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Decoding Nazi Germany’s Enigma Code: Review of “The Imitation Game”

The-Imitation-Game.liveforfilms.com

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

Decoding Nazi Germany’s encrypting machine, Enigma, was no easy task. Invented by the German engineer Arthur Scherbius at the end of WWI, Enigma machines were used by the Nazis during WWII to exchange (encode and decipher) secret messages pertaining to national security and strategy of war. Three Polish cryptologists who worked for Polish military intelligence—Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski—were the first to begin deciphering Enigma messages, using theoretical mathematics and information given by French military intelligence.

 

During the war, the Allies captured an actual Enigma machine, enabling them to study its hardware and make further progress in figuring out how it worked.  Two compatible Enigma machines would have to work together, the first one encoding a secret message, the second decoding it. An operator would type in a message in German. The Enigma machine would automatically convert each letter into a different letter of the alphabet, through a process of random substitution. The encrypted text would be sent to another operator whose deciphering machine was similar and compatible with the first operator’s machine: only in this case the second Enigma machine would convert the random letters into plain German.

 

A new movie, The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, focuses on the life of British mathematician and cryptologist Alan Turing, who is credited for helping decode the Nazi Enigma machines. Loosely based on Andrew Hodges biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma (Princeton University Press, 2014), this movie succeeds as a character study as well as a very interesting historical thriller. Turing faces barriers not only from the Navy Commander Denniston, but also from his colleagues, who initially resent the fact he’s entirely focused on building a machine at the expense of their collective work. Portrayed as slightly autistic, without friends lacking a sense of humor, Turing ends up being a fascinating character nonetheless. In fact, his flaws make him seem all the more unique. He goes against the grain to invent the machine capable of solving the puzzles that hundreds of brilliant minds working in the field cannot. Turing’s more sensitive side evolves in his friendship with his colleague Joan Clark (marvelously played by Keira Knightly), whom he asks to marry him in the spring of 1941. Although she accepts despite the fact Turing confesses to her his homosexuality, soon thereafter he changes his mind and breaks up with her in a dramatic scene.

 

Turing’s homosexuality becomes as central to the plot of the movie as his creation of the machine that breaks the Enigma codes. A few years after the war, in 1952, Turing, by then 39 years old, has a sexual and romantic relationship with a homeless young man named Arnold Murray. When one of Murray’s acquaintances burglarizes his house, Turing calls the police. During the investigation, the detectives called to the scene discover that Turing is homosexual, a criminal offense in Britain at the time. He’s charged with “gross indecency” and given the choice of going to prison or two years of probation (which includes taking hormonal treatment to reduce his libido). On June 8, 1954, the man who helped save millions of lives and shorten the war by at least two years tragically commits suicide by ingesting cyanide. The movie implies that the hormonal treatment, criminal charges and social isolation have a lot to do with Alan Turing’s untimely death, while the Hodges biography indicates this could have been an accidental death.

 

To transform a messy, complex human life into a drama, a film has to change many aspects of that life. In a recent review of The Imitation Game for Slate, L. V. Anderson goes over some of the ways in which the film deviates from Turing’s life as described by Hodges’s biography:

 

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/12/03/the_imitation_game_fact_vs_fiction_how_true_the_new_movie_is_to_alan_turing.html

 

The (real) Alan Turing depicted by Hodges in Alan Turing: The Enigma, though eccentric, was a much more likable and social person than the character in the film. He was well liked by his fellow cryptologists working at Bletchley Park, who describe him as “a very easily approachable man” and claimed to be “very very fond of him”. In the film, Alan’s more of a loner who is taught to value human emotion by Joan Clark, his friend and confidante. The movie also exaggerates Alan Turing’s role in single-handedly deciphering the Enigma machine, downplaying the roles of others and of the Polish precedents. The movie romanticizes Alan’s early crush for a fellow student at Sherborn School, a boy named Christopher Morcom with whom he shares a love of cryptology (in real life, L. V. Anderson states, they shared a love of chemistry and math). In the movie this love is described as reciprocal, while in the biography it appears to be a more ambiguous relationship, probably just friendship on Christopher’s part.

 

All these changes, in my estimation, add rather than take away from the strength of the film. They render Alan Turing’s scientific contributions seem all the more significant and heroic while the tragic irony of his death becomes all the more acute. After all, the man who helped save the world from the Nazi regime—a regime that killed homosexuals for being gay—is forced by the British government to choose between prison and a debilitating hormone treatment, in a “free” democratic country to which he had devoted his mind and his life.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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On Kamikaze Warfare: Inferno, the World at War 1939-1945 by Max Hastings

kamikazepilotswikipedia

 

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

Japan’s kamikaze pilots during WWII bring to mind the operations of contemporary suicide bombers and terrorists. Heavily indoctrinated during their rigorous training in Japan’s imperial army, their suicidal missions did serious damage to Allied naval vessels in the Pacific, particularly towards the end of the war, in 1944-45, when Japan’s situation became more precarious, if not desperate.

Captain Motoharu Okamura, leading the Tateyama Base in Tokyo and the 341’s Air Group Base, was one of the first to propose kamikaze warfare in June 1944 and to explore its feasibility. In October 1944, Commander Asaiki Tamai led an actual mission composed of 24 student pilots he had personally trained.

Named after the fatal typhoons of the late Middle Ages (“kami”, meaning “god” or “spirit” and kaze”, meaning “wind”), these suicidal pilots would direct their whirling airplanes filled with explosives and fuel into enemy vessels, doing more damage than conventional bombs. Launching themselves with fatal accuracy, according to historian Max Hastings, “about 20 percent of kamikaze assaults scored hits—ten times the success rate for conventional attacks. Only the overwhelming strength of the U.S. Navy enabled it to withstand such punishment” (Inferno, the World at War 1939-1945, New York: Random House, 2012). During the length of the war, nearly 4,000 kamikaze pilots died. The damage they inflicted upon the Allies was extensive: the U.S. Air Force webpage indicates that about 3000 kamikaze attackers sunk 34 ships and killed about 5000 sailors: all in all, nearly 10 percent of ships hit by kamikaze pilots sank.

What drove these suicide bombers to sacrifice their lives for the Japanese Empire? And was their self-sacrifice coerced or voluntary? According to Hastings, most kamikaze pilots went to their final battles willingly, but some were coerced or peer-pressured into acquiescing. Psychological indoctrination, however, was part of the Japanese military system, where training was meant to induce blind patriotism, self-sacrifice for the Japanese Empire and a code of honor that dictated suicide over being captured by the enemy. Hastings emphasizes that the training of kamikaze pilots “was as harsh as that of all Japanese warriors, and attended by the same emphasis on corporal punishment” that would make them ruthless, and often very cruel, warriors (620). Even so, as it became more and more clear that Japan would lose the war, not all kamikaze pilots went willingly to their deaths. According to Hastings,

“The image of Japan’s kamikazes taking off to face death with exuberant enthusiasm is largely fallacious. Among the first wave of suicidalists in the autumn of 1944, there were many genuine volunteers. Thereafter, however, the supply of young fanatics dwindled: many subsequent recruits were driven to accept the role by moral pressure, and sometimes conscription” (620).

As with contemporary suicide bombers, heavy ideological indoctrination and a Manichean view of the world—a good versus evil, us versus them mentality—drove kamikaze bombers to their dark and desperate heroism.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Review of Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis by Nicholas Stargardt

ChildrenWWIItelegraph.co.uk

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

Children were the most innocent casualties of WWII. Killed in concentration camps, orphaned by battles throughout Europe, languishing from starvation, destroyed by disease, targeted for their race, traumatized by violence, tens of millions of children throughout European countries suffered and died. Nicholas Stargardt’s informative and well-documented book, Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis (New York: Vintage Books, 2007) draws upon children’s school assignments, journals and letters to recreate for contemporary readers an invaluable historical picture of children’s lives under the Nazi regimes.

For me, the most inspiring and heartbreaking true story in the book is his account of life for the Jewish orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto and the heroic deeds of their caretaker, Doctor Janusz Korczak. Selfless and courageous, Korczak provided for the orphans even in the harshest conditions—resorting to begging for food for them—and stayed with them to the end to comfort them as they were boarded on death trains, refusing the chance to survive without them. Stargardt describes how on the morning of August 6, 1942, after finding out about the Nazi plan to liquidate the children of the orphanage, “Stefa Wilczynska and Janusz Korczak instinctively moved together to calm the children and get them to gather together their things as they had been shown. One of the teachers went out into the courtyard and obtained a quarter of an hour from the Jewish police to allow the children to pack up and come out in good order… As they lined up in fifty rows of four abreast Korczak set off with the younger children in the lead so that they would not be outstripped by the older ones… That day, all the children’s homes in the ghetto were cleared by the Germans…” (182).

Stargardt also depicts children’s unhappy lives in concentration camps and their powers of adaptation. Because of the wealth of documentation, he focuses in particular on the group from Theresienstadt, called “the Family Camp” at Auschwitz because it was the only camp in which young children were allowed to survive for awhile and continued to live with their families–until they too were killed en masse between July 10-12, 1944. (see my earlier review about Theresienstadt, http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/real-story-terezin-theresienstadt-%E2%80%9Cmodel%E2%80%9D-jewish-ghetto-i-am-star-inge-auerbacher).

“Racial outsiders” were not the only victims of the Nazis, however. Even privileged categories of children—German children themselves—suffered during the Nazi regime, though not for the same reasons as Jewish, Polish or Gypsy victims. Towards the end of WWII, many German children were, like their parents, casualties of war. Stargardt describes, for instance, the bombing of Hamburg, which “marked a turning point in the war. Its scale was completely unprecedented, and it came at a time when both British and German governments that such attacks on German civilians might decide the fortunes of the war” (233). Child survivors recall feeling very frightened by the bombing and praying to stay alive. “The conjunction of sudden awakening out of deep sleep and the sound of the sirens was particularly potent,” the author explains. “In Bochum, Karl-Heinz Bodecker repeated each night as he got into bed, ‘May the Tommies leave us in peace tonight.’ Among Ute Rau’s first stumbling words were ‘Quick, quick, coats, cellar’” (234). Perhaps the deepest suffering of German children was a result of losing their fathers. According to Stargardt, 4,923,000 German soldiers died during the war, two thirds of them perishing during 1944 and 1945. (337) Consequently, millions of German children of that generation grew up not knowing what it’s like to have a father.

Furthermore, about 13 million abandoned and orphaned children were displaced during and shortly after WWII. (351) Many were victims of forced evacuations, slave labor, “Germanization”, concentration camps and the rare survivors of the liquidated Jewish ghettos. Although their numbers can be quantified, their suffering cannot. These children were the victims of a war that was largely outside their control and, for the youngest, also beyond their comprehension.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Genocide in Rwanda: Me against my brother, by Scott Peterson

NyamataMemorialSite, Rwanda, Wikipedia

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

Unfortunately, the question of whether humanity as a whole learned a valuable moral lesson from the Holocaust was dramatically answered in the negative during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Not only did history repeat itself, but so did world indifference to the misfortune of a million victims. In Me against my brother (New York: Routledge, 2000), journalist Scott Peterson vividly describes, based on personal observations and extensive research, the ethnic tension and the genocide in Rwanda. In the chapter “Genocide Denied” he also covers world reactions, including, unforgivably, France’s defense of the Hutu aggressors and the isolationist policies of the United States. He argues that these were important international factors that made the mass killings possible. Above all, the author persuades us that, unlike other ethnic tensions in Africa and the Middle East, the Rwandan genocide could have been averted by effective U.N. involvement: “In Rwanda Hutu extremists were often just young men with machetes or ill-disciplined soldiers” he states. (292) As the title of the book suggests, neighbors, former friends and even family members killed many of the victims in Rwanda using rudimentary weapons: most often machetes that had been previously employed for everyday household purposes and agriculture. Why then did the U.S. refuse to intervene?
Peterson points out that a few months after giving the inaugural lecture at the United States Holocaust Museum in April 1993 and expressing his commitment to fight the evil of genocide throughout the world—“But as we are its [evil’s] witness, so we must remain its adversary in the world in which we live”—President Clinton, having just pulled humiliated American troops from Somalia, urged the United Nations not to intervene in the ethnic conflict in Rwanda (289). Peterson elaborates: “Genocide must be organized to be effective, and in Rwanda that took time and left many traces. But Washington feared ‘another Somalia’, and so the first instinct was denial that genocide was even occurring—that would have legally required action to stop it. The second instinct was to disengage entirely, as the US sought to slash UN troop numbers. The third move—at least from the part of American policy-makers—was to bully any other nation from acting” (290). In hindsight, Bill Clinton would later declare that not interfering in the Rwandan genocide was the biggest regret of his presidency.
Between April and September 1994, the Hutu majority in Rwanda ruthlessly massacred almost 1 million men, women and children of the Tutsi minority. Tensions between the two ethnic groups rose during the early 1990’s over control of the country. The Hutu government of Rwanda, backed by Belgium and France, had more or less ruled the country since their revolution against the Tutsi elite in 1959. However, the Tutsi minority in exile, led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) under the leadership of Paul Kagame, was attempting to reaffirm power in Rwanda. The Hutu extremists, who called for a “final solution” to the “Tutsi problem”, gained political momentum during the 1990’s.
The Hutu Power movement galvanized the support of part of the army and of powerful politicians. The assassination of Juvenal Habyarimana (1937-1994), the third president of the Republic of Rwanda, on April 6, 1994, only stocked the Hutu extremists’ hatred and their suspicion that the Tutsis were out to destroy them. They blamed the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front for the crime, using the assassination of the president as a pretext for mass murder. Transmitting their message mostly via radio stations, they urged vendetta against Tutsis as well as against moderate Hutus.
The result was atrocities that are almost beyond description. Nonetheless, Peterson attempts to give readers an impression of the sheer volume and violent nature of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. “In the next weeks, the death toll began to merge into a statistical mass. In this village one Tutsi survived from a population of 400; in that town some 2,800 were slaughtered; dozens of parish churches were turned into abattoirs. To fully appreciate the nature of Rwanda’s mass killing, however, requires extracting the terrific agony particular to each death. That is now an impossible task. But an extermination rate of 45,000 each day means little, unless you explore and taste the charnel house yourself” (263).
The Hutu Power movement reinforced one simple, hateful message: in the power struggle with the Tutsis, it’s us versus them. Either we kill them or they’ll kill us. We’ve seen over and over again throughout history how this “us versus them” mentality can lead to the dehumanization of members of another ethnic or religious group. This makes genocide not only possible, but also–in a dramatic inversion of ethical standards of right and wrong–a moral duty. Scott Peterson’s well-documented book, Me against my brother, shows the danger of this dualist mentality and, perhaps even more so, the danger of lack of intervention by the rest of the world when genocide occurs. Genocide, he points out, is not just a “humanitarian crisis”–as the international news conveyed the Rwandan disaster–any more than mass rape in Bosnia was a “gynecological crisis”. Genocide is a massive crime against humanity that reveals the moral breakdown of our civilizations in general: particularly when the world refuses to intervene and help the victims. As the UNAMIR commander in Kigali, General Romeo Dallaire, notes with great regret about the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda: “The biggest crime of all is that we weren’t able to keep it from happening” (290).

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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An incredible tale of survival: Alicia, my story

Alicia My Storyamazon

 

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

Raul Hilberg estimates that over a million Jews living under German occupation survived the Holocaust and were still alive at the end of WWII. (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 186). Each of their stories constitutes a minor miracle: a combination of fortitude and luck, which was relatively rare. Most of the million Jewish survivors were those living in Romania (in the Old Kingdom regions) and Bulgaria. In both of these countries, the leaders of the government, for various complex reasons, changed their minds about sending all Jews to concentration camps.

A second group of survivors made it against all odds, despite the dehumanizing conditions of the concentration camps. They were either liberated by the Allies from Auschwitz and other concentration camps or escaped the grueling death marches, once the Germans evacuated the concentration camps.

A third group of survivors attempted the near impossible: they hid, resisted or fled the Nazis. Many had to adopt more than one disguise or alias. They ran the risk of being shot or sent to concentration camps as soon as the Nazis and their collaborators discovered their real identities. These survivors, Hilberg observes, tended to be young, in good physical condition, and usually had a particular psychological profile that set them apart from most victims: “The contrast may be glimpsed in three important traits: realism, rapid decision making, and tenacious holding to life” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders 188). Because they tended to be not only incredibly lucky but also exceptionally resourceful and resilient, their stories sound the most “fictional” and even implausible, particularly to readers today, which are far removed from the hardships of the Holocaust.

If any survivor story shows that truth can be stranger than fiction, it’s Alicia Appleman-Jurman’s Alicia: My Story (New York: Bantam, 1988). In a glowing review, The Pittsburgh Press called the book “As exciting as it is inspirational. In fact, a good bit of Alicia: My Story reads as if it were written by one of our better writers of fiction”. This book reads like fiction, indeed. In an autobiographical narrative the author describes her survival against all odds in Nazi-occupied Poland. While Alicia lost one of her brothers under the Soviet occupation of Poland (when he disappeared without a trace after having been recruited for training by the Red Army), once Germany invaded Poland the situation for Jewish families became far worse. The Gestapo systematically went from house to house hunting for Jews, often aided by the Ukrainian police and the Ukrainian Nationalist guerillas (Banderovcy). The Nazis and their collaborators searched every nook and cranny of Jewish homes, even in basements and attics. Often crying babies would inadvertedly betray entire families trying to escape capture and an almost certain death. Jews were rounded up to be placed in ghettos, or shot on the spot, or sent to concentration camps. Alicia was not yet a teenager when she was compelled to leave her home and go into hiding with her mother, after the Gestapo murdered her father and brothers. Over the course of the next few years, she adopted various disguises and provided not only for herself and her mother, but also helped others. She disguised herself as a peasant, worked hard labor on several farms, and even aided some of the Soviet partisans who took refuge in nearby forests.

Once the war ended, Alicia’s incredible story did not stop. She began working as a guide for the Brecha, the Zionist Underground Railroad that smuggled Jews into Palestine. She made it her life mission to share her survival story in order to inform and inspire generations to come. Talking about her painful past became a therapeutic, not only educational, experience: “As I continued talking I realized that if I were to survive at all and escape from the swamp of anguish and despair, I would have to reach out to people, to those who survived like myself, and perhaps sometime in the future, to all people. I would not be able to continue to hate, because I knew in my young heart that hate could eventually destroy me. But I would always remember what had happened to my family and to my people and would never be able to forgive those who committed the crimes” (Alicia: My Story, 272). To this day she describes her experiences during the Holocaust in schools, at conferences and on her website, http://aliciamystory.com/.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Remembering the “forgotten Holocaust”: The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang

ViktoriaNachtpinterestTheRape ofNanking

 

