February 1, 1968 Frozen in Time

Years later the photographer wrote in Time Magazine. ‘The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation.

During WW2, the average infantry soldier saw 40 days of combat, in 4 years. In Vietnam, the average combat infantryman saw 240 days of combat, in a year.

pr070711iiBy 1967, the Johnson administration was coming under increasing criticism, for what many of the American public saw as an endless and pointless stalemate in Vietnam.

Opinion polls revealed an increasing percentage believed it was a mistake to send more troops into Vietnam, their number rising from 25% in 1965, to 45% by December, 1967.

The Johnson administration responded with a “success offensive”, emphasizing “kill ratios” and “body counts” of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters. Vice President Hubert Humphrey stated on NBC’s Today Show that November, “We are on the offensive. Territory is being gained. We are making steady progress.”

In Communist North Vietnam, the massive battlefield losses of 1966-’67 combined with the economic devastation wrought by US Aerial bombing, causing moderate factions to push for peaceful coexistence with the south. More radical factions favoring military reunification on the Indochina peninsula, needed to throw a “hail Mary” pass. Plans for a winter/spring offensive began, in early 1967. By the New Year, some 80,000 Communist fighters had quietly infiltrated the length and breadth of South Vietnam.BRANDHD2398_THC_HOSF_212783_SFM_000_2398_15_20180129_00_HDOne of the largest military operations of the war launched on January 30, 1968, coinciding with the Tết holiday, the Vietnamese New Year. In the first wave of attacks, North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong Guerillas struck over 100 cities and towns including Saigon, the South Vietnamese capitol.

Initially taken off-guard, US and South Vietnamese forces regrouped and beat back the attacks, inflicting heavy losses on North Vietnamese forces. The month-long battle for Huế (“Hway”) uncovered the massacre of as many as 6,000 South Vietnamese by Communist forces, 5-10% of the entire city. Fighting continued for over two months at the US combat base at Khe Sanh.vietnam_war_tet_offensive-900x635While the Tết offensive was a military defeat for the forces of North Vietnam, the political effects on the American public, were profound. Support for the war effort plummeted, leading to demonstrations. Jeers could be heard in the streets. “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?Vietnam_War_protestors_gov_imgLyndon Johnson’s Presidency, was finished. The following month, Johnson appeared before the nation in a televised address, saying “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

In the early morning darkness of February 1, 1968, Nguyễn Văn Lém led a Viet Cong sabotage unit in an assault on the Armor base in Go Vap. After taking control of the camp, Nguyễn arrested Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Tuan with his family, demanding the officer show his guerrillas how to drive tanks. The officer refused and the Viet Cong slit his throat, along with those of his wife, six children and his 80-year-old mother.

The only survivor was a grievously injured, 10-year-old boy.

Nguyễn himself was captured later that morning, near the mass grave of 34 civilians. He said he was “proud” to have carried out orders to kill them.vietnam-execution-arrestAP photographer Eddie Adams was out on the street with NBC News television cameraman Võ Sửu, looking for something interesting. The pair saw a group of South Vietnamese soldiers dragging what appeared to be an ordinary man into the road, and filmed the event.

Adams “…followed the three of them as they walked towards us, making an occasional picture. When they were close – maybe five feet away – the soldiers stopped and backed away. I saw a man walk into my camera viewfinder from the left. He took a pistol out of his holster and raised it. I had no idea he would shoot. It was common to hold a pistol to the head of prisoners during questioning. So I prepared to make that picture – the threat, the interrogation. But it didn’t happen. The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the VC’s head and shot him in the temple. I made a picture at the same time.”

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Composite sequence published by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History of the University of Texas, at Austin.

The man with the pistol was Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, Chief of the National Police.  Loan had personally witnessed the murder of one of his own officers, along with the man’s wife and three small children.

Nguyễn Văn Lém was the perpetrator of major war crimes. He was out of uniform and not involved in combat when he murdered the General’s own subordinates and their families. The man was a war criminal and terrorist with no protections under the Geneva Conventions, legally eligible for summary execution.

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Photo credit, Eddie Adams, Associated Press

Loan drew his .38 Special Smith & Wesson “Bodyguard” revolver and fired. The execution was barely a blip on the man’s radar screen.

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Photo credit, Eddie Adams, Associated Press

Loan was a devoted Patriot and South Vietnamese Nationalist. An accomplished pilot who had led an airstrike on Việt Cộng forces at Bo Duc in 1967, Loan was loved and admired by his soldiers.

In February 1968, hard fighting yet remained to retake the capitol. As always, Nguyễn Ngọc Loan was leading from the front when a machine gun burst tore into his leg.

Meanwhile, Adams’ “Saigon Execution” photograph and Võ’s film footage made their way into countless papers and news broadcasts. With events thus stripped of context, General Nguyễn came to be seen as a bloodthirsty, sadistic killer, the Viet Cong terrorist his unarmed, innocent victim.

Adams was well on his way to winning a Pulitzer prize for that photograph, while an already impassioned anti-war movement, lost the faculty of reason.

The political outcry reached all the way to Australia, where General Nguyễn was recuperating from his amputation.  Australian hospitals refused the man treatment and he traveled to America, to recover.

The Watergate scandal burst on the scene in 1972 as American politics looked inward.  The Nixon administration sought the “Vietnamization” of the war. By January 1973, direct US involvement in the war in Southeast Asia, had come to an end.

Military aid to South Vietnam was $2.8 billion in fiscal year 1973. The United States Congress placed a Billion dollar ceiling on that number the following year, cutting that to $300 million, in 1975. The Republic of Vietnam collapsed, some fifty-five days later.

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Scenes from the final evacuation of Saigon

General Nguyễn had been forced to flee the nation he had served. American immigration authorities sought deportation on his arrival, in part because of Eddie Adams’ picture. The photographer was recruited to testify against the General, but Adams spoke on his behalf.

Nguyễn was permitted to stay. He and his wife opened a pizza shop in the Rolling Valley Mall of Virginia, “Les Trois Continents”. The restaurant thrived for a time, until word got out about the owner’s identity. Knowing nothing about Nguyễn except for that image, locals began to make trouble. Business plummeted as the owner was assaulted in his own restaurant, his life threatened.  The last time Adams visited Nguyễn’s pizza shop, the words “We know who you are, fucker“, were scrawled across a toilet wall.vietnam-execution-loan-restaurantThe couple was forced to close the restaurant in 1991.  Nguyễn Ngọc Loan died of cancer, seven years later.

Eddie Adams won his Pulitzer in 1969 but came to regret that he had ever taken that picture. Years later the photographer wrote in Time Magazine. ‘The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?”‘

Before Nguyễn died, Adams apologized to the General and his family, for what that image had done to the man’s reputation. “The guy was a hero”, he said, after his death. “America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.

January 31, 1945 The Execution of Pvt. Slovik

From the Civil War to this day, the execution of Private Slovik was the only time a death sentence was carried out for the crime of desertion. 

When he was little, his neighbors must have thought he was a bad kid.  His first arrest came at age 12, when he and some friends were caught stealing brass from a foundry.  There were other episodes between 1932 and ’37:  petty theft, breaking & entering, and disturbing the peace.  He was sent to prison in 1939, for stealing a car.

Edward Donald “Eddie” Slovik was paroled in 1942, his criminal record rendering him 4F.  “Registrant not acceptable for military service”.  He took a job at the Montella Plumbing & Heating company in Dearborn, Michigan, where he met bookkeeper Antoinette Wisniewski, the woman who would later become his wife.

slovik-weddingThere the couple may have ridden out WWII, but the war was consuming manpower at a rate unprecedented in history.  Shortly after the couple’s first anniversary, Slovik was re-classified 1A, fit for service, and drafted into the Army.  Arriving in France on August 20, 1944, he was part of a 12-man replacement detachment, assigned to Company G of the 109th Infantry Regiment, US 28th Infantry Division.

Slovik and a buddy from basic training, Private John Tankey, became separated from their detachment during an artillery attack and spent the next six weeks with Canadian MPs.  It was around this time that Private Slovik decided he “wasn’t cut out for combat”.

The rapid movement of the army during this period caused difficulty for many replacements attempting to find their units.  Edward Slovik and John Tankey finally caught up with the 109th on October 7.  The following day, Slovik asked his company commander Captain Ralph Grotte for reassignment to a rear unit, saying he was “too scared” to be part of a rifle company.  Grotte refused, confirming that, were he to run away, such an act would constitute desertion.

And desert, he did.  Eddie Slovik left his unit on October 9, despite Private Tankey’s protestations that he should stay.  “My mind is made up”, he said.  Slovik walked several miles until he found an enlisted cook, to whom he presented the following note.

“I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, confess to the desertion of the United States Army. At the time slovik-noteof my desertion we were in Albuff [Elbeuf] in France. I came to Albuff as a replacement. They were shelling the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The following morning they were shelling us again. I was so scared, nerves and trembling, that at the time the other replacements moved out, I couldn’t move. I stayed there in my fox hole till it was quiet and I was able to move. I then walked into town. Not seeing any of our troops, so I stayed over night at a French hospital. The next morning I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to American M.P. They turned me loose. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there again I’d run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE. — Signed Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik A.S.N. 36896415”.

Slovik was repeatedly ordered to tear up the note and rejoin his unit, and there would be no consequences.  Each time, he refused.  The stockade didn’t scare him.  He’d been in prison before and it was better than the front lines.  Beside that, he was already an ex-con.  A dishonorable discharge was hardly going to change anything in an already dim future.  Finally, instructed to write a second note on the back of the first acknowledging the legal consequences of his actions, Eddie Slovik was taken into custody.

1.7 million courts-martial were held during WWII, 1/3rd of all the criminal cases tried in the United States during the period.  The death penalty was rarely imposed.  When it was, it was almost always in cases of rape or murder.

2,864 US Army personnel were tried for desertion between January 1942 and June 1948.  Courts-martial handed down death sentences to 49 of them, including Eddie Slovik.  Division commander Major General Norman Cota approved the sentence. “Given the situation as I knew it in November, 1944,” he said, “I thought it was my duty to this country to approve that sentence. If I hadn’t approved it–if I had let Slovik accomplish his purpose–I don’t know how I could have gone up to the line and looked a good soldier in the face.”

02b6dbbd09c4c955af1e2c06ebbbc852On December 9, Slovik wrote to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, pleading for clemency.  Desertion was a systemic problem at this time.  Particularly after the surprise German offensive coming out of the frozen Ardennes Forest on December 16, an action that went into history as the Battle of the Bulge.  Eisenhower approved the execution order on December 23, believing it to be the only way to discourage further desertions.

His uniform stripped of all insignia with an army blanket draped over his shoulders, Slovik was brought to the place of execution near the Vosges Mountains of France. “They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army”, he said, “thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody and I’m it because I’m an ex-con. I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that’s what they are shooting me for. They’re shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.”

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Movie poster from the film: “The Execution of Private Slovik”

Army Chaplain Father Carl Patrick Cummings said, “Eddie, when you get up there, say a little prayer for me.” Slovik said, “Okay, Father. I’ll pray that you don’t follow me too soon”. Those were his last words.  A soldier placed the black hood over his head.  The execution was carried out by firing squad.  It was 10:04am local time, January 31, 1945.

Edward Donald Slovik was buried in Plot E of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, his marker bearing a number instead of his name.  Antoinette Slovik received a telegram informing her that her husband had died in the European Theater of the war and a letter, instructing her to return a $55 allotment check.  She wouldn’t learn about the execution for another nine years.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan ordered the repatriation of Slovik’s remains.   He was re-interred at Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery next to Antoinette who had gone to her final rest, eight years earlier.

In all theaters of WWII, the United States military executed 102 of its own, almost always for the unprovoked rape and/or murder of civilians. From the Civil War to this day, the execution of Private Slovik was the only time a death sentence was carried out for the crime of desertion.  At least one member of the tribunal which condemned him to death, would come to see it as a miscarriage of justice.

eddie-slovik-graveNick Gozik of Pittsburg passed away in 2015, at the age of 95.  He was there in 1945, a fellow soldier called to witness the execution.  “Justice or legal murder”, he said, “I don’t know, but I want you to know I think he was the bravest man in that courtyard that day…All I could see was a young soldier, blond-haired, walking as straight as a soldier ever walked.  I thought he was the bravest soldier I ever saw.”

January 29, 1944 Operation Pied Piper

This weekend, Superbowl LIV will be played at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens Florida, in front of an expected crowd of 65,326. In 1938, forty-five times that number were mobilized in the first four days alone, primarily children, relocated from cities and towns across Great Britain to the relative safety of the countryside.

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Nazi propaganda depicting German “Anschluss” with Austria

Intent on avoiding war with Nazi Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain convened in Munich in September 1938, to resolve German claims on western Czechoslovakia.  The “Sudetenland”.  Representatives of the Czech and Slovak peoples, were not invited.

For the people of the modern Czech Republic, the Munich agreement was a betrayal. “O nás bez nás!” “About us, without us!”

On September 30, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to London declaring “Peace in Our Time”.  The piece of paper Chamberlain held in his hand bore the signatures of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Édouard Daladier as well as his own, annexing enormous swaths of the Sudetenland, to Nazi Germany.

To Winston Churchill, the Munich agreement was an act of appeasement.  Feeding the proverbial crocodile (Hitler), in hopes that he will eat you last.

For much of Great Britain, the sense of relief was palpable.  In the summer of 1938, the horrors of the Great War were a mere twenty years in the past.  Hitler  swallowed up Austria only six months earlier as British planners divided the home islands into “risk zones”:   “Evacuation,” “Neutral,” and “Reception.”

In some of the most gut wrenching decisions of the age, these people were planning  the evacuation of millions of their own children, in the event of war.  “Operation Pied Piper”

94330When Nazi Germany invaded Poland the following September, London Mayor Herbert Morrison was at 10 Downing Street, meeting with Chamberlain’s aide, Sir Horace Wilson.  Morrison believed that the time had come for Operation Pied Piper.  Only a year to the day from the Prime Minister’s “Peace in our Time” declaration, Wilson protested.  “But we’re not at war yet, and we wouldn’t want to do anything to upset delicate negotiations, would we?

Morrison was done with the Prime Minister’s dilatory response to Hitler’s aggression, practically snarling in his thick, East London accent “Look, ’Orace, go in there and tell Neville this from me: If I don’t get the order to evacuate the children from London this morning, I’m going to give it myself – and tell the papers why I’m doing it. ’Ow will ’is nibs like that?

Thirty minutes later, Morrison had the document. The evacuation, had begun.

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This weekend, Superbowl LIV will be played at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens Florida, in front of an expected crowd of 65,326. In 1938, forty-five times that number were mobilized in the first four days alone, primarily children, relocated from cities and towns across Great Britain to the relative safety of the countryside.

BBC History reported that, “within a week, a quarter of the population of Britain would have a new address”.  Imagine for a moment, what that looked like.  What that sounded like.

operation_pied_piper-poster (1)This was no mindless panic.  Zeppelin raids had killed 1,500 civilians in London alone during the ‘Great War’.  Since then, governments had become infinitely better at killing each other’s citizens.

As early as 1922, Prime Minister Lord Arthur Balfour had spoken of ‘unremitting bombardment of a kind that no other city has ever had to endure.’  As many as four million civilian casualties were predicted, in London alone.

BBC History describes the man in charge of the evacuation, Sir John Anderson, as a “cold, inhuman character with little understanding of the emotional upheaval that might be created by evacuation”.

Children were labeled ‘like luggage’, and sent off with gas masks, toothbrushes and fresh socks & underwear. None of them had the slightest idea of where, or for how long.

thumbnail_ww2evacueesAll things considered, the evacuation of all that humanity ran relatively smoothly.  James Roffey, founder of the Evacuees Reunion Association, recalls ‘We marched to Waterloo Station behind our head teacher carrying a banner with our school’s name on it. We all thought it was a holiday, but the only thing we couldn’t work out was why the women and girls were crying.’

Arrivals at the billeting areas, were another matter.  Many kids were shipped off to the wrong places, and rations were insufficient.  Geoffrey Barfoot, billeting officer in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare, said ‘The trains were coming in thick and fast. It was soon obvious that we just didn’t have the bed space.’

Kids were lined up against walls and on stages, and potential hosts were invited to “take their pick”.

For many, the terrors and confusion of those first few days grew into love and friendships, which lasted a lifetime.  Others entered a hell of physical and/or sexual abuse, or worse.

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For the first time, “city kids” and country folks were finding out how the “other half” lived, with sometimes amusing results.  One boy wrinkled his nose on seeing carrots pulled out of muddy fields, saying “Ours come in tins”.  Richard Singleton recalled the first time he asked his Welsh ‘foster mother’ for directions to the toilet.  “She took me into a shed and pointed to the ground. Surprised, I asked her for some paper to wipe our bums.  She walked away and came back with a bunch of leaves.

John Abbot, evacuated from Bristol, had his rations stolen by his host family. He was horsewhipped for speaking out while they enjoyed his food while he himself was given nothing more than mashed potatoes. Terri McNeil was locked in a birdcage and left with a piece of bread and a bowl of water.

an-evac-killed-by-bus-near-blackpoolIn the 2003 BBC Radio documentary “Evacuation: The True Story,” clinical psychologist Steve Davis described the worst cases, as “little more than a pedophile’s charter.”

Eighty-odd years later, the words “I’ll take that one”, are seared into the memories of more than a few.

Hundreds of evacuees were killed because of relocation, while en route or during stays at “safe havens”.  Two boys were killed on a Cornish beach, mined to defend against German amphibious assault.

Apparently, no one had thought to put up a sign.

Irene Wells, age 8, was standing in a church doorway when she was crushed by an army truck.  One MP from the house of Commons said “There have been cases of evacuees dying in the evacuation areas. Fancy that type of news coming to the father of children who have been evacuated”.

When German air raids failed to materialize, many parents decided to bring the kids back home.  By January 1940, almost half of evacuees had returned.

980x (4)Authorities produced posters urging parents to leave the kids where they were and a good thing, too. The Blitz against London itself began on September 7. The city experienced the most devastating attack to-date on December 29, in a blanket fire-bombing that killed almost 3,600 civilians.

Sometimes, refugees from relatively safe locations were shipped into high-risk target areas. Hundreds of refugees from Gibraltar were sent into London, in the early days of the Blitz. None of them could have been happy to leave London Station, to see hundreds of locals pushing past them, hurrying to get out.

This story doesn’t only involve the British home islands, either.  American Companies like Hoover and Eastman Kodak took thousands of children in, from employees of British subsidiaries.  Thousands of English women and children were evacuated to Australia, following the Japanese attack on Singapore.

By October 1940, the “Battle of Britain” had devolved into a mutually devastating battle of attrition in which neither side was capable of striking the death blow. Hitler cast his gaze eastward the following June, with a surprise attack on his “ally”, Josef Stalin.

battle-of-britain-cleaning-up“Operation Steinbock”, the Luftwaffe’s last large-scale strategic bombing campaign of the war against southern England, was carried out three years later.  On this day in 1944, 285 German bombers attacked London in what the Brits called, a “Baby Blitz”.

You’d have to be some tough cookie to call 245 bombers, a Baby Blitz.WWII_London_Blitz_East_London-ChildrenLate in the war, the subsonic “Doodle Bug” or V1 “flying bomb” was replaced by the terrifying supersonic V2.  1,000 or more of these, the world’s first rocket, were unleashed against southern England, primarily London, killing or wounding 115,000. With a terminal velocity of 2,386mph, you never saw or heard this thing coming, until the weapon had done its work.

15092_0 (1)In the end, many family ‘reunions’ were as emotionally bruising as the original breakup.   Years had come and gone and new relationships had formed.  The war had turned biological family members, into all but strangers.

Richard Singleton remembers the day his mother came, to take him home to Liverpool.  “I had been happily living with ‘Aunty Liz and Uncle Moses’ for four years,” he recalled. “I told Mam that I didn’t want to go home. I was so upset because I was leaving and might never again see aunty and uncle and everything that I loved on the farm.”

Douglas Wood tells a similar story.  “During my evacuation I had only seen my mother twice and my father once.  On the day that they visited me together, they had walked past me in the street as they did not recognize me. I no longer had a Birmingham accent and this was the subject of much ridicule. I had lost all affinity with my family so there was no love or affection.”

The Austrian-British psychoanalyst Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud, commissioned an examination of the psychological effects of the separation. After a 12-month study, Freud concluded that “separation from their parents is a worse shock for children than a bombing.”

January 27, 1925 Great Race of Mercy

Five children had already died by January 25, while Dr. Welch suspected more in the remote native camps. A telegram went out and an Anchorage hospital came up with 300,204 units of serum.  Enough for 30 patients. A million units would be needed but this might be enough to stave off an epidemic until the larger shipment arrived, in February.

440px-Diphtheria_is_Deadly_Art.IWMPST14182Diphtheria is a highly contagious infection caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae, with early symptoms resembling a cold or flu. Fever, sore throat, and chills lead to bluish skin coloration, painful swallowing, and difficulty breathing.

Later symptoms include cardiac arrhythmia with cranial and peripheral nerve palsies, as proteins form a leathery, white “pseudo membrane” on the throat and nasal tissues.

The disease is all but eradicated today in the United States, but diphtheria was once a major killer of children.

Spain experienced an outbreak of the condition in 1613. The year is remembered to this day, as “El Año de los Garotillos”.  The Year of Strangulations.

A severe outbreak swept through New England in 1735. In one New Hampshire town, one of every three children under the age of 10 died of the disease.  In some cases entire families were wiped out. Noah Webster described the outbreak, saying “It was literally the plague among children. Many families lost three of four children—many lost all”.

Dr. Curtis Welch practiced medicine in Nome, Alaska, in 1925. Several children became ill with what he first diagnosed as tonsillitis. More came down with sore throats, early sufferers beginning to die as Welch observed the white pseudo membrane of diphtheria. He had ordered fresh antitoxin the year before, but the shipment hadn’t arrived by the time the ports froze over. By January, all the serum in Nome was expired.

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Nome as it looked, in 1916

There were 10,000 living in and around Nome at the time, 2° south of the Arctic Circle. Welch expected a high mortality rate among the 3,000 or so white inhabitants, but the 7,000 area natives: Central Yupik, Inupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik and American Indians with lineage tied to tribes in the Lower 48, had no immunity whatsoever. Mortality among these populations could be expected to approach 100%.

Five children had already died by January 25, while Dr. Welch suspected more in the remote native camps. A telegram went out and an Anchorage hospital came up with 300,204 units of serum.  Enough for 30 patients. A million units would be needed but this might be enough to stave off an epidemic until the larger shipment arrived, in February.

The 300,000 units shipped as far as they could by rail, arriving at Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. Three vintage biplanes were available, but all were in pieces, and none would start in the sub-arctic cold. The antitoxin would have to go the rest of the way, by dog sled.

It was 9:00pm and −50°F on January 27, when “Wild Bill” Shannon and his nine dog team received the 20-pound cylinder of serum. The temperature was −62°F when Shannon reached Minto at 3:00am, hypothermic, with parts of his face blackened by frostbite.

images-151Leonhard Seppala and his dog team took their turn, departing in the face of gale force winds and zero visibility, with a wind chill of −85°F.

Most sled dogs are retired by age twelve, especially team leaders, but Seppala trusted twelve-year-old “Togo” with the lead. Up the 5,000-foot “Little McKinley” and across the unstable ice of Norton Sound, visibility was so poor that Seppala couldn’t see the “wheel dog” – the dog nearest his sled. Much of the time, navigation in that frozen wilderness was entirely up to his lead dog.

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Leonhard Seppala with Togo

With Seppala’s 8-year-old daughter and only child Sigrid at risk for the disease, stakes could not have been higher. Seppala and Togo ran a round-trip of 261 miles to make the next handoff on February 1, including 91 miles with the serum capsule.

 

Together the pair had covered twice as much ground as any other team, over the most dangerous terrain of the “serum run”.

Gunnar Kaasen and his team took the handoff, hitting the trail at 10:00 at night. At one point, hurricane force winds upended the sled, pitching musher and serum alike into the snow. Already frostbitten, Kaasen searched in the dark with bare hands, until he found the cylinder. Covering the last 53 miles overnight, the team reached Front Street, Nome, at 5:30am on February 2. The serum was thawed and ready by noon.

20 mushers and 150+ dogs had covered 674 miles in 5 days, 7½ hours, a distance that normally took the mail relay 2-3 weeks.  Not a single serum ampule was broken.

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Gunnar Kaasen with Balto

With 28 confirmed cases and enough serum for 30, the “Great Race of Mercy” had held the death toll at 5, 6 or 7, depending on which version you accept. Doctor Welch suspected as many as 100 or more deaths in the native camps, but the real number will never be known. An untold number of dogs died before completing the run.  Several mushers were severely frostbitten.

Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog “Balto” were hailed as heroes of the serum run, becoming the most popular canine celebrity in the country after Rin Tin Tin.

It was a source of considerable bitterness for Leonhard Seppala, who felt that Kaasen’s 53-mile run was nothing compared with his own 91, Kaasen’s lead dog little more than a “freight dog”.

A statue of Balto was erected in New York’s Central Park in 1925 where it stands to this day, though he is depicted wearing Togo’s “colors” (awards). Togo lived another four years, though he was never again able to run. He spent his last years in Poland Spring, Maine, and passed away on December 5, 1929 at the ripe old age of 16.

Togo_film_posterSeppala was in his old age in 1960, when he recalled “I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.

A month ago, near-100 years after serum run, Disney Film Productions released the film Togo, starring Willem Dafoe as Leonhard Seppala and “Diesel” as Togo, telling the story of two heroes of the serum run, of 1925.

Togo himself is stuffed and mounted, standing watch over the Iditarod museum headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska.

December 24, 1822 Santa Claus

In some German speaking regions, a malevolent Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus, carrying a twig broom with which to spank wicked children. Never mind Santa Claus. The Schmutzli is watching.

The historical life of St. Nicholas is shrouded in legend.  Born in modern-day Turkey on March 15, AD270, Nicholas was the only child of affluent parents, both of whom died in a plague leaving young Nicholas a very wealthy orphan.

St. Nicholas going to school
1689 fresco depicts St. Nicholas, giving to a school

Nicholas was raised in the Christian faith and became an early bishop in the Greek church.

One of many stories concerning the bishop’s generosity involves a destitute father, unable to raise a dowry sufficient to marry his three daughters off. On two nights in a row, Nicholas crept up to the man’s window and dropped a small sack of gold coins.

On the third night, the man stayed up to learn the identity of his secret benefactor, only to be asked to keep the name, secret.

Saint Nicholas died on December 6 in the year 343.  He was entombed in a marble cathedral dedicated to his name, in the Roman town of Myra.

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The “Sinterklass” of the Netherlands, rides a white horse

Nicholas is remembered as the patron saint of whole nations and cities such as Amsterdam and Moscow, revered among the early Christian saints and remembered for a legendary habit of secret gift-giving.

Some ideas take hold in the popular imagination, while others fade into obscurity.  The “Three Daughters” episode made it into nearly every artistic medium available at that time, from frescoes to carvings and windows, even theatrical performances.

The Patron Saint not only of sailors but of ships and their cargoes, the seas were the internet of the day and the story of St. Nick spread from the Balkans to Holland, from England to Crete.

In time, the Feast of St. Nicholas took hold around December 6.  Children and other marginal groups such as old women and slaves could receive gifts, but only by demanding them.  Secret gift giving appeared sometime around the year 1200.

Krampus-340x540.jpgOn the European continent, legends of St. Nicholas combined with Pagan traditions and developed in quirky directions, including an evil doppelgänger who accompanies St. Nick on his rounds.

As early as the 11th century, the Krampus may be expected to snatch up bad little tykes in parts of Germany, Austria and the Alpine villages of northern Italy, never to be seen again.

