I must have a weakness for books about Ukraine. From Andrey Kurkov’s novel Death and the Penguin to Askold Krushnelnycky’s An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History to Tim Judah’s In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine I’ve featured a number of these books on my blog. Succumbing to my weakness for books about Europe’s second largest country I borrowed through Overdrive a copy of Edmund Levin’s 2014 book A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel.
A Child of Christian Blood is the tragic story of Mendel Beilis. A non-practicing Jew, father of five, and clerk at a Kiev brick factory lived an uneventful life until a young neighbor boy was found murdered. Like something out of Kafka’s The Trial, a few months later without a shred of evidence Beilis was sent to prison for two years (under Russian law, a prisoner had no right to legal counsel until he was charged) before being formally charged with blood libel, the impossible crime of killing a Christian boy by draining his blood for the purpose of making Passover matzos.
Unfortunately for Beilis, the deck was horribly stacked against him. According to Levin, the reactionary and rather dim-witted Tsar Nicholas II was a notorious anti-semite, who saw Beilis’s trial as the perfect opportunity to bolster his decrepid monarchy by scapegoating the country’s Jews. In hopes of pleasing the Tsar the Empire’s resources were marshalled against Beilis. Promises were made should Beilis be found guilty judge and prosecution alike would receive generous promotions. An array of “expert witnesses” (one of which, Alexeevich Sikorsky was the father of aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky) were enlisted to testify blood libel was practiced by Russia’s Jews and therefore Beilis was the murderer. Tsarist officials selected a jury composed solely of rural residents, fearing one made up of educated, Kiev urbanites would likely vote for acquittal.
To risk sounding alarmist I saw a few similarities between Tsarist Russian and today’s America. The societies of early 20th century Imperial Russian and Ukraine were starkly divided between conservatives and liberals, much like that of early 21 century America. Today in our country we see a divided media with right wing cable news, websites and talk radio promoting conservative views while print media and politicized late night talk shows lean liberal. A hundred years ago the only news media Russia and Ukraine had were newspapers but those too were a cacochany of conservative and liberal voices. (Covering the Beilis trial for one liberal Russian newspaper was Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, father of Lolita author Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov.) But probably my most disturbing takeaway from A Child of Christian Blood was seeing just how many ambitious officials bought into the Tsar’s antisemitc agenda in hopes of advancing their careers. Like the Sarah Sanders Huckabees of the world who parrot Trump’s lies they forget whenever autocrats are dethroned their toadies fall with them.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Over the years she’s encouraged us to read as many books as possible that are set in, or about different European countries or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, over the course of the year participants find ourselves moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.
Last year was a pretty good year for me since I read and reviewed 18 books. Unfortunately, this year I didn’t do as well with only 15. Just like in past years, a variety of countries are represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, but also smaller ones like Croatia, Lithuania and even the micro-state of Vatican City. Unlike last year, this year’s selection is almost exclusively nonfiction with only The Hired Man, The Lady and the Unicorn and The Little Book being works of fiction. As for the nonfiction, a lion’s share of the books deal with World War II and the Holocaust or the Cold War or both. Lastly, The Little Book made my year-end Favorite Fiction list while The Book Smugglers and God’s Secretaries made the Favorite Nonfiction one. Overall, from top to bottom it’s a great assortment of quality books.
- The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman (Lithuania)
- The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country by Tobias Jones (Italy)
- The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen (Czech Republic)
- Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI by William E. Barrett (Vatican City)
- The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia)
- In the Darkroom by Susan Fuladi (Hungary)
- The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy (Ukraine)
- The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (Belgium)
- The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest by Peter Duffy (Belarus)
- God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (United Kingdom)
- The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer (Germany)
- The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael Jones (Russia)
- The Little Book by Selden Edwards (Austria)
- The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond by Stephen O’ Shea (Switzerland)
- A Secret Life: The Polish Colonel, His Covert Mission, And The Price He Paid To Save His Country by Benjamin Weiser (Poland)
Like I said at the start, I’m a huge fan of this challenge and encourage all you book bloggers to sign up. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
In one of my previous posts I mentioned how I couldn’t resist a book entitled The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House. Well, imagine then how hard it was to resist a book called The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. While visiting my old childhood library awhile back I spotted a copy prominently displayed on the New Books shelf. As soon as I got home I downloaded a borrowable eBook version and quickly went to work reading it. Unable to put it down I breezed through it in no time. And we all know when that happens you’re got a great book on your hands.
