book reviews

Repost: A review of Survival In Auschwitz by Primo Levi…

And here’s a book review that appeared on my old blog on July 28, 2017. It is reposted as/is.

Here’s yet another review of another book about the Holocaust that took place during World War II.  I am finished reading about the Holocaust for now.  Too much reading about the mass murders that went on less than one hundred years ago is depressing and there’s plenty to be depressed about today, without reading history. 

Survival in Auschwitz, originally published in Italy under the name If This Is A Man, was written by an Italian Jew named Primo Levi, who was incarcerated at Auschwitz from February 1944 until the camp was liberated on January 27, 1945.  Levi was deported from Turin, Italy, having been arrested as a member of an Italian resistance group.  At the time of his arrest, Levi was a 25 year old chemist.

The original title of Levi’s book seems to be better than the English title bestowed upon it.  This book is basically about what happens to good people when they are beaten, starved, and placed in an environment where only the fittest and luckiest survive.  With a dry wit and an almost dispassionate tone, Levi writes about the cut throat environment of Auschwitz, as well as the small threads of humanity and even humor.  If This Is A Man was originally published in Italian in 1947, when Levi was still a young man and Auschwitz was still a fresh memory to many people.  However, reading it today seventy years later, it still maintained a gripping hold on me.  At just 172 pages, this book packs a lot of meaning into a brief manuscript.  It was published in English for the first time in 1959.

Levi describes the whole dehumanizing experience of his time at Auschwitz with starkness and clarity.  He writes of how families were torn apart upon their arrival at the camp.  They were stripped of their clothes; their heads were shaved; tattooed numbers on the ones who were not immediately gassed; and treated as mere objects to be used.  The men who were incarcerated with Levi came from different countries.  They all spoke different languages and many did not understand German, save for a few words like Jawohl (a strong affirmative, roughly equivalent to “Yes Sir or Ma’am”).

The prisoners who survived their arrival at Auschwitz were given ill fitting clothes that would never keep them warm, shoes that were full of holes, and the minimum amount of food– soup and bread.  Levi writes about how prisoners would use their food rations as currency and, sometimes, come up with ingenious ways to make themselves slightly more comfortable.  Naturally, trying to make things better was not allowed; prisoners who were caught were made an example of as they were publicly executed.  Levi witnessed many people killed before his very eyes.  He describes the executions, again with a minimum of emotion, yet with grace and clarity.

Every prisoner learned never to trust anyone.  The smart ones never left bowls, spoons, shoes, or anything else unguarded, or it would be stolen.  The prisoners worked hard every day.  Under normal circumstances, those who could not work would eventually be killed.  Ironically, the ones who eventually survived Auschwitz post liberation were the sick ones.  Levi happened to be among them when the Russians liberated the camp.  The so-called “healthy” prisoners who were “evacuated” ahead of the Russians’ arrival did not survive.  Sadly, one of Levi’s friends was among those who left and was not heard from again.

Levi explains that prisoners who were docile and compliant were not the ones who survived.  The survivors were physically powerful, shrewd, or had a skill the Germans coveted.  Since Levi was a chemist, he was of use to the Germans.  That was why he managed to live ten months.  Many, many other prisoners never made it that long.  Some of the ones who seemed like they would be of value to the Germans were murdered, while some who were sickly lived for awhile.  It was as if the selections were arbitrary and careless.

It’s really hard for me to reconcile the mostly good people I’ve come to know here in Germany as coming from the same people who could be so incredibly cruel to others.  I know now that this part of history is still a source of great shame to Germans and they have taken steps to make amends to the groups of people who were persecuted and murdered during World War II.  I am continually amazed when I consider that the Holocaust occurred during my parents’ lifetimes.  I was born not even thirty years after these atrocities occurred.  It seems incredible to me. 

But then I look at our world today and realize that these same horrors are going on in other parts of the world.  The battle is still raging, just with different players.  Maybe that’s why I think it’s so important to read about World War II and the Holocaust, depressing as it is. 

In any case, this book is fascinating and extremely well written.  I think it’s a worthwhile read for anyone researching the Holocaust and what it was actually like to be at Auschwitz.  Levi is very matter-of-fact in his writing, which seems fitting given how casually and arbitrarily human lives were disposed of during World War II.  I highly recommend Survival in Auschwitz (If This Is A Man) to all people who are concerned about where we could be heading if our world leaders don’t pull their heads out of their collective asses soon.

An informative video about Primo Levi, author of Survival in Auschwitz.

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book reviews, Uncategorized

A review of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women

One of my high school friends, now a nurse, suggested Kate Moore’s 2017 book, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women to me right around the time it was first published. I bought it then, but as it goes with me and my book collection, it’s taken two years to get around to reading it. I’m glad I took the time. The Radium Girls is a fascinating, horrifying, beautifully written, tragic story, that ultimately ends in triumph.

Kate Moore, a British author who has written for the Sunday Times and has penned many books of varying genres, first became aware of the “shining women” when she directed a play about them called These Shining Lives. She correctly ascertained that she had a winner in writing the story of the many young women from Newark, New Jersey and Ottawa, Illinois who worked in factories, using radium paint to make the dials of watches and other instruments glow in the dark. Moore’s work on this story is very interesting and extremely readable.

Who were America’s “Shining Women”?

In 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium (Ra), a chemical element that was once heralded as completely harmless and life giving. Radium was helpful in making luminescent paint that was used to make instrument panels, watches, clocks, aircraft switches, and other things glow in the dark so that they could be seen when there was no light. The luminescent paint was a game changer in technology and, about one hundred years ago, one of the best jobs a young woman in Newark, New Jersey could have was working at the United States Radium Corporation in a studio, painting dials with radium based paint.

Moore writes that the group of young women who worked at the factories were good friends. The work was pleasant and paid very well. They even had fun with the glowing paint, which they had been assured would not harm them. The technique they used to paint the dials required the women to “point” the paintbrushes with their lips. Doing so caused the women to ingest the paint, but again, they were promised it was harmless. Using other methods to get a fine point on their paintbrushes took longer and used more of the product, which was “precious”. However, that didn’t stop some of the women from purposely painting their fingernails and teeth with the substance, simply because it was kind of “cool”. They’d eat lunch at their work stations and came home with the radium paint particles all over their bodies and clothing, spreading it to those who didn’t work at the company. After work, they would literally glow in the dark, prompting them to have the nickname, “Ghost Girls”.

For awhile, all was fine. The women enthusiastically painted the dials, filling orders as fast as they could and raking in handsome paychecks for their time. But then, after years of doing the work and thousands of exposures to radium, the women began to get sick. Often, the illness began with what seemed like dental problems. One of the women would get a bad toothache. She’d go to the dentist, who would pull the tooth. Then, before long, another tooth would have to be pulled. Pretty soon, she would lose all of her teeth, and the woman’s jawbone would begin to disintegrate. The jaw would have chunks of bone breaking off and bleeding, getting infected, and destroying the woman’s health as the poisoning affected other parts of her body and turned her into an invalid. Dentists were at a loss to determine what was causing the rash of dental issues among the employees at the dial factory, but it repeatedly happened to many of the women who worked there.

Pretty soon, the toothless women with the disintegrating jawbones became anemic. They developed sarcomas, some of which ended in amputations. Again, doctors had no idea what was wrong with them and could not seem to help their patients get well. Some of the less scrupulous of the physicians realized what was happening and made deals with the radium corporation not to release their data. Instead, they’d claim the women had syphilis, which smeared their reputations.

Although it was clear the women were suffering horribly after having been exposed to the radiation, the United States Radium Corporation refused to compensate them. Instead, they engaged in cover ups and outright lies. The bravest of the women came forward in a lawsuit to force their employers to do the right thing. But it was an uphill battle– expensive, physically grueling, and there weren’t many lawyers who wanted to take on the job. Worse, some of the women who had come forward to fight were unable to see it through, as they perished from their illnesses before a judgment could be made.

For more on this, you could watch a video… but I really think you should read Kate Moore’s excellent book, too!

My thoughts

Kate Moore has done a masterful job writing this book. I had never heard of America’s “Shining Women” before I heard about Moore’s work from my friend. I kept meaning to get around to reading it. I’m so glad I finally made the effort. This is a great read, which left me both angry and awestruck. As Moore points out, the women who got sick were not the only ones who suffered. Some of the women were married and had children, and their husbands, if they didn’t divorce them due to the illness, had to stand by and watch their wives wither away. Some of the women were left infertile… if they were lucky. One woman had three miscarriages and delivered a stillborn child after having been exposed to the radium based paint.

Greedy company officials, fixated on their fiscal bottom lines, would have the women checked over by medical professionals, but the ones who were very sick never got their results. The officials knew that if those women knew what had happened to them, they would cause a scandal. As we know now, that cover up was ultimately futile. They got their scandal, and ultimately the women who managed to survive, and their friends and families, got some justice. Perhaps more importantly, workplace safety became more of a thing, for women and men.

I liked that Moore translated the monetary settlements into today’s money. For example, a judgment of $5000 back in the 1920s would equate to about $90,000 now. Moore would put today’s equivalent in parenthesis, which gives readers an idea of what the money was worth. The same went for the hospitals’ and physicians’ bills, which would seem very “cheap” by today’s standards. Back then, they were substantially high, and truly caused hardship for the women, despite those who had managed to hang on to their well-paying painting gigs. The aftermath of the factories lingered even after they closed. One former building was turned into a meat plant, which led to people getting cancer. In fact, there were higher than normal incidences of cancer in the towns where these plants were… people and animals were affected. Quite a few pet owners lost their pets to cancer well before the animals every fully matured.

This book is also extremely well researched. Moore covers the women in Newark, New Jersey and Ottawa, Illinois, writing their stories as if they were part of a soap opera, which makes the book compulsively readable. Not only is The Radium Girls informative on many levels, it’s also weirdly entertaining. Moore has a knack for writing compelling stories. I can’t say that I’ve ever been interested in chemistry, but Moore made me want to learn more about radium, which I consider quite an impressive feat. On the other hand, I did study public health, and this is definitely a subject for public health students. I can see it being relevant in several disciplines– environmental science, epidemiology, health administration (paying for all that treatment), and even health promotion.

So, if you’re looking for an excellent read and you like science and history, I would absolutely recommend Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. You’ll learn a lot, and the pages will practically turn themselves. I would not be surprised if someone turns this story into a TV series or major motion picture.

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