BERGEN-BELSEN

Imagine what it would be like to be reading a newspaper one day and seeing your picture as a 12 year-old boy staring through the fence of a concentration camp.  Such was the experience of Yehuda Danzig.  Danzig is an 82-year-old Jew, living in Toronto, who, as a boy, was incarcerated in Bergen-Belsen along with most of his family.  Recently, while reading an article about the camp in the “Times of Israel,” he spotted a picture of a group of children taken at the camp in April 1945 shortly after liberation.  And there he was!   Along with his brother!

Of course, it was a tremendous shock to see the photo.  Danzig does not remember ever seeing a photo of himself as a young boy.  It turned out that it was a still image from a documentary on concentration camps that had been made 70 years ago and, inexplicably, never published until last year.  (The famous director, Alfred Hitchcock, had been one of the documentary’s collaborators.)

Danzig said the picture brought back painful memories, such as:

  1. the daily roll calls, even in the rain, snow and freezing cold,
  2. severe lack of food and water,
  3. being covered in lice, and
  4. omnipresent diseases, such as typhus, which ran rampant through the camp.

Danzig recalled that when they were finally liberated by the British they were like “zombies.”  Furthermore, since few of them spoke English, most of them did not understand the liberating soldiers who told them “you are free.”   Finally, he remembers the piles of unburied dead bodies all over.   People had been dying so quickly that the burial details could not keep up.  Some of the piles outside the barracks doors were so high that many of the prisoners could not even get outside!   No doubt, these were memories Danzig had spent a lifetime trying to forget, and here they were surfacing all over again.

Bergen-Belsen was located in northern Germany in the town of Bergen, village of Belsen.  In the 1930s the site housed a military training facility for the German Army.  Later, the Nazis built a concentration camp, the only one built exclusively to hold Jews.  It was designed to hold 7,000 prisoners, but by April 1945 it held 50,000.  No wonder disease was rampant.

From 1941 through 1945, 70,000 prisoners died there – including 50,000 civilian prisoners, predominantly Jews, and 20,000 Soviet army prisoners of war.  Approximately half of them died of typhus in just four months from January – April, 1945.  Conditions at the camp were so bad that even following their liberation about 500 prisoners continued to die every day from illness and malnutrition.  In order to contain the spread of typhus the British burned the camp to the ground with flamethrowers. The site constitutes the largest Jewish cemetery in Western Europe, but there are very few grave markers or monuments to identify the deceased.

After the War a displaced persons camp was constructed near the site.   Eventually, it grew to become the largest DP camp in Europe.

CONCLUSION

Danzig, his step-mother, two brothers and one sister managed to survive the war.  After liberation they, like most people, returned to their former home to try to find family and friends.  Unfortunately, only one uncle had managed to survive.  Eventually, some family members emigrated to Israel.  Danzig and one brother ended up in Canada where they were adopted by Jewish families.

Danzig lived his life.  He married, raised a family and earned a living in electronics.  Like most Holocaust survivors he was fairly reticent about discussing his experiences.  It appears that he lived a more or less quiet life until last month’s shocking revelation.

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19TH CENTURY BASEBALL RULES

Most fans are under the impression that baseball rules have been consistent throughout history.  Indeed, other than the elimination of the “spitball” in 1920 and the advent of the designated hitter in 1973, baseball rules have not changed appreciably since the 19th century.

Incidentally, when the “spitball” was outlawed pitchers who were throwing it were “grandfathered” until they retired.  Can you name the last pitcher who was able to throw it legally?  Can you name the first person to bat as a DH?  Please see below for the answers.

Most fans are under the impression that Alexander Cartwright and other baseball pioneers just woke up one day and banged out a set of rules that, for the most part, have been set in stone since the 1850s.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.  The fact of the matter is that the original so-called “Twenty Rules of Baseball,” promulgated in 1845, were quite vague, and the baseball rules we view as immutable have evolved over a period of time.  During the mid to late 1800s the rules were being amended and tweaked continuously.  Many of the early rules were quite bizarre and will astound you.

Some of the more interesting ones were as follows:

  1. Pitching – Pitchers were required to “serve” the ball underhand from a distance of 45 feet. It was more of a motion used in bowling than what we see today. Over time, pitchers began to raise their arm angles, first to a sidearm motion then, eventually, to the overhand throwing style with which we are all familiar. Along the way the distance was increased to the present 60 feet, six inches, and a mound was created. The height of the mound has been raised and lowered throughout the years. Also, batters were permitted to designate the location of the pitch – high, low, inside or outside (similar to batting practice).
  2. Length of game – The original rules did not mandate that a game be nine innings. Instead, the first team to score 21 runs, or “aces,” was the winner. Good change. I like the fact that, regardless of the score, the losing team will always have a chance to come back and win. The clock doesn’t run out as in other sports.
  3. Bases – Originally, the distance between the bases was vague. Thirty “paces” was common. Later, the distance was standardized to 90 feet, which seems to be the ideal distance.
  4. Catcher- Originally, catchers were no more than glorified backstops. Their main function was to stand a few feet behind the batter, retrieve the pitched ball and return it to the pitcher. In the 1870s a few brave, innovative souls began to crouch right behind the batter, but this was not commonplace until shortly after 1900.
  5. Bats – At one time, bats were flat on one side, similar to cricket. That rule was rescinded in 1892.
  6. Umpiring – 19th century umpires had it made! They were volunteers selected from among the spectators. They were provided with easy chairs behind home plate to sit in. No crouching, and arguing was rare.
  7. Walks – We have all heard the expression “a walk is as good as a hit.” Well, in 1887 walks counted as hits. Obviously, batting averages soared. Eleven players hit .400, and Adrian ( Cap) Anson, who batted .421, had 60 walks that inflated his batting average. That experiment lasted only one year. If not, can you imagine what the lifetime batting averages of sluggers, such as Ted Williams or Barry Bonds, who routinely drew in excess of 100 walks a year, would have been?
  8. Home runs/ground rule doubles – In the early years, balls hit over the fence, which was a rare occurrence, were not automatic home runs. They were in play, and an outfielder was required to chase after them and make a play on the hitter.   Later, such balls became automatic home runs as did balls that cleared the fence on a bounce. It was not until 1931 that such balls became doubles in both leagues. In case you’re wondering, when Babe Ruth set the single season home run record of 60 in 1927 he did not hit any such homers.

CONCLUSION

I hope you found this as interesting as I did.  There are many more examples, but those are the main ones.

Quiz answers:  Burleigh Grimes and Ron Blomberg, respectively.

MEMORIAL DAY

This weekend, millions of Americans will celebrate Memorial Day.  To many of them MD is merely a day off from work, a day to gather with friends and relatives, watch sports, barbecue, or maybe go away for a mini-vacation.  But, how many of us actually stop and ponder the meaning of MD?  What does it mean?  What is its derivation?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  Read on.

According to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs the purpose of MD is to honor veterans who have died in the service of their country.  (Some people confuse it with Veterans’ Day, celebrated in November, which is to honor LIVING veterans for their service.)  MD is celebrated on the final Monday in May, which this year is May 25.  It has also evolved into the unofficial start of summer, Opening Day for beaches, pools and vacation homes.

The original name for MD was “Decoration Day.”  The custom of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers is centuries old.  Its origins are murky, but after the Civil War it became customary to “decorate” soldiers’ graves with flowers as a way to honor those who had died in that war.

Several cities claim to be the birthplace of MD.  Warrenton, Va. claims that the first CW soldier’s grave was decorated there in 1861.  Women began decorating soldiers’ graves in Savannah, Ga. as early as 1862.  Boalsburg, Pa. and Charleston, SC, among others, have also made claims.  NY became the first state to recognize MD as an official holiday in 1873.  In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, NY to be the official birthplace of MD.

The basis of Waterloo’s claim is that in 1865 a group of locals, including a pharmacist, Henry Welles, General John Murray, a CW hero, and a group of other veterans, simply marched to the local cemeteries and decorated the soldiers’ graves with flowers.  What gave Waterloo an edge in the birthplace battle was that Murray was an acquaintance of General John Logan, the general who issued “Logan’s Order, ” the proclamation that declared “Decoration Day” should be celebrated annually nationwide.

At first, MD was celebrated on May 30.  The date seems somewhat arbitrary as it was not the anniversary of any famous battle or military event.  Perhaps, it was chosen simply because flowers with which the graves are decorated are in bloom and plentiful at that particular time of the year.  The name, “Decoration Day” was gradually replaced by MD beginning in 1882, and in 1887 MD became the official name.  In 1968 the Congress moved the holiday to the last Monday in May.  This annoyed many traditionalists, but the lure of a three-day weekend overcame any objections, and the Monday date has prevailed.

There are some MD traditions worth noting:

1.  Flying the flag at half-staff.

Most of the time one will see the flag flown at half-staff all day; however, technically, this is not proper.  The flag should be raised to the top and then lowered to half-staff.  This is intended to honor those who have died for their country.  At noon, the flag is to be raised again to full staff, where it remains for the rest of the day.  This is to recognize that the deceased veterans’ sacrifices were not in vain.

2.  Poppies.

Poppies have become the official flower of remembrance, declared as such by the American Legion in 1920.  This is derived from WWI and the Battle of Ypres (English pronunciation is “Wipers.”).  Apparently, a proliferation of poppies grew on that battlefield around soldiers’ graves.  These poppies were featured in a famous poem by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae called “In Flanders Fields.”  This poem caught people’s imagination and popularized the custom.

3.  Sporting Events.

No American holiday celebration would be complete without a sports connection.  MD has the Indianapolis 500 and the Memorial golf tournament, among others.  Also, until recently there was the traditional Memorial Day baseball doubleheader.

CONCLUSION

I hope the foregoing has increased your understanding and appreciation of MD.  So, whatever you do this weekend, however you celebrate, try to pause for a moment in honor of the many veterans who have given their lives so that the rest of us could enjoy the freedoms we sometimes take for granted.

NBA DRAFT

The annual NBA Draft Lottery is tonight.   The purpose of the draft is to enable the teams with the worst records the previous season to select the best players available in order to even the playing field, prospectively.  All the teams who missed the playoffs are eligible to win the rights to the top pick.  The draft order for the top picks is set by weighted lottery with the worst teams having the best chance.  In order to discourage the worst teams from losing games intentionally, the team with the worst record only has a 25% chance of picking first.

All the so-called experts predict that there are at least two “sure-fire, can’t miss” players available – Jahlil Okafor of Duke and Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky – who will likely be drafted #s 1 and 2.   But, history tells that there is no such thing as a “sure thing” when drafting collegians.  History tells us that the draft is basically “caveat emptor,” or “buyer beware.”

Okafor and Towns may, indeed, become superstars, but past drafts are filled with very high picks that were busts.   For example, does anyone remember Greg Oden, La Rue Martin, or Sam Bowie?  Oden and Martin were first overall picks, Oden by the Trail Blazers in 2007 and Martin by the Blazers in 1972, who, due to injury and/or lack of talent, never “made it.”  Drafting a bust in the first round is bad enough, but when it’s the very first pick, it’s time to run and hide from the fans.

Then, there was Sam Bowie, whom the Blazers drafted #2 in 1984 ahead of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton, among others.  (I’m really not intending to pick on the Blazers here, but facts are facts.  As Casey Stengel used to say, “you could look it up.”).  You may have heard of those guys.  Jordan led the Bulls to six championships and is considered by many to be the best player ever.  Barkley and Stockton were perennial all-stars, were voted into the Hall of Fame and selected to the NBA’s “50 Greatest Players in NBA History List.”   Bowie had a brief, injury-checkered career, and, today, is the answer to a trivia question.

CONCLUSION

Tonight, when you watch the draft remember that, as the saying goes, the only sure thing is that there is no sure thing.  Be tolerant of your team’s decision makers.  History says you won’t know how successful they were for at least a couple of years.  Consider, that when the Knicks drafted Patrick Ewing in 1985, everyone assumed he would lead the Knicks to multiple championships.  Ewing was an outstanding player – perennial all-star, Hall of Famer and Top 50 player, but he never did win any championships.  You never know.

THE FIVE IMMORTALS – ORIGINAL HALL OF FAMERS

For most major league baseball players the pinnacle individual achievement of their profession is to gain enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.   Championships are more of a team achievement.   Wealth and notoriety are very nice.  But, players that are enshrined in the HOF are recognized as being among the best of the best that have ever played the game and are ensured of an enduring legacy.  Through 2014, out of the tens of thousands who have played, managed, or been otherwise associated with the Major Leagues, the HOF consisted of only 306 members, including 211 former players, 28 executives, 35 former Negro League players, 22 managers, and ten umpires.   Do the math.  That is quite an exclusive group.

The HOF is located in Cooperstown, NY.  Why Cooperstown, which is in the middle of nowhere in upstate NY?  Why not in a major city like NY or Chicago?   The answer is that in 1905 a special commission, called the Mills Commission that had been formed to investigate the origins of baseball, concluded that baseball had been “invented” by Abner Doubleday, a Civil War hero, in Cooperstown, NY.   As a former president of the National League, Mills had some standing in the baseball community, so the fabrication was accepted as fact, although it has since been debunked beyond any doubt.   Then, in the 1930s a local businessman, Stephen Clark, promoted the idea of a HOF in Cooperstown to boost the local economy, which had been devastated by the Great Depression.   Thus, the HOF was built and dedicated in June, 1939.

The inaugural membership vote took place in 1935 and was announced in 1936.   All current and former players were eligible.  There was no five-year waiting period after retirement.   Only five players, the very best of the best, received the requisite number of votes to gain election.  The so-called “Five Immortals” included Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson.   The voters considered them the best ever up to that time, and it is hard to argue with that some 80 years later.   I will profile each of them briefly.

Ty Cobb

Tyrus Raymond (Ty) Cobb was born in 1905 in Georgia.   Tragically, when he was a youngster his mother shot and killed his father, mistaking him for a burglar.  Although the shooting was somewhat suspicious, she was acquitted of murder.  Nevertheless the incident undoubtedly left some scars on his psyche and influenced his playing style.

Cobb spent 22 years in the majors, all with the Detroit Tigers, 16 as a player and six as manager of the team.  He was primarily a center fielder, but he was versatile enough to play the infield occasionally, and he even pitched a few games.   In what would be a surprise to modern fans, Cobb actually received the most votes of any of the Immortals, 222 out of a possible 226.

Cobb was generally considered the best all-around ballplayer of his time, perhaps, of all-time. His career spanned the dead ball and the live ball eras.  He set 90 Major League records, some of which still stand.  For example, he still has the highest lifetime batting average – .367.

He was known for his surly temper, aggressive style of play and his racist attitude.  He would do anything to win.  He frequently got into fights with opposing players, fans and even teammates.  He was known for sliding into bases with his spikes high, which would cause injury and fights, and once he went into the stands to attack a heckler only to find out that the fan was severely handicapped.   In addition, one time he attacked a black groundskeeper for merely attempting to shake his hand, and, then, when the man’s wife attempted to defend her husband, he commenced to choke her.   Not to excuse him, but I should denote that, to some extent, his racist attitude during his playing days was a product of the times.  Overt racism was rampant throughout the US during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.  In his later years, his attitude mellowed, and he became a proponent of integration in the Major Leagues and a supporter of Jackie Robinson’s.

Cobb was a shrewd businessman and investor.  He was a spokesman for and a major stockholder in Coca Cola.  Supposedly, when he checked into the hospital for the final time he brought $1 million in negotiable bonds in a paper bag (and a pistol) with him.  Upon his death he left an estate worth $12 million ($93 million in today’s money).

George Herman (“Babe”) Ruth

Ruth was born in 1885 in Baltimore.  Known as “The Bambino” or “The Sultan of Swat,” the Babe is generally recognized as the greatest baseball player of all time.  In addition to being a tremendous hitter he was also an accomplished pitcher.   He began his career as a pitcher with the Red Sox.  In what was certainly the most one-sided transaction in baseball history, they sold him to the Yankees, who switched him to the outfield, because he was too good a hitter to keep on the bench on his off-days.

Quite simply, Ruth changed the way the game was played.  Prior to his arrival in what became known as the “Dead Ball Era,” players hit few home runs.   Ruth became the game’s first power hitter.  His home runs made the game more exciting, and so, ushered in the “Live Ball Era.”  There were years in which he personally hit more homers than some teams!

He became the most popular and influential figure in the game.  He not only commanded the game’s highest salary, but also earned significantly more “barnstorming” after the season.  One time, a sportswriter, noting that he earned more than President Herbert Hoover, asked him if that was appropriate.  Ruth supposedly retorted: “Why not?  I had a better year than him.”

He was largely responsible for the Yankees building “Yankee Stadium,” which appropriately, became known as “The House That Ruth Built.”  His Yankees teams won seven pennants and four World Series.

He even had a candy bar named after him, “Baby Ruth,” which debuted in 1921.  The Curtiss Candy Company insisted that it was named instead for former President Cleveland’s daughter, Ruth, but few believe that farfetched story.

In 1921 Ruth had what I consider to be the best season ever.  He hit .378, with 59 homers, 171 RBI and scored 177 runs.   If you can find a better one, let me know.

Ruth died in 1948 of throat cancer.

Honus Wagner

Johannes Peter (Honus) Wagner, aka ”The flying Dutchman,” was born in 1897.  He played for 21 seasons, mostly for the Pittsburg Pirates.  He is generally considered to be the best player of the “Dead Ball Era” and the best shortstop ever.

In addition, he is famous for having the most valuable baseball card, his 1906 model.  In an era of mass-produced baseball cards, only 200 were ever printed, and it is estimated that only 50 or so exist today.  The reason is very simple.  The cards were distributed by a tobacco company, and Wagner, a non-smoker, objected to them marketing his likeness in connection with cigarettes.  He made them halt production.  A few years ago, one of them was sold for $2.8 million.

Wagner died in 1955.

Walter Johnson (“The Big Train”)

Johnson was born in 1887.  He pitched for the Washington Senators for 21 years.  He was known for three things:  his gentle disposition (He was loath to pitch inside for fear of seriously injuring batters.), his sportsmanship, and his prodigious fastball.  He was the premier power pitcher of his time and, possibly, of all-time.  He won 417 games in his career despite having pitched mostly for losing teams.

In retirement, Johnson, who was a personal friend of President Calvin Coolidge, ran for Congress, albeit unsuccessfully.

Johnson died in 1946.

Christy Mathewson (“The Big Six”)

Mathewson was born in 1880.   He attended Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., for which he played football as well as baseball.  In his time, there were few college students in the majors.  He pitched 17 seasons with the New York Giants.  He won 373 games, third highest ever and most in the National League.  He was devoutly religious and refused to pitch on Sundays.  (The impact on his team was mitigated by the fact that in his time most states prohibited games on Sundays anyway.)

While training with the Army during WWI he was accidentally exposed to chemical weapons, which impaired his respiratory system.  Ultimately, it caused his premature death in 1925 at age 45.  He is buried in Lewisburg near his alma mater.

CONCLUSION

Well, there you have them, the “Five Immortals.”  I encourage you to visit them, and the other 300 enshrinees in Cooperstown.  Bring the whole family.  It is well worth the trek.

YOGI BERRA

As many of you know from my previous blogs I grew up a rabid Dodgers fan, and I remain one to this day.  One of the by-products of  being a Dodgers fan is to hate the Yankees.   The two go hand in hand.  There is no way around it.  In fact, I always tell people that I root passionately for two baseball teams – the Dodgers and whoever is playing the Yankees that day.  Nevertheless, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for a select (very) few Yankees players.  One of those was Yogi Berra.

Lawrence Peter (Yogi) Berra was born on May 12, 1925 in St. Louis.  This week he celebrated his 90th birthday, and as Yogi would say “we thank him for making this day necessary.”

Yogi is the classic American success story.  He was born into a poor immigrant family with three older brothers and a sister.  They lived in a poor, immigrant neighborhood known as “The Hill.”  (Incidentally, one of his childhood friends from the area was Joe Garagiola, also a catcher, who was generally considered to be a better prospect.  Garagiola also went on to play in the Major Leagues, but ultimately was more successful as an announcer and entertainer than as a player.)  Yogi’s father was from the “old school.”  He believed in hard, honest, physical labor.  He neither understood nor tolerated playing a “foolish game,” such as baseball, for a living.   Even though Yogi was an outstanding sandlot player, his father wanted him to work for a living, like him and his other sons.  Yogi’s older brothers, however, helped convince him to let Yogi play professional baseball.  As they say, the rest is history.

Yogi’s famous nick-name derived from the fact that he had a habit of sitting around with his arms and legs crossed like a Hindu yogi.  Teammates started calling him “Yogi,” and the name “stuck.”  Yogi became one of the best players in baseball history.  He was a particularly outstanding “clutch” hitter.  Moreover, he was very difficult to pitch to because he was an accomplished “bad ball” hitter, and he rarely struck out.  Incredibly, in 1950 in 597 at-bats he only struck out twelve times.  The way the game is played today, it is not unusual for even a good player to strike out twelve times in a week.  The following are some of the highlights of his career:

  1. Played 19 years in the majors (1946-1964), mostly for the Yankees.
  2. Voted to 18 all-star games.
  3. Three-time AL MVP.
  4. Voted to All-Century Team.
  5. Inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
  6. Appeared in 21 World Series as a player, coach and manager, winning 13 of them, both records.
  7. Holds numerous World Series records, such as most games, most at-bats, hits, doubles, games caught, and put-outs by a catcher.
  8. Caught the only perfect game in World Series history (Don Larsen, 1956, Game 5).
  9. As a Dodgers fan, two of my favorite Yogi World Series moments were:

a.  When Jackie Robinson stole home in the 1955 World Series.  Yogi was so certain Jackie was out that he jumped up in protest like a kangaroo. I’ve seen a photo of the play as well as many replays. Of course, he appeared safe to me.

b.  In Game 7 of the same Series Yogi hit the ball on which Dodgers left fielder, Sandy Amoros, made the circus catch that saved the game and the Series for the Dodgers.

During and after his baseball career Yogi found a second career on TV.  He has become one of the longest running commercial pitchmen in the US, from the 1950s to the present day.  He has appeared in commercials for such diverse products as Yoo-Hoo, Entemann’s and AFLAC.  In addition, he has been portrayed on Broadway in the play “Bronx Bombers” and on TV in HBO’s “61” and “The Bronx is Burning.”

CONCLUSION

No account of Yogi Berra would be complete without mentioning some of the “malaprops” for which he is famous.  In fact, he so famous for them that he never said many that have been attributed to him.  Moreover, some of them are often quoted with different variations and have come into general usage.  When you read them, you can see that, although they are twisted and paradoxical, they actually make sense, to some degree.

Below please find my personal top ten:

  1. On why he didn’t go to a certain restaurant any more: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
  2. When giving directions to his house: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
  3. On baseball: “90% of the game is half mental.”
  4. “Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.”
  5. About his odd sayings:“I never said most of the things I said.”
  6. Re: AFLAC: “They give you cash, which is almost as good as money.”
  7. At an awards banquet: “Thank you for making this day necessary.”
  8. “Cut the pizza into four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.”
  9. “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
  10. And, my personal favorite regarding the 1973 pennant race when the Mets, who he was managing, seemed hopelessly out of the race: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Those are mine.  What’s yours?  Feel free to email me any I may have omitted.

Happy Birthday, Yogi.  You’ve kept us entertained for 90 years.  Wish you many more.

BARBER TO COMMANDANT OF AUSCHWITZ

Most likely, you have never heard of Jozef Paczynski.   There is no reason why you should have.  JP was one of millions of Jews who were incarcerated in Nazi death camps during WWII.  However, what set him apart from those millions of others and what makes him an interesting historical figure was that for years he served as the personal barber to Rudolf Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau.   Hoss, not to be confused with Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Fuhrer, was reputed to be responsible for murdering 3.5 million people during his tenure at A-B, which made him the biggest mass murderer in history.  [At his trial after the War, when confronted with those statistics he indignantly stated he “only” murdered 2.5 million; the remainder, he insisted, died not from his hand directly but from starvation and disease, (a distinction without a difference.)]

Hoss was born in Baden-Baden, Germany in November 1940.  He served in the German Army during WWI as a teenager.  He joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and the SS in 1934, where he rose to the German equivalent of Lieutenant Colonel.   He was A-B’s longest tenured commandant from May 1940 to November 1943 and then again from May 1944 until early 1945.  His most infamous accomplishment was the introduction of the pesticide Zyklon-B, which greatly increased the efficiency of the process of murdering prisoners.

JP was transported to A-B in June 1940 as punishment for trying to flee Poland to join the Polish Army in exile in France.  He got as far as Slovakia before he was caught and was transported promptly to A-B.  JP became Hoss’ barber purely by happenstance, and yet it saved his life while millions of others perished.  Such were the vagaries of war and life in the camps where luck often played a decisive role in one’s survival or death.  JP was assigned to work at a particular barber shop where, as it happened, SS personnel got their hair cut.  One day, while working at his assigned job, Hoss showed up and for some reason, which is unclear, selected JP to come to his house to cut his hair.  Years later, JP recalled that he was so terrified “My voice was shaking; my hands were shaking; and my legs were shaking.”   Nevertheless, he performed well enough that Hoss insisted on using him as his regular barber.  JP remained at A-B until January 1945, which made him one of the longest tenured survivors of the camp.

Like many Nazis, indeed like many bullies of all types, deep down Hoss was really a coward and revealed his true character in the end.  After the War, rather than “face the music,” he tried to avoid capture by disguising himself as a gardener using the name Franz Lang.  After hiding successfully for one year, he was finally turned in by his wife.  Apparently, she was persuaded to cooperate after the Allies threatened to ship their son to a Russian gulag.  Even when he was about to be arrested Hoss tried to deny his true identity, but the leader of the British army detail noticed his ring and demanded to inspect it.  Hoss stated that he could not remove the ring from his finger as it was “stuck.”  Only when the leader threatened to cut off his finger to inspect the ring did Hoss remove it.  The inscription of Hoss name and that of his wife on the ring incriminated him.  Supposedly, the soldiers “encouraged” him to confess his identity and his crimes by beating him with ax handles.  Eventually, he was tried, convicted and hanged on April 16, 1947.

CONCLUSION

Today, an affidavit of his confession is on display at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.  There is a poignant photo alongside depicting a group of Hungarian women and children walking to one of the gas chambers in A-B carrying hand luggage in sacks.

After the War JP led a quiet life in his native Poland as a mechanical engineer and an educator.  Frequently, he would be asked why he didn’t just slit Hoss’ throat while cutting his hair.  After all, the sharp tools were right there in his hands.  Wasn’t he ever tempted?  JP would say yes, he thought about it.  But, he realized that although it would have provided short-term satisfaction, it would not have resulted in a lasting solution.   The Nazis would have promptly killed him and taken swift and severe revenge against the rest of the camp’s prisoners.  Then, Hoss would have been replaced by someone just as bad.  So, he restrained himself.

JP was awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of the Rebirth of Poland in 2001.  He died this week at the ripe old age of 95.  In the end, he got his “revenge” in the best way possible, by living a long and fruitful life.

FREE SPEECH

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free speech exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; …”  So says the First Amendment of the Constitution.   As most of us learned in high school history, the First Amendment is an integral part of the Bill of Rights.  The Founding Fathers felt so strongly about the Bill of Rights that the Constitution would not have been approved and adopted without it.

It is very important to understand that the right of free speech is an unassailable right.   It is not limited only to speech or actions that are not offensive.   It is not a right that can be granted or withheld at the whim of one group or another, even the government.  It also encompasses actions that most Americans would find very offensive and objectionable, such as, for example, burning the flag.   In 1989 the Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a Texas man who had been incarcerated for burning the flag.  Justice William Brennan, speaking for the majority, opined, in part, “if there is a bedrock principle underlying the first amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable.”  The courts have consistently upheld this principle in subsequent cases.

And so, we come to the recent events in Garland, Texas.  I’m sure you have all seen the news reports.  Two Islamic terrorists attacked a “draw Muhammed” cartoon contest billed as the inaugural “Muhammed Art Exhibit and Contest,” which featured cartoons of the Prophet and offered a $10,000 prize for the winner.  Their intent was to make a statement by slaughtering the approximately 200 innocent attendees a la Charley Hebdo.  Luckily, a traffic cop, whom the organizers had hired as part of enhanced security, was alert and managed to kill both of them before they were able to harm anyone.

ISIS has since claimed responsibility.  At this point, it seems likely that the perpetrators were not members of ISIS per se, but they were seeking to join, and the attack was some sort of audition.  (The ISIS leadership has encouraged homegrown terrorists to commit acts of violence whenever and wherever they can.) This is supported by the fact that one of the perpetrators posted a tweet moments before the attack pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, ISIS’ leader and stating “#texasattack: May Allah accept us as mujahideen.”

CONCLUSION

To me, the central issue in this case is not whether the organizers of the Mohammed cartoon contest were right or wrong, or whether or not they were “smart” to hold that type of potentially provocative contest.   It is true that Pamela Geller, the primary organizer of the event has a reputation for being blatantly and flamboyantly anti-Muslim.  She labeled the attack a “war on free speech.”   That said, whether or not you subscribe to her views is beside the point.

Those who criticize the organizers for “inciting” or “baiting” radical Muslims are missing the point.  The overriding, unassailable point is that the constitution gives them the right to do it.  If anyone has objections the proper response would have been to demonstrate peacefully outside the building, like normal people.  Let the organizers have their say; you have your say; and let every person decide for himself.  That’s the way we usually do it in America, and that is how it should have been done in this case.

Critics of the organizers who maintain that the event should have been cancelled, and there have been many from print journalists to MSNBC’s Dorian Warren, Chris Matthews and  “Morning Joe” to even Bill O’Reilly, (When was the last time they were ever in agreement on anything?) should realize they are advocating embarking on a slippery slope.  On the other hand, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick understand the situation.  Abbott labeled the attack a “heinous crime that struck at the heart of the First Amendment.”   Patrick added that “if Americans are threatened to be killed for their words and actions, no matter how offensive, then freedom, itself, is lost and with it America is lost.” (Perhaps, a bit of hyperbole, but, then again, Mr. Patrick is a politician.)

How far should we, as a society, go to appease violent radicals?  Should we not invite anti-Muslims to lecture at universities?    Should we have permitted Muslims to build a mosque at the site of 9/11?  Or, perhaps, news commentators should vet their opinion pieces with CAIR beforehand.  Where would it end?  Fear of retaliation should not be allowed to muzzle free speech.

Blaming the organizers is akin to blaming a rape victim for wearing a short, sexy skirt that may have “incited” or tempted” the rapist.  As Star Trek’s Mr. Spock would have said:  “It is not logical.”  I would add it is un-American.  Whose country is it anyway?

COMFORT WOMEN

“Comfort Women.”  The very name conjures up an image of a kindly grandmother lovingly hugging and cuddling her sick or upset grandchild.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.  In actuality, “Comfort Women” were young women and girls, usually inexperienced and naïve from rural areas (some of which were even prepubescent) who were coerced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII.  The current term for this practice is “military sex slaves.”  In both Japanese and Korean the term, “comfort women,” is a euphemism for “prostitute,” which tells you all you need to know.

According to Japanese Imperial Army records the cw system, which also included designated “comfort stations” where the sexual activities occurred, was planned, established, and operated with the concurrence and assistance of both the government and the military.  The avowed purposes of them were to (1) provide comfort to soldiers who were fighting in foreign lands, (2) provide a controlled environment to prevent indiscriminate raping of the civilian populace and the resultant spreading of venereal disease, and (3) prevent espionage.  If that sounds like a weak justification to you, if not outright “BS,” I would agree.  There is no factual basis to support those assertions.

Much of the records with respect to cw was destroyed by Japanese officials after the War, but it appears that the first comfort station was established in Shanghai in 1932.  In any event, they spread rapidly, soon appearing everywhere Japanese soldiers were fighting.  One might say they followed the army much like “hookers” followed General Hooker’s army during the Civil War.  One difference, however, was that, for the most part, these were not volunteers.

Initially, many of the cw were Japanese prostitutes who actually volunteered.  Soon, however, there were not enough volunteers, so the Army resorted to other recruitment methods.

  1. They advertised falsely in local newspapers claiming to seek women to work in factories.
  2. Paid brokers to find women.
  3. Most commonly, coerced women and girls through threats and other means.

According to multiple sources, such as SUNY Buffalo professor Yoshiko Nozaki, Korea and China were the primary sources, but CW were taken from any and all lands the Japanese had conquered – Taiwan, the Philippines, Burma, and even some Dutch from that country’s Asian colonies.  Estimates of the total number of CW vary widely due to incomplete records, but they range as high as 200,000.  Although that number appears to be shockingly high, it is surpassed by their barbaric and atrocious treatment.  Most were seized against their will and basically imprisoned in so-called “comfort stations.”  They were forced to work as sex slaves for the soldiers.  They were systematically beaten, raped, and starved.

Over the last 70 years, despite the Japanese government’s continued attempts to deny or soft-pedal the aforementioned abuses, information has surfaced that is undeniable, for example:

  1. Kakou Senda, a Japanese writer, was the first to shed light on this matter. In 1973 he wrote a book about Japanese cw, which was widely criticized in Japan as being inaccurate and distorted. However, with the passage of time he has been vindicated, and his book has become an important source for subsequent activist groups.
  2. Hank Nelson, a professor emeritus at the Australian National University’s Asia Pacific Research Division has written extensively about the cw brothels in New Guinea. He cites a diary account of one Gordon Thomas, a POW who was incarcerated in New Guinea, that some cw were required to service as many as 35 soldiers per day! Approximately 75% of them died in captivity, and most of the rest became infertile as the result of sexual trauma and/or abuse. Other survivors have exhibited emotional problems, internalized anger, and PTSD.
  3. In 2014 China disclosed some 90 documents, including some from Japanese Army archives and the national bank of Japan’s puppet regime in Manchuria that provided “ironclad proof” of abuses.

Unbelievably, after the War, very few soldiers were punished for this enterprise.

CONCLUSION

The cw issue has received much attention.  In addition to the foregoing:

  1. In Korea the surviving cw have become public figures. They are known as “halmoni,” which is an affectionate term for “grandmother.” Every Wednesday many of them as well as various civic and religious groups and supporters hold so-called “Wednesday Demonstrations” in Seoul in front of the Japanese Embassy. In addition, a “House of Sharing” was founded in 1992 to provide a home for needy survivors.
  2. In the Philippines surviving cw are affectionately called “Lolas,” or “grandmothers.” Similar support groups have been formed. They are enlisting the support of their government and the UN in their pursuit of legal action against the government of Japan.
  3. In 2007 the US House of Representatives passed a resolution calling the treatment of cw “unprecedented in its cruelty” and “one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the 20th Century.” It urged the Japanese government to “formally acknowledge, apologize and accept historical responsibility…” for the cw system. The Japanese replied that it had already apologized in 1992, but that statement is generally considered to be inadequate as it did not accept any legal responsibility.
  4. International human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have been lobbying in support of redress.

Today, some 70 years after the end of WWII, the cw system remains a stain on the legacy of Japan and an irritant with respect to relations between Korea and it.  The issue has received much attention.  It was a heinous war crime and a severe violation of human rights.  Rape, sex slavery, and similar atrocities are still being perpetrated against women to this day.