Double Play: The Hidden Passions Behind the Double Assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk – Mike Weiss


On Friday, November 18, 1978, San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk (1930-1978) sat down and pressed play on a tape recorder. The reason for the recording was that Milk wanted his words played in the event of his assassination. As a gay politician in the political spotlight in San Francisco, Milk knew that made him a target for rivals and others who disapproved of homosexuals. Less than two weeks later, he was shot and killed on November 27 along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (1929-1978) by former District 8 City Supervisor Dan White (1946-1985). After shooting Milk and Moscone, White left City Hall, called his wife Mary Ann who accompanied him to a police station where he turned himself in. To San Franciscans, it must have seemed as if all hell was breaking loose. On November 18, news reports from Guyana had alerted the world to the massacre at Jonestown, Guyana where Jim Jones (1931-1978) and the People’s Temple Church had settled after leaving the United States. More than 900 people died in the mass suicide and murder. Jones escaped the poisoning and instead died from a gunshot wound to the head. The double murders at City Hall sent the city into turmoil and White’s arrest left his former colleagues stunned. White was ultimately convicted of voluntary manslaughter on May 21, 1979 and the verdict set off pandemonium in the city which became known as the White Night Riots. To many, the crime did not make any sense, both White and Milk were beloved by their constituents and highly popular. But beneath the surface, tensions were simmering in the cut-throat world of politics and as author Mike Weiss reveals here, there were hidden passions behind the double assassination.

Some readers may be familiar with the assassinations and may have lived in San Francisco during the time in which the events took place. The book is written in such an engaging style that even readers who know nothing about any of the figures will be able to follow the story without issue. In fact, Weiss provides a recap of the lives of Moscone, Milk and White before jumping into the crazy atmosphere of politics in San Francisco. What I noted as I read is that the book is really three stories in one that merge towards the end as the tragic finale plays out. Personally, I was previously familiar with the story, having read Randy Shilts’ The Mayor of Castro Street and Milk’s An Archive of Hope. And my friends will tell you that Milk is one of my favorite films and Sean Penn absolutely nailed his role as the slain politician. In January 2018, I visited San Francisco and was fortunate to visit the Castro. My girlfriend at the time did not know much about Milk having grown up in another country, but I quickly filled her in and had her watch the film before we departed from New York. Today, what used to be Castro Camera is now the Human Rights Campaign office. But upstairs, is a cut out of Harvey looking down over the street he called home for some of the years he lived in San Francisco. At the time of his death, he had been living in a different location as shown on his swearing in card which is included in the book. Although I knew a significant amount of information about Milk’s story, the book was eye-opening and is filled with seemingly endless bits of information. The author takes us deep behind the scenes so that we can learn what really had been taking place between the politicians at City Hall.

White is undoubtedly the central character in the story for obvious reasons. And while Weiss does shift the focus at times to either Milk or Moscone, we always come back to White as he breaks into politics, a world he was wholly unprepared for. After parting ways with Goldie Judge and connecting with Ray Sloan, White sharpens his appearance but his success in gaining a seat on the Board of Supervisors could not help his personal issues which are explored by the author in ways that I have not seen before. In the film, Josh Brolin delivers a good performance, but the script left much out regarding White’s past. It did capture the essence of his character which is unraveled here. And what we learn, is that the world in which Dan White lived was quite dark.

Moscone is the book’s protagonist but what we learn about the persona life of the mayor is sure to surprise some. There were many things that I did not know about Moscone and in the movie, his character is given limited screen time. Victor Garber was convincing as Moscone but his laid back and composed appearance stands in contrast to the larger-than-life Moscone that we learn of in the book. The mayor in this story is anything but laid back and his antics are sure to repulse more conservative readers. However, Moscone knew how to use the system and his shrewdness as a politician is clear. But I can only wonder how he escaped scandal for as long as he did. Weiss spills a lot of the dirt and it will leave you shaking your head. Despite his personal shortcomings, Moscone knew how to appeal to those whose votes he needed the most and we can only speculate as to where he would have gone next after serving as mayor.

Harvey is the book’s star in the sense that as opposed to White and Moscone, Milk comes across with vastly different energy. But like the other two, his personal life was a mixed bag, and the film showed this the way things were. Diego Luna brilliantly brings Jack Lira back to life on the silver screen and paired perfectly with Penn. But, as we see in the film, Milk had other lovers who had taken their own lives. And in contrast to how it is portrayed in the film, Milk was far more familiar with San Francisco than I had realized. Any book about Milk will undoubtedly discuss the concept of homosexuality. Weiss does not overly focus on the matter and does a great job of keeping the subject relevant without the book having the feel as if it has bias one way or the other. In fact, as I read through the book, the story was so engaging that Milk’s orientation became a complete afterthought. The suspense in the book is kept on high and I assure you that once you start reading you will be hard pressed to put the book down. It really is that good.

As the story moves forward, it becomes clear that the three main figures are on a collision course through destiny. Weiss provides a daily summary of the week leading up to the murders, beginning roughly after the events at Jonestown. By the time the assassinations take place, the metaphorical three-way dance the three were engaged in becomes vividly clear. Milk is the link between Moscone and White but all three have their own agendas and ambitions putting them in inevitable conflict with each other. The day of the murders is discussed from start to finish and includes details left out by filmmakers, in particular the role of Denise Apcar, White’s assistant at the time of his resignation. The supervisor would famously change his mind about resignation and ask for his former job back, sparking a heated discussion with Moscone a week before the murders. And as White commits the violent murders, chaos erupts at City Hall with police converging on the building from all angles in search of White. The President of the Board of Supervisors, Dianne Feinstein, suddenly finds herself thrust into the mayor’s seat and her importance in the story cannot be understated. Today, she is still going strong as a member of the United States Senate. Following White’s surrender, he is interviewed, booked and officially charged with murder. But this is just the beginning and trial that ensued, which is summarized exceptionally well by the author will leave you staring in disbelief.

Today, we know which verdict the jury reached but at the time the trial, most people knew White would be convicted but no one was sure on which charge it would be. In the courtroom, prosecutor Thomas F. Norman (1930-2009) and defense lawyers Doug Schmidt engage in a fierce battle while White’s fate hangs in the air. The author summarizes each showing their personalities and skills as legal professionals. But what is more important, is that Weiss shows how and why the jury reached its verdict. This includes the missteps by the prosecution and and the brilliance in the defense already hindered by White’s own statements to the San Francisco Police. A complex game of chess is on display as each side seeks to outmaneuver the other. In the end, White escaped first degree murder, but by then he was already a broken man. Following his conviction and transfer to Soledad State Prison, we learn more about his post-conviction life through the author and the reality he faced upon release in 1984. And White’s final days are also revisited, providing a haunting closure to an incredible book.

If you are in search of a book that fully explains the murders of Milk and Moscone, you cannot go wrong with this beautifully written account by Weiss. And if you have never watched it, I strongly recommend Rob Epstein’s award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk which I am sure you will find to be a solid film about his life. I enjoyed the documentary myself but loved reading this just a little more. Highly recommneded.

