Archive for March, 2014

The man who tried to stop the Holocaust: Jan Karski’s “report to the world”

Sunday, March 30th, 2014
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Last year, Georgetown University Press republished Jan Karski‘s nearly 500-page Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World.  Alex Storozynski, president of the Kosciuszko Foundation, wrote about the man who tried to stop the Holocaust in the Huffington Post here.  The Kosciuszko Foundation kindly awarded Humble Moi a grant for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz a few years back – let me take a moment here to thank the organization; they do good stuff.

Karski was a liaison officer of the Polish underground, who infiltrated both the Warsaw Ghetto and a German concentration camp and then carried the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. We’ve written about him here and here.  An excerpt from Storozynski’s weekend piece:

First published in 1944, Karski’s book reads like a spy novel on steroids. But you can’t make this stuff up. The truth is indeed more horrible than fiction. That’s why first hand accounts of the war such as The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel‘s Night, and Karski’s Story of a Secret State must be kept alive for posterity’s sake. Georgetown University Press has reissued Karski’s report to the world with a foreword by Madeleine Albright, an essay by Yale professor Timothy Snyder, and an afterword by Zbigniew Brzezinski that give context to Karski’s memoir 70 years after it was first published.

With the World War II generation nearly gone, opportunities to preserve their memories are fading. Brzezinski was a teenager and his father was a diplomat in Canada during the war when Karski came to visit. Brzezinski was stunned to see that Karski’s “wrists were badly slashed and cut and were healing.” After being arrested and tortured by the Germans, Karski was not sure if he could keep the Underground’s secrets, so he tried to kill himself.

karski2Polish Underground operatives were often equipped with cyanide in case they were captured, and Poles who collaborated with the Germans were killed. Whenever the Underground attacked the occupying German army, the Nazis took retribution with mass murders of Polish civilians. Poles where randomly put up against the wall and shot for minor infractions. Albright writes, “The Nazi’s demanded submission, the Underground mandated resistance. The residents of occupied Poland lived under two wholly incompatible systems of justice and law.” …

The Polish Underground told the world what was going on. Karski secretly traveled to the West, smuggling details about the Holocaust to the Allies. As early as 1942, Karski snuck microfilm out of Poland that resulted in a pamphlet called The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland.

Snyder points out that Karski’s “incontestable heroism reminds us that the Allies knew about the Holocaust but were not much interested.”

Read the rest here.

Susan Sontag to writers everywhere: “Stay home!”

Thursday, March 27th, 2014
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sontagThe book has been in my bedside stack for awhile now, but I didn’t realize quite how long awhile until I reread the note that came with it, on cream-colored Yale University Press letterhead, dated 2 October, 2013. “Dear Cynthia, All yours.”

Steve Wasserman, editor at large, had kindly sent me Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stones Interview by Jonathan Cott. The original interview ran in The Rolling Stone in 1979 – but only a third of the twelve hours of conversations were published, hence this book. From the fly jacket: “Few modern intellectuals relished the art of the interview more than Susan Sontag. She embraced the process of thinking out loud. She spoke to Cott not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. He was struck by her ‘exactitude’ and ‘moral and linguistic fine-tuning’ – as she had once described Henry James‘s writing style. She would confide in her journals that ‘I am hooked on talk as a creative dialogue’ and added: ‘For me, it’s the principal medium of my salvation.'”

I began almost immediately penciling in arguments, cross-references, and approval in the margins. The text is addictive. But what might the Book Haven reader like to read?  Here’s a favorite excerpt:

… you’re not a public celebrity who gossips in the media about whom you’re going out with.

Well, what serious writer ever did?

I could go through a list.

But those people have destroyed themselves as writers. I think it’s death to one’s work to do that. Surely, the body of the work of writers such as Hemingway or Truman Capote would be on a higher level if they hadn’t been public figures. There is a choice between the work and the life. It’s not only a choice between how much you manifest yourself in the ways that the media invite you to, but just how much you go out altogether.

There’s a story of Jean Cocteau – to take an example of a writer I really admire – who, when he was in his late teens or early twenties, went to see Proust, who was already in his cork-lined room. Cocteau brought him some of his work, and Proust said, You really could be a great writer, but you have to be careful about society. Go out a little bit, but don’t make it a main part of your life. And Proust spoke as someone who, in the early part of his life, had lived a very social, what we would call café-society or jet-set life in Paris, but he knew that there was a time when you had to choose between the work and the life. It’s not just a question of whether you’re going to give interviews or talk about yourself – it’s a question of how much you live in society, in that vulgar sense of society – and of having a lot of silly times that seem glamorous to you and other people.

proust

Be careful.

But think of the Goncourt Brothers, who wouldn’t have written what they did unless they frequented parties almost every night in Paris during the Second Empire. In a way, they were extraordinarily brilliant but high-class gossip types.

They were also social historians using both the novel and documentary forms. Even Balzac did that. The problem, however, is a little different in the twentieth century since the opportunities are so much greater. I’m not saying that one has to be in a cork-lined room, but I think that one must have enormous discipline, and the vocation of the writer is, in some deep way, antisocial, just as it is for painters. Somebody once asked Picasso why he never traveled – he never took trips or went abroad. He went from Spain to Paris and then moved to the south of France, but he never went anywhere. And he said: I travel in my head. I do think there are those choices, and perhaps you don’t feel them so much when you’re young – and probably you shouldn’t – but later on, if you want to go beyond something that is simply good or promising to the real fulfillment and risk-taking of a big body of work, then that only becomes a possibility for a writer or a painter after years of work, and you have to stay home.”

Mark Twain in the Monkey Block … plus a San Francisco joke

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014
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The Monkey Block then…

Here’s a local riddle:

Transamerica

… and now.

Questioner: What’s the best vantage point for viewing San Francisco?

Respondent:  I don’t know, Book Haven, what’s the best vantage point for viewing San Francisco?

Questioner: The Transamerica Building.

Respondent: Why the Transamerica Building, Book Haven?

Questioner: Because it’s the only vantage point in San Francisco where you won’t see the Transamerica Building.

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Local boy makes good.

On the other hand, you could enter a time machine and go back to oh, say, about the mid-19th century. Then you’d avoid it completely. Above, you can see what the Montgomery block, at 628 Montgomery Street, looked like when it was the home of a slew of literary Bohemians, among them Bret Harte and Mark Twain. According to the caption, “Lovingly known as the Monkey Block, the 1853 building was demolished in 1959; the Transamerica Pyramid now stands in its place.”  Before and after, which is better?  You decide.

San Francisco Chronicle book editor John McMurtrie dropped us a line earlier today. He thought those of us on his mailing list might get a kick out of the photo gallery he’s put together on Twain’s time in San Francisco. He was inspired by Ben Tarnoff’s new book, The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. You, too, can see the fruit of John’s labors here.

Another photo in the series: Green Street in San Francisco, looking west, during the memorial march for President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. After the assassination, Harte’s column in the Californian praised this “simple-minded, uncouth, and honest” westerner who, in Tarnoff’s words, “liberated America from the cultural choke hold of New England.”  We’re still working on that, Mr. Tarnoff. It’ll come.

 

Baltic masterpiece in English at last, in a PEN-awarded translation

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014
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tammsaare2Since regaining independence in 1991, Estonia has attracted international acclaim in many spheres, but notably in high-tech with the invention of Skype, the development of e-government, and the decision to teach computer coding to school children. In recent weeks, it has been back in the news, but this time because of Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Estonia and her Baltic neighbors worry that their neighbor’s expansionist actions could mean that they are next. After all, in 1940, the Soviet Union swallowed up Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the nations ceased to exist for five decades. Balts know that in 2005, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin described the breakup of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the last century.”

This contemporary backdrop makes the translation of  Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s Tõde ja õigus or Truth and Justice timely and relevant for international observers. Expanding access to a nation’s literary canon, particularly one that is not well known in the West, is critical for understanding that country’s values and worldview. (Read more about the effort here, or go to the publisher’s website, which offers a free pdf version of the book’s first chapter and ordering information for the luxury collector’s edition, here.  The page also includes background on the book and author: “Written during the rise of dictators – Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini – the social epic captures the evolution of Estonia from Tsarist province to independent state. Based partly on the author’s own life, Truth and Justice explores the contrast between the urban middle class and the hard-working peasantry. Tammsaare draws an ironic portrait of urban intellectuals who have absorbed the middle and upper class mores and abandoned their moral principles.”

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This is the story of how the translation of Truth and Justice happened, as told by my friend and colleague, the journalist Lisa Trei, who is the daughter of one of the translators, the late Alan Trei.

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Translator and daughter

When I moved to Estonia in October 1990 to work as a reporter and teach journalism, I didn’t speak a word of the language or know much about a place known as the “Soviet West.” With its long food lines and Soviet soldiers, it certainly didn’t feel like the West. Despite the challenges of daily life, I longed to connect with and understand the country my grandparents had emigrated from in the 1920s and to which I had moved during the waning days of the Soviet empire. I scoured bookshops and kiosks for anything published about Estonia in English. Very little was available, and anything I could find was usually dull and translated into stilted, awkward prose.

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I was familiar with Kalevipoeg, Estonia’s national epic, but I hadn’t read Tõde ja õigus, which is regarded as “The Estonian Novel.” My colleagues at Tartu University and The Estonian Independent talked reverently about its author, Anton Hansen Tammsaare (1878-1940), explaining that he understood the national psyche and, therefore, I should read him. If only I could. The closest I could get to Tammsaare was a statue of him in a park next to Tallinn’s elegant opera house. Truth and Justice was added to the list of books I would read if I ever mastered Estonia’s famously difficult language.

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I ended up living in Tallinn and Tartu for six years, and witnessed firsthand the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the rebirth of independent Estonia. During that time I married an Estonian, acquired Estonian citizenship, and learned the language—but not well enough to read literature and poetry. The novels that lined the bookshelves of my friends’ homes remained a mystery; a closed door that prevented me from gaining deeper insights into the unspoken cultural and psychological cues of a nation famous for reticence and introspection. I gained first-hand exposure to these traits in my Estonian husband, a man of few words (so few we later divorced). I had already experienced this in my Estonian grandmother, Alice Roost Trei, whom I loved dearly even when she just stared at me in silence as we sat together in her Manhattan kitchen. When I asked her why she did this, her deadpan response was typically Estonian: “There’s nothing better to look at.”

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As close as she could get before…

Despite an Estonian upbringing, my father inherited the brash countenance of his hometown of New York City. Alan Trei was opinionated, intelligent, and often infuriating. He loved books, reciting poetry, and singing show tunes out of key in the car. While his parents rarely wasted words, my father loved telling stories. But he was also thoughtful. From the mid-60s to the mid-80s, our family lived overseas in five European countries. When people complained about the stereotypical loud Yankee, my father would say, “You don’t hear the quiet ones.”

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My dad visited me frequently during the years I lived in Estonia. At some point, he met Inna Feldbach, a translator I worked with on stories about Estonia’s ethnic Russians. The early 1990s was a period of great economic, political, and social transition and there was a lot to report on for the international press. Inna spoke fluent Russian and Estonian, and understood the cultural mores of each society. She was an ideal colleague.

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My father and Inna, who were both divorced, discovered a shared interest in literature. He began courting her and, eventually, they married. Inna was an established book translator in Estonia and my dad, by then retired, moved to Tallinn to live with her. As he became more engaged with Estonia, he developed a curiosity about the fact that one of Estonia’s greatest works of literature had never been translated into English.