In eastern Europe, the witch Frau Perchta “The Disemboweller” was said to place pieces of silver in the shoes of children and servants who’d been good and worked hard over the year.  Those who’d been naughty or lazy would be slit open and their organs replaced, with pebbles and straw.

Yikes.

In French-speaking regions, Père Fouettard (Father Whipper) accompanies Père Noël on gift-giving rounds, dispensing beatings and/or lumps of coal to naughty boys & girls.

In some German speaking regions, a malevolent Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus, carrying a twig broom with which to spank wicked children.

Never mind Santa Claus. The Schmutzli is watching.

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Samichlaus and the Schmutzli

In the 13th century, the “Little Ice Age” of led to a proliferation of chimneys.  Windows and doors were common objects, often the things of thieves and vagabonds.  The chimney was different, a direct pathway to the warm heart of the home.  So it was St. Nick made his first gift-giving appearance via the chimney in a three daughters fresco, painted sometime in 1392, in Serbia.

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St. Nicholas saving the Three Maidens, Decani monastery, Kosovo

St. Nicholas was beginning to be seen as part of the family outside of the Church, which is probably why he survived what came next.  Saints reigned in the Christian world until the 16th century, when the Protestant reformation rejected such “idolatry” as a corruption of Christianity.

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The Ghost of Christmas present as illustrated by John Leech, in Charles Dickens’ classic, a Christmas Carol

Whatever you called him:  Sinterklaos, Saint-Nikloi or Zinniklos, St. Nick went away entirely in England and Scotland during the time of Henry VIII, giving way to the spirit of Christmas cheer in the person of one Father Christmas.  England would no longer keep the feast of the Saint on December 6.  The celebration moved to December 25, to coincide with Christmas itself.

Protestants adopted as gift bringer the Baby Jesus or Christkindl, later morphing into Kris Kringle.

Puritan arrivals to New England rejected Christmas and everything with it, as “un-Christian”.  In 1644, Massachusetts levied a fine of five shillings, on anyone observing the holiday.

Sinterklaas survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation in places like Holland, transferring to the 17th century settlement of New Amsterdam:  what we now know as the new world port city of New York.

Sinterklass blended with Father Christmas to create a distinctly American Santeclaus, which began to take hold in the 19th century.

The Christmas “celebrations” of the period looked more like Mardi Gras than what we know today.  Drunk and rowdy gangs wandered the streets of New York, Philadelphia and the cities of the northeast, something between a noisy mob and a marching band.  Men fired guns into the air and banged or blew on anything that would make noise.  Mobs would beat up the unfortunate, and break into the homes of the “upper classes”, demanding food and liquor.

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Santa Claus 1863, by Thomas Nast

New York philanthropist John Pintard, the man responsible for the holidays celebrating the fourth of July and George Washington’s birthday, popularized an image first set forth by Washington Irving, in his satirical story A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker, depicting St. Nicholas bringing gifts to good little boys and girls, and switches with which to tan the hides of bad kids.

The unknown genius who published and illustrated A Children’s Friend in 1821, first depicted “Santa Claus” not as a Catholic bishop, but as a non-sectarian adult in a fur lined robe, complete with a sleigh inexplicably powered by a single reindeer, coming in through the chimney not on December 6, but on Christmas eve.

An anonymous poem believed to have been written on December 24, 1822 and later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, began with the words: “T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house“…

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Santa Express

“A Visit From St. Nicholas“, better known by its first line, gave us the first description of the modern Santa Claus.  It was a tool for domesticating the occasion, agreeable to law enforcement for calming the rowdy streets, to manufacturers and retailers for selling goods, to the church to make way for a family friendly day of worship and to parents, for  the control of unruly children.

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Goody Santa Claus 1889

The “Right Jolly old Elf” took his modern form thanks to the pen of illustrator and editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant and scourge of the Tammany Hall political machine which had swindled New York city, out of millions.

The idea of a Mrs. Claus seems to come from a poem by Katharine Lee Bates of the Cape Cod Curmudgeon’s own town of Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Today, the author is best known for her 1895  poem “Pikes Peak”, later set to music and widely known as “America the Beautiful”.

Tonight, NASA may be expected to track Santa and his sleigh drawn by eight reindeer, though none are any longer, all that tiny.  Santa Claus will appear around the planet. Regional variations include Santa’s arriving on a surfboard in Hawaii.  In Australia, he’s pulled by six white kangaroos.  In Cajun country, Papa Noël arrives in a pirogue, drawn by eight alligators.69c173c1af76a36f2aae98f4dfe183b6

Santa Claus is the most powerful cultural idea, ever conceived.  This year, Christmas sales are expected to exceed one Trillion dollars.  Not too bad for a 2,000-year old saint, best remembered for gift giving with no expectation of anything in return.

Merry Christmas.

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Fun fact:  Today, the port city of Bari on the Adriatic coast of Italy is remembered for the WW2-era mustard gas accident, which spawned the discovery of modern chemotherapy drugs. A thousand years earlier, city fathers feared growing Muslim influence over the tomb of Saint Nicholas, and went to retrieve his remains.  Find him, they did.  Saint Nicholas’ large bones were removed and brought back as holy relics to Bari where they remain, to this day.  Smaller fragments were removed during the 1st Crusade, brought back to Venice or enshrined in basilica from Moscow to Normandy.

The teeth and small bones of the real St. Nicholas are enshrined in over a dozen churches from Russia to France and the Palestinian territories.  Some of these cherished relics were believed to reside in St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, in New York City, destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and never recovered.

December 19, 1986 The Lost Dogs of Chernobyl

The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

It all began as a test.  A carefully planned series of events, intending to simulate a station blackout at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.