ISBN-10 : 0982565054
ISBN-13 : 978-0982565056

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde – Franny Moyle

ConnieIt is no secret that I absolutely love books and this blog is proof of that. The discovery of new reading material literally gives me a dopamine rush that only fellow bookworms can understand. When I saw this book about Constance Wilde (1858-1898), the wife of the late playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), I knew that I had to purchase it. I often quote Wilde in conversation and when writing.  He had a keen sense of human nature and his quotes still hold true today.  At the height of his career, his plays were a hit, and the money was rolling in. But a scandal surrounding his sexual orientation changed all of that and left him a bitter and broken man. His story is complicated but what is often left out of it, is the role of his wife Constance whose own story is equally as moving.  Author Franny Moyle takes a look at her life in this biography that just might make you look at the Wildes in a very different light.

Admittedly, I did not know an extensive amount of information about Constance Wilde.  I knew that Wilde himself had been married and that he was also known to have relations with men.  But what I found in the book far surpassed any of my expectations.  Although Wilde made his fortune in England, their story actually begins in Ireland, where both of them are born.  Moyle provides a brief history of both families before the couple ties the knot.  Within a couple of years, they welcomed two sons, Cyril (1885-1915) and Vyvyan (1886-1967).  To outsiders, the Wildes’ marriage must have seemed like a fairytale come true but behind the scenes there was far more to the story. In fact, the argument could be made that the best part of their marriage was the wedding itself.  Oscar was not known to be simple by any means and the pictures that survive today emphasize that. Constance had signed for a roller coaster ride with a man whose life would be anything but ordinary.  And in the process, she would go through her own trials and tribulations, related mainly to the emotional turmoil created by the man she loved and his “sons”.  At first, the couple has a fairly normal existence with Oscar even attempting to obtain a regular job.  But as fame sets in and the playwright is allowed to indulge in his fancies, trouble slowly brews.  And in conservative Britain, it only spelled doom for the future to come. In nineteenth century, England, sexual freedom was restricted and to be homosexual or bi-sexual was extremely risky and opened on to blackmail quite easily.  Oscar did not seem to mind and his relationships with the same sex were carefully kept secrets by close associates.  His drift away from Constance took hold when Robbie Ross (1869-1918) enters the story and accelerates when he meets Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945), known as “Bosie”.  The young Lord would play a crucial role in the lives of both Oscar and Constance in ways they could never have imagined.

There is so much material about the couples’ life that it is easy to forget that Constance is the focus of the book.  And although Moyle covers Oscar’s escapades to highlight the growing distance between husband and wife, she does make sure to tell Constance’s story as well which has its own interesting moments.  One of them is undoubtedly her interest in the occult and association with the Golden Dawn, which we would consider to be a secret society.  Whatever Constance did believe, organized religion was not at the top of her list.  Further, she comes across as quite liberal for her time and fully believed in woman’s rights. Her efforts to help other ladies of stature excel in life are shown to emphasize her standing in society.  But in spite of her successes and fame, her relationship with her own children was complicated as well in particular with younger son Vyvyan.  As Moyle explains, Vyvyan was aware of his mother’s feelings and she relays his thoughts in this passage:

“When he grew up, Vyvyan acknowledged the fact that he was something of a disappointment. He adored Constance, he said, but noted that I was always conscious of the fact that both my father and my mother really preferred my brother to myself; it seems to be an instinct in parents to prefer their first born … I was not as strong as my brother, and I had more than my fair share of childish complaints, which probably offended my father’s aesthetic sense … And most of all, both my parents had hoped for a girl.”

Mother and son started off rough but there are bright moments in the story, particular towards the end.  Constance’s brother Otho Holland Lloyd (1856-1943) adds a crazy sub-story that left me shaking my head. Oscar’s brother Willie Wilde (1852-1899) is perhaps the most tragic figure in the entire story, but he is mentioned only on occasion.  Readers will notice that Constance is plagued by a mysterious illness that becomes crippling as the story progresses.  At the time, doctors had very little knowledge of what was taking place but this article sheds light of what is the most likely explanation for her decline and demise.  It is clear in the story that the bouts of pain are debilitating, and I can only imagine the level of discomfort she must have been in.  Added to that misery was Oscar’s galivanting across Europe with young men, putting himself and the family at risk.  Oscar becomes engulfed in his new world without a care in the world, but every story has its antagonist and that applies here in the form of John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry (1844-1900), who was Bosie’s father.  At this point in the book, the story takes a dark and tragic turn resulting in Oscar’s downfall, marriage turmoil and Constance’s flight to save herself and her two boys.

As I read through the story, I could not help to think that Oscar was either crazy, oblivious or so sure of his well-kept secrets that he did not stop to consider that his alternative lifestyle could be his demise.  Queensberry was certainly a rough figure and Oscar had too much ego to make a retreat.  Instead, he meets fire with fire and thus, the stage was set for the battle that changed Wilde’s life and that of his family.   A scandal of that magnitude would hardly register in 2020 but in 1895, tolerance was nothing like it is today and Oscar soon learned that a steep price was to be paid for his extravagance, and his life with Constance was never the same again.  Readers will feel a sense of loss and grief as the playwright’s mental and physical health declines while incarcerated. And although Oscar does get released, his best days are behind him but incredibly, his spirit is not completely broken. I stared in shock while reading about his actions after leaving prison.  It was one more episode in the crazy and unorthodox life of Oscar Wilde.

Constance plays a significant role in Oscar’s well-being while in jail and following his release.  But her duty was to her two sons and she does shy away from doing whatever is needed to protect her two boys.  However, her love for Oscar never wavers but she makes it clear to him where she stands.  And as the couple sees each other for the last time, a sense of dread hangs over the story.  Towards the end, they were separated geographically with Constance in Genoa, Italy and Oscar Paris.  They are two tragic figures bonded by marriage, parenthood, and their love for the stage. Today, Constance Wilde is hardly mentioned in discussions about the famed playwright, but she was far more important than most have realized.  Yet, she did live a tragic and scandalous life that is capture here for all to see.

““The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” – Oscar Wilde


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – Harriet Jacobs


JacobsUndeniably, slavery is one of America’s darkest moments.  It was an extremely dehumanizing system of exploitation and violence that destroyed families, claimed lives and helped propel the nation towards the Civil War.  Even today, the issue is hotly contested as we continue to reconcile with its residual effects.  We have come a very long way from the era of legalized slavery in the United States but still have a long way to go before achieving true equality for all.  Black Americans have long suffered grave injustices but there is no need to go into them here.  Instead, the focus will be on this autobiography that was written by a former slave named Harriet Jacobs (1813 or 1815 – 1897).   In the book, the main character has the pseudonym of Linda Brent, who is the slave of the book’s antagonists, Dr. Flint and his family.  And what she reveals about her life reaffirms the many dark truths about a slave’s life. 

It may be hard for some readers to even approach the subject matter due to its nature but in the early 1800s, Jacobs’ experience was the daily reality for thousands of black men and women living in the Deep South. However, in this case there is a rare exception: Linda knows how to read and write.  Generally, it was deeply forbidden for slave to become literate and nearly all faced death if it was discovered they had been reading and writing without the slave-owner’s knowledge.  After introducing us to her immediate family, the story picks up in pace when Dr. Flint enters the picture.  Linda finds herself maturing and catches the roving eye of the doctor, resulting in Mrs. Flint making Linda the target of her rage. Dr. Flint’s infatuation sets the tone for the rest of the book which is a struggle between good and evil until the very end. Linda’s brother Benjamin, provides us with the first act of resistance which shows how many blacks refused to be part of the degrading system of slavery.  He would not be the last and even news of Nat Turner’s (1800-1831) rebellion reaches our main character.  Linda possesses a keen eye to observe the dysfunction of slavery and American society.  She reflects on the plight of the black man and makes a statement that captures the very essence of humiliation and degradation endured by black people: 

“I admit that the black man is inferior. But what is it that makes him so? It is the ignorance in which white men compel him to live; it is the torturing whip that lashes manhood out of him; it is the fierce bloodhounds of the South, and the scarcely less cruel human bloodhounds of the north, who enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. They do the work.” 

Dr. Flint is relentless in his pursuit and develops a fanatical obsession with ruling every aspect of her life.  The two engage in a cat and mouse game with Linda doing her best to avoid the doctor’s advances.  Her grandmother serves as her guardian angel but is limited in her capacity due to her status as a slave.  Linda eventually becomes a mother herself and the rage of the doctor at this perceived “indignation” only reinforces her will to one day become free.  The moment of clarity that comes to her, sets the stage for the second part of the book as she makes her break and finds a way north with the help of another guardian angel who finds a way for her to go north to the Free States. 

Upon arrival in the North, Linda soon embraces a new world.  And while prejudice still exists, she is finally able to live on her terms and away from the doctor. But he proves to be more resilient than expected and his actions to reclaiming her provide the remainder of the book with its heightened suspense that will keep readers in its grip. Linda moves throughout the Northeast, stopping in Philadelphia, New York and Boston.  And incredibly, she experiences a trip abroad that widens her perspective on life in America.  Before returning she informs us that: 

“I remained abroad ten months, which was much longer than I had anticipated. During all that time, I never saw the slightest symptom of prejudice against color. Indeed, I entirely forgot it, till the time came for us to return to America.” 

Although prejudice did and does exist in Europe, the American system of slavery is noted for its brutality.  And America’s dark past with Jim Crow and other systems of discrimination have had profound effects on current day affairs. But her comment, reminds me of how the legendary musician Miles Davis (1926-1991) felt about Paris and returning to America.  Linda does love her country and has found happiness in the North, far removed from the clutches of Dr. Flint.  But a series of events results in her relocating to escape slave hunters. And the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 sends shockwaves through the communities of free blacks and Abolitionists determined to end slavery once and for all.   She does not fall victim to the act in the story and continues to live as a free woman, due to the interventions of a close friend who could not accept seeing her constantly fleeing for her life.  Dr. Flint also meets his fate in the book and it helps bring the story to the conclusion we all will be hoping for.  And although this is just one account of life in bondage, there were millions of others who had similar experiences.  This story is a critical part of America’s dark and ugly past that continues to haunt us today.  Highly recommended. 

Study the past if you would define the future”  ― Confucius


William L. Shirer: Twentieth Century Journey: The Start, 1904–1930; The Nightmare Years, 1930–1940; A Native’s Return, 1945–1988 – William L. Shirer

shirer Quite some time has passed since my last post, mainly due to work matters and my being fully invested in finishing the book that is the subject of this review.  Originally, I had planned on reading this three-part autobiography by William L. Shirer (1904-1993) one book at a time but Amazon also offers them combined and I decided to take the plunge.  Shirer  is by far, one of my favorite authors and there was no way I could pass this one up.  Some of you may be familiar with him and recall that he is best known for his time as a CBS correspondent stationed in Nazi Germany during Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) rise to power. Upon returning to the United States, he moved to radio full time and lived the rest of his years as an author of historical non-fiction that has stood the test of time. 

At the onset, I did not fully appreciate the length of the material.  And to say that the e-book is a long would be an understatement.  But contained within is an incredible story by one of America’s greatest witnesses to history.  Up first is volume one called “The Start” and his story begins in the Midwest in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 04, 1904, shortly after the turn of the century.  America was a very different place and Shirer is a master storyteller who brings the distant past back to life, allowing us to re-live what it was like in a time before cars, planes and the modern technology we take for granted daily.  As Shirer tells his story, he reveals something about his family’s ancestry that would later be a source of irony in the book. To be more specific, Shirer explains: 

“The family name originally was Scheurer, a fairly common name in the German Black Forest region. Some time during the trek west it was Anglicized to Shirer. My grandfather attached no importance to the change, explaining to me once, when I asked him, that it was done mainly because the town officials and tradesmen mistakenly kept writing it the way they thought it sounded, and it was simpler to go along with them.” 

In a twist of fate, the author of German stock, would make his name famous by reporting on the atrocities of the Third Reich in his family’s fatherland.  But Germany was not his first destination as a foreign news correspondence. In fact, Germany was not even on his list of places to be stationed.  How and why he left the United States to work in Europe is fully explained and it is clear that from a young age, Shirer’s life was destined to be anything but ordinary.  It surely was a complex fate and Shirer sums up the turn of events in this passage: 

“I had come over to Europe for two months. As it turned out, I would remain there to live and work for two decades, experiencing and chronicling the remaining years of an uneasy peace, the decline of the democracies, the rise of the dictatorships, turmoil, upheaval, violence, savage repression, and finally war.” 

Shirer did return to the United States early in his career, but a meeting with Robert Rutherford “Colonel” McCormick (1880-1955) of the Chicago Tribune turned out to be more than he could ever expected and set him down the path that would take him back to Europe and finally Berlin, where he would witness the rise of Nazi Germany.  The first volume is a good and Shirer’s memories of his time in Europe wherein he convalesced with some of the greatest writers and stars are interesting.  Among the many stars who make an appearance are literary greats Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961).  Shirer is like a human recorder, observing everything and brining the past back to life through his words.  It becomes clear that Europe is a second home and a place more familiar to him than the United States.  And though he would eventually return home, the reader will begin to see that Europe is the place where the best is yet to come and his to Germany in the second volume called “The Nightmare Years”, is where we see the William Shirer that most of us will be familiar with.  

In the second volume, Berlin takes center stage as Hitler is ramping up the Germany war machine as part of his master plan to dominate Europe. But first, he moves to annex neighboring countries without the use of force and Shirer revisits each episode to explain how Hitler pulled off those feats and why no one moved to stop him.  It will make some readers wonder whether World War II could have been prevented as early as 1938. Hitler seized on the inaction of Britain and France, setting his sights on Poland. But this time, people did step in and the world went to war.  Shirer, who had left the Chicago Tribune in a weird series of events that is discussed in the book, was hired by legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) to become the CBS Correspondent in Berlin. This change of fate placed Shirer at the scene of the crimes so to speak as the Nazi regime plotted and schemed its way to become a looming threat across an entire continent. 

His interactions with the German officials are particularly amusing and reveal the façade presented to ordinary Germanys by the Nazis who had assured them that Germany did not want war with anyone.  Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) makes repeated appearances throughout the story and the full extent of his delusion is on display.  Shirer gives his analysis of Goebbels and the other characters in Hitler’s inner circle whose names are infamous in world history.  I believe Oscar Wilde had it right when he said “the world is a stage, but the play is badly cast”.  However, in Nazi Germany, the cast was not only but deadly to anyone deemed inferior or Jewish.  Shirer does not go into the issue of the concentration camps extensively and I believe to do so would have required a different book. But he does bring up the matter later on during the Nuremberg trials. This part of the story is focused on the rise, menace and fall of Nazi Germany but in a highly compressed format.  Also, Shirer and his family left Germany in 1940, five years before the Germany military surrendered to Allied forces. His return home and life after war are covered extensive in volume three titled “A Native’s Return”. 

Upon returning home, Shirer starts the process of becoming re-acclimated with his native land. I do not believe he ever imagined how his life would change as he re-settled in America.  He found a place on radio but his relationship with Murrow takes a strange turn and Shirer goes through the entire story of his departure from CBS. I have not heard Murrow’s side if he ever put it in writing or gave statements orally.  But, the influence of former CBS president William S. Paley (1901-1990) is clearly evident and cast a dark cloud over the events as they play out.  But Shirer does not stay down for long and moves through life facing adversity head on.  And one decision in 1954, changed his life and reputation forever. It was then that he decided to write his masterpiece, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, a book that remains among my favorites.  What I found surprising through Shirer’s words is that originally, no one wanted to publish the book.  It sounds mind-boggling today but I can understand that in 1954, a book over 1,000 pages was not an easy sell and still is not.  But in writing that book, Shirer created the definitive account of the Third SS Reich.  

Following the success of the book, Shirer embark on another project about the French defeat in World War II, a book which I have added to my list.  That book’s creation and reception are explained and shows the extent of knowledge Shirer possessed with regards to the war.  As the third volume progresses, he offers his continuing commentary on historical events in American history from Watergate to the Iran-Contra scandal.  And his frankly discusses his personal problems including the relationship with his wife Tess and his heart problems in later years.  Incredibly, Shirer never stops moving and even fulfils is dream of seeing Russia.  A good recap of that trip is also included in Shirer’s signature writing style.  As the third volume winds down, Shirer provides an overview of his life and those of his closest friends who all meet their own ending in various ways.  It truly is an incredible story of a journey through a century that changed our world.  As an American, he was placed in a unique position observe the world and as a final reflection, Shirer closes the three-part series with this quote that I personally can relate to for a number of reasons: 

“It was a complex fate, maybe, as Henry James said, to be an American and one, I realize, not especially admired by some in other countries and other cultures, who perceived us as “the ugly Americans.” Still, as I wrote in the last line of the general introduction, I am glad it was mine.” – William L. Shirer 


The Warriors: Sol Yurick

WarriorsFebruary 9, 1979 marked 40 years since Paramount pictures released the cult-classic film The Warriors , based off of the fictional novel by author Sol Yurick (1925-2013).  I have personally watched the film dozens of times and remember the first time I saw it many years ago.  As a New York City native, I admittedly have a slight bias towards seeing my hometown on the silver screen.  The film garners a mix of reactions from critical praise to harsh criticism.  However, I am often surprised to learn that there are many viewers who are unaware that the film was adapted from a book that tells a much different and more violent story. I had known that the film was taken from Yurick’s book but had never read it until now.   I was curious to see how the film and book lined up side by side. And having finished the book, I can understand why some authors do not always have a positive view of the films that are adapted from their books.  This is the real version of the story of the Warriors and may prove to be quite surprising to fans of the film.  

I believe it is necessary to clear one’s mind before reading the book to avoid making the mistake of expecting the story to read with the film’s plot in mind.  And while the major events in the book were carried over to the film, the overall narrative differs from what we see on screen.  The most surprising is that the Warriors gang does not exist in the book by name of nor do any of the characters from the film.  They are however, composites from those that are the focus of the story within.  Further, the gang members are part of the Coney Island Dominators and far more ruthless than their screen counterparts.  I think by now, you have probably guessed that this book is not for children.  In fact, even some adults may find the descriptions of violence and sex to be quite shocking.  But Yurick, who had worked with the New York City Department of Welfare, wanted to show just how raw the street gangs were.  As I read through the book, I thought to myself that Paramount Pictures had no choice but to present a far tamer version of the story with more diversity among the characters. Had it not, the film probably would not have been granted approval by the Motion Picture Association of America.  Walter Hill has disclosed previously that he wanted the gang to composed of Black and Puerto Rican youths but was overruled by Paramount executives leery of the fallout and possible accusations of racial bias. We also cannot ignore the financial aspect as well and having a white lead in 1979 was a more effective sales strategy as unsettling as it may sound.  Readers may be surprised to hear what Yurick has to say about the ethnic variations found in the film in contrast with the characters he created for the book.  

There are parts of the story that filmmakers left out or altered significantly which readers may find both interesting and surprising.  The day on which the conclave takes place in the book could have been added to the film but is really a minor issue.  I do think it may have given the film a more authentic feel but the movie has stood the test of time and as someone who has never worked in the movie business, my opinion is not likely to impress those that do.  The back story of Hinton, whose film composite is certainly Swan, is a very interesting story in itself.  And while we do not learn his entire family background, we learn enough to see the dysfunction to be found in his home and undoubtedly in those who are part of the Family as they see each other.  Perhaps the most surprising character difference is that of Mercy, played by Deborah Van Valkenburgh in the film. I will not say much about her counterpart in the book except to say she is unlike anything you could have imagined and you may need to steel yourself during that part of the story.  Yurick taps into some of the darkest parts of human nature and what transpires is not for the faint at heart. 

Inevitably, the debate will arise of over which version is better. I do not think there is a clear answer.  I believe that although the film is drastically different from the book, it is a good movie and suitable for mature audiences.  The book in contrast, is far grittier and shows the savagery with which man still lives with to this day.  Each has its place and it is up to readers and viewers to decide which one they prefer. Personally, I have taken each for they are and both will remain a part of my literature and film collections.  However, one bonus to be found in the book is Yurick’s discussion of how he came to write the Warriors and its adaptation for the silver screen by Paramount Pictures.  It is a good explanation of how literary works undergo significant changes in pre-production before filming commences.  For Yurick, the book’s reception and relevance in pop-culture is not something he foresaw when writing it. But regardless of his intention, it did result in a well-loved film by millions of fans.  The cast of the film all did an amazing job and no one will forget Joel Weiss improvising with the classic line “Warriors, come out and playyyyyy “.  Forty years later, the movie still captivates audiences and will remain a large part of pop-culture.  If you are curious about the book that inspired the film and the written account of the gang that had to make it back to Coney Island, this is a must read.  

The Warriors is not the best of my books. It was out of print and more or less unknown to the lovers of the movie. Yet, without the book, there would be no film. I find that amusing. – Sol Yurick 


Triangle: The Fire That Changed America – David Von Drehle

triangleDuring my first semester at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice many years ago, I attended a class in the field of fire science as part of my graduate degree track.  In the class, we, were required to study one of the deadliest fires in New York City history: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911.  Our professor warned us that the story was deeply disturbing and that the detailed descriptions of the victims would be beyond grisly.  However, he also explained that as part of the basis for a career in fire protection, we needed to understand the life safety code and the stories of how and why fire protection has continued to advance. Today, nearly twenty-three years later, I still recall the fire and its impact on workplace safety.  But I decided to read this book by David Von Drehle to revisit the fire and perhaps learn something I did not know previously.  And what I found within its pages, is a story much longer story than the one I had learned of over two decades ago.  And similar to when I first read about the fire in college, I also felt chills go down my spine this time around.   

The author does not go into the fire right away but takes a slightly different approach in explaining working conditions for garment factory workers, which included a disproportionate amount of women.  Workers’ rights were not as widespread as today and in fact, it was not until the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) New Deal policies that the right of private workers to unionize became federal law.  Prior to this, employees in the private sector were often at the mercy of their employers. Working conditions were dire and low wages the norm.  However, workers were not inclined to accept these conditions long term and as we see in the story, they began to resist what they felt were inhumane conditions. Many of the garment workers were European immigrants, some of whom spoke little to no English.  They were easy prey coming off boats arriving in Ellis Island and willing to work for low but steady wages.  Two European entrepreneurs named Max Blanck and Isaac Harris formed the Triangle Waist Company and chose the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building located at 23-29 Washington Place.  Today it is known as the Brown Building and is part of New York University (NYU).  They begin to hire locals, many of them young women whose first language is Yiddish.  The author introduces us to many of them and allows us to learn their stories, some of which contain obscure parts lost to history.  Many of them are younger than twenty-five years of age.  Some are single, others married or engaged but all of them are eager to earn wages to support their families which were sometimes struggling to survive.  On March 25, 1911, their monotonous routine was changed forever after a fire broke out due to a series of events that would be discovered in the wake of the tragedy. 

I must warn readers that the story is very dark and there are no “happy endings”. This case study is about a deadly fire that took the lives of one hundred forty six men and women.  Due to the material contained on each floor, the fire had plenty of fuel and the lack of adequate fire protection only served to accelerate the spread of the flames and smoke.  When the workers realized a fire had started, all hell literally broke loose. Through survivors’ testimonies, we are able to piece the story together and witness the frantic activity that commenced as workers tried desperately to escape what became a deathtrap.  And in the three minutes it took for all of this to take place, New York City and America were changed forever.  However, what we learn following the tragedy is equally as important and regrettable.  Drehle points out some very disturbing facts about the owners and previous incidents that should have served as a major warning of what was to come. And this comment about the fire is beyond sobering: 

The Triangle fire of March 25, 1911, was for ninety years the deadliest workplace disaster in New York history—and the most important. Its significance was not simply the number dead. The 146 deaths at the Triangle Waist Company were sensational, but they were not unusual.

But in a city where politics were controlled by the infamous Tammany Hall and corruption was an open secret, compliance was not always high on anyone’s agenda.  But in the wake of the fire, action was swift and notable figures take center stage such as former New York Governor Al Smith 1873-1944) and Francis Perkins (1880-1965) who served as U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945.  As part of the Factory Investigation Committee, she and her colleagues would embark on mission to reform factories all across America. Their story is included here as well. 

The infamous owners of the company do not escape scrutiny and the author gives a summary of their trial.  Represented by famed trial lawyer Max Steuer (1870-1940) the duo mounts a defense to escape conviction but they would never again achieve the success they had prior to the fire.  And the statements given by survivors, some of which are included in the summary of the trial highlight the negligence by the two as the bosses of the factory.  During the trial, dozens of witnesses were called including a fire chief whose statements about what he witnessed upon arriving at the scene will make readers recoil in shock and disbelief.  The memories they recall are not for the faint at heart. But they are necessary even today to understand why workplace safety is so critical. The trial’s ending is another turn in the story and the efforts of the survivors’ families serve as a last turn at the plate.  As the book concludes, Blanck and Harris fade into obscurity but the fire that occurred  at their factory continues to live on in the annals of American history. 

If you are a New York City history buff you may already know this story.  And if you live in the Big Apple such as myself, you have probably walked past the Asch building hundreds of times without realizing what took place there many years ago.  It was there that the lives and dreams of the new immigrant workers who had recently arrived in America were destroyed and lost.  And for those that did survive, their lives were never the same again.  Today, the conditions learned of in the book would be unheard of and citations would be forthcoming immediately upon discovery.  However in 1911, New York City was a very different place where tenements and slums were prevalent and employee safety was not a pressing concern.  Drehle explains just how widespread tenements were and what their living conditions were like when he remarks: 

In 1909, there were more than one hundred thousand tenement buildings in New York City. About a third of them had no lights in the hallways, so that when a resident visited the common toilet at night it was like walking lampless in a mine. Nearly two hundred thousand rooms had no windows at all, not even to adjoining rooms. A quarter of the families on the Lower East Side lived five or more to a room. They slept on pallets, on chairs, and on doors removed from their hinges. They slept in shifts.

It was from these tenements that many of the garment factory workers came as they sought employment even if it meant risking their lives. And until the fire, very few had a voice in they manner in which they worked.  Sadly, it took a tragedy such as the Shirtwaist Factory to change the way people thought about protecting them and other employees across America.  Some of you who read this will shed tears as you go through the book and that is okay for I too found myself gripped with emotion as the image of the factory floor consumed by fire formed in my mind.  I also felt the sense of grief that consumed family members as they identified their loved ones on the streets of Manhattan that night.  The magnitude of the fire cannot be overstated, this was an event that truly did change American history.  And the hauntingly true is captured here in a book that will satisfy any reader in search of the truth regarding the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. 


A Promised Land – Barack Obama

20210101_134744I believe that we can all agree that 2020 was a year unlike any other in modern history.  The coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19, brought the world to a grinding halt and disrupted our lives in ways we could have never imagined.  Here in the United States, we saw the pandemic take hold, social unrest erupt and the election of Joe Biden, Jr., as the next President of the United States of America. His swearing in on January 20, will mark the final stage in the transition between administrations. For some, it signals the return of politics largely void of the more extreme rhetoric that has gripped the country in recent years.  Former President Barack Obama, will undoubtedly be called on for support and advice.  I have often thought back to the Obama administration and the decisions that were made on a range of issues. But in particular, I have become even more interested in what life is really like as the Commander-In-Chief.   This book, by the 44th President of the United States is exactly what I had been looking for. Not only does it provide an insider’s view into life within the White House, it is also a sobering account of life as a politician.  There are highs and lows with a lot in between.  

The book is in part an autobiography, with Obama reflecting on his childhood in both Hawaii and Indonesia.  However, the more mundane aspects of his life story are not included.  In fact, his early life is fairly compressed into a small section of the book.  The story picks up the pace when he meets his future wife Michelle, at the law firm of Sidley & Austin in Chicago, IL.  And this description of his first impression of her is one of the highlights in the book: 

Michelle Lavaughn Robinson was already practicing will when we met. She was 25 years old and an associate at Sidley & Austin, the Chicago law firm where I worked the summer after my first year of law school. She was tall, beautiful, funny, outgoing, generous and wickedly smart-and I was smitten almost from the second I saw her.

For Michelle, the story is a little different as she explains in her own book Becoming, which has become one of my favorites for its honesty and ease at which it can put an interested reader.  Curiously, when I have asked my own parents of how they came together, their versions also slightly differ.  Perhaps it is the passage of time or the way in which men and women view their shared history that results in varying versions of the romance between them.  Regardless, the required component of love that is built upon a strong foundation, can be found here and the journey they embark on with two daughters, is nothing short of incredible. 

What I found to be appealing about the book is that Obama does not avoid discussing his own mistakes, transgressions and administrative policies that did not work out.  And like other world leaders, he experienced self-doubt, not in a prohibitive way but as a young politician questioning whether he can make his mark against established political juggernauts.  With the benefit of hindsight, we know today that fate was on his side.  The campaign and the election itself are covered with particular detail paid to the mission his team faced in getting most of America to vote for a largely unknown bi-racial candidate with a Muslim name.  The story reveals a lot about America while showing how far we have come and how far we still have to go.  I am aware that those who do not like the former president will have their opinions formed before reading the book if they choose to do so. And others will have the opposite mindset and possibly be blinded to his faults due to their admiration of him.  Regardless of your political affiliation, if you decide to read this book, you must do so with an open mind.  

Although I remember clearly when he was elected, I still found myself reading with suspense as the primary results came in followed by the general election.  In the wake of his victory, he begins to put together his cabinet and this part of the book will be of high interest to those who are curious as to how presidents assemble their teams.  It is an exhaustive process and the amount of tasks that have to be completed the by the new Commander-In-Chief are staggering.  Personally, the Obamas’ lives are changed forever for better and worse.  He discusses this aspect as well, with high focus on the lack of privacy afforded to a high profile public official.  Further, his ethnicity put him under a more focused microscope and for right-wing figures, he was the perfect target for all that they believed was wrong with America. However, it is clear that deep down, he is a human being like the rest of us who loves action films, a pickup game of basketball and spending time with his family.  It will be easy to see why so many voters felt that they could relate to him on a personal level.  And I found one section of the book in which current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) gives him this advice on being president: 

“Mister President”, Nancy said to me on one call, “I tell my members that what you managed to do in such a short time is historic. I’m just so very proud, really. But right now, the public doesn’t know what you accomplished. They don’t know how awful the Republicans are behaving, just trying to block you and everything. And voters aren’t going to know if you aren’t willing to tell them” 

At times during his presidency, it seemed as Washington was about to go off the rails. But, before that could happen, the country was in dire shape due to a recession in 2008. Obama explains what awaited him as he came into office and how his cabinet tackled the looming financial crisis.  Some readers may be shocked to learn just how close the nation came to financial collapse and why that threat exist today as a pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the American and world’s economies, which are inextricably linked as readers will see.  As Commander-in-Chief, Obama travels the globe and provides us with keen observations of a host of world figures, some of whom remain in power today.  And on the domestic front, the battle with House and Senate Republicans takes center stage with Senator Mitchell McConnell, Jr. (R-KY) filling the role of the antagonist in the story.   Obama never portrays McConnell as being evil and recognizes that the senator from Kentucky is a seasoned veteran of politics.  Also, he makes it a point to keep the focus on legislation and avoids personal attacks and scrutiny of the personal lives of those opposing him.  I felt that this approach was correct and provided the book with the touch of class needed for it be well-received.  Although he is honest about his feelings with regards to their actions, he also acknowledges their strengths and accomplishments.  

Some readers might be expecting a long discussion regarding the current president but Obama only dedicates a short section to Trump, which focuses mainly on the birther conspiracy that gained traction during his first term.  Interestingly, Obama points out something in Trump’s actions that readers will pick up on as they move through that section.  It will make one wonder whether Trump really believes what he says or is simply a master at manipulation and riding the waves of conservative sentiments. 

Towards the end of the book, Obama moves on to the Middle East and the final mission to locate and eliminate Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011).  The reasons for greenlighting the mission and how it developed are explained and left to readers to decide whether it was the right call.   What is clear is that by all accounts, it was the success that had been hoped for.  And while it did not eliminate Islamic terror, it did satisfy one promise he made before getting elected that if he had Bin Laden in the cross-hairs, he would authorize the mission. The book closes after the Bin Laden raid and I had expected more to follow regarding his second term in office. However, if he had included a discussion of the next four years, the book would have grown to a staggering amount of pages and tuned even the most die-hard readers off.  Perhaps there will be another book but only time will tell.  However, for the present time, we have this memoir of a ground-breaking time in United States history. 

ISBN-10: 1524763160
ISBN-13: 978-1524763169



Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 – Susan Campbell Bartoletti

PotatoesJoseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969) frequently reminded those he knew that his ancestor had come to America to escape the “potato famine” in Ireland.  While Kennedy was certainly well versed at re-writing his family’s history, the famine did indeed exist and caused death and destruction across southern and western Ireland.  I had known of the famine and it resulting in the mass exodus of Irish families who made new lives in North America.  However, there was much about the famine that I did not know and felt that this book was the perfect choice to learn about a historical event that changed Irish history.  Those of you who follow this blog might recall some of the reviews I have posted regarding the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles”.  Here, I am shifting gears a bit and taking a step back further in time.  And the first question I had for myself before reading this book was just what exactly did happen during the famine?   Author Susan Campbell Bartoletti provides the answer to that question and a wealth of information that will allow any reader of this book to fully understand the cause of the famine and the events that transpired. 

The story begins in 1845 as farmers begin to notice that their potato crops are turning black in color without any reasonable explanation.  Without the benefit of modern science, the farmers were at a loss trying to figure out the cause of the widespread devastation of their crops.  The actual cause is revealed by the author but the farmers could not have known in 1845 that it even existed.  Their response was to try all sorts of remedies that did nothing to stop the growing menace.  The diminishing of potatoes resulted in widespread panic and Britain began to take notice.   The relationship between Ireland and England has always been filled with tension and the cause can be traced back hundreds of years beginning with the actions of Henry VIII (1491-1547) in 1536 that gave the Crown a stronghold over Ireland that lasted until 1921 when the Republic of Ireland was formally created and instituted the persecution of Irish Catholics.   And in 1695, the archaic Penal Laws pushed the Catholic population into further destitution.   By 1845, Henry VIII was a distant memory but Queen Victoria was faced with a dire situation in the Irish colony.   Yet, even she could not have predicted just how deadly the famine would become. 

Before purchasing this book, I honestly do not think I had a fully accurate picture of life in Ireland during the famine. To say that life was hard would be an understatement.  It was nothing short of brutal and the average life expectancy was nothing to admire.  As the famine begins to take hold of Ireland, British officials realize that trouble is brewing and implement a series of relief measures to feed the population and prevent the outbreak of deadly viruses and diseases.  Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) was the first to act upon realizing that the famine was causing a staggering number of deaths.  However, his efforts while heroic in many ways, were not enough and his successor, Lord John Russell (1792-1878) did not share the same beliefs.  Russell diverted from his predecessor’s path and took actions that only enhanced the misery of the Irish Catholics.  But in spite of the laws that are passed by Britain, we are left to ask the question, could the famine have been prevented in the first place?  

Bartoletti highlights a tragic irony of the situation that will make readers question why the famine was not prevented?  As I read through this section, I felt a sense of anger at British officials and empathy for the Irish families that starved and died horrific deaths in living conditions that were beyond sub-human.  And the descriptions of their lives will help readers understand the reason why even today, Irish Catholics want the British government to fully relinquish all control of Irish territory.   You might be wondering what the Irish did to help themselves and take action against Britain? Well, there are interesting facts presented in the book and the section regarding the Young Ireland revolutionary group is of particular interest, for it serves as a premonition to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Republican Army. 

I do want to warn readers that the descriptions of the living conditions in Irish slums is not for the faint at heart.  The author thoroughly discusses each and how the human body is affected until death is the end result.  The memories provided in quotes are equally as macabre and readers sensitive to descriptions of the deceased may have a difficult time with those sections in the book.  However, to fully understand just how deadly the famine was and just how miserable life was for Irish Catholics during the famine, it is necessary to know these stories.  Further, religion enters the picture as well and actions taken by the Protestants who are there to “help” the Catholics are in some cases, repulsive.  The divide is sharp and sadly continues to this day.  These tragic conditions are supported by the actions of Britain that is not sure how to save the Irish and compounds the problem in some situations.  Its official policy of laissez-faire is put under the microscope and its effect on the problem will have readers staring in disbelief.  Of course, there is far more to the story and this book is mainly a primer on the situation.  

Conditions continued to deteriorate and the Irish were left with one choice: emigrate.  Many families do leave Ireland and the journey they take to reach North America is simply surreal.  Large numbers did not survive the journey and the reasons for which are explained in the book. Further, conditions aboard the vessels are explored as well, in addition to the reality that awaited the new Irish settlers.  The romanticized image of Ellis Island welcoming new immigrants to America does not apply here and the reality for the Irish was far darker and without glamour.  The policy of many places against hiring the Irish immigrants is a sad example.  Today, we know that the Irish have prospered in America.  John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) is considered by many to be proof that the Irish had reached the top of American society.  Kennedy is only one person and there are many Irish men and women who have contributed greatly to the American experience.  But for all of them, their ancestors’ lives were stories to be remembered from an era when death was more widespread than life and an entire generation of people were subjected to the tyranny of the Crown’s rule, while enduring unimaginable living conditions in an ugly class-base system. The potato famine amplified the inequality between Irish and British and left Ireland a very different country.  If you are looking to understand the Irish potato famine from start to finish, this is a great place to start. 

“The Great Irish Famine changed Ireland forever. It swept away whole families and villages. It nearly wiped out the Irish language and centuries-old traditions and folk beliefs. Some even say it killed the fairies.” 


Letters and Dispatches 1924-1944: The Man Who Saved Over 100,000 Jews, Centennial Edition – Wallenberg, Raoul

WellenbergI am always on the lookout for stories that I have not yet heard and names of people I am not yet familiar with.  When I saw the cover of this book, I tried to jog my memory with regards to the name of the author.  I finally realized that I did not know of Raoul Wallenberg (1912 -1947?) but I knew instantly that I had to read this book.  Admittedly, I am always interested in the personal correspondence of figures from the distant past to see how information was shared in the years before E-mails, SMS and social media.  The cover of the book directly describes what is contained within which is a collection of the letters between Raoul, his grandfather Gustaf Wallenberg (1863-1937) and Raoul’s mother Maj von Dardel (1891-1979) whose replies to her son are not included. The bulk of the letters are between grandfather and grandson and what is truly remarkable about them, is the amount of knowledge that is shared between the two.  Raoul embarks on a long journey and I found myself glued to the book. But aside from that, there are other things in the book that make it an enjoyable read.  

Gustaf is the undoubtedly the domineering force in the family structure.   He is Raoul’s guiding light in the absence of Gustaf’s son and Raoul’s father Raoul Oscar Wallenberg (1888-1912) who died of cancer before his son’s birth.  Raoul finds himself blessed to have a very supportive family and his grandfather both encourages and finances his studies abroad.  America is the destination of choice for young Raoul.  Gustaf himself had visited America and explains to Raoul why he feels so strongly about studying in the United States: 

“It is because of what both my father and I found in America that makes me so eager for you to get your direction in life there. No one has ever understood as well as I have, because I saw it in my youth, how decisive his time there was for my father…. I use the expression direction in life and not “education” on purpose. ” 

The first stop for Raoul is Ann Arbor, Michigan where he enrolls in college to earn an advanced degree.  But, it is only the first stop and the young Swede would take advantage of being a young bachelor to travel across the United States meeting people from all walks of life while Gustaf continues to send words of encouragement and enlightenment. I do want to comment on Gustaf’s views on women which might cause consternation in some readers.  I think today we would call him misogynistic but in that era, he would most likely have not received any reprimand.  His comments to Raoul about romance are both interesting and quite blunt.  And while he truly wanted the best for his grandson, I believe that some readers may take some offense to the words he writes.  However, Gustaf is incredibly brilliant and refined in regards to world affairs.  The knowledge contained in his letters can be of value to both men and women. Further, Gustaf’s command of words gives his letters a more potent affect and I found myself amazed at his sentence structure and grammar which is nothing short of clear and concise. 

Raoul comes across as a competent writer himself and relays to his grandfather, plenty of anecdotes from his travels abroad.  The journey goes from America, Central America, Africa and back to Europe.  Along the way, the young student learns valuable lessons about life and as I read his letters I could see his level of maturity increase with each destination.  The insight with which Raoul writes provides food for thought regarding America and other countries seen through the eyes of the traveling student.  And throughout his travels, Raoul remains firmly in awe of Gustaf, whom he looks up to with unconditional admiration.  Their relationship reminded me of the bond between my myself and my great-grandfather William, who was similar in nature to Gustaf and equally as frank in his choice of words.  Putting aside his bluntness, we all loved and respected him deeply because we knew that he loved us in return and never hesitated to show it. 

After graduating, Raoul made his way back to Europe and through a series of events, was introduced to Kàlmàn Lauer, a Hungarian Jew who was the director of the Central European Trading Company, Inc, a business that specialized in exports. This encounter changed his life permanently and as a result of it, Wallenberg accepted a post with the War Refugee Board through the invitation of Iver Olsen, a representative with the board. His new destination was Hungary which had become the target of the Germany army and a hotbed of anti-Semitism. 

The implementation of the “Final Solution” by Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) Third Reich, sent chills across Europe and removed any doubt that there existed a “safe haven” for Jews.  During his time in Budapest, Wallenberg committed himself to saving as many Jews as possible.  In the final part of the book, we are allowed to see his dispatches regarding efforts to deport Hungarian Jews and his willingness to confront both German officials and the Arrow Cross Party, led by despot Ferenc Szálasi (1897-1946).  He was relentless in his efforts and through them, it is estimated that he saved the lives of at least 100,000 Jewish people.  When a friend asked about his determination to save everyone he remarked: ““I’d never be able to go back to Stockholm without knowing that I’d done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible.”  The exact number of Jews that he saved may never be known but what is certain, is that Wallenberg did prevent thousands from being deported before he was detained by the Soviet Army.   And this is what we learn in the book about his final moments in Budapest: 

“[The Soviet Army’s siege of Budapest began on December 8, 1944, the day this letter was written. Soviet authorities took RW into their ‘protective custody” and sent him to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow on January 17, 1945. He was never heard from again. The Soviets denied any knowledge of his whereabouts until 1957, when Andrei Gromyko, then foreign minister, announced that RW had died of a heart attack in 1947, in Lubyanka. There is ample but inconclusive evidence that this was not the case, and efforts to determine his fate continue.]” 

The truth regarding Wallenberg’s fate remains a mystery as explained in this article in the Israeli journal Haaretz.  The date of his death most likely remains a carefully guarded Russian secret.  Officially, it is believed that he disappeared into the Soviet gulag system in January, 1945 and was never heard from again.  His disappearance adds even more confusion to his story as he was a liberator and should have been seen as such by the invading Red Army.  The reasons for his detainment and subsequent imprisonment are not exactly clear.  And this adds a tragic ending to a remarkable story that should be part of any discussion about World War II and the Holocaust. 

“Across the United States and throughout the world there are Raoul Wallenberg committees and individuals who work tirelessly to educate the public about this compassionate and nonviolent hero, and to assist in solving the mystery of his fate. By introducing the man behind the cause, Letters and Dispatches will help us all remember.” – Rachel Oestreicher Haspel, President of the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States



My Family’s Survival: The true story of how the Shwartz family escaped the Nazis and survived the Holocaust – Aviva Gat


The rise of anti-Semitism that is occurring across parts of Europe and here in the United States is both troubling and disheartening.  Throughout history, the Jewish people have been persecuted on the basis of their faith and during World War II, they were subjected to systematic extermination fueled by racist ideology and pseudo-science.  Adolf Hitler’s quest for power and dominance brought death and destruction across Europe and nearly brought Germany to its knees before Allied forces.   To this day, World War II is seen by many as the worst conflict mankind has ever fought.  As the German Army rolled across Europe taking control of cities, towns and razing small villages, Jews were forced to flee for their lives or risk being sent to ghettos and concentration camps through the Third Reich’s “Final Solution”.  Among the Jews that did flee was the Shwartz family which resided in Butla, Poland. This book is their story of their survival as they fled their home and traveled across Europe to escape the looming Nazi threat to everything deemed to be “Juden”.  

Aviva Gat is a descendant of the Shwartz family and through a series of interviews regarding the family history, she was able to compose this inspiration story of survival during a very dark time in world history.  By her own admission some of the story is fictionalize and I am inclined to believe that this in fact refers to some of the dialogue that may have taken place between the central characters. Regardless she does affirm that the experiences described in the book did in fact take place as the family moved from Poland, to Hungary and Romania where the book ends.  And while the story does provide the typical “happy ending”,  it does not end on a tragic note. 

The story begins in the small village of Butla which remains largely shielded from the events taking place inside of Germany.  They are aware of Hitler but have yet to see first hand the effects of the war.  But when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, their lives changed forever and Poland was never the same again. The first visitors to Butla are Russian soldiers who make make themselves at home. But they are gone as fast as they came leaving the people of Butla wondering what will come next.  They did not have to wait long as Ukranian soldiers arrive and commit an act of violence that brings home the reality of what is taking place.  It becomes clear to the Shwartz family that their time in Butla is limited.  The family is led by the patriarch who dies early in the story.  Their mother is already deceased and is mentioned only briefly.  The responsibility to care for the family falls on David, who leaves the town with wife Hinda, children Abi and Sarah, and younger sister Rachel.   The other brothers Shlomo, Meir, Itzik, Zelig and Chaim had previously left the town.  This small group embarked on a journey that is simply unbelievable and highlights just how dangerous it was to be Jewish in Eastern Europe during World War II.  

As the book progresses, we are introduced to numerous characters who play crucial roles in the story.  What I found to be very interesting is the sense of unity that exists among the Jewish characters in the story and it also shows that without this hidden network, many of them would have perished. And while the journey was not easy,  there are moments in the book where the kindness of others shines brilliantly.  But sadly, as refugees from Poland, they were subject to discrimination both in Hungary and Romania. And some of the discrimination was at the hands of other Jews.  Those parts of the book were hard to read and the scene in which Abi finds a Synagogue might resonate with and infuriate readers who are Jewish. I personally stared in disbelief at what transpires between him and the Rabbis.   

Because the book is centered around the family and their journey across three countries there is very little mention of what is taking place in the actual war. The main characters in the story do relay some things they learned as they were fleeing for their lives. Hitler’s name does come up but only a few occasions and none of the other notorious figures in the Reich make an appearance. This book is strictly the Shwartz story.  However, towards the end of the book the war does become a bigger part of the story, in particular when Allied bombing raids come too close for comfort. The scene in which David is in the hospital shows how a moment’s notice and sheer luck sometimes meant the difference between life and death. The story is full of close calls, some of which will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.  Many guardian angels appear in the story at just the right moment, preventing certain death and a far more tragic outcome.  Some characters in the story are cruel and take advantage of the Jews’ plight.  However, the are far and few in between and unable to overcome the vast network of support that the Shwartzs and others have available to them.  It is a classic example of how unity overcomes adversity.  

The final act in the act occurs through the actions of Abi who grows up quickly during the war.  His decision to reach Palestina as they know it, changes the lives of all for good.  That part of the book is a story all in itself and the journey is one that many Jews were forced to take as they escaped the growing Nazi menace.  Back in Eastern Europe, David makes the decision that he and Hinda will also go to Palestina while Rachel’s like takes a slightly different path albeit with the same destination.  Victor emerges as a critical part of the story’s finale and helps to bring their struggle full circle. However in the epilogue, we learn some dark facts about the fates of the other members in the Shwartz family.  I will not go into it here but will say that we all know what happened to many Jews who did not flee Europe.  Their fates and that of the other Shwartz brothers provide the dark cloud that hangs over the story because of the subject matter. Further, the extermination of the Jews is a topic for another discussion at another time. But if you are in search of a good book about the costs that were paid to endure the nightmare that was World War II, this book is a good addition to anyone’s library.