Lesson #311: Irena Sendler’s Resistance Movement

For someone who studies revolutions, I do an amazing job of neglecting the individual in favour of the larger picture. But sometimes, I get reminded of the individual. Today’s lesson comes on the heels of something my sister-in-law posted on Facebook yesterday. My problem with it wasn’t that it wasn’t accurate (well, it was mostly accurate), it was that it minimized the accomplishments of a single woman into a handful of talking points to argue against Al Gore. I get that that was sort of the purpose of this “let’s list all the awesome SO YOU CAN SEE WHERE THE NOBEL COMMITTEE WENT HORRIBLY WRONG!”* post, but if can’t be timely with your point, at least be thorough.

Irena Sendler was born with rebellion in her genes; her great-grandfather was shipped off to Siberia,** her father — a doctor — spent a lot of time caring for Jews, who, let’s be honest, have never historically been the most popular group of people. While her father’s colleagues shunned the Jewish community, her father embraced them and wound up dead of typhoid in 1917. Due to the financial support of the Jewish community, she was able to attend the University of Warsaw, where she defaced the part of her student card that allowed her to sit on the “Aryan” benches in her classrooms*** after seeing a Jewish friend beaten by a group of nationalists. The university suspended her for three years.

And then there was the war.

As early as the first days of the German occupation of Poland in 1939,**** Sendler and like-minded gentiles were forging papers to help Jewish families escape the country. Before she even joined the resistance movement, Żegota, when it was created in the autumn of 1942 (after mass transports between late July and late September sent somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 of the ghetto population to Treblinka), Sendler and her co-conspirators had drafted more than 500 false papers.

The ghetto was established in the autumn of 1940. It crammed the entire 400,000 person Jewish population of Warsaw, which was about 30% of the city’s population, into four square kilometres, which was roughly 3% of the city’s area.*****At that time, Irena Sendler was a 30-year-old social worker for the city. This bit of information was crucial to her work. Because she was a social worker (or had false papers stating she was a nurse, depending on what you read), she was able to pass freely in and out of the ghetto under the guise of health checks and delivering medication and vaccines to a population that was particularly susceptible to epidemics (overcrowding will do that) and illnesses related to being in close quarters with corpses (roughly 100,000 Jews starved to death). In December of 1942, Sendler was put in charge of the children’s division of the resistance movement. By that time, there were only around 55,000 Jews remaining in the ghetto.

Using her legal loophole to access the ghetto’s children, Sendler and about 30 collaborators, most of whom were women, managed to get 2500 children out of the ghetto and safely placed with gentile organizations, mostly churches, convents, and orphanages. By her own estimates, getting children from the ghetto to a safe location required no fewer than 12 people be in on the secret. (Hint: that’s a lot.) Not only did she do this, she kept a list of all of them in the hopes of reuniting them with their families after the war, despite the fact that if the list had ever been discovered, it would have meant immediate death (because that’s what the penalty was for giving aid to Jews). In fact, in October of 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, who thought she was just a minor part of the conspiracy. She was tortured, though gave up no information, and sentenced to death, but a well-timed bribe allowed other members of the Żegota to secret her away in February of 1944. Her name was added to the list of those executed, and she spent the rest of the war continuing her work with the resistance under an assumed name.

After the war, Sendler retrieved the list — which a colleague hid in her underwear (or armpit, depending on what you read) to keep it from being discovered the night Sendler was arrested and then buried in a jar under an apple tree in a friend’s back yard — in the hopes of reuniting the children with their families. It should be unsurprising to learn that the vast majority of them had no surviving family members.

Irena Sendler was honoured by Yad Vashem as one of the first Righteous Among the Nations in 1965, though the government of Poland refused to let her collect the award until 1983. In 2003, she was awarded Poland’s highest civilian decoration, the Order of the White Eagle. In the end, Irena Sendler helped save more than twice as many people as Oskar Schindler…but she didn’t have a movie made of her life so she’s mostly overlooked. (To be clear, I’m not saying that Schindler was a slouch…saving people is good.) In fact, it seems her story had been mostly lost to archives in Jerusalem until 1999, when a bunch of schoolgirls in Kansas learned, in talking to some of the children she rescued, that she was still alive, went to Warsaw to speak with her and wrote a play about her, that her story gained outside renown.

All of this information can be found here and here. Also in her obituaries (she died in May of 2008) in: The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The LA Times. There are a slew more, but those five should give you a pretty good indication of what was being said about her at the time of her death. (Incidentally, the NY Times has the information about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising wrong; it took 28 days to quash, not the “more than a month” they state.)

*(six years ago and we’re all obviously still very bitter about it)

**Poland, you’ll remember was part of the Russian Empire.

***This was actually the most interesting part of this lesson for me; classrooms in Poland were segregated before the war. I imagine there wasn’t much need for that segregation after it considering the Nazis wiped out more than 90% of Polish Jews.

****Remember how I mentioned the other day that the number one reason for large-scale killing across all of history was land? This is a perfect example of how a land grab started a war.

*****You’ll get no sources for this because it’s information I know off the top of my head; Warsaw was the first revolution I studied.


Lesson #303: General Lamarque

Sometimes, I wind up at lessons that could have been arrived at in a very direct way in the most indirect way possible. Today’s lesson comes as a result of what my friend in the Texas capital once described as, “suddenly, it’s two in the morning and you’re reading about Cairo, wondering how you got there.” These are the dangers of Wiki links.

I’m honestly surprised, given my combined love of failed revolutions and decade of theatre work in my younger days, that it took me this long to learn this. If you’ve read Hugo’s Les Miserables (or seen the musical*), you’ll at least have a passing knowledge of who Lamarque was. But somehow, despite the fact that Les Miserables is one of my favourite books and my general understanding that it’s a historical fiction novel, it never occurred to me to look up the events Hugo was writing about.

What’s totally stupid about this is that my great love of revolution can be traced directly to two (semi)fictional characters: Les Miserables’ revolutionary leader, Enjolras, who I read when I was 14 or 15, and, more, Mila 18‘s Andrei Androfsky, who I read at 17.** 

Anyway…Jean Lamarque was a commander during the Napoleonic Wars who later became a Member of Parliament. He was vocal in his criticism for Louis Philippe’s constitutional monarchy and was a proponent for French support of the Polish and Italian struggles for independence, which made him popular with the French people.

In the spring of 1832, France was in the midst of a slew of problems. Five years crop failures led to a food shortage and, consequently, a sharp rise in the cost of living, which bred discontent. Further, there was a continent-wide cholera outbreak that exacerbated things. As the constitutional monarchy was effectively a government for the middle class, when Lamarque died on 1 June, republican and Bonapartist (those who felt that Napoleon should be the leader of France, which feels obvious) opponents of the monarchy decided that his funeral on 5 June would be the place to make themselves known. So, with the support Polish, Italian, and German immigrants, they did and roughly 3000 revolutionaries took control of parts of eastern and central Paris. And then Louis Philippe brought in 20,000 National Guardsmen overnight, followed by 40,000 army troops the next day, and by sundown on 6 June, the June Rebellion had been quashed.

Interestingly, and this is actually common in violent revolutions, the rebels didn’t suffer the losses you’d expect. Their casualties came to 93 dead and 291 wounded. The damage they inflicted? 73 dead, 344 wounded. Also not surprising if you’re familiar with revolutionary theory, about two thirds of the participants in the uprising had come from the working class.***

*The proper musical, not the abomination that is the movie. The movie is terrible (and that’s coming from a girl who loves a. the source material, b. theatre, and c. Hugh Jackman). It took almost all of the points regarding the revolution out of it entirely and what was left in was poorly explained at best. And lest you think this is some sort of fluke, I have an even bigger problem with the musical version of Wicked. Wicked is my very favourite book of all time because it’s about revolution in a way that’s about who is right and who is wrong, where the line is drawn, and who gets to draw that line. The musical, while a good show in its own right, is an atrocious adaptation of the book because it removes all of the politics that make the book so deep. And I find it insulting that it calls itself “based on the novel” because it abandons everything that makes the novel great.

**Full disclosure: Mila 18 is the book that complete changed the way I saw the world. The first time I ever understood the broader implications of war (and revolution, even a failed one) was the direct result of that novel. This was also, incidentally, right around the time that I happened to walk through the living room just as the news was airing footage of a shell-scarred wall of a bombed out building in Sarajevo on which someone had spray painted “Welcome to Hell.” Draw whatever obvious conclusions you like between those two events and my later study of revolution.

***More can be read on Lamarque and the June rebellion here, here, here, and, combining a brilliant review of the rather revisionist history presented by the movie of Les Miserables with actual scholarship, here. If you want information on revolutionary theory, read Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, which is the Bible of revolutionary theory, and Blackey and Paynton’s Revolution and the Revolutionary Ideal. And possibly Johnson’s Revolutionary Change and Hagopian’s The Phenomenon of Revolution.

Lesson #283: The Dissolved Nobel Prizes

I read a really interesting article on NPR this afternoon (no need to guess which way my politics lean) about how Niels Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen dissolved a pair of Nobel medals in order to avoid their “reallocation” by the Nazis.* Fascinating!

As a student of revolution, I’m a bit of a sucker for things being stuck, as it were, to The Man, so this little bit of trivia is right up my alley. Gold, it turns out, is a particularly stable element, so its dissolution is a bit tricky. But when German physicists Max von Laue (1914) and James Franck (1925) sent their medals to the Institute for safekeeping**, and the Nazis annexed Denmark (more or less) in 1940 and went searching for gold, — in this specific instance, gold that had been illegally removed from the Reich (and very obviously since the prizes bore the names of their winners) —  Bohr, with the help of Hungarian chemist Georgy de Hevesy, who won his own Nobel prize in 1943, decided that the best way to keep the Nazis from the prizes was to dissolve the pair in aqua regia, a solution that is three parts hydrochloric acid to one part nitric acid.

By some stroke of luck, when the Nazis arrived and tossed the Institute in search of gold, the aqua regia solution was left alone on some shelf, and, after the war, the gold was extracted from the aqua regia and sent off to Stockholm to be restruck for von Laue and Franck.***

Bohr’s medal (1922, Physics), incidentally, was sold at auction just prior to the Nazi occupation.****

I love stories like this — and history is replete with them. There are always people who find ingenious ways of circumventing governments and doing what is right and I love that.

*Interestingly, this story came from a book I’m waiting to get from paperbackswap.com, which is a BRILLIANT book trading site.

** von Laue was of Jewish descent and Franck was a known dissident.

***For more information see here and here.

****As a mostly unrelated aside, Bohr’s son won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1975. Also, my physicist friends and I have a running joke about how when they win the prize, they’re going to demand a taco dinner because it’s impossible to eat tacos and retain one’s dignity and the image of this is funny to us. In fairness, the idea of a specific one of said friends winning a Nobel Prize is actually a completely real possibility. Not that I expect, if he won, that he’d actually demand a taco dinner.

In Egypt: The Lotus Revolution

It’s time to come clean about something I’ve only sort of hinted at. I study revolutions. I like the challenge of them and I, as well as probably 70% of revolutionary scholars, have been proven wrong about the necessity of violence in modern revolution. And that’s a great thing!

My friend in Jordan is now my friend in Egypt. She’s halfway through a yearlong program in Cairo. And she lives a block and a half from Tahrir Square. So almost all of the information I’ve been getting about the Lotus Revolution (25th of January Revolution) has been from her. Because I trust her more than I trust CNN. She suggested I try to stream Al-Jazeera English because the coverage is better. I have followed her every email to those of us who are not there.

I’m a little giddy. And a little jealous that my friend, who admittedly doesn’t care one way or the other about revolution, gets to be in the middle of it.

Happy 2011

I’ve not stopped learning things, but a new job that makes me want to turn off my brain when I get home and a dying computer are keeping me from posting. So I thought it might be time to shift gears for a little bit.

I used to read a lot more than I do now. I think that part of my decline in reading over the last 10 years has come as a direct result of how much I had to read for classes. Something I noticed when I was still living in Western Europe is that I was reading a lot less for fun than I had when I was living in Eastern Europe. Partly due to the fact that 10 hours of research reading a day didn’t leave me much desire to read anything once I was out of school mode and partly due to the fact that my commute was a 5 minute walk to my office, not a 45 minute each way commute on public transport. The irony of it was, I had access to so many more books in Western Europe than I did in Eastern Europe — no doubt in part because of the predominance of books in English in Western Europe. But even when I returned from my sojourn abroad, I wasn’t reading as much as I’d have liked. Mostly because I was lazy and DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were easier and besides that, hot boys on screen are more fun than imaginary boys, hot or otherwise.

So I set myself a moderate reading goal for 2011. I want to read 52 books this year. Well, technically speaking, I want to read 53 books this year because I want to finally make it through War and Peace, the first 300 pages of which I’ve read three times before, but never any further.* And that’s not a book you just read in a week. My friend in the Texas capital and I figured out today that if I read 30 pages a week for the rest of the year, I can do it. That’s totally manageable.

As a result of my new job being a complete fraud — in that I get paid to be there, but at the moment, I’m not actually doing much work…last week, I think I did a combined 2.5 hours of actual work — I’m making excellent progress on this goal. As of about noon today, I had finished four books. A somewhat odd assortment, really — Annie Erneaux’s ‘Simple Passion’, which in my opinion is just a poor man’s ‘The Lover’**, which is one of my favourite books of all time, Max Brooks’ ‘World War Z’, a novel about the governmental, military, societal and individual responses to a zombie apocalypse that my college roommate’s husband lent me at Thanksgiving, a book called ‘Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers’, which is about a debate between Wittgenstein and Karl Popper that took place at Cambridge in 1946 in which the former may or may not have brandished a poker at the latter, and Ken Dryden’s ‘The Game’, which is, according to people who know these things, the best book ever written about hockey.

In addition to the four listed above, I’m currently working my way through Max Barry’s dystopian novel ‘Jennifer Government,’ which if things keep on as they have been, I should be finished around noon tomorrow because it’s a quick read and Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children,’ which is brilliant and engrossing, but for some reason a much slower read than one would expect. In four hours today (after I finished ‘The Game’), with a few distractions, I got through only 100 pages.

On the docket for the weeks to come — Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’, a pair of books about physics — one about astrophysics and one about theoretical physics, a book called ‘Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand’, an Icelandic Saga, a theological discussion about the changing nature of the accepted gospels over the course of early Christianity, a math novel called ‘Flatland’, some Fitzgerald, Heinlein, Vonnegut, Kerouac and Kundera, the Pulitzer Prize winning dispatches on the genocide in Bosnia, a book about the BBC’s Shipping Forecast, a book on the 1956 revolution in Hungary, some ancient Roman historical texts, social histories of both spices and reading, and Theroux’s epic travelogue ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’.

So yeah…it’ll be an interesting year in books. My library is a lot more fun when I actually get to make use of it.

*The thing about the Russian authors is that you have to read a whole normal book’s worth of material before anything picks up and that can get frustrating.

**Marguerite Duras

Lesson #195: The Reiver Trail

I always like when I discover that something I love is more clever than I first thought.

Today’s word is “to reive” which is a Middle Scots word meaning to steal. Incidentally, it is also where we get the word bereaved.

The reivers were the Scottish border clans who were proponents of Scottish independence and tended to launch raids on both sides of the border. They were essentially lawless…enemies of England, probably Scotland and pretty much everyone not in their clan. I am a descendant of the Armstrong clan — though in fairness, you have to go back to my great-grandmother before you get to the Armstrong branch of my family.*

Anyway today’s actual lesson is that there is, in the old reiver country of Scotland, the Reiver Trail. This has now been put onto my list of things to see. I’m always down for a little bit of revolutionary violence. And a little bit of learning about the history of my family way, way back when. My grandfather is an excellent source of information, but I imagine that the museums whose focus is such things are even better.

Now, back to my first statement in this post. Joss Whedon’s Firefly bogeymen are called “reavers” — fighters living on the edge of civilization (also eating people, but poetic license is acceptable when setting a (criminally underrated by the network) TV show in space). I suspect I have figured out why. I have always liked him because he’s clever.

*If you want to read more about the border reivers, here’s where you should go to read up on them. I recommend it; it’s a pretty cool bit of history.

Lesson #68: Spartacus

While I was stateside at Christmas, I saw some commercials for a new series called Spartacus: Blood and Sand and so I thought I’d give it a go, hoping it would be like the HBO series ROME, which was phenomenal. It wasn’t. At all. It was awful; I didn’t last 15 minutes. The sole benefit of my 15 agonizing minutes of watching the utter crap that is Spartacus is today’s lesson.*

Spartacus, I knew, was an actual historical figure, leader of a slave rebellion in ancient Roman history. And that ends what I knew. Unless you count the scene in the movie where everyone stands up claiming to be Spartacus in a show of solidarity, which was likely poetic license.

What I know is actually not all that little given how much history knows about him. Beyond the events of the Third Servile War, narrated in Appian’s Civil Wars, Plutarch’s Life of Crassus, Livy’s Periochae, Florus’ The Epitome of Roman History, Sallust’s Histories, and Frontinus’ Strategem, very little is known of Spartacus. What exists in historical narratives, however, as is often the case in ancient history, are sometimes contradictory.

What the narratives agree on is that Spartacus was a Thracian** who served, at one time, in an army — either in the Roman Auxiliary or as an opposition force, no one seems confident as to which — before somehow winding up a slave and, consequently, gladiator and trained at the gladiatorial school near Capua. In 73 BC, Spartacus and 70 other members of the school plotted an escape — which was betrayed, but they got out with a full wagon of gear and weapons anyway — and went galavanting about the Roman countryside doing the whole raid, pillage and plunder thing, recruiting other slaves to join them and killing the small posse sent to haul them back in. The group then set up their defences on Mount Vesuvius and chose Spartacus and two Gallic slaves to lead them.

The Romans, having little in the way of legions to send after them due to the Third Mithridatic War and ongoing clashes with pesky rebels in Spain, and rightfully seeing the whole thing as a simple policing issue, sent a militia to starve out the rebellion, except that Spartacus, having been trained as a soldier, beat them at that game and killed them, eventually recruiting upwards of 70,000 slaves for the cause who were extraordinarily resourceful and despite their lack of military training figured out how to most effectively use local materials. Which, as would be expected, did not please Rome.

There’s a whole bunch more on the Third Servile War that is interesting, but since that’s not the point of the post, I’m just going to skip right over it. You can read about it here and oddly enough, more in depth and better footnoted here.

Moving along…Rome sent people with a lot of money and a lot of legions in to take care of it, Spartacus planned to march his men across the Alps, a plan which could have come to fruition but for the slaves’ general inclination towards pillage and plunder rather than returning home, a sort of “if it’s good enough for the Romans…” sort of attitude. Later Spartacus tried to bribe some pirates to take him and his men to Sicily to build up reinforcements and launch a slave rebellion, but was double-crossed by the pirates who took his money, but not him. You know how pirates are. Oh, and he crucified a few Roman prisoners. Attempts to negotiate with Crassus (the guy the Senate sent to deal with the rebellion) once the rebels were outnumbered in 71 BC failed and the rebellion was quashed and Spartacus literally just vanished into thin air. No one knows what happened to him. Appian and Florus both say he was killed in battle, and in truth, that’s his most likely end, but his body was never found, so who knows what really happened. Some groups of his men escaped into the mountains and continued to launch small assaults for a time, but they too were eventually defeated. In the end 6000 gladiators were taken alive…and then crucified along the Via Appia in a typical “do not f**k with us” Roman display.

Interestingly, up through the middle ages and renaissance, Spartacus was seen as an enemy of the state, traitor, thief, general criminal. It wasn’t until the publication of the 1760 tragedy Spartacus by the French playwright Bernard-Joseph Saurin that he was portrayed as a hero. This play, and Karl Marx’s endorsement of him by way of Appian’s work, are what have led to the modern view of Spartacus as popular hero.***

Autobiographical note: As a scholar, I find that last bit really interesting because it is another strong representation of how a character, much reviled through history, can undergo a drastic rehabilitation with the help of art, a revisionist’s history and the backing of a highly regarded scholar. Judas Iscariot, the much maligned bastion of treachery the Church has been holding up for two millenia, has undergone a similar re-casting in the last 40 years or so owing, in part, to the discovery and publication of gnostic texts, a movement among religious scholars, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. (Yeah, I’m not even kidding a little bit about Andrew Lloyd Webber.) In my personal opinion, Judas, if he existed, is the single most interesting character in all of history. If I could have dinner with any historical person, alive or dead, I would have dinner with Judas Iscariot.****

*To be clear, I didn’t actually learn anything from the show except that girls from Texas do terrible English accents. It just made me go look up Spartacus.

**Of allies to the Trojans fame. This is the second Iliad reference in the short history of this blog. If you haven’t read it, go read it. It is truly stellar.

***More about Spartacus can be read here and here.

****If you’re interested in reading more on Judas Iscariot as modern religious scholars view him, see the following books: The Gospel of Judas, William Klassen’s Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus?, Kim Paffenroth’s Judas: Images of the Lost Disciple, and Bart D. Ehrman’s The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed.