January 18, 1943 – Wartime Ban on Sale of Sliced Bread Goes into Effect in the U.S.

In 1927, Otto F. Rohwedder invented the first automatic bread-slicing machine for commercial baking. He applied for patents and sold his first machine to the Missouri based Chillicothe Baking Company in 1928. The first loaf of sliced bread was sold commercially on July 7, 1928.

An article in “The Mercury News” observed:

Frank Bench’s bakery increased its bread sales by 2,000 percent in two weeks,” Rohwedder’s son, who was 13 years old in 1928, told the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune in a 2003 interview. Before long, Rohwedder had a backlog of orders; his slicers helped put the wonder in Wonder Bread.”

Sales of the machine to other bakeries increased and sliced bread became available across the country. A baker in St. Louis, Missouri improved upon the machine, also developing a way to have the machine wrap the bread to keep it fresh.

In 1930 Continental Baking Company introduced Wonder Bread as a sliced bread. By 1932 the availability of standardized slices had boosted sales of automatic, pop-up toasters, an invention by Charles Strite in 1921.

In 1933 American bakeries for the first time produced more sliced than unsliced bread loaves. According to Mental Floss:

Bakeries began advertising the pre-cut loaves as ‘the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped,’ prompting Americans to coin that immortal phrase: ‘The greatest thing since sliced bread.’”

During World War II, however, Claude R. Wickard, then Secretary of Agriculture, thought it was a good idea to ban pre-sliced bread, officially issuing the order on this day in history. One goal of the ban was to reduce bakeries’ demand for metal replacement parts. Another was related to the country’s supply of wax paper. (Sliced bread, as Mental Floss explained, required twice as much paraffin wrapping as an unsliced loaf in order to prevent the slices from drying prematurely.) Perhaps most importantly, Wickard wanted to keep down the cost of wheat and therefore of flour.

Claude Wickard (1940), by the US Department of Agriculture, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Ben Kageyama, writing for “The Medium,” pointed out that there was no actual concern for wax paper supplies, and the U.S. also had plenty of wheat stockpiles. Supplies of steel would also not be significantly affected by bakers’ infrequent purchases of bread machines and parts.

In any event, there was a public outcry, and within just three months after the ban, the War Food Administration lifted it. On March 8, 1943, Americans got back their now-beloved sliced bread. As “The New York Times” observed: “Housewives’ Thumbs Safe Again.”

December 7, 1941 – Fans Watch Redskins Play Eagles, Oblivious to Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor

On this day in history, Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Over 2400 service people were killed in the attack. Intelligence reports had indicated Japan would strike the US, but most expected the strike would occur in the Philippines, then a US territory. (Japan invaded the Philippines on December 8, 1941, ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. As at Pearl Harbor, American aircraft were severely damaged in the initial Japanese attack.)

That same day, as the excellent WETA History Blog reports, over 27,000 fans filled Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. to watch the Redskins-Eagles football match.

QB Sammy Baugh led the Redskins to a come-from-behind victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on December 7, 1941 (Source: Library of Congress)

Mark Jones of WETA writes:

News reached Washington via telegraph and Redskins management learned of the attack. But, in an age before smart phones, the fans in the stands were oblivious – at least initially. Soon, however, there was a hint of something of importance in the air.’ The public address announcer began paging newspaper reporters and columnists. (Not a usual happening at a football game.) Then came the calls for military personnel. . . . Similar missives interrupted game action for the rest of the afternoon.”

The GM of the Redskins said he didn’t want to announce to the crowd what was happening because he didn’t want to create “hysteria” in the stands. The team owner added: “I didn’t want to divert the fans’ attention from the game.” (WETA history blog post, here)

The fans who hadn’t figured it out from all the pages found out when they left the stadium.

The next day, a correspondent for Washington’s “Evening Star” wrote:

For the first time since 1917, the United States was at war. Millions gathered in their homes, or at work, heard the dramatically brief news flashes of the Japanese bombings of Pearl Harbor and other American possessions. But at Griffith Stadium, the 20,000-odd spectators weren’t told. Instead, they could only guess and, as a study in mass psychology with its rich, ripe overtones, it was epic-making.”

For more about Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Naval Historical Center has an excellent collection of web resources on the attack, such as ships present, Pearl Harbor Base History, and oral histories of survivors. You might start with the summary Infographic, here. There are some excellent images on the site as well.

USS Arizona (BB-39) ablaze, immediately following the explosion of her forward magazines, Dec. 7, 1941. Frame clipped from a color motion picture taken from on board USS Solace (AH-5). Official U.S. Navy photograph, National Archives.

USS Arizona (BB-39) ablaze, immediately following the explosion of her forward magazines, Dec. 7, 1941. Frame clipped from a color motion picture taken from on board USS Solace (AH-5). Official U.S. Navy photograph, National Archives.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation the next day, on December 8, declaring December 7 to be “a date which will live in infamy.” He said “I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a State of War has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

His speech is included on the video below. It begins with the attack on Pearl Harbor. If you would like to start with Roosevelt’s speech, fast forward to 4:55 minutes.

October 31, 1922 – Benito Mussolini Assumes Power in Italy

Benito Mussolini was born on July 29, 1883. He became a journalist at the Avanti! newspaper and professed ties to socialism. In 1912, he was expelled from the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) for advocating military intervention in World War I, in opposition to the party’s stance on neutrality. In 1914, Mussolini founded a new journal, Il Popolo d’Italia, and served in the Royal Italian Army during the war until he was wounded and discharged in 1917. Mussolini denounced the PSI, his views now favoring Italian nationalism instead of socialism.

Mussolini formed the Fascist Party in March of 1919 with the support of many unemployed veterans of WWI. He organized them into armed squads known as Black Shirts, who terrorized their political opponents. In 1921, the Fascist Party was invited to join the coalition government.

In October 1922, the Black Shirts marched on Rome, and on this day in history, King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini Prime Minister of Italy. After removing all political opposition through his secret police and outlawing labor strikes, Mussolini and his followers consolidated power through a series of laws that transformed the nation by 1925 into a one-party dictatorship. Mussolini took the title “Il Duce” and encouraged a cult of personality.

March on Rome
(Benito Mussolini, center) , October 1922.
BPIS/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mussolini aimed to expand his sphere of influence beyond the borders of Italy. In 1923, he began the “Pacification of Libya” and ordered the bombing of Corfu in retaliation for the murder of an Italian general. In 1936, Mussolini formed Italian East Africa (AOI) by merging Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia following the Abyssinian crisis and the Second Italo–Ethiopian War. In 1939, Italian forces occupied Albania.

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in Munich, Germany September 1937.
Fox Photos/Getty Images

On June 10, 1940, with the Fall of France imminent, Italy officially entered World War II on the side of the Axis and eventually occupied parts of south-east France, Corsica, and Tunisia. The Italians invaded Egypt, bombed Mandatory Palestine, and occupied British Somaliland with initial success. In October 1940, Mussolini sent Italian forces into Greece, starting the Greco-Italian War. The British Royal Air Force prevented the Italian invasion and allowed the Greeks to push the Italians back to Albania. Despite this, the Greek counter-offensive in Italian Albania ended in a stalemate that allowed the Germans to invade the country. Italy subsequently took part in the Axis occupation of Greece and Yugoslavia.

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, Germany, June 1941 (U.S. National Archives)

The German invasion of the Soviet Union led Mussolini to send an Italian army to Russia, and the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor impelled Italy to declare war on the United States. In 1943, Italy suffered major military disasters and on July 9 the Allies invaded Sicily.

As a consequence, early on July 25, 1943, the Grand Council of Fascism passed a motion of no confidence in Mussolini; later that day the King dismissed him as head of government and had him arrested.

On September 12, 1943 Mussolini was rescued from captivity by the Nazis. Hitler, after meeting with the rescued former dictator, put Mussolini in charge of a puppet regime in northern Italy, the Italian Social Republic. In late April 1945, in the wake of near total defeat, Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci attempted to flee to Switzerland, but both were captured by Italian communist partisans and summarily executed by firing squad on April 28, 1945 near Lake Como. The bodies of Mussolini and his mistress were then taken to Milan, where they were hung upside down at a service station to publicly confirm their demise.

Review of “Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II” by Sean McMeekin

In Stalin’s War, distinguished historian Sean McMeekin has produced a decidedly revisionist history of World War II. He argues convincingly that Stalin wanted WWII at least as much as Hitler did. Moreover, Stalin was far more successful than Hitler was in that war, hence, the title of the book.

McMeekin analyzes the war from Stalin’s perspective. The Soviet Union was the world’s first communist country and it considered all capitalist countries as enemies. A primary goal of Russian diplomacy was to infiltrate capitalist governments with the goal of providing support Russia’s interests and to foment animosity among capitalist states. There were literally hundreds of Russian paid agents in the Roosevelt administration. Indeed, Harry Hopkins, FDR’s most trusted advisor, although not directly paid by the U.S.S.R., was certainly what Lenin would call a “useful idiot.”

Importantly, before World War II, Stalin encountered the same risk of a two-front war that Germany had in 1914. In 1938, not only were the Germans aggressive to his west, but Japan was busily grabbing large chunks of China to his east. In fact, the Japanese Army in Manchuko (today’s Manchuria) was fighting several hundred thousand soldiers of the Red Army and threatening Vladivostok, Russia’s only port on the Pacific. Still, Germany posed a greater threat, being much closer to the bulk of Russia’s population.

To secure his eastern flank, Stalin executed a non-aggression pact that granted terms very favorable to Japan. In fact, he honored that agreement throughout the coming world war. One aspect of that treaty affected American airmen who had attacked Japan and had to bail out or crash-land in Russia to avoid capture by the Japanese. Russia treated them as hostile prisoners of war even though they were fighting for a country that was supplying the Russians with vital supplies. On the other hand, American merchant marine seamen fared much better — the Japanese navy did not attack American commercial ships bound for Vladivostok, which allowed safe passage for enormous amounts of war materiel to be supplied for Russia’s war with Germany.

Stalin did not feel not fully prepared for war with Germany despite the fact that the principal thrust of the Soviet Union’s Five Year Plans of the 1930s was the “mass manufacture of modern military hardware.” Consequently, he jumped at the chance of a non-aggression pact with Germany, which resulted in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. During the negotiations for the pact, Stalin suggested to Hitler the partition of Poland.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Hitler attacked Poland in September 1939 and quickly conquered the western half of the country. Stalin waited only a few days after Hitler’s invasion to launch his own invasion of Poland which ended up with the Russians controlling more of Poland that Germany did.

Stalin’s fondest hope was that Germany would star a war with France and England, and that Russia could watch from the sidelines as the capitalists mauled each other. Russia would then find itself the dominant power in Europe without having to expend blood or treasure. Unfortunately for him, Germany did start such a war, but won it so quickly and at such low cost that the Soviet Union found itself in great peril from Hitler.

After the successful attack on Poland, Hitler turned west and attacked and occupied France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Norway. Meanwhile, the Russians quickly conquered Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Moldavia. The Russians also tried to take Finland, but met effective and heroic resistance and had to settle for a small slice of the southeastern part of the country.

A Red Army tank rolls in Finland. This and other great photos from the Winter War at https://www.rferl.org/a/finlands-winter-war-with-the-soviet-union/30280490.html

The stage was now set for Germany’s massive invasion of Russia. Here McMeekin tells a story quite different from what has come down from most western historians. The Russians may have been surprised by the timing of the attack, but they had been preparing for it for years. Contrary to popular opinion, the Germans did not have an advantage in tanks and artillery — the Russians had far more. Moreover, they greatly outnumbered the invaders.

McMeekin argues that the Russians maintained its advantage in armor and number of soldiers throughout the war, even in the early stages when they were clearly losing. In fact, the Germans were not as thoroughly mechanized as many western historians described — they relied on millions of horses rather than trucks for much movement of materiel. Ultimately, the Russians were able to out-maneuver and surround the Germans because they had enormous supplies of trucks and fighter planes that had been furnished at no charge by the United States.

Another myth that McMeekin counters is that the Germans had the vast majority of their troops on the Eastern Front. In fact, once Hitler had redeployed many divisions to the west for the famed Battle of the Bulge, there were more German soldiers in France and Italy than there were on the Eastern Front.

McMeekin is highly critical of Roosevelt and, to a lesser extent, Churchill regarding their dealings with Stalin. If the point of the war was to save Poland and Eastern Europe from foreign subjugation, then the war was an abysmal failure for the West. Churchill gets particularly low marks for abandoning Mikhailovich and the Chetniks in Yugoslavia so that Tito’s Communists could prevail there. The end of the war found Stalin in charge of all of Eastern Europe.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta conference, February 1945. Universal Images Group/Getty Images

McMeekin argues that “the most lasting consequence of Stalin’s victories in 1945 was the impetus they had given to Communist expansion in Asia, above all in China.” Russia did not enter the war against Japan until the final weeks when the results were clear. However, Stalin was able to position many divisions in East Asia. From there, they could supply Mao’s communist forces with tanks, artillery, and other materiel. At the same time, the western powers soured on Chiang Kai-shek (the Chinese Nationalist politician, revolutionary and military leader who served as the leader of the Mainland Republic of China from 1928 until 1949, and then in Taiwan) and ceased helping him against Mao. McMeekin says, “the mystery is not that Mao won the Chinese Civil War, but that it took him three more years to do so.”

McMeekin concludes with several acerbic observations:

“By objective measures of territory conquered and war booty seized, Stalin was the victor in both Europe an Asia, and no one else came close.”

“The notion that a great American victory was achieved in 1945 is hard to square with the strategic reality of the Cold War, which required a gargantuan expenditure over decades merely to hold the line at the Fulda Gap before the USSR finally collapsed in 1991.”

“The ultimate price of victory was paid by the tens of millions of involuntary subjects of Stalin’s satellite regimes in Europe and Asia, including Maoist China, along with the millions of Soviet dissidents, returned Soviet POWs, and captured war prisoners who were herded into Gulag camps. . . . For subjects of his expanding slave empire, Stalin’s war did not end in 1945. Decades of oppression and new forms of terror were still to come.”

Evaluation: This is an unnerving book, beautifully written and forcefully argued.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, 2021

July 13, 1943 – 10th Mountain Division Created at Camp Hale, Colorado & Review of “The Winter Army: The World War II Odyssey of the 10th Mountain Division, America’s Elite Alpine Warriors” by Maurice Isserman

History Professor Maurice Isserman provides a fascinating chronicle of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, formed at the outset of World War II to serve as an alpine fighting force. Drawing largely from the soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs now housed in the 10th Mountain Division Archive at the Denver Public Library, Isserman brings the 10th to life from the inside.

Initial recruits were drawn from the ranks of championship skiers and mountain climbers, and they trained in the mountains of the American West. Isserman offers a treasure trove of engrossing information about how the army learned to equip and feed men for mountain warfare.

Although the skills of the 10th weren’t always used in actual combat, the men were able to draw upon their alpine training in the peaks of the North Apennines in Italy, where they moved “always forward” (their informal motto) to help drive the Germans from the Italian war theater. Isserman reports that “in terms of the percentage killed per day in combat, the 10th suffered the highest casualty rate of any US division in the campaign,” impressing both their American superiors and their German opponents with their skill and ferocity.

10th Mountain Division training at Mt. Rainier, WA

History buffs will delight in the way the 10th took Riva Ridge in the Apennines, using the same logic and techniques as the daring and unexpected ascent of the cliffs over the city of Quebec in 1759 by the British during the French and Indian War. There is pretty much never a dull moment in this account.

When the war was over, the surviving veterans of the 10th had no less interesting lives. Some of them went on to play leading roles in the outdoor winter sports industry. Isserman explains that “literally thousands of 10th veterans were employed one way or another, in the postwar ski industry,” whether as coaches, instructors, ski resort operators [both Aspen and Vail were developed as ski resorts by veterans], or ski equipment designers and promoters.

10th Mountain Division training in California

One veteran, told he would never walk again from his injuries in Italy, came to Aspen, resumed skiing, and in 1948 finished third in the giant slalom event at the US national ski competition. He and other veterans developed Vail, with ski runs named after men and events from the wartime experience of the 10th Division. “Riva Ridge” is one of the more challenging black diamond runs at the Vail Ski Resort today.

Evaluation: This unique and inspiring fighting force deserves to be better known. In addition to sharing their history, Isserman also includes a number of valuable insights from a wider perspective, such as about the role of momentum in war that can drive campaigns regardless of rational calculation; the importance of camaraderie in compensating for deficiencies in wartime; what “really” goes on under fire versus media accounts for the home audience; the rude awakening about the costs of war for the young men focused on adventure; and the sometimes selfish motives of the generals who determine their fate. The book excels as sports history as well. Photos and maps are included. I enjoyed it thoroughly!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019

April 6, 945: A bugler plays taps at memorial service for the dead of the 10th Mountain Division at the American Cemetery in Castelfiorentino, Italy (Denver Public Library collection)

May 8, 1942 – Poston Internment Camp for Japanese Opens in Arizona

Throughout American history, some citizens have had more rights and privileges than others.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, fear and prejudice towards the Japanese reached a fever pitch. These attitudes extended to both citizens and non-citizens of Japanese descent living in the United States.

In 1942 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Under the terms of the Order, approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in the US (of whom 70,000 were American citizens) were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps. The US justified its action by claiming that there was a danger of those of Japanese descent spying for the Japanese. However more than two thirds of those interned were American citizens and half of them were children. None had ever shown evidence of disloyalty.

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 5.24.11 AM

The internees were transported to one of ten relocation centers in California, Utah, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming for up to 4 years, without due process of law or any factual basis, in bleak, remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Families were crammed into 20- by 25-foot rooms and forced to use communal bathrooms. No razors, scissors, or radios were allowed. Children attended War Relocation Authority schools.

The Poston Internment Camp, located in Yuma County (now in La Paz County) of southwestern Arizona, was the largest (in terms of area) of the ten American concentration camps operated by the War Relocation Authority during World War II.

The site was composed of three separate camps arranged in a chain from north to south at a distance of three miles from each other. The Colorado River was approximately 3 miles to the west, outside of the camp perimeter.

Poston was built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, over the objections of the Tribal Council, who refused to be a part of doing to others what had been done to their tribe. The U.S. Government, however, had no qualms about abusing two minorities for the price of one.

Frank Mastropolo, writing for ABC News about the documentary, “Passing Poston: An American Story,” explains that Poston was built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation for a specific reason: Japanese detainees were brought to the desolate location to provide free, forced labor for the American government.

As the filmmakers observed:

The Japanese were ordered to build the infrastructure — schools, dams, canals and farms — so the U.S. government could consolidate scattered American Indian tribes from smaller reservations in one place after the war.”

The combined peak population of the Poston camps was over 17,000, made up of internees mostly from Southern California. At the time Poston was the third largest “city” in Arizona. It was built by Del Webb, who would later become famous building Sun City, Arizona and other retirement communities. The Poston facility was named after Charles Debrille Poston, a government engineer who established the Colorado River Reservation in 1865 and planned an irrigation system to serve the needs of the Indian people who would live there.

Living quarters of evacuees of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center as seen from the top of water tower facing south west in Poston, Arizona on June 1, 1942. (Photo: National Archives)

A single fence surrounded all three camps, and the site was so remote that authorities considered it unnecessary to build guard towers. The thousands of internees and staff passed through the barbed-wire perimeter at Poston I, which was where the main administration center was located. (Sounds reminiscent of Auschwitz…)

Del Webb housing for rich white people in Florida looks a little more upscale than the barracks for the Japanese in Poston

Mastropolo explains:

In the film, internees describe the backbreaking work they performed to accomplish the task. When the Japanese were released in 1945, the government carried out its plan to settle the camps with American Indian tribes from the Southwest.

Colonists, as the government referred to them, from the Hopi and Navajo tribes, as well as other tribes living along the Colorado River, moved into the barracks built for the Japanese detainees.”

Meanwhile, as Mastropolo asks by way of conclusion:

But was the suffering worth it for America? By the end of the war, only 10 people had been convicted of spying for Japan.

And all of them were white.”

November 30, 1939 – Soviet Union Attacks Finland during World War II

At the beginning of World War II, the USSR feared a Nazi offensive through Finland, and thus launched a surprise attack on this date in history, sending approximately half a million Soviet troops to invade Finland. The Soviets believed they could achieve victory by December 21, Josef Stalin’s birthday. Although they did eventually win “the Winter War,” it was no easy defeat, taking months of freezing cold combat – temperatures in Finland dropped below minus 40 degrees during the war.

A Red Army tank rolls in Finland. This and other great photos from the Winter War at https://www.rferl.org/a/finlands-winter-war-with-the-soviet-union/30280490.html

In the end, however, the Soviets had overwhelming numbers, and also deployed Incendiary cluster bombs against Finnish settlements made of wood.

In March 1940, as Soviet troops entered the suburbs of Vyborg, 81 miles to the northwest of St. Petersburg, the Finns had little choice but to accept harsh Soviet terms for an armistice, which cost Finland 11 percent of its territory.

The Moscow Peace Treaty stipulated the transfer of Vyborg and the whole Karelian Isthmus — emptied of their residents — to Soviet control. It became the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic on March 31, 1940. [Since World War II the entire isthmus remains in Russian hands, divided between the city of Saint Petersburg and other Russian administrative districts.]

The Winter War left almost 26,000 Finns dead. The Soviets lost close to 127,000 soldiers.

Just over a year after the Winter War ended, Finland decided to join the Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R.

September 22, 1941 – Hitler Releases Secret Directive for Erasure of City of St. Petersburg

On this day in history Hitler issued a directive expressing his goal of wiping the city of St. Petersburg from the face of the earth. He also decreed that, should there be a request for capitulation from either St. Petersburg or Moscow, the Germans should deny it.

Furthermore, he stipulated that no German soldier was to enter these cities:

By our fire we must force all who try to leave the city through our lines to turn back. The exodus of the population through the smaller, unguarded gaps toward the interior of Russia is only to be welcomed. Before the cities are taken, they are to be weakened by artillery fire and air attacks, and their population should be caused to flee.

All commanding officers shall be informed of this will of the Fuehrer.”

As a result of these orders, as reported at the Nuremberg trials:

. . . . 8,961 household and annexed buildings, sheds, baths, et cetera, with a total volume of 5,192,427 cubic meters were completely destroyed, and 5,869 buildings with a total volume of 14,308,288 cubic meters were partially destroyed. Completely destroyed were 20,627 dwellings, with a total volume of 25,429,780 cubic meters, and 8,788 buildings, with a total volume of 10,081,035 cubic meters were partially demolished. Six buildings dedicated to religious cults were completely, and 66 such buildings partially, destroyed. The Hitlerites destroyed, ruined, and damaged various kinds of institutions valued at more than 718 million rubles, as well as more than 1,043 million rubles’ worth of industrial equipment and agricultural machinery and implements.”

A street after a German artillery raid during the Siege of Leningrad by Vsevolod Tarasevich

Documents further establish that the Germans “bombed and shelled, methodically and according to plan, day and night, streets, dwelling houses, theaters, museums, hospitals, kindergartens, military hospitals, schools, institutes, and streetcars, and ruined most valuable monuments of culture and art. Many thousands of bombs and shells hammered the historical buildings of Leningrad, and at its quays, gardens, and parks.”

Bronze Horseman camouflaged from German aircraft during the Siege of Leningrad

You can read more about this directive from the Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, online here.

Review of “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris

Lale Sokolov, born in Krompachy, Slovia in 1916, was transported by the Nazis to Auschwitz on April 23, 1942. Late in his life, he told his story to the author. She decided to call this book a “novel” because she created dialogue based on what Lale told her, and because of the uncertainty of the veracity of memory. Nevertheless, she states:

“Lale’s memories were, on the whole, remarkably clear and precise. They matched my research into people, dates, and places.”

At the time he was sent to Auschwitz, Lale was 24, healthy, and could speak a number of languages, all of which proved very fortunate for him. In fact, as inappropriate as it seems to speak of an inmate of Nazi concentration camps having a lot of “luck,” the truth is that Lale, in spite of his circumstances, had an inordinate amount of it. Even one of the S.S. marveled he was like a cat with nine lives. Almost without exception, those who tried to do what he did in the camps were executed – or tortured first and then executed.

Lale became a Tätowierer, or tattooist, for the camp, one of the men assigned to brand the prisoners when they arrived, just as was done to Lale when he came to Auschwitz. The Nazis used the tattoos to identify bodies after they killed them, in order to facilitate their meticulous record-keeping that chronicled who arrived and who was killed.

Children at Auschwitz showing their tattooed arms

Lale hated the job, but it was a way to keep alive, and he vowed when he came there that he would survive and see those who were responsible pay a price. He held on to that thought using it like a mantra to make himself get up each morning, and the next and the next.

Lale Sokolov showing his own tattoo from Auschwitz

He soon got another reason to go on living, after meeting a girl whose tattoo had faded and needed to be redone: Gita Furman (born Gisela Fuhrmannova) was also from Slovakia. Lale was entranced by her dark eyes, and began a secret courtship with her. He was helped by a number of factors. Because he was one of only two Tätowierers, he had more freedom than other prisoners, and even got extra rations. He was able to walk around and befriend two local (non-Jewish) workers who came from the nearby town, and from whom he received meat, chocolate, and even medicine, for which he paid in jewels confiscated by the Nazis from incoming prisoners. He got those from the girls who worked in “Canada,” where the possessions of new arrivals were collected and processed. The girls transferred jewels and money to Lale, and he used it as payment for goods from the outside. These he shared not only with the girls from Canada but with others.

Women’s Barracks

He was in this way able to help get Gita penicillin when she was sick. After she recovered, he also managed, through bribes, to obtain a job for her in the camp office where life would be easier. He paid the guard in charge of Gita’s barrack to get time to see her. He helped anyone he could (everyone in the camp always wanted more than what the camp provided), and he was repaid in kind when he himself needed help. Thus both he and Gita survived until 1945, when the Russians were closing in and the Germans abandoned the camp. But first, the Nazis tried to kill remaining prisoners. In the ensuing chaos, Lale and Gita independently escaped and made their separate ways back to Slovakia.

Lale went to the main train station in Bratislava every day, hoping to find Gita among the many survivors arriving daily. And after two weeks, there she was. They were married in October, 1945. When he got into trouble with the new government in Czechoslovakia, again Lale got lucky, and he and Gita escaped, making their way to Australia in 1949.

The author met Lale in 2003, after Gita died and when Lale wanted to tell his story to a writer who was not Jewish, so would more likely be without personal baggage or preconceptions. She visited Lale two or three times a week for three years until his own death in 2006 and gradually learned his story.

PHOTO: Lale and Gita with their son Gary in the 1960s.

The author concluded:

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a story of two ordinary people living in an extraordinary time, deprived not only of their freedom but also their dignity, their names, and their identities. It is Lale’s account of what they needed to do to survive. Lale lived his life by the motto: ‘If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.’ On the morning of his funeral I woke knowing it was not a good day for me, but that it would have been for him. He was now with Gita.”

I would only counter that I didn’t think of Lale and Gita as “ordinary” at all. As Lale said to Gita about her friend Cilka, who was forced to perform sexual acts with one of the SS:

“Tell her I think she is a hero. . . You’re a hero, too, my darling. That the two of you have chosen to survive is a type of resistance to these Nazi bastards. Choosing to live is an act of defiance, a form of heroism.”

Lale also, to me, was heroic, and extraordinary.

The book includes photos and some additional information about the fate of others mentioned in the story.

Evaluation: This powerful book of courage and hope when there is no justification to feel either is an incredible story, and highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018

May 13, 1940 – Winston Churchill’s First Speech as Prime Minister to House of Commons in Which He Sets Out War Policy: Victory at All Costs

As Lewis E. Lehrman wrote in Lincoln & Churchill: Statesmen at War, Lincoln and Churchill both believed winning over public opinion was essential:

They would by word and action mobilize the people and resources of their countries to fight a relentless struggle for unconditional surrender of the enemy. Defeat was unthinkable.”

On this date, in Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister to the House of Commons, he showed his prowess in mobilizing language in this stirring effort to mobilize the country for the war that was now heating up:

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, ‘come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.’”[emphasis added]

You can read the entire speech here.

Winston Churchill, December 1941 by Yousuf Karsh