February 22, 1943 The Mighty Atom

With eighteen in the plaintiffs dock and one small defendant.  The judge asked Greenstein about the fight.  “It wasn’t a fight” he said, “It was a  pleasure”.  The case was dismissed.

Yosselle “Joseph” Greenstein was born on January 2, 1893, the son of the poorest family in Suvalk, Poland. A small, sickly child with chronic asthma, doctors believed he suffered from the same tuberculosis, which had killed his father.

“Joe” tried sneaking into the Issakoff Brother’s Circus at fourteen, receiving a savage beating for his trouble, left bleeding and barely conscious in a muddy alley.

The circus’ strongman “Champion Volanko” saw the poor, scrawny kid trying to crawl home, and took pity.  Volanko brought the boy into his trailer and, as the two talked, became impressed with his determination. This was an old-school strength athlete, capable of performing a military press with baskets full of women, in each hand. He offered to teach the boy his techniques.  So it was that Joe Greenstein ran away with a traveling circus.

Eighteen months later, he was a changed man.  Greenstein took up wrestling and married, while still a teenager.

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“Home at last by Moshe Maimon. The house’s occupants return when it is safe, to find the house thoroughly looted. A rabbi is saying Kaddish for a member of the household who was killed”. H/T Wikipedia

In those days, Poland was a nation in name only, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Russian Empire.  Tsarist Russia was engulfed in a paroxysm of anti-Jewish violence in the pre-war years, riots resulting in death and injury, by the tens of thousands.  The New York Times reported on one such “pogrom”, in 1903:

The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia [modern Moldova], are worse than the censor will permit to publish…The cry “Kill the Jews”, was taken up all over the city…Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.

This place had nothing for a young Jewish family.  Joseph and Leah Greenstein emigrated to the United States and made a home in Galveston Texas.

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Jack Johnson

Joe worked on the docks and oil fields of Galveston, or  laying railroad tracks and pounding spikes, by hand.  He was wrestling professionally by this time under the name “Kid Greenstein”, and good at it, too.  He met Jack Johnson who taught him some fighting techniques, the first black athlete to break the color barrier to become the heavyweight champion of the world, in 1908.

A local Texas man became obsessed with Leah Greenstein in 1914 and shot her husband, between the eyes.  The bullet struck with enough force to flatten against his forehead, but did not penetrate.  Joe left the hospital that same day, convinced his physical conditioning and mental discipline, had saved his life.

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Joseph Greenstein, the Mighty Atom

Thus began the career of one of the greatest strongmen, in history.  He was “The Mighty Atom”, able to break up to three chains, by expanding his chest.  Only 5’4″-inches tall, he could bend horseshoes and drive nails with his bare hands.  He could pull a fire truck with his hair, and change a tire with no tools. Not even a jack.

On September 29, 1928 the headlines read “The Mighty Atom – Super Strong Man Pits Brawn Against Plane, Wins!” He had held an aircraft on the ground with his hair – the feat was documented by Ripley’s “Believe it or Not”.

In 1936, a dispute with six dock workers, led to a brawl.  The story ran in all the New York papers – “Little Giant Knocks Out Six’

Following the rise of Adolf Hitler’s “National Socialist” party in 1933, some German Americans formed groups, patterned after the Nazi Party in Germany.  These people had few connections to the “Thousand-Year Reich” and received little support from the broader German American community, yet they wore uniforms and toted swastikas and preached the same hate for the Jews, as the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party”.  The most notorious of these, was the “German American Bund”.

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“German American Bund Camp youth salute Hindenburg in Griggstown, New Jersey”. H/T rarehistoricphotos.com

Though the claim was believed to be exaggerated, Congressman Martin Dies, Jr. of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) estimated German-American Bund membership, at 430,000, in 1938.

The Mighty Atom was in New York that year when he passed a building, about to host a Nazi rally.  One sign high on the wall read “No Jews or Dogs Allowed”.  Yosselle Greenstein had left that garbage behind in the old country.  He wasn’t about to tolerate it here.

He bought a ladder, and climbed up and tore the thing down.  Twenty streamed out of the building, bent on beating the man into giblets.  When it was over, eighteen had been sent to the hospital.

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Pulling a fire truck, Mighty Atom style

A few weeks later, the combatants were in court.  Eighteen in the plaintiffs dock, and one small defendant.  The judge asked Greenstein about the fight.  “It wasn’t a fight” he said, “It was a  pleasure”.  The case was dismissed.

War descended over Europe and with it the systematic extermination of the infirm.  The Jew.  The Roma.  The “Untermenschen“.

The grotesque sham trials conducted by Judge-President Roland Feisler made short work of any who would oppose “Der Fuhrer”.  Today, the “People’s Court” of Nazi Germany is best remembered in the wake of the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.  In reality, this mockery of justice had been around for ten years, handing out death sentences, by the hundreds.

There were Germans throughout the war who objected to the murder of millions, but theirs was a forlorn hope.  Clergymen Dietrich Bonhoeffer would state “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” For his opposition to the Reich, Bonhoeffer would pay with his life.

This video give a good idea about “justice” in Roland Feisler’s court.

Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, great grand-nephew of the famous Helmut von Moltke would lead 28 dissidents of the “Kreisau Circle”, against this “outrage of the Christian conscience.” These too would pay with their lives.

The most successful opposition came from the universities of Munich, with connections in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Vienna. These were a surprise to Nazi leaders, as Universities had been stalwart supporters of Nazi ideology. The “White Rose” would rise in the wake of the disastrous Battle of Stalingrad, producing leaflets, handbills and anti-Nazi graffiti from the earliest days of 1943.

These too were found out, Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst made to stand trial before judge Feisler’s Court on February 22, 1943. All were sentenced to death and guillotined the same day. The last member to be executed was Hans Conrad Leipelt on January 29, 1945.

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Back at home, Joseph Greenstein performed for war bond drives, always without compensation.  The Mighty Atom continued to perform feats of strength well into his eighties, and taught fighting techniques to the New York Police department, Israeli Defence Force and others.

The Mighty Atom portraitDuring his last public performance given before a sell-out crowd at Madison Square Garden on May 11, 1977, the Mighty Atom wore a leather vest, emblazoned with a golden star of David.

When he was through, Greenstein took a moment to wish his great-grandchild a happy first birthday.

The man could still bend horseshoes and drive nails with his hands.

The mighty Atom succumbed to cancer on October 8, 1977.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  In 2014, Joe’s son Mike appeared on America’s Got Talent. pulling a 3500-pound car with his teeth and wearing a T-shirt promoting “Mighty Atom & Sons (1940).  He was 93.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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February 14, 1945 Firestorm

Tens of thousands of fires enveloped the city, growing into a great, howling firestorm.  A shrieking, all-but living demon beast from the blackest pits of hell, devouring all in its path. 

The most destructive war in history entered its final, apocalyptic phase in January 1945, with another four months of hard fighting yet remaining before Allied forces could declare victory in Europe. In the west, the “Battle of the Bulge” was ended, the last great effort of German armed forces spent and driven back beyond original lines. In the east, the once mighty German military contracted in on itself, in the face of a massive Soviet advance.

Dozens of German divisions hurried east to meet the threat. Allied intelligence believed the war could be over in April, if the major cities to the east were destroyed. Dresden. Leipzig. Chemnitz. Letting these places stand to serve as bases for retreating German forces, could drag the war out until November.

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German military equipment lies broken in Czechoslovakia, 1945

Sir Charles Portal, British Chief of the Air Staff, put the problem succinctly: “We should use available effort in one big attack on Berlin and attacks on Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz, or any other cities where a severe blitz will not only cause confusion in the evacuation from the East, but will also hamper the movement of troops from the West.”

With its baroque and rococo city center, the capital city of Dresden was long described as the “Jewel Box” of the Free State of Saxony, family seat to the Polish monarchs and royal residence to the Electors and Kings of Saxony. Dresden was the seventh-largest city in Germany in 1945, home to 127 medium-to-large sized factories supplying the German war machine, and the largest built-up area in the “thousand-year Reich”, yet to be bombed.

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Long described as “Florence on the Elbe” Dresden was considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities, a treasure of art and architecture.

For Victor Klemperer, the 13th of February, 1945, was the most terrifying and depressing experience, of a lifetime. Once home to well over 6,000 Jews, Dresden now contained but forty-one. Klemperer’s marriage to an “Aryan” wife had thus far protected him from the “final solution”, despite the yellow Juden star, he was forced to wear on his coat. It was now Victor’s task to hand out official letters, ordering those who remained to report for “deportation”. There wasn’t one among them, who didn’t understand what that meant.

Three hundred miles away, bad weather hampered operations for the United States Army Air Force (USAAF).  The first wave in the fire bombing of Dresden, would be a Royal Air Force (RAF) operation.

