The Turning Point of the War: Review of 1941 by Andrew Nagorski

The Turning Point of the War: Review of 1941 by Andrew Nagorski

by Claudia Moscovici

 

We tend to think of D-Day as the turning point of WWII: the day the Allies landed in Normandy to liberate France, and the entire Europe, from the Nazi invaders. But Andrew Nagorski’s new book, 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2019), persuasively argues that this crucial year was the beginning of the end for Hitler’s regime and the beginning of hope for the Allies. In fact, had Hitler not chosen to follow in Napoleon’s footsteps and replicate his mistake—that of invading Russia at the wrong time–it’s likely that the descendants of the Nazi victors would be writing a very different history today.

Nagorski points out that before he launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Hitler had Europe in the palm of his hands. He had swept through most of the Continent, while Britain found itself fighting the war almost alone. The United States, and especially President Roosevelt, was on its side. However, America hadn’t yet joined the Allied forces and the President was still struggling with isolationist tendencies in Congress. Furthermore, Germany was relatively safe from the danger of Soviet invasion thanks to the Nazi-Soviet (or Molotov-Ribbentrop) neutrality pact of 1939. Judging by Stalin’s shock and hesitation to retaliate when he first found out that Germany attacked his country, the Axis powers could have continued to trounce the Allied forces. But Hitler’s racial theories—which considered the Slavs to be an inferior people—coupled with his ideology of Lebensraum, or the conviction that the Aryan race would thrive if they vastly expanded their territory and resources by conquering the Soviet Union, led Hitler to make the same mistake in 1941 that caused Napoleon’s fall over a century earlier.

Catching the Soviet Union unprepared for war and with its army leadership decimated by Stalin’s Great Terror purges of 1936-1938, Hitler expected to conquer quickly the Soviet Union. He was especially interested in getting his hands on the natural resources of the Ukraine which is why, contrary to the wise advice of General Heinz Guderian, who counseled him to invade Moscow first, Hitler decided to make Kiev his immediate target in the early fall of 1941. This postponed the attack on Moscow to the late fall and winter (October 1941 to January 1942), with the Nazi soldiers unprepared for the extremely cold temperatures of the region and running out of supplies and energy. As Nagorski points out, both totalitarian rulers made big miscalculations during the war. But in 1941 they began to follow different paths. As Stalin started trusting and taking the advice of his key generals, particularly his ruthless and courageous Chief of Staff, Georgy Zhukov, Hitler, fueled by his previous easy victories and obsessed with directing soldiers and resources to the mass murder of the European Jews, began making big mistakes. “It was their calculations—and, more significantly, gross miscalculations—that were determining the trajectory of the war” (1941,143).

The prolonged battle of Moscow was not the only turning point in the war, however. The continuing rapprochement between Roosevelt and Churchill, the decrease in power of the main proponents of the “America First” isolationist movement (Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy, not accidentally, both Nazi sympathizers), and especially Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, all changed the fate of Europe and the direction of the war. “History is written by the victors,” Winston Churchill is often cited as saying. In the case of the Jews, and perhaps also the Slavs, it would have been not only their history, but also their very existence that would have been effaced had the Nazis won the war. Nagorski’s exceptionally well researched and magnificently written book reminds us of the pivotal importance of the year 1941. This book, along with Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968) and Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (1991), should be an essential reader for anyone interested in Hitler, Stalin and WWII history.

 

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No Friends but the Mountains: Kae Bahar’s eloquent call for Kurdish nationhood

No Friends but the mountains: Documentary Filmmaker Kae Bahar’s eloquent call for Kurdish nationhood

by Claudia Moscovici

 

Documentary film director Kae Bahar’s No Friends but the Mountains is a must-see film for those interested in the issues of Kurdish Independence, the fallout from the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and the plight of the Yazidis in the aftermath of these countries’ partial occupation by ISIS. This one and a half hour documentary, released in 2017, is available to watch internationally, including on Amazon Kindle. The film is not only educational—sometimes even overtly didactic–but also polemical, as it makes a compelling argument for Kurdish nationhood.

Right now, the Kurds are dispersed throughout several countries and regions. They comprise about 20 percent of the population in Turkey, 17 percent of Iraq, and 10 percent of Iran and Syria each. Moreover, as a result of oppression and civil war, close to 1.5 million Kurds have immigrated to Europe. Once part of the Ottoman Empire, when the latter disintegrated at the beginning of the twentieth-century, the Kurds, like the Armenians, were ethnic minorities that were perceived as a threat in Turkey. The nationalist Turkish movement “Young Turks” deported hundreds of thousands of Kurds. By the end of WWI, nearly 700,000 Kurds had been deported and more than half perished during this process of ethnic cleansing.

