Friday, November 11, 2011

Veteran's Day - 2011

     For Veteran’s Day and in memory of the men and women of all nations who have lost their life in battle, I want to share another excerpt from John Green’s WWII memoir, I NEVER WANTED TO BE A SOLDIER, which is still in the process of being completed (if only life wouldn’t keep getting in the way). I’m also posting an excerpt from the Vietnam War novel, THE MONK AND THE MARINE, which was originally published by Bantam in 1974 and will be republished by Blue Coffee Books next year.

John Green - 1938

     16 days into the invasion of France, John Green and his searchlight detachment were sent to the village of Les Attaques with orders to block the German army from crossing the only canal bridge for miles. Having seen hundreds of flickering lights through the night, John and his comrades sit in their slit trenches waiting for the inevitable…


     May 27th, 1940. It was near 7 a.m. and we were still in our holes, and still breathing. Where were the Germans? We had been expecting the flickers of light to be storming across the bridge by now. Everyone had a turn with the field glasses and no one could spot anything other than green farmers' fields. Everything was as it had been the day before.
     "If they're out there they're very skillfully camouflaged," Sergeant Coppack said.
     Tommy looked at the sky.
     "Where are the birds? They should be singing."
     The sergeant told him that the artillery had scared them off.
     "Birds are smart that way. Sensitive creatures, they are," Tommy said.
     "You’re like a bloody ostrich yourself," the sergeant said with a smile.
     I thought to myself, the birds are the only sane ones.
     Lt. Barr came along.
     "They’re there. HQ knows that they’re there. What we don’t know is when they’re going to cross that canal."
     “Drag out that bloody listening box and find ‘em, Taffy, someone suggested.
"Oh, they’ve all gone for a shit," Taffy quipped.
     "They’ve had enough of this war. They’re packing it all in and going home!" Sweatie countered.
     It felt good to laugh, unburden some of the nervous tension.
     Barr still had no news when he made his next visit a couple hours later. There had been no sightings of any German troops.
     "I suspect we’re not a large enough force to bother about," Barr said. "They know who we are. They’ve seen the equipment and know that we’re no danger to them."
     I wanted to buy the Lt.'s explanation, but the not knowing, the waiting and the gut chewing fear had gotten the better of me. I was too far gone to be optimistic. Watching the sunrise when I woke, I thought what a perfect day, a perfect spring day that’s going be wasted. So many men are going to be killed. That is what I thought. I could feel death all around me. I literally felt it in the air.
     The sitting and waiting was too unbearable for some of the lads and they started popping in and out of their holes.
     "Goddamn it! Keep your bloody heads down!" The sergeant yelled. "That's an order!"
     Sit and wait and sit and wait. Nothing to occupy my mind except fear, my mind playing out hundreds of bone quivering scenarios, each one worse than the last. Tommy kept looking through our spy hole. For the first time I was glad he was convinced he was going to die. It could just be the thing that keeps him alive.
     "Barr doesn't know what's going on," I confided to Tommy.
     "I got the distinct impression we're being kept in the dark on purpose."
     "You might be on to something there."
     "John, I'm so frightened."
     "I know. I'm scared, too. And you heard Barr, he's scared. Tommy, when something does happen and you get the shakes, just listen to what I tell you."
     "Thank you, John."
     The sergeant came by.
     "What are we going to do?" I asked him.
     "I don’t know."
     "I wish something would happen. Wish it would just happen, " I told him.
     The sergeant glanced past the canal.
     "So do I, but whatever’s going to happen might not happen today."
     "I can't sit here for another night."
     "Neither can I," piped Tommy.
     "You two don't have a choice and neither do I…"
     The three of us heard a familiar sound and looked up.
     "Stork!" The sergeant yelled. "Get down!"
     Flying low from the south, the spotter plane came toward us. Everyone curled up in their slit trenche. The sergeant laid on top of me.
     "They know we're here," I said
     "But they might not know our numbers."
     The plane didn't circle as expected, but just kept going. Ten minutes later another plane flew by as if we weren't even there. We thought there must be a mass movement of British troops behind us. Barr came around and he was all business.
     "There's nobody else but us. Do not be looking for any help. We're on our own."
