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Monday, May 24, 2004

Reading and viewing recommendations.

1. Reading: The Righteous, by British historian Sir Martin Gilbert. If you haven't read anything by Winston Churchill's official biographer, you are cheating yourself. Get his history of the Second World War, for starters, and The Jews in the Twentieth Century: A History.

If Gilbert's approach can be summed up in a phrase, it would be this: The vocation of the historian is to ensure for posterity that the collective memory is as accurate, objective and complete as possible.

His history of WW2, for example, accounts for not only the battles and leaders, but for the victims who would otherwise be lost to the mists of time. He recounts the dates of trains leaving for Treblinka as well as the date of a particular campaign by the Allies or Axis. In the second book, he offers an account of the Nazi liquidation of a Jewish community in Lithuania, including the death of the chief rabbi, with the brief, powerful statement: "He was my grandfather."

It makes for sobering reading.

The Righteous offers a similar approach to a different topic: the rescue of Jews by non-Jews during the Holocaust. In one of those interesting twists in history, it was inspired by Gilbert's stumbling upon the funeral procession for Oskar Schindler in Jerusalem in 1974. Here, Sir Martin is determined to remember those who acted where others did not. Rendered anecdotally, it is a masterpiece that reads quickly. Yes, Pius XII is mentioned--and to take away your anxiety, he is regarded positively. Gilbert is an historian, not a prosecutor (Daniel Goldhagen, take notice). A wise Polish priest named Karol Wojtyla also makes an appearance....Again, Gilbert tries to remember those who would otherwise be lost, like the Polish Catholic who did odd jobs around a synagogue in Bialystok. The Nazis locked the congregation into the building and set it on fire. The SS shot those who tried to escape out the front, but the handyman went around to the back and saved dozens of Jews by opening a window. Gilbert's frustration is palpable when he states that he is unable to identify that man. Then there are the inexplicable moments, such as the SS officer who employed a subterfuge freed a five year old girl and her mother from a pen in Holland. An associate of the woman could only speculate, but thinks it may simply have been because the girl reminded the officer of his own daughter.

An intensely human portrait of cowardice and courage, betrayal and honor, tragedy and triumph, it deserves to be widely read.

2. Viewing: Miracle: The DVD. I've raved about this before. It's only one of the best sports films ever made. Then there's the fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary.

Naaaah. You don't need that.

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