Best Non Fiction – Sarah Helm

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Blitzed – Norman Ohler

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Title:
 Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany
Author: Norman Ohler
Publisher:  Penguin
Date of Publication:  06 October 2016
Number of Pages: 368

Rating: stars

Summary: The Nazis presented themselves as warriors against moral degeneracy. Yet, as Norman Ohler’s gripping bestseller reveals, the entire Third Reich was permeated with drugs: cocaine, heroin, morphine and, most of all, methamphetamines, or crystal meth, used by everyone from factory workers to housewives, and crucial to troops’ resilience – even partly explaining German victory in 1940.

The promiscuous use of drugs at the very highest levels also impaired and confused decision-making, with Hitler and his entourage taking refuge in potentially lethal cocktails of stimulants administered by the physician Dr Morell as the war turned against Germany. While drugs cannot on their own explain the events of the Second World War or its outcome, Ohler shows, they change our understanding of it. Blitzed forms a crucial missing piece of the story.

Review: From the looks and stares and the “what’s a nice girl like you reading a book about him” comments, it would seem that this book is going to make an impact on an immediate, visual level. The cover really is the first challenge a reader faces, especially, if like me, you find only a few other people from history as terrifying as Hitler. The second is fighting your reaction to disbelieve a situation like this could have been a real thing.

Some of the people I’ve discussed this book with have been worried Ohler’s work is an apologists history of the Nazi regime. A few of them, no matter how much I tried to explain, refused to believe that this could be a condemnation of Hitler because “the author’s German.” Honestly, I could unpack that statement but we only need to look at the world we live in to know that this is an enormous conversation. What is abundantly clear from the beginning is that Ohler is not apologising for the crimes of Hitler and Nazi’s. Anyone who reads Blitzed and draws this conclusion has completely missed the point.

What proof can I offer to back up this statement? I can offer the following;

On this tranquillizing painkiller (Eukodal) the Fuhrer was fully in command of himself: this was the true Hitler, and that was how he had always been. The overestimation of his own significance and misjudgement of his opponents were both captured in his blueprint, Mein Kampf, published in 1925. His opioid addiction only cemented an already existing rigidification, a tendency to delegate violence and contributed to the fact that in the last phase of the war and in the genocide of the Jews he never once thought of relenting.

So the goals and motives, and ideological fantasy world, were not the result of drugs, but established much earlier. Hitler did not murder because he was living in a haze – quite the contrary: he remained sane until the end. His drug use did not impinge on his freedom to make decisions. Hitler was always the master of his senses and he knew exactly what he was doing. He acted always in an alert and cold-blooded way. Within his system, based from the beginning on intoxication and a flight from reality, he acted systematically and with terrible consistency to the end. He was anything but insane. A classic case of actio libera in causa: he could go on taking as many drugs as he liked to keep himself in a state in which he could commit his crimes. It does not diminish his monstrous guilt (Ohler, 230-231).

I’m not a historian of WWII. In fact, up until very recently, I wasn’t interested in the era and for this I blame incredibly boring high school history teachers. Followers of this blog will also know that this month is being devoted to non-fiction (with one exception) and while Blitzed wasn’t on my original list, the podcast by Dan Snow and Ohler on the History Hit network got my attention. You can listen to the podcast here – and you really should. It’s mind boggling.

This book will re-write what we know and what we accept as fact. Ohler has turned my understanding of the period and Hitler, on its head. Honestly, all of the upper echelons of the Nazi party and the SS, who were popping the same pills as Hitler can be held equally accountable. The whole period seems to have been a perfect storm of horrible people doing obscene things and believing the entire time that they would always get away with it. If you’re looking for a reading challenge, try Blitzed and Sarah Helm’s If this is a woman. They’re a powerful combination and serve as a warning to us still today.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
― Edmund Burke

A Sparrow in Terezin – Kristy Cambron

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Title: A Sparrow in Terezin
Author: Kristy Cambron
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Date of Publication: 07 April 2015
Number of Pages: 368

Rating: stars

Summary: Bound together across time, two women will discover a powerful connection through one survivor’s story of hope in the darkest days of a war-torn world.

Present Day: With the grand opening of her new art gallery and a fairy tale wedding just around the corner, Sera James feels like she’s stumbled into a charmed life until a brutal legal battle against fiance William Hanover threatens to destroy their future before it even begins.

Now, after an eleventh-hour wedding ceremony and a callous arrest, William faces a decade in prison for a crime he never committed, and Sera must battle the scathing accusations that threaten her family and any hope for a future with the man she loves.

1942: Kaja Makovsky narrowly escaped Nazi-occupied Prague in 1939 and was forced to leave behind her half-Jewish family. Now a reporter for The Daily Telegraph in England, Kaja discovers the terror has followed her across the Channel in the shadowy form of the London Blitz. When she learns Jews are being exterminated by the thousands on the continent, she has no choice but to return to her mother city, risking her life to smuggle her family to freedom and peace.

Connecting across a century through one little girl, a Holocaust survivor with a foot in each world, these two women will discover a kinship that springs even in the darkest of times. In this tale of hope and survival, Sera and Kaja must cling to the faith that sustains them and fight to protect all they hold dear even if it means placing their own futures on the line

Review: Kristy Cambron is a story teller. You can’t help but love her stories.

I have a rule for reading books supplied via Netgalley and it’s simple. I sort the list by publication date and read the earliest result. For weeks I could see Sparrow moving up the list but never quite becoming the next read. I knew it was going to be worth the wait to hang out with Sera and William again but it didn’t ease the frustration. I knew though that because I was going on annual leave, I would be able to read it uninterrupted.

The first page of Sparrow was read the afternoon I reached Krakow, Poland and all the pieces fell into place. Terezin, or Theresienstadt in German, was another of the Nazi concentration camps and on 7 August I was going to pay my respects at Auschwitz. Suddenly, it all made sense – at least to me, why I would have waited until now to open this book.

Immediately I was lost in the world of Kaja and the Blitz. Immediately I was back with friends, Sera and William.

I can’t really think what to write as a constructive and useful review though. I got so much out of the book and seems too personal to share on the web that I hesitate to write the words.

Are there a few niggles with the overall book? Yes. Are they too numerous to ruin the overall impact? No way! Not even close.

When I reviewed The Butterfly and the Violin I mentioned that the book wouldn’t be for anyone with an aversion to a Christian message and I will re-state that here. BUT if you are looking for a book that speaks of the beauty I like to hope all souls have, then you need to pick Sparrow up, lock your door, ignore the world and read.

For me, A Sparrow in Terezin was a cleansing experience, it gave me hope and it left me with a cathartic period of ugly crying and after only a single day at Auschwitz, it was exactly what was needed.

I said on Instagram that if Kristy was happy to keep writing I was happy to keep reading and I stand by this. I can’t wait to read The Ringmaster’s Wife and The Illusionist’s Apprentice.

Thank you, Kristy. Thanks you, Thomas Nelson. Thanks you, Netgalley.

Read Between: 06-07 August 2016

 

If This Is A Woman

If This Is A Woman

Publisher: Little Brown
Publication Date: 1 January 2015
Pages: 768

5 Stars

~~Language Warning~~

In May 1939 a Nazi internment camp, specially for women, was opened north of Berlin. The horror that ensued, covered in subtle but powerful and disturbing detail in Helm’s book, defy belief. Astonishingly, the camp, Ravensbrück, seems relatively unknown outside the world of holocaust historians. This is a shameful negation of the the tens of thousands who died here and at sub-camps.

As a woman, an anthropologist, a human, this work has left me speechless, horrified and changed. I want to risk using an escape clause I dislike seeing and that is people far smarter than me have commented and analysed this far better than I can or ever could. I’m not lying. This is true. The study of Nazi / WWII history is a subject many people spend their lives engaging with and only ever scratching the surface.

Some numbers:
– 5-6000 women executed in late 1944 when the SS regime realised they could not win.
– 30-50,000 who died from cold, starvation, beatings, poison and experiments
– 980 German concentration camps
– 30,000 slave labour camps
-500 brothels

Again, this is tip of the iceberg stuff.

If This Is A Woman has taken me two and a half weeks to read.

It has been harrowing and terrible. People watching me on the tube don’t need to think to hard on what it is I’m grimacing or looking angry over. The reactions are involuntary. Every story invokes a reaction. Be it disgust at the “medical procedures” or sympathy pains for the “rabbits”, be it a strange sort of patriotism for the women of the Red Army, be it the revulsion at descriptions of the mountains of bodies waiting to be incinerated, be it the strong feelings of disappointment when, at the last moment, a woman’s freedom is revoked.

Helm has witness testimony that shows the prisoners were wondering if the world knew of their suffering, wondering if anyone cared, wondering if they would ever be saved. Helm also has proof that the truth was suppressed at various levels because they believed civilians wouldn’t believe the reports. The people who decided to hide the truth and decided not to reveal what they knew of Ravensbrück were, in a way, right to do so.

Reading about the plight of these women now, in an environment that is quite sanitised to the horrors, I have to admit that there are moments I couldn’t believe something like this could have been perpetuated. It all seems more suited to a horror movie than real life. The barbarism is mind-blowing.

Even before I was 10 pages in I was wondering what kind of perfect storm occurred that such an enormous clusterfuck was the end result. Hitler, Stalin, Himmler, Gebhardt, Oberheuser, Binz, Suhren, Koegel, Treite – again, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

One thing I do find disappointing from some of the “professional” reviews is the position taken, that If This Is A Woman is a feminist history of the Holocaust. I feel, far to often, a book about women is deemed feminist when there is no legitimate connection. Feminism may have allowed for a woman to write a book about women but this is hardly a text arguing a cause for women. A history book that focuses only on the role of men and excludes women – and we know their are thousands of them, are reviewed for their historical accuracy and the amount of work that has gone into the production of the finished product. Helm’s book, focusing on women, with an astonishing amount of research is now a feminist history. This double standard is ridiculous but it also steals the focus from the women of Ravensbrück.

I can’t help but think we could all learn something from Yevgenia Klemm, leader of the Red Army women – and if you don’t understand what I mean, then I recommend you find a copy of this book and discover just how amazing she is.

GUEST POST [Review] In The Unlikeliest Places written by Annette Libeskind Berkovits

IN THE UNLIKLIEST OF PLACES : How Nachman Libeskind Survived the Nazis, Gulags, and Soviet Communism

By Annette Libeskind Berkovits
Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
1 Star

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I feel very guilty about writing a negative review of this work as its pedigree is excellent – apparently.

“I was born in 1909 in Lodz, but my passport says Przedborz …” He stopped suddenly and searched for a button.

“Ach, I forgot to explain this,” he said utterly frustrated, then pushed the wrong button and erased what he had just recorded. “Shayze!” An uncharacteristic curse escaped his lips. He took off his glasses and said, “I think it’s time to prepare lunch.”

Annette Libeskind Berkovits thought her attempt to have her father record his life’s story failed. But in 2004, three years after her father’s death, she was going through his things and found a box of tapes—several years’ worth—with his spectacular life, triumphs, and tragedies told one last time in his baritone voice.” (Goodreads)

The true life story of a remarkable man, Nachman Libeskind – someone who was to suffer imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp and escape only to face further punishment in the Soviet gulag. The fact of his survival is astonishing.

Nachman Libeskind’s remarkable story is an odyssey through crucial events of the twentieth century. With an unshakable will and a few drops of luck, he survives a pre-war Polish prison; witnesses the 1939 Nazi invasion of Lodz and narrowly escapes; is imprisoned in a brutal Soviet gulag where he helps his fellow inmates survive, and upon regaining his freedom treks to the foothills of the Himalayas, where he finds and nearly loses the love of his life. Later, the crushing communist regime and a lingering postwar anti-Semitism in Poland drive Nachman and his young family to Israel, where he faces a new form of discrimination. Then, defiantly, Nachman turns a pocketful of change into a new life in New York City, where a heartbreaking promise leads to his unlikely success as a modernist painter that inspires others to pursue their dreams.

This inspiring man is the father of the world famous architect Daniel Libeskind – responsible for the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The book is written by his daughter a distinguished person in her own field, wildlife conservation. How does such a clichéd, laboured and often toe curling narrative come to be published? On investigation this is via a specialist operation called Life Writing (Wilfrid Laurier University Press). As Ms Berkovits own life is a fascinating journey it’s understandable that the combination of her own life story plus that of her father enabled it to be published.

I was very moved by Nachman Libeskind’s life story – his struggle to survive the major traumas of the 20th century is inspiring and humbling. He can bear witness both to Man’s cruelties and atrocities and yet provs Man’s indomitable will to survive. For me he is an individual on a par with Primo Levi surviving Auschwitz.

Whereas I can appreciate the narrative is recounted by his daughter who sees him first and foremost as her ‘dad’ I felt he was diminished by the homely folksy style she affects. I suppose she sought to present him as Everyman but instead has reduced his essence to that of a leprechaun.

Published September 10th 2014 by Wilfrid Laurier University Press
276 pages