Sunday, November 27, 2016

Vera Weizmann (November 27, 1881)

The living room of the home of Vera and Chaim Weizmann on the campus of the Weizmann Institute, Rehovot, Israel.
In 2006, I toured this home, designed by architect Eric Mendelsohn with a large input from Vera Weizmann.

Vera Weizmann ( November 27, 1881 – September 24, 1966), neè Chatzman, was born in Rostov northeast of Moscow. She was raised in a surprisingly secular way, as she went to elite non-Jewish schools and was not taught either Hebrew or Yiddish. Her father had been a military officer, and was allowed to live in an area not normally open to Jews and allowed to educate his daughters in this unusual way.

Vera Weizmann studied medicine in Geneva, Switzerland, when women were rarely allowed to do so. During this time, she became a member of Jewish student organizations, where she met Chaim Weizmann.  (Chaim Weizmann's entry in this blog is here.) They married in 1906, and soon moved to Manchester, England, where she began her medical career:
"In 1913 she successfully passed the British medical certification examination, after having studied medicine for two years in Manchester in addition to her studies in Geneva. Vera Weizmann received a temporary posting as a physician in the Manchester slums, where she was in charge of seven clinics for pregnant women and infants to the age of one year. She was later awarded a permanent appointment as a physician in a public clinic for pregnant women. As one of the first women to be employed as a physician in Manchester during this period, her work consisted primarily of developing advanced methods for monitoring infant nutrition and weight." (source)
Both Chaim Weizmann and Vera Weizmann were leaders of Zionism throughout their lives. His role in Zionism is very well-known; she participated in the founding of the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO) and served as its president over many years.Though they lived in England most of the time until after World War II, they played an important role in founding the Hebrew University and the Seiff Institute in Rehovot which became the Weizmann Institute. During the Israeli war of Independence, Vera treated injured soldiers, later founded medical centers for wounded veterans' rehabilitation, and was active in many volunteer organizations.
"After her husband’s death in 1952, Vera Weizmann devoted even more of her time and energy to social work on behalf of Youth Aliyah, the rehabilitation of those disabled in the war and the Magen David Adom organization, serving as its president. In 1954 she conducted a fund-raising campaign in South America for Israel Bonds and the Weizmann Institute. After visiting Argentina, Chile and Brazil, she went with her secretary to Russia, which she had left forty years earlier. She was also very active in arranging the Weizmann archives." (source)

The tomb of Vera and Chaim Weizmann, near their house in Rehovot.

Monday, November 21, 2016

"One Night, Markovitch"

I cannot remember how I heard of the recent Israeli novel One Night, Markovitch by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. I bought it in September, and just finished reading it this weekend. If you want a complete review, I suggest this one from the Telegraph. I agree with the final statement of this review:
One Night, Markovitch,
published January, 2015.
"This is a fable for the 21st century, and Gundar-Goshen a writer whose dexterity proclaims her one to watch."
Two things make this book seem like a fable to me. One is the simple way the characters are presented and described, as if they were not entirely real. The other is the way they are both generalized and also particular: as if the reader is somehow expected to find each one to be a type of person, a type of pre-state Israeli, not just an individual. I was never sure how to map each character onto a such a type, but it seemed plausible.

Sometimes as I read I felt as if I were reading not just a fable but a ghost story: the ghosts of the Israeli past, the ghosts of the idealism and heroism that are attributed to the original fighters, villagers, farmers, and leaders. Each character's traits, passions, and actions seem exaggerated in order to illustrate the challenges of life in Israel during this critical era.

Another review of the book  in the Guardian viewed the novel in quite a different way than I do: "Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s lush first novel ... seems to take inspiration from the magical-realist traditions of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. ... Eternal themes of love and longing, sex and marriage take priority."

One Night, Markovitch is an interesting book whether one reads it as historical fiction, a fable about Israeli history, a magical-realist story of eternal themes, or a bit of all three.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Pnina Grynszpan-Frymer (1922-2016)

From today's Ha'aretz: the obituary of Pnina Grynszpan-Frymer, among the last survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto struggle against the Nazis. When the war ended, and she discovered that her entire family had been murdered in the Holocaust, she came to Israel and lived on a kibbutz and in Tel Aviv, where she married and raised a family. 

Pnina Grynszpan-Frymer
from Ha'aretz
From the obituary:
"Grynszpan-Frymer was born in 1922 in the town of Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki near Warsaw. When World War II broke out in 1939 with Germany's invasion of Poland, she joined Eyal, the Jewish Fighting Organization, also widely known by its Polish initials, ŻOB. 
"She fought the Germans in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, fled the burning ruins through the sewage tunnels and joined the partisans in the forests. A year later she returned to Warsaw, where she was hidden by Poles and took part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising." (link)
When I read about freedom fighters and resistants, I'm always struck by their subsequent lives -- if they survived, of course. They almost always returned to a much less exciting, much more "normal" and usually middle-class life, and when I think about it, I realize that this was what these heros were fighting for.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Fritz Stern

Fritz Stern, from the NYT Obituary.
Fritz Stern (1926-2016) was a historian of German culture and a professor of history at Columbia University. He served as provost of Columbia from 1980 to 1983. His interest in the deep roots of Nazi culture have more resonance now than I would like to think about. He wrote: "I was born into a world on the cusp of avoidable disaster.... The fragility of freedom is the simplest and deepest lesson of my life and work."

The decline of German cultural leadership, according to Stern, dated to 1914, when German intellectuals signed the "Manifesto of the 93" declaring loyalty to the German war effort. Stern wrote:
"Most of these men had once cherished German scholarship and had admired a country that in so many ways had been full of promise, with its astounding creativity in the sciences and its legacy of music and the arts. In truth, Germany had been a country of thinkers and poets. But the old bonds snapped in October 1914, when ninety-three of Germany's leading artists, scholars, and scientists signed the Manifesto of the 93, defiantly addressed 'to the Kulturwelt,' proclaiming German innocence, insisting on the absolute identity of German culture and German militarism, defending Germany's invasion of Belgium, and denying all allegations of atrocities." (Einstein's German World, p. 210)
From Stern's obituary in the New York Times, May 18, 2016:
"Like many German historians of his generation, Professor Stern sought to explain the causes behind the events that upended his own life and that of his family, Jews who lived a prosperous, assimilated life in Breslau until oppressive conditions forced them to emigrate to the United States in 1938.

"'Though I lived in National Socialist Germany for only five years, that brief period saddled me with the burning question that I have spent my professional life trying to answer: Why and how did the universal potential for evil become an actuality in Germany?' he wrote in the introduction to 'Five Germanys I Have Known,' a blend of memoir and history published in 2006."
I've recently been reading Stern's book Einstein's German World (1999), where he describes the lives of several important scientists and others who were Einstein's acquaintances. He knew several of them personally, as his father, a physician, was their friend and in some cases their doctor. He points out that by the time he was writing, few people still had direct memories of the time and of the people in his book, which makes it all the more interesting.

I've enjoyed my reading so far, and I hope to read other books by Stern.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber, 1919. From Wikipedia.
Fritz Haber (1868-1934) is in my view, an antihero; I have not classified many of my subjects in this blog in this way. Haber was an important scientist in pre-World-War-I Germany. An enthusiastic patriot, he invented an important industrial process for manufacturing ammonia, which had many uses. It was needed for fertilizer that Germany needed to be more self-sufficient in food production, as well as for explosives.

In my own view, I mainly remember him for his development of poison gas that was used on the battlefields of World War I under his direction. He's thus known as the "father of chemical warfare." Historian Fritz Stern in Einstein's German World, described Haber's participation in World War I as follows:
"During and after the war, Haber tried to explain his work in developing a weapon that outraged many people -- in Germany, but especially abroad. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 had prohibited the use of poisoned weapons. Haber believed that the use of gas would bring the war to a quick conclusion; he argued that the gas, which immobilized but usually did not kill, was a more humane weapon than the artillery bombardments that had become routine; he pointed out that the Allies had their own plans for introducing gas warfare, and Germany had merely anticipated them. It would appear that neither Haber nor those closest to him, like Willstätter, worried about the legal and moral issues involved, such was the brutish atmosphere of war. Gas warfare did not prove decisive, though its horror -- the terrifying choking, the blinding, the deaths, the experience even for survivors of a living death -- has become an inextinguishable part of our collective memory, an early instance of science put to satanic service. (p. 120)
The industrial work continued after World War I. Haber was head of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry. Although the Nazis would have at least temporarily allowed him to stay in his position despite being Jewish (though a convert to Christianity like many ambitious German scientists), he resigned when it became obvious that he would be required to fire all his Jewish subordinates. He left Germany, but died soon afterwards.

There's much more to say about Haber, his life, and his work. I only mention that one of his commercially-produced types of poison gas was Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers.

Friday, November 11, 2016

It Just Happened Here?