     HQ had told him that there were hundreds of Jerrys on their way to cross that canal bridge. There were no jokes jabbered this time. Barr took the sergeant down to the lorry to talk privately. Some of the lads started crying. A couple swore up and down. I had more fear inside me then I thought humanly possible, but there was also a queer sense of relief that soon it would all be over; the waiting, the anticipation, the speculation and this all consuming dread.
     I looked through my spy hole. The fields on the other side of the canal were empty. What are we doing here? We're inadequate and outnumbered, “useless mouths” to stop seasoned soldiers of the best army in the world. No two ways about it, we were fodder.
     I looked at my Enfield. During training, no one had seen a reason to send me to the rifle range when I returned from the hospital, and I never pushed because I believed I was never going to encounter the enemy. That was the consensus of the opinion of all the searchlight personnel at Kinmell Park. When Lillian couldn’t make a weekend visit I’d read the army manuals for the Enfield. Compared to assembling, managing and repairing a searchlight generator there's not much to a rifle. I could load mine with dummy rounds as quick as anybody who had received rifle training and, in theory, I knew how to fire it. How hard could aiming and firing the weapon really be, I thought at the time? In hindsight, that was incredibly arrogant considering the only gun I had ever fired was a pellet gun at the Marine Lake Fun Fair in Rhyl. It took me a bunch of tries - I was pretty sure the barrel was bent - but I did hit the three-inch target.
     It was difficult to comprehend that I was going to have to look at a man, line him in my crosshairs then pull the trigger. Would I be able to shoot at German soldiers if they were shooting at us? A part of me was convinced that I could never do it, but there was another part saying, You’ve got to do just that if you’re going to survive whatever’s coming.
     After Barr left, the sergeant came to me.
     "When I get the order you and I will drive down to that bridge and block it with the lorry. I'll set it on fire and we’ll dash back here."
     "We are going to do this before the Jerries come, right?"
     "Of course we are, Shorty."
     "Then how are we going to leave this bloody place?" Tommy asked.
     “First things first.”
     Studying his face, I could tell Sergeant Coppack had no idea how we were going to escape. It gave me a chill.
     As the sergeant explained our objective to the rest of the crew, someone said, "Good Jesus Christ, look at them!”
     I looked and my heart was in my mouth. In the distance, almost on the horizon, was a massive movement of troops and vehicles. Hundreds upon hundreds of German infantry flooding towards us followed by armored cars, scout cars and troop carriers, and a Fieseler Storch flying above them. It was just like in the cowboy movies I’d seen as a kid where the American Indians were stretched across the plain ready to pounce on the hapless tinhorns. I could have sworn the whole German army was about to have a go at our little searchlight crew.
     Even though I told him not to, Tommy looked through the spyhole.
     "We’re going to die!"
     "Shut up!" Someone hissed.
     "Look after that idiot, will you?!" Someone ordered me.
     "Bloody hell, they're undefeatable," Tommy whispered.
     He had a point. Not an army that had come up against the Wehrmacht had come out on top. And now the ten of us, ten non-infantry soldiers, were supposed to slow their advance? Were the officers at HQ having a laugh? Why in the world do I want to disturb that hornet's nest? Engaging those Krauts was suicide, plain and simple.
     I wanted to vomit. Tommy did vomit, which made me want to vomit even more. Thankfully, Tommy had the presence of mind to do it at the side of our slit trench. The sergeant threw up.
     "Has anybody else spewed?" He thought he was by himself.
     I was surprised I hadn't. Not that it would’ve helped anything. Tommy's puddle of bile hadn't done him a bit of good. His fear was still there and the enemy was still across that field, still coming towards us.
     "I shit me self!" A lad called.
     “I'm shit-scared! The sergeant responded. “So are they over there!"
     Wishful thinking, I thought. From my vantage point, there didn't seem a reason for those soldiers to have a care in the world.
     "John, shall we turn and run?
     "Tommy, there’s no place to run to."
     Tommy looked so sad. I wanted to say I was sorry, but I didn’t.
     Why weren't we taking "a runner"? Simple answer, good old British army discipline. Even though we were a searchlight detachment, the army discipline was there. We weren't well-trained in soldiering or well-equipped, but we were well-trained in following orders – “the last order" - no matter the circumstance. You will do as you are told, NOW!
     The other thing keeping me in that slit trench was the consuming fear that if I turned and ran the Germans would shoot me in the back. I was stuck; it was just that simple. What other options were there? Hold up a white handkerchief?

John Green - 2006

     THE MONK AND THE MARINES was written by Philip Kingry, a former Marine medic and Vietnam vet. Kingry wrote the book as part of his therapy while under the care of Chaim F. Shatan, a pioneer in the study of post-traumatic stress disorders and therapeutic work with war veterans. Published in 1974, THE MONK AND THE MARINES was one of the first novels about American soldiers fighting in Vietnam. As a teenager, I read the book after finding it in someone’s trash while on my paper route. That dog-eared paperback traveled with me to college, came with me to California and is now sitting next to my computer. Kingry’s novel was been a major influence on my writing style, and helped shape my views on war and the physical and psychological sacrifices soldiers make.


     "We were cutting through some brush near a clearing. A VC sniper fired on us. He wasn’t very far away in the brush. Anyway, he was close enough that a couple of men saw his muzzle flash. The gook didn’t hit any of us, but a couple of our people didn’t miss him. The point yelled, “You got him!” I could tell by the sound of the round going off that the little prick had a carbine. I took the shotgun off my shoulder and pushed the safety off. The bastard was only wounded; where, I didn’t know, but later we could see the blood he left. He fired two more shots, and then he ran.
     He had fired on us just as we had come into the clearing, and he was on the far side. Some of us started to fire from where we were, and some others went off through the brush on the right to flank him. I went with these last men. I figured if anybody got hit at all it would be them, and I would rather go with them then than try to cover the same distance on my own later if someone needed me.
     Maybe it wasn’t just a sniper team; I don’t know. All I heard was one carbine, but you never can tell. Maybe it was a small ambush that got off prematurely because one guy fired on us before he was supposed to. The reason I say that is because as soon as we started to go around, another gook jumped up no more than pissing distance from me and fired at us too, at least, I think he fired. I don’t really remember, it happened so fast. What I do remember is this dumb little zip popping up out of the ground just like some spring target. I shot him four times with the twelve-gauge before I knew what was going on. The squad leader was excited about it. I can’t tell you how I felt.
     The other zip got away. But like I said, we found blood. We took the weapon off the one I shot, and I went through his pockets. He had a homemade knife and four marijuana cigarettes, which I was only too pleased to confiscate. First man I killed, and I got four cigarettes for it. The shells cost more than that.
     … For within your body your spirit beats and thinks and hopes. Does it now? Does it really? Faith is a hard thing to come by, if you don’t have it in yourself, how can you have it in something greater than yourself? If you shut out the light in your brother, where is your own light?
     Yet how am I guilty? Did there exist a choice not to shoot? I don’t even remember making a choice. Who is the victor and who is the victim when we kill one another? I don’t know how to judge anymore."

Monday, June 13, 2011


In TIME Magazine there is an interesting article that gives new insight on Adolf Hitler's anti-Semitic views that spawned the "Final Solution." I'm posting this because coincidentally I'm working on the episode in John Green's memoir, I NEVER WANTED TO BE A SOLDIER, where he read Mein Kampf to escape working in minus 20 degree weather. The Stalag in Poland had a POW library stocked with the English translation of Hitler's book, and after John

suffered mild frostbite on a work detail, he grabbed a copy of the manifesto, sat on his bunk and refused to go to work until he
finished reading it. John got out of work detail for two weeks and the Germans pulled all the other copies of the book out of the POW library.

The Seeds of Hitler's Hatred: Infamous 1919 Genocide Letter Unveiled to the Public

By Nate Rawlings

In September 1919, the year after the end of World War I, a German captain named Karl Mayr, who ran a propaganda unit in charge of educating demobilized soldiers in nationalism and scapegoating, received an inquiry from a soldier named Adolf Gemlich about the army's position on "the Jewish question." Mayr tasked a young subordinate named Adolf Hitler to answer. The resulting Gemlich letter, as it is known to historians, is believed to be the first record of Hitler's anti-Semitic beliefs and has been an important document in Holocaust studies for decades.

This week, Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, announced that the center has obtained the original, signed letter, which had never been publicly displayed. At the letter's public unveiling in New York City, Hier explained its tortuous journey from Hitler's own hand to its eventual home at the center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

In April 1945, an American GI named William Ziegler found the letter scattered among other documents in Nuremberg, Germany. Ziegler took the letter home and sold it to a private collector. In 1988, the Wiesenthal Center had the opportunity to buy the letter but was skeptical about whether Hitler could have afforded a typewriter. "He was a nobody; he couldn't afford anything," Hier said at the letter's unveiling. "A typewriter is like today having somebody who can't afford his meals and he's waving the latest Apple computer in front of you."

By the time the center could verify that Hitler had used a German army typewriter, the letter had been sold to another private collector. In 1990, handwriting expert Charles Hamilton Jr., who gained fame for exposing fake Hitler diaries in 1983, authenticated Hitler's signature on the Gemlich letter.

When the Wiesenthal Center again had an opportunity to purchase the letter this year, it paid $150,000 to make the letter part of its collection. "We do not want to make a market for memorabilia, but this document does not belong in private hands," Hier said. "It has too much to say to history. It belongs in public hands, and it has found its home at the Museum of Tolerance."

Few have questioned the importance of the Gemlich letter in understanding Hitler and the Holocaust. It not only provides a look into his beliefs, but reveals early ideas of how he would attempt the systematic extermination of the Jews. "Anti-Semitism — born of purely emotional grounds — will find an expression in the form of pogroms," Hitler wrote, according to a translation provided by the Wiesenthal Center. "The final goal must be the removal of the Jews. To accomplish these goals, only a government of national power is capable and never a government of national weakness." Hier highlighted these sentences as being the most important in the letter.

Yet the purchase of such a document, especially at such a high price, has raised questions among historians. "This is not the Magna Carta," says Michael Marrus, the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor Emeritus of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto. "I doubt very strongly that, given everything else we know, the Gemlich letter will change historians' views about Hitler, or that it will be seen as pushing back Hitler's genocidal ambitions to a very early date."

"If this is, indeed, the original of the letter, it's a curatorial coup for the Wiesenthal Center, but not likely to produce an advance in historical understanding," Peter Hayes, the Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor of Holocaust studies at Northwestern University, adds in an e-mail. "Though the origins of Hitler's anti-Semitism and the moment of its onset remain matters of dispute among historians, the predominant view is that his hatred of Jews crystallized in the 10 months between Germany's defeat in November 1918 and the date of this letter, and its appearance in original form isn't going to make any difference to that view."

Another concern with the purchase is that such transactions, not by private collectors but by a human-rights organization like the Wiesenthal Center, could have unintended consequences. "What you don't want to happen is for a mystique to grow around these documents," Marrus says.

In presenting the document to the media, Hier explained that operational funds were not used in its purchase and that the center's trustees donated the money to buy the letter. "This is the first document of its kind that deals with the Jews exclusively and postulates the solution," Hier said. "We have 50,000 archives, and this is the most important archive I've ever seen."

The letter will be on permanent display at the entrance to the Museum of Tolerance's Holocaust section, where visitors can view translations and see Hitler's signature on the document for themselves. "Five million people have visited the Museum of Tolerance," Hier said. "Ninety-five percent of the visitors are non-Jews. So we don't only educate the Jewish community that knows about the Holocaust, but we educate the larger world. That's where the document belongs."

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Pierre Berg and I have been given the rare chance to sell signed copies of Pierre's Holocaust memoir, Scheisshaus Luck, for only $9.99 including shipping. Get your copy today.

"Pierre Berg's extraordinary survivor memoir is an invaluable contribution to a history we must never forget, further distinguished by the verve, vitality, and wry wit with which Berg tells his story. Paced like an adventure tale, laced with moving philosophical commentary, riveting, unforgettable read."

