In Which a Reader Asks a Question, and I Go Searching for the Answer

One of the delights of writing this blog is correspondence with like-minded people who have questions or thoughts about my posts. It is always a treat.

In response to my last post, a reader with whom I often correspond asked a question I had never even considered: If Jewish American or Jewish British or Jewish French soldiers were captured by the Germans, were they sent to a concentration camp for extermination or to a regular POW camp? *

I did a quick check through my usual sources. Nothing. I asked My Own True Love if he had knew.** He didn’t—though he agreed that it was a great question. Finally, I turned to a source that hasn't failed me yet: the reference librarians at the Pritzker Military Library.*** They had an answer for me in an hour and a half.

Sadly, the answer is that the Nazis did single out Jewish soldiers. The United States Army made it easy to identify Jewish soldiers by marking a solder’s religious preference on his dog tag: C for Catholic, H for Hebrew,**** P for Protestant. According to an oral history in the Pritzker collection, the Nazis didn’t bother checking dog tags. They simply asked Jewish soldiers to identify themselves.

Soldiers identified as Jewish, or even potentially Jewish, were separated from other America prisoners and sent to the slave labor camp at Berga, which had the highest death rate of any of the POW camps, or to the extermination camps.

More information is available in a book titled Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler’s Camps.  I haven’t read it, but it has good reviews.


Thanks to Dr. Gene for a great question. And to Pritzker librarian Leah Cohen for the sobering answer.


*You people are smart!

**He knows a lot more about World War II than I do. Or at least different things.

***If you are interested in military history, you should be aware of the Pritzker. They have interesting exhibits (the current exhibits are on women’s service organizations in WWII and WWI posters-both subjects dear to my heart), a solid research collection, an enormous collection of war posters, and kick-ass reference librarians. They collect veteran’s stories in an oral history program, Stories of Service. They also host excellent speakers. Even before the current troubles, they streamed many of their programs live.  I have spent many a happy evening in front of my computer with my knitting and a notebook, listening to experts talk about their passions.

****Obviously problematic

Beyond Belief

I am currently taking notes on a pile of secondary source that I read over the last few months. I stuffed them full of sticky tabs as I went and moved on. On the surface, it’s not the most efficient way to do research, and I don’t always have the time to do it. But when time allows, I find it tremendously valuable. Coming back to the material a second time with a fresh eye and more information allows me to make connections that I didn’t make the first time. Re-reading is like re-writing as far as I’m concerned. It’s where the magic happens.

I just finished my second pass on Deborah Lipstadt’s Beyond Belief: the American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945. The first time through it didn’t even occur to me share it with you.* And yet, and yet: it is important, not only for understanding how Americans could have remained ignorant of the Holocaust at the time, but also as a starting point for the mindset that makes today’s charges and counter-charges of “fake news” possible.

The work had its roots in the classroom. After Lipstadt told her class that detailed information about the Nazi attempt to exterminate European Jews had been available to the Allies very early in the war, one of her students angrily responded “But what did the public—not just the people in high places—know? How much of this information reached them? Could my parents, who read the paper every day, have known?”

Lipstadt argued that a great deal of information was available. American reporters who were stationed in Germany until the United States entered the war had reported on the Nazis in detail, including information about Germany’s persecution of the Jews.

The student wasn’t convinced. “No,” he said. “I can’t believe people could have read about all this in their daily papers.”

Beyond Belief began as Lipstadt’s attempt to prove that she was right. Her final conclusion, which she offers to the student in her acknowledgements: “I was right, but so were you.”

The book consists of a detailed look at who reported what and when, what their editors did with it after they reported it,** and how readers responded. Some of the most powerful portions of the book, and the ones that I think are most important for us today, discuss what Lipstadt describes as “the barriers to belief.” The most critical of these was a legacy from World War I. Stories of German atrocities were reported in the first World War that later proved to be false. The result was an attitude of what journalist and historian William Shirer called “supercynicism and superskepticism” about reports of atrocities. As a group, Americans said “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” unfortunately, this time the stories were true.

Be warned, Beyond Belief is not an easy read. Lipstadt’s style is clear, but her work is dense with data. Nonetheless, I found it a worthwhile read for reasons well beyond my current research.


*I don’t normally discuss purely academic works of history here in the Margins. They have a different purpose and a different audience and occasionally just plain hard to read.

**Important stories often got buried deep in newspapers. Editors (and sometimes reporters) added seeds of doubt to the reported stories. And some papers didn’t run the stories at all.










Back to the Basics

Every time I start writing a new book, I intend to read or re-read books about the craft of writing as I work. (The practice evaporates about two weeks into each project.) For the current book, I actually pulled all the books I wanted to read off the shelf and stacked them on the floor next to my reading chair, where they sat as a reproachful monument to good intentions.

Earlier this week I led a Zoom discussion about writing history for the American Society of Journalists and Authors as part of their virtual conference. In the course of preparing, I pulled those books about writing non-fiction and dipped in and out, reading the passages I’d marked as inspiring or thought-provoking or simply irritating.* (Yes, I am a barbarian and mark up books as I read. It’s my way of having a conversation with the author)

It turned out to be a useful exercise, not only in preparing for the Zoom discussion, but as a manageable version of my idealized reading project. I sought out passages I remembered. I stumbled onto passages I had forgotten. I made a list of tips and ideas and anecdotes to share with the participants in my Zoom discussion.

The heart of what I had to say came down to three ground rules:

1. You can’t make stuff up.

Which is not to say that you can’t engage in imaginative re-construction based on what you do know as long as you tell the reader that’s what you’re doing. In fact, historians depend on some variation of “We don’t know whether ————, but it seems likely and this is why.” The authors of two of the most exciting works of history that I have read in recent months take this one step further. (Reviews of both are coming to a blog post near you at some point in the future.) They envision a scene, and then step back to discuss the evidence on which they based the scene. I’m not sure I have the chops to pull that off.

2. You can’t leave stuff out if it will change your story, your conclusions, or way we view your main character in significant ways.

3. You need to keep a grasp on the chronology, both in your head and on the page.  Even if you abandon a straight line from beginning to end--and realistically, every story requires at least one side trip--you need to leave your readers clues that allow them to orient themselves in time.  As a reader, I hate it when I think "Wait a minute, when is this?"

Nothing surprising here, but sometimes it's good to remind ourselves of the basics.

Today my non-fiction library is going back on the shelf. Job accomplished.

*I am embarrassed to admit that it didn’t occur to me until this morning to look at earlier issues of my newsletter: twice a month for almost five years I’ve written about thinking and writing about history. *headsmack* If this is something you might be interested in, here’s a link to a recent issue: