May 30, 2013
Franklin Roosevelt was good at many things. For one, he could keep a secret. Of course, he was in on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, but he kept what he knew sub sigillo. The urgency of the project was based on the concern that Nazi Germany would build such a weapon first and was known to be trying very hard to find out what kind of research and development was going on in the United States.
So Roosevelt kept his counsel — in fact, he kept it to a fault. Although he was aware of his own fragile health, he never said a word to Harry S Truman, his vice president. Truman found out about the project only after Roosevelt’s sudden death in 1945.
If nothing else, Roosevelt’s secrecy set an example for the subjects of Denise Kiernan’s enlightening and witty book, The Girls of Atomic City. These were the young women who were among tens of thousands of Americans recruited to work at the Clinton Engineering Works outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, one of several sites that housed the operations that led to the bomb that would be deployed against Japan.
CEW consisted of four plants — one of which was the largest building in the world — that were built on a massive tract of land the government more or less appropriated, muscling out the farmers and others for whom the area had been both home and livelihood. Along with the plants, the government and its contractors built a sort of town, Oak Ridge, to serve as the residential community for CEW workers, both civilian and military. Some of the employees also lived outside the plant and commuted.
CEW had one goal: to enrich uranium to the point that it could be used as the fuel for the atomic bomb being developed by scientists at other sites in the country, most notably Los Alamos, New Mexico. None of the tens of thousands of men and women who worked at the plant knew what was taking place there, except that it was a project designed to win the war. They didn’t know they were refining uranium; they never heard uranium mentioned. Each person was directed to perform the task to which he or she was best suited, but was not told the purpose of the task. Some folks spent their days or nights monitoring gauges and recording the readings; some folks inspected pipes for leaks; some did mathematical calculations; some repeated chemical experiments — the same ones over and over again. Some worked at jobs not directly related to the core purpose of CEW — secretaries, nurses, shopkeepers, custodians.
Everyone was told, repeatedly and forcefully, not to ask questions about what took place at CEW and not to discuss with each other or anyone else any aspect of work at the plant. Employees knew that they were being watched all the time by official personnel and by fellow workers who had been recruited as internal spies. And employees who noticed that someone suddenly vanished from a work site knew that person had probably been overheard speaking out of line and had been jettisoned from the complex with a stern warning to keep quiet.
It was only after the bomb had been deployed against Hiroshima in August 1945, causing unprecedented casualties and property damage, that the workers learned the truth about CEW and about what they had unwittingly made possible. As Denise Kiernan skillfully reports, there was a mixed reaction, a combination of relief, elation, remorse, and foreboding. People were glad that the war would finally end, but many were deeply shaken by the carnage in Japan and worried about what new force had been unleashed in the world.
As the title suggests, Kiernan is especially interested in the young women, including several specific ones, who left home, in some cases along with their families, to work at CEW. Some sought better pay, some sought any kind of work, some were motivated by a yen for adventure. At Oak Ridge, they found what in many ways was a spartan existence, a town without sidewalks but with plenty of ankle-deep mud. Many also found friendship and even romance and, if they were black, the same Jim Crow restrictions on their lives that they had experienced back home. While she tells the story of Oak Ridge and CEW, Kiernan simultaneously traces the development from theory to experiment to technology of nuclear fission, the principal that led to the bomb, and she calls particular attention to female scientists who played significant if under-appreciated roles in that process.
January 5, 2013
Turner Classics the other night broadcast a fascinating relic of World War II, a dark comedy entitled To Be or Not to Be, starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny. This 1942 film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is set in Warsaw during the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany. The plot concerns a troupe of Polish actors who use the tools of their art to upend a plan by the Nazis to identify and track down families of Polish airmen fighting against the Third Reich.
Benny and Lombard play a married couple, Josef and Maria Tura, who are popular Shakespearean actors in the city. A young Polish airman, Stanislav Sobinski, played by 23-year-old Robert Stack, has become enamored of Maria and she, appreciating the attention, begins a clandestine romance with him. Josef deduces that the two are having an affair after Sobinski repeatedly leaves the theater to meet Maria just as Josef is beginning to recite the “to be or not to be” speech in Hamlet.
Sobinski, however, is sent off to England where he meets Alexander Siletsky, a Nazi spy who pretends to be a member of the Polish resistance in order to gather information about anti-German activists. In a conversation with Siletsky, Sobinski mentions Maria Tura and is suspicious when the supposed denizen of Warsaw doesn’t recognize her name.
Based on Sobinski’s description of Maria, Siletsky, who travels to Poland to deliver to the Nazis a list of the families of Polish airmen, determines to enlist the actress as an informant. When he meets her, he also takes a more personal interest in her. But Sobinski has informed his superiors of his suspicions about Siletsky and is sent back to Warsaw to warn the resistance. When the acting company learns of this, they determine that the only solution is to murder Siletsky before he can turn over the names.
The plot proceeds as a classic farce in which one of the actors poses as Adolf Hitler in order to hoodwink the German authorities.
This film (which Mel Brooks remade in 1983) is regarded as a comedy classic, but it was controversial in its time. Some folks were uncomfortable with the humorous approach to the situation in Europe, which was anything but funny. Lubitsch began this project with Jack Benny in mind for the lead. Benny, whose birth name was Benjamin Kubelsky, met some resistance first-hand when his father, Meyer, walked out of the theater, scandalized by the sight of his son in Nazi uniform. Meyer reputedly changed his mind under Benny’s influence and eventually saw the movie more than forty times. Despite its humor, the film is very dark, though, and emphasizes the level of destruction the Germans rained on Warsaw.
To Be or Not to Be was the last film for Carole Lombard, who was the highest-paid Hollywood star at the time. Before this movie was released, she was killed in a plane crash while returning from a U.S. Bond tour.
The first American film to attack Hitler and Nazism through ridicule was You Natzy Spy! a short subject by The Three Stooges. That was followed a few months later by Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first true sound film and his first commercial success. In that movie, which appeared in 1940, before the United States and Germany were at war, Chaplin mercilessly pillories Hitler, fascism, anti-Semitism, and Benito Mussolini.
Walt Disney got into the act on January 1, 1943, by releasing In Der Fuhrer’s Face, a propaganda cartoon in which Donald Duck has a nightmare in which he is forced to work on the assembly line of a munitions factory in “Nutziland.” This film included some broad German, Japanese, and Italian caricatures, including send-ups of Hitler and Mussolini. The cartoon featured a song that had been recorded and already released by Spike Jones: “When the Fuhrer says, ‘We are the master race,’ we heil, we hiel, right in der Fuhrer’s face”
You can watch a high-quality video of this cartoon at THIS LINK.
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.
February 27, 2012
One of the most bizarre characters among the opportunists, lackeys, and hangers-on who orbited around Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party was Erik Jan Hanussen — a mentalist who is the subject of Arthur J. Magda’s book The Nazi Séance.
Hanussen, who worked his way up from rinky-dink vaudevillian to international celebrity, lived on the edge. Driven almost entirely by his appetite for fame and fortune, he dazzled some people and irritated others, and while he was being applauded for his feats on stage he was also being hounded by skeptics and enemies.
His act consisted of such effects as finding people in an audience whose names had been written on slips of paper and sealed in envelopes, finding hidden articles, telling strangers details about their lives, and occasionally foretelling the future.
He had many critics, but the most serious challenge to his credibility may have been a criminal case of fraud brought against him in Czechoslovakia. Although he probably had defrauded the people involved, he beat the charges after the judge, who seems to have been sympathetic anyway, allowed Hanussen to conduct a daring demonstration of his skills in the courtroom.
He also became a target of the communists who in the late ’20s and early ’30s were struggling with the Nazis for political control of Germany and who had no patience with such things as magic and spiritualism.
Some of the Nazis, on the other hand, including some high-ranking ones, were caught up in a post-World War I wave of interest in other-worldly things.
Hanussen, Magida writes, had no interest in politics or government, but he cast his lot with the Nazis to the extent that he used his charisma and manipulative skills to make some influential friends, not the least of whom was Count Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf, head of the Nazi storm troopers in Berlin. Hanussen, who lived lavishly, entertained Helldorf in style and, while the Nazis were still trying to consolidate their power, the mentalist repeatedly lent money to Helldorf, holding onto the IOUs. Hanussen, who owned a newspaper in Berlin, used it to vigorously promote Adolf Hitler and his party.
Hanussen’s success was to a large extent a result of his hubris, and the primary example of that was the fact that he was not a Danish aristocrat, as he claimed, but an Austrian Jew named Hermann Steinschneider.
How he kept this from the Nazis for as long as he did is unclear, particularly since he continued to observe some Jewish rituals. In fact, one of his three wives converted to Judaism when she married him.
Eventually he was outed, first by a German communist newspaper and then by a Nazi publication. Even after this happened, he continued to behave with an extraordinary recklessness. He went too far, though, in February 1933, when he conducted a séance attended by some Nazi elite and tried to goad a hypnotized young actress into talking about a large fire. The following day, the Reichstag, seat of the German government, was torched. The circumstances surrounding that fire are still in dispute, but the Nazis blamed the communists. Magida writes that Hanussen, from his apartment, inexplicably telephoned the editor of a communist newspaper — a man he was otherwise unlikely to talk to — to inform him of the fire and warn him of the possible consequences.
In addition, Hanussen tried to use Helldorf’s IOUs to strong-arm the Nazis into letting him in on a lucrative business deal from which he had been shut out. The Nazis hadn’t been in power very long before three men took Hanussen for a ride. His body, with three shots in it, was found much later in the forest where he had been killed.
Unlike most of the Nazis’ millions of victims, Hanussen asked for it. Ironically, the success he enjoyed before he was eliminated was in part a result of an attitude that he shared with Hitler, who took advantage of the desperation and aimlessness of the German people after the combined blows of defeat in World War I and deprivation during the Great Depression. The following remarks are Hanussen’s, but they might have come from either man:
“”Their sadness comes from the fact that they don’t have a teacher, a father, a boss, a friend who impresses them enough that they can trust him. Why do these people come to me? Because I am stronger than they are, more audacious, more energetic. Because I have the stronger will. Because they are children and I am a man.”
December 15, 2011
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’’