Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

Remembering my Dad and all of his brothers and sisters in arms from all of this country's wars - both the righteous ones and the ones we had no business fighting in the first place - and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of their country.  They should never be forgotten.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Liberation of Czechoslovakia - Victory in Europe 70 Years Later

Three days ago I posted a short piece commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Gusen Concentration Camp on May 5, 1945, explaining the role my Dad’s unit - the US Army’s 26th Infantry Division - played in that historic event.

Later that same day, Dad’s division, commanded by Major General Willard S. Paul, began advancing northward into western Czechoslovakia as part of Third Army’s XII Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General LeRoy Irwin.  It was one of only two American corps, along with V Corps, to serve in Czechoslovakia during the war.  After slugging its way across northern France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and central Germany since the late summer of 1944, the 26th Infantry Division drove deep into the National Redoubt area in Bavaria, and into Austria in late April 1945.  Moving into Czechoslovakia, on May 6, Third Army fielded 18 divisions and over 540,000 men, making it the largest field army assembled by the United States.  General George Patton went a step further, calling his command “probably one of the most powerful armies ever assembled in the history of war . . . .  ”  For the next three days infantry and armored units of V and XII Corps conducted a major offensive against the German Wehrmacht’s Seventh Army,  liberating over 3.400 square miles of the Sudetenland and Bohemia, in western Czechoslovakia, and taking tens of thousands of German prisoners.  On May 7, the 26th accepted the surrender of the remnants of the 11th Panzer Division, much of which had already surrendered to the 90th Infantry Division in Austria three days earlier to avoid moving northeast to battle the Red Army near Prague.  It was against this same division that Dad’s 104th Infantry Regiment had its baptism of fire in the Moncourt Woods, in northern France, the previous October. 

Third Army quickly held a line running from Ceské Budejovice (Budweis) to Plzen (Pilsen) to Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad).   Patton was eager to continue east toward Prague but General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied commander, ordered the Americans to hold their present line.  Prague was finally occupied by the Soviet Red Army on May 9 after several days of intense combat with its German defenders. Dad’s unit ended up in Ceské Budejovice on May 8 and advanced no further.  It was V-E Day; the war in Europe was over.  Forward elements of the Red Army arrived in Ceské Budejovice on May 9.

My dad and his 26th Infantry Division remained in western Czechoslovakia until early June 1945, then returned to Austria to assume occupation duties there and to train near Linz for possible deployment to the Pacific Theater where the war would rage on for another three months.  Thankfully, V-E Day was the end of the war for Dad as V-J Day, on September 2, 1945, came before he could be shipped out to the Pacific.

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Death of the Lusitania - May 7, 1915

Track of the Lusitania - William Lionel Wyllie
May 7, 1915 was a beautiful, warm spring day along the southern coast of Ireland.  The skies were clear and blue. The seas were calm.  Standing on Old Kinsale Head, near Cork, one could observe a large passenger liner sailing eastward along the horizon.  Nearly 800 feet long and crowned with four large funnels, the British liner Lusitania was easy to recognize.  A dozen miles offshore that afternoon, it departed New York City six days earlier and was on the final leg of its voyage to Liverpool.  Only 250 miles to go through a war zone in which Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare and where it had recently sunk a number of hostile and neutral merchant ships.  Passenger liners were considered off limits . . . until that day.

At approximately 2:10pm local time, a torpedo fired from a German U-boat struck the Lusitania on its forward starboard side and almost immediately it began to list heavily, going down by the head.   Less than 20 minutes later it disappeared beneath the waves, the smoke from its funnels drifting away as squadrons of gulls circled the spot where it went down.  The seas were littered with flotsam and bodies.  Of its 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,198 perished that afternoon.  Some 800 victims were never found.   Many of the bodies recovered were buried in a mass grave in Queenstown  while others continue to washed up along the Irish coast in the coming weeks.

There are special times when a person chances upon a place one had no idea existed until it is suddenly discovered.  How is it I never knew such places existed?  And afterwards I wonder how I am ever going to forget them.  Some of these moments might be more significant than others; some stick in your memory better than others.  Yet one can never forget them entirely.  I could make it my life’s work to write about all of them. 

The fact that today marks the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania perhaps explains how one of these obscure memories rose to the surface; one of these sudden discoveries made over three decades ago, in May 1981, when my wife and I were making a circuitous bicycle ramble along the coast of Ireland.  We had begun our journey in Shannon, traveling first along the southwestern coastline to the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry.  Soon we found ourselves in Cork in order to visit the nearby Blarney Castle.  I was oblivious to the discovery awaiting me.

It was a beautiful spring day when we decided to bike down from Cork to the village of Kinsale. A distance of ten miles or so.  During our visit to that village we chanced upon the medieval Saint Multose Churchyard, and given our affinity for old graveyards, we wandered among the crowded stones dating from the 16th to 19th centuries and encircled by an old stone wall.  The old Norman church dates from the late 12th century, possibly the site of an earlier 6th century monastery.  A place of history.  It was here in 1649 that Prince Rupert, whose fleet was anchored in the Kinsale harbor, proclaimed Charles II the new King of England after his uncle was executed in London by Oliver Cromwell. 

History returned to this old church in 1915 after bodies from the Lusitania - some later identified and others not - washed ashore nearby and were buried in the churchyard.  I had not expected to find these graves having not realized that the ship had gone down off the nearby coast 65 years earlier.  As we walked around the town afterwards we came across more references to the sinking and the role the town played in the recovery of survivors and victims and the subsequent inquest on the bodies recovered which was held in the town's courthouse.

The following day, as we continued eastward along the coast toward Waterford, we passed through Cobh (known as Queenstown in 1915), and saw the Lusitania memorial in Casement Square, and the mass graves containing almost 200 of the victims, many of them unidentified.  I was reminded of this day almost 31 years later, when I visited the Fairview Cemetery, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  It was another one of those moments of unexpected discovery.  Toward the rear of the cemetery, on a hillside overlooking a large rail yard, is a plot where 121 victims of the April 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic are interred under rows of gray memorial stones (29 other victims are buried elsewhere in Halifax).  Many of these victims were also never identified yet they are not forgotten there among those who shared their fate.  I was totally unaware of Halifax’s association with the Titanic disaster until that day.  A special day.  A special connection with the past.

I think of the Lusitania victims again today . . . one hundred years later.  We must never forget what happened on that fateful day so long ago.  To forget the past is to necessarily forgive what happened there.  To forget means the victims died in vain.  Let us never forget.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Into the Realm of History - The Liberation of the Gusen Concentration Camp, May 5, 1945

Flags of the US Army Divisions of Liberation

Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Gusen concentration camp.  Only a fast dwindling number of survivors and liberators are still alive to tell the story.  Soon it will be cast fully into the realm of history.

In several postings here I have mentioned my dad’s wartime service in the 26th Infantry - Yankee - Division, in General George Patton’s Third Army during the northern European campaign of World War II, in 1944-1945.  The division was so nicknamed as it was created during World War I from National Guard units from the six New England states and deployed as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force in France.  It has had a long and distinguished history.  My dad bragged about his wartime unit, and rightly so.  As a kid he told me many stories about the war and the men he served with him in the 104th Infantry Regiment.  But he did not tell me everything.  I would not discover until a year after his death in 2009 that he had been awarded the Bronze Star for bravery in combat.  It is not among the medals he left to me.  Although I did not hear about it at the time, and Dad never said anything to me about it, the 26th Infantry Division was recognized as a liberating unit by the US Army's Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in 2002.

Third Army’s XII Corps, including the 26th Infantry Division, was tasked with the pacification of eastern Bavaria, in Germany, and it quickly advanced southward toward the Danube River and the Austro-German border near Passau.  The division moved into Austria in early May 1945 and elements of the division took Linz on May 4.  On the following day divisional units along with those of the 11th Armored Divsion liberated the Gusen concentration camp, built in 1940 and since 1944 a part of the Mauthausen camp complex, east of Linz.  It was there the American liberators discovered an elaborate tunnel system constructed with forced labor and housing underground aircraft production facilities employing inmates from the camp.  The SS had planned to demolish the tunnels with the prisoners inside, but thankfully the arrival of the 26th Infantry and 11th Armored divisions prevented this.  On May 6 the 26th Infantry Division continued north across the Vlatava River into Czechoslovakia. Third Army had moved farther east than any other American unit in the European theater.

The 26th Infantry’s divisional colors are now displayed in a place of honor in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, DC.  Each time I pass them I cannot help but reflect on the countless victims of the Nazi extermination program and those lucky enough (if it is even possible to call it this) to survive until their liberators arrived.  Most of these survivors were so weak and sick that they did not fully comprehend what liberation meant.  I also think of the men who liberated the camps 70 years ago; not just Gusen, but all of the camps that are now etched into our conscience and history.  I think about these men who had spent the previous year slugging their way across Europe, they who were lucky enough to survive protracted combat only to discover at the end the utter depravity of the regime they fought and died to destroy.  They are all victims, the survivors and the liberators.

I can understand why Dad would not have told me about Gusen when I was a kid; I would have never understood what he and his brothers-in-arms saw and experienced there.  Yet later in life, after I had become a German historian investigating and prosecuting individuals who assisted the Nazis in their programs of murder and persecution, Dad still withheld from me what must have been a very painful chapter of his life, taking it to his grave.  I just wish I had known.  If anyone would have understood, it would have been me.  And I would have wanted to tell him yet again how proud I was of him and all who fought the war that was to end all wars.

Keep all of our veterans in your thoughts and prayers today.  We cannot imagine the price they have paid to keep us free.           

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Monday, May 4, 2015

Four Dead in Ohio - Losing Our Innocence at Kent State

This past Friday I posted a piece commemorating the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam war forty years ago.  Today I find myself reflecting on another tragic event of that war; not a battle fought in some faraway patch of jungle, but one fought on a small college campus - Kent State University - on a tranquil spring day in Middle America.

It was at the very end of my freshman year in college, a year when anti-war protests on campuses across the country were beginning to heat up.  I was attending a small liberal arts college associated with the Methodist Church in Florida and there was very little in the way of protest there.  In fact, freshman and sophomore men were required to participate in the Army ROTC program.  Don’t get me wrong; there was anti-war sentiment on campus, but it never really blossomed into full-scale dissent and protest against the war. 

Many of us did participate in the nation-wide Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, on October 15, 1969.  Called as a general strike, most colleges and universities refused to cancel classes that day although it was reported that class attendance was down as students participated in various protests.  It was a rather bizarre day at my college as it was a Wednesday and all the male students, including myself, were required to wear their ROTC uniforms throughout the day followed by a general drill in the afternoon.  Afterwards I dressed in my “civvies” for dinner and that evening about 300 students (approximately a quarter of the student body) gathered outside the ROTC building for a candlelight vigil and sang folk songs before marching to a nearby meditation garden for some more singing.  The next day several Florida newspapers ran stories about the various campus protests around the state.  One of our group was quoted: “There is nothing more beautiful than the American flag flying, but I believe there is nothing uglier than an American flag being lowered in a grave on top of a casket.”  Despite the faulty flag protocol for burial, the point was made.  Pretty tame stuff, but we raised out voices against the war. 

The students at Kent State the following spring were far more boisterous than our modest protest, and the Ohio National Guard was called in.  Confusion and chaos reigned, the soldiers opened fired, and four students died.  Who can forget Paul Filo's iconic photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling and crying beside the lifeless body of Jeffrey Miller?  The innocence of my generation came to an end that day.  On my way home from Florida to Wisconsin that day I Iistened and wondered where all of this was going to lead.   President Nixon said the anti-war protests would not affect his pursuit of an American victory in Vietnam.  How could it ever be a victory if the government was resigned to kill its own to accomplish it?

A month after the killings at Kent State, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released their single “Ohio,” an haunting three-minute protestimonial penned by Neil Young. 

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.


Many radio stations throughout the country refused to play it, but I went out and bought it and played it over and over until the record popped and skipped.    

What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

A truly haunting song.  Crosby can be heard as the song fades away at the end. "Four, why? Why did they die? . . . "How many more?"   I am sure it was a question many were asking.

And the record’s B-side?  Stephen Stills's "Find the Cost of Freedom," an ode to the war's dead.

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground.
Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down.

I thought back to that quote by my fellow student on Moratorium Day, and to all the flagged-draped coffins coming home from that remote patch of jungle so very far away.

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Not With a Bang But a Whimper - The Fall of Saigon Forty Years Later

April 30, 1975.  I was rushing around our small apartment in Tucson trying to get ready for my bike ride to the campus of the University of Arizona to teach my morning class in introductory German.  While grabbing a quick breakfast I watched the morning news and footage of the evacuation of Saigon.  America’s long military commitment to South Vietnam was quickly unraveling and it was hard to believe what I was seeing.

 American combat troops had quit the country in 1973 following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords with the North Vietnamese regime in Hanoi.  The South Vietnamese government was left to fend for itself against continued attacks by Viêt Công insurgents.  But there was hope; the South Vietnamese were beginning to turn the tide of the war.  But everything changed in the spring of 1975.

The North Vietnamese launched a long-planned offensive below the DMZ in December 1974.  The United States tried to prop up its former client state but internecine debate between the Ford Administration and Congress prevented the necessary aid from arriving in time.  By March 1975 North Vietnamese forces had advanced into the Central Highlands, in the south, and had Saigon in their sights.

The South Vietnamese defenders and a growing number of refugees retreated toward the capital as Hué and Da Nang fell.  The advance toward Saigon quickly became a juggernaut, and by late April the city was surrounded by over 100,000 North Vietnamese troops and their Viêt Công allies.  Chaos and panic reigned in the city and martial law was announced.  The war was all but lost and evacuation was the only option left open.  But when?  And how? 

Those who could make it to the coast boarded any available ship.  Others hoped to escape by air from the airport at Tân Son Náht, but shelling by the invaders on April 29 closed the airport and the fate of Saigon was sealed.  The United States initiated “Operation Frequent Wind” on April 29-30 and sent a fleet of helicopters to various landing zones throughout Saigon, including the US embassy, to evacuate the remaining Americans in the city along with as many South Vietnamese and other foreign nationals as could be accommodated in what became the largest helicopter evacuation in history. 

By late afternoon on April 29, thousands of Vietnamese hoping to escape converged on the US Embassy.  The last evacuees to leave were forced to a nearby roof top as North Vietnamese tanks rolled into central Saigon.  Who can forget that now iconic photograph of a helicopter touching down as those still hoping to escape lined the stairway?  Loaded to over capacity, it finally lifted up, tilted it nose downward, and  turned toward the east and freedom.  Forty minutes later it landed on the USS Midway operating offshore.  When it was all over the following day some 100 US helicopters had evacuated an estimated 7,000 Americans and South Vietnamese out of Saigon in under 24 hours.  Far more were left behind. The long war in Vietnam was over, not with a bang but a whimper.

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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Quilts for Kids Nepal - In the Earthquake’s Aftermath

I imagine most, if not all, of you have been reading and watching the news reports of the horrific earthquake and after shocks that have in recent days devastated the heavily populated Kathmandu Valley of central Nepal.  It has left in its wake unbelievable destruction and a death toll ranging into the thousands and growing by the hour.  Neighboring regions and countries were also impacted by the worst earthquake to hit this area in over 80 years.  This news brought with it fear for the safety and well-being of a dear friend and the many people he helps in Kathmandu. 

James Hopkins is one of the most sincere and humble individuals I have had the pleasure to meet, and we have known each other for a quarter of a century.  He worked for over two decades as an investment broker in New York and here in Washington, DC, prior to an early retirement.  He left his old world behind and moved to Kathmandu to continue his studies in Buddhism and to undertake work on behalf of others less fortunate than himself.  Living in Asia, James was troubled by the quality of life and limited possibilities of the people living around him. He discussed this with a local lama and asked how he might help his new neighbors. The lama gave him a simple answer . . . use whatever skills you have to help the people you encounter.

