January 20, 1940 The real Thing Goes to War

On January 20, 1940, Winston Churchill urged neutral nations to oppose the Nazi war machine, warning that “Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.” Meanwhile in Germany, Coca Cola was the undisputed king of the domestic soft drink market.

In 1865, Confederate Cavalry officer John Stith Pemberton was wounded by a saber slash. Like many, Pemberton became addicted to the morphine given him to help ease the pain. Unlike most, Doctor Pemberton possessed the wherewithal to do something about it.

In civil life, Pemberton was a chemist.  After the war, the former cavalry officer experimented with non-opiate pain killers, landing on a combination of the coca leaf and kola nut.  By 1886 he was bottling his concoction and selling it for 5¢ a bottle out of an Atlanta pharmacy.  Ten years later, Coca-Cola was available in every American state and territory.

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Europeans had long believed that natural mineral waters held medicinal qualities, and favored such beverages over often-polluted common drinking water.  

In 1919, France welcomed the Coca Cola company with the first bottling plants in Paris and Bordeaux. The company aggressively expanded into the European market over the next decade with bottling plants in Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. By the time of the “Anschluss”, Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938, Coca-Cola had been in Germany for ten years.

Around the time that Hitler and the Nazi party were coming to power in 1933, German-born Max Keith (pronounced “Kite”) took over Coca-Cola’s German subsidiary, Coca-Cola Deutschland, GmbH.  Mark Pendergrast, author of For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, writes that Keith “valued his allegiance to the drink and to the company more than his allegiance to his own country”.  He had no qualms about doing business with every aspect of German society, including Nazi party members.

Ein Getrank

Bizarre though it may sound to the modern ear, a number of famous Americans and companies were involved with the European fascist regimes of the 1930s, including William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Kennedy (JFK’s father), Charles Lindbergh, John Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon (banker, head of Alcoa and Secretary of the Treasury), DuPont, General Motors, Standard Oil (now Exxon), Ford, ITT, Allen Dulles (later head of the CIA), Prescott Bush, National City Bank, General Electric and many Hollywood celebrities.

In Atlanta, Coca-Cola President Robert Woodruff was no exception.  Woodruff himself attended the 1936 Berlin Olympics, alongside banners depicting the company logo, with the slogan  “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Getrank – A People, an Empire, a Drink”.

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Woodruff used a 10th anniversary party for Coca-Cola GmbH to organize a mass Nazi salute in honor of Hitler’s 50th birthday, declaring that it was “to commemorate our deepest admiration for our Fuhrer.”

On January 20, 1940, Winston Churchill urged neutral nations to oppose the Nazi war machine, warning that “Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.”  Meanwhile in Germany, Coca Cola was the undisputed king of the domestic soft drink market.

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That all changed a year later with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the German declaration of war on the United States.

American entry into World War 2 meant that American companies ceased business with axis powers, while the German government threatened to seize “enemy owned” businesses.  Max Keith was cut off from all communications with Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, and in danger of the Nazi party nationalizing his beloved company.  As shipments of Coca-Cola’s mythical “7X’ syrup, dried up, Keith had to come up with a substitute for the domestic soft drink market.  Mach Schnell.

Soldiers Gulp Down Coca Cola
Coca-Cola worked with the U.S. government to ensure troops, including these men in Italy, had access to Coke throughout WW2. Bettmann/Getty Images

With wartime rationing already in effect, Keith and his chemists worked with what was available.  Leftovers from other food industries; apple fibers, fruit peelings, beet sugar  and whey, the liquid left over when milk was curdled and strained off to make cheese.

The result was “Fantasievoll”, “Fantastiche” according to Keith. Imaginative. Fantastic.  So it is that the soft drink “Fanta”, was borne of the wartime necessities of Nazi Germany.

Coca-Cola GmbH had concocted a sweet, slightly cheesy tasting soft drink, and the German market responded. Sales rose steadily throughout the war, particularly as alternatives became increasingly scarce. People didn’t just drink the stuff, either. With sweeteners of all kinds strictly rationed, Fanta made its way into baked goods, soups and a variety of foodstuffs. By 1943, Fanta sales reached almost three million cases.

Tristan Donovan, author of the book Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, writes “It was Fanta or nothing”. Pendergrast writes that there’s little doubt that Keith did business with Nazis, but he was more company guy than ideologue. “You could not do business inside of Nazi Germany unless you collaborated with them,” wrote Pendergrast. “There’s no question he was a Nazi collaborator. [But] he was not a member of the Nazi party. His allegiance was to Coca-Cola, not to Hitler.”

When American troops liberated Germany in the summer of 1945, legend has it they found Keith in a half-bombed out factory, still bottling the stuff.

Fun fact: Hitler and his henchmen didn’t call themselves “Nazis”, in fact the term was frowned upon. They were the “NSDAP”, the Nazionale Socialistiche Deutsche Arbaits Partai, (National Socialist German Workers Party), the original abbreviation forwhich, was “Nasos”. The word “Nazi” derives from a Bavarian term meaning “simple minded” and was first used as a term of derision by journalist Konrad Heiden. The term was adopted by Anti-NSDAP’ers and Allied troops after war broke out, and the name stuck.

Despite being on the losing side, Keith was hailed as a hero back in Atlanta. The man who kept the company alive, in Germany. Vice President of Sales Harrison Jones called Keith a “great man”.  He was given control of Coca-Cola, in all of Europe.

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In April 1955, Coca-Cola reintroduced Fanta as an orange drink. Starting in Italy, the product made its way to the United States, in 1958. The name stuck, and why not. The company already owned the copyright.

In 2012, Fanta saw the strongest sales growth of the top 10 brands, the third Coke branded product to surpass 2 billion in case sales. Today, more than 100 flavors of Fanta are sold around the world. Customers from Latin America to Africa, Europe, Brazil and China can all say,  “Es ist die Reale Sache”.  It’s the Real Thing.

December 22, 1944 Forgotten Angel

The Battle of the Bulge is a familiar tale: The massive German offensive bursting out of the frozen Ardennes forest. December 16, 1944. The desperate drive to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to German re-supply efforts.

Battle of the Bulge

The terrain was considered unsuitable for such an attack. The tactical surprise was complete, British and American forces separated and driven back, their positions forming an inward “bulge” on wartime battle maps.

The story of the “Battered Bastards” is likewise, well known. 22,800 Americans, outnumbered five to one in some places and surrounded, in the do-or-die fight to hold the indispensable crossroads, of Bastogne. The German demand to surrender, of December 22. The response from American General Anthony McAuliffe. The one word response, “Nuts”, the American slang, confusing to the German delegation.

The siege of Bastogne would last another four days, the German encirclement at last broken by elements of George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. By the end of January, the last great effort of German arms was spent and driven back behind original lines.

Bastogne

Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote “Band of Brothers” nearly fifty years later, a non-fiction account later broadcast as an HBO mini-series, of the same name. The story refers to a black nurse named Anna. There is a brief appearance and then she is gone. No one knew who Anna was, or even if she was real.

Sixty-one years after Bastogne, military historian Martin King was conducting research for a book, Voices of the Bulge.  The knock on the door came in October 2007, in a geriatric home outside of Brussels.

In the months following the Great War, Henri Chiwy (pronounced “SHE-wee”) was a veterinarian, working in the Belgian colony of the Congo Free State. The name of the Congolese woman who bore his child is unrecorded, the name of their baby girl, Augusta Marie.

Nurses

Augusta Chiwy came back to Belgium when she was nine, one of the luckier of thousands born to European fathers, and African mothers. Back to the doctor’s home in Bastogne, a small town of 9,000 where Augusta was loved and cared for by her father and his sister, whom the girl knew as “aunt Caroline”.

Augusta was educated and raised a Catholic. She always wanted to teach but, due to the rancid racial attitudes of that time and place, it would not do to have a black woman teaching white children. She became a nurse instead, on the advice of her father and his brother, a well-known Bastogne physician.

Nursing school was about 100 miles north. Augusta became a qualified nurse in 1943 and returned home the following year for Christmas. She arrived on December 16, the day Adolf Hitler launched his surprise offensive.

Bastogne was soon surrounded, part of one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles, of WW2. Poorly equipped American GIs were outnumbered five to one. These guys didn’t even have winter uniforms.

Bastogne

US Army Doctor Jack Prior was desperate, the abandoned building serving as military aid station, home to some 100 wounded GIs. Thirty of those were seriously wounded. With virtually no medical equipment or medicine and the only other medical officer an Ohio dentist, Dr. Prior badly needed nursing help.

Augusta Chiwy did not hesitate to volunteer, knowing full well that she would be executed, if caught.

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Scene from the HBO mini series, “A Band of Brothers”

Working conditions were grisly in the weeks that followed. With no surgical instruments and no anesthesia, amputations and other procedures were performed with an army knife, with cognac to dull the patient’s pain. On Christmas eve, a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb hit one hospital building, instantly killing dozens of wounded GIs and the only other nurse, Renée Lemaire.  She would be remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne.”

Bastogne building

Augusta Chiwy was in a neighboring building at the time. The explosion blew the petite nurse through a wall but, unhurt, she picked herself up and went back to work.  There were grisly injuries and many died due to inadequate medical facilities, but many lived, their families reunited thanks to the tireless work of Dr. Jack Prior, and nurse Augusta Chiwy.

Given the month of hell the pair had been through, Augusta was heartbroken when Dr. Prior had to move out, in January.  The pair exchanged addresses and stayed in touch, writing letters and exchanging small gifts, of candy.  They last saw each other in 2004, when Dr. Prior returned from his home state of Vermont, for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Prior, Chiwy

Augusta Chiwy suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition poorly understood at that time.  She would go long periods without speaking, becoming quiet and withdrawn even years later.  She married a Belgian soldier in 1959 and the couple had two children.  It would be twenty years, before  she resumed her nursing career.  She almost never spoke of her experience in Bastogne.

The forgotten angel of Bastogne was eighty-six when the knock came on the door of that Belgian nursing home.  It took months for the Scottish historian to coax the story out of her.

Thanks to King’s efforts, Augusta Chiwy would finally receive the recognition she had earned.

Chiwy and King

“On June 24, 2011, she was made a Knight in the Order of the Crown by King Albert II of Belgium. Six months later she received the U.S. Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. And on March 21, 2014, Augusta was recognized by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor”.  http://www.augustachiwy.org

When asked about her heroism, she’d always say the same thing: “I only did what I had to do.”

Augusta Marie Chiwy died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 94, on August 23, 2015. How many lives would have been cut short, will never be known.  But for the selfless and untiring efforts, of the Forgotten Angel of Bastogne.

Hat tip to http://www.augustachiwy.org, for most of the images used in this essay

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December 8, 1941 A Declaration of War

World War 2 was a time of few restrictions on submarine warfare. Belligerents attacked military and merchant vessels alike with prodigious loss of civilian life, but WW1 didn’t start out that way.

In the early months of the “Great War”, the British Royal Navy imposed a surface blockade on the German high seas fleet.  Even food was treated as a “contraband of war”,  a measure widely regarded as an attempt to starve the German population.   With good reason.  One academic study performed ten years after the war, put the death toll by starvation at 424,000 in Germany alone. The German undersea fleet responded with a  blockade of the British home islands, a devastating measure carried out against an island adversary dependent on massive levels of imports.

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Sinking of the Linda Blanche out of Liverpoole, by Willy Stöwer

World War 2 was a time of few restrictions on submarine warfare.  Belligerents attacked military and merchant vessels alike with prodigious loss of civilian life, but WW1 didn’t start out that way.

Wary of antagonizing neutral opinion, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg argued against a “shoot without warning”policy but, strict adherence to maritime prize rules risked U-Boats and crews alike.  By early 1915, Germany declared the waters surrounding the British home Isles a war zone where even the vessels of neutral nations were at risk of being sunk.

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“Q-Ship with gun. The hidden gun emerges as the cover and sides, masquerading as a deck structure, are dropped. From “Q” Boat Adventures: The Exploits of the Famous Mystery Ships by a “Q” Boat Commander, by Harold Auten, published by Herbert Jenkins Ltd” – Hat Tip HistoricEngland.org.uk

Desperate to find an effective countermeasure to the German “Unterseeboot”, Great Britain introduced heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry in 1915, phony merchantmen designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks. Britain called these secret countermeasures “Q-ships”, after their home base in Queenstown, in Ireland.

