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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Saturday, January 24, 2015

What Has Happened to America’s Moral Compass?

I have just read that President Obama, who arrived in India today on a planned visit, will shorten his trip in order to travel to Saudi Arabia next week to pay his respects to the newly appointed Saudi King Salman.  Vice President Biden was to join other world leaders in Riyadh today to honor Salman’s predecessor, who was buried yesterday, but once again American exceptionalism raises its ugly head and Obama will make a special appearance at the Saudi court.

Just recently the President was too busy to join other world leaders as they stood by France, our oldest ally, and marched through Paris in solidarity against terrorists who had murdered several writers and artists and other innocents.  Yet Obama does have time to visit the repressive Saudi kingdom which continues to persecute its own women, minorities, and the LGBT community.  I think the Vice President’s presence in Riyadh today would have been more than enough to honor protocol.  Why does Saudi Arabia, and not France, deserve an additional visit by the President?  Look to the Saudi oil fields for your answer.

Saudi Arabia is no true ally of the United States.  May I remind you that Osama bin Laden and most of the terrorists responsible for the September 11 atrocities were Saudis?  America supposedly cherishes personal freedoms, including the freedom of speech, and still we honor and support a country that ignores these as a matter of course.  At the moment the Saudi government is in the process of administering 1000 lashes of a cane to Raif Badawi, a young Saudi blogger, for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s powerful clerics.  His sentence also includes a fine and ten years in prison.  The blog has been shut down by the Saudi government and Badawi’s attorney has been jailed for fifteen years for “undermining regime officials,” for ‘’inciting public opinion,” and for “insulting the judiciary.”  Badawi’s wife and three young children are living in exile in Canada.  We have no time to stand by a traditional ally like France yet our president makes a special effort to stand by the Saudis?

Amnesty International has adopted Badawi as a prisoner of conscience and calls his cruel punishment “macabre and outrageous.”  Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a member of the Jordanian royal family, has pointed out that “[s]uch punishment is prohibited under international human rights law, in particular the convention against torture, which Saudi Arabia has ratified” and he has appealed to the now deceased Saudi king to exercise his power to halt the public flogging.  So far the new King Salman has pledged continuity after his accession to the throne.  Our neighbors in Canada have described the flogging as “a violation of human dignity and freedom of expression”.  And still our President feels honor bound to pledge the United States’ continued support of Saudi Arabia and its repressive ruling family.

President-elect Obama:
When the United States stands up for human rights, by example at home and by effort abroad, we align ourselves with men and women around the world who struggle for the   right to speak their minds, to choose their leaders, and to be treated with dignity and respect. We also strengthen our security and well being, because the abuse of human rights can feed many of the global dangers that we confront -- from armed conflict and humanitarian crises, to corruption and the spread of ideologies that promote hatred and violence.

So why does he feel compelled to visit Saudi Arabia?  How soon we forget.  One again I feel like I am standing on the edge of America, scratching my head and wondering what has happened to America’s moral compass.  

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Memories of the Good Earth

Steve and Knight on the Back Forty, Autumn 1956
“I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there.”
Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)

I have written here several times about my grandparent’s farmstead in southwestern Michigan where I lived for a time back in the mid-1950s.  My parents were traveling for  my dad’s job and so I had a stable home as I started my school career at the one-room Acorn School just down the road from the farm.  Having lived in cities – Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, and Los Angeles - during my earliest years, I found the farm to be a fascinating and mysterious place where I could free-range to my heart’s content . . . even as a five year old boy.   How many kids can say that today?

My days on the farmstead fell into a routine.  Life was much simpler back then.  After a morning of spelling, repetitions and ciphers I was happy to walk back to the farm for a few daylight hours of rambling through my grandparent’s fields and the woodlot beyond.  This afternoon time was usually my own after a few quick chores upon returning home from school.  After a cold glass of milk I would visit the chicken coop where it was my job to gather the eggs and bring water from the pump to fill their trough.  I would also bring cracked corn from the granary which I spread around the yard, the chickens pecking at my shoes.  My grandma was often busy with her own chores around the house and with the preparation of the evening meal while my granddad would be busy in the barn mucking out the stalls and tie-ups and laying in a fresh bedding of hay for the cows in preparation for the evening milking.  On weekends I would often follow my granddad around the farm, sometimes on foot and other times up in his lap as he navigated his red Farmall tractor from one task to another.  My uncles and neighboring farmers would come when it was time to cut and bale hay or harvest the field corn and asparagus.

Most of my explorations of the farm began in the large yard separating the farmhouse from the weather-burnished barn and the other out buildings.  It was shaded by a magnificent oak tree and I would go around picking up fallen acorns and collecting them in small paper bags which I then secreted high up in the corn crib.   I had no reason for doing this.  My faithful companion was Knight, a friendly and trustworthy border collie who, strangely enough, was my best friend during those months I spent at the farm with few, if any, children to play with.  A prodigious assembly of cousins had not yet arrived on the scene. 

In the summer the fields reaching from the barnyard to the distant woodlot were planted with alfalfa, asparagus (western Michigan is considered by some the asparagus capital of the United States), and field corn.  When the corn had grown above my head I would often go into the field and walk about, changing directions at will and wondering where I would be when I finally emerged into the open.  Browned and withered in the autumn after the harvest, the corn stalks would be cut and gathered into shocks dotting the field until they were ensiled as cattle fodder for the coming year.  A small creek ran through the woodlot and I always enjoyed walking along it looking for frogs and minnows.   Sometime I would take a small cane pole with me and fish for bream in the larger pools.  I had a fort, its walls marked out by cords of wood my granddad had cut.   Later in the autumn some of these logs would be sectioned and split and transported to the dooryard to feed the winter furnace in the farmhouse cellar.  These explorations of the farm fields and back woods were a special time, when my boyhood imagination would run wild with possibilities as I listened to the wind rustling trough the crops, the trees and branches scratching and creaking as evening approached.

One of my aunts or uncles would usually stop by in time to be invited to join us for dinner and we would all gather around the large dining room table for a bounteous feast of meat and potatoes.  A large picture window opening to a broad panorama of the farmyard and the fields beyond the barn and out buildings, the cows just beginning to arrive at the barnyard from their day grazing in the pasture.

In the early evening after dinner I would join my granddad in the barn and watch him milk each of his six cows in succession.  It was my job to retrieve pails full of corn meal from the granary which I mixed with a portion of ensilage (mostly green corn fodder) to which I added a generous dollop of black molasses.  The girls appeared to enjoy it well enough.  The milk from each cow was poured into large metal milk cans which were then submerged in a water cooler overnight, the morning milk added before the cans were rolled to the side of the road near the barn to be collected daily by the local dairy truck.  Except for weekends, I left the morning milking to my granddad who was up every morning at dawn.  On weekdays I had to eat breakfast before my walk back to Acorn School for the day’s lessons.

Willa Cather’s sentiment from the Great Plains almost a century ago still held true as I wandered my grandparents’ farm in the mid 1950s.  Its good earth was magical for this city boy.  Now, almost sixty years later, I still have fond memories of those days of innocence, wishing that my own could end like this.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ice on the Potomac - Thirty Three Years After the Air Florida Crash

I was driving home from a poetry reading in Arlington, Virginia a couple of nights ago and I noticed that the Potomac River was completely iced over and reflecting the soft sheen of light from the Lincoln Memorial with the Washington Monument beyond.  We had a few days of uncharacteristic arctic temperatures and this was the first time I had seen the river covered in ice in quite a long time.  Despite the late hour and the cold temperatures I could not help but stop for a few minutes to enjoy the peaceful setting.  Washington really is a beautiful city, especially at night.

A few minutes later I was crossing the Fourteenth Street Bridge spanning the Potomac  between the Pentagon, on the Virginia shore, and the Jefferson Memorial and adjacent Tidal Basin on the Washington, DC side of the river.  One more time I was able to look down at the ice reflecting the city lights.  And, as it often does whenever I cross this bridge . . . even now thirty three years later . . . my memory flashes back to January 13, 1983.  A blizzard had descended on Washington that morning and commuters were beginning to head home early as the city slowly crept to a halt and the snows piled higher.  The roads leading out of the city and across the Potomac bridges were jammed with people trying desperately to get home safely.   National Airport, situated on the Virginia side of the river less than mile south of the Fourteenth Street Bridge, had closed earlier in the day during the heaviest part of the storm, but reopened around noon under very marginal conditions as the snowfall slackened.

That afternoon Air Florida Flight 90 was rolling away from the terminal after being de-iced prior to departure following a delay in its scheduled take-off for Tampa and Fort Lauderdale when the airport was once again closed due to heavy snow.  It was still snowing hard as the aircraft waited on the taxi-way for over 45 minutes before it was eventually cleared for take off shortly before 4pm.  It would never reach its intended destinations.  It remained in the air for only a few seconds before it stalled and dropped toward the icy river below.  It struck the northbound span of the Fourteenth Street Bridge crushing six cars and a truck halted in the massive traffic backup traffic on the bridge and killing four.  It tore away almost 100 feet of the bridge before plunging into the ice between the two spans of the bridge some 200 feet from the Virginia shore.  The wreckage quickly sank, only the tail section rising from the icy waters.  Four of the five crew members were killed along with 70 of 74 passengers, many of whom survived the initial crash but were unable to escape the sunken wreckage.  Rescue operations were hampered by the worsening weather, ice in the river, and difficulty reaching the crash site by land and water.  Still, there were several instances of heroism to save those who had managed to escape the wreckage.

