapter alternates by following the lives of one of these two young men. Spinoza who lived in the 17th century in Holland becomes ex-communicated by his well-known Rabbi because of his heretic views of the bible and his refusal to accept a belief in God, rejecting both ideas as superstitions. Rosenberg lives in the 20th century and experiences the aftermath of Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I, becomes a writer and an editor, meets a young Adolph Hitler whom he idolizes and ultimately serves. Although they lived nearly 300 years apart, their connection through Spinoza’s writings resulted in nagging questions which Rosenberg pondered most of his life. These may have unconsciously challenged his deeply held anti-Semitic beliefs. On another level the examination of Spinoza’s deconstruction of a religion based philosophy founded on myths and superstitions highlights the flaws of the deeply held views of Hitler and so many of his followers.

Yalom offers this book as completely factual except for the personal life and inner thoughts of each of the protagonists and the connection that he imagines between the two. There are however some reasons that Yalom has for believing that Rosenberg could have been bothered by the problem that some earlier great German minds valued the writings of “Spinoza the Jew.”   The real lives of both men are well known.  This includes the details of the ex-communication of Spinoza from his Jewish community and the actual writings of Spinoza. Rosenberg’s life and ultimate death by hanging as a war criminal have been well documented and his views were widely disseminated, as he was an editor of a prominent Nazi newspaper as well as holding other important positions under Hitler.

There are records that show that Rosenberg did spend some time hospitalized in a Psychiatric Clinic during his Nazi years. Yalom creates therapy sessions between Rosenberg and a made up German psychiatrist who is not sympathetic to his vision. Yalom obviously does this, as he imagined the method in which he would approach Rosenberg if he were his psychiatrist.

Another made up character is Franco who is depicted as a friend and follower of Spinoza, who believes that Judaism should be changed from the inside rather than completely discarded in place of a new philosophical view of God as Nature, which was Spinoza’s view. This character becomes a Rabbi and plans to leave Europe and come to the New World and found a new religion. In the epilog of the book Yalom suggests that he was making a reference to Mordecai Kaplan a 20th century pioneer of modernized and secularized Judaism known as the Reconstruction movement in the U.S. (although Kaplan’s trajectory was somewhat different than the character in the book).

Also in the epilog of the book Yalom quotes the wisdom that, History is fiction that happens. Fiction is history that might have happened.

This novel successfully weaves the two together in a stimulating, thought provoking and quite enjoyable novel.

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