Vladka Meed Part 7: The Red Army

In February 1943, two months before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Russians defeated the Germans in the Battle of Stalingrad.

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The Battle of Stalingrad; still from the Soviet film The Story of Stalingrad showing rocket missiles being fired at German positions. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. © IWM (HU 90999)

With this, the tide of the war slowly but steadily turned against the German forces. By the summer of 1944, the Red Army was quickly advancing across Eastern Europe, pushing the Germans into retreat. The Eastern Front drew close and closer to Warsaw. The sounds of battle could be heard in the streets. The Poles hoped that these sounds meant that the German occupiers would soon be defeated and forced into retreat. This hope grew into an enthusiasm so strong that the city hovered on the edge of open rebellion.

For the Coordinating Committee, this introduced a new set of logistical challenges. Those Jews hidden in the suburbs had to return to the perceived safety of the city. As open battle was likely to sever contact between the Coordinating Committee and the underground Jews across Warsaw who depended on them, couriers worked overtime, distributing money and rations.

On the personal level, Benjamin and Vladka decided that it was best to move in together, rather than risk separation in the chaos of battle. “‘We must not be separated now,’ he had declared. It was good to know that he was always close, that we shared the same deep feelings for each other. This knowledge sustained us as we rushed from task to task, keeping in touch with associates, digging trenches in the streets” in preparation for the defense of civilian areas.

Some hoped, or assumed, that as the branches of Polish underground parties rose up against the Germans, the Red Army would march into the city and reinforce their lines. The Armja Krajowa and the Polish government-in-exile, however, hoped to rise against the Germans and liberate the city before the Red Army could march in.1 This was part of Operation Tempest, a series of operations organized between the Polish-government-in-exile and the Armja Krajowa to seize control of Occupied Poland before the Red Army could march in. If the Operation was successful, the Poles would be able to meet the Red Army as equals, not as grateful, liberated civilians. In short, Operation Tempest existed to defend Poland from both the Germans and the Soviets.2

The Polish government-in-exile authorized the Armja Krajowa to begin the fight to liberate Warsaw on July 25, 1944. Eight days later, on August 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising began. Factory sirens, gunfire, and shouts of “Na Szwaba! Na Szwaba!”—Attack the damned Germans!—filled the air. People—Vladka and Benjamin among them—poured out of every doorway into
the streets and began to erect barricades to block German tanks.

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Soldiers of the No. 2 Platoon, 4th Company of the Polish Home Army in the courtyard of the captured Police Headquarters on 1 Krakowskie Przedmieście in Warsaw, 23 August 1944. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. © IWM (HU 31075)

While the Armja Krajowa was the largest Polish underground military with the most resources and the greatest access to the government-in-exile, they were not the only
Polish Underground organization to play an active role in the Warsaw Uprising. Other Polish underground military organizations which fought in the Warsaw Uprising include the Democratic Socialist P.A.L. (Polska Armja Ludowa, or, the Polish People’s Army), and the Communist Armja Ludowa (People’s Army). Jews fought in all of these units, the majority of them with either the P.A.L, or the Armja Ludowa—these organizations had far fewer anti-Semitic elements in their ranks than the Armja Krajowa. Jews fought in every phase of the Warsaw Uprising, serving as soldiers, officers, doctors, and nurses.

As Jews and Poles alike fought with the resistance forces and toiled in the streets, Vladka mused to herself, “How strange that these sweat-drenched young Poles laboring…shoulder to shoulder with us in the common cause of liberation were the same callous and sometimes vicious Poles who had caused us so much pain and sorrow! But this was no time to think—there was work to be done.”

The resistance forces fought with confidence, positive that the Red Army was on its way to relieve and liberate the city. Though they had a clear advantage in weaponry, the Germans lacked the manpower to immediately suppress the uprising. Himmler dispatched additional troops to Warsaw on August 3, and again on August 5, ordering the troops to kill all of the inhabitants of the city.

Meanwhile, the rapidly approaching Soviet offensive halted twelve miles outside of Praga—a suburb about two miles away from the Old City district of Warsaw. It would not resume its westward march until September 11.

When the German reinforcements arrived, they mounted daily bombing campaigns. By August 17, parts of the city lay in ruins. While terrifying and devastating for Polish civilians, this posed perhaps the most danger to the Jews in hiding around the city.

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A Polish civilian woman leaves the building through the hole knocked in the wall. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.© IWM (HU 105729)

As the German bombs destroyed residential buildings, formerly hidden Jews were exposed to the still hostile
outside world, some of them for the first time in years. As these terrified Jews ran for new hideouts, clustering in the buildings where Coordinating Committee personnel were known to live, surprised Gentiles remarked, “there are Jews here!…Where does this pestilence come from? They were supposed to have been finished long ago.”

In the ranks of the Armja Krajowa, commanders assigned Jews to the most dangerous tasks, while their gentile “comrades” would often shoot them in the back for their troubles. AK guards accused Jews found hiding of being German spies. On some occasions, the AK guards would take a breather from their battle against the Nazis to beat these underground Jews, proclaiming that there would be no place for Jews in a liberated Poland—it was to be judenrein.

By August 24, 37,500 were dead. The Red Army resumed its march on September 11. The Polish Underground State briefly gained control over most of Warsaw on September 14. The Germans retreated as Praga fell to the Red Army, but continued their bombardment of the city. The Poles lost ground as the fighting intensified, and the Soviets—actively encouraging the Polish
underground to stage an uprising in Warsaw since beginning their westward march—did nothing.3

The Germans regained control over most of Warsaw on September 24, eventually reducing the Polish perimeter to little more than a few blocks. On October 2, Warsaw surrendered, with AK command broadcasting to the city that they were capitulating. At this time, approximately 12,000 Jews remained alive in the city, while more than 180,000 people—Jews, Poles, fighters, and civilians—perished in the Uprising.

The Poles defeated, Himmler ordered his troops to destroy what remained of Warsaw, even though, by then, it was clear that Germany had lost the war.

Warsaw In ruins, January 1945. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.© IWM (HU 31081)

The statue of Christ in front of the ruins of the Holy Cross Church on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, Warsaw. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. © IWM (HU 105734)

German troops were still destroying the city a few hours before the Red Army marched in on January 17, 1945.

In those three months between the October suppression of the Warsaw Uprising, and the January entrance of the Red Army, Warsaw’s surviving Jews were in crisis, every day struggling to stay alive. Vladka and Benjamin were hiding in a bunker he had dug out in the cellars of ruined buildings. Some Jews did their best to disappear into the columns of soldiers and civilians fleeing the city, while others fled to join the ranks of the Red Army, and others still hid in cellars, surrounded by Jewish and Polish corpses.

Wounded soldiers of the Home Army help each other through the ruins of Warsaw after the Uprising’s surrender, October 1944. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.© IWM (HU 105728)

The Coordinating Committee was still in operation. Even in these most desperate of circumstances, Mikolai and Henryk continued to distribute American dollars to those in need. Yet, they had little help to offer to their remaining operatives, and most of the couriers had already fled the city.

Vladka and Benjamin agonized over the decision for days, knowing that they had little hope of eluding the Nazis outside of Warsaw without an organizational framework behind them. But, ultimately, they chose to flee. They turned their bunker over to a group of friends and comrades who planned to remain in the city.

It was raining on the day Vladka and Benjamin left Warsaw. Civilians pushing carts and lugging bundles on their backs hurried past. Their friends met them at the bunker. They looked at each other in silence, until someone said, quietly, “You had better hurry along.” Another friend, Clara Falk told them, “When you come back, don’t forget to get us out of the bunker—dead or alive.”

Choking back tears, Vladka struggled to find the right words. Finally, an old expression from the days of the ghetto came to mind. Forcing past the lump in her throat Vladka turned to the group. “Hang on kid,” she told them, harkening back to those old days, “hang on.’”


1 If you’ll recall, the Polish government-in-exile operated out of London.
2 However, the plan assumed that the retreating Germans would be too weak to defend their Polish holdings, and that the Red Army would acknowledge the Poles’ right to the land if they defeated the Germans before Soviet arrival. Neither of these assumptions were based in reality, especially as Stalin refused to recognize the Polish government-in-exile or any party acting on its behalf.
3 In Stalin’s eyes, an Uprising orchestrated by the Polish Home Army would kill both Germans, and those Poles willing to risk their lives for a free Poland; both a potential threat to Soviet designs on the future of “liberated” Poland.

Vladka Meed Part 4: Uprising

A Nazi column under the command of SS Senior Colonel Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg marched into the Warsaw Ghetto early on the morning of Monday, April 19, 1943. Inside, the column found itself looking out on nothing but empty streets. And then, out of nowhere, grenades began to rain down from above and explode within the Nazis’ unsuspecting ranks.

Earlier that morning, ZOB sentries watched from their attic posts as the Nazis prepared to march into the ghetto, and sent word to Command via courier. Upon receiving the report, Mordecai Anielewicz ordered the fighting squads to their attic posts, as couriers crisscrossed the ghetto, alerting the civilians. The civilians descended into their bunkers as the 750
fighters—500 from the ZOB and 250 from the ZZW, now collaborating with the ZOB—ascended to their attic posts. Each was armed with a revolver, 10-15 rounds of ammunition, and 5 homemade grenades.

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Map courtesy of Yad Vashem.

As the grenades exploded around them and bullets rained down, von Sammern ordered his troops to retreat.

Earlier that year, Himmler had sent SS General Jurgen Stroop to Warsaw as reinforcement for von Sammern. After the retreat, von Sammern paid Stroop a frantic visit. All was lost, he said; the Jews had guns, his troops were in retreat, and their forces had already suffered casualties. Stroop called Himmler, who was enraged; Von Sammern had led the failed January roundup, and had made no mention of the presence of an armed Jewish resistance in his reports.2 Himmler dismissed von Sammern on the spot and ordered that all troops be withdrawn from the ghetto. They were to reenter the ghetto, Himmler continued, within two hours under the command of General Stroop.

Outside the ghetto, extra guards were in place surrounding the ghetto wall, making it all but impenetrable. The streets running alongside the ghetto were blocked and patrolled by German police. Ambulances transporting injured Nazis rushed in and out. And Vladka felt the earth shudder beneath her feet as deafening blasts emitted from the ghetto.

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Three captured resistance fighters. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

 

The Uprising had begun, and Vladka was trapped on the Aryan side.

They—including Vladka’s future husband, Benjamin Miedzyrzecki—gathered in one of the Coordinating Committee’s member’s, Samsonowicz’s, apartment to form a plan. They wanted to, somehow, break through the German lines and get into the ghetto. Mikolai reached out to his contacts in the Polish underground for help breaking in. Later that night, Abrasha Blum
placed a call to Mikolai. “All the groups of the Fighting Organization are participating in the struggle,” he said. “It’s all very well disciplined and organized…For the time being there have been only a few casualties among our fighters. There are more casualties among the Germans,” Abrasha told him.

Abrasha called back two days later. “Michal Klepfisz is dead,” he told them. “He fell in the fighting. We are short of ammunition. We need arms.” And the line went silent.

On April 20, Stroop, unfortunately making a quick study of the ZOB defense strategy, ordered his troops to burn every home in the ghetto. As the Nazis burned their way through the outskirts of the ghetto, they slowly became aware of the bunkers. Now, instead of just burning houses, they had to burn every building in the ghetto in order uncover the bunkers. In turn, the ZOB had to alter its strategy: the ghetto fighters were now fighting to defend both the ghetto, and those hidden in the bunkers.

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A bunker interior. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem. 

Indeed, by this point in the Uprising, the bunkers functioned as both hiding places for the civilians, and as fortresses for the fighters. By the fourth day, conditions in the bunkers were not good. As the ghetto burned, those in the bunkers suffered from the terrible heat. The air was so bad that it was almost impossible to light a candle. They were cut off from their water and electrical connections, their food supplies were destroyed in the heat, and chemical fumes from the foundations of the buildings made breathing all the more difficult.

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Ghetto fighters, forced out of their bunker. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.

Outside, Vladka and her colleagues made no progress. The Polish underground was useless, and they still had no way to break in. “Our thoughts were constantly with the fighters in the ghetto. All our plans seemed to have come to naught…Restless and depressed, we idled about the Polish streets, trying to establish contact with the ghetto.”

Adding to their stress was the Polish response. The Poles happily watched the resistance, impressed by the effort, going so far as to refer to the Uprising as “Ghettograd,” after the prolonged siege of Leningrad. They were so impressed that they had trouble believing that the “miserable Jews” had been able to organize a resistance without outside support. “They must have some of our officers over there,” the Poles insisted. “Our men must have organized the resistance.” Some Poles expressed sympathy for the Jews alongside their amazement: “although the victims were Jews, there are after all human beings.”3 However, none of these outpourings of near-admiration motivated the Gentiles to extend any form of
practical assistance to the ghetto.

On the fifth day of the Uprising, Stroop ordered his troops to focus on finding and destroying the bunkers. If they could not reach a bunker, they were to detonate the bunker and burn the house attached to it.

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Jews captured in the Uprising led past burning houses to the deportation point. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Hundreds died in the flames and heat. When Nazis found and entered a bunker, its inhabitants refused to leave. They answered the Nazis with bullets, and the homemade grenades and Molotov cocktails; not surrender.

On the sixth day, Vladka managed to get close to the ghetto. She paid a visit to the Dubiels, whose house lay just outside the ghetto wall. The ghetto was fully visible from their window. Vladka hoped to find a way to make contact with the ghetto from their house, even though the Dubiels assured her that that was impossible.

From their window, Vladka looked into the ghetto. She saw a woman trying to escape from a burning house. The Nazis shot her dead as she tried to jump from her second-floor balcony. On the third floor, two ZOB fighters emerged. They fired a few rounds at the Nazis, and then retreated.

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A burning section of the Ghetto. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem. 

Vladka remained at the window the rest of the day and through the night in a state of shock. “Dawn came quiet and ghastly,” she wrote, “revealing the burned-out shells of buildings, the charred, bloodstained bodies of the victims…one of those bodies began to move, slowly…crawling on its belly until it disappeared into the smoking ruins. Others…began to show signs of life. But the enemy was…on the alert. There was a spatter of machine-gun fire—and all was lifeless again.”

Forty-eight years later, in 1991, Vladka recounted what she experienced that night to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

“While being there at night, I saw the flames of the ghetto. And I saw also certain pictures which were seared in my mind. Some Jews running from one place to the other and also seeing some Jews jumping from buildings, but I was observing this from a window and I couldn’t do anything. And then flames burst into the ghetto. The Germans couldn’t take over the streets, they start putting block after block on fire. They start burning the…buildings, and this was the uprising which we…the small group on the Aryan side, we tried to get through. We tried to communicate. We decided even to go into…the ghetto to be with them but it was, everything was in vain. We didn’t have any communication. We saw only tanks coming in, tanks going out…”

On the eighth day, the Germans began to use poison gas. They released it into the water mains and sewer canals where civilians and ZOB fighters—flushed out of the houses and bunkers—were hiding. On April 28, the fighters retreated deeper in the ghetto, into the houses the Nazis had not yet burned and the undiscovered bunkers. The Nazis followed, burning deeper into the ghetto, leveling each and every building. They used flamethrowers, tear gas, and hand grenades to forces fighters out of hiding, and released poison gas into the tunnels by night.

Outside the ghetto, the underground issued an appeal in the name of the ghetto. Vladka brought the manuscript to a store which served as their “drop,” and later picked up the printed copies.

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The ZOB appeal. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.

Written in Polish and signed by the ZOB, the appeal stressed the heroism of the fighters and the ferocity of the struggle. “We will avenge the crimes of Dachau, Treblinka and Auschwitz,” the appeal proclaimed. “The struggle for your freedom and ours continues.” But again, it came to nothing.

On May 1 Stroop determined that it was impossible to subdue the bunkers. On May 6 the Nazis returned to houses they had already burned, and searched the ruins for Jews. As of May 11, there were still actively fighting Jews hidden in the sewers, and the ruins of the ghetto. On May 18, hundreds of Jews were still hidden in the bunkers, the burned buildings, the tunnels, and the sewers. Stroop continued to report skirmishes and heavy fighting through May 30. On June 2 he reported that “it seemed as if the situation in the ghetto had become worse.” His troops bombed the sewer canals and blocked the exits. Only approximately 70 ZOB fighters escaped through the sewers without being trapped or murdered.4

Armed Jews were still active in the ruins of the Ghetto as late as October, 1943.

In all, 750 Jewish fighters defied approximately 2,054 German soldiers and 36 officers with armored vehicles, tanks, canons, flamethrowers, armored cars, canons and machine guns.

 

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Clandestine photograph the ruins of the ghetto, taken late, 1943. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

“We on the ‘Aryan side’ were bursting with admiration for them,” Vladka wrote, ”but, we were consumed also by a sense of guilt at being outside the Ghetto, in relative safety, while they were fighting and dying. We should have been there with them, amid the roaring fires and the crashing walls.”

1 INTERCHANGING MIND CONTROL/COME LET THE/REVOLUTION TAKE ITS TOLL/IF YOU COULD/FLICK A SWITCH AND OPEN YOUR THIRD EYE/YOU’D SEE THAT/WE SHOULD NEVER BE AFRAID TO DIE/SO COME ON
2 His preparations for the April, 1943 roundups, however, suggest that he was very much ready for an armed confrontation, as he assembled a larger concentration of police and army troops than had been used in the deportations of summer 1942.
3 And the Germans were embarrassed. A few days into the Uprising, Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary that: “…a really grotesque situation has arisen in Warsaw…notably hard battles between our police…parts of the army, and the rebelling Jews….the Jews had managed to fortify the ghetto in order to defend it…it has even reached the point where the Jewish senior command issues daily military bulletins… this emphasizes only too well what one can expect from these Jews when they have weapons in their hands. Unfortunately they also have good German weapons and particularly machine guns. Only God knows how they obtained them.”
4 If this image of some young desperate ghetto fighters trying to escape from the burning ghetto through sewers tunnels doesn’t immediately make you want to stage a production of Les Mis against the backdrop of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, then you have no soul and I have nothing to say to you. Cossette is a secret Jew and Val Jean is the only one who knows because he’s been raising her as a Catholic since Fantine died [“Come to Me’]. But the Thenardiers are “Aryan” underworld figures and they want to cash in on it [“Plumet Attack”]. Eponine is a Socialist allied with the Bund, and she crossed the ghetto wall to warn Marius—who was a Bund operative on the Aryan side for a time which is how he and Cossette met —about the approaching Nazis, but she’s shot while crossing the wall [“A Little Fall of Rain”]. Later, Val Jean breaks into the ghetto and rescues an unconscious Marius from a sewer tunnel as the Nazis release the poison gas and carries him through the sewers to the Aryan side as Thenardier is robbing corpses of ghetto fighters [“Bring Him Home/”Dog
Eats Dog”]. And while the Uprising is happening, some Gentiles are all like [“Turning”]. Also, Javert is a Polish policeman and he throws himself into a fire in the ghetto [“Javert’s Suicide”]. I’m still figuring out the rest of Act 1.

Vladka Meed Part 3: Vladka, on the Wall, with Dynamite

As the couriers on the “Aryan” side continued on their work, the ZOB received intelligence indicating that the Nazis were preparing for another round of deportations. The ZOB urged the ghetto to resist. Its members papered every surface with signs reading: “Jewish masses! The hour is close. You must be ready to resist. Do not go to your slaughter as sheep. Not even one Jew is to go to the train…We should all be ready to die as human beings.”

On the morning of January 18, 1943, 200 Germans and 800 Ukrainians marched into the ghetto.

With the same tactics they used in the summer of 1942, they rounded up thousands more Jews and shepherded them to the Umschlagplatz. What the Nazis did not know was that, this time, the ghetto was prepared. Mordecai Anielewicz and twelve ghetto fighters under his command quietly infiltrated the lines of deportees. When Anielewicz gave the signal, the thirteen fighters opened fire on the guards. All of the deportees escaped in the ensuing chaos. Some even stayed behind to fight the Nazi with their bare hands. Fighting continued for four days, at which point the Germans, unprepared for an organized Jewish resistance, retreated.1

Three months before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began in earnest, the ZOB was already organized and ready to fight. A few weeks prior to the January Uprising, one of Vladka’s missions brought her into the Ghetto. Along the way, she ran into Lusiek Blones, one of the youngest members of the ZOB at just thirteen years of age. He led her to ZOB headquarters: “I trailed after him, crawling through lofts, up and down stairs, and in and out of holes…this devious route…was safer than the streets. Bruised and grimy, we reached our destination, a run-down, fourth-floor flat.”

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A group of young Jewish smugglers in the ghetto, 1942. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Inside, Abrasha briefed her on the state of affairs. The ZOB had become the de facto authority in the ghetto as both the ghetto fighters and the “civilians” prepared for open
combat.2 The ZOB urged the “civilians” to construct hiding places—typically underground bunkers—where they could remain, safely and comfortably, even though a protracted siege. The best of these hiding places had bunks, sanitary arrangements, medical supplies, non-perishable food, links to the municipal electric and water supplies, access to fresh air, and access to tunnels leading out of the ghetto.

The bunkers, their entrances, and their underground connections formed a complex maze below the ghetto. Meanwhile, Command divided the volunteer fighters into individual fighting units, each retaining the framework of the youth groups in order to keep morale high. Each group was stationed in the attic of a residential building, and, from these posts, were
to attack the Germans. As most of the residential buildings in the ghetto stood at between three and five stories tall, the fighters placed ladders between the attic windows of neighboring buildings, constructing an overhead passageway of sorts. These passageways, combined with the fighters’ intimate knowledge of the ghetto’s built environment—the buildings, factories, and passages between windows above and the cellars, bunkers, and passages below—allowed the ZOB to function within a complex maze impenetrable to the Nazis. As the fighters had no formal military training, let alone training in urban warfare, this impenetrability formed the core of the ZOB’s defensive strategy.

Despite this enormous progress, ZOB remained in dire need of arms, and no good news was coming from the Coordinating Committee. “We are on our own…the world doesn’t want to hear about what’s happening to us…The ghetto is as good as isolated,” Abrasha lamented during one of Vladka’s visits to the ghetto. And another one of her comrades, Yurek Blones, was frustrated. On a trip to the “Aryan” side, he lost his temper: “We, the Fighting Organization, are…constantly on guard; there could be a roundup any minute. Weapons—that is our greatest need!…Are we actually to be left defenseless?” He kept asking, his voice breaking, “Tell me, why are they helping us so little?” No one on the Coordinating Committee had an answer; they knew the isolation and hooplessness all too well.3

The couriers fantasized about being able to produce their own weapons, but that possibility seemed so far out reach. Yet, one night, an oddly excited Michal met Vladka in the cellar
at Gornoszlonska 3. He was carrying a chemistry book. He flung it open and began to read to her from a section regarding the results of mixing potash, hydrochloric acid, cyanide, sugar, and gasoline. This was the formula for a homemade bomb. If it worked, if they could pull this off, they could be self-sufficient and freed from their reliance on dangerous and
unwieldy underground channels. Vladka purchased the chemical components, and they mixed the solution when their landlords were out. They tested their homemade weapons in the lime kiln of Stanislaw Dubiel’s factory. “With a powerful explosion the bottle shattered and the liquid inside burst into blinding flame. We had scored a success!”

They immediately got to work. Michal climbed the wall and organized a series of small “munition plants” inside the ghetto.4 On the “Aryan” side, the couriers traveled far and wide to acquire the chemical components without rousing any suspicions. They sometimes had to transport the checmicals across the city by horse-cart. If discovered, it would mean death. Until the couriers could smuggle the chemicals into the ghetto, they slept with them—the cyanide, the hydrochloric acid, etc—under their beds.

Meanwhile, their steadfast ally, Stephan Machai, was behaving oddly. “Stephan had changed a great deal. He was no longer the kindly person who had collaborated with us for so long…He was hobnobbing with underworld characters.” And at the same time, the Gestapo was finding and arresting their agents, uncovering their hiding places, on a seemingly daily basis. And all those people and places had in common was Machai’s knowledge of them. The Gestapo even came for Michal, arresting him as he walked outside his apartment building.5 Their suspicions fell once more upon Stephan Machai. In addition to his change in demeanor, Machai had suddenly stopped working. He’d taken to “sporting new and expensive clothing, indulging in costly food and drink…We were naturally suspicious. But we could find no incriminating evidence against him.”

The underground workers lived in constant fear, never knowing who would be next. They avoided Stephan, and quietly changed addresses and identity cards. Vladka now carried a passport made out to Michalina Wojczek, and quietly moved into a tiny flat. Vladka’s friend Zoshka Kersh, who’ recently escaped from the ghetto, soon joined Vladka and her landlady. So too did a thirteen year old girl named Krysia Zlotowska, and Michal, who had escaped from custody and returned to his work. Their room was always filled with illegal literature and forged documents. Most of these papers lived hidden, in Vladka’s bed, out of sight of the landlady until they were ready for transport into the ghetto.6

One cold winter morning a loud knock on the door jerked Vladka awake. Michal and Krysia were still asleep and Zoshka had already left for work. The landlady answered the door. A harsh voice asked “Does Vladka Kowalska live here?” Vladka’s heart began to pound. The landlady told the man that there was no one in the flat by that name. Yet, before the she could finish speaking, heavy footsteps marched into the flat, and towards Vladka’s bed. She forced herself to feign surprise as two men—Polish police officers—tore the covers from her bed and stood, menacingly, over her. They demanded her name. “I am Michalina Wojczek,” she told them, but they continued to question her, absolutely certain that a Vladka Kowalska lived
there.

By this point, Michal and Krysia were awake. Michal dressed quietly, while Krysia stared at their landlady in open terror. Finally, Vladka said “Yes [Vladka Kowalska] lives here, but she left for work at least half an hour ago.”7 The police were not convinced. “Get dressed, all of you—and be quick about it!” one of them ordered. “We know who you are. You’re all Jews!” Vladka’s thoughts raced to the forged documents and illegal literature hidden beneath her pillow; if the men searched the room “heaven knew what awaited us. Those who engaged in illegal activities were often cruelly tortured before they were finally put to death.” While she silently panicked, Michal had the
presence of mind to offer the men a bribe. They hesitated for a moment, but accepted upon hearing the amount. As money changed hands, the men offered a compromise. They only wanted Vladka, so, instead of arresting all three of the Jews, they would take one of them as a hostage until “Vladka” handed herself over.

Without fear or hesitation, before Michal and Krysia could react, before the police could change their minds, Vladka walked to the door and flung it open, marching ahead of the police into the bright, cold morning. As they walked, the police attempted to negotiate with her. “Just tell us where this Vladka is working, and we’ll let you go,” they urged. Vladka repeated, simple, that she did not know. The party continued on in silence. Suddenly, one of the men spoke again. This time his voice was rushed and fearful. “When the Germans interrogate you, don’t tell them we took any money from you. Understand?” Vladka acted confused. “Why shouldn’t I tell them? You’re not afraid, are you?” This stopped the men in their tracks. They began to consult in whispers until, “Go home,” one of them told her, “it is Vladka we want, not you.” And with that, they turned and walked away.

Vladka stood in shock for a moment, and then noticed Michal and Krysia some distance behind her. They had been following Vladka and the police to learn where they were taking her. “Now they embraced me, overjoyed at my narrow escape.” They moved out of their room that same day, and were more certain than ever that this had been the doing of Stephan Machai. “We sent him several letters warning him bluntly that unless he stopped working against us, we would settle accounts with him ourselves.” Celek even talked to some of the leaders of Armja Krajowa, the Polish Home Army (or AK), about having Machai “liquidated.” However, that proved unnecessary; the Gestapo shot him when they’d run out of use for his information.

The underground remained hard at work. On the eve of the Uprising, one of Vladka’s missions took her back into the ghetto. This time, she was to deliver sticks of dynamite. She wrapped them in greasy paper to make them look like packages of butter, and proceeded to Paryowski Place. As usual, she paid the chief smuggler, and climbed the ladder. Crouched atop the ghetto wall, Vladka scanned the ground for Yurek Blones and Yanek Bilak, but they were nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, she heard gunfire somewhere behind her on the “Aryan” side. The
smugglers scattered in every direction, taking the ladder with them. She was now stranded on top of the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto, alone, clutching dynamite. Under other circumstances she would have jumped, but this time, she feared that the impact would cause the “butter” to detonate. The gunshots moved closer. Weighing her options, Vladka prepared to jump, and to die in the ensuing explosion. At the last minute she heard a familiar voice. “Vladka, Vladka!” it called, “hold on!” It was Yurek. He helped her down and, with the Nazis in close pursuit, they ran.

Once they’d lost the Nazis, the two of them moved carefully through the streets while Yurek updated her on the state of the ghetto. “Everybody…is busy digging bunkers for themselves…or else they’re partitioning attics and lofts for secret hiding places,” he said. They passed groups clustered around a poster. Moving closer, Vladka stopped and stared in disbelief; it was an open appeal from the ZOB calling on all the Jews of the Ghetto to disregard orders and resist deportation. The ZOB was openly calling for resistance. Their preparations were common knowledge, and that appeal was not the first to openly grace the walls of the ghetto. Moving further in, Vladka noticed that “the mood of the ghetto had changed. Jews now would…defend themselves—at any cost…The ghetto Jews wanted to stand fast, to hold their ground.” The ghetto was practically unanimous in its stand against the Germans, and the ZOB was their unquestioned leader.

When Vladka and Yurek arrived, ZOB headquarters was bustling. Fighters moved about engaged in whispered consultations. Couriers—mostly women and girls of seventeen and eighteen years of age, hailing from Hashomer Hatzair, Dror, and the Bund—came and went, revolvers, grenades, and ammunitions concealed on their persons. One of Vladka’s old friends, a woman named Miriam Shifman, worked for a factory which manufactured German uniforms. She pulled one of these, plus several German caps, out of a package. “There was much joking and an exchange of sarcastic comments as one after another tried the uniforms on.” The next room over played host to the “munitions” plant. Inside the darkened room, two young
men hard at work, stirring a cask, and very carefully transferring the explosive liquid from the cask into bottles. Molotov cocktails lined the wall. One of the young men told Vladka about a recent weapons testing: “A couple of nights ago we tested one of our homemade hand grenades…You should have heard the bang and seen the flash! The German sentry must have been scared out of his wits.” They all laughed.

The happy atmosphere was infectious—Vladka had almost never seen headquarters like this. But, it was getting dark, and she needed to get back over the wall. Before she left, Abrasha told her that they anticipated a roundup at any moment. “On your next visit,” he said, “I will show you a whole row of bunkers. If the struggle should go on for a long period of time, you will know where to find us.”

But there would be no next time.

1 The Nazis murdered between 5,000 and 6,500 Jews over the course of those four days.
2 They even levied taxes on the ghetto to support their work. According to Marek Edelman—commandant of all the resistance groups in the factory area of the Ghetto and the Bund’s representative in the General Command of the ZOB—they only “taxed” Jews known to be wealthy, or known to have prospered since the sealing of the ghetto. The ZOB would investgate financial situation of the parties in question before taxing them. When an individual was selcted for taxation, the ZOB would leave them a letter identifying the time and place at which specific amounts of money were to be deposited. Often, the ZOB had to exert pressure while collecting these “taxes.”
3 There were a few reminders that they weren’t alone. A Coordinating Committee member named David Klin owned a radio. He invited his comrades over to listen to the Polish broadcast from London. They all listened to the broadcast, tears running down their faces. There was another world outside Poland, outside Warsaw, a world where people, where armies, where countries were fighting the Nazis. The broadcast called on the Poles to endure, and to never lose hope. In Klin’s flat, the tiny group of underground Jews waited for the broadcast to mention them, to acknowledge them. But there was just a Polish soldier’s song, and the broadcast ended.
4 As they moved forward with this project, Mikolai introduced Michal to a Polish underground officer named Julian, an expert on explosives. He taught Michal the ins and outs of manufacturing grenades, bombs, and Molotov cocktails.
5 Through a contact in the Polish police, the Committee was able to get word to Michal. However, after two weeks, their communication was cut off and they all feared the worst. And indeed, their fears were well founded. The Gestapo marched Michal back to the ghetto, and loaded him onto a Treblinka-bound train. As it started to move, Michal tinkered with the the metal screen covering the car’s sole window. He managed to remove the screen. After squeezing through the narrow opening, he jumped, falling to the ground amidst a hail of bullets from the Ukrainian guards standing atop of the train. When the train was out of site, Michal stood up, wiped the blood off his face, and limped back to Warsaw. One evening, as Vladka and Celek were meeting in the cellar, the door flew open. There stood Michal; bruised, bloodied, and alive.
6 For her part, their landlady “knew that we were all Jews; yet she and her sons accepted the discomfort and crowding in the small room.”
7Actually, it was Zoshka who’d left for work.

Teaching the Thirty Years’ War

imoldbutimstillintothat

How was it [The Thirty Years’ War] taught?

For anyone who wasn’t awake at 3am EST 8/6/2017, I posted this: “It’s 3am, I can’t sleep, and I’m really mad about how the Thirty Years’ War was taught in my c. 2005 AP Euro class.”

So before I answer, here are two caveats: I’m not an Early Modernist, so feel free to come for me if I’m wrong about something, and GIANT HONKING FLUORESCENT LIGHT TRIGGER WARNING FOR DISCUSSION OF TORTURE, GENOCIDE, AND HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES* NOT OTHERWISE SPECIFIED.

So, the thing about me is that I’m weirdly intellectually attracted to historical events that make me physically ill to read/think about. But I can’t stop. I mean exhibit 1: the Holocaust, the black hole around which 90% of my historical inquiry revolves. I’ve stayed up at all hours reading about the intricacies of the genocide of Bosnian Muslims, the horrific human rights abuses committed by the Japanese in the China and Korea from ~1910 on (google “Unit 731″ if you feel like giving yourself a panic attack), the shit Spain pulled on the existing population during its already violent and disgusting conquest of South America, etc.

I was taught the Thirty Years’ War and….the entire Early Modern period in said AP European History class as one big intellectual exercise between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Like, a REALLY BORING intellectual exercise. Very sanitized, and the only thing I remembered for YEARS was that some dude named Gustavus Adolphus did something.

In reality, the Thirty Years’ War was a horrifically violent conflict in which varying European powers basically decimated the “German” interior (quotes because #anachronism) and created the first mass refugee movements (#anachronism), as we think of them today (fyi this is an ass-pull; I don’t even know how to talk about refugees pre ~1850). It was about the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, meaning that it was about the balance of power in Western and Central Europe. Which means that it was about politics. It involved use of mercenaries who gave even fewer fucks than you can probably imagine about civilians (#anachronism). If you go to that War’s wikipedia page you’ll see these horrific images of people (mercenaries, mostly)…..abusing other people’s human rights (#anachronism). Not to mention the witch trials it spawned, etc.

So I’m mad about it as a historian because the really political and therefore military import of the Reformation and Counter Reformation should not have been under-emphasized, and I’m mad about it as the weird, morbid person that I am because I don’t like it when the reality of people’s suffering is white-washed. Even if those people consist of a population group to whom I’d be so 100% alien that I’d probably be tried as a witch.

And there’s my answer. Also, this post is waaaay less scholarly than I prefer, so I may delete it later if it feels too off the cuff (you can tell I have a headache because I didn’t spend two weeks researching the histories and of human rights and refugees and ALL the associated interdisciplinary literature before answering).

*I have a headache from the fact that I didn’t fall asleep until 5am and didn’t let myself sleep past 10 so I am going to use this term anachronistically and you’re gonna have to deal with it. “You” being “me.” I hate being anachronistic.

Noor Inayat Khan: Sufi Princess and SOE Agent

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Noor Inayat Khan in her SOE uniform. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Perhaps it was the color of her skin, her past work as a children’s book writer, or her calm, gentle demeanor nature which inclined Special Operations Executive (SOE) personnel to doubt Noor Inayat Khan’s (1914-1944) potential as an SOE agent. However, the resistance networks she single-handedly maintained and the German agents charged with her arrest would beg to differ.

The SOE was formed by British Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, on July 22, 1940. Its purpose was to conduct espionage and sabotage in Occupied Europe, and to provide aid to local resistance movements in occupied countries. SOE agents—coming from all walks of life, and having gone through a rigorous training process which included instruction on how to kill with your bare hands, how to derail trains, how to escape from handcuffs, and how to parachute—took Churchill’s order to “set Europe ablaze” to heart. They quickly set about destroying bridges needed for German supply lines, bombing the water plant needed to support the German atomic bomb program, and sending supply trains in the wrong direction.

Noor Inayat Khan’s path to the SOE began in Moscow. There, she was born on the first day of 1914 to Hazrat Inayat Khan and Ameena Begum. Her father, Hazrat Khan, was a musician, a teacher of Sufi Islam, founder of the Sufi Order of the West (now the Sufi Order International), and a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the last ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in Southern India. Her mother, Ameena Begum (born Ora Baker), was an American woman who met Hazrat during his travels in the US. The family settled outside of Paris in 1920, where her father taught classes, held a summer school, and gave lectures. Hazrat Khan died in 1927, when Noor was thirteen years old.

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Khan posing with her mother. Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.

As a young adult, Khan studied child psychology at the Sorbonne, and music at the Paris Conservatory. After completing her studies she wrote poetry, children’s stories, and became a regular contributor to children’s magazines and French radio. In 1939 she published a children’s book called Twenty Jataka Tales.

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Khan in her family’s home in France with her sitar. Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.

Khan was deeply influenced by the Sufi teachings of her father, which centered on three tenets: that there is truth in every religion, that humanity is one and must rise above the distinctions created to divide it, and that the East and the West must be united for humanity to become one. These teachings of tolerance and understanding very much informed the course of her life after the outbreak of the Second World War.

She trained as a nurse with the French Red Cross as her children’s book was being published. However, her service with this organization was short lived as she fled to England with her family just before the French surrender to Germany in November, 1940. They settled in London. Shortly after their arrival, Khan, eager to do her part to bring an end to Nazi tyranny, joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. It was around this time that she began to use the name Nora Baker.

She spent nearly three years training with the WAAF as a wireless operator. Impressed by her technical skill and her fluent French, the SOE recruited Khan into their France division—overseen by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster—in late 1942. During her three months of training, her team, obviously willfully ignorant of her background and abilities, described her as clumsy, fearful of weapons, “not over-burdened with brains,” unstable, and temperamental. However, Buckmaster regarded these comments as the nonsense that they were and allowed her to complete her training.

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Khan’s passport photo. Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.

With her fluent French and her skill as an operator, Khan was perfect for a post in Occupied France. On June 17, 1943, Khan, officially the first female wireless operator to be sent into France to aid the Resistance, landed and reported to her post in Paris.

She worked with the Prosper network (technically called the Physician network, but popularly known as Prosper after the codename of its organizer, Major Francis Suttill), the largest network in Northern France. The Prosper network communicated with England to organize the placement and arrival of SOE agents, locally recruited agents, and aid to the French Resistance. The network was of such importance that Berlin regarded it as the heart of a secret army posing the utmost danger to the security of the Third Reich.

However, only one week after her arrival, the precariousness of the life of a covert agent in Occupied France became uncomfortably clear. The local branch of the Gestapo arrested Suttill, and over the next three months hundreds of agents—including wireless operators and resistance personnel alike—supported by the Prosper network would be put under arrest.

After the initial arrests, Khan was the only wireless operator left in Paris, making her post the most dangerous one in all of Northern France. The SOE offered to repatriate her to Britain, but she refused to leave her comrades without communication channels. Over the next three months, Noor single-handedly maintained the network which supported resistance activities across Occupied France.

The Prosper network’s last remaining link to London, Khan quickly became the most wanted British agent in Paris. The Gestapo, though they had her full description, knew her only by her code name, “Madeleine.” Under constant pursuit by wireless detection vans, Khan could only transmit for twenty minutes at a time. Even so, she transmitted regularly from the first week of July through to the second week of October.

However in the beginning of that month, either an SOE double agent or a French woman betrayed her to the Nazis. On October 13, 1943, Khan was arrested, and held in the Paris headquarters of the SD. She fought so fiercely upon her arrest that the SD agents were afraid of her. She lied consistently to her interrogators while in custody, though they did uncover copies of her signals, allowing them to impersonate her in wireless communications with London. In addition to her fierce fighting and consistent lies, Khan made two escape attempts during her two month interrogation. One was successful, however, she was quickly recaptured.

After she refused to sign a declaration renouncing future escape attempts, the SD classified her as “Nacht und Nebel” (“Night and Fog”), a designation given only to those prisoners deemed as posing a threat to the security of the Third Reich. She was secretly shipped to Germany by night. Considered a particularly dangerous and uncooperative prisoner, she was kept in chains in solitary confinement during her time in Pforzheim. She continued to refuse to give away any information during this stage of her imprisonment.

On September 11, 1944 the Gestapo transferred her to Dachau. Two days later, an SS officer executed her by a shot to the head.

Her last word was “Liberté.”

Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross—the highest gallantry award for British civilians, as well as for members of the armed forces in actions for which purely military honors would not normally be granted—in Britain, and the Croix de Guerre—a military decoration honoring those who fought with the Allies against the Axis forces during World War II—in France. On November 8, 2012, HRH Princess Anne unveiled a bronze bust of Khan located in the Gordon Square Gardens in London. In 2014, Khan was featured in Britain’s “Remarkable Lives” stamp series.

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HRH Princess Anne standing with Khan’s memorial bust. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.

While the British and the French honor Khan’s memory and claim her as one of their own, we must remember that this was a woman who believed passionately in a doctrine stressing the unity of humanity, the need for humanity to rise above artificial divisions, and the need to unite the East with the West. It is far more likely that, rather than fighting for any nation, Khan was fighting against oppression, against disunity, against artificial boundaries, and for her love of humanity.

And let’s be real if she was a dude she’d have a blockbuster action film starring the male equivalent of Freida Pinto out by now.

The Warring States Period, or, A Wild Confucius Appears

In 771 BCE the Zhou Dynasty moved its seat from Hao, to the eastern city of Luoyang, precipitating a long period of gradual decentralization, spanning from 770-221 BCE. This period of Chinese history is divided into two segments: the Spring and Autumn Period (770-479 BCE), and the Warring States Period (479-221 BCE).

The Zhou kings retained their technical status as supreme monarchs during the Spring and Autumn Period. However, their once centrally governed fiefs increasingly began to function as independent, competing entities. Frequent intermarriage between the ruling families of various states made for messy succession disputes, and states constantly plotted with and against each other to maintain a balance of power. Sometimes the states would even attack the Zhou monarch.

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Map courtesy of Wikipedia; no further source material provided despite geographic accuracy.

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Map courtesy of East Asia: a Cultural, Social, and Political History by Patricia Ebrey and Anne Walthall.

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See attribution of first map.

The states of Qin, Jin, Qi, and Chu emerged as the most powerful actors as the Spring and Autumn Period drew to a close. They made official their dominance by styling themselves as kings, a direct challenge to the charade of a Zhou-centered power balance which had endured through the Spring and Autumn Period.

This new balance of power represented the fifth century beginning of the Warring States Period. This period saw dramatic changes in modes of warfare as chivalric codes of warfare fell by the wayside, as the increased use of defensive walls led to the development of siege warfare, as the states adopted the use of the crossbow, and as militaries began dressing in the style of nomadic groups to ease the transition to cavalry warfare. Where Spring and Autumn Period military campaigns typically lasted no longer than one season and battles lasted no more than two days, Warring States Period campaigns lasted for years, and were fought over many fronts.

However, changes more profound than pure military innovation occurred. The combined social and political instability of both the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Period led to a flowering of intellectual thought, the impact of which has never truly been absent from Chinese thinking, culture, and subsequent history.

As various states fell, the nobility of each successive state lost its status. The lower ranks of these defunct nobilities, the shi, began to serve as advisers to victorious rulers. As the shi competed for influence within this ever-changing socio-political environment, they set into motion an intellectual movement known as the “Hundred Schools of Thought.”

The most famous and influential of the shi, Confucius, began his career in the state of Lu in the mid-sixth century BCE. Failing to gain much influence in his home state, Confucius wandered with a group of his students until he found a ruler interested in his philosophy, which put forth the idea that sets of interdependent relationships between superior and inferiors must be followed in order to maintain the balance of the universe.

The third century BCE founders of Daoism disagreed with Confucian thinking, focusing instead on the flow of the universe, and the effect of human action on that flow. The Legalist school of thought emerged in the third and fourth centuries BCE in response to the fear of various rulers that their polity may be next to fall. This school places emphasis on rigorous laws and obedience as necessary to the existence of a state.

Other schools of thought and thinkers which emerged out of this period included Mohism, a school of thought opposed to Confucianism founded by Mozi in the fifth century BCE. Mohism stresses universal equality and is opposed to decadence on the part of rulers; it was rediscovered in the twentieth century after falling into disuse a few centuries after its founding.

There was Mencius, a fourth century BCE Confucian scholar who rose out of a school eager to defend Confucianism against Mohism. He argued that human nature was inherently moral. The fourth century BCE Xunxi, a Confucian rival of Mencius who opposed the Mencian perception of human nature, argued that people are born selfish, and may only become moral through education and ritual.

Sunzi’s third century Art of War stressed the importance of discipline, spying, and manipulation in the course of warfare, and argues that great generals are not those who charge uphill against overwhelming odds, but those who advance only when positive that they will emerge victorious.

The Warring States Period ended as the state of Qin emerged victorious in 221 BCE. The Qin Dynasty was quickly supplanted by the Han Dynasty in 206 BCE. The Hundred Schools of Thought came to an end alongside the Warring States Period as the First Emperor (the self-styled title of Zhoa Zheng, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty), a staunch Legalist, ordered a mass burning of scholarly works beginning in 213 BCE.

Napoleon, Haiti, and the Louisiana Purchase

Between 1800 and 1801, Spain secretly returned the Louisiana Territory to French custody; Spain was ceded the Territory in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, treaty which ended the Seven Year’s War. Napoleon planned to use the Territory as his North American imperial sear.

The United States government learned of this in 1802. The knowledge caused no small amount of panic. The government which controlled the Louisiana Territory controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, and whomever controlled the mouth of the Mississippi controlled the economy of the North American continent. And indeed, the Unites States’ government’s fears came true when Napoleon closed the New Orleans port.

Map of the Louisiana Purchase; courtesy of A People and a Nation: Volume I Ninth Edition by Mary Beth Norton

But something was happening in the background of all of this which would permanently destroy Napoleon’s plans, and alter the future of the United States.

The slave revolt of St. Domingue began in 1791. It came to a close in 1804, with the complete overthrow of French colonial rule. Today, this is known today as the Haitian Revolution.

Napoleon planned to use St. Domingue as his Caribbean base from which to launch his new empire, with its enslaved labor force and the revenue he gained its work as the backbone of the infrastructure of this new empire.

Having lost that holding, that labor force, and all the money that came with it, Napoleon had to scarp his imperial plans. The Louisiana Territory no longer financially tenable for France, Napoleon sold it to the United States in 1803; Thomas Jefferson purchased it for $15 million, $233 million in today’s money. This was the Louisiana Purchase.

And just an interesting note about the Haitian Revolution: the use of the same philosophies which inspired the American Revolution by a black, enslaved population terrified people like Thomas Jefferson so much that they could barely speak of it; they had no idea how to make sense of it within their precisely constructed idea of race. So they just kind of ignored it and began and enacted a policy of brutal expansion throughout the Louisiana Purchase.

Hannibal and the Battle of Cannae

On August 2, 216 BCE, Hannibal’s army defeated the Roman troops in the Battle of Cannae, 250 miles away from Rome. It was their third victory in a row, and the second greatest defeat ever suffered by a Roman army up until that point in time.

For millennia, historians—including Livy—have argued that Hannibal should have used the momentum gained from that victory to launch an attack on the city of Rome itself and decisively win the Second Punic War.

But he didn’t. Instead, Hannibal marched into Campania and lost the Second Punic War. Though baffling on the surface, Hannibal’s decision comes down to something extremely practical: numbers, supplies, and logistics.

Before beating the Romans at Cannae, Hannibal’s troops had had to trek through the Alps, make their way through the marshes of the Arno River, and down through the Italian Peninsula.


Map depicting Hannibal’s route of invasion; courtesy of the Department of History of the United States Military Academy

Major landmarks and theaters of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy (for the purposes of this post). Map from The Punic Wars: 264-146 (Essential Histories) by Nigel Bagnall

Huge amounts of men, animals, and supplies were lost along various points of this journey, and the remaining men were so weak that their only choice was to operate on a schedule dictated by supply. Their victories over Rome may have given them a word-of-mouth advantage, but it certainly did not magically alleviate their supply-related concerns.

As noted above, Cannae is about 250 miles away from Rome. The quickest pace at which Hannibal’s army could have possibly marched was twenty miles per day. If they were to keep a pace of twenty miles per day, every day, they would have been able to reach Rome in a little more than twelve days. However, that is not a pace at which they logically would have been able to travel.

Hannibal would have required about 544,920 pack animals to carry all the food needed by his men; this calculation does not take into account the fact that pack animals had to carry their own food. Theses animals were often underfed due to the amount of time needed to gather their food, meaning that they would have been too weak to march along at a sustained rate.

In addition to the slow march of the pack animals, the army needed time to rest and gather supplies, which would have slowed them down even more; it is also likely that they would have been delayed by attacks sustained en route, as they were operating deep within enemy territory. When all of these lags and delays are taken into account it becomes clear that the maximum possible speed at which they could have marched comes to about eight miles per day. At that pace, it would have taken them almost thirty days to reach Rome.

Hannibal knew that his army lacked the resources to be able to sustain that march and then carry out a successful attack on Rome. So he did not attack Rome.

The historians who do understand this tend to put their efforts into arguing over what Hannibal should have done following his victory. I tend to think he was right in proceeding into Campania with the goal of dismantling the Roman system of alliances within that theater, but erred in his misunderstanding of local politics and power dynamics.

But obviously, we can never know what would have happened. We can only know what did happen, and why it happened. Hannibal did not march on Rome because he knew that his supplies would not sustain such an endeavor.

Hannah Szenes: Just a Jewish Girl, Parachuting into Occupied Yugoslavia

One – two – three… eight feet long/Two strides across, the rest is dark/Life is a fleeting question mark/One – two – three… maybe another week/Or the next month may still find me here/But death, I feel is very near/I could have been 23 next July/I gambled on what mattered most, the dice were cast. I lost.

Hannah Szenes (1921-1944) was born into an assimilated, secular Hungarian Jewish family in 1921. Like many of her secular peers at the time, she responded to the ever-growing anti-Semitism surrounding her by fully embracing her Jewish identity; where Judaism had once been something she was persecuted for, it became something from which she derived strength, hope, and the conviction to fight back. After finishing high school, she spent some time in the British Mandate of Palestine where she furthered her education, and in 1943, she relocated to Egypt to train as a paratrooper for the British Special Operations Executive and put her conviction to fight back into action.

In March of 1944, she and two other parachutists entered Yugoslavia on a mission to rescue Jewish prisoners who were soon to be deported to Auschwitz, and to aid the Yugoslav Partisans, a Communist anti-Fascist resistance movement. However, upon learning that Hitler had taken Hungary, her two male colleagues decided that their mission had become too dangerous, and called it off. Hannah, however, refused to turn back and continued on to the Hungarian border. Unfortunately, she was detained and arrested by Hungarian police forces shortly after her arrival.

And this is where things rapidly took a downhill turn for Hannah. The Hungarian police found the transmitter she used to keep in contact with her colleagues and the Partisans. She refused to tell them the transmitter code, so they took her to prison and tortured her for three days. She remained firm, and refused to give them the code, even when they bought her mother into the prison and threatened to torture her as well.

Even at this bleak point, Hannah did not stop resisting. Instead of acting the part of an injured, doomed prisoner, she remained cheerful and defiant. She used mirrors to communicate with her fellow prisoners—Jewish and otherwise—in other cells, and communicated with other Jewish prisoners by placing large cut-out Hebrew letters in the window of her cell. She did her best to keep everyone’s spirits high through song, and remained full of hope until the last day of her life.

On October 28, 1944, she was put in trial for treason. On November 7, 1944 she was executed by a German firing squad. After the Cold War, she was officially exonerated in a Hungarian military court.

Boudicca: Rebel Queen of the Iceni

Deep beneath London is a layer of reddish-brown ash, with burnt piece of Roman pottery strewn about. Archaeologists call this “Boudicca’s Layer.”

This statue of Boudicca currently stands outside of the Houses of Parliament in London. It was commissioned by Prince Albert, and was completed in 1905.

She was queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe in the early first century CE. Her husband Prasutagus ruled the tribe independently of Rome who, in turn, viewed him as an ally and left him alone. When he died he left the tribal land to Boudicca and their two daughters. However, the Romans—hostile to the idea of cooperating with a female ruler—chose to disregard his wishes and seized the land for themselves.

They raped Boudicca and her daughters to demonstrate their lack of power. In 60 CE, Boudicca retaliated. She rallied thousands, some estimates put the figure at 100,000, of Britons and sacked three Roman cities: Londinium (London), Camulodunum (Colchester), and Verulamium (St. Albans). The ashes from her fire can still be seen in London.

Here’s a map to give you an idea of where all of this took place:

Once she had satisfied herself, she committed suicide with her two daughters to avoid being captured and further humiliated by the Romans.

Her actions persuaded Nero to install a more conciliatory governor in Britain, and her story was preserved in the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus.