The US and the Holocaust – BBC 4

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This three two-hour episode Ken Burns film made for some very uncomfortable viewing at times, and was clearly meant to.  I don’t think it was meant as direct criticism of the US, but it certainly raised some questions about isolationism and tight immigration controls at a time when the media’s full of reports of terrible persecution.  Viewers were informed that, even after the war, when people had seen the newsreels showing what had happened at the concentration camps, polls showed that most Americans opposed admitting refugees.  It also reminded the viewer of some of the less savoury elements in parts of American society, ending with footage of recent hate crimes and the storming of Congress.  There was certainly a great deal to think about.

The first episode, about the situation up to 1938, didn’t say anything that I didn’t already know.  I studied US immigration history in depth at university, so I knew all about the quota-based system and the eugenics-based arguments behind it.   The revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the WASP-only clubs, hotels and even housing estates, the German-American Bund, Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic propaganda, Charles Lindbergh’s American First movement … it was all familiar.  But hearing it all together, in this context, was definitely food for thought.   It was even pointed out that Hitler admired the Jim Crow laws and the deportation of Native Americans from their homelands.

The programme did try to present a balanced view, and it was made clear that, the majority of people in the US were horrified when reports of persecution began to come in, especially after Kristallnacht.  And the US did take in more refugees from Nazi-controlled lands than any other country, and there were some major anti-Nazi protests.   As the programme pointed out, organisations in the US which wanted to help were in a difficult position, with Hitler claiming that anything they did showed that Jews controlled American politics.  There was, however, also a fear that too much open protest by Jewish groups would lead to a rise in domestic anti-Semitism.

It was Roosevelt who called the Evian Conference to discuss the refugee crisis.   Pretty much every country represented there refused to do any more to help.

There were some absolutely heartrending accounts, mainly told through first person interviews with elderly people who’d been children at the time, of desperate attempts to bring loved ones to safety in America, only to be thwarted by red tape and demands for unaffordable financial bonds.  There were also accounts from Holocaust survivors, including Anne Frank’s stepsister.  It wasn’t just the quota system: it was the need to prove that the individual wouldn’t be a burden on the state.  It was a far cry from “Give me … your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”.  What vision of America did people actually have?   Or do visions not matter, only practicalities?  Unrestricted immigration isn’t practical, but should exceptions be made when people are clearly refugees, not economic migrants?   These are difficult subjects, and there was a lot of food for thought in this.   And of course it wasn’t just America.  Other countries did little to help either.

You got the feeling that FDR, left to himself, might have eased immigration controls, and brought the US into the war earlier.  But he was working in the face of overwhelming isolationist feeling amongst the American public.   Given the loss of American life in the Great War and the problems caused by the Depression, that was understandable.   It’s not the United States’ job to be the world’s policeman.   But was it her duty to stand up against the Nazis?

Of course, Pearl Harbour brought the US into the war, against the Nazis as well as against Japan.  By 1942, reports of mass killings were coming in, from prisoners who’d managed to escape and from the Polish Resistance, and then from Soviet forces as they advanced westwards.   There were some calls to prioritise trying to rescue prisoners, but the authorities felt that they had to concentrate on winning the war – and, at that point, Allied planes would have to have left from Britain and wouldn’t have been able to reach Poland.   Once the Allies were in control of Italy, the planes would have been able to reach the concentration camps, but didn’t have the precision to guarantee that they’d hit the gas chambers and not the housing blocks.

A poll in early 1943 showed that over half of Americans didn’t believe the reports of mass killings of Jews.   Even when the Soviets liberated Kyiv and American photographers took pictures at Babyn Yar, some of the American press presented the reports as Soviet propaganda.  It was stated by the programme that the government didn’t want people to feel that the war was being fought for Jews, in case that damaged morale.  I was expecting someone to point out a parallel with the Union side in the Civil War there, not making it a war about slavery – “Let us die to make men free”?? – but no-one did.   Most shocking was the attitude of the State department, which deliberately suppressed reports of atrocities which the Polish Resistance managed to smuggled into Switzerland, and stalled moves by the World Jewish Congress to send funds to help Jews in Hungary and Romania, then not under direct Nazi control.

By this point, the programme showed us, American Jewish groups were lobbying for action to stop the mass murder of European Jews, including a number of large scale rallies.   Eventually, in 1944, Roosevelt set up a War Refugee Board, which worked with diplomats from neutral countries to gain their protection for Jews in Hungary, and also bombed Hungary in a move to stop deportations.   After US reporters sent home pictures from Majdanek, liberated by the Soviets, people accepted that something truly horrific was happening, even if they couldn’t quite take in the scale of it.

When it came to the liberation of the camps and the end of the war, the programme did move away from American attitudes and focused on the accounts of the survivors, and of veterans who’d been amongst the liberators and one of the men who’d been a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials.   But then it told us that, even then, public opinion in America was against admitting refugees, and reminded us that the quota system didn’t end until 1965.

Then it finished with footage of some of the hate crimes and extremist marches which have taken place in the US very recently, and of the storming of Congress.   I honestly don’t think that this was meant as an attack on the US, which I love, which I’m sure Ken Burns, his fellow film makers and all those involved in the making the programme love, but it was a reminder that we – in the UK and everywhere else, as well as in the US – don’t always see what’s happening abroad as our problem, and that there are dangerous elements even within our own societies.  If you’ve read all that, thank you.  If you want to watch it all, it was shown in the US last year, and has been shown in both the UK and Australia, and possibly elsewhere as well, in the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow.   It’s long and sometimes chilling, but it’s worth watching.

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Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose by Alison Weir

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This is a really enjoyable historical novel, telling the story of Elizabeth of York from her childhood to her death.   It’s quite lightly written, but covers all the main events of the time insofar as they affected Elizabeth.

History gives us two versions of the young Elizabeth – the heroine of The Song of the Lady Bessy, working towards marriage with the future Henry VII because she believed that her uncle Richard III had murdered her brothers, and the scheming minx who wanted to marry Richard and was plotting it even before Anne Neville was dead.   Alison Weir largely goes for the first version, but works with the second by saying that Richard wanted to marry Elizabeth, talked her into the idea by claiming that Buckingham had spirited the boys away, then changed his mind.   We later see relatives of James Tyrell confirming that he’d had the boys murdered on Richard’s orders.

Elizabeth, Henry, Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville/Wydeville are all quite favourably portrayed in this.   It’s a very nice, gentle book, considering that it covers some very violent times!    There are going to be two sequels: going into the first one, it takes the traditional view that Arthur was always sickly, and that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was never consummated.   It takes the traditional view on pretty much everything, which I’d much rather have than people making up nonsense just for the sake of being different.

I really enjoyed this, and highly recommend it.   

The Faberge Secret by Charles Delfoure

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Oh dear.   If you’re going to write a book, at least do a tiny bit of basic research.   Set in pre-Revolutionary Russia, it repeatedly used the male form of surnames for female characters. and frequently failed to use the patronymic where appropriate.   Then it came out with this absolute classic:

“You’re still coming next week to my home for Passover?” asked the Baron as the carriage rattled along.  “There’ll be lots of challah.”

The story, if unlikely, wasn’t bad, but the very obvious lack of even basic research into the cultures of early twentieth century Russia just spoilt it.

The idea was that a close friend of the Tsar became part of the revolutionary movement, through a young female doctor with whom he began an affair.   They were both horrified by the pogroms, by Bloody Sunday, and by the lives of the peasants and urban working-classes in general.  It was an interesting idea, and it could have been a good book, but the mess-up with the names was annoying, and the invitation to eat bread during Passover was just the final straw.  Oh dear!

No Place Like Home – Channel 5

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I get very excited whenever a TV programme mentions the Cotton Famine, my dissertation topic, as this one did!!  I don’t usually watch this series, but I made an exception to see Victoria Derbyshire revisiting her childhood haunts in Bury, Rochdale and Littleborough, and enjoyed every minute of it.

It started by talking about a tannery works in Littleborough, which was founded by Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and produced two-thirds of the leather used in Army boots during the Second World War.   Then it was on to central Rochdale, for the familiar stories of cotton mills, the Cotton Famine, Frederick Douglass’s visit to the town, and the mill workers’ support for Abolitionism.   The woke brigade are always so busy trying to make out that Britain was always linked with slavery that it was heartening to get this reminder of how strong Abolitionism was in mid 19th century Lancashire.

Then finally it was on to Bury, to visit the wonderful Bury Market, Victoria’s old school – Bury Grammar – and the Peel Tower, and also Warth Mills in Radcliffe, which was used as an internment camp as depicted in The Girl in.the Pink Raincoat.  All in all, it was a fascinating trip round some areas which I know very well, and made for very entertaining watching.

The Voyage of Freydis by Tamara Goranson

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This, read for a Facebook group reading challenge (although it was already in my TBR pile!) was a story about Freydis, the legendary daughter of Erik The Red.  It didn’t bear any resemblance to the stories of Freydis in the Norse sagas, but it was well-written and entertaining.

(Thank you, Wikipedia!)  In the Saga of the Greenlanders, Freydís made a deal with two Icelandic men, Helgi and Finnbogi,  that they should go together to Vinland and share all profits half-and-half. When they got there, they all fell out for various reasons.  When she returned to her husband, Freydís claimed that Helgi and Finnbogi had beaten her, demanded that he exact revenge on her behalf, or else she would divorce him. He killed Helgi and Finnbogi as well as the other men in their camp, when they were sleeping. When he refused to kill the five women in the camp, Freydís  killed them herself.

In the Saga of Erik the Red, Freydis. She joined an expedition to Vinland and, when the camp came under attack from the “skraelings” (First Nations peoples),  most of the Icelandic and Greenlandic men fled, but Freydís fought back and the native peoples retreated.

She also appeared in Vikings: Valhalla, but that definitely wasn’t factual!

In this version of events, Freydis went to Vinland, with Helgi and Finnbogi, to escape her violent husband … but he followed him there.   Freydis became lost on a solo hunting expedition in severe weather conditions, and was rescued by a Native American tribe.  She then became involved with one of the men and conceived a child by him.

Then she returned to her camp, amd violence broke out between her party and her husband’s party; but she saw the enemy off and planned a divorce.

It was a very unlikely story, but an interesting one.  It was sad that Freydis had such an unhappy life in Greenland, but at least she got away; and she was a very attractive character.  I hope to read the next instalment in.the series soon.

 

The Convert by Stefan Hertmans

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Set in the 1090s, this is based on two documents from the Cairo Genizah, a collection of medieval writings found in a synagogue in Cairo and now split between several libraries – including Manchester’s own John Rylands Library 😀.

The author frustratingly fails to explain exactly which parts are based on the documents and which are his own invention, which is really annoying.   The story is that a Norman noblewoman elopes with a rabbi’s son from Narbonne, and converts to Judaism.  During one of the pogroms associated with the First Crusade, her husband is killed.  Two of their three children are kidnapped; and she travels to Egypt in search of them, and later tries to travel back but ends up in Najera, near Burgos.

The book is largely a series of journeys.  The accounts of the different places and life there is fascinating, although it’s strange that we’re told so little about what must have been quite a romance when the couple met.   However, a) it’s written in the present tense, which is never great in a book, and b) the author, as narrator, keeps popping up to tell us about his retracing of their journeys, which is decidedly odd.

It’s an interesting if often brutal and really rather horrible story, but I really do wish that the afterword about the sources had been clearer about what was fleshed-out fact and what was fiction.  It’s something different, anyway: I’ve never come across a book quite like it before.

Corsage

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This is a film about the Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, born a Bavarian duchess, known as Sisi, and still obsessed over by the Viennese tourist industry.   Despite the presentation of her, especially in a series of sentimental films in the 1950s, as a fairytale princess, she was a deeply troubled woman, as this film, set in 1877/78 when she was 40/41, shows.   She was obsessed with maintaining her slim figure, and ate very little whilst maintaining a rigorous exercise regime.   She also travelled a lot rather than spending time in Vienna.

The film gets what would now be described as anorexic behaviour right, and shows her travels including a visit to Northamptonshire, although it ignores her close connection with Hungary.   It also shows how she struggled with her official duties and the attention they brought.   I was a bit confused by the title, though: I would take “corsage” to mean a small bunch of flowers attached to clothing, but it seemed to be intended more along the lines of “corset”.  Sisi wore her corsets laced extremely tightly – and a title of “corset” would obviously be a metaphor for the restrictions of the Empress’s life.  So maybe something got lost in translation (the film is mainly in German, with English subtitles).

It ends with a suicide attempt off the coast of Italy, which is fictional and was rather depressing, but the general idea of the film, the pressure on female royals and to some extent on female celebrities, and the effects that that can have, is obviously still relevant today and rings very true.  Don’t watch this if you’re looking for something light and festive, but it’s worth seeing if you’re prepared for what’s really a rather gloomy story.

Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory

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  This is a distinct improvement on the two previous books in the series, with some of the plotlines moving into high politics.  One character joins Monmouth’s army, whilst another becomes a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary Beatrice, so we get two very different angles on events.  If you want good books set during Monmouth’s Rebellion and the Glorious Revolution, I recommend Pamela Belle’s Herald of Joy and Treason’s Gift; but this one isn’t too bad.

It’s got an original take on the Bloody Assizes, with the emphasis being on prisoners who were transported being “bought” or assigned to courtiers and other wealthy individuals.   There’s a rather unlikely scenario in which a young Native American woman pretends to be a middle-aged white man and no-one appears to notice that anything’s not right; but following her transportation to Barbados and life there makes for an interesting storyline.

Being a Philippa Gregory book, it also had to include some utter nonsense relating to real events – in this case, that there was indeed a healthy male baby waiting in a warming pan in 1688, although in the end he wasn’t needed!   And that this was the work of our “Nobildonna”, rather than the Jesuits.  Incidentally, surely it’s accepted that a form of religion, whether used as a noun or as an adjective, is spelt with a capital letter at the beginning?   This book referred to “roman catholics” and “protestants”, with small letters.  Very odd.

There’s some better stuff about sugar and slavery in Barbados, which comes across quite well.  Philippa Gregory *can* write very well: it’s just a shame that some of what she writes is such twaddle.  But, as I said, this is a big improvement on the two previous books in this series.  Worth a go.

 

Royal Mob – Sky History

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This – well, the first episode thereof – was acted out in a slightly silly way, with names flashing up on the screen to tell the viewer who each character was.  And it was odd that the girls’ brother was never mentioned.  But how brilliant to have a TV series about the fascinating Hesse-Darmstadt sisters – Victoria, later Princess Louis of Battenberg and grandmother of Prince Philip, Ella, who married Grand Duke Sergei and later became a nun, Irene, later Princess Henry of Prussia and, of course, Alix, who became the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna.  (Two other siblings died young, one of diphtheria and one of haemophiliac bleeding.)

The first episode largely covered the romances of the three elder girls, as well as their relationships with their British and Prussian relatives.  It rather unfairly claimed that Queen Victoria, played by Michele Dotrice – ooh, Betty! – tried to use her grandchildren’s marriages to extend her power over Europe, which was nonsense, but most of what it showed was interesting, if nothing new.  Thanks for this, Sky History: I enjoyed it.

Henna House by Nomi Eve

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This was a fascinating book about Yemenite Jews and their unique culture and recent history; but could have been so much better had the last few chapters not been so rushed.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic kingdom was set up in the area which we would later know as North Yemen, and a decree passed which enabled the state to remove orphans from Jewish families and place them with Muslim families.   In order to escape this fate, children were often betrothed at an early age and married as soon as they reached puberty, but, in this book, the family of main character Adela were unable to find a husband for her.  In the meantime, she grew close to her aunt and cousin, henna artists in a culture which prized henna, especially for brides, in a manner similar to that of Hindu and Sikh culture.

The first five-sixths or so of the book was filled with wonderful, rich descriptions of the lives and customs of Yemenite Jews, but then it suddenly started galloping along.  Over a decade, including the Second World War, the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel and the airlift of Jews from Yemen to Israel, passed within 25 pages.

Prior to that, we’d seen Adela and her family move to Aden, British South Yemen, with the journey and their new life there described as vividly as her childhood in the Kingdom of Yemen.  But then suddenly everything was in a rush – marriage, betrayal, divorce, emigration, remarriage, trying to integrate into Israeli society, learning of relatives’ fate in Europe … all within a few pages.  It had been so good up until then, and I can’t think why the author rushed the rest of it so much.

It was an interesting subject for a book, and it could have been very good if only the pace of the story had remained the same and it had been a third or so as long again.  It was excellent for about 260 pages out of 300!