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The first group of Lancaster bombers arrived in the skies over Dresden two hours before midnight, February 13. These were the pathfinders, their job to find the place and drop magnesium parachute flares, to light up the target. Then came the marker planes, Mosquito bombers whose job it was to drop 1,000-pound target indicators, their red glare providing something to aim at. Then came the first wave, 254 Lancaster bombers dropping 500 tons of high explosive ranging from 500-pounders to massive, 4,000-pound “blockbusters”. Next came 200,000 incendiary or “fire bombs”.

This thing was just getting started.

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The second wave came in the small hours of February 14, just as rescue operations, were getting underway.  By now thousands of fires were burning, with smoke rising 15,000 feet into the air.  You could see it from the air, for five hundred miles.

That’s when another 529 Lancasters, dropped another 1,800 tons of bombs.

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Lancaster bomber

The USAAF arrived over the target on the afternoon of February 14, the 317 B-17 “Flying Fortresses” of the “Mighty 8th” delivering another 771 tons, of bombs.

Tens of thousands of fires enveloped the city, growing into a great, howling firestorm.  A shrieking, all-but living demon beast from the blackest pits of hell, devouring all in its path.  A firestorm of this size develops its own weather, fire tornadoes reaching into the sky as pyrocumulonimbus clouds hurl lightning bolts back to earth, starting new fires.  Gale force winds scream into the vortex from all points of the compass, powerful enough to hurl grown adults opening doors in an effort to flee, off their feet and back into the flames.

Lothar Metzger was ten at the time.  He brings us one of the few eyewitness accounts of the fire bombing of Dresden, as seen from the ground:

“It is not possible to describe! Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. It became more and more difficult to breathe. It was dark and all of us tried to leave this cellar with inconceivable panic. Dead and dying people were trampled upon, luggage was left or snatched up out of our hands by rescuers. The basket with our twins covered with wet cloths was snatched up out of my mother’s hands and we were pushed upstairs by the people behind us. We saw the burning street, the falling ruins and the terrible firestorm. My mother covered us with wet blankets and coats she found in a water tub.

We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.

I cannot forget these terrible details. I can never forget them”.

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For Victor Klemperer, the fire bombing of Dresden was a last minute reprieve. He would survive the attack, and live to see the end of the war.

Official death tolls from the burned out city are estimated at 18,500 to 25,000. The real number will never be known.  Refugees and military forces in the tens of thousands were streaming through the area at this point in the war.  Estimates range as high as 200,000.  The number if true, is more than death tolls resulting from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined.

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360° panoramic view of Dresden, following allied firebombing.  H/T International Business Times
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 19, 1945 Sibling Rivalry

Remember that familiar cat or those famous three stripes, next time you lace up.  You just might be wearing a piece of history.

In the biblical story of Genesis, Cain was born to Adam and Eve, followed by his brother Abel. The first to be born slew his own brother, the first human to die, and Cain was cast out to wander in the land of nod, east of Eden.

According to legend, the evil King Amulius ordered the twin sons of Rhea Silvia and the war god Mars drowned in the Tyber River. Instead the boys washed ashore, to be suckled by a she-wolf. Romulus and Remus founded a town on the site of their salvation, the traditional date being April 21, 753BC. Romulus later murdered his brother after some petty quarrel, making himself sole ruler of the settlement. He modestly called the place “Rome”, after himself.

Two thousand years later, two brothers come into this story. The enmity between Adolf and Rudolf Dassler never rose to fratricide but it came close, a hatred for one another which lasted, beyond the grave.  And you may be wearing one of their products, as you read this.

Oh.  Did I tell you they were both, Nazis?

The Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach is located in the Middle Franconia region of West Germany, about 14 miles from Nuremberg. In the early 20th century, the local textile economy collapsed in the face of more industrialized competitors. Many turned to shoe-making. By 1922, the small town of 3,500 boasted some 122 cobblers. Christoph Dassler was one such, specializing in felt slippers.

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Adolf Dassler

Adolf “Adi” Dassler was the third son and youngest of four children born to Christoph and Paulina Dassler.  An avid sportsman and athlete, Adi engaged in a variety of sporting events including track & field, futbol, skiing and ice hockey.  Usually with close friend Fritz Zehlein, the son of a local blacksmith.

The “Great War” descended over Germany in 1914, and the elder Dassler boys were conscripted into the army. Not yet thirteen, Adi was apprenticed to a baker, but turned to his father instead to learn the intricate stitching of the cobbler. Adi was particularly interested in sports, and how the proper shoe could improve athletic performance.

Adi himself was drafted into the army in 1918, five months before his 18th birthday.

