January 19, 1945 – Soviet Army Liberated Lodz Ghetto in Poland

On November 7, 1939, Lodz was incorporated into the Third Reich and the Nazi’s changed its name to Litzmannstadt (“Litzmann’s city”) – named after a German general who died while attempting to conquer Lodz in World War I.

The Nazis wanted Jews concentrated in one area to facilitate their transfer and/or elimination. A couple of ghettos had already been established in other parts of Poland, but with much smaller Jewish populations. Lodz had a Jewish population estimated at 230,000, living throughout the city.

On February 8, 1940, the order to establish the Lodz ghetto was announced. An area of only 4.3 square kilometers was designated and Jews from throughout the city were ordered to move into the sectioned off area. The Jews were packed tightly within the confines of the ghetto with an average of 3.5 people per room. In April a fence went up surrounding the ghetto and on May 1, 1940, only eight months after the German invasion, the Lodz ghetto was officially sealed.

A German postcard showing the entrance to the Lodz ghetto. The sign reads "Jewish residential area—entry forbidden." Lodz, Poland, 1940-1941. — US Holocaust Memorial Museum

A German postcard showing the entrance to the Lodz ghetto. The sign reads “Jewish residential area—entry forbidden.” Lodz, Poland, 1940-1941.
— US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Nazis decided to have the Jews to pay for their own food, security, sewage removal, and all other expenses incurred by their continuing incarceration. They also appointed one Jew responsible for the ghetto administration. The Nazis chose 62-year-old Mordekchai Chaim Rumkowski.

Chaim Rumkowski in Lodz Ghetto

Chaim Rumkowski in Lodz Ghetto

With 230,000 people confined to a very small area that had no farmland, food quickly became a problem. Rumkowski believed that if the ghetto became an extremely useful workforce, then the Jews would be needed by the Nazis and thus, the Nazis would make sure that the ghetto received food.

On April 5, 1940, Rumkowski petitioned the Nazi authorities requesting permission for his work plan. The Nazis eventually agreed that they would deliver raw materials, Jews would make the final products, and the Nazis would pay in food, but in an amount and on a schedule they determined.

Rumkowski immediately began setting up factories and all those able and willing to work were found jobs. The food entered the ghetto in bulk and distributed by Rumkowski’s officials. This consolidated Rumkowski’s power in the ghetto, since everyone’s survival was now dependent on his dispersal of food, of which there was very little.

Jewish children working in the Lodz Ghetto

Jewish children working in the Lodz Ghetto

As ghetto residents continued to starve, they became increasingly suspicious of Rumkowski and his officials, who appeared well nourished and healthy in spite of the rampant disease and hunger throughout the ghetto. When dissenters of the Rumkowski rule voiced their opinions, Rumkowski made speeches labeling them traitors to the cause. Rumkowski believed that these people were a direct threat to his work ethic and punished them further. When the Nazis later gave Rumkowski the job of naming residents for deportations, dissidents were the first to go.

Children in the Lodz Ghetto 1941

Children in the Lodz Ghetto 1941

Adding to the tensions were the daily arrivals of additional people. In the fall of 1941, 20,000 Jews from other areas of the Reich and 5,000 Roma were transferred to the Lodz ghetto.

Deportations to death camps began in January, 1942. Rumkowksi and his officials had been ordered in December to compile lists of those slated to go, beginning with 10,000 names. Approximately one thousand people per day left on the trains. These people were taken to the Chelmno death camp and gassed by carbon monoxide in trucks. By January 19, 1942, 10,003 people had been deported. By April 2, another 34,073 had been sent to Chelmno. In September 1942, everyone unable to work was to be deported, including the sick, the elderly, and children.

A destitute girl sits on the curb of a street of the Lodz ghetto sm

On June 10, 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered the final liquidation of the ghetto. Since the Nazis had decided to close the Chelmno death camp because Soviet troops were getting close, the remaining transports went to Auschwitz.

On August 4, 1944, a last transport of 74,000 Jews from Lodz was sent out from the ghetto on its way to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. A few remaining workers were retained by the Nazis to finish confiscating materials and valuables out of the ghetto, but everyone else had to go, including Rumkowski and his family.

On January 19, 1945, the Soviet Army liberated the ghetto. Only 877 Jews remained from the more than 245,000 who were interned in the ghetto since its opening in 1939.

Food pails and dishes left behind by ghetto residents who had been deported to death camps. 1944. Henryk Ross/Art Gallery of Ontario

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Review of “The Somme” by Peter Hart

The combined British and French offensive in the Somme River Valley of 1916 was one of the deadliest battles in the history of warfare. It lasted from July 1 until the middle of November when winter weather compelled a relaxation of hostilities. The British suffered 419,654 casualties, with 131,000 dead; the French had 204,000 casualties; the Germans 450,000 – 600,000.

The original goal of the British was to break through the German trenches on the western front, their first objective being the village of Bapaume, which lay about 5 miles behind the first German trenches. When the breakthrough proved impossible, the offensive continued in order to relieve pressure on the French, who were engaged in a battle of similar magnitude at Verdun. In the end, the British had moved the front line forward a few hundred yards, and the German trenches remained substantially intact. The village of Bapaume remained in German hands.

Bapaume, France, during World War I, May 1917

Hart’s narrative takes us from the first day of the battle, when the British incurred 57,470 casualties and 19,240 dead, to its sanguinary climax. He covers in significant detail virtually every significant attack, and there were many. His technique is to give a general overview, and then fill in the details with extensive quotes from letters written by the participants. Looking back nearly 100 years, one has to marvel at the literacy of the British army.

The book is a treasure trove for the serious student of World War I. However, it, like the battle itself, takes its toll on the reader. There were a great many individual attacks, all with agonizingly similar results: a heavy artillery barrage was followed by a “charge” of infantry men weighed down by their battle impedimenta, and a virtual slaughter in no man’s land. Sometimes the attackers actually made it to the German trenches, but even when they succeeded in taking the trench, they were seldom able to hold it because a prompt counterattack drove them back to the original starting line.

Cheshire Regiment, British Army, in a typical trench in the Somme, 1916

During the course of several months, the British adapted their tactics slightly, but only slightly. They learned that the intensity of the artillery barrage was crucial to any success. They became more adept at the “creeping” barrage that landed just ahead of the advancing infantry. The men learned to use shell holes for cover, but usually found them already occupied, often by corpses. The first tanks were introduced by the British in this battle, but though they at first terrified the Germans, they were very slow and prone to frequent mechanical breakdown.

Hart’s criticism of the British generals, Douglas Haig in particular, is less harsh than that of most other analysts I have read. Haig believed that the Germans might have prevailed in 1914 if they had only persevered in their attacks a little longer, and he did not want to make the same mistake. Thus, the British Army dug in for the long haul, and suffered heavy casualties that it could ill afford, for insignificant tactical gain.

Field Marshal Douglas Haig

Moreover, to win the war, Haig reasoned that it would not be sufficient merely to take back the French territory lost. The German army had to be defeated. To Haig, it was a waste of manpower to engage in battles in other theaters, as the “Easterners” like David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill advocated. Hart opines that Haig and (his second in command) Robertson “may have been unimaginative, they were definitely ruthless when required, but above all they were hard, practical men and they were entirely right” in assessing how to beat the Germans in the situation they faced.

There were political as well as strategic considerations in play as well:

“Even if Haig had fully realized the depth and breadth of the losses suffered by his assaulting divisions on 1 July he could not have aborted the offensive without seriously jeopardizing the Entente Cordiale with France and Russia … They were unlikely to look on with any great sympathy if Britain tried to evade her share of the ‘butcher’s bill.’”

Evaluation: Hart’s favorable analysis of Haig is pointed and controversial. (Some of the epithets that have been applied to Haig include “The Butcher of the Somme” and “The Worst General of World War I.”) It is also very terse, taking up no more than 15 pages of a 550 page book. The remaining 530 pages support Hart’s characterization of the military leadership as “unimaginative.” I would not recommend this book to anyone who did not want to read a blow-by-blow account of a five and one-half month battle.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Pegasus, 2009

December 28, 1945 – Congress Officially Recognizes the Pledge of Allegiance

The Pledge of Allegiance, thought to have been written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, was officially recognized by Congress only in 1945. “The Pledge” was published anonymously by a magazine for young people, The Youth’s Companion, on September 8, 1892, and was written in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America. The published Pledge read:

“I Pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All.”

The Pledge was accompanied by instructions for a salute to be performed as part of the Columbus Day celebrations: “At the words, ‘To the Flag,’ the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.”

Francis Bellamy

The first flag salute statute [requiring children in public schools to recite the Pledge of Allegiance] was passed in New York in 1898, the day after the United States declared war on Spain. New York’s state superintendent, in his Manual of Patriotism, included five possible ‘patriotic pledges’ that teachers might use in their classes. One of these was Bellamy’s, but it was placed fifth.

In 1940, the US Supreme Court ruled in Minersville School District v. Gobitis (310 U.S. 586) that a local school board could expel students who refuse to recite the Pledge. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote:

So far as the Federal Constitution is concerned, it is within the province of the legislatures and school authorities of the several States to adopt appropriate means to evoke and foster a sentiment of national unity among the children in the public schools.”

In 1942, legislation was adopted by Congress “to codify and emphasize existing customs pertaining to the display and use of the flag of the United States of America.” The text of the pledge, as originally written and modified a bit by the National Flag Conference in 1923 and 1924, was inserted into this legislation (Public Law 829, Chapter 806, 77th Congress, 2nd session), but without designating it as the official pledge.

The small changes made to the text resulted in this version:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Congress also amended the Flag Code this year, substituting the original straight arm salute, associated with Nazi Germany, with the current salute of the right hand over the heart.

Schoolchildren in Southington, Conn., recite the Pledge of Allegiance in 1942, around the time the custom of placing a hand over the heart replaced the original hand position.

In 1943 the Supreme Court overturned the Gobitis decision in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (319 U.S. 624). Justice Robert Jackson wrote that the compulsory state action violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and that “Under the Federal Constitution, compulsion as here employed is not a permissible means of achieving ‘national unity.'” He famously added:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Then in 1945, additional legislation was introduced into Congress by Representative Herman P. Eberharter of Pennsylvania, which amended the 1942 act to give official congressional sanction to the pledge.

The words “under God” were added by Congress on June 14, 1954, in response to the anti-Communist (and thus anti-atheist) opinion sweeping the country during the Cold War. This addition to the law, sanctioned by President Eisenhower, is still controversial. President Eisenhower said in signing the law:

From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. To anyone who truly loves America, nothing could be more inspiring than to contemplate this rededication of our youth, on each school morning, to our country’s true meaning.”

Eisenhower was reportedly influenced by a sermon given by the Reverend George Docherty, who gave a sermon Eisenhower attended at his church in honor of Lincoln’s birthday.

The Washington Post reported:

To omit the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive factor in the American way of life,” Docherty said from the pulpit. He felt that ‘under God’was broad enough to include Jews and Muslims, although he discounted atheists: ‘An atheistic American is a contradiction in terms,’ Docherty said in his sermon. ‘If you deny the Christian ethic, you fall short of the American ideal of life.’”

George Docherty (left) and President Eisenhower (second from left) on the morning of February 7, 1954, at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church; the morning that Eisenhower was persuaded by Docherty that the Pledge of Allegiance must be amended to include the words, “under God.”

The legislation for The Pledge is found in Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 4 of the U.S. Code.

The Federal legislation does not refer to schools; it is state and local law that mandates recitation of The Pledge in schoolrooms. Students may decline to participate, although as even the Supreme Court has recognized, the consequences could be deleterious. Schoolchildren of minority faiths, by so declining, would isolate themselves from classmates and open themselves up to ridicule and rejection.

The use of the phrase “under God” is still being contested and litigated. You can read more about it in this Smithsonian article.

December 8, 1993 – NAFTA Signed Into Law

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on this date in history. NAFTA, a trade pact between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, eliminated virtually all tariffs and trade restrictions among the three nations. However, no protections were contained in the core of the agreement to maintain labor or environmental standards. As a result, NAFTA tilted the economic playing field in favor of investors, and against workers and the environment, resulting in a hemispheric “race to the bottom” in wages and environmental quality in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Credit: McGraw-Hill Education/Mike Wirth

Credit: McGraw-Hill Education/Mike Wirth

Americans were promised that NAFTA would generate large numbers of net new good jobs. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, economists largely agree that NAFTA provided benefits to the North American economies. Regional trade increased sharply over the treaty’s first two decades, from roughly $290 billion in 1993 to more than $1.1 trillion in 2016. Cross-border investment also surged, with U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI) stock in Mexico increasing in that period from $15 billion to more than $100 billion. But there have also been downsides.

Mexican employment did increase, but much of it in low-wage “maquiladora” industries. These are plants that moved to this region in Mexico from the U.S. near the border. U.S. companies were ecstatic to find that they could pay much lower wages to Mexicans. Mexican women work for approximately one-sixth of the U.S. hourly rate. The income one receives from work in a maquiladora is rarely enough to support a family.

Map of Mexico's maquiladora plants from The Cutting Edge

Map of Mexico’s maquiladora plants from The Cutting Edge

In addition, the dense number of maquiladoras and the inability of Mexico’s environmental regulatory program to keep up with the rapid growth of the industry over the past quarter of a century have contributed to major environmental problems. Both the United States and Mexican governments claim to be committed to environmental protection, yet environmental policies have not always been enforced. Some companies avoid paying disposal costs by dumping toxins and other waste into Mexico’s rivers or deserts. The United States Environmental Protection Agency reports that only 91 of the 600 maquiladoras located along the Texas-Mexico border have disposed of waste properly. But the women who work at the maquiladoras and live nearby have children who must then grow up and play in contaminated areas. (You can read more details about the hazardous waste problems here.)

Unfortunately, there were additional dangers for female workers. As reported by a Federal Advisory Committee to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

“Female workers at maquiladoras face especially serious problems. They often work in an atmosphere that includes sexual assault, violence, wage inequality, and discrimination against pregnant women.”

The continued willingness every year of hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens to risk their lives crossing the border to the United States because they cannot make a living at home is in itself testimony to the failure of NAFTA to deliver on the promises of its promoters.

Defenders of NAFTA have two main responses. One is that the low pay given to workers abroad is still more than they could have earned without NAFTA. But it is still mistreatment, and still not a living wage. CEOs back in the U.S. who make this argument make it from their corner offices in air-conditioned high rises with floor-to-ceiling window views of their corporate fiefdoms. They would never live or work in the depressed conditions that end up supporting their lifestyles.

Political cartoon by Nick Anderson / The Houston Chronicle.

Political cartoon by Nick Anderson / The Houston Chronicle.

Supporters of NAFTA also argue that the problems of inequality are largely the result of domestic policies and have nothing to do with globalization. Yet that ignores the enormous increase in bargaining leverage over all workers provided by the ability to shift production out of the country.

As researchers at the Economic Policy Institute argue:

The reality is that the denial of social protections in the rules of an internationally integrated market inevitably undermines the protections established in the previously separate domestic economies after decades of political struggle. In that sense, the ‘vision’ of NAFTA is profoundly reactionary: it pushes nations back toward a 19th century ideology in which government’s economic function is to protect the interests of investors, while working people — the overwhelming majority in each nation — are left to fend for themselves.”

President Trump asserts NAFTA has undermined U.S. jobs and manufacturing, but the Council of Foreign Relations pointed out that while economists acknowledge troubles with U.S. manufacturing, they claim it has little to do with NAFTA. They cite effects of competition with China as well as technological changes, such as increasing automation.

Nevertheless, in October, 2018, President Trump struck a deal with Canada and Mexico on an updated version of the pact, to be known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA. (To take effect, the deal will have to be approved by all three countries’ legislatures; the earliest that the U.S. Congress could vote would be early 2019.)

In the updated pact, the parties settled on a number of changes. Rules of origin for the auto industry were tightened, requiring 75 percent of each vehicle to originate in the member countries, up from 62.5 percent. New labor stipulations were added, requiring 40 percent of each vehicle to come from factories paying at least $16 an hour. Trump backed down on his threats to apply tariffs on Canadian and Mexican auto imports; the existing steel and aluminum tariffs, however, were not lifted. Meanwhile, protections for U.S. pharmaceuticals and other intellectual property were strengthened.

An analysis published by Wharton School of Business is generally favorable about the new deal, with Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Philip Nichols describing the USMCA as “a shockingly reasonable agreement given President Trump’s professed disdain for reasonable trade agreements.”

December 3, 1368 – Birthdate of Charles VI of France

Charles VI was known both as “Charles the Well-loved” and later as “Charles the Mad,” since, beginning in his mid-twenties, he experienced bouts of psychosis. These fits of madness would recur for the rest of his life. Based on his symptoms, it is said that he probably suffered from schizophrenia.

250px-charles_the_mad

Charles VI’s reign was marked by the continuing war with the English known as the Hundred Years’ War. An early attempt at peace occurred in 1396 when Charles’ daughter, the not quite seven-year-old Isabella of Valois, was given in marriage to the 29-year-old Richard II of England. The marriage is known to have been “childless” but that assumes you don’t count the bride.

Today, we still have a remembrance of Charles VI in our daily lives, although most people aren’t aware of it. He gave sole rights for the aging of Roquefort cheese to the village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, and all Roquefort must still be aged in the caves there today.

roquefort-cheese

And tell the truth: doesn’t it seem like, when you encounter Roquefort cheese, that it must date from around 1368?

November 13, 1805 – Napoleon’s Army Conquers Vienna with a Ruse de Guerre

On this day in history, Marshals Murat and Lannes of the French army crossed the Danube by the Tabor bridge and entered Vienna without a shot. The French spread the false news that a peace agreement had been signed, and Vienna had been declared an open city. By the time the Austrians learned the truth, it was too late.

Napoleon was ecstatic over this coup, and promptly entered Vienna, staying the night at the Habsburg palace at Schönbrunn.

Later, Napoleon allied himself with the Habsburg dynasty by marrying the Archduchess Marie-Louise, daughter of Emperor Francis I. They had one son, Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, known as Franz, Duke of Reichstadt, but he died at age 21.

Napoleon's son Franz, Duke of Reichstadt

Napoleon’s son Franz, Duke of Reichstadt

Review of “A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent” by Robert W. Merry

James K. Polk, the eleventh president of the United States, is one of the most successful yet least known “consequential” occupants of that office. Polk’s presidency lasted only one term (he voluntarily chose not to seek an additional term); yet he added huge territories to the United States. In addition, he put government finances on a dependable basis by establishing an independent treasury and helping to pass an important tariff bill.

James Knox Polk

Robert Merry brings the enigmatic Polk to life with his detailed biography, A Country of Vast Designs. In it, we meet other colorful politicians like the great spokesman for the institution of slavery, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun; the great compromiser, Kentucky’s Henry Clay; former president Martin Van Buren; and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. In addition, we learn that Polk’s scheming, ambitious, inconsistent, and somewhat disloyal secretary of state, James Buchanan, often worked to thwart Polk’s policies in order to foster his own presidential aspirations. And in the background, exercising a significant influence on political discourse and Democratic Party politics even a decade after his own presidency, was Polk’s mentor Andrew Jackson.

Polk’s first major accomplishment after his presidential victory over Henry Clay was the settlement of the dispute over the Oregon Territory with Great Britain, with whom the United States had jointly administered the area since 1818. Through tough negotiation and the threat to go to war over the issue, Polk was able to settle on a boundary of 49 degrees north, ceding to Britain what is now British Columbia, but getting for the U.S. all of what is now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.

The Oregon Territory, established by the Oregon Treaty

Polk also spearheaded the annexation of Texas, which greatly angered Mexico and triggered the Mexican War in 1846.

[Historians today generally concur with the assessment of Abraham Lincoln, a Congressman in 1848, who maintained that Polk had deceived Americans about the cause of the war, which he said ensued after incursions by Mexico across the border into America. Lincoln said in his typical style combining fact with humor:

I carefully examined the President’s messages, to ascertain what he himself had said and proved upon the point. The result of this examination was to make the impression, that taking for true, all the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the President would have gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter, that the truth would not permit him.”

Lincoln averred that in fact, it was upon Mexican soil that the U.S. commenced hostilities, rather than the reverse. But the country, driven by the idea of “Manifest Destiny” to expand the country’s borders, and avid to get the large piece of territory at stake for its own, chose to ignore the facts.]

The war continued until 1848, and became very unpopular. Nevertheless, it resulted in the conquest and incorporation into the U.S. of California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico. One of the military heroes of the war, Zachary Taylor, went on to become president.

A key issue complicating the annexation of western land was the expansion of black slavery into the new territories. Polk’s position appears to have been much like Lincoln’s early opinion: he wanted first to preserve the Union at all cost.

Evaluation: Merry paints a sympathetic portrait of a remarkable president. Although well written, the book contains a great amount of detail on the maneuverings of politicians and cabinet members, which makes for thorough history but somewhat sluggish reading or listening. It is a comprehensive work for serious students of history, but may be a bit much for the casual reader.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 3, 2009)