May 03, 2007


Michelangelo in Ravensbrück: One Woman’s War Against the Nazis. By Countess Karolina Lanckorońska. Da Capo. $26.

Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus. By Alex Halberstadt. Da Capo. $26.

      The unending parade of books about World War II occasionally produces an account so unusual that it is worth highlighting – and that is Michelangelo in Ravensbrück. The juxtaposition of the name of one of history’s most creative souls with that of one of the Nazis’ most notorious death camps is startling enough. The story of Countess Karolina Lanckorońska is more startling still. This is a woman who lived in three centuries – born in 1898, she died as recently as 2002 – and who survived the depredations of her homeland, Poland, by both the Nazis and the Soviet Union. Written in 1945-6, with a brief epilogue from 1967, Michelangelo in Ravensbrück has the intense feeling of a contemporary document, looking back just after the war’s end on its atrocities and “mere” hardships in such as a way as to make them seem super-fresh and thus super-disturbing even now, more than half a century later. The book was rejected for publication in its own time as being too anti-German – or, depending on the publisher, too anti-Russian. It was finally published in Polish after more than 50 years, released in England in 2005, and is now available in the United States. It is a first-person report of a Polish noblewoman who was her nation’s first female professor of art history, who joined the Polish underground rather than flee her homeland, and who was eventually arrested and sentenced to death by the Nazis. They moved her to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she fought back in her own way by giving fellow prisoners the will to survive – through teaching them, in secret, about art history and classical literature. Lanckorońska managed to boost morale even though some women at the camp were subjected to gruesome and disfiguring medical experiments; Lanckorońska managed to smuggle their names out when she was freed after five years, thanks to the direct intercession of the president of the International Red Cross. The subtitle of this book is a bit too strong, since the “war” Lanckorońska fought was mostly one of quiet survival. Indeed, Lanckorońska modestly says that others lived through a great deal more during the war than she did. But while that is undoubtedly true, it is also true that few of the survivors managed to chronicle day-to-day life under Nazi and Soviet repression with the matter-of-fact power of Lanckorońska’s account. This is no mere chronicle of awful events, although there are plenty of those. It is also a work in which one SS officer, Walter Kutschmann, takes Lanckorońska’s notes for this very book to safety for her as a courtesy, then tells her there is nothing to thank him for; and, she writes, “I replied that he had given me something of great importance, which is given to us very seldom – to be precise, an opportunity to respect the foe.” An extraordinary woman. An extraordinary book.

      Lonely Avenue is far more ordinary and far less emotionally charged, no matter how highly fans of early rock ‘n’ roll may think of Doc Pomus. Still, it is a well-put-together biography, the first of this important popular-music figure – a solid (+++) book that will be of considerable interest to fans and historians of pop music from rock to punk…in all of which Doc Pomus was involved. His real name was Jerome Felder, and like many children of his time (1925-1991), he was crippled by polio. Determined to make a name for himself as a blues singer – despite being white and needing crutches to walk – he literally made a name for himself, beginning to call himself Doc Pomus when he was 18. The book’s title is the title of one of Pomus’ best-known rhythm-and-blues numbers, but he made his mark most strongly in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, writing songs such as “This Magic Moment” and “Teenager in Love.” Yet he crossed all pop-music styles: this is the man who wrote both “Viva Las Vegas” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” Lonely Avenue is not just about Pomus’ music, however – it is about Pomus the man, and a life that included wealth and poverty, suburbia and the underworld, love and loneliness. The book carries readers along with its novelistic, frequently noir style: “The visitor would huddle there beside the angular, pinched songwriters who cadged cigarettes and strained to overhear news of upcoming recording sessions, or step into the Turf, just off the lobby, where the better-paid contingent mobbed the counter and wolfed down fifty-cent egg salad sandwiches while waiting to buttonhole a certain secretary in the elevator.” This is not a book for everyone – its focus is too narrow – but it is certainly for anyone who knows the name Doc Pomus and is hungry for fascinating pop-music tidbits. Here’s just one: John Lennon “told Doc that the first song the Beatles had rehearsed together was ‘Lonely Avenue.’”

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