Thinking about books that remind me of our time. When I googled these titles, several of them have already appeared in headlines this week:
  • Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here, 1935. A hypothetical takeover of America by fascists. Update: it's currently a best-seller at
  • Philip Roth, The Plot Against America, 2004. A counter factual history of the era of FDR.
  • Eugène Ionesco, Rhinoceros, 1959. Allegory of fascism as people of a town each become a rhinoceros.
  • Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897. Original book can be read as allegorical as people become vampires. (Some films don't really have an allegorical side.)
  • H.P.Lovecraft, stories about the takeover of human minds by dark forces. He feared Jews and minorities, and his horrors feature this fear. I blogged about it here: Embracing Lord Cthulhu
  • Walter Wanger, producer: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," 1956. Allegory of fascism.

Update: Scene from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Erich Mendelsohn

Erich Mendelsohn (March 21, 1887 – September 15, 1953) was a well-known architect whose severe modern style was typical of the German Expressionist movement as well as functionalism. He designed a number of very famous buildings in Germany in the early decades of the twentieth century. Fearing for his future because he was Jewish, Mendelsohn fled from Germany in 1933.

Mendelsohn was a leader in the Modernist school, which included Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius. His early works were designed and built in Germany. After leaving Germany, he also designed pre-war buildings in Jerusalem and for the Weizmann House and the campus of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovoth, Israel. After 1940, he designed several synagogues and other buildings in the US, including a synagogue very close to where I grew up in University City, Missouri. When I was young, I knew the building was unusual, but I was unaware of the fame of its architect.

Photos of the few buildings by Mendelsohn that I've seen:

Mendelsohn building on the campus of the Weizmann Institute.
We visited there and took the photos in 2006, soon after a major
restoration of the building.
Weizmann building.
Weizmann House, Rehovot, Israel, visited 2006.
Erich Mendelsohn designed the Weizmann house near the Rehovot campus in the late 1930s, working closely with Vera Wiezmann, wife of the famous Zionist leader and founder of Israel, Chaim Weizmann. It was very unusual for an Israeli house: a trivial example -- the GE refrigerator still in the kitchen is said to have been the first refrigerator in Israel!

Kitchen of the Weizmann house.
Staircase of the Weizmann house.
In 2008, we walked around the area of University City where the building Mendelsohn designed still stands. No longer used as a synagogue, the building now houses a performance arts school.

Former B'nai Amoona Synagoge,
University City, Mo.
Side view of synagogue, showing small round
windows often seen in Mendelsohn's designs.

Friday, November 4, 2016

France Bloch-Sérazin

France Bloch-Sérazin
             -- Wikipedia
France Bloch-Sérazin (1913-1943) was a hero of the French Resistance. I heard about her from her brother, Michel, whom I met in 1989 through Michel's son   -- our friend Laurent Bloch. At the time, the story of her heroic life and early death were very obscure, but now, I have learned, there are several schools and a street named for her, and she's recognized in both France and Germany with plaques commemorating her life and death.

France Bloch-Sérazin was born and spent her youth in Poitiers in a large house called La Mérigote overlooking a beautiful valley. Her brother reminisced that in his youth he and his siblings would joke about how strategic the location was, with such a view of the railroad in the valley. Unfortunately this was prophetic -- the Nazi occupiers took over the house from the family, headed by then-well-known author Jean-Richard Bloch (1884-1947) and his wife, Marguerite Herzog. (The elder Blochs escaped to Russia where they spent the war. During the war years, Laurent's father was imprisoned in the South of France where, from time to time, he told me, someone would say -- your father is alive, I heard him on clandestine radio.)

France, by then a trained chemist, spent the early part of the occupation in Paris, hiding from the Nazis as she was both Jewish and a member of the Communist Party. She became a founding member of the resistance at the very beginning of its existence. Using her skills as a chemist, she became a bomb maker. She also restored weapons that other members of the resistance retrieved from the sewers of Paris -- people would throw them away fearing discovery by the Nazis.

In May, 1942, she was arrested and taken to prison in Germany in "night and fog" -- that is, deep secrecy. I remember her brother's quavering voice saying "nuit et brouillard," or in German "Nacht und Nebel." Her family didn't know her fate until after the war: she was executed in February, 1943. Her husband, Frédéric Sérazin -- called Frédo -- had been arrested in 1940, and also was executed. When she was arrested, her small son Roland disappeared, and the family thought he was lost. After the war, however, the maid/nanny reappeared at their home with the boy whom she had managed to smuggle to her home town and hide throughout the war years.

The French Wikipedia article contains much more information than the English page -- I used both sources. The French article includes links to two films about France Bloch-Sérazin by filmmakers Loretta Walz and Marie Cristiani.