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

Iris Chang’s book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of WWII describes one of the most brutal mass murders in world history: the massacre of over 300,000 Chinese men, women and children by Japanese soldiers in what she calls “an orgy of cruelty” in the (then) capital city of Nanking, during the winter of 1937. The blood bath took place in the span of about six weeks, from December 12, 1937 to February 10, 1938. As Chang states, “Indeed, even by the standards of history’s most destructive war, the Rape of Nanking represents one of the worst instances of mass extermination” (The Rape of Nanking, New York: Penguin books, 1997, 5). What is remarkable about the sheer cruelty of Japanese attack is not only the mass murder of countless innocent civilians, but the also the systematic rape, torture and maiming of women and children.
Chang describes in gruesome detail how Japanese soldiers would gang rape women, ranging from girls only nine or ten years old to elderly women in their 80’s and 90’s. Nobody was safe anywhere, at any time. The rapes occurred at all hours of the day and night, everywhere: in homes, in the streets, in apartments, in offices or stores. Often girls would die from these savage rapes. Not content with raping and humiliating women in a culture that prized female virtue and chastity, some of the Japanese soldiers went on to savagely beat their victims, maim them, cutting off their breasts or vaginas, disemboweling them, ripping babies out of the bellies of pregnant women, and even impaling them with bayonets. Their sadism knew no bounds.
Men were not immune from harm either. In fact, the Japanese first targeted soldiers—and prisoners of war–luring them in groups of about 200 men to designated parts of the city with promises of food, water, and humane treatment. Nothing could have been further from the truth than these false promises. After leaving them without food and water for days, thus weakening their health and spirit, the Japanese soldiers would round up the Chinese prisoners and murder them. Sometimes these mass murders would turn into game-like killing sprees, in which some of the Japanese soldiers would compete with one another in who could kill the most Chinese prisoners. After luring Chinese soldiers to their deaths, thus depriving the city of its defense, the Japanese soldiers turned their rage upon the civilian population of Nanking.
How can one explain this brutality? Chang traces historically the roots of Japan’s martial mentality, starting with the samurai warrior class. She also discusses the more recent, twentieth-century doctrine, of racial superiority to the Chinese. Then she outlines some of the economic factors—particularly the depression of the 1930’s—that, along with the doubling of the population of Japan to 65 million persons, made it “increasingly difficult for Japan to feed its people” (26). The country’s leaders came to view imperial expansion, particularly the conquest of China and its territories, as a solution to these economic and demographic problems.
Ultimately, however, part of the explanation has to do, as in Germany’s case with Hitler, with the malicious decisions of evil leaders. The Japanese leadership—perhaps Prince Asaka himself—issued a clear order to the rank-and-file soldiers: “KILL ALL CAPTIVES” (40). This command was motivated by a total disregard for human life (at least, for the lives of the Chinese captives), as well as by practical concerns. Killing their victims would mean having fewer mouths to feed, fewer people to shelter, and fewer worries about Chinese retaliation. Prince Yasuhiko Asaka (1887-1981), the temporary commander of the Japanese forces in Nanking, was known for his ruthlessness in war. Kesago Nakajima (1881-1945), the Lieutenant General of the Imperial Japanese Army largely responsible for the atrocities committed in Nanking, was far worse. By all accounts, Nakajima was a reputed sadist. According to Chang, David Bergamini describes him in Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy as a “small Himmler of a man, a specialist in thought control, intimidation and torture”. Even his biographer, Kimura Kuninori, calls him “a beast” and “a violent man” (37).
The rape of Nanking, the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges and the many atrocities of WWII don’t prove that humanity, as a whole, is evil. However, these massive atrocities across cultures do prove that there is a percentage of human beings who are capable of unleashing boundless violence in the right conditions. As Chang herself states, “Looking back upon millennia of history, it appears clear that no race or culture has a monopoly on wartime cruelty. The veneer of civilization seems to be exceedingly thin—one that can be easily stripped away, especially by the stresses of war” (55). The Rape of Nanking is a well-documented, remarkable history that goes a long way in making sure that “the forgotten Holocaust” will be remembered by generations to come.Iris

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Poland’s Plight: Gustaw Herling’s A World Apart

Poland’s Plight: Gustaw Herling’s A World Apart

by Claudia Moscovici 

InvasionofPoland

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

In his Preface to the first edition of Gustaw Herling’s A World Apart, the philosopher Bertrand Russell offers high praise for the book: “Of the many books that I have read relating the experiences of victims in Soviet prisons and labor camps, Mr. Gustaw Herling’s A World Apart is the most impressive and the best written.” (New York, Penguin Books, 1996). Indeed, this courageous and eloquent memoir of the author’s experience of Soviet gulags can be compared with Yevgenia Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind (1967) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1958-1968).

In A World Apart Herling describes his imprisonment in a Soviet gulag and his excruciating experience in a forced labor camp between the years 1940-1941. This book goes far beyond a personal account, however. It also describes the dire situation in Poland, a country caught as in a vice between two brutal totalitarian regimes: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, each of which sought to conquer and exploit its people and pillage its land. In an unforgettable passage, the author vividly captures Poland’s plight:

“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” (A World Apart, 175-176).

On September 1st, 1939 Hitler invaded Poland after staging a pretext. German soldiers torched houses along the German-Polish border and blamed the Poles for it. Germany attacked Poland with full force, launching 85 percent of its military might into the country, including 1.6 million soldiers. The Polish army fought valiantly, but it was vastly outnumbered, having only 800,000 troops and a fraction of the weapons that Germany had at its disposal. Poland received some verbal support from its allies, Great Britain and France, but no effective backing on the military front. The occupation of Poland was part and parcel of the Nazi plan for ethnic cleansing of the Eastern Territory, enslavement of the Slavs, exploitation of their labor and natural resources, and creation of more Lebensraum (living space) for the Aryan race.

As if the German attack from the West weren’t bad enough, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (signed on August 23, 1939), the Soviet Union also attacked Poland to occupy its Eastern side on September 17, 1939. Poland was torn apart between two evil empires. As Marshall Edward Rydz-Smigly, the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish army stated, “With the Germans we run the risk of losing our liberty. With the Russians we will lose our soul.”

In the end Herling, along with many other Polish soldiers incarcerated by the Soviets, was saved by the two totalitarian superpowers turning against one another, once Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Sirkorski-Maiski pact gave Polish prisoners of war amnesty and, as Herling puts it, “when the pact was signed, we suddenly became fighters for freedom and allies” (178).

Despite suffering from starvation, exhaustion from overwork, lack of sufficient sleep and extreme cold, Herling was one of the relatively lucky ones. The plight of Poland can be only loosely captured by the dire statistics of its double invasion and occupation. About 5.8 million Poles, a large percentage of which were Polish Jews, died due to the Nazi occupation and extermination.

The Soviets occupied about half of Poland, annexing that territory to the Soviet Union. Characteristically, Stalin enforced “Sovietization” through terror, by setting up a Communist police state, taking over the industry and sending to prisons or labor camps about 250,000 Polish prisoners of war. A large part of Polish soldiers were executed. The most infamous of these massacres, which the Soviets blamed on the Nazis, was the Katyn Massacre. Most Polish soldiers, however, were sent, like Gustaw Herling, to Gulags, from which few emerged alive. For instance, of the12, 000 Poles sent to Kolyma only about 600 survived. For most Polish prisoners of war, the Polish-Soviet alliance came too late. By the time the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement was signed and Poland found itself, once again, allied with the Soviet Union against Germany, most of them had perished.

Claudia Moscovici,

Literature Salon

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Filed under A World Apart, Claudia Moscovici, destruction of Poland during WWII, German occupation of Poland, Gustaw Herling, Gustaw Herling A World Apart, history, Holocaust Memory, memoir, Poland's Plight: Gustaw Herling's A World Apart, Soviet gulag, Soviet occupation of Poland, WWII