Sunday, December 20, 2020

🎄🎶Your Hit Parade #8: I'm Sending a Letter to Santa Claus sung by Gracie Fields

Just when I thought I had pretty much covered all the popular Christmas music from WWII, I discover another song. Unfortunately, I couldn't find much about this song, since NYPL Performing Arts Library, my main source for musical information, is closed because of the pandemic, but I did find out a few interesting tidbits.

I'm Sending a Letter to Santa Claus was written by Spencer Williams and Lanny Rogers. Williams was an African American, who was born in New Orleans and known for his blues music. Williams suffered from wanderlust, and lived in Europe for a while. He was living in England when he wrote I'm Sending a Letter to Santa Claus with Lanny Rogers and according to Billboard, it was one of Spencer Williams' most popular songs. I couldn't find anything out about Lanny Rogers.

I'm Sending a Letter to Santa Claus was first sung by Gracie Fields in France at a troop concert in 1939 and became a big hit for her. In fact, the sheet music sold over 750,000 copies in the month before Christmas. It was also recorded by Vera Lynn in 1939, which you can listen to below. 

And here are the lyrics to I'm Sending a Letter to Santa Claus, in case you want to sing along:
I met a little fellow with a letter in his hand,
He asked me if I'd post it in the box for Fairyland.
I slipped it in the mailbox for that little curly head,
It seemed to make him happy very happy as he smiled and said

I'm sending a letter to Santa Claus.
My letter I hope he'll receive.
Oh, I wonder if he will please remember me
When he calls on Christmas Eve.
He'll get a lot of letter for playthings
From other girls and boys.
But I want my soldier daddy,
He's better than all the toys.
And so I'm sending my letter to Santa Claus
To bring daddy safely home to me. 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Saving Hanno: The Story of a Refugee Dog by Miriam Halahmy

It's November 1938, almost two weeks after Kristallnacht, and life is getting even more difficult for German Jews. For Rudi, 9, it means being picked on by the Hitler Youth boys in his Frankfurt school and now his kind teacher has been replaced with a cruel Nazi teacher. That afternoon, Rudi and his best friend Emil skip school and never return. By January 1939, Rudi and his older sister Lotte, 16, are pretty bored being at home, but when he is told that they will be traveling to England to live with a couple there, he doesn't want to leave his parents. The worst part is that Rudi will not be able to take his beloved dachshund, Hanno, with him. Now he really doesn't want to leave. Luckily, someone volunteers to take Hanno to England and put him in quarantine, then if all is well, he and Rudi will be reunited.

That makes leaving home a little better, but Rudi still doesn't want to leave his parents. Besides, he doesn't speak any English and then he learns that Lotte won't be living with him, that she'll be with another nearby family. 

The couple Rudi lives with, Auntie Irene and Uncle Don Evans, are very kind and patient, but Rudi is reticent to speak English. They do seem to know that he can't eat pork, so that isn't a problem though Rudi does miss Friday night Shabbos with his parents and Lotte. What he really worries about is school. What if the kids there don't like Jewish German boys and are mean, picking on him the way the Hitler Youth always did. But Rudi immediately makes a friend, a genial boy named Sidney Scudder. And through Sidney, Rudi makes even more friends.

Things are really great when Hanno comes out of quarantine. Rudi takes him everywhere during summer vacation and all the kids love him. But as summer goes by, England going to war with Germany becomes more and more of a possibility. In September 1939 war is declared, and the possibility of losing Hanno looms again. It seems the everyone is have their pets put down because of the war and rationing. When Rudi hears Uncle Don and Auntie Irene talking about having Hanno put down, Rudi knows he must act to save his beloved dog's life. But what can he do? Perhaps Sidney has an idea.

Saving Hanno is a story about an aspect of World War II that most people don't know or just don't want to think about. But the act of putting pets down was quite widespread at the beginning of the war in Britain. Pets weren't allowed in shelters, and rationing meant little left over for feeding a pet. This is the dilemma that Rudi faced with Hanno. After all he had given up - his home, his parents, to some extent even his sister - how could he give up his beloved Hanno, this time with no hope of getting him back? 

Besides depicting the fate of one beloved pet, Saving Hanno also illustrates two different situations that Jewish kids who were sent to England on the short-lived Kindertransport (1938-1940). Rudi is very welcomed by the childless Don and Irene Evans, who show consideration for his dietary needs,  as well as just treating with kindness and understanding. Lotte, on the other hand, ends up in a family that treats her like a free servant, keeping her out of school and giving her only one day off a week. One can only imagine what other situations the Kindertransport children found themselves in. 

Throughout his stay in London, Rudi never loses hope that his parents will find a way to leave Germany and get to England. To keep that hope alive, he keeps a notebook of things they might find helpful once they arrive. I thought it was a sweet touch, but also lets readers know some of the day-to-day things Rudi faced as a refugee.

After I finished reading Saving Hanno, I discovered that Miriam Halahmy had written an early book called The Emergency Zoo, a longer novel that is about the saving animals about to be put down because of the war. Now, I can't wait to read it. Saving Hanno is an ideal book for kids in the early middle school grades, while The Emergency Zoo looks to be a book for kids in later middle school. 

I think Saving Hanno is a story that kids will definitely like.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was purchased for my personal library 


Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy by Kenneth C. Davis

Germany's constitution, written at the end of WWI, was one of the most democratic charters ever produced. It isn't surprising, then, that Kenneth Davis begins his comprehensive history of five 20th century dictators with the story of how Adolf Hitler used Germany's new democratic constitution to become the absolute ruler one of the world's most repressive and destructive governments - and the way it was done was completely constitutionally correct.

