Tag Archives: World War II

The Real Refugees of Casablanca

(Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

Meredith Hindley | Longreads |November 2017 | 2,280 words

On Thanksgiving Day, 1942, an audience stuffed full of holiday cooking settled into the plush seats at the Hollywood Theatre on New York’s Fifty-First Street to watch the premiere of Casablanca, a new film from Warner Brothers. During the summer, the studio had finished shooting the movie, which featured noir favorite Humphrey Bogart and up-and-coming Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, and made plans to release it in early 1943. With few Americans knowing Casablanca was a city in French Morocco — let alone how to find it on a map — the studio banked on audiences’ love of wartime intrigue, along with the star power of Bogart and castmates Claude Rains and Paul Henreid, to sell the film.

But on November 8, reports began to trickle in that the Americans and British had launched Operation TORCH with the goal of seizing Algeria and French Morocco from Vichy France. The assault was a new phase in the war against Nazi Germany, one designed to help the Soviets, who fought a bloody battle against the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Over the next few days, headlines and radio reports buzzed about the fighting in and around Casablanca, as the U.S. Navy battled the French fleet and 33,000 American soldiers stormed Moroccan beaches under the command of Major General George S. Patton, Jr.

Warner Brothers could hardly believe its luck — it had a movie in the can about a city that had just become the site of a major Allied victory. The studio couldn’t buy that kind of publicity. Rather than premiering the film in 1943, Warner Brothers hastily arranged a screening in New York on November 26, 1942, two weeks after the French surrendered Casablanca to the Americans.

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How the Burning Brigade Broke Free

Photo in the public domain

In the village of Ponar, in present-day Lithuania, occupying Nazis shot nearly 100,000 people, then exhumed and burned the bodies in an effort to remove all traces of the atrocity. The prisoners forced to dig up and burn the bodies of their countrymen knew there was only one way to get out alive: escape. Matthew Shaer, in Smithsonian magazine, explores the creation and recent re-discovery of their tunnel to freedom.

The men worked in shifts throughout the night, with saws, files and spoons stolen from the burial pits. Under the cover of darkness, they smuggled wood planks into the lengthening tunnel to serve as struts; as they dug, they brought sandy earth back out and spread it across the bunker floor. Any noise was concealed by the singing of the other prisoners, who were frequently forced to perform for the Sturmbannführer—arias from The Gypsy Baron, by the Austrian composer Johann Strauss II, were a favorite.

After a day of disinterring and burning corpses, “we returned [to the bunker] on all fours,” Zeidel recalled years later, in a series of interviews with the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, today held at an archive at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “We really fell like the dead. But,” Zeidel continued, “the spirit of initiative, the energy, the will that we had” helped sustain them. Once oxygen in the tunnel became too scarce to burn candles, a prisoner named Isaac Dogim, who had worked in Vilnius as an electrician, managed to wire the interior with lights, powered by a generator the Nazis had placed in the bunker. Behind the fake wall, the tunnel was expanding: 10 feet in length, 15. Gradually, the entire Burning Brigade was alerted to the escape plan. Dogim and Farber promised that no one would be left behind.

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In Bed With the Enemy: The Untold Stories of Japanese War Brides

Source: California State University Digital Collections (Public Domain)

Some people think the film I co-directed, “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides,” is a paean to loving Japanese mothers. When one interviewer suggested as much to me and fellow director Karen Kasmauski, we exchanged a look that said, “Shall we tell him the truth?” The film, titled after a Japanese proverb, is about strong women, for sure. Warm and loving mothers? No.

They either tried, or were pressured, to give up their Japanese identities to become more fully American. A first step was often adopting the American nicknames given them when their Japanese names were deemed too hard to pronounce or remember. Chikako became Peggy; Kiyoko became Barbara. Not too much thought went into those choices, names sometimes imposed in an instant by a U.S. officer organizing his pool of typists. My mother, Hiroko Furukawa, became Susie.

At The Washington Post, Kathryn Tolbert reports on Japanese war brides — including her mother — who struggled to fit in in post-war America.

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A Search for the Man Who Saved My Parents’ Lives

During World War II, John Temple’s parents hid in a Budapest cellar with a French doctor, underneath a home that German soldiers had made their headquarters. After they separated from the doctor, they never reconnected. For the next 70 years, they wondered what had happened to this courageous man who saved their lives. Curious to piece together the past after his parents died, Temple embarked on a search to find this man, known to him only as Dr. Lanusse:

When the book arrived from Europe, for the first time I saw my parents’ lives from the outside. It was like watching a movie, in French, without subtitles. A very dramatic, frightening movie co-starring my mother and father. I had heard snippets from them about living beneath German troops. But I had never heard it as a coherent story, with a beginning and an end. I had struggled to picture it, and couldn’t imagine how my parents survived. And then I read:

We heard a noise above our heads. It was the sound of boots, and then the sound of many boots. We didn’t have time to ask ourselves whether they were German, Russian or Hungarian boots before we heard footsteps in the stairway to our cellar. A German soldier burst in, machine gun in hand, just as surprised to see all of us with our hands up as we were to see him.

I was there, with my parents, nearly 10 years before my own birth. It was terrifying.

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How the Emperor Became Human (and MacArthur Became Divine)

The sun goddess Amaterasu, the divine ancestor of the Emperors of Japan, emerging from a cave. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Victor Sebestyen | 1946: The Making of the Modern World | Pantheon Books | November 2015 | 23 minutes (6,202 words)

Below is an excerpt from 1946, by Victor Sebestyen, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.  Read more…

The Missing History of Ravensbrück, The Nazi Concentration Camp for Women

Sarah Helm | Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women | Nan A. Talese | March 2015 | 48 minutes (13,071 words)


Below is a chapter excerpted from Ravensbrück, by Sarah Helm, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky. Read more…

A Very Naughty Little Girl

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Rose George | Longreads | March 2015 | 21 minutes (5,358 words)



She was a name on a plaque and a face on a wall. I ate beneath her portrait for three years and paid it little attention except to notice that the artist had made her look square. There were other portraits of women to hold my attention on the walls of Somerville, my Oxford college: Indira Gandhi, who left without a degree, and Dorothy Hodgkin, a Nobel prize-winner in chemistry. In a room where we had our French language classes, behind glass that was rumored to be bulletproof, there was also a bust of Margaret Thatcher, a former chemistry undergraduate. Somerville was one of only two women’s colleges of the University of Oxford while I was there, from 1988 to 1992, and the walls were crowded with strong, notable women. (The college has since gone co-ed.) Read more…

Budd & Leni

Photos via Wikimedia Commons

Bruce Handy | Tin House | March 2013 | 26 minutes (6,452 words)


They were fleeting and unlikely collaborators, for lack of a better word. He was a son of Jewish Hollywood royalty, she a Nazi fellow traveler and propagandist, though they had a few things in common, too: both were talented filmmakers, both produced enduring work, and both would spend the second halves of their lives explaining or denying past moral compromises. Which isn’t to say the debits on their ledgers were equal—far from it. Read more…

The True Story of the G.I. Bill

Three months later, on October 27, 1943, Roosevelt turned his idea into a concrete proposal, formally asking Congress to enact legislation that would finance one year of educational or vocational training for all who served in World War II. Those deemed to have academic potential would be eligible for support for four years. “For many, what they desire most in the way of employment will require special training and further education,” wrote Roosevelt. “As a part of a general program for the benefit of the members of our armed services, I believe that the Nation is morally obligated to provide this training and education and the necessary financial assistance by which they can be secured.”

Roosevelt envisioned long-term benefits for the country. “The money invested in this training and schooling program will reap rich dividends in higher productivity, more intelligent leadership, and greater human happiness. We must replenish our supply of persons qualified to discharge the heavy responsibilities of the postwar world. We have taught our youth how to wage war; we must also teach them how to live useful and happy lives in freedom, justice, and decency.”

Meredith Hindley, in Humanities, on how the G.I. Bill was born, and how it initially faced opposition from some veterans groups.

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Photo: FDR Library

“My Father, the Good Nazi.” Philippe Sands, Financial Times