Jenna Blum, author of Those Who Save Us


Thursday, January 27, 2011


     Today is the 66th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest camp established by the Germans. A complex of camps, Auschwitz included a concentration, extermination and slave-labor camp and was located 37 miles west of Krakow (Cracow), near the prewar German-Polish border. John Green was a POW at E715, a POW work camp that straddled the IG Farben-Auschwitz factory, and was a mile from Auschwitz III (Monowitz), a slave labor camp. All of the POWs at E715 were British or Commonwealth soldiers. John Green had arrived in the summer of 1943 with 300 other POWs. In early January 1945, John and his mates were completely in the dark if the Wehrmacht was going to ship them into Germany or abandoned them.

     "None of us wanted to be liberated by the Red Army. There was a real concern on how they would treat us since the Soviet Union wasn't a signature country with the Geneva Convention. If they overran our camp, we had no protecting power. We'd have no rights even though they were an allied country."

     Every day the POWs were marched into the plant along with the Auschwitz slave and forced laborers. No work was being done, but the Germans had to keep up appearances till the bitter end. John and the other members of his work party didn't mind. They appreciated the equality and fairness their German Meister had fostered in the workshop. They admired the Jewish architect who was his assistant and adored the Ukrainian teenage welders they worked beside.

     Here is an excerpt from John Green's memoir, I NEVER WANTED TO BE A SOLDIER, on his final days at Auschwitz.

     E715 had been a military camp before we were trucked in and it had the appearance of a military camp while we were there. With the Soviets closing in, that was a problem. Yak fighters dropped sprinter bombs on the camp for three consecutive days, wrecking a few non-essential buildings. Luckily, there were no casualties as the majority of us were laboring at the IG Farben plant. If those Yaks flew over during morning roll call there would be dead POWs. The end of the war was too near to peg out thanks to some Ruskie shrapnel. The order was given by our camp leader to pilfer paint from the plant’s storerooms. Our guards were more than happy to allow the counterband past the camp gate since it was to their benefit, too.
     On a cloudy December night, Yorkie and I climbed up on our hut’s roof. We cleared it of snow and ice as we waite
d our turn with the paint brushes. Three hours later, the two of us were warming up next to our room’s pot belly stove and “POW” was slowly drying on every barrack roof. Unfortunately, there was no paint left to give our guards to use on their huts outside the wire. Sometimes snow just isn’t white enough.
     If the Wehrmacht had an evacuation plan for when the Red Army appeared on the horizon they weren't shari
ng it with us. And we asked daily, because our fear was that they had no plan. IG Farben plant staff, forced laborers and Heaftlinge were constantly asking us when we were going to be sent away. They could hear the Soviet artillery, too. For them, our departure would be the signal that the Germans couldn’t hold the Red horde any longer.
     When I sat in our factory workshop and looked ov
er at the office, the question in my mind was what was going to happen to Meister Lagel, our German supervisor, and Hans, Lagel’s strippee assistant? (Hans was an Austrian Jew and a well-respected architect who had been Lagel’s assistant for over two years) I figured that we POWs would fair much better under the Soviets than Hans and worlds better than Lagel. When I asked the Meister if he was going to stay to the bitter end, he smiled and shook his head “no.”
     "Munich. I go home, where I belong."
     I hesitated to ask my next question.
     "What are you going to do about Hans?"
     Lagel's smile became pursed lips.
     "That's not your business."
     When I spoke to Hans, he wasn't too concer
ned about his fate.
     “I’m privileged, I think.”
     Both men did their best to keep it under their hats, but I got the distinct impression that the plan was for Hans to accompany Lagel to Munich. How they were going to accomplish that was beyond me, but these were two very resourceful men. I had no doubt they could pull it off.
     Hans was much more concerned with the fate of his fellow Heaftlinge. Would the SS kill them before they retreated? If the Nazi goons abandoned them, which seemed more likely, what would the Soviets do when they found the strippees? Seeing the state these men were in, would the Red Army just end their suffering as if they were a pack of diseased dogs? The Soviets probably
didn’t have the means to feed and medically treat the Heaftlinge, the two things they would desperately need.
     Our little welder Sunshine and the other female Ukrainian forced laborers didn’t hear the distant thunder as coming from the canons of their liberators. Every one of them believed they’d be cast as traitors to the Soviet Union and the Red Army soldiers would systematically beat and rape them. They h
ad tasted life under the Soviets and had no desire to experience it again. They desperately wanted the German Army to stop the Red Army advance, which would allow the British and Americans to liberate Auschwitz.