Wandering the streets of Kathmandu, James discovered an Indian street “begging community” located in the city’s Boudhanath neighborhood.  Even under normal circumstances, its inhabitants, most of whom come from Punjab and Rajasthan, on India’s western border with Pakistan, and from Bihar state, situated along Nepal’s southeastern border, live in  poverty and squalor.  Yet even in these sordid conditions James found the camp’s Hindu women working together to produce amazingly beautiful quilts.  He realized that, with the right guidance and support, these women had a commodity they might sell to benefit their families. Created and operated by James since 2006, “Quilts for Kids Nepal” is a successful micro-finance project which empowers impoverished women while at the same time providing a safe and secure education for their children.  You can read more about this wonderful project at its website:

After days of growing concern for James’ safety, I was relieved to learn that he escaped harm having just returned to the States on a personal matter.   But he left his friends and colleagues behind and I know he must have been heartsick wondering what had happened to everyone in a neighborhood we now know was heavily damaged by the quake.  Fortunately, James and others have been able to confirm that there has been no loss of life in the community from which “Quilts for Kids Nepal” operates.  James reminds us that “those living in poverty are always the hardest hit by natural disasters, and the kids in this community are especially vulnerable.”  Although safe for the moment, food and drinking water are already running short, and soon they will face longer-term needs for rice, medicine, clothing and shelter.

If you would like to make a donation to support this troubled community during this time of uncertainty, there is a “Nepal Earthquake Relief” tab on the organization’s website -  Quilts for Kids is a tax-exempt 501(c)3 charity registered in the United States.  You can donate as much or as little as you would like in multiples of $25.  “Quilts for Kids Nepal” will administer the relief effort; 100% of your donation will go directly to support the needs of this special community.  The kids and their families, indeed everyone in Kathmandu, needs our support right now.  The situation in Nepal is rather serious and its limited resources are being spread very thin.  Any help at all will be greatly appreciated.   And while you are at it, consider purchasing one of the lovely quilts.  The money will go to provide salaries for the women, to purchase cloth and thread for their work, or to provide simple food for them while they work.

Please join me in sending what you can along with our prayers and thoughts to James as he returns home to Nepal to help in the reconstruction efforts and to continue the righteous work of “Quilts for Kids Nepal.”  

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Celebrating ANZAC Day - Another Centennial

It seems like every day of the week there is a new centennial celebration.  Today we celebrate ANZAC Day, perhaps the most important national day of commemoration in both Australia and New Zealand.  And this year is the centenary of the event it commemorates . . . the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps [ANZAC] and other element of the British Mediterranean Force, along the shores of the Dardanelles.  The Gallipoli Campaign of World War I was devised to lay siege to Constantinople and to force the Ottoman Empire to capitulate and abandon its alliance with Imperial German and the Central Powers.  It is ironic that this campaign is looked upon by the modern Turkish state as a defining moment in that nation's history.  Today Turkey is also celebrating the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign as its most significant military victory during that war.  Some say it is an ill-advised attempt to draw attention away from the centenary of the Armenian Genocide which began the day before the ANZAC landing on the Gallipoli peninsula, an event Turkey denies to this very day.  Turkey may have won that battle, but it lost the war; a fact it seems to forget.

The Gallipoli Campaign was the first instance of the independent Australian and New Zealand expeditionary troops participating in active combat during World War I.  The campaign was devised to be brief, but it quickly deteriorated into a months-long trench war where little ground was gained at a terrible cost for both sides - of over 150,000 casualties, prisoners and missing matching the Turkish losses.  The ANZAC troops were finally withdrawn in November and December 1915 and returned to their staging bases in Egypt where they were disbanded and where the original ANZAC Day was celebrated on the first anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli.  The former ANZAC units were reorganized and many were transferred to Great Britain and later deployed to the Western Front, in France, while others were deployed in Egypt and in Palestine.

I knew next to nothing about the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or the celebration of ANZAC Day, until I saw Peter Weir’s 1981 film “Gallipoli,” released in both Australia and the United States that August.  SallyAnn, who had quite a big-time jones for Australian cinema (and for almost anything Australian, to be honest), was quick to suggest we see the film as soon as it came out.  The fact that the film starred a very young Mel Gibson in one of his early roles, probably had a great deal to do with it.  He and fellow Australian actor Mark Lee played two young diggers from Western Australia caught up in the nationalism brought on by the war in Europe.  Struck by the popularity of men in uniform, and being rather down and out, they sought new adventure and enlisted in the ANZAC.  Soon they boarded troop transports to training and staging bases near Cairo, Egypt, and we watch them go through their exercises near the pyramids while enjoying youthful debauchery when on leave.  Eventually they are deployed to the Gallipoli Peninsula and finally experience the war up close and personal; boh the boredom and the relentless misery of trench warfare.  Peter Weir had visited the battlefield prior to the film’s production and he was able to capture the senselessness of war; so much death and nothing at all to show for it.  The film demonstrates a lost innocence as the young mens’ youthful esprit de corps quickly disappear as friends die and disappear.  And for what?

Last week SallyAnn and I participated in the annual DC Filmfest and had an opportunity to preview “The Water Diviner,” starring Russell Crowe in his directorial debut; its official release in the USA was yesterday after a record breaking success in Australia.  The film revisits the events of the Gallipoli Campaign, focusing primarily on its aftermath.  Four years after the battle, an Australian farmer and douser played by Crow travels to postwar Turkey in what could only be a vain attempt to locate the bodies of his three sons who died during the ANZAC offensive.  Unlike the intense battle scene in Weir’s film, here we see only brief flashbacks of machine-gun fire from opposing trenches.  And whereas the death of the Mark Lee character is captured in a final freeze frame reminiscent of Robert Capa’s iconic photograph of a Spanish loyalist soldier as a bullet strikes him dead, the almost unbearable scene of the three sons being mowed down by Turkish fire only to lie alone moaning and bleeding to death in no man’s land seems to go on forever.  Such is war.  Death can be unexpected and quick, or it can linger for what seems to be an eternity.

So pin on a sprig of rosemary while we salute those brave young men who fought and died for king and country.  And while we are at it, let us keep all veterans and those currently serving in uniform in our thoughts and prayer as we dream of the day when their sacrifices will no longer be necessary.

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Genocide is Genocide is Genocide

Gertrude Stein was perhaps being coy (more likely obtuse) in her frequent references to the qualities of a rose.  Sometimes things and events are just what they are and there is little room for debate.  To call them by any other name is a fool’s errand.  No matter how you spin it, it usually is what it is.

Armenia has prided itself in being one of the first countries to formally adopt Christianity, in the early 4th century.  Yet throughout much of its history its people have been subjugated by the Roman and Byzantine empires, the Arabs, Persians, and finally, by the Ottoman Turkish empire before part of the Armenian homeland was incorporated into the former Soviet Union following the Turkish defeat in World War I.

That war was particularly harsh on the fate of the Armenian people.  The Ottoman Empire had allied itself with Imperial Germany and the Central Powers in November 1914, and by the following spring the Turks were being pressured by the Allies on several fronts.  The British Royal Navy, supported by the Australian-New Zealand Army Corps [ANZAC], had launched an offensive against the Turks along the Dardanelles on April 25, 1915 in the hope of linking up with the Russian navy in the Black Sea, and Russian troops advancing steadily through the Balkans and the Caucasus to the east to force a Turkish capitulation.  The British offensive turned into a trench war stalemate on the Gallipoli Peninsula south of Constantinople, but the Turks largely blamed the Russian advance on the local Armenian population accused of aiding the Turks’ Russian foes.  To compound matters, the Turks faced the prospect of losing their territories in the Middle East and on the Arabian peninsula.

One hundred years ago today, the day before the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign, the Ottoman Turks initiated the deportation of its ethnic Armenian population out of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Anatolia and into the deserts of Syria and beyond.  It began quite innocuously with the arrest of 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople, but this policy eventually resulted in the systematic extermination of approximately 1.5 million Armenian Christians between 1915 and 1922 through mass slaughter, starvation and deportation.  Over 50,000 were murdered in a single day - May 1, 1915 - in the Van province in Eastern Anatolia where Armenians had lived for over two millennia.  Today this atrocity is known as the Armenian Genocide which gave rise to the Armenian diaspora communities throughout the world.  There were also large-scale Turkish massacres of the Greek, Assyrian and Kurdish minorities as part of the same campaign of ethnic cleansing.  The Armenian church sent a plea for help to President Woodrow Wilson and the United States, yet sadly nothing was done as it might appear to violate strict American neutrality in the war.  The Armenian Genocide and related programs of ethnic cleansing are today acknowledged by historians and much of the international community to have been one of the first modern genocides - the greatest atrocity of World War I which was an immense atrocity in its own right.  How quick we forget as it was soon to be followed by the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.

To this day the government of the Republic of Turkey, the legal successor state to the Ottoman Empire, refuses to recognize the suffering of the Armenians and other minorities as “genocide;” they were simply the unfortunate victims of war and internecine fighting.  How can this be?   It has been pointed out that, if you accept the events in Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda as genocide, how is it possible to call what happened to the Armenians at the hands of Turkey anything else?   I have learned though my own decades-long research into the evolution of the Jewish Holocaust that denial of genocide is, in fact, the final stage of genocide.  The Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt has said: “Denial of genocide, whether that of the Turks against the Armenians, or the Nazis against the Jews, is not an act of historical reinterpretation . . . the deniers sow confusion by appearing to be engaged in a genuine scholarly effort.  The deniers aim at convincing innocent third parties that there is ‘another side of the story’ when there is [none]; denial of genocide strives to reshape history in order to demonise [sic] the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators.”  Once you have killed the people, you must also destroy the memory and understanding of the killings.  Perpetrators become the victims in this revisionist history which creates what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called "a morally counterfeit universe for the survivors and their legacy."

Thankfully not everyone in modern Turkey is ignorant of their past and the complicity of their government in its denial of the atrocities committed against the Armenians and others.  Turkish scholar and journalist Cengiz Aktar speaks for many of his fellow citizens: "The Armenian genocide is the Great Catastrophe of Anatolia, and the mother of all taboos in this land.  Its curse will continue to haunt us as long as we fail to talk about, recognize, understand and reckon with it."   But there is a very real danger in today’s Turkey for anyone who does so.  Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk was a victim of telling the truth.  Following a 2005 Swiss interview in which he alluded to the suffering of the Armenian people during the Genocide, the Turkish press attacked Pamuk, accusing him of being a traitor and urging all good Turks to “silence” him.  He went into hiding abroad for several months after receiving death threats.  He eventually returned to his home in Istanbul only to be charged by the city’s public prosecutor with the “public denigration of Turkish identity.”  He faced three years in prison if convicted.   Pamuk shared Aktar’s position.  “What happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was a major thing that was hidden from the Turkish nation; it was a taboo. But we have to be able to talk about the past."  Turkey must come to terms with its history and this would only be possible through freedom of speech.  Fortunately for Pamuk, the charges were eventually dropped.  Others have not been so fortunate with the continuing break down of civil and human rights in Turkey under the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  But there is always hope.  Today, on the centenary of the beginning of the Armenian deportations from Constantinople, Turks are standing up for what they know to be true, gathering in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, site of last year’s government crackdown on free speech and human rights, to honor the victims of the Genocide.  The Erdoğan regime in Ankara will not participate in any of the memorials being held throughout Turkey.  Instead, it has scheduled a centennial commemoration of the Ottoman Turkish victory in the Gallipoli Campaign.  It is a shame that Prince Charles and Prince Harry of Great Britain have agreed to attend this “commemoration” in Ankara designed to draw attention away from the centenary of the Armenian Genocide.  This denial will only perpetuate the sad memories and ill-feeling that has lasted a century. 

The fate of the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks is responsible for the coining of the word “genocide.”  Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who escaped the Nazi subjugation of his homeland, emigrated to the United States in 1941 where in 1943, when the scale of the Nazi extermination of the Jews was gradually coming to light, he used the word “genocide” – the wholesale and premeditated exterminations of an entire race of people – to describe the massacre of the Armenian during World War I, and its legal implications.  Following the war, Lemkin drafted a resolution for a genocide convention to persuade the new United Nations to ban and punish future acts of genocide. With the support of the United States, who had failed to address the massacres in 1915, the resolution was placed before the General Assembly for consideration.  The United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the General Assembly in late 1948 in Paris.  It went into effect in January 1951.  Its definition of “genocide” in Article II is simple - “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group . . . ” which are punishable under the provisions of the convention.  The United States was one of several nations that signed the Convention on December 11, 1948 with reservation; it opposed granting consent to trial of its citizenry before an international court for the crime of genocide.  The US did not fully ratify the Convention for four decades, until November 4, 1988.  Not a very stirring act of moral courage.

Turkey is behind the curve as the world community continues to stand up for the truth borne on historical facts about the Armenian Genocide.  At least 25 countries, including Germany, Austria, France, and Russia, call the atrocity against the Armenians a genocide.  The Council of Europe and the European Parliament (of the European Union), have passed resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide. The United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has also described what happened to the Armenians as genocide.   Some countries, including Switzerland and Greece, have gone so far as to make the denial of these facts a criminal offense.  

In a recent mass celebrated at the Vatican to commemorate the centenary of the  Armenian Genocide, Pope Francis joined a large community of historians and nations who have characterized the killings and the mass persecution as the first modern genocide of the 20th century.  “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”  Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Holy See.  Not to be intimidated by Turkish intransigence, the Holy Father furthermore urged the international community to recognize the Armenian Genocide for what it was and not simply some unfortunate collateral damage as suggested by the current Turkish government who believes the Holy Father’s rhetoric will only perpetuate a crisis between Muslims and Christians.  “The 1915 events took place during World War I when a portion of the Armenian population living in the Ottoman Empire sided with the invading Russians and revolted against the empire,” the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported earlier this week.  “The Ottoman Empire relocated Armenians in eastern Anatolia following the revolts and there were Armenian casualties during the relocation process.”  Nothing less, but certainly nothing more.  A little truth, but not enough truth.  Some say a little truth can go a long way.  I am sorry.  Not in this instance.

In the wake of Pope Francis’s pronouncement, the parliament of the European Union  passed a new resolution calling on the Erdoğan regime, which at one time sought entry into the EU, to accept its responsibility as the successor state to the former Ottoman Empire, and to recognize Ottoman/Turkish complicity in the Armenian Genocide of a century ago.  Turkey responded by suggesting that European countries should look to their own histories and their own complicities in so-called “genocide” before condemning Turkey.  Volkan Bozkir, Turkey’s minister for European affairs, went further and took a pot shot at Pope Francis and his fellow countrymen in Argentina by suggesting that they had been brainwashed by Armenians in their midst, noting that “Argentina was a country that welcomed the leading executors of the Jewish Holocaust, Nazi torturers, with open arms.”   The pot calling the kettle black?

It is time for the current government of Turkey to recognize the historic reality of the genocide perpetrated against the Armenian people throughout eastern Anatolia one hundred years ago.  It is history and should be recognized as such.  It was genocide and to call it anything else is ignorance in its purest form.  It is time to move on just as Germany has moved on by recognizing its complicity in the Holocaust.  It has been said that there can be no reconciliation until the truth is told.  Here is an opportunity for Mr. Erdoğan to make the history he so much wants to be a part of.

And while we are at it, perhaps it is time for the United States to join other countries and come down on the right side of history as it has promised to do so many times.  Realpolitik should not dictate that we remain silent on the truth about the Armenian Genocide.  Still, Turkey continues to assert pressure on successive American administrations to keep silent in order to maintain good relations with an important and influential ally in a region boiling over with secular and religious conflicts.  Turkey is reported to be spending millions of dollars to lobby against scholarly and cultural events about the genocide in the United States, and to defeat congressional resolutions on the genocide. Turkey has threatened several times to close US NATO facilities in Turkey, if Congress passes as much as a non-binding statement acknowledging the events of 1915 as genocide.  On April 10, 2014, on the eve of the 99th anniversary, the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations reported on a Senate Resolution 410 condemning and commemorating the Armenian Genocide, describing it as an act of "elimination of the over 2,500-year presence of Armenians in their historic homeland".  It was approved by a committee vote of 12-5. The resolution had enough votes to pass the full Senate yet it was killed at the recommendation of the State Department.  It seems that truth plays a second fiddle in this country when the chips are down.

