May 23, 2014
One of the rewards of research, for me, is so often finding what I wasn’t looking for. For example, I’m viewing Father Robert Barron’s video series, Catholicism, with a group of adults at my parish. One of the episodes in which Father Barron discusses Mary, the mother of Jesus, was filmed in part at the Basilique Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, which is located about fifty miles southwest of Paris. I’m not a student of architecture, but I have read that this church is regarded as the epitome of French Gothic design. There have been several, perhaps as many as five, churches on the site, and the present one was built between 1194 and 1250. There has been no appreciable construction since then. The structure is four hundred thirty feet long, one hundred five feet wide, and one hundred twenty feet high to the roof of the nave. The higher of its two towers is three hundred and seventy-one feet, and that feature of the church led to one of those stories of solitary heroism that characterize war — in this case, World War II.
When I was doing research on the basilica, I came across several web sites that explained why that church might be standing today if it hadn’t been for Welborn Griffith Jr., a soldier from Texas. Because Chartres was in harm’s way when the German invasion of France was imminent in 1939, all of the stained glass in the massive structure, including the spectacular rose window, was removed and stored off site. The glass was cleaned and replaced after the war.
When the Germans of the Seventh Armored Division had entered Chartres in August 1944, it seemed logical to assume that they would use the basilica tower for surveillance of the surrounding area, and U.S. forces planned to shell the building. Griffith, a colonel, disagreed with this plan and volunteered to go behind enemy lines, accompanied by a single enlisted man, to determine if the Germans actually were in the church. They were not, and Griffith rang the church bells as a signal that the Americans should hold their fire.
Griffith, who as posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star, was killed in action shortly thereafter. The citation with his Distinguished Service Cross explained:
“Continuing his inspection of outlying positions north of the city, he suddenly encountered about fifteen of the enemy. He fired several shots at them, then proceeded to the nearest outpost of our forces at which point a tank was located. Arming himself with an M-1 rifle and again with complete disregard for his own safety, Colonel Griffith climbed upon the tank directing it to the enemy forces he had located. During the advance of the tank he was exposed to intense enemy machinegun, rifle, and rocket-launcher fire and it was during this action, in the vicinity of Leves, France, that he was killed.”
A story that appeared in The National Review in 2011 reported that until the 199os Griffith’s family was unaware of the part he had played in sparing the basilica. The residents of Leves had memorialized Griffith with a plaque, but had misunderstood his dog tags and transposed his first and last names. A local historian in the French city discovered the error and took the trouble to find his daughter in Florida.
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.
April 1, 2013
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 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.
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.
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. . . .”
February 12, 2013
I don’t know if this is still true, but when I was at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, visitors were invited to write in a large book their opinions of President Harry S Truman’s decision to deploy the atom bomb against Japan in 1945. My opinion is that it’s easy to make Harry Truman’s decisions if you’re not Harry Truman. The same thing can be said for all such figures, including Pope Pius XII.
A great deal has been written about what the pope did or did not do with respect to the Jewish people who were being systematically exterminated by the Nazis during World War II. The latest contribution, if it can be called that, is Gordon Thomas’s book, The Pope’s Jews, which is designed to show that Pope Pius was clear in his condemnation of the Nazi regime and that he was directly involved in a variety of schemes to either help Jewish people escape from Italy or hide them in church properties, including the Vatican itself, during the German invasion.
The best that can be said for this book is that it is superfluous and that it is so badly executed as to be an embarrassment to the publisher and an insult to the reader.
Most if not all of what the author reports here has been published before. It has been well recorded that Pius, a former papal nuncio to Bavaria, was confronted with the murderous Nazis, on the one hand, who had a track record for wreaking indiscriminate vengeance whenever they met opposition or resistance, and the godless Soviets, on the other hand, who were eager to extend their dominance over as much of Europe as possible. The pope was also the head of a neutral state, and the safety of untold human beings depended on the guarantees that accompanied that neutrality.
There also has been a great deal written about the various bishops, priests, and nuns who either helped Jewish people get out of harm’s way or hid them in church properties, including the Vatican itself. Among those complicit in this was Sister Pascalina Lenhert, who was both housekeeper and confidant to Pius XII. Many sources have reported that the pope himself was not only aware of these activities but was directly involved in some of them.
Thomas writes about all this, and he also writes in some detail about the Jewish people living in the Jewish ghetto in Rome (most of whom died in a Nazi concentration camp), the Jewish resistance movement in Rome, and those working — and, in many cases, hiding — in a Jewish hospital on an island in the Tiber.
Thomas includes a lot of information about the work of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who had charge of a network of church operatives who hid Jewish people in multiple safe houses.
Most of this, as I say, comes from secondary sources, and that’s what the bibliography in this book consists of. In the several instances in which the writer does refer to primary sources, he provides no footnotes and no reference to those documents in the bibliography.
Moreover, this book is so carelessly written and edited that the quality of such scholarship as there was must be questioned. The author has a maddening fascination with the past perfect tense of the verb and uses it liberally, especially when it’s not appropriate. That plus awkward or downright improper sentence structure makes reading the text a chore.
And then there are the factual errors. St. Paul was crucified (we don’t know how he died, but the tradition is that he was beheaded); St. Paul had a vision of the risen Jesus in Rome (that happened on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus); Pius XII canonized St. Catherine of Siena (that was Pius II in 1461); Pius XII silenced the anti-Semitic radio priest Charles Coughlin (the Vatican didn’t approve of Coughlin, but didn’t take any action against him; he was forced off the air via regulation by the National Association of Broadcasters after he opposed U.S. involvement in what became World War II).
In his apparent zeal to cast the Catholic Church as a friend of the Jewish people, Thomas writes that Pope Pius IV in the 16th century relaxed a variety of restrictions on Jewish life that had been imposed by his predecessor, Paul IV, but the author does not point out that the restrictions were restored by Pius V.
Immediately after a reference to Pius IV, who assumed the papacy in 1562, Thomas writes this: “The Nicene Creed, the core of the church for centuries, would teach that Pontius Pilate was ultimately responsible for Christ’s death sentence, and that it was the gentiles (sic) who had mocked, scourged, and crucified Jesus.” The Nicene Creed dates from the fourth century, not the 16th, and it doesn’t say anything at all about Gentiles as such: it mentions only Pilate. The Apostle’s Creed, which dates from much earlier than the one adopted by the Council of Nicaea, says exactly the same thing about Pilate. Considering the crimes committed against the Jews over the past 20 centuries, those creeds can hardly be used to make the Church look benign. It was the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that specifically repudiated the idea that the Jewish people had some corporate responsibility for the death of Jesus; that council also forbid the Church to teach that the Jewish people had somehow been rejected by God (see the council’s document Nostra aetate).
In the decades since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has made a serious effort to improve its relationship with the Jewish people and to condemn any form of anti-Semitism. The present pope, who is about to abdicate, has been very active in that area. Although it does seem that Pius XII gets a bad rap from people who didn’t have to deal with the complex situation he faced, there’s no denying the trouble history between the Church and the Jews. It’s good to think that it might all be behind us.
December 27, 2012
I have written in this space about several movies that had time-travel themes, but none so elegant as From Time to Time, a 2009 British production directed by Julian Fellowes.
The story is set in a country estate in England at the end of World War II. A 13-year-old boy named Tolly, played by Alex Etel, is sent to stay at the old house with his grandmother, Mrs. Oldknow, played by Maggie Smith. Mrs. Oldknow’s son — who is Tolly’s father — has been missing in action, and Tolly is holding onto a conviction that his dad is still alive. Tolly’s mother, who has had a cool relationship with Mrs. Oldknow, is occupied with trying to determine her husband’s fate, and she believes Tolly would be safer in the country until the war is over.
Tolly is very interested in the house and in his ancestors who have lived there, and he is distressed to learn that his grandmother, who has a great affection for her home and loves to tell Tolly stories about its past, can no longer afford to keep the place up and is planning to sell it.
As Tolly explores the house and the grounds, he begins slipping from the mid-twentieth century into a time two hundred years before. He enters a room and finds it occupied by his ancestors and their retinue. Chief among these figures is the master of the house, a magnanimous sea captain played by Hugh Bonneville. Most of these shadows are unaware of Tolly, but one who is immediately sensible of his presence is Capt. Oldknow’s blind young daughter, Susan (Eliza Bennett). Susan is inadvertently the cause of a family crisis when Capt. Oldknow returns from one of his voyages with a black boy, a fugitive American slave named Jacob (Kwayedza Kureya). This lad, the captain announces, is to be a companion for Susan, and he is to be treated as a member of the household, not as a servant. This is met by resistance from Capt. Oldknow’s restless wife, Maria (Carice van Houten), his spoiled son Sefton (Douglas Booth), and from a none too disinterested servant named Caxton (Dominic West). The jealousy and antagonism directed at Jacob when the captain is away from home sets off a chain of events that results in a mystery that is not resolved until Tolly, the inquisitive time traveler, sorts it out.
This movie gets only fair to middlin’ reviews, but we found it entertaining and engaging. The quirky characters, including Pauline Collins as the latter-day household’s outspoken cook, Mrs. Tweedle, and Timothy Spall as the gruff Dickensian handyman whose bloodline has a critical place in the Oldknow family history.
Like a lot of people, I suspect, I have been fascinated by the idea of time travel since I was a kid and have fantasized about the day when I myself could visit the past. According to a physics book I read not long ago, time travel to the future is possible, but time travel to the past is out of the question. It’s not out of the question in the movies, though, so that’s where I do it, and it has never been more fun than in this film.
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.
October 23, 2012
On one of our first dates, I took Pat, now my wife, to see a major production of South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Betsy Palmer played Nellie Forbush and William Chapman played Emile de Becque. Neither of us had ever seen the show on stage, but both of us had seen the 1958 film with Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi (with Giorgio Tozzi dubbing Brazzi’s songs), and both of us owned the cast albums from that film and from the original Broadway production with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.
The musical play, which first appeared in 1949, was based on James Minchener’s 1947 book, Tales of the South Pacific. This book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a collection of loosely connected stories based on Michener’s experiences as a Navy officer on the island of Espiritu Santo. I find it an absorbing book because of its ability to transport the reader into the unique environment of the Pacific Islands during that war.
Rodgers and Hammerstein combined three of Michener’s stories to create the musical play, and they determined to deal with two instances in which romantic liaisons were disrupted by racial prejudice. One of those situations arises when Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, whose previous life experience was confined to Little Rock, Arkansas, falls in love with French planter Emile de Becque but discovers that he had previously lived and had children with a Polynesian woman. For reasons that she herself cannot articulate, Nellie is repulsed by the idea, and she undergoes a wrenching internal struggle.
The other conflict involves a Marine lieutenant, Joe Cable, who falls in love with a Tonkinese girl who is not yet an adult, but refuses to marry the girl because of the color of her skin. In a scene in which De Becque and Cable discuss their contradictory crises, De Becque declares that he does not believe that racial prejudice is inborn, and Cable punctuates that idea with a lyric: “You have to be taught to hate and fear / You have to be taught from year to year / It has to be drummed in your dear little ear / You have to be carefully taught … to hate all the people your relatives hate.”
This lyric brought opprobrium down on Rodgers and Hammerstein from some quarters in the United States. Cable’s song was described as not only indecent, because by implication it encouraged interracial sex and — God forbid! — breeding, but that it was pro-communist because who but a communist would carry egalitarianism so far? Some Georgia politicians actually tried to stifle the song through legislation. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s position was that the song was about what the play was about and that, even if it sank the show, the song would stay.
We saw the recent revival of South Pacific at the Lincoln Center twice, and this past weekend, we had the opportunity to see it again in a production at the non-profit Ritz Theatre in Haddon Township, New Jersey. One of the impediments to mounting this show is that it requires an outstanding cast and company; it can’t be faked. The Ritz was up to that challenge in every respect. In fact, Pat and I agreed that Anabelle Garcia was the best Nellie Forbush we had ever seen.
South Pacific was written shortly after World War II. The original production won a Pulitzer Prize and ten Tony Awards. In fact, sixty-two years later, it is still the only musical to win all four Tony Awards for acting.
What is striking about South Pacific is that although it is necessarily performed entirely in the milieu of the 1940s, it does not get old. Racism is still a serious issue in the United States, and some of the criticism directed at this show for addressing that issue sounds disturbingly like rhetoric we can still hear today.
January 13, 2012
During World War II, the popular radio star Kate Smith used to end her daily broadcasts by saying, “And remember … if you don’t write, you’re wrong!” Kate Smith, who was a major supporter of the war effort in general and of American troops in particular, was prodding those at home to send letters to soldiers and sailors. I don’t know whether Kate Smith introduced that expression, and that inspired a songwriter, or the other way around. I do know that a writer named Olive Kriser wrote a song by that title in 1943, and it, too, urged families and friends to write to the troops.
For me, that phrase has always evoked what I imagine was a melancholy aspect of the war years: young men and women suddenly separated from their families, friends, neighbors, familiar surroundings, everyday routines, and hurled into the maelstrom, wondering about the folks, about ever seeing them again, longing for a mundane conversation around the kitchen table, a cheese sandwich made by Mom. And yearning, yearning, for a word from home.
That was the real-life experience of tens of thousands of young people, including Joseph Farris of Danbury, Connecticut, who was drafted, trained, and shipped off to the fighting fields of France and Germany shortly after leaving high school.
Farris, who has become a very successful cartoonist and illustrator, has recreated his experience in A Soldier’s Sketchbook, an elegant volume published by National Geographic. Farris got lots of letters, but in this book, he reproduces many of the letters that he wrote to his parents and two brothers during the three years, beginning in May 1943, that he spent in the United States Army. The book also contains facsimiles of some of those letters and of other documents, photographs of Farris and some of his colleagues, and watercolors and drawings that he did while he was in service.
Farris provides a narrative in which he demonstrates how he pulled his punches in his letters home, both because military censorship sharply restricted what combatants could write about and because he didn’t want to worry his family. The folks wouldn’t know until it was well over that Farris — who wound up heading a heavy machine-gun platoon — came under heavy fire, watched his fellows soldiers being blown away, shivered in the cold and wet of the foxhole, and confronted the fact that any hour could the last in his brief life.
By the time Farris got into combat, Italy had surrendered, Athens had been liberated, France had been invaded, and the German siege of Leningrad had been broken. The jig was up for the Third Reich. So although he experienced the worst of the war, he also had some less lethal duty, moving through towns in France and Germany and temporarily occupying houses that were far more comfortable than a hole in the ground.
A touching aspect of this book is the writer’s lack of self pity and his consistent concern for the well being of his parents and brothers. While he was still in harm’s way, he wrote to his younger brother George, “Dad, Mom, & I are exceedingly grateful, kid, that you are around to help out. Mom & Dad depend a helluva lot on you, so don’t let them down. You may work a little harder than many other fellows your age but in the long run it’s going to pay. You don’t know how thankful I am for the training I got in the store” — a reference to his family’s Danbury Confectionery — “not only the business experience but the systematic method necessary. You’re fortunate in having the swellest folks possible. If I can treat my future children half as good as Mom & Dad have treated us I’ll feel that (I) have done my job well.”
Throughout his military service, Farris thought about his plans for a career in art, and often asked his family to send him supplies. His work has appeared in the New Yorker and in other major publications. You can see many of his cartoons and illustrations by clicking HERE.
For another interesting aspect of World War II, click HERE to read about the Women’s Land Army. The site includes many letters written home by Genevieve Wolfe, who was one of a group of 40 young women from West Virginia who traveled to a camp in Ohio to provide labor needed on farms in the northern part of the state.
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.’’
November 10, 2011
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.