December 01, 2011


Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World at War, December 1941. By Stanley Weintraub. Da Capo. $24.

The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II. By Alex Kershaw. Da Capo. $16.

     No amount of “’Tis the season to be jolly” and “Ho-ho-ho” can possibly offset the horrors of a war that began in the Christmas season of 1941 and ended around Easter of 1945 – a war that was a true death and rebirth for much of the world. To mark the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, historian Stanley Weintraub chronicles the 11 days of December 1941 in which Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt met in Washington and began a series of strategy discussions that would eventually lead to Allied victory and a postwar world containing the United Nations. A story of two men of very different personalities and proclivities, Pearl Harbor Christmas is also a recounting of the early days of United States entry into a war that had been going very much as the Axis powers wished. Weintraub neatly juxtaposes the smaller story of the two world leaders’ ideas and personalities with the larger one of events in the war itself, such as the loss of Luzon and the siege of Wake Island. Telling details, such as Churchill’s use of Mothersill’s Seasick Remedy during his difficult and dangerous Atlantic crossing to meet with Roosevelt, lend a sense of human drama to a story whose broader elements have often been told before – including by Weintraub himself in 11 Days in December. This book does not add anything significant to Weintraub’s earlier one, but it tackles the story from a different perspective and includes a number of interesting period photos and illustrations: a cartoon of Churchill’s cigar smoke and that from Roosevelt’s cigarette holder intertwining into the words “Axis defeat,” another of the Russian bear emerging from a Christmas decoration, a picture of Churchill and Roosevelt having Christmas dinner together, and more. Neither a long book nor a particularly revelatory one, Pearl Harbor Christmas is what would be called, in classical music, an “occasional piece” – that is, a work created for a specific occasion, in this case the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day. As such, it serves as a grim reminder of a dark and difficult time, of the great wartime leaders who helped the Allies emerge victorious, and of the ringing rhetoric with which those leaders – Churchill in particular – repeatedly roused their audiences to cheers and determination. “‘What kind of a people do [the Japanese] think we are?’” asked Churchill in his December 26 address to the U.S. Congress. “‘Is it possible they do not realize that we shall never cease to persevere against them until they have been taught a lesson which they and the world will never forget?’” So many decades later, with the world so changed that Japan is now almost as staunch a U.S. ally as England, Weintraub reminds readers of the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” (Churchill again, in 1940 – repeating and reemphasizing a phrase first spoken by Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1849) that brought the world from the crises of 1941 to those of today.

     Alex Kershaw’s The Envoy is also a story of two men during the same war, and it too juxtaposes details of those men’s lives with stories of the larger events in which those lives were lived. But these two men were on opposing sides in the final months of the war, through the last wartime Christmas season. The book’s title refers to Swedish diplomatic envoy Raoul Wallenberg, whose postwar reputation is such that he was named an honorary citizen of the United States (an honor shared with only one other person: Churchill) and also of Canada, Hungary and Israel, and has also been remembered with streets and organizations named after him worldwide. His greatest opponent was Obersturmbannführer (roughly lieutenant colonel in Nazi rankings) Adolf Eichmann, deviser of the “final solution” for Europe’s Jews – a “solution” to be implemented largely through cooperation between Eichmann and his fellow Obersturmbannführer, Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (whose name Kershaw for some reason spells “Hoss”). Kershaw presents the well-known story of Wallenberg’s rescue of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews – perhaps, by some estimates, as many as 100,000 – with novelistic pacing and intensity. He explains how Thomas Veres, who was Jewish and 19 years old, took the only existing photos showing Wallenberg saving lives, doing so at great personal risk. Although most writing about Wallenberg is hagiography – and so is Kershaw’s – the author at least makes sure to include humanizing details, as for instance by selecting this quotation: “‘It occurred [to Wallenberg[ that the people he rescued had not eaten all day. …Wallenberg had not eaten either; we brought sandwiches but Tom Veres inadvertently sat on Wallenberg’s sandwiches in the car.” Wallenberg’s technique for rescuing Jews involved the issuance of diplomatic safe-passage passes and the use of secret “safe houses” in Budapest. The stories of the ways Wallenberg faced down the Nazis and their Hungarian puppets – often told through the words of survivors who owe Wallenberg their lives – are riveting, and the contrast between Wallenberg’s scattershot pacifist rescues and Eichmann’s extremely potent use of the still-powerful Nazi war machine is highly dramatic. Sixteen pages of photos further humanize the grim story. Kershaw sheds no light on what eventually happened to Wallenberg, who was captured by the Soviets as they marched into Hungary, for reasons never satisfactorily explained, and is believed to have died in one of their prisons in 1947. The brief postscript on what may have been Wallenberg’s fate stands in contrast to Kershaw’s extended coda about Eichmann’s eventual capture, trial and execution, as if somehow “The Wallenberg Mystery” (one chapter title) is lessened by close attention to the thoroughly non-mysterious downfall of Eichmann. This is not so; but certainly Wallenberg’s legacy speaks eloquently enough for itself: perhaps one million Jews are alive today because of Wallenberg’s rescues in the last days of World War II.

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