Irving Berlin and Churchill

Did you hear the story about Irving Berlin’s lunch with Winston Churchill during WWII? It’s a very funny story, it’s true, and it’s part of the larger and very wonderful story of Irving Berlin’s musical This is the Army. Berlin wrote This is the Army both to boost American morale and to raise money (which it did, in spades). Although originally intended for a short Broadway run, it ended up touring America, being made into a movie, and being performed in England, as well as the European and Pacific theaters of War. The English tour was the occasion for this great story:

For prominent Americans wartime London was remarkable for the easy access they enjoyed to the highest echelons of British society. Berlin received an invitation to have lunch with Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street. Throughout the course of the war, Churchill had been entertained by dispatches written by the celebrated Oxford don Isaiah Berlin, who was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington. On hearing that the writer he so admired was visiting London, Churchill hastened to invite Isaiah Berlin to lunch. Through a bureaucratic mixup, however, the invitation went out to the songwriter rather than the political commentator.

On the appointed day, Irving Berlin presented himself at the prime minister’s residence, where he was escorted to a comfortable room and given a cigar and a glass of brandy. In time, Churchill appeared, still under the impression that his guest was Isaiah Berlin. The prime minister wasted little time on pleasantries. “How is war production in the United States?” he demanded.

Berlin was taken aback by the question. He was a composer and performer, not a war correspondent. “Oh, we’re doing fine,” he hesitantly answered.

“What do you think Roosevelt’s chances of reelection are?”

Uncomfortable at being called on to play political pundit, he gave the obvious answer. “I think he’ll win again.”

“Good,” Churchill replied. “Good.”

“But if he won’t run again,” Irving offered, “I don’t think I’ll vote at all.”

For the first time, he had Churchill’s interest, not that he welcomed it. “You mean you think you’ll have a vote?” Churchill asked, a note of wonder–or was it British irony?–creeping into his voice.

“I sincerely hope so,” Irving said.

“That would be wonderful,” Churchill replied, appearing to sum up. “If only Anglo-American cooperation reached such a point that we could vote in each other’s elections. Professor, you have my admiration. You must stay for lunch.”

Throughout lunch at 10 Downing Street, Irving was haunted by the feeling that he was well out of his depth. Why had Churchill addressed him as “professor”? He stopped trying to reply to Churchill’s probing questions and fell silent. Eventually Churchill turned his back on his taciturn guest. The awkward lunch finally came to a conclusion, and as Churchill left the room, he whispered loudly to an aide, “Berlin’s just like most bureaucrats. Wonderful on paper but disappointing when you meet them face to face.”

If you’d like a sense of the show, I’ve included a couple of clips below, one lauding the Air Force, the other the Navy. All the performers you see in the clips, incidentally, are real members of the Armed Forces (most with performance backgrounds, of course), rather than Hollywood stars and extras. Who you don’t see in the clips is Ronald Reagan, who was then a Lieutenant working in Hollywood on morale boosting projects, and who had a role in this movie too. Aside from Reagan, who served at the Army’s behest, there were other actual Warner Brother stars in the movie as well but, with the exception of a couple of George Murphy and Frances Langford numbers, they did not provide the musical content, which was left to the real troops.

And here’s a nice piece of trivia from the movie:

This film is the only one to star a U.S. President, a U.S. Senator, a state governor and two Presidents of the Screen Actors Guild. Ronald Reagan was President of the U.S. from 1981-1989, Governor of California from 1967-1975 and President of SAG from 1947-1952 and 1959-1960; George Murphy was Senator from California 1965-1971 and President of SAG 1944-1946. They filmed the movie prior to having been elected to any of the offices mentioned.

UPDATE: Perhaps because I’ve spent the last 30 minutes mentally back in WWII (an era that pre-dates my birth), when our country cared about the military and its fight to defend freedom, I somehow found startling the results of the gala for “CNN Heroes.” All the “heroes” sound like great people, creative and hard working, but I did find it a bit peculiar that, while our country is at war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the heroes did not include (and, indeed, the roster did not even contemplate) people whose heroism includes actually putting their lives on the line so that others can live free.