Davis then devotes a chapter to the history of democracy from antiquity to the American Revolution, pointing out just how fragile the concept of democracy is, especially when its enemies seek to dismantle democratic governments and solidify power for themselves. What follows is a biography of five dictators, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Saddim Hussein, and their power grabs.

Davis shows that in their early lives, none of the Strongman - dictators who used any and every means possible to acquire power - showed any sign of what they were to become. Most had nondescript early beginnings, often with doting mothers and cruel fathers. Yet, all became charismatic figures, convincing people to support and follow them and to even commit atrocities in the name of their individual ideologies.

Following a short biography of their early lives, Davis traces the influences surrounding their rise to power, their seizure of power and their political philosophies for ruling their respective countries. Davis shows how each used propaganda to manipulate their citizens. For example, Mussolini recognized the need to control mass media and the beneficial use of fascist propaganda films shown in movie theaters, a lesson that the other four dictators learned all to well. And all found it important to mobilize young people with an eye to the future, such as the Mussolini's Vanguards, the Hitler Youth, Stalin's Young Pioneers, Mao's Red Guard, Hussein's Lion Cubs. 

Davis don't analyze these five dictatorships, nor does he compare them to each other. Rather, each is designed to serve as a warning - democracy can disappear so easily, all it takes is one antiestablishment populist leader claiming he speaks for the people and promising to return power to them. As Davis shows, they begin to dismantle democracy and move towards authoritarianism and he gives for warning signs:

1- Rejection of the democratic rules of the game;
2- Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents;
3- Toleration of encouragement of violence;
4- Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media.

If these warning signs so familiar or recognizable, you can see why this is not just an important historical lesson, but a timely work of our own time.

But Davis doesn't leave the reader feeling helpless in the face of a potential charismatic dictator. Indeed he gives the reader a blueprint of the Strongman's playbook for getting power and what to expect once he is in power. Most importantly, Davis tells the reader not to fall into the trap of thinking it can't happen again - because it can.

At the beginning of each biography, readers will find a time line tracing each dictator's life in the context of the place and times in which he lived and his rise to power. There are also a wide range of photographs throughout the book. Back matter includes an extensive Bibliography, including general and dictator-specific reading for further investigation. 

Davis has written an very readable, very relevant work that easily serves as a jumping off point for anyone interested in government, politics and the rise and fall of political systems.    

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was gratefully received from Casey Blackwell at Media Masters Publicity

Friday, December 4, 2020

The Book of Lost Names, a Novel by Kristin Harmel

I don't usually review adult novels on this blog, with the exception of mysteries, which are my guilty pleasure, but I found the description of this book intriguing enough to get it from the library. The author, Kristin Harmel, has written a number of books set in WWII and I suspect I will be reading more of them. The Book of Lost Names is a testament to the French Resistance, and the artistically talented people who used their skills to forge life-saving documents. 

It's 2005, and 86-year-old Eva Taube Abrams is still working in a Winter Park, Florida library when she reads an article about a German librarian, Otto Kühn, who is trying to return books that were looted by the Nazis towards the end of WWII to their rightful owners, or at least their families. What catches Eva's eye is a picture of a book called Epitres et Evangiles, a book she hasn't seen in over sixty years. She immediately makes a plane reservation to fly to Berlin and find Otto Kühn to get her book back.

Flashback to July 1942. The Nazi occupation of France has brought out a lot of anti-Semitism among the French, and now roundups of Jews are starting. Before her father is taken away by the Nazis, he tells Eva to visit his employer who will provide her with forged documents he has already paid for. But Monsieur Goujon only gives her all the materials she needs to forge her own documents. 

The forgeries, though not perfect, work and before long, Eva and her mother are on their way to Aurignon,  a small village in France's free zone. It doesn't take long for Eva's papers to be recognized as forgeries, but luckily it is by a member of the French Resistance. Soon, she finds herself in a secret library within the town's Catholic church, working with fellow forger Rémy Duchamp and creating documents for fleeing Jews and RAF pilots who need to get back to Britain.  

But when it came to forging documents for unaccompanied escaping Jewish children, Eva is adamant about preserving their real identity somehow. That way, if they survive the war, they can know who they really are. At first, Rémy is just as adamant about not keeping a record, but, afraid of losing Eva's forging talents, he works up a code that allows the names of the children to be hidden in a book called Epitres et Evangiles

There is definitely an attraction between Eva and Rémy, though neither acts on it, and Eva believes he was killed after the Aurignon resistance is betrayed. 

I can't say I was emotionally swept up in The Book of Lost Names, but I certainly did enjoy reading it enough that I finished it in one sitting.  It's clear that Hamel has done her research and put together an exciting tale of resistance and survival, and, lost love. It is a story based on a newspaper article in the NY Times about how the Germans were trying to find the owners of books stolen by the Nazis that Harmel read. I always find this slice of reality gives a story a real feeling of authenticity. 

The story goes back and forth between past and present, and one of the things I found interesting is that the present is narrated by older Eva, while there is an omniscient narrator for the past. Eva is such a realistic protagonist. She embodies all the fear, desperation, doubt, and courage of a young women caught in a life and death struggle to save herself and her mother, always believing that her father will one day come back to them. 

Two things I didn't like about this book were 1- Eva's mother, whose bitterness and anger didn't help Eva in her struggle to keep them out of Nazi hands; and 2- a few too many coincidences and close calls that probably wouldn't have happened under Nazi occupation.

Nevertheless, I would still definitely recommend this book for teens and adults.

You can find a reading guide for The Book of Lost Names courtesy of the publisher, Simon & Shuster, HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 15+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL