CLAIRE DANES and JEANNE MOREAU

CLAIRE DANES and JEANNE MOREAU

The potential was there; in fact, it was almost too obvious. An introverted Jewish girl attending a posh private school in Manhattan is the target of anti-Semitic harassment. Her parents seem to think of her as an inconvenience, but she can turn for solace and encouragement to her grandmother — a survivor of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

These are the main ingredients in I Love You, I I Love You Not, a 1996 film based on a play by Wendy Kesselman, but the result is confusing and at times even incomprehensible.

The cast is promising enough. Jeanne Moreau plays the grandmother, referred to only as “Nana”; Claire Danes plays Daisy, the troubled girl known for her silence, and, in flashbacks and dream sequences, the younger Nana; and Jude Law plays Ethan, the charismatic, lacrosse-captain, straight-A student whom Daisy secretly yearns for and, in fact, stalks.

CLAIRE DANES and JUDE LAW

CLAIRE DANES and JUDE LAW

The movie begins as a Holocaust survivor is making an audio-visual presentation to a class that includes Daisy and Ethan and others who exhibit varying degrees of appreciation for or indifference to what they are hearing and seeing. Daisy is the most affected by far. It shortly becomes clear that she is a misfit at the school. The anti-Semitism that presumably contributes to this condition is clearly presented in only one incident. Another factor in her isolation, one that is openly discussed, is the fact that she is bookish to a fault, a characteristic that her grandmother nourishes even if she doesn’t encourage it. We never meet Daisy’s parents, but we can infer that there is no love lost between them and their daughter. We infer from the dialogue only that they like their freedom as gadabouts and want Daisy as out-of-the-way as possible. Whenever she talks to them on the telephone, they accuse her of adopting a “tone”(she doesn’t), and they accuse Nana of the same thing on one occasion. Although we would expect Daisy’s solitude to raise some issues of intimacy, her obsession with Ethan, whom she barely knows, seems out of character for such a cerebral young woman, and so does her willingness to share this obsession with a few girlfriends, in childish terms.

MSDILOY EC009

Daisy’s stalking is clumsy enough that Ethan becomes fully aware of it, and eventually they are face to face, and then in a relationship. When Daisy is unwilling to let their passion progress beyond heavy kissing and caressing, Ethan — who is under pressure from his friends to drop her for one of the other girls who “want your jock” — breaks up with her. This leads to a  crisis in which Daisy rages at Nana and flees Nana’s home and survives only because of Nana’s intervention, naturally, and Daisy continues to nurse a hope that she can recapture Ethan’s attention. Nana’s role in all of this is problematic. Daisy is so fixated on Nana’s wartime experience that she once uses a marker to write on her own arm the number the Nazi’s tattooed on Nana’s. And she insists that Nana repeat a macabre sort of bedtime story which represents the loss of Nana’s two siblings in the death camp. Why Daisy deals with Nana’s history in this fashion is not made clear. Ethan’s motivations are familiar enough, but Nana’s and Daisy’s are not, and inasmuch as their relationship constitutes the raison d’être for this film, that’s a problem.

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Books: “The Nazi Séance”

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.

Hanussen also conducted private consultations and séances for which he charged substantial sums.

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.”

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 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.

If it was Sunday night, I wanted to see Señor Wences. I did not want to see Edith Piaf, who turned up from time to time on Ed Sullivan’s TV show, “Toast of the Town.” It was all a part of being young and ignorant. I later learned to appreciate what an astounding singer Piaf was, but I knew nothing of her background before reading Carolyn Burke’s recent biography.

Piaf had a rough life in many respects. She was born in 1915 in a poor part of Paris to nearly indigent parents – her father an acrobat named Louis Gassion and her mother a drug-addicted street singer whose professional name, as it were, was Line Marsa. Louis and Line separated and Line played almost no part in Edith’s life except to occasionally surface and ask for money — which Edith usually provided. Louis took responsibility for his daughter, although that meant, for a time, that he left her to live in a brothel that was managed by his mother. He later reclaimed the girl and took her “on the road” with him — first while he performed with a circus and then when he returned to the streets. Edith had to work, keeping house, passing the hat when Louis performed on the street, and eventually singing for coins herself.

When she was 16, Edith convinced  her father to let her live on her own, but she maintained a close relationship with him for the rest of his life, which eventually meant supporting him. As a result of one of the first of a very long string of romantic and/or sexual relationships, she bore a child, a girl, who died at the age of two — an experience that affected Edith for the rest of her life. She gradually developed as a singer on the street and in Paris dives, but her career took off after she was discovered by a shady character named Louis Léplee, who booked her in his cabaret and taught her some things about performing before the public. He also dubbed her “piaf” — “sparrow” — because of her stature (4’10”) and her bird-like gestures.

Edith Piaf specialized in chasons réaliste, songs of realism that expressed the sorrows of the lower class — including the prostitutes, beggars, and love-starved sailors who were among the singer’s earliest acquaintances. Frustrated love was a constant theme in these songs and in Edith Piaf’s life.

In addition to having a powerful and expressive voice, Edith Piaf was a prolific songwriter, creating the lyrics for many of the songs she introduced. Many of her love affairs were with men in whom she also had an artistic interest, and she played the mentor to them, demanding almost excruciatingly hard work but, almost without exception, helping them to solidify their careers. Edith herself became a star in several media in both hemispheres — night clubs, movies, records, radio, and television.

Edith Piaf lived in France during the World War II period, and was criticized in her own time by people who thought she was too accommodating to the German occupation. But Burke reports that the singer was instrumental in helping Jewish friends hide from the Nazis and that she irritated the Nazis, perhaps deliberately, by singing the work of a Jewish songwriter. But  Edith was even bolder than that, by Burke’s account. She agreed to visit French soldiers who were being held in prisons in Germany, and she made a point of being photographed with them. Then she returned, as part of a plot by the French Resistance, and slipped some of those soldiers false identification that included their faces cropped from those photos. Some 188 of those men escaped, using those fake credentials.

It’s an understatement to say that Edith Piaf didn’t take care of herself. She worked very hard, both in rehearsals and in a hectic schedule of bookings, partly because of the cost of maintaining not only her own lifestyle but also a coterie of friends, hangers-on, and just plain cheats, whom she deliberately cultivated as a sort of salon. She drank heavily and she became dependent on a complex of pain killers — for debilitating arthritis — sleeping pills, and uppers. This regimen apparently contributed to the ruin of her liver which in turn caused her death in 1963.

The poet Jean Cocteau — a close friend of the singer — described Edith Piaf as a genius and called her “this astonishing little person.” “A voice rises up from deep within,” he wrote, “a voice that inhabits her from head to toe, unfolding like a wave of warm black velvet to submerge us, piercing through us, getting right inside us. The illusion is complete. Edith Piaf, like an invisible nightingale on her branch, herself becomes invisible. There is just her gaze, her pale hands, her waxen forehead catching the light, and the voice that swells, mounts up, and gradually replaces her.”

For a good example of that voice, click HERE.

Em cee squared

May 17, 2010

A blackboard with formulas written by Albert Einstein, preserved in the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford.

Several decades ago, I began to make a point of reading several books each year on subjects about which I knew little or nothing — including subjects that I found repulsive. Among those subjects have been mathematics and physics, both of which bedeviled me when I had to study them in high school and college. As I have mentioned here before, at least with respect to mathematics, I have derived a great deal of satisfaction from pondering these subjects when examinations and grades are not at issue, and I have found that those who claim that there  is beauty and wonder in these fields are telling the truth

That background explains why I grabbed the opportunity to review a popular biography entitled “Einstein: The Life of a Genius” by Walter Isaacson. This is a coffee table book that contains a limited amount of text in proportion to the number pages and illustrates its points with many photographs and also with facsimiles of several letters and documents. Among these are Einstein’s letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt in which the scientist advised the president to call together a group of experts to study the possibility of developing an atom bomb — something Nazi Germany was known to be doing at the time. As it happened, Einstein — a pacifist whose work in physics  helped pave the way to such weapons — was considered too great a security risk to work on the project himself, what with him being a native of Germany, a socialist, and a Jew.

Isaacson records that one of Einstein’s early physics instructors described him as “an extremely clever boy,” but added, “You have one great fault: You’ll never let yourself be told anything.”  It wasn’t meant as compliment, but still, this tendency as much as anything else led to Einstein’s achievements in theoretical physics. Einstein — like Isaac Newton before him — would not accept anything as settled just because it was handed on to him by authoritative sources. He wondered and questioned and “experimented” with physical phenomena such as light and motion by forming images in his mind, and he changed the world.

Einstein is a curiosity in a way, because he was one of the most widely known celebrities of his time and his name is part of our language more than 50 years after his death, and yet most of us have little or no idea what he was up to. That doesn’t matter. He deserves his place in our culture if for no other reason than his persistence in questioning even his own conclusions.

JORDAN KIZIUK

We watched a 1997 Danish film, “The Island on Bird Street,” which tells of an 11-year-old boy’s attempt to survive while the Nazis are emptying out a Jewish ghetto in Poland and sending its inhabitants to the death camps.

This film is based on what I have seen described as a “semi-autobiographical” novel by Israeli writer Uri Orlev, a Holocaust survivor who has specialized in children’s literature. Although the violence in this film is understated compared to many films about Nazi brutality, it’s not a film for young children. Teenagers wouldn’t flinch.

The story line is that the boy, Alex (Jordan Kiziuk), his father, Stefan (Patrick Bergin) and uncle Baroch (Jack Warden), are among the Polish Jews who are confined to a neighborhood fenced off by the Nazis — much like the Warsaw Ghetto where Orlev was confined as a child. When Stefan and Baroch are swept up in one of the Nazis’ “selections” for transport to a concentration camp, they conspire to let Alex escape the transport. Before the boy runs off, Stefan promises that he will return to the ghetto, and the boy takes that promise seriously.

JACK WARDEN

Alex — who reads “Robinson Crusoe” and plays with his white mouse, Snow — manages through a combination of guile and luck to avoid detection while he dodges the German troops who are gradually emptying the ghetto. The boy encounters some other stragglers, including a few men who are involved in the Polish underground. He eventually begins to slip out of the ghetto into the city at large, but always returns to wait for his father.

Jordan Kiziuk, a British actor who won an Emmy in 1999, delivers a convincing performance as Alex. Most of the film is quite tense as Alex has one close call after another, and Kiziuk has a lot of the burden of sustaining it. In fact, he’s at the center of the drama to such a degree that the other players are largely accessories.

As credible as Kiziuk is in his role, the story itself strains credulity, especially given the persistence of the Nazis in tracking down every straggler in the ghetto. There is also a contradiction in his sometimes elaborate ingenuity and his naive faith that his father will somehow survive the brutality the boy has witnessed again and again. The film ends with Alex still in the ghetto, and a title reports simply that he “survived the war.” In actual fact, Orlev was eventually caught by the Nazis after he was left behind in the ghetto and was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where he remained until it was liberated.

PATRICK BERGIN

This film is visually very dramatic. The location in Poland presents a bleak image of the ghetto that provides an effective setting for the Nazis’ disregard for human dignity, never mind human life. The direction and photography contributed to the considerable attention and critical approval the film received when it was released.

ROBIN WILLIAMS

We watched “Jakob the Liar,” a 1999 film starring its executive producer, Robin Williams.

In this story based on Jurek Becker’s novel, Williams plays the title role, a man confined to a Jewish ghetto in Poland during World War II. Jakob is summoned to the commandancy of the ghetto for being in the street after curfew, and while he is in an SS officer’s quarters, he hears a radio news report to the effect that the Red Army is advancing in the vicinity of the ghetto.

Alan Arkin and Liev Schreiber

When Jakob gives this information to his fellow inmate, Mischa (Liev Schreiber), Mischa draws the conclusion that Jakob himself has a radio — an offense punishable by death in the ghetto. Mischa shares his suspicion with others and soon the story is all over the ghetto, and nothing Jakob can say will put it to rest. The inmates beg him for more promising news, and he finally decides to lift their spirits by making up more “news” about the impending end of the war.

HANNAH GORDON

Jakob’s position becomes increasingly precarious, and it isn’t helped any by the fact that he is sheltering a young girl (Hannah Taylor-Gordon) who avoided boarding the transport that carried her parents to a death camp.

Given the fact that this movie features Williams in a dramatic role, includes fine actors such as Bob Balaban and Alan Arkin, and deals with this particular historical epoch, we expected to like it. We found, however, that the sum of the parts leaves the whole lacking.

The film is tedious and in some particulars implausible — for example, a scene in which Jakob defies and even intimidates an SS officer who, under real circumstances, would have shot him on the spot. And while Roberto Benigni proved that humor could be mixed into a serious Holocaust story, this film doesn’t strike the delicate balance between the two that the Italian movie achieved.

Children at Theresienstadt. Yad Vashem Archives.

It’s been a good reading season squeezed in between semesters. The pace will slow down when classes resume next week, though I just started a fascinating book about Isaac Newton’s little-known career as the scourge of counterfeiters. Of that, more later.

I just finished “The Girls of Room 28” by Hannelore Brenner, which describes the lives of children who were incarcerated at the Jewish ghetto in Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, between 1941 and 1944. An estimated 13,000 children passed through there; 25 survived. Some died of disease or other consequences of neglect. Most died in the concentration camps further east. Brenner presents first-hand accounts from some of the survivors as well as material from diaries and other such documents. She also records how the Nazis bamboozled the International Red Cross  into thinking that Theresienstadt was a model community for Jews, founded on the benevolent nature  of Adolf Hitler. There is a lot of information and photographs about the ghetto on the YAD VASHEM web site.

Abraham Lincoln reading to his son Tad.

I can’t read too many books about Abraham Lincoln, and I was delighted with “Lincoln, Life-Size,” a volume that includes digitized reproductions of all 114 known photographs of Lincoln, most of them portraits. The book was assembled by three descendants of Frederick Meserve, one of the best-known collectors of Lincoln images. The authors used high technology to calculate the size of Lincoln’s head. The head was cropped from each of several dozen photographs and reproduced on the facing page in life size. The result is fascinating and, at times, unsettling. The authors also accompany each photograph with texts drawn from a variety of sources, some putting the photo in context, others illuminating some aspect of Lincoln’s public or private life.

GERTRUDE EDERLE

“America’s Girl” is a biography of Gertrude Ederle, a young woman from New York City who, in 1926, not only became the first woman to swim the English Channel, but far surpassed the previous record — set, obviously, by a man. Ederle did not lead an exciting life in the long term, but in the weeks and months after her achievement, she was a celebrity of proportions that have only rarely been exceeded —  even in our own age of instant notoriety. More  important, really, is that her accomplishment had a significance that transcended her personal fortunes. Ederle confounded the widely accepted assumption that women were not capable of feats like the one she performed. Her crossing helped to accelerate brewing changes in how women were regarded and what they were permitted to do in a society in which only men were allowed to vote until only five years before. The book was written by Tim Dahlberg with Mary Ederle Ward – the swimmer’s niece – and Brenda Green.

Yogi Berra jumps into Don Larsen's arms after the last out of the perfect game.

“Perfect” by Lew Paper, is based on Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Paper examines the well-worn but still fascinating fact that this feat – achieved only once since the World Series was inaugurated in 1903 – was carried out by a mediocre pitcher whose name would long have been forgotten if it hadn’t been for that day. But Paper makes his book good winter reading for baseball fanatics by devoting each of his 18 chapters to one the half-innings in that game, and focusing each chapter on one of the players who participated. In one instance only, he profiles two players – Jackie Robinson and Gil McDouglald – in a single chapter. In each case, Paper recounts the personal history that brought the player – Mickey Mantle, Enos Slaughter, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese – to that historic moment in sports. Not the least of these figures is Dale Mitchell of the Dodgers who was pinch hitting for starting pitcher Sal Maglie in the top of the ninth when he took the called strike that sealed Larsen’s place in history. Mitchell, who had one of the best batting eyes of his era, thought  the pitch was high. So, according to Paper, did most of the Yankees on the field. But, as one baseball wag observed, when the umpire calls strike three on you, even God can’t get you off.

Authorities estimated that a third of the population of New York City - about two million people - turned out for this ticker-tape parade for Gertrude Ederle. It remains the largest such event to honor an individual athlete. (© Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS)

BRIGITTA JACOB-ENGELKEN

BRIGITTA JACOB-ENGELKEN

The  BBC marked the anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany with a story about the last survivor of the bunker in which Adolph Hitler killed himself.

The survivor is Rochus Misch, 92, a resident of Berlin, who was an SS officer serving as a body guard, a telephone operator, and a messenger. The report included an interview with Misch’s daughter, Brigitta Jacob-Engelken, who recalls the day in 1953 when her father returned from the gulag where the Soviets had confined him after the Red Army invaded Berlin. The homecoming was joyful, but father and daughter didn’t get along.

ROCHUS MISCH

ROCHUS MISCH

Their relationship wasn’t improved when Brigitta’s maternal grandmother informed her that her mother — Misch’s wife — had been Jewish, something Misch refused to accept.

Brigitta accepted it, learned Hebrew, spent time on a kibbutz, and used her architectural talents to help restore synagogues in Germany.

She says she doesn’t hold her father’s wartime role against him, because the work he did was “harmless.” “Harmless,” of course, was a relative term during the Nazi era. Compared to ordering and carrying out the deaths of tens of millions of defenseless people, protecting the life of the worst dictator in history may seem mild.

Misch didn’t talk about his place in Hitler’s inner circle for many years, but now he discusses it freely — including his first view of the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun.

The BBC stories are at this link:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8237708.stm

ROCHUS MISCH DURING THE WAR

ROCHUS MISCH DURING THE WAR