Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Book Talk: All the Frequent Troubles of our Days


I’ve just finished All the Frequent Troubles of our Days, by Rebecca Donner. For me 2022 has so far been a year of extremely good books, but this one left me in awe. I’m not one for idle praise or liking a book only because I have a connection to it or its author. Donner is a brilliant storyteller, and I was pulled in from the first chapter. She ended the story with touching and poetic words, and, not knowing it was over (there were 74 more pages!), when I turned the page and saw “Acknowledgements” I actually shouted “No!” Although she ended the story beautifully, I was not ready to stop reading. So for the first time in my life I read every one of her acknowledgments and am now going through her end notes.

When I taught high school German in Wisconsin, I alternated the curriculum each year in my combined level 3 & 4 class. One topic was the resistance: one year I taught “die Weiße Rose” (the short novel followed by the 1982 movie), and the next year I taught a unit focusing on the 2000 film “Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace.” Since I was teaching at a Catholic school and we were expected to begin class with a prayer or reflection, I was able to teach my students one of Bonhoeffer’s prayers: “Gott, in mir ist es finster, aber bei dir ist das Licht.” In the film Bonhoeffer prays this prayer through the wall with the prisoner in the cell next to his.

Many of the names in Donner’s book are familiar to me. In fact, when my mom first told me in autumn 2021 that there was a book out about Mildred Harnack, I knew her name right away. Admittedly I was more familiar with her husband and brother-in-law than with Mildred, as she only gets a brief mention – if that – in general sources about the resistance.

Indeed, while reading Donner’s biography about Mildred I found myself wondering many times how it is that I’d never realized her importance in the story of the Circle (known by many as “die Rote Kapelle”). How greatly this would have enhanced my teaching of both stories – die Weiße Rose and Bonhoeffer!

Mildred was from Milwaukee, Wisconsin – 68 miles from the school where I was teaching.
Mildred was the only female U.S. citizen to be executed by the Nazis.
Mildred was the only U.S. citizen to be executed on direct orders of Hitler.

Those points alone would have brought the stories closer to my students.

Now to the book. Rebecca Donner used primary sources where she still could, having found Don Heath Jr., Mildred Harnack’s young courier in Berlin, and speaking with her own grandmother, Jane Donner Sweeny (nee Esch), Mildred’s niece. Additionally, as she tells us in the Author’s Note, she used letters, postcards, memoirs, diaries, and handwritten notes, along with secondary sources such as newspaper articles, archived documents, and the first biography of Mildred Harnack.

The twelve sections of the book follow the people and their stories chronologically, though there are now and then helpful flashbacks or jumps forward that helped me keep track of who everyone was and how they influenced or told about the events. The people involved in the resistance came alive for me on the pages, as Donner described their personalities so vividly. I can only imagine daring what they did under the watchful eye of such a brutally sadistic regime.

We think such a thing as Hitler and his Nazis could never be in power again, and if so we (the western world) would handle things differently. But then I read about how many Germans were unconcerned in the early days of Hitler because he was just eccentric and claimed Germany wanted peace, and later how the western world tried to deal with him first with diplomacy and appeasement. If he gets the Sudetenland, maybe he’ll be satisfied and quit. That rings too many bells at this point, considering Crimea, Ukraine and Putin.

I can recommend this book to anyone interested in WWII history, especially in the resistance movements. Also to anyone wanting to read about women who faced great risks to fight for a better world. I believe those who know the stories of the two most well-known resistance groups better than I do will be intrigued by the connections between them and the names they’ll recognize:

  • Mildred and Arvid Harnack
  • Falk Harnack
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer*
  • Klaus Bonhoeffer
  • Hans von Dohnányi** (married to Bonhoeffer’s sister)
  • Admiral Wilhelm Canaris
  • Hans and Sophie Scholl (siblings involved with die Weiße Rose)

*Well-known German actor Ulrich Tukur acted in both "die Weiße Rose" as Willi Graf, friend of the Scholls and resistance fighter, and 18 years later as Dietrich Bonhoeffer in "Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace." 
**Justus von Dohn
nyi, the grandson of Hans, is an actor and directer who acted in the film “Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace.”

…as well as details from the resistance story Donner also tells about in her book:

  • Falk Harnack meets with Hans Scholl in November 1942 about distributing leaflets and connecting the resistance groups (depicted in “die Weiße Rose”)
  • Bonhoeffer secretly sent messages to his fiancé and family by marking one letter every 10 pages in books (backwards) that prison guards allowed visitors to bring to him
  • Bonhoeffer and von Dohnányi were involved in the “Valkyrie plot” to kill Hitler, which failed and led to their arrests
  • Bonhoeffer, as a Lutheran minister, had conflicting thoughts about being involved in the plot to murder a person even as despicable as Hitler
  • Prisoners held in brick cells and carefully watched still found ways to communicate with each other
  • forms of active and passive resistance

…and the places that Donner mentions:

  • University of Wisconsin, Madison and State Street
  • Wannsee, near Berlin
  • the KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens, largest department store in Europe)
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Alexanderplatz, Berlin
  • the Black Forest, where Mildred and Arvid take a hiking vacation to rejuvenate
  • UW-Madison, Sterling and Bascom Halls: Arvid and Mildred met because Arvid mixed up the two neighboring lecture halls

Bascom Hall? Or Sterling Hall?
Madison, Wisconsin

The familiarity of these names, events and places drew me in, but it was the details I did not previously know that made this book special for me. A book only gets a top rating from me when it makes me think more deeply about something or when I learn something valuable from it. And I certainly learned a lot from this book about Mildred’s life, the lives of those close to her and the resistance movement. It's also pretty impossible to read a book like this and not ask yourself what you would have done under those same circumstances.


Plötzensee Memorial, Berlin

When I was on the student exchange in 1986, the coordinator of the exchange in Esslingen (now my Schwiegermutter/mother-in-law) took us to Berlin for 5 days. While there, we visited the site of the Berlin prison, Plötzensee. I took a few pictures of the site, as well as the large memorial urn that contains dirt from each of the concentration camps, but didn’t know much about the significance of it then. That is where Mildred and Arvid Harnack were executed.

Memorial urn at Plötzensee
"Die Urne enthält Erde
aus deutschen Konzentrationslagern"

Lastly I will mention, though it is not important to Mildred’s story or Donner’s book, I share a family connection to Mildred and Rebecca if you dig through the family tree thoroughly enough to explore the Esch and Jung lines. Apparently Rebecca and I are 4th cousins, meaning we share an ancestor. 

The book will be available in Germany in August 2022, and Rebecca Donner herself told me the German translation will be released in September 2022!

Gott, zu dir rufe ich!
In mir ist es finster,
aber bei dir ist das Licht;
ich bin einsam,
aber du verlässt mich nicht;
ich bin kleinmütig,
aber bei dir ist die Hilfe;
ich bin unruhig,
aber bei dir ist der Friede;
in mir ist Bitterkeit,
aber bei dir ist die Geduld;
ich verstehe deine Wege nicht,
aber du weißt den Weg für mich.

     ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Reading Banned Books

In the midst of the horror of Putin’s attack on and invasion of Ukraine, it seems petty to write about anything else. Another part of me says those of us who are able also need to keep living and functioning while we still can. The outpouring of aid in the way of helpers, goods, and money going to those having to flee their homes because of that man’s madness is at least something to give us hope. Reading and writing is a way for me to keep a grip on what still works in this world.

Before Putin’s war started I was planning my reading strategy for the next few months: focusing on books banned at some time and place in the US during the last several decades. That began after I found out that Art Spiegelman's Maus had been removed from the 8th grade curriculum in a Tennessee district due to nudity (it’s a graphic novel about the Holocaust featuring mice as the main characters) and a few “naughty words.”

Not pictured: Looking for Alaska
I gave it to a friend to read.

Notice: This post contains no spoilers. 

I ordered the book again (having left my first copy in my German classroom when I left the US), though I accidentally ordered the German version. Therefore I can’t speak to the “naughty words” other than assuming “verdammt” (damn) was a problem. And indeed, there is a drawing of a human in a bathtub – the author’s mother in a flashback scene – and two curved lines and dots amount to human breasts. In a drawing. These book-banners are unbelievable. Spiegelman’s graphic novel is a brilliant way to introduce young readers to the horror of the Holocaust. The fact that the Jews are mice and the Nazis cats softens the shock a bit for younger readers. But because of two breasts and a few swear words, this group of parents and/or school board members thinks the book should be removed.

From there I moved to the Handmaid’s Tale, which I found less shocking than I expected to. That one has been banned/challenged for profanity and “sexual overtones.” Those who aim to ban books haven’t been listening to their children or their children’s friends, have they? It's more than a little ironic that the book-banners don't object to the fact that an entire class of women are nothing more than breeding machines with no rights, but a few swear words put them on alert.

Looking for Alaska was the next one, having earned a spot on the Office of Intellectual Freedom's Top Ten Most Challenged Books list several years running. Challenged because of a sexually explicit scene that could lead readers to experiment and for profanity. I’m sorry to say I don’t even remember the sexually explicit scene. Very briefly put, it tells the story of several teenagers at a boarding school and the struggles of growing up. 

George, by Alex Gino, was my next banned book, having appeared as #1 on the above Top Ten list for the last 3 years in a row. This is a YA (young adult) novel about a child in grade school who was born a boy but is sure she is really a girl. It’s a story told from the point-of-view of a trans girl, and that apparently scares book-banners. One of the stated reasons for the challenge is that the book contains a transgender character. I think they fear that reading such a book might make a reader say, “Yes, that is the life I want for myself.” I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure that’s not the way it works.

My most recent book was The Kite Runner. I’d heard of it before but didn’t know anything about it. This multigenerational novel tells the story of two boys from Afghanistan: Amir and his family’s servant’s son Hassan. I got choked up on the last page, and that does not happen to me often. The objections to the book that I find most ridiculous are that it could promote Islam (several of the characters pray, some regularly) and that it contains homosexuality. It does NOT contain homosexuality, for heaven’s sake. There is a rape scene and both perpetrator and victim are boys. But that is not homosexuality. Do we describe a rape scene where the perpetrator and victim are different genders as “heterosexuality”? Honestly…

I’m now reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou, and feeling somewhat scornful of myself for not having read this earlier in my life.

The other books I have read so far this year, with the exception of Getting Along with the Germans, would very likely also be banned or challenged somewhere in the US because of “profanity.” It seems that the appearance of even one “goddamn,” “fucking,” or “holy shit” can get a book challenged by people who clearly don’t spend much time around the young readers they are pretending to protect from the realities of the world. 

I watched the part of a school board meeting in McKinney County, Texas in which students, parents, and teachers were invited to speak about a list of 282 books a set of parents wanted removed from the library shelves, and my jaw dropped several times. Already during the second speaker a man had to be thrown out for trying to shout her down for opposing the ban. Happily there were others who also spoke against the challenge. Here is an open letter from the author of one of those books, which I have on order. The letter fell on deaf ears because it was published before that school board meeting. What else would you expect?

One parent said he objects to his tax money paying for books he finds offensive to be on the shelves. I could almost understand that, until he said parents who don't object to those books should just go out and buy them. Some children can only read what the library provides because their parents cannot afford to order from Ama*on every time their child wants to read a book. How much of that first dad's tax contribution goes toward a $14 book? Or even 282 $14 books? He needs to sit down.

As one person on Twitter wrote, “Parents, your kids have access to the entire internet on their phones almost all day long. Books are not the problem.”


On the other hand, the best way to get kids to be interested in something is to tell them they shouldn’t be. The best way to get kids to read a book is to tell them it’s off limits.

But seriously. Stop banning books. Go to your child's library, give the librarian a list of the books your sheltered child is not permitted to read, and leave the rest of the world alone. Better yet, when your child wants to read a book, you read it also and talk about it together. Oh damn. I forgot. One of the challenges to the book George (see above) was that "schools and libraries should not 'put books in a child's hand that require discussion'." Good grief.

By the way, book banning is not a thing in Germany nowadays. It was once, but they've wisened up since then.