Wednesday, June 29, 2022
Sunday, June 19, 2022
To understand just how the world ended up in a war that began on 28 September 1914 and was supposed to end by Christmas, Knutson takes the reader back to the globalizing world of the 19th century in Chapter One, Alliances Between Nations. She shows that some of the factors that led to WWI in the late 1800s were the unification of Germany, making it a stronger, more powerful country; new and better advanced military technologies and the itch to test them out; disenfranchised groups, such as workers and women, organizing, making them a strong enough force to throw the balance of power off in many countries; the rise of nationalist groups; and the economics of the Industrial Revolution that helped the rich grow richer, and the poor remain poor.
Chapter Two, The Dominoes Fall, looks at impact the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajo by a Bosnian Serb political activist had on the already strained relationship between the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and Serbia. Feeling that Serbia needed to be put in its place, Franz Joseph, the reigning monarch of Austria-Hungary, issued an ultimatum to Serbia - aside from taking responsibility for its terrorist activity and issuing an apology, Serbia would agree to be annexed by Austria-Hungary. The ultimatum already had the support of Germany, and both empires knew that Britain, France and Russia would never support it. And they were right - Knutson shows quite clearly how quickly Europe mobilized and sides were taken.
In Chapter Three, All's Not Quiet on the Western Front, Knutson explores the war beginning with the invasion of Belgium by Germany's powerful military with the intention of using Belgium as a way in to conquer France. The fighting was brutal and bloody, even with the help of the British. Soldiers dug deep trenches across No Man's Land from each other, and though the war didn't end by Christmas, it was the year of the famous Christmas Truce.
Chapter Four, Old Strategies, New Tech, Knutson shows that despite all kinds of new weapons, that from 1915 to 1917, neither side on the Western Front made any real advances since both sides had these new, powerful weapons. It was a war the introduced air power, U-boats, and tanks, but also a poison gas that not only destroyed the enemy, but settled in the land and water making them lethal. Gas masks were developed for protection but the gas lingered in the air. Armored vehicles, or tanks, were also developed to enable crossing No Man's Land areas. And U-boats were used for torpedoing ships carrying supplies.
While the war raged on the Western Front, Chapter Five looks at The Eastern Front and Revolution in Russia. Russia may have been part of the Allied forces, but as Knutson shows, they left a trail of starvation, death and destruction as they advanced. Russian troops were particularly brutal towards Jewish residents wherever they went, believing that Jews were "to blame for the wrongs of the world." (pg. 79) Additionally, the Ottoman Empire, which had never trusted Armenian Christians, claimed they were to blame for losses during the winter of 1914-1915. Arrests and executions of intellectuals and community leaders began, and later women, children and the elderly were forced to relocate in the Syrian desert, resulting in the deaths of thousands. Then, Knutson describes how, in 1917, Russian revolutionaries fed up with the Tsar and the war began protesting aided by former soldiers who were now police officers. Once the Tsar's rule was toppled, a provisional government was set up, led by Vladimir Lenin, and the Bolshevik revolutionaries refused to continue taking part in the war.
Chapter Six, Neutral No Longer, looks at the United States participation in WWI. Up until 1917, the US had remained neutral, though they did send supplies to the Allied countries. What happened that cause America to finally enter the war? According to Knutson, the US had a policy of staying out of European politics since George Washington's farewell address. Because of that, it didn't maintain a strong military and was not prepared for war. But in 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed and sunk the passenger ship the RMS Lusitania, and by 1917, Germany let the world know that from now on merchant and passenger vessels were fair game. This was followed by the Zimmermann telegram, sent from Germany to Mexico and promising that if the US entered the war, and Mexico sided with Germany, they would help Mexico recover lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Now, many Americans wanted the US to enter the war, but as it shown, not all of them.
Chapter Seven, A Fragile Peace, focuses on how peace was finally brokered and what that meant after everyone stopped fighting. An accounting shows that the number of human lives lost because of this war was staggering and not always on the battlefield. But, as is also shown, the war changed "the economic and social character of the world." (pg 115) The dollar became the new global currency, women received the vote, but African American soldiers were welcomed home with increased violence from whites who were afraid they would claim rights and take jobs away. And sadly, peace wasn't to last before the world found itself at war again.
Overall, Knutson has shown how World War I had a far reaching impact of the world in general and individuals on every continent in ways that make this complicated war really understandable for young scholars.
Saturday, June 11, 2022
Monday, June 6, 2022
Six months later, in January 1930, Joseph Stalin begins his invasion of Ukraine, which was already part of the Soviet Union, but his goal is to get rid of the Ukrainians by starving them to death. Stalin's activists encourage the people to join them and become part of their collective farming scheme, but Katya's family resists. Those not joining the collective have high taxes inflicted on them, then their food, farming equipment, and farm animals are taken in lieu of the tax money the Russians know they don't have. The resisters begin to disappear. As things become worse, Katya's father is arrested. And it is decided she will marry Pavlo, and her sister Alina will marry his brother Kolya. But when Pavlo hears that a resistance movement is being put together in the next village, he decides he must go and fight.
Flash forward seventy years to Illinois. Cassie, a widow who lost her husband a year earlier in a car accident while take their daughter out for ice cream, has all but withdrawn from life. But then her mother convinces her to move in with her Ukrainian grandmother, whom she calls Bobby, because of her age and her recent odd behavior. Cassie hears her taking to herself, and then begins to find food hidden all around the house and yard. She also finds a diary her grandmother has been writing in, but it is in Ukrainian. Luckily, there is an unattached, handsome man named Nick living down the street who is friends with her grandmother and who knows Ukrainian. Eventually, her grandmother decides that her story needs to be told and gives Cassie permission to work on it with Nick.
Ultimately, the two stories, told in alternating chapters, come together, and I don't think you will be very surprised to hear that Katya and Bobby are the same person. If I sound like I am making light of this novel, I am not, I just don't want to give too much away, and there is a lot going on. I found myself so drawn to young Katya's story, but some of the details were really difficult to read. I knew that Stalin was cruel, but I didn't know that he had committed genocide through starvation in Ukraine (the Ukrainian word for this is the Holodomor). I felt exactly like Cassie when she learned what her grandmother had survived "How did I not know about this?" And it certainly compelled me to do some research of my own to find out more about the Holodomor.
On the other hand, I have to be honest and say I wasn't particularly interested in Cassie's story. As soon as I read about Nick, I knew where things where going to go. So yeah, that part was predictable. But she was a good vehicle for adding more information about Bobby into the story. Trauma just doesn't go away and Bobby's life after she left Ukraine up to the present needed to be included.
The Memory Keeper of Kyiv is a book that I definitely recommend and I believe it will appeal to history geeks like myself, to anyone who have been following events in present day Ukraine, and there is even enough romance for fans of that genre.
Thank you, NetGalley and Boldwood Books for granting me a review copy of this book.
Tuesday, May 24, 2022
Just a Girl: A True Story of World War II by Lia Levi, pictures by Jess Mason, translated from the Italian by Sylvia Notini
When war is declared by Germany, Italy joins with Hitler and goes to war also. Within three hours of declaring war, French planes are dropping bombs in Turin. When Lia is in third grade, the family savings run out, and her Papa needs to find a job, but no one is allowed to hire Jews. The family decides to move to Milan, but when a promised job for Papa falls through, they are on the move again. This time, they are off to Rome.
Lia and her sisters have a grandmother who isn't Jewish and their first summer living in Rome, they are sent to stay with her during their summer vacation for three months. But the following summer, the war is getting closer to Rome, with the Americans landing in Sicily. And one night, they wake up to learn that Mussolini is no longer Italy's prime minister. Which should have been good news for Italy's Jews, except the Germans moved in and occupied the country. And where the Italians weren't always so good about enforcing Mussolini's laws, the Germans are quick to enforce Hitler's.
Lia's parents decide to send her and her sisters to live in a Catholic boarding school for safety's sake. By now, Lia is in her second year of middle school. She is given a false last name, Lenti instead of Levi, and must learn Catholic prayers. Then, in October, Lia's mother shows up at the school. She tells them that the Germans raided the Jewish quarter in Rome and took everyone away, but she doesn't know where her husband is. Luckily, they are all able to spend the rest of the war living at the boarding school.
This memoir, translated from the Italian by Sylvia Notini, is told in simple language though the deprivations, fears and anxieties the family experienced are made very clear. Graphic details are not included, and has caused one of my colleagues to complain that she felt it diminished the Holocaust. I don't agree. It is a unique story, but it is one person's actual experience and until Mussolini was removed from office, things were not as bad for Italian Jews as for Jews in Nazi occupied countries.
I did like reading Lia Levi's recollections about living through the war. I thought she included a lot of small, but interesting details about what life was like for her family which are parts of history the books don't always tell you about. And Levi used two voices to tell her story - one is the first person account of young Lia and the other is the first person memories of the older Lia giving more information that the younger Lia wouldn't have known, but which helps readers to understand what was happening. My only complaint is that the timing was hard to follow. There aren't many dates mentioned and a timeline would have been very welcome.
This is a poignant narrative, full of love, laugher, sadness, and loss, but an ideal way to introduce the Holocaust to young readers. And, right now, I think these stories need to be told and read.