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Last year I reviewed a book about Erik Jan Hanussen, a mentalist and con man who first flourished and then crashed and burned in Berlin during the Nazi era — an Austrian Jew posing as a Danish aristocrat. Hanussen struck me as one of the most bizarre characters in the drama of that time, but he has to make room in the pantheon for a puny Jewish teenager who is the subject of Jonathan Kirsch’s arresting book, The Short Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan.

Grynszpan 2Herschel was living with his Polish parents in Hamburg, Germany, when the Nazis came to power. During the run-up to the Holocaust, when Adolf Hitler’s scheme was to make life so unbearable for Jews that they would leave the Third Reich by their own volition, Herschel’s parents became concerned about his wellbeing. Their solution was to send him west when he was 15 years old, and he wound up living with his uncle and aunt in Paris.

During his sojourn, Herschel’s parents and siblings were among about 12,000 Polish Jews who were abruptly taken from their homes by the Nazis and deposited on the Polish side of the border with Germany. From the refugee camp there, Herschel’s sister wrote to him, describing the harsh conditions.

After an argument with his uncle over the question of helping the Grynszpans financially, Herschel bolted from the apartment and, on the following day, bought  a revolver, entered the German embassy on a pretext, and shot a young diplomatic aide, who died from the wounds.

Grynszpan 1When he was taken into custody by French authorities, Herschel, who saw himself as some kind of avenging angel, immediately and then repeatedly told them that he had shot the man, Ernst Vom Rath, in response to the treatment of Polish Jews and, in particular, of his own family.

The Nazis reacted to the murder with the carefully staged mob rampage that destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues and terrorized Jewish people throughout Germany and Austria on the night of November 9 and 10, 1938 — the so-called Kristallnacht.

Meanwhile, Hitler and his partners in paranoia had a different take on the crime. They saw it as the work of the “international Jewish conspiracy” that actually existed only in their nightmares. Hitler sent representatives to both observe, manipulate, and exploit the proceedings against Herschel.

Before the case was played out, however, Germany invaded France, and after Herschel, with the connivance of the French, dodged the grasp of the Nazis in a chain of events that sounds like a Marx Brothers scene, he fell into German control.

Adolf HitlerHitler, employing a brand of logic of which only he was capable, decided to stage a show trial so that the international community would conclude from this solitary crime that Jews everywhere were plotting to take control of Germany if not the whole world.

Kirsch describes the elaborate investigations and other preparations the Nazis made for this spectacle, inquiring into the most remote details of Herschel’s background.

But Hitler didn’t know whom he was up against. The hundred-pound dropout pulled the rug out from under the Nazi propaganda machinery by telling interrogators that he and Vom Rath had actually been involved in a homosexual relationship that went sour. It was a idea that had been suggested to him by one of his lawyers while he was still in French custody. The Nazis were stymied. Given Hitler’s horror of homosexuality, they couldn’t let the show trial go ahead and take a chance that Herschel’s claim would become public. On the other hand, they also couldn’t simply do away with Herschel after making such a big deal about how the case would be tried in public. The trial was postponed — indefinitely, as it turned out.

In a way, that’s where this story ends. No one knows what became of Herschel Grynszpan, although the debate goes on about whether he was a megalomaniac lone ranger or an overlooked hero of the Jewish resistence.

It’s a wonderful yarn, and Kirsch tells it like a novelist, exploring the psyche of an oddball teenager who played a quirky role in the biggest historic epoch of the twentieth century.

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The Nazis' cynical message at the Terezin concentration camp: "Work will make you free"

The Nazis’ cynical message at the Terezin concentration camp: “Work will make you free”

The dimensions of the Holocaust are brought home by the fact that the stories of individual victims are still emerging 67 years after the end of World War II. One example is Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp. The author is Helga Weiss, whose family were prisoners at Terezin, a concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia. Helga never heard of her father, Otto, or a boyfriend she met in camp, after they were dispatched from Terezin on one of the Nazi “transport” trains, but she and her mother, Irena, survived, despite being sent to the Auschwitz death camp at one point shortly before Germany was defeated.