There is still hope.  Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), a lead sponsor of a new House resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide, trusts that Pope Francis’ pleas from the Vatican will "inspire our president and Congress to demonstrate a like commitment to speaking the truth about the Armenian genocide and to renounce Turkey's campaign of concealment and denial."  Let us keep our fingers crossed that braver souls in Congress will prevail and not acquiesce to pressures from a country who only acts like a loyal American ally when it fits its own world view, a position reinforced yesterday by two former US ambassadors and other American experts on Turkey at a panel discussion I attended at the Bipartisan Policy Institute here in Washington, DC.

It is also time for President Obama to show some backbone and to honor a pledge he made when first running for President.  Many of his predecessors from both parties have continually skirted the issue.  After all, it happened long ago and now Turkey is a NATO ally and an influential political and economic power in a very unstable region of the world.  The term “genocide” was avoided as it angered Turkish sensitivities.  When Obama first campaigned for president in 2008, he used the term “genocide” when speaking on the Armenian atrocities.  A year later, after his election and during a visit to Ankara, he asked the Turks to deal honestly with the events of a century ago . . . without honoring his campaign promise to refer to Armenian genocide as just that . . . a genocide!  "My firmly held conviction [is] that the Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence."  Unfortunately, Obama has moderated his language since taking office, calling that dark era “an atrocity,” but resisting all efforts by Congress to bring a resolution on the question to a vote.  Why???  He knows what happened and he knows what it is called and what it should be called.  Why censor himself against conventional wisdom?  Why placate a so-called ally who act less and less like one with each passing day? 

Pope Francis’ use of the term “genocide” in a mass of commemoration of that sad chapter of human history raised speculation that Mr. Obama might honor his old pre-election promise and tell Erdoğan he will no longer be bullied from doing the right thing.  Sadly, President Obama has chosen to be cautious yet again, to be cajoled rather than to take the moral high ground and lead.  In a statement released from the White House last night, he referred to the Armenian Genocide only as “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century."  Obama explained what happened.  “Beginning in 1915, the Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire were deported, massacred, and marched to their deaths,” Obama said in his official statement. “Their culture and heritage in their ancient homeland were erased. Amid horrific violence that saw suffering on all sides, one and a half million Armenians perished.”  Is that not genocide???  “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed,” the president said.  But yes it has Mr. President!  Why not call it what is was.   Genocide is genocide is genocide.

As I watch the world community stand up to Turkey and its revisionist view of history, I continue to wonder why my own country, my president, refuses to do what is morally correct.  Why won’t they step up to the plate?  I join the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee in expressing our mutual deep disappoint that “President Obama has chosen to break his promise and stand apart from the global community on speaking the truth about the Armenian Genocide on its 100th Anniversary.”   Once again a broken Obama promise.  For seven years in a row he has failed to keep his promise.  A follower, not a leader.  He has chosen to turn "a blind eye to genocide for political expediency."  How ironic that his current Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power won a Pulitzer Prize for her book on the Armenian Genocide.  She has constantly taken US policy makers to task for failing to  acknowledge such atrocities.  "No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence,” she wrote. “It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on."  

How can we expect Turkey to respect and acknowledge historical truth when our own leaders here in the United States - especially our president - do not have the moral courage to honor their promises to speak the truth.  The Erdoğan regime has no more loyal friend than Mr. Obama and the United States government.  What a shame it continues to spit in our eye and those of the world at large.

In closing, let me say that I see no change in American policy in future administrations.  What about Hillary Clinton, you ask?   As Secretary of State in 2012, she cautioned against calling the Armenian Genocide just that . . . “because whatever the terrible event might be or the high emotions that it represents, to try to use government power to resolve historical issues, I think, opens a door that is a very dangerous one to go through.  So the issue is a very emotional one; I recognize that and I have great sympathy for those who are just so incredibly passionate about it.”   Another follower.  Not a leader.

We must remember that not calling it a genocide also stirs passions among persons of all nationalities and ethnicities who have vowed not to be silent about what they see as attempts to liquidate entire peoples. 

Let’s not mince words, OK?  If it looks and smells like a genocide, it most certainly is.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

The Man from Big Sky Country - Remembering Ivan Doig

It was Ivan Doig who first introduced me to the true wonders of Montana.  I crossed the breadth of that Big Sky Country during the summer of 1970 when a good friend and I were returning home to Milwaukee after a trek across Canada from Manitoba to British Columbia.  I recall being impressed with the long, lonesome highways and the far distant horizons in almost any direction I cared to look.  Not only a land of endless sky, but a vast emptiness bearing little evidence that man ever passed this way.

It was not until three decades later, as I prepared for my first return to the Treasure State, that I truly came to appreciate these many wonders, having read Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, first published in 1979.  Wright Morris, in his review of the book in the New York Times, described how Doig “reinforces our diminishing conviction that there is something special in American earth, in American experience and in the harrowing terms of American survival.”  For it is in these western landscapes that one finds something that is uniquely American.  Hard as I have tried, even now I cannot put my finger squarely on what this singular quality might be.  If you visit the west, more specifically Montana, you will feel it, too.  This is what made Doig a special writer.  The bottom line is his pure love of language, and the creation of something that did not exist before.  He broke down the old stereotypes of the American West and those who choose to live there.  His sense of place became as broad and distant as the horizons of his native Big Sky Country, not only the distance to the horizons, but the “walls of high country” and the “windswept floor where shadows ascent deep valleys” that become a part of Doig’s heart and soul. 

Montana life, its joys and its griefs, came alive in his pen.

I don’t think of myself as a "Western" writer. To me, language—the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose—is the ultimate "region," the true home, for a writer. Specific geographies, but galaxies of imaginative expression—we’ve seen them both exist in William Faulkner’s postage stamp-size Yoknapatawpha County, and in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s nowhere village of Macondo, dreaming in its hundred years of solitude. If I have any creed that I wish you as readers, necessary accomplices in this flirtatious ceremony of writing and reading, will take with you from my pages, it’d be this belief of mine that writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life.

Ivan Doig has left us far too soon.  The silence of his pen will be measured by the echo of his words as they vanish into that illimitable emptiness of the American West.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Never Again - Holocaust Remembrance Day

Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) begins this evening and runs through tomorrow evening. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and the liberation of the camps. I spent almost my entire career documenting the crimes of the Holocaust to ensure "Never again."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Poetry of Earth is Never Dead - On the Passing of Tomas Tranströmer”

  The poetry of earth is never dead.
     –Tomas Tranströmer, Östersjöar
I was deeply saddened to learn of the March 19 passing of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, in Stockholm at the age of 83.  He was one of my very favorite poets, and in tribute to his memory I am including here an essay I first posted on October 16, 2010 on my literary blog, Epiphanies in the Rue Sansregret, at a time when Tranströmer was on the short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  He finally received the long-awaited honor in 2011.

In fact, Tranströmer had been a candidate for the prize for over a decade, and each year his fellow Swedes (and so many more of us) anxiously awaited the decision by the Swedish Academy, whose headquarters were just a short distance from Tranströmer’s apartment in Stockholm.  And each year we were disappointed while recognizing the honor bestowed on another deserving writer.  Unfortunately for myself and others, he did not win in 2010, the prize going to Mario Vargas Llosa "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat."  Still, I think my sentiments expressed in 2010 continued to ring true the following year when Tranströmer was finally recognized by the Swedish Academy "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality."  So many of us who had come to respect Tranströmer and his work were deeply gratified.  The late Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who won the Prize in 1995, perhaps said it best. “Everybody was hoping for that. For years.”  He was the first poet in almost two decades to be so honored, and the first Swede since 1974, the year I first met Tranströmer, in Tucson of all places, and began to read his poetry in earnest.

Here is the original 2010 posting.  I will conclude with a few more recent thoughts in the wake of the honor presented by the Swedish Academy.
“A Tip of the Hat to Tomas Tranströmer”
Epiphanies in the rue Sansregret, October 16, 2010

Earlier this month British bookmakers offered Tomas Tranströmer, perhaps Sweden’s most noted poet, as a 5/1 favorite to win this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, placing him ahead of three other poets ranked at 8/1 - Adam Zagajewski of Poland, South Korea’s Ko Un and Syria’s Adonis - as well as the Paraguayan playwright Nestor Amarilla. Tranströmer, born in Stockholm in 1931 has, in addition to his career as a noted poet, critic and translator, worked as a psychologist providing vocational guidance to Sweden’s incarcerated juvenile offenders.  This year is not the first time that he has been on the bookies’ shortlist for this prestigious honor.  I welcomed this news but suspected that Tranströmer would not win since last year’s laureate was a European - the Romanian-born German novelist, poet and essayist, Herta Müller.  One hopes that geopolitics would not influence the judges, but it does.  A Hispanic writer had not won since 1998, when José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist and playwright who passed away in June, took home the Nobel laurels.  But when you think about it, no Swede - no Scandinavian - has won the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1974 when Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson, both members of the Swedish Academy, shared the prize.  So I was not surprised when the Academy anointed Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa as this year’s winner.  He was not the bookmakers choice - his chances were listed as 45/1 - but there can be little argument that Llosa is deserving of the honor.

I will admit that I was pulling for Tranströmer.  I have been reading his poetry since I was first introduced to it in English translation almost 40 years ago.  Robert Bly, his longtime friend and translator, writing in the introduction to his 1980 translation of Tranströmer’s Sanningsbarriären [Truth Barriers (1978)], has perhaps captured the essence of Tranströmer’s importance and appeal to readers.  His “poems are a luminous example of the ability of poetry that inhabits one culture to travel to another culture and arrive.”  I felt an immediate connection to his poems when I first heard him read in the spring of 1974 when I was attending graduate school at the University of Arizona, in Tucson.

I was working on a Master’s degree in German Literature at the time and had been involved with the University’s Ruth Stephan’s Poetry Center since my arrival in Tucson.  I was especially drawn to its venerable reading series and the small poetry library located in a house donated by Ms. Stephan (a second donated residence, a small cottage, housed the noted poets visiting the Center).  Tranströmer came to Tucson in late February 1974 to give a campus reading.  He was also interviewed for the new student literary magazine, Window Rock, which also reprinted a couple of his more recent poems.  I was there that evening sitting in the front row.  Admittedly, I knew very little about the poet and his work when he took to the stage. He came before us as a relatively new presence and voice.  Although he rose to prominence as a promising new voice in his native Sweden in 1954 with the publication of 17 dikter [17 Poems], at the age of 23, it was not until the early 1970s, with the publication of Robert Bly’s translation of 20 Poems (1970), and May Swenson’s translations in Windows and Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972), that English-speaking readers were first introduced to the work of this fine Swedish poet. I read some of these translations prior to that evening, especially after hearing Swenson read in Tucson the previous month when she offered effusive praise for Tranströmer’s poetry.  I cannot say that I fully understood them, but  I was nevertheless intrigued as I felt he was a new and important poetic voice. There was an inborn authority underlying ever word, every phrase.  

Now the evening star burns through cloud.
Trees, fences and houses grow, grow larger
with the dark’s soundless, steepening fall.
And under the star is outlined clear and clearer
the other, secret landscape that lives
the life of contour on night’s X-ray plate.
A shadow draws its sled between the houses,
They wait.

[“Epilogue,” from 17 dikter, translated by May Swenson]

What I recall from the poems read that evening, and what I have taken from all of his poetry I have read since, is Tranströmer’s very strong sense of place, even when it tends toward the surrealistic at times - Sweden, of course (he has continued to reside in Västerås near Stockholm), but more particularly the islands of Södermalm and Runmarö and the east-central coastal archipelago of his ancestors where Tranströmer spent the summers during his youth.  The audience was enwrapped from start to finish and I left that evening a convert.

Tranströmer’s long poem Östersjöar was published in the autumn of 1974, and Samuel Charters acclaimed English translation Baltics was brought out by the Berkeley publisher Oyez in 1975.  I read it as soon as I could lay my hands on a copy (which, I recall, was not very easy).  It provided entree into an entirely new understanding of Tranströmer’s poetics and use of metaphor, and I agree with the poet Bill Coyle who later wrote that this collection “ is in some ways the best place for a new reader of Tranströmer to start; it develops more slowly than his shorter pieces, and his metaphors, though as striking here as elsewhere, reveal themselves more gradually.”  Again, the strong sense of place - the Stockholm Archipelago, and the Baltic Sea.

In the middle of the forest the Baltic also sighs, deep in the
    forest you’re out on the open sea.

[Baltics, II]

“The Baltic is Tranströmer’s archetypal environment,” Coyle writes, “with its mixture of sea and islands, of sweet and salt water and, at least during the Cold War, of democracies and dictatorships.”  The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had been under Soviet domination since the end of World War II, and this long poem reflects the geopolitical realities of the Baltic region and their impact on the poet and his work.

Now, a hundred years later. The waves come in from no man’s
and break against the stone.

[Baltics, III]

Transtömer returned to Tucson in November 1975 for a reading at which he presented Baltics in its entirety.  I had an opportunity to speak with the poet at some length afterwards and he graciously inscribed my copy of the Charters translation of Baltics as well as my copy (one of 600) of the inaugural 1974 number of Window Rock with it’s interview of the poet and the reprints of two of his poems.  I went home that evening with a deeper admiration for the poet and his work, but also a better understanding of the plight of these small nations so close to the poet’s native Baltic Archipelago yet suffering under the oppressive Soviet thumb.

And now: the stretch of open water, without doors, the open
that grow broader and broader
the farther you stretch out.
[. . . ]
But it’s a long way to Liepaja.

[Baltics, IV]

Baltics came up a few years later, in the autumn of 1979, when I had an opportunity to discuss Tranströmer’s poetry and the plight of the Baltic states with the noted Estonian poet Ivar Ivask (1927-1992), and the Lithuanian historian Vitas S. Vardys (1924-1993) .  We shared dinner at the faculty club at the University of Oklahoma, in Norman, Oklahoma, and my long conversation with Ivask, who was then the editor-in-chief of World Literature Today and the founder of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature which Tranströmer would win in 1990, opened my eyes to other approaches to the poem, including those by Baltic writers in exile.  

Tranströmer’s English speaking audience has continued to grow as has his influence on other poets.  His work in translation appeared in Robert Bly’s Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets: - Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf, Tomas Tranströmer (1975).   Bly’s translation of Sanningsbarriären [Truth Barriers, 1978] appeared in 1980, and an entire issue of Michael Cuddihy’s fine journal, Ironwood 13, was devoted to Tranströmer in 1979 (published in Tucson, by the way).  Tranströmer’s Selected Poems, containing the work of several of his noted translators and edited by Robert Haas, was published in 1987, and New Collected Poems, translated by Robert Fulton, appeared in 1997.  This volume was greatly expanded in 2006 under the title The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems which represents the first time all of Tranströmer’s poems to date have been available in one volume in English.

I have been lucky to hear Tranströmer read two other times.  First, at an evening reading in Stockholm, in the spring of 1985.  I had a free evening in the city and it was a treat to hear selections of Östersjöar and other poems read in the original Swedish.  Tranströmer was treated like a rock star yet he remained the same humble man I first encountered a decade earlier in Tucson.  The last time was here in Washington, DC, when Tranströmer read at the Folger Library, in April 1986.  The poet and his poetry had reached a new and recognizable maturity, yet his inner voice, and the voice by which he shared his poems in Stockholm and Washington, were still recognizable from that first time I heard him read in Tucson in 1974.  Both, etched by new experiences, remained, spare, clear, and quiet  - the benchmarks of his poetry through the years.. 

