June 24, 1941 – The German Army Occupies Vilna

As the Holocaust Museum online site explains:

Under the terms of the German-Soviet Pact, Vilna, along with the rest of eastern Poland, was occupied by Soviet forces in late September 1939. In October 1939, the Soviet Union transferred the Vilna region to Lithuania. The population of the city was 200,000 at this time, including over 55,000 Jews. In addition, some 12,000-15,000 Jewish refugees from German-occupied Poland found refuge in the city. Soviet forces occupied Lithuania in June 1940 and in August 1940 incorporated Vilna, along with the rest of Lithuania, into the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked Soviet forces in eastern Europe. The German army occupied Vilna on June 24, 1941, the third day after the invasion.”

German occupation of Lithuania during WWII

German occupation of Lithuania during WWII

The destruction of the Vilna Jewry began soon thereafter.

Vilna was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” It was an important center of the Jewish Enlightenment and had a number of famous institutes of research and education, including the Jewish Scientific Institute, YIVO. The book Stronger Than Iron reports on the fate of Vilna Jews from the moment the Germans came in June, 1941 until the Soviet liberation in September, 1944. Some seventy thousand Jews died. The author notes that “by the most optimistic assessment only one thousand Jews [of Vilna] survived.”

I have read quite a few books written by Holocaust survivors, but I think this one stands out because of the astute observation skills of the narrator, who was a prominent member of the Jewish community in Vilna, Lithuania. (The book was originally written in Yiddish by Theodore Balberyszki, and translated into English by his son Mendel.)

As you read about the amazing sequence of events that led both Theodore and his son to live in spite of all they endured, you will understand how rare and crucial this eyewitness account actually is.

One of two ghettos for Jews established by the Nazis in Vilna

One of two ghettos for Jews established by the Nazis in Vilna

Mendel Balberyszski, in his Preface, explains the title of this book:

“My book is entitled Stronger Than Iron, for a human being had to be stronger than iron to endure the savage brutality and hatred of the Germans and their Lithuanian helpers, who were determined to implement a policy of the extermination of Vilna Jewry.

One had to be tough as iron to absorb the blows of the ‘good’ German during the slave labor; to survive when the body was swollen from hunger; to overcome disease and lice and to work from dawn till night in rain, snow, blizzards, winds, frost and heat.

“One had to be tough as iron not to collapse physically as well as morally when witnessing the pain of an old mother, of one’s wife and most importantly of one’s little children who all of a sudden, from a beautiful, cultured, materially secure life, were thrown into the abyss of need, confinement, dirt, hunger and horrible suffering.”

Evaluation: I will say that, in spite of having read many survivor accounts, I found this book riveting. If you are at all interested in this genre, this is a book you won’t want to miss.

Note: There is a good article on Vilna Jewry and what happened to them on the online site of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, here.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Gefen Books, 2011


Review of “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan

The principle thesis of Peter Frankopan’s thought-provoking history The Silk Roads is that westerners (Europeans and Americans) have greatly underestimated the influence on their own history of events occurring in Central Asia (along the “Silk Roads”). While the West tends to see itself at the apex of civilized peoples, in fact, it is the countries of the East that have been at the very center of history from the beginning: “It was here that Civilisation was born.” And it was at the intersections between east and west that great cities arose famed for their innovations that advanced and enhanced “the world’s central nervous system.”

Frankopan employs this thesis to organize and analyze significant time spans. He begins with Alexander the Great, but not by focusing on Alexander’s impact in Greece. Rather, he examines his influence on Asia Minor, Persia, and farther east where the successors to his conquests continued to rule for many years. One of Alexander’s captains, Seleucus, founded a dynasty of his own, the Seleucids, that ruled from the Tigris to the Himalayas for three centuries. During the reign of the Seleucids, long-distance trade of high value goods, from pottery to spices to horses, burgeoned.

Trade items going back and forth across both land and sea that had a great effect on the countries involved included furs, slaves, precious metals, and grains. But it was silk, primarily from China, Frankopan avers, that performed the most important role in the ancient world. Silk served as a reliable international currency as well as a luxury product, increasingly in demand by the rich and powerful as cities in the West prospered. Its importance guaranteed that the West would continue to seek interaction with the East.

For all that we in the West look to the Roman Empire as a seminal innovator, Frankopan points out that “Rome’s eyes were opened by the world it encountered in the east.” In Asia, the ancient poet Sallust observed, Roman soldiers learned “how to make love, to be drunk, to enjoy statues, pictures and art.”

Soldiers and traders not only had their own horizons expanded by the East. They in turn brought with them ideas and goods from the West that exerted a reciprocal influence. Moreover, regulation of markets by countries affected by trade, and the taxing of imports and exports, led to political changes in all the countries involved. And political leaders, covetous of the goods they saw from other places, began to think about the feasibility of conquest beyond their usual realms of interest.

Trade wasn’t the only impetus of increased contacts between east and west. Much of the history of the world from the fourth to the twelfth centuries C.E. was dominated by the spread, interplay, and conflicts among the religions of Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Islam. Christianity dominated the Mediterranean basin until the rise of Islam in the seventh century, but Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism were contending for the loyalty of many more people farther east. The search for religious converts has always played a large role in the movement of peoples around the world, and religions in both east and west went through metamorphoses to capture the allegiances of rivals. Doctrinal conflicts served as tools to establish and/or solidify power (as well as in defining enemies, which is always helpful in fixing loyalties).

Spread of Christianity in the Middle Ages

Frankopan argues that Christianity would have been more successful in the East had it not been for Emperor Constantine I, who, by identifying his own empire with Christianity, anathematized that religion for his rival emperors of Persia and central Asia. By way of contrast, Frankopan attributes Islam’s early tolerance of other faiths as a key factor in its expansion.

Spread of Islam in the Middle Ages

Frankopan’s thesis of the importance of influence by Central Asia becomes less workable in the late 15th century when European powers made technological breakthroughs in ocean-going ship design and in weaponry. However, once petroleum became the world’s principal energy source in the early 20th century, countries in the Middle East once again began to influence if not dominate world history. As Frankopan concludes, “The silk roads are rising again.”

There is another way in fact that the “silk roads” are experiencing a renaissance, although it is beyond the historical purview of this book but relevant to its message. China is reviving the concept of “The Silk Road” to foster a new connectivity, as Huffington Post reports:

What Chinese President Xi Jinping means to convey is a renewed connectivity both within Asia and between Asia and Europe, both by land and by the sea, and both by means of strengthening traditional infrastructure and through building highways of trade, finance and cultural exchange to strengthen connectivity.”

China is already the number one trading partner of most Asian countries. With the U.S.’s withdrawal from international agreements, Asia is eager to increase it’s hegemony in world leadership. The so-called “Belt and Road” initiative is expected to funnel investments worth up to $502 billion into 62 host countries over the next five years.

Evaluation: This is a deftly-written book with intriguing insights that gives European and American readers a new coign of vantage from which to observe world history. Today, Frankopan observes, because of religious fundamentalism and sectarian violence in the East, we tend to forget that the countries that are now reviled as backward once served as bywords for “good taste in everything….” Frankopan shares fascinating stories from history to bring that important legacy back into focus.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, 2015

Book Review of “The Rock and The River” by Kekla Magoon

In this absorbing coming of age story, you will learn along the way something about why this country has had a vested interest in deifying the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and in vilifying the reputation of his more activist rivals for power in the black community.

In the late 1960’s, Dr. King was battling the more militant elements among the black leadership over the direction that the fight for civil liberties would take. (This was not a new conflict; Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois also went head-to-head on this issue.) Groups like the Black Panthers saw the non-violent, “gradualism” approach of Dr. King as too slow and too tolerant of abuses against black citizens. As Paul Robeson observed years before: “[I]n no other area of our society are lawbreakers granted an indefinite time to comply with the provisions of the law.” Magoon explains the philosophy of The Panthers, on whom this book focuses, in her afterword:

“The Panthers rejected ‘passive resistance’ in favor of self-defense and self-determination. They believed it was up to black communities to demand equality, defend their rights, and look out for their own needs. [To this end they] initiated landmark community organizing efforts to bring much-needed services into black neighborhoods. Their programs included free neighborhood health clinics, drug-awareness education, GED classes, clothing supply, tutoring, legal aid and referrals, free dental care, free ambulances, bussing families to visit loved ones in prison, and free breakfast programs for school-age children.”

In Magoon’s story set in Chicago in 1968, thirteen-year-old Sam and his seventeen-year old brother “Stick” are compelled to confront the difference between these two philosophies of the black civil rights movement, and to make a choice. Their father, Roland Childs, is a well-known (fictional) colleague of Dr. King’s and an important figure in his own right in the non-violence movement. But the impatience and optimism of youth are powerful catalysts. Stick begins to sneak out of the house to attend meetings of the Black Panthers, in direct violation of their father’s wishes.

Sam, younger and more trapped by the tug between parental worship and rebellion, not to mention the pull between love for his father and love for his brother, can’t decide what to do. He is also influenced by his sweet and smart girlfriend, Maxie, who is drawn to the Black Panthers. Faced with Sam’s vacillation, Stick tells him:

“‘Well, you can’t be the rock and the river, Sam.

‘The rock is high ground,’ Stick explained to Sam. ‘Solid. Immovable.’ ‘The river is motion, turmoil, rage. As the river flows, it wonders what it would be like to be so still, to take a breath, to rest. But the rock will always wonder what lies around the bend in the stream.’

‘I want to be both,’ [Sam] whispered.”

In the midst of the boys’ own political growth and turmoil, Dr. King’s assassination takes place, and Chicago erupts in riots. King’s death makes a profound impression on Sam:

“Dr. King’s speeches and his life were all about peace and brotherhood, about finding justice. And we listened. Yet, all we had learned was that when you stand up, you get shot down.”

The Panthers carried guns to protect themselves, but their purpose was deterrence, and in fact, in those years, blacks needed deterrence from the violence of the police perhaps even more than now. Ultimately their goal was changing hearts and minds, not killing. As Sam’s father (who, inexplicably to Sam, cooperated sub rosa with the Panthers) pointed out, “People are more afraid of ideas than of guns.”

Nevertheless, the story ends with guns and ends tragically, as it unfortunately did with dismaying frequency back in those years. And because I am part of a family with educators, I hear – also with dismaying frequency – “why teach that history to today’s blacks? It will only stir them up and make them angry.” And so it is not often taught. And the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for nonviolence is hyped and praised and honored with a special holiday.

The author states in an interview she gave to Zetta Elliott that she wanted to write this book because in school she only learned about the champions of non-violent protest. She never heard about all the social programs of the Black Panthers, nor about the effect that the threat of more direct action had on the government’s desire to appease Dr. King and elevate his reputation to the detriment of his rivals. With this book, she aims to contribute to a more balanced presentation of the history of the movement.

Evaluation: This book won the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent, was nominated for an NAACP Image Award, and has been named a 2010 ALA Notable Book for Children and a YALSA 2010 Best Books for Young Adults. It is an excellent way to find out more about relatively recent American history in a gripping format that provides a fair look at both sides of the question of civil rights strategy. I believe it is a must-read for those born after the events described in this book.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Aladdin, 2009

Review of “Over the Edge of the World” by Laurence Bergreen

In The European Discovery of America, Samuel Elliot Morrison described Ferdinand Magellan as “Tough, Tough, TOUGH.” Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World reinforces that notion, and in addition, gives us a detailed portrait of the remarkable man who planned and led the first circumnavigation of the globe.

It had been 27 years since Columbus had first reached the New World when Magellan set out from Seville in 1519. Spain had reached what it still thought was the “Indies,” by sailing west, but had not turned its discoveries into a paying proposition since the Western hemisphere had few trade goods, and the gold and silver of South America had yet to be developed. Both Spain and Portugal were aware that the South American land mass was very large, and neither had found a route around it or through it to the very profitable Moluccas or Spice Islands. Portugal, in the mean time, had reached the Moluccas by sailing south and then east around Africa. [It still surprises many people to learn that Vasco da Gama did not reach the real Indies until several years after Columbus had reached the Caribbean islands.]

In 1494, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull dividing the world for new discovery between Spain and Portugal, ceding to Spain all the undiscovered land west of a line 100 leagues (about 400 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands. Portugal was given all the undiscovered land east of that line. This compromise raised some very thorny questions. First, because at that time longitude was difficult to determine accurately, there was ample room for dispute about the actual location of the line. Second, the line was far enough west to cede part of what became Brazil to Portugal. (Later negotiation would fix the ultimate boundaries of that country.) Third, the line extended all the way around the globe through the poles, and no one knew where the line extended in the Eastern hemisphere. Thus, no one knew on which side of the line the Spice Islands were located.

Magellan was Portuguese by birth. He first tried to induce the King of Portugal to outfit an expedition to the Spice Islands by sailing west. Possibly because Portugal had already found an attractive route to the east, the king showed little interest in Magellan’s plan. In Charles I of Spain (later the most Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V), Magellan found a willing patron.

Ferdinand Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan

He obtained five well-provisioned and well-armed ships, but Magellan had a long way to go. For one thing, his efforts to provision the fleet became known in Portugal, and the Portuguese wanted to prevent him from finding an alternate route to the Spice Islands. In order to avoid the Portuguese, he first set sail along the coast of Africa before crossing the Atlantic. The crew might have inferred their destination from the name of the fleet, The Armada de Molucca, but Magellan kept their mission a secret for fear of mutiny. Moreover, the other ship captains disliked and distrusted him, perhaps because of his Portuguese background.

Magellan thwarted two serious mutinies from Juan de Cartegena, one of his captains. He merely demoted Cartegena after the first, but marooned him with no hope of rescue after the second.

Magellan endured horrible weather at various times during the voyages. He had to spend several months at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata before attempting to go farther south in search of the strait or cape leading to the Pacific. He was able to distinguish rivers from straits because they discharged fresh water. Finally, on October 21, 1520, more that 13 months after setting sail, they rounded the Cape of the Eleven Thousand Virgins and entered what later became known as the Strait of Magellan. Navigating the Strait was no mean task — it took 38 days to debouche into the Pacific. On the way, the captain of one of the ships of the armada decided it would safer to return to Spain, and snuck away instead of exploring the water ahead as Magellan had ordered.

No one at the time had any idea of just how immense the Pacific Ocean was. Nor did anyone with Magellan know the location or existence of hospitable islands. Once into the Pacific, Magellan headed west, with favorable winds, but still took 98 days to traverse 7,000 miles of open ocean and reach land (probably Guam) where he could obtain fresh water and food! During that stretch, he lost many of the crew to scurvy and malnutrition.

Magellan’s encounters with indigenous people, either in South America or the Pacific islands, were always fraught with danger and ambiguity. Some resulted in profitable trading and occasional sharing of native women, but several resulted in battles and mutual killing. The Spanish always had more advanced weapons and armor, but the natives were often lethal and always more numerous.

The armada made land fall in the Philippines on March 28, 1521. After impressing the natives with Spanish prowess in the form of guns and armor, Magellan made friends with a local war lord. Until that time he had been sagacious, disciplined, and prudent. But here, driven in part by a desire to convert the locals to Catholicism, he very unwisely offered his services as a military force to destroy the Mactans, who were enemies of his new best friend. The Mactans turned out to be tougher and more numerous that he had anticipated, and he and a few of his crew (mostly part of the Portuguese minority) were slaughtered in the surf while attempting an amphibious landing. Many of the crew watched his demise from the safety of their two remaining ships. Antonio Pigafetta, the chief chronicler of the voyage, implies that more might have been done to save him, but many of the remaining Spanish officers were jealous of Magellan and disliked him.

The surviving crew members still were a long way from home and had not reached the Moluccas. With the help of local traders, they reached the fabled Spice Islands and loaded their ships with the precious cargo. The return trip was nearly as harrowing as the outward voyage. One of the two remaining vessels decided to return by way of the Pacific in order to avoid the Portuguese navy and traders, who were present in the Spice Islands and in several settlements along the Indian and African coasts. They were never heard from again. The other ship, piloted by Sebastian Elcano, luckily slipped through the Portuguese and limped home along the better known route around Africa, arriving in Spain three years after leaving.

The voyage of the armada represented a tremendous exercise in heroic endurance and navigation. It did not pay off for Spain, however, which never developed a thriving trade in spices. Magellan’s route to the Moluccas was simply too long, dangerous, and costly. Spain’s fortunes were made by developing the New World.

Published by William Morrow, 2003

Review of “Symphony for the City of the Dead: The Siege of Leningrad” by M. T. Anderson

To say that a soundtrack would be useful or, indeed, desirable, while reading this history is an understatement, because of the centrality of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony to the story. And yet, in some ways the symphony is only a “hook” to tell the story of the rise of Stalin and more specifically, the devastating Siege of Leningrad during World War II. (The book is subtitled “Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad.”). Still, the creation of the symphony was critical for citizens of Leningrad enduring the siege, and this book explains why. [In 1914, the name of the city was changed from Saint Petersburg to Petrograd, in 1924 to Leningrad, and in 1991 back to Saint Petersburg.]

The story of the Siege of Leningrad, part of Operation Barbarossa, as the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was code-named, is remarkable indeed. The siege lasted 872 days (it is sometimes called “the 900-Day Siege”), and was the longest siege in the recorded history of warfare.

Invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazis

Some 2.5 million were trapped in the city. When it was over, it is estimated that approximately one and half million had died – more than the total combined WWII casualties of both the Americans and the British. Quite a few of the deceased became food for the living (a fact not disclosed except in rumor until 2002). What caused the citizenry to persevere? The author posits two seemingly opposing motivations: (1) intense devotion – to country – “Mother Russia” – in general; to the city in particular; and to other family members; and (2) a deep hatred of the besieging German army. He later adds that it was not only nutrition that was essential to survival, but morale.

“In besieged Leningrad”. Leningradians on Nevsky Avenue during the siege.

In addition, there was the incentive for Leningraders to assert their humanity in the face of so many dehumanizing forces, first by Stalin, then by Hitler, each of whom attacked the citizens of Leningrad in ironically similar ways. Both of these psychopathic autocrats in effect issued a challenge to the people of Leningrad: will you do whatever it takes to survive by becoming like animals, or will you work together, trying to maintain normality, and continuing to aspire to greater things?

Here is where Shostakovich played such a great role, with the evocative music he continued to create in spite of all the hardships and barriers to doing so. At it’s heart, the author writes, this story is about “how music coaxes people to endure unthinkable tragedy . . . how it can still comfort the suffering, saying, ‘Whatever has befallen you – you are not alone.’” [It should be noted that in Russia, literature, poetry, folklore, music, dance, and art play a much more central role in people’s lives than is perhaps the case in the West. ]

Dmitri Shostakovich

Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, and always felt a deep love for that city. But the city was only a small part of a large country, and he grew up in a tumultuous era, when many Russians were disaffected with the tsar and the direction taken by the Russian Empire. They saw the West, but not Russia, moving toward modernity and more equality. Intellectuals were further inspired by the revolutionary writings of Karl Marx. The first revolution had taken place in 1905, after which the tsar felt compelled to issue the “October Manifesto,” granting Russians “fundamental civil freedoms.” But social unrest in Russia continued and grew. Astoundingly, as the author reports:

“In the first year and a half of Shostakovich’s life, roughly 4,500 government officials were injured or killed in assassination attempts by radicals. In his toddler years, the government recorded 20,000 terrorist acts across the empire, with more than 7,500 fatalities.”

Engagement in WWI brought more disruption and mass starvation to Russia. Two additional, more effective, revolutions in 1917 – one in February and one in October – resulted in the abdication of the tsar and the coming to power of the Bolshevik Party, initially led by Vladimir Lenin, and later by Joseph Stalin. After the February Revolution, the country was in an uproar, and the eleven-year-old musical prodigy Shostakovich was inspired to compose a “Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution.” He got into the Petrograd Conservatory at the young age of 13, trying to focus on music while the rest of the country roiled in upheavals. St. Petersburg, now called Petrograd, “was wild with frenzied experimentation,” not only in politics but in the arts, and Shostakovich became a part of it. The “Futurist” art movement reflected these “times of hope and fantasy.”

Lenin tried to capitalize on the importance of art to the Russian people by insisting that artists reflect the party position. Lenin wrote: “The state is an instrument of coercion . . . We desire to transform the state into an institution for enforcing the will of the people. We want to organize violence in the name of the interests of our workers.” Art, including music, was to be a part of this coercion.

Vladimir Lenin

After Lenin’s death, the name of Petrograd was changed once again, to Leningrad – “Lenin’s City” – in honor of Lenin. Shostakovich was going through his own renaissance, having had his First Symphony performed in 1926, when he was only 19. He gained international fame after this. His Second Symphony in 1927 was written for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution.

Meanwhile, the Soviet machine as directed by Stalin repeatedly sabotaged itself. Experts on factory production were removed from their jobs because they were seen as being “enemies of the common working people.” During the first Five-Year Plan, more than four million in the Ukraine alone (six million in total) starved as their food was taken from them to pay for foreign factory equipment. The “Great Terror” was launched in 1934 in reaction to the murder of Stalin’s friend Kirov, although Kirov’s murder was attributed to Stalin himself. About a million people perished. (Kirov was a staunch Stalin loyalist, but Stalin may have viewed him as a potential rival because of his emerging popularity among the moderates.)

Sergei Kirov

In 1935 Stalin announced children as young as 12 could be executed as adults, giving the secret police, or NKVD, even more leverage against their parents. In 1937, Stalin imposed quotas for arrests for each region in the USSR. The author writes:

According to this schedule, a total of 259,450 people had to be arrested and sentenced to slave labor in the camps; 72,950 had to be shot. It did not matter who they were; all that mattered was that each region fulfilled its quota.”

When the NKVD was finished purging others, Stalin had the NKVD purged. Stalin also turned against artists, and Shostakovich came under attack for “formalism,” or paying more attention to form than content. He was also accused of being “elitist” and “anti-people.” Anderson tells an astonishing story of how Shostakovich was saved from deportation to Siberia at best, or execution at worst, only when his would-be executioner got executed first!

Joseph Stalin, 1943

Most of the accused admitted “guilt” after extreme torture. Eventually almost all of the Bolsheviks who had played prominent roles during the Russian Revolution of 1917, or in Lenin’s Soviet government afterwards, were executed.

