Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Complexity of Historical Truths by Reiner Prochaska


“History is written by the victors.” While we cannot attribute this aphorism to a specific source with any degree of certainty (some claim it was Churchill, others swear it was Machiavelli), we may take comfort in the fact that historical fiction can be written by the vanquished. That’s what I decided to do twelve years ago when I began my research for Captives, the novel that was originally a screenplay titled, Court of Honor, and then The Tears of Valour when Nextpix optioned the script in 2008.

I have always had a fascination with history. Growing up in postwar Germany, it seemed impossible not to be obsessed with it. My father had served as a teenaged soldier in World War II, fighting alongside White Russian Cossacks in Yugoslavia and blowing up Soviet tanks in Vienna. His stories intrigued me, but they seemed accounts of a vague and distant historical past. I was a teenager myself when I finally did the math. I was born in 1961. Sixteen years after the end of World War II. Only six years after Germany had become a sovereign nation again.

I was fortunate to grow up in the peace and prosperity of the postwar economic boom. Aside from the Mercedes-Benz plant in the neighboring Sindelfingen, most of the industry in my hometown was American. IBM. Hewlett-Packard. My father was the command post-sergeant-major at the local German Army post. Through his job, we were friends with American and French military families who were stationed throughout the greater Stuttgart region. They were our military allies. We bowled, barbecued, and went on Volksmarches together. The idea of being at war with these people would have seemed utterly absurd.

But then we spent the entire tenth-grade history class at my Realschule learning about the Third Reich, the Second World War and, of course, the Holocaust. My high school class was required to see Joachim Fest’s Hitler—Eine Karriere at the movies. We visited a former concentration camp in France. Gradually I began to understand why I saw the German flag fly only at my father’s army post. Why our national anthem was heard only before national soccer games and during medal ceremonies at the Olympic Games. My generation bore the guilt and the shame our fathers and grandfathers had brought on our heads. We were responsible for the millions who had perished in thousands of camps across Europe.

We had waged war on peaceful nations and murdered innocent people in gas chambers while the rest of the world suffered our injustices until it bravely fought back and—after defeating us—generously helped us rebuild our country and welcomed us back into the global community as a trading partner and an ally. The United States, in particular, deserved our gratitude because only the Marshall Plan and American investments had made our Wirtschaftswunder—the economic miracle—possible. It would be decades before I began to realize that the truth was more complicated than that.

When I immigrated to the United States in 1990, I was excited about moving to a country that, in my mind, represented freedom and liberal values. Of course, I had learned about slavery, the annihilation of the native population, and the civil rights struggles of African Americans in the 20th century. But it seemed as though America had learned from its mistakes and rectified those tragic injustices. I have always felt welcome here. Aside from, once in a New Jersey bar, being asked if I was a Nazi, I have never been forced to defend my nationality or my homeland.

Then, in 2006, I happened to meet a woman who was a Frederick, Maryland, native while we both worked as models for a drawing class at the community college. While trying to hold a particularly awkward pose, we chatted to pass the time. Suddenly she asked me if I knew that there had been a camp for German POWs in town during the war. I admitted that I did not. She told me that her father had shared a story with her about one of the POWs’ committing suicide. That was the extent of our conversation about this topic. But I couldn’t forget it.

For weeks I thought about it, trying to find a reason why someone who had survived the battles of Europe and North Africa—and reached the safety of a POW camp in a sleepy Western Maryland town—would take his own life. I decided to explore this mystery of local German American history and if the story was compelling enough, write a screenplay to tell it.

I began by reading Dr. Arnold Krammer’s Nazi Prisoners of War in America, which provided me with a wealth of facts—some fascinating and others disturbing. I learned that almost 400,000 German prisoners had been incarcerated in roughly 700 camps across the entire United States between 1942 and 1946. Many of them provided the agricultural labor force necessary to do the work American farmers serving in the U.S. military overseas could not perform themselves.

But I also discovered that many American camp commanders allowed the German POWs to run the camps themselves. Frequently, the Nazis quickly established themselves as the self-appointed executive and judicial forces. Evidently, their American masters often preferred Nazi efficiency to the relative lack of order in the liberal camps. Frequently, when liberal-minded prisoners rejected the pressure from the Nazis in the camp, the former would be penalized. In extreme cases, they were executed, and the killings would be made to look like suicides.

