Friday, January 30, 2015


I have been wanting to write about Night Will Fall, aired last week on HBO.  It’s a documentary about a documentary.  The original, produced by  Sidney Bernstein for the British Psychological Warfare Division in 1945, had the working title, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey—a purposefully non-dramatic title.  It was never finished or released, for what might seem to be largely cynical political reasons.  It was based on a compilation of footage shot by mostly British and American soldiers present at the liberation of several of the Nazi death camps.  It was made because military officials were convinced that the world would not be able to believe what happened in these places unless they saw it with their own eyes—and in prophetic anticipation of later deniers.  It was the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, who was brought in to assist in the direction, that called for the kind of long, unbroken panning shots—some with recognizable officials and trusted figures—that would be impossible to accuse of exaggeration or fakery.

Much of the footage is familiar: the haggard faces and the skeletal bodies of survivors, the piles of naked bodies stacked up like cord wood, the long trenches filled with the remains of the thousands who died, the camp guards, male and female, and the SS officers and men forced to engage in the disposal of the corpses of their mass murder victims, the German civilians from neighboring towns lined up by Allied forces and required to witness what had been perpetrated in their name.  We have seen these images, and each time we see them we are repulsed by the barbarity of the Nazis—and are called upon to reflect upon that sad but unavoidable old phrase, “man’s inhumanity to man.”

What is new—and, to me, surprising—in the original footage are the follow-up scenes, taken two or three weeks later, which show the remarkable resilience of human beings who had lived through hell, had suffered from rampaging typhus and other camp illnesses, and had nearly starved to death.  The scenes show women sorting through clothes and trying them on (“as women like to do” the commentary noted!  Not something any documentarian would dare to say today!)  They show survivor couples strolling down tree-lined country roads with every appearance of good health and cheer.  The reality, of course, went far deeper than this, after so terrible a trauma.  But still, it was a refreshing addition to the visual record.  Liberation, which to so many had become an impossible mirage, had in fact arrived.

Andre Singer’s “Night Will Fall” does not attempt a reconstruction of the original film, but it does include an extensive amount of the footage—mostly in black and white but some, from American photographers, in the newly available medium of color.  Singer uses the perspective of a number now-aging survivors, their liberators and responsible officials of the time to describe the experience of that moment in history at first hand; to explain both the purpose of the original film and the reasons for its non-release (some believed at the time that it would have a negative impact on the “de-Nazification” process then in hand); and to detail its subsequent history, most notably its effective use in the war crimes trials at Nuremberg.

Singer’s documentary is a heart- and gut-wrenching reminder of that thing that we must “never forget.”  It is timely, coming at a moment in history where we will soon no longer have either the last of the survivors or their rescuers to bear witness, and will need to rely more heavily on documents such as this.  It is thorough and clear in its purpose to carry out the intention of the original, to create the kind of record that would withstand every attempt to deny or minimize this most appalling and sickening event in human history.  Because of its historical, and sometimes perversely political perspective, it should be a part of every 20th century history class. 

There is one proviso—one I confess would not have occurred to me until I read this excellent review by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, "Auschwitz Was About the Jews" and realized there was justice to his complaint: that the words Jew and Jewish were almost entirely absent from the film and that, as his title suggests, Auschwitz was about the Jews.  There were other victims, who should not be forgotten.  There were gays and communists, there were gypsies and (as one commenter points out in the lively and fascinating discussion that follows the Rabbi’s review) Jehovah’s Witnesses.  There were people of all faiths who dared to oppose the Nazi regime.  But to make such a film with no mention of the Jews as the primary targets of Nazi hatred and brutality is to do a disservice to the truth. 

That said, this is an important, compelling, often enraging, and immensely saddening documentary.  Each one of us owes it to himself or herself to know about these things, and there is no better way of knowing than to watch it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


It's humbling to be reduced to a quivering, achy mockery of what was once a human being, but this is what the flu can do.  I had my flu shot months ago, but it seems that just this year the medical community bet on the wrong strain and what started out as a innocent-seeming sore throat blossomed into what I can only assume to be the flu.  It involves the familiar wooziness in the head and the familiar aches and pains--which don't get easier with age.

This morning, bleary after a fitful, often interrupted sleep, I thought this would be an ideal time to put my meditation practice to the test.  I've been doing it for years, I told myself, in part in order to be ready for the sickness and pain I am likely to encounter as I age.  Let's see how it works when I'm feeling terrible.

It pains me to report that it didn't work too well.  I lit my candle, made myself as comfortable as possible in the circumstance, and set my iPhone "Insight Timer" app for a half hour.  With my head awhirl with fatigue and possibly, I thought, fever, I soon found that its inclination to go to sleep was a lot more powerful than its intention to get calm and focussed.  Pain is one thing.  I can manage to sit through some of that.  The flu is something else...

Monday, January 26, 2015


In yesterday's email I received a forward that included this link to a piece in the BBC News Magazine about Winston Churchill's less endearing qualities.  If you scroll down, you'll find some thoughts about how he shared the "low-level casual anti-Semitism of his class and kind."  My friend added this personal note:
     [   ] the wording of "casual anti-semitism" seems appropriate: one of Hemingway's friends, when asked about H's (whose 3rd marital decision was to marry a jew) anti-semitism, the friend replied (words to the effect) "well that's the way we all were", i.e  unthinkingly, 'cause that's the way they were raised/the culture they came from. Perhaps a good example of this is our wonderful Eleanor Roosevelt (see her early life comments about the Jews: obviously, I have great admiration for people who grow).
    In no way to make apologies for antisemitism/other vile & virulent beliefs about others, but I sometimes wonder how others might judge us some day for thinking/behaving in certain ways which our upbringing/culture has instilled in us---or have we Californians of the 20-21st Century already achieved moral perfection??
Which in turn triggered memories of my own.  I responded:
Thanks for the forward.  As one who was brought up in the culture referred to, I was particularly interested.  Living in English country villages, the son of the local Anglican minister, during and after World War II, I never knowingly met a Jew until coming to America!  Hard to believe, perhaps, but true.  All I knew of Jews was what the Nazis had perpetrated in the course of the war, and even that was somehow at a distance.  No, that’s not quite true.  My good Christian mother, the vicar’s wife, read to me stories as a child from books in a series called “All Saints,” and I have deeply buried memories of stories about what Jews did to little Christian children in the dark back streets of eastern European cities…  This, surely, was a part of the “culture” that is referred to.  Not a heritage to take pride in, but one to be conscious of, I think.  We do need to understand, and correct where necessary, the prejudices that underlie of our social/cultural assumptions, and that’s not always easy to do.  And no, we Californians may think of ourselves as liberated but we are far from achieving moral perfection.  It behooves us to wake up, and stay awake, to who we are.   
Thanks again for an important thought on Sunday morning.  
(Actually, my memory failed me.  The book was actually "Six O'Clock Saints."  I had one of those deep frissons of childhood remembered when I found an image of the cover on Amazon...  I wonder if my sister remembers it, too?  The story I remembered was titled "Little Saint Hugh"--and its location was NOT eastern Europe but Lincoln, in my own country, England!  The story is a part of the whole ancient "blood libel" fallacy.  I think there must have been other stories set in eastern Europe, though.  They tease the memory...)

Like all racial prejudice, anti-Semitism arises out of ignorance.  Too often, we are content to allow it to persist in a "low-level, casual" way because that's easier than choosing to take the conscious path.  Our 21st century American culture is shot through with prejudice of all kinds, but it remains below the level of visibility because we are comfortable in our ignorance and choose not to make the effort to question our own behaviors and beliefs.  What results is a great deal of unnecessary suffering, for ourselves as well as for those we so easily dismiss or hold in contempt.

With stories of anti-Semitism and other forms of racial hatred on the rise in Europe, there's plenty of prejudice still to worry about.  With the growth of world populations and their migration, and as cultures clash, there will be plenty more to worry about in the future of humankind.  My own job, though, can only be to monitor my own prejudice, with consciousness.  

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


I'm wondering if there are TBD readers who might like to receive a review copy of The Pilgrim's Staff?   If so, please feel free to email me with details, and I'd be happy to let you have an ebook at no cost.  My email address is

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


LEONARDO’S BRAIN: Understanding Da Vinci’s Creative Genius, by Leonard Shlain 

I’m a big believer in the significance of names, and for this reason—among many others—took special pleasure in reading one Leonard (Leonard Shlain) writing with such evident passion about a namesake, Leonardo de Vinci, from many centuries past. 

A surgeon, inventor, and best-selling author, the late Leonard Shlain was evidently himself something of a Renaissance man.  No surprise, then, to find him so fascinated with Leonardo, the Renaissance man par excellence.  Steeped in knowledge of technology and the sciences as well as in history, music and art, Shlain writes not only with genuine enthusiasm for his subject, but with engagingly elegant and highly readable prose.   He carries along even the less informed reader—such as, with regard to the sciences, myself—with an organized progression of carefully examined content.  We follow his arguments with pleasure, and with curiosity as to where he will take us next. 

“Leonardo’s Brain” leads us on a spirited journey through a maze of information as complex and intriguing as the brain it seeks to describe.  I’m not up to date on left brain/right brain research, but Shain makes a persuasive case for his contention that da Vinci, a left-hander and quite possibly same-sex oriented, was as powerfully right- as left-brained, and possessed of an extraordinary intuitive power that enabled him to posit scientific theories and invent technological devices that were far ahead of his time.  He credits the artist, persuasively, with a special “time-space consciousness” that enabled him, for example, to envision aerial views of cities and landscapes that would have been unimaginable in his day; and to “see” his way through problems to solutions that no prior human knowledge or rational analysis could explain.

While Shain’s guided tour of Leonardo’s brain embraces, of course, the artist’s particular genius as a painter and draftsman, it also explores his astonishing grasp of human and animal anatomy, biology and botany, mathematics and astronomy, military sciences, geography, geology, cartography…  And more.  But the book itself is yet more ambitious, projecting from the master’s brain forward into present-day scientific, geopolitical and ecological issues and suggesting—I hope not overly optimistically—that the human brain has evolved, and will continue to evolve, toward an “improved version of homo sapiens”, gifted with a more dimensional understanding of our situation in the universe, a fuller and more generous consciousness; one that can operate, given the advances of five centuries, with the same time-space super-consciousness he attributes to Leonardo.

Let’s hope the author is right.  In the meantime, his book is an engaging antidote to the hostility and pessimism that infects our world today.  A more advanced, wide-ranging and compassionate consciousness is perhaps the last best hope of our troublesome and trouble-making species.