america hurts

I could not have said this better or even as well. So I will share it.

nightpoetry

 

“As I say, it is perhaps easier to love America passionately,
when you look at it through the wrong end of a
telescope than when you are right there.
When you are actually in America, America hurts.”

 

~ D.H. Lawrence ~

 

000 america hurts

Digitally enhanced image created from a photo taken in November 2020.


© 2022 nightpoet – all rights reserved


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Back in the Day

There seems to be an abundance of nostalgia about that golden age in America’s history, the 1950s, and the 1960s.  It is particularly strong among those of us senior citizens born during or just after World War II, the last “good war.”  As with every generation before us, we become more sentimental about the past as we grow ever nearer to the end of our sojourn here on earth.  We tend to wander around antique stores remembering when we used this or that “antique” item before they were antiques.  We smile and comment on how if that item is antique, we must be antiques.  Nostalgia is a good thing.  It helps us remember the good times and overlook the painful ones.  But it is important to remember that it is an incomplete picture. 

            I recently took up writing a kind of autobiography or memoir.  I recall listening to my father talk about his childhood during the 1910s and 1920s, growing up as a child of German immigrants on a farm in Michigan.  I have some of his stories on cassette tapes and my mother’s stories of her childhood.  I want to leave a record of my life as I remember the good and bad times for my children, only I will do so in the form of a book complete with pictures and assorted “documents.”

            My first ten years were spent in a small village called Linwood along Michigan’s Saginaw Bay.  Most residents were either farmers or worked in the many factories that made Michigan one of the leading industrial states.  The role played by America’s industries in winning the war against Nazism, and Japanese imperialism resulted in the period from 1945 to 1980 being the golden age of the American working class.  A bright future envisioned by my generation consisted of taking over the family farm or finding employment in one of the factories after finishing high school.  Many of our parents, mine included, did not have a high school education, but they knew the advantages of having one and never missed the opportunity of stressing the importance of staying in school. 

            When I started elementary school in 1949, we had a picture of George Washington on one side of the blackboard (Real black slate!) and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the other.  There was an American flag in the corner.  We started each day with the pledge of allegiance to the flag.  “Under God” was not added until 1954, when I was in the 5th grade.  One teacher (no aides) was in a room with kindergarten through the third grade.  There were no guards, video cameras, lockable doors, etc., just a teacher and a room full of kids who knew how to behave and the consequences of not doing so.

            Linwood Elementary School had only three rooms.  The number of kids in each room varied yearly, but the average was 48.  There was only one teacher per room and no principal.  The method of instruction was simple.  There was a table with chairs at the front of the room next to the teacher’s desk.  That is where she taught.  She would call out, for example, “First-grade reading,” or maybe “Second-grade arithmetic,” or “Third-grade whatever.”  The grade called out would go to the table at the front, and the teacher would teach them.  The teacher was able to spend only fifteen to twenty minutes on each class.  The rest of the students were expected to remain in their seats quietly, working on whatever they were supposed to be working on. 

            I mention my first school because of the role that small country and small-town schools play in books, movies, and television shows meant to make the audience feel good about the past.  I call it a Hallmark, Little House on the Prairie, or Mayberry make-believe world that never actually existed, but we nevertheless enjoy remembering.  It’s a small part of the mythical history of America that includes pilgrims eating Thanksgiving dinner with Pocahontas’ family; slaves singing in the moonlight after a good day’s work for Ole Massa; and poor but industrious young men pulling themselves up from poverty to membership in that elite club of Robber Barons that included the likes of Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Henry Ford. 

            The nostalgic memory of America’s past includes a well-developed civil religion that goes something like this:  To enjoy religious freedom and take the Christian gospel’s good news to the New World’s heathen populations, the Pilgrims and other brave Protestant souls endured the long, harrowing journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of North America led by divine Providence.  After a patriotic war for freedom from England’s oppressive rule, the newly-founded United States of America set about fulfilling its manifest destiny to expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and beyond, eventually becoming what President Dwight Eisenhower called “the greatest force that God has ever allowed to exist on His footstool.”[i]

            The period 1945-1970 was, however, a time when America was still a mostly homogeneous nation with a worldview consensus derived from Western Civilization.  As some are quick to point out, it was dominated by white Euro-American males.  There were racial and cultural minorities concentrated in various locations, but they were kept on the outside looking in.  To the dominant racial and cultural class, they were basically invisible, humorous characters in movies and on radio and television shows.  Like the children in that small village school that is a part of an Idyllic past that never actually existed, those non-Euro-Americans knew how to act.  They knew their place, as we said in those days, and the consequences for not doing so, for presuming to be included in the opening line of the Constitution, “We the people,….” It was a cruel and unjust time in our history for many, not only cultural and racial minorities but women and those who chose to march to the sound of a different drum.  That America to which many Americans, myself included, look back with feelings of nostalgia is long gone, and thankfully so.

            My generation is the children of those who NBC Nightly News anchor and author Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation,” those resilient and patriotic Americans who lived through the Great Depression and then fought in World War II.  Many, like my parents, experienced the Great War, later called World War I, and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1919.  They survived without the benefits of unemployment insurance (1941) or Social Security (1935), both of which were part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  FDR’s opponents accused him of being a Communist, or at least a Socialist, for suggesting that the country owed its citizens assistance when the nation’s economy was experiencing a slump.  Many referred to the New Deal as FDR’s “Jew Deal,” communist and Jew being the same for many Americans. 

As we grew up during the 1940s and 1950s, our parents expected us to become mature adults.  We faced challenges that required courage and character to survive.  And so they instilled in us the same values that served them—knowing right from wrong, the difference between justice and injustice and always choosing the side of justice, a sense of fair play, and loyalty to our country, our family, and most importantly to the God of our fathers.  We needed their guidance and example of courage, for we were growing up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, expecting at any moment a nuclear holocaust.  At school, I learned the Duck and Cover song (1951) and how to follow the example of Bert the Turtle.  If we heard the explosion or saw the flash of light, we were to do like Bert the Turtle,

“When danger threatened him he never got hurt
He knew just what to do

“He’d duck and cover, duck and cover
He’d hide his head and tail and four little feet
He’d duck and cover!”[ii]

And then we would get under our desks with our hands over our heads. 

            A part of the nostalgia from the 1940s and 1950s was the lack of computer technology.  Many of us senior citizens find ourselves adrift without a compass in this new technological world.  We are frustrated, angry, and subject to panic attacks when trying to use our laptop computers that seem determined to thwart all our efforts.  Blessed are those of us who have a child nearby to ask for help.  I recall a Sunday morning when my wife and I were teaching a kindergarten Sunday school class.  It was when the movie “Frozen” was what the children discussed among themselves.  “What is your favorite character?”  “Do you remember when…?”  “What was your favorite part?”  Many of the children had some smartphone or other high-tech device within reach.  As I heard the word “App” mentioned repeatedly, I eventually asked, “What is an App?”  One little girl turned to the girl next to her and, smiling, said, “He doesn’t know what an App is.”  They all laughed.

Smartphones?  We communicated by telephone if we were lucky enough to have one.  Many, including my family, were on a “party line,” meaning more than one household had the same telephone number.  You had to learn your number of rings to know whether or not to answer the phone when it rang.  Long-distance calls were costly, so sending a Western Union telegram might be cheaper.  The local, national, and international news were broadcast over the radio or television if you were one of the fortunate few who owned a tv set.  Most people relied on the local newspaper delivered by the “paper boy.”  For visual images, we had Movietone News shown at the theater between the main feature, or features if a double feature, along with the mandatory cartoon and previews of coming attractions. 

My father brought home our first television set in 1952.  It was enclosed in a wooden cabinet and had a 12-inch screen.  We could receive only one station.  It was a NBC affiliate out of Bay City, Michigan that would sign on in the morning and off at midnight.  Black, white, and various shades of gray were the only colors on the screen.  Color was introduced in the United States in 1953.  The Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1, 1954, was the first program broadcast nationally in color.  The Perry Como Show (1956) and The Big Record with Patti Paige (1957) were the first two regular programs broadcast in color.  The first all-color prime-time season was in 1966 when I was a Junior at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia. 

Color television sets appeared in stores in January 1954 with price tags that placed them clearly out of the range of most consumers.  Westinghouse made available a color television in the New York City area in February 1954 that sold for $1,295 ($13,422 in 2022).  Thirty sets were sold during that first month.  Since we are looking back nostalgically at that golden age, it is worth noting that a new 1954 Ford Crestline 4 Door Sedan could be purchased for $1,975 when the median yearly income for men was $3,200.  It was not so good for women.  Their median income was only $1,200. 

I learned to drive in a car with a “straight stick” on the stirring column and a clutch next to the brake and gas pedals.  My first car, like all others, came equipped with air conditioning, meaning I could roll the windows down mechanically.  It had four gears, first, second, third, and reverse.  In winter, the heat came from a “heater,” a box located beneath the dash.  I learned how to signal the vehicle behind me my intentions by sticking my arm out the window.  If it was straight, I was about to turn left.  I was about to turn right if it was pointed up at a right angle.  And if I pointed it down at the pavement or gravel, I was slowing down or about to stop.  Most cars had bench seats in front, charming for taking your date to the drive-in theater.  We navigated with printed road maps given free at service stations.  Today’s GPS was spelled “map” back in the day. 

            For the guys, the military draft was always something that one had to calculate into any plans for the future.  Most men graduated high school at 18 and were soon called upon to serve their mandatory two years in the United States Army.  We had options.  Rather than wait for the infamous letter from the local Draft Board, one could choose to join one of the four military branches for three years rather than two or join the National Guard or a reserve unit of one of the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Navy.  Unlike today, the Guard and Reserves were not used to fight wars.  They were “weekend warriors.”  They dressed up once a week to play soldier.  One way of avoiding the draft was to carry a purse to your draft physical when called up. 

            The female portion of the population did not have to worry about the draft.  War was a man’s sport.  It was considered uncivilized to send women into combat.  They were better suited for nursing and clerical jobs.  Hence the various women’s auxiliary corps—WAAC (Army), WAVES (Navy), WASP (Air Force), ANC (Army Nurse Corps), and SPAR (Coast Guard).  Women serving in the Marines were called simply Marines. 

            Being old enough to remember the 1950s and the 1960s, I have difficulty deciding which of the two decades is most worthy of nostalgia.  I yearn to make a return visit to both for different reasons related to my growing maturity and awareness of the world in which I live.  I see things and am aware of things today that I was not aware of back in the day.  I was unaware of the evils of segregation at home or imperialism abroad.  I was blissfully ignorant of the negative side of life that has always been, and always will be, present in every age. 

            We live in a postmodern age when the study of history is considered irrelevant, yet we keep hearing George Santayana’s prophetic comment, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There is a cure for ignorance about our past, which is education.  Unfortunately, we live in a time when most educational institutions have abandoned the teaching of any history. 

            There are growing signs that historians are taking a new and more objective look at our nation’s history.  Many stories that were treated as history back in the day are being replaced with carefully researched narratives.  Both the positive and negative are given a fair hearing.  A good example of history replacing myth is exposing the “Myth of the Lost Cause” as a myth.              Still, there will always be a place for looking nostalgically back at our past.  When I was in the third and fourth grades, I did walk two miles to school in the snow during the winter and was happy to find when I got there that the furnace was not working and I could walk back home in the snow,


[i] Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, “Radio and Television Address to the American People on the State of the Nation.,” Dwight D. Eisenhower Radio and Television Address to the American People on the State of the Nation. | (The American Presidency Project, April 5, 1954), https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/radio-and-television-address-the-american-people-the-state-the-nation.

[ii] “Dick ‘Two Ton’ Baker – Bert the Turtle (the Duck and Cover Song),” Genius, accessed November 2, 2022, https://genius.com/Dick-two-ton-baker-bert-the-turtle-the-duck-and-cover-song-lyrics.

Resurrecting my Blog

I am sitting at my desk in my study, surrounded by various objects assembled with the hope that they will make my time spent here more enjoyable and productive.  My goal is to spend some time each day writing.  Within the past month, I completed work on a new edition, the fourth edition, of a book on the history of twentieth-century Europe.  It was a joint effort by myself and Michael D. Richards, who, like myself, is a retired history professor. 

            I enjoy writing, but there is a difference between writing for pleasure and writing as work.  Writing a history book is laborious.  There is an outline to follow, deadlines to meet, editors to please, fact-checking facts, drafts and rewrites of drafts, and much more.  I have always wanted to write about whatever interests me at that moment.  It might be something in the news, something someone said, something I happened to read or hear, or my thoughts inspired by the beauty of a sunrise or a sunset. 

            The internet offers all sorts of opportunities to put one’s thoughts into words and release them in cyberspace on the chance that someone somewhere might choose to read them.  In August 2010, I started a blog.  It seemed like everyone had a blog, so why not I?  There wasn’t any particular theme.  I did not limit the blog to a specific topic such as philosophy, politics, food, or whatever.  I entitled it “My thoughts and opinions on a variety of subjects, mostly history.”  I chose history because that was my profession.  I was a history professor and remained one until retirement in the spring of 2016. 

            The blog was not my first effort at writing for publication.  Since my time in graduate school during the 1970s, I have written and published numerous book reviews and articles of one sort or another for journals and reference books.  By 2010, I even had five books to my credit.  My first venture into writing for publication was during my high school and college years.  I occasionally wrote editorial-style letters to newspaper editors, sometimes using a pen name.  Yes, some of my comments might have gotten me pilloried.  I have a couple of “memory boxes” in which I keep newspaper clippings and other mementos from my past lives. 

            Recently, I took up the challenge of writing a memoir or autobiography.  My better half has repeatedly encouraged me to do so for our daughters.  Also, I was involved in certain events and met people who might interest local history buffs.  And, who knows, maybe others from my past might choose to reflect on the time when our paths crossed. 

            Like everyone, I am not the same person today I was at various periods of my life.  I have learned a lot about the meaning of life through past experiences.  There was more than one fork in my life’s path at which I had to choose which direction to take.  My choice was not always what presented itself as the best choice, but I always decided to take the path I was convinced was the right one.

            I am learning how to use the Worpress, something I did not do in the past.  And so, as I begin to bring my blog back to life, I plan to include “my thoughts and opinions on a variety of subjects.” I will have a home page and different “pages” to organize my various blogs, for example, fiction, history, opinion, book reviews, memoirs/autobiography, musings on the meaning of life, etc. 

            So, consider this the launch of my “new” blog, and if you think you might be interested, please sign up to receive email notices when I publish.  Just use the “Email Subscription” form in the upper right-hand corner.  And until next time, be good to all God’s creation and always live under the mercy. 

Work: Curse or Blessing?

In the mid-1980s, my wife and I attended a Sunday School class at an Evangelical Free Church in Deerfield, Illinois.  The class was team-taught by two Bible professors from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Dr. John H. Sailhamer and Dr. Gleason Archer, Jr.  To learn about the Bible from two such scholars was a great honor. 

I remember well a discussion one Sunday in which the two distinguished Old Testament scholars debated whether the Hebrew word in Genesis 2:15 translated into English as “work” should be translated as “worship?”  Dr. Archer was of the opinion that the Hebrew word should be translated as “worship.”  He blamed the mistranslation of the Hebrew word as “work” on those who produced the King James translation of the Bible.  Dr. Sailhamer favored “work.”  The difference of opinion, as I recall, seemed to have something to do with a little mark—a jot or tittle as they say—above one of the letters of the Hebrew word that determines the correct translation.

That said, now to the subject of this review, Grace at Work: Redeeming the Grind & the Glory of You Job by Bryan Chapell (Crossway, 2022).  Bryan Chapell is a former pastor, seminary professor, and seminary president.  Grace at Work is a biblical, and therefore Christian, look at how we who identify as followers of Jesus Christ should view our labor, job, work, vocation, or “daily grind.”  Many of us, indeed myself, have often felt that work is a byproduct of the curse mentioned in Genesis 3:17.  That is not true.  Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 says that for one to enjoy one’s work is a blessing from God. Bryan Chapell challenges the reader to consider work as a part of who we are as Christians: “Is what we are doing truly honoring God?”  Every aspect of our life, everything we are and do, should reflect our relationship with our Lord, Jesus Christ.  Work, for example, results in financial reward.  But our material possessions, including our finances, are not “private property,” as seen from a worldly perspective.  We exercise stewardship over our possessions, including our very life.  Using or misusing our possessions will reflect our relationship with Jesus Christ.  The central theme in Grace at Work is that God gives purpose to our work, and through our work, many opportunities to show the world what it means to be one saved by Grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Grace at Work is well-written, easy to read, and easy to understand.  It includes “Notes,” which guide further reading if desired.  There is also a “General Index” and a “Scripture Index.”

We Christians live lives in total obedience.  We struggle with what the apostle Paul called “the old nature.”  Still, we are given daily opportunities to be an example to the world of what it means to be a clay vessel in God’s hands.

Academic Freedom: From Ram-skit to Bull-dung — by Crystal Downing

Can the Churches Survive the Pandemic

The pandemic known as COVID-19 has dealt a severe blow to the institutional churches.  Pastors have resorted to streaming their services on Facebook, YouTube, and other means made available by modern technology.  Such substitutes are a poor substitute for meeting together.  Some churches may not reopen once the pandemic ends.  There is a fear that many who missed meeting together with fellow believers may decide that attending church at least once a week, or even less often, was not necessary or rewarding.

Some denominations were already experiencing a flight from the pews well before the pandemic struck.  The Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, has noted a drop in baptisms and membership for several years in a row.  Some of the losses are accounted for by the rise of non-denominational church fellowships and the fact that the youth are abandoning the faith of their parents as soon as they are free to do so.  

Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman’s book, Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ is Essential (Crossway 2021), is timely.  The authors provide an argument for the role of the institutional church in the believer’s life.   Their argument is persuasive.  However, it is important to note that they are referring to the institutional church, that is, the brick-and-mortar building that is likely a part of an organized denomination.  Before becoming too depressed about the state of affairs, one must keep in mind that the institutional church and the Church as the Body of Christ consisting of all those—past, present, and future—who have been saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not the samething.  The former is finite and will vanish; the latter is eternal.

There are numerous verses in the New Testament that call upon believers to gather together for fellowship, exhortation and teaching, worship and celebration of the Lord’s Supper, etc.  Hanseen and Leeman provide a good both a reminder of the importance of meeting together and an encouragement to do so.

As I read and thought about the content of Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ is Essential my mind was drawn to the words of an old Negro spiritual:

Let Us Break Bread Together Lyrics

1. Let us break bread together on our knees, (on our knees) 

let us break bread together on our knees. (on our knees) 

When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, 

O Lord, have mercy on me. (on me) 

2. Let us drink wine together on our knees, (on our knees) 

let us drink wine together on our knees. (on our knees) 

When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, 

O Lord, have mercy on me. (on me) 

[3]. Let us praise God together on our knees, (on our knees) 

let us praise God together on our knees. (on our knees) 

When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, 

O Lord, have mercy on me. (on me) 

4. Let us praise God together on our knees, (on our knees) 

let us praise God together on our knees. (on our knees) 

When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, 

O Lord, have mercy if you please. (if you please) 

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and always live under the mercy.

Thoughts on Memorial Day 2021

Every Memorial Day we pause to remember those who served and those who died in the wars that involved our country.  Not all wars are included.  For example, we make no mention of the so-called Indian Wars that did not end until 1924.  Perhaps the latter are omitted because even the most nationalistic American tends to look back at them with shame.   

We are right to remember those who served, whether as volunteers or draftees.  Most, even those who could not understand why they were fighting, did so as a matter of duty to one’s country, and for many, it was more then that.  They believed, or were able to convince themselves, that they were fighting to defend their country and the noble ideals for which it stood, even if they were among those groups of citizens who were denied the ideals for which they fought.  Despite 200 plus years of history “We the people” remains a promise, a goal, a work in progress towards which we continue to strive. 

We see evidence of the cost the veterans paid in the many monuments that are often neglected except on Memorial Day or July 4, and we see it in the physical scars that some veterans bear for the remainder of their lives.  Often overlooked are the psychological scars that haunt many veterans with memories of war that cannot be exorcised by pills, liquor, or counseling.  The pain suffered often extends to those loved ones who live with the physical and psychologically wounded, or with memories of loved ones who lost their lives in past and present wars. 

During the fall of 1993 I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.  It was very late during the night, and yet there were still people visiting the memorial.  Some were very emotional.  Perhaps they were looking for the name of a son, husband, or father who died while serving his country.  The average age of those who served in the Vietnam War was 22.  The youngest to die in combat was only 15.  His name was Dan Bullock.

Dan Bullock was an African American who dreamed of one day becoming a pilot, police officer, or U.S. Marine.  At age 14, he altered the date on his birth certificate to say he was born on December 21, 1949 rather than 1953, and joined the Marine Corps on September 18, 1968.  He arrived in Vietnam on May 18,1969 and was killed in action just 20 days later on June 7. 

It took a lot of courage for a young man–dare I say boy—of only 14 to volunteer for military service during wartime.  He had to have been physically strong for his age and a strong spirited individual to have survived Marine boot camp.  I cannot help but wonder what he might he have become had he not joined, or having joined, survived the war?

Memorial Day should be a day of mourning not a day of celebration.  Cancel the parades, picnics, sporting events, and trips to the beach or the mountains.  Cancel all the Memorial Day sales and close all the stores and even the restaurants.  There is nothing to celebrate.  We celebrate positive events—births, weddings, graduations, promotions, anniversaries, etc. etc.  War is insane!  War represents the worst in human nature.  Although it has been with us since the beginning of human history, and will no doubt be with us to the end of history, any rational human being would agree that war has no victors.

A friend of mine posted on social media the official statistics on how many Americans died in our nation’s past wars.  As one might expect, World War II had the highest number of deaths, 291,557.  More then 7,000 have died in combat since 2001.  But as I mentioned above, the number of deaths is only a small part of the cost a people pay for participating in wars. 

Instead of listening to the national anthem and watching heroic war movies, listen instead to antiwar songs and read the memoirs and poetry of those who know the true meaning of war.  I have been told, and I believe it true, that those who abhor war most are those who have experienced it. 

I did not serve in the military during the Vietnam War.  I tried very hard not to be a participant.  As a historian by profession, I have studied the history of wars throughout the millennia of human history.  What have I learned?  I am not sure I can answer that question.  I remain puzzled.  I read once that Leon Tolstoy wrote War and Peace in attempt to understand why so many men would march halfway around the world to kill a bunch of people they did not know or have any reason to fight.  Did he find an answer?  I do not know.  Tolstoy was a pacifist, but pacifism is not a rational answer, unless of course, everyone was to become pacifists.   And how likely do you think that will occur, given the historical record of human folly?

So, I sit here on this Memorial Day with no desire to join the celebrations or go out shopping in order to show my patriotic support for the American economy.  In the past two years I lost a very good friend and a brother-in-law, both of whom I would like to have known much better.  Both of them served as officers in the Vietnam War.  One was a Marine captain; the other a captain in the Army.  Both lived the remainder of their lives with the after effects of the war.  The one was wounded 5 times and carried pieces of shrapnel around in his body.  The other could never forget those under his command who died, nor come to terms with the feeling that the United States abandoned the Montagnards whom they recruited to fight the Viet Cong. 

One thing I do conclude, sitting here thinking about this Memorial Day, is that the line from the Roman poet Horace, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” * often quoted to glorify war, is a lie, a very BIG LIE.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and live under the mercy.

*”It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.”

Must We Bear a Burden of Guilt for the Sins of Our Fathers?

Suppose for a moment that your mother dropped you off at an orphanage when you were just an infant.  Although she could not, or would not, care for you, she did remain a part of your life.  She would occasionally pick you up and take you to visit your grandmother.  Those were good times, for you adored your grandmother.  She was always happy to see you, and you were able to experience from her some of the love you were missing in your relationship with your mother. 

Suppose further that when you were seven years old, your mother agreed to allow your then foster parents to adopt you, after which the visits with your mother and grandmother ceased.  Your new home was a loving one.  You gained a mother and a father and two brothers who welcomed you as a full member of the family.  You call your adopted parents “Mama” and “Papa,” and your brothers speak of you as their “sister,” never as their “adopted sister.”  The manner in which you are welcomed into your new family is all the more remarkable since you are a mixed-race child in a German family.  Your mother was German; your father was Nigerian. 

Your parents are not wealthy, but neither are they poor. You are able to attend good schools and travel abroad.  As an adult, you are able to live for a time in Paris and Israel.  You earn a degree in Middle Eastern and African studies from Tel Aviv University.  Eventually you marry a German and have two children.  Then, one day while visiting the central library in Hamburg, you happen “by chance” to pick a book off a shelf that smashes into your world like a bolt of lightning, forcing you to confront the question, “Who am I?”  The book is the story of your mother, Monika Göth, daughter of Amon Göth and his mistress, Ruth Irene Kalder.  Suddenly, you must face the fact that you are the grandchild of one of the most notorious mass murderers of the Holocaust. 

The above is in brief the story of Jennifer Teege as she relates it in her autobiography, My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past (New York: The Experiment, 2015).  Jennifer Teege was 38 years old in 2002, when she happened upon the book, I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I? by her biological mother, Monica Göth.  It is Monica’s account of her life’s struggle with the knowledge that she was the daughter of Amon Göth, the commandant of Płaszów concentration camp near Kraków, Poland, who was convicted of war crimes in 1946 and executed by hanging.

Amon Göth was not just a SS officer carrying out orders given to him as the commandant of a concentration camp.  He enjoyed inflicting fear, pain, and death on those who were his victims.  He would stand on the balcony of his villa overlooking the camp and randomly shot prisoners with a rifle.  He had two dogs, Rolf, a Great Dane, and Ralf, an Alsatian mix, that he trained to attack and tear apart prisoners on his command.  He would ride about the camp on his white horse and, if he saw a prisoner working too slow or pausing to rest, he simply shot him or her, adult or child.  “When you saw Göth, you saw death,” a survivor of Płaszów later recalled.   Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, a survivor who suffered daily abuse as a maid in Göth’s villa, describes the terror that Amon Göth’s mere presence inspired: “As a survivor I can tell you that we are all traumatized people. Never would I, never, believe that any human being would be capable of such horror, of such atrocities. When we saw him from a distance, everybody was hiding, in latrines, wherever they could hide. I can’t tell you how people feared him.”

As a retired history professor with a special interest in twentieth-century European history, and in German history in particular, I found Ms. Teege’s book informative and very interesting.  I have often wondered how the children of high-ranking Nazi officials dealt with the burden of their parentage.  How would such a person answer when asked, “What did your father/mother do for a living?”  “Who were your parents/grandparents?”  These survivors, sometimes called “Hitler’s children,” confronted their family’s history in various ways. 

Not all of them survived the fall of Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich.”  The six children of Magda and Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler’s closest confidents and Reich Minister of Propaganda, died in the Berlin bunker, poisoned by their mother.  Magda could not bear the thought of her children having to live in a world without Hitler.  She had another child by her first marriage, Harald Quandt, who survived the war.  He was a successful industrialist in the postwar era, and died in a private airplane crash in 1967.

Some of the children of high-ranking Nazi officials, like Edda Goering (b. 1938), Wolf Rudiger Hess (1937-2001), and Gudrun Himmler (1929-2018), refused to ever accept the fact that their fathers could have been guilty of the crimes of which they were accused.  Gudrun Himmler, daughter of the Heinrich Himmler, leader of the infamous SS and chief architect of the Holocaust, spent her life defending her father and channeling aid to former SS and Gestapo members through an agency known as Stille Hilfe (Silent Help).  Among those she helped were Klaus Barbie (1913-1991),”the Butcher of Lyon,” Martin Sommer (1915-1988), the “Hangman of Buchenwald,” and Anton Malloth (1912-2002),  convicted in 2001 of beating at least 100 prisoners to death in Theresienstadt.

Hitler, himself, did not have any children.  The claim made by a Frenchman, Jean-Marie Loret (1918-1985), that he was Hitler’s illegitimate son, conceived during World War I while Hitler was serving on the Western Front, did not survive DNA tests.  Hitler’s sister, Paula (1896-1960), did not have any children.  As of December 5, 2018, there were five surviving descendants of Hitler’s half-sister Angela (1883-1949) and half-brother Alois (1882-1956).  They agreed among themselves not to have any children, thus assuring that the Hitler bloodline will end with them. 

Bettina Goering is the great-nice of Hermann Goering, one of Hitler’s earliest followers.  Hermann Goering was one of the highest decorated heroes of World War I.  He took over command of Manfred von Richthofen’s squadron, the “Flying Circus” (Jagdgeschwader 1) following the Red Barron’s death in aerial combat.  Goering’s popularity as a war hero enabled Hitler to win the support of many upper-class patriots who otherwise would have ignored “corporal” Hitler.  Goering served as commander of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and after 1941 was Hitler’s designated successor.   

Speaking of how she remembers her father, Bettina Goering says, “When I see Hermann as a family person, I think he’s really nice, and charming, and incredibly caretaking, and it’s hard for me to see flaws. But then you see what he does in politics and how he killed people, including his so-called friends.”  She has lived with the fear that some of what made her father a war criminal, though he was never the level of monster as others mentioned above and below, may reside in her DNA.  She and her brother both underwent sterilization so as to bring an end to the Goering bloodline. 

Some of the children and grandchildren of prominent Nazis discovered only later in life that their infamous forbearer was a war criminal, having been told as children that he died during the war, often as a hero.  Some, like Jennifer Teege’s mother, Monica Göth, have personal memories of their parent or grandparent.  That was true of Brigitte Höss, daughter of Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz.

Höss was born in 1900, the son of a former army officer who wanted his son to become a priest.  When World War I broke out, Höss was allowed to join his father’s old 21st Regiment of Dragoons.  At 15 years of age, he served in the Middle East with Germany’s ally the Ottoman Turks.  During his service in the Middle East, he witnessed the Armenian Genocide.  Around one million Armenians were killed by the Turks in what today would be referred to as “ethnic cleansing.”  He served with distinction, having been wounded three times and received several decorations for bravery, including the Iron Crescent and the Iron Cross first and second class.  After the war’s end, he joined the Nazi Party in 1922, and in 1934 the SS Death’s Head Unit.  He served in both Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps before becoming Commandant of Auschwitz concentration and death camp in 1940.

As Commandant of Auschwitz, Höss oversaw the mass killing of between 2 and 3 million Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russian prisoners of war and various other individuals.  After experimenting with various methods, Höss introduced the use of Zyklon B gas.  At his Nuremburg trial he boasted that as many as 2,000 prisoners could be disposed of in half an hour.  He was transferred to Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1943 after revelation of an affair with an inmate.  He returned to Auschwitz in May 1944 to oversee the murder of 430,000 Hungarian Jews over a 56-day period.  When the war ended in 1945, Höss tried to evade arrest, hoping to escape to South America.  He failed.  When charged at his trial with the murder of three and one half million prisoners, he replied:   “No. Only two and one-half million—the rest died from disease and starvation.”

Inge-Brigitte Höss was the third of five children born to Rudolf and Hedwig Hensel Höss.  Brigitte moved to Spain during the 1950’s, where she worked as a model.  She met an American engineer working in Spain.  They married in 1961.  They eventually settled down in Georgetown, located in northwest Washington, D.C.  She was employed by an exclusive fashion salon in D.C., owned by a Jewish couple who fled Germany in 1938 after the Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass) attack on Jews throughout Germany.  The salon owners never revealed to anyone that their employee, whom they so liked, was the daughter of Rudolf Höss.  They chose to see her as a human being, not as the daughter of the commandant of Auschwitz.  Reflecting on his parents’ relationship with Brigitte, their son later commented, “I am proud to be their son.”

Should these so-called “Hitler’s children” feel a burden of guilt for the crimes of their parents or grandparents?  After all, they were only children.  Like all of us who are unrelated to anyone guilty of war crimes and/or crimes against humanity, they try to understand how someone can be a loving parent or grandparent, and at the same time be a mass murderer.  After having breakfast with his family, a husband/father kisses his wife and children before leaving for a day’s labor of participating in the murder of men, women, and children.  After returning home and enjoying the evening meal, he plays with his children before seeing them off to bed, wishing them “good night” and “sweet dreams.”  Perhaps he even stands by as they say their good night prayers.  Later in life, how do those children, how do we, understand that?  How do we get our minds around that reality?  The theories offered by social scientists are of little or no help.  It is a part of that perennial human problem of the existence of evil that haunts humanity. 

I have spoken above about those whose father or grandfather was a Nazi war criminal.  But is it any different, should it be any different, for the children whose fathers firebombed German or Japanese cities, incinerating tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children, or dropped napalm bombs on Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War? 

I do not have any relatives who were or are guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity.  My father worked in a defense plant during World War II.  One of my uncles served as an army cook, hardly a post that lent itself to the commission of war crimes.  My maternal grandparents immigrated to America from Germany at the end of the 19th century.  Had they remained in Germany, I too might very well be struggling with the fallout from a parent’s role during the World War II. 

We all struggle with a feeling of guilt for crimes committed in the recent or distant past by individuals who chose to participate in evil acts.  We struggle with the question of whether we ought to feel a responsibility to try and atone for the evil committed by past generations of the community of which we are members.  Should American citizens today of European descent feel guilt for the enslavement of people from Africa by European Americans during past centuries of our nation’s history?  If so, what about the genocide of Native Americans or the exploitation of immigrants during the early days of the Industrial Revolution in America?  Those who committed those crimes against their fellow human beings in the past are no longer here to atone for their actions. 

The United States of America that came into being following a successful revolution against British rule built an empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and eventually beyond.  It did so by conquests that decimated all who stood in its way.  The war with Mexico (1846-1848) and the Spanish-American War (1898) are acknowledged by historians to have been wars of aggression, wars of conquest.  Treatment of Asian immigrants mirrored the treatment of African Americans living under Jim Crow.  The history of the United States is written in part in blood and tears, driven forward by greed and racist theories supported by Social Darwinist theories. 

As we struggle with sins committed by our ancestors, should we feel that in some way we must share their guilt as if we, ourselves, committed the sins?  Americans today are coming to grips with a host of institutionalized injustices that are rooted in our nation’s history, but still very much a part of who we are as a society.  We may not be personally responsible for those injustices.  We may not have made the choices that created them, but we must choose to remove them.  We are not “Hitler’s children,” but we are all children of Adam and Eve.  Like Jennifer Teege, we must educate ourselves about the burden of responsibility, if not guilt, that we carry as individuals who are part of a community.  We must live with the consequences that resulted from choices our forefathers made, and we must choose to correct the injustices that still exist in our society, injustices which we inherited from our ancestors. 

Yes, There Really Was a Charlie Chan

Like many who grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I enjoyed the adventures of the fictional detective known as Charlie Chan.  I did not know, however, that there really was a policeman whose adventures in law enforcement in Honolulu at the beginning of the twentieth century served as inspiration for great fictional detective.  His name was Chang Apana (1871-1933).  He stood only five feet tall, but at times carried a bull whip with him as he patrolled Honolulu’s Chinatown. 

The story of how Chang Apana became the inspiration for author Earl Derr Biggers’ fictional character, Charlie Chan, is the subject of Yunte Huang’s CHARLIE CHAN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE HONORABLE DETECTIVE AND HIS RENDEZVOUS WITH AMERICAN HISTORY (New York: W. H. Norton & Company, 2010).  Yunte Huang is a distinguished scholar and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  He is the author of a number of books praised for their scholarship and readability.

Professor Huang used both archival materials and extensive reading in secondary sources to tell the story of both Chang Apana and Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan.  He documents how Biggers’ creation became one the most popular icons in American popular culture through novels, and even more through movies.  The book includes an extensive bibliography, which, together with the chapter notes and index, makes the book both enjoyable to read as well and a good source for one interested in a serious study of American popular culture during the first half of the twenty-first century. 

Readers who have seen many of the Charlie Chan movies will no doubt enjoy “A List of Charlie Chanisms” in Appendix I.  There are 56 of these gems including:

“Every maybe has a wife called Maybe-Not.”

“The fool questions others, the wise man questions himself.”

“Learn from hen—never boast about egg until after egg’s birthday.”

“Trouble, like first love, teach many lessons.”

Appendix II contains a list of 47 Charlie Chan films produced between 1926 and 1949.  Charlie Chan was played by 5 different actors over the years:  George Kuwa (1926), Kamiyama Sojin (1927), E. L. Park (1929), Warner Oland (1931-1937), Sidney Toler (1938-1946) and Roland Winters (1947-2949). 

In conclusion, I agree with Jonathan Spence’s (author of The Search for Modern China and Return to Dragon Mountain) assessment of Huang’s Charlie Chan: “An ingenious and absorbing book that provides a convincing new mode for examining the Chinese experience through Chinese and Western eyes.  It will permanently change the way we tell this troubled gripping story.”

A Book for the Christian Student’s Backpack

In his new book, Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College (2021), Michael J. Kruger, President and the Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, attempts to provide a kind of “survival guide” for young Christians leaving their homes and local churches to enroll in secular universities.  The obvious underlying assumption is that these young scholars will be entering hostile territory, where accomplished scholars will, either intentionally without overt intention, do their best to destroy their faith as born-again Christians.  That is a fear shared by many Christian parents who send their children to secular institutions of higher learning.  As one who spent 42 years teaching in 4 different Christian colleges/universities, I feel those young Christian students are more likely to have their faith challenged and destroyed at a Christian college.  But that is another issue better discussed elsewhere.

Professor Kruger tells the reader in the book’s introduction that he, himself, was unprepared for the challenges he faced as an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina.  He recalls that growing up, he had received “very limited instruction on the Christian worldview—what we believe and why we believe it—and virtually no instruction on how to respond to non-Christian thinking.”  Indeed, that is a truth that I witnessed again and again throughout my teaching career.  These young Christians, recent high school graduates, often arrive well drilled in some denominational catechism or list of behavioral dos and don’ts, together with a spiritual sounding vocabulary of what can be characterized as “God talk.”  Many can share the “Four Spiritual Laws” or lead a prospective convert down the “Roman Road,” but are unable to give a reasoned explanation of why they believe what they are testifying to.  In short, they are walking into the lion’s den, or so their parents fear, with, as Professor Kruger says of his own experience, “lots of zeal but little knowledge.”   

The book’s title, Surviving Religion 101, implies that the Christian student will be enrolling in a religion class at a secular university.  Why, I ask, would a Christian student attending a secular college/university enroll in a religion (or Bible) course unless he or she was well grounded in a Christian worldview?  Such a course at a secular university is an elective, not a required course. 

I am also left wondering why Professor Kruger chose to present what is a host of good information for a young Christian in the form of letters addressed to his daughter.  I have 2 daughters, both of whom I think would have found such a book more than a little insulting, or at least indicative of a helicopter parent who simply cannot let his adult daughter find her own way.  Better to give her a copy of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, or Francis A. Schaeffer’s The God Who is There or He is There and He Is Not Silent.  The Christian student living in today’s postmodern world must have a Christian worldview.  I am not sure that this book is the best choice for that purpose. 

Although I have some reservations as noted above, I do feel this is a good book worth reading.