A Year of Borrowed Men by Michelle Barker

1944. Not all World War 2 stories, even those about prisoners, are about concentration camps and horror and death. Even those stories that exist in the shadow of death and destruction can be human and hopeful. A Year of Borrowed Men is one such hopeful war story about kindness and friendship.

Seven yer old Gerda’s father and brother have been “borrowed” by the German military to fight in the war. But the farm where Gerda and her mother and her four brothers and sisters live is necessary to the war effort, too. So the Nazi government sends three French prisoners of war to Gerda’s farm to help with the farm work.

The German families who were hosting the French prisoners were under strict orders not to treat them as family members or even as valued workers, but rather the prisoners were to be used as slave labor to support the German war effort and the feed the populace. However, Gerda’s mother tells her that the French men are only borrowed, that someday they will return to France, and in the meantime they are to be respected and well-treated. The growing friendship between little Gerda and the French prisoners demonstrates the possibility that even in a time of oppression, humanity can bloom.

The illustrations in this Canadian import are beautifully evocative of a rural island of peace in the midst of war. Renne Benoit, the illustrator, lives in Ontario, Canada, and the pictures remind me a little of photographs I have seen of the Canadian prairies, although the book is set in Germany. The watercolor and colored pencil illustrations are also quite similar in style to Renee Graef’s illustrations for the Little House picture books. If you like those pictures of cozy farm life, you’ll probably appreciate those found in The Year of Borrowed Men.

The story is based on the World War 2 experiences of the author’s mother. An afterword at the end of the book informs the reader that little Gerda, Ms. Barker’s mother, never saw her father and brother return from the war. She also never again saw the three Frenchmen who worked the farm after war was over, but she did remember the French “borrowed men” with fondness as “fruende” or “amis”.

I am pleased to add this picture book to the World War 2 section of my library as it gives a different perspective on the war and its many stories.

Baker’s Dozen: Books to Read for my Around the World Project

I’m planning a new project for 2016, an expansion of my Africa Project. This one is an around the world project in which I hope to read at least one children’s book from or related to each nation of the world. Some countries are easier than others to find books, available in English and written by a citizen of that country. I may have to settle for folktales retold by American or Births authors from some countries or even for books that are simply set in the target country, preferably written by someone who has at least visited the particular setting in the book.

So, here is the page for my Around the World Reading Project. Do you have any suggestions to add to my project list, especially for those countries for which I have no books listed? The books must be for children, available in English (translation or original) in the United States, and preferably written in and popular in the country of origin.

Here are thirteen of the books I already chose that I am planning to read this year:

Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall. (Australia)

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch. (Canada)

Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson. (Finland)

The Horse Without a Head by Paul Berna. (France)

The Adventures of Maya the Bee by Waldemar Bonsels, 1912. (Germany)

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. (India)

The Shadow of Ghadames by Joelle Stolz. (Libya)

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer. (American author) (Mozambique)

The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. (Netherlands)

Platero y yo by Juan Jimenez. (Spain)

The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. (Sweden)

Go Ahead, Secret Seven by Enid Blyton. (England)

Jamela’s Dress by Niki Daly. (South Africa)

I chose these particular books from the list mostly because I have them or have access to them. Have you read any of them? Any recommended or not?

The Collapse by Mary Elise Sarotte

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by Mary Elise Sarotte.

World Magazine just published its annual issue on books, and one of the books chosen as a runner-up for book of the year in the history/biography category was The Collapse. Coincidentally, I had already heard of the book and requested it from the library and had it in my stack of TBR books in the cradle next to my bed. (Since I have passed the years of child-bearing and baby-rocking, my handmade wooden cradle now serves as a books-to-be-read repository as it awaits the advent of grandchildren.)

I can see why The Collapse made World‘s shortlist of best books. It is a stunning account of a moment in history, a moment that changed history. And, as the author points out over and over, it could easily have not happened or have happened very differently. Inexorable violence, intimidation, and renewed repression could have been the operative words to describe the events of October and early November 1989 in Berlin and in greater Germany; instead, Ms. Sarotte uses the adjectives “coincidental” and “unexpected” and “improbable” and even, blessedly, “peaceful”.

In her book, Ms. Sarotte tries to explain how these many, many serendipitous events combined to allow or even produce the opening of the Berlin Wall and eventually the reunification of East and West Germany. The “why” is beyond the scope of the narrative and perhaps beyond the understanding of mere authors and readers. Sarotte does reiterate many times that the collapse of the Wall was not inevitable.

“The Wall’s opening was not a gift from political elites, East German or otherwise, and was in no way predetermined. It resulted from a remarkable constellation of actors and contingent events—and not a little courage on the part of some of the individuals directly involved—that came together in a precise but entirely unplanned sequence. And the larger, successful peaceful revolution surrounding the opening was a truly rare event, one to be considered carefully, not discounted. The history of 1989 shows just how many things have to go right for such a revolution to succeed.”

I am left with some questions of my own, questions that will never be answered this side of eternity, but that are nevertheless interesting to me from a Christian perspective:

The dissident movement in East Germany was birthed and nurtured in the churches of Leipzig and Berlin. Many of the dissidents were not believers, but were nevertheless willing and thankful to use the churches and their “peace prayer” meetings as a shelter and a staging area for demonstrations and peaceful protests against the East German government. Could the peaceful success of the revolution and the reordering of Germany’s culture and government be credited in part (or even in whole) to its genesis as a prayer movement? Perhaps God answered those repeated prayers for peace and justice?

What do historians and politicians mean when they talk about being “on the right side of history”? In the book Soviet leader Chernyaev says of Gorbachev: “He sensed the path of history and helped it to follow its natural path.” Impersonal History nevertheless has a will and a flow? How can this be? (It’s the same way that evolutionists talk about Nature doing this or that. How did Nature become a Force with a will and purpose? And do we humans discern that purpose?)

In a bigger way, could all of those fortuitous events of people being in the right place at the right time or absent from the right place at the right time or able to communicate or unable to communicate, all of those things that had to go right, could they have been orchestrated, not by politicians or revolutionaries, but rather by God himself? Maybe the lesson here is that the “remarkable constellation” was not “entirely unplanned”—just unplanned by man? Man proposes; God disposes.

The Collapse is not a book about God, just as the book of Esther in the Bible hardly mentions God—unless you have eyes to see the hand of God in all of history. I think it much more likely and believable that God is working His purposes out in the course of history than that History itself has an undefined will and an inscrutable purpose.

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The Extra by Kathryn Lasky

Leni Riefenstahl, in case you’ve never heard of her was Hitler’s pet film maker. She became famous with her 193 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Then, Hitler asked her to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl became the toast of the film world as she went on a publicity tour for her Olympics movie in the United States in 1938. She told a reporter while on tour: “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”

In 1940 Riefenstahl began to make a pet project called Tiefland (Lowland), set in Spain, filmed in Spain and in Germany, and financed by the German government. As extras for the film Riefenstahl used gypsies (Sinti and Roma), unpaid and imported from the concentration camps. The Extra by Kathryn Lasky tells the fictional story of one Sinti girl, Lilo, based on the true history of Anna Blach, a Sinti girl who served as Riefenstahl’s stunt double in the movie. Although Riefenstahl never admitted to mistreating or enslaving the Roma and Sinti extras who worked on Tiefland, it is known that she chose the extras for their “Spanish looks” from the camps and that many, if not all, of them were sent to Auschwitz to die after the filming was complete.

Lasky portrays Riefenstahl in the worst possible light. In The Extra, Leni Riefenstahl is a wolf, self-obsessed, cruel, and opportunistic. Her victims/slaves are the Romani who work and receive somewhat better treatment than they would have received in the camps, but who are subject to the director’s whims and casual acts of callous barbarity. In one scene, that may or may not be true, an extra is killed while the director is filming a scene with a wolf in which she asks the extra to bait the hungry creature with raw meat in order to get a good shot.

I found some of the most interesting material in the book in the author’s note at the end. Although Riefenstah was tried four times for her part in the perpetration of Nazi war crimes, she was never convicted of anything more than being a “follower” or “fellow traveler” of Hitler and the Nazis. She never apologized to the Roma and Sinti for her part in their enslavement and deaths during the filming of Tiefland. She insisted to the end that she was “not political” and that she didn’t know anything about the death camps, although she did grudgingly say in 2002, “I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps.” Riefenstahl lived to be 101 years old, and she is lauded to this day for her outstanding skill as a director and filmmaker and for her second career after the war as an excellent still photographer and underwater photographer.

Can you separate the person from his or her work? If Hitler had been a talented artist instead of a second rate one, could we look at his artwork and not see his atrocities? I find it difficult, and yet I read–and enjoy– lots authors who led less than exemplary lives. Somewhere there is a line between bad behavior that doesn’t spoil the art and egregiously bad behavior that spoils everything it touches. I would find it difficult to watch Tiefland, even though the film itself is supposed to be apolitical, with any kind of objectivity or appreciation.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

With the (winter) Olympics coming up and my aforementioned current interest in the 1930’s, The Boys in the Boat was just the ticket for reading on a very cold day in January. The nine Americans in the title were: Don Hume, Bobby Moch, Stub McMillin, Johnny White, Gordy Adam, Shorty Hunt, Roger Morris, Chuck Day, and Joe Rantz. They were the crew of an eight-man shell for the University of Washington. Their coach was Al Ulbrickson, and George Pocock, famous for building racing boats for Washington and for many other championship rowing teams, was their mentor and the builder of their shell, the Husky Clipper.

The story focuses on crew member Joe Rantz, since he was the member of the Olympic team that the author first met and from whom he heard the story of the “boys'” journey to the Berlin Olympics. I put “boys” in quotation marks because by the time their story was published last year (2013), the boys in the boat had all passed on. But Mr. Brown got to interview some of them before they died, and he spent a great deal of time researching the backgrounds of the boys, talking to family members, reading journals that some of the boys kept, and preparing to write an inspiring and flowing account of their rise to glory at the Olympics.

One of things that the book emphasizes is that rowing is not easy:

“Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment. Unlike most sports, which draw primarily on particular muscle groups, rowing makes heavy and repeated use of virtually every muscle in the body. . . And rowing makes these muscular demands not a odd intervals but in rapid sequence, over a protracted period of time, repeatedly and without respite. . . The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Royal Brougham marveled at the relentlessness of the sport: ‘Nobody ever took time out in a boat race,’ he noted ‘There’s no place to stop and get a satisfying drink of water or a lungful of cool, invigorating air. You just keep your eyes glued on the red, perspiring neck of the fellow ahead of you and row until they tell you it’s all over. . . Neighbor, it’s no game for a softy.'”

I was filled with admiration for these college boys who practiced in rain, sleet, wind and snow to go to a total of two races: one in their own Washington waters against arch rival, the University of California, and the other in Poughkeepsie, competing against California again and against all of the East Coast teams who saw the westerners as country cousins who were out of their league in the East. The persistence and fine-tuning of the team and its precise movements required all that the nine member team could give, mentally and physically–and then, a little more.

The book also made much of the contrast between Depression-era country boys struggling in Washington State to get an education and make the Olympic team at the same time, and Hitler’s desire to make the Berlin Olympics into a showcase for the Nazi regime in Germany and the Aryan youth of Germany who would be competing for the glory of the Reich. The impending war serves as a focus and a frame for the story, even though the boys in the boat were completely unaware of the imminent approach of a world war that would change all of their lives.

Some interesting mentions in the book:

Actor Hugh Laurie’s father, Ran Laurie, was member of the British eight-man crew at the 1936 Olympics.

Louis Zamperini (Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand) is mentioned once in this book, as possibly the only athlete on the boat to Europe for the Olympics who had a bigger appetite than rower Joe Rantz.

Swimmer Eleanor Holm was expelled from the U.S. Olympic team for drunkenness on the boat over, after an all-night party with some journalists, who then proceeded to make headlines with The Eleanor Holm Story in newspapers all over the United States.

The coxswain for the team, Bobby Moch, found out for the first time in a letter from his father just before he left to go to the Olympics, that his relatives in Europe, whom he had never met, were Jewish, and therefore that he was of Jewish heritage.

Hitler’s pet filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, made a well-regarded propaganda film about the 1936 Olympics, called Olympia. The film was secretly funded by the Nazi government, and it was shown all over the world to great acclaim.

All in all, The Boys in the Boat is a great book for anyone interested in sports stories in general, rowing in particular, the rise of Nazism, the 1930’s, Olympic history, and just plain inspirational stories of perseverance and courage. If there were a few extraneous details, they were details that I enjoyed learning. And the prose was well above average.

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

“Eddie Chapman was a charming criminal, a con man, and a philanderer. He was also one of the most remarkable double agents Britain has ever produced.”

I like spy stories, especially true spy stories. Author Ben MacIntyre’s story of Eddie Chapman and his activities as the consummate double agent for Britain during World War II is particularly fascinating because it’s well-researched and full of details that were gleaned from recently declassified MI5 files.

So, first, I had to get straight the difference between MI5 and MI6:

“The Security Service (MI5) is the UK’s security intelligence agency. It is responsible for protecting the UK, its citizens and interests, against the major threats to national security. The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) operates world-wide and is responsible for gathering secret intelligence outside the UK in support of the government’s security, defence and foreign and economic policies.”

Well, that’s clear, but I can see how during a war like WW II when the outside threats (of German infiltration and even invasion) were quickly becoming inside threats, the lines would get a little blurred. Anyway, Eddie Chapman worked for MI5 because he came to England as a Nazi spy and saboteur. When he reached Britain, parachuted in by his German employers, he immediately reported to MI5 about what the Germans had taught him and what they wanted him to do while he was “in the field.” (The Nazi wanted him to sabotage and blow up a factory where British warplanes called Mosquitos were being manufactured.)

Mr. Chapman is an interesting character, a very flawed hero. He was “a man who kept every option open, who seemed congenitally incapable of taking a bet without hedging it.” Terence young, the filmmaker, who had known Chapman before the war, wrote to MI5 officials about Chapman,”One could give him the most difficult of missions knowing that he would carry it out and that he would never betray the official who sent him, but that it was highly probable that he would, incidentally, rob the official who sent him out. . . . He would then carry out his [mission] and return to the official whom he had robbed to report.” Chapman had a girl in every port, or country, and he seduced each of them into thinking that she was the only one. But when none of his long-term partners was available, he found it necessary to visit prostitutes or find a new paramour. He performed some incredibly valuable missions of misinformation and spying for the British, but he was paid mostly by the Germans who believed that he had done great things for their side.

If you’re interested in World War II, British intelligence services, James Bond and the like, espionage, or just morally ambivalent characters, Agent Zigzag is a good read. MacIntyre does tell what happened to the major players in this episode of double and even triple cross after the war was over, and the index is useful for finding specific incidents and information if you’re studying the era and the subject.

The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow

Nominated for 2011 Cybil Awards, Young Adult Fiction category. Nominated by Teacher.Mother.Reader.

Berlin, 1935-1938. Fourteen year old Karl Stern doesn’t look Jewish, and he doesn’t feel Jewish. His family has never been religious, and Karl’s name doesn’t give him away either. However, Germany is slowly but surely becoming a place where it doesn’t matter what you think or believe or feel: being Jewish is like being a rotten apple. And, according to Nazi propaganda, the rot will come out and become apparent for all to see.

So, Karl is one of those “self-loathing” Jews who denies his heritage and just wants to fit in. He wishes he could join the Hitler Youth like all of the other boys in his school. He wishes he weren’t Jewish. The problem with reading these Holocaust and pre-Holocaust novels is that one knows the ending. Karl won’t be able to hide from his Jewish background for long. His family isn’t safe in Germany no matter how much his father thinks that Nazism is a passing political phase. The Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht and Dachau and the entire Holocaust itself are coming, impending doom hanging over the events of any novel set in pre-war Germany, especially any novel involving a Jewish protagonist.

Yet, The Berlin Boxing Club held several surprises and revelations for me. I didn’t know much about German heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling who stars in this novel as Karl’s mentor. As Karl learns to box from the champ, he “comes of age”, and he learns to respect his own father, an intellectual and an art dealer with his own secret past. Over the course of the novel, Max Schmeling, the hero of Aryan racial superiority, has two fights with black American heavyweight champion, Joe Louis. I had a vague memory of the matches, but I didn’t remember who won.

I learned about Schmelling, about the culture and atmosphere of pre-war Berlin, about the art scene in Berlin at that time, about boxing, and most of all, about how complicated people can be. Schmeling hobnobs with the Nazi elite, including Hitler himself, and yet Schmeling’s manager is Jewish.

Karl feels the contradictions and conflicts of the time within himself. He’s an artist and a fighter. He loves his intellectual father, but he identifies with the more physical men at the Berlin Boxing Club. He despises and fears homosexuals, but it is a homosexual friend who rescues him and his sister on Kristallnacht. He admires and is grateful to Max Schmeling, but he doesn’t know if he can really trust him.

I would recommend this book for older teens. Some of the scenes and characters are too mature for younger readers. As I think about it, the book would make a good movie, but it would definitely be rated at least PG-13, probably R.