Published in late 2017, David E. Fishman’s The Book Smugglers vividly recalls one of the Holocaust’s saddest yet also inspiring stories. After the Germans captured the then Polish city of Vilna (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania) they found themselves ruling over a city that was home to one of Europe’s largest and most vibrant Jewish communities, nicknamed the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” After imprisoning Vilna’s Jews in the city’s ghetto the Nazis went to work plundering Vilna’s countless Jewish books and documents. Their goal was to collect everything and ship a third of it back to Germany to be studied and retained as museum pieces documenting a race that had been successfully exterminated. The other two-thirds would be destroyed.
Needing assistance in their twisted endeavor the Nazis press-ganged a number of Vilna’s Jews to help transport and catalog the stolen materials. In hopes of saving at least a fraction of what the Nazis plundered some of these Jews risked their lives to secretly smuggle out and hide a huge cache of Jewish books. Had it not been for these brave souls hundreds of rare books materials would have been lost forever.
I can’t rave enough about this book. It compliments perfectly two other outstanding books about the Nazis and stolen Jewish books, namely Rabbi Mark Glickman’s Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance. Not only did it easily make My Five Favorite Books of Summer list but also my year-end Favorite Nonfiction one. Please consider The Book Smugglers highly recommended.
Last September, if I hadn’t been obsessing on college football and spending time outdoors in the nice fall weather, I would have heard on NPR or read online in the Washington Post about a great book with the irresistible title of The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House. Fortunately for me, the good people at my public library were wise enough to purchase a copy which I discovered a few weeks ago during one of my weekly library visits. In another stroke of good luck, I ended up enjoying Norman Eisen’s 2018 book.
From the ashes of World War I emerged the young nation of Czechoslovakia. In the years following the war one of its citizens, Otto Petschek made a fortune in the coal market and wound up with more money than he could comfortably spend. (Petschek probably wasn’t the only Czechoslovakian making lots of cash. According to Eisen, during the 1920s Czechoslovakia had the 10th largest economy in the world.) So, like one of the great European monarchs of ages past, he had a palace built for him and his family. Perhaps also like of those potentates of old, he imposed his will upon the palace’s design and construction, frequently overruling the presiding architect and eventually overseeing the entire operation. After years of delays and cost overruns Petschek would get his palace, but his mammoth pet project would leave him drained both physically and financially. To make matters worse, with rise of Nazism and the German invasion of Czechoslovakia Petschek’s heirs, being Jews would be forced to leave their palatial home never to return.
Being such a grand creation, over the decades Petschek’s palace would serve as home for the powerful. During World War II it was the official residence of Rudolf Toussaint, Wehrmacht general entrusted with occupying the area. (Toussaint was a fascinating figure. He never joined the Nazi Party, loathed the SS and as far as German generals go was pretty decent guy.) After the war it became the US ambassador’s residence and remains so to this day. (During the Velvet Revolution of 1989, America’s ambassador was none other than Shirley Temple Black. Believe it or not, she was also happened to be visiting 20 years early in 1968 and witnessed firsthand the country’s brief Prague Spring being mercilessly crushed by the Soviet military.)
If you went looking for someone to write a book like this, Eisen would be the right person for the job. Not only did he live in the palace as Obama’s appointed ambassador to the Czech Republic he’s also the son of a Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor whose own powerful story is included in the book. Plus, he writes well.
I love the idea of an object, in this case a palace playing a central role in a nation’s history. I enjoyed The Last Palace and it makes a great companion read to Madeleine Albright’s Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. I have no problems recommending The Last Palace.
Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.
As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.
As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.
Once again, it’s taken me way too long to write about an outstanding book. This time it’s Gal Beckerman’s 2010 masterpiece When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. I’ve been wanting to read it for years, ever since I saw it for sale at the Portland State University bookstore across from my old workplace. Two years ago today day I decided to splurge and buy a Kindle version of it only to ignore it for a few years until I included it as one of my 20 Books of Summer. Sadly, while I managed to read only three out of the 20, When They Come for Us was one of them. (The other two were Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe and Neal Bascomb’s Hunting Eichmann.)
When They Come for Us, just as its subtitle says, is in fact an epic story. It begins over a half-century ago in 1963 when a group of Soviet Jews began meeting in a secluded forest just outside Riga in the former Soviet Republic of Latvia. Their original plan was to honor the thousands of Latvian Jews who’d been murdered there during World War II by cleaning up the area and consecrating it as a holy memorial. Before long, other Jews joined them and together on a regular basis they studied Hebrew as well Jewish religious practices and beliefs. Eventually Jews around the USSR met quietly and covertly to do the same, sharing samizdat literature and even bootleg copies of the Leon Uris novel Exodus.
Later, as the 60s passed into the 70s, the Soviet Union’s Communist leadership took an antagonistic and strangely contradictory view of the nation’s Jews. Officially, all Soviet citizens were equal under the law, regardless of ethnic identity. Moreover, according to Communist doctrine, all religious affiliations were meaningless anyway, since they had no place in a classless Marxist society like the USSR. But in reality, things were much different. After Israeli won a surprising and resounding victory over its Arab enemies in 1967’s Six Day War, Soviet leaders ended up with egg on their faces since they’d backed Egypt and Syria and bragged to the world the Arabs would crush the small Jewish state should war ever break out. Embarrassed by their allies’ defeat, Kremlin leaders cast a paranoid eye towards the USSR’s Jews, seeing them as a potential fifth column. Soviet Jews also found themselves increasingly discriminated, whether it banned certain professions, locked out of prestigious universities or denied work promotions. Whenever Soviet Jews wished to leave it all behind and immigrate to Israel or America, their requests for exit visas were denied. No sane person would want to leave a perfect society like the USSR Jews were told. Other Jews who worked in highly technical fields like science or engineering were refused exit and told their knowledge and expertise was classified information and must not fall into the hands of the capitalist West.
When They Come for Us is not just a book about the Jews of the former Soviet Union. It’s also a book about America’s Jews, and how a small movement over the years grew into a large and multifaceted one, successfully enlisting the nation’s leaders in pressuring the USSR into allowing Jews to immigrate to Israel and the US. It’s also a detailed look at the foreign policy inner workings of every presidential administration from Kennedy to Reagan. Lastly, When They Come for Us shows over a 30 year period the inexorable decline and eventual collapse of the USSR.
When They Come for Us is outstanding and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. Please consider it highly recommended.
As the year known as 2018 finally draws to a close, it’s time for me to look back and announce to the world my favorite books of the year. Just like last year, I’ll start by talking about the outstanding fiction I read over the course of the year. Later, I’ll follow it up with another post dedicated to my favorite nonfiction. Of course, this year just like in previous ones, it doesn’t matter when the books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.
The bad news is I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year. As a result, there’s only six books on my list. The good news is I read some great stuff. So, in no specific order of preference here’s my favorite fiction from 2018.
As for declaring an overall winner, it wasn’t easy since all six are fantastic. In the end, City of Thieves narrowly edged out The Little Book my favorite. As high as my expectations were for this novel, I was not disappointed.
And a diverse collection of novels indeed. With The Gustav Sonata set in Switzerland, City of Thieves Russia and The Little Book Austria the armchair traveler in me was duly satisfied. So also was my inner historian, with all of them but The Senator’s Wife set wholly or partially during World War II or, in the case of The Little Book fin de siècle Vienna. Lastly, just like last year several of the above-mentioned titles are first time novels. Hats off to these authors for their outstanding inaugural efforts.