This most titanic of disasters, began with a series of small mishaps. Safety systems intentionally turned off.  Inexperienced reactor operators, failing to follow checklists. Inherent design flaws in the reactor itself.

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On the night of April 25-26, 1986, a nuclear chain reaction expanded beyond control, flashing water to super-heated steam.  Violent explosions shattered reactor and building alike as reactor #4 belched massive amounts of nuclear material into the atmosphere.  For the next nine days, intense updrafts created by the open-air graphite fire spewed vast quantities of radiation into the air, raining radioactive  particles over large swaths of the western USSR and Europe.  Some 60 percent of the stuff came down in the Republic of Belarus.

It was the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history and yet, this was 1986.  The Soviet government didn’t tell its own people for days, what was going on.  In the West, the first alert came not from the USSR, but from Sweden.

images (56).jpgAn estimated 4,000 to 93,000 died in the aftermath of the accident, many of whom, were children.

The death toll could have been higher but for heroic self-sacrifice, by first responders.  Anatoli Zakharov, a fireman stationed in Chernobyl since 1980, replied to remarks that firefighters believed this to be an ordinary electrical fire:

Of course we knew! If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze“.

Work began within three weeks on the design and construction of a concrete sarcophagus, large enough to contain 200 tons of radioactive corium, 30 tons of contaminated dust and 16 tons of uranium and plutonium, trapped inside the twisted wreckage. It was the largest civil engineering project in history involving no fewer than a quarter-million construction workers, every one of whom received a lifetime maximum dose of radiation.  By this day in December, work was substantially complete.

A Chernobyl liquidator pushes a baby in a carriage who was found during the cleanup of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, 1986.jpgOfficials of the top-down Soviet state first downplayed the disaster.  Asked by one Ukrainian official, “How are the people?“, acting minister of Internal Affairs Vasyl Durdynets replied there was nothing to be concerned about: “Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.

As the scale of the disaster became evident, civilians were at first ordered to shelter in place.  A 10-kilometer exclusion zone was enacted within the first 36 hours, resulting in the hurried evacuation of some 49,000.  The exclusion zone was tripled to 30-km within a week, leading to the evacuation of another 68,000.

Before it was over some 350,000 were moved away, never to return.

c3a6c209f69a1fe061fc35ef7d9e4e09.jpgThe chaos of these forced evacuations, can scarcely be imagined.  Confused adults.  Crying children.  Howling dogs.  Shouting soldiers, barking orders and herding now-homeless civilians onto waiting trains and vehicles by the tens of thousands.  Dogs and cats, beloved companion animals and lifelong family members, were abandoned to fend for themselves.

The government didn’t bother to explain.   There would be no return.

chernobyl-cleanup-crew.jpgThere were countless and heartbreaking scenes of final abandonment, of mewling cats, and whimpering dogs.  Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich compiled hundreds of interviews into a single monologue, an oral history of the forgotten.  The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” 0720-dogsfront.jpgThere was no mercy.  Squads of soldiers were sent to shoot the animals, left behind.   Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka.  She’s a good dog.”  Most of these abandoned pets, were shot.  Some escaped notice, and survived.

vegan-plant-based-news-dogs-livekindly-Cropped-1-1-1068x601 (1).jpgLater on, plant management hired someone, to kill the 1,000 or so dogs still remaining.  The story is, the worker refused.

1424 (1)Today, untold numbers of stray dogs live in the towns of Chernobyl, Pripyat and surrounding villages.  Descendants of those left behind, back in 1986.  Ill equipped to survive in the wild and driven from forests by wolves and other predators, they forage as best they can among abandoned streets and buildings, of the 1,000-mile exclusion zone.  For some,  radiation can be found in their fur.  Few live beyond the age of six but, all is not bleak.

chernobyl-dogs-2Since September 2017, a partnership between the SPCA International and the US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit CleanFutures.org has worked to provide for the veterinary needs of these defenseless creatures.  Over 450 animals have been tested for radiation exposure, given medical care, vaccinations and spayed or neutered, to bring populations within manageable limits.  Most are released back to the “wild”.

ynimas0uSome have been successfully decontaminated and socialized for human interaction.  In 2018, the first batch became available for adoption into homes in Ukraine and North America, some forty puppies and dogs.

 

To this day, hundreds of dogs eke out a living, in the exclusion zone.  The work of rescue is ongoing.  A joint press release from the two organizations gives much-needed hope:  “This unprecedented event marks an important partnership with the Ukrainian government, which has been reluctant in the past 32 years to allow anything to be removed from the nuclear exclusion zone.”

Dogs of Chernobyl.jpgBelieve it or not there are visitors to the area.  People actually go on tours of the region but they’re strictly warned.  No matter how adorable, do not pet, cuddle nor even touch any puppy or dog who has not been through rigorous decontamination.

For those lucky few the search for good homes goes on, for the lost dogs of Chernobyl.2016_Chernobyl-NB-1-4.jpg

November 23, 1932 Holodomor

“THE worst memory I have brought out of Russia is the children,” observed American consultant and charity worker Whiting Williams after a tour in 1933. “There was one youngster I saw in Kharkov. Half-baked, he had sunk, exhausted, on the carriageway, with the kerbstone as a pillow, and his pipestem legs sprawled out, regardless of danger from passing wheels.”

In 1928, Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin introduced a program of agricultural collectivization in Ukraine, the “Bread Basket” of the Soviet Union, forcing family farmers off their land and into state-owned collective farms.

Ukrainian “kulaks”, peasant farmers successful enough to hire labor or own farm machinery, refused to join the collectives, regarding such as a return to the serfdom of earlier centuries. Stalin claimed that these factory collectives would not only feed industrial workers in the cities, but would also provide a surplus to be sold abroad, raising money to further his industrialization plans.

Holodomor_Novo-Krasne_Odessa_11_1932.pngArmed dekulakization brigades confiscated land, livestock and other property by force, evicting entire families. Nearly half a million individuals were dragged from their homes in 1930-’31 alone, packed into freight trains and shipped off to remote areas like Siberia and often left without food or shelter.  Many of them, especially children, died in transit or soon after arrival.

Resistance continued, which the Soviet government could not abide. Ukraine’s production quotas were sharply increased in 1932-’33, making it impossible for farmers to meet assignments and feed themselves, at the same time. Starvation became widespread, as the Soviet government decreed that any person, even a child, would be arrested for taking as little as a few stalks of wheat from the fields in which they worked.

pic_giant_110913_D-2Military blockades were erected around villages preventing the transportation of food, while brigades of young activists from other regions were brought in to sweep through villages and confiscate hidden grain.

Eventually all food was confiscated from farmers’ homes, as Stalin determined to “teach a lesson through famine” to the Ukrainian rural population.

no-nb_blds_01867-beskåret-1200x1278.jpgAt the height of the famine, Ukrainians starved to death at a rate of 22,000 per day, almost a third of those, children 10 and under. How many died in total, is anyone’s guess. Estimates range from two million Ukrainian citizens murdered by their own government, to well over ten million.

Millions of tons of grain were exported during this time, more than enough to save every man, woman and child.

Holodomor, children.png2,500 people were arrested and convicted during this time, for eating the flesh of their neighbors. The problem was so widespread that the Soviet government put up signs reminding survivors: “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.”

Stalin denied to the world that there was any famine in Ukraine, a position supported by the likes of Louis Fischer reporting for “The Nation”, and Walter Duranty of the New York Times. Duranty went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his “coverage”, with comments like “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”. Such stories were “mostly bunk,” according to the Times. Duranty even commented that “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

1um1ow.jpgTo this day, the New York Times has failed to repudiate Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer.

Like many on the international Left, Canadian journalist Rhea Clyman had great expectations of the “worker’s paradise” built by the Communist state, where no one was unemployed, everyone was “equal”, and Everyman had what he needed. Unlike most, Clyman went to the Soviet Union, to see for herself.

Holodomor-Great-Famine-Ukraine-emaciated-horse-1932-1933-Alexander-Wienerberger-photographer.jpgTo do so at all was an act of courage.  single Jewish woman who’d lost part of a leg in a childhood streetcar accident, traveling to a place where the Russian empire and its successor state had a long and wretched history.  Particularly when it came to the treatment of its own Jews.

Virtually all of the international press preferred the comfortable confines of Moscow, cosseted in a world of Soviet propaganda and ignorant of the world as it was.

In four years, Clyman not only learned the language, but set out on a 5,000-mile odyssey to discover the Soviet countryside, as it really was.

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Rhea Clyman

Duranty’s idea of “good-bye” was the cynical offer, to write her obituary.

It is through this “Special Correspondent in Russia of The Toronto Evening Telegram, London Daily Express, and Other Newspapers“, that we know much about the government’s extermination of its own citizens in Ukraine.

To read what Clyman wrote about abandoned villages, is haunting.  And then the moment of discovery:  “They wanted something of me, but I could not make out what it was. At last someone went off for a little crippled lad of fourteen, and when he came hobbling up, the mystery was explained. This was the Village of Isoomka, the lad told me. I was from Moscow, yes; we were a delegation studying conditions in the Ukraine, yes. Well, they wanted me to take a petition back to the Kremlin, from this village and the one I had just been in. “Tell the Kremlin we are starving; we have no bread!”

A tall, bearded peasant was spokesman. His two sons and the rest of the men and women nodded approval at every word. The little crippled boy stood with his right hand on his crutch, translating everything he said into Russian for me, word by word.  “We are good, hard-working peasants, loyal Soviet citizens, but the village Soviet has taken our land from us. We are in the collective farm, but we do not get any grain. Everything, land, cows and horses, have been taken from us, and we have nothing to eat. Our children were eating grass in the spring….” 

I must have looked unbelieving at this, for a tall, gaunt woman started to take the children’s clothes off. She undressed them one by one, prodded their sagging bellies, pointed to their spindly legs, ran her hand up and down their tortured, mis-shapen, twisted little bodies to make me understand that this was real famine. I shut my eyes, I could not bear to look at all this horror. “Yes,” the woman insisted, and the boy repeated, “they were down on all fours like animals, eating grass. There was nothing else for them.”  What have you to eat now?” I asked them, still keeping my eyes averted from those tortured bodies. “Are all the villages round here the same? Who gets the grain?”” – Rhea Clyman, Toronto Telegram, 16 May 1933

22,000 of these poor people starved to death, every day.  Even then, many they believed the government in Moscow, was going to help.  If only comrade Stalin knew…

Today, the province of Alberta is home to about 300,000 Canadians of Ukrainian Heritage. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley once explained “Holodomor is a combination of two Ukrainian words: Holod, meaning hunger, and moryty, meaning a slow, cruel death. That is exactly what Ukrainians suffered during this deliberate starvation of an entire people“.

holodomor-1.jpgThe Holodomor Memorial to Victims of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide of 1932–1933 was opened in Washington, D.C. on November 7, 2015

Ukrainians around the world recognize November 23 as Holodomor Memorial Day, commemorated by a simple statue in Kiev. A barefoot little girl, gaunt and hollow eyed, clutches a few stalks of wheat.

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Here in the United States, you could line up 100 randomly selected individuals. I don’t believe that five could tell you what Holodomor means. We are a self-governing Republic. All 100 should be acquainted with the term.