In a similar way from 1937-1938 some 60-70% of officers in the Soviet military were removed, including 90% of generals. While this may have made Stalin feel more secure about threats to his power, it proved to be exceedingly crippling with the onset of World War II. Soldiers were not any safer than officers. After the war began, Stalin had “blocking units” stationed behind Red Army lines to shoot any soldier who tried to run from the Germans. By war’s end, some 300,000 soldiers had been killed by their own army for attempted flight or desertion.

At the height of the Great Terror, roughly eight million had been arrested, and about two million died in camps from starvation, exposure, disease, and exhaustion: “It was a full assault on the nation by its own government.”

Leningraders endure the siege

Stalin’s purges had begun in Leningrad: “They were that city’s first siege.” Anderson’s detailed description of the second siege, during the Nazi encirclement, is jaw-dropping. He shares gripping stories of the fear and hunger that plagued the population. During the winter of 1941, the daily bread ration in Leningrad was only 125 grams per person. While there were arrests for murdering people in order to eat them, the consumption of those who were already dead was common and not as harshly sanctioned.

Shostakovich busied himself creating music for the troops to help build morale. As Anderson contends:

These musical efforts were important. The Soviets were fighting an enemy who considered Slavic culture to be inferior, even subhuman. . . . Shostakovich wrote in anger: ‘Russian culture is immortal and never will the Nazis succeed in destroying it.’”

Shostakovich began the Seventh Symphony in 1941 when he and his immediate family had been evacuated to the countryside in Vyritsa, outside of Leningrad. He later remembered, “I couldn’t not write it. War was all around. I had to be together with the people. I wanted to create the image of our embattled country, to engrave it in music.”

In the winter of 1942, the second winter of the siege, Leningraders finally got a lifeline when Lake Ladoga, surrounding Leningrad from the east, froze over. Anderson provides a harrowing account of how trucks and sledges braved the ice to get refugees out and supplies in. While almost a million people got out of the city that way, tens of thousands died in the attempt, by freezing while waiting, freezing on the way, or falling through the ice. (In the first two weeks alone, 157 trucks broke through the ice and sank.)

Horse-drawn sleighs were the first vehicles on the ice road. Starving horses had to pull goods and people along the treacherous snow-covered path. Not all managed to finish the distance.

When it came time to perform the Seventh Symphony in Leningrad that summer, approximately half the musicians in the local symphony were no longer alive. As one of the group observed: “The first violin is dying, the drummer died on the way to work, the French horn is near death.” Three more of the orchestral players died during rehearsals. Nevertheless, the Leningrad premiere of the Seventh Symphony took place on August 9, 1942. (This date was deliberately chosen since it was the date Hitler had boasted he would be celebrating with a feast in Leningrad’s Hotel Astoria.) The performance was broadcast to the city and reached radios in the Wehrmacht barracks.

Karl Eliasberg conducting the Seventh Symphony in Leningrad on August 9, 1942

[In 1992, on the 50th anniversary of that performance, the same orchestra came together to play the piece again. Only fourteen of them remained alive. Oboist Ksenias Matus remembered: “. . . that symphony has stayed with me the way it was that night. Afterwards, it was still a city under siege, but I knew it would live. Music is life, after all. What is life without music? This was the music that proved the city had come back to life after death.”]

The author explains that “one way to understand symphonies is to think of them as movie music without the movie. This is particularly apt in Russia, where composers were often explicitly trying to tell a story through orchestral music. . . “ This was part of a long tradition in Russian music. Furthermore, the “miracle of music” is that it becomes whatever the individual listener needs it to be. Shostakovich’s symphonies, the author writes, “meant different things to different people, but somehow it meant them all intensely.” The theme of the Seventh Symphony could be seen as much anti-Stalin as anti-Hitler: “A symphony is built not just by the composer, the conductor, and the musicians, but by the audience.”

Shostakovich meets original Leningrad conductor Eliasberg and players at a 20th anniversary performance in 1964

On January 14, 1944, the last of the German Army was finally forced away from Leningrad.

Americans are by and large unaware that the Soviets suffered 95% of the military casualties inflicted on the three major Allied powers (the U.S., the U.K., and the U.S.S.R.) and that 90% of Germans killed in combat in the war died fighting them. As Anderson observes, “This was a considerable battlefield contribution made through a very considerable sacrifice.” Part of the goal of the Russians in prioritizing the publication of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in the West was “to convince the Americans that they were not the rude, cold Communists of capitalist nightmare,” and “to stir up American sympathies” in order to increase the likelihood of American aid to the Soviets during the war. Thus, the this book begins in June, 1942, with the top-priority flight of the music’s score across several continents during wartime conditions to reach the United States. It was the best argument the Soviets had to offer.

2017 photo of grave of Shostakovich at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetary, with an abundance of fresh flowers

Note: This book contains a large selection of photos.

Evaluation: While the portions of the book on the life of Shostakovich weren’t as interesting to me as the war coverage, I consider the detailed account of the Siege of Leningrad to be essential reading for students of WWII.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2015

Note: Literary Awards

National Book Award Nominee for Young People’s Literature (2015)
YALSA Award Nominee for Excellence in Nonfiction (2016)
Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor for Nonfiction (2016)

Review of “The Vietnam War” by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns

It was NOT the best of times — it was damn near the worst of times. The Vietnam war tore the fabric of American society asunder. Moreover, despite the loss of more than 50,000 American lives and more than 1 million Vietnamese lives, the war was nearly a total failure from the American point of view.

This book, informatively, if not cleverly, titled The Vietnam War, by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, vividly brings that unpleasant time back to life. It is accompanied by a film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The book follows fairly closely the narrative of the famous Pentagon Papers that originally appeared in the New York Times. Although it doesn’t have much if anything new to say about the war, what it says does so forcefully and graphically. The authors effectively employ the broad overview of an omniscient narrator intermixed with poignant asides from some of the “little people” most affected by the war, such as the grunts who fought, the surviving family members of those who did not return, and some Vietnamese from both South Vietnam (our allies) and North Vietnam (our enemy).

1965 photo by Horst Faas showing U.S. helicopters protecting South Vietnamese troops northwest of Saigon

Especially moving is the depiction of the final days of the South Vietnamese Republic. The North Vietnamese army was ineluctably closing in on Saigon while the American government was doing its best to rescue the few remaining Americans. But it had all but abandoned its former allies to their uncertain fate at the hands of their enemies.

1975 photo by Hubert Van Es showing U.S. citizens escaping from Saigon

Discussion: Some reviewers have criticized this book (and the accompanying series on PBS) for shifting attention away from the militarism behind for American intervention and focusing on sentimental stories of survival and perseverance. As U. Mass History Professor Christian G. Appy recently asked in an article for “The New York Times”:

Was America’s war in Vietnam a noble struggle against Communist aggression, a tragic intervention in a civil conflict, or an imperialist counterrevolution to crush a movement of national liberation? Those competing interpretations ignited fiery debates in the 1960s and remain unresolved today. How we name and define this most controversial of American wars is not a narrow scholarly exercise, but profoundly shapes public memory of its meaning and ongoing significance to American national identity and foreign policy.”

I don’t disagree with these criticisms. But the anecdotal approach taken by the authors to accompany the drier histories is not without merit, if accompanied by more rigorous analyses.

I do not agree, however, with the contention that America is still significantly divided over Vietnam. The country is divided over plenty, but I don’t see Vietnam at the top of the list. It would be more accurate, in my opinion, to say that America is still divided over the Civil War and the racism that informed both the conflict and its aftermath.

Civil War not yet over: Confederate flags at a rally on July 8, 2017

I also was disappointed that the authors did not give more attention to the use of Agent Orange by the Americans. Between 2 and 5 million Vietnamese people were exposed to the toxic chemical, which poisoned the soil, river systems, lakes and rice paddies of Vietnam, and entered the food chain. Large tracts of that land remain degraded and unproductive to this day.

Moreover, birth defects in those who were exposed have been extensively documented, both among the Vietnamese and the American pilots who disseminated the agent. As Propublica reported, “the odds of having a child born with birth defects were more than a third higher for veterans exposed to Agent Orange than for those who weren’t.” You can read more about harm to American veterans here and here. Needless to say, the profound lingering effects on the Vietnamese are even greater.

Planes spraying Agent Orange 20 miles southeast of Saigon in 1970. Credit Dick Swanson/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

This important “legacy” of the Vietnam War deserves as much attention as any other.

Note: There is a PBS website to accompany the book and television series which includes resources for veterans, a reading list, photos, videos, and music lists.

Evaluation: This book is a good introduction to the war for young people who did not live through those times and a decent, if sometimes unpleasant, reminder to those of us who did.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in hardcover by Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2017

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to the audio version of the book, capably read by Ken Burns, who excels at media presentations. Many of the interviewees are also featured in the recording, which added auditory interest.

Published abridged on 8 CDs (approximately 10 listening hours) by Penguin Random House Audio, 2017

Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The Tudors” by Rupert Matthews

This small book on the Tudors is replete with excellent pictures, entertaining fact-boxes, and reader-friendly infographics.


I was eager to read this book. I didn’t make it through Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed book Wolf Hall because I couldn’t tell all the Thomas’ apart. Or the Catherines, Elizabeths, Henrys, or Richards. Who can keep them straight? So I was excited for any new enlightenment I could get from this new entry in the “50 Things You Should Know” series.

The era of Tudor monarchs in England lasted from 1485 to 1603. This book provides nice background on the wars between branches of the royal family – the Lancasters (which included the Tudors) and the Yorks.

I would have liked to see more on the 1485 Battle of Bosworth, one of the most interesting battles in British history, in my opinion. This is where Richard III was betrayed and hacked up by supporters of Henry Tudor. Richard, as you may know, is the one who (allegedly) arranged for the murder of his two nephews (aged 9 and 12) in the Tower of London. Richard was supposed to be their “protector.” [Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III as a monster, albeit one with great lines (“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York…”), and his fingering of Richard for the crime had a great influence on the historical record.]

Portrait of Richard III by an unknown artist. (National Portrait Gallery)

Portrait of Richard III by an unknown artist. (National Portrait Gallery)

How Henry Tudor managed this battlefield victory is a riveting story of greed for power and land, insecurity, fear, paranoia and bribery, and goes far to illustrate the nature of political life in this period. (Historian Desmond Seward goes into great detail on these issues in a number of books on the Tudors. Another good resource is Richard III: The Maligned King by Annette Carson.)

Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) gets a lot of play in this book. There is, for example, a spread entitled “Marriage Troubles.” [One of those troubles probably would not have been getting the names wrong of his wives, since there were two Annes and three Catherines (albeit spelled differently). One additional wife, Jane Seymour, might have worked out since she actually produced an heir for Henry, but she died soon after childbirth.]

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger circa 1540

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger circa 1540

Henry’s attitude toward marriage was never without repercussions. He declared war on Scotland to force agreement to a marriage between his son Edward and the infant Mary, Queen of Scots. (Since Edward himself was only nine when he became king, there wasn’t much of an age difference…)

There were also a number of religious wars, initiated after Parliament – at Henry VIII’s instigation – made him head of the Church of England, so he could carry on with his annulments and remarriages.

And religious turmoil was not only related to Henry VIII’s interest in serial marriages. This was also the era of the Reformation and Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), causing a great deal of upheaval, as well as dissent over revisions of the Book of Common Prayer. Then there was the see-sawing of the religious affiliation of the royals. When the Catholic Mary I came into power in 1553, she decided to bring back Catholicism, and ordered hundreds of executions, earning the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Her successor, Elizabeth I, was a Protestant. Now Catholic services were outlawed, and this time it was the Catholics’ turn to be drawn and quartered.

Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I

When Elizabeth died in 1603, King James VI of Scotland came to London to rule as King James I and the Tudor period was said to be at an end. Even though James VI was the great-grandson of Margaret Tudor, he was thus a Tudor by virtue of his female descendants, which didn’t seem to count. He was descended in the male line from the House of Stuart. The author does not explain, however, how consideration of this fact made James a “Stuart” rather than a “Tudor.” But the book makes up for brevity by all the fascinating trivia and factoids it includes.

For what it’s worth, after reading this book, I still couldn’t tell you which Henry or Edward was which, in spite of the inclusion of a “Who’s Who Family Tree.” But that is my own failing, or perhaps that of all these historical parents: couldn’t they come up with different names? Thank heavens for the 20th and 21st centuries, when we have more distinctive names for kids like Apple and North and so on. [It’s too bad no one we know of before 2015 (Lil’ Kim, we’re looking at you), came up with the potentially great Tudor name for a baby, “Royal Reign.”]

Evaluation:  There is good reason for the continuing popularity of books and television series and movies about the Tudors – between the political machinations, religious turmoil, sex, violence, assassinations, plotting, jealousies and betrayals, there is really never a dull moment. The author found many ways to include engrossing aspects of a huge subject. I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the history lessons in this book.

Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk and Henry VIII's closest friend, in BBC's The Tudors

Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk and Henry VIII’s closest friend, in BBC’s The Tudors

The real Charles Brandon at the time of his marriage to Princess Mary Tudor - give me the BBC Brandon any time!

The real Charles Brandon at the time of his marriage to Princess Mary Tudor – give me the BBC Brandon any time!

Rating:  3.5/5

Published in the US. by QEB Publishing, 2016