Not surprisingly given their history of oppression, the Kurds have been demanding their own country for decades. The Socialist organization PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has been most active in calling for national independence. While the PKK has been accused of terrorist activities, a more moderate party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP or PDK), under the leadership of President Masoud Barzani, pushes for a democratic and independent Kurdistan. Today, as the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan is becoming increasingly repressive and squelching moves for independence, the chances of Kurdish separation from Turkey look rather bleak.

The civil wars in Syria and Iraq, however, have created enough of a political vacuum for the creation of the independent region of Kurdistan. Comprising almost 20 percent of the Iraqi population, the Kurds suffered through a genocidal campaign run by Saddam Hussein, leading to mass murder, the use of poison gas on civilians, and the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Kurds. This genocidal policy led to the deaths of almost two hundred thousand Kurdish Iraqis. The UN condemned Hussein’s actions and established “safe havens” for Kurdish civilians in 1991 in Northern Iraq. When Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime was toppled, the Kurds celebrated the fall of the tyrant and welcomed American troops in the area. The Kurdish military forces, called the Peshmerga (literally meaning “before death” or “those who face death”), expanded their control over part of the autonomous region of Kurdistan, with a population of almost six million Kurds. Once ISIS took control over large parts of Iraq and Syria, the Peshmerga forces, remarkably comprising of both male and female soldiers, have been a crucial force in pushing back the terrorist organization and helping the resistance movements regain control of large parts of these countries. The Kurds have also been a source of aid to the Yazidis, a minority group in Iraq and Syria who have been targeted by ISIS for murder, pillage and—horrifically—the kidnapping, rape and sexual slavery of thousands of young women and girls. In fact, Bahar’s documentary features a scene where the Peshmerga help a group of Yazidis, comprised mostly of women and children, who managed to flee ISIS into the mountains populated by the Kurds. The scene is one of the most moving of the documentary: as very young children are crying from hunger and thirst, we see the Peshmerga soldiers, after doing a necessary security check, bring them life-saving vegetables, flatbread and water.

The title of this documentary says a lot. With “No friends but the mountains”, the Kurds have suffered oppression in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Without their own nation, they are, like the Jews were for centuries, at the mercy of their host countries, where they are usually oppressed minorities. Showing the Kurds as a peaceful people who have even helped other suffering minority groups, like the Yazidis, Bahar makes a compelling humanitarian and political argument for Kurdish nationhood. This would grant the Kurds more international protection and legitimacy.

I think there’s no question that, morally, the Kurds deserve a nation of their own. The question I have after seeing this thought-provoking documentary is pragmatic: namely, is this the right time to assert the Kurds’ right to nationhood? As older nation-states in the Middle East—Iraq, Syria, and Libya—have been shaken by violent upheavals since 2011 from which they haven’t yet recovered, what would happen if Kurdistan created its own nation? Would it fall prey to the same upheavals or, as Bahar implies, would it be a stabilizing force in the area? Moreover, it seems that, in Turkey, Erdogan continues to veer towards increasingly repressive measures towards his own people and especially towards Kurdish separatist groups. No doubt, he would feel extremely threatened by the state of Kurdistan. What would happen to the Kurds in Turkey? Would they fall victim to increased oppression or even ethnic cleansing once again? It’s difficult to answer these questions in the abstract. But clearly the Kurdish people and their leaders feel that the time is ripe to seize the moment and establish the nation-state they rightfully feel they deserve. Bahar’s film suggests it is now up to the international community to give them recognition and help them fulfill their political dreams.

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A precedent for the Holocaust: The Armenian genocide and The Promise

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

As Peter Balakian points out in the Preface of his book, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian genocide and America’s response (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), the Holocaust had a significant historical precedent: one which, unfortunately, is all too often ignored. The Armenian genocide, he states, “has often been referred to as ‘the forgotten genocide,’ ‘the unremembered genocide,’ ‘the hidden holocaust,’ or ‘the secret genocide’” (xvii). He adds that many historians—including Yehuda Bauer, Robert Melson, Howard M. Sachar and Samantha Power–rightfully consider the Armenian genocide as “the template for most of the genocide that followed in the twentieth century” (xviii). Over a century later, Turkey still refuses to acknowledge the systematic and premeditated mass killings of the Armenian population by the Ottoman Turks, even though this genocide, officially recognized as such by 29 countries, is very well documented: “In the past two decades, scholars have unearthed and translated a large quantity of official state records documenting the Committee of Union and Progress’s (Ottoman Turkey’s governing political party) finely organized and Implemented plan to exterminate the Armenians” (xxi). Balakian himself studied “hundreds of U.S. State Department documents (there are some four thousand documents totaling about thirty-seven thousand pages in the National Archives) written by American diplomats that report in depth the process and devastation of the Armenian Genocide. The extermination of the Armenians is also illuminated in British Foreign Office records, and in official records from the state archives of Germany and Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey’s World War I allies. The foremost scholar of the Armenian Genocide, Professor Vahakn Dadrian, has made available in translation body of Turkish sources both primary and secondary” (xxi).

The genocide involved the systematic mass murder and ethnic cleansing of approximately 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during WWI. The extermination started on April 24, 1915, with the deportation and execution of a few hundred Armenian intellectuals from Constantinople. It progressed to the forced conscription, imprisonment in labor camps and murder of able-bodied males. Soon thereafter, it led to the mass murder of women, the elderly and children, who were herded by Turkish military escorts for hundreds of miles across the Syrian desert, without sufficient food, water, medical care or sanitary facilities. The Turks periodically butchered entire villages and communities mercilessly driven on these death marches. Women and young girls were often subjected to rape and torture before being killed. Sometimes the victims were loaded on cattle trains for days, without any provisions, in a manner similar to the Nazi transportation of Jews to concentration camps almost three decades later.

Similarly to the Jewish Holocaust, the Armenian Holocaust didn’t happen out of the blue. Like the Jews in many European countries, the Armenians were considered second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire. Even during relatively Enlightened times, when the Ottoman rulers granted the Christian and Jewish minorities relative autonomy and minority rights, non-Muslims were still considered to be “gavours”: meaning “infidels” or “unbelievers”. In the Eastern provinces, Armenian villages found themselves subject to higher taxation and often invaded by their Turkish and Kurdish neighbors. Moreover, like the Jews in the Pale of Settlement region, the Armenians fell victim to periodic pogroms.

However, discrimination and subjugation don’t necessarily lead to wide-scale genocide. Consequently, just as the Jews couldn’t have anticipated the extermination of their people by the Nazis, nothing prepared the Armenian communities living under Ottoman rule for their ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Turks. In both cases, world wars were used as an excuse—and incitement–for genocide. The Ottoman Empire entered WWI on August 2, 1914, when it signed a secret treaty with Germany to fight on the side of the Axis powers. The Turkish leadership wanted the local Armenian population to act on their behalf. It called for their insurrection against the Russian Army. The Minister of War, Enver Pasha, launched an attack on the Russians. He attempted to encircle and destroy the Russian army at Sarikamish in order to reclaim Turkish territories occupied by the Russians since 1877. However, his plan failed and his troops were defeated. The Turks blamed their defeat on the local Armenian population, claiming that they were traitors who helped the Russians. Subsequently, able-bodied Armenian men living in the Ottoman Empire were discharged from active military service, disarmed, and sent to forced labor battalions, where many were executed by the Turks.

In a move that would prefigure the Jewish genocide in the Eastern Territories during WWII, on May 29, 2015, the Turkish Central Committee passed a law of deportation (the “Tehcir Law”) that gave the Ottoman Empire the right to deport anyone they considered a threat to “national security,” which, in their minds, included women and children. The mass deportation—in grueling death marches–of the elderly, women and children soon followed. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died from starvation, disease, and being butchered in mass shootings. To carry out genocide, the Turks formed a paramilitary organization that has been compared to the Nazi Einsatzgruppen. The Turkish Committee of Union and Progress founded a “Special Organization”, comprised mostly of Turkish criminals released from prisons, who were put in charge of the deportations and massacres of the Armenians. They killed countless helpless civilians, decimating their numbers through forced marches, shootings, mass burning, drowning and even poisoning. Like the Nazis, the Turks experimented with toxic gases and biological warfare (inoculating healthy Armenians with the blood of typhoid patients). After the Allies defeated the Axis powers, on November 3, 1918 Sultan Mehmet VI was ordered by the Allied administration to hold war trials for the Turkish leaders of the Armenian genocide, which included Mehmed Talaat Pasha, Enver Pasha and about 130 high officials of the Ottoman Empire.