Helga first day school

Helga kept the diary during the years at Terezin (1941-1944), beginning when she was 11 years old. When she knew that she and her mother had been selected for one of the dreaded transports, she gave the diary and drawings and paintings she had done to her uncle, who was assigned to work in the finance office at Terezin. He hid the materials by bricking them up in a wall, and he recovered them after the war. When Helga and Irena had  returned to their native Prague, Helga recorded, writing in the present tense, her recollections of their experiences after they left Terezin.

Some of the illustrations Helga did during her ordeal are included in this book. She became a professional artist after the war.

Terezin was a unique enterprise for the Nazis. It was not a camp as such but a Czech town purloined for use as a ghetto. The Nazis incarcerated a lot of writers and musicians there because Terezin was used as a showplace to hoodwink international authorities such as the Red Cross into thinking that Jewish culture was thriving in the Third Reich. My longtime colleague in newspaper journalism, Mirko Tuma, was one of the young Czech intellectuals who were sent to Terezin.

An orchestra of prisoners gives one of the concerts that on the one hand were encouraged by the Nazis and on the other hand helped the victims maintain their sanity.

An orchestra of prisoners gives one of the concerts that on the one hand were encouraged by the Nazis and on the other hand helped the victims maintain their sanity.

Mirko told me that reciting poetry, writing and performing plays, and performing musical works helped the prisoners at Terezin maintain their sanity.

But although the Nazis went to a lot of trouble to create a faux town with shops and other amenities — including a school with neither teachers nor students — as a veneer for outside visitors, Helga vividly describes the hunger, thirst, illness, cold, heat, vermin, and human brutality that characterized life in the camp and at the other stops on her odyssey.

Helga 1 mirror

She also describes the fear, the uncertainty, the desperation that daily beset the prisoners. They worried constantly about being included in the frequent transports that carried people to God knows what fate.

And Helga, of course writes about the longing for the life that was abruptly taken away from her, of the simple comforts of her home and of Prague itself.

We learn in this diary, which has been translated from the original Czech text, that a young girl had to learn not only to survive but to connive and barter in the camp. She became adept at grabbing scraps of food, even though she knew the possible consequences. Indeed, she saw a boy beaten for taking a single cucumber peel.

We also learn that although she despaired at times, Helga had a strong spirit that wouldn’t let her capitulate to the Nazis.

“(T)here’s no reason for crying,” she writes. “Maybe because we’re imprisoned, because we can’t go to the cinema, the theater, or even on walks like other children? Quite the opposite. That’s exactly why we have to be cheerful. No one ever died for lack of a cinema or theater. You can live in overcrowded hostels . . . on bunks with fleas and bedbugs. It’s rather worse without food, but even a bit of hunger can be tolerated. … only you mustn’t take everything so seriously and start sobbing. They want to destroy us, that’s obvious, but we won’t give in. . . .”

Books: “Isaac’s Army”

November 10, 2012

Warsaw came as a surprise to me. Because of my uneducated impressions of Eastern Europe, I expected the city to be grim, but it was not. Warsaw was lively, handsome, well-swept, festooned with parks, and imbued with the spirits of such as Paderewski, Chopin, and Wojtyla.

But as satisfying as it was to see the city thriving, it was impossible to escape reminders of its darkest days, when it was occupied and devastated by Nazi Germany — and its Jewish population virtually exterminated — a period that is described in vivid human detail in Matthew Brzezinski’s book, Isaac’s Army.

Brzezinski, who has been a reporter for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, concentrates in this book on the walled ghetto in which the Nazis confined hundreds of thousands of Jews in subhuman conditions until most of the poor people were either worked to death, killed by hunger and disease, shot to death in summary executions, burned to death in their homes and hiding places, or shipped off to death camps.

I saw remnants of the ghetto in Warsaw, but it seemed almost like an abstract idea. In Brzezinski’s book, however, the depth of the depravity with which the Nazis and their collaborators treated Polish Jews comes through with shocking force.

Brzezinski is particularly interested in a relatively small group of Jewish men and women who recognized from the beginning that the Nazi presence was an imminent danger to their community and were not willing to stand by and let the Germans proceed unhindered. The writer relates the stories of about a dozen individuals who were in that category. They belonged to underground paramilitary organizations that struggled to maintain some semblance of resistance to their persecutors. These folks defied and undermined the Nazi attempt to isolate the Jews and ultimately, in 1943, participated in the uprising that stunned and momentarily humiliated the SS when the “supermen” entered the ghetto with the object of leveling it.

Unfortunately, as Brzezinski relates, Polish Jews were not of a single mind about how they should respond to the Nazis or whether  they should respond at all. They also were sharply divided over issues such as Marxism and Zionism.


They were frustrated by the fact that so many people and nations were indifferent to their plight, and they had to resort to bribery and subterfuge to accumulate even the poor excuse for an arsenal they had to defend themselves against the combination of Adolf Hitler’s insanity and his military machine. Their situation may have been hopeless to start out with, but Brzezinski shows that some of them would not give up hope or, at least, would persist in their  struggle against the Nazis even when hope was gone. While this book, on the one hand, records one of the worst examples of human cruelty, it also records one of the best examples of human resilience. The account of a  few score sick and starving Jews escaping the ghetto by stumbling for hours through a sewer laden with human excrement, corpses, and rats is disgusting to the imagination. At the same time, it is uplifting to know that people who would not concede their right to dignity and justice were willing to undergo even that in order to deny Hitler his dream of eradicating Judaism in Europe.

Chelsea, an aspiring actress, tells Cosmo Kramer during an episode of the TV series Seinfeld that her manager is “trying to put together a miniseries for me on Eva Braun. I mean think about it, is that a great idea? We know nothing about Eva Braun, only that she was Hitler’s girlfriend. . . . What was it like having sex with Adolf Hitler? What do you wear in a bunker? What did her parents think of Hitler as a potential son-in-law? I mean it could just go on and on….”

It could and it will, because while it isn’t true that we know nothing about Eva Braun, it is true that we know relatively little, considering that she was the consort of one of the most recognizable and most reviled men in human history.

Heike B. Görtemaker, tries to bring some clarity to this subject in Eva Braun: Life with Hitler, which was originally published in GermanThe very things that have made Braun an obscure figure up to now were obstacles to the author’s work, beginning with the fact that Hitler wanted to be perceived as a solitary messiah whose life and energy were devoted to lifting Germany and its people from the ignominious consequences of World War I.

 In order to maintain his image, Hitler kept the very existence of Eva Braun a secret from the German people, and he kept her at least at arm’s length and often much farther when they were in the company of his inner circle. Hitler married Braun on the day before they both committed suicide in a bunker in April 1945 while the Red Army was literally striding through the Reichstag grounds about 25 feet above their heads. He once said that he had never married because  he needed the political support of German women and that he would lose some of his appeal if he had a wife. “It’s the same with a movie actor,” Hitler said. “When he marries he loses a certain something from the women who adore him. Then he is no longer their idol as he was before.”

When I read that in Görtemaker’s book, I wondered what “certain something” Hitler had that would attract any woman, never mind millions of them. Evidently the author wonders about that, too. When she writes that Braun’s life was shaped by Hitler’s power, his world view, and his “charismatic attraction,” she adds parenthetically, “however difficult it may be to explain what that consisted in.”
Görtemaker is convinced that neither Braun nor the other women around Hitler — principally the wives of men like Albert Speer and Joseph Goebbels — were simply adornments who were expected to be seen but not heard. On the other hand, the author finds it impossible to say definitively how much Braun and the others knew about German policy, and particularly about the Holocaust. They had to know of the persecution of Jews in Europe; it was no secret. But discussion of the extermination program in Hitler’s presence was forbidden when he was in his “family circle,” as it were, meaning the crowd that frequented Berghof, Hitler’s frequent refuge in Bavaria.

Hitler met Braun in 1929 when he was 40 and she was 17 and working as an assistant to Dietrich Hoffmann who became the privileged official photographer of the Nazi party and the Third Reich. Görtemaker speculates that the couple were not intimate until 1933 when Braun had become an adult . At first they saw each other only intermittently, and this apparently weighed on Braun and was the cause of two suicide attempts. After the second incident, Hitler arranged for Braun to have her own home in Munich and to have regular access to Berghof, where her assertion of her prerogatives irritated some of Hitler’s coterie.

Whatever attracted Braun to Hitler in the first place, long before it was clear that he would lead the German nation, her commitment to him was complete. Görtemaker writes that the level of her loyalty was the object of admiration to at least some of Hitler’s associates and it may have been the one thing that most endeared her to him. There’s no evidence that she pressured him to marry her or that she complained about being kept out  of the public eye. And, in the most dramatic possible demonstration  of her constancy, however misguided, she went to Berlin against Hitler’s wishes with the clear intention of dying with him while many others, including Speer and Hoffmann, were already concocting lies about being “outsiders” in Hitler’s camp. The normal confidentiality of the culture in which Hitler lived, coupled with the loss and destruction of written records and the unreliability of later testimony by turncoats trying to save their own hides and reputation may mean that we’ll never know more about Eva Braun than Görtemaker has been able to tell us in this book. That’s unfortunate, not because Braun was so different from others who supported Hitler, but because she was so like them. She was in all respects an ordinary person who came under the still elusive spell of a bumbling, absurd little man who terrorized the world for more than a decade

I grew up among the remnants of war. I was born in September 1942 when the United States had been engaging Nazi Germany and Japan for less than a year. By the time I was old enough to be aware of my surroundings, there still were handwritten letters from the front, brass uniform buttons, photos of soldiers, sailors, and marines, patriotic records, and newspaper clippings reporting on the service of relatives and friends, including cousin Mike Aun, who was awarded the Bronze Star twice, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart with three oak-leaf clusters.

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT

I also recall that for a long time after 1945, my parents and other adults would frame their conversations in terms of what had occurred before, during, and after “the war.” They needn’t say which war.

So although I don’t remember the war itself, I feel that it was a part of my life, and I eagerly learn as much about it as I can. My most recent opportunity came in the form of Pearl Harbor Christmas, a new book by Stanley Weintraub.

In this compact book, Weintraub describes events at home and abroad from December 22, 1941, to January 1, 1942 — devoting a chapter to each day. The dominant personalities by far are Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Churchill was staying at the White House after crossing the submarine-infested Atlantic in winter seas. He couldn’t wait to get to Washington, because Pearl Harbor had accomplished what he could not, forcing the United States into a war that Britain probably could not survive otherwise. But, although the newborn American belligerence was directed mostly at Japan, Churchill wanted to make sure, and did, that the U.S. would go to war first against Nazi Germany.

WINSTON CHURCHILL

Churchill addressed a joint session of Congress, spoke at the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony on the White House lawn — the only time he and Roosevelt spoke from the same platform — and dashed up to Ottawa to speak before the Canadian Parliament. What with his blustering, his cigar-smoking, and his drinking, he was quite the counterpoint to patrician, dignified Roosevelt. Actually, he came across more like Lyndon Johnson: Weintraub describes an incident on December 26 when Churchill was dictating to a male secretary notes for the address to Congress. Churchill was in his bath when he started dictating. He got out, wrapped a towel around himself, walked to an adjoining bedroom, dropped the towel, and continued dictating, stark naked. Suddenly, the secretary recalled, “President Roosevelt [in his wheelchair] entered the bedroom and saw the British Prime Minister completely naked walking around the room dictating to me. WSC never being lost for words said, ‘You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to conceal from you.”’

While Roosevelt and Churchill and others were in Washington working issues of joint command, Adolf Hitler was in Berlin or Bavaria trying to chew the great deal he had bitten off.

ADOLF HITLER

Hitler’s troops were in trouble on the Russian front, and even those closer to home were suffering from a lack of adequate supplies. Hitler actually had Joseph Goebbels run a clothing drive  to help keep his soldiers warm. In a radio address, Goebbels told the German people that they “would not deserve a moment’s peace if a single German soldier was exposed to the harshness of winter without articles of warm clothing.”

Meanwhile, the situation in the Pacific continued to deteriorate as the Japanese took advantage of their momentum and munched away at the region. Churchill had not yet publicly acknowledged the reality, Weintraub writes, and continued to waste resources trying  to defend ground that was already as good as lost.

Even more closely involved in such a charade was U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had to abandon his headquarters and retreat with his wife and son to a tunnel in Corregidor while he continued to send out dispatches about tank battles, with nonexistent tanks, putting up a fight that wasn’t occurring.

DOUGLAS MACARTHUR

Weintraub explains that there was a certain ambivalence about the war in the United States at first; it still seemed far away.

Still, the government took the impending conflict seriously enough to pack up the founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights — and ship them off under heavy security to repose in Fort Knox for the duration.

The holidays went on as usual. Despite security concerns, Roosevelt insisted that the national tree be on the White House lawn, not in Lafayette Park where the Secret Service wanted it. There were presents, too, including eight thousand cigars sent to Churchill from various sources.

The new year was marked by a couple of oddities – Churchill making a rare visit to a church, attending a service with Roosevelt in Alexandria, Va., and the beleaguered Hitler publicly invoking “the Lord” in hoping that 1942 would bring positive results for the German people.

Throughout the United States, however, the prospects of what would come in the next three and half years did not weigh heavily on the celebratory spirit, and that, Weintraub writes, included the biggest celebration of all:

“ ‘If there was uneasiness over the possibility of Axis bombs falling into Times Square,’ the Times reported, ‘you could not read it in the celebrants’ faces.’ Despite Pearl Harbor and the reality of world war, it had not yet reached very far into the American psyche.’’


I don’t know if this is true, but I have read in several places that the government of France reports that Chanel No. 5 perfume sells at the rate of one vial every 30 seconds. By my calculation, that means 2,880 vials a day. Sephora gets $85 for 1.7 ounces and $115 for 3.4 ounces, so we’re talking about something like $100 million a year. Besides being such a hot commodity, this perfume is a monument to the woman who introduced it in 1921, the fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.

Chanel — the designer, not the perfume — is the subject of Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, written by Hal Vaughan, who portrays her as a virulent anti-Semite who not only accommodated herself to the Nazi invasion of France but actually became a Nazi undercover agent.

When Chanel was 12, her mother had died and her father had left. She spent six years in the custody of Cistercian nuns and then stepped out into the world where she quickly progressed from cabaret singer and courtesan to fashion powerhouse. Her impact on style was enormous; her trade marks were jersey sportswear and the “little black dress” that made a lasting statement about the realtionship between simplicity and elegance.

When Germany invaded France in 1940, Chanel moved to the Ritz and accepted the occupation as the new normal. In fact, she took an influential German officer as one of her many lovers – and she continued to make millions. But Vaughn maintains that documents from that period show that Chanel did more than accept the reality of the Nazi presence, that she actually became an agent of the Abwehr intelligence agency and undertook secret missions in Berlin and Madrid. The book includes a copy of a document that seems to show that Chanel was designated Agent F-7124.

Significantly, Chanel, who was comfortable living in opulence in Paris while her countrymen suffered under the Nazi regime moved to neutral Switzerland for a while after the Third Reich collapsed. Vaughan points out that that move may have saved her from the fate of French collaborators who were publicly shamed, imprisoned or executed. Chanel was briefly arrested by the Free French, but she emerged from the war largely unscathed.

She returned to Paris in 1955 and resumed her career, getting a better reception in the United States than in France.

Vaughn portrays Chanel as anti-Semitic and speculates, without demonstrating it, that her antipathy toward Jews might have been instilled by her contact with the Catholic Church. He also reports in detail that after the initial success of the iconic perfume, Chanel transferred control of it to a Jewish family, the Wertheimers, in a deal that guaranteed her an annual return. Although she later tried unsuccessfully to get the franchise away from the family, and did negotiate a more favorable arrangement for herself, the Wertheimers still are the purveyors of Chanel No. 5.

Chanel was apolitical, and she actually fled Paris for a while in the uncertain aftermath of the invasion. There is nothing in Vaughn’s account to suggest that she was interested in the Nazis’ ambitions. Instead, it’s clear that her top priority was to continue her lavish, drug-ridden life. She also had a personal interest in staying on speaking terms with the Germans, because her nephew was a prisoner of war. She did everything she could until she got him released; in fact, Vaughan maintains that she was enticed to work for the Abwher in the first place because she thought her contacts could help her nephew.

Chanel had many liaisons with rich and powerful men, some of whom helped finance her career, but she never married, explaining that she “never wanted to weigh more  heavily on a man than a bird.” An interesting aspect of the story as Vaughn tells it is that, despite her relationship with the Germans, she had many close friends in Great Britain, including Winston Churchill.

DENIS AVEY/BBC photo

The title of the book is misleading. Denis Avey, a British soldier during World War II, didn’t break into Auschwitz. He was a POW there, so he was already within the walls, as it were. He and the other inmates had been put to work building an enormous industrial plant in which a German company planned to manufacture synthetic rubber and methanol. From the first, Avey was deeply disturbed by the condition of the Jewish prisoners – the “stripeys” he called them because of their pajama-like uniforms. He was so distressed in fact, that he became obsessed with the need to see for himself the section of the Auschwitz complex where the Jewish inmates lived. If he survived the prison himself, Avey wanted to be a witness.

AVEY with Prime Minister GORDON BROWN/BBC

So compelling was this need in Avey’s mind that on two occasions he swapped clothing with a Jewish inmate and shuffled off with the other Jewish prisoners at the end of the work day. What he found was at least as bad as he had imagined.

That part of Avey’s story is recounted in “The Man who Broke into Auschwitz,” which he co-wrote with Rob Broomby, a BBC reporter who worked very hard to help Avey reconstruct the experience 60 years after the fact.

Before he was sent to Auschwitz, Avey had seen plenty of combat in North Africa. He was part of the force that first drove the Italian army out of Egypt and across Libya and then went on the defensive when Erwin Rommel brought his Afrika Korps into the fray and reversed the tide of battle for a time.

ERWIN ROMMEL

Avey, who explains that he went to war in the first place for adventure, not for King and country, was a brash sort whose chutzpah both got him into scrapes and enabled him to survive on both the battlefield and in prison. Once he was captured, he escaped several times including one final time during a forced march eastward in the dead of winter when the Nazis abandoned Auschwitz in order to elude the advancing allies.

On one occasion, Avey watched while an SS officer repeatedly beat a Jewish inmate until the young man died. Avey was already frustrated by both the fact that the Nazis were deliberately working the Jews to death and by the knowledge that he couldn’t do anything about it. When that young man died, Avey shouted a crude German insult at the officer, who responded by cold cocking Avey with the butt of a hand gun. The injury cost Avey his sight and eventually the eye itself.

But the worst injury he suffered was psychological. When he finally returned home, his own family – including his father, who had also enlisted – didn’t want to discuss the war at all, and others wanted to hear only about derring-do on the battlefield. No one was interested in, or capable of confronting, the truth about the concentration camp.

Avey himself stopped talking about it for decades, and he suffered nightmares and other signs of post traumatic stress disorder – a problem that was not recognized and therefore not treated at the time.

There is much more to this story, including the unexpected outcome of a small favor Avey was able to do for one Jewish inmate, but that’s best read in the pages of Avey’s book. It was largely because of Broomby’s work that Avey was eventually able to talk openly, and write, about what he experienced. The two men have performed an important service, because it is critical that knowledge of what the Nazis did be kept alive in the public consciousness.

That’s true both because of the crimes committed by the Third Reich and its collaborators but also because such atrocities have been committed again and again since then – the difference being only one of scale.

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS

In a post last December, I mentioned in passing the widely held fiction that when Christopher Columbus set off on his first voyage, many if not most Europeans thought he would sail his ship off the edge of a flat earth and into oblivion. I was taught this in elementary school, and I have spoken to many people my age who remember being taught the same thing. More recently, I questioned my college students about this, and many of them said they had the same impression about Columbus.

The fact is that it was common knowledge among Columbus’ contemporaries in Europe that the world was round — a point that Nancy Marie Brown makes in her book, The Abacus and the Cross.

This book is not about Columbus; it’s about Gerbert of Aurillac, a French monk who lived in the 10th century. Gerbert had a thirst for knowledge and he became thoroughly schooled in the humanities and in the sciences.

GERBERT of AURILLAC

His scholarship carried him to Spain, where he came in contact with a thriving Arab Muslim culture which had preserved enormous amounts of philosophical and scientific knowledge that had been lost to Europe. Gerbert seems to have had both the curiosity and the capacity of a Leonardo or Michelangelo, and he devoured as much learning as he could. He was engrossed in both mathematics and in music, for example, and in the relationship between the two disciplines. He scrutinized the properties of organ pipes, and he eventually designed a built a prototypical organ that was not driven by water — the common technique of his time — but by forced air.

He didn’t only strive to satisfy his own curiosity. He was an influential teacher whose students included royalty. In the process of carrying out this vocation he introduced Europe to the place system of arithmetic — vertical rows for the ones, tens, hundreds, and so forth — which was much more efficient than the clumsy Roman system and which the western world has been using ever since. In this connection, he also carried back from Spain numerals that had originated in India and that had been adapted by the Muslims — the forerunners of the so-called Arabic numbers we use today. As the title of the book suggests, he learned in Spain to use an abacus board to calculate, and he later designed his own versions and taught others how to use them.

AN ASTROLABE

Also among Gerbert’s interests was astronomy. He learned all about astrolabes, overlaid disks that were used to trace the positions of the sun and the moon and the stars and the planets — and tell time — and about celestial globes, which were three dimensional representations of the apparent paths of the heavenly bodies. He made his own models of these instruments, too, sometimes taking as much as a year to finish one.

As Brown points out, it is clear not only that Gerber, in the 10th century, knew that the world was round, but that Pythagoras determined that around 530 BC, and Erastosthenes figured out how to calculate the circumference of the globe by 240 BC. Some flat-earthers persisted, but by the time of Columbus the point was moot in western Europe. Columbus knew the world was round; his mistake was in underestimating the circumference.

Being a churchman in that era, and one who enjoyed consorting with powerful people, Gerbert inevitably got drawn into the constant political turmoil in Europe, and his fortunes rose and fell along with those of his patrons.

He almost ended on a high note when he was elected Pope Sylvester II in 999 AD.

SYLVESTER on FRENCH STAMP

Even that didn’t turn out so well, because he had to flee Rome for a while along with his patron of the moment, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. Sylvester died in 1003.

During his lifetime and for a long time after his death he was the subject of rumors that he consorted with the devil or engaged in sorcery. Ironically, this was because of his pursuit of knowledge in astronomy and mathematics, which in some ignorant minds were associated with the occult.

Self portrait

By coincidence, I have read biographical works over the past several months about Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo Da Vinci. In all three cases, the authors emphasized that these men were motivated by insatiable curiosities to question established “knowledge” and see beneath and beyond it.

The most recent of these books is “Leonardo’s Legacy” by European science writer Stefan Klein.

Although, Dan Brown aside, the mention of Leonardo may evoke in most people’s minds images of paintings and sculptures, Klein covers the broad range of Leonardo’s interests, from human anatomy to hydrodynamics.

Statue of Leonardo, Uffizi, Florence

Klein doesn’t neglect the arts. In fact, I found his discussion of the Mona Lisa enlightening. I am a duffer when it comes to art, and I have never thought seriously about that painting – which appears in so many contexts that it has become a cliche. But Klein’s explanation, for instance, of Leonardo’s use of chiaroscuro to create a lifelike image helped me to look at the portrait with a new perspective. The same is true of the author’s explanation of the painter’s use of light and of the landscape that appears in the background.

Klein also pointed out that Leonardo, who had made careful studies of the muscles and nerves that control facial expressions, created the woman in the “Mona Lisa” with an asymmetrical face in which the emotions expressed on each side are not identical. Here, Leonardo seemed to be anticipating what is now understood about the left and right hemispheres of the brain controlling the right and left sides of the body, respectively. It was one of many examples of how Leonardo applied what he learned in one field to his work in another.

Portrait by Swedish artist Evald Hansen

Leonardo associated with some interesting Renaissance characters, including the  philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli and the warlord Cesare Borgia. Leonardo hired himself out to men like Borgia in order to make a living, and he  earned his keep by providing entertainment and by designing practical devices, including weapons. Klein makes a point of the apparent contradiction between Leonardo’s abhorrence of war and avowed respect for life and his willingness to imagine and at least design on paper the most horrible mechanisms for maiming and killing human beings.

On the other hand, Leonardo’s employment by Borgia was the occasion for creating an astounding map of the Central Italian city of Imola. By Klein’s reckoning, Leonardo and an assistant paced off very street and building in the city, using instruments that Leonardo had invented for that purpose. Leonardo then prepared a realistic view of Imola that appeared as if it were viewed from overhead – an unheard-of concept at that time.

Flying machine design

Among Leonardo’s fixations was the behavior of water, and he spent incalculable hours pursuing it – simply by observing water in nature and also by sketching it alone and including it in his paintings. He studied surface tension and the manner in which water moved through wider and narrower channels. He put to use the knowledge he gained when he designed a lock for a canal in Milan and, in a more remote way, when he studied the manner in which blood flows through the vessels of the body. Klein suggests  that Leonardo may have actually built a model of a heart to reach his conclusions about the movement of blood in the cardiac ventricles –  something that wasn’t scientifically observed until hundreds of years later.

Anatomical drawings

Leonardo was also determined to provide man with the freedom of flight, but Klein explains that this enterprise was doomed to failure because of Leonardo’s incorrect assumption that birds could fly because they flapped their wings. Although Leonardo understood the concept of gliding, he did not deduce that birds kept themselves afloat because of the difference in the speed and pressure of air passing above and below their wings. Given the era in which he was working, however, Leonardo’s conceptual achievements in this area are still remarkable. In fact, Klein describes an experiment in which modern hobbyists built a machine based on one of Leonardo’s designs, but provided it with a rigid wing, and the device was able to fly.

A great deal of Leonardo’s insight – literally and figuratively – came from his work in dissecting cadavers, something that he found repugnant but pursued for the sake of knowledge. Study of anatomy was not unusual among artists at that time, but Leonardo’s desire to understand the component parts of any organism – natural or artificial – took his studies far beyond those of his contemporaries. His study of the body of a centenarian with whom he had been acquainted led him to the conclusion that the man had died because hardened and constricted vessels had retarded the flow of blood, a finding that foreshadowed diagnoses of arteriosclerosis. So thorough were Leonardo’s examinations of the human body that Klein says some of the artist’s anatomical drawings could have been made in the 21st century.

The author  argues that Leonardo’s expansive work was possible because the manner in which he lived gave him a great deal of  freedom to observe and ponder and sketch and tinker. Klein speculates that minds like Leonardo’s still exist but wonders if they can thrive under our highly structured educational systems.

In any event, this very readable book challenges us all by reminding us of the capacity of the human mind, even ours.

Leonardo's "overhead" map of Imola. The roof of each individual house was painted in water colors.

RUE-DE-SEINE

I don’t know what the writer of the Book of Genesis had in mind when he composed that ninth verse, but he provided an image that comes to my mind whenever I hear that the Passaic River has gone over its banks and once again swamped the homes of people who persist in living in its path.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered in one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so.

In other words, it took a command from God to get water to relinquish its superiority over earth, and the way I see it, water has never fully obeyed.

One example of the element asserting itself — just because it can — is described in “Paris Under Water” by  Jeffery M. Jackson, an account of a flood in January 1910 that wrecked a large part of the city and some of its suburbs.

Marker indicates where the Seine crested, 20 feet above normal, on January 28, 1910.

Jackson, who is a history professor, explains that there was a complex of causes for this disaster. These included an unusually high amount of precipitation between June of 1909 and January of 1910 and relatively mild temperatures in western Europe that winter. In addition, Jackson writes, excessive deforestation upstream of Paris may have contributed to the deluge.

He also explains that late in the 19th century Paris had remade itself into a modern city, complete with an electric subway – the Metropolitan – and greatly expanded sewerage facilities. These very improvements, Jackson says, helped to create the calamity in 1910, because water pouring out of the river and bubbling up from the saturated ground had multiple conduits to carry it where it otherwise might not have gone — and certainly not so swiftly.

One citizen carries another through the flood water.

The flood brought with it all the problems of property loss, unemployment, and contamination that usually accompany such events, and the looting and profiteering as well.

Still, one of the most interesting and uplifting aspects of this book is Jackson’s account of how individuals and institutions rose to the challenge and helped the city and each other survive the flood.

Also engrossing is the author’s chronicle of the activities of Prefect of Police Louis Lepine, whose title described only a part of his responsibility, which included public health. Lepine, who had introduced scientific police techniques to Paris, was a dynamo during the flood, seldom resting as he personally oversaw the management of the city’s response to the crisis.

More recent events, such as our own Hurricane Katrina, have a way of dulling or even snuffing out our collective memory of natural disasters. This one, which in Jackson’s estimation has some lessons for our  own time, is worth recalling.

One of the many postcards produced and sold during and after the disaster shows a scene that was repeated in many places in Paris -- citizens gingerly making their way over wooden walkways that were hastily constructed as the city fought back against the flood.