Adi returned to what he knew after the war, repairing shoes while starting a business of his own. The German economy lay in ruins.  Dassler was forced to scavenge war materials, to form his designs. Leather from bread pouches. Canvas from uniforms. And always the need to improvise, jury rigging available machinery in the absence of electricity.

Rudolf Dassler trained to become a police officer, but left to join his brother’s company, forming the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe company, in 1924.  Dassler Brothers may have been the first to use metal spikes, fashioned by Adi’s old buddy, Fritz Zehlein.

The following year, the company was making leather Fußballschuhe with nailed studs and track shoes with hand-made spikes.

jesseowensadidasshoesFormer Olympian and coach of the German Olympic track & field team Josef Waitzer took an interest in the work, becoming a friend and consultant. Dassler brothers shoes were used in international competitions as early as the 1928 games in Amsterdam and the Los Angeles games, of 1932.

With the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in 1933, it was hard not to see the economic self-interest, in politics. The Dassler brothers – Adi, Rudi and Fritz joined the party on May 1.

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Jesse Owens

For the family business, the big break came in 1936, when American Olympian Jesse Owens agreed to compete in Dassler Brothers shoes. This American athlete of African ancestry went on to win four gold medals, a humiliating defeat for Hitler’s Aryan “master race”, but the sporting world soon beat a path to Adi’s door.

Compared with his brothers, Rudi seems to have been the more ardent Nazi.  Adi confined himself to coaching Hitler Youth teams, while Rudi was off at rallies and political meetings.  It was much of what led to their parting of the ways.

Germany once again found itself at war and Adi switched over to producing army boots.  Christoph and Paulina lived with their two grown sons and their wives, and five grandchildren.  Käthe (Martz) Dassler, Adi’s wife, had frequent run-ins with her mother and father-in-law, and seems to have had a relationship of mutual detestation with Rudi’s wife, Friedl.

Family fault lines were already irreparable in 1943, when Adi and Käthe climbed into a bomb shelter, already occupied by his brother and his family. Adi commented “The dirty bastards are back again,” referring to Allied war planes overhead. Rudi was convinced his brother was talking about him.

Rudolf blamed his brother and his “Nazi friends” when he was called up to fight the Russians, in the east.  Adi himself was drafted but dismissed, when his civilian services were deemed indispensable to the war effort.

Stationed in Tuschin that April, Rudi wrote to his brother: “I will not hesitate to seek the closure of the factory so that you be forced to take up an occupation that will allow you to play the leader and, as a first-class sportsman, to carry a gun.”

The Soviet Red Army overran Tuschin on January 19, 1945, decimating Dassler’s unit.  Rudi fled to Herzogenaurach where a doctor certified him as militarily “incapable”, due to a frozen foot.

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Rudolf Dassler

Allied “de-nazification” efforts after the war led to a blizzard of recriminations between the two brothers, and the end of the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory.  These two hated each other.

Adi Dassler’s new company would be known as Adidas.  Rudi tried to copy the idea and called his new company “Ruda”, but it didn’t have the same ring.  He settled on “Puma”.

Herzogenaurach became a two-factory town, a German Hatfield & McCoys.  The rivalry extended to the two football clubs in town, ASV Herzogenaurach and 1FC Herzogenaurach.  There were Adidas stores, and Puma stores. Adidas restaurants, and Puma restaurants.  And don’t even think about being served if you had the wrong shoes on your feet.  The place was so saturated with the hate these two brothers felt for each other, it came to be the “Town of Bent Necks“.   For sixty years, people ignored or talked with each other, based on whose side they were on.

The Dassler brothers never reconciled.  They are buried in the same cemetery, as far away from each other as it is possible to be.  The families are now out of the business, and so is the antagonism that held out for all those years.  So remember that familiar cat or those famous three stripes, next time you lace up.  You just might be wearing a piece of history.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 25, 1914 A Truce to end all Wars

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire of Christmas 1914, lasting in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

“Sitzkrieg”. “Phony War”. Those were the terms used to describe the September ‘39 to May 1940 period, when neither side of what was to become the second world war, was yet prepared to launch a major ground war against the other.

The start of the “Great War” twenty-five years earlier, was different.  Had you been alive in August 1914, you would have witnessed what might be described as the simultaneous detonation of a continent. France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre met the Meuse. 27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi. The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23, only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons.

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First Battle of the Marne, September 1914 H/T Britannica

In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity at the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers. Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture. Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

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Russian soldiers, WW1, H/T BBC

The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another. It would be some of the last major movement of the Great War, ending in the apocalypse of Ypres, in which 75,000 from all sides lost their lives. All along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter themselves from what Private Ernst Jünger later called a “Storm of Steel”.

775px-Stabilization_of_Western_Front_WWIOn the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year. The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear. The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks. That evening, English soldiers heard singing.  The low sound of a Christmas carol, drifting across no man’s land…Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht…Silent Night.

The Tommies saw lanterns and small fir trees.  Messages were shouted along the trenches.  In some places, British soldiers and even a few French joined in the Germans’ songs. Alles schläft; einsam wacht, Nur das traute hochheilige Paar. Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar

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Christmas day truce of 1914 published 1915 London illustrated news

The following day was Christmas, 1914. A few German soldiers emerged from their trenches at the first light of dawn, approaching the Allies across no man’s land and calling out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongue of their adversaries. Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim. Tommies soon climbed out of their own trenches, shaking hands with the Germans and exchanging gifts of cigarettes, food and souvenirs. In at least one sector, enemy soldiers played a friendly game of soccer.

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

o-TRUCE-facebookCaptain Sir Edward Hulse Bart reported a sing-song which “ended up with ‘Auld lang syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire of Christmas 1914, lasting in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

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A few tried to replicate the event the following year, but there were explicit orders preventing it. Captain Llewelyn Wyn Griffith recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day 1915 saw a “rush of men from both sides … [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers.

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Ypres, Christmas Truce, Hat tip http://www.Bitaboutbritain.com. Thanks, Mike.

One German unit tried to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915, but were warned off by the British opposite them.

German soldier Richard Schirrmann wrote in December 1915, “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines …. something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over”.

Some will tell you, the bitterness engendered by continuous fighting made such fraternization all but impossible. Yet, there are those who believe that soldiers never stopped fraternizing with their opponents, at least during the Christmas season. Heavy artillery, machine gun, and sniper fire were all intensified in anticipation of Christmas truces, minimizing such events in a way that kept them out of the history books.

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Pvt. Ronald MacKinnon, H/T National Post

Even so, evidence exists of a small Christmas truce in 1916, though little is known of it. 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, wrote home about German and Canadian soldiers reaching across battle lines near Arras, sharing Christmas greetings and trading gifts. “I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line”, he wrote. “Christmas Eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars”. The letter ends with Private MacKinnon noting that “Christmas was ‘tray bon’, which means very good.”

Private Ronald MacKinnon of Toronto Ontario, Regimental number 157629, was killed barely three months later on April 9, 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The Man He Killed 
by Thomas Hardy

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because–
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like–just as I–
Was out of work–had sold his traps–
No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.

The Duke Of Cambridge Visits Staffordshire & Birmingham
Christmas truce memorial, National Arboretum, Staffordshire, England
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 13, 1941 Cook’s Assistant

There is no telling, how many lives could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old cook’s assistant.

Similar to the Base Exchange system serving American military personnel, the British Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) is the UK-government organization operating clubs, bars, shops and supermarkets in service to British armed forces, as well as naval canteen services (NCS) aboard Royal Navy ships.

naafiNAAFI personnel serving on ships are assigned to duty stations and wear uniforms, while technically remaining civilians.

Tommy Brown was fifteen when he lied about his age, enlisting in the NAAFI on this day in 1941 and assigned as canteen assistant to the “P-class” destroyer, HMS Petard.

On October 30, 1942, Petard joined three other destroyers and a squadron of Vickers Wellesley light bombers off the coast of Port Said Egypt, in a 16-hour hunt for the German “Unterseeboot”, U–559.

Hours of depth charge attacks were rewarded when the crippled U-559 came to the surface, the 4-inch guns of HMS Petard, permanently ending the career of the German sub.

The U-559 crew abandoned ship, but not before opening the boat’s seacocks.   Water was pouring into the submarine as Lieutenant Francis Anthony Blair Fasson and Able Seaman Colin Grazier dived into the water and swam to the submarine, with Junior canteen assistant Tommy Brown close behind.

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With the submarine sinking fast, Fasson and Grazier made their way into the captain’s cabin.   Finding a set of keys, Fasson opened a drawer, to discover a number of documents, including two sets of code books.

With one hand on the conning ladder and the other clutching those documents, Brown made three trips up and down from the hatch, to Petard’s whaler.

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With the sub beginning to sink, the canteen assistant called for his shipmates to get out of the boat, but the other two were trapped. Brown himself was dragged under, but managed to kick free and come to the surface.  Colin Grazier and Francis Fasson, did not escape.

The episode brought Brown to the attention of the authorities, ending his posting aboard Petard with the revelation of his true age.  He never was discharged from the NAAFI, and later returned to sea on board the HMS Belfast.

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By 1945 he was Leading Seaman Tommy Brown, home on shore leave when fire broke out at the family home in South Shields.  He died while trying to rescue his youngest sister Maureen, and was buried with full military honors in Tynemouth cemetery.

Fasson and Grazier were awarded the George Cross, the second-highest award of the United Kingdom system of military honors.  Since he was a civilian due to his NAAFI employment, Brown was awarded the George medal.

Fasson Memorial

None of the three would ever learn that their actions had helped to end the war.

For German U-boat commanders, the period between the fall of France and the American entry into WW2 was known as “Die Glückliche Zeit” – “The Happy Time” – in the North Sea and North Atlantic.  From July through October 1940 alone, 282 Allied ships were sunk off the northwest approach to Ireland, for a combined loss of 1.5 million tons of merchant shipping.

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Tommy Brown’s Mediterranean episode took place in 1942, in the midst of the “Second Happy Time”, also known among German submarine commanders as the American shooting season. U-boats inflicted massive damage during this period, sinking 609 ships totaling 3.1 million tons with the loss of thousands of lives, against a cost of only 22 U-boats.

According to USMM.org, the United States Merchant marine suffered a higher percentage of fatalities at 3.9%, than any other American service branch during WW2.

enigma2Early versions of the German “Enigma” code were broken as early as 1932, thanks to cryptanalysts of the Polish Cipher Bureau, and French spy Hans Thilo Schmidt.

French and British military intelligence were read into Polish decryption techniques in 1939, \methods which were later improved upon by the British code breakers of Bletchley Park.  Vast numbers of messages were intercepted and decoded from Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe sources, shortening the war by at least a year, and possibly two.

The Kriegsmarine was a different story.  Maniacally jealous of security, Admiral Karl Dönitz introduced a third-generation enigma machine (M4) into the submarine service around May 1941, a system so secret that neither Wehrmacht nor Luftwaffe, were aware of its existence.  The system requires identical cipher machines at both ends of the transmission and took a while to put into place, with German subs being spread around the world.

By early 1942, all M4 machines were in place.  On February 2, German submarine communications went dark.  For code breakers at Bletchley Park, the blackout was sudden and complete.  Like the flipping of a switch.  For a period of nine months, Allies had not the foggiest notion of what the German submarine service was up to.  The result was disastrous.

BletchleyThe beginning of the end of darkness came to an end on October 30, when a ship’s cook climbed up that conning ladder.  Code sheets allowed British cryptanalysts to attack the “Triton” key used by the U-boat service.  It would not be long, before the U-boats themselves, were under attack.

Tommy Brown never knew what was in those documents.  The entire enterprise would remain Top Secret, until years after his death.  Winston Churchill would later write, that the actions of the crew of Petard, were crucial to the outcome of the war.  There is no telling, how many lives could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old cook’s assistant.

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November 18, 1944 The Cages of Münster

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

A popular legend depicts the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailing a parchment to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church in 1517, his “ninety five theses” a direct challenge to the authority of the pope, and the Catholic church. It likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church. This was a list of topics, an academic work.  Ninety-five propositions framed and submitted for scholarly debate.

Luther enclosed his “ninety five theses” in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, the date now considered to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Major Christian Denominations

H/T Wikipedia

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations. In the late middle and early modern ages, such theological issues were matters of life and death.  The Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake for such heresy, in 1415. The English philosopher John Wycliffe, dead some forty-four years by this time, was dug up and burned, his ashes cast on the waters of the River Swift.

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

Münster was a divided city in 1530, made even more so when the evangelical Lutheran minister Bernard Rothmann, began preaching against Catholic doctrine.  Rothmann was tireless, vitriolic, a relentless stream of anti-Catholic invective both from the pulpit, and a series of pamphlets financed and printed by his ally, the wealthy wool merchant Bernard Knipperdolling.

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Alarmed at Rothmann’s growing influence, church authorities banned him from the pulpit.  A mob of supporters stormed St. Lambert’s church in February of 1532, and installed Rothmann as its preacher. Conflict escalated and took the form of armed rebellion that December, between nine-hundred armed townspeople and the highest ranking Church official in town, prince-bishop Franz von Waldeck. This time, the conflict was settled peaceably. Von Waldeck signed a treaty of religious toleration on February 14, 1533, allowing Protestant pastors to preach from the parish churches of Münster.

The next time, would be different.

Word got back to Matthias and his followers, who came to see Münster as the “New Jerusalem”.  Jan Matthias and his Anabaptist followers were radicals even among their fellow “protestants”, and Rothmann was happy to come along.  Theirs was an extreme, radical egalitarian ideology with no use for childhood baptism.  They believed that Jesus Christ would descend to earth that Easter and bring about the End of Time.  The Apocalypse was nigh. All good Christians needed to prepare, and only adult baptism held the key to salvation.

Four years earlier, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered that every Anabaptist he could get hold of “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”  Now Anabaptists poured into Münster, baptizing some 1,400 adults in the first week after their arrival, about 20% of the adult population.

Equal numbers fled the city, and the “share-the-wealth” economic policies that would make the most fervent communist, blush.  Armed city employees warning those who refused adult baptism to flee:  “Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!

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Matthias demanded the execution of all Catholics and Lutherans, warning that “Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!”  That was a bit too much even for the crazies, so Catholics and moderate Protestants were expelled from the city.  About 2,000 of them, as equal numbers of Anabaptist radicals, poured in from the countryside.

Matthias ordered every contract, account and ledger in town destroyed, in an attempt to abolish all debt.  Rothmann preached from the pulpit of St. Lambert’s “Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other.”

Waldeck looked on with increasing alarm and before long, a mercenary army was assembled outside the city walls of Münster.  The place was now under siege.

Easter Sunday arrived, April 5, 1534, but Jesus, did not. With his apocalyptic prophesy shattered, Matthias claimed to have a new, divine vision. He would ride forth from the city walls, and personally break von Waldeck’s siege of the city. So it was that the Anabaptist prophet saddled up and rode forth with an entourage of twelve, only to be run through with a spear, his head mounted on a spike, for all the town to see.

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Up stepped the dead prophet’s right-hand man, the charismatic twenty-five year old tailor Jan van Leiden, who delivered a speech reinterpreting the day’s events, and postponing doomsday.

Münster became heavily militarized as Waldeck’s besieging force cut off all access to the city.  Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

The siege dragged on through 1534 and into the following year.  In May 1535, the Anabaptist carpenter Heinrich Gresbeck attempted to escape, only to be caught.  In exchange for his life, Gresbeck agreed to show Waldeck a lightly defended gate.

200px-MuensterHinrichtungTaeuferThe prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster for hours, killing some 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered.

Jan van Leiden, his “viceroy” Bernhard Knipperdolling and Anabaptist leader Bernhard Krechting were taken to the public square and physically torn to pieces, with white-hot pliers. Their corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, as a warning to others.

The bones were removed some fifty years later, but not those cages.  The old steeple was torn down and a new one built around 1880, and those three cages, reinstalled.

British bombs hit St. Lambert’s church on November 18, 1944, knocking the highest, van Leiden’s, to the ground. Another fell into the organ loft, leaving the third, hanging only by a thread. The church rebuilt the tower, four years later.  Workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting favorably on their sturdy construction.

Thirty years ago, St. Lambert’s church installed a small yellow bulb in each of those cages, a small concession “in memory of their departed souls.”  The cages of Münster remain there, to this day.

 

 

 

August 5, 1942 Old Doctor

The children’s author was offered sanctuary on the “Aryan side” but the man refused, saying that he would stay with his children. Janusz Korczak and his orphaned children were last seen boarding the train to the Treblinka extermination camp on August 5 or 6.

Janusz Korczak was a children’s author and pediatrician, a teacher and himself a lifelong learner, a student of pedagogy, the art of science of education, and how children learn.

Korczak10lat0001Born Henryk Goldszmit into the Warsaw family of Józef Goldszmit, in 1878 or ’79 (the sources vary), Korczak was the pen name by which he wrote children’s books.

Henryk was an exceptional student, of above-average intelligence. His father fell ill when the boy was only eleven or twelve and was admitted into a mental hospital, where he died, six years later. As the family’s situation worsened, the boy would tutor other students, to help with household finances.

Goldszmit was a Polish Jew, though not particularly religious, who never believed in forcing religion on children.

He wrote his first book in 1896, a satirical tome on child-rearing, called Węzeł gordyjski (The Gordian Knot). He adopted the pen name Janusz Korczak two years later, writing for the Ignacy Jan Paderewski Literary Contest.

220px-Janusz_KorczakKorczak wrote for several Polish language newspapers while studying medicine at the University of Warsaw, becoming a pediatrician in 1904. Always the writer, Korczak received literary recognition in 1905 with his book Child of the Drawing Room (Dziecko salonu), while serving as medical officer during the Russo-Japanese war.

He went to Berlin to study in 1907-’08 and worked at the Orphan’s Society in 1909, where he met Stefania “Stefa” Wilczyńska, an educator who would become his associate and close collaborator.

In the years before the Great War, Korczak ran an orphanage of his own design, hiring Wilczyńska as his assistant. There he formed a kind of quasi-Republic for Jewish orphans, complete with its own small parliament, court, and newspaper. The man was born to be an educator.

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In early modern European Royalty, 15th – 18th century, a “whipping boy” was the friend and constant companion to the boy prince or King, whose job it was to get his ass kicked, for the prince’s transgressions. The Lord was not the be struck by his social inferior. It was thought that, to watch his buddy get whipped for his misdeeds would have the same instructional effect, as the beating itself.

The extent of the custom is open to debate and it may be a myth altogether, but one thing is certain.  Poland has been described as the “whipping boy of Europe”, for good reason.

JK2The Polish nation, the sixth largest in all Europe, was sectioned and partitioned for over a century, by Austrian, Prussian, and Russian imperial powers. Korczak volunteered for military service in 1914, serving as military doctor during WW1 and the series of Polish border wars between 1919-’21.

The “Second Polish Republic” emerging from all this in 1922 was roughly two-thirds Polish, the rest a kaleidoscope of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities.  Relations were anything but harmonious between ethnic Russians, Germans, Lipka Tatars and others, and most especially Poland’s Jewish minority, the largest in pre-WW2 Europe.

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Silver Cross of the Polonia Restituta

Janusz Korczak returned to his life’s work in 1921 of providing for the children of this Jewish community, all the while writing no fewer than thirteen children’s books, along with another seven on pedagogy and other subjects.

In the inter-war years, Korczak put together a children’s newspaper, the Mały Przegląd (Little Review), as a weekly supplement to the daily Polish-Jewish newspaper, Nasz Przegląd (Our Review).

Korczak had his own radio program promoting the rights of children, to whom he was known as Pan Doktor (“Mr. Doctor”) or Stary Doktor (“Old Doctor”).

The Polish government awarded “Old Doctor” the Polonia Restituta in 1933, a state order bestowed on individuals for outstanding achievements in the fields of education, science and other civic accomplishments.

Yearly visits to Mandatory Palestine, the geopolitical entity partitioned from the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and future Jewish state of Israel, led to anti-Semitic crosscurrents in the Polish press, and gradual estrangement from non-Jewish orphanages.

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The second Republic’s brief period of independence came to an end in September 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland.  Korczak volunteered once again but was refused, due to his age.

Tales of Polish courage in the face of the Wehrmacht are magnificent bordering on reckless, replete with images of horse cavalry riding out to meet German tanks. Little Poland never had a chance, particularly when the Soviet Union piled on, two weeks later.

As an independent nation-state the Sovereign Republic of Poland was dead, though Polish air crews went on to make the largest contribution to the Battle of Britain, among the United Kingdom’s thirteen non-British defenders.  Polish Resistance made significant contributions to the Allied war effort, throughout WW2.

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Warsaw became the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe within the following year.  The Jews of Poland were herded into the city, barely existing on meager rations while awaiting the death squads of the SS.  Old Doctor and his orphans were forced into the Ghetto, in 1939.

There were nearly 200 of them on this day in 1942, when soldiers of the Gross-Aktion (Great Action) Warsaw, came for their “Resettlement to the East”.

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The Pianist, by Władysław Szpilman

The extermination camp at Treblinka, awaits.

Polish-Jewish composer and musician Władysław Szpilman, one of precious few survivors of the Jewish ghetto, describes the scene in his 1946 memoir, The Pianist:

“He told the orphans they were going out into the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man…”

Eyewitness Joshua Perle states that:  Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child… A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar.

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At the Umschlagplatz, the rail-side assembly area on the way to Treblinka, an SS officer recognized Korczak, and called him aside.  The children’s author was offered sanctuary on the “Aryan side” but the man refused, saying that he would stay with his children.  Stary Doktor was offered deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp instead, but again he refused.

The man who refused freedom to die with his orphaned children was last seen boarding the train to Treblinka on August 5 or 6, where all 200 were murdered, the following day.

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Janusz Korczak memorial stone, Treblinka

“Dr. Janusz Korczak’s children’s home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three years among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. Each child carried the little bundle in his hand”. — Mary Berg, The Diary