German sailors called them U-Boot-Fälle. “U-boat traps”.

Lusitania warning
Notices taken out in the New York Times and others, specifically warned the Lusitania was vulnerable to attack

The “unprovoked” sinking of noncombatant vessels, including the famous Lusitania in which 1,198 passengers lost their lives, became a primary justification for war.  The German Empire, for her part, insisted that many of these vessels carried munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields.

Underwater, the submarines of WWI were slow and blind, on the surface, vulnerable to attack.  In 1916, German policy vacillated between strict adherence to prize rules and unrestricted submarine warfare.  It was a Hobbesian choice. The first put their own people and vessels at extreme risk, the second threatened to bring neutrals like the United States and Brazil,  into the war.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson won re-election with the slogan “He kept us out of war”: a conflict begun in Europe, two years earlier.

In a January 31, 1917 memorandum from German Ambassador Count Johann von Bernstorff to American Secretary of State Robert Lansing, the Ambassador stated that “sea traffic will be stopped with every available weapon and without further notice”, effective the following day. The German government was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.

Anticipating this resumption and expecting the decision to draw the United States into the war, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann delivered a message to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt. The telegram instructed Ambassador Eckardt that, if the United States seemed likely to enter the war, he was to approach the Mexican Government with a proposal for military alliance, promising “lost territory” in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the United States.

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona…”. Signed, ZIMMERMANN

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The “Zimmermann Telegram” was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence and revealed to the American government on February 24. The contents of the message outraged American public opinion and helped generate support for the United States’ declaration of war.

In the end, the German response to anticipated US action, brought about the very action it was trying to avoid.

President Woodrow Wilson delivered his war message to a joint session of Congress on April 2, stating that a declaration of war on Imperial Germany would make the world “Safe for Democracy”. Congress voted to support American entry into the war on April 6, 1917. The “Great War”, the “War to end all Wars”, had become a World War.

At the time, a secondary explosion within the hull of RMS Lusitania caused many to believe the liner had been struck by a second torpedo.  In 1968, American businessman Gregg Bemis purchased the wreck of the Lusitania for $2,400, from the Liverpool & London War Risks Insurance Association.   In 2007 the Irish government granted Bemis a five-year license to conduct limited excavations at the site.

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Twelve miles off the Irish coast and 300-feet down, a dive was conducted on the wreck in 2008.   Remote submersible operators discovered some 4 million rounds of Remington .303 ammunition in the hold, proof of the German claim that Lusitania was, in fact, a legitimate target under international rules of war.  The UK Daily Mail quoted Bemis:  “There were literally tons and tons of stuff stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds that were dubiously marked cheese, butter and oysters’”.

American historian, author and journalist Wade Hampton Sides accompanied the expedition.  “They are bullets that were expressly manufactured to kill Germans in World War I” he said, “bullets that British officials in Whitehall, and American officials in Washington, have long denied were aboard the Lusitania.‘”

Lusitania, ammunition

Montana Republican Jeannette Pickering Rankin, a life-long pacifist and the first woman elected to the United States Congress, would be one of only fifty votes against entering WWI.  Congresswoman Rankin was elected to a second and non-consecutive term in 1940. Just in time to be the only vote against entering World War 2, in response to President Franklin Delano’s address to a joint session of Congress, December 8, 1941.

Tally sheet for the congressional declaration of war on Japan, December 8, 1941

December 7, 1941 A Game that Never Was

What started that day as an away game, ended, in World War 2

In the age of COVID-19, we’ve all become accustomed to sudden and unexpected changes of plans. The world of College football is no exception.

Millions of college football fans eagerly await the playoffs, just around the corner. Now it appears, some games may not happen. Wisconsin and Minnesota have played every year, for 113 years. For the first time since 1907, the game’s been canceled. If Ohio State misses one more game, the team won’t be eligible to play in the Championships. The Mountain West and C-USA conferences have seen the most cancellations and/or postponements in all of college football, with three apiece.

It must be particularly frustrating for the San Jose State crowd, locked down after the best start, since 1955.

And yet, there’s more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. The San Jose Spartans flew 2,400 miles west to defeat the Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii, 35-24.

In December 1941, the Spartans were scheduled to play three games in the Aloha state. San Jose and the Willamette Bearcats, of Oregon. They were college kids. On the road to enjoy a few days in paradise and to play the game they all loved. What could be better than that?

The two teams departed November 27 aboard the SS Lurline, along with an entourage of fans, dignitaries and coaching staff. Hawaii defeated Willamette 20-6 on Saturday, December 6. The Warriors were scheduled to play San Jose State on December 13. Then the Spartans were to play the Bearcats December 16 before sailing home, on the 19th.

An outing like that was once in a lifetime. Unforgettable. The trip would be that and more, but not for the reason anyone expected.

A great sucker punch came out of the southeast on December 7, 1941. 353 Imperial Japanese warplanes attacked Hickam Air Field and the US Pacific Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, lying at peace in the early morning sunshine of a Sunday morning. The sneak attack carried out 79 years ago today destroyed more American lives than any foreign enemy attack on American soil, until the 2001 Islamist terrorist attack, of September 11, 2001.

The President of the United States would address a joint session of Congress the following day requesting a declaration of war, against the Empire of Japan.

Back on the mainland, the families of players stranded in Hawaii, received no word. There were no communications. None could know with certainty, that brothers and sons were alive and well. Hawaii was locked down, under Martial Law.

Meanwhile, the visiting teams were mobilized to perform wartime duties. San Jose state players began working with Federal authorities and the Honolulu police department to round up Japanese, Italian and German citizens, and to enforce wartime blackout orders.

Willamette players were assigned WW1-vintage Springfield rifles and tin hats, and ordered to string barbed wire, on the beaches. Two days later, the Punahou school was taken over by Army engineers. For the next ten days Willamette players stood 24-hour guard, around the school.

