Monthly Archives: December 2019

“Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America,” by Debbie Cenziper

Hachette Books. 320 pages. Hardcover $28.00

A Pulitzer-worthy investigation of escaped war criminals.

When Adolf Hitler’s defeat in World War II was imminent, a great number of Nazi functionaries made their way to the United States and essentially hid in plain sight. They moved into American cities and suburbs, took on new identities, and successfully evaded any responsibility or punishment for their crimes. They obtained citizenship.

Though attempts were made to bring these war criminals to justice, most cases failed. Many plausible leads were never pursued. However, the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI), in part by hiring capable and committed historians, as well as legal experts, slowly excavated the facts needed to turn the tide and bring such people to justice.

In Citizen 865, author Debbie Cenziper provides stunning insights into these Nazi hunters’ skill, accomplishments, and dedication. She retraces their steps, giving us two layers of investigation. We learn how these professionals went about their work, interpreted the law, and prevailed in their cases. We also learn quite a bit about how Cenziper did her own investigation of the investigators, making the case for our appreciation of their efforts.

To accomplish this, she provides capsule biographies of many key figures, illuminating their ambition, their frustrations, their sacrifices, their home life, their intelligence, and their courage. They are real people we get to know and like.

Debbie Cenziper

The title of the book refers to Jakob Reimer, one of the monsters who did what he was told and helped slaughter untold thousands of Jews in Trawniki, Poland, where, in the early 1940s, the Nazis set up a “school” for committing mass murder.

The book’s attention-getting opening focuses on the story of 19-year-old Feliks Wojcik and Lucyna Stryjewska, a few years younger. It is a story of overwhelming threats to their lives and communities. These characters are vividly drawn individuals scrambling to survive the Nazi programs built to annihilate them.

It is set in Lublin, a Polish town rich in Jewish history and institutions, but now without support for Jewish survival. The horrors of Feliks and Lucyna’s experiences bring them together, and readers are temporarily left wondering about their chances for a future, allowing the author to paint a different section of her broad canvas. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Citizen 865

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“The Cuban Affair” by Nelson DeMille

  • Simon & Schuster. 448 pages. Hardcover $28.99

Razor-sharp storytelling from a seasoned pro.

Thriller master Nelson DeMille has struck again with a wise-cracking protagonist who joins forces committed to liberating Cuba from communist rule. Key West charter-fishing captain “Mac” MacCormick is ready to put his skills and his boat in the service of this cause, but he is not a partisan to the cause. 

Rather, he is in it for the payoff and for the body (if not the soul) of the beautiful, courageous woman who hires him. Sara Ortega and her associates seek the recovery of $60 million hidden years ago by her grandfather. Also to be taken out of Cuba are countless documents that establish ownership rights to property and other assets that had been confiscated by the Castro regime.

The Cuba that DeMille portrays is colorful and has some fascinating historical landmarks, but it is at bottom a corrupt police state. Mac is stepping into a situation of extreme danger. The plan sounds solid, but it is very far from a sure thing. A fishing tournament arranged by Sara’s accomplices is the cover event for the grand theft. The team hopes to take advantage of the so-called thaw between Havana and Washington, though assessments of the thaw’s value are mixed.

Nelson Demille

Mac is DeMille’s narrator, and his distinctive personality and voice dominate the razor-sharp storytelling. Mac’s military experiences during two tours in Afghanistan are his personal context for understanding the complex situation in which he has placed himself. He sees things from an infantry officer’s perspective — an outlook jaded by shaky alliances, the perils of nation-building, and the conflict between the idealism of ostensible goals and less noble underlying motives. . . .

To see the full review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books,  click here: The Cuban Affair

This blog entry was to have been posted in 2018, but was lost until recently.

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It’s a little bit Brooklyn, a little bit Lower East Side

L’Chaim and Lamentations: Stories by Craig Darch. NewSouth Books. 160 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of writing about Richard Slotkin’s short story collection titled Greenhorns. I take the same pleasure in sharing Craig Darch’s somewhat similar collection. Darch, a professor at Auburn University, has crafted a compact, resonant memorial to the Jewish ethos as it existed in New York City for many decades.

Though there are few time markers, the ambiance seems to suggest the 1920s through the 1950s. These decades have faded away, with their various tones of hope and disappointment. They are almost forgotten, but the author brings them back through the sensibilities of people who themselves are on a point of balance between forgetting and remembering – as well as being forgotten.

Many live lonely lives, many have fallen upon – or always had – hard times. Many have a special kind of dignity and even courage. Darch’s nostalgic heart has made their ordinariness extraordinary.

These are people surviving inside their loneliness. The world they once fully inhabited has changed around them. The corner delicatessens run by hardworking neighbor- owners have vanished or been transformed.

Darch’s seven stories are seven gems.

Craig Darch

“Sadie’s Prayer” offers two aged roommates, Sadie and Esther. They are a kind of odd couple. Esther’s temperament demands neatness and convention. She can’t understand why the good lord has given her such an annoying partner and how the Jewish housing agency brought them together. Esther cannot adjust to Sadie’ smoking, to her Communist leanings, to her messiness. Esther looks backward; her memories of life with her deceased husband are a kind of anchor. She seems to talk to him, and Sadie is crass enough to point out that “Max is reading the newspaper and having his bagels someplace else this morning.”

Esther voices her wish that she had perished with her husband, and Sadie chides her for her silliness.

Knowing that they are each guilty of making each other’s lives much more miserable than they need to be, they agree – at Sadie’s suggestion – that the each treat the other with civility. Fat chance of that happening – at least not yet. They are wired differently and most likely it is too late for them to change.

While the women’s bickering dialogue is quite humorous, and perhaps will seem familiar to many readers. We all know people like this. They are our relatives, if not necessarily our friends.

They compete about who suffers the most, who prays the most, and who taste is superior.

In a sense, one can’t live without the other, and the conclusion makes clear that Sadie knows it and knows that even in the afterlife, Esther will need a friend like Sadie.

In “Kaddish for Two” we enter the lives of Zev Abramovitch and his thirty-three-year old unmarried son, Aharon. For Zev, it’s very important that his son continue the family line and experience its joys in the traditional manner. Readers will suspect the reason for Aharon’s resistance to such conversations long before Aharon ends the useless fencing back and forth by announcing that he is gay. Darch’s credible and powerful handling of this situation, the horrors of moral blindness and disappointment that overwhelm both men, is stunning. The premise, that a Jewish man needs a son to guarantee that there is someone to say Kaddish for him, resonates both in comfortable and uncomfortable ways.

“Who’s the Old Crone” raises the issue of Jewish continuity in a different way. Three old friends are chatting and noshing at a restaurant, Schwartzman’s Nosh, run by Sybil. They see a woman they haven’t seen there before who looks down and out. She seems at once pitiful and imposing. But who are they to judge? They are the remnants of the Romanian synagogue “bankrupt and boarded up years ago.”

Indeed, they are its last rabbi, last sexton, and last cantor. They are learned and somewhat cantankerous. The sexton, Eisenberg, “could kvetch fluently in seven languages.” Nachman, the cantor, who had lost his once-glorious voice, magically gets it back. Rabbi Fiddleman holds the group together. They have nothing to do except appraise the dishwasher and overhear a (beautifully rendered) mother-daughter confrontation.

An incident in the Nosh leads the three men, each in his own way, to contemplate death. The rabbi explains that “the Torah makes no definitive statement about an afterlife.” A year passes, and they are still talking about the old crone and muttering about how after coming to Schwartzman’s for ten years, there is “never a waitress when you need one.”

These tales, and their four companions, are sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes consoling, always luminously true.

This review appears in the January 2020 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)

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An aspiring physician struggles to resolve professional and ethical issues that plague him

NOTE: Dr. Richard Berjian (1929-2019) With sadness the family of Richard A. Berjian announces his passing while visiting family in California on Monday, December 9, 2019 at the age of 90 vibrant years. 

Givers and Takers, by Dr. Richard A. Berjian. Wings ePress. 418 pages. Trade Paperback $18.95.

This highly engaging novel combines several popular genres and numerous centers of interest. It is part thriller, part romance, part investigation of corruption, part a look inside the medical establishment, part a family saga, and part a remembrance and attempt to assure proper acknowledgment of the 1915 Armenian Genocide in Turkey. 

The focal character is Raffi Sarkissian, who was raised by his unmarried mother in New York City. She had left Turkey for a new start in life after her lover vanished, and she obtained a job at the United Nations. The present time is June 2011. Raffi is the chief surgical resident at Manhattan Medical Center. His working life is a series of medical emergencies that continue to test his skills, occupy his thoughts, and deprive him of sleep. Suddenly, two concurrent emergencies over which he has authority threaten the hospital’s resources and reputation. A young black boy dies without even being treated because, simply put, nothing can be done to save him. Meanwhile, Traci Doss, a gorgeous and wealthy addiction-prone socialite, benefits from Raffi’s attention.

This coincidence feeds the cause of black activist Reverend Coleman Sanders, who accuses Raffi and the hospital of racial prejudice in prioritizing patients. The accusation could end Raffi’s career, and a court victory could help the reverend launch a political campaign.

Traci’s combination of beauty, sexuality, neediness and irresponsibility is a dangerous trap for the soft-hearted, sympathetic young doctor. The author skillfully presents the temptations that she offers, as well as her unfortunate lack of self-worth.

Raffi’s mother, Ani, is an attractive, capable, and caring woman. An independent person with a strong streak of common sense, she is a good role model and sounding board for her son.

Dr. Richard A. Berjian

She is the middle-aged echo of Lorig Balian, a young Armenian schoolteacher with whom Raffi has been more and more involved, even as Traci pursues him.

Ani, and the man who fathered Raffi, are surviving descendants of those slaughtered in the Armenian Genocide. She has a large stake in the political war going on between the desires of the Turkish government, technically a U. S. ally, and those who would advance a proclamation in congress that recognized Turkey’s unadmitted responsibility. Officials are being bribed to block the success of that proclamation. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the December 18, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the December 19 Bonita Springs and Charlotte County editions, and the June 2 Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Givers and Takers

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“The Deserter: A Novel,” by Nelson DeMille and Alex DeMille

Simon & Schuster. 544 pages. Hardcover $28.99

 Only avid fans will get through this over-long thriller.

Nelson DeMille’s new book, The Deserter, the first co-written with his son Alex, takes advantage of the state of affairs in Venezuela. In itself a tragic story of greed and corruption, any narrative starring Venezuela can draw from fertile ground in exploring the U.S.’ interests in a nation with enormous petroleum assets.

Scenes set in the city, jungle, and mountains are skillfully handled in ways that heighten readers’ understanding of the ordeals of the nation’s citizens. The country is impoverished, except for its corrupt and ever-changing leadership.

Plot-wise, the Venezuela setting is important because a highly skilled deserter, Captain Kyle Mercer, has been spotted there. Mercer, a leader in the Army’s Delta Force, had served in Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban, by whom he was held and tortured for two years.

Did this man crack under pressure? Did he give away secrets? What led him to reemerge in Venezuela (if the report is accurate), having resigned his Army commission? He is first spotted in Caracas, but now may be in jungle territory.

Nelson Demille

It becomes the assignment of Chief Warrant Officer Scott Brodie, assisted by Warrant Officer Maggie Taylor, to find out. Both have served valiantly in America’s recent wars and both held their ranks as members of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID). From the beginning, the DeMilles inject some suspicion regarding the motives of the high-ranking officers to whom the duo must report. Their mission is to bring Mercer to trial.

The problem? About 200 pages go by before the search for Mercer is fully set in motion. So what’s there to hold readers’ attention? Well, the scenery — and the dialogue between the odd couple of Scott and Maggie. You’ll rarely see so many quotation marks running down the pages.

Some of the conversation is attractive, but as it goes on, there’s just way too much. Just about all of it is repartee — a fast-moving stream of clever retorts. Macho Scott is usually the instigator; bright, beautiful Maggie is most often the impatient recipient.

 

Alex DeMille

This portrait of a chance relationship reveals a somewhat headstrong Scott, a more cautious Maggie. Scott needs to employ a rush of improvisations and turn everything into a joke; Maggie is more thoughtful and analytical. Maggie also knows that her attractiveness is a danger and a weapon. Their differences become more and more apparent through much of the conversation, but there is something of a rapprochement late in the novel. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click The Deserter.

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A clever, clear-eyed look at a community driven by wealth and all it can buy

 Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanado, by Les Standiford. Atlantic Monthly Press. 288 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

In the history of the United States, many communities have vied for the top rung on the ladder of exclusivity and attraction. Most cultural historians have declared Palm Beach the winner. Les Standiford’s delightful book tells us why, exploring the lives and contributions of the town’s creators and major residents.

Les Standiford

They are story-book names, people with a kind of royalty (and sometimes married to royalty). The island, sitting as it does been Lake Worth and the Atlantic Ocean, was not an easy place to reach until a major entrepreneur determined to make it so.

That man, Henry Flagler, saw the promise of what wasn’t much more than a swamp. Mr. Standiford gives Flagler the lion’s share of credit for being a visionary a man who put his money and mouth together to promote one notion of an ideal community for the super-rich.

The initial problem was getting there, and as a railroad entrepreneur, Flagler got it done.

It wasn’t easy getting far south from Jacksonville and St. Augustine, but his railway made it happen, later extending access to the bottom of the peninsular – Key West and its sibling keys. Of course, the big picture of how Flagler opened the state’s east coast includes Miami as well.

In leading up to and through Flagler’s genius, the author takes note of the displaced indigenous tribes and reminds us that Flagler was a former partner of John D. Rockefeller. He sketches the rivalry and intermingling of the Gilded Age front runners, knitting together those already mentioned with the Vanderbilts, the Astors, the Carnegies, and the rest of the wealth constellation. 

These people, sometimes rivals and sometimes partners, needed southern climes to call their own. Flagler knew where and how to lead them.

As if practicing for his virtual founding of Palm Beach, Flagler built in St. Augustine the 450-room Hotel Ponce de Leon and a nearby home named Kirkside.

As the 1890s turned into the 20th century, Flagler more and more focused on being a developer, eventually acquiring two million acres of Florida land via a land grant act and other means. And he kept pushing south, building several estates and hotels. Standiford names and describes them all, and then the torrent of Flagler wannabes takes hold. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the December 11, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 12 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Venice editions. and the December 19 PalmBeach edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Palm Beach

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