Ten (okay, twelve) little-known superheroes

Apropros of nothing, I thought I’d make a list of my own personal superheroes of the Holocaust and World War II. I am fascinated by those events because they involve fighting pure, unambiguous evil, and because they show the extremes of human behavior on both sides of the equation. You see ordinary individuals turning into heroes, or monsters, and there seems to be no way to predict which side any particular person will land on. I would like to say I would have done my part to fight evil, but I’m not sure I would have. I tend to keep my head down and avoid inconvenience and trouble whenever possible. But in my studies of the Holocaust — 382 books and counting, almost all of them nonfiction — I find so many people who awe me with their courage and humanity.

Warning, this entry is a tad bit depressing, for obvious reasons. In no particular order:

1. Marek Edelman, Polish-Jewish doctor and resistance fighter. Edelman was the youngest — about twenty — and last survivor of the leadership of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Following the war, he became a cardiologist and invented some kind of life-saving heart procedure that’s still used today. He was active in civic life in post-war Poland and when all the surviving Jews were heading for the hills to get away from anti-Semitism and the Communist government — even when Edelman’s own wife and children left — he refused to go. He said someone had to stay in Warsaw and remember those who had died. He was imprisoned once for refusing to kowtow to the Communists. Edelman died in 2009 and when I found out, I went down to the basement and got drunk and wept.

2. Emmanuel Ringelblum, Polish-Jewish historian. During the Holocaust in Poland, Ringelblum and some other historians, realized someone needed to record the unprecedented events they were witnessing. They formed a secret organization called “Oneg Shabbat” meaning “Sabbath Celebrants” and kept all the manner of notes, diaries, drawings, photos and documents of what was going on in the Warsaw Ghetto. Needless to say, if the Nazis had found out what they were up to there would have been hell to pay. They buried all their stuff in some milk jugs just before they disbanded. Ringelblum did not survive the Holocaust, but his milk jugs did, and they became one of the most important sources on the Warsaw Ghetto.

3. Johann Georg Elser, Claus Von Stauffenberg’s less famous counterpart. Elser, a German carpenter with a highly evolved consciousness and a great deal of patience, tried to assassinate Hitler in 1939. He did this because he believed Hitler was an evil person who would destroy the country if he wasn’t stopped. That Elser’s attempt did not succeed is no fault of his. Working absolutely alone and in secret and with no training at all, he taught himself how to make a bomb and spent a year plotting the assassination, chipping a hidey-hole for his bomb in the stone pillar behind the lectern in the building where Hitler gave his annual speech on the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch. The bomb went off right on time and it was spectacularly lethal, destroying the building, killing eight people and injuring sixty-three more. Unfortunately, Hitler had changed his plans at the last minute and left the building thirteen minutes earlier. Thirteen minutes. Imagine how different history would be today if he had died in 1939. Elser was arrested that same night trying to sneak over the border into Switzerland. They held him for four and a half years and finally shot him in April 1945, only a few weeks before Germany’s surrender.

4. Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who was serving in Lithuania in 1939 and 1940. For a six-week period in the summer of 1940, in spite of direct orders from his superiors not to do it, Sugihara issued visas to Jewish refugees so they could get out of the country in advance of the pending Nazi invasion. He worked “18–20 hours a day on them, producing a normal month’s worth of visas each day,” and when his hand got tired from signing he had a stamp of his signature made and used that. He would give a visa to anyone, no questions asked, when all the other countries were turning everyone away. The Japanese consulate was closed in September 1940 and Sugihara had to leave. Even at the train station he was handing out visas, even throwing them out the train window as it pulled away. He issued about 6,000 visas in all, and many were “family visas” meaning more than one person could travel on them. There are estimates that he saved about ten thousand lives. (Take that, Oskar Schindler!) Sugihara wasn’t honored for his actions until the end of his life. When he was told about how they were going to give him the Righteous Among the Nations award, he was bewildered and said he’d just been doing what any decent person would do. (The question, then, is why did so many so-called decent people not do it?)

5. Joseph Gavi, Soviet-Jewish polymath. Not a polymath on the order of Da Vinci, but very multi-talented just the same. Gavi was Jewish and grew up in Minsk, Belarus. By the time he was thirteen, he had sneaked 300 Jews out of the Minsk Ghetto (including his mom and baby brother), fought with the partisans and was decorated, traveled from Minsk to St. Petersburg (600 miles) and then to Moscow (560 miles) alone and with no assistance or money or extra clothes or any resources at all, and enrolled in a prestigious Russian Naval Academy on the strength of his army record, concealing the fact that he had no education and was totally illiterate. (He secretly taught himself to read at the academy.) Unfortunately, the academy was for orphans, and when they found out Joseph’s mom was still alive they sent him home. From his mid-teens into adulthood he got his high school education, became an expert photo restorer, became a champion mountaineer and climbing instructor, became the featherweight wrestling champion for the Belarusian SSR, became an alcoholic and then kicked the habit, got a doctorate in physiology, and taught and researched at the Minsk Polytechnic Institute. Then in the 1970s he and his family moved to the US and he started first a home construction business and then a restaurant, both of them successful. He died in 2002. I’ve nominated him for the Badass of the Week site and the owner seemed interested, but he hasn’t been profiled yet.

6. Janusz Korczak, Polish-Jewish author, doctor, pedagogue and orphanage founder. I wrote in detail about Korczak’s life and death on Executed Today. Suffice it to say that he died a hero, and that’s great, but it’s a pity that people focus on his heroic death and forget his even more heroic life. It’s easy to die for a cause; harder to live for one.

7. Sasha Pechersky, Soviet-Jewish soldier and POW. After being taken prisoner by the Germans and unmasked as a Jew, Sasha was sent to the horrific extermination camp Sobibor, where over 200,000 people were killed. The Jewish prisoners there knew their days were numbered and they wanted to revolt, but they lacked organization and leadership. Sasha provided this, using his military training and experience to carefully plan and execute the revolt: very quietly, they killed their guards one by one and then staged a and mass escape. Against all odds, 53 of the escapees survived the war, and they could never have gotten out of camp without Sasha’s help. He rejoined the Red Army, but was sent to a penal battalion because of his having been taken prisoner by the Germans. He was decorated, but after the war he was persecuted for being a Jew and eventually thrown in prison. Only after Stalin died was he released from prison, and the Soviet authorities kept him from leaving the country to testify at various war crimes trials. He died in 1990.

8. Adina Blady Szwajger, Polish-Jewish pediatrician. She had just completed her education when the war started. She worked at the Warsaw Ghetto Children’s Hospital. When the mass deportations started, Adina knew the hospital would be one of the first targets, as indeed it was. In my review of her memoir I wrote: “During the liquidation of the ghetto, as the Nazis were shooting patients and throwing into trucks those that could still walk, Dr. Szwajger went to the tuberculosis ward and gave the children each an overdose of morphine, telling them it would take their pain away. She had promised to stay with the children until the end, so she waited until they all went to sleep, then she ran for her life. But decades later she was haunted by the thought that maybe one or two of them woke up later, alone.” Amidst all the horror she tried to commit suicide with an overdose of Luminal, an anti-seizure drug and sleeping pill (a common method of suicide in those days), but the other doctors at the hospital found her and revived her. She escaped to the Aryan side to join the resistance, providing medical care for people in hiding and abortions for pregnant Jewish women. Following the failure of the Warsaw Uprising when the Nazis leveled the city, she escaped through the sewers. Dr. Szwajger resumed her medical practice in Poland after the war. She died in 1993, and her good friend Marek Edelman (see above) attended her in her last days. Polish Wikipedia says both her daughter and her granddaughter are actresses in Jewish Theater.

9. Isaac Perlmutter, Polish-Jewish husband and father. He and his family were imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto and during the Aktion in September 1942, when all children under the age of ten were deported, he was able to hide his six-year-old daughter Syvia in an unused grave in the cemetery and keep her safe. He stayed with her every night so she wouldn’t get scared. In 1944, when the Lodz Ghetto was liquidated and its inhabitants sent to Auschwitz, Isaac Perlmutter got himself signed up to be one of the 700-odd people who stayed behind to clean up. Without permission, he sneaked his wife and oldest daughter, Dora, into the work group. He set up a hiding place in a cellar and, as families were waiting to board the deportation trains, he would approach them and offer to hide their children. Most of the parents said no, but some said yes, and thus Isaac was able to save a dozen children — including Syvia — from certain death in the gas chambers. After the war, the Perlmutter family moved to America and Syvia changed her name to Sylvia. Her niece, Jennifer Roy, wrote an award-winning verse novel based on the story, called Yellow Star.

10. Tuvia, Zus and Asael Bielski, Belarusian-Jewish partisans. These three men (there was a fourth brother, Aron, who was a child at the time) formed a Jewish partisan group in the forest starting in 1942. This was a special group. Most partisans saw their primary mission as killing Nazis, and they accepted only people who had weapons or were at least capable of fighting. The Bielski group’s primary mission was to save lives; killing Nazis was secondary. There were actually two groups: the fighting group and the “family camp” of children, old people and other non-combatants. The Bielskis accepted everyone who would come, and Tuvia once said something like, “I would rather save one old woman than kill ten Nazis.” At peak population there were 1,236 people, 70% of whom were in the family camp. The Nazis were seriously annoyed and at one point offered a 100,000 Reichmark reward for Tuvia’s capture. In 1944, the group disbanded when the Russians arrived in the area. Asael was drafted into the Red Army and was killed on the front in 1945. Tuvia, Zus and Aron survived the war and moved to America. Only Aron is still alive. There are two books about the Bielski brothers and a reasonably accurate movie, Defiance, starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia.

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Article about Josh Powell 911 calltaker

I found this article about the dispatcher who took the social worker’s 911 call after Josh Powell locked her out of the house. (I wrote about the call earlier, and linked to a tape of it.)

There is no doubt that the dispatcher, who’s been working at the call center since 1993, screwed up badly in this case. He admits it himself. But he had a good record and had gotten commendations and such for his work. He even won the Crowning Achievement Superior Service Award last year and was called “shining example of a compassionate, knowledgeable 9-1-1 call taker.” Nevertheless he’s (understandably) being crucified all over the internet and presumably on the streets of Pierce County, Washington.

There’s a comment on the article that sums up the situation very nicely in my opinion, and merits quoting in full:

We should not judge him – he is judging himself quite well without our help. We cannot say that, had he realized what the social worker herself did not quite realize in the first moments, those two children would be alive. It is doubtful they could of been saved by anyone once that front door slammed. We have only one person to blame in this ugly mess and that is Josh Powell. Direct your anger at him alone and leave this poor 911 dispatcher alone for he will carry that horrid conversation in his head for the rest of his life.

I think a lot of people are focusing their rage on the dispatcher because their real target, Josh Powell, is out of reach of all of us.

MP of the week

I’ve decided to start announcing my MPs of the week on my blog from now on, as well as the Charley Project frontpage, in hopes that this might help me remember better to put them up every Tuesday. I forgot last week. Generally if I don’t update on Tuesday, I forget to change the MP of the week too.

Anyway, this week it’s Vicente Rios Quinonez, who disappeared in 1996 together with (cousin? brother?) Julian Quinonez as they attempted to cross the Mexican border into Arizona. I figure they probably died out in the desert, but who knows.

Article about missing South African girl

I found this article about Mbali Nkosi, a fifteen-year-old girl from Dube, South Africa who vanished without a trace seven months ago. She went to the grocery store and never came back. Later that day her mom, Zodwa, got a (text?) message saying “please call me.” She did, and Mbali said “Mama” and then the line went dead and she was never heard from again. Reminds me of Maria De Los Angeles Martinez. Or Diane Augat.

Mbali’s sixteenth birthday was on February 7. The article says, “Her disappearance has since affected Zodwa, who was admitted at Chris Hani-Baragwanath Academic Hospital.” From that sentence I’m not sure if it was depression or just health problems caused/exacerbated by stress. I checked the hospital website and it doesn’t have a psychiatry/behavioral health department listed. It is, in any case, very sad.

There have been anonymous calls from people saying they saw Mbali, and one wanted 1000 South African rands (about $123) to reveal her whereabouts. Her father arranged to meet up with the man, but he never showed. I looked up her name on Google and found several people with that name, but most of the results weren’t about this Mbali. I did find this article written shortly after her disappearance. She was a Grade 9 student at Orlando West High School in Soweto, and was considering a career in nursing.

It sounds as if Mbali might have been forced into prostitution. I certainly hope not. I know the crime rate in South Africa is very high — as is the HIV infection rate, which Wikipedia says is at 18.10% compared to .60% in America.