If you think you’ve heard the name Punahou it probably involves the school’s most famous alum, future President Barack Obama.

Shirley McKay Hadley, a Willamette student accompanying her father, then serving as state Senator, joked many years later, “They were lucky they didn’t shoot each other.”

Female members of the entourage, were assigned nursing duties.

Spartan Guard Ken Stranger delivered a baby, on December 7.

On December 19, players received two-hours notice. It was time to go. The civilian liner SS President Coolidge had been commandeered to transport gravely wounded service members. This would be the kids’ ride home complete with Naval escort, to protect against Japanese submarine attack.

Seven San Jose players stayed behind and joined the Honolulu police force , for which each was paid $166 a month. Willamette coach Roy “Spec” Keene refused to let any of his players stay behind. None had been able to speak with their parents, first.

Nearly every member of both squads went on to fight for the nation. Willamette Guard Kenneth Bailey was killed over Bari Italy in 1943 and awarded the Purple Heart, posthumously.

Bill McWilliams served 27 years in the United States Air Force, as a fighter bomber pilot. He’s written a book about 12 of these guys, who went on to fight the conflict, of the “Greatest Generation”.

The book came out in 2019 and it’s still in print, if you’re interested.

It looks like one hell of a story.

Andy Rogers played for the Willamette squad that day and went on to serve for the duration of the war, with the 3rd division of the United States Marine Corps. Mr. Rogers is 98 today and lives in Napa Valley, California. The only living member of either traveling squad who would have played that day, in the game that never was.

December 2, 1943 The Surprising Origins of Chemotherapy

In the 12th century, Bernard of Chartres described a process of finding truth, in building on previous discoveries. The concept is best remembered in the words of Sir Isaac Newton, in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.


Ancient Greek mythology depicts Hercules, poisoning arrows with the venom of the Hydra. Both sides in the battle for Troy used poisoned arrows, according to the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer.   Alexander the great encountered poison arrows and fire weapons in the Indus valley of India, in the fourth century, BC.  Chinese chronicles describe an arsenic laden soul-hunting fog produced by the burning of toxic vegetation, used to disperse a peasant revolt in AD178.

“Soul-hunting fog”.

Yikes

The French were the first to use poison weapons in the modern era in August 1914, firing tear gas grenades containing xylil bromide against German forces in the first month of the Great War.

Imperial Germany was first to give serious study to chemical weapons

of war, early experiments with irritants taking place at the battle of Neuve-Chapelle in October 1914, and with tear gas at Bolimów on January 31, 1915 and again at Nieuport, that March.

The first widespread use of poison gas, in this case chlorine, came on April 22, 1915, at the second battle of Ypres.

The story of gas warfare is inextricably linked with that of WW1.  124,000 tons of the stuff was produced by all sides by the end of the war, accounting for 1,240,853 casualties, including the agonizing death of 91,198.

WW1 gas attack in Flanders

Had the war continued into 1919, technological advances promised new and fresh hell, unimaginable to the modern reader.

Today we think of chemical agents in WW2 as being limited to the death camps of the Nazis, but such weapons were far more widespread.  The Imperial Japanese military frequently used vesicant (blister) agents such as Lewisite and mustard gas against Chinese military and civilians, and in the hideous “medical experiments” conducted on live prisoners at Unit 731 and Unit 516.  Emperor Hirohito personally authorized the use of toxic gas during the 1938 Battle of Wuhan, on no fewer than 375 occasions.

Japanese, Gas Artillery

The Italian military destroyed every living creature in its path during the 1936 Colonial war with Ethiopia, in what Emperor Haile Selassie called “a fine, death-dealing rain”.

Nazi Germany possessed some 45,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, though such weapons were rarely used against western adversaries.  The “Ostfront” – the battle on the eastern front – was a different story.  Russian resistance fighters and Red Army soldiers were attacked, most notably during the assault on the catacombs of Odessa in 1941, the 1942 siege of Sebastopol, and the nearby caves and tunnels of the Adzhimuskai quarry, where “poison gas was released into the tunnels, killing all but a few score of the (3,000+) Soviet defenders”.

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None of the western allies resorted to chemical warfare in WW2, despite having accumulated over twice the chemical stockpile as that of Nazi Germany.  The policy seems to have been one of “mutually assured destruction”, where no one wanted to be first to go there, but all sides reserved the option.  Great Britain possessed massive quantities of mustard, chlorine, Lewisite, Phosgene and Paris Green, awaiting the retaliatory strike should Nazi Germany resort to such weapons on the beaches of Normandy. 

General Alan Brooke, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, said he “[H]ad every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches” in the event of a German landing on the British home islands.

The official American policy toward chemical weapons was enunciated by President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1937: “I am doing everything in my power to discourage the use of gases and other chemicals in any war between nations. While, unfortunately, the defensive necessities of the United States call for study of the use of chemicals in warfare, I do not want the Government of the United States to do anything to aggrandize or make permanent any special bureau of the Army or the Navy engaged in these studies. I hope the time will come when the Chemical Warfare Service can be entirely abolished”.

The Geneva Protocols of 1925 banned the use of chemical weapons, but not their manufacture, or transport.  By 1942, the U.S. Chemical Corps employed some 60,000 soldiers and civilians and controlled a $1 Billion budget.

In August 1943, Roosevelt authorized the delivery of chemical munitions containing mustard gas, to the Mediterranean theater. Italy surrendered in early September, changing sides with the signing of the armistice of Cassibile.

The liberty ship SS John Harvey arrived at the southern Italian port of Bari in November, carrying 2000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each containing 60 to 70-pounds of sulfur mustard.

Bari was packed at the time, with ships waiting to be unloaded.  It would be days before stevedores could get to her. Captain John Knowles wanted to inform port authorities of his deadly cargo and request that it be unloaded immediately, but secrecy prevented him from doing so. As it was, John Harvey was still waiting to be unloaded, on December 2.

For Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the traffic jam at Bari was an opportunity to slow the advance of the British 8th army on the Italian peninsula.