Ukrainian forced laborer working as a welder at IG Farben Auschwitz

     With her expanding English vocabulary, Sunshine told Yorkie and I, “Ruskies no. Chaps, Brits, Yanks come get us. Yes?”
     Yorkie nodded his head, which brought a big smile to the seventeen year old’s face. He then went outside and took out his frustration and anger for lying to her out on a pile of pipes.
     I asked Zok, the welders’ supervisor, "What are you going to do when this war ends in our favor?"
     The Pole became deflated and I immediately regretted asking. He was a scared man. Having given up his Polish citizenship to become a German, once the war was over Herr Zok would be a traitor in the eyes of the Soviets and his fellow Poles. He couldn’t stay in Poland if he wanted to continue breathing. After the New Year, Zok went missing.
     "Well, here’s to him burying that Gummi-Deutsche passport and falling into our hands," Yorkie proclaimed.
     Yorkie had advised Zoch to disappear into Germany and lose his Gummi-Deutsche passport, so that at the end of the war he’d be considered a displaced person. It was his best chance to regain his Polish citizenship without many questions or complications.
     Lagel called me into his office.
     "I leave."
     I wasn't expecting him to be candid about his departure. I figured he just wouldn't turn up one morning too.
     "When?" I asked.
     "I not here tomorrow.” He sighed, then continued in his limited English. “This not be easy for any of us."
     "No, I don't suppose it will be."
     “Do not go toward Russian front," Lagel said with a smile, and then we shook hands. "Please don't say to your men until in camp."
     I nodded. I got the impression he was feeling slightly guilty for abandoning “his boys” and couldn’t face saying twenty goodbyes.
     Later in the day, Hans took me aside.
     "I would like to shake hands with you, but make sure no one is watching."
     "I’m proud to have worked with you,” I told the Austrian. “I have learned volumes from watching you."
     "Thank you."
     “Maybe some day we’ll…”
     Hans cut me off. “Maybe.”
     We both knew we would never see each other again.
     The next day we walked into the workshop along with the Ukrainians to find the office empty and locked. There was no work for anyone still coming through the IG Farben gates. All the Meisters left at the same time.
     “I bet you can’t buy a bike in Auschwitz,” I cracked as we headed back to camp that evening.
     The exodus had begun. By the end of the week our welders didn't show. We figured they made a quick get out-get away. Yorkie was crestfallen. He had wanted to say a proper goodbye to Sunshine, but was glad that she had “got gone.”
     We continued to go to the plant and sit inside the empty workshop. The lines of shuffling strippees stopped passing by the workshop window. (On January 18th, 1945 the Auschwitz KLs were abandoned.) What was the point of the last two y
ears, I wondered as I stared out at the falling snow? The IG Farben plant was nowhere near operational. What had been achieved by treating men like insects, crushing them under boot heels without a blink of an eye? No one was better off. I didn’t believe there was one POW who would be able to forget the shit we had seen day after day. The Jewish strippees who’d survive would grow old with no loved ones to lean on. I was pretty certain the SS would be held accountable after their Fuhrer’s surrender. The stench of those crematoriums, the stench of their crimes, would never leave them. The stench would never leave any of us. And it was at that moment that I realized there weren’t going to be any victors in this small patch of the world.

     John Green and his fellow POWs were marched out of E715 on Sunday, January 21, 1945. They would endure a three and a half month forced march in one of the most brutal winters Europe had seen in 100 years. John, who was 5'2", weighed six stone - 84 pounds - when they arrived in Regensburg, Germany. I'll have more about this in a future blog post.

     On January 27, 1945, the First Army of the Ukrainian Front under the command of Marshall Koniev liberated the Auschwitz camps. They found more than 7,000 remaining prisoners, who were mostly ill or dying. It is estimated that the SS and police deported at a minimum 1.3 million people to the Auschwitz complex between 1940 and 1945. Of these, the camp authorities murdered 1.1 million.

Soon after the liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children's barracks (January 27th, 1945)