January Reads: A Comparison of Now and Then

2022

  • My Heart: A Novel, by Semezdin Mehmedinovic, translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the verse translation by Simon Armitage
  • All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, by Rebecca Donner
  • Castle Shade, #17 in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, by Laurie R. King
  • How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning of the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith

2021:

  • Women Without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran, by Sharnush Parsipur
  • The Relentless Moon, #3 in the Lady Astronaut Series, by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, by Reed Hastings with Erin Meyer
  • High as the Waters Rise, by Anja Kampmann, translated from the German by Anne Posten

The Audacity, Oh the Audacity!

Donald Heath calls his wife and son back to Berlin (they’d taken refuge in Oslo after Germany invaded Poland) and then breaks it to his wife: their eleven-year-old son will be the courier for messages between Donald and Mildred Harnack. It takes Louise Heath several days to agree.

This is what happens: the Heaths and the Harnacks meet for a picnic in the Spreewald, “a heavily-wooded area sixty miles southeast of Berlin.” Don Jr. is “dressed for the part: black short pants, tan knee socks, tan shirt, and a black cap — the uniform of the Deutsches Jungvolk in der Hitlerjugend — a division of Hitler Youth for boys between ten and fourteen.”

Don Jr. “runs up ahead . . . he is always the lookout.” When he spots “Germans in uniform,” he remembers his father’s instructions and bursts into song:

Die Fahne hoch! Die Reihen fest geschlossen!
SA marschiert mit ruhig festern Schritt!

(Imagine teaching your 11-year-old to sing Hitler Youth songs! That is why self chose the title that she did for this post)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Cable, Donald Heath to US Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau

Morgenthau’s decision to send Donald Heath to Berlin turns out to be god-level.

24 April 1939:

The (US) Embassy has received reliable information that the German Embassy in London has been informed by (Neville) Chamberlain that Great Britain is prepared to release to the Reich most of the Czech gold reserves which was on deposit in London . . . This news is surprising to Reich officials who look on it with somewhat amused disdain. They interpret it as an indication that Chamberlain is still inclined to gestures of “appeasement” and a belief that financial enticements can be used to buy off the Reich.

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, p. 294

Neville Chamberlain absolutely capitulated to Hitler. He was the Kevin McCarthy of 1939. And Donald Heath was no dummy.

War breaks out. Germany invades Poland. Most of the US Embassy packs up and heads home, but Donald stays. He sends his wife and son to Oslo for their safety.

Louise and Don are in Oslo through September and October. On Nov. 4, Louise receives a telegram from her husband: COME BACK TO BERLIN.

If Louise knew WHY Donald suddenly wanted them both back to Berlin, she probably wouldn’t have agreed!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Louise Heath (Wife of Donald)

One morning Louise decides to attend a lecture at the American Women’s Club. She brings Young Don (11 years old) with her. They’re in the Embassy car. Louise glances in the rearview mirror. Following them is a Volkswagen crammed with Gestapo trainees (!!!), some of whom look as young as sixteen. Louise floors the accelerator. She has a full tank of gas . . . the teenage trainees don’t.

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, p. 283

High fives, Mrs. Heath.

The Second Job

“At 10:15 a.m. on December 14, 1937, Donald Heath entered a wood-paneled corner office at 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue for his first on-the-books meeting with Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. . . . Morgenthau’s meetings were typically jammed with meetings, but today his desk calendar showed a considerably lighter load. He had a full half-hour for Heath.” (All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, p. 276)

Morgenthau was sending Donald Heath to Berlin and wanted to discuss Heath’s responsibilities. “The job description was not, in the strictest sense, straightforward. Heath was taking on not just one job, but two.”

The first job would be “first secretary at the American embassy in Berlin . . . Here’s where it got tricky: someone already had the job . . . Heath would need to devote his time to his second job, which was the real, off-the-books reason he was being dispatched to Berlin. The second job . . . didn’t even have a name.”

And Morgenthau was able to get all of that across to Heath in a half hour? Because self highly doubts Heath was prepped before his interview!

Apparently Heath kept his responsibilities so secret that not even US Ambassador Hugh Wilson knew what they were! On June 30, 1938, Wilson sent a carefully worded letter (with bullet points! That’s when you know he’s getting serious!) to the Assistant Secretary of State complaining that no one had told him what kind of “work Heath was to do” and could someone please tell him what Heath was doing in Berlin? LOL LOL LOL

It took six months for Heath to file his first report, but it contained some very important information from the president of the Reichsbank, which was funding Hitler’s military build-up.

Heath’s wife jumps on him the minute Heath gets back from the Embassy, to complain that she thinks she is being followed by the Gestapo (but of course she is!)

Stay tuned.

This Wicked Game

After much agonizing, Arvid joins the Nazi Party, becoming member number 4153569. His cover is, at last, complete.

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, p. 226

After

Only nineteen of the three thousand transcripts that were eventually declassified and published in 1995 mention Julius or Ethel. Julius was given the code name “Antenna” or, as already seen, “Liberal” in the messages. David was code-named “Kalibr” (Caliber) and Ruth was called “Osa” (Wasp). However, Ethel had no code name and was mentioned only once, and then by her given name.

Ethel Rosenberg, an American Tragedy, p. 223

Self has no words.

Leaving Shards of Self’s Heart, All Over the Floor

There won’t be much left of self, after she finishes Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy. Really agree with the title. Ethel Rosenberg’s story is a tragedy.

She’s at Chapter Five: Prison.

After Julius Rosenberg is arrested, Ethel Rosenberg goes home to their squalid little apartment, and continues caring for her young sons. BUT NO ONE WILL SPEAK TO HER. And Ethel is too afraid to approach any of her friends for fear of incriminating them.

Ethel even stops her psychotherapy sessions with Dr. Saul Miller (the only thing she had going for her)

  • When he called her, having read about Julius’s arrest in the newspapers, Ethel responded by telling him, “Oh, you don’t have to see me anymore.” Miller tried to reassure Ethel that he was not worried about being “tainted.” Ethel started crying, said she would be in touch, and hung up. According to Miller, he got the impression that Ethel was trying to protect him.

She is called to testify twice. After the second time, she is immediately arrested and taken to jail. She asks if she can call her sons, who she has left with a babysitter. When the older one gets on the phone, and she tells him she cannot come for him, he breaks into a loud wail. When the babysitter realizes that Ethel will not return, she deposits the children at their grandmother’s, Ethel’s mother. This kind (NOT!) woman almost refuses to take the boys. She calls Ethel’s lawyer to complain. She threatens to drop the boys off at the nearest police station, a comment that “shocked” the lawyer. You see, the mother always thought Ethel was too big for her britches. Her daughter entertained some fancy notions about becoming a singer, now look where that got her, and so forth.

Per Hoover’s instructions, bail was set astronomically high ($100,000, around $1 million today), in the hopes that seeing his wife in prison would cause Julius to crack and give up some information.

Well, we all know how that turned out.

Ethel doesn’t know yet that it was her own brother who implicated her. This delightful person was a REAL spy, stealing things from Los Alamos, which he would then pass on to the Russians. After his arrest, he knew he had to give the Feds something, or they would put him in prison. So he gave them his sister. NICE! 2016, the brother’s on 60 Minutes. He said he had no choice, it was either Ethel or him. And I guess he didn’t think twice about his nephews, Ethel’s sons? I can’t imagine that the boys would have anything to do with their uncle today!

In prison, she is strip-searched and given an enema. She writes to Julius, but always tries to sound “cheerful and not complain.”

(You might wonder what happened to the boys after? They were adopted by a very nice childless couple, changed their names, and tried never to think about the past. The younger boy calls it “the long nightmare.” WAAAAH! And all their mother wanted was to be the best mother in the world for them)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

The Noose

Self pulled a switcheroo one sleepless night and decided to read Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy. Something about the prose, something about the hour, something about her mood — she put aside Chris Offutt for later.

The past few days, she’s been reading about idealistic young Ethel Rosenberg, and she hopes her heart doesn’t break too much later, when Ethel is sentenced. It’s bad enough reading about what a hard worker she was, how determined she was to be a good wife and mother, and how all her life she yearned for music and scrimped and saved to buy herself a piano.

Of Julius and Ethel, it is pretty clear that Ethel is probably more intelligent. Definitely, she’s the one more rooted in family (as the woman usually is, even now). So when Julius gets flattered into passing on information to a Russian agent on p. 58, it is quite a gut punch.

Julius Rosenberg to his Russian “handler,” Alexander Feklisov, who was four years Julius’s senior, who’d “been working in New York since 1940”:

  • “I know you may not be aware of it, but our meetings are among the happiest moments of all my life . . . I have a wonderful wife and son whom I adore but you are the only person who knows all my secrets and it’s very important to be able to confide to someone.”

Damn you, Julius Rosenberg and also damn you, Alexander Feklisov!

The Russians expressed skepticism, remarking with cool detachment that his “health is nothing splendid.”

2nd Quote of the Day: 3rd Wednesday of August 2015

Self is back to reading Howard Jacobson’s novel, The Act of Love.

Oh, the places this book has traveled!

When she really likes a book, she cannot stand to finish it.

She’s on p. 247, when she encounters this fabulous sentence:

All the men in our family my father’s age had themselves whipped as a matter of course.

After self reads that fabulous sentence, she simply can’t stand to read anymore, so many FEELZ to process, so instead she turns to the books she has lined up to read after she finishes The Act of Love:

  • George Eliot’s Middlemarch
  • Leon Werth’s 33 Days, translated from the French by Austin D. Johnston
  • Richard Norton Taylor’s The New Spymasters: Inside Espionage From the Cold War to Global Terror
  • three books by Ruth Rendell (British mystery writer, one of self’s favorites. She passed away May this year): A Judgment in Stone, Tree of Hands, and A Sight for Sore Eyes

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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