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Air raid on Bari, December 2, 1943

The “Little Pearl Harbor” began at 7:25PM when 105 Junkers JU-88 bombers came out of the East.   The tactical surprise was complete, and German pilots were able to bomb the harbor with great accuracy. Two ammunition ships were first to explode, shattering windows 7 miles away. A bulk gasoline pipeline was severed, as a sheet of burning fuel spread across the harbor, igniting those ships left undamaged.

43 ships were sunk, damaged or destroyed including John Harvey, which erupted in a massive explosion.  Liquid sulfur mustard spilled into the water, as a cloud of toxic vapor blew across the port and into the city.

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Mustard gas is a cytotoxic agent, capable of entering the system via skin, eyes and respiratory tract and attacking every cell type with which it comes into contact. First comes a garlic odor as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground.  Contact results in redness and itching at first, resulting 12-24 hours later in excruciating, untreatable blisters on exposed areas of the skin.  Sufferers are literally burned inside and out as mucous membranes are stripped away from the eyes, nose and respiratory tract.

Death comes in days or weeks.  Survivors are likely to develop chronic respiratory disease and infections. DNA is permanently altered, often resulting in certain cancers and birth defects. To this day there is no antidote.

A thousand or more died outright in the bombing.  643 military service personnel were hospitalized for gas symptoms.  83 of those were dead, by the end of the month.  The number of civilian casualties is unknown.  The whole episode was shrouded in secrecy and remains to this day, one of the lesser-known chapters of World War 2.

At the time, the nature of the chemical disaster at Bari was uncertain.  Everyone with any knowledge of John Harvey’s secret cargo was killed in the explosion.  Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander, an American physician from New Jersey, was sent by the Deputy Surgeon General of the US Army to find out what happened.

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It was Dr. Alexander who figured out the responsible agent was mustard, and where the stuff had come from.   In the process of testing, Dr. Alexander noticed the unknown agent first went after rapidly dividing cells, such as white blood cells.

Alexander wondered if it might be useful in going after other rapidly dividing cells. Like cancer.

Based on Dr. Alexander’s field work, Yale pharmacologists Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman developed the first anti-cancer chemotherapy drug, in the treatment of lymphoma. 

In the 12th century, Bernard of Chartres described a process of finding truth, in building on previous discoveries. The concept is best remembered in the words of Sir Isaac Newton, in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.

Dr. Sidney Farber of Boston built on this earlier work, producing remission in children with acute Leukemia using Aminopterin, an early precursor to Methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug still in use, today.

Writers have labeled SS John Harvey a Savior of Millions, due to the vessel’s role in the pioneering era of modern chemotherapy drugs.

The claim may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not entirely so.  The American Cancer Society today estimates cancer survivors in the range of 16.9 million.

November 27, 1942. Vanquished, but Unbeaten

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers.  This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it. Even if they had to destroy it, by their own hands.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940, with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By the end of May, German Panzers had hurled the shattered remnants of the allied armies into the sea, at a place called Dunkirk.

The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people in shock in the wake of their June surrender.  All those years their government had told them, that the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot line, was more than enough to counter German aggression.

France had fallen in six weeks.

Vichy-France

Germany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the south of the country, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain. Though mostly toothless, the self-described “French state” in Vichy was left relatively free to run its own affairs, compared with the Nazi occupied regions to the west and north.

That changed in November 1942, with the joint British/American invasion of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. At the time, the north African provinces were nominally under the control of the Vichy regime. Hitler gave orders for the immediate occupation of all of France.

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With the armistice of June 1940, much of the French naval fleet was confined to the Mediterranean port of Toulon. Confined but not disarmed, and the French fleet possessed some of the most advanced naval technologies of the age, enough to shift the balance of military power in the Mediterranean.

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers. This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it. Even if they had to destroy it, by their own hands.

Scuttled, 1

In November 1942, the Nazi government came to take control of that fleet. The motorized 7th Panzer column of German tanks, armored cars and armored personnel carriers descended on Toulon with an SS motorcycle battalion, taking over port defenses to either side of the harbor. German officers entered fleet headquarters and arrested French officers, but not before word of what was happening reached French Admiral Jean de Laborde, aboard the flagship Strasbourg.

The order went out across the base at Toulon. Prepare to scuttle the fleet, and resist the advance of German troops. By any means necessary.

The German column approached the main gate to the harbor facility in the small hours of November 27, demanding access.  ‘Of course,’ smiled the French guard. ‘Do you have your access paperwork?’

Toulon, französisches Kriegsschiff

Under orders to take the harbor without bloodshed, the Nazi commander was dismayed. Was he being denied access by this, his defeated adversary?  Minutes seemed like hours in the tense wrangling which followed.  Germans gesticulated and argued with French guards, who stalled and prevaricated at the closed gate.

The Germans produced documentation, only to be thanked, asked to wait, and left standing at the gate.

Meanwhile, thousands of French seamen worked in grim silence throughout the early morning hours, preparing to scuttle their own fleet.  Valves and watertight doors were opened, incendiary and demolition charges were prepared and placed.

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Finally, the Panzer column could be stalled no more. German tanks rumbled through the main gate at 5:25am, even as the order to scuttle passed throughout the fleet. Dull explosions sounded across the harbor, as fighting broke out between the German column, and French sailors pouring out of their ships in the early dawn light. Lead German tanks broke for the Strasbourg, even now pouring greasy, black smoke from her superstructure, as she settled to the bottom.

The Germans could only look on, helpless, as a dying fleet escaped their grasp. In the end, 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 sloops, 12 submarines, 9 patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships, 28 tugs, 4 cranes and a school ship, were destroyed. 39 smaller vessels of negligible military value fell into German hands along with twelve fleet vessels, all of them damaged.

The fires would burn, for weeks. The harbor at Toulon would remain fouled and polluted, for years.

The French Navy lost 12 men killed and 26 wounded that day. 78 years ago, today. The loss to the Nazi war effort, is incalculable. How many lives may have been lost, had Nazi Germany come into possession of all that naval power. But for the obstinate bravery of a vanquished, but still unbeaten foe.

November 19, 1904 The Hunted

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. These are the Heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. We rarely know their names and yet, there are times when the lives of millions hang in the balance.

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. These are the Heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. We rarely know their names and yet, there are times when the lives of millions hang in the balance.