Thankfully, Tranströmer at age 79 remains a major poetic voice in the world.  Sadly, however, his own voice has been largely silenced by a stroke he suffered in 1990, an event foretold years earlier toward the end of Baltics.

Something wants to be said, but the words don’t agree.
Something that can’t be said,
there aren’t any words but maybe a style . . .

[. . .]
Then comes the stroke: right side paralysis and aphasia, can only
    grasp short phrases, says wrong words
Can, as a result of this, not be touched by advancement or blame.
But the music’s still there, he still composes in his own style,
he becomes a medical sensation for the time he has left to live
[Baltics, V]

Despite the cruel silence imposed upon him, Tomas Tranströmer continues to practice his craft and sharing it with the world.  We are certainly thankful for his  insights and his ability to help us recognize and transcend the boundaries that encompass us all.

This past December I received an unexpected note from James Wine, a longtime American friend of Tranströmer who now resides in Stockholm, recalling our mutual  attendance at the poet’s 1986 reading at the Folger Library when Wine and his wife, who were living here at the time, played host to Tranströmer and his wife during their visit.  Wine had recently come across my 2010 posting online and shared it with the poet.

Wine, who is also a partner in Longwalks Productions AB, a creative arts company based in Stockholm with the goal of “making poetry work in the world,” introduced me to “Östersjöar - en dikt av Tomas Tranströmer,” his half-hour remake of a 1993 film first broadcast on Swedish television in 1994.  Filmed in Sweden, in the “wonderful labyrinth of islands and water” of the Stockholm Archipelago and on Gotland, Wine states that the remaking of the original film gave him and his partners an opportunity “to dig deeper into the poem, find more authentic materials, lift up passages with fresh perspectives, bringing the imagery to an entirely new level, and all the while maintaining the same distance and character of the original experiment in 1993.”  As part of “Den kan vara alles,” a multi-year film project, it also promoted the idea of “allemannsrātten,” the Swedish belief that everyone has a rightful access to nature. Former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove calls the film “a marvelous piece . . . it almost manages to bring the smell of the sea into the living room.”   Wine provided me with an opportunity to view the new version of the film online and this only reenforced the fact that Tranströmer’s words and music will be missed terribly, that the special place on the bookshelf will never expand. 

 Robert Bly, a prominent translator of Tranströmer, noted that when the poet began to craft his early poems in the 1950s, it was still possible to write a nature poem in which nothing technological entered.  As his career progressed, however, it was not so easy to separate the two, as we see in his 1974 long poem Östersjöar [Baltics] and the mingling of maritime life in that wonderful labyrinth of forested islands and water in his native Stockholm Archipelago.  We marvel that the poetry of earth is never truly dead.

The American poet and critic Stephen Burt tells us: “More than most poets, Tranströmer survives translation, since his effects so often come from metaphors, images and situations.  Other effects come from silence, from negative space: Few readers object to the brevity of his best-known poems.” 

Tranströmer was a hugely popular figure in his home country; an American critic referred to him as “Sweden’s Robert Frost.”  The woods are lovely, dark and deep;  he has shared his music and words, and earned his sleep.

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

My Mother Celebrates Her 90th Birthday

Photograph taken April 4, 2015 at the Pickerington (Ohio) Historical Society
My mother celebrated her 90th birthday on April 3 and my wife and son joined me in a long drive from Washington, DC to her home in Canal Winchester, Ohio, not far outside of Columbus.  We were joined there by my only sister and her family who live in nearby Pickerington.  It was a wonderful opportunity to have the whole family together and to celebrate this landmark occasion.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me?

When I get older losing my hair,
Many years from now.
Will you still be sending me a Valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine.

When I first sang along with this song so many years ago I never gave it much thought that one day this might apply to me.  This is not to say that I have reached that plateau in my life where I am looking at the long, downward path that can only lead to a gradual (or perhaps a speedy) circling of the drain. 

Yours sincerely, wasting away . . . .

I feel I have a few good years left in me as I reach a milestone celebrated in song.  But then there is that nagging question . . . .

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four? *

* John Lennon and Paul McCartney, 1967 © EMI.  Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Off in the Clouds

Where has the time gone?  I have suddenly realized that it has been several weeks since I have posted anything here.  I guess I have been off in the clouds somewhere.  That often seems to be the case recently.

SallyAnn spent three weeks in Florida and I had the house to myself with a long list of writing projects I wanted to accomplish.  And there was the stack of books I have been meaning to read.  And although I was very successful in putting many hundreds of words down on paper, none of them found their way to Looking Toward Portugal.  There are lots of ideas swirling in my head, and some half-baked drafts piled here on my desk, but nothing seemed to gel into place.  At least not yet.   John Quincy Adams perhaps said it best. “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”  These will all come together soon with a little more tender care.

I guess it happens to the best of us.  You find yourself working hard on one project, and suddenly you realize your mind is slipping away to other topics, and you feel the crushing need to drop what you are doing in order to capture a thought or a phrase before it slips away.  Suddenly you find yourself building on it to create something new.  Mind you, I am not complaining.  This certainly beats sitting here drumming on the desk with a pencil and wondering what to write next.  Heraclitus teaches us well.  “Good character is not formed in a week or a month.  It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.”  And with good character comes good writing.

Hopefully you will find some of it here sooner rather than later.

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Monday, February 2, 2015

"When Chekhov Saw the Long Winter" - Groundhog Day 2015

For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until May.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine before May.

                              – German Proverb

German settlers arrived in the American colonies throughout the 18th century and with them came the tradition known as Candlemas Day which is celebrated each February 2.  It occurs at the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.  Along with its importance in the Christian liturgical calendar, the day is also associated with weather prediction.  It is said that if the weather is fair on that day, the remainder of the winter season will be cold and snowy.  If, on the other hand, the weather is cloudy and gloomy, this means spring will arrive early.  It was from this tradition that the Pennsylvania Germans came to celebrate Groundhog Day ["Murmeltiertag," or the local variant "Grundsaudaag"] on February 2.

Almost every year on this date since 1887 ("war clouds have blacked out parts of the shadow" in 1942 and 1943 according to the event’s official history), one in a long line of resident groundhogs named “Punxsutawney Phil” has emerged from his hibernation den on Gobbler’s Knob, near that west-central Pennsylvania town, and offered a prognostication as to when winter will end using the same rule observed on Candlemas.

A week ago a good friend and I planned a road trip north into east-central Pennsylvania to follow in the footsteps of noted American writer Conrad Richter; not quite as far away as Punxsutawney on the Allegheny Plateau, but far enough into the Ridge and Valley Province of the central Appalachians where weather can always be a factor this time of the year.  An earlier forecast had predicted a fair day and we were looking forward to the trip.  Unfortunately, a large nor’easter, as they have a want to do this time of year,  brought the season’s first major snow storm to the upper Mid-Atlantic region and New England where close to three feet of snow fell in some places before it was all over.  Central Pennsylvania was just on the edge of the storm, yet enough snow fell on our destination that day that common sense was the better part of valor and we had to postpone our outing.  (A rescheduled road trip to Pine Grove, Pennsylvania will be the subject of a future posting.)

Winter weather, and how much more snow we can expect this year, was on my mind again early on this rainy morning as I was sitting in my kitchen with my first cup of coffee.  Staring out at the gloom and the coming dawn here on the fringes of our Nation’s Capital, I was curious what Punxsutawney Phil, the Seer of all Seers and the  Prognosticator of all Prognosticators, would have to say about the next six weeks of winter.  Shortly after 7am I returned to my upstairs office and switched on my computer to watch the live stream broadcast from Punxsutawney on  The skies were dark and gloomy there, too, the only light coming from dozens of remote television crews covering this propitious annual event . . . the 129th gathering of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club on Gobbler’s Knob.  There was music as colorfully-clad young maidens danced on stage to the thrumming beat of music too loud and too boisterous for so early in the morning.  No sleeping in for Phil this morning.  He had important work to do.   

At the appropriate moment shortly after 7am, the top-hatted Inner Circle of the Groundhog Club entered through the crowd and assembled around the old tree stump that is the entry to Phil’s den.  Each member of the circle was introduced, and finally, the club’s president rapped on the door of the den with a wooden cane to awaken Phil.  Two handlers took some effort to extricate Phil as the crowded shouted the “Phil Chant.”  “He’s a little angry this year,” offered the president, but I imagine were I Phil I would have been less than thrilled to be dragged from my bed on a cold, snowy morning.  Two scrolls had been prepared, one predicting six more weeks of winter, the other offering hope for an early spring.  The president had a short conversation with Phil in “Groundhogese” and at 7:25am his prediction was read aloud to the crowd.  “Yes, a shadow I see . . .” and with that a long winter was confirmed to a mixture of cheers and groans.  For the record, the various Phils have seen their shadow 102 times while failing to do so only 17 times.  The data from several years is mysteriously missing.  So it would seem there were few surprises this morning on Gobbler’s Knob where a mixture of rain and snow fell throughout the ceremony and another major winter storm is moving out of America’s heartland into New England with a prediction of up to a foot of new snow in northern Pennsylvania.

What with Phil’s roughly 40% accuracy rate, the question remains.  Will my friend and I be taking that road trip into Pennsylvania this month as planned, or are we looking at March and the final arrival of decent weather?  We will just have to wait and see.  Frankly, I really don’t mind winter that much.  There is much to like about the season.  I think Phil Connors, the Pittsburgh weatherman played by Bill Murray in the 1993  film “Groundhog Day” perhaps said it best.  “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

70 Years After Auschwitz

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex.  In April 2005, shortly after the 60th anniversary of the liberation, the United Nations General Assembly designated this date as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, urging each member state to regularly and properly honor the victims of the Nazi genocide . . . the approximately seven million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally and physically challenged individuals, and other opponents of the Nazi regime.  Over 1 million of these victims, most of them Jews, were murdered at Auschwitz.  Their fates should be remembered by all people for all time, knowing that what happened to the Jews could easily happen to the rest of us if we do not remain vigilant to the long specter of evil in this world.  A memorial to these Nazi crimes might prevent future genocides.  We can only hope and pray.

It is regrettable and not a little shameful that neither President Obama, Vice President Biden, nor Secretary of State Kerry are scheduled to attend the 70th anniversary commemoration in Poland tomorrow.  Instead, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will lead the small US delegation.   Among those heads of state attending are French President Hollande, Austrian President Fischer, German President Gauck, Belgium King Philippe of Belgium, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, as well as the  leaders of many other nations.  After admitting it was a mistake and diplomatic fiasco for neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Biden to attend the solidarity march against terrorism in Paris two weeks ago, the Administration has once again failed to recognize the symbolic importance of such a visit to Auschwitz.  Mr. Obama will spend today paying homage to the new Saudi king on his way home from India.  His time would be better spent in Poland among more steadfast allies.  Add to this that Mr. Obama joins Russian President Putin in choosing not to attend the commemoration at Auschwitz.  It was, after all the Soviet Red Army that liberated Auschwitz, but Mr. Putin claims his schedule is too busy to permit a trip to Poland.  The fact is, given the current geopolitical debacle in Ukraine, Mr. Putin is not the most popular person in Europe these days.  And now Mr. Obama is apparently too busy to attend.  Certainly such a comparison with his Russia counterpart is not something Mr. Obama would particularly cherish. 

As I raised these concerns it was suggested to me that American presidents seldom attend these anniversary events, and therefore there is no reason for Mr. Obama to attend this one. If there is some reason the President cannot attend, why did he not choose to send Mr. Biden or Mr. Kerry?  Is this yet one more example of American exceptionalism?  Heads of state and high-ranking leaders from dozens of countries find it important enough to go.  Yes, there have been other such commemorations in past years, so I was also asked why this particular anniversary is such a big deal? President Obama has visited other camps before.  Isn’t this commemoration nothing more than “just another photo op?”  Yes, a few months after his inauguration in 2009, Mr. Obama visited the former Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  The story is his great-uncle helped to liberate Ohrdruf, a subcamp in the Buchenwald camp complex.   If this is the case, how is it possible for the President not to see the significance of this year’s commemoration at Auschwitz?  My questioner rebutted.  “Anniversary ceremonies aren't meaningful . . . Why 70th? Why not 69th? It's just a number.”  I cannot disagree more strenuously.  This will be perhaps the last commemoration including camp survivors, who were not so numerous in the first place. About 300 survivors are expected to attend today’s ceremony, most of them well into their 90s or older.  If they have the courage to return to this place of personal horror, surely our leaders can find the time to share in this commemoration.  To call it a simple photo op is an insult; it diminishes the very memory of those who perished there . . . and those who were lucky enough to survive. Auschwitz is NEVER a photo op.

My father’s US Army unit played a role in the liberation of the Gusen subcamp of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp at the end of the war.  I spent over three decades of my professional career conducting historical research while investigating and participating in the prosecution of Nazi-era war criminals who escaped justice after the war.  The United States Government has stood at the forefront of the world community insuring that justice is meted out to the perpetrators of the Holocaust. I am left with the lamentable impression that the United States does not really understand history very well, or think it all together important to commemorate among the family of nations.  Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.  We have seen it happen.  It can happen again.

Can it possibly be time to stop remembering, to forget what happened at Auschwitz and at the numerous Nazi camps whose main gates were festooned with the most ironic of ironies . . . “Arbeit macht frei” [work will make you free]?  We must never forget, we must never stop commemorating what we know, what history has taught us.  “Wahrheit macht frei” . . . the truth shall set you free.

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Monday, January 26, 2015

I Can Still Taste Les Madeleines

A couple of days ago I was organizing and archiving the textual copies of the 300+ posting to this blogspot since late 2008.  They have accumulated to almost 600 single spaced pages collected into two large binders.  I commented to a good friend at the time that Marcel Proust would be proud of me and he suggested it might be time to break out the madeleine cakes to celebrate.  I had not thought about les madeleines in over forty years . . . certainly not in connection with Proust.  This gave me pause.

I think the first time I had a madeleine was in late 1971 during a visit to the Meuse Valley, in the Lorraine region of northeastern France.  I was there ostensibly to search out places where my dad’s US Army unit fought during the late months of 1944.  I found myself in Metz and wandering a back street one morning I chanced upon a small boulangerie with a rich variety of offerings.  I selected several madeleine cakes . . . cookies, actually . . . to go with my morning coffee.  They were quite unique in their shape and consistency, and they tasted wonderful.  I can still taste them even after all these years. 

The reason I tried them that morning, however, was because at that time I was reading  selections from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Lost Time] in a French literature class at the German university I was attending.  Probably Proust’s most famous work (begun in 1909, and eventually published in several volumes between 1913 and 1927), it swelled to almost 3,200 pages.  We were reading selections from Du côté de chez Swann [Swann’s Way], the first volume published in 1913, including the section entitled “Combray” which concludes with the now famous madeleine episode  – its theme the existence of involuntary memory.  Returning home to the US, I finally had an opportunity to read the entire multi-volume English translation by Charles Scott Moncrieff to which he attached the rather obsequious title, Remembrance of Things Past (1922-1930).  The final volume of the translation was completed by "Stephen Hudson," (a pseudonym adopted by Proust's friend, Sydney Schiff), after Moncrieff’s death in 1930.   Reading the Combray episode:

 No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea. 

So, perhaps I was correct when I posited that Proust would be proud of me after assembling textual pages of these blogspot posting, which I have characterized from the outset as “Random Thoughts From the Edge of America.”  And my friend was also correct to suggest a celebration of this undertaking with the serving of madeleine cakes.  Eating them with his tea was, for Proust, an incident of involuntary memory triggered by sensory occurrences,  awakening still other memories and recollections, the “essence of the past” over which he had no conscious control over recollections of past people, places and events.

These postings really are random thoughts . . . involuntary memories triggered by something I have done, or seen, or heard, or read.  Yet, once triggered, I do try to think about then intelligently, and in depth.  I will do a little research to flesh them out before sharing them with my readers.

So let us dip our madeleines into our cups of tea and see what comes up.  I am sure there will always be something to dredge up and write about.

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