Friday, June 5, 2015

Paper Love, Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind, by Sarah Wildman

Paper Love This true story takes us into the life of Valy Scheftel, a young Jewish physician in love with a colleague, Karl Wildman, the author's grandfather.  The author became interested in learning about this relationship when, following her grandfather's death, she found a treasure of desperate letters from Valy who was trying to escape Nazi Europe.  Karl manages to get out of Vienna with some of his family in 1938, about the time of the Nazi takeover (called the Anschluss). Valy does not want to leave her mother behind, so she plans on joining Karl in the United States with her mother at some future date.

No one believed that the Nazi takeover would be so extensive and brutal to the point of genocide.  In that world, simply being alive and Jewish was not only challenging but often impossible.

The author has written about her experience researching the tale of this Jewish woman along with the time parallel story of her grandfather starting a new life in America through the series of letters, not only between Valy and Karl but a myriad of others begging for Karl's assistance to escape from the Nazi terror.  The author moves to Vienna and travels through Europe researching every possible paper trail.  She tries to experience what Karl and Valy may have felt by being in the same places they frequented. The trail of Valy's life leads Sarah to Berlin.

I started this book reluctantly;  it was a gift, and of such a serious matter, that I started reading this out of respect for the thoughtfulness of the giver thinking that it would be just another holocaust story to grieve about.  I was so wrong.  This book was educational, enlightening and changed the way I look at the events of Nazi terror.  A major point of this book (there were so many points, I can't even start to list them) is that there were no good endings. To quote the author, "And yet, there are no happy endings to these stories -- indeed, often, and most discomfortingly, there are often no endings at all."  In writing of her grandfather, the author says "the past was never past, merely suppressed.  There were always secrets, always stories, always rumors".  In other words, there were those that were killed and those that left others behind and started new lives.  Yet, no one has a happy ending because the past can't be erased.

To say the holocaust was the slaughter of a multitude of people does not do justice to the atrocity.  The holocaust was the murder of individuals, each with a story.  It was the murder of a future generation that never had the chance to be born.  It was an evil that brought out the darkest deeds of man in a time where weapons, communication and transportation had evolved to the point of making it possible to wipe out a people.  We can't forget this.  Today our weapons and communications abilities are magnitudes more powerful, so our ability to destroy is unspeakably huge.  Only our knowledge of this historical period can protect us from repeating history.

My review does not do justice to this book.  This book needs to be read to do justice to the story.  I would recommend this as a book club read for a group that have the tenacity to face and discuss this great injustice head on.  This was also well written and interesting to read.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

City of Thieves, David Benioff

The City of Thieves The central character in this story is the elusive, seemingly nonexistent, dozen eggs. Through Lev, a young Jewish teenager caught looting off of a dead German Luftwaffe pilot, and Kolya, a handsome and likable Russian soldier who was caught being where he shouldn't have been, the story of the search for these eggs in a starving Leningrad during the winter of January 1941 is told. The crimes of these two men, brought to the attention of a Soviet secret police colonel, is punishable by death. Violating curfew, leaving one's post, or any broken law in this impossible situation of desperation was punishable by death.

However, being of a generous nature (irony), the colonel gives them a reprieve. Locate a dozen eggs in fives days for the making of his daughter's wedding cake and not only would they not be shot, but also would be given back their ration cards! Of course, eggs are pretty hard to come by, given that this task is to be completed in a city that has been under siege for seven months, in the bitter winter, where people are starving, people are being murdered and made into sausage by their neighbors and laying hens aren't clucking about in any obvious place.

I'm not a fan of war stories, but this historical fiction was a page turner that I consider a work of genius. Benioff uses the search for eggs to take us on a path of what it means to live under siege, in Leningrade, during an attack by the most atrociously cruel Nazi army. The dialog between Lev and Kolya encompasses friendship at a deep and unlikely level. This book offers a new perspective on the Nazis' siege of Leningrad (presently called Saint Petersburg, and let's hope it will never be Putinburg!). Our generation may tire of what seems like endless World War II stories, but because history repeats itself, it is important to continue to read, albeit occasionally, these stories with the idea that education will go far in preventing future atrocities.

This is a great discussion book for groups that have a stomach for war tales. My own book club would toss it out the window before voting to read it due to the nature of the material, but personally I think it is more palatable then most war stories. I enjoyed reading this book. The Third Reich embraced a philosophy that should be rejected for all times in the future (hear me, you ISIS or ISIL antisemitic, anti-women, anti-christian, anti-anything you aren't monsters), so these stories need to part of our culture if we are to retain a free society.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

ENDURANCE, Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing

Endurance Shackleton's Incredible Voyage ENDURANCE is an historical account of an attempted trek across Antarctica in the great era when men of astounding adventurous spirits wanted to be the "first". Sir Ernest Shackleton wanted to be the first man to step onto the South Pole, but when Roald Amundsen of Norway achieved that in 1911, Ernest planned his third expedition to Antarctica, changing his goal to be the the "first" to sledge across Antarctica via the South Pole.

Well, things didn't go as planned. The ship Endurance, carrying 28 men (one an unlucky stowaway), 70 sled dogs and plenty of supplies, was first trapped in the ice, and then crushed in January 1915. This incredible story begins with the whole crew, selected supplies, a few lifeboats, and the dogs stuck on an ice floe (that is drift ice with no attachment to land) in the Weddell Sea. They never had a chance to start their journey over the Antarctic, but instead had a more challenging journey to return home.

Their days were spent in hoping that the drift (the movement of the sea) would take the unstable floe closer to land. Shackleton proved to be an extraordinary leader that was able to make split second decisions that saved lives and knew how to team people to keep arguments at bay and moral at the highest level possible in such harsh circumstances. He was driven to rescue each and every crew member (except for the poor canines).

This has been my favorite read of the year, a book that was almost impossible to put down. Parts of the book would bog down in details regarding the weather, locations, and the navigation, others would pull me into dangerous ocean crossings in life boats, or the horrors of being prey to a hungry sea lion.

The amazing thing is that everyone survived. God did not leave these men.  Though not emphasized in the book, the men read the bible.  I am sure that they felt forsaken, but they weren't, and we also are not.

The fact that they survived could be attributed to Shackleton's fantastic abilities AND a huge amount of luck, or it could be attributed to divine providence. For those of us that believe in God, we believe God was with them even if all men perished, attributing this event to God's will. Personally, I don't think that anyone could possible have as much luck as these men. I believe that they were saved to share this experience with others. Today this story is a powerful and effective testimony to the endurance of man and the faithfulness of God.

Into Thin Air Enough of my proselytizing.   Let's get down to another good read. If you like true adventure stories, a very excellent book is Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Mr. Krakauer, a journalist and a mountain climber, experienced first hand the events of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster where an angry mountain and bad judgment took the lives of many climbers.  This was also one of my favorite reads some years ago.