The contemporary movie The Promise (2016), directed by Terry George, captures the trauma of the Armenian genocide in an epic drama reminiscent of War and Peace. The movie traces the love triangle between Mikael, an Armenian medical student who falls in love with Ana, an Armenian tutor educated in France, who is engaged to Chris, an American journalist covering the war for the Associated Press. A small town boy from a poor family, before meeting Ana, Mikael himself becomes engaged to a wealthier neighbor, whose family gives him a dowry (400 gold coins) to cover his expenses for medical school in Constantinople. At a party held by his wealthy uncle, Mikael is introduced to Ana, his nieces’ tutor, as well as Emre, the son of a Turkish official, whom he befriends. He’s smitten with Ana as soon as he meets her. The young woman captivates him with her beauty, culture and sophistication. But the beginning of WWI nips their romance in the bud. Mikael is sent to a labor camp, from which he manages to escape. In one of the most harrowing scenes of the film, Mikael rides on top of a cattle train, hoping to elude the Turkish army and make it back to his native village to help his family. Suddenly it starts to pour. He hears strange sounds emanating from the train: terrible moaning and cries. Hands emerge between the grates of the train, trying in vain to cup the drops of water. To his shock, Mikael discovers that hundreds of Armenian civilians are trapped inside, dying of thirst and hunger. Before jumping off the train, the young man manages to pry open the lock to one of the doors and save the trapped prisoners. He finally makes it to his parents’ house, where the family has an emotional reunion. However, realizing that it would be too dangerous to stay with his parents, Mikael and his fiancée get married in great haste and move to a remote area, where they live together in a rustic cabin. A few months later, his wife becomes pregnant and experiences health complications.

Meanwhile, his friends, Ana and Chris, visit Mikael’s parents trying to locate him. They are helping a group of orphans escape from the murderous Turkish troops. As Mikael joins them on the back roads to lead the orphans to a safer area, he watches helplessly as a group of Turkish soldiers carry off his own family and other inhabitants of his little village, Sirun. He runs to their aid but arrives too late: most of his family and neighbors lie murdered in a ditch. Only his young niece and his mother have (barely) survived, left for dead by the Turks. The rest of the beleaguered Armenian community decides that it’s better to fight to the death rather than be butchered like sheep by the Turks. Armed with rudimentary tools and a lot of courage, the refugees fight valiantly and manage to hold off the Turkish onslaught until a French ship, le Guichen, comes to their rescue. As Mikael takes a lifeboat of orphans to safety, Ana drowns when her boat is capsized by Turkish artillery. Despite their rivalry for her love, both Mikael and Chris mourn her death. This tragedy resolves the tension of the love triangle that had divided them.

The Promise, I believe, follows in the footsteps of War and Peace in depicting war on an epic scale through the optic of a personalized family drama and love story. It alludes to the Armenian genocide, and captures episodes of it, without becoming too didactic. While viewers seem to rate the film highly, the critical reception has been mixed. Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator website, reports that, so far, The Promise received an average rating of 5.7/10. Benjamin Lee, the film critic for The Guardian found the film “soapy” but well intentioned. Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times concurred, calling it “corny” and “a derivative of better war romances”. The Nation’s film critic, Pietro A. Shakarian, rated it more highly, claiming “The Promise captures the magnitude of this history [of the Armenian genocide] that no prior film on the genocide has done before.” I agree in part with both perspectives. Like Shakarian, I find The Promise to be a moving epic drama that tackles an important and often overlooked subject. At the same time, I feel that the film sometimes privileges the love triangle at the expense of offering viewers more necessary background about the Armenian genocide. For instance, when depicting the friendship between Mikael and Emre (the son of the Turkish official, who is eventually killed because he didn’t turn against his Armenian friend), the movie may give viewers the false impression that Turks and Armenians peacefully coexisted before the beginning of the war. But, as my previous discussion has described, the status of the Armenians living under Ottoman rule was similar to that of the Jews in many European countries: they were considered (at best) second-class citizens and (at worst) enemies to be killed in pogroms. In both cases, the sociopolitical conditions were ripe for mass extermination. World wars were the catalyst, not the cause, of genocide.

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Survivors Club: A Family’s Legendary Tale

 

Survivors Club: A Family’s Legendary Tale

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Michael Bornstein’s Holocaust survival story is the stuff that legends are made of. A few years ago, Bornstein ran across a photo of footage taken by Soviet troops of the recently liberated child survivors at Auschwitz. The documentary wasn’t actually from the day of liberation of the concentration camp. It was filmed as a reenactment a few days later. The children were asked to put on for the last time the striped, threadbare dingy clothes they wore in the concentration camp: only this time they wore them on top of the regular clothes they found in the “Canada” warehouse at Auschwitz, where the Nazis deposited the belongings of prisoners upon arrival. To his own surprise, Michael Bornstein, by now a grandfather, recognized himself in that photograph. He is the gaunt four-year-old boy with wispy, short hair standing in the front. It was miraculous that he had survived. The odds were heavily stacked against him.

Out of the millions of inmates at Auschwitz, fewer than 3000 were liberated by the Soviets and only 52 of them were children under the age of eight. Seeing this picture stirred something in him: not so much full-fledged memories, since Michael had been too young to remember the horrors of the Holocaust, as the desire to record his family’s incredible survival story. With the help of archival research, his father’s documents and interviews with neighbors and surviving relatives, Michael Bornstein and his daughter, NBC and MSNBC News producer Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, co-wrote his Holocaust memoir, aptly calling it Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). Although the title alludes primarily to the handful of children who survived Auschwitz, it also refers to Michael’s family. Out of the 3,200 Jews living in Zarki at the time of the Nazi invasion in September 1939, about 30 survived. Most of the survivors were members of the Bornstein family.

Historically, Michael Bornstein’s family and their neighbors experienced first-hand almost every stage of Nazi atrocities in Poland. Upon invading their little town, Zarki, the Wehrmacht burned it to the ground. They rounded up hundreds of Jews and shot them in nearby forests, in the streets and even in their own homes. Soon thereafter, the Nazis set up a Jewish Ghetto. Unlike larger ghettos throughout Poland, however, for most of its existence, the one in Zarki remained open, allowing some life-sustaining trade and interaction with the local Polish population. Michael’s father, Israel Bornstein, was elected Jewish Council President, a heavy responsibility that he reluctantly accepted. He and his resilient and courageous wife, Sophie, did their best to protect not only their own nuclear family—their older son Samuel and Michael, who was still a baby—but also the entire Jewish community of their town.

As in the case of the other Jewish ghettos in Poland, life for Jews in Zarki was a constant struggle to ward off hunger, forced labor, and the relentless waves of deportations to death camps. For awhile, Israel Bornstein managed to round up the resources to bribe the local Gestapo chief, Officer Schmitt, into giving their community more food and occasionally decreasing their burdens. Schmitt, though a callous man and a true Nazi believer was, fortunately, also venal. But small-scale bribery proved to be no match for the immense Nazi killing machine. By the end of September 1942, most of the Jewish inhabitants of Zarki were sent to die at Treblinka. Perhaps wishing to demonstrate his “humanity,” Schmitt made one exception. He spared Israel Bornstein and his nuclear family from death. They, along with Israel’s mother (Dora), were sent to a more lenient labor camp until they, too, were eventually dispatched to Auschwitz. As Michael was to find out later, his father and older brother both perished there.

Michael, by now a toddler, was placed in a children’s section of the concentration camp. Had his mother not managed to sneak him into the women’s camp after a few weeks, he most likely wouldn’t have made it. The older children, themselves starving, were constantly stealing most of his meager portions of daily gruel. Under the wing of his mother and grandmother, Michael managed to live in hiding from day to day. When his mother was reassigned to another labor camp, the little boy was left under the sole protection of his paternal grandmother. Ironically, it was illness that ultimately saved his life. Suffering from high fever, he was placed in the infirmary around the time the Nazis began to force the Auschwitz prisoners on the fatal death marches. From the infirmary window, Michael watched the beleaguered, freezing prisoners file away from the camp under the blows of the Nazi guards. The story of his liberation by the Allies a few days later is captured by the Soviet footage. But the inspiring tale of his survival—Survivors Club–has only now been told.

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A First-Class Experience: CEO Paul Glantz re-Emagines Movie Theaters

EmagineTheaters

A First-Class Experience: CEO Paul Glantz re-Emagines Movie Theaters

by Claudia Moscovici

Ten years ago, many thought that movie theaters would go by the wayside, the way the video rental industry has. With the rise in popularity of Netflix (founded in 1997), Hulu (founded in 2007) and other popular video on demand companies, which allows viewers to enjoy movies and shows in the privacy of their homes, it seemed as if going to the cinema would become a thing of the past.

A few years ago, Paul Glantz, CEO of Proctor Financial and Emagine Entertainment, Inc., based in Troy Michigan, proved this prediction wrong. He raised over 45 million dollars to create a high-end chain of movie theaters throughout the Midwest. Most are located in his native state, Michigan, and a few can be found in Minnesota and Illinois. This concept is bound to expand, as Emagine Entertainment becomes a highly successful national chain. What Glantz has created is a win-win situation: a greatly enjoyable experience for the viewers that creates great profits for the company. “Whenever I put the interest of those on task to serve ahead of my own, it always turns out beautiful for both of us,” Glantz stated in a recent interview with Laurence Technological University. While regular movie theaters did, indeed, lose some business as a result of video on demand companies, Glantz’s venture shows that, as far as movie going is concerned, people prefer to fly first class rather than economy, so to speak.

The analogy fits. Watching a movie at one of the luxurious Emagine theaters is a similar experience to flying first class. You lean back in luxurious leather seats and enjoy a glass of wine—or a beer—with your movie, and perhaps even a delicious, warm dinner. Snacking is more delectable too. Emagine Theaters not only have a wide array of flavored popcorn options—the most popular American movie munchies since the Great Depression—but also serve pizza, pretzels, and other treats. The soda machines are upgraded too. With the push of a button you can flavor your favorite cola however you wish. The theater space is elegantly appointed in a contemporary design that includes plenty of comfortable seating—and even a fireplace—to enjoy conversation with friends while awaiting the beginning of a film. But this is where the analogy stops: you don’t have to pay premium prices for this first class experience. Movie tickets at Emagine Theaters sell for about ten dollars, only three dollars more than at regular movie theaters. The price is so economical, the movie experience so enjoyable, and the food so enticing, that you might be tempted to just move into the theater for good. (But don’t get any ideas…)

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Between Fanaticism and Terror: Hitler, Stalin and The Noise of Time

nytimesdimitrishostakovich

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

During WWII much of Europe was caught in a vice between fanaticism and terror; between Hitler and Stalin. The plight of tens of millions of people falling victim to Stalinism on the one hand and Fascism on the other is eloquently captured by Gustaw Herling, a Polish prisoner in the Soviet Union:   “I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug, on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope” (Gustaw Herling, A World Apart, 175-76). The similarities between these two evil dictators obsessed with acquiring unlimited power are far greater than their differences. Yet it’s worth noting that they selected their targets differently. Stalin’s purges covered every segment of Soviet society, almost indiscriminately: the Communist party; the Politburo; even the army, navy and air force in a time when preparations for war should have been a priority.

Julian Barnes, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2011, describes the arbitrary nature of Stalin’s Great Terror with exquisite literary skill and historical insight in his new biographical novel about the composer Dimitri Shostakovich, The Noise of Time (New York and London: Knopf, 2016). Tellingly, the title phrase is borrowed from Osip Mandelstam’s memoirs, who himself died in a transit camp during the Great Terror in 1938. In personalizing the plight of millions by focusing on the tribulations of a single life—particularly that of a famous man—Barnes illustrates that nobody was immune to Stalin’s subjugating power. Even the great Soviet General and Chief of Staff, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the composer’s patron, fell victim to Stalin’s paranoia in the purge of the military of June 1937.

By some miracle or good fortune, Shostakovich’s life is spared by Stalin. But the composer’s reputation isn’t; rising and falling with the vicissitudes of the Soviet regime, which the narrator calls “the Power”. In 1936, Shostakovich suffers a humiliating reprimand for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, deemed by Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper and propaganda mouthpiece, to be representative of the “fidgety, neurotic music” of the bourgeoisie. Although later Stalin himself calls the composer at home and undoes some of the damage to his reputation, Shostakovich, along with millions of others, lives in constant fear of the dictator’s arbitrary—and often fatal–displays of power.

Success and failure have a way of boiling down to the same thing in totalitarian regimes, which subsume artistic merit to ideological whims. Even after Stalin’s death, during Nikita Khrushchev’s milder regime, when the composer is pressured to join the Communist Party in order to become the Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers, Shostakovich feels almost as pained and humiliated as he did when he was vilified by Stalin’s acolytes in Pravda. In channeling the character of Shostakovich so compellingly and revealing with a keen sense of irony the arbitrary nature of Soviet totalitarianism, Barnes depicts its nature as well as those who had suffered its effects first-hand: authors such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Eugenia Ginzburg.

By way of contrast to Stalin’s arbitrary purges, Hitler honed in on one main target: the Jews. His single-minded focus on destroying the Jewish people could only be called, in his own words, “fanaticism”. He remarked: “Any violence which does not spring from a firm spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook” (Mein Kampf, 171). There are many hypotheses about what might have caused Hitler’s hatred of Jews, ranging from psychological to sociological and biographical explanations. These speculations, however, only make sense in hindsight. Nothing in Hitler’s adolescence, when pathology usually shows up, gave any obvious sign of the tremendous anti-Semitic hatred that would later dominate his life.

Biographers state that Hitler was a mediocre student, receiving bad grades in physics, mathematics and German. His preformed better in art, but wasn’t that original. As a young man, he pursued his artistic career in Vienna for about six years. Some state that Hitler’s anti-Semitism grew out of the frustration that he wasn’t accepted to the prestigious Vienna Art Academy. They surmise that he may have blamed his failure on the Jews. Perhaps there’s some truth in that, but there’s evidence to the contrary as well. Hitler continued to sell his art and make a living from art sales, supplemented by funds from his family. Interestingly, as Raul Hilberg states, “Apparently, two of the [art] dealers were Jews” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 4).

WWI seems to have been a major turning point in Hitler’s life. But even then nobody could have guessed that this mediocre soldier would rise to absolute power and wield death and destruction throughout Europe. Hitler was decorated the Iron Cross First Class during the war, but only the second or third time he was recommended for it: incidentally, by a Jew (Lieutenant Gutmann). At the end of the war, Hitler was gassed and spent a considerable period of time recuperating in a hospital. There he had time to contemplate what might have brought about the humiliating defeat of Germany. The company commander of the unit to which Hitler belonged in 1919 asked soldiers the question why Germany had lost the war. Hitler wrote down an answer that prefigured the major themes of Mein Kampf, his autobiographical treatise written in prison and published in 1925-26. He distinguished between an anti-Semitism based on reason, which would have staying power, and an anti-Semitism based on emotion, manifested in pogroms. Only the former, he predicted, could efface the Jews from the face of the Earth. (See Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 5)

So to return to our earlier question: why did Hitler target the Jews as the main scapegoat and object of his vitriol? He offers a direct answer to this question in Mein Kampf:

 

“The art of leadership as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary… Where there are various enemies… it will be necessary to block them all together as forming one solid front, so that the mass of followers in a popular movement may see only one common enemy against whom they have to fight. Such uniformity intensifies their belief in their own cause and strengthens their feeling of hostility towards the opponent” (Mein Kampf, 110).

 

This statement reflects the cold and calculated reasoning Hitler alluded to as early as the note of 1919. He targeted the Jews as his scapegoats and victims for strategic reasons. Hitler’s explicit intent was to simplify the root of all social and economic problems to the Jews—outsiders in most European countries–and coalesce all forces and people against this common enemy. His choice wasn’t primarily a matter of genuine emotion, nor only of a pathological, sick hatred. As for Stalin during the Great Terror, it was primarily the product of an insatiable and malicious will to power. This ultimate answer–which boils down to evil for its own sake–could have never offered a satisfactory response to the question most often scribbled by victims on cell walls, in prisons, concentration camps and gulags, a question which still echoes to this day: “Zachto—Why?”

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Hazy Hints of Memory: After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Early childhood development specialists emphasize the importance of having a nurturing and stable environment for infants and toddlers. That’s when the foundations of a child’s personality are formed and influence the rest of their life. Studies have shown that many of the children who grew up in the Communist Romanian orphanages during the 1980’s, living in deplorable conditions and deprived of love, attention, adequate sanitary facilities and healthy food, developed personality deficiencies that marred their lives. Many felt emotionally detached from others and could barely communicate, even as adults.

What about the youngest children of the Holocaust, growing up in the most hellish circumstances imaginable? Most of them perished in the fires of the crematoria, being the first to be selected for immediate death. The few so-called “lucky” child survivors recall bits and pieces of might have been an even worse fate. Rabbi Joseph Polak’s recent memoir, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring (New York, Urim Publications, 2015), winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award, depicts surviving as a toddler in environments whose only certainties were suffering, squalor, misery and death.

Joseph Polak was born on October 16, 1942, in a Jewish family in German-occupied Netherlands. The Dutch Nazis were ready to snatch him from normal life and send his entire family to the transit camp Westerbork even before he was born. His mother recalled the loud pounding on the door in the middle of the night by “the Police” when she was nine months pregnant with Joseph. She courageously warded off the Dutch Nazis by pointing out the advanced state of her pregnancy, but they didn’t stay away for long. A year later, on September 29, 1943, the Nazis returned. The Polak family was sent to Westerbork for about four months, joining 100,000 other Jews who would be deported to “the East”.

Being so young, Joseph retained only hazy traces of memory of the transit camp, enhanced by his mother’s subsequent descriptions: its crowded, sweaty, uncomfortable conditions; the state of anxiety of so many uprooted, displaced people deprived of their roots, assets, professions, families and identities while awaiting to be sent to what they rightly suspected would be a miserable place. The Dutch government set up Camp Westerbork in the fall of 1939 for Jewish refugees who were not Dutch citizens and entered the country illegally. Following the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, the camp grew and became, between 1942 to 1944, a transit camp for all Dutch Jews on their way to Nazi concentration camps. While the camp organizers, who were also Jewish, attempted to create some semblance of normalcy through various routines and activities—which included entertaining diversions such as plays and musical shows—inmates were obsessed with the weekly lists of candidates for deportation to the East. Staying versus leaving Westerbork could mean the difference between life and death. Eventually almost everyone had to leave.

Joseph and his parents were sent to Bergen-Belsen on February 1, 1944, during a period of time known for relatively good conditions. Those didn’t last, however. In December 1944 the camp began receiving a large intake of prisoners from Eastern camps evacuated by the Germans faced with the Soviet army’s advance. Grossly overcrowded and without sufficient food and medical supplies or sanitation facilities for its growing population, in its last year Bergen-Belsen became a breeding ground for typhus, dysentery, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and death. Starving and deprived of adequate care, with a mother who had become a shadow of her former self and weighed only 50 pounds, little Joseph wandered around hungry and in rags, playing among the miles of corpses lined up at Bergen-Belsen. The narrator depicts, vividly, the overpowering stench of feces and decomposing bodies. Ultimately, his family was “lucky” again. On April 9, 1945 they were sent along with 2500 other Jews to Theresienstadt. On the way, they were liberated by the Soviet Army in Tröbitz, a little village of 700 people in East Germany. Despite being “freed,” his parents no longer had the strength to survive. His father passed away in May, while his mother fell gravely ill. Joseph was taken  by the Dutch authorities and placed in the care of another Dutch-Jewish family.

Joseph doesn’t have many memories of this brief period. He only recalls a fleeting impression of security offered by his adoptive father. The young boy held on tightly to his jacket as they rode together on a scooter, enjoying the sights and the breeze. Their destination, however, would be a new shock for little Joseph: a white hospital bed where he’s reunited with a mother that he can no longer bond with or even recognize. It takes time for mother and child to begin to heal, to grow together again, in the more livable conditions offered by a center for Jewish survivors in The Hague, where they spend the next three years, from 1945 to 1948. Later, his mother tells Joseph how she managed to put the atrocious conditions of the concentration camp momentarily out of her mind by imagining that she was at her favorite department store, far removed from the squalor of Bergen-Belsen. Then she takes him to that store again. Flashes of memory spark in the child’s mind as he perceives, with a sense of wonder and incomprehensible nostalgia for the sordid yet familiar past, the contrast between the luxurious goods in front of his eyes and the misery of his first years of life. In December 1948, mother and child sail to New York together. They end up living with her family in Montreal.

It took Rabbi Joseph Polak decades to return to his early childhood past, which he only vaguely recalls in bits and pieces, and which, for a long time, he wanted to forget. When he was fifty years old, ten years after his mother had passed away, he returned to Bergen-Belsen after a trip to Paris, where he lectured on Jewish law. He was ready, by then, not only to remember his family’s experiences of the Holocaust, but also to preserve and share them with others. It occurred to him that as even the child survivors of the Holocaust age and pass away, there is a risk that their memories will disappear along with them. Reading After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring will do more than remind readers of the Holocaust; it will help us empathize with the victims by putting us in those circumstances through different narrative means.

First of all, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring is a beautifully written, evocative memoir. In parts, it’s also a theosophical dialogue, staging discussions between the narrator and the Angel of Death on the timeless question of theodicy: how can an omnipotent and omniscient God allow such horrific suffering of children, of innocents? I’m not sure that this question is answered in any definitive way by the text, but readers can find some solace in the evolution of the author’s life. Rabbi Joseph Polak used his good fortune of being one of the few very young child Holocaust survivors to fill the void of nihilism left by the trauma of his past and make something worthwhile and redeeming of his life. Instead of turning his back upon humanity for what so many did to their fellow human beings, he reached out to help and heal others, both as a Rabbi and as a writer.

This narrative is also an educational text. It makes pedagogical bridges with new generations of readers. Where relevant, Rabbi Polak offers helpful historical background and places the Dutch Holocaust in proper perspective. Middle school and high school students, exposed to Anne Frank’s diary and little else about the Holocaust in the Netherlands, may perceive Dutch citizens of the era as heroes who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis. While many certainly did, as Polak points out, the Netherlands was at the same time a country that rounded up Jews with remarkable zeal and efficiency. Between the summer of 1942 and the fall of 1944, the Dutch collaborators sent over 100,000 Jews, or 75 percent of the country’s Jewish citizens, to concentration camps. Only 5,200 among them survived. The odds were better for those who went into hiding with the aid of the Dutch underground or helpful non-Jewish friends. Of the 30,000 Jews who hid from the Nazis, two thirds survived.

Last but not least, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring has a beautiful, authentic and often lyrical style. At times, it reminded me of Marguerite Duras’ writing: vivid yet also vaguely suggestive; drawing out the philosophical implications of sensory descriptions; versatile in the way it reaches out to its readers. Memoir, philosophical and religious treatise, oratory, history lesson and literary text: you will find all this and more in Joseph Polak’s After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring.

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