There is plenty written about the 20th century’s massacres during World War II perpetrated by Stalin and Hitler, but the most comprehensive may be in this book by Yale professor Timothy Snyder.
It is important to read about past atrocities to gauge present ones, keeping them in perspective for what they are. Plenty of media personalites have downplayed what is going in Ukraine and are parroting Lord Haw Haw’s tactics, contorting themselves with lingual gymnastics. Proof is in visual and verbal imagery. This is from a diary written by Katya who survived Mariupol:
…Our neighbor died, and we could not carry her outside, and she began to smell. When it got quiet uncle Kolya carried her out, and himself got killed on a trip wire. Mom cried a lot. After dad died uncle Kolya was the closest person .… [The] corpses stink so much. They were everywhere. I covered my brother’s eyes with my mother’s scarf so that he would not see this. While we were running, I nearly vomited several times. I no longer believe in your God. Had he existed, we wouldn’t have suffered so much.
How to come to terms with a nation that commits atrocities? Snyder writes:
“It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of the victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be perpetrator or a bystander. It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding…To yield to this temptation, to find other people to be inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.”
And there is something more at work here. The practice of dedovshchina is part of a Russian soldier’s training, which is a hazing that includes the torture and rape of the soldiers themselves. This can explain more deeply the anger behind the torture and rape and execution of Ukrainians by Russians.
The Ukrainians have been living with this anger on their doorstep since the 1930s, trying to fend off dictators.What Russia is doing is genocide and ethnic cleansing and it’s nothing new. Except to the Ukrainians who are experiencing this genocide right now.
‘Pajamafication’ by Gwen C. Katz
There’s a phenomenon I actually see extremely commonly when literature is used to teach history to middle school and high school students. Let’s call it “pajamafication.”
So a school district nixed Maus from their curriculum, to be replaced by something more “age-appropriate.” If I remember correctly, they didn’t cite a specific replacement title, but it will probably be something like John Boyne’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.”
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is tailor-made for classroom use. It’s taught at countless schools and it’s squeaky-clean of any of the parent-objectionable material you might find in Maus, Night, or any of the other first-person accounts of the Holocaust. It’s also a terrible way to teach the Holocaust.
I’m not going to exhaustively enumerate the book’s flaws–others have done so–but I’ll summarize the points that are common to this phenomenon in various contexts.
First, obviously, the context shift. Maus, Night, et al are narrated by actual Jews who were in concentration camps. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is narrated by a German boy. The Jewish perspective is completely eliminated.
Second, the emphasis on historical innocence. Bruno isn’t antisemitic. He has no idea that anything bad is happening. He happily befriends a Jewish boy with absolutely no prejudice. Thus we’re reassured that you too, gentle reader, are innocent. You too would have have a childlike lack of prejudice and you too would be such a sweet summer child that you would have no idea the place next door is a death camp.
In Maus, by contrast, the children are not innocent. They are perpetrators of injustice just like adults.
Maus also smashes the claim that people just didn’t know what was going on in the camps.
Third, nonspecificity. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas turns a specific historical atrocity into a parable about all forms of bigotry and injustice. I’m sure Boyne thinks he’s being very profound. But the actual effect is to blunt and erase the atrocity. There’s the too-cute-by-half way it avoids terminology: “Off-With,” “the Fury.” Harsh language becomes “He said a nasty word.”
Notice how “it’s a fable” ties in with the goal of eliminating anything parents might object to.
And that’s our fourth point. Bad things can happen, but only abstractly. Someone’s dad disappears. He’s just…gone. How? Who knows. People stand around looking hungry and unhappy and saying “It’s not very nice in here.” The ending is sad, but it’s sad like a Lifetime movie. It’s sanitized, it’s quick, there are no details, it’s meant to poke that bit of your heart that loves crying.
Maus’s description of the gas chambers, meanwhile…
A historical atrocity can never be a metaphor for all bigotry because the specifics are what makes it an atrocity. The Nazis didn’t just do “bad things, generally,” they did THESE things. And leaving out the details is simply historical erasure.
Finally, fifth: Fiction. However much poor little Bruno and Schmuel might rend your heartstrings, you can ultimately retreat into the knowledge that they aren’t real and they didn’t really die.
Now, I write historical fiction, and obviously I believe it has a place, in the classroom and out. But no Holocaust education can be complete without nonfiction that teaches about real people who genuinely did experience it.
One of the striking things about Maus is how big the cast is and how few of them survived. Because it’s a true story, Maus can also explore neglected aspects like the intergenerational trauma, which simply vanish in a pat fictional story that is just finished when you get to the end.
Thus, books like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas are not an age-appropriate equivalent way to teach the Holocaust, but a false construction of history. The Maus incident is not an isolated case. It’s part of a broad trend of replacing the literature used to teach history with more kid-friendly, “appropriate” alternatives. And outside of the Holocaust, it usually doesn’t meet with much controversy.
It might mean replacing Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave or Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave with modern historical fiction, for example. Wars, the Civil Rights movement, Apartheid: any “icky” part of history can be a target. But it plays out along the same general lines: Primary sources replaced with modern fiction, victim perspectives replaced with perpetrators, specificity replaced with Star-Bellied Sneetch-style “Why can’t we all just get along?” metaphors.
The broad trend is destruction and recreation of history: The actual events, as narrated by the people they happened to, are declared unacceptable in their current state, and are replaced with books tailored to modern sensibilities, which are then declared the “correct” account.
These modern books can still depict bigotry and so on, but the angle will be changed just enough to make modern audiences not feel weird or gross. The primary source works will then get rejected for the crime of…making people feel weird and gross.
We need to reject this trend whenever it occurs in all areas of history. We must read and teach true accounts written by the people who really experienced these events. There is no other honest account of history.
Read Maus, read Night, read Twelve Years a Slave. Give them to your children and then discuss with them about what they read.
When a thread like this gets big everyone assumes you’re an expert, so: This thread is nothing but one random individual’s thoughts. I am not a Holocaust survivor/descendant or a Holocaust scholar. Please talk to actual experts if you wish to learn more.
A New Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell
This book, published in 2000, is collected from Galway Kinnell’s work spanning back to the 1960s and includes some of the most anthologized of his poetry. Galway wrote of the natural world, its beauty and its horrors, and how humans interact with that world.
In the 1960s, Galway was active in the American civil rights movement. During the Montgomery, Alabama demonstrations, he was beaten by a police officer and arrested at one of the protests. An iconic photograph was taken by Charles Moore afterwards.
Among his numerous accolades, he won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1980.
Not included in New Selected Poems but still a good one is ‘Where the Track Vanishes’, found below (courtesy the Poetry Foundation):
The Good Soldiers by David Finkel
This war narrative by David Finkel follows Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich and his 2-16 Rangers through Iraq during their 15-month tour of the 2007 surge. Translated, the surge meant that America had shifted from war to diplomacy. But with soldiers. Americans soon became interlopers in Iraq:
Out they went through the heavily guarded main gate of the FOB [forward operating base] and were instantly on the front lines of the war. In other wars, the front line was exactly that, a line to advance toward and cross, but in this war, where the enemy was everywhere, it was anywhere out of the wire, in any direction: that building, that town, that province, the entire country, in 360 degrees.
The 2-16 had it all: duty, loyalty, honor. Each soldier an embodiment of the Soldier’s Creed: I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.
But what if the top tier of command is dishonorable? The war in Iraq was part of the knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 and soon became a rallying point for political division. Once Saddam Hussein was killed, it became ever meaningless in its end game. None of these American politicians came to the most dangerous parts of Iraq, instead subscribing to political views that benefitted their own interests:
In the United States, the news was all macro rather than micro. It was about President Bush arriving in Australia that morning, where the deputy prime minister asked him how the war was going and he answered, “We’re kicking ass.” … “They should come to Rustamiyah,” more than one soldier said, certain of only one thing: that none of them would. No one came to Rustamiyah. But if they did, they could get in the lead Humvee. They could go out on Route Predators. They could go out on Berm Road. They could experience the full pucker.
Kauzlarich, or The Lost Kauz, named by his soldiers for his delusions of grandeur in Iraq, bought into the jingoism spouted off by upper echelons, that they were some sort of savior to the Iraqis. In the end, the Iraq War devolved into too many factions, too many people fighting for power and U.S. dollars, and U.S. soldiers were caught up in the web.
Kauzlarich wrote the following for a recently killed soldier in his battalion:
“The thought that the bullet has already been fired at each of us and it is only a matter of time when it will hit, brings comfort to some and terror to others,” he wrote. His intention was to be symbolic rather than literal … but when he said it out loud at [PFC] Craig’s memorial service to a chapel filled with soldiers increasingly on edge, it creeped a lot of them out.
The bullet has already been fired.
Only a matter of time.
There was not much difference when Izzy, one of the Iraqi interpreters, translated a poem for the soldiers:
“No, no. Like dust in the wind. My life is like dust in the wind,” he said, correcting himself. “It’s like a hopeless man,” he explained.
Think about unwinnable wars and the cost to soldiers. Thank you for your service only goes so far and it does no good to the veterans who commit suicide every day in this nation. Twenty, every day. Life is cheap, no more so than in war and post-war.
The Good Soldiers could have been subtitled with the following sentiment, made by Kauzlarich’s wife, Stephanie: “I hate the war and what it has done to my life.”
Link to The Good Soldiers
The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss
This fictional biography of a larger than life man is told in epistolary form, as seen through the eyes of his friends and enemies. Frank Prescott’s dream is to open a religious school for boys, one that will shape their minds and bodies with the end goal of turning out strong, moral men. Whether he does or not is explored in the book.
For its formative years, Justin Martyr Boarding School is a dream fulfilled for Prescott. His is the most prominent of any east coast school and families clamor for their sons to be accepted into it. When the school is forced to grow, money must be procured and deals made. Prescott must square this:
It has always seemed to me that a private church school is a contradiction in terms. How can religion be packaged for the privileged and sold to the select?
His sympathetic fictional biographer, Brian Aspinwall, is forced to include the negative aspects of his hero’s life. Prescott was a bigot; if a boy enrolled at his school did not fit the stereotype of white, strong football player, then he was a target.
He was one of Pa’s golden boys, Justin ’11 senior prefect and football captain, a kind of American Rupert Brooke, at least in romantic appearance, blond, with sleepy grey eyes, a bit on the short side, but muscular and stocky, terribly serious and sincere, a savage tackle but gentle as a mother with children, honorable, naive, charming, the kind of man who would protect his lady fair from a hundred wild Indians but whom she would have to protect from a swindling salesman — in short, a magazine-cover hero, a Parsifal, Pa’s ideal because the opposite of Pa.
Ironically, Brian is the complete opposite of this, weak and small. The only thing that strings them both together is faith.
Throughout his life, Prescott builds his school and forms his friendships and animosites. But, as with any student of religion, the main dilemma that besieges Prescott is faith and lack of it. In the end, Prescott was fighting his entire life to be worthy of his god and his school:
“We all have such reactions,” he replied. “I am besieged with them myself. Moments of vacuum, I call them. I’m sorry to say they do not disappear with age. Nobody can believe in a life hereafter all the time. What you must do is accept your moods of doubt, as you have just accepted your illness. You must say to yourself: ‘Here I am, a believer who is doubting.’ Then you will find that, although alone with yourself in that terrible vacuum, you still can see yourself. See yourself doubting. Instead of self-revilement, there may be calm. Instead of blame, there may be sadness. And if you will wait quietly enough and long enough, that vacuum may suddenly and thrillingly begin to throb again with your awarness of the presence of God.
Link to The Rector of Justin.
The Daily Miracle by William Zinsser
In his earlier career, William Zinsser wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, where he learned the basics of his craft. His mantra to other writers: keep it clear, keep it simple, and give the reader some credit. The adverb and adjective were to be enemies of good writing. It put a weight on the writer to be able to edit without inhibition, but also made the relationship between writer and reader binary.
Zinsser wrote an essay about his time spent at the Tribune, filled with sentences with poppers like:
“Gardening-advice articles then filled several pages of the Sunday paper. They were brought to me every week by Henry B. Aul, the editor who assembled the columns written by outside experts, whose bylines are still imprinted on my retina: Alfred Putz, Gisela Grimm, Betty Blossom. I knew as little about gardening as they knew about syntax, and I was locked in weekly combat with their prose.”
Before the owners of the Tribune ran it into the ground, Zinsser left and became a freelance writer, going on to write one of the bibles, On Writing Well.
Here’s a link to The Daily Miracle.
Some Movie Recommendations
The Swimmer by John Cheever
After a day of drinking, Ned Merrill decides he’s going to swim home:
“In his mind he saw, with a cartographer’s eye, a string of swimming pools, a quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.”
Ned and his neighbors are wealthy (and bored and alcoholic) and there are pools as far as the eye can see where they live. So many that our narrator can plot a course to ‘swim home,’ a distance of eight miles.
Ned swims, sometimes meeting neighbors, sometimes not. Cheever occasionally sets the focus out into the real world, bringing the dividing line of rich/poor into clarity. This focus gets sharper as the story progresses.
On the surface it appears that Ned wants to be separate from this world of gin and tonics, pool parties, and passing time, and he is. His discovery of this drives the story. An escape from the endless party of the socialite world and those who are too rich to care. The swimmer is learning things he never knew about his neighbors, and about himself.
“He had swum too long, he had been immersed too long, and his nose and his throat were sore from the water.”