But there were other, more disturbing surprises. For example, the business relationship between the United States and Germany—well into the war—added another level of historical complexity. Both Ford and General Motors-owned plants in Germany that manufactured the cars and trucks that transported German soldiers to their various fronts.

Du Pont and Standard Oil of New Jersey (current-day Exxon) freely shared their research with I.G. Farben, the German cartel that produced the poisons for the gas chambers. In June of 1940, the Auschwitz concentration camp began to produce artificial rubber from coal using proprietary patents granted by Standard Oil.

Investigative journalist Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust paints another damning picture of a powerful American corporation. The book documents the pivotal role IBM’s technology played in helping facilitate Nazi genocide through the generation and tabulation of punch cards based on national census data. A revised 2002 edition of Black’s book includes further evidence that IBM New York created a special subsidiary in Poland called Watson Business Machines, which operated a punch card printing shop near the Warsaw Ghetto.

Mr. Black also sheds light on the American influence of the eugenics movement in Germany. After the movement had been well established in the United States, American eugenicists began sharing their work with scientists and medical professionals in Germany. The Rockefeller Foundation helped develop and fund various German eugenics programs—including one that Josef Mengele participated in before he embarked on his career at Auschwitz. American educator, eugenicists, and sociologist Harry Laughlin considered it a source of pride that his Model Eugenic Sterilization Laws had been implemented in the 1935 Nuremberg racial hygiene laws.

Ironically, Nuremberg, the medieval city that had been the picturesque backdrop for Nazi rallies, hosted the court in which Nazis were tried, after the war, for their crimes before an Allied tribunal. Some of them were convicted and sentenced. But the U.S. Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency brought more than 1,600 German scientists—some of whom were Nazis and had used slave labor during the war—to the United States to help America win the space race against the Soviets (who, themselves, had forcibly recruited over 2,200 German scientists and their families). Wernher von Braun’s V-2 rocket, which had rained down death on London, eventually evolved into the Saturn V rocket that took American astronauts to the moon.

Most of these facts did not make their way into my novel. Those that did serve as historical background rather than pivotal plot devices. But they gave me insights I would not have imagined. However, it was not just the realization that, while an estimated 400,000 American soldiers gave their lives, a small number of American industrialists grew their fortunes by doing business with the enemy.

What I do finally understand is that history can help us avoid repeating mistakes. History should be a vehicle for communication and truth—not guilt or shame. And, yes—for forgiveness. In our age of political correctness and heightened sensitivity, let’s find a civil and constructive way to be honest. Talk about World War II. Korea. Vietnam. Slavery. Talk about it and write about it. Don’t dismantle Confederate statues. Put up a plaque that educates readers about the person commemorated in that statue—the good and the bad.

My 91-year-old father tells me that he wakes up every morning around 6am and relives the guilt of killing a Russian tank commander with his bazooka. He knows that Russian soldier had a mother and father. Maybe a wife and children. Seventy-five years later, my father still cannot forgive himself for the acts of war he was forced to commit as a teenaged boy. In listening to his story and talking to him about it, I can provide the therapy his generation never had any access to.   

Let’s learn from history. And let’s pay close attention to current events because they will become history. Let’s make sure we create the kind of history our children won’t be ashamed of.

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REINER PROCHASKA is an author, actor, and playwright, whose plays have been produced regionally and published internationally. His upcoming novel, Captives, is available for pre-order from Amazon or The Permanent Press. For more information about Reiner, visit www.reinerprochaska.com.



Tuesday, March 26, 2019

OVER A CARDBOARD SEA by Khanh Ha

It always came to me as an image, staying and never dying, until it blossomed into ideas for a novel.

I grew up in Hue, Vietnam, imbued with a culture full of magical realism. As a child, I had an indelible belief in animism. An unseen presence dwelling in an odd-looking rock by the roadside where people placed a bowl of rice grains and a stick of incense long gone cold. That child lived in Hue, the former ancient capital of Vietnam, living in its mysterious atmosphere, half real, half magic. I used to walk home under the shade of the Indian almond trees, the poon trees. At the base of these old trees, I would pass a shrine. If I went with my grandmother, she would push my head down. “Don’t stare at it,” Grandmother said. “That’s disrespect to the genies.” Those anthropomorphic images sown in a child’s mind began to morph into fertile ideas when I became a teen and wrote out those childhood memories in short stories. But I was in love with the written words when I was much younger, between eight and nine, making up stories in chapbooks. In each of them was a make-believe world. It may be a paper moon sailing over a cardboard sea, but to me it was believable.

The image could be a man wearing a cangue on the way to an execution ground. This bandit was to be beheaded for his crime while the onlookers, some being his relatives with children, watched in muted fascination and horror. Gazing at the photograph, I imagined a boyhis sonwho was witnessing the decapitation of his father by the hand of the executioner. I pictured him and his mother as they collected the body without the head which the government would display at the entrance of the village his father had looted. I thought what if the boy later set out to steal the head so he could give his father an honorable burial. What if he got his hand on the executioner’s sabre and used it to kill the man who betrayed his father for a large bounty. However, it really started with a story within my family. My grandfather was one of the last mandarins of the Hue Imperial Court, circa 1930. At that time the Vietnamese communists were coming into power. They condemned any person a traitor, who worked either for the French or the Hue Imperial Court. So my grandfather was a traitor in their eye. One day news came to him that a communist gathering was to be held in one of the remote villages from Hue. He set out to that village with his bodyguards to punish the communists. Unfortunately, news leaked out about his trip. He was ambushed on the roadhis bodyguards were killedand he was beheaded. The communists threw his body into a river. My grandmother hired a sorcerer to look for his headless body. Eventually, the sorcerer found it. They were able to identify his body based on the ivory name tablet in his tunic. My grandmother hired someone to make a fake head out of a coconut shell wrapped in gilded paper and buried my grandfather on the Ngu Binh Mountain. The beheading of Grandfather surfaced again while I was looking at the decapitation photograph. That was how it became an inspiration for my debut novel “Flesh” and I wrote about the decapitation scene in its first chapter.

Sometimes it came to me in the image of a girl dressed in the school’s uniformwhite shirt and knee-high navy-blue skirtstanding under a tamarind tree outside her all-girl school. I’d ride home from school every day on a motorcycle and pass by her school. We’d steal glances at each other, and every day I’d count every traffic light before I reached her school. In the sound of traffic, the noises of which we both became familiar with, one passed by with a sidelong glance, and the other was left with nothing but a smile remembered. I wrote out that adolescent memory in “The Demon Who Peddled Longing” when the boy happened to run into the girl on the white horse, and I made the romance happen for them.

In both “Flesh” and “The Demon Who Peddled Longing,” my main characters set out as young men to avenge a family member’s death. This common dark thread began with a child’s memory. My late father was the chairman of an anti-communist, anti-dictatorial political party in Vietnam. His party, Dai Viet (Viet Nation-State), was pledged to the restoration of national prestige and the unification of the two nations. He was betrayed by a party member and was imprisoned by the First Republic of Vietnam for his anti-dictatorial stance. I often wondered what he would do if one day he were to meet his traitor face to face. So I put my protagonists in both “Flesh” and “The Demon Who Peddled Longing” through this predicament.


It could be an image of a xích lôa Vietnamese pedicabthat passed by my house in Saigon and stopped when an American passenger got out. He was big and tall and the phu xích lôthe pedicab cooliewas all bones with toothpick legs. He was taking the fare from the American and before I knew it, he started coughing up gobs of blood. He reeled like he was dancing then fell flat on his back. The American chased his bill before the wind blew it away. The police came and pulled the coolie’s body to the curbside and put a poncho over him. After that it rainedmonsoon rain. Lucky for him he wasn’t washed away by the time his friends came to claim the body. The poor man had TB. I fictionalized that experience in one of my novels.

Then the war came to my hometown during the Tet Offensive.

At My Lai the American soldiers murdered the Vietnamese civilians; but during Tet in Hue, the Viet Cong massacred the Vietnamesetheir own people. Here you heard only of My Lai. The American public was more interested in a war crime committed by one American infantry platoon than in the Hue massacre.

My father wasn’t home with us. The VC executed people like him. My mother kept the joss sticks burning on the altar every day and thanked the Buddha for sparing my father’s life. The VC came into Hue with the names of those they wanted to kill. Few were spared. They executed government officials, political party officials, block leaders, intellectuals, teachers, even priests, and monks. But they killed a lot of people out of personal hate and vendetta.

Every night we heard gunshots. Much later we found out that those were fired by the communists during their execution, and the playground of our high school was used as a mass grave. They massacred at least a few thousand people. It took people months to search, to dig the mass graves. Mass graves in the schoolyards, in the parks of the inner city. Mass graves in the jungle creek beds, in the coastal salt flats. People shot to death, clubbed to death with pick handles, buried alive with elbows tied behind them. The communists said they executed only the reactionaries, those who worked for the South Vietnam government. But I saw many bodies of women and children. Shot in the head, bashed in the head. Did they deserve to die?

After the VC withdrew from Hue, graves were identified, and folks came to dig for bodies. The odor from the rotten bodies hung for days over the neighborhood. Smelled like dead rats but with a fish stink. My mother burned incense in the house to kill that odor. Like many people who lived inside the Citadel, we had fled, seeking refuge somewhere else.

When we came back to our house inside the Citadel, one side of the house had caved in. It must have been hit by artillery shells or helicopter gunships. Ammunition shells were all over the yard. Do you know what I saw on one side of our chest of drawers? An inscription: Miami, FLA. Mom, Dad, and apple pie. The American troops had boarded down in our house during the house-to-house combat against the VC.

But it’s always an image.

An image I came upon in an old Vietnamese magazine article written about a centenarian eunuch of the Imperial Court of Hue. He had died in 1968. The writer had interviewed the eunuch’s adopted daughter. At the end of the article was a small halftone photograph of her. The story had lodged deep in my brain. Months later I realized that it wasn’t the story that was haunting me―it was the face in the photograph. I pictured her. Dawn or dusk, you could see mottled-brown sandpipers running along the seashore, legs twinkling, looking for food. Twilight falling. I followed their tracks, like twiggy skeletons strewn across the marbled sand until they ended under the frothing waves. One delicate bird stood at the water’s edge and gave out a cry. I often think of her as that sandpiper standing at the edge of the sea, its cry lost in the sound of waves. Then her image grew and I wrote a novel about her.

It could be something else that would light up an image. Like a canal languidly flowing through the thick china fir grove that, from such a distance, was a mass of smoky green. In the grove’s dark shade, the air reeked of the pine cones’ scent and red squirrels and fox squirrels leaped from tree to tree. I remembered all that. Even the tiny chirps of crickets in the grass, the red wild strawberries like drops of blood in their patches, the late January wind damp to the bones coming from the sea.

Or when you are going down the foredune and there’s a tang of fish odor, a damp smell of kelp in the air. Fishing nets are piled up above the high-tide mark and beneath them lie the ocean litter of seaweed, soggy sticks, bits of crabs’ claws. High tide is coming in, tinkling softly through the orphaned seashells studding the sand. You stop when something scurries out from under the mass of wet nets. A rat. You follow its trail and see that the bad rat is out looking for birds’ eggs, those that nested above the high-tide line. A buoy clangs. A desolate sound guiding fishermen ashore.

Those images never go away and I wrote out short stories and brought them together into a novel. But the image that eventually blossomed into “Mrs. Rossi’s Dream” came from a film in which a woman spirit medium in her trance-induced walk led an American woman to a grave where she found her son’s remains. By then I have lived in the United States for many years and in me lived on that image for many years more before I felt ready to put them down in words. While writing it, I felt like a baby trying to learn my way on this planet Earth, its fascinating habitats, its people who are a puzzling race full of vice, greed, violence and yet full of love and forgiveness.

On the morning I finished the first draft, I walked outside and stood on the doorstep and saw our flame tree covered in red. Then the cicadas began to sing.



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Khanh Ha is the author of the highly acclaimed novel Mrs. Rossi's Dream, which The Permanent Press is excited to release this April. He also is the author of  Flesh and The Demon Who Peddled Longing. He is a seven-time Pushcart nominee, a Best Indie Lit New England nominee, a twice finalist of THE WILLIAM FAULKNER-WISDOM CREATIVE WRITING AWARD, the recipient of SAND HILLS PRIZE FOR BEST FICTION, and Greensboro Review's ROBERT WATSON LITERARY PRIZE IN FICTION. The Demon Who Peddled Longing was honored by Shelf Unbound as a Notable Indie Book.