Thursday, January 15, 2009

Plotkin’s Berlin; Carano’s Stalag

Two diaries of Americans in Germany before and during the Second World War have just been published by US university presses. One is by Abraham Plotkin, a Russian immigrant of Jewish origin, who returned to Europe to live for a few months in Berlin when the Nazis were just coming to prominence. And the other is by Steve Carano, a prisoner of war in the infamous Stalag 17 camp.

University of Illinois Press has just published, for the first time, a diary written by Abraham Plotkin, a member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, who went to live in Berlin between November 1932 and May 1933. According to listings by Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, An American in Hitler’s Berlin was first published in paperback late last year, but is due for hardback publication in the UK today. It is edited by Catherine Collomp and Bruno Groppo.

There is not much information about Plotkin on the internet. According to Mendele, a forum for Yiddish Literature and Yiddish Language, he was born in 1892 in Russia, and died in May 1988 in Los Angeles. He wrote a number of articles for the Jewish Daily Forward in 1933, presumably after his return from Berlin. There’s a little more about his activities in 1933 on the KC Labor website.

The diary provides, University of Illinois Press says, ‘a firsthand account of the Weimar Republic’s final months and the early rise of Nazi power in Germany’ and ‘focuses on the German working class, the labor movement, and the plight of German Jews’. Compared to the writings of other American observers of the Third Reich, it adds, Plotkin’s diary is ‘unique in style, scope, themes, and time span’ because it is attentive to socioeconomic factors, and provides ‘an alternative view from the left’, one that stems from his access to key German union and socialist leaders.

A few extracts of An American in Hitler’s Berlin are available to read on Amazon’s website. Here is part of the first entry.

25 October 1932
‘Off at last. Don’t know what I am heading for. I probably would have changed my mind about going if some occult wisdom had given me foresight. Here is to prayer that my hindsight will prove to be as exciting as my lack of foresight.

This is my second sea voyage . . . The first one was thirty years ago. The year McKinley was shot. I came to the shores of the land that became my native land with wonder and dreams and the vague hopes of a child. Or was it a sense of escape from the dark shadows of terror that hovered over Czarist Russia. The ghetto in old Russia then was neither picturesque nor pleasant. Those qualities of the ghetto, I suspect were discovered in America. Now I am going back. What for? I hardly know. Perhaps I am going so as to escape the humdrum of everyday city life in my own country. Perhaps my eyes have gotten tired of seeing the forms and people and things. I don’t really know. I mean that if I have any motive in going it’s stuck deep down in me, so far down that as yet I haven’t see either sight or sound of it. Perhaps later when and if I become aware of it I’ll feel as silly as I look. One never can really tell how foolish one is.’

Also today in the UK, according to Amazon.co.uk’s listings, The University of Arkansas Press is publishing Not without Honor: The Nazi POW Journal of Steve Carano (in the US publication was last October - Amazon.com). The editor is Kay Sloan and there is a foreword by Lewis H. Carlson. The book not only tells Carano’s story but weaves in the stories of two other POWs, John C. Bitzer and Bill Blackmon. According to the publisher, Carano records air battles and escape attempts, and ‘the journal reads like a thriller’.

Here is a quote about the book from The University of Arkansas Press (although I’ve corrected a couple of typos in its website text!): ‘On a cold December day in 1943, Claudio ‘Steve’ Carano’s B-17 bomber was shot down over the Dutch coast on the return flight to England. This marked the beginning of his eighteen-month incarceration in Stalag 17 b, the camp made famous in the Billy Wilder film and in the television show Hogan’s Heroes. During his confinement Carano secretly kept a journal in his Red Cross blank book, filling it with meticulously penned entries and illustrations. It takes the reader deep behind the notorious wire fence surrounding the prison and into the world where men clung to their humanity through humor, faith, camaraderie, daily rituals, and even art.’

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