Archive for the ‘Things in General’ Category

How and When – If Ever – Will the Lives We Lead Be Judged?

January 19, 2023

Today’s post was prompted by a lengthy article titled “A Theology of the Present Moment,” by novelist Marilynne Robinson.  It appeared in the December 22, 2022 issue of the New York Review of Books. Her piece is an intellectually challenging discussion of the interplay between science and religion; I had to read it at least twice in order to begin to understand what she was getting at. It’s been worth the effort.

Marilynne Robinson

But here’s the part that jumped out at me. She sets the stage for it by recounting, from Genesis, the story of Joseph. He is sold into slavery by his brothers, but later on he comes to great power in Egypt and forgives them. They had evil intent. God turned it around and made it good. Robinson sums it up by saying “One cruel prank opened into a major event in the history of the world.”

She goes on to make some grim observations that everybody might do well to keep in mind today:

“Most people in the world would say their lives are insignificant, historically speaking, but it might be prudent to consider whether the relative blamelessness that is assumed to come with insignificance can be relied upon. We are not competent to decide how much we matter in the long term.

“One of my favorite Puritans – the seventeenth-century divine John Flavel – said that we will be judged twice, once when we die and once when everything we have said or done has had its final effect. Whisper a cruel rumor – who knows what force it will acquire if it lives.”

A little later, she quotes the apostle James: “So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”

And from there, she recounts “Over centuries slanders have burned heretics and witches, launched pogroms and inquisitions, inspired lynchings and purges. Now we have grown used to hearing Americans calling Americans demons, Satanists, and pedophiles – utterly damning language, abetted by the Internet but not qualitatively different from the language that fueled the great fires of hatred and fear that mar and disgrace Western history.”

“We can see with our own eyes how exciting this conflagration is to many people in this country, even while it threatens to consume democracy, root and branch. Our children and their children will grow up in a country much changed by this, not for the better. The most effective polemicist of the day is legislating for our descendants. And anyone who gives force to his or her word will be liable to that second judgment. These crimes are collective, and a nod or silence is complicity.”

Whew! There’s a good deal of truthful insight here, and as I noted above it’s good to keep these observations in mind. But talk about a worst-case scenario. Is this the whole story?

Thankfully, it’s not the whole story.

We can’t summarily dismiss Marilynne’s dark vision. She’s right in saying that, while we might think our own lives are insignificant, we just don’t know what effects even our seemingly small deeds and casually-spoken words can have in the immediate moment and very far into the future.  She also seems to be right that we’ll all be liable to that “second judgment.” But that second judgment won’t inevitably damn us all to hell. In fact, the perpetually-revising second judgments will continually boost many of us to ever-higher places in the heavenly spheres. 

I state this with confidence, for two reasons: my work as a Holocaust educator, and my wife Mary Ellen’s work as an elementary school teacher.

Let’s take the more complex one first, the Holocaust. My research for Mary Wygodski’s biography, Evil Must Not Have the Last Word,  led me to develop an adult-education course that I’ve delivered at least a dozen times over the past four years or so. In that course, I devote considerable time to stories of The Righteous Gentiles, those people who risked all they had to shield and save Jewish victims of the Nazis.

The Holocaust, the organized murder of six million Jews, was one of those great fires of hatred and fear that Marilynne Robinson speaks of. But not everyone in the countries where it happened was a participant; not everyone was silently complicit. As of January, 2022, Israel’s Yad Vashem Remembrance Center had identified and documented 28,217 individuals who saved the life of at least one Jewish person. In most cases, it was more than one Jew whose life was saved by each of those righteous folks.

Just think about it. Here we are, three generations later. The descendants of those who were saved now number in the hundreds of thousands. The “second judgment meter” is still running for the rescuers. It will never stop, really. And I can only imagine that it’s running in a positive direction.

There’s one more point to be made about these rescuers and righteous: they were all so ordinary, so unimpressive by any earthly measure.  As Marilynne might describe them, they were “insignificant.”

Here’s just one example.  Poland, the country that lost three million of its 3.3 million Jews, can also claim 7,232 righteous gentiles. That’s more than any other country, by far. Yad Vashem was able to document the professions of around 2,000 of them. The largest category? Peasants and foresters, numbering 1,266. None of the fourteen other categories even had 100 members.

It was the poor, property-less people in Poland who saved at least ten thousand lives, and probably more. Maybe they, too, thought their own lives were insignificant. How wrong they would be to think that.

The other thing that came to mind, the life and 30+-year teaching career of Mary Ellen, brought back a glow of pride in what my son Matthew wrote about her when she died three years ago. I posted the full text on this blog site, and you can read it here.

Matt’s mention of a Buddhist religious belief was very close to Marilynne Robinson’s point about the two judgments.   He wrote, “…this concept stipulates that everyone actually dies twice. The first time is when you shuffle off this earthly body. And the second time occurs when the last person who remembers you, passes away. And the reason is that everyone in your life, everyone you meet, carries with them the thoughts, the memories, and the influences that you had on their life.”

Matt wasn’t talking solely about us, the members of the immediate family and Mary Ellen’s close friends. He also wrote of some 770 former grade-school children.  They’re all adults now, or close to adulthood. It will be at least 60 years before the last of them passes away. Probably longer.

So, my beloved wife will be alive in the Buddhist tradition for decades to come. And I’m further comforted in knowing that the second judgment she will face will not come for many years after that, if ever. I know how she shaped so many lives for the better, how she launched innumerable careers in the best way imaginable. That second judgment will be a joyous coronation for her.

Where am I going with all this? I’m finished, so it’s better to ask where I’ve been. I guess I’m happy with the way this piece turned out. I found a silver lining in the dark storm clouds that Marilynne Robinson’s perceptive assessment pointed out. And she wasn’t entirely negative in that assessment. She does point out that “the beauty of this view of things [the idea of two judgments] is that it acknowledges the reach and potency of our lives, for good or for ill.” She’s right in the points she makes. So, I think, am I, in seeking that silver lining.

All those little things that we say and do every day will be echoing down through the years.  Let’s do our best to assure that those echoes are sweet and pleasant ones, and that the second judgment we face will be a favorable one

A Year (and a Drink) of Godly Prosperity to You

December 31, 2021

It’s the last day of 2021. The old year and its spirits, both good and evil, take their leave. We celebrate, give our thanks, and wish our fellow human beings well in coming twelve months. If we’re in America we’ll have our weary eyes glued to the big ball that descends on the stroke of midnight.  If we’re residents of other countries, we’ll be observing the turning of the year in some other quaint – and quite frankly, nicer and more tradition-suffused ways.

Pope Sylvester baptizing Emperor Constantine

We’ll all be raising glasses of various types this evening too, and I’ll suggest two appropriate libations.  The first of these is Maria von Trapp’s Sylvester Punch: take a 750 ml bottle of burgundy, mix in 12 cloves, I lemon rind, 2 tbsp sugar, and 2 cinnamon sticks. Heat it over a low flame but don’t let it boil. Add 750 ml of hot tea and serve – about 12 of your guests can partake.

Why the name Sylvester Punch? Today is the feat of Saint Sylvester. In Germany, this evening is called Silvesterabend or Silvesternacht in honor of the man who was pope during the reign of Emperor Constantine. Legend also has it that Sylvester baptized Constantine after the emperor, who ended the persecution of Christians, was cured of leprosy.

Whether or not that story is true, we don’t know. But we do know that Sylvester, who was pope for 21 years and died on December 31 in the year 335, was the first man to assume the throne of Peter during a time of civic peace. That peace was welcomed, and had been a long time coming. So it’s especially appropriate to remember and honor Sylvester at this time of year, when we all wish and hope for “peace on earth.”

Thanksgiving and ritual purifications to cast out demons are popular December 31 traditions beyond our borders. In central Europe, in times that pre-dated organized religion, fireworks and artillery salutes took place to scare away demons. In France, the father of the family would bless the children, and the children would thank the parents for their love and care. In Austria, December 31 was Rauchnacht,or “Incense Night,” when the father would purify all the rooms of the house with incense and holy water. In Spain and Spanish-speaking countries, it was considered good luck to eat twelve grapes at the stoke of midnight.

Sinners got a chance to lighten their sentences in Purgatory too. The Church granted a plenary indulgence – yes, a wiped-clean slate – for those who recited the Latin “Te Deum” prayer in public. Those who recited the prayer in thanksgiving would get a partial indulgence. Not a bad deal either way, for us sinners.

But in any case, we really ought to be thankful as we toast in the New Year. And that brings us to our second drink. Unfortunately, we can no longer order the liqueur known as Sansilvestro, which was made with suspended flakes of silver. People used to put flakes of gold or silver into their beverages. These flakes didn’t affect the drink’s tastes and they weren’t harmful; in fact, they were thought to aid circulation and digestion.

So here’s what we’ll use to toast in the New Year: The Godly Prosperity. It’s .5 oz cinnamon schnapps with gold flakes, .25 oz lemon juice, 3 oz chilled sparkling wine, a dash of orange bitters, and a cranberry garnish.

The drink’s name comes from Saint Thomas More. One New Year’s Eve he lifted a glass and wished his friends “a year of godly prosperity, one that sees a happy continuation and gracious increase of virtue” in their souls.

I’ve already recited my “Te Deum.” You may read the words here, if you wish.  Yes, I am most thankful for all the blessings I’ve received, and for the family and friends whom God has sent to me.

And tonight I echo the words of Thomas More. May 2002 be for you a year of godly prosperity.

What John Steinbeck Really Saw and Thought

November 18, 2021

Like me, you likely read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley when you were in high school. If so, you probably don’t recall anything like the following excerpt from a letter to his long-time friend and publisher, Pascal Covici. The letter was written in July, 1961. Steinbeck was in the process of writing his travelogue at that time. The book was published in 1962.

His trip around the country had taken place in 1960 – the beginning of the decade of “The Sixties,” – don’t forget. He was already in declining health, and he wanted to see his country one last time. He died in 1968, at the age of 66.

I wonder what Mr. Steinbeck would have to say if he took a similar trip today. Here is the passage, today’s food for thought.

“Thinking and thinking for a word to describe decay. Not disruption, not explosion but simply rotting. It seemed to carry on with a weary inertia. No one was for anything and nearly everyone was against many things. Negro hating white. White hating negroes. Republicans hating Democrats although there is little difference.

“In all my travels I saw very little real poverty. I mean the grinding terrifying poorness of the Thirties. That at least was real and tangible. No it was a sickness, a kind of wasting disease. There were wishes but no wants. And underneath it all the building energy like gasses in a corpse. When that explodes, I tremble to think what will be the result. Over and over I thought we lack the pressures that make men strong and the anguish that makes men great. The pressures are debts, the desired for more material toys and the anguish is boredom. Through time, the nation has become a discontented land. I’ve sought for an out on this – saying it is my aging eyes seeing it, my waning energy feeling it, my warped vision that is distorting it, but it is only partly true. The thing I have described is really there. I did not create it. It’s very well for me to write jokes and anecdotes but the haunting decay is there under it.

“Well, there was once a man named Isaiah – and what he saw in his time was not unlike what I have seen, but he was shored up by a hard and durable prophecy that nothing could disturb. We have no prophecy now, nor any prophets.”

I offer this passage to you, dear reader. I offer it without comment. However, I commend for your reading my source for this: Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. John Steinbeck didn’t care much for the telephone, and he didn’t have email or social media. So he wrote, longhand. And this collection of his letters is superb.

Finally, I also suggest that it would be nice if we all could take up, once again, the nearly lost art of letter-writing. What was the last time received a letter, one composed especially and only for you?  Wasn’t it a nice feeling to get it? Maybe, as 2021 wanes and the New Year approaches, you could take the time to write one to someone you’ve not seen or spoken to lately. I assure you, it will be appreciated.

Mud in Your Eye for Mid-November

November 15, 2021

Today is November 15, the feast of Saint Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus), who died in the year 1280.

The cocktail of the day is the Mud Pie: 1.5 oz rye or bourbon, .5 oz orange curacao, .5 tsp sugar, 2 dashed Peychaud’s bitters, on orange slice, cherry, lemon twist.

And when we raise a toast with that drink, it’s “Here’s mud in your eye.

You’ve heard that one, I’m sure. Where did it come from? If you guessed The Bible, you’re right.  Here’s the rest of the story, from John, Chapter 1.

“And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

“When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay,  And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.”

So, “Here’s mud in your eye” is a toast to your health – especially to your precious gift of eyesight. It’s also a wish for you to “see the light” in many other ways. A goodly benediction, indeed.

And what does this have to do with Albertus Magnus, honored as a doctor of the church and a brilliant natural scientist? Perhaps, though it’s all speculative, it has to do with his musings on the birds of the air. Albert wrote that the heron, whose Latin name is “ardea,” was probably named thusly because its excrement burns (“ardet”) whatever it touches.

The heron is said to defend itself from hawks by aiming its anus at it and shooting excrement. It may not mud in the hawk’s eye, but all that the projectile has to do is hit the hawk’s wings. The attacker’s feathers burn away, and the heron escapes.

The heron’s name is found in a royal decree of James VI of Scotland (1566-1625.) The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the name is a shortening of “shiteheron.”

So there’s some more history I never knew. The heron was officially the world’s first “hot shit.”

Now you know the rest of the story.

Today is Crispin’s Day. So what really happened?

October 25, 2021

Today’s cocktail is the cherry cobbler. I’ll get to what it is and why, but first, Shakespeare’s King Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt:

Kenneth Brannagh as Henry V

“Today is called the feast of Crispian.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

He that shall see this day, and live old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’

The will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s Day.’

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition.”

Saints Crispin and Crispinian, who was also called Crispian, were brothers and missionaries from Rome to Gaul. They were martyred for their faith around the year 286. They preached by day, and they made shoes by night to pay their bills. They are the patron saints of shoemakers, or cobblers. That’s why the drink of the day is the cherry cobbler: .5 oz cherry heering, .5 oz lemon juice, 1.5 oz gin, .5 tsp sugar, one cherry, one lemon wedge.

As we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, raise our glasses with the cherry cobblers in toast to Crispin and the King, let’s look at the rest of the story. It’s not a tale of chivalry, lads. It’s a tale of butchery, and brutality, and the hell of war. William Tecumseh Sherman would be right to state it again, more than 400 years later. War is indeed hell. Come to think of it, maybe we shouldn’t toast at all, or just toast to Crispin and Crispinian.

So what really happened at Agincourt? Whence that storied victory? A combination of luck and superior military technology for the English, and vanity combined with stupidity on the part of the French.

England’s invading army was in tatters. Henry V landed his ships on the Normandy coastline in the summer of 1415, thinking he would claim the crown of France.  The French Dauphin blew off Henry’s challenge to meet in single combat and raised a big army that besieged and nearly starved the English at Harfleur.

Disease swept through the English camp. Henry was to lose more of his men to rampant dysentery than he did in battle. More than a thousand were reduced to agonies, with blood and filth constantly oozing out of them. The stench was indescribable: by the time the siege was lifted, and the survivors had staggered south in pouring rain and crossed the Somme river, the French were boasting that their enemy were as good as dead.

The English and Welsh troops were outnumbered four-to-one. But they had as their best weapon the longbow. It fired arrows with such power that they could pierce even the heavy armor of knights on horseback, and kill at 200 yards or more. Most of the 5,000 archers were Welsh, mere commoners, who wielded 7ft bows made from thick yew staves, tipped with cow horn.

Henry knew his theatrics. He rode a small grey horse and his legs hung down with no stirrups. His armor was mirror bright and his helmet was crowned with a richly jeweled golden battle crown. He was making himself a target, to show his troops how unafraid he was.

The French lined up at least 1,000 glory-seeking knights, lords and minor aristocrats, all itching to make their reputations as warriors, on the front line. They wanted to capture English knights and hold them to ransom — and they were so certain of swift victory that they feared all the rich pickings would be gone unless they were first into battle. Their own archers and crossbowmen were sent to the rear.

The Welsh longbowmen at Agincourt

The sticky clay ground had been churned to a quagmire the previous night as the grooms walked the noblemen’s horses around, and a headlong gallop was impossible. The English began to advance, until they were within bowshot range. Then the archers opened fire. After hesitating, above the screams of wounded men and horses, the French cavalry tried to charge.

The ranks of knights broke up into ragged lines, and the English archers began to pick them off like snipers. It was impossible for the Frenchmen to mount a cavalry charge. The horses stumbled, floundered, and fell.

French knights who survived the blizzard of arrows blundered onto the archers’ next line of defense — sharpened stakes rammed into the mud that impaled the horses. As the animals thrashed, the aristocrats were thrown off, and the archers clubbed them to death with mallets. Horses that saw the threat in time swerved back and crashed into those still advancing. The French went tumbling, with more ranks tripping over the bodies as they advanced.

The archers were able to fire into this lurching mass without respite, while the primitive French artillery far behind the lines lobbed cannonballs that caused just one English casualty and mostly landed among their own troops.

Realizing that the cavalry assault had failed, the French commanders signaled a mass infantry attack. As the fallen men struggled to haul themselves out of the sludge, they were knocked flat by the new arrivals who, in turn, tripped and fell. A great number of men drowned in the mud beneath heaps of other bodies, though no English weapon had touched them.

Finally the French trumpets sounded the retreat, and more than 2,000 Frenchmen surrendered rather than have their throats slit. They removed their helmets and were herded back towards the English baggage train, to be ransomed later.

But rumors swept the exhausted English army that a second French attack was being mounted from the south. Afraid of being trapped on two sides, with the added peril of 2,000 armored Frenchmen in the heart of his own army, Henry reacted ruthlessly. He ordered the immediate execution of all but the most noble and valuable of the prisoners. Two hundred archers did the killing, with daggers.

In a desperate bid to escape, some of the Frenchmen barricaded themselves into a barn. The English burned the barn down.

Around 8,000 Frenchmen died at Agincourt. English and Welsh casualties numbered just a few hundred. After the battle, Henry’s men ransacked the French camp, before marching in triumph to Calais.

The king sailed for home, and landed in a snowstorm at Dover, before elaborate festivities in London hailed him as “Henry the Fifth, King of England and France.”

Glorious and chivalrous? I don’t think so.  Brilliant strategy? Nah. More dumb luck than anything else. And is there any doubt now as to why the British and the French really don’t like each other?

And that’s the real story of what happened on the Feast of Crispian.

Punctuation Can Be a Matter of Life and Death

June 30, 2021

“Woman without her man is nothing.”  Right?

Actually, that is right. But ya gotta adjust the punctuation before you submit the answer.

“Woman: without her, man is nothing.”

You’ve probably seen that one if you read blogs and posts from grammar curmudgeons like me.  I know we can be a pain in the neck. But you know we’re correct. Faulty punctuation can make what you write mean the opposite of what you intend.

Here’s another one:

“Let’s eat Grandma.”

Er, wait a minute.  It’s “Let’s eat, Grandma.”

Okay, so much for the levity. Now for a deadly serious story about how a wrongly-edited piece of punctuation – a comma inserted for a semicolon – nearly freed some of history’s most despicable and scaffold-deserving criminals from a full accounting for their crimes.

As described in East West Street (Vintage Books, 2017) by Philippe Sands, the last-minute edit was made to Article 6 (c) of the charter for the trial of the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg.  All of the quoted passages that follow are taken from that book. That trial eventually ended up breaking new ground and establishing in international law the offense of crimes against humanity.

Philippe Sands

But the four victorious powers who were conducting the trial – the United States, Britain, France, and Russia – were not in agreement on that point. The Russians, in particular, objected to the notion of crimes against humanity, because allowing for it that meant that if a state trampled the rights of individual people as the Nazis had done, then it was breaking a law not of individual nations but of all mankind. Those who transgressed it would have no immunity, even if they were leaders. Individuals could be held liable for such crimes and could not hide behind the veil of a state government.

When Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the United States’ chief prosecutor, reviewed the charter of the trial court, his intent to define and prosecute crimes against humanity was unmistakable. He wrote, “We should insert words to make clear that we are addressing persecution, etc., of Jews and others in Germany, as well as outside of it, before as well as after commencement of the war.”

As the book’s author Sands continues, “Such language would extend the protections of international law. It would bring into the trial Germany’s actions against its own nationals – Jews and others – before the war began.”  That meant the killings, incarcerations, expulsions, pogroms like Kristallnacht, and so on.

Despite the Russians’ objections, the final text of the Charter was adopted, signed and made public on August 8. In Article 6 (c), the judges were given the power to punish individuals for crimes against humanity. Here is the relevant, and infamous, passage in the first published charter:

Justice Robert H. Jackson

“murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian populations, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic laws of the country were perpetrated.”

Seems pretty clear and definitive, right? But wait – and look closely at the semicolon in the second line. That disappeared, and was replaced by a comma, because the semicolon caused a discrepancy between the English text and the French and Russian texts of the charter.

As the book points out,

“The semicolon seemed to allow a crime against humanity that occurred before 1939, when the war began to come within the jurisdiction of the tribunal; the replacement comma, however, seems to have the effect of taking the events that occurred before the war began outside the jurisdiction of the tribunal. There would be no punishment for those actions, if crimes against humanity had to be connected to war. Whether this was intended, or would have this effect, would be for the judges to decide.”

Decide they did, and they decided wrongly, in clear contravention to what Justice Jackson intended.

Hersch Lauterpacht

On the second day of announcing the verdicts, Russian judge Iona Nikitchenko stated, “Only acts that constitute crimes against humanity were those committed after the war started. No war, no crime against humanity. In this way, the tribunal excluded from its judgment everything that happened before September 1939, no matter how terrible the acts.”

Ah, yes, their hands were tied by that comma. That’s what they said.

Nikitchenko went on to (seemingly) acknowledge the unfairness of it, but he absolves himself and the other judges of any responsibility to rectify that unfairness.

“political opponents were murdered in Germany before the war. Many individuals were kept in concentration camps, in circumstances of horror and cruelty, and a great number were killed. A policy of terror was carried out on a vast scale, organized and systematic, and the persecution and repression and murder of civilians in Germany before the war of 1939 were ruthless. The actions against the Jews before the war were established ‘beyond all doubt.’  Yet ‘revolting and horrible’ as these acts were, the comma inserted into the text of the charter excluded them from the tribunal’s jurisdiction. We were powerless to do anything else, the judges said.”

Now do you believe me about punctuation?

Rafael Lemkin

The book, East West Street, is about much more than punctuation. It is a dramatic account of the lives and intellectual development of two Jewish men, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. Both studied law at the University of Lwów (or Lviv or Lemberg, depending on which conquering power was in charge of that city in Ukraine). Both were involved in preparation for the Nuremberg trial. Both did seminal work on the concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.”

The book also describes the life, times, and crimes of Hans Frank, who ruled the General Government, or the conquered land of Poland, for Hitler’s Third Reich. He was a pre-war friend of one of the trial judges, the Frenchman Henri Donnedieu de Vabres. The French guy tried to get Frank a life-in-prison sentence rather than a hanging.  He didn’t succeed.

I recommend this book highly, whether your area of interest is law, World War II, or the Holocaust.

My Patron Saint Takes the Stage

April 10, 2021

I’ve always rather liked this weekend, Low Sunday, on the liturgical calendar. It’s also called Quasimodo Sunday, but that’s not the reason I like it. To me, today is special because it’s one of the few occasions when my patron saint – Thomas, who was called Didymus – took center stage in a Gospel story.

Say what you will about old Saint Tom. He didn’t just take your word for it. He wanted proof. And so, when the other apostles had told him that they had seen the Risen Lord on the evening of Easter Sunday, at a meeting where Thomas was not yet present, he was doubtful – hence the term “a doubting Thomas.” If Tom were still with us today, he’d probably be a senator from Missouri, the “Show Me” state.

He might have been a doubter a bit later on, but Thomas was devoted and fully on board as an apostle. In John 11, when Jesus planned to return to Judea, the disciples warned him of those “now seeking to stone you”. Thomas replied, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

At the Last Supper, before the doubting Thomas story that really made him famous, Thomas could not comprehend what Jesus meant when he said, “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” Thomas asked him “How can we know the way?” to which Jesus answered, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Here is the “doubting Thomas” passage from John 20:

“But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said unto them, ‘Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.’

And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, ‘Peace be unto you.’

 Then saith he to Thomas, ‘Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.’

And Thomas answered and said unto him, ‘My Lord and my God.’

Jesus saith unto him, ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’”

Thomas needed some convincing from the Top Guy, but once he got it he became the first of the apostles to acknowledge Jesus’s divinity.

Another reason I have never forgotten this story. One time, back in Saint John’s, “Sister” asked the class “Who said ‘My Lord and my God?’” Nobody knew the answer, and Sister said she was surprised that I, Thomas, did not know it. It stuck in my mind forever, after that.

Leonardo da Vinci must have had this passage in mind when he painted The Last Supper. Thomas and his trusty index finger are almost front-and-center, as you can see from the accompanying cut. Jesus has just dropped a bombshell on the gathering:

Thomas, with upraised index finger, demands to know “Is it I, Lord?”

“And as they did eat, he said, Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.

And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I?

And he answered and said, He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me.”

Thomas is the closest to Jesus, getting right up in his face with that finger which, ten days thence, will probe the nail holes in Jesus’s hands. He’s doubting then too. Looks rather ticked off at the suggestion, if you ask me.

And from the other side of Jesus, opposite Thomas, you can see the hand of Judas and the hand of Jesus, each reaching toward the bread which they will dip into the dish.

That’s the complete story of my guy Thomas and his dramatic confrontation with Jesus.  We hear it every year on Low Sunday – so called, most likely, because it ends the Octave of Easter and is opposed to the “high” feast of Easter itself.

The hands of Judas (left) and Jesus (right) grasp for the bread which they will dip into the dish together.

And why is the day also called Quasimodo Sunday? Glad you asked that too.

No, it’s got nothing to do with the Hunchback of Notre Dame. It stems from the days of the mass in Latin. The introductory prayer, or the Introit, of that day, goes thusly:

Quasi modo géniti infántes, allelúia: rationábile, sine dolo lac concupíscite, allelúia, allelúia, allelúia.

Which, translated into English, is:

“As newborn infants do (alleluia), covet milk that is rational, without dolosity (alleluia, alleluia, alleluia).”

I think that nowadays we all could use a dash of my patron saint’s skepticism. Don’t believe everything you read, on line or anywhere else. Trust, but verify.

May God bless and keep you today, as Eastertide recedes toward its ultimate end on Pentecost, or Whitsunday, as they say in the UK.  

A Reflection, Appreciation, and Book Review: The Women of The Barbizon Hotel

March 9, 2021

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of an understanding of women. And that goes for a married man as well, be he possessed of big bucks or living paycheck-to-paycheck.

There’s just no understanding of women, if you’re a male of the species.  There’s the truth that should be universally acknowledged.

But we should never stop trying, guys.

So today, in recognition of the recent International Women’s Day, I commend to you The Barbizon: The Hotel that Set Women Free, a new book by historian Paulina Bren of Vassar College.  Reading it may not give you great insight into what makes women tick, and all that that implies. But you can’t help coming away with a heightened understanding of the societal hurdles faced — and the methods and stratagems for advancement employed — by ambitious, venturesome ladies of the decades from the Roaring Twenties through the “Me Decade” of the Seventies. 

The Barbizon, a residential hotel on New York’s Upper East Side, catered to middle- and upper-class women. You needed letters of recommendation to get in. That pleased the well-to-do parents no end, because their daughters were going to be living among “the right kind of girls.” Pleasing to the nervous parents also was the knowledge that no men were ever allowed above the first floor.

The rooms were small and somewhat Spartan. But the ladies had everything they needed otherwise – pool, gym, library, soundproof rehearsal rooms for singing and music practice, lecture halls, free afternoon tea, a garden on the roof – and first-floor businesses with all the products and services necessary for life in the big city.

They also had a nice, Juliet-style balcony that overlooked the first floor and gave them a vantage point to size up the gentlemen who eagerly awaited them in the lobby. I can actually relate to that. My very first date in college was with a lovely girl from Emmanuel. I went to her dorm and gave the receptionist my name and hers. Over the loudspeaker came the announcement, “Dorothea So-and-so, you have a visitor in the lobby.”

At least half a dozen other girls came cruising down from upstairs for a quick inspection before retreating and, presumably, reporting back. Then she made her appearance. Whether or not I rated highly with that appraisal squad I’ll never know. But on this occasion, there was little chance that she was going to stand me up, because I had tickets to a Simon and Garfunkel concert at BC.  Of course I kidded myself into thinking that it was I who interested her, not Paul and Art. I suspect that many of the guys who laid out big bucks to impress a Barbizon girl with a night on the town had a similar experience.

The Barbizon lobby – no men allowed above that first floor.

The author estimates that 350,000 women lived at the Barbizon, from its opening in 1927 through the mid-1960s. Most of them were girls from small-town America; they got their training and their jobs, they found their husbands, and they made it out into picket-fence suburbia. We don’t know the names of that majority, but we do know the names of many others who made it big in their respective fields.

I’ll list a few of those stars, but not before telling you what I liked most about the book: its delving into the cultural and business history of the era.

If you appreciated Mad Men for its portrayals of life in the 1960s and its take on the people and practices of the advertising business, then you’ll appreciate The Barbizon for similar reasons.  It gives close-up views of the emerging fields of popular publishing, modeling, advertising, and the secretarial profession; they’re all excellent bits of history of the nexus of business and culture. 

There’s also some interesting stuff about life during Prohibition and its speakeasies; of the emergence of McCarthyism; about the sometimes glacial pace of women’s progress in the working world; and of the Kinsey Report, the coming of the pill, and women’s sexual emancipation – they’re all worth the price of the book.  For instance, I had never known that, by 1932, 26 states had laws against married women holding a job. Single working women had to disclose their impending marital status, lest they take a job away from a “real” breadwinner.

Speaking of jobs, in the 19th century, almost all secretaries were male. Women finally cracked their way in, though, and during the Depression, the already-flourishing Katharine Gibbs secretarial school was harder to get into than one of the Seven Sisters colleges. A Katie Gibbs girl, with her white gloves and her rigorous training in typing, stenography, business, poise, voice, and manners, was still eminently employable when jobs everywhere else had disappeared.

Gibbs girls also got exposure to art history, banking management, finance, income management, and English literature.  It was undoubtedly a better preparation for the real world than four years in some ivory tower.

Two floors of the Barbizon were the Gibbs girls’ dormitory; many Seven Sisters graduates ended up enrolling there. They needed work too, and typing was often all that was available. That steady income stream from the Gibbs School helped keep the Barbizon afloat during those lean years.

If a girl couldn’t type, she could still make it in New York if she looked good. And the Barbizon was home to many such women who found work as models. Early on, most of them worked for John Robert Powers, founder of the Powers Agency. He was a sales/marketing whiz who knew intuitively the allure of “The Powers Girl.” If she looked the part, she could sell anything.

The biggest source of income for the Powers agency was the mail-order catalog business. Powers recruited women from all over the country to pose for his pictures. He urged them to stay at the Barbizon. It might have been slightly more expensive than other accommodations, but it was safe and prestigious. The Powers girl had “the typical Midwestern look: tall, blond, and curvy…they were typically give foot nine inches and a voluptuous 34-24-34; long-stemmed American beauties.”

It wasn’t an easy life, and it didn’t pay especially well. The ladies had to be on call just about all the time; they had to do their own hair and makeup. You could always tell a Powers model by the black hatbox she carried. It contained all her makeup, combs, brushes, hair pins, extra socks and underwear, and a contraption called “binoculars” that gave her bust a perky boost if the situation demanded it.

One Powers girl named Celeste Gheen made $25 a week in her first year; of that, $11 went to her room at the Barbizon. She went home to Cleveland, but Powers knew she was exceptional and begged her to return. She was indeed perfect for the job: 5 feet, 8 ½ inches; 34-24-35; and 115 pounds. She eventually became, as a New Yorker article notes, “the face – or the limbs, or the lips – of five cigarette brands, Spam, Texaco, Oldsmobile, Log Cabin Syrup, Schaefer beer, Bayer Aspirin, Bon Ami cleanser, Beautyrest mattresses, and Hellman’s mayonnaise.”

Celeste was one of the most successful of the Powers girls. Later came Eileen Ford and the Ford agency. Ford changed the business model of modeling. She worked for the girls, got them better pay, and had them paid faster than Powers and some of his imitators. 

As for the publishing business, the book tells the story of editor-in-chief Betsy Talbot Blackwell and her ingenious management of Mademoiselle magazine. She took it over in 1937 and soon came up with two smashing ideas to revive the magazine for its publisher, Street and Smith. One was the “College Board,” a veritable army of young women in schools around the country. They all “covered” their school and supplied Blackwell with unmatched market research on trends and on the desires of their peers. Blackwell used that intelligence to turn the month of August, usually a dead zone in the magazine business, into a Mademoiselle marketing and advertising bonanza for the coming school year.

The next brilliant stroke was Mademoiselle’s Guest Editor Program. Every June, 20 of the most talented college-age female writers and editors came to New York to work at Mademoiselle. They all stayed at the Barbizon. The program launched many a career in literature and publishing, including those of Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Ann Beattie, Gael Greene, Diane Johnson, Mona Simpson, Meg Wolitzer, Janet Burroway, Lynn Sherr, Nanette Emery, and Elizabeth Moulton.

Those attractive young guest editors did a lot of client-schmoozing and socializing on the magazine’s dime. It came with the territory. But they also got to meet some of the up-and-coming writers of the literary world, who were recruited by Blackwell and published for cheap, starter’s rates. They included Truman Capote, James Purdy, Flannery O’Connor,and Edward Albee.

The book devotes an entire chapter to both Didion and Plath, which is understandable, given their reputations as writers. Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, is a fictionalized account of her time at The Barbizon. Plath ended her life by suicide. When she succeeded, it wasn’t her first attempt.  A sad part of the Barbizon’s history is that Plath was not the only resident to take her own life. There were other suicides of women who couldn’t handle the pressure of chasing success in New York. There was also at least one murder on the premises.

Sylvia Plath, on her first day as a Mademoiselle guest editor.

Okay, so how about some of those other big names? It’s going to sound as if reading this book is like flipping through a People magazine, looking at the pictures, and searching for the gossipy and titillating tidbits. I assure you, it’s not that way at all. But you do deserve a few little morsels of gossip.

There’s Grace Kelly. Her father, John B. Kelly, was a multimillionaire and a three-time Olympic Gold Medal winner in the sport of rowing.  As the book points out, Grace was “the poster girl for that decade’s perfect woman….forever identified with sweetness and chastity, [yet she was] fond of dancing to Hawaiian music down the hallways of the Barbizon, and given to shocking her fellow residents by performing topless. Rumors of her sexual appetite and promiscuousness abounded.” Alfred Hitchcock, who cast her in Rear Window, called her a “snow-covered volcano.”

Kelly had poor eyesight and wore horn-rimmed glasses. When she took them off in the movies, she “exuded a sensuous dreaminess that was in fact plain old myopia,” according to author Bren. But you have to give Grace a world of credit for hard work. Told by her acting teachers that her voice was too high-pitched and nasal, she bought a recorder and talked into it every night until she was able to correct her tone and sound almost British.

The ultimate goal of many a Barbizon resident was to bag a husband. Grace hit a jackpot there, moving out of the Barbizon to Hollywood and eventually to the royal palace of Monaco. Her life ended tragically in 1982 when her car pitched over a cliff.

Grace Kelly

Then there were the guys who patrolled the streets near the Barbizon and hung out in the lobby, trolling for dates. Most of them struck out. But author J.D. Salinger was one who didn’t. He frequented the first-floor coffee shop and convinced at least a few of the girls that he was the goalie for the Montreal Canadiens.

Another was Noel Parmentel, a writer who befriended Joan Didion and helped her publish her first novel. She brought him to a party one night so he could meet with some “new faces” – Barbizon girls, primarily. There were fifteen people in the room when they arrived. Parmentel had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men. He, like Salinger, had found a way to penetrate Fortress Barbizon.

All right, you’ve waited long enough. Who were some of the other famous alumnae of The Barbizon? Here we go, in no particular order, and I’m sure I’ve overlooked some: Liza Minnelli, Cybill Shepherd, Betty Buckley, Ali MacGraw, Shirley Jones, Lorna Luft, Peggy Noonan, Cloris Leachman, Phylicia Rashad, Rita Hayworth, Tippi Hedren, and Phyllis Kirk. There was also Edie Bouvier, who was a cousin of Jackie Kennedy, and the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, a survivor of The Titanic.

Some of those luminaries are mentioned only in passing. Of others, we learn a bit more.  Ellen Smith, who later became the Jaclyn Smith of “Charlie’s Angels” fame, arrived in New York from Texas in 1966 to study ballet arts. Ellen’s parents were reluctant to let her come, and they made her promise never to use the subway. In her two years at the Barbizon, she never did.

Ellen/Jaclyn may be somewhat typical of the women of Barbizon. Few made it as big as she did, but many of them must have had a similar experience of life. She was a small-town girl who saw life go whizzing by in the fast lane but who took it slowly until she was ready. As the book points out, the Barbizon “represented ‘a time of rules and anticipation’ which suited her just fine…the hotel and New York would also teach her an ‘emotional independence’ that she would rely on for years to come; the ability to fend for herself, not only financially but emotionally.”

The Barbizon and hotels like it grew less relevant and less desirable as women advanced in the business world and elsewhere. The hotel admitted men beginning in 1981. It went through a series of owners and is now a home for luxury condominiums.  Incredibly, five or six elderly women still live there, protected from eviction and paying their original room rates, thanks to New York’s rent-control laws and to effective legal representation.

So what to make of it all? I must say that the stories of the women of Barbizon are inspiring. Oh yes, they had their fun times and their share of screw-ups and failures. But what impressed me the most was their sheer courage. They came from their sleepy little towns and took on life in the fastest, roughest, and most ruthless city imaginable. They were strivers and doers. 

And do I understand women any better, having read this delightful book? No. The truth universally acknowledged at the beginning holds firm for me.

But do I love, admire, and appreciate women even more? You bet I do.

And with that I wish you, albeit belatedly, a Happy International Women’s Day.

History I Never Knew: Massachusetts Representative Edith Nourse Rogers and Her Heroic, Doomed Attempt to Save Jewish Children from The Holocaust

February 8, 2021

February 9, 2021, marks the 82nd anniversary of the submission to Congress of the German Refugee Children’s Bill (S.J. Res 64 and H.J. Res 168). Its sponsors were Senator Robert Wagner, Democrat of New York, and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers, Republican of Massachusetts.  I had not known of this bill, and while I had heard the name of Edith Nourse Rogers somewhere in the distant past, I had no idea of her character or her accomplishments. She was the first woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, and she was arguably the best and most influential of all of them.

Edith Nourse Rogers, Republican of Massachusetts

                So I’d like to tell you the story of Mrs. Rogers and the law that she and Senator Wagner crafted. The bill’s story is a tragic one. It’s tragic because it didn’t pass, and 20,000 orphaned Jewish children died as a result. The story is also infuriating, because it didn’t have to happen. It shouldn’t have happened. But it did, and I hold the then-president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, responsible.

                As you may know, I have a particular interest in the history of The Holocaust. Six million Jewish people lost their lives in the killing machine of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. I have often heard, and I still hear, that “the United States didn’t do enough” to help the Jews of Europe. How so? The Allies should have bombed Auschwitz and its railway lines, once we heard of what was going on there.

                That’s a defensible argument. Bombing those rail lines might have slowed down the Auschwitz murder machine. It should have been done. But that was 1944. By that time, the horrible mass killings, 15,000 people per day at the extermination sites of Operation Reinhard – Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec – had ended.  Thinking only in terms of long-range bombing missions that never happened obscures the more important part of what America did – or didn’t do.

The doors of America were locked and barred to Jewish refugees long before World War II broke out.  Immigration quotas based on national origin had been enacted in 1924. They were not wholly abandoned until 1965. There was no separate provision for refugee admissions.   Once it did erupt, the State Department’s Visa Division under the despicable Breckinridge Long, an old Navy buddy of FDR, erected barriers and bureaucratic roadblocks to Jews. Historians disagree about degree of blame that Roosevelt should bear for these sins of omission.  He did have to deal with widespread and virulent anti-Semitism, stoked by such adversaries of the New Deal as Father Charles Coughlin.  Roosevelt had given significant aid to Britain, with controversial programs such as Lend-Lease. He had to anticipate charges that he and the Jews were dragging the United States into another European War. “America First” was originally the slogan of Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh.

