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Phantoms in the Snow. Kathleen Benner Duble. 2011. Scholastic. 240 pages. [Source: Review copy]
Phantoms in the Snow was a great book set during World War II. Noah, the hero, is a young man who has just lost both parents to small pox. His only living relative is an uncle that he's never met, or can't remember meeting. He's a soldier in the army, a "Phantom" part of a skiing unit. Now Noah was raised by pacifists, and, until their death he's never really thought about how he personally feels about war, and if he should be a part of it or not. He's sent to live with his uncle at a mountain camp, army camp. Once there, his uncle signs him up and lies about his age. Noah begins his training. He first has to learn to ski. He already knows how to shoot. But there's so much about army life that he doesn't know at least not yet. Noah remains conflicted through much of the book. About who he is and what he believes and where he really belongs. He learns a lot about life and about how you should never make assumptions about where another person is coming from, and what life is like for others. Anyway, it's a very strong coming-of-age story. It's a story with a lot of heart, I might add. I cared about Noah. I cared about his uncle. And I cared about a character called Skeeter. Overall, this one is oh-so-easy to recommend.
My Brother's Secret. Dan Smith. 2015. Scholastic. 304 pages. [Source: Review copy]
Karl Friedmann loves to play war games, and can't wait to join the Hitler Youth. But after his father's death, he begins to question the rightness of the war, and the rightness of the Nazi party. This change of heart isn't immediate, it's more of a journey as he observes what the war has done to his family, to his friends, to his neighborhood. Two people definitely make an impact on him: his older brother, who does have a secret, and his new best friend, a girl around his own age.
My Brother's Secret is an intense read with plenty of action and drama.
I definitely found it a compelling read--a quick one too! It was action-packed until the very end. I was almost sure there was no way they could resolve it with so few pages left, and, in a way, it did feel rushed. But still. Quite a read.
The Upstairs Room. Johanna Reiss. 1972. HarperCollins. 208 pages. [Source: Library]
I am so glad I decided to read Johanna Reiss' The Upstairs Room. This one has been on my list of books I needed to read for quite a while--over a decade at least. It is nonfiction--a biography--set during World War II. The author and her sister were Jews that hid for several years from the Nazis.
Readers meet Annie, the young heroine, and her family. She has several older sisters, a mother and father. The war changes everything for the family. The mother, who was close to death anyway--the Nazis invasion of Holland didn't really change the outcome. The family found hiding places, but, separate hiding places. Annie was placed in a hiding place with one of her sisters. Readers meet the two families that hid the two girls. One family became like a second family to her. I found the book to be a quick read, and quite intense.
The book itself was well-written: both compelling and well-paced. What surprised me a little bit, and what might surprise others as well, is the language. I wasn't expecting (strong) profanity in a Newbery Honor book! I really wasn't. That being said, it wasn't a huge issue for me--as an adult reader. But I could see how it might not work for certain families as a read-aloud choice.
Written by Jennifer Roy Illustrated by Meg Owenson Capstone Press 8/01/2015 978-1-62370-425-4 32 pages Age 9—12
“Amid the horrors of World War II, Polish social worker Irena Sendler worked in the Warsaw Ghetto for Jews. When the Nazis began shipping Jews out of the ghetto in cattle cars, Irena started smuggling out babies and children to give them a chance to live. She hid babies in places like laundry piles, a carpenter’s toolbox, or a potato sack, and she helped older children escape through underground sewer tunnels. After the children were out of the ghetto, Irena found safe places for them with foster families or in convents. Irena kept records of the children she helped smuggle away and when she feared her work might be discovered, she buried her lists in jars, hoping to someday reunite the children with their parents.”[publisher]
Review Irena Sendler is one of the unsung heroes of World War II. She is not in history books and few know about her work. Jars of Hope begins with Irena as a young child, hearing words from her father that would stay with her forever. She asked her father,
“Are some people really better than others?”
Irena’s father replied,
“There are two kinds of people in this world, good and bad. It doesn’t matter if they are rich or poor, what religion or race. What matters is if they are good or bad.”
In World War II, the Jews were not the bad guys and Irena decided to help those that were suffering the most . . . children. With the help of some trusted friends, the group smuggled 2500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. One good example was Antoni, who was allowed to drive his truck in an out of the ghetto. Together, he and Irena smuggled babies out in the back of the truck. Many cried. Antoni had a unique solution: Shepsi. Shepsi, Antoni’s talented sidekick, rode along in the front seat of the truck. With one touch of his paw by Antoni, Shepsi began barking, drowning out the baby’s cries. Eventually Irena joined Zegota, a secret group of Polish adults who helped the Jews with aid and rescue. Zegota helped Irena place children in foster homes and convents, but that association also got her arrested.
The illustrations are emotional and stark, a reflection of the time, and yet beautiful. The images immerse readers into the 1940s and the realities of Irena’s work. I especially like the image of children climbing out of the sewer with only a flashlight shining down upon them as a guide. The young girl hoisting herself up onto the ground struck home, making the era come alive for me. The author includes an Afterword adding more about Irena’s life, a glossary, and an Author’s Note explaining why she wrote Jars of Hope. What Irena Sendler went through to save so many others is beyond heroic. She put her life in danger every day, but thought nothing of it because others needed her help. Such a selfless spirit is rare. Irena dangerously kept a list of the children she rescued, believing every child deserves to know their real name—many received new, Catholic names upon rescue—and she wanted to reunite as many families as possible. The lists went into jars, and buried for safety.
Jars of Hope, and other books like it, should be in classrooms. Irena Sendler, her selfless aid of so many Jewish children is worth remembering. She is a hero, but much more than that, if there were just an appropriate word. Jars of Hope is a beautiful, dangerous story of hope at a time when all hope seemed lost, and of courage, in a time and place where courage barely survived. Jars of Hope is a must read for older children and adults. Jars of Hope also belongs in every school library.
One of the many things I like about Facebook? You get to learn things about your family that you otherwise probably wouldn’t have known.
The man laying on the ground in the picture above is my grandfather – my dad’s dad. He fought in World War II.
I’m just going to post what my Aunt posted on Facebook …
Dan said his dad never talked about the war much (who could blame him) but he would tell us this story often.
One day there was an order to head out, so some of his buddies got into the jeep. Right before Leroy got in, his commanding officer said “Hutton you stay”. That jeep was hit and Leroy lost good friends. He would say to us, “If I would have gotten in, you all would have never been here, that saved my life”. Glad he didn’t get in!”
Isn’t it amazing to think that one moment in time, that one split second decision my grandfather’s commanding officer made, led us to this moment: Four children, ten grandchildren, nineteen (?) great grandchildren later.
It sort of boggles the mind when you stop to think about it.
My grandfather is in his early nineties now. We lost my grandmother, my dad’s mom, about … three years ago (?). She developed dementia toward the end of her life and it was a terribly sad way to say goodbye. It was very hard on my parents, I know. And now my grandfather is being moved to a nursing home today because we have reached the point where he can’t take care of himself and it’s physically too hard on my family to help. (He’s wheelchair bound and he requires physical assistance to get into bed, go to the bathroom, etc).
This is INCREDIBLY hard on my grandfather. He’s FIERCELY independent, has been his whole life, so now that he is being forced into this situation, well, it’s been difficult, to say the least.
My parents came over yesterday and they filled in the details. It was heartbreaking to listen to the anguish in their voices and watch tears gather in their eyes.
My grandfather begs them to take him home. He doesn’t want to go to the home. Who can blame him?? But though my family tried to take care of him in his home for one week, the situation is simply more than any of them can handle. They’re trying to make deals with my grandfather, work hard, participate in physical therapy, work on his strength so that he can at least walk on his own again and then they can take him home and work on a schedule to have someone with him at all times. But my grandfather is being stubborn. I’m sure the whole situation is embarrassing and humiliating for him. I see this in patients every day at work. It’s SO HARD to succumb to physical restrictions and have to rely on other people to help you when you’ve been so used to being on your own, taking care of yourself, your whole life.
This situation makes me think of my own parents a lot. They’re getting up there in age, too. Though they are still both relatively young and stay physically active (they go to a gym to walk and socialize every day), I can see early signs of dependency. It brings a lump to my throat to think me and my siblings may be in a similar boat one of these years. And though you can promise you’ll never, ever, put your loved ones in a home, you can’t TRULY promise that. I think this situation with my grandfather has taught me that. All you can do is the best you can do for the situation you find yourself in.
I also wonder how our boys will react when Kevin and I reach that age. Getting older has never really bothered me before, but honestly, seeing my grandfather’s situation has opened up doors I never really knew existed before.
I learned that being in a home, a DECENT home, is terribly expensive. This will likely put a huge dent in my grandfather’s money. I have no idea how much he has, it’s really none of my business how much money he has, but knowing my family, he likely has a nest egg somewhere he can rely on to help him through this stage. I feel terribly sorry for people that DON’T have that money to fall back on.
Kevin and I have talked about making sure we have a will. But I’m not sure we have ever really discussed our plan if one of us ends up in a nursing home. I have made Kevin promise me he will never put me in a home, and vice versa, but my grandfather’s situation has taught me, it’s never quite that black and white.
I worry that dementia runs in our family. I mentioned my grandmother had it and there are signs my grandfather might have it, too. I’ve always worried about my own memory – I have trouble remembering things NOW. What will I be like when I reach my twilight years?
I think that’s one big reason I refuse to retire. Which, I realize is unrealistic, my body will deteriorate … I realize this. But I hereby pledge to work on keeping my mind active. I’m not saying my grandparents did not do that, dementia is not something you can likely prevent, but I will do everything in my power to keep it at arm’s length.
In the meantime, life trudges on. All we can do is try and keep pace with it.
Snow Treasure. Marie McSwigan. Illustrated by Mary Reardon. 1942. 208 pages. [Source: Bought]
Set in Norway in 1940, Snow Treasure is a true must-read for anyone who loves a good adventure story or a good war story. Snow Treasure is based on a true story too! It is about the smuggling of Norway's gold, smuggling it out of the country so that it doesn't fall into Nazi hands. How is it smuggled out? Who could hope to smuggle it out undetected without any Nazi being the wiser? Why, you let children do it, naturally.
The hero of Snow Treasure is a young boy named Peter Lundstrom. He isn't the only child from his Norwegian village involved. He has a lot of help from other boys and girls. The older and stronger can carry more gold on their sled. The younger take less. But all work together to help their country in need. They are one part of the process, adults also play a big role, of course. For it will be Peter's uncle who will smuggle the gold out of the country on his ship.
I loved everything about this one. I loved the characters. I loved Peter and his family. I loved the adventure aspect of it. It's a thrilling read. It isn't a simple, easy process. It's hard work. And each trip is a risk, of course. For they do see and hear a lot of Nazis as they are carrying on their most secret work.
Snow Treasure is a compelling read for children and adults.
Memorial Day is always a poignant moment -- a time to remember and reflect on the ultimate sacrifice made by so many military personnel over the decades -- but this year three big anniversaries make it particularly so. Seventy years ago, Americans celebrated victory in a war in which these sacrifices seemed worthwhile.
War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation. Cindy Hval. 2015. Casemate. 240 pages. [Source: Review copy]
I enjoyed reading Cindy Hval's War Bonds. The book is a collection of love stories. Each chapter features a new couple. Each chapter is short in length, but, not lacking in heart. What the chapters all have in common, of course, is that all the husbands fought in World War II. Another commonality is that all the marriages lasted. Each story is worth sharing; each voice deserves to be heard.
I enjoyed meeting all the men and women in this book. I enjoyed their stories: stories about how they met, when and where they met, how they fell in love, their courtships--in some cases years, in other cases mere weeks, their proposals, their weddings, their marriages. The book shares their challenges and struggles: before, during, and after the war.
I really enjoyed the photographs as well!
I would definitely recommend War Bonds. I love reading about World War II both fiction and nonfiction. I love reading love stories. This book was just right for me.
Green for Danger. Christianna Brand. 1944. 256 pages. [Source: Bought]
Reading Green for Danger was like watching a soap opera--for better or worse. It definitely had its enjoyable moments now and then. But I can't say it was really a great fit for my reading taste. (Not that it was smutty. Just a lot of messy, oh-so-dramatic twists and turns, some of which related to their love lives.)
I wanted to read Green for Danger because it's a vintage mystery published during World War II. It is also set during the war and focused on the war. All of the characters--all of the suspects--work in a hospital. Readers get a behind the scenes look at war-time England. It had the potential to be quite good: fascinating even.
Was I disappointed? Yes and no. I would have liked more depth to the characterization with perhaps a tiny bit less drama. That being said, there was plenty of suspense and mystery. And looking back, there were plenty of clues throughout the book. It wasn't a great read for me, but, it wasn't all that bad either.
I also watched the movie adaptation of Green For Danger (1946). I found myself enjoying it more than the book. The plot is different from the book in some ways, but I thought it worked well. If you like watching mysteries, I'd definitely recommend it.
Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky. Sandra Dallas. 2014. Sleeping Bear Press. 216 pages. [Source: Library]
Tomi Itano is the heroine of Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky. Her family is relocated during the war, the spring after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her father was taken away--imprisoned--before the family was relocated. For Tomi who has always loved, loved, loved being American, this comes as a shock and disappointment. How could anyone not see how patriotic her family is? She adjusts as the whole family is forced to adjust. (The family, I believe, is relocated twice.) Readers meet Tomi, her older brother, her younger brother, and her mother. Readers get a glimpse of what life might have been like day-to-day for these families. The book is about how they all are effected personally and as a family. (It does change the family dynamics in many ways, especially once the father joins them again. For example, he comes home angry and bitter and stubborn. He does not like the fact that the experience has changed his wife, how she works now, how she teaches quilting, how she has a life outside the home.) I liked the book well enough. Part of me wishes, however, that the focus had been on the older brother Roy, or, equally on the older brother. I liked that he had a band. He ended up joining the army, and, his story would have been worth reading too, in my opinion.
Number the Stars. Lois Lowry. 1989. (Won Newbery in 1990) 137 pages. [Source: Bought]
Number the Stars was probably one of the first fiction books I read about the Holocaust and World War II. (I know I also read The Hiding Place and The Diary of Anne Frank, but both of those are nonfiction.) What did I remember about Number the Stars after all these years? Well, I remembered that it was about a young girl who had a Jewish best friend. I remembered that the girl's family helped the friend and her family get out of Denmark. I remembered the intense scene where German soldiers come to her house looking for hidden Jews. But most of the details had faded away. So it was definitely time for me to reread.
Annemarie is the heroine of Number the Stars. I loved her. I loved her courage and loyalty. Ellen is Annemarie's best friend. I love that readers get an opportunity to see these two be friends before it gets INTENSE. I also love Annemarie's family. I do. I don't think I properly appreciated them as a child reader. One thing that resonated with me this time around was Annemarie's older sister, her place in the story. The setting. I think the book did a great job at showing what it could have been like to grow up in wartime with enemy soldiers all around. In some ways it was the little things that I loved best. For example, how Annemarie, Ellen, and Kirsti (Annemarie's little sister) play paper dolls together, how they act out stories, in this case they are acting out scenes from Gone with The Wind. I think all the little things help bring the story to life and make it feel authentic.
For a young audience, Number the Stars has a just-right approach. It is realistic enough to be fair to history. It is certainly sad in places. But it isn't dark and heavy and unbearable. The focus is on hope: there are men and women, boys and girls, who live by their beliefs and will do what is right at great risk even. Yes, there is evil in the world, but, there is also good.
For anyone with an interest in World War II and/or the Holocaust, you should consider reading the memoir Determined by A. Avraham Perlmutter. I am always eager to read more, so, I was happy to receive a copy of this for review.
The first third of the memoir focuses on the war itself. On his experience as a Jew during World War II trying to survive. Readers also learn about his family, his background, his childhood, Hitler's rise to power, etc. Everything readers need to know and understand to appreciate his personal story.
The final two-thirds of the memoir focus on his life AFTER the war sharing his experiences in Europe, in Israel, and finally the United States. This section focuses more on moving on with his life and establishing himself. Readers see him as a survivor, a soldier, a student, a husband, a father, and an engineer. The story of his life is so much more than just a surviving-the-war story.
The book includes plenty of photographs and documents to supplement the story.
Devil at My Heels. Louis Zamperini and David Rensin. 1956/2004. Harper Perennial. 292 pages. [Source: Library]
I loved reading Unbroken. As soon as I found out that Louis Zamperini had written an autobiography, I NEEDED to read it. I hoped that it would be equally compelling and just as fascinating. It was. It really was. I honestly don't know if I could pick which one was "better." His story is worth reading no matter the book you choose.
Devil At My Heels is Zamperini's autobiography. In this book, readers learn about his growing up, his delinquent years, how his brother persuaded him to try running track, his early races and training days, how running 'saved' his life and put him on the right track, his 1936 Olympic experience, his college years, his joining the army air force, his war experiences, his surviving a horrible plane crash, how he survived almost fifty days at sea in a raft, his 'resue' from sea by the Japanese, his time in a Japanese POW camp, his return to the U.S, his popularity, his inner struggles, his marriage, his conversion experiences, his days as a speaker, how it was 'easy' for him to forgive the Japanese, how he tried to meet all his former prison guards, etc.
This one fascinates from cover to cover. I liked hearing the story in his own words. Both books are packed with detail, but, the focus isn't always in the same places.
Seventy years ago today, in Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Japanese-American internment program authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. The Korematsu decision and the internment program that forcibly removed over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry from their homes during World War II are often cited as ugly reminders of the dangers associated with wartime hysteria, racism, fear-mongering, xenophobia, an imperial president, and judicial dereliction of duty. But the events surrounding Korematsu are also a harrowing reminder of what happens to liberty when the “Madisonian machine” breaks down — that is, when the structural checks and balances built into our system of government fail and give way to the worst forms of tyranny.
Our 18th century system of separated and fragmented government — what Gordon Silverstein calls the “Madisonian machine” — was engineered to prevent tyranny, or rather tyrannies. Madison’s Federalist 51 outlines a prescription for avoiding “Big T Tyranny” — the concentration of power in any one branch of government. This would be accomplished by dividing and separating powers among the three branches of government and between the federal government and the states. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” Madison wrote. Each branch would jealously protect its own powers while guarding against encroachments by the others.
But this wasn’t the only form of tyranny the framers worried about. In a democracy, minorities are always at risk of being oppressed by majorities — what I call “little t tyranny.” Madison’s solution to this kind of tyranny is articulated in Federalist 10. The cure to this disease was firstly to elect representatives who could filter the passions of the masses and make more enlightened decisions. Secondly, Madison observed that as long as the citizenry is sufficiently divided and carved up into numerous smaller “factions,” it would be unlikely that a unified majority would emerge to oppress a minority faction.
In the events leading up to and including the Supreme Court’s decision in Korematsu, these safeguards built into the Madisonian machine broke down, giving way to both forms of T/tyranny. Congress not only acquiesced to President Roosevelt’s executive order, it responded with alacrity to support it. After just one hour of floor debate and virtually no dissent, Congress passed Public Law 503, which promulgated the order and assigned criminal penalties for violating it. And the branch furthest removed from the whims and passions of the majority, the Supreme Court, declined to second-guess the wisdom of the elected branches. As Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority in Korematsu, “we cannot reject as unfounded the judgment of the military authorities and of Congress…” If Congress had been more skeptical, perhaps the Supreme Court might have been, too. But the Supreme Court has a long track record of deference to the executive when Congress gives express consent for his actions – especially in times of war. Unfortunately, under the Madisonian design, this is exactly when the Supreme Court ought to be the most skeptical of executive power.
To be sure, these checks and balances built into the Madisonian system were only meant to function as “auxiliary precautions.” The most important safeguard against T/tyranny would be the people themselves. Through a campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering, however, this protection was also rendered ineffective. Public opinion data was used selectively to convey the impression to both legislators and west coast citizens that the majority of Americans supported the internment program. The passions of the public were further manipulated by the media and west coast newspaper headlines such as “Japanese Here Sent Vital Data to Tokyo,” “Lincoln Would Intern Japs,” and “Danger in Delaying Jap Removal Cited.” Any dissent or would-be countervailing “factions,” to use Madison’s phrase, were effectively silenced.
In Korematsu, ambition did not counteract ambition as Madison had intended, and the machine broke down. That’s because in order to function properly, the Madisonian machine requires access to information and time for genuine deliberation. It also requires friction. It requires people to disagree – for our elected representatives to disagree with one another, for the Supreme Court to police the elected branches, for citizens to pause, faction off, and check one another. So we can complain of gridlock in government, but let’s not forget that the alternative, as demonstrated by the unforgivable and tragic events of Korematsu, exposes the most vulnerable among us to the worst forms of tyranny.
Featured image credit: A young evacuee of Japanese ancestry waits with the family baggage before leaving by bus for an assembly center. US National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Each year on 16 December, in the little Belgian town of Bastogne, a celebrity arrives to throw bags of nuts at the townsfolk. This year, it will be Belgium’s King Philippe and Queen Mathilde who observe the tradition. It dates from Christmas 1944, when attacking Germans overwhelmed and surrounded the small town and demanded that the US forces defending Bastogne to surrender. The American commander, General Anthony McAuliffe, searching for a word to vent his frustration and defiance, simply answered: ‘Nuts!’
The day marked the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. Fought over the winter of 1944-5, it was Hitler’s last desperate attempt to snatch victory over the Allied armies who had been steamrollering their way into the Reich following the invasion of Europe the previous June. The commemorations this year have an added poignancy as hardly any of the veterans who fought in the campaign are left alive. The local Belgians remain grateful to their wartime liberators. Some have begun another tradition, dressing in wartime GI uniforms, as a mark of respect and remembrance.
It is a battle worthy or remembrance. The Wehrmacht’s attack—aided by Allied intelligence lapses and the Nazi’s ruthless secrecy–fell on a thin line of GIs defending the Belgium-Luxemburg border. It came as a shock and a complete surprise. Fielding their last panzers and thousands of new units, the Germans created complete mayhem for a few days. It seemed as if they might break through, as US Army units reeled. The savagery of the battle was horrific. In some sectors, there was hand-to-hand combat in sub-zero cold, and thousands of Americans were taken prisoner. In thick fog and snow at Malmedy, another small Belgian town, some American prisoners were massacred by fanatical SS troopers.
The German plan had been based on speed and surprise, and success was to be measured in days and even hours. But when faced with the resistance of American soldiers throughout the Ardennes regions of Luxembourg, including at Bastogne and St. Vith, the Wehrmacht’s advance slowed, then stopped. The Germans soon ran low on fuel, food, and ammunition, After battling for over forty days, and in the face of overwhelming US counter-attacks, Hitler’s armies were forced back to where they had started.
Winston Churchill hailed the end result as ‘an ever-famous American victory’. But it came at a high cost: at the end of the offensive, 89,000 American soldiers were casualties, including 19,000 dead. The Germans lost more. Some British units also took part, losing 1,400, and 3,000 Belgian civilians were killed, caught by shellfire in their own homes.
The Battle of the Ardennes, as it was called at the time, was America’s greatest—and bloodiest—battle of World War II, and indeed the bloodiest in its history. Some 32 divisions fought in it, totaling 610,000 men, a bigger commitment for the US Army than Normandy, where nineteen divisions fought, and far larger than the Pacific. More than D-Day and the battle for Normandy the Ardennes was a far more fundamental test of American soldiers. Surprised and outnumbered, sometimes leaderless and operating in Arctic weather conditions, they managed to prevail against the best men that Nazi Germany could throw against them.
The quality of an army is measured not when all is going to plan, but when the unexpected happens. The 1944-45 Ardennes campaign was a test and on a scale like no other. So on 16 December each year, spare a thought for those GI veterans and civilians in Belgium, perhaps when you’re munching on some holiday nuts.
The Second World War affected me quite directly, when along with the other students of the boarding school in Swanage on the south coast of England I spent lots of time in the air raid shelter in the summer of 1940. A large German bomb dropped into the school grounds fortunately did not explode so that we survived. To process for entry into the United States, I then had to go to London and thus experienced the beginnings of the Blitz before crossing the Atlantic in September. Perhaps this experience had some influence on my deciding to write on the origins and course of the Second World War.
Over the years, there have been four trends in the writing on that conflict that seemed and still seem defective to me. One has been the tendency to overlook the fact that the earth is round. The Axis Powers made the huge mistake of failing to engage this fact during the war and never coordinated their strategies accordingly, and too many have followed this bad example in looking at the conflict in retrospect. Events in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific often influenced each other, and it has always seemed to me that it was the ability of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt to engage the global reality that made a significant contribution to the victory of the Allies.
A second element in distortions of the war has been the influence of mendacious memoirs of German generals and diplomats, especially those translated into English. The enthusiasm of Germany’s higher commanders for Adolf Hitler and his projects vanished in the postwar years as they blamed him for whatever went wrong, imagined that it was cold and snowed only on the German army in Russia, and evaded their own involvement in massive atrocities against Jews and vast numbers of other civilians. They were happy to accept bribes, decorations, and promotions from the leader they adored; but in an interesting reversal of their fakery after the First World War, when they blamed defeat on an imaginary “stab-in-the-back,” this time they blamed their defeat on the man at the top. Nothing in their memoirs can be believed unless substantiated by contemporary evidence.
A third contribution to misunderstanding of the great conflict comes from an all too frequent neglect of the massive sources that have become available in recent decades. It is much easier to manufacture fairy tales at home and in a library than to dig through the enormous masses of paper in archives. A simple but important example relates to the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. One can always dream up alternative scenarios, but working through the mass of intercepted and decoded Japanese messages is indeed tedious work. It does, however, lead to the detailed recommendation of the Japanese ambassador in Moscow in the summer of 1945 urging surrender rather than following the German example of fighting to the bitter end, and to the reply from Tokyo thanking him for his advice and telling him that the governing council had discussed and unanimously rejected it.
A fourth type of misunderstanding comes from a failure to recognize the purpose of the war Germany initiated. Hitler did not go to war because the French refused to let him visit the Eiffel tower, invade the Soviet Union because Joseph Stalin would not let the German Labor Front place a “Strength through Joy” cruise ship on the Caspian Sea, or have a murder commando attached to the headquarters of Erwin Rommel in Egypt in the summer of 1942 to dismantle one of the pyramids for erection near Berlin renamed “Germania.” The purpose of the war was not, like most prior wars, for adjacent territory, more colonies, bases, status, resources, and influence. It was for a demographic revolution on the globe of which the extermination of all Jews was one facet in the creation of a world inhabited solely by Germanic and allegedly similar peoples. Ironically it was the failure of Germany’s major allies to understand this concept that led them over and over again, beginning in late 1941, to urge Hitler to make peace with the Soviet Union and concentrate on crushing Great Britain and the United States. World War II was fundamentally different from World War I and earlier conflicts. If we are ever to understand it, we need to look for something other than the number popularly attached to it.
The Girl With The White Flag. Tomiko Higa. Translated by Dorothy Britton. 1989. 130 pages. [Source: Bought]
The Girl with the White Flag is the story of the author's childhood in war-time Japan. It begins by giving the reader ample background into the time and culture and place.
One of the first events she shares with readers is the death of her mother. She then relates what life was like with her father, two older sisters, and her older brother. This portion is hard to navigate. I think in some ways it is just as hard for modern readers to understand the family life--the harshness, the strictness, the discipline, as it is to understand the monstrosities of war and soldiers and starvation. (Or maybe that's just my take on it.)
About halfway through the narrative, the father disappears. He was on his somewhat routine mission of delivering food to the Japanese soldiers, but on this occasion he never returned home. The four children are left to fend for themselves. The American soldiers have just begun their invasion, their battle to capture this island. The children become refugees and the fight to survive has begun. The children ranged in age from 17 to 6. Somewhere along the way, however, two things happen--big things--that make this event even scarier: 1) Their brother dies one night from a stray bullet. 2) Within a few days of burying their brother, our narrator--the six/seven year old girl becomes lost--separated--from her sisters.
The book recounts what it was like to be seven and alone and wandering in and out of danger. There was no safe place. Not really. Japanese soldiers weren't "safe." In fact, in her brief encounters with them she was almost killed. No, being near soldiers wasn't safe. The only "safe" soldier was a dead soldier. She did in fact scavenge around the dead soldiers looking for food.
Her will to survive was strong. Her stamina incredible in my opinion. The sights. The sounds. The smells. All surrounded her. Could have potentially traumatized her and paralyzed her into inaction.
If there is power in the Girl with The White Flag it is in its rawness, its simplicity, its boldness when it comes to being straightforward and honest. The story is incredible is powerful because it's true. Here is an eyewitness account of what it means to be seven and a refugee in a war zone. It can be brutal. It can be intense. But there is more to it than that.
I found The Girl with The White Flag to be an incredibly compelling read, a must-read for adults.
The War That Saved My Life. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. 2015. Penguin. 320 pages. [Source: Library]
"Ada! Get back from that window!" Mam's voice, shouting. Mam's arm, grabbing mine, yanking me so I toppled off my chair and fell hard to the floor.
It should come as no surprise that I loved, loved, loved Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's The War That Saved My Life. It's my kind of book. It's set in Britain during World War II. (To be honest, it could be set practically anywhere during World War II, and I'd want to read it.) It reminded me of Good Night, Mr. Tom which is a very good thing since I loved that one so very much!
Ada's existence before the war was bleak. Because of her club foot, Ada is verbally and psychically abused by her mother. She's restricted to staying in the family's one room apartment, and she's discouraged from even looking out the window. She hasn't been outside ever as far as she knows--can remember. Her younger brother, Jamie, may not be as abused as his older sister. But neglected and malnourished? Definitely. He at least gets to leave the house to go to school, even if he isn't leaving the house clean.
When London's children begin to be evacuated days before war is declared, their mother agrees to send Jamie off to the country. She has no plans of sending Ada, however, telling her that no one in the world would want her--would put up with her. Ada, who has secretly been teaching herself to stand and even to walk, sneaks away with her younger brother. The two of them need to be together.
Susan reluctantly takes the two children into her home. It's not anything against Jamie and Ada, she says, it's just that she doesn't feel adequate enough to take care of anyone else. If truth be told, she sometimes struggles to take care of herself. Since Becky died, she's been isolating herself, often depressed. But Susan finds herself caring for these two children very much. Could it be she's found her family at last?
Ada and Jamie are difficult, no question. Ada is not used to being treated decently let alone kindly. She doesn't know how to respond and react to love and tenderness and respect. And the fact that Ada knows that it's temporary isn't helping. But Ada will slowly but surely be transformed by the war. One thing that helps Ada tremendously is Butter, a pony. (Butter belonged to Becky, a woman readers never actually meet, but, Susan talks about her often with much love and affection.) Ada teaches herself to ride, and her confidence increases almost daily.
Ada, Jamie, and Susan are all well-developed characters. I cared about all of them. Readers also meet plenty of other villagers. The story has plenty of drama!
Winston Churchill’s Victory broadcast of 13 May 1945, in which he claimed that but for Northern Ireland’s “loyalty and friendship” the British people “should have been confronted with slavery or death,” is perhaps the most emphatic assertion that the Second World War entrenched partition from the southern state and strengthened the political bond between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Two years earlier, however, in private correspondence with US President Roosevelt, Churchill had written disparagingly of the young men of Belfast, who unlike their counterparts in Britain were not subject to conscription, loafing around “with their hands in their pockets,” hindering recruitment and the vital work of the shipyards.
Churchill’s role as a unifying figure, galvanising the war effort through wireless broadcasts and morale-boosting public appearances, is much celebrated in accounts of the British Home Front. The further away from London and the South East of England that one travels, however, the more questions should be asked of this simplistic narrative. Due to Churchill’s actions as Liberal Home Secretary during the 1910 confrontations between miners and police in South Wales, for example, he was far less popular in Wales, and indeed in Scotland, than in England during the war. But in Northern Ireland, too, Churchill was a controversial figure at this time. The roots of this controversy are to be found in events that took place more than a quarter of a century before, in 1912.
Then First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill was booed on arrival in Belfast that February, before his car was attacked and his effigy brandished by a mob of loyalist demonstrators. Later at Belfast Celtic Football Ground he was cheered by a crowd of five thousand nationalists as he spoke in favour of Home Rule for Ireland. Churchill was not sympathetic to the Irish nationalist cause but believed that Home Rule would strengthen the Empire and the bond between Britain and Ireland; he also saw this alliance as vital to the defence of the United Kingdom.
Loyalists were outraged. Angry dockers hurled rotten fish at Churchill and his wife Clementine as they left the city; historian and novelist Hugh Shearman reported that their car was diverted to avoid thousands of shipyard workers who had lined the route with pockets filled with “Queen’s Island confetti,” local slang for rivet heads. (Harland and Wolff were at this time Belfast’s largest employer, and indeed one of the largest shipbuilding firms in the world; at the time of the Churchills’ visit the Titanic was being fitted out.)
Two years later in March 1914 Churchill made a further speech in Bradford in England, calling for a peaceful solution to the escalating situation in Ulster and arguing that the law in Ireland should be applied equally to nationalists and unionists without preference. Three decades later, this speech was widely reprinted and quoted in several socialist and nationalist publications in Northern Ireland, embarrassing the unionist establishment by highlighting their erstwhile hostility to the most prominent icon of the British war effort. Churchill’s ignominious retreat from Belfast in 1912 was also raised by pamphleteers and politicians who sought to exploit a perceived hypocrisy in the unionist government’s professed support for the British war effort as it sought to suppress dissent within the province. One socialist pamphlet attacked unionists by arguing that “The Party which denied freedom of speech to a member of the British Government before it became the Government of Northern Ireland is not likely to worry overmuch about free speech for its political opponents after it became the Government.”
And in London in 1940 Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club published a polemic by the Dublin-born republican activist Jim Phelan, startlingly entitled Churchill Can Unite Ireland. In this Phelan expressed hopes that Churchill’s personality itself could effect positive change in Ireland. He saw Churchill as a figure who could challenge what Phelan called “punctilio,” the adherence to deferential attitudes that kept vested interests in control of the British establishment. Phelan identified a cultural shift in Britain following Churchill’s replacement of Chamberlain as Prime Minister, characterised by a move towards plain speaking: he argued that for the first time since the revolutionary year of 1848 “people are saying and writing what they mean.”
Jim Phelan’s ideas in Churchill Can Unite Ireland were often fanciful, but they alert us to the curious patterns of debate that can be found away from more familiar British narratives of the Second World War. Here a proud Irish republican could assert his faith in a British Prime Minister with a questionable record in Ireland as capable of delivering Irish unity.
Despite publically professed loyalty to the British war effort, unionist mistrust of the London government in London endured over the course of the war, partly due to Churchill’s perceived willingness to deal with Irish Taoiseach Éamon de Valera. Phelan’s book concluded with the words: “Liberty does not grow on trees; it must be fought for. Not ‘now or never’. Now.” Eerily these lines presaged the infamous telegram from Churchill to de Valera following the bombing of Pearl Harbor the following year in 1941, which, it is implied, offered Irish unity in return for the southern state’s entry into the war on the side of Allies, and read in part “Now is your chance. Now or never. A Nation once again.”
The Cats in Krasinski Square. Karen Hesse. Illustrated by Wendy Watson. 2004. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Library]
The cats come from the cracks in the Wall, the dark corners, the openings in the rubble.
The Cats in Krasinski Square is an incredible read: a picture book written in verse about the Warsaw ghetto in World War II. Readers meet a young girl, a Jewish girl, who escaped the ghetto and is trying to survive by passing as Polish.
I look like any child playing with cats in the daylight in Warsaw, my Jewish armband burned with the rags I wore when I escaped the Ghetto. I wear my Polish look, I walk my Polish walk. Polish words float from my lips and I am almost safe, almost invisible, moving through Krasinski Square past the dizzy girls riding the merry-go-round.
But she can't forget--won't forget the Jews still "living" in the ghetto. She wants to do her part to help them. She hears through an older sister, I believe, about a project to smuggle food into the ghetto. But the Nazi's have also heard something. It might take a miracle for the food to reach the Jews now...or it might take hundreds of CATS.
I loved the story, loved the storytelling. The illustrations are great.
The Greatest Skating Race: A World War II Story from the Netherlands. Louise Borden. 2004. Illustrated by Niki Daly. Simon & Schuster. 48 pages. [Source: Library]
I enjoyed reading Louise Borden's The Greatest Skating Race. Though the book has been out for ten years, I'd not come across it before. It is a wonderful picture book for older readers. I've only read a handful of picture books with a World War II setting. I'm on the look out for more. So if you know of some, please let me know in the comments! I'll try my best to review them.
Readers meet Piet, a young Dutch boy, in The Greatest Skating Race. He loves, loves, loves to skate. It would be odd if he didn't love to skate. He loves to dream about competing in the Elfstedentocht--a famous skating race, the "Eleven Towns Race." Readers learn details about the race throughout the text. But the race itself is not what this one is about. It is about the German occupation, and the ever-increasing threat to Jews.
One day, Piet's grandfather gives him a big, big task to accompany two Jewish children across the border and to their aunt's house.
Today you must be the best skater that you can be. You must be as brave as your father...wherever he is. You must be as brave as Pim Mulier! You must skate the main canal to Brugge, straight as an arrow to its mark. And you will need to race against today's sun to get there before dark. I want you to skate as fast as you can, but you must look like an unimportant schoolboy. You will take Johanna and Joop Winkelman and help them find their Aunt Ingrid's house. We think this is the safest way to escape from those who may wish these friends of ours harm. (16)
It will be a demanding journey--physically and mentally--and perhaps a dangerous one as well. There will be soldiers and checkpoints. And they'll have to find their way to the aunt's house--a place they've never been before. So they'll have to remember the directions carefully, and not let fear confuse them.
Sleep in Peace Tonight. James MacManus. 2014. Thomas Dunne Books. 368 pages. [Source: Library]
Sleep in Peace Tonight was a great read. It is set, for the most part, in England in 1941. Harry Hopkins, FDR's adviser, is being sent to England to speak with Churchill. He'll spend many months talking with Churchill and writing to Roosevelt. He's there because of the war, of course. Popular opinion in the U.S. at the time being that war should be avoided at all costs no matter what--no matter what Hitler was doing in Europe or England, no matter how desperate the situation was growing. Churchill and many others, of course, were advocating the U.S. to become involved, saying that it was the obviously right thing to do. Hitler is bad news. Hitler must be stopped. Political tension. This book is essentially all about political tension. Tension within the United States. There being isolationists and even Nazi supporters within the U.S. Tension between Britain and the U.S. Tension between two personalities, of course. There being a whole lot of he says this but means this. The setting and atmosphere is well-developed. One gets an idea of what it was like to live in a topsy-turvy world with nightly bombings, and the only certain thing being that life is short and death could come anywhere, anytime.
Sleep In Peace Tonight is more than a historical novel, however, it is also a romance. Did I love the romance? Not particularly. On the one hand, it introduces a character, Leonora Finch to the story. She is patriotic and smart and oh-so-capable. She's doing her part for the war. Her storyline reminded me very much of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. Her role in this novel is a bit underdeveloped in a way. I wouldn't have minded if more had been her story. Or if she got a book of her own. (That being said, I found Hopkins' story to be compelling for the most part.) But do I love Harry Hopkins and Leonora Finch as a couple? Do I think this is a compelling, oh-so-romantic, moving love story? Not so much.
The Last Jews in Berlin. Leonard Gross. 1982/2015. Open Road Media. 343 pages. [Source: Review copy]
The Last Jews in Berlin was a good read. It was oh-so-close to being a great read every now and then. What I loved about this one were the personal stories. These stories were the heart of the book. Readers get to meet dozens of people and follow their stories. As you can imagine, these stories can be intense.
Instead of telling each person's story one at a time, one after the other, the book takes a more chronological approach. The book is told in alternating viewpoints. Is this for the best? On the one hand, I can see why this approach makes it more difficult for readers to follow individuals, to keep track of each person's story. Just when you get good and attached to a certain person's narrative, it changes. It takes a page or two perhaps before you reconnect with the next narrator and get invested in that unfolding story. On the other hand, telling the story like this sets a certain tone, increases tension and suspense, and avoids repetition. So I can see why it makes sense. The method of storytelling didn't bother me.
Probably the one thing I learned from reading this is that there were Jews working with the Nazis and turning other Jews in. That there were Jews betraying one another trying to survive. One simply didn't know who to trust.
At the same time, the book shares stories of people who were trustworthy, people who were willing to risk their own lives to help Jews. Life was hard for everyone: but some were willing to share their food and open up their homes at great risk. The book did show that not every person supported the Nazis and their philosophy. There were people who disagreed and were willing to do the right thing.
Emil and Karl. Yankev Glatshteyn. Translated from the Yiddish by Jeffrey Shandler. 1940/2006. Roaring Book Press. 208 pages. [Source: Review copy]
I love the idea of loving Emil and Karl by Yankev Glatshteyn. Emil and Karl was written in 1940 in Yiddish. It is set in Austria. It is the first--or at least among the very first--book written for children about the persecution Jews were experiencing from the Nazis.
Emil and Karl have always, always been best friends. Emil's Jewish. Karl's the son of socialists. Both are "orphans" in a way because of the Nazis. The book opens with intensity: readers first glimpse of Karl is haunting. Karl's mother has been taken away by the Nazis. He's witnessed this: not only the arrest, but the beating too. He's alone in the apartment, feeling very alone, very frightened, very worried. For they told him they'd be back to take him too. He doesn't know what to do next, where to go, who to trust. He decides to run to Emil's house. Emil's world has also been devastated within the past day or two. His father was taken and killed. His mother is grieving and shattered.
Karl and Emil are very much on their own it seems. The two stick together no matter what. They'll face danger and be put into difficult situations time and time again. There are many scenes that stay with you.
But while I find the premise of this one fascinating, it isn't the absolute best book about the holocaust. It may be among the first, but, that doesn't make it among the best of the best. Worth reading? I think so if you already have an interest in the subject. But if you only read one book on the subject, I'd have to recommend you go with another book.