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


June 21, 1811 – John Adams writes of George Washington’s Theatricality

As historian Gordon Wood observed in the May 25, 2017 “New York Review of Books,” George Washington “faced the awesome task of fashioning the character and responsibilities of the office [of President]. To that end, “[h]e commonly saw himself as an actor on stage and was always concerned with maintaining appearances.”

On this day in history, John Adams was thinking of that aspect of Washington when he wrote to his friend Benjamin Rush, reporting on his current life and thinking. Adams began with family news, and then wrote, “And now how Shall I turn my Thoughts from this good humoured Small Talk, to the angry, turbulent Stormy Science of Politicks.”

John Adams

Writing about politicians, he commented on how much of politics is theater, observing that:

Washington understood this Art very well, and We may say of him, if he was not the greatest President he was the best Actor of Presidency We have ever had. His Address to The States when he left the Army; His solemn Leave taken of Congress when he re[s]igned his Commission; his Farewell Address to the People when he resigned his Presidency. These were all in a strain of Shakespearean and Garrickal Excellence in Dramatic Exhibitions.”

Ron Chernow, in his biography of Washington, also wrote about Washington’s awareness of his image and the steps he took to manipulate it:

Aware of how impressive he looked atop a white mount, he once instructed a friend to buy him a horse, specifying that he ‘would prefer a perfect white.’ … So taken was Washington with his unblemished chargers that he had grooms rub them with white paste at night, bundle them in cloths, then bed them down on fresh straw. In the morning the hardened white paste gleamed, its paleness accentuated by black polish applied to the horses’ hooves. For command performances, the animals’ mouths were rinsed and their teeth scrubbed.”

Washington on a white horse

You can read Adams’ entire letter here.

June 14, 1838 – U.S. Congressman Benjamin Howard Expresses His Regret that Women are Straying from Their Proper Sphere

Benjamin Chew Howard was an American congressman from Baltimore County, Maryland. His father was John Eager Howard, a Revolutionary War officer after whom Howard County, Maryland was named when it officially was formed as a county in 1851.

Benjamin Chew Howard

Benjamin Chew Howard

On this day in history, Representative Howard rose in the House during the debate over the annexation of Texas to express his “regret” that so many women had presented petitions on this matter:

These females could have a sufficient field for the exercise of their influence in the discharge of their duties to their fathers, their husbands, or their children, cheering the domestic circle, and shedding over it the mild radiance of the social virtues, instead of rushing into the fierce struggles of political life.”

By leaving their proper sphere, Howard charged, women were “discreditable, not only to their own particular section of the country, but also to the national character.”

Source: Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, & Women’s Political Identity by Susan Zaeske, University of North Carolina Press, 2003)

June 12, 1929 – An African-American Woman at a White House Tea

As the U.S. House of Representatives history site reports, “Oscar De Priest was the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century, ending a 28–year absence of black Representatives.” De Priest represented the South Side district of Chicago in the first congressional district (adjacent to the 13th district, from which Barack Obama would later be elected as a U.S. Senator).

Oscar Stanton De Priest, member of the United States House of Representatives

Oscar Stanton De Priest, member of the United States House of Representatives

Herbert Hoover’s wife Lou now had a problem, however. She had planned to invite the wives of U.S. Congressmen to the White House, but inviting an African-American to the White House was a controversial move. But as an American Presidents blog post explains: “It would be difficult to ignore White House traditions, so canceling the event was not really an option. Nor would the Hoovers snub Mrs. DePriest by excluding her.”

The solution they arrived at was to invite the wives in several groups, finding out first which wives would be offended to be at the same social function as Mrs. DePriest. They further determined to have her at the last of the teas, so that southern wives would not boycott subsequent gatherings.

First Lady Lou Hoover

First Lady Lou Hoover

The blog post further notes:

One last preparation was needed: the morning of Mrs. DePriest’s expected visit, White House security and doormen were alerted ‘to be careful when a colored lady should present herself and say she had an appointment with Mrs. Hoover, lest they create a scene by refusing her admittance.’”

On this day in history, June 12, 1929, Mrs. Hoover received Mrs. DePriest and others in the White House Green Room. They then assembled for tea in the Red Room. Although the event went well, public reaction was heated:

“Some southern newspaper editors accused Mrs. Hoover of ‘defiling’ the White House. The Texas legislature went so far as to formally admonish her. President Hoover, in his memoirs, said that ‘the speeches of southern Senators and Congressmen… wounded [Mrs. Hoover] deeply.’ Mrs. Hoover’s secretary, Ruth Fesler, later recalled that the first lady ‘stood her ground; she had done the right thing and she knew it.’”

Mrs. Jessie De Priest

Mrs. Jessie De Priest

June 9, 1986 – The Rogers Commission Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster is Submitted to President Reagan

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. The Rogers Commission, a special task force, was created by President Ronald Reagan to investigate the disaster. The report, released and submitted on this day in history, both determined the cause of the disaster that took place 73 seconds after liftoff, and urged NASA to improve and install new safety features on the shuttles and in its organizational handling of future missions.

Flight Crew of the Challenger

The late Caltech physicist and a Nobel Prize winner in physics, Richard Feynman, was asked by the head of NASA to be on the Rogers Commission.

Feynman, in one of his several autobiographical books, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, describes what happened to the Challenger in detail, based on what he learned during the investigation. Members of the commission received many briefs on all the parts of the shuttle and how they fit together. There was a lot of information, and it was technical and confusing.


In a closed meeting of the commission, an engineer from Thiokol Company, Mr. McDonald came to testify, on his own, uninvited. He told the surprised members that Thiokol engineers had been concerned about the effect of low temperatures on the O-ring seals between the rocket joints. The rubber of the O-rings had to be resilient in order to expand and make the seal. Thiokol engineers had indicated to NASA that the shuttle shouldn’t fly if the temperature fell below 53 degrees. Engineers and managers at NASA however, were not convinced by the evidence presented by Thiokol. On the morning of January 28, the temperature was 29.

The next day following the closed meeting, an open, televised meeting was scheduled. Feynman started his morning with a trip to the hardware store and got some tools. As the meeting convened, he asked for ice water. He took some O-ring pieces he had in his pocket, squeezed them in a C-clamp, and put them into the glass of ice water. He pressed the button for the microphone, and announced the results of his experiment:

I discovered that when you undo the clamp, the rubber doesn’t spring back. In other words, for more than a few seconds, there is no resilience in this particular material when it is at a temperature of 32 degrees. I believe that has some significance for our problem.”


As Feynman reported, “…that night, all the news shows caught on to the significance of the experiment, and the next day, the newspaper articles explained everything perfectly.”

Feynman concluded his testimony by stating: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Edward R. Tufte has also written about the Challenger disaster in his book Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, in which he argues that it was the poor presentation of evidence by Thiokol engineers that beclouded the message they were trying to send. NASA employees could not detect the danger from the confusing graphics prepared by Thiokol. Tufte, also the author of The Visual Design of Quantitative Information, and Envisioning Information, demonstrates graphically how careful design of information can have an effect on the efficacy of communication.


June 6, 1892 – Benjamin Harrison Becomes First Sitting U.S. President to Attend a Major-League Baseball Game

Benjamin Harrison was the 23rd President of the United States, serving from 1889 to 1893. His grandfather, war hero William Henry Harrison, was the ninth president.

Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin was born in Ohio as one of thirteen children. At college, he distinguished himself in debating, which motivated him to pursue a career in law. He passed the bar in 1854, moved to Indianapolis, and went into a partnership with the governor’s son. Before long, Harrison got involved in the Republican party, and won the position of city attorney of Indianapolis in 1857. Harrison served in the Civil War, and was considered a “war hero” although he didn’t see much fighting.

He also had a reputation for probity in an era when this enabled him to stand out, and eventually made it to the presidency thanks to some “fake news” that was spread about Grover Cleveland (as recounted by history professor Catherine Clinton in To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents.)

Harrison himself attributed his victory to “divine intervention.”

Once in office, as Professor Clinton writes, Harrison “simply followed the lead of the party bosses who’d manufactured his election.” He never shed his “stodgy public image” but he did make one decidedly un-stodgy move, when on this date in history, he attended a baseball game in Washington, D.C.

Stephen V. Rice, writing for the Society for American Baseball Research, reports that Harrison explained in 1889:

‘I used to go to a game in Indianapolis once in a while, and also in Chicago, and I always enjoyed it . . .I find a good deal of pleasure in watching a good game of ball.’”

The game he attended was between the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Senators, and was played at Boundary Field, two miles from the White House.

Rice describes the scene:

Harrison arrived at the ballpark in a stately horse-drawn carriage and was seated prominently in the first row of the press box, above the grandstand. He wore a large black derby, a frock coat, a white shirt and a black necktie. One hand rested on an ornamental cane. The ballplayers gazed up at him from the field, and the 2,400 fans were abuzz over the distinguished visitor.”

The final score was Cincinnati 7, Washington 4. Harrison left the game early, however. He was preoccupied, Rice reports, with the Republican National Convention, which was taking place over the next four days in Minneapolis. Harrison received his party’s nomination to run for a second term, but he lost the election in the fall to his predecessor, Democrat Grover Cleveland, the 22nd President of the U.S. and then also the 24th.

Review of “Stealing the General” by Russell S. Bonds re Civil War Heist

In April of 1862, 22 volunteer Union soldiers in civilian attire under the command of a charismatic civilian quinine smuggler named James Andrews set forth from Union controlled territory to penetrate more than 100 miles into the heart of Dixie, steal a locomotive, and wreak havoc along the Atlanta & West Point Rail Road from Atlanta to Chattanooga. The strategic purpose of the audacious raid was to isolate the city of Chattanooga from re-supply by rail from the South. A relatively small Union force under Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel had already cut off Chattanooga from the west by taking Huntsville, Alabama.


Remarkably, all but two of the members of the incursion were able to rendezvous undetected in Marietta, Georgia on April 11. They all boarded a northbound train early the following morning. While the southern crew and other passengers detrained for breakfast, the insurgents captured the train. In the presence of a slowly awakening division of C.S.A. soldiers, they decoupled the passenger cars and headed north, pulled by the soon to become famous engine, “The General.”

The Union men had not reckoned on William Fuller, the conductor of the train they had commandeered. He led a determined chase, in which he first ran on foot, and then appropriated another engine [the “Texas”] to catch the raiders. The chase lasted more than 5 hours and covered almost 100 miles, with speeds sometimes exceeding 60 miles per hour. (Locomotives of the time normally averaged 15 miles per hour, with short bursts of an average speed of 20 miles per hour.) Since the railroad was a single track, the trains occasionally had to switch to side tracks to allow southbound trains to pass.

James Andrews

James Andrews

The General was eventually trapped, and all the raiders were captured, some after several days in the wilderness. The Confederate army tried the entire raiding party as spies since they did not wear uniforms during the raid. Andrews, the civilian leader of the raid, and seven of the men were hanged after a court marshal. The Confederate legal system was not very efficient, and the others were never tried. They were, however, imprisoned in ghastly circumstances for more than a year. Eventually, ten escaped, and their stories are each thrillers in themselves. (Two of the raiders escaped by heading south down the Chattahoochee River, eventually making it to the Gulf of Mexico to be rescued by the Union navy!) The remaining five were exchanged for Union prisoners shortly before the end of the war.

The raid cannot be called successful in that little damage was done to Southern assets, and Chattanooga did not fall to the Union for another two years. Nevertheless, the surviving members of the raid were the first recipients of the Medal of Honor, in recognition of their courage and of what might have been. The General itself became something of a national icon, and was exhibited in many fairs and exhibitions for more than a century. It now rests, completely refurbished, in Atlanta, Georgia.


The story of the chase has been told in many books, several written by the surviving participants, and Walt Disney made an almost factual movie about the raid, “The Great Locomotive Chase” in 1956. Russell Bonds’ effort is a very well-written and well-organized addition to the literature of the chase. He manages to bring the story to life and stay unbiased throughout. He evaluates the truth of many conflicting allegations about the raid very convincingly.


Published by Westholme Publishing, 2006