Thursday, January 27, 2011

Odds and Ends

Today's January 27, which is Int'l Holocaust Remembrance Day for those of us who choose to remember and who choose to think of the significance surrounding such a day. President Obama put out a press release on the day, as he did for other topics this morning, one of which was the murder of a gay Ugandan man, savagely beaten to death for speaking out on behalf of homosexuals in Uganda.

Perhaps most importantly, Int'l Holocaust Remembrance Day is an opportunity to not just think about European Jewry and the horrors that would nearly wipe it out 60+ years ago, but the other genocides that have occurred since, especially when the words 'never again' have been uttered numerous times. Those two words ring hollow to the ears of those people in the world who strive to prevent mass murders from happening. They also ring hollow when you look at cases like Bosnia and Rwanda, where the UN was on the ground, charged to keep the peace. And yet, in both instances, systematic mass murder followed, and perhaps, if it wasn't for Bill Clinton and others, it may have happened again in Kosovo in 1999. The threat of genocide is here with us today, as it was 70 years ago.

On the topic of Uganda and the brutal murder, I do not know enough about the country nor am I a close enough follower of issues surrounding the LGBT community to comment on it intelligently. Suffice to say, I support their efforts to solidify the same rights that majority populations enjoy, including marriage. I know from watching Rachel Maddow's show last year that Uganda has a real problem vis-a-vis their LGBT communities and efforts need to be put forth to mitigate the inflammatory rhetoric spouted off by their politicians and others. A couple of articles on HuffPost, here and here, advocate cutting off aid to Uganda in response. Again, not being entirely informed, I hesitate to put forth an opinion; but clearly, if the U.S. is sending aid to Uganda used by organizations that perpetuate hateful rhetoric targeted at the LGBT community, it must re-evaluate what it is doing if not stop entirely. With that said, the U.S. has some work to do in its own backyard vis-a-vis extending equal rights to the LGBT community as well.

As far as I know, Tunisia, Egypt, Albania, and today Yemen, have seen citizens taking to the streets protesting their present regimes. If there's anything to learn from this show of citizenry power, it's that the U.S. doesn't have to export democracy by force, nor should it in my view. Give an oppressive leader enough string, and they will eventually hang themselves. These nations, Belarus as well, somehow need to find what Poland found 30 years ago when Lech Walesa put forth what would become the Solidarity Movement. Eventually, democracy has the potential to take root, and with it, a free market economy.

And finally, tomorrow is Friday, January 28, one full year since I was rejected for a Fulbright to Poland. It does not seem like a year, for I remember the circumstances of the day prior, the day of and the weekend I was going into clearly. The email arrived at 5:24 pm. I received it after 7 pm. The next day, I had to be up at 3am to be at work for 4 to deal with changes JetBlue was making to its reservation system. The day prior, one year ago at this writing, I was in Polish class, beginning my second semester. I remember glazing over the first sentence of the email, the thank you for applying nicety, and getting to the second sentence, the one that started with the word "Unfortunately." I knew without reading the remainder what it was going to say. It bothers me to this day.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Words that shouldn't be used

There are few people in this or any country who can say something and have it reverberate in a way that produces countless articles posted on a slew of websites. Sarah Palin, yet again, has accomplished this feat. This time it's not "death panels," or "refudiate," or "palling around with terrorists." This time, it's uttering the words "blood libel," a phrase that goes way back and is one of the old myths that characterizes the Jewish people in a highly negative light. It goes without saying that there is absolutely zero truth embedded in the phrase, the accusation that Jews take the blood from a young Christian and use it for Passover matzo. Zero truth. It's this phrase that is said to have led to the pogrom in Kielce, Poland in 1946. Poles killed their Jewish neighbors, neighbors who survived the Nazi onslaught.

I believe that Palin borrowed the phrase from the day prior, where the Wall Street Journal had used it in a headline, as did a couple of other right-wing commentators, one of which was apparently Andrew Breightbart (sp?). My guess is, neither Palin nor whoever wrote the speech for her bothered to look the phrase up and simply used it because of how it sounds, and because the combination of blood with libel, they thought, conveyed what it was that they were thinking, which in my view is, that Palin is being falsely accused for what happened in Arizona on Saturday. The problem is, "blood libel" is not a synonym for 'false accusation.' So it doesn't work the way, I think, the Palin people think it works. Furthermore, because I am assuming that Alaska is not home to many Jews, and knowing Palin is not well-traveled nor intellectually curious, my hunch is that neither she nor her handlers are familiar with the myth. So to her knowledge, using it was neither here nor there.

This brings me to the point of this posting. Historically, using words like "holocaust" outside the context of what happened during WWII is largely considered inappropriate. When Alan Grayson used the word in 2009 on the floor of the House to describe the U.S. health care system, Rachel Maddow on MSNBC asked him three times during her interview with him if he felt using that word was appropriate. He finally climbed down from it, although at the time, I didn't have an issue with it, and I don't recall seeing much fervor over it in the press. The word 'holocaust' was in existence long before Hitler. The term was only assigned to the destruction of European Jewry in the '70s, with President Carter leading the way. This information is documented on the U.S. Holocaust Museum's website. My point is, if using the word "holocaust" outside the WWII context is not appropriate given its sensitivities, then we need to look at all words and phrases that should not be used outside of their acceptable contexts, regardless of how much drama they add to the argument.

If nothing else, perhaps Palin's inept use of the term has educated a few people today, given all the attention the media is paying to it. Education, especially when it comes to minority suffering, is always a good thing. It helps to open up dialogue among the few and the many and allows the majority to better understand the minority and where they are coming from. Putting to sleep long-held stereotypes is helpful, and if it happens through accident and happenstance, so be it. My guess is, Palin learned something new today. Unfortunately, I don't think she'll be going away anytime soon.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Richard Winters Passes

I've been dreading this day since September 2001, when Band of Brothers first aired on HBO. The mini-series started its run on Sunday 9/9; I remember it simply because the next weekend, they did not air the 3rd episode due to the attacks of the 11th (the first two episodes aired the first night). Oddly, last night I was watching The Pacific, and thought to myself how it's going to be 10 years since Band of Brothers debuted. Where has the time gone?

Richard Winters, the leader of the 101st airborne, played brilliantly in the mini-series by Damian Lewis, passed away on Jan 2. He would have been 93 in a month.

I've named this blog juin61944 in honor of what men like Richard Winters accomplished all those years ago. It was arguably the most important day of the 20th century. 'The Great Crusade' is taken from Eisenhower's "Order of the Day" given to the men on June 5th, 1944. "You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade." What a great line.

I remember taking the Band of Brothers guided tour in Normandy in 2005, surprised to be told by the tour guide that Damian Lewis is British. You'd never know it from his performance in the series, or his performance in the show Life that ran for two seasons on network TV. A great actor, and now, you can't see anyone else playing Dick Winters.

The men of WWII do not think of themselves as heroes. They were doing their jobs, whether they liked it or not. They joined, they went, they fought, those who made it through came home and lived quiet lives, many of them. I remember the advertisements for the series on the Metro-North trains, where the tag line was something similar to "ordinary men in extraordinary times." Indeed they were, and while it is predictable and entirely natural, it's sad to have to see them go.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Boy

In hitting the career reset button, my hope is to publish and be more active in 'living life out loud.' Great advice from the blogger, and expert traveler, who gives us The Art of Non-Conformity. Currently, there's a great website called e-International Relations, which takes published works from students and faculty studying international affairs. I've submitted the below book review in the hopes that it will be posted. Since it's very much on topic of what interests me and what this little blog is about, I've included it here as well. A very good book, about a very familiar and iconic photograph.

“The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is No More!”

The Boy: A Holocaust Story
By Dan Porat
Illustrated. 262 pages. MacMillan Publishing

The Boy: A Holocaust Story is a well-researched narrative that focuses specifically on one of the most familiar and iconic photographs from the Holocaust. Indeed, throughout modern history, photographs taken within the context of conflict have often captured the essence of “a picture is worth a thousand words.” They become etched in our psyche, recalled at a moment’s notice. Several of them can be recited from memory: the Marines at Iwo Jima; Vietnam’s Kim Phuc Phan Thi; the standoff at Tiananmen Square; the boy and the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto.

Written by Dan Porat, an associate professor of education at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, The Boy is not a memoir, nor is it to be considered a work of academic history. The book reads as a fast-paced suspense story, weaving together the historical backgrounds of the three Nazis who each played a role in the picture we see today: Jürgen Stroop, an ambitious SS Brigadeführer, assigned by Himmler to liquidate the ghetto; Franz Konrad, the man who took the picture and adjutant to Stroop; and Josef Blösche, the soldier standing behind the boy, looking directly at the camera.

Mr. Porat skillfully alternates between each of the three men beginning with pre-WWI Germany. He cites sources that provide the reader with insight into the lives of each, lives that can only be described as mediocre at best. Indeed, if the author’s work tells us anything about these men, it’s that they were not the inhumane murderers that they would ultimately become once the war and the genocide of European Jewry commenced. Further to the point, while both Stroop and Konrad would not re-enter civilian life after the war (they were executed in 1952), Blösche did, and quite successfully, marrying and fathering two children. After the Stasi discovered his whereabouts in East Germany, we are provided with letters written by his wife to the prosecutor, where she states “that after 17 years of marriage to my husband, I have now, as before, confidence and trust in him.” Blösche was put to death in 1967, never to read the final letter sent to him by his wife.

As the author changes scenes and parallel paths the lives of the three soldiers, he also integrates the story of Rivkah, a young Jewish woman active in the Łódź Jewish community who survives the war by securing false papers that would enable her to live and work among ‘Aryan’ Warsaw. Through the first half of the book, it is not clear to the reader how Rivkah’s story of survival intersects the picture of the boy, creating both tension and curiosity that, in hindsight, would be missing had it not been included. True, Rivkah’s tale of escape and elusion is not unusual when compared to other books written about the Holocaust. But what makes the Rivkah inclusion effective is how it wraps context around that very moment when the picture was taken.

As for the boy, the information shared is the information that is available from news clippings. What we do learn is how an individual in New York inadvertently arrived at the possibility that he might be the boy in the picture. To his credit, Dr. Tsvi Nussbaum did not emphatically state that he was the boy; he readily admitted doubt, helped along by critics who pointed out that the victims in the picture were wearing heavy clothing, indicating the picture was most likely taken in early Spring, countering Dr. Nussbaum’s assertion that the picture was taken in July. Sadly, we are left with a mystery that cannot be solved with any degree of certainty.

The Boy is a welcome addition to our understanding of what happened seven decades ago, for it differentiates itself by not simply telling stories of Nazi brutality. Dan Porat correctly believes that “to understand a historical event as presented in a photograph, narration is essential.” He achieves this through a careful mix of in-depth research and judicious imagination. To this last point, Mr. Porat’s use of imagination to round out the story “is disciplined.” He does “not speculate in the way a writer of historical fiction might. It is a controlled usage, aided by analytical tools and clearly circumscribed.” 

While the author readily admits to his use of imagination, he makes clear that the facts are taken directly from verifiable sources, and in some instances accounts were corroborated with a second set of sources. In other words, deniers, whoever and wherever they may be, will once again be denied.