Tag Archives: Prague

“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 Körbels of Prague and the Demise of Jewish Identity

Prague Winter:  A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, by Madeleine Albright. Harper. 480 pages. $29.99.

Most Jewish readers attracted to Madeleine Albright’s recent book are no doubt curious about the degree of Jewish identity that attached to the author upon her discovery, late in her life, that both of her parents came from Jewish families. Yes, the 64th U. S. Secretary of State (and the first woman to hold that position) was born a Jew, but she didn’t know it. Many of her relatives, including three of her grandparents, died in the Holocaust, but she didn’t know it. She has no meaningful Jewish identity, but that in itself hints at a story of Jewish families in Nazi-infected Europe that perhaps can never be told. 

The story Albright does tell has three dimensions: it’s a WWII narrative with a Central European focus; more precisely, it’s a Czech-eye view of WWII and its aftermath. More narrowly (and richly) yet, it’s a perspective that hinges on the part her father, Josef Körbel, played in the Czech foreign ministry as press attaché  and ambassador to Yugoslavia, as scribe and mouthpiece for the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile (in London) after his country fell to the Nazis, and as effective subordinate to the major Czech leaders, Edvard Beneš and Jan Masaryk, even through his country’s second fall, to the Soviet Union, after a very brief hope of renewed democratic independence.

Readers will be frustrated once they realize that Albright was barely a toddler when the historical timeline she fleshes out began. She is rarely writing from memory, as she was much too young to have experience-based insights on the events that she relates. In addition, Albright spent very few of her early years living in Prague, and more of them living in either Belgrade or London.

His own future insecure after the Soviet regime took hold, Josef Körbel was able to gain political asylum from the U. S., bringing his family here in 1948 and building a significant career as an international studies professor at the University of Denver. Albright’s positions in the U. S. government and her father’s place in Czechoslovakia’s government gave her access to materials that she fashioned industriously and intelligently. She explores, with clarity and dramatic pointing, the political twists and turns by which the democratic Czechoslovakia that came to life in the aftermath of WWI became a victim of Nazi aggression and then a pawn in the east-west game following Germany’s defeat. The Czechs had the bad luck to be liberated by the Soviets.

Madeleine Albright – official photo as Secretary of State

Madeleine Albright’s narrative of how a small European nation caught in the crossfire fared during the stormy years leading up to and following WWII is bolstered by an abundance of sources, an array of captivating photographs, a cast list of principal characters, a detailed time line, and a bountiful index. Fortunately, this apparatus does not interfere with accessibility. On many occasions, Albright’s personal (as distinguished from professional) voice adds charm and wit to the presentation of unfortunate occurrences.

The story of Madeleine Albright’s response to the discovery of her Jewish ancestry is a leitmotif running through the analysis of Czechoslovakia’s fate. Once their Jewish parentage became known, she and her younger siblings explored family papers, government records, and various archives to piece together a good bit of their parents’ Jewish past. There was no one from whom Albright could receive the answer to this question: What led her parents to convert to Roman Catholicism when Madeleine was still very young and never reveal the truth about their Jewish origins?

Knowing the character of her parents, the author surmises that their decision was meant to be protective. It’s not clear whether or not Josef’s assignment to work with the Czech government-in-exile was intended as an escape from his family’s likely discovery and probable extermination as a Jews. Albright suggests in various ways that the young Körbel couple had worn their Judaism lightly, making it relatively easy to leave it behind.  Prague Winter reveals no information about Albright’s grandparents having relationships with Czechoslovakia’s Jewish communities.

The questions that linger include these: (1) Did Josef Körbel attempt to get his parents and in-laws out of danger? (2) As the Nazis rose to power, how many other Jewish individuals or families disowned their Jewish selves to save (or try to save) their lives? (3) How many succeeded?

This review appears in the August 2012 editions of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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Lisa Unger’s “Die for You”: A Bone Zero Thriller

A shorter (750 word) version of this review appears in the Dec. 17- 23, 2009 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly.and in the Dec. 23-29 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly.  See: Florida Weekly – Lisa Unger

[Shaye Areheart Books imprint of Random House. $24.00. 352 pages.]

Lisa Unger is a novelist whose style and plotting are so fine, and whose explorations of the human psyche are so emotionally devastating, that reading her novels is an exquisite torture. She takes us places we don’t really want to go, even when protected by the supposed safety of a book’s covers. But once we’ve risked the first few chapters, there is no turning back. She has us needing to work our way through, with her characters, the most frightening, disorienting circumstances. So it is once again in her latest effort, Die for You, a brilliant evocation of the questioning mind: the person who cannot live without knowing the “why” behind the forces that are out to betray and destroy her, even if the search for answers only deepens the danger.  

LisaUnger

For certain people, there is no living without knowing. Isabel Raine is one of those people. A successful novelist and seemingly happily-married young woman, she finds herself in a dangerous situation when her Czech-born husband doesn’t return from work one day and, soon after, his office is ransacked by people pretending to be FBI agents. Isabel, at his office to find clues to Marc’s disappearance, is herself seriously injured by the intruders. When she awakens in a hospital, she asks her sister Linda, “Why didn’t they kill me?”  As narrator, Isabel continues:

It wasn’t a lamentation; it was a question of pure curiosity. They should have killed me. I saw them all, could easily identify any of them and would likely be doing so shortly. Bu they hadn’t. Why not? To someone who constructed plot for a living, it seemed stupid, careless.

So it goes with Isabel Raine, asking the questions a novelist would ask with the audacity of the creative spirit rather than allowing herself to be a mere victim. She pushes against the professional investigators as often as she cooperates with them, and she takes independent action as if she were merely following out the dynamics of a work of fiction set in motion by her own imagination.

Detective Grady Crowe and his partner, Jesamyn Breslow, pursue the case with some suspicion of Isabel herself. Their professional skills and commitment, as well as their human foibles, are well-drawn by Unger, as is their frustration with Isabel’s behavior. Early on in the investigation, they provide Isabel with some shocking truths: the man to whom she has been married for five years had usurped the identity of another man – a Marcus Raine who was also an immigrant from the Czech Republic and who also worked in computer software – who disappeared in 1999. He, the new Marcus, had been living a lie. Isabel had been duped.

With these revelations, the premise shifts gears. It’s no longer “what happened to Marcus Raine?” but “how could Marcus have done this to Isabel” and “how could she have let this happen.” Thematically, Unger probes questions like “how well do we ever know another person” and “what is the root of personal identity.” It’s about nature and nurture, how relationships are built, how trust is won and lost, and how both knowledge and ignorance are dangerous things.

Now, seeming digressions into the backgrounds of Isabel and Linda, their choices in husbands, their contrasting responses to their father’s suicide and their mother’s remarriage, all become part of a much more intricate puzzle that goes beyond the mechanics of popular genre writing. While we can easily label Die for You as a psychological thriller, it is much more.

Like Isabel Raine, Lisa Unger is compelled to follow up on all questions about what makes people tick. She makes Isabel’s chase after the truth about her husband an inquiry into Isabel’s own psyche and behavior. She, Unger, complicates our understanding of the creative process, drawing parallels between the kind of character-invention a novelist undertakes and the kind of self-creation that we all undertake to one degree or another. It is even possible to say that Isabel believed in her husband because he was so well scripted and fit so well into the plot of her own life.

Now her life’s plot includes imminent danger. At one point in the novel Isabel’s long-time friend, constant admirer, and literary agent warns her: “This is not some novel you’re writing, Isabel . . . . This is your life.” When Isabel asks Jack “What’s the difference?” she is not just making a flip remark. Passages like this echo through Die for You, keeping us in touch with Unger’s powerful metaphor concerning life and art.

For all its provocative wisdom, Die for You commands the reader’s attention as a pulse-pounding march of incidents and information, often frightening, sometimes tender, always drawn sure-handedly and efficiently. Unger carefully orchestrates the revelation of information and the building of suspense by juxtaposing Isabel’s narration (the main thread) with scenes that glide through the thoughts of several other characters. Her delineation of subordinate characters – Isabel’s sister Linda, Linda’s husband Erik, their children Trevor and Emily, the detectives, a doorman, the haunted character Ben who eerily echoes the sisters’ father, and many others – is superb. Her renderings of several New York City neighborhoods and her evocations of Prague ring true.

Die4You-Cover

Die for You extends the pattern of riveting excellence that has brought acclaim to Lisa Unger’s previous work: Beautiful Lies, Sliver of Truth, and Black Out. Keep in touch with her via her web site lisaunger.com.

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For a review of Unger’s Black Out, see Lisa Unger

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