A half hour after the plane crash the early rush hour sent thousands of commuters underground into Metro subway system in order to get out of the city that was quicky shutting down.   A second tragedy struck just a short distance from the plane crash site when a single Metro train derailed beneath the National Mall between the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations.  Three passengers were killed and two dozen injured while others were stranded in the tunnel darkness for hours.  Rescue efforts here were compounded by the fact that much of the area’s emergency equipment was responding to the Air Florida crash site.  This was the Metro system’s first fatal accident since it opened six years earlier. 

I was one of the Washington workers trying to get home that afternoon.  I came to work as expected like many others despite the weather forecast.   I though I could stick it out as the snowfall lessened throughout the morning.  But the heavy snow squalls returned in the afternoon and with early dismissal for federal workers, I walked to my car parked a short distance away for what is under normal conditions a 20 minute drive home.  Living in Maryland, I did not have to take a bridge and my escape from the city offered various options.  Listening to the car radio for traffic reports and traveling plowed back streets as much as possible, I was able to gradually make my way home although the 20-minute drive took me over three hours to complete.  As I drove I also listened to the first reports of the plane crash and Metro accident, both less than a mile from where I worked.  The entire afternoon was a surreal blur, and that night, as I sat safe, warm and alone at home, I watched the story of the afternoon’s events unfold on television.

There were countless stories about the victims, the survivors, and those who put their own lives in danger to assist in rescue efforts.  One story, however, kept resonating with me that evening and in the days that followed the tragedy.  Priscilla Tirado, her husband, José, and their two-month-old son Jason were flying home to Florida.  Immediately after the crash witnesses recalled Priscilla thrashing in the water and screaming for her baby, too weak to grab the line lowered from a circling helicopter.  Lenny Skutnik, a young federal worker trying to get home, jumped into the icy waters and pulled her to safety.  Her husband and son perished; the infant’s body the last to be recovered almost two weeks after the crash.  There was one thing I could not get out of my mind as I watched this tragedy unfold.  A few days later my wife and my own two month old son would be flying home on Air Florida.  They say that lightning does not strike twice.  I wanted desperately to believe this was true.

So this is why I think about that day in January 1982 each time I drive across that bridge, especially when the ice is on the Potomac reflecting the lights of a now peaceful city.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Je Suis Charlie!

The terrorist attacks in Paris last week are just the latest attempts to stifle free speech and thought.  It is a time to stand together and show the world that we will not be intimidated and silenced . . . that the pen will always remain mightier than the sword.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A New Year At the Lake

Photo: Dave Breton
This past weekend one of our summer neighbors in New Gloucester, Maine, visited our adjacent cottages on True’s Point, on Sabbathday Lake, where the ice is just beginning to take hold along the shoreline after a fairly warm winter thus far.  The ice on other sections of the lake was up to three inches thick and already there were a few brave souls venturing out on the dangerously thin ice to tempt fate and go ice fishing. Much of the lake is either still open water or only transparent thin ice, but that is not enough deterrent for anglers who have been waiting patiently since the open
Photo: Dave Breton
water fishing season closed at the end of September to wet a hook.  Things are looking up, however, and the temperature began to drop later in the weekend and a passing winter storm dropped a few inches of new snow.  So winter may have finally arrived.  Perhaps.  It is even snowing here in Washington, DC this morning . . . these four inches are the first real measurable snowfall of the season.  it might be all we get.

And so here we are starting out fresh in a new year and it is time once again to begin looking toward to those summer months (and they will be here before we know it) and a return to the lake in June.   I look at the barren deck and the quiet lake beyond in these photographs and it is not difficult to envision the deck tables and the festive rainbow-hued umbrella . . . the grill standing ready.  I recall all of those stunning summer sunsets, each one different from the ones before.  It is thoughts like these that help me get through these gray and damp months of winter.

If all goes as planned I will take my annual winter trip to northern New England in the next few weeks, and if I do, I will certainly make my own outing to True’s Point and Sabbathday Lake to have a look at the cottage and the lake at the height of winter.  I am sure I will find it much changed from its appearance in these early days of January.  It has always been a bit of a treacherous go as I managed to navigate the icy and snowbound two-track that leads from the main road back to the lake.  I am only able to get as far as the top of the hill behind the cottage where I abandon any attempt of going farther.  The rest of the drive is buried under several feet of snow.  From there I could look down to the cottage with snow drifted high against it exterior walls, an ice fisherman’s bobhouse positioned on the ice in the spot where we swim and fish in the summer.   There is no fear of thin ice.

Looking at these recent photographs of the cottage and lake, and thinking back to my previous winter visits, I can’t help but see myself sitting under the umbrella on a warm summer’s day.   It won’t be long.  I can take comfort in that.

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