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Taking on the challenging task of translating of Truth and Justice was entirely in character for my dad. He liked adventure—in 1980, for example, he tried to plan a crazy camping trip in the Soviet Union so our American family could attend the Olympics on a budget. It looked like it might happen, much to my American mother’s dismay, until the U.S. boycott of the Games. We were living in Switzerland and I remember the day he came home and announced that the Soviet embassy had told him, “Nyet.”

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Tammsaare-farm-house-in-Estonia-e1388341950242

Tammsaare’s farm house, now a museum, in Järvamaa

Later, my dad and I were among the first Westerners to visit the island of Saaremaa. In 1989, it was closed to foreigners and even mainland Estonians had difficulty obtaining permits to visit this militarized, westernmost part of the Soviet Union. But as islander descendants we got permission to go and found the farmhouse that my grandmother had lived in until she emigrated from Estonia in 1929. When my dad returned to the U.S., he convinced a local newspaper to write a story about his plan to become the first Westerner to buy property—his mother’s house—as soon as it was legalized in Soviet Estonia. After independence in 1991, restitution laws made this impossible but my father succeeded, thanks to my mother-in-law, in regaining land awarded to my grandfather for his military service during Estonia’s War of Independence.

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During summer visits to Estonia in the mid-2000s, dad told me that translating Tõde ja õigus was high on his “bucket list.” He wanted to contribute something important and meaningful to Estonia. For several years, Inna would translate the Estonian text into English and my father would craft sentences that conveyed the subtle depth of Tammsaare’s narrative. In 2006, the PEN American Center recognized the quality of their work by awarding Inna and my dad a prestigious PEN Translation Fund Grant.

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In reading the finished book, which has been further revised by skilled editors, I am impressed by how well the translation flows. The first book of Truth and Justice effectively draws the reader into the world of Estonian peasantry during the period of National Awakening at the end of the 19th century. Tammsaare understood the strong connection Estonians have always had with the land and how this relationship informs the national character. When it is published, I hope you will enjoy the first book of Truth and Justice, a treatise on the meaning of a human life, and then want more. The remaining books of this classic pentalogy still need to be translated into English.

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trei2Lisa Trei was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal Europe, and has also reported for the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Newsday, St. Petersburg Times, The Hartford Courant, the Dallas Morning News, the Toronto Globe & Mail, The Moscow Times, The Estonian Independent, and others. She taught journalism at Tartu University between 1990 and 1995. She is a former Fulbright Fellowship to Estonia, and received a Soros Award to organize the first-ever conference on investigative reporting in Estonia and she also wrote and edited an Estonian-language handbook on the subject. She was awarded the Milena Jesenska Fellowship in 2008 to report on security issues in Estonia.

 

David Mason’s hard birth

Friday, March 21st, 2014
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I wrote about Colorado poet laureate David Mason and his quest for “necessary poems” a few weeks ago here.  No sooner said than…  his latest collection of poems arrived in the mail, Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, 2004-2014. David Sanders‘s “Poetry News in Review” described it as “an almost entirely new poetic voice and his most rigorous and memorable book to date.” Our friend George Szirtes said this: “The language is humane, unfussy, firm, moving but not calculated to move.”

This one grabbed me. See if it grabs you, too.  (I know, I know. You don’t have to tell me  it’s not the Fourth of July. It’s not 2011, either, for that matter. I like this one anyway.)
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seasalt4 July 2011

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From over the ridge, chrysanthemums of fire
burst into color. One hears the pop-pop-pop
of another birthday, but the heart is flat champagne.

Who cares about freedom, and Damn King George?
Who cares about sirens out in city lights?
I’ve got enough to fight about right here,

the howitzer let loose inside my ribs
the thudding ricochet from hill to hill,
from hurt to hurt. Hard birth. Hard coming to.

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Timothy Snyder nails it.

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014
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We’ve written about Tim Snyder  here and here and here and here and here.

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