What happened today

Today I had my bimonthly visit to my psychiatrist, Dr. Bruno. They were running an hour late, which was extremely annoying; good thing I had no other plans. If I charged him the waiting time he’d wind up owing ME money. Anyway, I told him about the I-Match program and how much better I feel now, even though I still have the Headache. I talked about how before, my headache pain would get so bad sometimes that I wanted to kill myself — this happened twice in the month of January, for example.

“You shouldn’t say that,” he said. “You will get yourself in trouble. I’m a psychiatrist, you know.”

“But you understand,” I said, and he said yes. We know each other well enough that I can talk about suicidal thoughts with him without being automatically thrown in the hospital. (And incidentally, I haven’t had any since I’ve gone into the program.)

Dr. Bruno was very curious and asked all sorts of questions about what sort of stuff they did at I-Match, and did I have to sleep there, or what. It turns out his curiosity wasn’t idle: at the end of my visit he revealed that he had another patient with severe chronic back pain who’d been recommended for the I-Match’s counterpart, literally just across the hall, their three-week general pain management program based on the same model and run by the same people. He said his patient was “whining” about how she didn’t want to go away for three whole weeks, etc.

“Tell her what my friends told me,” I said, “that she’s probably already lost three weeks and more in pain days. It’s an investment.” I gave him my official permission to share with that woman my story and how much pain I was in and how thus far I have benefited immensely. He said he would. I hope he can convince her to go. I would count it as a good deed on my part if my story would help persuade her.

People the NCMEC list as runaways who probably weren’t

The NCMEC works in mysterious ways and sometimes I find myself shaking my head at their classification system and who’s classified as what. The following people are listed as “endangered runaway” on the NCMEC website, when in fact they probably didn’t run away at all. I’m not saying there’s not one person on this list who ran away, but in all these cases the runaway theory is doubtful at best:

James Robert Cooper, 16, disappeared from Monroe, Michigan in 1996. Left behind his wallet, ID, money and an uncashed paycheck, and never contacted his friends or family again. Most runaways usually at least drop a postcard in the mail or call someone from a pay phone or (nowadays) update their Facebook page.
William Charles Cordes, 15, disappeared from Auburn, California in 1984. He was in a group home, and he and his friends sneaked out to go to a party and their car ran out of gas. His friends went to get gas and when they came back he was gone. His family never believed he ran away, and the circumstances of his disappearance as well as the passage of time don’t point to a runaway theory.
Ivory Francis Green, 17, disappeared from Utica, New York in 2004. In 2007, the police said they believed she was the victim of a homicide, possibly drug-related.
Angela Rene Jaramillo, 16, disappeared from Dallas, Texas in 2010. Authorities found her cell phone in a local park, along with some evidence that she’d been injured.
Stacey Haunani Kelekoma, 14, disappeared from Anahola, Hawaii in 1986. Vanished from her boyfriend’s house, leaving the TV on, the door open and her slippers by the door.
Ayellah Gbo Dzata Marshall, 17, disappeared from Hawthorne, California in 2006. Her ID turned up in the home of Lonnie Franklin, the so-called “Grim Sleeper” who’s been charged in ten murders and suspected in a lot of others.
Carlee Jade Morse, 16, disappeared from Westland, Michigan in 2010. Her ex-boyfriend and a friend of his were charged with her murder, and one of suspects pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against the other.
Arkadiy Tashman, 17, disappeared from Staten Island in New York City in 2005. A strange case: he left a note saying “Sorry about this. No wake, no funeral.” There there were no indications that he was planning to run away and his family said they didn’t see signs that he was suicidal either, but it’s hard to interpret that note any other way.
Laura Lynn Thompson, 15, disappeared from New Castle, Pennsylvania in 1993. Left behind an infant son. In 2010, two suspects were charged with her murder. They’re awaiting trial.
Alissa Marie Turney, 17, disappeared from Phoenix, Arizona in 2001. She left all her belongings behind, including $1,800 in her bank account. The general consensus is that her psychotic stepfather, Michael, killed her, but he hasn’t been charged. He’s in prison for weapons violations now; he had planned to blow up a local union hall and kill himself in the process. The cops found 26 homemade bombs, 19 assault rifles and two homemade silencers at his house.