Monday, February 22, 2010

A Sad Milestone

The 1000th American soldier has died in Afghanistan, as recorded by the website iCasualties.


Participate in a vigil...

Join the American Friends Service Committee in telling the President: Not one more death, not one more dollar for war!

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago. 
"Perhaps (To R. A. L.)," Vera Brittain, 1920

Vigils in the area on Wednesday, February 24

Time: 5-6 pm
Place: intersection of Lancaster Ave and Bryn Mawr Ave by the Ludington Library (or by the bank if there is a big puddle in the road)
Sponsor: Bryn Mawr Peace Coalition

Time: 6-6:30pm (candlelight vigil)
Place: Chester County Courthouse at High & Market Sts., West Chester
Sponsor: Chester County Peace Movement

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Un gran pranzo all'italiana

Since my first post on La Tregua (The Truce), I've finished reading the entire book. I've also read Levi's earlier work, Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man -- some English editions are entitled Survival at Auschwitz), and it has to be the most beautiful book I've ever read. One of the saddest, surely, but so beautiful because of Levi's simple, straight-from-the-heart description of life in the Lager. But more on Se questo è un uomo later. There are few memorable moments of La Tregua that I'd still like to savor.

     January 1945. Auschwitz stands abandoned by the Germans, who have taken all able-bodied prisoners on a forced march, killing most of them along the way in the attempt to keep the atrocities secret. The prisoners in the camp infirmary have been left behind to die. However, 26-six-year-old Levi, suffering from scarlet fever, is fortunate enough to survive. He is liberated along with a handful of other prisoners by the Soviet army. Thus begins his circuitous route home to Turin.

 During his last days in the Lager, Levi meets Cesare, another Italian prisoner, and the two become best friends. They are temporarily separated when Levi again becomes ill and is hospitalized. However, they are eventually reunited at the resettlement camp established by the Russians in Katowice, Poland, one of many involuntary stops in their journey back home. Levi becomes an assistant in the camp hospital, entitling him to better food and a pass to exit and reenter the camp at will. This allows him to spend free time exploring the surrounding town with Cesare. Several months later, the Russians announce that all displaced Italians will go by train to Odessa and from there by sea to Italy. Levi and his companion are jubilant. They pool their few remaining zloty and head into town to buy the ingredients for un gran pranzo all'italiana, a base di spaghetti al burro -- a big Italian-style dinner of with plenty of spaghetti with butter.

  They enter a store and tell the shopkeeper (whom they presume to be Polish) that they are Italian  and wish to buy the makings of a grand Italian dinner. In one of the more humorous passages of the book, Levi describes the reaction they get:

  La bottegaia era una vecchietta grinzosa, dall'aria bisbetica e diffidente. Ci guardò attentamente attraverso gli occhiali di tartaruga, poi ci disse chiaro e tondo, in ottimo tedesco, che secondo lei non eravamo italiani proprio niente.  Prima di tutto parlavamo tedesco, anche se piuttosto male; poi, e principalmente, gli italiani hanno i capelli neri e gli occhi appassionati, e noi né gli uni né gli altri. Tutt'al piú poteva concederci di essere croati: anzi, ora che ci pensava, aveva proprio incontrato dei croati che ci somiglivano. Eravamo croati, la cosa era fuori discussione.

   The shopkeeper was a tiny, wrinkled old lady, grumpy and shrewd. She examined us intently through her tortoise-shell glasses before declaring bluntly and in perfect German that there was no fooling her, like hell we were Italians! Her first clue was that we spoke German, even if we spoke it badly. But no way could we possibly be Italian, because Italians had black hair and passionate eyes, and we had neither. She could, however, be persuaded that we were a matter of fact, now that she thought about it, she had met a few Croats who looked a lot like us. We were Croats, and that's all there was to it.

 The irony of the situation is that the two young men really are Italian, while the shopkeeper, whom they presume to be Polish, is actually a German woman exiled from her native land. When Levi tells her that they are Italian Jews, she softens and invites them to sit down. Then she tells them the story of how, many years ago, she had written to Hitler (der Lump, as she calls him) letting him know what she thought about his plans for war:

  Gli aveva scritto personalmente, «Al Signor Adolf Hitler, Cancelliere del Reich, Berlino», mandandogli una lunga lettera in cui gli consigliava fermamente di non fare la guerra perché troppe persone sarebbero morte, e inoltre gli dimostrava che se l'avesse fatta l'avrebbe perduta, perché la Germania non poteva vincere contro tutto il mondo, e anche un bambino l'avrebbe capito. Aveva firmato con nome, cognome e indirizzo: poi si era messa ad aspettare.
  She had written to him personally, "to Mr. Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of the Reich, Berlin," sending him a long letter in which she counseled him in no uncertain terms against going to war because too many people would die. In addition, she warned him that if he went to war he was sure to lose because Germany could not fight the whole world, something any child would have understood. She signed her full name and address. Then she waited for a response.

  Five days later, the brown shirts came and ransacked her house but found nothing treasonous. She was sure she was going to be sent to one of the death camps, but instead her shop license was confiscated and she was expelled from Berlin. She settled in Silesia, where she lived as best she could until --as she had predicted-- the Germans were defeated. When Polish officials heard the story of her courageous letter, they gave her a license and she was able to open a shop.

...Cosí ora viveva in pace, fortificata dal pensiero di quanto migliore sarebbe stato il mondo se i grandi della terra avessero seguito i suoi consigli.

So now she lived in peace, taking comfort in the thought of how much better off the world would have been, if only the big wigs of this earth had followed her advice.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Time to Shake Off the Lethargy

The old familiar sights of ours
Took marvellous shapes; strange domes and towers
Rose up where sty or corn-crib stood,
Or garden-wall, or belt of wood;
A smooth white mound the brush-pile showed,
A fenceless drift what once was road;
The bridle-post an old man sat
With loose-flung coat and high cocked hat;
The well-curb had a Chinese roof;
And even the long sweep, high aloof,
In its slant spendor, seemed to tell
Of Pisa's leaning miracle. 
--from Snow-bound, A Winter Idyl, by John Greenleaf Whittier 



 It was beautiful to look at, to wonder at... heavy to shovel, difficult to maneuver around. Time to get back to life as usual.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Falling on Beethoven

Just came back in the house after shoveling snow for an hour and found Beethoven's "Emperor Concerto" playing on the radio.  What better reward for my hard work?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Culture of Torture

 I'm still holding out the hope that this story, which started making the rounds of the Net yesterday, will turn out to be a hoax after all:

  Ok, the alleged "waterboarder" obviously has serious emotional problems, no doubt exacerbated by a tour of duty in a war zone. But for me, this sad story serves as the last bit of evidence that we've collectively gone off the deep end.

  Consider also the revelation that "fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day." See the Rasmussen Report. As well as the protestations over plans to try Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in a civilian court instead of a military court.

  I think that we as a nation need to come out and just admit that we are frustrated by this new enemy, an enemy that constantly morphs, mysteriously emerges from different countries, and constantly changes tactics; an enemy so different from those that our military might has been able to defeat in the past. Maybe then we could all take a breath and call upon what's left of our sanity instead of pushing the collective panic button.

Unfortunately, certain public personalities seem determined to make the mass hysteria index go off the charts. The real problem, they say, is that we do not have a strong commander-in-chief to keep our country strong, strong, strong.  But what does "strong" mean in terms of this new type of enemy?

Since all the hardware and nuclear warheads our bloated defense budget can buy have not been effective against terrorists who practice global guerrilla warfare, no one has been able to give a concrete description of how to keep our country "strong."  Not even after seven years of "fighting them over there so they wouldn't come over here."  "Keeping our country strong" is simply an expression that makes the speaker (whether a man or a woman) sound admirably patriotic and macho, especially in contrast to...well, the current commander-in-chief, for instance.

The fact is that, in lieu of any defensive measures worthy of a country whose Constitution once served as a model for that of other republics, being "strong" has insidiously devolved into a pervasive new ethic, namely the tacit approval of the use of unbridled cruelty against prisoners in violation of their legal and human rights. In other words, a culture of torture.

It may not defeat the enemy, but it sure makes us feel better...and stronger.

When I pause long enough to take that breath, I hear the words of Dorothy Day and of others reminding us of our source of real strength;
 In the name of Jesus, who is God, who is Love, we will not obey this order to hate, to punish, to torture. We will not be drilled into fear. We do not have faith in God if we depend upon waterboarding."
(Obviously I've paraphrased a bit here...but I think Dorothy would understand.)

2/10 - Addendum -  The newspapers were a bit sensationalist in using the term "waterboarding" to describe the abuse perpetrated by the soldier on his little girl.  Here's a more accurate account of what happened, from a local newspaper.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

In praise of the book

...and by "book" I refer to the humble codex, a collection of thoughts on a subject committed to writing and then printed as text on pages that have been bound together and placed between covers ... not the Kindle, iPad, or other manifestations of the ebook.

A book is so simple. I realized this one day on the train to work as I pulled out the title I was reading.

I don't have to subscribe to it or connect to the Internet to access it or recharge the device containing it.

I don't have to put earphones on (although I do enjoy listening to an audiobook now and then, sort of like reading with my ears for a change instead of my eyes).

And when I'm reading a book borrowed from a library and some of the pages are a bit worn and dog-eared at the corners,  I feel as though I'm holding in my hands something that unknown friends have also cherished. If the binding is a little more (com)pliant than it used to be, it's because previous readers have graciously tucked bits of their thoughts into it.

Of course, I realize that the more technologically complex forms of the book are a boon to many others who are not blessed as I am with excellent eyesight.  Still, I give thanks for the simple codex and for the library network that crisscrosses the region where I live, sending me books on all sorts of subjects, in different languages, and all for free.