Sven Somme

One such was Iacob Sømme, a Norwegian who was caught, tortured and executed by the Gestapo, for his role in sabotaging the Nazi heavy water plant in Telemark, in 1943.

But for the work of men such as this, we are left only to imagine a world in which the Nazi Swastika was painted on the sides of “Little boy” and “Fat Man”. We may thank the likes of Iacob Sømme that such a world remains merely one of nightmare imagination.

Another such man was Iacob’s brother Sven, born this day, November 19, 1904.

Like his brother, Sven Sømme joined the Norwegian Resistance to fight the Nazis who had occupied his country since 1940. A scientist and fisheries officer, Somme joined the Resistance. He would photograph strategic German military bases using a miniature camera, sending covert maps, photographs and intelligence reports to the Allies hidden under the postage stamps, on letters.

In 1944, guards saw the sun glint off a camera’s lens, and came running. Sømme had been caught, taking pictures of a German U-boat base on Otteroy island. Sven tried hiding the tiny camera under a rock, but the Germans quickly found it. He was put in cuffs.

The penalty for what he was doing, was the firing squad. He would be lucky not to be tortured to death.

That night, Sømme managed to slip his handcuffs and creep past his sleeping guard. What followed was a nightmare race to freedom. A relentless hunt two months in duration, across 200 miles of snow covered mountains.

The Norwegian had barely an hour’s head start. The Nazis couldn’t let this man escape. He knew too much. Pursued by 900 troops and a pack of bloodhounds, Sømme worked his way through icy streams and across ravines moving ever higher, into the mountains.

Otrøya island (right) where Sømme photographed the torpedo base, at Midfjorden. H/T Wikipedia

He wore a pair of beat up dress shoes and certainly would have succumbed to frostbite in the mountains, had he not been taken in for a time by a friendly family. He couldn’t stay for long, but the family’s 19-year-old son Andre gave him the pair of mountain boots.

Sven Somme, tree

Sømme would wade through icy streams to avoid leaving tracks in the snow, or leap from one tree to another, a game he‘d once learned, as a kid. He trekked 200 miles through the mountains in this manner dodging bears and wolves. That baying horde was never far from his heels.

At last he made it to neutral Sweden, where he was taken to England. There he met the exiled King of Norway, and the woman who would one day become his wife and mother of his three daughters, an English woman named Primrose.

Mountaineer Arne Randers Heen guided Sømme through the steep mountains from Isfjord to Eikesdalen (photo) and locals in Eikesdal helped him through the difficult terrain in from Eikesdal to Aursjøen lake. From there he walked across Norway to Sweden. H/T Wikipedia

Sven Sømme passed away in 1961 following a battle with cancer. Primrose died not long after. It was only in going through her things after she passed, that the three girls discovered their father’s history. The photographs, the letters, even an arrest warrant, written out in German and Norwegian.

Documents: His daughter has now found an incredible archive of secret documents he collected while working as a spy” H/T UK Daily Mail

Sømme had written a memoir about his escape. He called it “Another Man’s Shoes”. In 2004, his daughters used the book to retrace their father’s epic flight across the mountains. They even met the family who had sheltered him and, to their amazement, they still had his old shoes. The book is still in print as far as I know. It has a forward by his daughter Ellie, describing their emotional meeting with the family who had sheltered her father.

It must be one hell of a story.

May 27, 1940 The Miracle of Dunkirk

The first full day of the evacuation was May 27,  7,669 were evacuated.  By day 9 a total of 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from the beach.  The “Miracle of Dunkirk” would remain the largest such waterborne evacuation in history, until the Great boat lift of September 11, 2001.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation.

The island nation of Great Britain alone escaped occupation, but its armed forces were shattered and defenseless in the face of the German war machine.dunkirk evacuationIn May of 1940 the British Expeditionary Force and what remained of French forces occupied a sliver of land along the English Channel. Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt called a halt of the German armored advance on May 24, while Hermann Göring urged Hitler to stop the ground assault, let the Luftwaffe finish the destruction of Allied forces. On the other side of the channel, Admiralty officials combed every boatyard they could find for boats to ferry their people off of the beach.

Hitler ordered his Panzer groups to resume their advance on May 26, while a National Day of Prayer was declared at Westminster Abbey. That night Winston Churchill ordered “Operation Dynamo”. One of the most miraculous evacuations in military history had begun from the beaches of Dunkirk.dunkirk-evacuation.-1-june-1940-troop-positions.-operation-dynamo.-hmso-1953-map-[2]-272563-pThe battered remnants of the French 1st Army fought a desperate delaying action against the advancing Germans. They were 40,000 men against seven full divisions, 3 of them armored. They held out until May 31 when, having run out of food and ammunition, the last 35,000 finally surrendered. Meanwhile, a hastily assembled fleet of 933 vessels large and small began to withdraw the broken army from the beaches.

Larger ships were boarded from piers, while thousands waded into the surf and waited in shoulder deep water for smaller vessels. They came from everywhere: merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats and tugs. The smallest among them was the 14’7″ fishing boat “Tamzine”, now in the Imperial War Museum.Dunkirk EvacuationA thousand copies of navigational charts helped organize shipping in and out of Dunkirk, as buoys were laid around Goodwin Sands to prevent stranding. Abandoned vehicles were driven into the water at low tide, weighted down with sand bags and connected by wooden planks, forming makeshift jetties.

The first full day of the evacuation was May 27,  7,669 were evacuated.  By day 9 a total of 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from the beach.  The “Miracle of Dunkirk” would remain the largest such waterborne evacuation in history, until the Great boat lift of September 11, 2001.dunkirk1It all came to an end on June 4. Most of the light equipment and virtually all the heavy stuff had to be left behind, just to get what remained of the allied armies out alive. But now, with the United States still the better part of a year away from entering the war, the allies had a fighting force that would live to fight on. Winston Churchill delivered a speech that night to the House of Commons, calling the events in France “a colossal military disaster”. “[T]he whole root and core and brain of the British Army”, he said, had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of June 4, Churchill hailed the rescue as a “miracle of deliverance”.dunkirk_marqueeOn the home front, thousands of volunteers signed up for a “stay behind” mission in the weeks that followed. With “Operation Sea Lion” all but imminent, the German invasion of Great Britain, their mission was to go underground and to disrupt and destabilize the invaders in any way they could. They were to be part of the Home guard, a guerrilla force reportedly vetted by a senior Police Chief so secret, that he was to be assassinated in case of invasion to prevent membership in the units from being revealed.

Participants of these auxiliaries were not allowed to tell their families, what they were doing or where they were. Bob Millard, who passed in 2014 at the age of 91, said they were given 3 weeks’ rations, and that many were issued suicide pills in case of capture.  Some 400-500 elaborately concealed underground “operational bases” are believed to have been built, from which Home Guard units were to carry out the arts of guerrilla warfare including unarmed combat, demolition, sabotage and even assassination.

Left, Operational base, reconstruction at Parham Airfield Museum. Right, Auxiliary Units, Operational Base, emergency exit. H/T Wikipedia

Even Josephine, Millard’s wife of 67 years, didn’t know a thing about it until the auxiliaries’ reunion in 1994. “You just didn’t talk about it, really”, he said. “As far as my family were aware I was still in the Home Guard. It was all very hush hush. After the war, it was water under the bridge”.

The word “Cenotaph” literally translates as “Empty Tomb”, in Greek. Every year since 1919 and always taking place on the Sunday closest to the 11th day of the 11th month, the Cenotaph at Whitehall is the site of a remembrance service, commemorating British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in 20th century conflicts. Since WWII, the march on the Cenotaph includes members of the Home Guard and the “Bevin Boys”, the 18-25 year old males conscripted to serve in England’s coal mines. In 2013, the last surviving auxiliers joined their colleagues, proudly marching past the Cenotaph for the very first time.

2E3BB40600000578-3308996-image-a-222_1446983695741Historians from the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART) had been trying to do this for years.

CART founder Tom Sykes said: “After over 70 years of silence, the veterans of the Auxiliary Units and Special Duties Section, now more than ever, deserve to get the official recognition that has for so long been lacking. ‘They were, in this country’s hour of need, willing to give up everything, families, friends and ultimately their lives in order to give us a fighting chance of surviving”.

May 26, 1941 Avenging Brother

On this day in 1941, Sergeant Clive Hulme learned of the death of his brother Harold, also fighting in the battle for Crete.  The life expectancy for German snipers was about to become noticeably shorter. 

Throughout the history of armed conflict, men who have endured combat together have formed a special bond.  Prior to the David vs. Goliath battle at Agincourt, Henry V spoke of “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers“.   The men who fought the “War to end all wars” spoke not of God and Country, but of the man to his left and right.  What then does it look like, when the man you’re fighting for is literally your own brother?

Hellenic forces enjoyed early success when fascist Italy invaded Greece on October 28, 1940, the Greek army driving the intruder into neighboring Albania in the first Allied land victory of the second World War.

Until the intervention of Nazi Germany and her Bulgarian ally.

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German occupation of Greece

British commonwealth troops moved from Libya on orders from Winston Churchill proved too little, too late. The Greek capital at Athens fell on April, 27. Greece suffered axis occupation for the rest of the war, with devastating results. Some 80% of Greek industry was destroyed along with 90 percent of ports, roads, bridges and other infrastructure. 40,000 civilians died of starvation, in Athens alone. Tens of thousands more died in Nazi reprisals, or at the hands of Nazi collaborators.

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Airborne invasion of Crete

Fearful of losing the strategically important island of Crete, Prime minister Winston Churchill sent a telegram to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff General Sir John Dill: “To lose Crete because we had not sufficient bulk of forces there would be a crime.”

By the end of April, the Royal Navy evacuated 57,000 troops to Crete, largest of the islands comprising the modern Greek state.   They’d been sent to bolster the Cretan garrison until the arrival of fresh forces, but this was a spent force.  Most had lost heavy equipment in the hasty evacuation.  Many were unarmed, altogether.

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German mountain troops board a Junkers Ju 52 for Crete, 20 May 1941, H/T Wikipedia

Occupied at this time with operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s surprise invasion of his erstwhile Soviet ally, German Army command had little desire to go after Crete.   Eager to redeem themselves following the failure to destroy an all-but prostrate adversary during the Battle of Britain, Luftwaffe High Command was a different story.

Hitler recognized the strategic importance of Crete, both to the air war in the eastern Mediterranean and for the protection of the Axis southern flank.

By the time of the German invasion, Allied forces were reduced to 42,000 on Crete of which only 15,000, were combat ready.  New Zealand Army Major-General Bernard Freyberg in command of these troops, requested evacuation of 10,000 who had “little or no employment other than getting into trouble with the civil population“.

Once again it was too little, to late.  The first mainly airborne invasion in military history and the only such German operation of WW2 began on May 20, 1941.

The Luftwaffe sent 280 long-range bombers, 150 dive-bombers, 180 fighters and 40 reconnaissance aircraft into the attack, along with 530 transport aircraft and 100 gliders.

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Sgt. Clive Hulme

The allied garrison was soon outnumbered and fighting for their lives.  Recognizing that the battle was lost, leadership in London instructed Freyberg to abandon the island, on May 27.

The “Victoria Cross” is the highest accolade in the British system of military honors, equivalent to the American Medal of Honor.  Sergeant Clive Hulme of the New Zealand 2nd Division was part of that fighting withdrawal.  He was 30 years old at the time of the battle for Crete where his actions, earned him the Victoria Cross.  Let Sergeant Hulme’s citation, tell his story:

“On ground overlooking Malene Aerodrome on 20th and 21st May [Sergeant Hulme] personally led parties of his men from the area held by the forward position and destroyed enemy organised parties who had established themselves out in front of our position, from which they brought heavy rifle, machine-gun and mortar fire to bear on our defensive posts. Numerous snipers in the area were dealt with by Serjeant Hulme personally; 130 dead were counted here. On 22nd, 23rd and 24th May, Serjeant Hulme was continuously going out alone or with one or two men and destroying enemy snipers. On 25th May, when Serjeant Hulme had rejoined his Battalion, this unit counter-attacked Galatas Village. The attack was partially held up by a large party of the enemy holding the school, from which they were inflicting heavy casualties on our troops. Serjeant Hulme went forward alone, threw grenades into the school and so disorganised the defence, that the counter-attack was able to proceed successfully.”

On this day in 1941, Sergeant Clive Hulme learned of the death of his brother Harold, also fighting in the battle for Crete.  The life expectancy for German snipers was about to become noticeably shorter.  Again, from Hulme’s VC citation:

On Tuesday, 27th May, when our troops were holding a defensive line in Suda Bay during the final retirement, five enemy snipers had worked into position on the hillside overlooking the flank of the Battalion line. Serjeant Hulme volunteered to deal with the situation, and stalked and killed the snipers in turn. He continued similar work successfully through the day.  On 28th May at Stylos, when an enemy heavy mortar was severely bombing a very important ridge held by the Battalion rearguard troops, inflicting severe casualties, Serjeant Hulme, on his own initiative, penetrated the enemy lines, killed the mortar crew of four…From the enemy mortar position he then worked to the left flank and killed three snipers who were causing concern to the rearguard. This made his score of enemy snipers 33 stalked and shot.  Shortly afterwards Serjeant Hulme was severely wounded in the shoulder while stalking another sniper. When ordered to the rear, in spite of his wound, he directed traffic under fire and organised stragglers of various units into section groups.”

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Clive Hulme’s medals

The man took out 33 German snipers by himself in 8 days and still assisted in the withdrawal, after being shot badly enough to put him out for the rest of the war.

Some guys are not to be trifled with.

 

May 19, 1944 The Seven Dwarves of Auschwitz

One day of fresh horrors ended to reveal the next, and still they lived.  It was unusual for even two or three siblings to survive the Auschwitz death camp.  I don’t believe there was another instance where an entire family lived to tell the tale.

Shimson Eizik Ovitz was a Romanian rabbi, and a WWI-era “merrymaker’ or traveling entertainer.  He was also a man afflicted with pseudoachondroplasia.  Shimson Eizik Ovitz was a dwarf.  Ovitz fathered 10 children by two normal sized wives:  Brana Fruchter and Batia Bertha Husz.  All ten survived to adulthood.  Three grew to normal height.  The other seven were “little people”, the largest dwarf family unit, in history.

On her death bed in 1930, Batia gave the kids a piece of advice that stuck with them, all their lives: “through thick and thin” she said, “never separate. Stick together, guard each other and live for one another”.

war2_1687882aCircus-like performing dwarves were common enough at this time but the Ovitz siblings were different.  These were talented musicians playing quarter-sized instruments, performing a variety show throughout the 1930s and early ’40s as the “Lilliput Troupe”.  The family performed throughout Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, with their normal height siblings serving as “roadies”.   And then came the day.  The whole lot of them were swept up by the Nazis and deported to the concentration camp and extermination center, at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The train arrived around midnight on May 19, 1944.  Thoroughly accustomed to a degree of celebrity, one of them began to give out autographed cards. The family would soon be disabused of any notions of celebrity.

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The “death gate” of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Even so, cultural currents run deep.  Not even concentration camp guards could resist the irony of seven dwarves.   Knowing of his perverse fascination with the malformed and what he called “blood” (family) experiments, Dr. Josef Mengele was immediately awakened.  The “Angel of Death”was delighted, exclaiming “I now have work for 20 years!”

The ten siblings were spared from the gas chamber that night, along with two more family members, a baby boy and a 58-year old woman. Families of their handyman and a neighbor were also spared, as all insisted they were close relatives.    All told, there were 22 of them.

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Ovitz family performers, before the war

The family was housed in horrific conditions, yet seven dwarves didn’t come along every day.  Where others were directed to the gas chambers, these were kept alive for further use.  As bad as it was, the food and clothing was better than that received by most camp inmates. Mengele even allowed them to keep their hair, and arranged special living quarters.

The bizarre and hideous “experiments” Mengele performed in the name of “science” were little more than freakish torture rituals.  Three dwarf skeletons were on prominent display, the bones of earlier arriving little people, ever-present reminders of what could be.  Boiling water was poured into their ears, followed by freezing.  Eyelashes and teeth were pulled without anesthesia.  Blood was the holy grail in the mind of Josef Mengele, and the stuff was drawn until each would throw up and pass out, only to be revived to have more blood drawn.the-ovitzs-leaving-the-ca-008On one occasion, the Angel of Death told the family they were “going to a beautiful place”. Terrified, the siblings were given makeup, and told to dress themselves. Brought to a nearby theater and placed onstage, the family must have thought they’d be asked to perform.  Instead, Mengele ordered them to undress, leaving all seven naked before a room full of SS men.  Mengele then gave a speech and invited the audience onstage, to poke and prod at the humiliated family.

One day of fresh horrors ended to reveal the next, and still they lived.  It was unusual for even two or three siblings to survive the Auschwitz death camp.  I don’t believe there was another instance where an entire family lived to tell the tale.

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Before becoming an industrialized extermination center, Auschwitz I was a slave labor camp for Polish and later Russian prisoners. The words over the gate, “Arbeit Macht Frei”, translate: “Work Makes You Free”.

Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.

Traveling by foot to their Transylvanian home village of Rozavlea, the family found the place ruined.  The gold coins buried for safekeeping before the war were right where they had left them.  Otherwise, there was no future in this place.

ba132f2b89040eef0fb0b59e29512baf Only 50 of the 650 Jewish inhabitants of the village ever returned.  In 1949, the family emigrated to Israel and resumed their musical tour, performing until the group retired in 1955.

Josef Mengele never did face justice. The man who had directed victims by the hundreds of thousands to the gas chamber, fled to South America after the war.  He was living under a false name in Brazil in 1979 when he suffered a stroke, while enjoying an afternoon swim.  The cause of death for one of the great monsters of modern history, was accidental drowning.

The youngest and last of the Ovitz dwarves, Piroska or “Perla” to her friends, passed away two days before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers. She spoke for the whole family, I think, when she said “I was saved by the grace of the devil”.

The hour-long film “Standing Tall at Auschwitz” fills in a lot of the details.  It’s worth watching.