Piloting an aircraft, 1929

Yes, it is true America didn’t do enough. But it wasn’t a failure on the battlefield. It was a failure in the halls of Congress and in the corridors of the White House. It was an abdication of leadership and human decency in politics. And there is no more striking example of that than the killing of the German Refugee Children’s Bill.

                There’s no room here to recite chapter and verse of the Visa Division’s entire hateful chronicle, possibly the worst part of the American involvement in World War II. Nor is there room to go into detail on why I believe what I do about Roosevelt – that he really had no use for Jews and other people who didn’t look like him, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I admit that I come to this blog post with my bias against the guy already firmly established. This sad story about Mrs. Rogers’s failed effort to do a right and noble deed simply strengthens my convictions about FDR.

                But enough about him for now. I really want to salute and honor Edith Nourse Rogers.  Most of the information about Mrs. Rogers comes from an unpublished paper based on her papers, which are in the Schlesinger Library. This superb archive of American women’s history is part of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard.  The author of the unpublished paper is Kate Auspitz, who wrote an alternative history of the Abdication of Edward VIII, Wallis’s War, a Novel of Diplomacy and Intrigue (University of Chicago Press) and a serious history, The Radical Bourgeoisie:  the Ligue de l’Enseignement and the Origins of the Third Republic (Cambridge University Press.

                I’m grateful to Kate for pointing me in this direction and for giving me many other pointers and suggestions for reading and research. I also want to say that she does not share my feelings about Franklin Roosevelt. She believes that, as Lincoln, criticized, even vilified, for emancipating slaves in the states of the Confederacy but not in Kentucky or Missouri, he acted to win the war.

                So who was Edith Nourse Rogers?

She was born in Saco, Maine to Franklin T. Nourse, the manager of a textile mill, and Edith France Riversmith.  Both parents were from old New England families, and their daughter got the best education – private tutors; Rogers Hall School in Lowell, Massachusetts; and Madame Julien’s, a finishing school in Paris.

                Edith married John Jacob Rogers, a graduate of Harvard Law School. In 1912 he was elected as a Republican to the 63rd United States Congress as the Representative from the 5th District of Massachusetts. When World War I broke out, John Rogers traveled to the United Kingdom and France to observe the conditions of the war firsthand.  Edith Rogers first volunteered at the YMCA in London. But soon she was in the thick of the war zone.

Presiding at the House of Representatives, 1926

                President Woodrow Wilson authorized her to oversee field hospitals in France.  She saw the dead and dying and understood the costs of war.  She also witnessed the conditions faced by women employees and volunteers working with the United States armed forces. Except for a few nurses, they were civilians, and received no benefits including no housing, no food, no insurance, no medical care, no legal protection, no pensions, and no compensation for their families in cases of death. In contrast, the women in the British Army loaned to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France were military, with the attendant benefits and responsibilities.

                 Edith’s experience with veteran’s issues led President Warren G. Harding to appoint her as the inspector of new veterans’ hospitals from 1922 to 1923. Her salary was one dollar a year. Her appointment was renewed by both the Coolidge and Hoover administrations. She became known as the “Angel of Walter Reed.”

Her first experience in politics was serving as an elector in the U.S. Electoral College during Calvin Coolidge’s 1924 presidential campaign.  John Rogers died in March, 1925. She ran for his seat in a special election and took 72 percent of the vote, making her the sixth woman to serve in Congress.  Throughout her career, she was a champion of veterans, especially disabled veterans.

In May 1941, Rogers introduced the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) Act, to create a voluntary enrollment program for women to join the U.S. Army in a non-combat capacity, as medical care professionals, welfare workers, clerical workers, cooks, messengers, military postal employees, chauffeurs, and telephone and telegraph operators. In 1942, the WAAC Act was signed into law. A year later came her Women’s Army Corps Bill, which granted official military status to the volunteers by creating the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) within the Army.

                Edith was always an outspoken foe of racism and xenophobia. She was also fiercely vocal about patriotism and an ardent proponent of immigration. On Patriots’ Day in 1937, she declared she was proud to represent Lexington and Concord, but the day and the sacred ground belonged to “me no more than to you.”  The whole world is freer today and the condition of mankind is better for the events of that day.  Throughout her career in the House, she sought to make the day a national holiday, not just for Massachusetts but for all Americans, despite any classifications which may be made by some as to race, creed, or color.

True patriotism, she believed, depended on shared beliefs and principles, not common ancestry.   She maintained that thousands of people from foreign lands have been attracted to our shores by that freedom, seeking  “the right which is every American’s  —  the right to think, to believe, or disbelieve, to speak, to choose…With rights go privileges and responsibilities,  they have become men, not puppets to be moved at the will of  a dictator.”

With an outlook like that, it was hardly surprising that she teamed up with Senator Robert F. Wagner (D-NY) to put the German Refugee Children’s bill before Congress.  Even while she was fully engrossed in that mission, she found time to take on the Daughters of the American Revolution. That organization, loudly and vocally patriotic in its own fashion, had not yet gotten the message about its own racism when Edith called them out in the spring of 1939.

Senator Robert Wagner, actress Helen Hayes, and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers meet in support of German Refugee Children’s Bill, 1939

The DAR had barred Marian Anderson, a woman of color whose glorious voice was world-famous, from performing in their Washington venue, Constitution Hall.  The DAR had a “whites only” clause in every one of its contracts. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership and arranged for Anderson to deliver an outdoor concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9.  Fifty thousand people attended.

Edith Nourse Rogers addressed the DAR on April 20.  “All of you are fond of fine music,” she began, and she continued, evoking   “…130 million people of different races, speaking many languages…What are these but the component parts of a great symphony of civilization?   Just as the orchestra becomes great with unity and cooperation, so does the nation…in the United States, race cooperation must replace race hatred.”

                Rogers took on race hatred in February 1939 with her co-sponsorship of the German Refugee Children’s Act.  A little background on the events leading up to the Act will help here.

                Hitler came to power in 1933 and immediately began the persecution of Jews. The world could no longer turn a blind eye to what was happening to Jews in Germany after November 9-10, 1938. That was Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” when SS-directed rioters throughout Germany looted and smashed windows in homes, shops, hospitals, and synagogues. More than 100 people were killed outright and thousands were subsequently arrested.   Among other atrocities, mobs destroyed a Jewish orphanage in Berlin, leaving 200 children homeless. 

Great Britain responded immediately with the Kindertransport program. It offered non-immigrant visas to orphaned or “unaccompanied” children, many of whose parents were in concentration camps.  These were not yet “camps of annihilation,” established to carry out genocide. Rather, they were places to intern, torture and interrogate political dissidents and other “undesirables,” such as communists, socialists, Roma, homosexuals, and union activists as well as Jews.

After Kristallnacht, Jewish parents still at liberty anticipated worse persecution would follow. Many chose to send their children to safety, even if it meant parting from them.

America was ready to help. The bill submitted by Nourse Rogers and Wagner would have  admitted 20,000 Jewish children into the country, 10,000 in 1939 and another 10,000 in 1940, over and above the highly restrictive limits and country quotas that had been in place since the early 1920s.

But America’s political leaders were not ready to step up in any way.  Yes, there were racists, anti-Semites, “America Firsters” and xenophobes abroad in the land and too-well-represented in Congress.  They ended up winning the day, but they shouldn’t have.  And with a word of support for the Americans of good will, even a mere suggestion of it, from Franklin Roosevelt, those evil forces would not have prevailed. But Roosevelt never uttered a peep. The Act, submitted in February, was delayed and tabled until September by bigots in Congress. That month, Hitler attacked Poland, the war was on, and getting anyone out of Europe became impossible.

It’s not as if Americans were against helping the kids. Concerned citizens had established the Non-sectarian Committee for German Refugee Children.  The American Friends Service Committee, the Unitarians, and several important Catholic clergymen, including George Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago, all cooperated with Jewish groups.  They understood that their work must be bi-partisan and appeal to all Americans, regardless of, as it was then expressed, “race, creed, or color.” 

Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, whose department was then responsible for immigration, urged passage of the law. So too did former President Herbert Hoover, along with Governor Alf Landon and Frank Knox, 1936 Republican candidates for President and Vice-President. Hollywood heavyweights also were in favor. The great actress Helen Hayes testified on behalf of the bill, referring to herself as an “American mother” and using her real name, Mrs. Charles MacArthur.

It was a truly bi-partisan effort. It even overcame a traditional hurdle to all matters related to immigration, the opposition of organized labor. Throughout the 1930s the labor unions, with unemployment chronically high, opposed the opening of America’s doors to any newcomers who would compete for the few jobs available. Not this time, however.

John L. Lewis, President of Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which had four million members, ridiculed the notion that 20,000 children under the age of 14 would worsen unemployment. 

Nor could anyone claim that letting the kids in would cost the taxpayers money.  Thanks largely to Edith Nourse Rogers, 5000 American families offered to care for the refugee children.  One of their prominent leaders was Grace Coolidge, the widow of Calvin Coolidge. Several of her neighbors in Amherst, Massachusetts, also stepped up and were ready.

I do know that fans of FDR will maintain that he always had to tread lightly, bobbing and weaving and doing things by indirection because of those awful racists and bigots in Congress, whose support he needed. He really had the Jews’ interests at heart, but he couldn’t tip his hand.

Sorry, I don’t buy it. There’s a point where reticence becomes cowardice, where inaction becomes action. FDR never told anyone what he really felt about anything. With him especially, we have to look at what he did, not at what he said. Americans were ready to save the Jewish children, thanks to the wonderful Edith Nourse Rogers. By not weighing in on behalf of the Jewish kids, which he could have done at no political cost to himself, FDR was responsible for sending them to their deaths.

So that is the sad story of the German Refugee Children’s Bill. This is the kind of history that should be known, and pondered, and used as a reason to say “never again.” 

But let us not allow the negative sentiments expressed herein to lessen our appreciation and esteem for the life and works of Edith Nourse Rogers, Republican Congresswoman of Massachusetts. She was one of our finest of all time.

Sports History I Never Knew: How “K” Came to Stand for the Strikeout

January 13, 2021

Henry Chadwick, enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1938, is sometimes called the father of the modern game of baseball.  He never played it or managed it, but he probably did more than any other individual to preserve its memory for posterity.

He was a fascinating guy from a fascinating family. Add Henry Chadwick to the list of “People I’d Love to Have a Beer With.”

His grandfather, James Chadwick, started out as a teacher in Manchester, England. One of his students was John Dalton, who “discovered” the atom via his atomic theory.  James became a radical journalist, moved to France during the French Revolution, and lived for a while with Thomas Paine. The latter was a force during that Revolution; his Rights of Man was a rallying cry for the radicals who wanted to overthrow the monarchy.  Paine, who became a member of the National Assembly, ended up by arguing unsuccessfully for preserving the lives of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and he spent some time in prison himself for his views.

One of this man’s grandsons, namesake Sir James Chadwick, put that atomic theory into action. Educated at the University of Manchester under Ernest Rutherford, “the Father of Nuclear Physics,” Sir James won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the neutron. In 1941, he wrote the final draft of the MAUD Report, which inspired the U.S. government to begin serious atom bomb research. He was the head of the British team that worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II.

Henry Chadwick’s half-brother Edwin was a lawyer in England, and he was not a particularly nice man. He was a political operative, secretary of the Poor Law Commission, and author of A Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. That book was a best-seller.  His work on the Poor Law of 1834 led to a national system of workhouses and made him one of the most reviled figures in the land. London had not yet figured out that its deadly cholera epidemics were due to unsanitary conditions; people drank water that was polluted by human waste.  Henry Chadwick espoused the “miasma” theory, which attributed the sicknesses to foul odors.  Just get rid of the poor, dirty neighborhoods and the people in them, he thought, and you get rid of the disease.

Edwin Chadwick wasn’t all bad, though. His subsequent work led to the Public Health Act of 1848, under which the British government started to assume overall responsibility for sanitation. They centralized the sources of London’s water supply. Ten years later, the Brits were ready to grapple with the matter of sewage disposal that “The Great Stink” of 1858 made into a national crisis.

Yuck. Fortunately for us, Henry Chadwick took a different career path. He became a sportswriter. His family moved to America in 1837, when he was 13. He became a cricket reporter for the New York Times, and he later moved to the New York Clipper and other papers.

In those days before computers, sabermetricians, and filmed replays, it was Henry Chadwick who devised the ways to record the achievements of both teams and players. He invented baseball statistics. He edited The Beadle Baseball Player, the first baseball guide, and the Spalding and Reach annual guides.  He served on baseball rules committees and campaigned against the influences of alcohol and gambling on the game.

The 1861 Beadle guide listed totals of games played, outs, runs, home runs, and strikeouts for hitters on prominent clubs. It was the first database of its kind and it gave numerical evidence of which players’ performances helped or hurt their teams. Chadwick also thought up and quantified batting averages and earned-run averages.

So, what about the “K” for strikeout?

As his Cooperstown plaque states, Henry was the inventor of the baseball box score.  He modeled it, unsurprisingly, on the scorecard for a game of cricket – a grid with nine rows for players and nine columns for innings.

He needed abbreviations to put in all those little boxes. Many of the abbreviations contained an “S.”  He needed something different when a batter struck out.

He decided on “K.” Why? Because it’s the final letter in “struck.”

As for that Chadwick family, author Bill Bryson points out that Henry’s grandfather James was a direct link between the discovery of the atom, Thomas Paine and the French Revolution, the sewer system of London, and the origin of professional baseball.

But as far as we’re concerned, Henry’s work was far more important than that of James, Edwin, and Sir James. After all, it was about baseball. Yes, I’d love to have a pint with Henry. I’d buy.

Now you know the rest of the story.