The whole free world should remember Pearl Harbor

December 7 marks the 66th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is certainly a day which will live in infamy, but it’s also a day that the free world should remember with gratitude. Up until December 7, while America had been helping England in sub rosa fashion, she had otherwise ostensibly sat out the war in Europe. The only country still fighting was England. Otherwise, Western, Northern, Central and parts of Eastern Europe were under Nazi control, while North Africa was held by the Italians and the Nazis. Every nation but England had either welcomed the Nazis, given up, or been destroyed into submission — and the sad truth was that England could not hold out much longer.

As John Meacham describes in the fascinating and delightful Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, Churchill was desperately working on Roosevelt to try to get ever more American support, including an open declaration of war, but time was running out and Roosevelt was playing coy. It was the devastating Japanese attack on the Pacific Fleet that catapulted a formerly unwilling America into the War. The Japanese had awoken the wrong sleeping tiger. Although there were many times during the course of the War that it looked as if nothing could turn back the Nazi and Japanese tide, it is clear in retrospect that Japan’s decision to bring America into the conflict sounded the death knell for those totalitarian nations.

And so I remember Pearl Harbor and the 2,386 Americans who died that day. But as a citizen of the free world, I also remember Pearl Harbor as the day the sleeping American tiger was unleashed, so that it could defeat the dark stain spreading across the world.

U.S.S. Arizona

Neutrality and truth

There is an extraordinary story hidden behind the latest album Swedish soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter is releasing. The album itself should be lovely and moving, because it’s a collection of songs from Terezienstadt, including lullabies a nurse composed for her charges in the days (weeks?) before she and they were shipped off to Auschwitz and death. What’s amazing, though, is the back story — the story that inspired Otter to make this recording:

Her tragic tale begins on a train, as so many war stories do. Anne-Sofie’s father, Baron Göran von Otter, was a Swedish diplomat in wartime Germany, adjutant to the ambassador. On the night of 20-21 August 1942, travelling from Warsaw to Berlin, he became an involuntary witness to the Holocaust.

Standing in the corridor because he could not get a sleeper, the diplomat saw an SS officer glancing in his direction. When the train stopped at a station, both men got off for fresh air. On the pitch-dark platform, the SS man asked for a light for his cigarette. Von Otter produced a pack of matches with a Swedish crest. ‘I must talk to you,’ said Kurt Gerstein.

‘With beads of sweat on his forehead and tears in his eyes’ (as von Otter reported to his superiors), Gerstein explained that he was head of a Waffen-SS Technical Disinfection unit, responsible for supplying poisons and gas equipment. ‘Yesterday,’ he told von Otter, weeping uncontrollably, ‘I saw something appalling.’ ‘Is it about the Jews?’ said the diplomat.

Over the next six or eight hours in the train corridor, having examined Gerstein’s papers and satisfied himself of his credentials, von Otter heard a detailed account of the mechanics of genocide, the gas chambers, the mass graves. Gerstein gave chapter and verse, the names of senior personnel, the look in a little girl’s eyes as she was shoved naked to the slaughter. ‘I saw more than ten thousand die today,’ he wept.

He implored the Baron to inform the Swedish government, in the hope of stopping the slaughter. ‘I had no doubt as to the sincerity of his humanitarian intentions,’ said von Otter, who promptly wrote a report to Stockholm and heard nothing more. Not long after, he was recalled. When he looked for his own report in Foreign Ministry files, there was nothing to be found.

Gerstein, after risking his life with further confessions to foreigners, gave himself up to the French in April 1945 and was charged with war crimes. In prison, he wrote a full account of what he had seen and a letter to von Otter requesting corroboration of their meeting. The diplomat’s reply arrived a few days too late. Gerstein was found dead on July 25, 1945, either by his own hand or murdered by fellow-SS inmates. He had originally joined the SS in order to investigate the death by euthanasia of his mentally disabled sister-in-law.

‘My father never talked,’ says Anne-Sofie von Otter with sombre concentration. ‘Not just about Gerstein, about anything. We didn’t even know that his grandfather had been prime minister of Sweden for two years. What I know, I heard from my mother who was with him in Berlin. But I had the feeling growing up that it troubled him deeply, not getting Gerstein’s information out, not being able to save Gerstein’s life. A strong sense of guilt hung heavily over the rest of his life. He was not a particularly courageous man, but he was always driven by a sense of trying to act and do right, something he tried to pass on to his four children.’

Von Otter’s career stalled, possibly because his 1942 report compromised Sweden’s blind-eye neutrality. He rose no higher than consul-general in London, and died in 1988. ‘He was not a happy man,’ says Anne-Sofie. ‘He felt a failure in his career, his family weren’t close to him and it must have preyed on his mind that millions of people were being gassed all the time when he was unable to do anything. Not to mention Gerstein’s death, a man of his own kind who was also trying to do the decent thing. He tried hard in London with me, the youngest, but he didn’t manage to be the sort of father that makes my heart reach out to him.’

That’s what political neutrality tends to mean.  Not a principled stand for peace, but actively turning a blind eye to evil (or as in the case of the Swiss, playing banker for evil).

Hat tip: RD

Giving aid and comfort to the enemy today and yesterday

During any other war, the following list that Vasko Kohlmayer complied would show treasonous conduct. In this War, it’s politics as usual:

• They have repeatedly conceded defeat in Iraq with Harry Reid claiming ‘this war is lost;’
• They purposefully downplay any and all American military successes;
• They have sought to portray our troops as violent and brutal thugs;
• Jack Murtha accused our soldiers of being cold-blooded murderers while John Kerry alleged they terrorize women and children at night;
• Dick Durbin compared our military personnel to Nazis and Pol Pot’s henchmen;
• The have sought to paint our military commanders as stooges of a manipulative president (the Petraeus hearings);
• They have called our Commander-in-Chief ‘stupid,’ ‘loser,’ ‘incompetent;’
• They seek to extend constitutional protections to foreign terrorists and enemy combatants;
• They have outed and obstructed an important eavesdropping program designed to monitor terrorists’ phone calls and e-mails;
• They are trying to eliminate crucial components of the Patriot Act;
• They have repeatedly leaked classified information;
• They lobby for the release of most Guantanamo Bay detainees most of whom are dangerous terrorists;
• They have sought to destroy the reputation of the American military by making scandals out of minor incidents (Abu Ghraib);
• They have portrayed America’s main terrorist detention facility (Guantanamo Bay) as a torture chamber even though it is the most supervised and inspected prison in the history of warfare;
• By manufacturing bogus scandals they have seriously damaged their country’s reputation in a time of war;
• They have forced the resignation of an effective defense secretary (Donald Rumsfeld) and a number of other administration officials committed to winning this war;
• They visit and praise America’s enemies even those responsible for the deaths of American troops (Nancy Pelosi in Syria);
• Dennis Kucinich called the Iraq war ‘wrong’ and ‘immoral’ in the presence of Bashar Assad, the head of the Syrian regime that is a sponsor of terrorism
• They want to run and cut from the battlefield in the middle of a war.

You can read here the rest of what Kohlmayer has to say.  (H/t:  American Thinker.)

We live in a topsy-turvy world.

In a somewhat similar vein, because it involves dealing with the enemy — although I’m thinking of dealings, not during the war, but once victory is achieved — I have to comment on something that flashed through my head yesterday as I was watching Ken Burns’ The War (which I’ve been slowing getting through, courtesy of TiVo).   One of the guys interviewed was a Marine pilot during the War, and for that, he gets kudos forever.  However, the things he said during the show make him sound as if, in the here and now, he’s a kind of ordinary anti-War Democrat.  Since I haven’t walked a mile in his battle tested shoes, I’m loath to criticize his viewpoint, but I can and will criticize something stupid he said.

Speaking of the enemy, he said that, by 1944, word was getting out about the atrocities the enemies were committing.  He added, though, that he wasn’t rushing to blame them, because he always wondered what Americans would do under similar circumstances.  A little “stupid bomb” popped off in my head, because we don’t need to wonder, we know.

During World War II, when it came to the Japanese taking over a territory, official policy (not the aberrant behavior of individual troops) resulted in the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan death march, and the civilian concentration camps in which tens of thousands of civilians were tortured and died.  (No link for that last.  I grew up hearing those stories from my mother, who survived the camps.)

During World War II, when it came to the Germans taking over a territory, official policy (not the aberrant behavior of individual troops) resulted in the Death Camps, which not only wiped out 6 million Jews, but sought to enslave and/or destroy whole populations of Gypsies, Poles, Communists, Homosexuals and other “undesirables.”  That doesn’t even count the horrors the Nazis visited on civilian populations without the bother of a death camp.  Mass graves still reveal themselves today outside of forgotten villages once under Nazi control.

During World War II, when it came to the Russians taking over a territory, official policy (not the behavior of the much tried Red Army troops, behavior that was indescribably cruel, but perhaps understandable after what the Germans did to the Russians) was to turn the territory into one giant Communist prison.

During World War II, when it came to the Americans taking over a territory, official policy was the Marshall Plan.   And you can’t downplay American humanity in this regard by saying that the Americans hadn’t suffered the way the Russians had, for example, so they were going to be softer and kinder to their defeated enemies.  To begin with, when the Japanese and Germans engaged in their inhuman conduct, they were on the ascendant in their wars, and hadn’t suffered either.  This was their standard M.O., and not the results of soldiers pushed to the brink.  And to end with, the Americans had suffered terribly.  The Marines and Navy in the Pacific, the Army in Europe, and the Air Force all over, had suffered unimaginably.  But at the end of it all, our goal, the American policy carried out by American troops, was to build up the countries taken in war, not to engage in the wholesale slaughter and enslavement of the civilians.  (The same holds true, by the way, for the Brits.)

And so I’ll say here and now that American and British values, at least as they played out during their peak during WWII, were better than other values.  They’re still better, although most Britains, and many Americans (notably House Democrats) seem to have forgotten that fact.  You won’t hear any moral relativism from me.  When American values are good, they’re the best.

An interesting movie review & what it says about American culture

There’s a new movie out about “homegrown religious fundamentalists who kill in the name of God” — and Manolah Dargis, who writes movie reviews at The New York Times really wants to like it. You’ve got to admire Manolah. After all, who in America doesn’t want a solid documentary about the homegrown Western Islamists who are engaging in an ever escalating kill cycle. I want to learn more about the very British boys who blew up 52 people and injured 700 others in 2005. Or about Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad, who killed 10 people and wounded 3 more in Washington D.C. And it would be interesting to get more information about the recent German discovery of a major plot to target American interests in that country, with one of the arrestees being a German man who had converted to Islam.

Frankly, I admire a Times journalist who appreciates a movie like this. It’s probably a good movie even if it doesn’t touch upon the homegrown terrorists in Iraq who are responsible for thousands of Iraqi deaths, or the homegrown terrorists in Bali who are responsible for hundreds of Balinese deaths, or the homegrown terrorists in the Philippines who are responsible for hundreds of Filipino deaths, or the homegrown terrorists all over Africa who are responsible for hundreds of thousands of African deaths, etc.

Wait! Gosh! I’m am sorry. Ignore everything I just said. I got so excited by the first sentence in Dargis’ review, and made so many assumptions about it, that (a) I didn’t read the rest of the review and (b) I read the first sentence wrong. Here’s what the first sentence of the review really says: “The first thing you should know about the documentary ‘Lake of Fire’ — an unblinking look at the violent fight over abortion in the United States, including those homegrown religious fundamentalists who kill in the name of God — is that it was made in black and white.” The terrorists Dargis is talking about are the people who target abortion clinics.

Now, before I get to the real review, about the real movie, let me riff a little about the attacks on abortion clinics. They were and are inexcusable and do indeed manifest the same religious craziness that characterizes the Islamists. Even if you believe abortion to be profoundly wrong and murderous, the people who work at abortion clinics are acting lawfully. In any civilized country, if you have a problem with legal acitivty, you don’t kill people, you work to change the law. That is, those who bomb clinics or kill doctors are no better than any other criminal. But the thing to keep in mind about the anti-abortion activists who went violent is that the heyday of that kind of violence is over.

Between 1993 and 1998, three doctors and four clinic workers were brutally murdered in four shooting incidents and a clinic bombing. There have been no killings since then. According to statistics kept by the National Abortion Federation, most violent acts have declined dramatically or vanished entirely in the last decade. Between 1977 and 2000, there were 17 acts of attempted murder. There apparently have been no attempted murders since then. The last, very isolated, bombing was in 2001, with bombings peaking before 1991. There are still random acts of arson but only 6% have occurred in the 21st Century. That doesn’t mean people aren’t still trying, but they’re trying less: while there have been a total of 93 attempted bombings and arsons since 1971, only 16% took place in this century. All the numbers are like that (declining) except for one — trespassing, which has increased dramatically. My suspicion is that what the NAF calls “trespassing” is what is reported in the papers as “picketing. ” That is, in lieu of violence, abortion opponents have opted for nonviolent protest instead.

Most importantly, the acts of violence come from loners. Every major anti-abortion organization condemns violence and the decline in violence means that their voices are the ones dictating conduct in the field. To the extent there is a violent arm of the abortion rights movement, it is small, discredited and increasingly ineffective. In this regard, the abortion rights movement is the exact opposite of the Islamic jihad movement which is encouraged from the top, which has almost no voices from within Islam speaking against it, and which is growing ever more aggressively violent. Keep those facts in mind as you read the rest of this post about the movie review.

The movie is a British 2006 documentary called Lake of Fire. One of the movie’s strengths, says Dargis, is that it interviews “heavyweights like Noam Chomsky” to make more “sober points” (presumably, given Chomskey’s presence, sober points about how bad the anti-abortion crowd is). These sober points are necessary because, in Dargis’ view, the filmmaker commits the unforgivable sin of showing abortion. Having teased you above with mere clauses and sentences from the review, let me give you the first three paragraphs, in full, including Dargis’ honestly stated reaction:

The first thing you should know about the documentary “Lake of Fire” — an unblinking look at the violent fight over abortion in the United States, including those homegrown religious fundamentalists who kill in the name of God — is that it was made in black and white. This is critical. Because the other thing you should know about this fascinating, discomfiting, at times unpleasant, confused and confusing film is that it sets off extremely graphic images of actual abortions against a notorious photograph of a woman who died after an illegal motel room abortion, visuals that are inflammatory if, for the most part, also germane.

Not everyone will agree about the abortion visuals, including, perhaps, those who worry that such explicit imagery can speak louder than any pro-abortion-rights argument. It’s an understandable concern. Because they are filmed (the dead woman is immortalized in a still photograph), the abortions are unnerving, which is why I suggest that the faint of heart skip the rest of this paragraph. After the first operation, a second-trimester abortion, the doctor sorts through a tray of fetal parts, including a perfect-looking tiny hand and a foot, to make sure that nothing has been left inside the patient, which might lead to poisoning or even death. The doctor then holds up the severed fetal head. One eerily bulging eye looks as if it’s staring into the camera and somehow at us.

My initial and admittedly angry first thought about these images was that the director, Tony Kaye, was just resorting to shock tactics. The film doesn’t employ narration or on-screen texts that reveal his views on abortion; instead, there are 152 minutes of talking-head testimonials, on-the-street interviews and archival and new visuals. This means that you have to pay extra-special attention to his filmmaking choices, to the way he juxtaposes sights and sounds and who gets to speak and when.

It is in this context that Dargis expresses gratitude for the fact that such Leftist heavyweights as Noam Chomskey and Peter Singer inject their ideas into the film. Incidentally, for those of you who know Chomskey, but not Singer, Singer is the Princeton ethicist who created the modern animal rights movement (PETA-style); who believes parents should have a 30 day window within which to euthanize less than perfect newborns; and who thinks bestiality is okay, provided that the cow consents.

Anyway, after this start, the rest of the review is a muddled mess about context and images and credibility. You can read it yourself, but you won’t learn anything.

For me, the review highlighted, not just the Left’s, but everyone’s unwillingness to look unpleasantness in the face. We no longer live a raw life. People don’t die at home, they die neatly in hospitals. Criminals aren’t hanged in public spectacles, they’re dispatched in quiet, clinical rooms. As a squeamish type, I don’t generally mind, but it does seem to me that it interferes with our ability to understand just how bad things can be. With the Iraq War, our dead or their dead are filmed discretely from afar, both out of respect for the family’s of American soldiers and for fear that it could inflame things.

But maybe people need to be inflamed. One of the fascinating things about Ken Burns’ show “The War” is the newsreel footage he shows, both from the late 1930s and the 1940s. Keeping in mind that this was an era when married couples were not shown sleeping in the same bed and when the word “pregnant” was considered practically obscene, I would have expected the news footage to be equally discrete. Surprisingly, it wasn’t. Starting in 1938 and throughout the war, the newsreels people saw in theaters graphically showed victims of the Nazis, the Japanese and the Italians. Whether dead or dying, there they were, skeletal bodies, whose missing heads, gaping wounds, or other terrible war injuries and insults were caught for eternity in black and white. Even more shocking to a modern American, audiences got to see equally horrible images of Allied soldiers too.

I think that the old-time filmmakers showed these images because they could predict the audience reaction: when the audience saw the horrors of war visited on the innocent and the Allies, they would be outraged at the perpetrators; and when they saw the horrors visited on the Axis powers, they would feel self-righteous vindication. Nowadays, we can’t be sure how people will react and, in the mainstream media, I think the Powers That Be are worried that people might in fact react precisely as they did in the late 1930s and the War years: with outrage at the deaths Islamists inflict, whether these deaths are civilian or military; and with grim satisfaction over the deaths of these same Islamists. And you certainly can’t have that type of reaction, since it is the antithesis of the multi-culti, PC thinking that has been drilled into us for so many years.

Cosmic ironies

Note: I originally posted this bit of family history in August 2006. I’m reposting it now, inspired by two things: Ken Burns’ excellent “The War” (I swear the man’s a conservative) and Ahmadinejad’s pretending that the Holocaust’s historical reality is open for some sort of debate. I think both — the one almost sublime, the other evil and ridiculous — are reminders that these stories still need to be told, if not by the first generation, the generation that lived it, then by the second generation, the one that grew up hearing about it.

My mother is a very circumlocutious story teller. She bounces around chronologically and is remarkably free with indefinite pronouns. This means her stories can be a bit difficult to follow. On the plus side — and this is a plus side that completely outweighs the minor difficulties involved in teasing out the facts — her stories are absolutely fascinating. She’s lived an incredible life, as did my father, and she has an amazing memory, both for her own family history and for my dad’s (he’s gone, so he can’t tell me those tales).

Today I got my father’s history, more of it than I’ve ever known before. My paternal grandfather, whom I’ll call Max, came from Roumania (or Russia). He was at one time a successful shopkeeper. Unfortunately, though, he had a terrible gambling problem, and ended up losing his store at a card game. With nothing to keep him in Russia (or Roumania), he ended up in Berlin shortly after the turn of the last century. There he met my maternal grandmother.

My maternal paternal grandmother, whom I’ll call Judith, came from the Galicia region in Poland. Family lore had it that her father was a prominent rabbi or cantor (I incline to the latter, and I’ll tell you why in a bit). When Judith was a youing girl, her mother died. In accordance with Orthodox Jewish law, her father married Judith’s aunt, who then morphed into her stepmother.

At some point in time, this family too moved to Germany. They must have had some money at the time, because they opened a cigarette factory. The factory was successful, and they eventually became quite wealthy. Judith grew to be a beautiful young woman (I’ve seen the sole photograph my father was able to salvage from his youth), but I gather that life in her stepmother’s home was not easy. A couple of half sisters came along (who were also half-cousins), and Judith was pushed into the background.

Unsurprisingly, when Judith met Max, who was quite a dashing young man with a handlebar moustache, she quickly decided to marry him and left the family home. Judith’s family did not cut off contact with her (Max was, after all, Jewish), but they certainly were not warm.

Judith and Max soon had a son (Judah), followed six years later by a daughter (Beatrice) and, after another six years, they had their last child — my father. Life was not good to them. Max was a mediocre breadwinner and, apparently, what little he earned got gambled away. Things became even more difficult in the years between Beatrice’s birth and my dad’s birth, because Germany became embroiled in WWI. A year after the war ended, Judith was pregnant with my father. Faced with a disastrous post-war economy, and with another child on the way, Max went off to America to make his fortune.

Max apparently did fairly well in America. He began to send money to Judith, begging her to buy passage so that she and the children could move to America. The marriage can’t have been a happy one, though, because Judith refused to join Max in America. Instead, in a series of spectacularly stupid moves, Judith routinely took the dollars he sent and converted them, immediately upon receipt, to Deutschmarks. As you may or may not know, post-WWI Weimar Germany suffered from spectacular inflation. One of my father’s earliest memories was seeing women with wheel barrows full of paper money heading to the stores to buy bread. This inflation meant that Judith, instead of sitting on valuable American dollars, immediately converted them into money that, by week’s end, or even by the next day, was worthless.

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself “what about the stepmother with the cigarette factory?” She was no help. She poured her energy, and her money, into her own two daughters, one of whom apparently was one of Germany’s most famous concert pianists. (This is why I think Judith’s father was a cantor, not a rabbi.) Not only that, this pianist was married to one of the best known German-Jewish writers of the 1910s through early 1930s. I’d love to boast about their names, but I don’t know them — that information died with my father.

Since Judith’s family didn’t cut her off entirely, my Dad still had memories of visiting the family mansion and listening to his aunt (who had beautiful hair, he said) play the piano in the parlor for him. When he wasn’t visiting his grandmother and aunt, though, my father lived in a Dickensian slum. His mother had eventually landed in a small apartment over a brothel, which meant that my father learned the facts of life early, and in the ugliest way. His sister and brother, who were so much older than he, fell in with the Communists, who were considered a very reasonable alternative for poor Jews in Weimar Germany.

Eventually Judith couldn’t cope at all, and she applied to her family for aid. Rather than using their wealth to help her directly, they put pressure on a Jewish charity to step forward and help her family. Over the years, this help meant that Judah went to the Jewish school for academically gifted children (where he was lauded as the smartest student in the school’s 200 year history); Beatrice went to a convent school, of all places; and my Dad ended up in a Jewish orphanage.

Although the orphanage’s head was, apparently, a woman with somewhat sadistic tendencies, there is no doubt that the orphanage was a good place for my Dad. It provided stability, good food, and a coherent family comprised of teachers and fellow orphans. Through the orphanage — and again with pressure on the Jewish agencies from his wealthy stepfamily — my father followed his brother to the academic Jewish school, where he acquitted himself well, although not with his brother’s genius.

And then came 1933, and the pressure on the family was on. Judah and Beatrice became more and more intertwined with the Communist party. This put them at two disadvantages with the ascendant Nazis, because they were both Communists and Jews. They did recognize, however, the threat the Nazis were to them. The wealthy stepfamily continued to exist in denial, believing “it can’t happen here.”

Although not a Communist, my father, by 1935, also began to understand that it could indeed “happen here.” The anti-Jewish pressure from the Nazis was increasing daily. The turning point for my Dad was a soccer game. It was a Jewish school vs. Hitler youth game. My Dad’s Jewish team beat the Hitler youth handily on the field. Unfortunately, the Hitler youth — and their parents — beat the Jewish team brutally off the field. Dad’s eyes were both blackened and opened.

In 1935, one of Dad’s teachers, Izzy, approached him with an offer: Izzy had been hired by a group of wealthy Jewish parents who had successfully obtained visas allowing their children to make aliyah. For reasons lost through time, Izzy and his wife, who were childless, were allowed to bring another child, and they chose my Dad. My Dad, alienated from the mother who had abandoned him, the wealthy family that wanted nothing to do with him, and the siblings that saw the Communist party as their real family, said yes.

So it was that, in 1935, my father left Germany and landed on a proto kibbutz in Northern Israel. I say proto, because the land was nothing but a mosquito infested swamp with a couple of shacks. Over the next four years, my father and his fellow kibbutzniks labored day and night to reclaim the land and create a community. They succeeded. My father, however, was not a social man, and the combination of years of communal living, whether in the orphanage or the kibbutz was too much for him. He left for Tel Aviv. Sadly, he had no usable skills for surviving in the “big” city and, by August 1939, was literally starving to death in the streets. War was a blessing. He enlisted the day Britain entered the war, and served with distinction and bravery through 1944, when he was discharged on medical grounds.

But what about the rest of the family? Judah and Beatrice were spirited out through Communist lines. Judah, the genius, ended up as a low-level embittered civil servant in Denmark, living in a slum of his own making. Beatrice eventually ended up in Palestine. At war’s end, however, she announced that East Germany was purified by Communism, and returned to Berlin — East Berlin — where she lived to the day she died. Despite Communism’s manifest failings, she never lost her faith in that “religion. Judith escaped from Germany and ended up in a Belgian convent, where she hid throughout the war. Family mythology has it that the nuns forced her to convert as a condition for keeping her, which may nor may not be true.

And how about those rich ones, the ones who refused to help the family, and who saw to it that my father ended up in the orphanage? They all died in the Holocaust. And that is one of the great ironies, isn’t it? Had they been kinder to my father, more generous and humane, he might have died too. As it was, their insensitivity and selfishness placed him in the orphanage, where he met Izzy, who took him to Palestine, where he survived the War and contributed both to Nazi Germany’s defeat and Israel’s creation.

And one more footnote about Max, the man who went to America. As I said, Max did fairly well in America. In another irony, though, just as the German branch of the family ran out of luck in 1933 with Nazism, so too did Max’s luck run out: he died that year when a streetcar hit him.

That ought to be the end of the story, but it’s not. About five years ago, a client asked me to research an obscure area of probate law. I couldn’t find any local authority, so I expanded my search to cover all cases on the subject, anywhere in America. I generated two hundred hits on the computer database. I was flipping through these hits in a desultory fashion, focused entirely on the legal principles, when my eye got caught on a case name. I gave the name a second look because it was a variant spelling of my maiden name. For the heck of it, I called the whole case up on my computer and began to read.

The case told an interesting story. In 1933, a man named Max died in New York City. His widow, who lived in Germany, asked the German government to act as her agent in the New York probate court. The local representative for Max’s estate, however, protested this move. He pointed out that, by 1938, when the court issued the case I read, Germany had imposed a multi-million dollar fine against all Jews, meaning that it was unlikely to turn over the money to the widow and her children. More to the point, the local representative pointed out — and the German government agency appearing in the New York court conceded — the family had dispersed. The mother was in Belgium, the older son was in Denmark, and the daughter and the “infant” son were in Palestine. On these facts, the court rightly concluded that it would be a travesty to give the money into German keeping and denied the German petition for the money.

I got a very peculiar feeling reading the case, and carefully examined the names of the widow and her three children. I didn’t recognize the widow’s name — Judith — but it couldn’t be a coincidence that the three children shared my aunt’s, my uncle’s, and my father’s names. A phone call to my mother confirmed that Judith was indeed my maternal grandmother and it become very clear that, by sheer dumb luck, out of the huge body of American law, I stumbled across a little piece of my family history and of American-German legal history in the 1930s.

Ken Burns’ “The War”

Ken Burns’ new series about World War II is off to a good start although his stately pace can often be somewhat sleep inducing.  It’s one of those slightly bizarre situations where it’s worth your while to force yourself to stay awake.

Part of the first episode includes a run-down of what Americans were watching in the lead-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor:  they were watching three Axis powers, each of which considered its race superior to all others and each of which believed that its racial superiority justified its conquering lands and killing people.  It occurred to me that those who love the Bushitler analogy, and who constantly liken America’s current war to some imperialist Nazi act of aggression are missing something very fundamental.  Americans do have a superiority complex, but it’s not racial.  Instead, we believe that our values are superior.  But values, unlike race, are exportable.  We don’t need to murder to prove our superiority.  Our culture is what it is, and people who seek freedom inevitably drift in our direction.

In this regard, it’s worth comparing us to the Jihadists, who have taken a religion and elevated it to the same status as a race. They believe that they are so far superior to other people that it is totally okay to squash other people like flies, to murder them and their children, and to occupy their countries as if the native people were not there.  There is no moral equivalence between them and us.  In their outlook, they are precisely the same as the Nazis, and the World War II Japanese and Italians.  And we, in the 20th and 21st Centuries, have never changed:  our affirmative actions, when we’re not called upon to defend ourselves against attacks such as Pearl Harbor or 9/11, consist of exporting our freedom and our culture, and that is all.