July 21

1899 Birth of Hart Crane

What is it about poets? Their lives seem so much more troubled and eventful than ordinary mortals. Ovid dies in exile; François Villon is tortured and banished; Christopher Marlowe is stabbed to death in a bar fight; adulterous, incestuous Byron dies in a civil war; Shelley dies at sea; Thomas Chatterton and John Keats die poor and young; Christopher Smart and Ezra Pound spend years in an insane asylum; Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and John  McCrae perish in the trenches of World War I; Anne Sexton, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sylvia Plath commit suicide; Garcia Lorca is murdered; Dylan Thomas drinks himself to death. And then there is Hart Crane.

Born into a prosperous family, the son of the inventor of Life-Saver candy, Crane dropped out of high school to become a writer. He soon attracted a supportive readership — his unhappiness was not caused by an unfeeling world. Since few poets have ever managed to feed and clothe themselves from the financial rewards of their art (Rod McKuen is a dishonourable exception), he relied on handouts, generous patrons, and long-suffering friends as he laboured to complete The Great American Poem, his answer to Virgil’s Aeniad or Eliot’s “The Waste Land”.

His homosexuality, which sought relief at the hands of sailors and other rough trade, brought him beatings rather than joy. His alcoholism and belligerence as a drunk earned him a spell in a Parisian jail. Crane’s one heterosexual excursion with painter Peggy Cowley ended unhappily and soon after that period, in April 1932, clothed in his pyjamas and a top coat, he threw himself off the railing of a ship on the Atlantic. His last words were “Goodbye, everybody!”

My favourite poem of this unhappy fellow is “My Grandmother’s Love Letters”.

There are no stars tonight

But those of memory.

Yet how much room for memory there is

In the loose girdle of soft rain.

There is even room enough

For the letters of my mother’s mother,


That have been pressed so long

Into a corner of the roof

That they are brown and soft,

And liable to melt as snow.

Over the greatness of such space

Steps must be gentle.

It is all hung by an invisible white hair.

It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.

And I ask myself:

"Are your fingers long enough to play

Old keys that are but echoes:

Is the silence strong enough

To carry back the music to its source

And back to you again

As though to her?"

Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand

Through much of what she would not understand;

And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof

With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

July 16


The Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup

Early in 1942, the German government decided on a policy of exterminating Jews in the territories under their control by shipping them to death camps in eastern Europe. To do so in  France required the permission of the puppet French government in Vichy, which agreed that the German occupying forces could arrest foreign Jews, while French Jews would be scooped up by local police. After securing the agreement of the Vichy government, German officials and French police conducted roundups of Jews in both the occupied and unoccupied zones of France throughout the summer of 1942. The Vél d’Hiv was part of a series of roundups codenamed Opération Vent printanier (Operation Spring Wind) that took place across the country in spring and summer of 1942.

Preparations for the Roundup

Planning for the Vél d’Hiv roundup took place among René Bousquet, secretary general of the French national police; Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, Commissioner for Jewish Affairs under the Vichy Régime; SS-Hauptsturmführer Theodor Dannecker, head of Adolf Eichmann’s Judenreferat [Jewish Section] in France; and SS-Oberstürmführer Helmut Knochen, head of the German Security Police in France.

The Director of the local Paris Municipal Police, Emile Hennequin, sent precise expectations for the roundup to the police prefecture three days before the event. The roundup was originally set to take place from July 13–15, which included Bastille Day, the French national holiday. The holiday was not celebrated in the occupied zones of France, and in order to preclude local rioting, Nazi officials allowed French officials to delay the operation until July 16–17.

The German goal was that French police would round up 28,000 foreign and stateless Jews in the greater Paris area. They were to exempt “sensitive cases” such as British or American Jews. Although German authorities had originally agreed to exempt children under the age of 16, French Prime Minister Pierre Laval suggested for “humanitarian” reasons that children be arrested with their parents, unless a family member remained behind to care for them. Four thousand children were among those arrested in Paris.

In order to maintain a detailed record of the roundup, the police were to report the number of people they arrested each hour to their local prefecture.

July 16–17

Beginning in the early hours of July 16, French police rounded up thousands of men, women, and children throughout Paris. By the end of the day, the police had taken 2,573 men, 5,165 women, and 3,625 children from their homes. The roundup continued the following day, but with a much smaller number of arrests.

Approximately 6,000 of those rounded up were immediately transported to Drancy, in the northern suburbs of Paris. Drancy was at that point a transit camp for Jews being deported from France. The rest of the arrestees were detained at the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Winter Cycling Track), an indoor sporting arena in Paris’s fifteenth arrondissement.

Officials could have held few illusions of the unsuitability of the “Vél d’Hiv” for holding such a large population indefinitely. Early in the war, it had been used to intern German nationals, mainly refugees. In 1940 it housed interned foreign women. In both instances, conditions were deplorable.

Following the roundup of Jews in greater Paris, some 7,000 Jews, among them almost 4,000 children, were crowded together in the sports arena. There was scarcely space to lie down and the incarcerated Jews faced appalling circumstances. No arrangements had been made for food, water, or sanitary facilities. Only two physicians a shift were allowed in to treat the internees. The glass ceiling of the arena contributed to a stifling environment by day, as all ventilation had been sealed to prevent escape, and led to chilly temperatures at night. Parisian Quakers came to bring food and water.


After five days, Jews incarcerated at the Vél d’Hiv were transferred to other transit camps outside Paris. At Drancy, Pithiviers, and Beaune-la-Rolande, French police guarded these men, women, and children until transport to concentration camps and killing centers in the east. At the end of July, the remaining adults were separated from their children and deported to Auschwitz. Over 3,000 children remained interned without their parents until they were deported, among adult strangers, to Auschwitz as well.

German authorities continued the deportations of Jews from French soil until August 1944. In all, some 77,000 Jews living on French territory perished, the overwhelming majority of them at Auschwitz.

Postwar Trials

For his prominent role in the deportation of Jews from France, Pierre Laval, formerly the French Prime Minister, was arrested and tried after the liberation of France. He was shot by firing squad on 15 October 1945.

The fate of two German officials most involved in the Vél d’Hiv mirrored the common fates of high-ranking SS administrators. Theodor Dannecker was arrested by American officials in Bad Tölz, Bavaria, in December 1945, and committed suicide while in custody. Helmut Knochen, sentenced by a British court to 21 years in prison for a separate offense, was sentenced to death by a French court in 1954. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and Knochen was released on orders of French President Charles de Gaulle in November 1962.

In 1949, René Bousquet, secretary general of the French police, was found guilty for his role in the complicit Vichy government, but his sentence was immediately commuted for “having actively and sustainably participated in the resistance against the occupier.” In 1991, French justice authorities in Paris indicted Bousquet for his participation in the deportation of Jews from France. Christian Didier, a mentally ill individual, assassinated Bousquet in his home in Paris on June 8, 1993, before proceedings could take place.

Acknowledging the Role of the State and Police

On July 16, 1995, on the fifty-third anniversary of the Vél d’Hiv roundup, French President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the role the state and its police had played in the persecution of Jews and other victims of the German occupation. “France,” Chirac said, “land of the Enlightenment and of Human Rights, land of hospitality and asylum, France, on that day, committed an irreparable act. It failed to keep its word and delivered those under its protection to their executioners.”

This post is taken from the Holocaust Museum’s excellent website. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10008213



July 9


Death of Jan van Eyck

The explosion of artistic genius in the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries is often referred to as part of the “Northern Renaissance” but I would categorize it as “Late Gothic”; there is not in the works of painters such as van Eyck, Bosch or Brueghel much of the contemporary Italian fascination with pagan mythology, sexually-charged topics, or obsession with perspective.

Jan van Eyck was born sometime before 1390 and reached the height of his talent in the decade before his death. He was often patronized by the Duke of Burgundy who ruled much of the Netherlands and who offered van Eyck both artistic and diplomatic commissions. Van Eyck was an early master of oil painting, so much so that a century later Giorgio Vasari credited him with inventing the technique.

Some of his masterpieces are:

The Arnolfini Portrait

The Virgin of Chancellor Rollin

The Ghent Altarpiece

A critic has said of van Eyck  that “from the fifteenth century onward, commentators have expressed their awe and astonishment at his ability to mimic reality and, in particular, to re-create the effects of light on different surfaces, from dull reflections on opaque surfaces to luminous, shifting highlights on metal or glass … Through his understanding of the effects of light and rigorous scrutiny of detail, Van Eyck is able to construct a convincingly unified and logical pictorial world, suffusing the absolute stillness of the scene with scintillating energy.”

June 30

More tough love

Both my readers will recall an entry a few days ago which chronicled the parenting skills of on Don Alonso Guzman who lent a knife to an enemy threatening to kill Alonso’s son. Today we consider the maternal feelings of one of the Renaissance’s most embattled women, Caterina Sforza.

Caterina (1463-1509) was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan and was married at age a very early age to Girolamo Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, lord of a pair of cities in the Romagna, Forli and Imola. She became well known for her intelligence and beauty and quickly gained a reputation for a strong-willed courage which her husband lacked.

In 1488, her husband was murdered and their castle of Forli was under siege. Her children had fallen into the hands of the enemy, the Orsi family, and they in true Italian Renaissance style, threatened to kill the kids of Caterina did not surrender. According to one account, she taunted her foes, exposed her genital, and shouted “Fatelo, se volete: impiccateli pure davanti a me … qui ho quanto basta per farne altri!” (“Do it, if you want to: hang them even in front of me … here I have what’s necessary to make others!”) The Orsis were over-awed and her children were spared.

Caterina was no saint. She ordered murders, dealt with Machiavelli, and went on to endure much more — siege, treason, the murder of yet another husband, rape, and dungeons. She deserves to be better remembered than she is. Those interested should read The Tigress of Forli by Elizabeth Lev.

June 28

1292 Tough love

With Father’s Day in the recent past, it is time to consider Francis Bacon’s observation that he who has a wife and children “hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.”

In the 13th century a welter of kingdoms in Spain, both Muslim and Christian, were at war with each other. King Sancho IV of Castile had taken the castle of Tarifa (at the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula) from the Moors and placed its command in the hands of Don Alonso Perez de Guzman who moved into the fortress with his family, all except his son who was in care of the king’s brother John. 

John was a bit of weasel who had already rebelled his brother and been forgiven but in 12921 he turned again on the king. This time he called in Muslim troops from North Africa and besieged Tarifa, John believed that he had, in the son of Don Alonso, a key to an easy surrender of the castle. He had used the threat to kill a child hostage before to great effect and so, showing the bound child to the defenders, shouted “Alonso Perez de Guzman! Know that unless you yield this stronghold to me immediately, you shall behold the death of your own son at my hand!”

Looking down at the prince, the besiegers, and his weeping son, Alonso replied, “I did not beget a son to be made use of against my country, but that he should serve her against her foes. Should Don Juan put him to death, he will but confer honour on me, true life on my son, and on himself eternal shame in this world and everlasting wrath after death. So far am I from yielding this place or betraying my trust, that in case you should need a weapon for your cruel purpose, here is my own knife!” And he threw down his dagger at John’s feet.

John promptly picked up the knife and cut the boy’s throat. His Berber allies were disgusted and eventually the siege was abandoned. Prince John became a pariah and could find no refuge in Christian Spain, living in exile in Muslim Granada.

Don Alozonzo was heaped with honours by his king and his descendants became the Dukes of Medina-Sidonia, the greatest house of Spanish nobility.

June 27

The last of the Last Words offerings (for a while):

“It is better to perish here than to kill all these poor beans.” — The ultra-vegetarian Pythagoras, Greek philosopher and mathematician (495 BC), refusing to escape from an angry mob with his students through a fava bean field.

And, Master Kyngston, had I but served God as diligently as I have served the king, he would not have given me over in my gray hairs. But this is my just reward for my pains and study, not regarding my service to God, but only my duty to my Prince.” — Thomas Wolsey, English archbishop, statesman and cardinal (29 November 1530). Henry VIII was a monster whose favour was always short-lived and fatal.

“Stand by me, Tom, and we will die together.”
— Robert Catesby, leader of the Gunpowder Plot to effect the largest mass murder in English history (8 November 1605). Catesby and Thomas Percy were shot by armed men sent to arrest them after the failure of the Catholic uprising. Their fate was easier compared to the hideous tortures visited upon those plotters, like Guy Fawkes, who were captured.

“More weight.”
— Giles Corey, American farmer (19 September 1692), being pressed to death during the Salem witch trials. If one were accused of a crime where the death penalty was thought to be unavoidable, a refusal to plead either innocent or guilty could protect one’s property from seizure after death. The problem was that refusal to plead would led to the peine forte et dure or being loaded with ever-greater weight until one either pled or died. It took the 82-year-old Giles Corey three days to die.

“So many people who knew the condition of Amritsar say I did right…but so many others say I did wrong. I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong.”
— Reginald Dyer, British army officer (23 July 1927). In April 1919, the city of Amritsar was rocked by Hindu mob violence aimed at Sikhs and Europeans. People were killed, banks looted, and, worst of all in the eyes of the British occupation, a white woman missionary was beaten and left for dead. The police were unable to stem the disorder and so the Army was called in. General Reginald Dyer proclaimed — with great publicity —  that all large gatherings were forbidden and when thousands gathered in defiance of the decree, he ordered his troops (mostly Ghurkas from Nepal) to open fire on a crowd in an enclosed market place. After 15 minutes of firing, 379 people were dead and over 1,200 were wounded. Dyer was praised by local Sikhs and the British public; Indian and British intellectuals were appalled. The massacre led to increased native pressure for independence and a weakening of British resolve to keep India.

June 20

More famous last words

More famous last words

“Never again allow a woman to hold the supreme power in the State… [and] be careful not to allow eunuchs to meddle in government affairs.”

— Empress Dowager Cixi, de facto ruler of China, 1908. Known in the West as the Dragon Lady, she was a powerful force for trying to keep modernization out of her country.

“Pull up the shades; I don’t want to go home in the dark.” — William Henry Porter (aka O. Henry), American writer (5 June 1910), to a hospital nurse.  

“But the peasants…how do the peasants die?”
— Leo Tolstoy, Russian novelist 20 November, 1910), to a station master in whose home he died. 

“My love of God is greater than my fear of death.”
— Cecil Pugh, GC, MA, Congregational Church minister and RAF chaplain (5 July 1941), asking to be lowered into the hold of the sinking SS Anselm, where injured airmen were trapped. Pugh then prayed with the men until the ship sank. He was the only clergyman to be awarded the George Cross.

“I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells. May God forgive me and I hope everyone else will forgive me even if they cannot understand. My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.”

— Lucy Maud Montgomery OBE, Canadian author (24 April 1942); conclusion of note found on her bedside table after her death. It may or may not have been a suicide note. A sad way to end for the author of Anne of Green Gables.

“Remember, Honey, don’t forget what I told you. Put in my coffin a deck of cards, a mashie niblick, and a pretty blonde.” — Chico Marx, American actor and comedian (11 October 1961), giving his wife Mary humorous instructions for his funeral. A mashie niblick was a golf club, equivalent to a 6 iron.

June 13


Tank ambush in Normandy

The June 6 D-Day landings were successful, in part, because of the German decision to station their heavy armour back from the beaches. Their theory was that their panzer divisions would be spared the initial aerial and naval bombardments that the Allies would use to secure their foothold, but that they could soon rush forward to crush the enemy. However, Allied mastery of the skies meant that German tanks could only move cautiously and at night. Consequently, Allied forces were able to penetrate inland before they encountered significant armoured opposition.

On June 13, British units moved toward the high ground near the village of Villers-Bocage. There they were ambushed by an SS panzer unit led by Hauptsturmfüfhrer Michael Wittman whose Tiger tank wrought havoc on the unsuspecting British. Within minutes Wittman had destroyed fourteen tanks and fifteen personnel carriers, along with two anti-tank guns – an astonishing feat that won him enormous propaganda fame in Germany and the decoration of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords. Military historians have called this the greatest single-handed action in tank warfare.

Wittman’s career did not last much longer. Less than two months later, his panzer unit was ambushed in turn by British and Canadian armoured formations, equipped with the up-gunned Sherman Firefly, one of the few Allied machines capable of taking on Tigers. A shot through the turret of Wittman’s tank ignited ammunition killing him and his crew.

Names of tank designs vary from country to country. Americans name their machines after generals: Sherman, Grant, Stuart, Abrams, Patton; Germans name theirs after deadly felines: Panther, Tiger, Leopard; British names all begin with the letter C: Churchill, Comet, Centurion, Chieftain, Challenger, etc. Iraqi forces employed the Lion of Babylon; Egyptians relied on the Ramses; South Koreans put their trust in the Black Tiger.

June 9


Senator McCarthy is rebuked

After being wartime allies, the relationship between the Soviet Union and the western democracies degenerated into a Cold War which resulted in both sides maintaining huge armies facing each other in central Europe. Back in North America, the Igor Gouzenko revelations pointed to Americans working as Russian spies in the US and spoke of Americans with loyalties wider than just their native land. Coupled with Soviet expansionism in Europe and the growing power of the Communist Party of China versus wartime US ally Chiang Kai-shek, dislike of communism again took root. The crusade against Reds was first led by HUAC, the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee, which dated from before the war but which was in 1945 made a powerful standing committee of the House with wide-ranging powers of investigation. Though HUAC had failed miserably in showing any real communist penetration of the movies, this attack on the so-called Hollywood Ten silenced the protests from the entertainment industry, created a blacklist of writers and performers whose careers were ruined, and set the stage for an anti-communist witch-hunt of government officials.

Anti-communist groups, such as the American Legion and firms of private investigators specializing in loyalty checks, spread stories about secret battalions of 75,- 80,000 trained communists manipulating a million leftist dupes, camp followers, and fellow travellers. Neighbourhood anti-communist watch groups were formed, sponsors of suspected programs or radio personalities were threatened with boycotts, libraries were scoured for leftist comics and books. This anti-communist mood forced a reluctant President Truman to institute government actions against federally-employed suspects. Loyalty boards screened civil servants and army personnel, firing many, not for disloyalty or treachery, but for once having belonged to left-wing causes or parties. Sensational cases included that of civil servant Alger Hiss whom Congressman Richard Nixon accused on television of spying for the USSR — Hiss denied it but was ruined; Nixon was launched into national prominence and was made Eisenhower’s V-P candidate in 1952 election.

This paved the way for further probes — the Rosenberg spy case sentenced Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair for passing on nuclear secrets to the Soviets who had soon produced the A-bomb and the H-bomb with help from such spies  — and convinced some politicians that the way to popularity with the voters was by denunciation of hidden communists. The leading proponent of this was the Senator from Wisconsin Joe McCarthy who in 1950 began announcing he had a list of red agents in the State department. The State Department was widely blamed for the failure of the US to support Chaing Kai-shek and the subsequent loss of China to the Communists, and though McCarthy’s accusations were usually drunken ramblings and without substance, they did create a climate of fear and an atmosphere of what became known as McCarthyism: guilt by association, intimidation of witnesses and abuse of democratic process. He announced that he had discovered 30,000 books in USIS libraries abroad were by Communist or pro-Communist writers: Sovietolators as they were called and he succeeded in panicking officials wherever his gaze lighted. His success lay in using television and mobilizing grass-roots anti-intellectualism and xenophobia and distrust of the university-trained, upper-class, anglo-Protestant elite in government as well as their urbanized, educated Jewish counterparts.  His downfall came when he attacked the US Army for sheltering communists — the establishment which had hitherto been timid came forth to denounce him and his alcoholic excesses caught up with him. On this day in 1954, Joseph Welch the attorney representing the Army lashed out at McCarthy, asking him in front of the television cameras: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

By December 1954 his colleagues in the Senate censured him for his behaviour; his reign had ended and he was not re-elected for a third term. But consider this: McCarthy succeeded in his crusade though he himself was brought down. He helped discredit leftist policies and officials left over from the Roosevelt era; he redefined political discourse in terms of “American-mindedness” and even his left-wing opponents had to claim that they themselves had espoused “Americanism” for years. The labour movement had to move to the right. In 1950 the CIO expelled 11 national unions, 20% of its own membership, for alleged Communist leadership. Just a few months before his downfall in 1954 a supporter of McCarthy wrote this in a magazine article: “As Russia and Red China advance nightmarishly toward the maximum power goals which they will reach in the 1970s, the American people will be as unlikely to think seriously of anything else, as to ignore an onrushing comet. Communism will be the issue of the 1950s and sixties. Those American leaders who most surely interpret the emotions of the American public in the face of the Communist challenge will be the man who will dominate American politics. Today Senator McCarthy is the articulate voice of the American people in a Communist-haunted age. On this issue he marches with history. He cannot lose.”

June 8

1776 The Battle of Trois-Rivières

One often hears the phrase “the thirteen colonies” in reference to the American Revolution but little is heard of the attempt by the armies of those rebels to coerce the inhabitants of other British North American possessions to heed the siren call of republicanism and disobedience to the crown. Even in Canada little attention is paid to the battles that thwarted the ambitions of the Continental Congress. One such battle occurred at Trois Rivières (aka Three Rivers), a town on the St Lawrence River between Montreal and Quebec City. 

The so-called “Continental Army” had invaded Canada in 1775, expecting to be greeted favourably by French-Canadians eager to cast off the British yoke that had been laid on them for more than 25 years. Though the American force found a few anti-clerical and radical inhabitants, the vast majority was indifferent to the intruders or downright hostile. Montreal was captured — and the first printing press in Canada was established by Benjamin Franklin — but the siege of Quebec was a failure. By the spring of 1776 the American army was in retreat. On its way back to New York it encountered what they believed to be a small British force at Trois-Rivières, unaware that the redcoats had been strongly reinforced. A local guide led the Americans into a swamp and when they emerged they found themselves caught between the cannons of a British warship on the river and thousands of British regulars. The result was a nasty defeat for those who stood and fought. Thirty to fifty Americans were killed and over 200 captured. The rest straggled back to safety where the defeat was hotly debated and incompetent officers cashiered.

Many American wounded soldiers were treated at the Ursuline convent in Trois-Rivières. Congress never authorized payment for these services but the convent retained the bill. By the early 21st century, the original bill of about £26 was, thanks to the magic of compound interest, estimated to be equivalent to between ten and twenty million Canadian dollars. On July 4, 2009, during festivities marking the town’s 375th anniversary, American Consul-General David Fetter symbolically repaid the debt to the Ursulines with a payment of C$130.