Neighbors. The Crime and the Silence; Massacre… Poland.

The Crime and the Silence; Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne by Anna Bikont and Alissa Valles, trans. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016.

Neighbors; The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan Gross. Penguin, 2016 paper.

Anna Bikont is a journalist who writes for the Gazeta Wyborcza, Warsaw’s leading newspaper. The Crime and the Silence was first published in Polish in 2004. It is a record of her discoveries as an investigative reporter looking into the events of July 1941.  She began work on the story in the spring of 2001 and finished three years later, after trips to Israel, New York City, and Buenos Aires to visit their expatriate Polish-Jewish communities.

Jan Gross’s Neighbors; The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland was published by Princeton University Press in 2001 and was a National Book Award finalist. Both were available in Poland at about the same time.

In the 1960s a commemorative monument was placed in Jedwabne town square with the inscription: “Site of the Suffering of the Jewish Population. The Gestapo and the Nazi gendarmerie Burned Alive 1600 People on 10 July 1941.” (The monument has since been defaced with a swastika and other graffiti.)

There are several ‘misrepresentations’ of that day in the inscription. The number killed was more likely between 200 and 340. The 1600 figure would, however, be a rough estimate of the total number of Jews killed on the day of the atrocity and several days before and after. Or that larger number might also be countig Jews from surrounding towns that were herded into the Jedwabne square.

Also both Bikont and Gross reject the implication that the Nazi Gestapo and various German paramilitary groups were responsible. There were Germans present on that day, and perhaps they urged the Poles to put to death their “Jewish neighbors.” But the killing was done by Poles, often by Poles that the Jewish victims knew, hence ‘neighbors.’ They were killed with axes and scythes, weapons available to the Poles. To expedite the killing, Jews were forced into a nearby barn, which was then set on fire.

At the same time, many Poles were hiding Jews from the Germans and from those Polish ‘neighbors.’ This was dangerous business. If a Polish household were found to be hiding Jews, the Jews and the entire Polish family would be immediately shot by the Germans.  A recent film “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on a novel by Diane Ackerman, is a good portrayal of the risk involved and the bravery on the part of many Poles.

Poland had been divided into two occupation zones after the Russian and German joint invasion of Poland in September 1939. Most of the two districts involved in this account were occupied and administered by the Russians. Under Russian communism both the land and the economy were nationalized. Poles supported Russian-style social reforms were appointed to the new administrative offices. Jews had been excluded from public office under the older Polish regime and now took advantage of the new situation to obtain appointments. Hence the Jewish “collaboration” with the Russians.

In June 1941 German armies invaded Russia through Poland. They were welcomed in Poland as liberators. The Jewish involvement with the Russians was added to a highly combustible anti-Semitism. The Jews were said to have fingered Poles who had been friendly with the Russians. Thus a burning barn and public killing of these collaborating Jews. And then all Jews.

Both authors give details of the slaughter and the brutality involved. Just one story, perhaps a composite. A Jewish man and his young daughter had not been found until after most of the Jews in the square were forced inside the barn and it was set afire. His throat was cut in front of his daughter, and while he was still alive to witness it, his daughter was thrown into the fire.

After World War II, there were numerous investigations – hearings – where evidence was collected of Polish complicity. But Poland was now subject to another Russian occupation and another version of the slaughter to add to the Jewish, Polish, and German. It is no wonder that “truth” was given the silent treatment. And the Poles were not required to confront the enormity of their crimes. Poles are still reluctant to tell stories that they heard from their mothers and grandmothers.

Often if pressed, the locals will admit that household goods were stolen from vacant Jewish property. Jews, largely traders and shopkeepers, were wealthier than the Polish peasants and tradesmen they lived amongst. Hence acquiring some of those possessions would have been a motive for the murder of their owners.

There is no good answer to the question: Why certain Poles and certain communities murdered their Jewish neighbors and others did not? Bikont is inclined to think that there was a strong correlation between these anti-Semitic Poles and families of men who had participated in the Home Army, particularly in the districts occupied by the Russians.

What surprised Bikont was the lingering Anti-Semitism she continued to confront when she did her interviewing of the locals in the early 2000s. Some potential interviews would literally slam the door in her face. “That doesn’t concern me.” Or “Gross has written a pack of lies.” Amongst German allies in World War II, Poland lags in its restitution payments.

Many Jedwabne Jews did escape, either by migration to Palestine, or Argentina, or to New York. Immigrants in the US from Jedwabne built a synagogue in the Lower East Side on Henry Street, now the Congregation Anshe Yedwabne.

Urban Forests; A Natural History of Trees and People

Urban Forests; A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape by Jill Jonnes. Viking 2016.

Americans are moving into urban areas in increasing numbers, leaving our wooded environments behind, forest dwellers turned urbanites. And so have many of our tree species.  Jill Jonnes salutes the many “tree huggers” whose concern is helping to preserve these urban forests.

Because of the parallel growth of trade and a world economy, we have been importing wood from abroad mostly for furniture making and wooden crates. No one paid much attention, however, to the various insects and other plagues that accompanied those imports.

The American chestnut (Castanea dentate) is a native of the Appalachian forests. It was devastated by the chestnut blight, a fungal disease, which probably arrived from China. Over three million chestnut trees were destroyed in the first half of the twentieth century. They were once the keystone species of the Appalachia. We roasted the nuts on an open fire. The chestnut was an important food source for white-tailed deer, black bear, and wild turkey.  Its disappearance also was costly to bird populations. Though never an important species in the urban forests, its demise left a huge gap in the upper canopy of our woods.

The American ash (Faxinus americana) was also once an important component tree in the eastern hardwood forests, from Nova Scotia to Minnesota and south to north Florida and across the South to eastern Texas. Favored for furniture and flooring, the ash was widely planted as an urban street tree.

Elms were perhaps the most important tree species in the urban forest prior to their demise in the 1960s. Their loss was deeply felt by many of us who grew up under the shade of a stately elm. They died of Dutch elm disease imported from Holland. Elm burl logs, intended for use as veneer for furniture, contained the Elm bark beetle which hitched a ride. It carried with it fungus spores that quickly found the enormous elms that were so commonly used as street trees. The fungus clogged up the elm’s water-carrying vessels. The beetles moved quickly to the top of the tree where the wind could scatter the beetle to nearby trees.

It should be noticed in all of these cases, the tree species were introduced as a monolythic species. When the disease hit one individual tree, the avenue trees would soon be lost.

There are some happy stories. Cherry trees were imported from Japan, to decorate the Washington Mall. They were the project of Eliza Scidmore, a journalist, world traveler, and tree enthusiast. After a two-year campaign from 1904 to 1906 she got President Theodore Roosevelt to agree to the project. Off and on, plant enthusiasts have gotten assistance from American Presidents. George H.W. Bush urged us all to leave our home, neighborhood, and town better than we had found and suggested our attention to urban trees. Several first ladies also found urban forests to be one of their causes.

Exotics are not, however, a good idea. The Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) a tree that grew in Brooklyn — and elsewhere — was a highly praised species from China when it arrived via Europe. It was commonly used as a street tree in the nineteenth century because it grows fast and has a considerable spring blooming season. But it is no longer praised for that quality and is, in fact, considered invasive.

The favored sugar maples of Vermont are no longer as spectacular with their fall colors as they once were. That is because the manufacture of maple sugar no longer depends upon clear cutting all other tree species to fuel the process. As those elms, chestnuts, and other trees grow up among the sugar maples, they gradually dilute those wonderful fall colors.

Jonnes argues that if we were to calculate the dollar benefits of trees and particularly urban trees, we might be more willing to trade trees for the endless layers of asphalt and black top that are filling our cities with heat-absorbing, impermeable surfaces. That asphalt with which we lather a good portion of our unbuilt spaces, has the company of our utilities on poles. Utility poles provide neither the shade nor return nutrients to the soil!

Jill Jonnes speaks eloquently of the many ordinary citizens who tend the urban forest. She is equally complementary of the work of professionals from the early plant explorers, to arborists to urban foresters, to botanists, to nurserymen. They continue to remind us that urban forests are an essential element in a city’s infrastructure.



Black Flags; The Rise of ISIS

Black Flags; The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick. Anchor, 2016 paper.

This is the complicated story of the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, to a leadership position within ISIS, a radical Islamic organization which he claims to have founded. Zarqawi is known for his cruelty and ultimately that brought him down.

Joby Warrick is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. He works for The Washington Post.

The black flags referred to in the title of the book are associated with the Caliphate, the tradition that a “steward” would arise to unite the fractured world of Islam. The Caliphs would more-or-less anoint themselves as a supreme religious and political leader. The institution of the Caliph dates back to the seventh century, most recently it was claimed by the Ottoman Empire. Calling for the reestablishment of a Caliphate provides opportunity for acquiring reputation. Warrick argues that the civil wars in Syria and Jordan and our responses have actually created a set of opportunists.

Zarqawi was a Jordanian, imprisoned in 1992 and released in 1999 from a Jordanian prison under a royal amnesty. He became a “terrorist star” after he planned the bombing of three western-owned hotels in Amman, Jordan in 2005.  But there were many Jordanians who were appalled at the loss of life and particularly the fact that one of the hotels had a wedding party going on. Witnesses had to face stacked bodies of young girls in their pretty white dresses.

Jordan’s intelligence community was not sufficiently informed to stop the bombing of the three hotels, though they did arrest Zarqawi and other terrorists. But then what is to be done with these terrorists. Mix these men together and you have what Warrick calls a “jihad university.”

Warrick argues that the Central Intelligence Agency, Colin Powell’s Defense Department, and Jordan’s intelligence service gave Zarqawi a career. Their response to his minor role in the terrorist movement made him his reputation.

Zarqawi’s terrorism intended to intensify existing divisions within the Arab world. The targets of his insurgent bombs were selected so as to divide Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites, Moslems and secularists. The bombing of the Imam Ali Mosque (Najaf) in 2003 or the Al-Askari Mosque( Samarra) in 2006, for example, involved picking sites that would maximize internal conflict at that point and then later as scores were settle.

In 2004 an American, Nicholas Berg, had gone to Iraq to look for opportunities in an American secured country. He was taken hostage by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi took this opportunity to gain a needed notoriety for brutality in order to make an impression on other terrorists. As the video cameras rolled Zarqawi cut Berg’s throat, then cut off his head, and lifted his head for all to see. He could depend upon the Internet to provide him with international attention. It also got him the “promotion” within the terrorist community that he sought. Zarqawi was eventually assassinated by an American-Jordanian air strike on one of his hiding places.

The author argues that George W. Bush’s Gulf War was not thought out well. Who would govern Iraq after the invasion in 2003? The decision to dissolve the Iraqi army’s officer class and ban anyone with membership in Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Party from positions of authority in the new government failed to take into account the fact that anyone with any management experience in Iraq would have to have joined the Party. For example all applicants for University positions had been forced to join. Hence there was no pool of government officials from which to draw once Hussein was out of the way, leaving leadership positions open to many new “entrepreneurs.” Like Zarqawi.

Not enough has been said about the continuing presence of outsiders in the Middle East and elsewhere who are often using terrorists as proxies for acquiring stakes in this oil-rich Islamic world. Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian monarch, has been able to survive despite his chemical warfare and other outrages because he manages to balance himself between Russia, Iran, and Syria vs. the US, Europe, and Jordan.

Thus Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is one of many ambitious terrorists and al-Qaeda and ISIS are two of several organizations in which he had acquired leadership positions. We took care of him, but how completely should we involve ourselves in these deadly squabbles. John McCain and others have urged strongly for us to keep our distance.


The War That Ended Peace; The Road to 1914

The War That Ended Peace; The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan. Random House, 2013, paper.

            Margaret MacMillan describes in detail the complicated great-power diplomacy that led up to World War I. There was, she argues, no inevitability in the series of diplomatic and military events in the decades before the War. She believes that war could have been avoided and looks to the failure of diplomats and the ruling classes to take the threat of war seriously.

            She is critical of the European royal families, many of them related. They were playing with a new set of strategies and weaponry which encouraged a rapid mobilization of armies and on planned short, but decisive, military campaigns. These ‘shielding strategies’ were, however, quick on the trigger. Strike before your rival was capable of doing so.

            These new strategies required the great powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Britain, Russia, and France – to have well-formulated plans for mobilization and attack. The Schlieffen Plan is a good example. Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen was Chief of the German General Staff, Imperial Army. The plan that bears his name was worked out by the General Staff between 1906 and 1914. The strategy avoided crossing through the Netherlands, which had declared its neutrality, instead invading France through Belgium and Luxembourg on 4 August 1914

            MacMillan’s focus on the importance of European royalty and social elites, but ignores the fact that most of the military and civil leaders of the time were drawn from a rising middle class. They had made their money during the prosperous nineteenth century, and service to their country was now expected of them. They were imbued with the nationalism they had picked up in their education and at the public spectacles of the decades before the war.

            Oddly MacMillan begins her story with the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900. It was the world’s fair of that year with pavilions dedicated to harmony and peace. But in the midst of the Boer War (1899 -1902)! The British fought an alliance of the small Dutch-speaking republics in the Cape of South Africa. Although they won the War, Britain’s armies performed badly and much of Europe had cheered for the Boers.

            Russia also looked unprepared, even weak, after their defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). The Russians needed a year-round warm-water port and Vladivostok wouldn’t do. But they took on a formidable opponent, Japan, and their supply lines were stretched over the length of the Trans-Siberian railroad. There were demonstrations and strikes in St. Petersburg in 1905 and the Imperial Guard fired on the marchers approaching the Winter Palace. Bloody Sunday, it was called.

            It was feared that military defeat would lead to revolution within the belligerent country. Defeat would also complicated efforts to establish a system of alliances and alignments like the international structure that had kept the peace during the Bismarck era. For example, was a defeated Russia a dependable partner for France, given the revolutionary activity that had convulsed St. Petersburg?

 And France had its own weaknesses as an alliance partner.  The French public was distracted by the Dreyfus Affair, 1894 to 1906. Alfred Dreyfus, a young artillery officer from Alsace and of Jewish descent, was convicted of treason on a trumped up charge in 1894 and again in a second trial in 1899. He was eventually acquitted, but this and other public controversies made France a somewhat doubtful alliance partner.

Thus neither France nor Russia appeared to have the domestic stability to make them an easy choice for the British. And Great Britain was having its own “troubles,” conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. Sir Edward Grey was serving as Foreign Secretary in Herbert Asquith’s Liberal British cabinet from 1905 to 1916. He is often treated as a clairvoyant by historians because of his famous statement to a friend, as he looked out over a courtyard in the Foreign Office as it was being lighted, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” But he was less successful as a peace-keeper.

Grey was uncertain about how to proceed – join up with Russia and France or pursue an understanding with Germany. Germany and Britain had been engaged in an armaments race for several years – constructing battleships. Just when Britain seemed to be winning, the battleship count was complicated by the opening of the Kiel Canal across the isthmus between the Baltic and North Seas in 1895. Now the two German fleets could serve on either Sea during a war.

The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a young Serbian nationalist while being driven through the streets of Sarajevo was but one of several violent events that are considered to be “The Road to 1914.” But the “peace of Europe” was crumbling step-by-step as diplomacy no longer settled anything.

NEW BOOKS: Florida.

Champions Way; Football, Florida, and the Lost Soul of College Sports by Mike McIntire. W.W. Norton, 2017. Multi-billion-dollar college sports empires are enriching athletic departments; but helping its host institutions?

Oh, Florida; How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country by Craig Pittman. Picador, 2017 paper. Florida, a paradise. Florida, ravished beauty.

Backcountry Trails of Florida; A Guide to Hiking Florida’s Water Management Districts by Terri Mashour. University Press of Florida, 2017 paper. Explores over 100 off-the-grid hikes in all corners of the state.

Historic Pensacola by John Clune & Margo Springfield. University Press of Florida, 2017 paper. Perhaps the most historic Florida town along the Gulf.

Silent Films in St. Augustine by Thomas Graham. University Press of Florida, 2017. More than 120 films were made in St. Augustine between 1906 and 1926.  Filmmakers came south to take advantage of our usable light conditions and facilities for film-making provided by Henry Flagler.

Constructing Floridians; Natives and Europeans in Colonial Florida, 1513 to 1783 by Daniel Murphree. University Press of Florida, 2017 paper. How differences amongst Native Americans, escaped slaves, Spaniards, and the English hardened over time.

The Biohistory of Florida by Francis Zettler. Pineapple Press, 2017 paper .From the Pleistocene to the present, from prairies where shovel-tusked elephants once roamed to orange groves interlaced with interstates.

An Honorable War; The Spanish-American War Begins by Robert Macomber. Pineapple Press, 2017. The USS Maine explodes on a quiet February evening in 1898 and Cuba is drawn into a deluge of events.

A New Guide to Old Florida Attractions by Doug Alderson. Pineapple Press, 2017 paper.  Many of Florida’s classic attractions still exist in the shadow of mega-theme parks and interstate highways. Discover how touring Florida used to be.

Florida’s Museums and Cultural Attractions, Third Edition by Murray D. Laurie & Doris Bardon. Pineapple Press, 2017 paper. A guide to over 350 museums, country stores, one-room schoolhouses, coquina forts, churches, art galleries, gardens, and more.

Florida’s Civil War; Terrible Sacrifices by Tracy Revels. Mercer University Press, 2017. Most Floridians fought on the side of the South; former slaves joined the Northern armies. Families were divided and communities were torn apart.