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June 21, 2008

Older Books are often worth reading

The Wolf of Masada (1978)
John Fredman

Voyage of the Damned (1974)
Gordon Thomas & Max Witts

Those familiar with my reviewing habits will recognize my penchant for reading/rereading out of print books. Recently I was reminded of two great books from the 70’s which are well worth the time. Both have multiple ISBN’s having been reissued over years.

Wolf” is historic fiction, but closely follows history known at the time of its original publication. It was precipitated by archaeological facts unearthed by a major, contemporaneous dig at Masada, and relied upon the only account of the fall of that historic site by Josephus—a Jewish commander who surrendered to and became a Roman in order to survive. He witnessed the event at the direction of the Emperor Vespasian, and wrote the history which touted Roman preeminence, manifest by the conquest of the Jews and Jerusalem (and honored by the construction of the Arch of Titus near the Forum in Rome.)

Yet, it was written with the spirit which made Masada the epic battle cherished by Jews for its intense symbolism. Simon ben Eleazar, the Wolf of Masada, had been many things over his eventful life: shepherd, slave, gladiator, centurion, and finally Roman general, fellow combatant, and friend of Vespasian before the latter became Emperor, and the former reclaimed and defended his Jewish lineage. No doubt much of that “history” is manufactured; still it is compatible of the few things known about Simon.

But, the history which matters most is the final chapter, the conquest of Herod’s impenetrable fortress at Masada by a determined Roman commander. He accomplished this only after construction of an enormous earthen ramp--which survives to this day--in order to overwhelm the fortress. On breaching the walls he found that the surviving Jews had sacrificed themselves rather than be taken prisoner to be enslaved and/or executed by the Romans. In so doing they authored the incredible event which was savored by, and which legacy sustained the Jews thru two millennia of exile from Jerusalem. Recall the lament of Jews: “next year in Jerusalem?” Herein is the origin of that sentimental promise.

It is one of the better books of its kind which you will find on this or any subject, and easily compares with the writings of the current best selling author, Bernard Cornwell.

Voyage” is an historic account of the S.S. St. Louis, a ship of the Hamburg-American Line, which carried nearly 1,000 forcefully expatriated Jews from Germany to Cuba to be relocated. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister correctly surmised that they would be refused entry, thus making German intention of “getting rid of these vermin” understandable and acceptable to—or at least not challenged by--the West. The refugees were rejected, by both the Cubans and the Americans-!! They were forced to return to Europe where the vast majority of them died or were exterminated in Nazi Death Camps. Neither Roosevelt’s nor America’s finest hour, to be sure. Perhaps worth recalling as the debate about Israel is discussed in the upcoming election.

Gustav Schroeder, captain of the ship on this voyage was more than displeased. First he was neither admirer nor member of the Nazi Reich, and was both sensitive to and supportive of the Jewish expats who were being humiliated and sacrificed by this endeavor. He was humbled as well by the fact that even in divestiture these Jews identified themselves as German. As a result of his endeavors he was “grounded” and lived out the remainder of his life in anonymity as an outcast in what became East Germany after the war. (He was interviewed for this book by an anonymous person to protect him.)

The book is a riveting account of the tribulations of those Jews on board, the efforts made on their behalf, and the machinations undertaken to foster their refusal by both the Nazi S.S. and principals of the several nations involved in their rejection . . . and return to all but certain death.

One is reminded—or informed—of the attitudes of the era, the anti-Semitism then and now, and the awesome evil that exists in the world, and has since at least the time of Eleazar.

In an epilog the authors recant the names of those interviewed, or at least contacted in their preparation of the account, and the fate of the passengers: those who lived and those who died . . . and the traumas experienced by the survivors.

Overall both are incredibly good reads, both for information, the humanity and inhumanity invoked in the narratives, and the history of Jews in the world.

Posted by respeto at June 21, 2008 12:48 PM