The Next Chapter: WWII from a personal perspective
World War II and especially the Hitler regime is a perennial topic of books. The two books are written from the point of view of a participant and another as close observers. One author had personal experience as a British soldier who spent part of the war in the Prisoner of War barracks at Auschwitz and even a few nights in the slave labor quarters. The other author looks at the time from the perspective of the family of the American ambassador in Berlin from 1933 to 1938.
In “The Garden of the Beasts” by Isaac Larson, published by Crown Publishing, the buildup to the war is seen through the eyes of the American Ambassador, William Dodd and his family, especially his young, vibrant and troublesome daughter, Martha. Larson is a master at non-fiction about dramatic events where he often writes parallel stories about a man and his family and a cataclysmic event as in “Isaac’s Storm”, an earlier work. In this story, he tells the story of William Dodd, an unassuming professor who is ready to retire and write his book on the Old South when he is tapped for the Berlin ambassadorship. Apparently no one else whom Roosevelt asked was willing to take the job and Roosevelt who was busy overseeing a country which was recovering from a depression and turmoil turned to him.
Dodd took on his duties in a quiet and unpretentious way and offended people by not throwing lavish parties or becoming very involved in politics which were becoming more and more violent and troubling all around him. Martha who at 22 was coming out of a quick marriage and divorce, on the other hand, threw herself into the night life of Berlin and dated many of the important players in the German government including Diels, the head of the Gestapo. At first, no one in the family understood the threat of the new government and even acted a little giddy when they met Hitler and he kissed Martha’s hand. By the end of their tenure in 1938, Dodd was warning the US government of the dangers in Germany, but was not taken very seriously. Because the author shows how the actions of Hitler looked to an outsider who really wanted to avoid the evil around him until it was too late, we have a very unique perspective on what we know about how Hitler gained power.
“The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz” by Denis Avey and Rob Broomsky, published by Da Capa Press is also a personal account, this time told by a British soldier who experienced WWII firsthand and spent time in the POW camp attached to the slave labor camp at Auschwitz. He begins his story with his experiences fighting Rommels troops in Libya and his capture as a POW and his incarceration from 1943 to 1945 in Auschwitz. While he was there he watched the Jewish prisoners and was able to establish a connection with one of them. By having the prisoner’s sister send him cigarettes, he was able to bribe a guard who let him exchange places with a Jewish prisoner and go into the slave labor camp twice and experience what the prisoners there experienced. As unlikely as this seems, Ernst, the prisoner, whose sister sent him the cigarettes survived the camp and the death march, in part because he bartered some of the cigarettes to obtain leather to protect his feet. Denis escaped during the evacuation of the camps and made his way back to England. Avey didn’t talk about his experiences for years and although he saw Ernst’s sister once after the war, he wasn’t aware that Ernst survived the death march and he never saw him again. When he finally did talk about his story, he assumed Ernst had died and only later saw the survivor’s tape that Ernst had made. In that tape, Ernst talked about the British soldier whom he called “Ginger” who got him cigarettes, which ultimately saved his life.
Although I thought I knew quite a bit about this period of history, I learned a lot from the personal perspective of these nonfictions books. One of the books I reviewed in July, “Children and Fire” by Ursula Hegi, although fiction, also gave an interesting perspective on this era. I spent a few days in Berlin in May and so my interest was already piqued, but you don’t need to jump on an Air Berlin flight (though you may want to) to be interested in these books.