Tag Archives: World History

Madonnas and memory

April 8, 2015

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Raphael's The Conestabile Madonna

Raphael’s The Conestabile Madonna

Lessons in history and humanity plus drama, unconditional love and insight into one of the most difficult to understand of all diseases — Alzheimer’s — make Debra Dean’s “The Madonnas of Leningrad” a superb, satisfying read.

There’s a sampling of an art appreciation class, too, and brief, maybe too brief snatches of modern family dynamics. But those glimpses into contemporary life form the perfect background to better contrast with the values of the Russians who survived — and even those who didn’t survive — the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II.

Da Vinci’s The Litta Madonna

With the war there is starvation and death and ruin, to be sure, but tremendous self sacrifice, too, and life, life so valued, life so amazing, captured so well in one scene, where women who have survived the siege learn that the story’s protagonist, Marina, is expecting and, after a winter of death, line up to touch her stomach and to feel the baby kick in her womb.

A tremendous sense of irony pours from the pages. In the godless Soviet Union the invaluable art collection of the Hermitage Museum, including precious images of the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child, is crated and trucked away to be saved from ruin or confiscation by the approaching German army.

At the suggestion of another Hermitage tour guide, young Marina, who later in life cannot remember the names of her own family members, commits to memory of all these wonderful madonnas — the Rubens, the da Vinci, the van Dyck, the Rembrandt and more — storing in her “memory palace” not only the details of the works and the stories they tell but even where they hung on the walls of the czar’s former Winter Palace.

It’s an act of mutual benefit. Not only does Marina save the memory of the art to share with those who may never have the chance to see them, but doing so gives her a reason to live, to survive at a time when bombs, cold, starvation and illness take the lives of thousands during the siege.

van Dyck

van Dyck’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt

And, while this isn’t an outwardly religious novel, as the situation worsens for those freezing, starving, cowering from the bombs and removing the corpses of those who die each day, even a strict non-believer decides a little prayer couldn’t hurt.

“The Madonnas of Leningrad” is not a new book. Published in 2006, it garnered a number of honors. But as timely as the topic of Alzheimer’s is, you would think someone would make a movie of this terrific story.

If you choose to read the book — and even if you don’t — you’ll find images of some of the famous works of art named within at this website, along with excerpts of how they were described in the book. Start googling the paintings and you could lose several hours of your day!

Dean also mentions the Jordan Staircase in her novel. Here’s why:

The Jordan Staircase in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.

The Jordan Staircase in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.

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A period piece you’ll relish reading

August 20, 2014

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The Time In BetweenDo you savor good writing?

The slow-moving action of “The Time In Between” perfectly fits this lengthy, detail-filled novel. It lets you soak up the lovely writing and the exquisite translation from the original Spanish into beautiful English.

It lets you absorb the tenor of the times and the emotions of characters into whose lives you’ve been dropped for 600-plus pages.

Hemingway and others have written about the Spanish civil war, of course, but Maria Duenas decorates with ornamentation, flavor and the style of the period in contrast to the straightforward, unadorned sentences of Hemingway.

Fashionistas will appreciate the detail Duenas shares as she portrays the life of the seamstress turned spy in the chaotic 1930s as Spaniards moved from their own tragic war into observers of World War II all around them.

There’s drama, mystery, romance and unexpected turns of events — all the pieces that drive readers to keep turning pages. People even pray and go to church, something rare for modern literature.

Hats off to Daniel Hahn for bringing this 2009 novel to readers of the English language. Only once did I feel as though he’d missed the mark.

Just as I was admiring the beauty of the translation, he has an old Moroccan woman threatening the suitor of the main seamstress character sounding like a thug straight from the streets of south Philadelphia. Just had to laugh.

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If only FDR had listened about Hitler

July 1, 2011

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Are you a World War II junkie?

Love history and politics?

Here’s a great read for you.

As Adolph Hitler was gearing up his Nazi steamroller, American diplomat William Dodd tried to warn the U.S. government.

The Holocaust and World War II are evidence that Ambassador Dodd failed.

“In the Garden of Beasts” tells how and why Dodd couldn’t convince either Franklin Delano Roosevelt — the president who appointed him — or the high-society members of the U.S. Foreign Service that Hitler shouldn’t be treated like the leaders of other countries.

The four short years of Dodd’s tenure as ambassador to Germany come alive in Erik Larson’s latest superb nonfiction work. The brutality of Hitler and his Nazi brethren is palpable. The internal politics of 1933-37  Germany are ruthless and bloody.

And the snooty wealthy class that populated U.S. consulates at the time played no small part in enabling Ambassador Dodd’s cautions to go unheeded.

Unlikely and disliked

Plucked out of the history department of the University of Chicago, Dodd may have been a third or fourth choice for the post in Berlin, an appointment FDR made under pressure of a deadline. Naive enough to have his family Chevrolet shipped to Germany when the world’s ambassador class generally used limos and chauffeurs, Dodd’s middle-class values put him at odds with the consulate staff in Berlin, made him the source of German leaders’ ridicule, and worst of all caused his reports to be disrespected by those in Washington who should have been listening to his warning cries.

Don’t be put off by the nonfiction character of “In the Garden of Beasts.” Larson has done amazing research here, but the way he fashions the change in Dodd and Dodd’s daughter Martha, too, from being lovers of all things German (Martha in more ways than one!) to a critical analyst of that country’s leadership and people is brilliant and makes for meaty reading.

As you’re reading, try to be aware of parallels in the social culture of 1930s Germany and some aspects of 21st century life. A word to the wise?– bz

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When Jesus walked the Earth? Well, not quite

April 25, 2010

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life in year one cover

“Life in Year One,”

by Scott Korb

Perhaps my expectations were too high.

I thought “Life in Year One” would make me feel as though I were walking through Israel 2,009 years ago, taking in the sights Jesus would see, smelling the scents Jesus would smell, feeling the atmosphere of the places where Jesus walked.

Author Scott Korb does his best to piece together snatches of what is known about the period of time when Jesus lived and a few decades after his death, but I’m afraid the odds were against him being able to give readers that palpable sense of place that I was looking forward to.

After all, unlike later periods of human history, there are no diaries to rely on other than the gospels, and the major history was written by Josephus, a Jew who found it worth his while to cozy up to the conquering Romans, and Korb several times points out the exaggerations that make Josephus’ history suspect.

Readers will learn about money, food, bathing and buildings during Jesus’ time on Earth. It’s information that’s interesting enough, although a bit of repetition has bulked up what is a relatively short book here, only 208 pages.

Faith at the heart

The most interesting information involves religion, especially the fact that while there were numerous divisions within the unity of the Hebrew faith, a lot of the debating happened at the so-called upper levels was unimportant to people who lived away from the heated discussions among members of competing sects. Korb notes, “When it comes to religion as it was really and truly lived and things were really and truly believed, the people who seem to have been in charge were probably a little out of touch.”

The most important analysis Korb makes, in my view, is explaining the deep connection between the people of Israel and their religion:

“You cannot separate the lives of the people of this land from their belief in the God who put them there. More to the point, you cannot separate the lives of the people of this land from their belief that God had put them there.”

To the Jewish believers God was “the central piece of history itself,” Korb writes, and the typical Jew of the time felt and understood that God was involved in everything — that “what came from the ground, what lived in the trees, every hair on your, belonged to God” — as it had for your ancestors. It was a belief passed down genetically.

Because of the centrality of religion in the lives of the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, the synagogue was the center of a community’s life — and not just for worship. The synagogues that Jesus would have attended would have served as well as a soup kitchen, a town hall, a hostel and a school. As Korb notes:

“The people came and fed one another, taught one another. The place bustled all week. A visitor always knew he’d have a place to stay. And the Sabbath was hardly more important than the rest of the week. This tradition had been passed down through their genes. And despite all their disagreements and debates, even despite the power of Rome and the culture of Greece, they always had that. Tradition. And the synagogue was the place to practice it.”

If only we knew more

“Life in Year One” does a solid job of helping readers appreciate what it was like for the Jews to have been absorbed into the Roman Empire and actively work at keeping their Jewish identity while under Roman rule. Korb does a great service in bringing that feeling to the surface.

After reading “The Pacific” recently — a wonderful account of World War II in that part of the world, thanks to diaries written by marines and documents kept by the government — I couldn’t help but wish that Mary, for example, had written a diary and that some day it will be discovered in an archaeological dig.  There’s a book I’d love to read. — bz

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Capture of Holocaust mastermind a must-read story

May 9, 2009

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“Hunting Eichmann,”
by Neal Bascomb

The story finally is told how Holocaust survivors and Israel’s spies found the mastermind of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution,” the hideously well-organized plan that murdered six million Jews during World War II.

The subject of the quest, Adolf Eichmann, was the diabolical brain behind the extermination plan. It wasn’t until 15 years after the war ended that he was finally found and, after a lengthy trial that was front-page news around the world, hanged for his genocidal crimes.

It’s a helluva story, nonfiction that reads like a modern mystery with twists and turns, dead ends, near misses and tiny details that yield huge payoffs.

How Israel’s Mossad — helped by tips from survivors of the Nazi death camps — tracked Adolf Eichmann to Argentina and a miserable shack with no electricity or running water is nothing short of a miracle.

How Eichmann escaped Germany as World War II came to a crashing end around him could be seen as miraculous as well. How this wanted war criminal made his way to South America, however, includes a segment that will cause shame for members of the Catholic community.


Catholic collusion

Part of the network that helped Nazis escape, Bascomb’s research uncovered, included Bishop Alois Hudal, “an Austrian and a devotee of Hitler who proudly brandished his golden Nazi Party membership badge.”

Bishop Hudal personally wrote to Argentine dictator Juan Peron to request visa for 5,000 Germans and Austrians.

A string of monasteries and convents in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy served as refuge to hide and smuggle Nazis away from prosecution, and Eichmann took advantage, finally making his way across Europe to Genoa, Italy, and the Church of San Antonio. Franciscan Father Edoardo Domoter, a Hungarian sympathetic to fleeing Nazi’s, sheltered him in the rectory there while Eichmann secured a refugee’s passport from Red Cross officials and a visa from the Argentine consulate, and soon was on the passenger ship Giovanna C headed to South America with a number of other former Nazi bigwigs.

Bascomb notes that, while cardinals and priests were involved in helping war criminals escape prosecution, “Pope Pius XII did not officially approve of the Vatican’s involvement in the network, but he certainly turned a blind eye to it, primarily because of the church’s commitment to act as a bulwark against the spread of communism.”


Amazingly detailed research

The capture of Eichmann and especially the deception required to hide him and then spirit him out of Argentina to stand trial in Israel are as close to against-all-odds material as any fiction writer might dream up.

The fact that the Israelis were able to pull it off — find him, first of all, grab him off the street, secret him away for a number of days and whisk him off to Israel in the first El Al plane ever to visit Argentina — is terrific storytelling.

Pulling all the pieces of the story together through interviews and historical documents is truly the work of a gifted writer and team of researchers. The 327-page Houghton Mifflin Harcourt book includes an additional 27 pages of verifying footnotes and helpful bibliography and index. Photos taken with hidden suitcase cameras, maps of Eichmann’s Argentine neighborhood and even Eichmann’s Red Cross passport — using the alias Riccardo Klement — bring life and authenticity to the pages.

The world cannot forget

What Bascomb adds, though, as icing on the cake, is the reason that bringing Eichmann to trial on Israeli soil was so important for the Jewish people, especially for the younger generations of Israelis but even more importantly for the world. Bascomb writes in his epilogue:

“As for the rest of the world, the Eichmann affair rooted the Holocaust in the collective cultural consciousness. . . . The Holocaust was finally anchored in the world’s consciousness — never to be forgotten — by the outpouring of survivor memoirs, scholarly works, plays, novels, documentaries, paintings, museum exhibits, and films that followed in the wake of the trial and that still continues today. This consciousness, in Israel and throughout the world, is the enduring legacy of the operation to capture Adolf Eichmann.”

This is history every human should know. — bz

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History worth knowing about link between capitalism and religion

May 2, 2008

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“GOD AND GOLD,”
by Walter Russell Mead

Capitalism’s ability to raise the standard of living in the English-speaking world – and to spread British and American social and economic culture around the globe – owes no small part of its success to a religious element, perhaps even a religious foundation.
And religion can continue to play a role in humanity’s pursuit of peace and development.
That’s a key take-away from the reading of “God and Gold,” a compelling book that’s worth a slow, reflective read.
Author Walter Russell Mead, a U.S. foreign policy expert, forces readers to view the past 300 years of history from both an inward looking perspective and that of an outsider, forcing us to see how others see us.
Mead’s premise is that the rise of first British then American capitalism is the most important development in the history of the modern world, and that the capitalistic culture that the United States leads today may be an enduring one, unlike fallen empires of old.
He backs up his hypothesis with hundreds of pages of historical evidence, but maybe more important is his work to help us understand the challenges that our country faces today, especially from some of the Muslim faith who also champion a religious fervor but who – tied down by refusals to change and to be open and tolerant – have failed to take advantage of capitalism’s fruits.
Mead moves readers from the importance of domination of the seas – ala England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada and the U.S. efforts to protect the oil markets of the Persian Gulf – to the importance of the willingness to try new methods and technologies, to continually adapt and move on, and to be tolerant and accepting of various expressions of religious faith.
Societies that insist on the domination of one religious sect or persuasion and societies that are unaccepting of ethnic diversity have proven unable to utilize the gifts of immigrants and those of other faiths that have so enriched more tolerant cultures.
That spirituality plays such a large role in economic and societal success is a pivotal slice of American pie, just as important as it had been for the Brits before.
“Since the 17th century,” Mead notes, “the English-speaking world or at least significant chunks of it have believed that embracing and even furthering and accelerating change – economic change, social change, cultural change, political change – fulfills their religious destiny.”
As successful as English speakers have been the past 300 years, the religious fervor that plays such a positive role also lends a dark side. Leaders from Cromwell through Roosevelt, Reagan and Bush II demonize the enemies of their states – and if they do so with lies, so be it. The Soviet Union isn’t merely an aggressive if brutal competitor during the Cold War years, it is labeled an “evil empire.”
Fulfilling the destiny of the British and Americans sometime led to sinful trampling on and even annihilation of native peoples, a concern that rarely troubled people of faith at the time yet something that is embarrassing to think of today.
Today, Mead sees Evangelical Protestantism as the one social movement with the power to sway public opinion, and that is a cause for concern in his mind.
Diplomacy with other cultures is paramount to peace and development around the globe – and continuation of American social and economic dominance – yet “Evangelical America is often considered – as it has often been – the section of the population most committed to uncritical flag waving, to simplistic understanding of foreign peoples and culture, and resistant to complex and nuanced discussions of the international issues facing the United States.”
A saving grace?
Common opposition to abortion and a common desire to defend the place of religion in American society are connecting evangelicals and Catholics, and Mead finds this a positive.
“The encounter with Catholicism, both at a personal and at an intellectual level, has also exposed many evangelicals to a much richer and more complex body of Christian thought and social reflection than they have previously known.”

QUOTES FROM “GOD AND GOLD”

“Since the seventeenth century, the English-speaking world or at least significant chunks of it have believed that embracing and even furthering and accelerating change – economic change, social change, cultural change, political change – fulfills their religious destiny.”

“The idea that the world is built (or guided by God) in such a way that unrestricted free play creates an ordered and higher form of society is found in virtually all fields and at virtually all levels of the Anglo-Saxon world.”

“Foreign opinion is often bemused by the way in which the Anglo-Saxon powers are so frequently troubled by the existence of conditions that are almost as old as humanity and likely to be just as long-lived. Bribery, protectionism, cruelty to animals, smoking, sexual harassment in the workplace, the excessive use of saturated fats in cooking, unkind verbal epithets for low-status social groups, ethnic cleansing: in much of the world things like these are deplored, but a vigorous and puritanical attempt to suppress them altogether is viewed, not entirely unreasonably, as a cure that can be worse than the disease.”

“An open, dynamic, and capitalistic society generated innovations in finance, technology, marketing, and communications. These innovations offered the open society enormous advantages in world trade. The wealth gained in this way provided the basis for military power that could withstand the largest and mightiest rival empires of the day.”

“The ability of the overseas English-speaking societies to welcome and assimilate vast numbers of immigrants from all over the world remains a key factor in the continuing strength of the United States (and other countries) to the present day.”

“The power of mass consumption, harnessed by flexible markets to the economic interest of the talented, may be the most revolutionary human discovery since the taming of fire.”

“The rise of new classes to unprecedented affluence, the changed world created by emergent technologies and media, the opportunities for self-expression in a culture largely free of political (though never of cultural or moral) censorship: these helped create the popular culture of the English-speaking world that has horrified and hypnotized foreigners ever since.”

“A St. Francis of Assisi, A St. Catherine of Siena, A Martin Luther, A St. Ignatius Loyola, or a Martin Luther King Jr. is seized by a vision of a new way to live and, under its influence, goes on to live a different kind of human life than any seen before. One woman or one man experiences the vision directly or subjectively, but the power of the ideal is so strong that others, seeing it second- or third-hand or reading about i8t in books, feel the power and are inspired to live this way themselves. They permanently enrich and deepen the world’s perception of what it is to be human, and they give the rest of us new choices and new possibilities.”

“The countries which are in most respects the most thoroughly modernized by any definition that rests on economic and technological progress – Britain of the nineteenth century, the United States today – are significantly more religious than most.”

“Disagreement and controversy are not signs of a decadent society; they are the necessary conditions of spiritual progress.”

“Pluralism, even at the cost of rational consistency, is necessary in a world of change. Countervailing forces and values must content. Reason, scripture, tradition: they all have their uses, but any one of them, unchecked,
will go too far. Moreover, without constant disputes, constant controversy, constant competition between rival ideas about how society should look and what it should do, the pace of innovation and change is likely to slow as forces of conservative inertia grow smug and unchallenged.”

“We are always saying goodbye to something we love, always leaving our fathers’ homes for an unknown future. . . . Yet at the same time, there must be room for nostalgia and a resistance to change. There must be religious voices denouncing godless secularism and calling mankind back to eternal principles.”

“Christianity in the American context is less and less a matter of family or ethnic identity, more and more a matter of personal choice. . . . Religion today is increasingly part of a self-constructed, chosen identity for Americans. It is perceived as a response to a call – an inherently dynamic religious orientation, even if the doctrines embraced are venerable.”

“To engage in the struggle for change and reform is not to oppose the religious instinct, but to give it its fullest expression.”

“To abolish war, we must, surely, vanquish the causes of war. Mass poverty can clearly no longer be accepted if war is to be eliminated. . . . Peace is impossible without justice and economic development.”

“Americans . . . generally believe that their country has a covenanted relationship with the power or person who directs the historical process. America is on a mission from God – and the well-being of the United States depends on how faithful Americans are to their mission.”

“It is when we are most confident that we are acting righteously, most sure of the moral ground beneath our feet that we are in the greatest danger.”

“The quest for more scientific and technical knowledge, and for application of the fruits of that knowledge to ordinary human life, is not simply a quest for faster cars and better television reception. It is a quest to fulfill the human instinct for change, arising out of a deep and apparently built-in human belief that through change we encounter the transcendent and the divine. The material and social progress that is such a basic feature of Anglo-American society and of the broader world community gradually taking shape within the framework the Anglo-Americans have constructed ultimately reflects a quest for meaning, not a quest for comfort and wealth. . . . From the Anglo-Saxon point of view, participating in this adventure is not materialist, even if the quest brings material benefits. Abandoning the quest is materialist; to turn aside from this challenge is to embrace a merely material existence and to abandon the spiritual values that make human life truly human.”–bz

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