Ned swims and gets weaker and weaker. There is something deeper here, what writer Harry Levin called the”archtypal peripatetic American, who having left his home behind, is forever searching for home and whose dream of attainment becomes a nightmare.” Illusion, loss, and decay are themes all in play here. At the end, it is an allegory of a lost life.
Here’s a link to The Swimmer.
Twelve Minutes and a Life by Mitchell S. Jackson
This article was published in the magazine Runner’s World and it just won the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing. It’s an eloquent composition, a biography of Ahmaud Arbery and then a timestamp of the day of his death.
Going for a run is generally not a dangerous activity for whites; for Black people, it can be deadly. Ahmaud Arbery was jogging when he was stalked and gunned down by white supremacists. This lynching occurred last year and the perpetrators have been arrested and are awaiting trial. It’s just one more death in a too long line of lynchings that are part of this country’s heritage. The following points out the disparities, that Black people can’t be recreational runners:
Peoples, I invite you to ask yourself, just what is a runner’s world? Ask yourself who deserves to run? Who has the right? Ask who’s a runner? What’s their so-called race? Their gender? Their class? Ask yourself where do they live, where do they run? Where can’t they live and run? … Ahmaud Arbery, by all accounts, loved to run but didn’t call himself a runner. That is a shortcoming of the culture of running. That Maud’s jogging made him the target of hegemonic white forces is a certain failure of America. Check the books—slave passes, vagrancy laws, Harvard’s Skip Gates arrested outside his own crib—Blacks ain’t never owned the same freedom of movement as whites.
The argument can be made that recreational running is a white person’s sport. But there is more to it than that. For Black people there are dangers walking down their street, or sleeping in their bed. For all the pain that this article evokes, it is a celebration of the life of Ahmaud Arbery. He was talented and he was loved by his family. And we are left waiting for progress.
Here’s a link to Twelve Minutes and a Life.
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
This classroom in a book is based on writing professor George Saunders’ Russian short story class. It is a master class of seven Russian short stories with analysis (before, during, &) after each one. Sometimes it takes a professor to demonstrate the genius behind a well-written story. To get the student, in this case, the reader, to exercise the critical thinking that’s needed to attend to a well-written short story. Have we all been reading underwater? With the professor’s insight, he gives the reader permission to critique.
“A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were. Criticism is not some inscrutable, mysterious process. It’s just a matter of 1) noticing ourselves responding to a work of art, moment by moment, and 2) getting better at articulating that response.”
A book for those who want to get psyched to write well, or to read better.
Orwell: Politics and the English Language
Beware the agents of slovenly language. Orwell got it right when he published this essay in 1946.
“When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases … one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them … And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.”
Link here to read the entire essay: Politics and the English Language
And some trivia about his book 1984: It was banned in the USSR for being anti-communist and banned in the US for being pro-communist.
Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes, Through Darkness and Light by Caroline Eden
There are a myriad of ways to describe Caroline Eden’s delectable book: literary narrative, history textbook, travel memoir, and finally, cookbook. What most holds the reader’s attention are Eden’s descriptions of a decaying, romantic world as she circles around the Black Sea. This is something to fall into on a cold February day.
People have been flocking to the Black Sea for millennia, due to its location. The beaches of the sea touch a host of European countries, and over the centuries European rivers and ocean straits brought in a multitude of migrants. Subsequently, cultures have flourished and perished and the buildings offer proof. There is beauty in decay, and in towns well-lived. Here is Eden’s description of Odessa:
Pootling, rusty trams add a muted vibrational hum. In winter, when cold winds scud off the sea, turning the air to ice, these aged cartoonish streetcars, painted in childish yellows and blues, fill with women dressed in thick black fur coats. In summer, when the city sparkles with possibilities, like too-sweet Crimean champanski, the quavering cars swelter and seem to slow down, matching the pace of the city. Easing languidly around bends like slow-moving centipedes, through the heavily scented atmosphere. Dockside, the air smells of rust, tar, salt, brine, and diesel. Inland, the fragrance is gentler, of dust, unaired teahouses, and perfumy jam. Scents that catalogue memories, unchanged for decades.
The recipes in the book are simple enough, and the ingredient lists are achievable, even in our isolated community. A recipe for Jewish challah that Eden discovered at an Italian restaurant is included, along with fare influenced by the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and European cultures that passed through. A spicy strawberry recipe, modified from a dish Eden had in Istanbul, consists of chili, strawberries, sugar, lemon, yogurt, and cream cheese. Truly a beautiful blend of flavors.
Black Sea is available through Prospector here.
Caroline Eden’s latest book Red Sands: Reportage and Recipes Through Central Asia was released last November, and Samarkand is due to be released this autumn.