Blood and Bravery

I enjoy history and geography, particularly of Eastern Europe.  My graduate studies focused on Soviet/Russian history and politics, but I’ve always been drawn to the Polish experience of World War II.  Perhaps it’s because I’m part Polish myself, or because of the uniquely crushing experience Poland received from both East and West.

My interest has grown in recent months thanks to several books that have brought the war – beginning on September 1, 1939, 74 years ago today – into a whole new light.  This history of Poland and World War II is marked most deeply by utter destruction and mass death.  Yet amidst such horror, there were displays of unfathomable bravery, patriotism, and selflessness.  Here I’ll focus on two extraordinary Poles: Witold Pilecki and Kystyna Skarbek.

pilecki

Pilecki was a Polish army officer who was integral in supporting the underground Home Army as an intelligence officer and resistance fighter under joint German-Soviet occupation.  As the Nazis rounded up political prisoners and suspected enemies following their September 1 invasion, Pilecki volunteered for an astoundingly dangerous mission: to be purposefully captured by the Germans for incarceration in Auschwitz and report on German activities there.  Additionally, he was to organize secret resistance cells among the camp’s inmates.

Prior to 1942, the Auschwitz camp mostly held Polish prisoners and Soviet POWs and was used as a labor camp; as Pilecki reported, summary executions were certainly commonplace.  The mass exterminations of Jews, Roma, and others for which Auschwitz is today synonymous occurred primarily at an expansion camp nearby, known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Auschwitz II.

For nearly three years Pilecki witnessed near constant violence and death of all manners – beatings, exhaustion, exposure, and a number of forms of execution – yet he persevered in his mission to not only survive, but to organize his fellow Poles into independent, autonomous cells to rise up and fight should the opportunity arise.  By assisting his compatriots in hoarding food, obtaining indoor work details, and dodging relocation orders to other camps (for execution), Pilecki saved countless lives, including his own.  In the spring of 1943, with his false identity nearly compromised, Pilecki escaped with two other inmates, taking a bullet in the shoulder in the process.

While most would consider this endeavor enough danger for a lifetime, Pilecki remained in occupied Poland and played a notable role in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.  Pilecki not only survived the uprising, but the remainder of the war, and in 1945 wrote a long-form military report (recently published as a book) of his years in Auschwitz.  Following the Allied victory in Europe, Pilecki reported to Soviet-occupied Poland to gather intelligence on Polish communism.  A few short years later, he was captured, given a show trial, and executed by his fellow Poles as a foreign spy.

granville

Krystyna Skarbek, better known by her adopted English name, Christine Granville, was another Pole of amazing bravery, wit, and fortitude.  While fortunate to be traveling abroad when the Germans invaded in September 1939, Christine quickly set course for London to volunteer her services as a British spy.

Granville was assigned to the British Army’s newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was almost immediately sent abroad to Hungary and assigned missions to collect information, stockpile weapons, and devise smuggling routes to move people and intelligence out of the Nazi-occupied territory, sometimes over dangerous, mountainous terrain.

After her arrest and interrogation in Budapest, Granville and Andrej Kowerski – her colleague and occasional lover – relocated to Cairo, Egypt in early 1941.  Yet this was no ordinary excursion.  Using false passports, lies, and more than a little luck, Christine and Andrej drove 4,000-plus miles – through the Balkans, Turkey, and the Levant – in a stolen German Opel.  Although they arrived safely in Cairo, Christine’s time there was filled with frustration.  Not only was she far from the action, but her past service in Hungary put her under a cloud of suspicion by both British and Polish counterintelligence authorities.  No one seemed to know where her true allegiances laid.

After several years enduring the occasional training course (parachuting in Palestine) or infrequent backwater missions (conducting surveillance in Syria), Christine was selected  in the summer of 1944 for parachute insertion into occupied France to assist in organizing French resistance fighters (known as maquis) in southeastern France.  Alongside a new colleague and lover, Francis Cammaerts, she was assigned the mission of couriering weapons and military intelligence during the fateful days later to be known as the Battle of Vercors.  Following the Allied landings in southern France (Operation Dragoon), Christine spent a brief time making contact with and aiding Italian partisans attacking German rear positions as Allied forces swept north from Rome.

After returning to London from the Franco-Italian border, she awaited orders to be parachuted into Poland, but those orders never came.  The war’s end and the Soviet consolidation of authority over the new “Eastern Bloc” countries brought an abrupt end to Christine’s wartime service.  Her transition to ordinary civilian life – life without adventure or danger – was particularly difficult.  Living alone in London, she was a foreigner and a woman, and despised office work; job offers were not plentiful.

After some years away living in Kenya, Christine found employment as a steward aboard a British-based cruise line and made the acquaintance with a co-worker named Dennis Muldowney.  Although they fast became friends while at sea, Christine quickly grew bored with Dennis, who was growing increasingly obsessed with her.  Christine took steps to avoid him – living with friends and avoiding service on the same ship – yet it was not enough.  On a rainy summer night in 1952, Muldowney stalked Christine to her hotel room and plunged a knife in her heart.

bloodlands

The simple fact both Pilecki and Granville survived the war’s chaos and doom is no small feat.  But the preceding stories are only of individuals and do not capture the conflict’s grand scale of slaughter and destruction.  To understand the trauma of Poland’s national experience, the macro-level view, turn to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

Between 1933 and 1945, civilians living in the land between Berlin and Moscow suffered a supremely horrifying experience.  No fewer than 14 million souls perished at the hands of national policies exactly by either Hitler or Stalin “as the result of deliberate policies of mass murder, such as executions, deliberate famine and in death camps.”

Sadly, this ghastly number of deaths does not include those who died fighting during World War II, only the civilians subjected to the horrors of industrialized communism and National Socialism.  Poles and Ukrainians fared the worst, as they were targeted by both Germany and the Soviet Union because of their nationality.  The Polish cultural elite – its intelligentsia, made of activists, intellectuals, writers, and political leaders, not to mention its historic Jewish populace, were systematically erased from existence.  Warsaw’s population in particular felt the Nazi’s wrath following the 1944 Warsaw Uprising: approximately 700,000 civilians were murdered in retribution.

Taken together, the experiences of Captain Pilecki and Christine Granville, as well as the greater suffering of the Polish civilian population, paint a bleak portrait of a people and nation utterly destroyed.  Yet Poland persevered.  Although beaten by the war and then broken by the imposition of communism, it rose from Eastern Europe’s ashes when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.  Currently, Poland stands proudly as an EU member state, having undergone one of the most successful transitions to democracy of the former Soviet satellite states.

So today, on this most solemn of anniversaries, take the time to remember two Polish heroes and raise your glass to toast their bravery.

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I’ve written quite a few here.  It stands to reason then that a few photos will assist the reader in grasping Poland’s tragic experience by looking back in time, to see a nation in the early days of the war, before the widespread and unimaginable terror and incomprehensible human toll.

Here are two galleries depicting the 1939 invasion as well as of Polish life in the early years under German occupation.

“World War II: The Invasion of Poland and the Winter War,” courtesy of The Atlantic (Part 2 of their 20-part retrospective on World War II)

“On the Brink of Oblivion: Inside Nazi Occupied Poland, 1939-1940,” courtesy of Time & Life Pictures

 And for the interested reader, here are the books from which I drew inspiration for this post:

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, by Captain Witold Pilecki

The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville, by Clare Mulley

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Professor Timothy Snyder

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Published in: on September 1, 2013 at 10:11 am  Comments Off on Blood and Bravery  
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The Mad History of American Brewing

anheuser busch st louis

The Anheuser-Busch brewery in its early years,
St. Louis, Missouri

Tom Dibblee’s self-professed (and entirely perplexing*) love of Bud Light Lime was the initial draw to his Los Angeles Review of Books article on William Knoedelseder’s Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s King of Beer.

Granted, Dibblee answers that question – eloquently and honestly, in fact – but that’s not what I took away from the article.  Rather, it was the ancillary facts, the words forming the context, history, and personality of the men at the center of America’s early brewing empire.  What I learned from the article was this: since its inception, American mass-produced beer has never been good, even to those producing it.

While Dibblee decided to review Knoedelseder’s book because of his “loyalty to Bud Light Lime,” I decided to discuss Dibblee’s article based on the hilarity (intentional or not) of various quotations regarding the quality of American beer for much of the last century.

Consider the following from Dibblee’s review:

[Eberhard] Anheuser had been making a bad beer, a beer that ‘was so foul tasting that tavern owners were accustomed to patrons spitting it back across the bar at them.’

Schlitz collapsed thanks to an additive they’d used to speed up fermentation, a chemical that led to the build-up of a mucus-like substance in a can of Schlitz that sat too long on the shelves.

The litany of AB novelty drinks: ‘Chelada Bud, Michelob Ultra Lime Catcus, and Michelob Ultra Tuscan Orange Grapefruit, and — yes — Bud Light Lime.’

Miller Lite’s first tagline: ‘All you ever wanted in a beer.  And less.’

On Anheuser-Busch’s executives: ‘Nobody there even wanted to make light beer to begin with, and August III…didn’t even like how Bud Light tasted.’

While hilarious, these quotations point to a larger question: when has American mass-produced beer ever been good?  From what I can tell, the story can be summarized as such: start with a bad product; cut corners to produce a worse product; lower the bar in order to beat competitors; produce lousy substitutes or alternatives; then, when your product is inexplicably successful, don’t believe in it.  All of which points to: no – American mass market beer has never been good.

Fortunately, American microbrewers came along, and fed up with decades of swill, decided to focus on quality, not quantity, thereby transforming the landscape of American beer.  Which adds a bit of irony to this history, as it was quality Adolphus Busch was likely seeking when he “went out and bought ‘the recipe for a beer that for years had been produced by monks in a small Bohemian village named Budweis.'”

What I call quality, Dibblee calls authenticity and soul.  Those of us who truly drink beer for beer’s sake (and not drinking’s sake) indeed recognize these characteristics.  Which includes Dibblee too, who when summarizing Knoedelseder, even concedes it applies to his beloved Bud Light Lime:

“But there’s nothing time-honored and cozy about a product like Bud Light Lime, and Knoedelseder implies that Anheuser-Busch let itself slip somewhere along the way into what the average sophisticate will recognize as soulessness.”

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* I have tried Bud Light Lime only once, when it was purchased for me at a ballgame.  I thought it better to accept, rather than offend, and I couldn’t finish it.  Calling it “beer-light” is generous.  So my first impluse was to judge Mr. Dibblee on his love of such putridity.  Yet, his explanation is admirable and worth repeating.  He explains:

“I wrote earlier that I like BLL [Bud Light Lime] because it helps me shed the burden of sophistication.  What I meant by that was, with a BLL in hand, I am free to say out loud that I like the singer Adele.  And that I think high-end cheese makes for a boring topic of conversation.  And that I can see the problem everyone has with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close…I know some writers who I think are hemmed in by their sense of sophistication, by the fact that they know they shouldn’t like Adele, or Foer, or Bud Light Lime, and who, as a consequence, write in a frightened, soul-stunted way.”

I commend Dibblee’s bravery in admitting he enjoys something he knows he shouldn’t.  And yet his enjoyment remains perplexing.

Looking Backward

“Only occasionally, here and there, the voice of the curmudgeon is heard in the land, peeping crossly for that which has been left back there by the roadside… Go back and see what it is.  Maybe it’s only a mitten some child has dropped, or a paper cup, but maybe it’s something we needed.  Go back and look.” – Barbara Holland

Much of my time drinking and writing is spent looking backward, backward into the past, to an earlier era I was unable to experience myself, a time I believe was preferable to the one I currently occupy.  Early last year, I put down my first thoughts on this topic, which ultimately resulted in a three part series.  I consider the first post in that series my best work to date.*

I’ve been looking backwards quite a bit lately, more so than is ordinary (for me).  I’m a sucker for early 20th Century history – the music, culture, and events during the First World War, the so-called Interwar Years, and World War II – and much of my tastes originate from that thirty year period between 1915 and the late 1940s.

I also understand that one’s interests tend to be a self-reinforcing, cyclical process: when I enjoy something, I look for it, and when I find it, I’m able to enjoy it again, which makes me look for it again, and so on and so on.  But the process isn’t my point.  No, I want to discuss a few pieces of culture – a few books and a movie – I believe responsible for this recent gaze back at bar culture of that earlier favorite era.

A few months ago, I read Tony Judt’s final book, The Memory Chalet, while on vacation in Paris.  The book, an autobiographic review of his life written while in the later stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease, begins with Judt’s early childhood memories growing up in post-war England.  An early chapter focuses on Judt’s love of trains, during which he recalls: “In those blissful days before mobile phones, when it was still unacceptable to play a transistor radio in a public place (and the authority of the train conductor sufficed to repress rebellious spirits), the train was a fine and silent place.”

Shortly after returning from Paris, my wife and I finally watched Woody Allen’s 2011 movie, Midnight in Paris.  While we had intended to watch it before traveling, we were unable;  thankfully that fact didn’t make the film any less enjoyable.  The film’s central themes of nostalgia and preference for a earlier days – believing that a past time is superior to the present – soundly resonated with my earlier considerations and recent thoughts on Judt’s words: many of the central characters believe a prior period was better than the present.

First, we hear Gil (the film’s main character) express his belief that 1920s Paris was better than modern day. Then there is Adriana, who argues that Belle Époque (1890s Paris) is preferable to 1920s Paris.  Finally, artists Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas collectively state – at the Moulin Rouge, of all places – that the Renaissance was the greatest period.  Everyone looks backward.

Finally, this past weekend, I began Barbara Holland’s 1999 book, Wasn’t the Grass Greener?  Holland, a favorite author and a modern drinker extraordinaire, managed to pen an entire text lamenting modernity, her “thirty-three reasons why life isn’t as good as it used to be.”  In her chapter titled “Taverns,” she articulates thoughts on technology’s presence with abundant clarity: “Television is noisy.  It makes casual conversation an effort and confiding in bartenders too loud to be confidential.  Even with the sound turned off, television is distracting.  Images squirm around on the screen.  A row of people at a bar, confronted by television, tend to ignore each other and stare at the set. The whole purpose of the tavern fades: why be here at all?”

Best of all, the aforementioned pieces demonstrate that others too – not just me – have a tendency to view the past through a rose-colored lens: the absence of perpetually chirping cell phones, even in public; a dream to reside in the past and the experience the culture, personalities, and interactions; and dark taverns without televisions, where companionship – not viewership – is valued.  Perhaps it’s a part of the human condition or simply a factor in growing older to believe a time before your own was better.

Yet like Gil, who ultimately accepts the present for what it is, perhaps the better point is making the best of today, to contribute, to better oneself and one’s culture.  Might that be the true sign of maturity and self-fulfillment?  So I’ll continue seeking bars without televisions, with an enveloping atmosphere of quiet music and intimate conversation, where privacy, confidence, and dim lighting provide a warm and welcoming glow.  And when the time comes, I’ll create just such a place to enjoy a cocktail and a quiet thought: my own personal salon.

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* I was especially proud when this post, Just Like Old Times? was selected by WordPress.com’s Powers That Be to spend February 10, 2011 on the blogging site’s homepage.  This selection produced a great number of page views and reader comments alike, greatly expanding The Hip Flask’s readership.

Published in: on May 3, 2012 at 11:06 pm  Comments Off on Looking Backward  
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Soviets Battle The Bottle

My short time spent traveling and studying in Russia made an indelible mark on my social interests, university studies, and drinking preferences.  Much of my leisure reading involves some facet of Russian or and Soviet history, whether it be of World War II’s Eastern Front, USA-USSR Cold War espionage, or even Post-Soviet/Russian politics (thank you graduate school).

Even when it comes to drinking, my time in Russia reveals itself: I only drink vodka neat and ice cold (albeit infrequently); and I have a particular soft spot for Russian beer.

These points are made to preface my interest and delight in a recent Buzzfeed post titled “25 Fascinating Soviet Anti-Alcoholism Posters, 1929-1969.”  I’ve included a few favorites above and below – the rest can be found via the preceding link. More importantly, however, is the hilarity in considering the posters’ original purpose: the Soviet government somehow thought they would somehow decrease alcoholism.

Using posters (i.e., print media) to impact public health is nothing new.  Yet, when matched against the colossus that is Russian alcohol consumption, a poster campaign just seems laughable, quaint, or even hilariously simplistic.  But certainly not effective.  On this point I speak from experience: in Russia, beer is sold in two liter bottles in vending machines, just as soda is here.  Vodka is endlessly consumed, especially over dinner and and with guests.

Although my experience in Russia is now over a decade old, it still appears to be similar to what’s happening today, if recent statistics on drinking are any indication.  A 2011 World Health Organization (WHO) report* singles out Russia as follows: “By far the highest proportion of alcohol-attributable mortality is in the Russian Federation and neighbouring countries, where every fifth death among men and 6% of deaths among women are attributable to the harmful use of alcohol.”

While the posters offer a historical (and sometimes whimsical) look back at Soviet efforts to curb this longstanding social ill, the problem itself still sadly exists.  A sobering fact to be sure.

* WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2011, page 27.

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All translations courtesy of Buzzfeed, with a little assistance from Google Translate.  Unfortunately, my own Russian translation ability has long since lapsed into uselessness.  And visit ADME.RU for the full series of posters.

"Eradicate this evil!"

"Not a drop!"

Published in: on April 11, 2012 at 11:28 pm  Comments Off on Soviets Battle The Bottle  
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20 Years After the End

The face of new Russia. A man who could drink, and drink, and drink.

Today, December 26, 2011, marks the 20 year anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union.  To be specific, that nation ended at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Day, December 25th, but many mark today, the 26th, as the day the Cold War ended. 

This fact, of course, has little to do with drinking.  But for me, an American who grew up during the Cold War’s waning years, who later studied in Saint Petersburg and obtained a degree in Russian politics, today marks an important date in my nation’s foreign relations history: the four decade-long standoff between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. was over.

My favorite photography site – In Focus with Alan Taylor, hosted by The Atlantic – marked this occasion by displaying a collection of 43 photos depicting the final months of the Soviet Union, which witnessed the failed August 1991 putsch against Premier Gorbachev, the reactions of various Soviet republics to the signs of weakness in Moscow, and the final days before the formal collapse and transition of power from Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin.

To me, this day is special not simply because it marked my country’s peaceful victory over a longtime foe, but for the freedom to travel and study there, the opportunity to learn from its people, and the pleasure of toasting many rounds with fellow students. 

So raise a glass of cold vodka and mark this evening: the standoff between superpowers ended not with nuclear annihilation, but with nary a peep.    I cannot think of anything more worthy of a celebratory drink.

Published in: on December 26, 2011 at 11:06 pm  Comments (2)  
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