Archive for June, 2012

After my mother reads a book she often gives it away to someone who she thinks will enjoy it. She gave me Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay several months ago. The book was made into a movie. This movie was showed at the 2012 Phi Alpha Theta Regional Conference at Kutztown University – (the theme of the conference being ‘The Past as Setting: Historical Memory and Fiction of the Holocaust’). Although, I did not stay to watch it, it reminded me that I owned the book and decided to start reading it right away.

Sarah’s Key is a historical fiction novel taking place in the Paris of 2002 with flashbacks to the  Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in the Paris of 1942. Julia Jarmond is an American reporter living in Paris who is assigned to write an article on the 60th anniversary memorials of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Julia had no prior knowledge of what happened on July 16-17, 1942 in Paris. Most of the book alternates each chapter between Julia’s experience as she researches this topic and Sarah Starzynski, a young French girl living through the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in 1942.

Each chapter is rather short, and at first I thought it was annoying to alternate back and forth between narrators so often. However, like Julia’s character, I had no knowledge of what happened in Paris on July 16, 1942 and after discovering some of the atrocities that occurred it was actually a reprieve from the intensity of Sarah’s story when the narration returned to present day France. I felt that I could connect with Julia’s character as she discovered France’s ugly past during the Occupation because I too was learning this history for the first time.

The Nazi Occupation of France is not a past that France is proud of. Unfortunately, many of the atrocities that took place in France are not often discussed.  The Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup was an event in which French police under Nazi direction arrested over 13,000 Jews, mostly women and children, and sent them to a large indoor bicycle track, the Vélodrome d’hiver. After several days of appallingly unsanitary conditions all prisoners were shipped to one of several internment camps within France. Men, women and children were separated and eventually all were sent to concentration camps in Germany. None ever returned.

As Julia is researching these events she uncovers the story of Sarah Starzynski, who is arrested along with her family during the roundup. She manages to hide her little brother in a cupboard to escape imprisonment. Her parents had kept her relatively in the dark and naive as to what was going on. She thought she would be coming back for her brother. The story takes us on the journey through Sarah’s imprisonment and her eventual escape. By the time she is able to get back to her home in Paris she realizes she is too late. The story is very sad and very intense. Although it is a fictional tale, the true stories of what happened to very real people can be no less horrific.

I was surprised to read some of the mixed reviews that this book had. I thought it was a great book and I would recommend it. I rate this book at 5/5 stars.

On July 16, 1995 Jacques Chirac acknowledged the role that the state had played:

“These dark hours will forever soil our history, and are injurious to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal insanity of the occupier was seconded by the French, by the French state. (…) France, home of the Enlightenment and of Human Rights, land of refuge and asylum, France, upon that day, committed an irreparable act. Breaking her word, she delivered her charges to their executioner”.

Learn move about the Vélodrome d’hiver Round-up here.


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On April 21, 2012 I presented a paper at the Phi Alpha Theta Regional Conference at Kutztown University.  My paper, “Sauer’s World in the Broader Context,” is a discussion about migration from Germany and experiences upon arrival in Pennsylvania of the colonial printer Christopher Sauer.

Here is Kutztown University’s website dedicated to this conference: http://faculty.kutztown.edu/ejohnson/PAT2012/

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Slaughterhouse Five is one of those books that encourages thought long after you finish reading it. This book has been banned from public schools in the past for its controversial themes. It is a notorious anti-war book. How can a person learn of the horrible destruction of innocent life in Dresden, Germany and not see how devastating and ugly war can really be. Some people think war is glorious. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that the veterans who “hated the war the most, were the ones who’d really fought” (Slaughterhouse Five, 11).Those who have truly lived through war do not find glory in it.

The story line is all over the place: World War II Dresden, present day (1960’s when written), and on the extraterrestrial planet, Tralfamadore. Here is the book’s description from Wikipedia because I wouldn’t be able to explain it better.

Chaplain’s Assistant Billy Pilgrim is a disoriented, fatalistic, and ill-trained American soldier. He does not like wars and he is captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans put Billy and his fellow prisoners in a disused slaughterhouse (although there are animal carcasses hanging in the underground shelter) in Dresden. Their building is known as “Slaughterhouse number 5”. The POWs and German guards alike hide in a deep cellar; because of their safe hiding place, they are some of the few survivors of the city-destroying firestorm during the Bombing of Dresden in World War II.

Billy has come “unstuck in time” and experiences past and future events out of sequence and repetitively, following a nonlinear narrative. He is kidnapped by extraterrestrial aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. They exhibit him in a zoo with B-movie starlet Montana Wildhack as his mate. The Tralfamadorians, who can see in four dimensions, have already seen every instant of their lives. They say they cannot choose to change anything about their fates, but can choose to concentrate upon any moment in their lives, and Billy becomes convinced of the veracity of their theories.

As Billy travels—or believes he travels—forward and backward in time, he relives occasions of his life, real and fantasy. He spends time on Tralfamadore, in Dresden, in the War, walking in deep snow before his German capture, in his mundane post-war married life in the U.S.A. of the 1950s and early 1960s, and in the moment of his murder by a petty thief named Paul Lazzaro.

Kurt Vonnegut

Billy Pilgrim asks ‘why?’ Why does war occur? Why does anything happen? Kurt Vonnegut uses Billy’s trip to outer space to discuss this matter. The aliens insist that the idea of free will is unique to earth and that all other planets accept destiny as unquestionable truth. Billy questions why war must exist. This question is never really answered, but the conclusion discovered is that even without war death still comes for all making it an event in one’s life not so dissimilar to any other event in anyone’s life.

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes” (Slaughterhouse Five 26-27).

This concept cannot be discussed lightly. Although the science fiction aspect makes the book somewhat hard to describe to someone who hasn’t read it, I thought taking this approach makes the reader have to expand their imagination enough that just maybe they will also be more conducive to contemplating their own purpose and death.  To get the average person reading a fiction novel to think about these things is ingenious. Vonnegut was obviously successful; this book was banned for quite a while to protect impressionable school children from the evils of anti-war philosophy. Rated 4/5 stars.

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The dominant theory in American migration studies for the past several decades has been that the Clovis were the first people cross into the New World from Asia during the last ice age about 13,500 BCE. A few months ago I posted about the Lapa Do Santo petroglyph discovered in Brazil in 2009. It was dated to about 9,000-12,000 years ago, making it the oldest petroglyph found in South America (read more about it here). Discoveries like this have caused disagreements with the Clovis first theory.

Image: Brendan Leach, New York Times

There have been several sites which initially were dated to far earlier than Clovis, but quite often the dating is contested. Such as the Chilean Monte Verde site. This site is older than any known Clovis site and is also much further south. The speed and ease with which people were able to migrate is also debated.

It finally appears that a significant number of American archaeologists, lagging behind their S. American and European counterparts, have accepted that the Clovis were most likely not the first people to migrate to the New World.

There have been several articles lately discussing this dismissing of ‘Clovis first’. Both Archaeology Magazine and the New York Times report about the Buttermilk Creek site in central Texas which predates Clovis:

There, in perfect stratigraphical alignment, archaeologists found the remains of tools left behind by different Archaic period hunter-gatherers sitting above those of various Paleoindian cultures. The team believes the oldest layer, containing 20,000 pieces made of chert, a sedimentary rock—with roughly 100 discernable tools such as blades, choppers, and end scrapers—dates to 15,500 years ago, 2,500 years before
Clovis technology.

The assemblage found at Buttermilk Creek does not resemble those at several previously found pre-Clovis sites, such as the 14,500-year-old tools from Monte Verde in southern Chile. Its incorporation of bifacial and bladelet technology does recall Clovis culture, suggesting a lineage between the two. “There’s a logical expectation that somewhere in North America we are going to find something that can be called proto-Clovis,” says Stuart Fiedel, an archaeologist at the Louis Berger Group in Richmond, Virginia. Source: Nikhil Swaminathan, Archaeology Magazine.

Chert tools from Buttermilk Creek date to 15,500 years ago and some show evidence of bifacial technology. Photo: Michael R. Waters

Agreeing that the were Clovis most likely were not the first people to have migrated to America, this doesn’t mean that archaeologists have come up with any definitive answers yet. In fact, the mystery has enlarged because the puzzle has just broken into more pieces. We still aren’t sure who the Clovis people really were, let alone who preceded them. Material evidence and genetic studies hold the key to this mystery, if only we  can find enough of it.

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Phi Alpha Theta

On December 7, 2011 I was inducted into Phi Alpha Theta National History Honor Society. The induction ceremony was in April 2012 at Millersville University.

Phi Alpha Theta website: http://phialphatheta.org/

The Historian Journal (put out by PAT): http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-6563.2011.00315.x/full My name appears as a new inductee in the Spring 2012 (vol. 74.1) issue of the journal.

Phi Alpha Theta Millersville University chapter inductees. I am the 3rd person in the front row in purple shirt.

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