In the closing days of WWII, as the Allies are conquering northward up the Italian peninsula, the Germans are beginning to retreat, and their Italian allies are bumbling. Venice, though under German occupation still, is spared American bombing runs. In the lagoons beyond the city, Cenzo, an insightful, witty fisherman, finds an 18-year-old Jewish girl, Giula Silber, floating face down, but still alive. Giula and Cenzo must outwit Nazis hunting for her, black marketeers willing to trade in everything from human cargo to peace initiatives, Italian Fascists, anti-Fascist partisans, Cenzo’s dubious older brother, and his indomitable mother. The writing is spare, occasionally too lean, so that some characters and a few of their actions are veiled in a Venetian mist, and yet, in sum, the disorder imposed of a World War on the daily lives of bartenders, fishermen, backwater diplomats, and indulgent Italian mothers emerges with the piquancy of fresh polenta.
Sarah Waldman’s grandfather escaped the Nazi Aunchshloss in Austria by the skin of his teeth. He settled in America, opened a successful medical practice, and lived a life of joy and optimism. In his closet, discovered only after his death, are the letters of his true love, Valy, left behind in Vienna and Berlin. As the jaws of the Nazi vice slowly draw closer together around Valy’s diminishing life her letters to America become increasingly desperate, personal, and ultimately heartbreaking. By searching for Valy’s story, the history of one woman whose trail leads into the maw of the Shoah, Waldman answers one of the most difficult questions asked of Jews. Why did Jews let the Nazis do this to them? Here we see how it happened to Valy who stayed behind to be with her mother when even in 1938 things seemed like they could not get so bad that abandoning a country, a livelihood and the only family you still had was the only means of saving any member of your family. Because we read this book knowing the outcome and that those Jews still in Europe could never know what was yet to come we are even more chilled as Nazi restrictions build one upon another. And then the really unanswerable question comes to the fore. How could Nazis week after week conceive of new methods of torture: forbidding Jews to shop, ride a bus, congregate, appear in public, live in their own homes, work, live?
Modan is part of the first generation of Israeli graphic novelists. In The Property, an elderly Israeli grandmother returns to Poland with her granddaughter to search for a building confiscated from her family at the start of World War II. The grandmother is making her first trip back to Poland reluctantly. The granddaughter, age early twenties, accompanies grandma to provide moral support, out of curiosity, and to learn history. Once in Poland the granddaughter meets a handsome Polish tour guide to bygone Jewish Warsaw. While the farce of modern day Polish infatuation with all things Jewish after three million Polish Jews were slaughtered in the Shoa is piercingly and humorously rendered in Modan’s drawings, a potential romance blossoms between the young Israeli and Pole. While granddaughter is traveling Warsaw on the back of a tour guide’s motorcycle, the grandmother meets the man who took over her family’s apartment and numerous secrets are revealed as the two old people speak, none of which can be described without spoiling the book.
In the central third of this novel, a New Zealand prisoner of World War II, enslaved by the Japanese endures countless, excruciatingly detailed horrors in the jungles of Burma. Only he really doesn’t. Flanagan does a terrific job of describing kiwis, aussies, and other British subjects who are being driven by their Japanese captors to build a railway through the rainforest. Soldiers starve while working ungodly hours to construct an aimless path through the forest using not much more than their bare hands, fear of being beaten (again), and their slowly diminishing will to survive. They contract ulcers, beri-beri, pellagra, cholera, gangrene, and when they are lucky enough, death. The protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, is the doctor who treats them all and lives throughout the book an extended male fantasy. In the jungle, Evans never really has to do hard labor. He is elected de facto leader of the camp, yet contracts nothing more than a scratch on his shin, the hardship of having to forego a steak as a sign of leadership, and receipt of a letter from his fiance that his mistress is dead. And that brings us to the first third of the book, wherein Evans, bored with his straight-laced fiance takes up with the voluptuous and sexually adventurous wife of his uncle. And in the last third, after the war, when his fiance takes him back, Evans continues to dally with innumerable additional romances. There you have it. In convoluted writing and obscure passages we track a man who is a war hero and unrepentant philanderer. What more could any male reader ask for? This book won the 2014 Mann Booker Prize and made a lot of 2014 must-read lists, so I might be the only one that didn’t care for it, but seriously?
I learned a lot about the plight of European Jews in the years 1944 to 1947. American Jews knew of the death camps, but widespread American anti-Semitism prevented Roosevelt from even mentioning the word, Jews, in his fight against the Nazis. He could not or did not direct strikes against concentration camps or the trains that fed them and the U.S. refused admission to Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis. Before this book, I knew the Pope was at least silent on the issue of the Holocaust while it was happening, but Carroll’s opinion is that the Vatican was complicit, rather than just mum. The Vatican actively aided and abetted Nazis. When the war ended, and Part II of Warburg in Rome begins, the church and the U.S. government were so focused on the upcoming cold war with Stalin’s Soviet Union that they conspired to ferret Nazi war criminals out of Europe to Argentina in ways that might help their anti-communist campaign. But the fact that I can’t quite explain what the Americans got out of saving Nazis in their fight against communism is one of many flaws with this novel. The characters – a non-practicing, Yale educated Jew, a beguiling Italian spy whose breasts always seemed worth mentioning, an Irish American priest from New York city — are all two dimensional at best. The plot and dialogue are simultaneously confusing and as predictable as a black and white movie from the 1940s. To his credit, Carroll, a former priest himself, is incredibly even-handed and sympathetic to the Jews and nothing short of distraught at the actions of his church. He made me want to read more about the role of the Church in WW II, but I’m not sure I want to recommend this book to anyone else.
Prior to the outbreak of WWII, the British citizen Eddie Chapman spent his youth blowing safes and robbing banks. Passing in and out of jails, Chapman learned new techniques for thievery and when he wasn’t incarcerated, he fell in love, seriously in love, with a series of women. When war erupted, Chapman was languishing in a cell on the isle of Jersey which fell under Nazi occupation and after failing to escape a couple of times figured his best chance for freedom was to volunteer to become a Nazi spy, that is, a British citizen employed by the Nazis to spy on the British. A year or so later the Germans took him up on his offer, trained him, and air dropped him into Britain for the purpose of blowing up a British airplane factory. Chapman’s apparent success led him to become one of the most decorated Nazi spies in history, only soon after landing in England, he also because one of the most celebrated spies in the British secret service, where he acted as a double agent spying on the Nazis. Using newly released documents McIntyre uncovers a fascinating history of the spy war raging between Allied and Axis forces.
Two parallel stories. In France, a teenage girl, blind since the age of five, has her life turned upside down when the Germans invade Paris. She flees with her father to Saint Malo on the coast where she lives under German occupation in further darkness when, for her safety, she is secluded in an uncle’s house. The uncle, a veteran of WW I, suffers from PTSD and never leaves the house. Her father, as any solo parent of a blind girl would, does everything in his power to protect her. He constructs miniature wooden models of Saint Malo in case his daughter ever needs to learn to navigate its streets. Concurrently, a German orphan, also a young teen, faces a grueling life in the mines when he reaches the age of 15. Except, he is immensely adept at working radios, yet another means of communicating with the world without really seeing. His skills are so great he is drafted into the Nazi army, where he blindly follows orders, but worries that the orders are illogical, if not immoral. The book is aptly named.
The year is 1942. Axis powers have taken control of Europe, east Asia and the Pacific, North Africa, and are threatening to consume Russia. Britain, the last western power, is teetering and the U.S. is slowly engaging its war machinery. The first direct contact between inexperienced American forces and the German Army is the battle for North Africa, which rages for two years back and forth across the inhospitable deserts of Tunisia and Algeria. What makes Rick Atkinson such a brilliant commander of storytelling is his ability to focus on individual bullets splintering rocks just above foxholes and at the same time understand and describe the huge wheeling actions of whole armies across seas, continents, months, and years. When the Germans are finally defeated in Tunisia it marks their first major loss and a coming of age for American forces, who (in Atkinson’s second book, The Day of Battle) are now prepared to leap the Mediterranean to invade Sicily and face the Wehrmacht head-on in the battle up the Italian boot toward the German homeland.
On the first page, Ursala Todd has the opportunity to shoot Hitler in 1930 and does so. No wait. A few pages later Ursula is born in 1910, but dies soon thereafter because the umbilical cord is wrapped about her neck. Or maybe she isn’t so dead, but has the opportunity to live another life after life. Each chapter is captivating and linear, characters are fully drawn, relationships are meaningful, and suspense is palpable. The Luftwaffe’s blitz on London covers us poor readers in heaps of broken timbers and a coating of dust so thick it is hard to clear our eyes. Sirens blair. And then we relive the blitz again. And again. Each bombing run is perceived by Ursula slightly differently because she has taken a different path in life. We care about Ursula, her brothers, sisters, parents, and aunt and their rural British home but recognize that her life, like ours, is a series of “What ifs?”
Contemporary research on Nazi war crimes suggests most Nazis were Ordinary Men. Neither crazed nor fanatical killers, Christopher Browning’s landmark book in 1992 discovered that most German soldiers were pretty much like any other soldiers. They worked desk jobs, drove trucks, dug latrines, peeled potatoes, cleaned their rifles everyday for inspection, and occasionally used their guns to slaughter innocent Jews. Until Wendy Lower’s book, Hitler’s Furies, no one had ever examined what the women in Nazi Germany were up to during the Second World War. Not surprisingly, German women were just like German men. Half a million of them headed east with their troops to work as secretaries, nurses, Nazi teachers in occupied schools, assistants, and officer’s wives. Like the men they accompanied they were driven by youthful ambition, desires to escape restrictive families, adventure, and patriotism. And just like everyone else bathed in an upbringing of pervasive anti-Semitism, women were just as capable killers as their male counterparts. Many typed the orders for Aktions, filed photos of mass graves, accepted or selected looted jewelry, and occasionally pulled triggers or administered lethal doses of poisons. Though this book is written more for an academic audience and without a lot of effort to make it fluid reading, the ideas it promotes should not be overlooked. Yes, half of Germany’s population, the female portion, has been largely ignored, but upon closer examination, Lower suggests they were no less culpable.