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Forgotten Land and Bloodlands

January 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Europe in 1933

[Map credit: Mike King, in New York Review of Books]

I finished Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia two Saturdays ago and have intended to write about it since, but I’m struggling with what to say. I first wrote about it at the end of November, having been inspired to order it earlier in the month because of Andrew Stuttaford’s Wall Street Journal review, in which he wrote:

Max Egremont’s idiosyncratic, disjointed and beautifully written volume makes an ideal guide to this shifting, shadowy realm. In part a piecemeal history of the final half-century of German East Prussia, in part a travelogue through what was left behind, “Forgotten Land” is gently elegiac. Shifting constantly between present and a variety of pasts, it is as wistful as a flick-through of an old photo album, as melancholy as a rain-spattered northern autumn afternoon.

I commented at the time that I was “some 70 pages into Egremont’s book and thoroughly enjoying it.” But I then became distracted by a sequence of other books, returning to it intermittently but not making further progress until late December, at which point I wrote:

I’ve been slowly working my way through Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia in recent days, reaching not quite the halfway point yesterday. And what do you know? It’s reviewed by Richard Eder today in the NYT, not entirely flatteringly. I’ve been convincing myself that I enjoy Egremont’s meandering approach. A little World War I history here, a little World War II history there. A few words about one historical figure, then another. It’s not entirely clear why we spend so many pages in Ypres reading about British World War I war dead. Belgium’s a long way from East Prussia. But that’s the journey we sign up for when we read the book. Eder clearly has less patience for it than I do.

Will I make it to the end?

That Eder review almost stopped me in my tracks, given my eagerness to get to the books I had lined up to read next. Fortunately, I kept going — fortunately because of the astonishing tales that awaited me. In the latter stages of the book, the focus is on the lives of selected residents of East Prussia in the buildup to World War II, during the war itself, and in its immediate aftermath. We’re talking about land that passed back and forth in complicated ways between Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union.

A chapter is devoted to the historic German city of Memel, now the Lithuanian city of Klaipėda. A recurring character in several chapters is Walter Frevert, an East Prussian forester who becomes the head forest master for Hermann Göring. Göring, of course, would become the head of the German Air Force, but when the Nazis initially came to power in 1933, he was put in charge of Prussia, coming often to East Prussia to hunt. As we learn, Frevert’s responsibilities grew as Göring expanded the forest holdings in Germany’s eastern lands. Expansion might mean, for instance, forcibly moving Poles from their villages to be re-settled farther east and then razing the villages, an operation Frevert oversaw. Frevert would take on forest duties in West Germany after the war and become a popular figure, through radio and TV programs and his memoir Rominten, about the hunting preserve in East Prussia that he once ran.

Egremont tells these stories in an understated manner that allows the details to speak for themselves, which they do quite powerfully. Another example is the story of the last Jews left in Königsberg in January 1945, whom the Germans decide to move westward before the inevitable arrival of the Red Army. They are forcibly marched to the Baltic town of Palmnicken. Two thousand die or are killed along the way. The survivors were driven down to the beach, into the frozen sea, and shot. The details of the march are described from the perspective of some of the East Prussian natives, some of whom would go through their own hell when the Russians arrived.

The closing chapters of the book reminded me that last year I had thought of reading Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which was widely and well reviewed. Anne Applebaum’s review in the New York Review of Books (from which the map at the top is taken) had especially gotten my attention. As Applebaum explains,

Snyder’s ambition is to persuade the West—and the rest of the world—to see the war in a broader perspective. He does so by disputing popular assumptions about victims, death tolls, and killing methods—of which more in a moment—but above all about dates and geography. The title of this book, Bloodlands, is not a metaphor. Snyder’s “bloodlands,” which others have called “borderlands,” run from Poznan in the West to Smolensk in the East, encompassing modern Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, and the edge of western Russia (see map [above]). This is the region that experienced not one but two—and sometimes three—wartime occupations. This is also the region that suffered the most casualties and endured the worst physical destruction.

More to the point, this is the region that experienced the worst of both Stalin’s and Hitler’s ideological madness. During the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s, the lethal armies and vicious secret policemen of two totalitarian states marched back and forth across these territories, each time bringing about profound ethnic and political changes. In this period, the city of Lwów was occupied twice by the Red Army and once by the Wehrmacht. After the war ended it was called L’viv, not Lwów, it was no longer in eastern Poland but in western Ukraine, and its Polish and Jewish pre-war population had been murdered or deported and replaced by ethnic Ukrainians from the surrounding countryside. In this same period, the Ukrainian city of Odessa was occupied first by the Romanian army and then by the Wehrmacht before being reoccupied by the Soviet Union. Each time power changed hands there were battles and sieges, and each time an army retreated from the city it blew up the harbor or massacred Jews. Similar stories can be told about almost any place in the region.

This region was also the site of most of the politically motivated killing in Europe—killing that began not in 1939 with the invasion of Poland, but in 1933, with the famine in Ukraine. Between 1933 and 1945, fourteen million people died there, not in combat but because someone made a deliberate decision to murder them. These deaths took place in the bloodlands, and not accidentally so: “Hitler and Stalin rose to power in Berlin and Moscow,” writes Snyder, “but their visions of transformation concerned above all the lands between.”

Egremont, of course, is not writing a comprehensive history. He is examining a handful of people who are victims, collaborators, or perpetrators in one region, East Prussia, that forms part of Snyder’s larger bloodlands story. When I set Egremont’s haunting book aside, I was tempted to turn directly to Bloodlands to better understand that larger story. I haven’t yet, for fear that it will keep me from other books and other projects. But yesterday I downloaded the opening portion that Amazon makes available as a Kindle sample. It won’t be long before I buy and download the entire book. Perhaps I’ll have more to say after reading it.

Categories: Books, History

Carmine Smeraldo

January 16, 2012 Leave a comment

[From the website]

Gail and I were sad to learn of the death of Carmine Smeraldo, the founder-owner of the Seattle restaurant Il Terrazzo Carmine. I have written about Carmine’s many times, most recently after we ate there in November to celebrate Gail’s birthday. We have celebrated many birthdays there in recent years, and always wonder why we don’t go more often. I love their cannelloni, their rigatoni, their constantly changing risotto specials, their lamb, their green peppercorn steak. Gail’s partial to their ossobuco. But more than that, it’s such a warm and welcoming place. Carmine will be greatly missed.

Here’s an excerpt from yesterday’s Seattle Times obituary.

The food is one thing at Il Terrazzo Carmine.

Then there was the man.

Carmine Smeraldo would greet customers at his Pioneer Square restaurant with warmth, offering a handshake, or oftentimes, a hug. He knew loyal crowds turned up for perfectly smoked salmon dishes and handmade ravioli stuffed with bursts of wild mushroom.

But he also knew his customers wanted more. They came for an experience, an escape, a desire to envelop their senses and return to their lives a little happier than how they felt an hour — or two, or three — before.

At this, Mr. Smeraldo was the master.

[snip]

The interior summoned Mr. Smeraldo’s homeland with its terra cotta floors, rustic chandeliers and high ceilings. It conveyed a feeling of “old-school romance,” said Seattle Times restaurant critic Nancy Leson.

Categories: Obituary, Restaurants

Hall of Fame Vote

January 16, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s been a week since the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced the results of the 2012 vote by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for Hall membership. To be elevated, a former player must receive at least 75% of the vote. Only Barry Larkin reached that level. Baseball-Reference.com has kindly provided complete voting details, from which I have drawn the following list of the top fourteen vote-getters, with their number of votes (out of 573 ballots, with 430 needed for election) and their vote percentage:

Barry Larkin 495 86.4%
Jack Morris 382 66.7%
Jeff Bagwell 321 56.0%
Lee Smith 290 50.6%
Tim Raines 279 48.7%
Alan Trammell 211 36.8%
Edgar Martinez 209 36.5%
Fred McGriff 137 23.9%
Larry Walker 131 22.9%
Mark McGwire 112 19.5%
Don Mattingly 102 17.8%
Dale Murphy 83 14.5%
Rafael Palmeiro 72 12.6%
Bernie Williams 55 9.6%

The significance of this subset of the full list is that these are precisely the players (besides Larkin) who earned the right to stay on next year’s ballot, while those lower in the voting will drop off. One gets fifteen cracks at election, provided one stays above the 5% minimum vote threshold and gets carried over to the next year. Dale Murphy has only one year of eligibility left, Jack Morris two, Don Mattingly three, Alan Trammell four, and Lee Smith five. The rest have many more chances, with Mark McGwire the next in seniority at nine years to go.

With all the learned commentary that appeared in the days before the voting and then just after, it is difficult to have anything useful to add to the discussion. Joe Posnanski alone has written many thousands of words (here, for one), based on years of study and data analysis.

All I can do is add a few personal thoughts, minus the analysis. Just the thoughts of a simple fan, one who detests arguments based on “I know one [a Hall of Famer] when I see one” but has not done the research to rise to a higher level. So, based on the rejected premise that I really do know one when I see one, here goes. And let me point out that I have but one dog in this hunt, as may become clear. I’ll take the players one by one.

1. Larkin. Of course. He should get in. Good thing he did.

2. Morris. The consensus seems to be that with last year’s election of Bert Blyleven, Morris’s time has come. That was quite the controversy, arguments going back and forth on why one can’t get in unless the other does first, or why one shouldn’t be in at all. Well, Blyleven’s in. Morris is next. Should he be? I’ve read the arguments. I don’t know. Or care. I do believe that he shouldn’t get in on the basis of one game, yet that one game seems to underlie many of the passionate arguments in his favor. That game being the 7th game of the 1991 World Series (box score here), the one in which Morris pitched a 1-0 ten-inning shutout over the Braves to propel the Twins to World Series victory.

I can tell you where I was. At home, with the game on on a tiny TV in the bedroom while Halloween craziness filled the rest of the house. Joel, then four years old, had said something to Gail about his vision or Halloween that she interpreted to mean he wanted his pre-school class over for a party. Something may have gotten lost in translation, but Gail ran with it, and the whole class came over, parents in tow. It was standing room only. Gail also invited our friends Cynthia and Rich over with their children. Rich, a former college baseball player and big fan, would retreat to the bedroom with me every so often to check on the score. But for the most part, we were part of the party. I missed a classic. And maybe that’s why I’m not an enthusiastic Morris backer.

3. Bagwell. Of course he’s a Hall of Famer. First ballot. He’s paying the penalty for being part of the steroids era without even being accused of being a steroids user. The suspicions are there, though, so he must spend time in purgatory.

4. Smith. I don’t see the case. Apparently, a lot of voters don’t either and he’s probably not going to make it.

5. Raines. Of course. Vote him in already.

6. Trammell. Ditto. Unfortunately, he might not make it.

7. Martinez. That’s my dog. More below.

8. McGriff. I’m thinking he’s not going to make it. But I supported Jim Rice, who finally did, and I see McGriff as a similar player. He should be in.

9. Walker. The knock is the big numbers he put up thanks to the welcoming environs of Coors Field. Maybe so, but he was a beautiful hitter. A great one. I think he should be in.

10. McGwire. How can there be a Hall of Fame without McGwire? It’s a joke. Enough with the steroids penalty already. He did nothing illegal. Blame Selig. Blame the owners. Blame the networks. Blame everyone, but let him in.

11. Mattingly. Nope. Sure, he had some great years, but not enough. He would have fallen off the ballot long ago but for the Yankee hype.

12. Murphy. Posnanski has argued for him. I didn’t follow him closely enough. No opinion.

13. Palmeiro. Another steroids case, of course. I imagine he won’t make it. And it’s still a mystery how he put up all those huge career power numbers when no one was paying attention. Funny case. I don’t know.

14. Williams. See Mattingly.

Back to Edgar Martinez. I already played the “how can there be a Hall of Fame without him” card on Mark McGwire, but this deck has two. I’m playing it again.

How can there be a Hall of Fame without Edgar Martinez? He was a great hitter, maybe the best pure hitter of his time other than Barry Bonds. Yes, that good.

I won’t make the arguments. They’ve been made elsewhere. I’ll just point out that he had his Jack Morris moment. Two of them, on successive nights.

Let’s go to game four of the Mariners-Yankees 1995 playoff series, on October 7, at the Kingdome in Seattle. I wasn’t there. I should have been. I was at home watching in the basement with Gail and Joel. The Yankees won the first two games of the series at home and were up 2-1 in games at this point, with the score tied 6-6 in the bottom of the 8th and Yankees closer John Wetteland pitching to the top of the Mariners order. A walk to Vince Coleman, Joey Cora bunts safely, Ken Griffey is hit by a pitch, and up comes Edgar. The season is on the line, and he wallops a magnificent home run. As we jumped up and down, screaming, I announced that we were going to game five the next day, whatever it took.

That wasn’t the end of the game, of course. Buhner would hit another homer two batters later, the Yankees would come back with two runs in the 9th, but the Mariners held on to win. The next morning we saw an ad in the Seattle Times for a ticket broker, made a call, Gail drove to a Bellevue hotel with Joel for a furtive meeting with the broker, and came home with three tickets for the decisive, all-or-nothing game five. Great seats, between home and third in the section where the Yankees wives and families were sitting. Some Yankee must have put the tickets up for sale.

I needn’t tell the story of game five. The greatest game in Mariners history. The greatest game in Kingdome history. The game that saved baseball in Seattle. The game that helped renew baseball’s popularity after the strike that prematurely ended the 1994 season. So many great moments in a back-and-forth game, but none greater than the end, with dual heroes. Edgar and his glorious double to left field in the bottom of the 11th, Griffey scoring from first with that electric smile peeking out as he lies on home plate at the bottom of a pile-up. The Yankees hopes dashed, though they would have the last laugh with four World Series victories in the next five years.

Edgar is a Hall of Famer. A great hitter, who proved it when the stakes were highest. The Kingdome had those crazy exterior ramps you had to walk down, back and forth and back and forth, round and round and round, to get the heck out of there. Usually a drag, as if sitting in the Kingdome itself wasn’t drag enough. Not that night. Thousands of us looped around, chanting in unison “Eeeeeeeed gaaaaaar, Eeeeeeed gaaaaar” [Short e, not long e]. Years later, Griffey has become the face of that moment, with his mad dash from first to home. That night, Edgar was our hero.

Categories: Baseball